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Groaning she slid out of her bunk, glanching at the chrono display. "Oh Three Hundred? O' ye gods and assorted demons, I hope somebody has a good explanation for this. Otherwise I'm going to put the Furies to shame with my little display of temper."
* * *
Eleven minutes, a sonic shower,clean pair of scrubs, and one caffine tab later, Sara slid down the access ladder into shuttle bay 12. The deck officer shook his head, laughter in his eyes.
"Doctor, we ha'e lifts for a reason, ye know. There's no need for ye to be scramblin about in the access tubes. In fact, I've heard Cap'n Io specifically ask ye not to."
" 'Tenant Dooley, the Bridge Officer wanted me here in 19 minutes. It takes me that long just to walk to the end of deck nine, get in the lift, wait for it to stop for all the other lollygaggers, and then trundle my way down here. Since I refuse to appear for any medical procedure in my favorite silk pajamas, I needed a shortcut. The tube is three feet from my cabin. Now, if you don't mind..." Sarah paused to catch her mid length, red gold hair into a neat tail before continuing. "...What the *hell* is going on here? When I crawled into my bunk two hours ago, the word was that the pirates were long gone, and all we could provide for the colnists were burial and investigative services. No survivors, no witnesses. I know the pirates aren't back, there haven't been any alert sirens, so what gives? And come to think of it, why roust *me* out of bed? This ship has dozens of perfectly qualified medics, at least three of whom must be on call, just twiddling their thumbs at the moment..."
"We're not twiddling our thumbs, Dr. Gabriel. We're just a few moments behind you because *we* took the lifts... As ordered... Still managed to beat the wounded here, though, I see." The ship's chief medical officer, Commander Warren Galen, smiled at her toothily as he ducked through the hatch. "However, I must admit that I'm just as curious as the good Doctor, mister Dooley. Why did the bridge feel the need to request her presence? We didn't have any shell people down there with the crew, and there *were* no survivors. So why disturb the cybernetics specialist?"
Though Cmndr. Galen was carefully polite, Sarah could feel disdain radiating through his crisp white perfection. He, as he had explained many times, believed that when a person was far enough gone to need the complete life support of a "shell", it was cruel and unusal to keep them alive. That they ought to be allowed to pass gracefully. Needless to say, he did not approve of her line of work. He was also a bit threatened, she suspected, by the fact that a mere 26 year old 'slip of a girl' was already a full medical doctor, with several years experience under her belt.
"I'm sorry, sir. They didna tell me who we were expecting, just that we had a shuttle lifting from planetside and te get the deck ready. They should be arriving..." He took a breath, pausing so that everyone could feel the faint vibration of a docking shuttle, "... any moment. I'm sure that the attending medic can tell ye what he's about, sir." Lt. Dooley kept a passively blank stare firmly in place until after the commander had turned towards the opening bay doors, then shot Sarah an exagerate wink. Eyes twinkling merrily, she jogged over towards the rest of the group to see what kind of mess they had on their hands.
* * *
"Captain... are you *sure* this is the only option open to us? Placing a civilian into an experimental military Brain unit...." Sarah shook her head.
Sighing, Captian Io ran a hand through his short cropped blonde hair, his usually jovial smile faded to a grim, thin line. "You tell me, Doctor. Will she live long enough for us to get her to a civilian unit? Will we be able to get details on the pirates' attack from her. Can you *assure* me that we won't loose her before we get the information we so desperately need?" His short, wiry frame vibrated with tension as he waited for her answer; but the set of his shoulder, so ready to slump, told her he already knew it.
Sighing, Sarah shook her head. "No, Captain. I can't guarantee she'll live. If we keep her in a full life support tank, she may. But you wont be able to interact with her. Not at all."
"I'm sorry, Sarah. I truly am." Io stepped around his desk, resting a hand on her shoulder briefly. "I know this goes against your medical ethics. I don't much care for it myself. I'd prefer to offer her the option, to give her a choice. But I'm a Fleet officer. I have a duty to fulfill, and making lousy descisions is part of that duty. We desperately need to know who these bastards are. I haven't seen this kind of destruction in twenty five years... not since Admiral Sassinak broke the Seti/Paraden Planet Pirate ring. I was only an ensign then, but I served on the Zaid-Dayan. I saw what they could do. These pirates are every bit as rutheless, and so far they've been every bit as hard to
trace. If we don't get some kind of lead, you know this wont be their last strike. We have no choice. Go ahead and make the transfer. Fleet will pay for the maintainance of her ship, we'll employ her if she wants that. Hell, if her help leads to their capture, she'll get the reward money the FSP is offering. She'll be able to finance whatever kind of solution she wants, and have money left over for her own private asteroid resort."
"I still don't like it, Io."
"I know. Do it anyway."
* * *
Trembling, illusory, the light seemed hollow and far away. Difused, with no focus, it enveloped her and pushed away the darkness. Slowly, painfully, Rebekha struggled her way towards consciousness. Everything seemed distant, unreal. Then, suddenly, she remembered. The flashing fire, buildings melting to puddles of slag, bodies burning like candles.... Panic overwhelmed her in a wash of black, tasting of ash and the tang of blood. Even in her panic, she could hear voices shouting.
"Doctor, the telemtry is spiking. Dangerous levels of adrenaline.... What happened? I thought we were bringing her up slowly!! Get me a 10 CC dosage of.... The captain's gonna be angry if we.... losing this kid.... hell to pay...." Chaos swirled around, a storm of bright colors assaulting her ears loudly, sounds rasping across raw nerves with the texture of sandpaper. Somebody stuck her right arm in a vermillion blender, and she screamed crystal shards of pain.
