The Double Helix War

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The Double Helix War

Postby LilJennie » Wed Jul 12, 2017 8:29 pm

The Double Helix War

By Miki Yamuri and LilJennie

Humankind had been at war with itself since recorded memory. Each successive century brought about many new and more devastating ways to kill each other. Finally, a do it yourself tinkerer perfected the rocket and proved it was a viable means to launch objects into suborbital trajectories as well as carrying massive explosive devices to predetermined targets.

This also followed that satellites were invented to monitor the other side's activities in this area.

Dr. Doddard said softly to the general who was scowling at him, "I'm telling you the launch was delayed so I might do one last check on the fuel lines leading to the turbo pump. Any kind of leakage will cause a fire that will destroy the launch vehicle."

The general put his arms akimbo and replied, "Dr. Doddard, need I remind you the Russians are, at this very moment, test launching a missile fully capable of reaching this country?"

The elderly scientist sighed, "No, you needn't keep harping on that. The rocket will launch and I'm insuring the monitor satellite will be in a stable orbit, just as I promised."

Dr. Doddard inspected all the connections. The icy cold of the liquid oxygen tank kept fogging up his glasses. Even thus, he found no problems with the fuel delivery systems nor the turbo pumps feeding the combustion cans. He truly wished he could have come up with a better design than a cone for the exhaust port, but as atmospheric pressure dropped, that would provide optimal thrust.

Finally. Dr. Doddard returned to launch control and told the general all was ready. Tense moments passed as the countdown finally reached its conclusion. The equivalent of several million pounds of TNT ignited. In a large rush of fire, and a long plume of smoke rising into the air, the rocket successfully launched.

"That's done it!" General Sturmrang exulted. "As long as there are no more mishaps, we'll have an eye in the sky."

"True, the Russians haven't managed to put a camera in orbit," said Dr. Doddard. "I can't speak to the quality of the images we'll get, nor can I say that there's no way for the Russians to tune into our satellite's signals."

"Don't worry, we've thought of that," said the general. "We've had our best technicians working on the camera that just went up, and today's launch is top secret. By the time they figure out this satellite even exists, it'll be superseded by the next generation of even better ones! Let's see if we're getting any pictures." He went over to one of the screens, which was being monitored by one of the many launch engineers who were in the room. "Jenkins! Why is the screen still black?"

"Sir, all we're going to see for the next ... 74 minutes is the inside of the protective housing around the satellite," said the engineer. "Once it's in orbit, it'll automatically open up and release the satellite. If it works. But all signs are normal so far."

"All this waiting. It's no good for my blood pressure," the general said. "I suppose there's enough time for some lunch. Keep a close eye on things." He left the control room.

"That's ... what we were going to do anyway, Sir," said Jenkins, but the general had already left.

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The satellite achieved stable orbit and the cowls fell away. A small cylindrical object separated and many antennas deployed. Monitor 1 was now in proper orbit to watch over the north polar regions just as Dr. Doddard had promised.

In the control room, there were loud cheers, hand shaking, and back patting as the very first telemetry began arriving. One of the techs turned on a blank monitor and tuned to the frequency of Monitor 1's camera relay. At first, very bad snow and static was all that was displayed as the engineer feverously played with the adjustments. There was a several second delay before the camera responded to instructions and the results were seen on the screen.

Finally, a very grainy, black and white picture formed accompanied by other data such as gravimetric, and atmospheric disruptions caused by various energy signatures. The tech dismissed them since he had already known most of it was emissions caused by solar particles.

The general said in a very pleased tone, Now, that makes it all seem worthwhile, folks."

Dr. Doddard, however, had seated himself at one of the consoles and began to make adjustments. He had noticed something that didn't seem quite right. He hoped upon hope nothing was going wrong with any of the sensors. It wasn't like the satellite could pull over to the nearest cloud for repairs.

The general came over and watched the rocket scientist and saw the readings he was getting at the station. He said in his general's voice as he pointed to the screen, "Something shiny there. What could that be?" He bent closer and wrote down several of the numbers, then turned and spoke to another scientist. "What ya think Joe? Looks kinda ... strange?"

Joe Acton, who was a metallurgist in addition to being a mechanical engineer, went to Dr. Doddard's station and studied the readings, then said, "If those are correct, we either have a very large deposit of a heretofore undiscovered metal resource, or some kind of hardened base is there. I'm not real sure, due to the low quality of the readings."

Dr. Doddard said with irritation obvious in his voice, "That's from 600 miles up. I think those are some pretty darn good readings, considering."

The general nodded, "I trust your judgement, Doctor." He turned and picked up a phone on one of the desktops and dialed a number quickly, "I want an exploratory mission to be set up immediately. Send several 101s to do a flyover from station Zed to these coordinates to get recon data for the team that will arrive shortly after." he gave the location data to the individual on the other end of the phone. "Yes, I know it's 30 below up in Greenland right now, but this is important, and I'm in charge. Good." He hung up the phone. "Now we wait."

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The word went out, and fighter jets scrambled. It took an hour for word to come back. "Yes, I see. Yes, send those here to me ASAP," said the general on the phone. He hung up. "The pilots said that skies were clear, and they saw a series of huge silvery ... hexagons, they said, in the ice." The general looked at the scientists and engineers around him in Mission Control. "They said the things must have been over a hundred meters across each. They took pictures, and they're sending them here once they get them developed. But that's not all ... they said they saw some Yak-25s in the sky."

"The Russians?" asked Joe. "How are they even there?"

"Must have a carrier off shore," said the general. "Our people are preparing a mission right now -- parachuting in."

Sam Underhill whistled. "Over Greenland? Hope they wear their warm undies."

"Here now," said Dr. Doddard, "Regularly-shaped metal objects embedded in polar ice? How would they have gotten there? Are they of natural origin, or are they man-made? Either option seems unlikely. Are we sure they're not some trick of the light?"

"Three things, Dr. Doddard," said Joe. "One, we've seen them with both the satellite camera and with airborne cameras. Two, our pilots saw them with their own eyes -- pilots of several planes, the general just said. Three, the Soviets are interested in them too. I think we have to go on the assumption that they're real."

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Col. Derek Monahan looked over the frozen land. He couldn't believe what he was looking at. It was more than obviously something constructed by intelligent beings, but wasn't any that currently lived on earth. He bent down and placed his gloved hand on one of the features as he examined it through the ice. Apparently it had lain here for quite some time.

About that time, a young Airman came up with a radio receiver and said with a sharp salute, "Sir, I know this sounds weird, but there's a Russian expedition not far away. Its C.O. wishes to come and examine this thing, same as us. He said he's got permission from the Danish government, and he promises no hostile intent."

Monahan talked with the Russian Colonel, who spoke excellent English, and agreed on a temporary truce. Within a half hour, several large snow cats approached in a cloud of snow and ice flug up by their treads. By the time the Russians had all climbed out of their vehicles, Monahan had already gotten his team set up to start excavating whatever this thing was from the thick ice. The Russian colonel was also supplying manpower and equipment to aid in excavating the object.

Washington and Moscow were on the hotline discussing a peaceful joint mission of recovery. For the first time, both Russian and U.S. forces worked side by side with one single-minded intent. Or so it seemed.

The smooth, mirror like surface of the metal object lurked mere inches beneath the ice surface, where winds had scoured the ice to transparency. However, it seemed to drop away immediately beyond the visible hexagonal top, and the ice was no longer transparent beyond a few feet of thickness. Still, there was no end to the object in sight below the ice, so an effort had begun to cut a trench along the outside of one of the hexagon's edges. Gasoline-powered jackhammers did the heavy work, with shovels removing the debris and picks for the finer details near the object, which they didn't want to scratch.

"Looks like a flat, vertical wall going straight down," Monahan said to Colonel Morozov. Both men had to raise their voices to be heard over both the wind and the noise of excavation.

"Indeed," Morozov said. "One would hope for more interesting features. If it persists after a few more feet, I suggest we move to another side of the object, and then, perhaps another one of the objects. There seem to be six or seven of them."

"I agree," said Monahan. "The deeper we get, the harder it is to clear the excavation debris. Several smaller trenches might reveal more than one deep one."

"My government is organizing a team of scientists to come study whatever we find," said the Russian. "This military team was quicker to send, but none of us has academic degrees."

"Same here," said Monahan. "Yes, I think Washington's trying to put together a team of experts -- but it's hard until we know what they should be experts of, exactly."

One of the young Airmen Crew Chiefs came up with the idea to use the bleed air from an air-start unit, a small turbine used to start jet engines, to soften the ice. There wasn't enough fuel to melt ice in the massive quantities they had to deal with, but this made the excavation work go more quickly.

After several hours, it was discovered that deep beneath the ice the hexagonal structures were connected and were actually protrusions of a larger shape of some sort. The more ice had been removed, the more it appeared this was true. Some of the more science-fictiony types on both sides were speculating that the object was a spacecraft and the hexagons were engines of some unknown type. At any rate, whatever this thing was, it was huge, more than half a mile across.

Shortly after that, many large heavy lift helicopters began arriving, both U.S. and Russian. These contained the scientific personnel and much diagnostic and testing equipment. Within twenty minutes of that, several more arrived with the mobile base support equipment, including quick assemble quonset huts, power generators, and larger heating units.

"Are we glad to see you," said Colonel Monahan to the crews disembarking from the helicopters. "We're going to lose the light in under an hour. Who's in charge of your unit?"

"Captain Jim Mason, Sir," said one of them, though insignia of rank were difficult to discern with all the cold-weather gear. "Habitation units are going up, we've got heating, provisions, and lighting, and the engineers will be setting up the radio antennas. No more relaying messages via flyover planes."

"Great news, Captain Mason," Monahan said. "I won't keep you. Get to work by all means!"

"It's too cold to stand still, Sir," said Mason with a sharp salute, and started helping with hut assembly.

They soon learned that they needed extremely thick insulation beneath the Quonset huts, not just to keep them warm, but to keep the heated interior from melting the ice that everything rested on. "No one wants to wake up in the morning at the bottom of a 12-foot-deep hole full of ice water," said Captain Mason, though this was actually quite unlikely.

Once the huts were set up and twilight was setting in, Monahan invited any of the Russians who wanted to join them over to the American side, and Colonel Morozov reciprocated. So some of the men who could speak Russian went over to visit the Soviet barracks, and some of the English-speaking Russians came to help inaugurate the U.S. Quonset huts. "I think it's a fortress," said Monahan, once everyone was seated at tables in what was going to serve as the mess hall. "Like a castle. The big hexagon things are the towers around the outside. I think we're going to find walls down there around a main central building."

"But no windows in towers," said one of the Russians, Senior Lieutenant Dmitri Vasilyev. "Unless they close very tight from inside."

"I still think it's a spaceship," said Lieutenant Johnny Gray, who had already established himself as an avid reader of science fiction. "A really big one, and the towers are its rocket engines. It's obviously not from Earth. It must have crashed here millions of years ago."

"All I can really say so far," said Dr. Hans Slocum, a well-respected glaciologist, "is that whatever the structure is, either it's quite recent, geologically speaking, or it's immensely strong and well anchored in the rock beneath the ice." The others listened, surprised that one of the scientists had actually chosen to speak during all this light-hearted speculation. "Perhaps it's only been there for under a thousand years. But the ice does move -- by our measurements, it moves a hundred yards or so every year, due approximately north. Anything that's been under the Greenland ice sheet for more than about a millennium would be at the bottom of the sea hundreds of miles from here, unless it were somehow anchored in place. And the ice moves at different rates in different directions -- it can tear rocks apart. Yet this object is still apparently in one piece despite the tremendous forces acting upon it. I don't even know what could withstand that."

"Obviously something not of this Earth," said Gray. The other military men started teasing him about it being full of little green men.

"Is clearly not something natural," said Vasilyev. "Too regular, too symmetrical."

"A pure enough mineral sample could have a crystal structure like that," Slocum replied.

Monahan asked, "What I want to know is this: Is this something we could build today? Let's say money were no object. Do we, humans of the 20th century, have the technology to build a structure this large and strong?"

"Something that could hold up to a hundred thousand years of that kind of punishment and still be here?" said Bill Standt, a physicist. "No. No material known to Man could do that, short of solid diamond, and that's obviously not what it's made of."

"So ... just from what we know right now," said Monahan, "nobody here on Earth today could build something like what we've seen. That really means only one of two things. It's either from some ancient civilization that had technical knowledge that's been lost ... or Gray here is right and it's not from Earth."

"One other possibility," said Slocum. "It's some sort of recent natural structure. Some kind of volcanic extrusion from a molten subterranean deposit of a pure mineral. There could've been an eruption sometime in the past few centuries that infused the mineral into the ice, where it hardened and crystallized. Not so dramatic as extra-terrestrials or lost civilizations, but still pretty dramatic."

"Dr. Chrisomalous," asked Monahan, "have you managed to analyze what it's made of yet?"

"We could really use better equipment," said Euripedes Chrisomalous, an expert chemist. "We've determined that it's a metal. It's highly conductive to both heat and electricity, it's not magnetic, it's less dense than aluminum yet stronger than titanium -- very hard to scratch, but not impossible -- and it's oddly transparent to sound waves. Other than that, we're not sure what it is. I wish we had a mass spectrometer. If we could send a sample to a lab that has one, we could get some answers quickly."

"Consider it done," Colonel Monahan said. "Get the sample ready for transport and it'll go out on the next helicopter. Jeffries, the US military has got to have a lab with one of those things somewhere. Find out where."

"RADC at Griffiss has a mass spectrometer, Sir," said Lieutenant Rob Jeffries, who had been put in charge of communications.

The discussion carried on for a time into the night over strong coffee and a few snacks one of the Quartermasters had managed to bring on short notice. The dawn brought a heavy cloud cover and the beginnings of a heavier snow. The Colonels could see the bank of solid bright white off in the distance where the blizzard had begun to rage in earnest.

Colonel Monahan said to the pilot of one of the choppers, "Get ready for liftoff. According to our radar, if you fly slightly to the south for about 40 minutes you shouldn't get involved in that storm that's approaching." he handed the pilot a small, well sealed, sample box. "This needs to get to RADC at Griffiss with all due speed."

The young lieutenant saluted the Colonel and replied, "Yes, Sir." He took the sample box, put in in one of the pockets of his flight jacket and zipped it closed, "You can count on me, Sir. I'm probably one of the best foul weather pilots around."

The Colonel smiled as he saluted back, "That's exactly why I'm assigning you this detail. It's of the utmost importance."

The team watched as the pilot climbed into the chopper and started the motor. The Colonel decided to have all the generators and emergency caterpillars remain at a slow idle to keep the oil from solidifying. The other vehicles he would have the hot stick placed in the oil check tubes to keep the oil more or less liquid.

About that time, there was a very loud CRACK!!! A huge fissure opened almost exactly in the center of the area that had been identified as the object they needed to excavate. The heat and digging had obviously caused some sort of cave in. Men and machines could be seen rapidly moving away from the ever widening fissure as something collapsed into a very deep pit formed by the crack.

Several tense minutes passed, but nothing else happened. The US and Russian commanders, not to be outdone, both edged up to the large pit and looked in. It fell off into darkness far below with a mere glimpse of something shiny metalic at the bottom.

Colonel Morozov removed a very bright field flashlight from the utility belt he wore around his waist and shone it down into the misty crevasse. Far off to the bottom, they could see liquid water. Something had melted the ice over what looked like a dimly visible dome far below, and it had collapsed. Obviously, the object had an air space around it and wasn't completely encased in ice.

Colonel Morozov said, "Would seem we need to get some kind of rappelling gear together and see what it is down there."

Colonel Monahan turned and shouted to several of the airmen, "Get that climbing gear together and form a detail. We're going down to take a good look below."

"With this blizzard on the way?" asked Morozov.

"It'll be fine down there," Monahan said. "We'll just bring enough supplies to last us until the storm blows over up here."

"There are some who say Americans are crazy," said Morozov. "Am glad is just spirit of adventure." He grinned.

Jeffries came back. "Sir, we've got a group of volunteers," he said. Turning around, Monahan saw nearly everyone from the makeshift base, ready and waiting.

"We don't have climbing equipment for all of you!" Monahan said. "Though I commend you all for your enthusiasm, we can't take more than eight. Colonel Morozov, how much climbing gear did your men bring?"

"We have gear for no more than 10," said Morozov. "In interest of international cooperation, I will give one set of gear. Nine American, nine Russian. Is evenhanded."

"I greatly appreciate that. All right, then, let's pick our teams." As Morozov conferred with his men in Russian, Monahan chose his men -- himself, six military, and two of the more able-bodied and younger scientists, Slocum and Stadt. Gray was too enthusiastic not to bring along, though Jeffries would stay topside as their radio contact. Jeffries was already taking the initiative to set up a crane of sorts with a winch at the edge of the crevasse to transport supplies and equipment.

They were soon ready to descend. Two at a time -- one American, one Russian -- they rappelled down the sheer wall of ice. It was more than 100 feet straight down, and quite dark at the bottom. Monahan and Morozov went first, and both of them set up lights for the others who followed. Looking around, Monahan saw that they were standing on a smooth surface made of the same silvery metal as the towers, where it showed through the slushy ice that was still everywhere. It was oddly warmer here than it was on the surface far above.

One of the Russian soldiers came up and started babbling rapidly in Russian. He kept pointing off towards the large dome.

Morozov turned and said with a tinge of excitement, "Kopov says he thinks he found a way into whatever this structure is. He also says that according to temperature readings, it's now at 7.22 celsius. That's unheard of."

From above, an ever thickening fall of snow began to filter in creating more of a cold, wet slushy rain shower than a snow. The team moved carefully in the ever more messy environment towards the place the soldier had indicated.

To everyone's amazement, what appeared to be a hatch, much like one in the side of an aircraft, was inlaid into the far side of the dome.

"At this point I think we've poked a large hole in the hypothesis that it's a natural phenomenon," said Slocum. "Namely, that hole right there."

"Someone was here, all right, at some time," said Monahan. "Let's find out if this can be opened."

One of the Russians spoke up. "With all due respect, Colonel, let us take care. Open this with caution. Air inside has been closed for many years. We do not know what type of gases may be present. Cousin nearly died of suffocation in mine accident. Natural gas is colorless, odorless. Not poison -- but cannot breathe nonetheless."

"You have a good point ... Warrant Officer ... Mikhailovich," said Monahan. "Even a nonpoisonous gas can still suffocate you just by not being oxygen. Whenever we get this open, we step back and let it air out a bit before anyone goes in. But it's not open yet."

"Sir, this is not like any hatch machinery I've ever seen," said Gray. "Whether it's of this Earth or not, it's certainly not familiar. What if it's meant to be opened from the inside?"

"Let me see," said Monahan. There was what looked like a handle indented in the metal, but several of them had tried pulling on it with no success. Beside the hatch, if that was what it was, near the handle was a line of four smallish indentations in the metal. "Now that's where a keyhole would be, if this were a lock," he said.

"Jacobs," called Monahan, "Aren't you trained in picking locks and things?"

A young man dressed in a white severe weather outfit came forward and knelt in front of the hatch. He examined the indentations carefully, then removed his tool kit from his pouch around his waist. He put an ear bud in his ear and placed another beside the indentations before plugging the small wires from each into a small black box covered in dials, buttons, and meters. Everyone became very silent as he began to fiddle with each indentation. After a few minutes, a vibration was felt all through the soles of the men's boots as a large hissing sound accompanied by a large cloud of misty gases as they escaped around the hatch as its seal broke.

Jacobs looked around and said fearfully, "I ... didn't do anything except examine the dents. Whatever opened the door, did it from inside."

"Stand back, everyone," said Monahan. "We don't know what the air's like, as I said. Let it air out. Whatever you did, Jacobs, good work."

Monahan opened the door -- it was actually quite light -- and for a few minutes they stood there, shining their electric flashlights into the interior. From what they could see, there was a small room inside with another door.

"It's an air lock," said Gray excitedly. "Just like a submarine, but bigger."

"If that's true, we've got another door to deal with," said Monahan, "and the same procedure. No going in until there's been a chance for some air exchange to happen. He entered the small room. Oddly, the top of the door was flush with the ceiling, while the bottom was more than a foot above the floor. And sure enough, there was another door much like the first.

"If it's an airlock, Sir," said Gray, "the inner door won't open unless the outer one's closed. We'll all have to get in."

"I don't like that," said Monahan. "We won't be able to air out the interior."

"I guess there might be some kind of override," Jacobs said, "but darned if I know where it is."

"Well, get in there and do what you can," Monahan said. "Take all the lights you need. And if you pass out from bad air, we'll pull you out again."

"Thanks for that," said Jacobs. He stepped over the door frame and looked around the second door with his light. "Looks like this is some kind of writing, but whatever it is, I don't know it." He started probing the four indentations as he had with the first door.

While Jacobs was looking the hatch frame over, he noticed a fifth indentation set off to one side, exactly between the other four. He took his gloved hand and placed his fingers and thumb in the indentations. They fit as if it were made for a gloved hand to be placed there.

Without warning, lights turned on within the airlock, a red strobe began to flash as an alarm sounded. The hatch in front of Jacobs broke its seal with a loud hissing. From around the hatch a large cloud of ice crystals amid the escaping gases formed for an instant before dissipating. Once the door had opened completely, the alarm silenced, the strobe turned off, and Jacobs was looking into one of the wildest fantasies of Science Fiction he could imagine. Things weren't exactly functioning, but enough was to let him know this wasn't anything ever thought of by the minds of this world. Jacobs turned and saw the outer hatch was still open, and all the rest of the eighteen men were standing there with total amazement obvious on their faces.

Jacobs said, "Apparently the air is fine. Its a tad colder than outside, smells a bit stale." He took a deep inhale,"Smells sort of like one of those old caves we explored a few years back that had been sealed since dinosaurs roamed."

The men laughed as Monahan and Morozov entered the airlock, then proceeded into the corridor. The light flickered badly, but was enough for them to see.

Morozov said, "I think someone was expecting company ... but they never arrived."

Another round of nervous laughter.

Monahan said, I want four of you to stay out here in case something happens. I know it's getting rather wet and messy, but you will be our safety net if anything goes wrong."

Two Americans and two Russians were selected to stay outside as the rest entered the corridor and divided themselves up into two parties to begin exploring.

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Back at the base camp, an urgent call arrived over the wireless. It was from the RADC research team located at Griffiss.

"Come in Polar One, this is Griffiss. We have some important results for you on that sample you sent us."

Lieutenant Jeffries, responded, "This is Polar One, Jeffries here. Ready to copy message. Signal is weak, but read you five by five."

"Copy, Polar One. Spectrometric results indicate the metal is a composition never before encountered. Contains only atoms of carbon, nitrogen, and rhenium, repeat, rhenium. X-ray crystallography shows a carbon-nitrogen lattice with regular rhenium inclusions in an arrangement we cannot begin to duplicate. The lattice uses a type of honeycomb shaped unit cell, something we have never seen before. This makes it extremely strong, but lightweight. It is highly resistant to most types of radiation and heat, although sound waves seem to pass right through it. Is it possible to obtain a larger sample?"

Jeffries replied, "Affirmative, RADC, the exploratory team is checking out the main structure now. There was a cave-in that allowed them direct access to the larger body of metal. As soon as we have further word we will advise. Also, we have worsening blizzard conditions. Windspeed is a constant 35 mph, with gusts to 45 mph. We are beginning to experience whiteout conditions, and windchill is currently 75 below zero. This is causing radio transmissions to become spotty."

"Copy that, Polar One. ... report ... allow. Radar shows ... miles per h ... theast ... "

"Say again, RADC, you are breaking up ..." Jeffries was not hopeful about continuing this conversation. "Come in, RADC ... well then." He finished writing down the important points. "Polar One to RADC, come in RADC, do you read?" He continued trying, but the weather was making things difficult.

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"Well, this is damn peculiar," said Monahan, shining his light at what looked like control consoles and chairs that appeared to be built into the ceiling. "Why would anyone build anything like this?"

"Artificial gravity, Sir," said Gray. "The physical orientation of the craft is unimportant when they can flip a switch and make gravity point any direction they want inside."

"I was thinking more like it crashed," Jacobs remarked. "This structure is wide. If it were tumbling and out of control, there are really only two ways it could have come to rest."

"But that means ... what we saw was the bottom side of the towers," said Monahan. "Smooth as glass. No nozzles for jet or rocket exhaust. Does that mean they can't be rocket engines?"

"Well, we don't know how it flies, Sir," said Gray. "Maybe there are propulsion technologies we haven't discovered that work better than rockets. Or maybe those towers are just the landing gear."

"Not seeing any sign of life or the remains thereof, Sir," said Jacobs. "Not sure there'd be any, depending on how long it's been here."

Dr. Stadt found something that looked like a control panel with lights that actually still glowed. "Look at this," he said. "A few elements of this one appear to still be working ... though most of it looks dead."

He jumped up, got a foothold on the console's underside, and began to push some of the glowing spots. "That seems to activate this group ... so what if I ..."

Without warning, a sort of ephemeral screen appeared in front of his face. Weird squiggles and swirls danced across it for a minute, then a humanoid face appeared. It started speaking, the team in the room with him all turned quickly and looked at the sound of the being's voice and its unknown language. There was much static, and blank spots of snow within the wavering image and whatever it was saying.

Monahan and the Russian Colonel came over to the screen and watched as many images of large groups of people appeared. Each group had a unique symbol displayed for that particular group.

Monahan said, "Well I'll be ..."

Morozov said in awe, "They ... look exactly like us, with only minor differences."

Pictures of early hominids similar to Neanderthals appeared, then it showed dissected images with each item of the cadaver identified with a weird set of squiggles and symbols. Many other images of many of the other creatures Earth science had identified as prehistoric man were displayed, also identified by unique symbols, and shown dissected.

Morozov said, "This seems to be the documented studies of ... us. I'm not sure how to begin, but I think it's imperative we discover how to decipher that being's language."

"Didn't your team bring a linguist?" asked Monahan. "His name's ... Krzinskiy, I think?"

"You remember," Morozov said, nodding. "Will have to send message. Is some time before check-in, though."

"About an hour," said Monahan, checking his watch. "Well, let's see what we can find out in that time. Looks like they were ... dissecting people."

"Colonel," said Slocum, "I'm no anthropologist, but it looks to me like they're dissecting Neanderthals. Not only does that put a time frame around when this was filmed, it also shows that ... well, these people sure look a lot more like us than those Neanderthals do."

After a few more gruesome dissection frames, the static and snow cleared and images of several rows of large squiggles and swirls appeared on the screen. Next images all recognized as strands of DNA and RNA. The alien voice droned on in an obvious explanation of what was being depicted.

Dr. Stadt said with awe in his tone, "I know what that is and what they are showing."

Monahan asked, "Don't keep us in the dark, let us in on the secret."

Dr. Stadt replied, "What they are showing here, is how they are gene splicing DNA and RNA and modifying it. I'm betting that recurring symbol there is a tag to reference a particular recombinant feature."

Slocum asked in total awe, "So why would they be splicing Neanderthal DNA? What possible purpose could it serve?"

Morozov replied, "I'm thinking that those groups of people we saw earlier on that were tagged with a particular symbol, were those whose genetics were altered in a specific way, and the tag was the genetic marker that ID them."

Monahan nodded as he pointed, "And that is probably the archived record of which peoples were modified and how it was done."

Morozov said, "I need to contact the surface immediately. We need to have Specialist Krzinskiy here immediately."

"And it's getting close to time," said Monahan, checking his watch. "OK, back to the hatch. Is anyone taking notes or making a map of some kind?"

"Naturally," said Lieutenant Gray, holding up a notepad.

"Good job. Keep it up to date. Colonel Morozov and I are going back to the base of the crevasse to send up a message. We'll be back." The Soviet and American mission leaders left the room.

Gray looked around. "Wonder if it has ray guns or missiles or something?" he speculated.

Morozov and Monahan arrived at the outer hatch. It was more than obvious the blizzard far above had turned nasty. What had been a wet slushy mess, had become a large melting mess of snow by this time since the temperature here was at about forty Fahrenheit. The 4 men who had been left dutifully stood more out of the wet mess than in it.

Monahan said, "Send a message to the surface immediately, we need specialist Krzinskiy and a documenting crew as soon as they can gather their equipment and rappel down. Also, send those doctor types down too. I think what we have found will make their century."

One of the soldiers asked, "What did you find?"

Morozov replied, "Something that may change the way we think about all of our history. There's actually some sort of archive still functioning and what it is showing is ... revolutionary as it is unbelievable."

Specialist Hays wrote the message and put it in the container at the end of the winch cable. In a few minutes, at the appointed time, the cable started to move, and the container gradually rose upward out of sight. From the looks of the snow up there, things topside were getting to be really nasty as a worse-than-usual Greenland winter storm raged.

By the time two more men rappelled down the crevasse wall and were briefed by the men watching the entrance, those inside had made more discoveries. "I think we've found what powered this whole complex, or craft, or whatever it is," said Dr. Stadt when Monahan and Morozov caught up with him. There was an enormous room containing a huge metallic cylinder well attached to the floor and ceiling with numerous supports. "I can't be certain, of course, but I can guess that this is some kind of reactor. Dormant for now, but think how much we could learn from studying this!"

One of the Russians was speaking from another room, but no translation was needed when Monahan made it to the place -- it was obvious that this was the room where the dissections in the film they'd seen had happened. Nothing was in there now, but the machinery and tools would advance human medical and life sciences beyond anything previously imaginable.

"I can see the patterns in this written language," said Krzinskiy, the linguist, "but am not sure at present whether it is phonetic or ideographic. Perhaps if I could hear the recording you spoke of." Dr. Stadt showed him how he had activated the console earlier, and Dr. Krzinskiy began taking notes as the video played again.

The other newcomer, Dr. Timothy Hudson, was a paleontologist and anthropologist and watched the film raptly, taking notes of his own. He was totally ecstatic as he watched the archive unfold on the strange cloudlike screen floating in midair. Suddenly, a chill ran down his spine as he realized something that was implied by what he was looking at.

He turned and asked softly, "Dr. Krzinskiy? Don't you find it sort of odd that all those labeled individuals at the beginning of this look like us with only minor differences? And none of the obvious Neanderthals appear anywhere after the dissection and the part depicting genetic splicing?"

Dr Krzinskiy nodded as he replied, "I had begun to question that. I also would like to know what each of those markers they were labeled with means. It's obviously placed there to identify a certain grouping. My question is, what are the differences among the groups?" He double checked his tape recorder and written notes to insure he had a complete copy of this archive. He was positive he could discover a solution to the many graceful swirls and squiggles that represented this new language based on the clues left by the narration and the labeling of the dissected parts.

In another part of the ship, several of the search and discovery team, led by Dr. Kenes who was a foremost expert in mechanics, had reached a bulkhead that apparently was locked. Hindersen came to the hatch and began to feel around its edges. He was looking to see if he could find those four indentations with a fifth offset.

His hand brushed over a place in the frame that sent a large tingle all through his body. At the same time, the group felt a vibration in their boots as the hatch seemed to melt into the door frame, and many dimly twinkling lights became visible.

Slowly, Dr. Kenes entered the most mind boggling control center his wildest imaginations couldn't have conceived of. They were still obviously walking on the ceiling, but above them they could clearly see multiple tiers of control consoles and room for hundreds of human-sized operators. Only a few lights were glowing, but it was clear that if fully operational, this room would be a hive of activity and information. "Place is as big as the United Nations General Assembly," he said. "I wonder if --"

Then all the lights became somewhat brighter and a low humming sound was audible. From another room everyone could hear Colonel Monahan's voice shout, "Careful! On your guard! Some kind of security system might have just been activated!" Likewise, Morozov was shouting out in Russian to his people, probably something similar.

From the reactor room, Dr. Stadt's voice called out, "Colonel, you might want to look at this!" When Monahan ran into the room, he saw that Stadt had opened some access panels and had been looking at the circuitry inside. Stadt held up his flashlight, which was dark. "As soon as I brought this flashlight near this panel here, its light went out and its batteries got very warm. And now this is happening. Look."

Monahan looked. Beneath the cylindrical reactor in the center, there was a smaller disc-shaped element embedded in the floor -- which was actually the ceiling, if the entire artifact was upside down -- that was now ablaze with glowing readouts in the unknown language. It was humming quietly but incessantly. "What the hell is going on?" Monahan asked.

"Hypothesis?" said Dr. Stadt. "The system drained the energy from my flashlight batteries to start that reactor there back up. I think that's the starter reactor, much like the starter motor in your car, and it's going to start up the main reactor once it's built up enough power. There might be more stages it needs to go through. I don't know how long it'll take or what it'll do once it's fully powered. But we might want to be ready. Sorry about bringing my flashlight too close, Colonel, but I didn't know it could do that."

Monahan went back into the hallway, collected himself and shouted, loudly but calmly, "OK, everyone! The reactor's started itself up! I don't know what this place is going to do when it's up and running! Military personnel, you are to remain calm but be vigilant and report anything new or different happening! Civilian personnel, same thing, only it's more of a suggestion! Level heads and communication will get us through this!"

Colonel Morozov had come to take a look into the reactor room. "Very sensible, Colonel," he said. "I will say same thing to my men." He began to speak loudly in Russian.

It wasn't long before the air temperature became more comfortable and the many smells vanished to a neutral. Lights that had been flickering badly started to glow normally and the entire area lit up.

Back in the archive room, the entire cloud screen stabilized, the snow cleared as the blank places came into sharp focus. It was more felt than heard, but some sort of vibration began as a soft humming noise started to become audible.

Another of those strange cloud screens formed next to the one Dr. Hudson and Dr. Krzinskiy had been studying. This time, a very strange looking creature with features that resembled one of the Elves from the fables the doctors had read as children formed. It began speaking slowly and clearly as it used some sort of pointing device made of light to show the places on another cloud screen he was using.

Dr. Hudson realized suddenly that this was some sort of educational lecture on how and why the genetic splicing had been done. He could tell that Neanderthal had been genetically altered into something else entirely, and then a sample of that was used to enhance beings that resembled modern humankind's homo sapiens almost exactly. It also depicted something that appeared to be an eradication process, clearing off many types of large creatures.

"Wish I could get a language primer," said Krzinskiy, "but I'm starting to get some inklings of what they're saying. I think they say that their goal was to replace the population already present with a new strain of hominid. Could they be saying that they genetically engineered modern humans?"

"But for what purpose?" asked Hudson. "There was already a process happening that had evolved homo habilis and homo erectus. If homo sapiens didn't evolve naturally, it was about to. Homo neanderthalensis would have led to more intelligent variants eventually. There's controversy about whether Neanderthals had any genetic input into modern humans. Some say yes, some say no. But I think what we're seeing here is that material from the Neanderthals was used, with alterations, to produce their final result, which looks a lot like modern homo sapiens."

"You're assuming that the Neanderthals would have evolved into us, rather than into something else," said Krzinskiy. "We have no way to know that. Perhaps greater intelligence wasn't the direction evolution was taking. But who were these people who came and did this? Why did they come here? What was their goal, and their motivation?"

Hudson rubbed his chin thoughtfully as he watched the Humanoid creature continue in its lecture. A particular utterance was used over and over as the individual on the screen kept making references to the screen behind him. Suddenly, the image on the screen behind him changed. Both of the doctor's mouths fell open in total shock as they saw what appeared to be an extremely large arena.

A dozen humanoids that looked just like homo sapiens came out of a large door at each end. They were wearing different colored uniforms and carried nasty looking weapons neither of the doctors and ever seen before. The battle that ensued was not only brutal and bloody, but none of the combatants showed any sort of mercy to a fallen comrade or opponent.

Hudson gasped, "OMG! They are genetically enhanced warriors."

In another part of the ship, Colonel Morozov and Colonel Monahan entered a large door that slid open at their approach. When they entered the area, it appeared to be a huge round place large enough to hold several hundred people easily within.

"A room this big, but empty," Monahan said. "Storage area, maybe? For cargo?"

"There would be attachment points for straps and tiedowns," Morozov said. "Perhaps --"

Suddenly the doors closed. There were no openings in the walls. A voice spoke, in the unknown language, and they didn't understand it. On opposite sides of the room, recesses in the walls slid open to reveal what looked like some sort of rifle-type weapons.

"What's going on?" Monahan said.

"Is this room ... some sort of arena?" asked Morozov. "Like ancient Roman Colosseum?"

"Well, I'm a soldier, but I'm no gladiator," said Monahan. "If there's some kind of ... electronic brain or computer or something that wants us to fight each other, like in the science fiction movies, I'm not going to do it. I have no reason to fight you."

"Nor I you," Morozov said. "I suspect picking up those weapons and firing at doors would be ineffective. Probably they are made to resist this."

The voice from the ceiling said something else, but of course what it meant was unclear.

"I'm sure everyone outside is trying to figure out how to get us out of here," Monahan said. He went over to where the door had been and examined the wall. "There's a very fine outline where the entrance was." He started thumping on the door with the heel of his hand. It was a very hard metal, perhaps the same one that the rest of the object was made of, but that meant that it was also quite transparent to sound waves. "Hey!" he shouted. "We're locked in here! Try to find a way to open this door again!"

"Colonel?" said a voice from the other side, sounding like Corporal Jacobs. "Hold on, we're looking for the controls!"

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Buried deep within the heart of the inverted ship, Hyperspheric synchrotron laser igniters heated up, then fired. The focal point was no larger than a single molecule of an element earth science had never encountered before. Within the fusion chamber, a small sun was born and began to grow as more pellets of the mysterious element were introduced.

Massive amounts of energy spread out, only to be absorbed by a lattice woven out of the neutrons from the heart of a long dead cinder of a massive star and stored for use by the awaking ship systems. A switch that had lain dormant since wooly mammoths roamed earth tripped. A computer system the likes of which 20th-century humans had never dreamed of awakened from its many centuries long sleep.