Then, suddenly, darkness again, and peace. Floating in a sensory deprivation, Rebekha felt the pain draining away. She could not feel, or see, but a soothing voice draped velvet soft across her perceptions.
"Listen to me, Rebekha. You're safe. Nothing will hurt you, here. Relax, please, and stop struggling. There is nothing you need to escape from, the pirates are gone."
At the mention of the pirates, Rebekha started, and then unable to find any limbs to jerk, she started to slide towards panic again. Sharper, but warm, caring, the voice grabbed hold of her and dragged her back.
"Stop it! You will only make things worse, if you struggle before you understand what you're doing. Rebekha, listen to me. Focus on my voice. You are safe, on the FSP Fleet heavy-cruiser Heracles. This ship packs quite a punch, and there's no way anyone would want to tangle with us directly. No one is coming after you, do you hear me?
Rebekha could not lick her lips, nor feel breath move through her teeth, but from somewhere a rough, synthesized voice seemed to echo her thoughts.
"I hear. Is... this me? What's wrong? Am I paralyzed? What happened?"
"Shhhh, one question at a time, Rebekha. Before I explain everything, I want to get you seeing again, too, all right? Will you trust me for a moment, while I work on it?"
"Yes." a long pause... sounding almost surprised. "I trust you."
There were noises, shoes scuffing, various rattles and clanks. Everything seemed louder, clearer, almost painful in it's clarity. Rebekha could hear a sharp indrawn breath, and then that voice spoke again, in a tone obviously not meant to carry.
"Dr. Galen, get out of my operating room, now."
"Dr. Gabriel, may I remind you that this is *MY* operating room, not yours."
"I don't care. The Captain put me in charge of this project, and that makes it mine. You can't just waltz in here and start poking around while my back is turned. I was *not* ready to up the levels on *anything* but her hearing, and you very nearly cost me my patient with your well intentioned 'help'. Now get the hell out. If you've got a problem with that, take it up with the Captain. This is *MY* specialty, my project, and my operating room until further notice."
There was silence for a moment, the the squeak of a shoe on the hard floor. A rustle, and then that warm voice was addressing her once more.
"You heard that, didn't you?"
"I forgot, in the heat of the moment, how sensetive your hearing would be right now. I'll show you how to adjust that in a little while, but for now, let's work on getting you up to speed. There are a few things you need to know about what happened, before we can help you see again."
* * *
"So let me see if I understand this all." Rebekha was beginning to get used to her synthesized voice, echoing against the darkness, but she still had trouble with the inflections. "I was dead, and you people brought me back to life."
"Well, very nearly dead. You'd been trapped under a girder, your body was extensively damaged. Your head and shoulders were still fairly intact, and you had enough internal organ function to keep you alive until we got here. If the burial crew hadn't found you when they did, if they had been even ten minutes later, you wouldn't have lived."
"So you brought me here, and put me in a box."
"Essentially, yes. You're in an experimental military Brain unit. When you're installed into your ship, you'll be able to control it like it was your own body. You'll feel the skin, see through it's cameras, it
will become your new body."
Rebekha was silent for a while, and Sarah could almost imagine her frowning in thought.
"Does that bother you, Rebekha?"
"Yes, it does. . . . .. . . I'll never get out of here, will I? Never walk free. Never breathe fresh air, touch a tree... Can't you just let me out? Even if I'm paralyzed, it would be worth it."
Gently, Sarah reminded herself. Tread gently... "No, I'm afraid I can't. Not right now, Rebekha. It may be that technology will advance to the point where you can be taken out of the unit someday, the missing portions regenerated. But not today, and not next week, either. At the moment, you can't live without full life support."
"Then why didn't you just let me die? I'm trapped in this box, forever! Please..." her anguish burned, even in the synthesized voice. "just let me die."
"Rebekha... normally... normally we wouldn't take extreme measures to keep someone alive like this. We didn't have the opportunity to offer you a choice, and for that I am *DEEPLY* sorry. We had no way to perform the tests, to see if you'd be psychologically compatible with this kind of lifestyle..."
"Then why did you do it? What aren't you telling me?!?"
"I think you know. You know what was happening, down there, Rebekha."
Silence stretched, and time distorted, as Sarah watched the seconds tick by slowly on the display.
"I'm the only one left, aren't I? That's why you tried so hard to keep me alive. You need to know..."
"Yes. We need to know. And we need you as a witness, when we bring them in. You are our only hope, at the moment. Without you, we have nothing. No leads, no proof, no way to bring the men who did this to you, to your family, to justice. No way to fight them, and keep them from doing this ever again. Please, Rebekha, will you help us?"
For a long, long moment, Sarah thought she was going to refuse. That she would draw back from the horror of the life she had left, pull inside her shell and go quietly insane. It had been known to happen, especially in the early days of the Brain/Brawn program... candidates unable to handle the transfer would just snap.
Then, with a surprising steel in her voice, Rebakha answered. "All right, Doctor Gabriel. If that's the way it is, then so be it. I will live, at least until the pirates are brought down... What do you need me to do?"
* * *
Captain Io stepped out of the sonic shower to the chiming of the comm system. Shrugging into a casual uniform, he slapped the button on his desk. "Go ahead."
"Captain, Dr. Gabriel here. Rebekha is conscious, and ready to talk. I've got her "eyes" hooked up to the comm at the moment, so you can talk to her from your desk. No need to come down here to sickbay... there really isn't anything to see anyhow. Just a metal cylynder hooked up to the wall. We've taken her holopic from the colonial database, and set up an image for her, so that you two can interact naturally. You'll see her on your screen, and she'll see you... the image will react fairly naturally, though it does take a bit of conscious thought for her to manipulate it."