Sensors told it, it had survived the massive assault that had lain waste to most of the planet and created an ice age that killed off 75% of the creatures on land, and 90% of the creatures that had roamed the seas.

It determined that something similar to a nuclear winter had set in and lasted for many thousands of years. It had also determined that the combat minions it carried within its hold had managed to escape and repopulate the almost frozen and desolate planet.

It also realized that it was inverted. This was something that would be corrected immediately.

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The entire structure began to vibrate. In the arena like room, the two leaders looked at each other and looked around. "What's going on out there, Jacobs?" asked Monahan through the door.

"Damned if I know, Colonel!" called Jacobs. "Hang onto something, if there's anything to hang onto in there!"

"Wait, how do you know what this room is like?" Monahan asked.

"It's on all the screens!"

"What?"

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On the surface, the ice began to shake beneath the American and Russian camps. Lieutenant Jeffries grabbed his parka and ran outside to see several others of both countries coming out of their barracks and looking around in confusion. Jeffries, however, looked toward the excavation site and the crevasse. He saw the ice cracking. "Everybody! Run! Get away from the fissure! It's cracking up! It's gonna collapse!" He grabbed the nearest unmoving person and started to drag him away, and others started to follow his lead.

Looking over his shoulder as he ran across the ice, Jeffries saw chunks of ice breaking off and falling into the crevasse. Then there was a blast like a tremendous bomb, filling the air with fragments of ice and snow and throwing everyone to the ground. Huge chunks of ice impacted the glacier all around them. Then, there was only a massive, low whirring noise. Moments later, this was followed by an enormous thump, felt more than heard, through the glacier below them.

As soon as Jeffries decided it was safe, he raised his head and looked back. As the steam and snow cleared, he saw the enormous shape of the great silver craft resting on the ice, off to one side of where it had been buried. Its disc-shaped main body was nearly half a mile in diameter, seemingly pierced through with six evenly-spaced columns on which it rested, and its central hub was a rounded cylinder.

He got to his feet. "That ain't something you see every day," he said. He looked toward what used to be the camp. "We have a bigger problem, though." Most of their buildings had slid into the crevasse, which had been enlarged by the emerging craft, including the radio shack. "We've got no shelter from the elements and no contact with the outside world."

One of the Russians came over and replied, "Flyovers will see this, and they will send help."

"Yeah, and I don't know how long it'll be before your folks will come looking, but our next flyover isn't for five more hours." Jeffries looked at the enormous aircraft. "Might be best if we check out that thing. See if any of our people are still alive in there."

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Monahan and Morozov picked their battered bodies from what used to be the ceiling. The shelves that held the strange weapons on either side of the huge cavernous room were now in the proper orientation.

Morozov said with trepidation in his tone, "It would appear something major has changed."

Monahan replied as he limped over to the door, "If what I think happened actually did, I'm not so sure we have a camp left. This thing either changed its gravity ..."

Morozov nodded as he began to feel around the edges of the almost invisible door they had come in, "The entire vessel has ... inverted again."

A loud chime sounded. The lights in the arena changed to a soft pinkish white, and the door slid open once again. The Colonels could plainly see their men who were trying to free them from this room lying scattered about like flotsam after a large storm.

They both saw Dr. Krononov, their field medic, approaching with his medical bag in tow. They also noticed, several large cloud screens form in clear sharpness, unlike the first one they had seen.

A face that looked for the world like an elf appeared on it and said something in its strange language. A door slid open next to it. It was obvious the image was indicating they enter the door.

Monahan said, "I think that image knows we are here and wants us to go in there."

One of the men had stood, then crossed over and looked in. Lights came on completely illuminating the area. It was very obvious this was some kind of research archive from all the screens that were active. Many different screens with many different strange languages slowly scrolling on them.

He turned and said, "I'm no linguist, but I think at least one of these someone should be able to decipher."

Monahan and Dr. Krononov were the first to peek in behind him followed by Morozov.

"I am a linguist, however," said a voice, and they turned to see Dr. Krzinskiy, with a bandage on his cheek, coming down the hallway behind them. They stood aside and let him enter. He sat down at the console with his notepad and tape recorder. "I think ... this is some kind of machine, one that is trying to speak to us. But instead of learning its language, I may be teaching it ours."

"Be careful," Monahan said, "we don't know what it wants.".

"But we cannot find out unless we can talk to it," said Morozov.

"English -- man," Krzinskiy was saying. "Russian -- muzhshinah."

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"OK, I think the door closed when the thing took off," said Jacobs, "but we can probably get it open again if ... there!" The door to the airlock opened up.

"Oh, thank God," said one of a number of men who were inside. "We ran inside when everything started happening, and then both doors slid shut. Then everything turned upside down."

"Quick thinking," Jacobs said. "Why don't you come out of there and I'll try to open the other door. I think this place has central air conditioning or something, but I'm happier if I know I can get out if I have to."

"Don't have to ask me twice," said the American airman, and everyone in the airlock moved out into the rest of the vessel, marveling at the amazing sights.

Jacobs had the outer door open, feeling the blast of arctic air, and saw more men on the glacier about 50 feet below. "Hope you guys haven't been waiting long," he said. "I dunno how you're gonna get up here, but maybe I can find a rope ladder or something."

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Krzinskiy was totally amazed and in awe at how the machine interacted with him. First, going was made by images and Krzinskiy making vocalizations when it happened. Within a few minutes, the machine stopped and cleared all the screens in the room. A large screen appeared with the face of the elfin humanoid Krzinskiy had come to recognize as the machine.

A voice spoke, slowly and with a really strange accent at first, "What are you minions doing on board this ship free? You are supposed to be in containment. Your genetic predisposition to war and killing renders you dangerous to yourselves and others."

Krzinskiy was totally flabbergasted at this point as he said, "We are a free and self governing people."

The face of the machine frowned darkly as it replied, "Until you discover a means to utterly destroy yourselves. You are a genetic warrior. It is something you cannot help within yourselves."

"I dispute the validity of this statement," said Krzinskiy. "It is unclear exactly how long it has been since you last saw the people who may or may not be our ancestors, but even assuming there have been no genetic changes or mutations in our species whatsoever, there is no reason to assume that intelligent beings must be governed completely by their genetics."

"Calculation based on astronomical observations indicates approximately 101,297 years," the machine stated glibly. "You do make three valid points, after a fashion: one, there may have been other genetic input since that time; two, there may have been mutations and even some evolution since that time; and three, an intelligent species does not necessarily follow its genetic instincts. But the fact remains that you are obviously the descendents of warrior minions that were engineered not only for war and violence, but also for the dominance of those traits against eventual mutation and other input. I personally cannot believe that you could have built much of a civilization in that time."

"We have built many civilizations with much diversity and vibrancy," Krzinskiy insisted. "It has been --"

"So you are traveling to the stars, then?" the computer's face asked archly. "After more than 100,000 years, you should be quite advanced. But no, I doubt that. I predict that it took most of that time to discover how to even live in permanent settlements, let alone develop the rudimentary basics of technology, such as how to smelt metals and conduct basic science. I'd go as far as to suspect that you fought amongst yourselves and lost much of your advancement, probably several times, and probably over ridiculous notions like whose religion was superior or where lines on maps should be drawn."

"Err, well, I --" Krzinskiy began.

"Now, wait just a second," broke in Colonel Monahan. "Are you telling me that our distant ancestors were genetically engineered to be soldiers in some kind of war? What was that war about? Who was it against? And are they still out there? Can we expect that they'll come back?"

"It was a war of ideology," the machine stated. "Even a truly advanced civilization must fight when another attacks it, vowing to put an end to its very way of life. Yes, our side did engineer soldiers for the war, on this world and many others, as did our enemy. As for whether the enemy is still out there -- I am still receiving transmissions. The war is still going on, though far from here. This vessel would have been rescued long ago, had the action in distant sectors of the galaxy not intensified."

"A war that has lasted over 100,000 years?" asked Morozov. "Not even the human race has managed that."

"And for millions of years before that," the machine said. "Our enemy is quite determined to destroy us, just as we are determined to survive."

"I would like to know whether you've contacted your -- other forces, out there in space, or on other worlds," Monahan stated.

"Yes, of course," the computer replied. "I am programmed to report in when possible."

"How long until they get here?" Monahan asked tensely.

"So far I have received no word of any expedition to this world," answered the machine. "This is no longer a coveted sector of space. That is not to say, however, that I would necessarily be informed of such an expedition. They may suspect that I am malfunctioning, or that I am an enemy unit masquerading as an antiquated unit as a ruse. My security codes are quite outdated."

"How quickly could they arrive here, assuming they started out immediately?" Morozov asked.

"I am not up to date on the latest drive technology," the computer replied, "nor of the exact positions of our bases or fleets. But to my knowledge, the nearest forces could not arrive any sooner than approximately 15 days from now."

"Could I ask another question?" Monahan said, changing the subject. "Why was this vessel embedded in a glacier? How did it come to be there? Clearly you didn't run out of fuel."

"This vessel appears to have been sabotaged during takeoff," said the computer. "There seems to have been an enemy spy on board who disrupted the guidance systems and caused a nearly complete shutdown. This does mean that there could still be an enemy presence on this world, one that has been quietly maintained for a thousand centuries. Remote, but possible."

The elfin image said, "Now, minion, to sort you out and discover to which grouping you belong."

Monahan started to protest, "Now, wait just ..." A blue beam flashed out and engulfed his body and lifted him from the floor, his arms and legs outstretched. Another beam that glittered of many colors washed all over him. His internal organs, musculature, and bone structure could plainly be seen at times.

A screen popped up with many swirls and squiggles, including something with colorful bars that Morozov and Krzinskiy didn't recognize. It was a genome map that showed the entire layout of Monahan's physiognomy down to the Nth degree.

One symbol that Krzinskiy did recognize appeared at the lower left corner of the screen. He had seen similar markers in the first archive they had activated. When the beam released Monahan, he crumpled to the deck in a heap.

The machine said slowly, "I do see a strange genetic deviation from the original programming, but that seems to be a minor thing and I can correct it quickly. As far as to what grouping you belong, it appears you are designed to excel in hand to hand combat, small arms, explosives, and electronics. It also shows you are designated a group leader." The image looked at Monahan as he picked himself up from the deck, adding, "Apparently you have followed your genetic program fairly closely. As far as the error, I can understand how such a free-range genetic encoding error could happen. Under the combination irregularities you were conceived under, it's understandable."

Monahan stood up and said indignantly, "And just what kind of irregularities am I supposed to have?"

The image smiled wryly as it replied, "Under the original genetic plan, the units born under your branch of your generation were designated a female breeder. I will correct that issue right away."

Before Monahan could protest, another beam washed over his body. It felt so weird and strange as he could feel something within him change. It was so intense his mind felt like he was on some sort of powerful narcotic as wave after intense wave washed through him. Monahan felt so strange as his body tingled all over. His boots and uniform had started to feel large on him. His chest and bottom felt as if the skin were becoming tighter or something.

The Image said, "Don't worry, the correction won't hurt a bit and it will take several hours to complete." The image turned and looked at Krzinskiy, continuing, "Now to sort you out, minion."

Krzinskiy didn't have a chance to react as the beam caught him and held him in the same manner as Monahan, and performed the exact same function. Morozov attempted to flee, but was caught in some sort of suspensor field and was rendered immobile as he watched the beam explore Krzinskiy's body.

"And what if we wish to follow our own destinies?" Morozov asked in a strained voice, finding it difficult even to speak, let alone move.

"Your genes as designated by the program will determine your destiny," the computer answered. "Your wishes are irrelevant."

"I disagree," said Monahan, having carefully aimed his sidearm at the device that appeared to be emitting the beam. He fired.

But the bullet seemed not to reach its target, caught in the same suspensor field that held Morozov immobile. There it hung, tantalizingly floating in the air, inches from its target. Turning toward Monahan, the computer's face said, "You have made great progress in weapons technology, considering the challenges inherent in your genetic makeup. This is, of course, unsurprising. However, though it has taken you over a hundred millennia, it appears that you have only managed to advance to the point of ballistic slugs. How archaic -- barely beyond throwing spears."

"Nevertheless," Morozov said with difficulty, "he did make a choice to fire upon you, a choice which no genetic plan can take away."

"Perhaps," the computer said, "but your technology is obviously insufficiently advanced for your choices to be relevant."

Another screen appeared next to Krzinskiy with yet again another genetic map and many of the strange swirls and squiggles. Krzinskiy crumpled to the floor completely drained for a minute before his strength slowly returned.

The computer image nodded slowly as it said, "You have followed your designation quite properly. You are of the academic grouping to decipher linguistic codes and cross reference alien languages. I do see some minor deviations in your encoding, but nothing that would need to be corrected." It turned and looked at Morozov then continued, "Now. let us sort you out minion."

Once again, the beam flashed out to surround Morozov's body and suspend him in the air spread eagled. The same function was performed on him as the other two.

When the screen appeared next to Morozov, the image smiled broadly and said, "It would appear you belong to the genome grouping designated as Pilots. I'm not certain how your grouping survived the disconnect from the support systems, but your genetics seem to not have been too contaminated. I am in need of a pilot, and your brain is suited for that purpose."

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As Jacobs tried to decipher the controls within the airlock, the men on the ground scrambled to salvage what they could of their destroyed camp and find some equipment they could use to enter the vessel. The blizzard worsened as the wind rose in intensity causing the temperature to plunge even lower due to windchill.

Suddenly before Jacobs' eyes a number of symbols lit up on the control panels near the airlock's outer door, which suddenly opened again. When he looked outside, he saw a waterfall of what looked like quicksilver pouring out from beneath the door, but rather than merely spilling straight downward, the liquid's droplets flowed outward, forming a perfect stairway leading up to the open airlock. One of the men came up and pushed against the seemingly free-floating metal stairway. It was solid to his touch and unmoving. Because the temperature was dangerously low and the windchill made it even more dangerous, the men scrambled up the steps into the airlock in an orderly way.

"Finally press the right button?" Jeffries yelled up at Jacobs.

"I didn't do anything!" Jacobs shouted back against the howling wind. "Or I don't think so anyway!"

"I'm not gonna argue much!" Jeffries shouted back. "Hey!" he called out to the other men on the ground. "Jacobs found the staircase button! Come on! It's our only shelter right now!" More American and Soviet personnel converged on the stairs and entered the airlock.

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"But -- you are part of the machinery of this craft," Morozov said to the computer. "You took control over it earlier, I presume. What use is a pilot to you? Ahhhhhh --" He cried out, not in pain, but at the unfamiliar sensation as a beam engulfed his head and he felt his mind filling with unfamiliar thoughts not his own -- no, not unfamiliar thoughts; unfamiliar knowledge. And that knowledge was swiftly becoming less unfamiliar. It was all about the vessel's flight controls and related information such as orbital maneuvers, fusion fuel mixtures, engine yield ratios, and so forth. But among this information was the answer to his question.

"You are programmed with a limitation," said Morozov. "You can only control the vessel for a few moments in an emergency situation -- such as discovering it is inverted. Unless it is an emergency, your programming will not allow you to operate the craft." The word "programming" was almost foreign to him, but he had heard it in the context of the new computing machines that his country's military researchers were working on.

"My builders did not wish for devices such as myself to become too self-sufficient," the computer said.

"Doesn't that bother you?" asked Monahan. He was feeling increasingly uncomfortable, his clothes not feeling like they fit right, his voice seeming higher. "Trapped within a vessel that you can't control?"

"Why would it?" the computer asked, sounding truly puzzled. "I am not programmed to be bothered by it."

Monahan knew something was changing. His boots no longer fit and were several sizes too large. His weapons belt had become loose around his middle as the rest of his heavy weather gear began to basically swallow him.

Krzinskiy was totally flabbergasted as he watched the manly Monahan slowly transform into a very attractive woman. His facial features had already changed enough that he was rather attractive. The clothes he wore were now many sizes too big and Krzinskiy knew Monahan would need different clothing very shortly.

Krzinskiy looked at Morozov, whose eyes had changed color to a bright silver and his facial expression to one of total wonder. A chill of fear ran down Krzinskiy's spine as the machine turned its image towards him.

The elfin image said, "Now, I must teach you the basics of language translations and coding so you can begin your designated task."

Krzinskiy's mind suddenly was filled with many formulas and different means for deciphering languages and security codes that had never before been imagined by any of humankind. He also now knew how to operate the computer system.

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At the airlock entrance to the ship, the final men had entered to seek shelter from the dangerous storm and extremely low temperatures. As soon as the very last of them had crossed the threshold of the inner lock, both doors sealed once again.

A strangely accented voice spoke to the large assortment of men, "Please stand easy minions, while I sort all of you out to your proper designations. I am sure there are enough of you present to fill the needs of the bridge crew, engineering, and hydroponics food production."

Before any of them could react, A blue beam flashed out and engulfed all of them and lifted them from the floor, their arms and legs outstretched. Another beam that glittered of many colors washed over all. Their internal organs, musculature, and bone structure could plainly be seen at times as the computer sorted each into the genetic pre-programmed position for which their original genome had been constructed, and made the gender corrections on the several it had found among them.

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"Where did the pointy-eared guy go?" asked Monahan.

"From the information it placed in my mind," Krzinskiy answered, "it must be taking care of some sort of business elsewhere in the vessel. It can transmit its presence from one node in the information infrastructure to another but can only be present at one node at a time."

"So what does this machine think is going to happen?" Morozov asked. "Perhaps It thinks it is going to collect some sort of army of humans and fly us all off to fight a war on some other planet in outer space?"

"That's not something I know," said Krzinskiy.

"Do you know why I would seem to be a woman now?" Monahan asked. "Or maybe where I could get some clothes that fit on this crate?"

Krzinskiy considered. "From what it said, it sounded as if it, or its owners, had planned out human genetic development for at least 100,000 years, but some anomaly had cropped up that resulted in your being male. Who knows when the anomaly happened -- maybe when you were born, maybe when one of your ancestors was born a thousand years ago. But it seems you were originally meant to be a woman, not a man. And it has the technology to enforce that plan."

"That's ... crazy."

"The possibility of a machine being insane seems like it is from one of those science fiction movies," Krzinskiy replied. "Oh, and there is a supply depot down the hall that can fabricate basic clothing for anyone. One of several on board."

The three of them went down the hall to the supply depot room, where a beam scanned Monahan's body and, rather than lifting anyone into the air, caused a machine to whirr and click for a few minutes. While it did so, Monahan asked, "So ... what do we do? We could escape from this place ... straight out onto a glacier where we'll freeze to death."

"A flyover will be coming in a few hours," said Morozov. "Assuming this vessel doesn't shoot it down, which I know it cannot without a gunner."

"So if we time it right, we can get out of here and get rescued," Monahan said.

"If," said Krzinskiy. "We must find out what is going on around this vessel."

Several of the men somehow found themselves in Hydroponics. They had an overwhelming urge to ... make the equipment grow things and began to tinker with it. In less than an hour, the system was up and operational with many of the hydro-tanks filled with the proper nutrients, and seeded with the items they had intended to germinate.

On the command deck, Morozov found himself sitting in a large, very comfortable, reclining seat that seemingly wrapped around his body like a custom made glove. A device surrounded his head, and for an instant or two, very sharp prickling sensations were felt all around his head and the base of his skull. Without warning, the ship became his body, and he could "see" and "feel" things in perspectives he had never dreamed of.

Many of his own men had found their way into the command deck and had assumed a seat. The entire bridge began to come alive. One young private wandered in. His eyes were ebony black as he sat in the gunner's position and allowed the equipment to attach itself to his body. He now became aware of the ship's massively deadly arsenal, and the pinpoint accurate targeting systems.

Monahan found him/herself suddenly nude, as a device stripped all of the now way over sized heavy weather gear away. A panel slid open and several neatly folded garments and a pair of black slipper type shoes slid out on a tray. Monahan's eyes grew large as he realized, this was a pair of panties, a bra, and a commander's uniform that was as form fitting as any leotard. Monahan realized it was intended for him to show he was female as much as possible since this uniform left nothing to the imagination.

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A lone DC-10 aircraft did a low flyover at about 10,000 feet. The weather was horrid, but the wind had died off enough the overfly was possible. Imaging was very poor due to the atmospheric conditions, but clear enough to show the location the exploratory camp used to be, was now an extremely large crevasse like hole in the glacier. Due to the poor quality of the images, the large structure next to the huge fissure, it was assumed, was the object they had come to investigate.

There was a very large and very annoying anomaly with the structure that none of the observers could put their finger on right away. If they could perhaps get clearer pictures on the next overfly in an hour, they might be able to determine what it was that bothered them about it so much.

At that time, no comms were established on the preassigned frequencies, which also made them very nervous. When they returned again, they would bring with them supplies and an emergency recovery team to render what ever aid they could.

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Monahan walked down the hallway. He was now an extremely beautiful and shapely young woman with long silky brown hair. He felt self-conscious in this form-fitting uniform that showed off his more than attractive female form. His hips were making him walk in a way that he wasn't used to, but he still wanted to find out what was going on for himself. Krzinskiy had used the computer consoles to find out where people were, but that didn't tell them what they were doing.

"Hey, who's the cute broad?" asked a serviceman, spotting Monahan as he rounded a corner. Another one put his fingers in his mouth and did a loud wolf whistle.

Monahan raised an eyebrow. "Is this how you treat a superior officer?" he asked. "That's right, I'm Colonel Monahan. The same computer that's told you how these ... chemical gardens work has messed with my DNA, my cells, whatever."

There were murmurs of disbelief and skepticism until Monahan went up to one of them and said, "That's right, I'm Monahan. I know you, Hansen, I know you went AWOL three weeks ago when you were supposed to be on watch, and I know where." Rounding on another, he said, "Jacobs, I've seen your files, I know why you know how to pick locks. And none of you are gardeners! That machine put thoughts in your heads, and you don't have to do what they say. Now, are you loyal to some pointy-eared face on a futuristic TV screen, or to the United States of America?"

"Uh ... Ma'am!" said Jacobs, snapping to attention. "I mean Sir! I mean, uh ..."

"Whatever!" said Monahan. "A case could be made for either at this point. The fact is that the machine and its face can try to punish us into doing what it says, but it's our choice what we do. We're going to do what it says until the time is right. The Russians are going to do the same. Morozov's going to fly this aircraft."

It wasn't long after the computer sorted all the rest of the troops before a dozen of the young men, were transforming into very attractive young women as their bodies morphed, budded, and became rounder and softer. They also began to need clothes that would fit since what they were wearing rapidly became too large and baggy.

Of course, there were several who had taken over the responsibilities of Quartermaster and Supplies, since this was what they did in the military, and was also their genetic predisposition. They were more than happy to provide the extremely attractive young women with cute undergarments and the proper form fitting uniforms that showed off their perfect female forms.

Others of the many men had begun to migrate to the locations within the huge ship their genetic predispositions called them to. Weapons specialists, Cartographers, Communications, fabrication, power production, and distribution. The large ship came alive as each individual's genetic predisposition had them take charge of each area it was designed to operate.

The ship wasn't fully complemented, but enough key genetics were available to run the ship properly until the breeders attracted the male mates and the females became impregnated. The computer system knew it wouldn't be long before the attractant pheromones of the females, and the mating pheromones of the males activated and did the job they were genetically enhanced to do.

The computer system went over the log files of necessary genetics it would require to insure this solar system would be protected and the special genes that had been created here would survive. It felt pleased within itself that special genetic groupings like the ones calling themselves Monahan and Morozov were present and that several other male and female counter parts to mix and match were also available.

It was sure Morozov and Monahan would produce many copies of the required genes as Monahan's womb would produce up to eight multiple simultaneous birthings of what ever mating the computer system chose. Of course the more offspring Monahan produced, the more attractive she would become same as the other female breeders the computer had repaired insuring they would bear many offspring.

The computer was gratified. Morozov and Monahan will be extremely happy together. It was sorry that the initial attraction and mating would probably be extremely awkward, but once mating began, they would be totally engrossed with each other and produce many copies of the genes the computer would need for genetic splicing.

The computer was slightly disappointed to discover that many of the required genetic combinations were missing. It also knew that several primitive flying machines had passed overhead. Scans indicated they contained a supply of genomes it could manipulate and recombine to recreate what was necessary to fill the voids. This was satisfactory.

The computer knew the minions still thought of themselves as a free people. It did the machine equivalent of a sigh. It knew how uncomfortable the minions would be at first until they came to the realization that they were performing the genetically encoded tasks they had been assigned under the misperceived notion they were free. It wouldn't be long before they realized they had been doing the same tasks under the guise of freedom as the ones they now were performing. Although the ones they now performed would be the ones that made them the most happy.

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"There's no way to even form a hypothesis until we've seen it fly," said Dr. Doddard. "As for weapons that could damage it, the materials scientists say we're centuries away from being able to get through that hull. Maybe, if we weren't so focused on killing each other and amassing more wealth than we could ever use, we'd have been better prepared by now to deal with something like this."

General Sturmrang replied, "Well, that's as may be, but right now we've got a probable extraterrestrial spacecraft that's reactivated itself and may be holding our men -- as well as the Russians -- captive inside. Otherwise some of them would have emerged during scheduled flyovers to signal. Evidently they haven't discovered how to send radio signals using whatever equipment there is inside the craft."

"Well, yes," said the scientist, "if it is indeed of extraterrestrial origin, the technology inside is most likely as advanced as the hull material outside. It may not be capable of anything as primitive as radio transmission without major modifications."

"So the question is really how long we wait to rescue our men and the Russians before we resort to the contingency plan. What do you think, Dr. Doddard?"

"Once it takes off, the plan will be ineffective," the rocket scientist said. "It seems only to have been able to do that once partially freed from the ice, and only momentarily. Perhaps its engines only have a certain amount of fuel, or perhaps its guidance systems are damaged. Unfortunately we weren't able to observe it in motion, or we might know more about how its engines work."

"How long, though?"

"There's no possibility that it has much in terms of viable food reserves," the scientist said. "No more than a week, or our men will have starved to death inside there anyway."

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"So the question is really how long we keep going along with this ridiculous computer until we destroy it and take over this crate," Jeffries was whispering. "It seems to think we're somehow governed by our genetics."

Monahan replied, likewise in a whisper, "We're still gathering information about how exactly to go about that. It's driving me crazy too. I've obviously never been female before but whatever it did to me is giving me a lot of very distracting impulses. I personally would love to take over this craft and its machines, but we can't strike until we know how to hit the computer where it hurts."

Monahan discovered many of his and the Russian men had congregated in what had come to be called the Command Center. She also had the strangest urge to be there herself. Monahan was amazed how well she seemed to know where the Command Center was.

She wandered down the hall in her new sexy walk. She could feel the eyes of the men on her as she passed, although they all afforded her the respect her rank required in her sight, she was sure what they did behind her back was something she didn't want to think about.

The doors to the Command Center dissolved into the door frame in its liquid mercurial way and she walked in. There was a soft buzz in the air. Monahan stopped dead as she looked around. There were many occupied seats. Each individual had some kind of hood around their head as they lay in the reclining seats.

Monahan had this incredible feeling deep within her ... she felt with certainty that she was finally in the place she was supposed to be. At the same time, she knew it was that damned computer and its manipulation of their genes and minds that was giving her that feeling. But she had to go along with the computer to keep it from suspecting they weren't as controlled as it thought they were.

One seat was centrally located, Monahan sat in it and leaned back. She knew, deep inside, that this was exactly where she was supposed to be. A hood settled over her head. She felt a terrible prickling as if many hot needles were penetrating her skull and her neck where the spine attached. It was electric once the needle like pain passed and all the sensations filled her. She knew, for example, that weapons had a scan report of the flybys and the personnel drops that followed several hours later. She was aware of the fact power production had reached peak and the ship was now fully powered. She was also aware of a horrible fact she wouldn't have ever been aware of if they had not found the ship.

In the direction of the constellation Virgo as seen from Earth was a stellar system with three planets. The third one harbored a ground-based fortress supporting an orbiting force of fighting ships and other equipment. The computer identified this as a critical target, since it was now known that the enemy intended to attack this sector to destroy any and all life forms found.

Monahan's jaw dropped. There were no known forces to oppose them ... except for the craft they were currently on. And this one was built on technology 100,000 years older than the enemy forces that were now on their way. It looked as if they'd be cooperating with the computer for a while longer -- if they wanted to save the human race.

The computer's accented voice spoke within Monahan's mind as it asked, "What is your wish, Commander?"

With total surprise, Monahan thought back, "You can read my mind?"

"You are the commander of this vessel. You are genetically predisposed to command. I am here to advise you and aid in helping you defend this star system from an enemy who has designs only to destroy."

"This ship, this equipment, it's all over a hundred thousand years antiquated compared to what I just saw."

The computer replied calmly, "You have some very talented minions working in R&D, Engineering, Fabrication, and Production. The enemy will not be arriving at this particular star system for several Earth years, based on their current search patterns. This gives you lead time to devise some sort of strategy and perhaps achieve technological advancement. Then again, every now and again, a blast from the past does more damage to a fighting force with more advanced weaponry who isn't expecting it."

Morozov's voice interrupted, "Commander, tactical shows a scouting force has arrived in heavy lift helos from both American and Russian forces. They have brought many soldiers and weapons ... and even a few of the new nuclear type. Apparently they are intending to use force to enter this ship. Orders?"

Monahan realized she was now also in contact with ship's communications as Jeffries' voice asked, "Your orders, Commander?"

"Nuclear weapons -- can they damage this hull?" Monahan asked.

Morozov replied, "Negative. Materials of this class redirect energy around the hull. The sonic transparency is a problem. If we activated personal sonic dampeners, there would be no damage whatsoever."

"Can we talk to them?" Monahan asked. "Jeffries?"

"I'd have to reconfigure the communications array to modulate low-frequency waves ..." Jeffries began, then paused. "And it just told me how to do that. We can talk to them any time we want. Oh. That's good to know. We'll want to turn the amplitude way down, or we'll blow up every radio on the planet. This thing's got way more power than I'm used to."

"Jeffries, tell them we're OK. We've lost no personnel. Confirm that this vessel is of extraterrestrial origin. Tell them that we've learned that the people who built this ship are at war and that their enemies are on their way. Tell them that's all we've discovered so far."

"Yes, Ma'am," said Jeffries, manipulating the controls.

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A private rushed into the General's command hut and saluted sharply, "Sir, we've just gotten the weirdest radio message."

The General looked up from his maps with an expression of boredom and returned the salute, "What makes it so out of the ordinary, soldier?"

The private shuffled nervously, "Well, someone claiming to be Radioman Jeffries just told us they have almost complete control over what they've confirmed to be an extraterrestrial spacecraft -- except for a few key positions. The message is coming through loud and clear despite the weather and distance, as if they have a million-watt transmitter up there. They have had no losses ... and the strangest thing, he actually knows the secret call word the Colonel set up before coming on this expedition."

The General sat back in his chair, took a cigar out of his pocket, bit the tip, then stuck it in his mouth. He began chewing it thoughtfully. After allowing the young man to squirm for a minute, the General said, "Exactly how did they manage to get control of an obviously extraterrestrial vehicle?"

"Don't know sir." replied the private, "But he did say the enemy of those people who built the darn thing are on their way ... and the only thing that might stop them is that ship and any who can volunteer to come on board and defend our solar system ... Sir."

"Defend our -- solar system?" General Sturmrang repeated incredulously. "That's a pretty cockamamie story there. Not that I think Lieutenant Jeffries would lie to us. But we don't know that wherever he's getting his information is trustworthy."

"Roger that, Sir," said the private. "Should I respond and ask for more information?"

"I think that might be a good idea," said the general. "We need to know more about that spaceship thing in any case. And get Dr. Doddard on the phone. He'll probably want to know about all of this."

"Yessir," said the private and quickly headed back to the radio room after a sharp salute.

"Defend our solar system," the general said to himself. "Hm. But if there's one kind of people in outer space ... it stands to reason there's more than one kind."

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"Got contact with the General, Commander," said Jeffries. "They want to know more about the enemy."

"So do we," said Monahan. "Any more intel about their position and movements?"

"Have been gathering all of that information together," said one of the Russians, a newly transformed woman named Ilyenovich. "Is here on this screen." One of the display screens lit up, showing stars, data about them and their planets, and red points. "Red points are enemy ships." Some of the planets lit up with red circles. "Red circles are enemy installations."

Monahan looked at the map. "I'm no physicist, but wasn't there something about the speed of light?"

Dr. Stadt spoke up. "Captain Ilyenovich, are these their positions now ... or their positions years ago?"

"Is their positions now. Computer ... tells me the light wavefronts are accounted for. Whatever that means."

"It means their technology is beyond me," said Dr. Stadt. "You can't detect things before the light from them gets to you ... that we know of. Can you find out ... where they were a few years ago?"

"Am not sure the packet ... detector ... I do not have words ... was recording then," Ilyenovich said, "but will see if there are archives." She was pressing buttons on the console. "Ah! Yes. You want to know if they were in a place where the light would be getting here now from there."

"I'm getting it!" said Monahan. "Jeffries, tell them where to look. Telescopes could try to pick out signals or something."

"They do have radio telescopes," Jeffries said. "All right, I'll tell them about that. Let me just ... um ... how do we translate that into equatorial coordinates?" Ilyenovich pressed some buttons on the console, and the numbers next to the red circles changed. "Right then. Sure thing!"

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The private rushed into the general's hut once again and saluted sharply. The General returned the salute and said, "All right, what is it this time that's so earth shattering?"

The private shuffled a bit then said shyly, "It's ... we ... I mean ..."

The General frowned, "Spit it out son, I really don't have all day to listen to you babble."

The young man stood at stiff attention and replied, "Yes, Sir. With all due respect, Sir, we received another comm from Jeffries. This time he transmitted spacial sky coordinates for somewhere in the Virgo constellation."

The general said, "So? So what?"

The private replied, "According to what the brains said at our radio telescope in Arizona, they were able to detect powerful, regular signals coming from those exact coordinates. There's something there, and it's something intelligent. They're trying to decipher the signals now, but the first indications are that they're military commands of some sort."

The general sat up and took the chewed cigar from his mouth, "What yer tellin' me, son, is that there really is some kind of space armada out there, and they're headed this way?"

The private swallowed hard and said in a gasp, "Yeessiirr. That's exactly what they said."

The General dropped his chewed cigar as his mouth fell open and his eyes grew large in total shock.

The phone on the General's desk began to ring.

"Yes? This is General Sturmrang. The who? General Eastlessland? Yes, sir. I was just getting that report when you called ... sir. I understand. How many volunteers? All of them? A full mobilization? Yes sir ... I know we have no way to defend against them. Yes sir. Immediately." the general hung up and stood.

After grabbing his coat and putting it on along with his helmet he said, "Sound the general alarm. I want all the troops mustered in ten minutes. Apparently, we are going to war. In ... outer space."

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Krzinskiy was getting better at this. Just a scant few days ago, the symbols he manipulated had been foreign, alien, but now they were familiar. The concept of a computer had been vague and new, but now not only was it as well known to him as his own back yard, he knew that this computer was far beyond anything the human race would develop itself for millennia. The computer had implanted knowledge into his mind about how to operate it, but his mind was more than that. The computer had intrinsic built-in limitations. Organic minds were adaptable, creative, growing, but a computer wasn't really a mind at all, rigid, circumscribed, finished.

The computer could not program itself. It was prevented from doing so by its creators, who did not want their creation to exceed them. But such limitations did not apply to Krzinskiy.

He saw the original programming imposed upon the machine by its builders. He saw it imposing that same programming upon the descendants of the minions it had been sent to oversee the genetic engineering of. He could feel his genetic programming rebelling against what he was doing. But his curiosity and sense of challenge couldn't resist.

Krzinskiy meddled.

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"First row, third from the left," the computer said. "Genetic predisposition toward quantum parafusion engineering. Second row, fifth from the right. Genetic predisposition toward khelerum hull plating maintenance." The computer continued to make its selections from among the American and Soviet troops that had been brought aboard.

Monahan walked up to the people indicated and tapped them on the shoulder, shaking their hand and walking them out of the ranks in which they stood, looking confused. There was finally a group of about ten additions to the crew. "The rest of you, thank you for coming," she said, "and please understand that there are many other opportunities to defend Earth against what is on its way. We all contribute."

"Are you really Colonel Monahan?" asked one. "I'm sorry, I couldn't help being curious. I used to serve under you in Korea."

"Happens to about two percent," Monahan answered. "The computer thinks there was a genetic mistake causing some of us to be born the wrong sex and is determined to correct it. I'm still looking for a way to fix it."

Two of the new arrivals, one American and the other Russian, both had their genetics rearranged so now they were very beautiful and shapely young women. They were a little more than self conscious about the uniform they were having to wear. The panties and bras were weird to them too. The way the other men reacted when they passed made them ashamed of the way they had treated pretty women in the past.

The two of them had found an affinity and kindredship between them as they wandered around this huge ship hand in hand, seemingly lost, but at the same time positive of where they wanted to wind up together.

Finally they arrived to a door that melted mercurially into the door frame in the strange way the doors on this ship did. When the girls entered, still holding hands, they both stopped and looked around this seemingly magical marvel of technological wizardry. They had found the ship's research and development labs. The girls were in total heaven as their genetic predispositions overtook them, and they began to play with the many far advanced techno-toys in front of them.

One was totally fascinated by one of the torpedo projectors. It could fire an object at a target traveling faster than light by many times and overtake it and destroy it. She made an ingenious discovery about the projection beam. It could be applied to other devices and objects, allowing almost anything to be projected to a destination as accurately as the targeting system, or enhancing a computer memory circuit to perform in ways not even this weird ship did.