"Thank you, Doc. I'm surprised you got her up and running this quickly."
"She's quite a determined young lady, Captain. Do me a favor, will you? Go easy on her. She's been through a lot, and I'm worried about her mental state."
"Understood, Sarah. I'll take good care of her. Patch her through, will you? Of course we'll be recording..."
Io straightened in his seat unconsciously, putting on command presence like a well worn jacket, radiating competance and reasurance. When his screen flickered, and a young woman appeared in it's dark depths, he grinned infectiously.
"Rebekha, I'm Captian Io Lus-Rellan, commanding officer of the Heracles. Dr. Gabriel tells me that you're making remarkable progress in the simulator."
"I suppose so, Captain. She's got me doing mental excersizes: squashing quares into circles, and memorizing quantum mathematics and flux paths. It doesn't make much sense to me, but she says I need to practice it, so I am. She says that soon she'll put me into the full XNA33 unit, that way I can start getting used to the way the ship feels, all though the thrusters and weapons won't be activated until I'm fully trained."
Rebekha paused, and Io took the oportunity to study the image of the woman before him. From the colony's database, he knew the details of her life. Rebekha Tomas, 19 years old, born on the colony of Amphipolis III, Thrace IIV system. The colonists, of mostly Greek and Israeli descent, had only been on planet 20 years. Still raw frontier, out on the edges of FSP controlled territory... the kind of place that bred strong people, survivors. Apparently, Rebekha was one of them. Her long, dark hair, fair skin, and fine bone structure suggested a delicate, fragile personality... but the steeley blue eyes suggested otherwise. He almost wished he could have met her before the damage was done, before
the pirates. She was just the kind of woman he'd have been attracted to, in other circumstances...
"Captain, I'm sure you didn't ask to talk to me to inquire as to my health. You could have gotten an update on that from the good doctor. And I'm sure you did."
"Yes, I did. And no, I didn't call to inquire as to your health, though it *does* ineterest me. As does the health of everyone on my ship. I need to talk to you about the pirates, Rebekha. I need to know everything you can remember, and the sooner the better. And then, when we have all that, I'll want Dr. Gabriel to try to help you remember more. But that will take some time, and I need what ever you can give me right away. The more time we waste, the harder it's going to be to catch up to those pirates."
Time passed quickly, as they spoke of the attack and slaughter. Rebekha spoke in clipped, accurate phrases, seemingly distant from the whole experience. Io never once heard her become in the slightest distressed, though it was often hard to tell with the bland, synthesized voice. But it made Io uncomfortable, he'd seen the same sort of cold facade in fellow soldiers traumatized by a particularly gruesome battle, and it never boded well for thier mental health. He made a note to himself to talk to Dr. Gabriel about it, and then went on with his questioning.
* * *
"So this is it, hmm?" Sarah nodded, wheeling the cart with Rebekha's 'Brain' box around so that the small camera perched on the side could get a better view.
"That's it all right. The new XNA33 fighter craft. Sleek, manouverable, deadly, fast... it's the smallest fighter we've got, because it's not designed to leave room for a normal human to operate things. We slip you in, connect you to the computer core, and that's it. This will be your new body. That's why your senses and communication have been so limited up to this point. Your 'box' was never intended to be out of this unit, except for maintanence. Once we put you inside, I think you'll be impressed with the range of sensation and knowledge available. All the pilots that I've worked with in this program have told me that they would never go back to a normal body, even if they had the chance to. With the onboard computers and communications linkups, you have access to the collective knowledge of the entire FSP. . . It's quite a package."
"So why's the Fleet wasting it on me? Not that I don't appreciate it, but I'm hardly a fighter pilot, as you well know. I'm not even Fleet. I've given you all the information I know, done everything I can. Why not just hang onto me, and install me in some civilian unit when we get back to populated space. No offence, but I just don't get it."
Sarah chuckled, smiling at Rebekha's acerbic tone. This woman pulled no punches. "Well, normally that *would* be procedure. We don't give civilians access to military equipment without good reason, and it would be better to give you something you could work with in the civilian world. But it won't work this time for several reasons. Number one, this 'Box is a nonstandard design. You can't just be hooked into any old civilian unit, the connections wouldn't match up. You're optimized for this particular configuration. To make them compatible, Fleet would have to reveal technology that's still classified. But it was the only box we had on this ship, and we had to make do with what we had. We had no choice, it was the only way to save your life and keep you conscious so we could get the information we needed. Now that we've got you in there, we can't just take you out again... the trauma of a transfer is incredible, and what's left of your physical body couldn't handle it a second time.
Sarah paused to let that information soak in, taking the opportunity to position the cylinder on the lift.
"So you had to put me in here, to catch the pirates. And now you've got a surpluss 'Brain' on your hands that will only work with top secret military technology."
"That about sums it up."
"Then what happens to me?"
"Well, we have several options. Because you never had a choice in this, Fleet is giving you this ship. They'll pay for basic mainanance, they'll employ you if you want to work for them. You could *become* a fighter pilot. Or they'll disable the weapons systems, give you the ship free and clear. It's small, manouverable. You could probably make quite a living as a scout... You'll have a lot of options."
Sarah hit the button on the lift, sliding the smaller unit up along the side of the fighter until it was level with the hatch, then pushing it forward until it seated with a click. Backing up she swung the hatch shut, and it sealed - nearly seamless, practically invisible. Then back down the lift, and stepping away from the fighter, she turned to survey her handiwork. A gleaming fighter, sleek lines, beautiful contours. Small but deadly, graceful in the sweep of the arc from nose to engines. With small cameras facing fore, aft, and to each side, there were no blind spots such as human pilots were prone to. Sensor packets on the thruster wings, and several varieties of beam and projectile weapons. As
far as fighters went this was state of the art. Each of the XNA units also had a custom identifying paint job. This one was gleaming deep space black, with bronze and copper trim swirling in a distinctive lightning pattern. Smiling, Sarah poised one finger over the button of a small remote.
"Rebekha, you're situated properly. Can you hear me?"
"I'm prepared to connect you to the ships systems. Are you ready?"
"All right, brace yourself. This may be a bit disorienting at first. You can shut off the cameras at will, you may want to turn off all but one until you can handle the input." Taking a deep breath, Sarah hit the button.
Suddenly feedback squealed loudly through the bay, modulating high, then low, then shutting off. Hands over her ears, Sarah squinted up at the fighter. "Volume, Rebekha. This puppy has a lot more kick than the little speaker you've been using. You don't need to try as hard."
"Sorry doctor." Rebekha's voice boomed in the chamber, decreasing in volume sharply as she got used to using it. "These external speakers are really something. It's like having a microphone in the back of my throat." Rebekha chuckled, fluttering the synth voice, straining it's capacity to express emotions.
"You know, now that you're in the XNA, you can design a vocal profile for yourself. Access the FSP library recordings, listen to voices you like. You can pick any one, or blend several to create something original."
"Sure. Go ahead, puruse the files. I've got some fiddling to do out here anyway."
Sarah picked up her tools, tinkering with settings and levels while Rebekha looked for her voice. Eventually, there was a soft throat clearing sound.
"Dr. Gabriel." Still the synthesized voice.
"You can call me Sarah."
"All right. I think I've found what I'm looking for. Would you like to hear it?"
Sarah smiled brightly at the almost shy invitation. "I'd love to. Show me what you got, darlin, I'm all ears."
A low hum filled the chamber, rich, complex. Soon it transformed into a lilting melody, beautiful in it's simplicity, pure in tone... Sarah bit her lip at the beauty of it. It took her a moment to catch her breath when Rebekha stopped singing.
"I... your profile didn+t indicate you were a singer."
"I wasn't, really. It was just a hobby." The voice was *definitely* female, but strong, confident, vibrant, deep... Everything Sarah had imagined Rebekha's voice would be, the first time she saw her holo pic.
"So, Sarah..." Something in the way Rebekha's voice wrapped around her name made it sound like the most beautiful name she'd ever heard, instead of the simple utilitarian tag Sarah had always imagined it to be... "Do you like it?"
"Like it? I think it's magnificent. It suits you."
* END CHAPTER ONE *
* CHAPTER TWO *
Ship's night was dim, green lights illuminating exits and emergency panels. Still, the tiny ammount of light they shed was more than enough for Rebekha to 'see' by. In fact, she didn't even need light at all. Her sensors could show her the bay in so many ways it had made her dizzy at first. As the doctor had suggested, now that she didn't need to sleep she spent her time looking around, getting used to the new forms her senses took. It was surprising how quickly she adjusted. Now she could feel the exact temperature and humidity of the air on her skin, sense the warmth of the air coming from a small vent... It was all beginning to seem natural. Simply willing things to happen activated systems, those that weren't autonomous. But even those could be brought under her conscious control at any time. Including the flow of nutrients and chemicals to her entombed body. She could kill herself, litterally, with a thought.
Mentally she shook herself. It was not yet time for that remedy to pain. For now it must be shut away. She had to help find those who had killed her family, her planet. All else was secondary to that. When they were dealt with, then the release of darkness would be hers. But not until then. Not until then.
* * *
The clink of glass brought Io's attention back to Sarah, digging into her food with sensuous abandon. The way she approached everything, wholeheartedly. Io smiled at her enthusiasm. "You are, without a doubt, the best companionship on this bucket of tin soldiers, Dr. Gabriel."
Laughter in her eyes, she finished chewing her mouthful. "Why, because I eat like a soldier but have a girlish figure?"
"No, because you *don't* eat like a soldier. Soldiers don't tend to pay attention to their food the way you do. You approach everything with enthusiasm, no matter how insignificant."
She blushed prettily, chuckling. "Flatterer."
"No, it's true. But I won't press the point. I wanted to talk to you about Rebekha. Is she adjusting?"
Sighing, Sarah set down her fork. "Yes and no. She's certainly got the technical aspects well in hand. I'd say we could almost dump her into a full on fire fight and expect her to come out on top, *without* any additional training. It's nothing short of remarkable, really, the knack she has for this. Emotionally... I won't say I'm not concerned. She's got flashes of genuine feeling, but in general she seems to be very withdrawn. I'm afraid of what she's keeping from us, of the dark places she won't look at. I'm hoping to work through some of that in the new simulator."
"The one you couldn't get to work with our last pilot?"
Sarah chuckled. "That'd be the one. We've done some more testing, and I think I have all the bugs ironed out." She unconsciously brushed her hair back from the small gold socket behind her right ear, touching the rubber plug that kept it free of dust and debris. "The virtual environment is seemless now, and I've done my best to pick it apart."
"Are you sure it's safe? Kariss nearly did you serious damage in there, you know, locking you in that sensory feedback loop."