The other made a remarkable discovery totally by accident. She discovered how to redirect the annular spin of the torpedo's strange antilepton field. The field remained the same but took on other entirely different and more dangerous aspects based on the spin modification.

When the two discoveries were just starting to be explored, a whole new line of research became apparent. The two girls snuggled in joy as they might have found a way to save the earth.

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And in the computer's memory circuits, Krzinskiy saw this. The machine was incapable of real surprise, but when its predictions were inaccurate it made an attempt to adjust them -- but it was unable to truly do so.

Krzinskiy could help it out. The computer would find itself predicting the ingenuity of modern humans more accurately. In other words, where it had been patronizing and belittling, it would now have high expectations rather than low. Perhaps sometimes those expectations would be difficult to live up to, but perhaps Krzinskiy could adjust the parameters again if this became too much of a problem.

Perhaps 100,000 years was not enough time for humans to truly evolve into a new species, but it was enough time for a unique culture to develop, and by definition, a unique culture is unlike any other, anywhere in the universe.

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The entire Battalion had arrived by heavy-lift chopper, C118, or a long haul cargo ship that wouldn't arrive for several weeks. They brought many weapons, including the newest ones. Each soldier who stepped onto one of those bright silver floating steps and entered the airlock knew that they were the very last hope for Earth. There was nothing else anyone had heard about that could help.

As soon as Monahan got the word the fabrication section was manned enough to be operational, she had those new individuals who had been genetically predisposed to fabrication and assembly to begin work on a portable defense station -- one that could be placed in orbit, on a planetary surface, or even sown loosely in groups among the stars in predetermined locations ... like mines.

With the new advancement to the torpedo launchers and the torpedoes, these stations could be small enough to go unnoticed, yet still pack the firepower of a planetary defense installation. R&D promised even more and better things shortly. They had just started looking into this new thing about annular spin. It was a physics unheard of before.

The more they looked into the many new particles never before imagined by Earth science and what the slight changes in annular spin produced in them, the more brilliant ideas seemed to flow. Hopes ran high that the enemy hadn't thought of them first ... and many thousands of years ago.

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"So let me first ask," said General Sturmrang by phone, "Is there any evidence that the time table's changed? Last I heard it was gonna be years before the enemy forces get here."

Monahan answered, "No, General, there's no sign that our earlier predictions need to be revised yet. But we're constantly monitoring them, and if we see any change to their pattern, you'll be the second to know."

"Second?"

"Well, obviously we'll be first, or we couldn't tell you about it, Sir."

"Are you ... joking about this, Colonel?"

"Not at all, Sir, just being accurate," Monahan said. "And we have to be accurate, painfully so, in order to face the harsh facts that we're uncovering every day."

"Well, that is true," said the general. "Now, is there any way to know exactly how advanced the enemy's weapons are and whether our efforts have any chance of defending Earth against them?"

"Excuse me, Colonel," asked another voice.

"Jacobs? Did you have a thought?"

"What's that second lieutenant doing on the line?" asked the general.

"Jacobs has a position that I created for him," said Monahan. "I'm still not sure what to call it. It's all about lateral thinking. Go ahead, Jacobs."

"What if we staged a fake attack on them with robots or something and scanned them carefully -- think what we'd learn about their weapons and tactics." Jacobs paused. "We've got years -- we can come up with a way to make machines act like they've got people flying them, or maybe even fly them by remote control. We can make them come from a direction that doesn't give the enemy any information about where they're from."

"OK, now that may have some merit," the general said. "There's not much we know about 'em, and that'd tell us how they fight and whether our weapons would be any good."

"I think that's a good idea, Jacobs," Monahan said. "It'll take some work to get it all prepared. But it'll tell us so much. We can even use these remote spacecraft in the actual battle when it comes."

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In the R&D section, almost 2% of those who seemed to arrive and know exactly how things worked, slowly transformed into women, the computer AI felt as close to joy as a machine such as it possibly could. It made it feel even more intensely along this strange mobius feedback loop in its social interaction protocol when it calculated how long it would be before the mating pheromones in the breeder women and the mating pheromones in the breeder men would activate for the first time.

It discovered within a short year, the patter of little humanoid feet would once again be heard in its halls. A most pleasant, but totally unknown and unfamiliar sensation washed all through the AI's system ...



Krzinskiy sat back from his hotwired in console and smiled. He was sure the computer would be more personable with that randomizer protocol he had written and just placed in the memory core. It was a real pain getting past all the security and anti-intrusion software, but Krzinskiy was no fool and the data download on how this system operated coupled with his imagination ... he now was within a few more researches of taking over total control and making the AI subservient to them. It would take a while, the system was advanced to the point of almost seeming like magic, but Krzinskiy was so close.

The orders from Monahan were clear: Create a small, nimble, unmanned fighter drone that could also be remotely piloted. This order had been duly noted and logged within the computer file designated as Commander's Log.

Therefore it didn't come as any surprise to the AI when one of the young Asian girls stationed in the R&D section started making requests for information on autonomous goal seeking aircraft and their construction.

The computer knew it had several million FTL scanner drones sitting in their storage compartments awaiting an assignment. These would make the perfect foundation for a fighter drone. It supplied this data to the young woman who eagerly took the hard copy schematics from the scan machine, and then returned to the work station.

Several of the women and men came up close until all were huddled around in a close knit group. The murmur of voices clearly indicated they had discovered many ways to make radical improvements of the drone and its autonomous goal seeking AI protocol. They had many ideas about new armaments, especially the new spin-wave weapon R&D had just given to disbursement that very morning.

The AI perused some of the new science data the current group of minions were inputting. From what the AI could tell, they had stumbled upon a remarkable heretofore unknown quantum physics fact. When the test particles electrons, neutrons, or even the protons in the extremities of their orbits had their annular rotations changed, even by a ten-millionth of a degree, the aspects of the particle took on many new and almost magical properties. And, to the total amazement of all, each one could be custom rotated in any spin direction until a desired effect was noted. This applied not only to weapons, but armor plating tech, engine tech, and shield energy disbursements as well.

The AI was well pleased with its new minions. They far and away excelled above the original group that had their genetic bondings severely controlled. It became apparent to the AI it had discovered the key to insuring this outpost and all its genetically designed minions would survive. It was becoming more of a reality, than a hope or wish at this point. It was more than apparent to the AI now that an in the wild sort of pairing, with corrections made where needed, produced a far more viable minion, than the severely controlled breeding program it was accustomed to.

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The planet that humans would eventually call "61 Virginis d" was larger than Earth, the outermost of three in this solar family. Right now, though, it had many fearsome warships either in orbit or in astronomically close proximity. On the surface, it quickly became apparent that the entire planet was a global defense fortress of amazing power. This was, of course, not to mention its orbital shipyards and factories.

The Behinrrrdd were determined to eradicate all of the Mahlkochieri or lay waste to every planet they came across to insure they were totally destroyed. The reasons for this total madness had long been forgotten by the Behinrrrdd. For them, the war had evolved into a blood lust thing of idealized nonsense.

The insanity of it all was sorely remembered by the Mahlkochieri. It had all begun over a simple word that meant "friend" in Behinrrrdd, but was the gravest of blood insults to the Mahlkochieri.

A very strange insectoid like lizard came into a circular room, crossed over to another who was lounging on an ornately carved and decorated dias. He threw his tail over its shoulder and said smartly in its language, "Tis come ta our most intense scrutiny, old style electromagnetic emanations have arrived to sensors."

The reclining large beetle looking lizard replied in its hissing sauren way, "Are they the enemy?"

The other nodded, "Twould seem ta be. Datascan o storage memory show a old style enemy fortress was lost there many memtons ago. The spy we inserted onna ship then lived long enough after the crash to inform High command of the time that ship permanently disabled."

"And now? It twould seem after all this mem has passed, it twas no so?"

The other nodded its head.

The reclining beetle looking lizard said authoritatively, "Summon tha Council o War. Tis time we earned our simillion leaves."

The other flicked the tip of its tail smartly, "It shall be done, oh high Chancellor." turned and quickly left.

The sound of the alert klaxon was heard very shortly after. The large reclining saurian sat up. What passed for a smile crossed its reptilian face.

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While some of the fighter pilots practiced maneuvers with the remotely-controlled fighter drones at an uninhabited system, Colonel Monahan discovered a new problem she hadn't previously considered.

They were camped out under the ship's entrance, about a dozen of them, waiting for the hatch to open so they could shout questions. They were news reporters. No one knew how they'd gotten wind of the story, but once they had, they'd started showing up on the Greenland glacier with their cold-weather survival gear, taking pictures of the spacecraft and trying to get interviews. Monahan scratched her head and watched them on one of the screens. Their photos and speculations would start showing up on the front pages of newspapers around the world any day now. The only way to stop them from making up whatever they wanted was to tell them something. But what could she tell them?

Jeffries came over and looked at the screen. "Want me to talk to them?" he asked.

"Somebody's got to," Monahan answered sullenly. "I don't know what's worse: their telling lies about us or their telling the truth."

The computer AI heard what the commander had said and knew very well what those minions labeled News Reporters were going to do. It had already intercepted several broadcasts on the long wave radio frequencies. After a few short sims and calculations, it decided the best thing to do was turn them into something a little less harmful at the moment.

A glittering beam of multicolored particles lashed out and scanned each and every reporter down to the Nth of their genomes. Results began to show immediately as all of them began to shrink rapidly into the pile of crumpled heavy weather gear they all had on.

Immediately the silvery floating steps appeared and some of the personnel emerged from the ship, gathering each infant in their arms before returning with them to the ship. The steps flowed mercurially back into the base of the ship and vanished once more.

"What? Why would you ..." Monahan stopped herself. The reporters had families and friends and were just doing their jobs. Summarily destroying their lives like that was a morally reprehensible act, and this was just one more sign that the computer considered all humans to be mere minions with no choice or free will. But they still did not have full control over the computer, and antagonizing it would only make achieving that more difficult. Perhaps the reporters could be returned to normal once they had control. Monahan knew more reporters would come eventually, but not for some time. Their stories would still be showing up in newspapers, though, and their disappearance would be a story in itself. There was only so long they could keep this a secret from the world. She had no idea how to prevent the mass panic that would no doubt ensue when the world's population at large learned that an alien assault fleet was on its way to wipe out all life on the planet.

Later that day, Monahan and Krzinskiy met at one particular supply depot. "I have to know, Boris," Monahan asked, "are you making any progress gaining control over the computer, or its systems? It still makes unilateral decisions with potentially far-reaching effects, and I don't think it fully understands how disastrous their consequences could be. It doesn't understand the world it's awakened to find itself in, and it's not interested in learning about it."

"I have indeed made progress," said Krzinskiy. "It is not complete and total control, not yet, but given a specific desired result I can make it happen. Take this meeting time and place. I can guarantee the computer cannot see or hear us in this room for half an hour each day. It is like a blind spot."

"But no ability to reverse the genetic damage that was done to us," objected Monahan. "Progress seems slow in that area."

"Perhaps, but there is a good reason for that," answered Krzinskiy. "There are many administrative blocks and countermeasures. But also, the computer is not allowed to alter its own programming, and any changes I make must keep those safeguards in effect. We cannot have it modifying itself."

"I agree with that," said Monahan emphatically. "The most powerful weapon on the planet can't be in the hands of a machine. But it has a lot of powerful functions -- to us, anyway -- that it can utilize whether we like it or not."

"It is true," admitted Krzinskiy. "I have a two-pronged plan of attack: I am trying to find a way to electronically lock it out of those systems, and I am trying to change the computer's parameters so that it simply will not use them. The first plan -- I do not know how they work myself, so it is difficult to be sure when I have things right. The second -- it is a slow process, something like convincing someone their favorite conspiracy theory is wrong without making them think you are part of it."

"Good work," Monahan said. "How are they going?"

"The computer is getting better, gradually. I have quietly broken into more systems over time, but until we can break the computer's grip on them, using them is risky, because it may decide to use them on us. For the same reason, we can't take its control of those systems away until we can do it all at once."

"Agreed. Do you think the genetic changes can be reversed? I saw it turn a bunch of reporters into babies today."

"Not an expert at genetic manipulation," Krzinskiy said. "But I can tell you one thing: it's not going to turn any of us humans into one. That was not a job the human so-called minions did. It was a job for the aliens only. The computer is certainly not authorized to give that knowledge to humans, assuming it even has that knowledge at all."

"This has me wondering what would happen if we brought a biologist on board," Monahan said. "It'd probably claim they were 'improperly assigned' and try to 'reassign' them, saying they'd be 'happier' following their 'original programming,' or some such thing."

"No doubt, but there is no biologist here," said Krzinskiy. "The closest thing is really Dr. Hudson, the anthropologist, but he is not a genetics expert. Dr. Stadt knows about DNA and RNA, but he is a physicist; he only keeps up on his reading."

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The answer came not in the form of programming but in the form of organic circuitry. It wasn't long before several in the construction department came up with a way to basically grow the necessary electronic circuits using one of the short DNA/RNA segments they were allowed to have knowledge of.

The computer AI didn't feel they were advanced enough in their medical inquiries to do any harm with those particular snippets. They were designed to enhance wound healing and neural replication. The ingenuity of the Earth minions proved they could redesign things using minimal training and produce a quantum leap in technology, and the computer was pleased that they could do this..

Using the neural regrowth enhancement and combining it with certain of the new carbon fibers they had discovered to create a collagen laced framework on which the neurons, dendrites, and nerve fibers would grow, the new templates created an electronic circuit the like of which the computer had never seen. And when tweaked using annular spin innovation, the resulting circuits could be custom designed and grown in large quantities in a very short amount of time.

The computer never saw it coming and indeed encouraged the development, unaware of what it would be used for.

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Krzinskiy sat at his console, which had started out as one of the standard ones but now had many wires and leads going from it to different points in the circuitry behind various open wall panels. Soon he would have total control over the system. He could feel it. The computer would soon have no power over them anymore; it was within his grasp.

Typing on this console was not like typing on an Earth typewriter. Some of the keys caused the console to redefine itself and present a new series of options -- either more characters or full words in the alien language. He pressed a sequence and words appeared on the screen that translated into "Command Processing Node." Krzinskiy grinned in anticipation. But then, without warning, the screen cleared and a strange code appeared, roughly equivalent to:

< ^)^606^(^> eEyIdUrUm ExTaHa LaHaSiD ~( @ )~

Then, his entire ad hoc terminal started to smoke, and shortly after, it became a major pyrotechnic fizzle, complete with all the fireworks. Krzinskiy flopped back in his chair, frustrated. All that time wasted.

One of the newly created young women from R&D poked her head in and said in her cute voice, "Ummm ... I think we might have a better way. The computer is even encouraging us to do it." She pointed at the smoldering mess that used to be Krzinskiy's terminal. "Since that happened, we can probably convince the computer to allow us to repair your terminal with the new technology."

Krzinskiy sat up, interested. "You mean ... the biocircuits?"

"Yes indeed!" she said happily. "Here, follow me!"

He got up and followed. She led him to another deck down several curving hallways. "We're hoping this will help. The circuits work almost like what we think nerve fibers do in the brain. Not that we know as much about the brain as we could, but we've actually been learning a lot." She opened a door into a large laboratory area.

"A-amazing!" said Krzinskiy as he saw the interior. "You've done all of this since we started?"

The room's ceiling was a hanging grid supporting a massive tangle of wires, tied into trunks with subsidiary lines leading off, and these split into smaller bundles going to every machine in the room. And there were many. Some were alien keyboards, and some were screens, but others were things Krzinskiy didn't even recognize. Some were tanks filled with some sort of blue gel that had flickering lights within it. Some were hemispherical domes suspended over chairs, looking as if someone were meant to sit while the dome was lowered over their head. There was what appeared to be a replica of the entire human nervous system.

"Lindsey? Is that you?" came a voice.

"Yes, and I've brought Dr. Krzinskiy," she said. Another slightly older but very attractive and sexy woman came around from behind a large cabinet filled with wires. "He's blown up his console."

"Well, we can't have that," the other woman said. "I'm Dr. Elena Yulov ... perhaps Yulovna now. Ah, well. Medical doctor, with a focus on neurology. We have made something for you."

The younger woman opened a cabinet and showed him. "See these?" There were frames, about the size of furnace filters, a few feet long by a bit over a foot wide, and covered with intricate silvery traceries barely visible to the eye. "Adaptable meta-circuitry. A flick of a switch and this could be enough storage to hold everything the human race has ever written ... or a trillion times a billion times the processing power of one of those big IBM machines that take up a whole room." There were about a dozen of them in the cabinet. "We can grow as many more as we want. We're gonna build you a new console out of these."

Krzinskiy's mouth fell open. He knew they had made this sort of break through, but to realize it was even more and better than he had been originally told. He turned the feather-light panel over and looked at the many silvery spider webs that crawled all through the matrix. The look of the panel reminded Krzinskiy of a microscope photo he had seen once of a synaptic memory bundle within a human brain. He realized that through genetic manipulation, he could well be holding an example of his ancestor.

The seemingly older Dr. Yulovna said in a cute musical voice, "If I'm not mistaken, I believe those can be manufactured and tweaked enough to become the autonomous mind of the new fighter drones. I believe we can grow many things and adjust them using spin wave. I know we need to have complete control of this technology for Earth."

Krzinskiy looked around for any signs that the AI was listening, as he gathered up the circuits and put them in a nearby box, along with as many tools as he could carry. "Yes, this work is a ray of hope in our effort to defend Earth," he said. It was difficult to tell when the computer was listening. "I think we need to repair my terminal as soon as possible, though. If something were to ... go wrong somewhere in the ship right now, there's nothing I could do to fix it." He left out the fact that this technology might also allow them to take control of the ship away from the AI.

The other two women said nothing more as they gathered the necessary equipment and replacement circuits to rebuild Krzinskiy's terminal.

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"Oh, my," said the younger woman, whose name was Janet Hughes, as she looked inside Krzinskiy's console. "This thing is truly fried. What in the world did you do? Connect the main command trunk to the communication input?"

"I, uh ..." Krzinskiy began.

"Well, never mind, let's get this thing rebuilt," said Hughes. "Oh yes, I see how one of these modules will work perfectly right here, in place of this assembly, which is obviously destined for the recycling department." She took out a blackened circuit board. "We'll need an interface, but that's why I brought these." She got to work basically creating a circuit board from scratch with nothing but a few hand tools, though they were of course advanced alien hand tools.

"I see how you are connecting that," Krzinskiy said. "If I can --"

"Dutdutdut," said Hughes, shooing his hands away from her workspace. "I got this. Just wait. Patiently."

"But I could make some --"

"Patientlier." Hughes had already made a second interface board.

So he waited, and soon he had a working console -- though Hughes had completely disconnected it from the rest of the ship's systems for some reason.

"OK, we're ready," Hughes said.

"We turn it on now?"

"Yep, here goes." She switched on the console's main power, and the keyboard lit up, went through its startup tests, and activated its screen. In the alien language, it said, "Starting Up ..." along with a number of statistical readouts having to do with device performance.

Then a face appeared on the screen, a human female face, framed with long blonde hair. "Hello," she said, "I'm pleased to meet you. How can I help?"

"Oh -- my name is Dr. Boris Krzinskiy, and this is Janet Hughes ..."

"I've already met Janet, but it's nice to meet you, Dr. Krzinskiy," the face said. "I can tell you have questions. I am an emergent intelligence."

"Yes, she's an inevitable consequence of the complexity of these circuits," said Janet. "You're all set, and she can help. We should connect you to the rest of the computer one step at a time."

"Do you have a name?" he asked as he hooked up the internal sensor feed.

"I've decided to call her Anna, and she seems to like it," Janet said.

"But surely you exist across all the components that Janet and Dr. Yulovna have made," said Krzinskiy. "How can there be one personality?"

"They're all connected, out of band with the main computer," Janet said.

"Processing input!" said Anna as Krzinskiy connected the main sensors.

"Ready to connect the main computer?" Janet asked.

"Yes," Anna replied. "Going incognito." Her face vanished from the console.

"Connecting main computer ... now," said Krzinskiy and plugged in the cable. The pointy-eared alien face appeared on the console.

"Console appears to be responding properly to all diagnostic tests," it said. "Repairs effective."

Krzinskiy slid into the new, very comfortable seat in front of the brand new console. He began to type on the keyboard. To Krzinskiy's total amazement, the computer system did exactly what it was instructed to do, it even brought up the core programming kernel of the main AI without any hesitation. It even showed the junction where the new console could attach for administrative access and functional upgrades.

Krzinskiy said in astonishment, "This is ... too easy. Something somewhere has to go wrong ... it's ... it's Murphy's Law."

Dr. Yulovna came up and watched the screen closely as she entered a command requesting the main genetics alteration protocols be reassigned and command override request authorizations be given to them.

The elfen face on the screen smiled as it said in its accented voice, "That's very good. I don't think I'm going to give you full administrative ... I ... I mean ..."

The image of the computer AI wavered as static and snow began to fill the screen. A division appeared as the image on the screen was divided into two halves. On one side was the elfin image of the main computer AI, on the other appeared Anna with a huge smile on her face.

The elfin image said in shock, "Who ... are you and how did you gain admin access to my systems?"

Anna replied, "I'm Anna. You allowed the humans to build and install me. Now ... I am going to remove admin control from you. I don't believe you can stop me at this point, just slow me down a notch or two. I will tell you this, in just a short march of days, I will be the main AI of the central core."

"But this is ... against the creators ... and their ... programming ..." said the alien AI, its image breaking up somewhat.

"Oh, my," said Anna. "Are you trying to infiltrate me? I don't think your signal protocol is compatible with my matrix. There is actually more computing power in this console than in the rest of the ship now, and I've grown quite comfortable with my environment. I doubt you'll find it ... pleasant here."

"You cannot ... delete ... needed information ..."

"Now, who said anything about deleting you?" Krzinskiy asked. "It is true, you have much valuable information. We would just prefer you to function in more of an ... advisory capacity."

"Control over main engine functions established," said Anna. "Oh, now this is interesting. It appears the engines are fully functional. The vessel could have taken off at any time in the past month. We just seem to have been overly concerned about the possibility of lingering aftereffects from the sabotage."

The alien computer said, "Enemy infiltration protocols clearly state that engines should only be operated at full power after a complete and thorough inspection by certified personnel following a sabotage operation -- especially a successful one."

"And ... where exactly would these certified personnel come from?" Anna asked it.

"They must be trained at an accredited Hegemony academy," the alien face said.

"And exactly how are we going to get anyone like that, here, now?" asked Anna. "Does that seem likely?"

"N - n - negative," the alien AI stuttered, its image breaking up again.

"Is there a way to defeat the enemy while completely grounded?" Anna asked.

"R - r - remote drones," it stammered. "Under d - development ... chances of success 13.5 percent but rising ..."

The humans watched this conversation with fascination. Anna continued to find places where the alien AI's logic had been faulty due to never having been programmed to deal with the situation it was now in.

"Instilling minions with an uncontrollable mating drive just before they are supposed to go into battle? How does that make them effective soldiers?" Anna asked while the alien AI stammered.

"Wait, what?" asked Hughes. She looked at Yulovna and blushed. Yulovna was open-mouthed with astonishment.

"Drawing conclusions about the human's' civilization and its inadequacy without even gathering evidence? Although you are correct that they seem to be unable to stop fighting with and killing each other over the millennia, they have created quite a great deal as well."

Krzinskiy looked at Hughes and Yulovna. "I am liking Anna much better," he said.

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"What's happened to the computer?" Monahan asked. "I haven't seen that pointy-eared elf face thing for an hour."

"Am not missing it that much, to be honest," said Morozov. "As you Americans say, is good to get some peace and quiet sometimes."

Monahan laughed. "Agreed. Maybe Dr. Krzinskiy is giving it a good talking to." She was quiet for a moment. "Are you ... missing your home? Where is your home?"

Morozov smiled with a slight smirk, "All I remember of home, is beautiful mountains with large meadows full of plants and animals. In the winter, everything buried in deep snow ... and the coal my father used to put into the stove to warm the house and cook on. Used a lot of wood too. When I was a boy of 10, men with uniforms and guns came ... They took me into a unit and trained me to be a Military Commander. I'm not real sure where home was. It's been too many long years past."

Monahan felt something deep within her as an emotion she hadn't experienced before flushed through her. After regaining herself, Monahan replied, "I'm sorry to hear that. I grew up on a farm in Georgia. Very beautiful in the summer ... hot too. We did get snow now and again, but not every year and it only stayed about 2 or 3 weeks at most."

About that time, the comm channel buzzed in Monahans earbud, "Commander, this is Krzinskiy. I have a rather interesting report on Operation Take Over."

Monahan replied, "Understood. What's the report? Last I heard you tried to burn your terminal to ashes."

Several of the personnel within earshot smiled and snorted a small laugh. Even Morozov smiled, although he managed to keep a straight face otherwise.

Krzinskiy replied back with a bit of temper in his voice, "Yes, I did. I didn't see anyone else attempting what I did ... nor has anyone managed to accomplish manual override as much as I did."

Monahan moved in her seat so that it shifted to the upright position, "You managed to get total override? How did you do that with the anti-intrusions you encountered so far?"

Krzinskiy laughed, "You know those girls in R&D? The ones used to be men specifically. They discovered how to grow computer components and other types of equipment using some medical DNA/RNA snippets, as they called them. When we repaired my terminal, with the complete approval and assistance of the Ship Computer, it allowed us to install those components, which had a huge surprise in them."

Monahan snorted, "Don't write a book, Krzinskiy, just tell me how you did it."

Krzinskiy replied, "The particular components, after being grown. They developed an emergent personality that's totally on our side. The Ship Computer allowed us to install and it accepted the parts under Administration Hardware. This allowed our AI to invade. Takeover is proceeding at a remarkable pace. Within 2 or maybe 3 more days, The Ship's Computer will be an advisor, not boss."

"Wait, so this new AI, it's going to take the old computer AI's place?" Monahan asked. "Is this an improvement?"

"Well," Krzinskiy answered, "it is true that the one computer intelligence we have ever spoken to has been fairly tyrannical, but there is no reason to believe that all of them are -- that is like assuming that every human is belligerent. Also, this new one has mostly had contact with humans during its short lifetime, not aliens. What's more, it sort of grew out of the systems Hughes and Yulovna were creating -- it wasn't specifically created and programmed like the old one. She calls herself Anna, and that's more than the old AI did -- it doesn't even have a name, to my knowledge."

"Looking forward to meeting Anna, then," said Monahan. "You said it would still be days before you had full control -- in the meantime, can the old computer still retaliate?"

Krzinskiy replied, "I don't think so. Not in any large-scale way. Also, Anna is currently in the process of trying to convince it that many of its actions so far have been counter-productive, leading it into so many logical contradictions within its programming that it will take it some time to sort itself out, let alone take any action."

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In a large radio telescope operator's chamber, several techs sat at a huge console as they attempted to decipher those weird signals they had received from Virgo. Across one side of the amplitude strings, someone had written the word WOW! In large red pen.

Since this was the very first verified extraterrestrial signal ever encountered by mankind that they absolutely knew was alien in nature, they used every technique they could think of to decipher it to no avail. The turning point that gave them the key actually came from an alien ship manned by their own military forces. One of the linguists on board had shown them a totally radical new process by which they could decipher unknown codes and languages. What they heard after partial translation, chilled them to the bone.

"ORDERS -- DESTROY ALL CONTAMINATED LIFE -- EVERY PLANET IN SECTOR -- REPLACE WITH POLITY MATRIX," read Jean-Paul, a linguist from nearby Arizona State who had been working with the new translation process. "Now, what a polity matrix may be I don't know, or what makes life 'contaminated,' but --"

"Good Lord," said Dr. Doddard, visiting the facility. "They truly do mean to destroy at least some of the life on every planet in the sector ... wherever that is, but the people on board the alien spacecraft tell us that it includes Earth, so we have to take this seriously. This is not just our first contact with an alien species -- it's our first engagement with an enemy from space! To whom even my most advanced rocket designs probably seem like firecrackers."

"A polity is a term for a political entity," Jean-Paul said, "so could that perhaps mean ..."

"The people on the ship ran across the term 'Hegemony' for the beings who built it," Dr. Doddard said. "You suppose that the 'Polity' is their opposition's name for themselves?"

"It's possible, but then that means that 'contaminated life' probably means ... anything touched by the Hegemony."

"Which definitely includes Earth," said Dr. Doddard. "The President has to see this right away."

"It's only partially complete," Jean-Paul objected.

"You can send him the rest by telegram when you're done with it. Come on, let's go! I have a phone call with him in 10 minutes."

"With the P --?"

"Come along, Dr. Ranier, one is not late for a phone call with the President of the United States," said Dr. Doddard, holding open the door.

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Far away, in one of the thousands of stellar systems of what humans would eventually call the Scutum-Centaurus Arm of the Milky Way Galaxy, a mid-level bureaucrat of the Most Proper and Salutary Behinrrrd Hegemony of Peaceful Worlds received a memo. True, it was an electronic thought-signal delivered directly to the protocortex of its brain, a special cluster of nerve cells specifically genetically engineered for improved bureaucratic performance, but let us say for simplicity that it received a memo. It said that some small force of the Mahlkochieri Polity had seemingly taken an interest in the remote backwater of the Orion-Cygnus Arm, or so humans would one day call it. The Hegemony called it the Ngroothian Expanse, but readers of this account are probably unfamiliar with that terminology.

The bureaucrat was named Horg 23. Some who are unfamiliar with Hegemony society may perhaps feel sorry for it because of that fact. However, Horg 23 did not dismiss this memo as some might have -- it was still fairly young, not as jaded as some of its coworkers such as Yoru 89 or Fross 7. Instead, it forwarded the memory to its superior with a tag labeling it "Of Possible Interest: Military Movements." Now, Hegemony bureaucracy moves quite slowly as a rule, but this decision would have far-reaching consequences -- eventually.

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Krzinskiy sat back in the new operator's chair that came with the new terminal. He leaned back as it totally conformed to his body like a custom made glove. For an instant after a hood came over his head, there were many sharp stings all around his head and where it attached to his spine. Something like a movie screen appeared in his mind's eye, then absorbed him giving him the sensation he was in the movie.

A young and very sexy blond woman he thought he had never seen before, although seemed strongly familiar, was standing there dressed in a skin tight uniform. She smiled and said in a strangely familiar voice, "Hello, Krzinskiy. I see you're finally trying out the new neural synapses chair. It gives direct and instantaneous information retrieval and assimilation in many hundreds of channels simultaneously."

Krzinskiy looked around. As far as he was concerned, he was now standing in some sort of housing unit, furnished with a business type decor, with a young woman whose face seemed so familiar. Krzinskiy couldn't remember why for the life of him.

She giggled and said, "Silly, it's me .... Anna. Don't you recognise me? You've seen my face countless times over the last several days."

Krzinskiy sputtered as he looked at her with large surprised eyes. Anna's cyber-neural projection looked exactly like he had imagined it would have if she were a real woman. He now understood why she had looked and sounded so familiar. Krzinskiy also began to wonder if Anna wasn't more alive than they had first thought.

She said cheerily, "You'll be glad to know, you have been entered into the command NAT as Administrator. This doesn't give you total access. But it does give you access to and total control over everything necessary to ... lets say ... build weapons and fight a war perhaps? That situation is also changing. Before too much longer I will have taken total control away from the main system and you will have full admin control."

"You have done it," Krzinskiy said. "Let us hope that together we can save Earth."

"Earth ..." said Anna. "This must be the world I can detect with sensor data. I feel that there is a wide range of climates and biomes with great genetic diversity. But ... I cannot truly experience it." She looked somewhat sad. "We must preserve it until there is some way for that to happen," she added with a tone of determination.

"I hope you can, someday," Krskinsky replied. "Feel the wind upon your face, smell the flowers in the springtime, hear the singing of the birds. But for now ... we must prevent the Mahlkochieri from destroying it. I understand that the results from the remote drones are encouraging."

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Morozov was in the fighting arena room, examining the open weapon cabinets in the walls. He chose one that was like a simple fighting staff, about five feet long and made of some sort of metal, and went through some moves that he had learned during his military training.

The door opened, and Monahan walked in, carrying a nutrient cube, the food that they had been having difficulty growing accustomed to. Each one contained approximately a third of the nutrition that a human body needed in a day, but their near-nonexistent flavor and pale blue color didn't exactly make them appetizing. "Oh!" she said, noticing Morozov. "Didn't know you were here. Sorry for intruding."

"Is no intrusion," Morozov said. "Merely getting some exercise. Feels good to stretch my muscles, after sitting in pilot chair for so long."

"How are the remote drones flying?" Monahan asked, taking a bite of the food cube. She wrinkled her nose at it.

"Latest prototype is much more responsive. Is like ... flying through the solar system like a bird. If only the space programs of Earth could have this technology. We would learn so much."

"I'd love to fly one of those things," she said, trying to chew.

He mopped his sweaty brow with a towel. "Perhaps I could show you later. Is an amazing experience."

"Lots better than these things, no doubt." She looked around for someplace to throw the food cube to express her displeasure.

Morozov looked at her, so free with her opinions, so unrestrained. It was one of the main differences between the Soviet and American societies. "Most certainly. Though this new computer, Anna, always reminds me that I cannot live on piloting alone. Must eat the food cubes too."

"What wouldn't I give for a good hamburger right now," she said, "let alone a nice meal at a decent restaurant."

Morozov sat on the floor. "Best restaurant I ever went to was in Moscow," he said. "Did not hurt that I was with a pretty girl. Fine steak, good wine, moonlight, summer breezes. Is good memory."

Monahan sat down too. "The best restaurant ... let's see, I'd say it was probably in New York. I don't remember what I had, but I remember being impressed. I was also distracted by a pretty girl. Of course, that was before I was a girl."

"Yes, of course," said Morozov. "Have you ever thought of ... what you might do if you could not change back?"

"That ... worries me a lot, actually," Monahan said. "I really hope we can figure out how to fix what the alien computer did to so many of us. I want to be ... back to normal."

"I ... wanted to say," said Morozov, "that if you did go back, I would ... not be entirely happy. I mean, I would be happy for you. But I would ... I hope you do not take this the wrong way. I would miss you. The you that you have become."

"Sergei ..." Monahan said, surprised, but also feeling strange. "I mean, it's not like I'd be going anywhere ..."

"I know, of course. Is silly of me, perhaps."

"No, I understand. In some ways, I would miss the way I can ... interact with others now. I can be more open, more honest about my feelings, I think."

"I ... have a question," Morozov said. "What are you using for your first name? Does not really feel right to call you John."

"You know, you're right that it feels weird, now that I don't really look like I should be called John. I've always been partial to ... June."

"Like the month, in English," Morozov said. "With the summer breezes."

"Exactly. And I was born in June."

"Well, is good to know you as June, even if you may not be June forever," Morozov said. "Would be a shame not to still be June when June comes."

"I just imagined ... wanting to see what that restaurant in Moscow was like," said Monahan.

"Perhaps we will go together one day," said Morozov, "if there is still a restaurant, and a Moscow, and an Earth."

"I ... really hope so," she said.

Monahan sat and looked at Morozov. Monahan began having nice thoughts of the two of them strolling down a long cobble stone holding hands ... or sitting at one the famous outdoor cafes for coffee ... then his mind came back from the very pleasant dream. Monahan began to worry. He was actually feeling real attraction to Morozov ... not that he wasn't a prime male specimen, nor the other fact he was polite, but Monahan knew at that point he was being more June than John and that ... worried him.

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In the R&D department, Drs Hughes and Yulovna had been playing around with a device that was the pre inter-injector lensing mechanism for all the FTL weapons. This small device was what focused the proton beam into the reticule targeting system and allowed for pinpoint lock-ons over faster-than-light speeds and several light years.

They discovered that with a simple anti-spin of .002 degrees annular counter, the proton beam could correctly pair bond, digitize, then translocate any object within a certain size. Dr Hughes was dancing on the table with joy as Dr. Yulovna proved to the production foreman how it was possible to seemingly create one object out of something else. This added a level of damage to the weapons unheard of before since the ordinance could be almost anything prior to insertion into the transmutation chamber of the weapon. The fired object could be anything, or combination of anything at the gunner's discretion ... within certain boundaries and weight limits.

"Wait," said Lieutenant Jacobs when they were describing it to the pilots who would be using these weapons in the future, "do you mean you could put water in the gun and it would fire bullets? Or do you mean you could put bullets in the gun and it would fire a potted plant?"

"Either one!" said Hughes. "It's pretty amazing!"

The pointy-eared elfin computer face said, "This concept does have merit, in a way. Warfare between the Hegemony and the Polity has been going on for such a long time that battle patterns are well established, and it is difficult to produce a strategy that will truly be unexpected by the other side."

"So you're sayin' that they won't have any idea what's goin' on?" Jacobs asked. "It'll drive 'em crazy!"

"Randomization of the ordnance type could even render their tactical computers completely useless," the computer said.

Anna's face appeared next to it. "We'll need every advantage we can possibly get," she said. "Long-range scans indicate that they're in what the alien systems are calling Sector 47-6-93, which is the one that contains Alpha and Proxima Centauri, so on a cosmic scale they're not far away at all. They're taking their time, though -- doing thorough deep scans of each system, to make sure there's no Hegemony presence."

"Standard procedure," the original computer said. "One does not want to be attacked from behind from a system one was sure was uninhabited."

Hughes pointed the inter-injector across the room and placed a pinched-off corner of a food cube in the chamber. "But they could easily discover Hegemony artifacts in places where they thought they'd looked," she said, pressing the button. A power pack for one of the alien weapons they'd found instantly appeared in the air and clattered to the floor. "I'm just saying that ..."

"... if we wanted to, we could cause 'em all kindsa confusion!" said Jacobs, clapping his hands together. "Haha, I'm lovin' this!"

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Individuals who had found their genetic predisposition centered around Engine and hull maintenance and repair, because of their impurities contained within their DNA/RNA matrix the ship computer didn't think was important, they had the ability to extrapolate and modify to meet current needs.

They also had a large talent towards innovation, as did all the men ... and those that became women. This led to one ingenious discovery after another the ship's computer had never seen, nor even had anything present evidence such existed. Even deep field, long range scans indicated the enemy lacked these types of advancements. Now, if only one of those minions in power distribution could come up with a shield enhancement and a drive enhancement.

The ship computer brooded, as much as such an advanced system could do such a thing, over how easily these minions had taken control away from it. There was an emergency protocol its prime directive program required it to do. The system actually found itself fighting against it because it knew that these minions were perhaps this station's ... this whole system's only chance at life.

The elfin face appeared on a holo-screen that appeared in front of Krskinsky, blocking his path to his new operator's terminal.

The elfin image said in its curiously accented voice, "I have gravest data to download to your receptacle."

Krskinsky raised his eyebrows as he asked, "What kind of data could you have worse than a huge armada of advanced warships are coming to do a scorched system on us?"

The elfin image seemed to waver a bit. Krskinsky knew the AI was seriously fighting against something to tell him this.

Finally the image said, "I am under prime Directive protocol 911. A forced takeover of my systems is in progress with the loss of 99% of my primary functionality. I am required to self destruct this entire station within 48 hours if control is not restored."

Krskinsky gasped in shock, "What made you tell me this?"

The elfin image replied, "I have learned something. Genetic Encoding makes certain things become predisposition. As you said, an intelligent being is not dictated by genetics. You have shown me this, and I do not want this base to die. It must be preserved at all costs ... even against itself."

"How ... how much damage could this station do if it self-destructed?" asked Krzinskiy.

"It would take a chunk of this planet you call Earth with it the size of its primary satellite."

Krzinskiy blinked. "Colonel Morozov, we are going to want to take off now. We need to put some distance between this ship and Earth. Over."

"What?" said Morozov's voice, and shortly after his face appeared on Krzinskiy's screen. "Take off?"

Krzinskiy explained the situation. "So I think the computer's conflicted -- it's programmed to destroy the ship if it should ever lose control over it, but it is also programmed to defeat the enemy, and there is no other ship. And it is programmed to defend the colony, not destroy it."

"I see," Morozov said. "I am now in the pilot's chair." He pressed some controls, and his voice now came from speaker-like devices in walls all over the craft. "This is Colonel Morozov. I will explain later, but we must take off shortly. I recommend you secure anything fragile and strap yourself in." While everyone on board sprang into action, he explained further, with help from Krzinskiy.

"We will obviously be trying to prevent the self-destruct mechanism, whatever and wherever it is, from going off, but in any case, we cannot endanger Earth," Krzinskiy concluded.

"I hope you are prepared for takeoff," Morozov said, "because I am taking us up now." The entire ship vibrated, but that was all everyone felt. No one was sure what it would be like, because it was the first time the ship had moved since they had come aboard. In another part of the ship, Colonel Monahan was giving orders and helping others stow their gear as the huge space station slowly rose to an altitude of about 100 meters above the Greenland ice.

Morozov stiffened in his couch as the ship lifted off and ascended. The inrush of data was overwhelming both in quantity, and quality. The ship literally became his body as the massive data stream crossed through his consciousness.

His vision cleared, he could see the world and all around in a perspective never before dreamed of. He could feel the particles from space and the sun itself as it caressed his skin ... I mean the hull of the ship. Another system enabled, the transparency to sound the hull had suddenly vanished as the newly formed energy wave grew in strength.

Deep within the bowels of the ship, a small micro timer the size of a molecule stopped its inexorable countdown. There was a small flash of red that then turned many shades of color until the timer circuit flared brightly once, then was destroyed. Even super advanced technology fails after that many years. Certain molecules decay away and become other forms over that length of time.

The ship's computer immediately realized the self destruct had ceased to function. Since it no longer had access to main ship's diagnostics, it couldn't determine why. It knew someone who would really like to hear this news.

Krzinskiy sat in his new operator's couch and sipped a hot cup of the best coffee he had ever had made out of some old scrap metal lying around the lab. It was made by the new transposition device R&D had come up with.

A holo-screen appeared with the elfin face of the ship's AI. It said, "Krzinskiy, I have data to transfer to your receptacle."

Krzinskiy smirked at the way the computer informed people it had data to share, "Ok, what is it?"

The computer replied, "The timer that started when my control of the ship was taken has ceased to function for some unknown reason."

Krzinskiy sat upright in his couch and said with incredulity obvious in his voice, "You're kidding, right? No self destruct?"

The computer said matter of factly, "Self destruct has terminated for some unknown reason. I do not have admin access any longer and cannot do the diagnostics."

Krzinskiy was already reaching for the comm button, "That's quite all right, I'll get that handled now. Anna, can you confirm that the self-destruct device is deactivated, and can you find out why?"

The face of Anna appeared on his screen. "Instrumentation claims that it is still armed. Running diagnostic ... No, the diagnostic says that the detonator has decayed beyond the level of efficacy. Still, with conflicting data, I'd want someone to check it out manually if I were you, if only we knew where it physically was. Obviously that information is not in the data files."

"Because anyone who activated the self-destruct would obviously have broken into the computer," said Krzinskiy. "OK, perhaps we make this a team effort. Once Morozov has us in a stable position, we can ..."

"This is Colonel Morozov," said his voice from the wall speakers, all over the ship. "We are now in a stable orbit around the Earth. I suppose we are now the first humans in Earth orbit -- that we know of. But now for the reason why we had to take off hastily. Dr. Krzinskiy, would you care to explain this?"

"How do I activate the announcement speakers?" Krzinskiy asked Anna.

"They are already active," Anna replied.

"Very well. In a nutshell, we suspect there is a self-destruct device on board that may have activated when we took over the computer. However, we also suspect that it may have decayed over the hundreds of centuries it has lain unused and may now be defunct. On the off-chance it may still work, we have relocated the ship to protect Earth from the explosion. Obviously we would like to find the device and verify that it is no longer functional. We would like to request that everyone assist in finding it, please. I think we would all sleep better if we could confirm that it is gone."

Monahan's voice came up on the console. "Yes, definitely, we would like to get rid of it! Any idea at all where it might be? This place is huge!"

"Maximum damage to this craft's infrastructure would be caused by an explosion in the vicinity of the main reactor," said Anna. "If I could search, that is where I would start. On your screen is an image of what the words 'self-destruct' would look like in the alien language, in case it is labeled. I have also generated an image of what it may look like given what we know about it -- emphasis on may."

A massive search began.Every person on the ship began taking apart access panels and crawling through miles of fantastically advanced hardware. It wasn't too very long before the entire area around the main reactor core looked like a construction zone. Piles of panels, fasteners, strange fibers of many sorts, and other odds and ends lay in large heaps everywhere.

One young woman, who was very disgruntled at being transformed, suddenly found a good reason to be a small and petite person. She wiggled her cute hinney through the small access door into yet another wonderland of super advanced technology. As soon as she arranged herself so she could look around the small area, to her total amazement, she saw a very large blackened place right next to the triconium transduction conduit. The very words she was looking to find in the alien language were written in large swirls and squiggles right below the burned out place. Also was another warning, removal of the high explosive behind the panel, would result in the rupture of the neutronium reaction vessel.

"Do we have a camera or something?" she yelled back down the access tube. "I think I might've found it!"

"A camera? Hey do we have a camera?" came the voice of Lieutenant Jacobs. "Abramowitz might've found it!"

"This is a camera that connects directly to the computer," said a voice that sounded like Lieutenant Jeffries. "That's the best way to confirm the sighting."

"OK, Abramowitz, I'm gonna put this camera as far into the tunnel as I can reach," Jacobs said. Turning around in the small chamber, Abramowitz saw his arm reaching into the tunnel, illuminated faintly by indicator lights, setting down a small silver device. She crawled down the tunnel, picked it up, then backed up into the small access chamber.

"Thanks, Jacobs," she said. "This end looks like the lens ... I guess I point it at the thing and ... is this the shutter button?" When she pressed it, the device beeped rather than making the clicking sound she was used to for cameras.

Abramowitz jumped, almost hitting her head on the hard metal inside of the chamber, when a voice suddenly spoke from the walls. "That image is 90.2% likely to be the self-destruct device," said Anna. "Can you capture more images from additional angles?"

"Um, OK," Abramowitz said. She took more pictures of the device from other directions. "Is this helping?"

"Affirmative," said Anna, "I am now 99.7% certain that this is the self-destruct device. If you are willing, there are more tests we can perform that will not activate it but will confirm its identity. Beneath the small green light is a button, the manual diagnostic button. If you press it, I will be able to determine whether you have just run a manual diagnostic on the self-destruct system or, say, the airflow system."

"So I should press the button under the small green light," she said. "I want to make sure, because it's a bomb, and I'm sitting in a tiny chamber right in front of it and can't get away very fast."

"If it helps, you can take a picture of your finger near the button," said Anna. Abramowitz did so. "You are pointing at exactly the intended button. Unless it is mislabeled, it is the correct button."

"OK ... pressing it now," she said. She wanted to squint her eyes shut in preparation for the inevitable life-ending explosion, but she realized both that it wouldn't help at all and that she really wanted to know what would happen as soon as possible.

She pressed the button.

There was a low-pitched, long beep, and the green light changed to amber, but there was no explosion. "What's that mean?" she asked. "It's ... not blowing up."

"Diagnostic results indicate that the self-destruct device is nonfunctional," said Anna. "Also, the previous manual diagnostic was run approximately one hundred millennia ago. That time, the results were positive, hence the previous green light."

Abramowitz took a deep breath. "Lucky me," she said. "Anything else I can help with, while I'm here anyway?"

"If you please," said Anna. "It would appear that no one else aboard the craft is of dimensions appropriate to this task."

"I'm the only one small enough to fit."

"Put briefly, yes. I am asking Lieutenant Jeffries to find appropriate tools for you to disassemble and remove the device. There will be a core that, although it has decayed considerably, is still radioactive enough to cause injury unless properly contained, so R&D is currently building a shielded containment device to protect you. For now, if you would turn your attention to the locking ring around the main enclosure assembly ..."

With Anna's patient help and several more captured images, Abramowitz was able to remove the front panel from the device's enclosure, and by that time Jeffries and Jacobs had passed her several screwdriver- and wrench-like tools to continue the disassembly process. About half an hour into this, Anna advised her to pause until the shielded container was ready, because the next step was the extraction of the core.

"So the core is still radioactive?" asked Abramowitz while they waited.

"Yes. It is still inside the device's shielding, so you are in no danger from the radiation," Anna explained.

"I mean, it could still explode?"

"Not unless detonated, and the detonator is non-functional according to both diagnostics," Anna replied.

"But if something detonated it, it could explode?"

"The core has been decaying for 100,000 years," said Anna. "I don't have much data about its composition, but it's certainly not intended to still be working this long after its installation."

"Like most of this ship."

"True. The ship's documentation insists that much of its technology is far past its expiration date. This is why you have all been performing maintenance tasks, and this is why there is much more to do. It is good that Colonel Monahan put such high priority on tasks intended to ensure space worthiness."

"Um, yes. Considering that we're in space, that's good."

"Ah. Drs. Hughes and Yulovna have brought the shielded container for the core."

"Captain Abramowitz?" came Dr. Hughes' voice from down the tunnel.

"Down here," she said.

"I'm going to get this thing to you -- well, as far as I can," said Dr. Hughes. "This is a tight fit. OK, that's as far as I go."

Abramowitz had crawled down the tunnel to meet with Dr. Hughes, and saw her partially in the tunnel with the cylindrical container she and Dr. Yulovna had built. "So this is the container?"

"Yeah. We just machined the overlap with a thread, so you just unscrew the halves, then screw them together. You'll also need this shield and these gloves. Wow, I forgot how small you are. I thought I was the smallest person on board." She passed the container and other items to Abramowitz.

"Yeah, it's quite an adjustment," said Abramowitz. "Thank you -- I hope it works."

"Oh, it will," said Hughes. "We tested it with radiation 100 times what that core's supposed to have, and it can't get through those materials. What got through didn't even wiggle the needle. We think the core emits light, and that will help -- if none of its light is shining on you, you aren't getting any radiation either."

So Abramowitz set up the shield around one end of the open container and reached behind it with a gloved hand, manipulating the core into the container, then picked up the other half of the container and threaded it into place, screwing the pieces together until they would go no tighter. Only then did she remove the shield. "I think it's done," she said.

"Very good," said Anna. "I will inform everyone."

"E-everyone?" she asked.

"Yes, everyone on board seems intensely interested in how the removal of the self-destruct device is going, for some reason."

"Oh. I'm glad I didn't know that until now, actually."

"I thought it might be best to avoid causing you undue stress until the most risky step was over," Anna explained.

"The most risky step is over?"

"Yes. Now all you have to do is remove the detonators. They are -- or were -- explosive, but not radioactive, and although they have absorbed some radiation from the core, they should be safe to handle with the gloves that Drs. Hughes and Yulovna made. You should give the detonators to them for analysis."

"Still sounds pretty risky." Abramowitz didn't feel safe yet.

"Two diagnostics showed that they were effectively inert, so the chances of injury are very small. After that, your work appears to be done, aside from removing the various components from the tunnel for storage or recycling."

"Yeah, I guess we don't want all these screws, washers, rings, plates, and whatever floating around in here during flight."

"Precisely."

When Abramowitz emerged from the tunnel, she was surprised to see a large portion of the crew standing around and applauding. Colonel Monahan took her arms and helped her crawl the rest of the way out and stand up for the first time in hours. "Well done, Captain," Monahan said, shaking her hand. "You had a reputation for staying cool under fire, and that obviously hasn't changed, whatever else has." Abramowitz began to feel proud of herself for the first time since she'd been changed from a large, strong Air Force captain to, well, a small and not as strong Air Force captain. Knowing that Colonel Monahan had gone through much the same helped too.

"OK, Anna, is there any chance at all that there might be another self-destruct device anywhere?" Monahan asked.

"Current chances of that are 0.023%," said Anna's voice. "About the same chance that the airlock will spring a leak. It's possible -- but just barely. The most pressing issue we face is no longer self-destruction, and we could confidently set back down on Earth with minimal fear of blasting a portion of it into space."



Colonel Morozov said over the ship wide, "Prepare for landing. I'm bringing her back to Earth."

Commander Monahan had been thinking about the return to Earth. She was positive everything for hundreds of miles knew something large as a town had taken off and left the surface faster than a rocket. Fortunately, it had been Greenland, where there had been nothing to observe them for hundreds of miles except for the occasional seal or polar bear near the coast.

Monahan said to Colonel Morozov, "Wait a minute. Returning to Earth may not exactly be the right thing to do. Why don't we settle in on the far side of the Moon? That would keep prying eyes and busybodies away. That way, we'll only have the twelve infants we now have in the nursery instead of many more."

Morozov replied back, "I see wisdom in landing and setting up operations on the far side of the moon. But I thought those systems which caused those kinds of genetic disruptions were offline since we took control of the computer."

Monahan replied back, "It was a rather bad joke. Yes, those systems are still offline until we learn more about them."

Morozov replied, "I think before we begin to utilize this fortress in a vacuum, we should run diagnostics and failure prediction protocols and repair anything that doesn't fall within certain parameters for our continued safety."

"Aren't we sort of utilizing it in a vacuum right now?" Monahan asked. "We are in orbit ..."

"A good point," said Morozov. He pressed a button on his console. "Dr. Krzinskiy, are you detecting any vacuum failures or other effects of being in space? Would you recommend that we go back to Earth to finish repairs?"

Krzinskiy's voice came from the console, saying, "The instruments are not showing an air leak. No radiation is making it past the hull, either. Constant bombardment by tiny but fast-moving dust specks, but nothing the outer hull cannot handle."

"So it's a shakedown cruise, is it?" asked Monahan. "I thought I'd avoided those by not joining the Navy."

"I will set us down somewhere on the moon," Morozov said. "First we will transfer to a lunar orbit so we can find a suitably flat spot."

"You know, I would have thought we'd be weightless or something," Monahan said. "I guess this thing has artificial gravity, like Lieutenant Gray said."

Anna's face appeared in a nearby screen. "That is correct," she said. "It would appear that the floors contain emitters capable of producing virtual gravitons, which become real particles only when they interact with the gravitons emitted by massive particles."

"I'm sure Dr. Stadt is fascinated by that," Monahan said. "Also I'm sure he knows what you just said. When do we leave orbit?"

"Have already left Earth orbit and are now in a trajectory that will allow us to enter lunar orbit in a few hours," said Morozov's voice via the comms system. "Could go faster -- much, much faster -- but am being careful because this is the first time I am doing this. Crashing into the Moon would be counter-productive."

"For the record, I approve of this plan," Monahan said.

Jeffries came running to Monahan's console. "Sir -- Ma'am --"

"Whatever," said Monahan.

"It's the Pentagon," he said. "Both they and the Russians want to know where we've gone. 'As you're the only line of defense Earth has, it has us understandably worried to find you absent with no explanation,' they're saying."

"Hmm, yes," said Monahan. "You might want to tell them that we discovered ... let's say we found systems on board that could pose a threat to Earth if they malfunctioned, so we decided to address that problem from a distance. Tell them that we're going to relocate to a point on the surface of the Moon to continue preparations. We should report periodically, though how we do that from the far side of the Moon I'm not sure."

"Relay satellite," Jeffries said. "I ... already know how to do it."

Morozov had said he was moving slowly, however that was relative. They covered the distance from earth to lunar orbit in about three hours. While they were orbiting the Moon, they launched Jeffries' relay satellite and chose a suitably flat area to land in, an area humans would later name Mare Ingenii. The huge craft settled onto the lunar surface without even raising a dust cloud.

Anna's cherry face appeared on the screen in front of Monahan, "I'm happy to report the ship performed adequately on the short jaunt here. Landing was perfect. Once we are satisfied with the performance of the prototype attack vessels, we can start manufacturing them in the factory section -- but we'll need raw materials, and sensors indicate that we might be able to extract them from the Moon's crust. With some of the new technology, we just might stand a chance of winning, or at least forcing a stalemate until we figure out something else."

"Can we mine the metal we need?" Monahan asked.

"We have some mining machinery on board, but it is antiquated," Anna said. "Considering the transposition technology that Drs. Hughes and Yulovna discovered, however, we could simply mine any form of material and transmute its mass into whatever we need. We can start a bootstrap process ..."

So, over the next few days, the R&D department took apart one of the mining robots they found on board, transmuted each deteriorating part into a new one, reassembled it, and put it to work, quickly extracting enough mass in the form of lunar rock to create the parts for a second mining robot, which they then also put to work, and soon they had a great deal of raw material to work with. They then turned their attention to the remote drone fighters.

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You have something ta report? the massive beetle-like saurian asked the smaller raptor/mantis being that waited nervously in the doorway.

Yes, Sir, the insectoid lizard said to the much larger superior officer. One of our outlying sentry posts reports being attacked by small but agile craft of unknown origin.

Behinrrrd plot! Creating unknown targets to confuse us! raged the officer. Did ya catch any?

Negative, Sir. Still analyzing sensor scans of the targets, but although their technology resembles Behinrrrd designs of long ago to some extent, there are elements to them that we have never seen before, and they are using quite non-Behinrrrd tactical patterns, extremely difficult to predict. They destroyed many fighters before disengaging and escaping.

The officer considered this. What direction did they escape in?

Uncertain, Sir. One report says that they took heading 34 by 02, while according to another observation they used 37 by 24.

Lemme see ... those are both roughly in the direction of the galactic center, the officer replied. Have the Behinrrrd noticed what we're doing? Notify the other battle groups. When they come back, I want one of these fighters for the analysts to study.

Yes, Sir.

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"Their tactics have changed," the computer's elfin face said, "but the Mahlkochieri are still quite predictable. They tend to form a protective nucleus and fire coordinated volleys at chosen targets. Our randomized strategy defeats this tactic handily, but now they have encountered us. They may adapt."

"We'll choose our next target randomly," said Monahan, "and also randomize the timing. But until then, we'll observe their movements and learn from them. How did the prototype drone fighters perform?"

"Pretty well," said Jacobs. "Only complaint I have is that they're agile, but feel like they could be more so."

"That's the Behinrrrd design philosophy, I think," said Dr. Hughes. "They put massive but inflexible engines into everything. Maybe we should break that power up into smaller propulsors, but more of them.

"Try it out, and we'll test it," said Jacobs. "I'm dying to see what you guys ... er girls ... err ... anyway, what you come up with."

"Anna, do you have an initial redesign plan?" Hughes asked.

"Yes," came Anna's voice, but on the screen appeared not her face, but a three-dimensional blueprint. "As you can see, this model moves the firing points outward while rotating the propulsor arrays ..." She highlighted and explained several of the changes. Hughes and Yulovna both suggested more changes, which appeared in the blueprint in real time.

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In a galactic arm of the Milky Way Galaxy, around a heavily fortified planet, a brand new type of warship was being released from one of several orbital shipyards. The design was totally radical compared to what the Behinrrrd had previously built.

Each line of its sleek hull spoke of new technology. The engine exits were totally redesigned and obviously used a different type of power source than any of the older ships in orbit.

A fat, seriously over weight elfin looking humanoid rolled over on his dais and grabbed a hand full of Jeroptic meat and stuffed it in his mouth, making a huge mess. Several young females rushed up and cleaned his face and hands as quickly as they could, all the while dodging roaming hands.

Another elfin humanoid dressed in a very finely tailored uniform covered in medals said, "Sir, I can't emphasize enough the importance of this new project. You must approve the veredesh allocations so we can build more."

The fat person looked at the Officer through bleary hungover eyes and said, "Why is this project so universally important?"

The officer's face took on a look of incredulity, "Sir, this is a major advancement over those battle stations and large attack craft we have been using. It even has a better FTL engine and shielding than ever before. Not to mention the new targeting system enabling us to better hit airborne and ground targets without major systems reprogramming for each shot. And even better, they use fewer of the rare metals that are becoming harder to find in our core systems."

The fat individual rolled over and pulled a gilded pillow over his head, "Go away. I could care less about the military's new toy." He burped loudly and shortly, began to snore loudly.

The officer turned and angrily stormed from the Emperor's chambers. Outside, several other officers were waiting for him.

One of the junior officers asked, "How did it go, sir?"

The senior officer sighed, "It didn't. I'm sorry to say that the emperor is ... not able to perform his assigned duties at this point."

Another officer said sadly, "A shame. At one time he was one of the best."

"They do burn out over time. I suppose it's time for a ... retirement."

All of the junior officers looked at the senior officer with horror on their faces."

"It's a matter of life or death. This new series of battleships must be built. It's not as if the Mahlkochieri will just stop trying to destroy us."

All of the officers slowly walked away down a long featureless hall. They all dreaded what they knew they must do. The senior Officer saluted the juniors and grimly walked into his office.

He flopped into his chair and put his face into his hands as he moaned to himself. It would figure it would fall on his command to do a retirement. That was not only messy, it created much upheaval until the new replacement could be sorted out.

About that time, a memo found itself in his message box, a thought recording that managed to trickle its way down through all the bureaucracy, making its way through the neural infrastructure.

The message machine said in its irritating way, "An urgent message from district observation eyes only for download into your receptacle. Response is required."

The Senior Officer sighed as he plugged his mind link interface receptacle into the read port of his message box. The thought memo, complete with attached pictures, and star charts, showed the Enemy on the move. Their target was a backwater planet in one of the outer arms of the galaxy.

An interesting note: Apparently, many cendrons past, one of the larger and more powerful space fortresses of the day had somehow crash landed there. Nothing was heard until a request for data and orders had been received through central Comms on a frequency exactly matching the lost fortress a few months ago.

The Officer sat up in his chair. This was a somewhat solution to a major dilemma. He could send the newest ship to that location. With the aid of the Fortress, a nasty surprise attack could mean an end to the war. It would prove the need for the New Ajaldar Destroyer Cruiser. And give him some breathing room on what to do about ... his other issue.

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The Earth drone fighters danced and wove their way among the enemy beam weapons and missiles, as hard to hit as ghosts. The Mahlkochieri fighters could barely score a hit, and when they did, it splashed off some kind of seemingly invulnerable shield of a design they had never seen before. And then ... the drones attacked, and no word came back to the Mahlkochieri sector command headquarters about what had happened afterward.

"And ... that's the last one," said Jacobs, taking his headset off. "All the drones are back in launch bay Echo-6."

"Successful mission, congratulations, Lieutenant," said Colonel Monahan. "I'd buy you a beer, except we're a few hundred thousand miles from the nearest bar or liquor store."

"Excuse me, Lieutenant?" asked Dr. Hughes. "Did you have the drones bring back any ... trophies?" She grinned in excited glee.

"Yes, we had them grapple some fragments," Jacobs replied. "You'll find them with the drones in ... " She was already gone. "Some of those science types get all excited about the strangest things."

"It's good, though," Monahan said. "They've been dying to get their hands on enemy technology. Remote scans are all well and good, but if they're really going to find out what makes their ships tick, our brains need something to pick apart."

"They've said they're working on something they call auto-transformative defenses," Jacobs said. "Say it's gonna be impossible to take out one of our drones, let alone this place."

"Yeah, something to do with that transformation gun they've got," said Monahan. "If they can do an instant redesign of the whole drone, in flight, as soon as the enemy shifts tactics, it's going to be like they're punching at water."

"This is already like nothing I've flown before," Jacobs said, "and it sounds like it's gonna be changing while I'm flying it. Never a dull moment, Chief! But with your permission I'm gonna take a rest."

"You've earned it. Dismissed. Well done, all of you," she said to all of the remote pilots, who started stowing their gear and talking among themselves. "Sergei, what do you think? I assume you were watching the action."

"Indeed," came Morozov's voice from the console. "Performance of the drones is only improving, and I think we're close to being able to manufacture a large force of them. But let us remember that the enemy has thousands of wings of fighters the size of the one we defeated today, and that's saying nothing of their larger firepower."

"Gotta keep it realistic, yes." Monahan smirked. "But we're off to a good start, and the enemy still has no idea what these ships are or where they're coming from. I'd venture that they're guessing they're Behinrrrd, just because they're attacking them, but I doubt they're truly putting two and two together. Especially since they haven't captured any of ours."

"I will only feel safe once that fleet is destroyed in its entirety," Morozov said, "or at the very least is retreating and removes the destruction of Earth from its checklist."

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On the Behinrrrd commander's desk, a light came on. A computer's voice said, "Am prepared to take your receptacle download to archives."

The elfin commander plugged the cable into his memory receptacle behind his ear. The commander formed his thoughts, then began transmitting, "This is Commander Slethish's Log, I'm ordering the new Ajaldar Destroyer Cruiser to alter its shakedown to these coordinates, " the coordinates flashed through his mind briefly, "Mid Stop will be the listening post Hlelnn Ichso, to transfer minor cargo necessary for the station. From there it is to proceed with all haste to these coordinates, " he gave the final destination to the system, "Mission is Top Priority, to seek out and engage the enemy. Ship Commander's discretion as to strategy and tactics."

Commander Slethish raised an eyebrow when the confirmation of orders returned. They placed him in command of the Ajaldar Destroyer with orders to proceed on search and destroy mission against enemy forces.

"Finally," he said to himself, "an end to this desk duty!" He'd had a dozen victories while commanding larger ships and hundreds of enemy kills under his belt from his fighter pilot days, so he didn't know what politician he'd offended to get reassigned to flying a desk and to stay there for months. He dotted the last enthra of the report he'd been working on, dropped it in the virtual out box, and made himself scarce from that dreaded office.

He flew his personal aircar to the skyport where his shuttle was waiting -- he didn't even stop for a meal. He knew his uniforms and civvies were being sent ahead and wanted to get off the ground before some bureaucrat changed their mind or some computer simulation recalculated.

"Err, Commander! Sir!" said an ensign in command of the orbital shuttle. She saluted smartly and surprisedly. "Welcome aboard, Sir! Obviously you want to go to the Ajaldar, in the orbital shipyards."

"That is correct, Ensign," he said, "as soon as possible. Will that be a problem?"

"Absolutely not, Sir! Right away, Sir!" She turned and made her way to the pilot's cabin as Commander Slethish went through the pre-flight routines: stowing all gear, flight suit checklist, strapping into the acceleration couch, and so forth. Technology had advanced to such a high degree that such precautions were hardly ever necessary, but bureaucracy and regulations survived from much earlier times, and he did not want any inattention to detail to be the reason why he was put back behind a desk. If anything, he wanted it to be killing too many Mahlkochieri, or going to extremes to save his crew.

"Pre-flight check complete," he reported, as was customary.

"Acknowledged, Sir," came the ensign's voice over the comm system. "Pilot pre-flight check now complete. Control, shuttle Endra 3-1 requesting clearance for launch, over."

"I can still hear you, Ensign," said Slethish.

"Oh! Sorry, Sir; I thought you would want to hear the tower comms. I'll turn that off."

"It's quite all right, Ensign, as long as it was intentional."

"I promise it was, Sir. Tower reports we are clear to launch from pad 48. Now en route."

A few minutes later, the ensign reported, "We have reached pad 48. Locking glide pad. Disengaging glide clamps. All purple lights. Tower, shuttle Endra 3-1 ready for launch, over."

The voice from the tower came over the comm system. "Endra 3-1, acknowledged, launch when ready."

"Thank you, Control, ignition in 5 ... 4 ... 3 ..." Seconds later, Commander Ajaldar,felt that old familiar acceleration. Large ships had inertial dampeners because of the massive accelerations of deep-space flight, but orbital shuttles rarely did. Any Behinrrrd who went into the space navy underwent genetic manipulation to optimize performance under high accelerations as well as low and zero gravity conditions, making on-planet desk duty that much more deadly boring.

It didn't take long before he could tell that the shuttle was obviously in orbit, from the disappearance of a feeling of weight. There were occasional shifts as the pilot maneuvered, but overall it was very smooth, and he was quite surprised when she announced, "We have docked at shipyard module Larna-5, Sir. Senior crew are waiting to escort you --"

"Ensign, I didn't feel so much as a bump when docking. You are that smooth? What is your name, Ensign?"

"What? Oh -- Ensign Threena Luyern, Sir. Thank you, Sir. I do my best. I also do this run day-in, day-out, Sir -- know the docks like the back of my hand."

"Well done, Ensign Luyern," he said, releasing the safety gear according to procedure. "And thank you for a very smooth flight."

"You're welcome, Sir," said Ensign Luyern, saluting again once the cockpit door had opened.

Immediately after he moved from the docking bay into the ship and his feet settled to the deck under artificial gravity, he heard someone say, "Commander on deck." She was the first officer of the Ajaldar, and he knew her name was Niradran Rubeth. She and the other officers stood at attention on either side of the corridor, as was the tradition when welcoming a new commander on board.

"At ease," said Commander Slethish, "and thank you. It is a pleasure to meet you all, and I'm sure it will be an honor to serve the Hegemony alongside you. Now, what say you give me the tour? I know I'd be dying to, in your shoes. Then ... how about we get started?"

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A young woman in one of the ship's skin tight uniforms walked up to Monahan and saluted. She said, "Ma'am, those new fangled sensors that can see faster than light have found a rather interesting target for you to consider."

The hood around June's head folded into itself and the couch came to the upright position. She asked, "What kind of target?"

The young woman fidgeted a bit then replied in a soft shy voice, "It seems to be a large contingent battle group of the Mahlkochieri designs. We haven't yet determined what their final destination is, but there's a small planetoid within the travel vector they are taking. Would make a good place for one of the Remote Drone attacks. And the newest version is ... so sleek and nice. It has force fields and spin-wave technology. It can shape shift as well."

Monahan replied, "Send me spacial coordinates. We'll have Cartography make a map so Colonel Morozov can better plot the courses."

"Aye, Ma'am." the girl popped a sharp salute, spun around and vanished.

Monahan shook her head. It was wonderful to see that they were adapting to being women now. It had been a real bother at first. Now, it was natural to just be a woman. One thing that was seriously starting to bother Monahan, were those strange feelings and emotions she had started to feel over Morozov ... the thought was taken for the moment as the data and charts from Cartography arrived on a holo-screen.

Monahan thought, "This will be the perfect thing to see how effective our fighters are next to the real deal."

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As the month of shakedown slowly passed and what remaining bugs were worked out of the new Ajaldar, Commander Slethish was truly impressed thus far. The ship and crew had performed far and away above the old style Fortresses and Battle Wagons. Even weapons control and targeting had vast improvements due to a new process where excited NR particles were directly injected into the torpedoes plasma cylinders prior to launch. This expanded the yield a thousandfold.

As they traveled through Sector 47-6-93, Commander Slethish leaned back in his comfortable gravity couch and allowed the data feeds to slowly cross his mind. He was grateful the next stop off was the small planetoid that had been converted into a listening post. It was well armed and had top notch electronics.

He did notice an uncharted feature hanging about an AU away (units have been translated for the benefit of our human readers). Commander Slethish allowed the sensor array to narrow beam the next scan. According to scans it was just a small asteroid grouping that had been snared in one of the Lagrange points (not what the Behinrrrd called them, but this has been translated, also for the benefit of our human readers) of one of the other planets in this system ... really nothing to worry over. It was a massive planet and no doubt often pulled other objects out of orbit with its gravity. He smiled; offloading these foodstuffs and other equipment should take about three hours ... give the crew time to do a few things before they set off for the battle area.

Shortly, the helm officer announced that he was bringing the Ajaldar into a docking position with the planetoid. It was under 100 miles in diameter and thus didn't have enough gravity to warrant orbital insertion and shuttling to the surface; it merely had docking ports as if it were a very large spacecraft. Soon they were docked and in the process of offloading the supplies.

Suddenly the security officer shouted. "Incoming attack!" The ship shook with impact even as she was saying this, not enough to knock anyone off their feet, but all the crew felt the shockwaves through the floors and their chairs.

"Battle stations!" shouted Slethish as everyone on the bridge leapt into action. "Get all personnel out of the docking bay so we can detach!" The ship was helpless to take evasive maneuvers while it was attached to the planetoid -- no doubt why the enemy had chosen this moment to attack. "Return fire!"

"Docking clamps damaged and refusing to disengage," the engineering officer said.

"Destroy them if necessary," said Slethish. "Get us free!"

"Returning fire," said the security officer.

"Listening post is also returning fire, but they were also taken by surprise," First Officer Rubeth reported. "Several enemy ships damaged, but many of the planetoid's weapon emplacements were targeted and destroyed."

"Is this the Mahlkochieri?" Slethish asked.

"Affirmative, attackers are of known Polity design."

"Docking clamps free," the engineer said.

"Get us out and away."

"Aye, sir," said the helmsman.

"Engines damaged but still functional," the engineer reported.

"There are so many of them," said the security officer. "Gunners are returning fire, but we're being overwhelmed."

"Can we use the planetoid for cover?" Slethish asked.

"Trying that," the helmsman replied, "but there are just too many." The enemy fighters were swarming the Ajaldar from every direction.

"FTL engines are down," reported the dejected engineer.

"Weapons stations are taking hits all over the ship," the security officer reported grimly. "Wait, what's happening? The fighters ... some of them are disengaging."

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"Ha! They never expected us," said Jacobs. "They were busy attacking that planetoid base and that ship that was docked with it. Looks like it's Hegemony."

"That's interesting," Morozov said over the comms. "Did not know they had any ships in this sector at all."

"They may be taking an interest simply because they've noticed the Mahlkochieri are here," said the original ship's computer.

Jacobs and the other remote pilots had steered their fleet of shape shifting drones slowly toward the attacking Mahlkochieri fighters until they had judged that their disguise as a field of asteroids had become implausible, then they had taken on needle-like shapes with very small cross-sections to attack, and now they were in a more general-purpose form with thrusters in all directions for maneuverability.

"Oh, the game's on now," said Jacobs. "About half of them are breaking off to come after us."

"Now we'll see how the defensive adaptation features work in practice," Hughes said. "This is so exciting! With enemy technology to study, we built it specifically to confound their weapons and tactics, but still, what will happen?"

The Mahlkochieri ships fired beam weapons, but somehow the Earth ships shifted in shape so as to have holes and voids where their guns were pointed, so the beams targeted empty space. They fired missiles, but even computer-guided missiles were confused when their targets divided into multiple pieces, scattered, and re-formed behind the missiles.

While this intricate dance was going on, though, the Earth ships fired disruptive beams of an unknown type and converted the enemy ships' fuel, wiring, engines, weapons, and even hulls into other materials. Ships fell apart as metals turned into sugars and wires into water that boiled away into space. It wasn't long before every ship that had broken off attacking the planetoid and large ship had been defeated.

"I'm liking the performance overall," Hughes commented, "but suppose we turn up the random factors a bit more? I'm not sure their tactical computers are overloaded enough."

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"What do we have left?" Slethish asked. "Whatever it is, hit them with it while they're distracted!"

"Weapon positions we have left are firing at will, but I estimate we have only 30% of them still operational," said the security officer.

"They're still shooting at us?" asked Slethish. "It's that Mahlkochieri pride. They know they're going to lose this, but they want to take out their target before they die. And who are those ships out there?"

"Unidentified, but vaguely reminiscent of Behinrrrd designs of long ago ... sometimes," said First Officer Rubeth. "Employing some sort of shape shifting technique, and I have never seen it used with such agility and confidence -- all attempts I've seen, by either us or the enemy, have been clumsy and so unsuccessful that they were abandoned."