"I know. But really, Io, I'll be okay. This is a necessary part of the therapy for late transfers. To have a virtual environment where they can see, feel, and interact normally. It helps cushion the transfer, keeps it gradual, and more importantly it uncovers unconscious tendencies and fears. It's so intrinsically linked to their subconscious reactions that it can't *help* but uncover things. And besides, I've got ultimate control over whether I'm in there or not. I can always sever contact if she ends up getting violent. It's important to be sure of these things, before we put her out there in a functioning warship."
"All right, I concede to the necessity. But you be careful, Sarah. You may be 'just' a civillian specialist, but you're not expendable."
"Don't worry, Io. I don't consider myself particularly expendable either." She grinned. "Now, what about that desert you promised me?"
* * *
By the time the ship cycled back to it's 'day' rythm, Rebekha had gone through the complete specifications of her new form, down to the last bolt. It really was top of the line, she'd looked at the other fighters available to the Fleet. In fact, in a short term battle, she could take on a light warship on her own, or a squadron of the next best fighters around. And that was if she stood toe to toe and fought straight out. A little underhanded maneouvering and some clever tactics could increase her advantage far beyond that. Still, one shot from a heavy cruiser and she'd be toast like any other fighter. You can only carry so much armor on a fighter, after all. And in a long term fight, she'd run out of fuel. She needed to be based off a heavy ship, a space station, or...
"Dr. Gabriel, just the woman I wanted to talk to." Rebekha smiled to herself as the lift slid open, focusing a camera on the approaching doctor. "I was looking over my specifications. I don't have much range without some larger ship to dock to. These notes mention a carrier vessel, the RG0 mark III?"
"That's right, it's a standard small frieghter hull. About half again the size of the typical Brain/Brawn courier ship... The kind you can find at any dockyard, they usually carry a 2 to 4 person crew... Of course, the insides are a bit different. You dock in a special berth, designed to fit the XNA. It cuts down on cargo space, of course, but then I doubt you'd be working as a tramp frieghter so I wouldn't worry about it. The inner systems are top of the line: when docked, you run it the same way you run the fighter, by feel. When you're outside, you can run it remotely, or have a human pilot do it for you. There's room for a Brawn to live on board comfortably, if you want one, and the RG0 can carry up to fifteen people for short stretches. 20 if you're reckless. But it looks just like any other frieghter, which is a useful disguise. We have yours in docking bay twelve, the Bridge can link you to the cameras in there, if you're interested in taking a look at it."
"Maybe later. Enough to know I'll have one, if I need it. So tell me Sarah, what brings you down here? I assume more tests, poking and prodding, that sort of thing..."
Sarah laughed, patting Rebekha's hull affectionately. "I promise, it won't be too much longer before we're done with them. Your aptitude tests, reflex measurments, adjustment profiles... all of it sugest that you are not only going to do fine, but that you may be one of our most successful transfers ever. The Captain looked at records of your last computer simulated battle scenario this morning, and said that *he* sure as Niv wouldn't want to go up against you one on one. And he was the top rated fighter pilot in his graduating Academy class... you seem to have a real aptitude for tactics and three dimensional movement."
"Well, I was always pretty good at the simulator games at home. My sister Lygia used to say that I ought to go for pilot when we enrolled in..." Rebekha bit off the end of the sentence as she suddenly realized that Lygia wouln't be enrolling anywhere, ever. A vivid picture of her blonde older sister's usually cheery expression distorted in shock as a bright beam pierced her breast below the silver medalion she always wore 'for luck'... Rebekha wished she could close her eyes to will away the pictures, but turning off her cameras didn't have nearly the same effect.
"Rebekha?" Sarah's gentle, concerned voice brought her attention back to the present, and she willed her voice steady.
"Oh, it doesn't much matter now, I suppose. The point is, I was always very good at spacial relations. It was a family joke that I could always tell where you were by the sound of your breathing, and hit you with a couch pillow no matter where you were in the room. Father wanted me to be an architect/city planner because of it, mother thought I should be an artist. Lygia thought I'd make a great combat pilot, and was always challenging me to flight simulator games and talking me into taking hand to hand courses with her. We were going to study hard and apply to the Academy, or maybe just get rich and buy our own space yacht like Carin Coldae ...that old cheesey adventure vid star... roaming the universe and righting wrongs. Tobin, our younger brother, always told us we were crazy, wasting time and hard earned credits on simulators, but we went ahead and did it anyway. Good thing I did, huh?"
Sarah nodded, her brow slightly furrowed with concern. "Yes, I suppose it is. Rebekha, since you came aboard, that was the first time I've even heard you mention your family. I know you've been kept pretty busy with this whole adjustment thing, but..."
"Hey, I'm *fine* doc. I want to concentrate on catching these pirates. Everything else can wait."
"I'm not so sure about that..."
"Well I am. Listen, I was thinking about our conversation of the other day. You told me one reason why Fleet put me in this ship, but you implied there were more reasons. You never went into what they were, and I'm curious. Are there more ways I can help?"
Sighing inwardly, Sarah let Rebekha steer the conversation away from painful subjects, going on instead at length about those reasons. How, now that she was attached to so much machinery, there were methods for bringing back more memory, and storing it permanently in the computer innards of the fighter. Various forms of hypnosis and chemical induced trances, as well as simple concentration excercises that she could perform to enhance memory.
"In fact, Rebekha, that's what I was on my way down here to talk to you about. There's an experimental simulator that I'd like you to try out. It's very good at this particular function, bringing out buried details. The Captain has taken the leads you gave him, and is pursuing them to the best of his ability, but any further detail we can provide him with, however seemingly insignificant, could make the difference between catching the pirates or not."
"How much *have* my leads helped, anyway? Are we close?"