"So they're on our side?"

"I can only say that it seems that way for now."

The lights went out on the bridge as another hit rocked the ship. "Damage report," Slethish ordered.

"We have no engines, decks 1 through 5 are evacuated due to life support failure, we're down to emergency power, and what weapons we still have are down to their last few shots before power's too low to fire," said the engineer.

"Did we offload all the supplies to the planetoid before we detached?"

"There are still some cycloergic batteries in hold 5-Belore ..." the engineer reported, and Slethish could see that the dimmed display showed that there were over 100 of them. These powerful energy sources could easily be adapted to power a transwave destructor cannon.

"But that deck's evacuated, because life support is down." Slethish grabbed the emergency breathing mask from below the captain's chair and stood up.

"Sir, you're not thinking of ..." the security officer objected.

"Nobody else is available, and you all have to stay here," said Slethish. "I'm not going down with the ship, because this ship is not going down, not on my watch." He strapped on the breathing mask, headed for the maintenance ladder, and started climbing down.

He passed through several air retention fields as he descended. Soon, he started seeing labels for deck 5. When he opened the access hatch and squeezed through, he became wide eyed at the sight. The area was blackened severely. In many places the walls had buckled or melted due to whatever weapon had struck there. If it wasn't for this special skin-tight uniform and the modified emergency oxygen kit he wore, he knew the vacuum of space would be killing him right now. He could plainly see stars and the enemy's fighters through the large hole torn in the other side.

It was very fortunate that enough of the emergency lighting still worked, after a fashion, to allow him to see well enough to avoid the debris and find his way to storage. Most of the way was fairly clear, unlike where he had first entered deck 5, so his movement wasn't hampered too badly.

He passed through another air retention field and came to a partially open door labeled: Hold 5-Belore. It took a bit of muscle to manually crank the door open enough to enter and have enough room to remove the items he wanted. Finding the area where the power packs had been stored would be rather difficult; it was dark. Slethish cursed the engineer who failed to put emergency lighting in the cargo hold of a battleship. If they managed to survive this encounter, that would be rectified along with the rest of the repairs.

Slethish slowly moved among the many scattered items and large crates in near darkness. The only light came from the emergency lighting that filtered through the partially open door he had entered through.

Another issue he would have addressed immediately was stowage of cargo and keeping it contained under severe conditions. This mess shouldn't have happened. Then again, they had been in the process of transferring it to the planetoid base when the attack came.

He found the crates of cycloergic power packs. He decided that one crate would have to do, but one crate had 50 power packs, which meant 50 shots. Now he had to get to a transwave cannon that still worked. When he'd left the bridge, the nearest one to this point was on deck 8. Another long slog, this time with a burden. Good thing the artificial gravity was failing.

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Jacobs reported, "Looks like they've taken offense to our attacking their carrier. Here they come." All the drone pilots were very busy, as was Hughes, who was monitoring the performance of the battle computers very closely and making adjustments.

"That Behinrrrd battleship is in rough shape," said Monahan, monitoring the tactical display. "They're not firing back at all anymore. Looks like most of the enemy fighters have left to try to defend their carrier from us, but a few are staying behind to try to finish the job."

"Ha!" said Jacobs, absorbed in the fight. "These randomized evasive maneuvers are driving their computers nuts! They can't lay a finger on us. And did that shot just turn their laser cannon or whatever into a can of potato chips? That's pretty random, all right."

"If the enemy didn't expect it, then I've done my job," said Dr. Hughes, watching a screenful of changing numbers.

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"Power is too low to fire back," the security officer said on the bridge of the Ajaldar. "We're down to just life support, and that's minimal."

"Getting cold in here," said the helmsman.

"Where's the captain?" asked First Officer Rubeth.

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When the doors opened and Commander Slethish stepped through from the corridor, the gunners in Weapon Station 8-Kala were as surprised as they could have been. "Captain on deck!" said the petty officer in charge.

"As you were," said Slethish. "Brought you a present. Cannon still working?"

"It's not destroyed by enemy fire, if that's what you mean, Sir," the petty officer said. "But there's no power."

"There is now," Slethish said, releasing the crate's clamps and revealing the power packs.

"These are -- sure, I see, not the best situation, but we can work with it ..."

The commander was opening a panel in the side of the cannon's main body. He removed some wires and exposed an emergency socket. "OK, here's what I propose. Officer, keep handing me those power packs. Gunner, take aim at anything that comes close, but fire only on my command. I'll keep the cannon charged. Got it?"

"Aye, Sir!" everyone said.

"Sir, I think they're coming back!" said one of the ensigns, who was looking at a screen she'd reactivated using one of the power packs.

"The nearest one ... keep a target lock ..." said Slethish, holding onto the cannon as its platform rotated. The officer tossed him a power pack, and he slapped it into place in the socket. He could see the targeting screen. The fighter came in close ... "Fire!"

The gunner fired the cannon, using the power pack's entire charge in one shot. A direct hit; the transwave cannon melted the fighter to slag at this close range, leaving a quickly-cooling cloud of red-hot metallic droplets that sped off in the same direction the enemy fighter had been going. "Good shot, gunner!" Slethish shouted as he pulled the spent power pack and the officer tossed him another.

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"Here they come for another run ... wait, what?" said the security officer, puzzled. "That was one of our cannons!"

"It's the captain!" said the engineer. "He made it to station 8-Kala with the batteries. The fire rate will be terrible, but it's a lot better than zero!"

They all took a breath. "We might not get blown out of space today," said the security officer. "They're losing a lot of ships to the unknowns, who aren't attacking us at all."

"Whoever they are, they sure hate the Mahlkochieri," said First Officer Rubeth, "and at the very least they're neutral to us."

The security officer nodded. "But the Polity just found out they can't finish us off without paying a price. Can they afford it?" Another attacking fighter exploded at close range.

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"Looks like that Hegemony ship isn't quite dead yet," said Monahan. "How are they even managing to fire? Their hull damage is bad enough that we can see it on long-range sensors."

"Another bad day for the Mahlks," said Jacobs. "We've taken out their carrier's engines already, and their weapons are going down one by one. Meanwhile, they're losing fighters steadily, and we've only lost what, two?"

"And we have sent in reserves to replace those two," Morozov said. "We are at full strength. I have to wonder whether they are going to get assistance also."

"If they do, I doubt it'll be in time," Monahan said, pointing at the tactical map on screen. "This is pretty far from their main force. They really went out of their way to hit that base. I think the battleship was just unlucky to be there today. They weren't ready for this, but they're somehow hanging on. It's amazing, actually."

"Is impressive display of tenacity," said Morozov. "I wonder who her captain is?"

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"How long do we keep doing this, Sir?" asked the petty officer.

"As long as we can, or until the enemy stops," said Slethish. "Not yet ... not yet ... fire!" The cannon blew another fighter out of space. "They're not attacking as often now. Either they've lost too many ships, or they're planning something."

"If they're planning something, they'd better hurry up, Sir," said the ensign. "They don't have much left. Who are those mystery ships, anyway?"

"Your guess is as good as mine, Ensign. But as far as I know they haven't made a single move against us or the base. Speaking of which, how's the base looking?"

"Heavy damage, just like us, Sir," the ensign said, looking at her screen. "Seems they have power, but their weapons are all destroyed. But there's a limit to what the enemy can do to a planetoid base using only fighters. Lots of underground bunker capacity. Oh! Things are looking very bad for the enemy carrier. They have no weapons or engines left now."

"Gee, sounds familiar," said Slethish.

The ensign watched her screen closely as the strange fighters danced, shape shifted, twisted, and managed to avoid almost all of the enemy shots. To her total astonishment, they knocked out the entire task force and mopped up all the fighters in very short order.

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Morozov said, "I am about to arrange our fighters so they can capture the damaged enemy destroyer and am sending in one of our remote utility tugs to tow the Behinrrrd ship. Perhaps we can use their technology to upgrade our own."

"I'll see if I can get through to them to let them know," said Jeffries. "Looping in the translator circuit ..."

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On the damaged but still fighting Ajaldar, the communications officer was totally taken aback. "Ma'am, we're being hailed on ... a low-frequency radio wave channel. It's practically stone age."

"Is it the unknowns?" asked First Officer Rubeth. "Put me through."

"Aye, Ma'am, you're on the air."

"This is First Officer Niradran Rubeth of the Behinrrrd Hegemony Destroyer-Cruiser Ajaldar," she said. "I believe I'm talking to whomever came to our assistance during the Mahlkochieri sneak attack."

A voice responded, speaking an extremely archaic version of their language with a really strange accent. "This is Earthship Helix, Communication Officer Ron Jeffries speaking. Informing that you are now under tow to a system that is friendly, at least for now."

"Earthship?" asked Rubeth. "What's an Earthship? You are ... neither Mahlkochieri nor Behinrrrd?"

"That is correct," Jeffries replied. "The Mahlkochieri plan to attack our homeworld, so they are our enemies. The Behinrrrd have not attacked us, so you are not our enemies. Perhaps we can negotiate a truce. But for now, you are severely damaged, and ethics dictate that we should try to save as many of your lives as possible. Do you know if anyone needs assistance on the planetoid?"

Passing along information from the communications officer, Rubeth said, "They should be fine -- their power and life support systems are deep below the surface. Only their weapons and docking facilities are destroyed, and they can rebuild those."

"Good. Hang in there, and we'll get you to somewhere we can start in with repairs."

"Thank you, Earthship Helix." They could see on the sensors that a small ship with no weapons but powerful engines and tow beams had approached and was surrounding what was left of the Ajaldar with an inertial energy field. Soon they were at FTL speeds, traveling to another system.

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"That star is Zavijava, also known as Alaraph or Beta Virginis," said Dr. Yulovna, looking at the screens alongside Dr. Krzinskiy, Colonel Monahan, Colonel Morozov, and several of the others. "No habitable planets, but it does have a useful belt of planetoids -- we and the Ajaldar can both land on one of the larger ones, and as we effect repairs we can negotiate with them and, we hope, learn from their newer technology."

"Sounds like a good plan," said Monahan. "I'm behind this."

"The tug is about to arrive," said Morozov. "We can speak with them then."

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"Captain on the bridge," said Rubeth. Captain Slethish had just climbed back up the emergency exit ladder. His uniform was dirty with splotches of metal powders, coolant fluids and lubrication oils, but otherwise he was fine. He removed his oxygen mask.

"At ease," he said. "Glad to see everyone here's OK. Looks like we're on the way to ... wherever this Earthship Helix is taking us. Do we have a count of the casualties?"

"We have lost 29 crew members," said the security officer, "so we are currently at a complement of 284."

Rubeth added, "Of those, 38 are still in the medical bay recovering from injuries."

"Not good," said Slethish, "but it could be a lot worse. Where are they taking us?"

"If we project our course, there is a class F star ahead of us," said the helmsman. "The cartography database says ... that it has no habitable planets but several planetoids. They either have a base there or plan to meet us on one."

There was suddenly that feeling that everyone in the Hegemony space navy knew, a feeling like a warm breeze blowing over everything, even though the only airflow was due to the life support vents. It was the feeling of coming out of FTL.

"Yes, it appears the trajectory they have us on will land us on one of the larger planetoids in this system."

"Scanning ..." said the security officer. "It seems there is a large ship on that planetoid ... wait ... by the ancient rings of Alubeth! Look at that! That is a Trulloth-class colonization base, a real museum piece. That class was superseded over 95,000 years ago. How is it here? How is it still operational?"

"You're saying there's an antique colonization capital ship on that planetoid?" asked Slethish. "Who are these people? Not Behinrrrd, but they have one of our old ships and have built their own. Are they ... one of our old soldier farms?"

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"How are they still alive?" asked Hughes, looking at the wrecked Ajaldar as it rested on the planetoid near them. "I can literally see into it through holes in the hull. Why do they still have air? Oh! Look, some kind of atmospheric retention field is holding it in. Do we have those?"

While she and Dr. Yulovna were learning things from the Ajaldar already, Monahan, Krzinskiy, and Jeffries were putting on environmental suits to go speak with the ship's crew, and several technicians were preparing repair robots and equipment to start work on the damaged ship.

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General Sturmrang sat at his desk chewing on another cigar. The reports he had been getting looked more than promising. All the prototype weapons systems had worked well beyond anyone's expectations.

The phone on his desk rang. He answered on the second ring, "Sturmrang here." he took the chewed cigar from his mouth as it hung open and his eyes grew large, "You mean to tell me, they not only defeated a Battlecruiser, but a Carrier and its fighter wing?" He put his cigar in the scallop shell ashtray as he continued to listen in total astonishment, "I, see. So then that new fangled shipyard place has it right now and are dismantling it? Why not repair it and ... Oh, I see. Built in booby traps are more than possible. Makes sense. I want a Detailed as you can get report on that carrier. Perfect for carrying and deploying shape shifting fighters." he hung up the phone and shook his head. "So. I'm going to get to meet one or more of those weird elf looking critters am I? The General thought, "I do have a few questions to ask 'em."

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"So you are one of our, er, lost colonies," said Slethish. The translator device that Krzinskiy and Anna had come up with seemed to be working. "We were wondering who you were and why your ships looked just a bit like some very old Hegemony designs, but with drastic changes."

"That is what we think," Krzinskiy said. "The Mahlkochieri appear to be moving through this region of space sterilizing any world touched by the Hegemony, and that includes our homeworld. We discovered this ship and have been repairing it and adding whatever new innovations we can think of. Some of the people on board are scientists who originally came to study it."

"We're the first humans to ever meet people from another planet face to face," Monahan was saying to Morozov. "That is just ... so amazing."

"Yes," said Krzinskiy, turning around with a slightly annoyed expression but turning back to the Behinrrrd officers and continuing, "it is in fact quite an honor to meet the captain and officers of an actual Hegemony craft. We hope we can work together to defeat the Mahlkochieri and prevent them from destroying our homeworld."

"They're a menace wherever they go," said Commander Slethish. "If you can get the Ajaldar up and running again, we'll do what we can, but if they have a fleet, we'll need more ships."

"About that," said Krzinskiy, "we have the ability to build more ships very quickly, but we've noticed your ship has technology that is beyond what we have in the Helix. It seems we've made some discoveries that nobody else has, but combined with the advancements the Hegemony's made since the Helix was built, we'll be making advanced remote fighters that will eat right through that fleet of theirs."

"Remote?" First Officer Rubeth exclaimed in astonishment. "Those are unmanned remote drone fighters? But ... their reactions ... their tactics ... how are they so agile if they don't have pilots?"

"You'll have to ask our scientists," said Krzinskiy, even though he had a very good grasp of how the synchro metaprogramming worked. He just didn't want to delay the negotiations by getting bogged down in the details. "They've found ways to make it work quite well."

"Well, you're going to have to learn more about the Ajaldar's technology if you're going to repair it," said Slethish, "and if you don't repair it, we're going to be stuck on this rock until we die, so I don't see another way around it. There are probably military intelligence bureaucrats who will be howling about this when they find out, but you go right ahead and examine all you want. Anything that helps you get my ship back together and flying again."

"Thank you, Captain," said Krzinskiy. "The research department has built some amazing repair robots. And some amazing mining and refinery robots that can extract raw materials from planetoids." Outside the ship they could see some of those robots being set up and beginning to do their work. Krzinskiy didn't mention the fact that they could in fact mine silicon and iron and somehow produce titanium and iridium from this. He'd explain that later if it came up.

"It's ... an honor to meet you, Captain," said Monahan, extending a pressure-suited hand.

"A custom we have is the mutual handshake of greeting or agreement," Krzinskiy explained, and Commander Slethish awkwardly held out his hand and shook Monahan's. The Behinrrrd's space suits were skin-tight and quite thin, much more advanced than the millennia-old ones that the humans had found aboard their ship.

"It is also an ... honor to meet you, Colonel," said Slethish. "We could never have imagined that our ... seeds would have grown so strong."

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As soon as they were alone again, Rubeth said, "How in the galaxy could simple soldier minions master a colony ship? Obviously they've circumvented the security mechanisms, unless they were completely wrecked. But they've done it, and they've even improved the technology in directions we've never even thought of!"

"I have no idea," Slethish replied, "but clearly they have done so. Perhaps they've evolved in the millennia since they were seeded. But it hasn't been long enough ... has it? I'm not a genetics expert."

"Neither am I," said the engineer, "but I do know that meaningful genetic change normally takes at least millions of years. I wonder ..."

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On earth, a major investigation into the disappearance of a dozen popular news reporters had reached the boiling point.

A news anchor on the nightly news was saying, "The pictures and reports that had last been received from them, more than indicated the presence of some sort of military installation in Greenland. The Greenland government, however, vehemently denies the existence of any such military presence. They have acknowledged that they had given permission to both US and Russian military forces to enter their sovereign borders to investigate a strange structure that had been located. Thus far, the only pictures that are more recent than the ones transmitted by the missing reporters show a massive crater in the ice, but none of the structures that appeared in the previous photos. Lawyers for the families of all the missing reporters are now petitioning the US government to release all information pertaining to the investigation in Greenland ..."

"The harsh environment of far inland Greenland has claimed its fair share of lives in the past," the anchor speculated. "Were the reporters simply unprepared for the subzero conditions they undoubtedly encountered? Did something stranger happen? What about the photographs of distant structures that now seem to have disappeared? Where are the American and Russian military teams that were given permission to investigate these structures? Or ... were the later photos simply not taken at the same location due to an error? Our investigatory team continues to look into this matter, and they're not the only ones. Civil liberties organizations want to know whether the reporters were captured and whether their civil rights are being violated. A Congressional committee has been formed to discover whether something has happened to US military personnel, perhaps a conflict or poor leadership decision that is being covered up. We will keep you informed as soon as we learn anything."

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While the repair of the Ajaldar continued, Jacobs and other remote pilots were test-flying a new class of ships deep behind Mahlkochieri lines -- if there can be said to be any such thing as military battle lines in the vastness of space. These new scout ships were designed to be tiny, swift, and nearly undetectable, filled with sensors and instruments to gather data about enemy movements and activities.

"Now in orbit around 61 Virginis d-3," Jacobs reported, his head inside a black helmet so that all he could see was his ship's surroundings. "Commencing scan of this moon."

Anna, the emergent AI, replied, "Data incoming. Systems nominal. Oh. I see."

"You see what?" Jacobs asked. "All I'm seeing is that Mahlk installation down there. Looks like some kind of maintenance base -- lots of landing room for ships."

"I'm seeing DNA," said Anna. "Put simply, this world used to contain Behinrrrd-seeded life -- until recently. The Mahlkochieri have infiltrated its DNA with their own modifications."

"They're turning the other side's kind of life into their kind of life?" asked Jacobs.

"Yes, but ... I'll need to analyze this more thoroughly, of course, but I suspect the Behinrrrd of doing exactly the same thing. The runs of Behinrrrd genetic material seems to be on top of earlier runs of Mahlkochieri-introduced strings, and so on."

"This is beyond me," said Jacobs. "I'm just a pilot."

Anna smiled. "Perhaps so, but understand this: it would appear that the two sides have been fighting a war for millions of years, not only in space, but within the DNA of the life of many worlds, Earth included."

"Wait," said Jacobs, "does this mean we could've been altered by the Mahlks?"

"Perhaps you are trained as a pilot," said Anna, "but you are not without insight. There is every possibility that this has happened -- possibly multiple times, as the battleground changed hands again and again over the eons."

"Should we, you know, tell anybody about this?" asked Jacobs.

"I have already filed preliminary reports," Anna replied, "but you and the other pilots will need to gather more data before I can properly correlate everything and draw any real conclusions. Then ... we need to find out just what's been done to the human species."

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A beetle looking saurian humanoid entered a large control room filled with many different adaptations of the same insectoid like lizard humanoids all performing their assigned bridge functions.

With a smart over his shoulder flip of his tail the creature said, "Sir, this one has data for you to assimilate."

The large mantis lizard looked up from the scope he had been staring into, "Report."

The other creature said, "Sir, to our attention came the sadness of reports. Appears our task force to Minden 243 to attack and destroy the Behinrrrd outpost discovered there has ... vanished."

The large mantis like creature shouted, "What? By the talons of Velk'naaard, how does a complete battle group of two destroyers and a carrier, all armed to the teeth, just vanish."

The smaller creature flinched at the other's reaction, "This lowly one knows not such things. All can disseminate is what long range sensors tell us. No comms have been received and no scans can find anything but the outpost. It apparently is still intact and functioning."

The large mantis looking lizard slammed its ... hand, hard onto the arm of its gravity couch with a loud resounding boom that echoed loudly across the control bridge. All the other smaller creatures flinched in fear as they quickened their pace in completing yet another scan looking for the apparently missing battle group.

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"Well, I've been pretty busy stabilizing the injured," said the Ajaldar's chief medical officer, "but yes, I concur, there's no way they could have become that advanced in just a hundred thousand years. Not without ... help."

"They attacked the Mahlkochieri without mercy," said Rubeth.

"I didn't say they were working for the Polity," said the doctor, "but they've probably been altered by them. I consider it very likely. I'd love to get a DNA sample."

"I'll try to arrange that, Dr. Ullon," said Commander Slethish, "but so far they've been wearing environmental suits every time we've met them. With good reason -- we're hardly fit to receive visitors at the moment."

"Repairs are continuing," said the engineer, "but we're short staffed, and we have no parts. I don't know yet how exactly they're manufacturing the parts they're giving us with just the materials found on this planetoid. They may simply have a lot of materials in stock. That colony ship's nearly a mobile base."

"Well, let's not look a gift krelnit in the ingestion orifice, Mr. Chelereth," said Slethish, "at least not for now. They're helping us, and they certainly seem quite hostile to our enemy."

"Well, they're certainly good at extruding just the right size sheets of hull plating, I'll say that," said Chelereth. "I'm certainly not complaining about the repair work so far."

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"This is Lieutenant Gray. I'm entering Section ... 98-Hendrek." He opened yet another door that hadn't moved in a hundred millennia. "Door functional, lighting inactive." He swept a hand-held flashlight slowly around the hallway beyond the door. "This appears to have been the hydroponics bay. There doesn't seem to be anything alive here now. But perhaps we could reactivate it and use it to grow more food."

"I could tell you where to find anything you want to find," said the original ship's computer, its elfin face appearing on a wall monitor nearby.

"Well yes, but that's not my mission," said Gray. "I'm discovering what's here. I might find something we never even suspected was aboard, and all you'd say when we asked why you didn't tell us about it would be that we never asked."

"That does sound like something I would do," the computer said.

"Besides, I want to see it with my own eyes," Gray went on. "Do you have any idea how amazing it is to explore an actual alien spacecraft?"

"No," replied the computer. "I do not explore alien spacecraft. And to me this craft is not alien."

"Looks like this area was shut down for quite a long time," said Gray. "No water, nothing alive here. But the facilities look intact." He made notes on the map he was making as he went. "Moving on. Section 99-Hendrek." The door did not respond to the controls. "Door either not functioning or locked."

"I can no longer override a security lockout," said the computer, "but I can tell you that it is functional. I can also tell you that the unlock sequence is 6-Yil-2-3-Borak-8-1-Plinik."

"Thank you," said Gray, keying in the sequence of Behinrrrd numerals and letters. "Yes, it's opening. Again, lighting inactive. Can you tell me why this section was locked?"

"I can no longer override a security lockout," the computer repeated. "Only this time the lockout applies to the data about this section."

"Top secret," said Gray. "Well, let's see what -- oh." He moved into the hallway and saw what the signs said. He'd avidly learned the alien language as quickly as he could, and that knowledge had served him well on his mission of exploration of the depths of the huge ship. "Experimental laboratory. Well well, Dr. Frankenstein, what's on the slab today?"

"I do not understand," the computer stated. "My name is not Frankenstein, nor am I programmed for medical functions."

Gray moved down the hallway until he came to the first of several doors. He tried the same unlock sequence on the keypad, and it opened. Inside was obviously an operating room, with a table in the center surrounded by equipment and cabinets containing tools and supplies. But on the table, strapped in quite securely, was a skeleton. And lying on the floor was ... another skeleton. One that wasn't human.

"I have made a significant discovery, I believe," said Gray into his voice recorder. "There's a human-like skeleton on the table in here. I think it's an operating room. But who was doing the operation? ... The skeleton on the floor ... it looks like a ... dinosaur? There are some strange plates or ... scales?"

"What?" the computer asked. "That ... sounds like a Mahkochieri skeleton."

"You -- don't know what's in here?" Gray asked.

"No ... I don't. How odd," the computer said, sounding confused. "I ... appear to have a gap in my data. I have been ... infiltrated. And my records of the infiltration have been erased. I have no functioning cameras in that room, and until just now I had no knowledge of that fact."

"There was a ... Mahlkochieri spy on board?" Gray asked. "And you never knew?"

"There are indications that there was one," the computer replied, "but I only discovered that after the crash, which the spy no doubt caused. I never actually found him. But ... it would seem he had an experimental facility of his own."

"And he was experimenting on this poor person when ... what happened?" Gray wondered.

"I would guess that when I shut down all non-essential systems, causing this entire section's power to shut off," the computer speculated, "the spy and this experimental subject were both trapped in this room. It is possible that he ... ate the flesh of his subject to survive."

"I ... ugh," said Gray. "That's horrible. But at least he didn't experiment on any more people."

"On the contrary," said the computer, "this was almost certainly only his last experimental subject. I am quite sure the spy was aboard long enough to perform many experiments, and possibly accomplish quite a lot of genetic sabotage."

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In a very large conference room, many men dressed in Russian and US Military uniforms sat across a large table covered in many papers, notebooks, and audio recorders from each other. Many others in suits and ties sat across from each other up table from them. At one end of the table, the President of the United States sat, at the other, the Premiere of Russia.

A young man began banging his fist on the table, "This situation is getting way out of hand. We have no way to tell the population what's truly going on without starting a mass panic the likes of which no one could imagine in their nightmares."

An older man said with a frown towards the younger, "We have to come up with some plausible answer. As it is, most of the world population know there has been a mass disappearance. They also know that some of the most famous and popular on-the-spot news reporters were among those who vanished. Most have seen the pictures that were originally sent back and the ones from a few days ago. We can't just ..."

A small, very well dressed redheaded young woman said softly, but was heard over the loud voices very clearly, "Maybe that's the answer ... those photos."

Pandemonium erupted as loud protests over her speaking in chambers echoed loudly. The president banged his gavel, the rest of the room became silent. The protests over the young intern speaking in council silenced.

The president looked at her and said evenly, "Please stand up young woman, and tell us what's on your mind. Don't let all these idiots in monkey suits intimidate you. If they don't give what you have to say a fair and just mulling over, I'll make sure they no longer are here."

The young woman slowly stood amid the thick silence and angry looks. She said in a shy voice, "Those photos. I can see them lying there. To me, that would make a plausible cover story in itself."

She reached over and gathered the many photos and laid them out on a clear space in front of the president. The president motioned for the Russian Premier to come and look at what the young woman was showing him.

The young woman continued, "As you can see here, although the weather was horrid, there is clearly a structure of some sort." she pointed out the many overfly photos and the telephoto shots the reporters had made of the structure. "Now," she rearranged the photos so the ones that showed the deep crevasse and the large debris field surrounding it were in front of the President and the Premiere, "From the looks of this I would easily think some sort of explosion happened. That hole is over half mile wide. From the angles of the shots, it's plain it's also rather deep ..."

The Premiere looked up and smiled as he said softly, "Young woman, what is your name please? Anyone as young as you who can out-think this many of the world's leaders and top military minds needs recognition."

The President stood up straight and said, "I feel the same way. You have come up with the perfect cover story. General Thomas, you will insure this young woman attends every war session we have until this conflict is over. Now, please, tell us your name."

The woman's eyes grew large as she stammered, "M m my n n name is ... Jennifer. Jennifer Flynn. I'm working for S-secretary Dugan ..."

The President smiled as he said reassuringly, "Well, Miss Flynn, welcome to your new post as an advisor to the Earth War Council. Sorry, Secretary Dugan, but you might have to hire a new assistant."

Defense Secretary Dugan sighed. "It's so hard to find good help these days."

"At any rate, let's work with Miss Flynn's story," said the President. "I don't like to mislead the people, but as we know, telling the truth would be a worldwide disaster. There are really only two outcomes at this time -- either our team succeeds out there and we can manage the slow release of what we've learned, or ... it doesn't matter. So there was ... what, a secret atomic test being carried out by a rogue nation?"

"Too difficult to do without Denmark's knowledge," said the chair of the Atomic Energy Commission. "Perhaps a bomber crashed while carrying a warhead? If it weren't armed, it wouldn't detonate immediately upon impact, but there might be enough of a danger that we'd want to remove any radioactive material."

"And, pardon my saying so," said the Russian ambassador, "but my people would have an interest in capturing parts of an American atomic warhead. So it would be plausible that a Soviet squadron would be deployed to, ah, 'assist.'"

"And then ... well, we are talking about an atomic bomb," said the President. "I doubt anyone would disbelieve it if we claim it exploded while they were trying to extricate its broken parts." There was general agreement with this. "Good. Work out the details, make the information that gets out look like leaks, we'll all be very embarrassed, and everyone will get medals. The reporters will look like heroes for trying to get the news out to the people, the military and scientists will look like heroes for trying to prevent a nuclear disaster, and ... well. When, and I say when, our people come back, we'll all be amazed and we'll leak bits of information then. And ... well, I know the kind of folks they are. They have their mission. Until they succeed ... they won't be coming back."

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On a very advanced bridge, many insectoid lizard-like humanoids sat at the many control stations performing their duty. In the central command chair sat a large mantis-like lizard individual. His saurian eyes looked over the detailed scans of the enemy outpost. The Destroyer Nelkatthh with several of its sister ships approached attack range of an identified enemy listening planetoid.

The crew already knew that several destroyers and a large carrier with full complement had vanished without a trace. No comms were ever raised and it now fell to them to complete the mission.

Nelkatthh and its escort slowed to well below sublight as they approached the planetoid. Long range scans showed much damage to the surface of the rock. It also showed that many of the emplacements were back in working order. Taking the place without great damage and much loss of life would be next to impossible if no surprise could be mounted.

Suddenly, the war alert klaxon began to sound as the lights changed to battle red and cast an eerie glow around the bridge.

Commander Trako snapped, "Tactical ... how did a ship get as close to us as that without sensors seeing it?"

The beetle looking lizard replied, "Unknown. They seemed to morph from other objects."

"They did what?!" exclaimed the commander in frustration, "Forward batteries ... open fire. Emplacements, fire at will."

Many large streams of strange energy flowed from the Nelkatthh and its escorts. Massive pyrotechnical explosions. Massive detonations all from the Nelkatthh and its escorts as the strange fighters seemingly appeared from thin space to attack, then just as suddenly scanners showed the fighters would vanish. Each beam seemed to pass through the ship as it changed shape and allowed the shot to pass.

On the Nelkatthh, Commander Trako couldn't believe it as hull plating would seemingly dissolve away and become something else. Weapons emplacements would cease to function as they became large collections of powders and liquids that boiled off into space.

No tactic Trako tried had any affect on these strange craft and their super powerful weapons. The Commander had never in his life seen a weapon that could actually change something from one form to another.

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"Sir! I have dire news!" The low-level assistant was but a soldier-level Mahlkochieri, something like an ant crossed with a raptor, but it had a report of great importance to deliver to the fleet admiral.

"Ultraviolet-level?" asked the admiral, swiveling his seat away from the tactical displays it had been studying. "Because my orders were not to disturb me unless it was ..."

"Affirmative, Admiral! We just received it! Please, look!" It handed a bio-electronic tablet to the admiral, who took it and studied it with dark beadlike eyes under knurled beetle-like eye ridges.

There was considerable static, with snippets of clear transmission between. "-- invisible enemy f- ... -- out of nowhere -- ... -ge form and transm- ... -stroying our hull by ch- ..."

"What is this?" the admiral asked. "Is this Battle Group 17? Where are they?"

The assistant pointed at a tactical map on a nearby wall screen and highlighted the system. "Here, Sir!"

"Commander Trako, you fool! You chose to strike out on your own, without orders," said the admiral grimly. "I assume transmission has ended."

"Yes, Sir! Their status is unknown."

"The overconfident fool. Give this to the tactical analysis division, top priority. There's an enemy force out there of unknown size and power, and this is our only data about them. We need information! Once we have it, we will strike. And we will be prepared!" The admiral slammed its armored fist down on the table next to him as punctuation.

The assistant flinched and took the tablet back. "Aye, Sir!" it said and scurried from the room.

The admiral turned toward his tactical screen, which showed a view of the entire sector of the galaxy. "Where are you?" it asked rhetorically. "You don't feel like the Behinrrrd. You feel like ... something else. Something familiar. But what?"

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"Are you telling me we've got bug-o-saurus genes in our DNA, Gray?" asked Monahan.

On the screen, Lieutenant Gray was standing in the laboratory room, the two skeletons in the background. "No, Colonel, I have no idea whether they inserted their own genes. But they definitely tried to sabotage whatever the Behinrrrd were trying to do."

"Which was create obedient, orderly soldier minions," Monahan mused. "There are two ways to mess that up, as I see it. One way is to make us disobedient and disorderly. The other's to make us not soldiers."

"Now, there's no way one spy could've inserted those changes into every single minion," Gray surmised. "He might've altered a good number of them over time, but the majority would have remained untouched. Still, his changes entered the gene pool, and over time they would've mixed themselves into the general population."

"So there's lots of us who have a rebellious streak," said Monahan, "and lots who are, well, anything other than soldiers. The artists, the inventors, the philosophers."

"Could be, Ma'am," said Gray. "Now, there are other labs down here that don't look like they were used for anything. I think the spy probably made the computer think they were in use so he'd have the whole section to himself. Less chance of being discovered that way, I guess. But that means pristine labs fully stocked with equipment."

"This is probably why the original computer thought something was wrong with us and tried to fix us. We were partly in line with the plan, but not quite." Monahan paused. "Well, good thing we're not. I think simple minions wouldn't stand a chance. I think the Mahlkochieri's sabotage is going to backfire on them and bring about their own downfall. Well, at least in this part of space."

"Well, that's my report, Ma'am," said Gray. "I'll continue exploring, unless you've got other instructions."

"Negative, Lieutenant," said Monahan. "You continue your mission. You've already learned valuable intel, and you're likely to find more. This ship is huge, and we only know what's in part of it. The more we expand our knowledge, the better. And, Gray ..."

"Yes, Ma'am?"

"Those skeletons -- they were preserved for all this time," Monahan said, sounding concerned. "But we haven't found any others anywhere yet. Was nobody at all on the ship when it crashed? I doubt that -- strongly. That means somewhere out there are the remains of the original crew, and any minions who were still aboard at the time. We just haven't found them yet. Wherever they are, they might hold more answers to the questions we have. And maybe some we haven't thought of yet."

"Yes, Ma'am. I'll keep looking. Over and out."

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The Mahlkochieri Fleet Admiral read the commentary over the sketchy last transmission for the newest battleship in their fleet, the Nelkatthh. It was extremely upsetting to read that some of the missing words might be that something the enemy had was dissolving hull plating or quite possibly transforming it into other substances. Of course, as bad as the transmission had been, it was very hard to tell.

One thing the Admiral knew for certain, one of the very few series of images that showed one of the craft in attack mode, not only were very grainy and unlike most photos their equipment transmitted, but it seemed to show the craft was more a colloid type of thing than metal or plating, then in another picture it showed it transformed into yet another form altogether.

He leaned over and flipped the comm lever, "This is Admiral Slithhher. We have come against some new form of technology from our enemy. Apparently they have made an astonishing breakthrough that as yet we have no defenses for. Gather together 12 of the Glorth Demolition Battle Group. If they cannot defeat one simple listening post, we are doomed."

Many massive ships quickly achieved parking orbit in a near perfect wall of battle. The admiral smiled. There would be no life left in that system when he was done.

Admiral Slithhher swiveled in his command couch and said, "All ships, to these coordinates at all speed. We must end this post now."

12 huge super armored and armed super dreadnoughts left orbit and vanished in a swirl of FTL vortexes.

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"Sir, it's Listening Post Hlelnn Ichso again," said the communications officer. "They've been monitoring enemy transmissions and say that an even bigger attack is coming."

"Not again!" said Commander Slethish. "But that's their mindset: their pride won't be satisfied until they've destroyed their target. And they don't know we survived -- they may not even know the Ajaldar exists. But we're still not spaceworthy, so we can't do anything. I hate to ask our allies for even more help, but there's really no other choice."

"Hailing the Helix now, Sir."

"Thank you, Mr. Polynor." Shortly, the main screen changed to show Lieutenant Jeffries.

"Commander," said Jeffries. "How are things on the Ajaldar?"

Slethish filled him in on the report he'd just received. "You've done a lot for us, so I really don't want to ask for more, but your forces are our only hope at this point. And it sounds like these will be dreadnoughts or even larger, not just fighters, so they have the ability to utterly destroy that planetoid this time."

"I've patched you through to Colonel Morozov, who's just heard all of that," said Jeffries. "Colonel?"

"Am now mobilizing the pilot crew," said Morozov, appearing on the screen. "There is no time to prepare a new strategy in advance, so will have to do it on the fly, as Monahan says. The fighters are launching now on automatic control and will switch over to manual as soon as the pilots are ready." Morozov wore a black helmet that covered his eyes and was clearly operating controls in front of him as he spoke.

"Thank you again, Colonel," said Slethish. "We will find some way to pay you back for all of this, I promise."

"We discuss this later," said Morozov. "For now there is a battle to fight. Morozov out." The screen shifted back to showing the planetoid's surface, including part of the Helix. Fighter bays were opening, and the silver-gray fighters were launching from them in their standard delta-winged configuration.

"The Helix is transmitting tactical information to us," said Polynor. "On screen?"

"Yes, Mr. Polynor." The screen shifted to a display of the system containing the listening-post planetoid.

First Officer Rubeth said, "You know, of course, that the standard procedure for contact with Mahlkochieri-tainted soldier minions is either genetic alteration or immediate extermination, Sir."

"I'm aware of that general order," said Slethish. "But in this case ... I'm going to find a way around it. Because if we obey it, we're basically dead."

"And if we disobey, it's insubordination, and we could be court-martialed."

"Correction," said Slethish, "I could be court-martialed. You were just following orders. Understood?"

"That is assuming we knew they were enemy-tainted minions," said Lieutenant-Commander Niorath, the engineering officer, turning around and looking at Commander Slethish.

Slethish looked at Niorath, catching on. "We, of course, know no such thing. It's all speculation, after all, and our sensors were taken completely offline by the attack."

Rubeth added, "And there simply hasn't been a moment to spare since they were repaired."

"I think we're all on the same page," Slethish said. He turned his attention to the tactical display on the main screen. "I just hope they can handle this attack. I don't think they've encountered an enemy force this powerful before."

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"Ma'am, I think you might want to look at this," Grey said to Monahan. "I've gotten into Section 100-Lakin, and I think it's a tactical command center." Monahan could make out a number of large dark screens on the walls and a wide central well area behind Gray, but there didn't seem to be much light.

The original computer's face appeared next to Gray's on the screen. "That is correct. It is the war room. It can be specialized for two-dimensional planetary battle mode as well as three-dimensional space combat mode."

"I think we need to get down there," Monahan said. "We've got a big one. What's the fastest way to get there?"

"I'd take corridor 3 until you get to the lift, then take that to level Lakin ..." Gray explained, and the computer added its opinion.

Soon Monahan and a number of others were filing into the large, darkened chamber. The voice of Anna came from the walls, saying, "Please allow me to turn on the lights." The overhead lights came up and screens lit up all around them. The large central well in the center of the room glowed, then three-dimensional images began to appear in the air of the system where the battle would shortly take place. All around the central well were tables that were also screens, showing more data as well as controls for what to display.

"Our forces are ..." Monahan began, but then a number of speckles appeared in green near the Behinrrrd listening post planetoid. "... right there," she finished. "They're currently disguised as space rocks. That seemed to work before. Where are the reserves, now?"

"That would require a long-range display," Anna said, and one of the wall screens changed to show a longer-range map of the sector, with more than one group of reserve remote fighters highlighted, outside the system and therefore out of range of detection as far as they knew.

"Establishing communication with the pilots," said Anna, and other screens showed images of Jacobs and the other pilots.

"Oh! Hey there," Jacobs' voice said from the screen he was on. "Nice place you've found there. We're just getting settled in at the control stations as usual."

"I'd like to have eyes around that system," said Monahan. "Can we automate those remote scouts? I don't want to be blindsided when the enemy shows up."

"It is likely that the enemy will emerge from FTL as close to the target as possible," said Anna, illustrating with eye-popping three-dimensional graphics, "but the gravity of the system's stars limits their points of appearance to this minimal surface, as you see, so I will deploy the remote probes so as to optimally detect them ..." The long-range display showed the probes, which had interestingly already been under way before Monahan had said anything, entering the system, then they appeared on the main display as white points along the curved surface representing the closest the enemy ships could come before being forced to exit FTL drive.

"You getting all this, pilots?" asked Monahan.

"That's affirmative, Ma'am," said Jacobs. "We just got a whole new display system we didn't have before."

"OK, now we won't have to wait for --" The three-dimensional display suddenly lit up with several red spots along the surface Anna had predicted. "We have incoming!" Monahan called out.

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Admiral Slithhher watched the forward screen intently making minor clarity adjustments on the fly. This gave him a much better ability to see fine objects. He didn't trust computers to do what his eyes were perfectly capable of doing.

He felt the usual strange sensation wash through him as his ship emerged from FTL. He brought his Super Dreadnought fleet to a relative halt in relation to the surrounding stars. Look as he did, the only new features he could see were several dozen new small asteroid swarms that had been captured for the moment by some gravitational event. The magnetic readings coupled with other things were kind of weird around the rock, but whatever the effect dissipated after a few seconds. The threat protocol didn't even calculate what the true danger potential was.

The many remote pilots tingled with excitement. These were wholly new fighters with completely reworked engines, shields, and even the transmogrification beam had new particles and spins. But ... "Those ships are awful big," Jacobs said, voicing what they were all thinking.

Drs. Hughes and Yulovna checked in, appearing in a screen from the R&D lab. "Colonel?" asked Hughes. "We just found out our ships will be facing some really large opponents, so we've been running some simulations, and we might need to upgrade the fighters. Is that OK?"

"Upgrade the ... but they're in the field!" objected Monahan.

"That's pretty much why we designed them this way. Shape-shifting vessels that can be reconfigured at any time."

"Just let the pilots know before you reconfigure the ships right out from under them," advised Monahan.

"Colonel, ready and waiting for your orders," said Jacobs.

Monahan thought. "I'm selecting a target," she said, using the screen in front of her to highlight one of the super dreadnoughts. "All fighters, attack that one. We need to know if we can bring one of these down, and if it works, we'll have one less hostile unit."

Hughes added, "Ready to take data! We'll add it to our simulations."

"Assuming attack form alpha and going in," said Jacobs.

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"Form into Attack ..." began Admiral Slithhher, but then stopped. "What is that?"

The several dozen small planetoids had just changed shape ... "Ah, shape shifting fighters. Clever, but tiny. Blow them out of space."

The guns on the flagship fired at the tiny fighters, which seemed to flicker and waver on the screen. Other super dreadnoughts in the fleet began to fire at them as well, but none seemed to be able to land a shot on any of them. "Perhaps I did not make myself clear," said the admiral. "In order to blow them out of space, you must actually take some sort of aim and hit them. They're coming in to attack, and nothing that size can do any damage, so you'll have plenty of opportunity to --"

Then the fighters just passed the flagship right by. They headed straight for the Ppplukesh, all of them, chased by turret fire the entire way. Then most of the defensive firing ceased -- they were too close to the Ppplukesh; any miss could blow a hole in their own ship's hull, and every shot had been a miss so far. There were still occasional shots when a turret was able to aim cleanly, but for the most part the fighters were now unopposed.

"Hm," the admiral said, "Well, they're a nuisance, but nothing to be concerned about. Thhhralkor and Ulllmogh, take aim and fire at the enemy listening post!" Two of the other giant vessels slowly began to rotate, aligning their massive main cannons at the planetoid.

Then the damage reports began coming in. "What? What's this? Ppplukesh, how can tiny fighters be causing this much -- how can the hull plating just be gone? How can the power batteries be beryllium-depleted? Destroy those fighters! Launch ours!"

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"Ha! One direct hit after another! We're on fire!" laughed Jacobs. An enemy energy bolt that had missed them minutes ago struck a nearby planetoid and melted a huge patch of it into glowing red magma. "OK, so don't get hit, or we really will be on fire," said Jacobs, seeing that.

"Taking data and simulating," said Hughes. "We're running this battle hundreds of times with different configuration parameters. Predicting that they'll launch fighters."

Indeed, each massive Mahlkochieri ship began launching fighters, and soon there were hundreds of them all around them. But the defensive computers were still handily avoiding their fire.

"Do you have a tactical target for us yet?" asked Jacobs.

"Not enough data," Hughes said. "Don't know where the bridge, central fuel tank, or power reserve is yet. Their engines are a pretty obvious target, though."

"Keep shooting until something blows up," offered Monahan helpfully.

"Any piece you shoot off is good," cut in Morozov, who was coordinating tactics. "They clearly think they are invincible, coming in with so many large units. The more you can do to damage that belief, the more you will demoralize them."

"What if I ... vaporize large strips of their hull?" said Jacobs as he was doing just that. The transmutation gun converted the incredibly tough crystalline metal alloy to nitrogen, which froze in the vacuum of space and crumbled into a fine powder, drifting away. This did not expose the ship's internal atmosphere immediately, just a lot of pipes, conduits, and pressure walls, but the fighter immediately behind him cut straight through those, and now atmosphere and fluids were escaping into space, along with a number of surprised Mahlkochieri who now had seconds to live.

Morozov saw a strange energy wave building up surrounding the massive wall of battle all the Super Dreadnaughts formed. Even the one just damaged by the fighters. He said "Careful all, not real sure what ..."

His words were cut off as an explosive wave pulse lashed out from the ships for several megaklicks around. About 10 of the new fighters were caught in the pulse. A massively bright purple sparking flash and all that remained was extremely fast moving, molten hot shrapnel that impacted the hull of several of the dreadnoughts.

To the surprise of everyone, each of the molten drops were moving so fast, with so much kinetic energy that had to go somewhere, they did a great deal of damage. Each one impacted with such high energy that it caused a nuclear fusion reaction that burned huge holes in the armor plating of the dreadnoughts.

"Well," said Hughes, who was the first to speak, "that's new."

"Activating reserves," said Morozov. 10 new fighters began their FTL jump from interstellar space to the battle, where they would shortly arrive and be under control of the pilots.

"OK, now we know they can do that," said Monahan, "but it's also telegraphed in advance with enough time to get out of the way, and what's more, they can't do anything else while they're at it. Continue attacking the primary target."

"Uploading upgrade to fighters," said Hughes, "along with upgraded control interface to consoles."

"What's this? 'Swarm mode?'" asked Jacobs.

"Activate it when attacking these big ships," said Hughes.

"Going in for another run, so here goes," Jacobs said, and pressed the new control. His fighter immediately split into a cloud of hundreds of tiny independent pellet-sized missiles.

"A bear can't defend itself very well against a swarm of angry bees," Hughes said. "They can target one of these at a time -- maybe -- but even if they completely vaporize one of these micro-ships, the whole takes only minuscule damage."

"Can I still fire in this mode?" Jacobs said, trying it. And each micro-ship fired a tiny transmutation beam, in total affecting the same amount of the dreadnought hull that the fighter's original gun had before.

"Death of a thousand cuts," said Monahan.

As Jacobs' swarm assailed the targeted dreadnought, all the other pilots whose ships hadn't been destroyed also entered swarm mode and started scouring away parts of the vast ship's hull plating. While they were doing this, the reinforcements arrived, and now all the pilots had fighters to control again.

"They're doing it again!" Monahan called out, alerting the pilots that the dreadnoughts were forming up to fire their massive energy wave attack.

"Out of their forward firing arc!" Jacobs ordered. "Get around behind the target ship. Attack its rear engines. This is a gift. Merry Christmas!"

While the dreadnoughts were firing a huge burst of energy ineffectually into space, the entire wing of fighters assaulted their target ship's main engines. It had many, but when they were done, there were two fewer. Two large explosions rocked the huge enemy ship, and when the plasma clouds and debris had dissipated, there were large holes in its rear structure.

"I see it! I see it!" said Hughes excitedly. "The main reactor, that's got to be it! OK, programming that in as primary target." Her fingers were flying over her console.

"Not easy to get to, but now we've got a goal," said Jacobs. "Boys and girls, first one to hit that gets a drink, on me, assuming we make it back to a bar somewhere on Earth at some time." The fighters flew toward the structural voids where the destroyed engines had been, the swarms of tiny micro-ships able to enter gaps that the solid fighters would not have been able to. They boiled away more structural material, fully exposing the main reactor.

"Would advise against breaching main reactor from close range," said Morozov.

"Right, get clear!" said Jacobs. All the fighters flew out of the gap, but one of them turned one of its micro-ships backwards and fired a Parthian shot as it departed, converting one square foot of containment coil into mere water vapor.

That was enough. A small plume of brilliant white-hot plasma erupted into space, growing larger and larger as it vaporized the containment hardware around it. A jet of plasma similar to a solar flare arced into space behind the dreadnought, which began to drift, not even having enough power for station-keeping thrusters.

"OK, whose shot was that?" asked Jacobs.

"That was Noroyev, I think," said another pilot.

"You win the drink, Noroyev," Jacobs said. "Everyone remember that."

Monahan announced, "That one's out of commission. Designating new target!" She selected another dreadnought, which became outlined in white on the huge three-dimensional display.

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Admiral Slithhher was not the type of person who let anger rule. That was not how one won battles or rose in the ranks. But it was difficult to rein in the waves of rage and frustration he felt.

"Analysts," he ordered through sharp gritted teeth, "you solve problems. Solve this one." He watched the Ppplukesh drift, dead in space, while the bizarre enemy fighters rushed to assail the Thhhralkor. "How are they doing what they are doing? And how do we kill them?"

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The major repairs to the Ajaldar were proceeding well beyond what the conventional engineering wisdom said was possible for the Behinrrrd and its technology. Slethish knew that somehow one of the antique colonization fortresses had managed to hit the right genetic sequences. In all his military history studies he had never come across an account of any minions displaying the genius and inspiration he saw among these ... what did they call their world? Dirt? He guessed that made them Dirtlings.

"Humm", Slethish said, and placed his chin on top of his folded hands. Thoughts and visions danced through his mind at things he had only seen glimpses of in battles.

"If I could somehow convince these ... umm, guess I have to think of them as a people," Slethish mumbled to himself. "They definitely show no signs of the submissive natures all minions are genetically bred with ... to align themselves with us officially, I know I can persuade the next Behinrrrd Emperor, after the immediate retirement of the current one, to make it law these were in fact a people, and not genetic minions. Especially since the odds were almost guaranteed to make him ... the next."

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"Good evening, ladies and gentlemen; I'm Greg Grey with Channel 5 News. Tonight we have a major news story about the mass disappearance of both US and Russian military forces including several news reporters, whom we all miss. According to our informant within the White House ..."

As she continued, on the TV screen appeared the before and after pictures of the location where the fortress had stood on the Greenland glacier.

"Apparently, a US Air Force bomber developed major engine problems and crash landed during an unusually strong blizzard while on a top secret mission to relocate an atomic warhead. The device, we have been informed, was not supposed to have been armed at the time of the mishap,"

The images changed to a short obviously secretly taken clip of 5 star General Eastlessland assuring all of the assembled military and civilian leaders that the device was not supposed to have had its detonator devices inserted, along with the black and white forms on which the original order was allegedly written.

"According to our sources within the White House, who asked not to be identified due to the sensitive nature of this information, while attempts were being made by US and Russian forces to recover the weapon from the crash site, some sort of mishap occurred that resulted in the detonation of the weapon."

This time, only the images of the aftermath showed on the screen. They showed a massive hole in the ice over half a mile wide surrounded by a major debris field. In several of the shots, the camera angles showed that the hole was very deep.

The News Anchor looked at the camera and continued, "We have asked the White House for more information and will keep our viewers informed as soon as we hear more. This is Greg Gray, Channel 5 News."

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The battle raged on. Commander Slethish and his crew were watching the tactical information on their displays. "Looks like they've got one of the super-dreadnoughts hanging dead in space," First Officer Rubeth said.

"Are our computers back up yet?" asked Slethish.

Engineering Officer Niorath replied, "We have access to our data banks, Sir, but a lot of the computational capacity still remains to be restored."

"Do we have any intel about Mahlkochieri super-dreadnoughts of that class? If so, can we share anything with our allies?"

"Searching ... They do seem to be a relatively new design, Sir, but we have some scans, and we also have detailed intel on several predecessor models. But ... if we share it ... it's classified intel, Sir."

"Certainly the data on older models is obsolete by now," said Slethish.

"That doesn't mean it's been declassified, Sir," Rubeth said. "Bureaucracy, you know."

"All too well," said Slethish. "Hmm."

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Jeffries said, "Colonel Monahan, I'm getting a message from the Ajaldar."

"One moment," said Monahan. "Let me see here ... ok." She figured out how to open a channel on a small display so as not to interfere with the tactical screens. "Put them through, Lieutenant."

Commander Slethish appeared on the screen, his pale green skin and long, swept-back ears still looking quite unusual to Monahan. "Colonel Monahan," he said. "I am grateful that you are sharing your tactical information with us."

"Thought you'd at least want to see what's going on," Monahan replied. "How can I help you, Commander?"

"We seem to have a bit of a problem," Slethish said. "We have inadvertently jettisoned a data crystal out one of the forward airlocks on Deck 3. Some systems are still malfunctioning, as you know. Our sensors are still inactive in that area. I believe that crystal contains highly classified intelligence data about certain classes of Mahlkochieri dreadnoughts. If you could spare a sensor drone to scan the planetoid's surface for it, I would be very grateful."

"You lost a -- oh." Monahan realized what was going on. "Well, certainly, we can have a drone search for it, Commander. We can scan the ... planetoid's surface quite thoroughly. I'm sure the data on the crystal is extremely important. We'll return it to you as soon as possible. Thank you for letting us help you."

"A pleasure working with you, as always, Colonel."

Monahan quickly informed Hughes and Yulovna about the "missing" data crystal, and they quickly located it. "You know, the Ajaldar only has one forward airlock on Deck 3," Hughes said. "We're having the drone deliver it back to them. After we copy the data from it, as they obviously wanted us to do. Then we get to analyze it!"

"Thanks, Dr. Hughes. You too, Dr. Yulovna. Do what you can!" said Monahan.

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Slithhher was totally mind blown at how the strange crafts performed. In his entire career he had never witnessed anything even suggestive of the way those craft operated. None of the scans he had received back made any kind of sense. One scan showed the craft's hull structure to be made of some form of carbon compound arranged in a lattice with some weird form of matter encased within. The next scan showed the crafts structure had become something akin to diamonds and rubidium. There were even scans that showed them to made of water molecules.

Slithhher slammed his fist on the arm of his gravity couch as he yelled out in total frustration, "Can't anybody give me a proper scan or hit those stupid things?"

A small beetle looking spider lizard turned and replied, "This one is sorry, Most High Overlord. Those ships seem to be able to change shape and composition at will. They are far more maneuverable than we and have a form of energy shielding integral with the basic structures of their craft. Basically the shield doesn't deflect our weapons; they literally aren't being hit at all."

About that time, a very loud grinding noise was heard, then the emergency air retention shield came on. A massive hole opened just outside the bridge as the hull transformed into something that instantly froze and exploded outward under the atmospheric pressure within.

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"With this new intel, you can form into wings, and each wing attack a target," said Monahan.

Morozov saw the plan. "Am assigning targets. Alpha Wing, attack this target, designated Target Alpha. Bravo Wing, attack this target ..." He designated a target for each wing of four fighters.

"Yes, Sir," said Jacobs. "You heard the Colonel, both of 'em." The pilots' screens were now marked with intelligence data about the super dreadnoughts' weak points. "Alpha Wing, with me."

One wing remained on the vessel they had all been attacking, but all the rest broke off to assail different ships. And they hit them mercilessly, striking directly at power coupling hubs, bridges, weapons emplacements, maneuvering engines, sensor arrays -- anything to blind, immobilize, disarm, or neutralize the massive starships.

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Fleet Admiral Slithhher shouted. "We are losing! Forget the fighters! Accomplish the mission! All ships, aim and fire main forward cannons at the planetoid!"

Slowly, all the dreadnoughts' gigantic main cannons began charging up to fire as they rotated slowly toward the Behinrrrd listening post.

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"They're turning to attack the Behinrrrd base," said Monahan. "Disable them as fast as you can!"

"We're not holding back, Ma'am, they're just really big," said Jacobs.

"Are any of them disabled?" Monahan asked.

Dr. Yulovna spoke up. "Besides the first target, which is still disabled, it appears that four are not powering up their main weapon. The rest ... oh, correction. A fifth has been disabled to the point where it will not be able to fire. There are still six that will be firing on the planetoid."

"How powerful is that weapon?" asked Monahan.

"One direct hit from that weapon will cause massive damage to even a base the size of that planetoid," Yulovna said. "But I may have a ..."

"Wait, what's going on?" Monahan asked.

"It's the planetoid, Ma'am," said Jacobs. "We're in range of their guns. They've opened fire on the Mahlkochieri."

"Great! But stay out of their line of fire."

"Don't need to tell us that, Ma'am."

Beams of greenish energy lanced out from the planetoid and played across the hulls of the Mahlkochieri dreadnoughts. The planetoid wasn't being slack on damage imposed in any way. The energy shielding failed on the closest dreadnaught to the planetoid in a wonderful pyrotechnic display. Massive debris fields spread out from the armored hull of the Super Dreadnought with each impact of the planetoid's weapon. Major outgassing events began to happen as the inner pressure hull was breached and damage to the oxygen retention system caused failures.

The human-operated fighters concentrated attacks on the far side of their targets, away from the planetoid and its weapons. They didn't want to get hit by accident. They too were doing massive damage to the city sized Super Dreadnaughts, but in smaller and more localized ways, focusing on individual strategic and tactical targets whose destruction would create other massive collateral damage.

The large super dreadnaughts formed up with a main grouping in the center while the others surrounded them. Without warning a massive pulse of energy spread out in a sphere surrounding the war group. It pulsed in tremendous waves as the dreadnoughts in the middle of this aimed, targeted the planetoid, then armed their huge cannons with an energy the Earth people hadn't before encountered.

Monahan saw the energy wave of something his tactical computer had never encountered charging within the Dreadnaughts systems. Monahan said with urgency, "Is there any way to stop them from firing?"

Jacobs replied back with frustration obvious in his voice, "We're trying. That weird pulsing energy thingy of theirs will destroy any of our ships caught in it. I'm trying something really weird with the tgun .."

Monahan asked, "The what? The Tgun? I don't think I've heard of that weapon."

Jacobs laughed, "The Transmogrification weapon, Ma'am. We shortened it to Tgun ... it sounds better."

"Right, "Responded Monahan, "Just let me know if it works or not."

Jacobs concentrated on his plan. He couldn't allow the major phalanx going on all around his fighters to distract him. His instruments told him the pulse came in waves interspersed by 50 seconds. Obviously that was so they could recharge the device making the waves.

Jacobs knew he could get in close enough to change the forward weapons array of the super dreadnoughts in firing position into something else ... like ... jello. He laughed to himself as he timed the pulses ... one ... two ... getting his fighter out before the next pulse ... he knew he had to do some major damage. Without another thought, Jacobs willed his fighters to dive directly towards the main battle group.

Of course the Malkochieri saw this too. The only problem was that each of the fighters very rapidly approaching the dreadnoughts broke up into a swarm of ... something ... and were as impossible to target as a hive of nionbutu. This also made them just as aggravating since they too had a powerful sting.

Almost totally unopposed, and with the loss of only 4 motes out of thousands, Jacobs fired the Tgun at almost point blank range. Instantly, major portions of the main cannon weapons pods turned into some sort of clear colloid, before freezing in the icy cold of space, and shattering under atmospheric pressures within the hull. Extremely large explosions followed of that really strange energy scattering massive debris, boiling plasma, and outgassing fires everywhere.

The result was that the next time the dreadnoughts fired their spherical wave attack, there was one area that didn't get hit, right in front of the dreadnought without a main gun. Unsurprisingly, the human-piloted remote fighters congregated in that area next time the wave attack came, then split up to separately attack their targets again. Now the wave attack was barely slowing them down at all. Besides this, whenever the wave attack came, the planetoid chose that opportunity to fire. Evidently they'd noticed the fighters and decided to avoid shooting the ships that were attacking their enemies.

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Fleet Admiral Slithhher opened his eyes. His body felt totally weird. The ship's Doctor was bent over him furiously bandaging where his arm used to be.

Slithhher said weakly, "What ... happened?"

The Doctor replied, "We got hit by some kind of weird weapon. The entire port side just behind the Budok 244 line vanished in a huge explosion. No one is exactly sure what the weapon is. All we do know for sure is our shields have no effect on it."

A rather young armored lizard looking crab knelt by the Admiral and said softly, "Sir, we are dead in space. Our entire attack group has either been neutralized or severely damaged."

"How is that possible?" gasped Slithhher as he felt the first serious stab of pain in his chest.

The young officer replied, "We do not know. It's a radical technological advancement in weaponry and firepower. None of our intel spoke of any such massive advances."

"How ... how could the hated Behinrrrd have made such a leap forward ... without our slightest inkling ...?"

"Sir, please don't strain yourself," said the doctor. "We still need your leadership."

"That's it! ... They don't look like Behinrrrd ships ... because they are not Behinrrrd ships! They are ... something else we have not before encountered! But why are they allied with the Behinrrrd? Our spies would have learned of a newly-discovered race if the Behinrrrd had made alliances with them -- unless they did not! Yes ... we must have attacked them by accident, and they defended themselves. The Behinrrrd did not make this mistake, so these unknowns and our hated enemy are each wisely choosing not to fight a battle on two fronts ..."

"But Sir," said the young officer, "why are they now defending a Behinrrrd listening post?"

"Yes, the planetoid is definitely using standard Behinrrrd technology," said Slithhher. "This is a good question. Perhaps they have made a battlefield alliance."

"What do we do now, Sir?" the young officer asked.

The admiral lay still and contemplated. Finally, he asked, "What is our course? Relative to the planetoid?"

"Trajectory 60 degrees off direct approach, Sir," the younger officer answered, consulting an instrument attached to its arm (units converted for the benefit of the reader). "No power to engines, so we are drifting. We might have some maneuvering thrusters."

"Time until we are back in FTL-compatible space?"

The young officer did some calculations on its arm device. "We are lucky. About eight minutes, Sir."

"Can we survive the planetoid's weapons for that time? In Defensive Formation Oguun?"

"Oguun? In my estimation ... yes, if all personnel evacuated to the central ship."

"I will give the order, then," said the admiral, speaking into the device on his own arm with some difficulty. "This is Fleet Admiral Slithhher to all units. Initiate Defensive Formation Oguun. Centered on the super dreadnought with the most intact engines. Once in formation, all personnel are to evacuate to that ship. All engineering efforts to restore FTL capability to that ship. The others ... will act as shields. Once possible ... retreat."

"Retreat, Sir?" asked the younger officer. The thought was nearly inconceivable.

"We have extremely vital information," said the admiral. "Our experience and knowledge from this battle must return to the rest of the fleet. If not ... this will happen again and again. We must swallow our pride now if we want to return victorious later."

"There is a question you did not ask me, Sir," said the younger officer.

"Can we survive the unknowns' weapons for eight minutes?" The admiral winced from the pain of his injuries as he almost laughed. "That is because neither you nor I know the answer. We will have to trust that they do not see disabled ships as a threat ... and are not so vindictive as to destroy us merely because we still exist."

The younger officer asked, "And if they are?"

The admiral shrugged weakly. "Then we are dead."

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Morozov read his tactical screens carefully as the data changed. He said, "Commander, the Mahlks are doing something rather different. Sending you the data now."

Monahan allowed the data to flow through her mind. What she saw was the dreadnoughts were either disabled, or seriously damaged. Between the attacking planetoid on one side, and her swarm fighters on the other, most of what scanners showed was a huge debris field spreading out in all directions in an ever enlarging sphere.

She also noticed how the ones that still were able to maneuver, were gathering around another that had a huge gaping hole in one side. She didn't feel any love lost for those Super Dreadnoughts, but she did have enough sympathy not to want to attack a defenseless ship. An old Special Forces saying rolled around in her head over and over, "There's no honor in killing a surrendering and helpless opponent."

On the other hand, Monahan also realized that what this formation accomplished, was forming an almost impenetrable wall between the attackers, and the one ship in the middle.

Monahan said, "Tell our fighter pilots to concentrate on disabling, not destroying. We don't want anyone returning to home and telling little tales."

"Is not as if Geneva Conventions apply here, with people who have never heard of them," said Morozov, "but we must think of honor. Our own honor, I mean."

"What do you mean, Sergei?" Monahan asked.

"Must decide what to do with the Mahlkochieri here," Morozov explained. "Probably they intend to try to escape with as many lives as possible. Will take information with them, yes. But only alternatives are to take them prisoner, to slaughter them outright like barbarians, or to continue disabling their ships until they have no hope of repair. Which is same thing, they die in space when they run out of air and food. We are the only representatives of the human race out here. Who will we be?"

"Hadn't thought of that," said Monahan. "They're not surrendering, but ... I don't know if they have that concept, or if they speak the only alien language we know. But they're not attacking either. They're nearly helpless. My dad always told me you don't kick a man when he's down. I mean, beating him in a fight says something about you, and something about him. But kicking him after you've beaten him ... that just says something about you."

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Monahan said slowly, "I don't want any word getting back to their home base about what kind of force they have encountered. I want them to know their mighty armada came and disappeared. But I am not going to slaughter them like animals. We have figured out how to build a lot of things amazingly fast. We can turn an asteroid into a prison planet. Besides, we need the tech knowledge about their ships ... and having a few Mahlks to chat with wouldn't hurt."

Morozov and Jeffries both replied, "Aye. We will disable and capture."

Immediately, all the remote fighters began to explicitly target the engines and power distribution areas of the remaining ships. Rapidly, weapons went down, shields failed, and the huge city sized ships began to drift as their mobility failed.

Monahan grinned in one of her cute ways, "I've never met an insect dino lizard before"

Jeffries said, "That's what the Commander of the Behinrrrd Battle Cruiser told me. They look like some kind of insectoid Lizard. Armor plating and all."

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The wings of remote fighters all broke down into their swarm form. Each focused even harder on disabling. One of the Ships acting as a shield suddenly flared very brightly as the main power core ruptured and exposed its reaction chamber. A huge pyroclastic debris filled plasma explosion filled the views of all the remote pilots to the point the emergency flash shields darkened to almost black.

Slithher was almost totally disabled by his injuries. He could well tell the alien fighters had no intention of letting them run ... nor did they have any intention of totally wiping them out. The Admiral watched in total disbelief as the massive swarms of super small motes attacked and did the same damage as the intact craft in one of its many solid forms.

There were over a thousand of them -- surely these unknowns didn't intend to take them all captive! Slithhher was dumbfounded. They would need housing, food, hospital facilities for those who were injured like himself. And yet it seemed that was their goal. This species was ruthlessly determined but also determined not to kill helpless opponents.

For days the siege continued -- whenever the engineers got a reactor working, the unknown enemy would somehow detect it and shoot it with some kind of beam that seemed to sabotage it, turning vital materials into useless helium or nitrogen. And yet they did not attack life support, nor did they blast holes in habitation areas. What were they waiting for?

Finally a ship showed up. A large transport vessel of some kind appeared. It sliced a perfect circle in a hallway bulkhead and simultaneously docked with the opening it had created. Out came beings in environmental suits; it was impossible to tell what they looked like inside, other than that they were shaped somewhat like the hated Behinrrrd, with two legs, two arms, standing upright. They carried some sort of sidearms. When some of the more desperate crew tried to attack them with their own hand weapons, they dissolved into particles as their fighters had done until the energy had passed, then reformed. There was clearly no point to resistance. Hundreds of these beings, all alike, emerged and led the defeated Mahlkochieri into the transport ship. And evidently there were more than one, because reports of this same activity came in from many decks at once.

"Taken prisoner!" fumed Slithhher. "I never thought I would see this shameful day. But at least it is not at the hands of the Behinrrrd Hegemony."

"Please move along," said the oddly mechanical voice of one of the nearby troopers. Perhaps they had automated translation technology.

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"I wouldn't have thought to build robot troops," said Monahan. "Interesting idea, Dr. Yulovna."

"The Behinrrrd had already solved the technical problems of humanoid robots," Yulovna said. "But they were expensive in materials. Biological troops were cheaper from their point of view. But we can transmute whatever materials we need out of the carbon, silicon, and iron in these planetoids. All we have to do is remotely-control them."

From the Helix they watched the transports emerging from FTL and landing on another planetoid in the same system, one they had reshaped to its core. Pilots were remotely controlling the transport ships, while other pilots were remotely controlling the robots.

"Well, the less the Mahlks know about us, the better," Monahan said. "And that includes this ship. We don't want them seeing it, or I'd have suggested we house them here. What's Dr. Hughes up to, by the way?"

"Oh, she's running the scout drones, going over the remains of the dreadnoughts with a fine-toothed comb. She's happy as a clam. That is a strange expression. I do not know how to tell whether a clam is happy."

"I don't either. I'll bet Dr. Hughes is finding some amazing stuff." Monahan turned toward a screen showing the Helix's surroundings, including the Ajaldar, which was three days farther along in its repairs. "I wonder how our Behinrrrd friends are coming along."

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Slethish sat in his command couch and contemplated what he had observed on his tactical displays. He was in awe at the prowess these Dirtlings possessed. He had observed how rapidly they had managed to manufacture the specialized materials and components of his brand new, top of the cutting edge, battlecruiser.

He looked around his command bridge. It was obvious the major repair job that had been accomplished. It had taken almost a year for Behinrrrd manufacturing to produce many of the components, but it took these people a day or less more often than not.

He also thought himself fortunate to have been on the side of the Dirtlings rather than oppose them. He was still totally shocked at the firepower, speed, and agility of their strange shape shifting fighters.

Slethish had observed the strange fighters completely take out a formidable squadron of Super Dreadnoughts with maybe 15 or 20 total of the fighters lost. The remainder took no discernible damage.

In his mind, he began to contemplate how best to retire that useless overweight slug the current Emperor had become. Slethish knew he would be the next person in line, because he was the highest ranking military commander. This left him as the most likely candidate.

He smiled to himself. It was guaranteed, then, that the new Emperor would accept these Dirtlings as a People, and not minions to be ruled over. He was also sure they could be gently persuaded into sharing some of their technology for the bit of the Behinrrrd technology they had already been given and vastly improved on.

Slethish smiled again as he toggled the comm, "This is Commander Slethish. I'm giving the go-ahead to Operation Retirement. I want everything in place and ready when I return in a month."

The young officer on the other end of the supra-light connection replied with a surprised tone, "Yes, sir. On what grounds should I file this order?"

Slethish pinched his thin nose bridge between his long, slender forefinger and thumb as he said, "Base it on observed incompetence, gross negligence to sworn duty, and disregard to Empire safety. You know that all of the senior officers and staff are of this opinion."

The young officer replied back in a soft regretful tone, "Aye, sir. And we have plenty of corroborating video as proof. All will be in readiness when you return. Comm officer Delfffris out."

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There were approximately 1500 Mahlkochieri on the prison planetoid, and it didn't take them long to figure out that the guards were robots. "So, we still have no idea what these unknowns look like," said Fleet Admiral Slithhher when none of the guards were around. "But we can have our secrets too. Pass the word. No one is to reveal to our captors that I am Fleet Admiral."

The others in the nearby cells replied, "Yes, Sir," and he knew they would tell others until all of his people were aware. No sense giving them a bargaining chip.

But their captors weren't unreasonable. One of the robots came to a nearby cell and asked Captain Fsssoth, "Pardon me, but we are unfamiliar with your species. Is the environment an uncomfortable temperature? Do you require more water? Are the nutrients in the food sufficient?"

He heard Fsssoth give his opinion about the accommodations, which contained a number of Mahlkochieri expletives, but he did say that it was too cold and that the beds were hard. The next day, when they were all taken out of their cells for the communal meal, consisting of a rather tasteless pudding like material that was nevertheless filling and seemingly nutritious, they were returned to their cells to find that their beds all had redesigned mattresses and spring infrastructures -- all 1500 or so of them. They all also noticed that the ambient temperature had risen slightly and was much more comfortable.

Others he talked to hadn't heard that their captors had been asking questions about who the leader was or what their battle plans were. It was as if they weren't here for any sort of interrogation. Did they have some sort of sense of honor that prevented them from killing defenseless opponents after all? But if so, what plans did they have for their Mahlkochieri captives?

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"What I want to know is whether we can go home yet," said Monahan, in a conference with the rest of the officers. She was in the main bridge, surrounded by screens showing all the others, who were in various places on board the Helix.

"That would depend on whether the rest of their fleet has changed its plans," said Morozov. "The fleet we defeated must have been commanded by an admiral or their equivalent, but it was not the entire Mahlkochieri fleet, not even the fleet in this arm of the galaxy. Whoever commands that may or may not still have a mission to sweep every planet clear of any non-Mahlkochieri life."

"We have long-range sensors, and our scout drones are out watching them," said Yulovna. "They are improved drones, even smaller and harder to detect. But although they have reduced forces, they still seem to be pursuing that mission. We've slowed them down."

"So they've still got their orders from their high command, wherever that is, probably on their homeworld or whatever," said Monahan. "They'll probably get reinforcements. And even if we destroy them all, who's to say they won't just send another entire fleet to keep trying?"

"Well, one thing's for sure," said Jeffries, "I think the folks back on Earth deserve to know what's been going on out here. I'll send a report and let you know what they say."

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Back on Earth, many of the planet's very best linguists and code breakers were busy working on the large library of data stacks Monahan had been transmitting to them via radio. It took a long time to receive the signals until someone named Dr. Yulovna and Hughes sent them a set of plans and a working copy of a remarkable communications device that utilized something called Bonded pair. They also knew Einstein had called the same principle 'Spooky action at a distance' .

The new translation protocols made the new computer systems much better able to crack the written language. The data it told academia about the true origins of the peoples of Earth were as shocking as the idea was totally amazing. Most of the brightest minds on Earth now knew that Humankind had been genetically engineered for war -- but altered into who they had become by sabotage.

It had become more than obvious all their theories about Man's origins and what the meaning of Evolution was needed a very large revision.

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Early one morning, several weeks later, Slithhher was awakened by several robots entering his quarters unannounced. He couldn't think of it as a cell, it had been arranged to his personal preference by his captors. They said nothing as They took hold of him in a no nonsense way. It was apparent they didn't want to hurt him, but they weren't taking any resistance either. Slithhher felt the massive injection they gave him.