Sarah shook her head, sighing. "Sorry, Rebekha, but I'm just a civilian specialist. I don't have the clearance to be told where we're headed, or who we're chasing. I know we've been in FTL for several days, and there *is* no scuttlebutt on where we're headed. Everyone's been tighter than a Crysyan Clam about it, which in and of itself implies there's something going on, but I don't know what. You're as free as I am to jump to your own conclusions, though."
Brightening, Sarah picked up a strange device that she'd brought in with her. It positively bristled with wires and leads, and complex pannels, looking like some kind of holovid inspired weapon of mass destruction. "This is it, the simulator core. It may not look like much, but it packs quite a punch." Rebekha zoomed in for a closer look at it's surface, at first focusing too closely and seeing some kind of surreal cratered moon surface. Then, pulling back, it began to come clearer. Gadgetry of all kinds defied her understanding, small displays flickered, and a serial number of some kind had been stenciled neatly in black on one surface. H3NB8N-NT-BR38D.
Sarah pulled one wire lead out, opening a panel on Rebekha's hull and plugging it into a small port. Another wire reeled free, and Sarah locket it in the open position and set it down next to a folding chair. Then she sat down and pulled her hair back, exposing the socket behind her ear. Removing the rubber place holder, she clicked the connector firmly into place, shaking her head to make sure it was seated properly. Finger poised over a small green button on the simulator's surface, she grinned. "What do you say, shall we take it for a test drive?"
* END CHAPTER TWO *
* CHAPTER THREE *
Of course, like any other of Sarah's gadgets, the simulator could not just be used, it had to be calibrated and adjusted, fiddled with and tinkered around in. But after a couple of hours worth of, "look at this picture while the computer tracks your brain chemistry... now move forward, and to your right, towards the red circle...", Sarah switched them into a basic simulated room. Rebekha was surprised at how real it felt, though she supposed she shouldn't be considering the advanced technology in play.
Four gray walls, soft and rubbery cushioned, it was a plain cubicle that felt entirely too much like the inside of a mental institution. On one wall was a nondescript door that was, at the moment, closed.
Rebekha turned to face Sarah, realizing she had a body again. A *real* body. Eyes wide in wonder, she attempted to hide her amazement with chatter.
"Why is this place so dull? I'd have thought you could come up with something a little more interesting..."
Sarah, standing before her in her standard white jumpsuit and lab coat - looking perfectly normal - raised an eyebrow, not fooled for a moment.
"Of course we could have. But this is a gentle start, to make sure everything is working correctly. If, at any time during the rest of the simulation, something goes wrong or you feel the need to escape, just say the word "Hades" and you'll end up back here."
"Cause this room is boring as hell."
Nonplused for a moment, Rebekha finally laughed out loud. Every time she drew a breath and calmed herself, she'd start giggling again, and devolve into laughter once more. Amused, but tolerant, Sarah let her laugh herself out. While she laughed, the doctor took a moment to study her in three dimensions for the very first time.
She'd known, of course, that Rebekha was taller than she. The colony records gave her height quite specifically. But the photos hardly did her justice. Tall, trim and muscular, she must've been quite athletic. High cheekbones, fair skin, dark hair, and intense blue eyes that lit from within when she laughed. The top of Sarah's head came only to her shoulder, and the doctor smiled at the difference. Anyone seeing the two of them together would probably assume that Rebekha was the older. Height did funny things to perception. Of course, as this environment was built almost entirely on perception of self and subconscious, Sarah could choose to look differently than she did now... but she didn't want to confuse Rebekha right off. That was a skill the tall woman would pick up later. For now it was enough that she felt comfortable enough to laugh.
Eventually Rebekha quieted. "Sorry, Sarah. For some reason that just struck me as *really*, really funny."
"Perfectly natural reaction. You haven't had the sensation of being able to breathe, to really *laugh* for quite some time. Most late transfers either do that, or they cry for an hour. One of the reasons we start you off in a null environment. Don't want to overload you right away."
Rebekha seemed to sober instantaneously at the implication she might have broken down into tears. Sarah could almost hear the sound effects of walls raising up, doors slamming shut. Sighing inwardly, she went on.
"Before we head out there, let me fill you in on some of how this works. The environment, your body, all of these things are computer generated images. They're feeding directly into your visual centers, just like the cameras did, which is why they seem so real. The computer is also creating textures, sensations, smells... A lot of it is much simpler than the real world, but the brain has a remarkable ability to fill in gaps with remembered sensation. And I built this simulation, so I've inputted samples of a lot of my favorite smells, tastes, landscapes, and whatnot. The rest is taken from cues your subconscious gives. That's what all that testing was about... to determine whether you preferred pine trees or oak, sweet or salty tastes, and how your brain chemistry (and therefor emotions) react to certain stimuli. And as you go, it'll continue to take samples and update it's information. So in effect as your environment affects you, you affect it in return. Much like real life." Sarah grinned. "Ready to head out into the rest of the wide virtual world?"
Rebekha nodded emphatically.
"All right then, o' ship in a woman's body. After you..."
For all her apparent confidence, Rebekha approached the door with some trepidation, finally pulling it open in one swift jerk.
* * *
What seemed like an eternity later the two of them strolled through lush green undergrowth, following a small path towards the ever increasing sound of rushing water.
"I must admit, this scenery is not at all what I expected. I thought the place you'd build would look like home, since you so specifically geared it to my liking, but my home looks nothing like this."