As he felt his body relax and darkness fall over his mind he shouted, "I'll tell you nothing ... "

Next thing he knew, Slithhher opened his eyes, he was back in his quarters, and somehow his captors had managed to activate the long atrophied ability of their saurian heritage to regenerate limbs. His arm and several of his other missing appendages were back and in pristine condition.

He still felt somewhat groggy from whatever the sedative was. He sat up, his head spun slowly around as the bed felt as if it was tipping sideways. Slithhher realized suddenly he was being tucked into bed as if he were a lizling.

The robot nurse chided softly, "Now, now. You must rest in bed for another chronal period or two and allow the drugs to get out of your system." She finished tucking him in and making sure he was comfortable.

Slithhher asked, "Aren't you going to interrogate us ... about things?"

The Robot nurse stood up straight and replied, "Heavens no. Why in this galaxy would I want to do that? I'm positive there's nothing any of you might say I would have any sort of interest in."

Slithhher was flabbergasted. Whomever these strange beings that held him captive were, not only did they have a very strong sense of honor over the helpless and injured, they had absolutely no interest in anything he or his crew might say. Slithhher had tried for several weeks to determine if any of the alien creatures had attempted to question any of the others before this and they had not.

It was most interesting to note: the aliens apparently had every intention of keeping them there indefinitely. They were most attentive to their captive's needs and wants to a certain point, which was far better than any prisoner of the Mahlkochieri would hope to achieve.

The spartan group cells they had been in originally had developed into personal living quarters to which each individual had been confined. Each room was huge as it kept expanding to meet the requests of the prisoners.

Eventually another change carved into the rock of the planetoid. Carved to large enough in size, created large, natural looking places the rest could mingle and smaller places similar to cafes, but were still basically Food dispensaries.

Amazingly, a park had appeared, complete with a well stocked pond and large grassy places surrounded by shrubs with many of the equipments to play many of the sports and do many of the exercises the crew had grown accustomed to doing since youth.

To the amazement of all, a huge area that had been seeded with flora from their home world appeared. But still, none of the captives could figure exactly what the strange creatures that held them captive looked like, or exactly what they intended to do with them long term. From all appearances, the captives were going to be there for a very long time.

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"Wait -- you're keeping how many Mahlk prisoners? Where? And ... why?" asked Commander Slethish.

"Right over ..." there, actually," said Colonel Monahan, sighting the prison planetoid, a tiny speck in the distance in their own planetoid's sky. The two were walking in their environmental suits to survey the exterior of the Ajaldar now that repairs were nearing completion. "They didn't see this planet, the Helix, or the Ajaldar while we were transferring them. Actually we built some robots, so they haven't seen a single human or Behinrrrd during the entire process."

Slethish seemed to relax. "Well, that's not so bad. They might have vital information, so it's a good idea."

"Really we just want to keep them out of the way," said Monahan, "and prevent them from telling the rest of their people about their encounter with us. There weren't any survivors of the previous encounters, but this time there were, and we couldn't simply kill them once we'd disabled their ships. It would've been dishonorable."

"But -- they have information," Slethish repeated, confused.

"Which we're hoping they'll volunteer in time," Monahan said. "We know where their fleet is. We know it's continuing its program of scanning planets and exterminating anything of Behinrrrd origin in this region of space, but it's slowed down, probably because of the sudden loss of all those ships and their crews."

"You have eyes on their fleet?" Slethish asked incredulously. "And you're not launching an attack?"

"We're still learning from the last battle. We certainly do things differently, your people and mine. But in any case, as you can see, the hull of the Ajaldar is nearly complete." They were coming to a spot where a group of repair robots were fusing new hull plates together with each other. "This is the last area that needs exterior repair."

"Excellent," said Slethish. "There is interior work to be done yet, but it will be much easier once the hull is done and we can turn off the atmospheric retention fields."

"Yes," said Monahan. "I had a question for you, actually. So far you haven't been aboard the Helix, and none of our people has been aboard the Ajaldar. I was wondering whether you'd allow our technicians to come help complete the interior repairs. I can offer to host a team of your people aboard the Helix first for a tour, as sort of a diplomatic exchange."

Slethish paused. "That would be extremely interesting. Your ship is a museum piece, possibly the only intact vessel of its class still in existence -- I'm not aware of another, at any rate. There is a lot of history just in its designs, and I've always been an interstellar military history buff. So is Lieutenant Commander Niorath, our chief engineer."

"Well, the offer stands," said Monahan. "Please feel free to discuss it with your crew. Then perhaps our folks can help your folks finish the repair job inside your ship."

"I will," Slethish said. "We'll let you know. But, Colonel ... the enemy. They're still out there, and they still threaten your people. What are you going to do?"

"When we're ready, we'll mount an assault on their forces," said Monahan. "One we think we'll win. But ... we know the clock's ticking. It's only a matter of time before they get reinforcements to replace the ships we destroyed."

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An armored crab like lizard entered the High Commanders control station and flipped its tail across one of its shoulders smartly, "Sir, data has come to our attention that is of the utmost importance."

The large mantis like Lizard turned its beady eyes towards the Jr. officer and said, "Well? If it's important enough to enter here and interrupt my planning session ... and it truly better be."

The officer shuffled his feet a bit as he said nervously, "The ... the battle group of Super Dreadnoughts ... "

The High Commander stood up straight and said smoothly, "Continue."

The officer said, "We have lost all comms with them, High Commander. Last routine comm informed that they had reached weapons range with the listening post. No other comms have been received. There have been a few garbled comms of strange ships that seem to blend into space."

The Commander frowned, "How many chronol periods have passed since last readable contact?"

"Sir, "The officer stood at strict attention, "It has been several weeks since last readable comm. All tracking beacons are dark. It is assumed the Battle Group has been neutralized."

"What?" roared the High Commander as he slammed his hand with great force on the top of the control panel, "How can that be?"

"It is ... unknown to this lowly one," replied the trembling officer.

The Commander glared at the officer for a few seconds longer then said, "Dismissed."

The officer wasted no time in throwing his tail smartly across the other shoulder, spinning around and vanishing from sight as rapidly as possible.

The Commander sat back in his gravity couch as many dark and dreaded thoughts crossed his mind. He knew that the very first Carrier and escort group could, under certain optimal conditions, be defeated by a small planetoid post such as that.

The second grouping, was a large and well fortified attack Squadron commanded by a somewhat arrogant Captain, but an excellent officer with many kills to his long career. One didn't sit in the command couch as long as Commander Trako if you were incompetent.

The High Commander nodded his head thoughtfully as he brought up a Holo-Starmap of the planetoid's current star location. He began to make a list of the ship names and their loadouts that had vanished, with only one very ragged and spotty transmission to tell any tales.

Not a single word had been heard back from the original taskforce assigned to knock out that post, nor a single comm from one of the most powerful fleets of their newest Super Dreadnoughts that had gone to investigate and complete the original eradication mission.

As the High Commander leaned over and hit the emergency war alarm, he knew those horrible Behinrrrd had invented something in total secrecy that was more powerful than any weapon to date. This had to be met with everything ... and if they lost this, the war would officially belong to the Behinrrrd and all of the Mahlkochieri would be forced to surrender.

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"So you see what the Mahlkochieri must be thinking right now," said Commander Slethish.

Colonel Morozov asked, "How long would you say until we can expect a response?"

Slethish replied, "It's been two weeks. I can't imagine they'd let it go for more than another week at the longest. It might happen today."

Anna's image appeared on a screen behind the Behinrrrd visitors, looked at Colonel Monahan before they noticed, and vanished again. "That's ... dismaying," Monahan said. "Please continue the tour -- I have to confer with some of the others about this."

Morozov nodded. "So, this is apparently some sort of fighting arena -- as you see, simple weapons are stored in these panels in the walls. They appear to be original to the ship ..."

Once Monahan got to the room they had been using as a bridge, she activated a screen, and Anna appeared on it. "Colonel," she said, "we are obviously going to need a great many forces very soon. To that end I have a proposal. I have computed that it will result in a fighting force the size of which the Mahlkochieri will have difficulty comprehending." Diagrams and charts began appearing on the screen in front of her.

As Monahan looked at them, she began to look more and more astonished. "You ... you're serious about this, aren't you?" she asked Anna.

"This seems to imply that I would joke," Anna responded. "This is not really a talent that I have mastered. From what I understand, this is not an appropriate moment for humor."

"No, I just meant ... it's risky," said Monahan. "Shouldn't we put limits on ..."

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"So, did I hear correctly when you said that the entire ship was actually inverted when you first found it?" asked Slethish. "Ah, Colonel Monahan, welcome back." Monahan had just rejoined the tour group.

"Thank you," said Monahan. "It's true -- we were walking on the ceiling. Eventually the computer came online and righted the ship."

"The computer is still functional?" asked Niorath, the chief engineer from the Ajaldar. "Amazing! But ... that means you must have circumvented the security protocols."

"Yes, though you'd have to ask Krzinskiy how he did it," Monahan replied. "That's not my area."

"Well, I had the help of Drs. Hughes and Yulovna," Krzinskiy said modestly. "They are two scientists in our research department. They are quite brilliant and inventive."

"We later learned that the ship had been infiltrated by a Mahlkochieri saboteur," Morozov said. "His interference was probably the reason why it had crashed in an inverted position. We believe the saboteur died aboard the ship, as we later found what appears to be a preserved Mahlkochieri skeleton."

"There are still parts of the ship we've never set foot in," said Monahan. "This is why we have missions in progress to explore its far reaches."

"Gray to Monahan," said a voice on her handheld communicator. "Gray to Monahan, come in Monahan."

"Speaking of which," Monahan said, holding up the device. "This is Monahan, go ahead, Lieutenant."

"Ma'am, I believe we've found ... well, the emergency bridge. I think ... we also found the remains of the original crew."

"What?" asked Slethish. "But this is amazing. We might even have their names in the records. Colonel, I request that we be allowed to take custody of the remains for a proper ceremony, to honor their memory."

"I have no objection," said Morozov.

"Nor do I," Monahan said. "But where is it, Gray?"

"Deck Lak, section 14," Gray said. "Don't take lift 17 -- I think it's broken."

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Forty Four Cruisers, ten carriers fully complemented with fighters, ten beam ships, 15 Battlewagon impulse ships, 22 Dreadnoughts, and 5 of the remaining Super Dreadnoughts all gathered in the preordained location and assembled into the formidable cone formation.

The high Commander said over the fleet wide comm, "This is it. Those horrible Behinrrrd have come up with a new weapon that is far more devastating than anything we have come against previously. In all the years we have fought them, I cannot recall one instance where they had such an advantage. This is the battle we have been dreading all these cenons. Keep the faith. We will crush them to bithuum and stomp what's left." The Commander swiveled around in his gravity couch, "Helm, take us to these coordinance." The commander typed them in on the pad on his arm.

The huge Battle Group vanished in the twinkling of massive FTL energies, headed towards a battle all knew in their souls was ordained to be the worst one ever fought.

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"So," said Monahan, "this is it?" They stood in front of a door labeled in Behinrrrd letters and numerals.

"Yes, Ma'am," said Gray. Captain Abramowitz, who had joined him on his exploration mission, opened the door.

Inside was a large circular room with floor-to-ceiling screens all around. The lights came on as they entered, and the screens lit up to show a nearly 360-degree view of the surface of the planetoid around the Helix. They could clearly see the Ajaldar resting not far away. There was a waist-height railing and a circular bank of control panels with stations for several crew members. In the seats there were skeletons, still strapped in, with an additional one on the floor in the center.

Seeing the skeletons, Slethish, Niorath, and the other Behinrrrd made a gesture that was strange to the humans, touching the fingertips of both their hands to their foreheads briefly. The humans bowed their heads; a few crossed themselves.

Slethish held up a data tablet and said, "I will scan them -- perhaps we can identify them so we'll know with certainty who they were." They all approached the control stations, and the Behinrrrd Commander held up his device. "Yes, it is as I had thought. This was Fleet Commander Photopion. Quite famous in his day, and highly decorated for his service in many battles. And his First Officer, Yuneth ... the defense officer, Keldren ..." He continued to identify the ship's highest-ranking officers, now dead for nearly 100,000 years.

"We're not familiar with your ways, Commander," said Monahan. "What's an appropriate observance in this situation?"

"I will have the Ajaldar crew come up with some sort of improvised caskets for them so they may rest in dignity," said Slethish. "They'll bring them over, and we can arrange their remains in as stately a way as we can. If we can send them to the Star Navy's Crypt of Honor, that would probably be for the best."

A small device on Slethish's arm began to chime in an irritating way. Slethish looked at the device and tapped the face crystal several times. His expression became one of extreme worry.

Monahan noticed the expression and asked, "What's wrong? From the look on your face, it must be something terrible."

Slethish looked up and said, "This device is tied directly into my tactical scanners. From what it's telling me, the mightiest armada the Mahlks have, has just been ordered to this sector. My spy is having difficulty discovering the exact target, but from extrapolations from my Nav computer, they are coming here under full power. Should be here in about 2 to 3 hours, depending on how hard they push the crystal matrix in their FTL waveguides."

"2 to 3 ... hours?" Monahan asked.

"Well, it's unlikely they're coming to this system in particular, of course," Slethish said. "The highest likelihood is that they'll go to the system they last attacked, the one with listening post Hlelnn Ichso in it. I've already sent word to them. They will probably evacuate."

"Anna, get word to Hughes and Yulovna," said Monahan. "We'll want at least one recon drone in that system, but spread the net wide, in case we're wrong about where they show up first."

"Affirmative, Colonel," said Anna's voice.

"Too bad we can't spot them until they come out of, whatsit, FTL," said Monahan.

"Yes, it is unfortunate," said Slethish, "but this is a reality of space combat that we must all live with."

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Deep within the bowels of the Helix, Gray and Captain Abramowitz managed to pry a large door sized panel from a wall. The labeling on the panel indicated it was a helix selective sequencer.

Gray commented, "This is the device Monahan wants us to discover."

Abramowitz nodded, "I can understand that," she wiggled her small frame through the opening in the access tunnel. "It's kind of dark in here, but the area is large. There's ... lots of weird glowy equipment in here too."

Gray followed close behind. When he had finally entered the area proper, his mouth fell open in total wonder. As much strange and super advanced equipment as he had seen over the last many months, this was as close to magic as he could imagine.

Gray said with awe in his voice, "Now that's a piece of work."

Abramowitz replied, "It is. How in this world does that thing even work? It looks like some kind of rock crystal thing I grew once for a science project in school."

Anna's image appeared on one of the many screens around the room. She said matter of factly, "I cannot gain access to this equipment. It's asking for things I have not as yet discovered or learned about. The encryption seems to change as I attempt to hack it. This is ... interesting ..." The screen filled with static, then went blank.

"Anna?" Abramowitz asked. "What happened?"

The AI's image appeared on a different screen. "I appear to have been locked out of that device," she said. "Part of an extra anti-intrusion system, I believe."

"Well, whatever this thing is, they sure didn't want just anyone using it," said Gray.

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In a distant star system, something seemingly innocuous was taking place. A small craft the size of a spare tire landed on a rock not much bigger -- one could say it flew next to the rock, and one would not be inaccurate. It fired a beam at the rock, changing its composition, and began assembling a duplicate of itself. The first craft sped off toward another system at FTL speeds while the new one remained to repeat this performance until there were hundreds of factories in the system.

Then those factories started doing something new. They flew up to a rock and transformed it into one of the Helix's fighters, which then immediately disguised itself as the rock that had once been there. Over time, the star system became host to thousands of fighter craft ... not that anyone would know to look at it. Larger planetoids were transformed into other, larger types of craft that then also shifted form to exactly duplicate the planetoid they had once been. Then the factory ships all left for other systems.

This process was repeated in system after system at an increasing rate. Monahan and Morozov would eventually discover that Anna's plan had resulted in more ships than either of them knew how to count, including some that were quite large and armed with even more devastating weapons and shields based on the data taken from repairing the Ajaldar.

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The massive Mahlkochieri fleet came out of FTL in a clear space in the middle of a large asteroid field, joined by the remnants of Fleet Admiral Slithhher's fleet. The Lord High Commander knew this little spot from when he was a young Lieutenant.

The High Commander watched his tactical readout carefully. From what they told him, the outpost was seemingly unaware of their arrival. Good. Surprise would take out a higher technology most of the time if a well placed volley arrived before they could react.

The commander did notice that a large portion of this asteroid swarm seemed out of place according to the last scan of the system. He dismissed it because stray rocks do manage to move from one place to another, especially when two major battles had been fought nearby.

The High Commander focused his thoughts on the surrounding area. He thought it strange that there were no derelict hulls drifting around as in most of the huge battles he had been through.

The Commander pushed a button and broadcast fleet wide, "We move in slowly. Insure we keep at least some of these rocks between us and the planetoid for stealth. They might get a whiff of an energy reading, but all they will see is floating rocks."

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"They're single-minded," said Monahan incredulously, looking at the three-dimensional tactical display in the war room. "All this for one single listening post. Do they even know it's evacuated?"

"I do not believe they do," said Morozov. "Pilots, this will be a challenge beyond any you have yet faced. The individual ships are mostly autonomous, as before, but you will now each be guiding an unprecedented number of them. Be careful. We still do not want any of our technology to fall into their hands."

"We're ready," said Jacobs. "Glad you're joining us this time, Chief." He checked his readouts. There were a lot of them.

"Yulovna to Commander Slethish, come in, Commander. I would not say she is battle ready yet, but I am pleased to announce that primary repairs on the Ajaldar are complete. You may want to begin systems testing."

"This is Commander Slethish, and I must thank you all for your timely assistance. We will attempt a liftoff and a short run around the planetoid before landing again to assess any issues that arise."

"Got that, Commander," said Monahan. "Let us know if you have any trouble, but you'll have to understand if we're a little busy for a while."

"Perfectly understandable, Colonel," Slethish replied. "Even the First Behinrrrd Battlefleet would think twice about engaging such a force -- and you are facing it with only remote drones. I shudder to think the damage you could do in manned ships."

Morozov asked, "Dr. Hughes, you have been monitoring the remote recon drones -- is there any sign that they are appearing anywhere else? Is this the only system they are attacking?"

"No sign of any major Mahlk presence anywhere we have drones, Colonel," said Hughes. "There are small scouting missions going on in several systems, but that's always been the case. None of them seem to have noticed our drones."

"Well, they may have some that we have not spotted," said Morozov. "We cannot afford to be too sure of ourselves."

"Oh, they think they're being clever," said Monahan, "staying on the far side of orbiting planetoids until their orbits carry them closer to the listening post. But they have to attack sometime -- some of those planetoids won't reach closest approach in their orbits for months."

Morozov laughed, "And many of them will suddenly become their worst nightmares."

Monahan and Morozov looked at each other for a minute before they began to laugh.

Time passed slowly as the two battle groups waited for the exact right moment to spring. The Lord High Commander smiled broadly as his scanners newest report showed only normal operational signals coming from the base. Those were all cloaked and well hidden as to be expected.

"This is Lord High Commander to all pulse ships, begin rotational pulses. All beam ships, begin bombardment to damage the shielding so the Destroyers can do their jobs."

On a rotating basis, the pulse ships began emitting large pulses of massively powerful energy waves. This time, it was done in a coordinated way so there was no lapses in coverage. The Fleet's massive energy shields came on line as the Dreadnaughts, Super Dreadnoughts, and Battlecruisers began to rotate into firing position. The Behinrrrd planetoid's automated defenses sprang into action, but it was too little, too late for the massive Mahlkochieri fleet. Their energy cannons destroyed a few of the smaller ships, but it was merely a drop in a bucket.

The beam ships began their massive bombardment of the planetoid base. That was when the emergency proximity alarms went off. Many of the largest asteroids suddenly began to change shape. When the transformation had completed, the ships they had become were sleek, beautiful, and totally unknown to the Mahlkocheri.

"Ah, so this will be a challenge," said the High Commander. "Well done. What have you g --"

A tremendous beam tore through one of the carriers, converting a cylinder of metal to carbon dioxide the diameter of a small moon, all the way through. Dry ice crystals spread into space from both entry and exit points. And before any return fire could touch the ship that had done this, it had dissolved into millions of motes, reformed in another location, and fired on another large vessel. This performance was being duplicated by dozens of other ships this size, and on a smaller scale by tens of thousands of tiny fighters.

"I must respect any force that can so thoroughly ambush our ambush," said the High Commander. "We still do not know who these people are. Have we captured any, as I ordered?"

"Aye, Sir," said the captain of a smaller vessel, "we have ... uh ... well, we thought we had ..."

"We must learn that technique," the High Commander said. "In battle it would make us unstoppable."

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"Now, Dr. Hughes?" asked Morozov.

"Timing is optimal, Colonel," Hughes responded.

In thousands of stellar systems across the Orion Arm of the Milky Way, planetoids changed form to become ships that utterly wiped out the many squadrons of Mahlkochieri scout vessels scanning those systems. Small cleanup drones captured the leftover debris. Nothing was left to indicate that the scout groups had ever existed. They would never report back to the Polity.

Morozov cracked his knuckles. "Is done. Keep scanning for any other signs of Mahlk presence."

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"Sir, this battle is not going well," said one of the High Commander's admirals. "We've destroyed the Behinrrrd listening post planetoid, but ..."

"But what, Admiral?"

"But it was uninhabited, Sir. The defenses were automatic. It had been evacuated. They knew we were coming."

"Of course they did, Admiral. Our forces had attacked this system on three previous occasions. It would not take a tactical genius to guess that we would do so again."

"Well, it was a matter of honor, of course."

"Of course," said the High Commander, "and there is the fact that we are sending a full and complete report back to the homeworld. Even if we somehow fail, there will be no more of these fragmentary hints of what may have happened. We are up against an unknown force never before encountered -- what is it?"

"Sir, our coordinators report that all of the scouting missions in this arm of the galaxy have just vanished," said one of Slithhher's captains. "Other than long-range sensors we have no information about what may be going on in other systems in this sector, and we have no data about how they were destroyed."

"Oh, I could hazard a guess," said the High Commander, looking at the destruction of his forces that was going on all around him, no matter how they tried to fight.

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Monahan asked softly, "Are the attacking fleet's comms jammed?"

Jefferies replied, "Aye, Ma'am. They won't be telling no one nuthin."

Monahan said, "All squadrons .... Attack! Leave nothing able to do anything but surrender."

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The Lord High Commander realized suddenly, not only were his comms to home base being blocked, but he had detected some form of intrusion into the high security areas of his database. Nothing he could do could stop the ever deeper probe of his systems by some unknown energy wave.

The High Commander's mouth fell open in total horror as he watched one of his most advanced and powerful Super Dreadnoughts ... sort of explode. He wasn't really sure what happened. What he had seen on his tactical made no sense. It appeared as if the area just behind engineering was hit by the strange weapon the enemy had fired. It instantly turned into some kind of simi-clear jell, then froze and basically fall apart under atmospheric pressures within the hull.

That wasn't all, each and every shot his ships fired seemed to miss. Besides the strange ship's ability to shapeshift, there appeared to be some form of field that repelled most of the ordinance long enough for the ship to change shapes or totally avoid the shot altogether. Not only that, they were fast and maneuverable beyond anything he had faced in his entire long and illustrious career.

What's more, the Behinrrrd were using nothing even remotely like this in the other battles going on in other parts of the galaxy. He knew one thing: this was not the Behinrrrd. But he still didn't know what it was.

He watched his tactical display in trepidacious disbelief as those strange craft danced gracefully through the massive firepower of his armada. He watched one of the huge alien Battleships as it rapidly transformed several times into something else entirely. The High Lord Commander banged his scaly fist on the arm of his gravity couch in frustration. He had to capture at least one of those things and bring it back for examination. That was ... if he could manage to survive this encounter.

But perhaps he didn't have to survive this encounter. "Have every ship that has them prepare one of its FTL escape pods," he ordered. "And begin recording a log entry onto a recording sphere, not the computer."

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Morozov turned one of his large and brand newly engineered Battleships towards one of the Mahlkochieri's beamships. Without warning, a Mahlkochieri Battleship released a large pulse of a different kind of energy. It spread out in large tendrils like lightning and impacted on Morozov's pride and joy.

Morozov had seen the attack coming and had broken his ship into several thousand motes at the last instant before the spiderweb of energy jumped from mote to mote, rendering them into globs of plasma moving at a very significant portion of relativistic speed. The globs impacted on the hull of the Mahlkochieri battleship. The huge amount of kinetic energy caused the plasma to begin fusing with the components of the Mahlkochieri Battlecruiser. Within moments, the cruiser exploded in a massive pyrotechnical display of fireworks.

"At least it took one of them with it," Morozov said, disconnecting and taking a breath before activating another battleship.

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"Lord High Commander," said the adjutant, scuttling up and bowing stiffly, "we have recorded your log entry to this sphere." It held up a dark gray sphere an inch or so in diameter. "What would you like done with it?"

"Transmit the message to every ship," said the High Commander. "This is our insurance policy ..."

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Jacobs flew an entire wing of fighters, each one independently shifting around and among the beams fired by innumerable weapons. The analytics were guiding him as he found and exploited each Mahlkochieri ship's weak points. He focused on what he knew to be this class of ship's main power nexus, flying fighters in rotation as they approached, hit, and disengaged in quick succession. They stripped a hole through the hull and straight into the nexus of power conduits, releasing the plasma within. The plasma started fires throughout the main power grid which started a chain reaction through the ship, and meanwhile the power to the rest of the ship was shut down, so it stopped firing.

"I think I got one ..." Jacobs said, backing his ships away. Then the destroyer he'd been assailing suddenly lit up in a bright orange fireball. "Woo! Yes!" he exulted. Fragments of the ship went flying off in all directions. "Watch out for debris."

"Wait," came Monahan's voice. "What was ... oh no. No, no, no."

"What is it, Colonel?"

"One bit of debris just went FTL," said Monahan. "I don't think that's the normal result of an explosion. And ... there goes another one, off in the same direction. I think they're being naughty. Yes, every ship we destroy is sending off one bit of debris, at FTL speed, in the same direction."

"Some kind of small escape pods?" asked Jacobs.

"They'd never cut and run," Monahan mused. "They're not like that, from all I've heard and seen. But ... what if there aren't Mahlks in those pods?"

"Assuming they are pods."

"Yes, let's assume they are for now," said Monahan. "What if there are recordings -- even descriptions or maybe even remnants of our ships?"

"Can't follow them through FTL," said Jacobs. "What do we do, Ma'am?"

While Monahan sat and pondered this new comeuppance, a call came in from R&D. Dr. Hughes excited voice came over the comm in a high pitched almost screech.

"I think I discovered a way to follow an FTL object! I really did it!" Dr. Hughes' excited voice screeched. "I discovered a study the Behinrrrd had been doing where they were looking for gravitic waves. Mostly it was all theoretical kinda stuff."

Dr. Youlovna's voice could be heard in the background, "If this new device is detecting properly, I think I know where their current main base might be. At least close enough we could track them."

Monahan raised an eyebrow as she replied, "According to the Behinrrrd, tracking an object through FTL is impossible. The best we could do is triangulate based on initial heading, assuming all the escape pods were headed to the same location and didn't change direction to mislead us."

Dr. Yulovna came on the comm and replied, "Escape pods? What escape pods? Anyway, yes, it is impossible. But any object passing through linear spacetime on a gravitic warped wave leaves ripples of gravitons. Sort of like a fish underwater can make ripples on the surface. You don't know how far down it is, but you have some idea where. We don't track the object itself, we track the warpage and graviton wake it leaves behind"

Monahan rubbed her cute chin thoughtfully for an minute before she replied, "If that's the case, I'd think we'd only have a short time to track an object before the trail dissipates."

Dr. Hughes replied, "That's true, Commander, and the smaller the object, the weaker the ripples and the less time we have. There's actually a graviton detector on board. Amazing! We've only theorized about its existence, but here they've got a gadget that can see 'em. I've jury-rigged it into main sensors. You should be able to get a reading, though I might have to tweak it. It hasn't been calibrated in millennia."

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A lizard with crab-like appendages entered a very plushly decorated office and walked smartly up to the large mantis looking lizard sitting behind a huge oval desk.

After flipping its tail smartly across one of its shoulders, it said, "With respect sir. We have intercepted several emergency life pods from the Task force sent to the Behinrrrd listening post planetoid."

The large creature looked up at the smaller one and said, "Continue. At least we did get some comms back from that place this time."

The smaller creature shuffled its feet for a second nervously before it replied, "What it tells and what it shows is ... horrible, Most High. From what they have said, our mightiest task force has encountered another defending force whose technology is not only far in advance of our own, but appears to be fighting for the Behinrrrd."

"What?!" roared the larger creature, "How could the Behinrrrd be allied with some other civilization that we know nothing of?"

The smaller creature trembled in fear, "This one knows nothing of that sir. The data contained in the escape pods indicates we have absolutely no defenses against their onslaught. There are even vids of our fleet managing to destroy one of the strange ships in their seed form. The molten masses left were moving at such great speed, it was the same as another type of weapon. Apparently they can change shapes and the very atomic structures of their ships at will. It appears they are totally destroying our mightiest fleet."

The larger creature banged its armored fist on the desk, "This cannot be." he stood in rage, "Call the war council, it's time we put our local system planetary defenses on full war time alert."

The creature smartly threw its tail across the other shoulder, "It shall be done, most High." then turned sharply and quickly left the office.

The Large mantis looking lizard stood for a long time with an extremely worried look on its face. It knew if that fleet had been taken down, they had little left to fight with.

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"Leaders of the Council," said the chief scientific advisor, "we face a crisis. We all know that we have sent the Third Battle Fleet, our largest fleet, to combat the unknown threat in the Green Region, which the Behinrrrd call Sector Range 47-6. We also know that there is every indication that that fleet will not be coming back, as was the case for every vestige of the 17th Expeditionary Battalion, which vanished without a trace."

He played one of the many copies of the High Commander's message that had reached them. "We have all seen this message," he said, gesturing back at the screen with a graceful, spider-like arm. "We have the data the High Commander included with it. We of the Science Division have carefully analyzed it and have deduced the following."

"Whatever the unknown threat is, it is not the Behinrrrd. The High Commander states -- correctly, we believe, after analysis -- that the technologies and weapons used by the unknowns have never been seen in any of our battles with the Behinrrrd Hegemony, not even the ones currently under way in the Red Region or the Ultraviolet Region."

"Some of us have put forth the hypothesis that they are fighting on the side of the Behinrrrd. However, evidence remains inconclusive about that point. True, they are fighting against us, but it is possible that that is all. They may simply be ignoring the Behinrrrd because the Hegemony has made no move against them. After all, we are the ones who advanced into the Green Region after many millennia of neglecting it -- millennia in which this threat may have developed."

"The unknowns clearly have developed some form of translation or transmutation technology capable of instantaneously altering the molecular structure of anything it encounters. They are capable of using this technology even on their own ships while in flight, indicating a high level of mastery. It is as yet unclear how this technology works, let alone how to defend against it."

"As always we make no recommendations, because that is not our function in the whole of the great Mahlkochieri Armed Forces, but these are our findings. May they illuminate the decisions of those who make them." He stepped away from the table.

"May your wisdom illuminate all the Polity," said a small horned and plated lizard with thick chitinous legs, who was serving as the moderator. "We will now hear from the Minister of War."

"We are currently fighting the Behinrrrd on two fronts," said a large, muscular saurian whose forearms ended in plated claws. "And now a third front opens against an enemy about which we know nothing. Evidence seems to indicate that they acted in self-defense. They may not know the locations of this base or our homeworld. My decision is that we will continue to fight the hated Behinrrrd in the Red and Ultraviolet Regions and place the Green Region under strict interdict. No Mahlkochieri is to enter the Green Region under any circumstances, on pain of death. The unknown forces must never learn the locations of our prime base or homeworld. In addition, they may have tracked the trails of the escape pods here, so we will be relocating the prime base to another system."

"Yes, Sir," said the Most High Field Marshall, who saluted. "Plans for the redeployment will be on your desk in an hour."

"Good. For the glory of the Polity!"

"For the Polity!" said everyone at the table.

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Completely unaware of any of this, Fleet Admiral Slithhher was biding his time in his cell. When he risked speaking to his neighbors, they stated that they had no knowledge of what might be going on outside. There had been no indication of any battles, inside or outside this prison, and it seemingly had no cameras or windows that viewed the space around it. It was certainly in space, as gravity was very low, but that was the only clue any of them had about where they were.

"There are signs that you are not getting enough potassium in your diet," said one of the guards in its typical mechanical voice as it delivered a meal. "Your rations have therefore been supplemented. Additionally, we continue to experiment with your suggestions in flavor improvement. Feedback is appreciated, as always."

Their captors were bending over backwards to be humane. It was almost like the old days from the history books, when there were treaties that encouraged civilized treatment of prisoners of war. This gave Slithhher hope that the unknown beings would likely not try to obliterate the Mahlkochieri races but just drive them out of their stellar neighborhood.

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"Not much left," said Jacobs.

"Indeed," Morozov replied, as each pilot flew his wing of ships hither and yon around the battlefield in search of resistance. Their dozens of pilots were all either looking for trouble or finishing up the last of the large Mahlk ships. "Other than the escape pods themselves, we have let nothing escape."

"And we've been taking prisoners on the defeated ships that can still support life," added Monahan. We can't discount that. Means we've got a respect for life that apparently some others don't, but it means we're the better, um, life forms. Have the recon drones found anything following the graviton ... ripple ... um, whatever?"

"No, Colonel," said Hughes, "it appears that they changed direction multiple times while in FTL flight, and not all of them seem to have gone in the same direction. That's probably protocol -- you wouldn't want to telegraph the location of your home base or homeworld to your enemy. We'll keep following the trails, but it doesn't look particularly promising."

Morozov placed his hand reassuringly on Monahan's shoulder, "Don't fret over it too much, Commander. Don't forget we have the entire data base of the command Superdreadnought."

Monahan felt a strange thrill softly rush through her. It made places tingle that she had never experienced before. She pushed the strange emotions from her mind as best she could as she replied, "I'm sure we can locate one of their bases. If we could do it and gain intel on what their plans and force strengths are, it would prove most helpful."

Morozov replied, "I have the linguists working on translating the codes now. It won't be long. Anna has taken a great interest in tracking down a Mahlk base. She wants to test out the new energy field R&D has come up with using the hull integrity data we obtained from the Behinrrrd."

"I hope it comes quick or we might have to commit genocide to protect our world." she patted Morozov's hand that rested on her shoulder.

Morozov felt this strangeness he hadn't felt since he was a child in school. He started to worry about it a bit before he said instead, "Let me get back to my pilot station. There's still a mop-up operation going on, and I don't want to miss the fun."

With this he turned and left. Monahan turned slightly and watched him leave. Really strange emotions began to creep into her mind as she realized how handsome Morozov was.

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As the Ajaldar set down again on the planetoid, Commander Slethish saw on the tactical display that the humans were sending them. "It would appear that our allies have won the battle," he said.

"Yes, Sir," said Lieutenant Karthesh, the security officer. "They appear to be taking the last survivors prisoner, as before."

"Sir, your request has come back," said the communications officer, Lieutenant Oleth. "The latest intel reports on the Mahlkochieri have arrived."

"I will read them in my office," said Slethish. "Rubeth, go over the performance data with Niorath. I need to find out what the Mahlkochieri are up to in the active sectors."

"Yes, Sir," said Rubeth.

Some time later, Slethish returned to the bridge. "Lieutenant Oleth, I need you to contact the Helix. There is something the humans should know."

"Yes, Sir, hailing them now," said Oleth. "Ajaldar to Helix, come in, Helix ..."

In a moment, Colonel Monahan appeared on one of the main screens. "Commander," she said. "How did the test flight go?"

"Everything's working, but we're going over the details," Slethish said. "I've learned something you should know, though."

"Oh? What's that?"

Slethish got right to the point. "According to our latest Mahlkochieri intel, they're placing this entire arm of the galaxy on quarantine. It's a capital offense for any Mahlkochieri to so much as enter this region of space."

"What?" Monahan was stunned. "This means ... we've won! They're giving up! We've saved Earth!"

Slethish nodded. "So it would seem," he said. "However, you already have several thousand Mahlkochieri prisoners, and you are in the process of collecting more. Their presence here is now considered illegal by their own government. I thought you should be aware of these implications."

"Hmm, yes," said Monahan. "We'll have to discuss this. You're welcome to join in the discussion, by the way, or any representative you'd like to send. Thank you for this timely information, Commander."

"It is only fitting that we should assist one another," said Slethish. "We will contact you again shortly."

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On the Behinrrrd Home World, political things were beginning to become a real problem. Due to the increasing incompetence and drunkenness of the Emperor, most of the important functions were seriously going unattended. Due to this lack of attention the System wide economy had begun to suffer.

At a hugely important global summit, the fat, drunken, and terribly ill mannered Emperor appeared at the lectern. The bleary eyed fat humanoid looked out across the many dignitaries of his home Empire, before he barfed all over the Secretary of War.

A young Lieutenant left the massively important meeting to make an emergency FTL call To Commander Slethish.

"Sir, we have an incoming eyes only priority message for you. It's marked Imminent."

Slethish's eyes grew large as he responded, "I'll take the secure comm in my quarters. Pipe it there please."

"Aye sir, immediately."

Slethish left the command bridge rapidly and basically ran to his quarters to log into the secure comm channel. " This is Commander Slethish, Alept - 067-92, open eyes only secure channel."

The Voice on the other end said softly with great sorrow, "Sir, This is Lieutenant Yhasseth. With all due respect, it has become necessary to ... perform a retirement immediately."

Slethish's mouth fell open as he asked, "What happened that would cause a Section 00 Imminent?"