Sarah smiled, gesturing to the surrounding trees. "Sometimes the subconscious can be a strange place. You're used to a fairly arid environment, perhaps you felt the need for a change. Perhaps you've always longed for lush vegetation, somewhere in the back of your mind, and not known it. Or, it could be as simple as a liking for the color green. Hard to tell. The question is, do you like this place?"
"Yes, I do. In fact, in some strange way, it feels more like home than home ever did. Does that make sense?"
"Sure it does. You know," Sarah sounded a bit surprised, "I feel a strange affinity for this place as well. I'm not in the feedback loop, not directly, so it couldn't be drawing off my emotions to form it, but I've always loved the jungle. My home wasn't just temperate and a bit dry like yours... I grew up in a real desert. Poor adaptation for it, with my fair skin and fair hair, but then I stayed inside and studied a lot. Perhaps that's why I left my home world so soon after school." She smiled wryly at the memories, now less painful with time. "You want to talk about sunburns, baby I wrote the *book*. They called me Red, and not just for the hair."
Suddenly the undergrowth opened up, showing wide vistas of green hills spreading out below them. And almost at their feet, a sharp, jagged cliff fell away for several lengths below them. Off to the right, about a hundred yards away, a bright stream frothed off the edge of the cliff, bright crystalline drops hanging in midair. Sarah caught her breath at the beauty of the falls, and the lake below, transfixed by the rolling thunder of it's music.
Meanwhile, Rebekha, staring at first the falls, and then the lake, was taken by a sudden impulse. Sarah didn't notice until the dark haired one was suspended midair, hanging above the water in a frozen moment, looking like some kind of primal goddess of the wind and water. Then she was falling, jackknifing towards the deep blue below, her standard gray coveralls in a heap on the stone at Sarah's feet.
* END CHAPTER THREE *
* CHAPTER FOUR *
Slapping the panic button, Sarah jolted the two of them out of the simulated world and back into the bay. Gasping, she yanked the cord out of her jack and stood up, walking over to stare directly up into the cameras of the ship.
"Are you *INSANE*?? That sim is equipped with full sensory stimulation, and you have *no* idea whether that water was deep enough to handle a full on cliff dive. For all you know, it was three feet deep and you'd have cracked your head on solid rock!!! We were high enough up that you could've broken your neck just hitting the water!! And you'd have felt that pain, real enough, even if it didn't kill you..."
Only a shave apologetic, Rebekha snorted. "Sorry to scare you, Sarah. I should have warned you first, it just didn't' occur to me. But really, it's just a sim. The worst that could happen is a little pain. I'm used to that. Besides, I did my share of cliff diving back home, into the small sea. I'm used to judging depth and conditions. That water was perfect for it. And my forms good enough that I wouldn't hurt myself. You worry too much."
A little mollified, Sara was still ascerbic. "Well just remember that this is a training module, as well as a fun environment, and you *can* hurt yourself in there. You won't damage your ship, but you can certainly suffer..."
"All right. Now that we have that worked out, can we go back?"
* * *
An unspoken agreement kept them away from the waterfall for the moment, and they wandered Westward instead until they came to a larger dirt road through the forestation.
"Much as I'm enjoying the walk, I thought the purpose of this thing was to help me remember more about the pirates. So why are we strolling through jungle?"
"First, to get the environment completely comfortable with your reactions. The computer is still gathering data, figuring you out. We need to give it a chance to do that before we start digging for any serious hidden memories or attempting hypnosis. Second, this is not as useless as it looks. The computer is taking this place from *you*. So as we wander it, we learn more about your subconscious mind. Understand what drives you, and what moves you. Besides, it *is* a lovely walk."
Laughing, Rebekha shrugged. "All right, you win. We walk. At least for now. I think I'm of a mind to conjure myself a 'nokari' and go for a ride, tho', soon."
"What's the word in Standard? Um... four legs, barrel body, plains dweller the old earth types used to use for transportation..."
"Yeah, that's it. A horse. The batch of colonists that disappeared off my world during the last set of planet pirate escapades had brought them out of sentimental reasons, and of course they got loose when the people were killed. A lot of them died, but more survived and bred wild. They've become very handy, especially when not everyone can afford an airsled and they need something heavy pulled. My family had a small herd, my favorite was a light dun colored one we kept only for saddle work. He wouldn't pull a harness, but you could ride him bareback like the wind..."
As they talked, they rounded a bend in the road and came upon a small roadside temple. Greek in architecture, it's marble steps were worn with age.
"Very nice." Sarah said. "But then, many of the colonists on your planet were of Greek descent, weren't they? It makes sense that you'd go with that kind of architecture."
"They *were* Greek, but not from Earth. Not for several generations. They were emigrating from B'Kai. I think I may have seen a picture of the Parthenon once, but that's about the extent of my knowledge of classical architecture..."
"Huh. How strange." Sarah shook her head. "Well, no matter. The computer probably picked it at random... The building appearing is a prearranged signal from the computer, to tell me that it has enough information now to try the hypnosis. Let's go inside, shall we?"
* * *
The interior of the temple was surprisingly spacious, cool gray and white stone forming a drowsy pale twilight. It looked like you would expect a healing temple to. The statue of the Healer's patron with his snake entwined staff, a sort of altar at it's foot draped in furs. A few paces in front of the altar was a small pool, it's sides carved with themes from Greek myth. The bottom was black, the water dark, and it seemed almost bottomless.
At Sarah's instruction, Rebekha stretched out on the altar, striking a contemplative pose. Her hands folded across her chest, she looked like a knight on a sarcophagus... the only thing missing was a sword.