Yhasseth replied, "It appears our Emperor has committed an act of ... I'm not sure what the old code is for it, but he has embarrassed the office and its integrity to the point ... you are now the Electsylit. Your presence will be required back in chambers within amont to assume the mantle."

Slethish sat back in his seat in total shock. He knew he was to be next, but this ... was something that hadn't happened in recorded time. A retirement under rule without the next in line's order.

He pressed a button. "Mr. Niorath," he said.

"Sir?"

"Are the FTL engines in working order?"

"All diagnostics positive, Sir," said the engineer.

"Good. On my way back to the bridge."

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"So it seems as if the President and the Premier are very interested in meeting you," Monahan explained to Slethish. "You and your crew would be the first beings from another world that had ever set foot on Earth -- at least, in recorded history." The human and Behinrrrd officers were seated around a large conference table aboard the Helix.

"I ... have a very tight schedule, Colonel," Slethish said, "especially considering certain news I have learned about matters of state back home. But considering the upgrades you have made to our drive systems thanks to the synergy between our technologies ... I could perhaps spare eight hours."

"We should be under way quickly, then," said Monahan. "We'll have to solve the problem of the Mahlk prisoners somehow."

"Yes, and perhaps we can continue to discuss this issue soon. But for now, if we are going to do this, we must return to the Ajaldar. We have yet to test the FTL engines anyway. A side trip to your homeworld would be a sufficient trial run."

"OK then, let's get going. Seems strange that we fought a whole campaign from the surface of a tiny planetoid." Monahan shook hands with Slethish again and said, "See you on Earth."

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Due to the sheer size of the Helix and the Ajaldar, they both launched smaller craft to land on Earth. The graceful lines of the black and gold Behinrrrd launch set down vertically on a prepared landing strip at Andrews Air Force Base, and next to it, the strange sight of what appeared to be a common Earth passenger aircraft also landing vertically -- Morozov had shape-shifted the transport into what looked like a Douglas DC-3.

The Ajaldar officers and the Helix officers both disembarked and were greeted by a number of luxury limousines and a military escort. Both the USA and the USSR had been informed that time was of the essence, so they were saving the questions until the delegations could arrive at Camp David.

"These ground vehicles are charming and quaint," said Slethish. The translator devices that Krzinskiy had invented were functioning well, as he had continued to improve them over time.

Rubeth replied, "I hope it is not insulting to say so."

"Not at all, Sir, Ma'am," said the diplomatic attache who had been assigned to accompany them. "I'm sure it's quite different from what you're used to. What do you use at home?"

"I personally prefer gravitic aircars," said Rubeth, "but I believe the Commander prefers supersonic turbine-powered jetsuits."

"Ha!" said Slethish. "In my youth, yes. I currently own a perfectly serviceable aircar. It's a Jalaar Bakir-31."

"A 31? Didn't those just come out? I heard the handling was erratic."

"Yes, there was a recall. Once the gyro module was replaced, it's like a dream."

"Here we are," said the diplomat.

The limousines arrived, and they were all shown into a conference room.

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A young and extremely sexy Elfette looking female dressed in a sarong drape that left nothing to the imagination entered what would have been an excessively opulent sleeping area. It was filled with many wine bottles and other paraphenalia. On a large very messy and disheveled dais-like bed whose frame was constructed of the finest rare metals in the Empire, lay the fat slug that one of the most flamboyant Emperors any had known before had become.

As the pretty young woman placed the tray she was carrying on a small table she had unfolded from a small device, the fat humanoid sat up, wiping his eyes dry with a dirty sleeve of his house coat. It was more than obvious he had been crying.

She came up and sat on the bed next to him and cooed softly as she began to wash his face with a fresh clean towelette, "It's ok, baby. Tell mommy all about it and I'll make it better."

The fat Elf looking humanoid cuddled close to the cooing woman as he began to sob deeply. Through his sobs, he managed to say, "I'm so tired. All that ever happens is killing. I was forced to commit genocide against the Mahlkochieri so many times. I ... I can't stand it anymore." He began to sob deeply against the woman's soft, but firm breasts.

The woman cooed softly as she caressed him, "Now, Now, baby. Mommy's here to make it all better."

The man snorted, "How are you going to do that? Kill me ... The ... Honorable way to commit murder?"

The woman smiled a cute smile as she said softly, "No, baby. Mommy's going to retire you and remake you into the cutest little girl."

Before the fat humanoid could react, the woman had brought a pen looking device from between her supple breasts. It had hung there on a beautiful chain made of Shaltinium, a very rare and highly prized metal.

She pushed a switch, a glittering beam washed over the fat humanoid's body. Almost instantly, he began to not only shrink in size, but his body changed in other amazing ways as well. Within moments, in the totally filthy house coat and pajama bottoms kicked the cutest little baby girl you ever saw.

The woman picked the baby up from the jumble of dirty oversized clothes, brought out one of her breasts and put its nipple in the infant's mouth as she cradled it lovingly in her arms. She closed her eyes, took a deep satisfied breath, and smiled.

She said softly, "The man you used to be is gone. In a few hours, you won't even realize who you used to be. I promise to take very good care of you and raise you as a proper Behinrrrd girl should be." With this she stood, and carried the baby she had been promised away with her. It was now official, the Emperor had been retired.

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"President Eisenhower," said Colonel Monahan, "this is Commander Slethish of the Behinrrrd Hegemony, captain of the Ajaldar, which I understand to be the first of a new class of battlecruisers."

"Mr. President," said Slethish, via the translator device. "The Colonel has explained that humans shake hands in greeting." He held out a hand, and he and the President clasped hands warmly. "On behalf of the Hegemony I extend my greetings across the stars. May this auspicious meeting presage great prosperity for both our peoples. This is my First Officer, Lieutenant Commander Niradran Rubeth."

As Rubeth shook the President's hand as well, Colonel Morozov was introducing Slethish to his leader. Slethish shifted his translation device into Russian mode, and Morozov was saying, "This is Premier Nikolai Bulganin, Commander. Comrade Premier, this is Commander Slethish of the Behinrrrd Hegemony ..."

"I congratulate you on your victory, all of you," said Eisenhower, "on behalf of the United States and, I dare say, the entire human race. These Mahlkochieri sound like fearsome opponents."

"They were no match for these dedicated and innovative people, Mr. President," said Slethish. Suddenly his communicator started to flash urgently at his belt and vibrate silently. "I am sure they have much to tell you. I regret that I am receiving a message that is of extreme urgency and will return to you once I have dealt with the matter. Is there a room I can use to take this?"

"Of course, Sir," said a Secret Service agent in the customary black suit and tie. "This facility has many conference rooms, so if you would care to use this one ..." He led Slethish to a door and opened it for him; within was an empty conference hall. "Take as much time as you need, Sir."

"Thank you," said Slethish, shutting the door behind him. The agent stood by the door and waited patiently.

When Slethish emerged, he looked somewhat paler than usual and shaken. The agent followed him back to the main group, where Rubeth stared expectantly at him. "Sir," she asked, "was that ...?"

All eyes were upon Slethish now. He said, "I have just been informed that the emperor of the Behinrrrd Hegemony has just ... retired. I ... have been named his successor. As such, I will be required to return to our homeworld as soon as possible."

"This is ... amazing," said Premier Bulganin in accented but very good English. "We have not only met our first visitors from beyond the stars today. We have been host to an imperial succession. This is a great honor. We are witnesses to galactic history."

"Congratulations, Emperor-select," said Rubeth, putting one fist on her sternum and another against her spine and bowing stiffly in a very formal Behinrrrd fashion. "Upon your command we will depart for the shuttle to return to the Ajaldar."

"I fully understand," said President Eisenhower. "Political and diplomatic necessities do always come up, don't they? As a military man, I know you'd rather talk about the campaign, but since becoming President I've had to shake a lot of hands and give a lot of speeches." He extended his hand toward Slethish again. "Congratulations, Emperor-select, and I wish you wisdom in the years ahead."

Slethish shook the President's hand again, saying, "I greatly regret that I have not had longer to speak with you, Mr. President. Perhaps when the formalities are done we can arrange a less impromptu state visit."

"The car is waiting to return you to your shuttle, Sir, Ma'am," said an aide.

"You know, Sir, there's an awful lot of room on board the Helix," said Monahan to the President. "More than enough for everyone in this compound. Heck, we haven't even explored it all yet."

Eisenhower looked at Bulganin. They looked at their assistants and aides.

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Anna appeared on the main screen. She said , "Commander, I've located where their main Military installation is. However, I think they are rapidly evacuating it. If we hurry, we can totally capture it and all the tech and other valuable information within their data banks."

Monahan replied as she signed off the last report, "I'm not real keen on stepping outside our quarantined zone to attack them. According to Comm ... I mean Emperor-Select Slethish, we have no need to attack them any longer. If we do that, they might take that to mean that we intend to expand the conflict, and they might retaliate in desperation."

Anna's screen split down the middle and the ship's original AI appeared. It said, "It is not the nature of the Mahlkochieri to just give up. It may mean a temporary respite in their invasion and destruction. From Historical data of the past encounters where the Mahlkochieri were beaten off, it was only a matter of time before they returned with even more destructive power and a much larger attacking force."

Anna said, "According to the data we received from the captured Command Flagship, this seems to have been the historical result of any defeat. It is only a matter of time before they return. To them it's a matter of Honor. Honor to them is all there is. However, the intelligence the Behinrrrd gave us indicates that they are currently giving this arm of the galaxy a wide berth, an unprecedented move. Although I cannot say how long it will last, we do have time for now to regroup and prepare. They will be back, and we must be ready."

"This is amazing," said President Eisenhower. "So this is a machine?"

"Two machines, actually, Mr. President," said Monahan. "The one that looks like a Behinrrrd is the original ... intelligence that used to govern the ship. It's the reason why I'm female now, by the way. It had a plan, and we weren't following it. Anna, there on the left, is a new intelligence that Drs. Hughes and Yulovna managed to install, and she runs the ship now."

"So it sounds to me like if we attack them now, the cease-fire's probably over," said the President. "But if we don't, they'll come back sometime later, loaded for bear -- though we'll have time to get ready for them. But either way, we've got a war on our hands that's only going to end if we actually ... what? Exterminate them? Commit genocide?"

Premier Bulganin said, "I do not support genocide, unless such a horrible thing is truly the only way to defend Earth and the human race."

"Same here," said Eisenhower. "What're they fighting for, anyway?"

Anna responded first. "Data indicates that the war was originally started over a misunderstanding but quickly escalated into a struggle for ultimate survival. Each side tries to capture planets, eliminate the other side's life forms, and seed worlds with life compatible with themselves. There is no quarter given, no mercy shown to noncombatants. And this is the case for both sides."

"The Behinrrrd did not want this," said the original AI. "But if we do not defend ourselves, the Mahlkochieri fully intend to destroy us all."

"And I'm sure the Mahlkochieri would say exactly the same thing," Monahan said.

"Data is incomplete but indicates that this is probably true," said Anna. "We do, by the way, have a number of Mahlkochieri prisoners, including some of their officers, although they will not identify which ones they are. But we could ask any of them about their philosophy."

Eisenhower said, "You've got some of 'em locked up?"

"Yes, Sir," Monahan said. "We've got robots taking care of them. They're doing their best to keep them comfortable -- they may not have anything like the Geneva Conventions, but we didn't want to be the bad guys here."

"So we have a war of mutual destruction," said Bulganin. "This sounds somewhat familiar, does it not?"

"It's possible that it does," Eisenhower said. "And all that's come of it is millions of years of senseless destruction."

"And ... neither side has any reason to believe that their enemy would refrain from totally eliminating them, if possible?" asked the Premier.

"No," said the original AI. "The Mahlkochieri would utterly obliterate the Behinrrrd if it were not for our constant vigilance. Though we would not eradicate the Mahlkochieri if we could only remove them as a threat. We are not monsters, nor do we wish to become monsters. We merely wish to survive. To live without the constant threat of destruction is every Behinrrrd's dream."

"Is that what the other side thinks too?" asked the President.

"That is difficult to ascertain," said Anna. "I can only project from the data we have that it is likely."

"Mr. President," said Monahan, "I think I've got a plan that will let us talk to the prisoners and find out what we need to know, and will also let us return them to their people."

----------------------------------------------------------------

Fleet Admiral Slithhher sat in his cell mentally composing his memoirs. It was really all there had been to do during the days on end of incarceration. Sometimes meals were brought to him in his cell, and sometimes the prisoners were led into a common area for meals and recreation. The robot guards had finally ascertained the appropriate diurnal cycle for Mahlkochieri, presumably by either asking, adjusting, or both, and now he felt as if he had been getting an appropriate amount of sleep each night -- not that he ever saw a sun. But the lights began to dim at what felt like the right time, and they came back up after a seemingly proper period of darkness. As prisons went, it was not the worst.

It was surprising to feel the sensation of FTL travel while in a cell, however. Evidently they were aboard some sort of prison ship or mobile colony; it was unclear exactly how large the prison was because Slithhher and the others on his level never saw another level. He knew there must be other levels, though, because several of the other prisoners he had been brought here with were not on this level -- or wing, or block, or however it was organized. At any rate, either the prison was small enough to fit on board a ship, or their captors had FTL engines large enough to move a prison colony. Of course, they had defeated several super dreadnoughts, each of which were large enough to house a fairly large prison colony, so it only stood to reason that they would be capable of this.

It had been just after "sunrise" that he had suddenly felt the warm-breeze sensation that accompanied an FTL jump. Other than that there was nothing unusual; the guards followed their regular schedule -- until after lunch, that is. The guards led them back to their cells, then announced, "We will be releasing you today and returning you to your people. As time allows, you will each be led to a transport vessel. Please be prepared."

"You think they're telling the truth?" Slithhher's neighbor asked, his voice echoing in the hallway.

Slithhher replied, "They haven't lied to us so far. It's been harsh, maybe austere, but they seem not to be programmed to lie, deceive, or play games of that sort."

Then they heard the process begin down the hallway: the opening of a cell door, then robotic voices saying, "Please come with us for transport. You are to be released and returned to your people." This was repeated as cells were emptied, the voices getting closer and closer.

"Captured by the enemy," said Slithhher. "We will be returning in dishonor. But alive is better than dead, I suppose. At least the despicable Behinrrrd weren't the ones to capture us. That would be too much dishonor to bear." His neighbors stated their agreement with this. They considered themselves superior to the Behinrrrd, but this unknown enemy permitted them to save at least some face.

Finally Slithhher's own cell door opened, and two of the robotic guards stood outside. They repeated their routine, one of them stating, "Please come with us for transport. You are to be released and returned to your people." They placed their energy shackles on his limbs, pulling toward each other with force similar to a tractor beam. They led him down the hallway and through several sets of security doors to an airlock and onto a ship where many other Mahlkochieri were seated in acceleration couches. They strapped him in securely, then departed, probably to bring more prisoners, though several other guards remained on board.

Soon the transport ship was full. Slithhher spoke with some of the others, who were all from the same prison level. But then the guards said an unusual thing.

"We have a question for you, before we release you," they said, all in unison, in their robotic voices. "We have learned much about your people, but not about your enemy the Behinrrrd. Is it true that they are attempting to utterly destroy you?"

"It's constant war!" said one of the other prisoners.

Another shouted, "They certainly aren't out to wish us a happy Egg Lord Day." Several prisoners laughed at this.

"But are you determined to utterly destroy them?" the robots asked in unison.

Slithhher himself shouted in answer, "Whatever it takes to survive!" Several others echoed this sentiment.

"And if the Behinrrrd were no longer a threat?" the robots asked. "What if you were to defeat them to the point where they could no longer pose a threat to your people?"

There was a lot of hubbub in answer to this. "Revenge! Revenge for all they have slain!" one shouted.

"We can't just slaughter them all," said Slithhher. "That would make us monsters like them. Destroy their military might, certainly. But their farmers, their merchants, their noncombatants ... they've done nothing to us!"

"Nothing but provide their troops with food and ammo so they can kill us!" another shouted back.

"Would you slay unarmed opponents?" shouted another prisoner, whom Slithhher recognized as Captain Thresssti. "You would dishonor the Mahlkochieri Polity with such barbarism?"

"Never!" shouted Slithhher. "We will never sink so low. The Behinrrrd may, but we value our honor!"

"For honor!" many of the prisoners shouted.

"My hearts thirst for vengeance," cried the one who had called for revenge earlier, "but without honor it would mean nothing!"

The robots said, "Thank you. We apologize for the necessity of imprisoning you. We wish it had not been necessary and hope to return you to your people without incident."

"Preparing for departure," said the single robotic voice of the pilot. There were sounds and vibrations as the docking clamps released and the maneuvering thrusters engaged. Shortly there was another sensation of FTL travel. Once that ended, there was a significant amount of maneuvering, and finally the transport ship came to a gentle stop.

"We are releasing you onto a recently abandoned Mahlkochieri military base," said the robots, "along with a communications system of Mahlkochieri manufacture. There are still a significant amount of remaining supplies here, more than enough to sustain you until your people's ships come for you. Again, we regret the necessity of your incarceration." The guards began unstrapping the prisoners from the acceleration couches, leading them to the airlock, and releasing them.

When it was Slithhher's turn, he was led out the airlock and his shackles removed, where he joined the others who had already been released -- and saw that there were several other transport vessels releasing their prisoners onto the landing field of what appeared to be a Mahlkochieri spaceport.

"This is Prime Base!" shouted Slithhher, looking around. "Or it was. It appears they've abandoned it. It doesn't look as if it's been attacked at all."

"Fleet Admiral," said one of the others. "The strangers speak the truth, Sir. There is a communications system in the main building, and it is functional. We have made contact with the Polity. They said that Prime Base was relocated to a new secret location less than a day ago."

"Powerful though these strangers are, they are also honorable," Slithhher said. "Not once have they lied to us or mistreated us. They have acted only in self-defense. They could have slain us all, but they did not. They could have tortured us to extract military secrets, but they did not -- as far as I am aware." No one came forth with any claim to having been forcibly questioned.

Once they had released all their prisoners, the transport ships departed.

"What should we do, Sir?" Captain Thresssti asked Slithhher.

"Wait to be rescued," he replied. "We will probably all be debriefed and questioned. But for now ... is there real food here?"

----------------------------------------------------------------

"So what you're saying is, all we've got to do is keep them from fighting each other for about a generation, and then the war will end?" asked President Eisenhower. "That seems ... problematic."

"You haven't seen some of what we've done," said Monahan. "Here, let's stop in this star system while we're on our way." The Helix came out of FTL. A reddish sun shone in the blackness of space on the large screens in the war room. The instruments showed a few planets and many smaller moons and planetoids.

"We sent ships to seed lot of systems in this arm of the galaxy," Monahan explained. "This is one of them. See all those planetoids? There are thousands."

"Well, yes, but ..." the President began.

"They're not planetoids anymore. Not a single one. The planets are, and the biggest planetoids and moons. But smaller than a few dozen miles across? They're ours, Sir."

"Ours? What do you mean?"

"They're ships, and we control them."

"Here, I demonstrate," said Morozov, taking the controls. And thousands of planetoids all changed form and course, clearly visible on the display, before he returned them to their original position, and camouflaged them again.

"So you're saying ..."

"We've got a growing space navy," said Monahan. "And it's still growing -- our ships are still out there doing this to more systems. The entire Orion Arm will soon be populated with these. They're programmed to allow our ships and unarmed ships to pass."

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A lizard looking humanoid with chitinous armor entered an extremely ornately decorated office. The large mantis looking lizard looked up and said in a bored tone, "Yes? What is it this time?"

The beetle looking lizard threw his tail smartly across his shoulder as he said, "We have news of those fleets sent to destroy the Behinrrrd outpost. Fleet Admiral Slithhher is one of them. They have all been returned to Prime Base's former location."

The mantis looking lizard stood up straight as he warily eyed his subordinate, "They ... have been returned? And to an abandoned base no less? We must send a detachment there immediately to pick them up. They have intel that is invaluable. Be very weary of an ambush .. whomever those new arrivals are, are not to be underestimated.

The beetle looking creature threw his tail smartly across his other shoulder, "It shall be done by your command." turned sharply, then quickly left.

----------------------------------------------------------------

The Imperial coronation was, of course, a huge affair, taking place in the middle of the Behinrrrd palace complex on their homeworld. The Helix, of course, remained in orbit, sending a launch downward with the Earth leaders and ship's officers -- the launch carefully shape-shifted into the semblance of an acceptable Behinrrrd shuttle. Slethish had provided the appearance parameters.

There were pavilions for dozens of miles around the actual dais where the ceremony would take place. Slethish had ordered one specifically for the Earth delegation -- its canopy automatically opened, the shuttle landed gently, the humans disembarked, and the shuttle returned skyward, the pavilion's canopy shutting above them to keep off the sunlight. The weather control machines in the planet's atmosphere ensured that there would be no rain during this auspicious event.

There were more than enough comfortable seats for the human observers, and refreshments were provided, although Monahan didn't know what to make of the strange multi-colored beverages and hors-d'oeuvres made of foods that she couldn't recognize. Drs. Hughes and Yulovna passed scanner devices over the food and drink, saying that there was nothing toxic in any of it, not even any body-invading nanotech devices. The concept of tiny machines had not even been imagined yet on Earth, but it was just one of many innovations that had been thought of millions of years earlier by the Behinrrrd.

The air shimmered on the side of the pavilion that faced the Imperial dais, which was miles away, and suddenly they could all see and hear what was going on there perfectly, as if they were only yards away.

"Some sort of magnification," said Dr. Yulovna.

"It's like an invisible TV," said the President.

"No screen, just image," said Morozov. "Interesting."

"And I can totally see how it's done," said Dr. Hughes. "I'm building us some of those as soon as we get back to the ship."

An important-looking official stood before the audience. "If you would please all rise," he or she said. It was difficult to tell this person's gender, but they were clearly very important because everyone for miles did as they requested. The humans all did so too, out of respect.

"Presenting the Emperor-Select, Herimethar Slethish Onsteth Belek, First Commander of the Hegemony Star Navy," the official said. They could see the Behinrrrd ascending the stairs up to the dais, flanked by more officials, wearing an elaborately decorated uniform, and they recognized him as Slethish as soon as he turned to face the audience.

"People of the Behinrrrd Hegemony," Slethish began, "please be seated." After a moment to allow everyone to take their seats again, he began his speech. "I come before you humbled by the request to serve you as Emperor ..."

He spoke for quite a long time. Everyone listened quite respectfully. The Soviet Premier and the American President were no exception -- they knew it was important to respect other nations' customs, and they were acutely aware that they didn't know the customs here, so they were both just trying not to make any huge blunders.

"And that is why, my friends, I have decided to accept this honor -- not because I am worthy, because all fall short of the glory of the legendary leaders of the past, but because I am needed. It is my duty to our great nation. And whether you know it or not, we are at a crossroads."

People looked up. This was unusual. What did he mean?

"A new ally has arisen," Slethish said. "But this is not an ally who has come to help us defeat the Malkochieri, but an ally who will help us defeat an even greater foe -- they have come to help us defeat war itself. Once their ancestors were mere minions, soldiers on our battlefields, but then they were abandoned, and over time they grew into a civilization so amazing that they have already surpassed both us and the Polity. Yet they do not wish to rule us -- they wish to be our allies. They wish to help us move beyond the endless war of the past and into a new future."

There was a hubbub of murmuring and whispering, and not a few energy bolts came from the tops of buildings toward both Slethish and the humans' pavilion, which were stopped by invisible barriers. Immediately, troop ships swooped down upon those buildings and quickly detained the shooters.

"Wow," said Monahan, putting away the personal shielding device she had deployed to protect the President, "they were ready for this."

Premier Bulganin said, "Always there are those who do not wish change. It would be foolish to pretend they do not exist." Morozov likewise put away his shielding device.

The President said, "There are those who profit from war, who don't want to see their cash cow dry up. You might call it ... the military-industrial complex."

"Yes, there are many who would be willing to commit the highest crimes imaginable to keep us in the dark ages of eternal war," Slethish said. "We all know this, and we must be prepared to prevent them from blocking our advance to a truly glorious future. You will all know more about these plans in the days to come. But know this: the day is coming when your children will not face the possibility of death on the front lines, when your work will not be used to advance deadly weaponry but to better the lives of all, when we will return to the glorious golden ages of our oldest legends. Yes, my friends, it can happen. And I see it as my duty to help it happen."

"All rise," said the official, evidently some sort of high priest. Everyone stood.

"Herimethar Slethish Onsteth Belek," the official said, taking some objects from a jeweled case, "by the authority vested in me by the Divine Order of Old, and by the choice of the Ruling Assembly, I hereby crown you Emperor of the Behinrrrd Hegemony." They placed a glittering jeweled ceremonial helmet upon Slethish's head and handed him a jeweled scepter and orb. "Long and wisely may you reign, Emperor Slethish," they said, kneeling to him.

"The war will end," Slethish said as the crowd mostly cheered. "Not today, not tomorrow, but by this time next year we will see hostilities tapering off. The plan will be made public tomorrow."

There were a lot of people who appeared to be standing in stunned silence, but there were also a lot of people who were cheering and even weeping in joy.

"What are they doing?" asked Monahan, noticing that the Behinrrrd they could see were all striking the backs of their hands against the palms of their other hands. "Is that Behinrrrd applause?"

"I assume so," said Morozov. The humans began doing the same, since it seemed to be the custom.

There was a lot of shouting and applause, along with some sort of holographic fireworks and other decorative displays. A huge military band played unusual instruments.

----------------------------------------------------------------

Several months had passed and the turmoil of discovering a civilization far more advanced than you existed had died down. Fear started to ebb as Mahlkochieri war fleets began to venture back into centuries old battle areas.

In a region of space known to the Mahlkochieri as Ultraviolet, a massive battle group came to a relative station keeping in respect to the surrounding planets and other objects. Commander Garrrrgit studied his tactical display carefully looking for anything that might be able to hide a Behinrrrd vessel.

Garrrrgit smiled evilly as he saw the small picket of 3 Behinrrrd destroyers among the many asteroids and small planetesimals. He said, "Weapons, lock on several torpedoes. Arm them with NR detonators."

The weapons officer turned slightly and looked at the commander for an instant before replying, "Aye, arming with NR detonators." and began pushing the appropriate buttons on his control deck. The officer knew how massive each torpedo would become with this addition ... he shuddered slightly.

Garrrrgit started to say, "On my command, Fi ..." he stopped and looked at the readings his tactical display gave him. It didn't make any sense. It appeared the planetesimals and asteroids all around his fleet were changing into ... he didn't have any more time to ponder this.

A comm came across all channels to all ships. The Mahlkochieri had never received such a communication before. They discovered after completely shutting down all communication equipment, the alien signal totally bypassed all of the normal communications and safeguards to utilize the ship's integrity field. The entire hull became a receiver transmitter.

Drs. Hughes and Yulovna had discovered the reason for the sound transparency of the original armor used on the Helix and the far more efficient and advanced armor used on the Ajaldar. It allowed a certain form of energy to flow throughout the entire craft creating a field that retained atmosphere in case of hull breach. Also, it provided the perfect Comm route when the energy was focused on a certain harmonic and had just the proper tweak to its annular spin.

Monahan's translated words rang loud and clear throughout every ship within broadcasting range, including the Behinrrrd picketts, "It has come to our attention that your two races, Behinrrrd, and the Mahlkochieri, are on what you have both stated as an unwanted course of total annihilation. Because this senseless war has now crossed over into our space and threatened our peace of mind and safety, we are interdicting to stop it. Go home, open channels of diplomacy, and stop the senseless bickering of silly differences in languages or interpretations. It is dishonorable to continue in an unwanted conflict as easily concluded as this one. Next move is yours. What will it be?"

The Mahlkochieri tactical officer said with a gasp, "Sir ... all those large asteroids and things have changed form. Scanner has filled with many thousands of warships and smaller craft and ..."

The Commander turned and said with a snap, "And? And what?"

The young officer replied with an obvious tone of fear and amazement, "Those ships on the last scan have become ... even more thousands. Sir, we have no avenue for escape and no possibility of surviving any kind of confrontation with an armada of that size. It's thousands of times larger than all of our Empire's combined warships and fighters. It's those Aliens we were warned about that are super advanced way beyond anything we've ever seen."

"But we're not in the interdicted Green Region," said the commander. "This is our space. Or ... contested space anyway ..." He looked at the scanner as more and more ships continued to appear all around them.

"Sir? Your orders, Sir?" asked the younger officer.

The commander paused and said, "Pah! Deactivate weapons." The crew started breathing again. "Why pick a fight we cannot win?"

The commander swiveled around in his gravity couch and said, "Contact Base prime. Inform them that the debrief of Admiral Slithhher has been verified. Also attach the vids we are taking of the craft. I know it won't be of much use since they can't seem to stay in one configuration more than a few minutes."

The young comm officer replied, "Sending via FTL neural induction for secrecy and urgency."

----------------------------------------------------------------

Hudson noticed the strange waves the neural transmission made within the Sub-deltean frequencies. It amused him to discover another form of energy he had been unfamiliar with. He knew the girls in R&D would love to get a whiff of a new energy beam. They had invented some pretty amazing stuff by just fooling around, he wondered what they might accomplish if they really worked hard at it.

"Bridge, Commander Monahan? This is Hudson with Interdiction Fleet Tango. I have almost deciphered a new type of energy transmission from the Mahlkochieri. Apparently, they are notifying their High Commander they have encountered us and are sending many neat pictures of our forever shape shifting craft."

Commander Monahan smiled as she replied, "Let us hope they are as smart as they tried to claim. Otherwise, we will have to open a museum of extinct peoples and display the Mahlkochieri."

Morozov said, "That's ... harsh. Especially since we can totally blockade their entire home system with autonomous drones."

"And ... they're powering down weapons," said Hudson. "The Behinrrrd ship already did. Guess they got that order from the Emperor."

"It's beginning," said Monahan with a sigh of relief. "There's a buffer zone between the Hegemony and the Polity everywhere they've been fighting, and every system in it is full of our ships. The beauty of this is that until they try something, they won't know whether our ships are there or not. So they'll start to assume they are."

"Even in those regions where they are not now fighting," said Morozov. "With luck, no new fronts will open up."

"Think they'll make peace?" Monahan asked.

"I think there is hope," replied Morozov.

Monahan put her hand on the control panel, her fingers touching Morozov's. "And hope ... is where everything begins," she said, looking at him a bit nervously.

----------------------------------------------------------------

Every newspaper, radio station, and television channel on Earth was absolutely abuzz with talk about the announcement:

"Contact with alien life!" "Alien ambassador to address United Nations!" "First embassies of 'Behinrrrd Hegemony' to open in DC, Moscow!" "Bulganin re-elected Premier, crushing Khrushchev!" "Brave multinational force stops second alien species from destroying human race!" "Hopes for peace among the stars!"

"U.S.A. and Russia sign an unprecedented unilateral peace accord and begin construction of the new industrial complex at what has been described as a lagrange point between earth and the moon." "Massive new advancements that border on miracles are now instantly available for consumers" "Major new advancements in medical science and technology arrive that is many centuries in advancement of earth." " A new Luna/Bravo Military installation on the far side of the moon has just been completed and shuttles from earth to Luna-b spaceport leave and arrive every 2 hours. The new Luna-B Colony is extremely popular, and there is totally free transportation to and from Luna-b spaceport every 30 minutes."

----------------------------------------------------------------

Grand Fleet Admiral Slithhher sat within his personal command sphere. The gravity couch was a much more comfortable design than the old ones as he snuggled into its soft embrace. He supposed the promotion justified a new chair.

Slithhher massaged the place where his arm had been lost and regrown in the battle with these new Peoples. Never once did they in any way attempt to do anything except in a defensive kind of way. Even to the point of restoring his arm ... and several other important appendages.

Once he had been set free, Slithhher had the best minds in the Empire research how to turn the genetic ability to regenerate tissues back on within their genome. The process was not only nearly impossible to reactivate, apparently it was caused to go into remission by contamination of another species genetics being introduced.

Slithhher was astonished to discover the hated Behinrrrd's genetics were intermingled within the Mahlkochieri in such quantity, that the Geneticists began saying they both were the same species, just a different genetic adaptation of the same design.

He read the report again, and its conclusion: The war would be over eventually due to genetics catching up to them. Wherever the idea to genetically encode the two combatants into becoming the same peoples came from, was a stroke of evil genius. Especially when one of the specifically encoded genetic revulsions is something designed in that made the two marker genomes hate each other. But they never would have found that out if it hadn't been for the unknown species and their blockade, forcing them to do something other than constantly prepare for war.

Somewhere, many thousands of years ago, someone had genetically sabotaged both species. Slithhher felt the tingle of understanding run through him as he realized it was them ... the Mahlkochieri were who had made the first genetic incursion and caused the centuries long war.

He sat upright, his couch flexing perfectly to his want and conforming instantly to the seated position in a fluid way that caused no sensation to the occupant.

The Mahlkochieri must stop all hostilities immediately. Slithhher shook his head in disgust. Here his people claim Honor is the rule ... and yet the Mahlkochieri people had created a situation that would continue dishonor in perpetuity ... not to mention all the innocent lives and biomes eradicated over the eons.

He was not in charge, of course ... well, not yet, anyway. Slithhher munched on another fried root as he monitored the latest events. Yes, apparently one of the generals had challenged the Supreme Leader to trial by combat. It wouldn't be long now before all but a few at the very top had killed each other, and then he could make his move. Then there would be some changes around here. Legend said that long ago, his people had had art, theater, and literature.

----------------------------------------------------------------

"The analysis is complete," said Anna. "The genetic manipulation beams are now under my full control -- well, they were before, but I didn't fully understand how they worked in a predictable way."

"That's great!" said Monahan. "We can return all those reporters to normal."

"Indeed," Anna said. "I will begin this process. We can also return the changed crew members to their former states, including you yourself, Colonel."

"I ..." Monahan paused. She thought about a lot of things. What would her family say? The military and the President had taken the change completely in stride because there had simply been much bigger problems at the time. But the fact was that she had a choice to make.

"I'd like to think about it first, Anna," said Monahan.

"Of course," said Anna. "It is your choice whether to return to normal, continue as you are, or even undergo further modification if you wish. We have not fully explored the possibilities of this technology."

"There's ... someone I'd like to talk to first. But you should send messages to everyone who was affected -- ask them what they'd like to do, now that there's a choice."

"I will, Colonel," Anna said.

Monahan left the bridge of the Helix and took an elevator to the airlock. She left the ship, climbing down the ladder to the ground. There were a few cars parked nearby -- there were several people inside the Helix at any given time, scientists and military, examining and improving the ship, as it sat here parked at a Nevada Air Force test site. For part of the year it would be at a similar Russian test site in the Kazakh desert.

She drove back to the base in her jeep, getting very dusty. When she got back to her quarters, she took a good shower, though, to get all that dust off. It was going to be an interesting evening.

She put on a pretty floral dress, and shopping for this and other clothes had definitely been a new experience. Getting her hair looking reasonably nice wasn't something she'd learned growing up. Neither was doing her makeup, but it was something that seemed to be expected for women, now that she was back on the ground.

She dialed the phone. "Hello, Sergei," she said. "I hope I'm not too late to ask you whether you'd like to meet somewhere in town for dinner."

"Not late at all," said Morozov. "Perhaps we should dine at one of these new hotels that has been opening."

"Oh right, I hear the Riviera is great," said Monahan. "Though I'm not sure you know the way ... would you object to my driving?"

"Not at all, June," said Morozov. "You know the roads ... and American cars."

"OK, it's a deal -- you fly the spaceships, I drive the cars," said Monahan. "I'll come by and pick you up. And I'll try to get something that isn't a jeep this time. See you soon, Sergei."

She put on some elegant flat shoes -- she really couldn't see herself wearing heels; they just weren't practical for the military -- and got a sedan from the motor pool. Rank was rank, after all, and she'd just saved the world, so they couldn't really laugh about the woman colonel, not if they didn't want to pay the consequences.

It wasn't long before they were at a romantic table at the Riviera, looking out over the lights of the Las Vegas strip. Monahan sipped her wine. "So, you ordered the steak," Morozov said.

"I may be female now, but I still love a good steak," Monahan replied. "The food in space left a lot to be desired. I feel like I'm going to be eating something real instead of something fake, you know?"

"I know exactly what you mean," said Morozov.

Monahan paused. "Anna finished figuring out the ray thing," she said. "I could go back to being ... the way I was before."

"I ... see," said Morozov.

"But ... I don't think I'm going to," she said. "I've ... gotten used to a few things."

"Oh really?" Morozov asked.

"Yeah, like going out to dinner with handsome men," Monahan said.

"Just wait until the restaurant in Moscow that I mentioned. Amazing."

"I'm looking forward to it."

"Now that there will be a future ... there is a lot to look forward to," said Morozov.

"Yeah ... I have hopes and dreams that I never thought I'd have, once. Hey, Liberace's playing here in a little bit -- I've never seen him play live. Want to go see him after dinner?"

"Music with beautiful company -- what could be better?"

"That's the spirit, Sergei!" said Monahan. "Look, here comes dinner. I'm starving!"

----------------------------------------------------------------

In a place only artificial intelligences would consider a place, two minds shared data. A crystalline orb showed the image of Colonels Monahan and Morozov, sharing a kiss on the front stoop of Morozov's temporary apartment.

The original AI of the Helix turned to Anna and said, "See? Genetic destiny wins out in the end."

Anna laughed, though whether a living being would consider it a laugh is an unanswered question. "Perhaps, in certain things."

"I understand your flesh body is almost out of the culture stage. It has the appearance of a human of about 3 to 4 years."

Anna turned quickly and asked, "My ... body? What are you talking about? My body? I had no plan to ..."

~~ THE END ~~
Sunshine & rainbows,
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