With the computer's help, and a few mild drugs sent to Rebekha's bloodstream, the contemplative pose quickly became something much deeper. A combination of hypnosis and technology, it allowed Rebekha to remain isolated from this experience while still technically being awake. As she listened to Sarah's voice drone on, she knew that she could override the drug dosage and pull out of the sim at any time. She also had no desire to do so at all. Completely at peace, she marveled at the turmoil of her emotions, playing in bright chaos below her. Somehow she wasn't surprised to see the same turmoil form in the bottomless reflecting pool, the mirror of her soul. And it didn't bother her that other people would witness her weakness, though she knew she'd feel differently later.
Sarah let the chaos play for a moment, wild and disturbing, with no clear images but rather swirling pieces of memory... fire and falling, and the play of lasers across the night sky... children teasing, taunting, standing in a circle and chanting... the pain of a broken arm... the joy of candles burning... the smell of the sea... the crash of oceans, of stars falling and setting the world on fire with their exhaust...
Then, slowly, she spoke to Rebekha, helping her focus the picture. Took her back to the night of the invasion, and played it backwards and forwards like a movie, searching for key details. Eventually, after it seemed that hours had passed, Sarah sighed and leaned back from the pool, letting Rebekha drift unfocussed once more as she rubbed her temples.
"I think that should be enough for Io. I have detailed images of the pirates, their armament, the ships... he'll know what to do with all of it. Rebekha, now that I've made this so clear in your mind, it's not going to fade. You'll be able to replay it like this, any time. It might be kinder if... do you want me to help you forget? I can, you know. As much, or as little as you like..."
Rebekha's body remained still, but her face appeared in the dark pool. To Sarah's surprise, she spoke aloud. "No, memories are the one thing that truly belong to a person. Taking them away steals a part of them that they need to learn from. Don't do it."
Sarah nodded, then looked more closely at the face in the pool. She'd thought it was Rebekha, but now she wasn't so sure. There were definitely similarities... but also differences. Longer hair, a fuller, more mature face... This woman could have been Rebekha's mother, or maybe older sister.
"R... Rebekha?" Sarah sounded quite unsure, even to herself.
The woman shook her head, and her smile lit like the sun, like the warmth of summer. Something about that smile resonated in Sarah's bones, and she felt her soul ring like a bell.
"You've stirred the darkness, and I am always a part of that. The darkness, and perhaps the path to light. That is both my punishment and my penance, and my redemption."
"So you're a *part* of Rebekha?" Sarah was concerned, fearing suddenly that Rebekha might have fragmented personalities.
The woman seemed to sense her concern, and chuckled. "No, she has not lost her mind. She sleeps, and allows me to come forward. I am myself, as I have been since before my children walked the stars, and my soul is set to guard. My name, young healer, is Xena. You know me, or part of you does. It is always so, tho' we sleep for ages unknowing."
And somehow, she knew she *did* know this woman, this Xena. Unbidden words leapt to her lips.
"You've changed, love. You sound like a poet, now."
"I have been with those who were, and they are with me still. But I feel the past coming back, and that means I have to go. Gabrielle," the name was a caress, "she'll need my help before this is over. And yours. Farewell, for now..."
* END CHAPTER FOUR *
* CHAPTER FIVE *
Rebekha seemed to have taken the apparition in stride, assuming it was a part of the sim. Sarah had made some guesses out loud about subconscious personality whatchamahoozits and protective shielding impulses from deep in the brain... All very technical, very plausible, very good guesses. Her psych professors would have been proud, and they would have agreed with her.
But somehow, she didn't believe it. This wasn't covered in any manual, and she didn't have a good explanation. She felt bad, doubletalking Rebekha. But what was she going to say? "I think you're carrying a piece of the soul of a long dead warrior woman around inside you, as I'm carrying a piece of another woman long dead." Sure. One word of that escaped into the gossip ring, and Cmndr. Galen would have her in a nice comfy psyche restraint, tranked for the long ride home before she could blink twice. Sarah shook her head, trying to put the vivid images out of her mind til she could look at them more objectively. She was only marginally successful, even when she used the Discipline she knew to keep focused on her other duties of the day. By diner, she was exhausted from the Discipline, and still troubled by a brilliant smile and dancing blue eyes... Her sleep was no calmer.
------------------------------ "Gabrielle, are you *sure*? I have to do this, but you don't! You could go on to the Elysian fields, be with your family..."
Unshed tears glistened in Xena's eyes as they stood on the flat, horizonless gray plane, facing each other as they had once before. Gabrielle looked down at hands that had shed the weight of time, and wore once more the smooth young flesh she remembered so well.
"No, Xena. They're happy, and safe there... I know that, Hades showed me their fates, trying to convince me to stay there... but I don't belong with them now any more than I ever did. I swore when the gods bound you to your final redemption, guarding against the return of the Mad God, that I would find a way to join you. But first I had to make sure that the Amazons were safe, and our work was finished."
She smiled shyly up at her warrior.
"And I had to make sure that I had descendants, so that the spell would work when I came to you. I stayed with them until I was old. But I never forgot my promise. Never stopped missing you. The Fates owe me, they owe me big time, and this is my last chance to collect. You better believe I'm not going to let it slip by."
Gabrielle cried unashamedly, tears running down her face like rain.
"Oh, Xena. I've missed you so much."
And then no more words, as they swept into each other's embrace. --------------------------------------
If Rebekha could have, she would have blinked in astonishment, awakening from some strange imagining. Ships might not sleep, or dream, but they could certainly daydream vividly. She could almost feel the small bard's arms around her, and the sensation was so comforting that she wanted to loose herself in it.
And in her cabin, Sarah started awake, her heart trip-hammering, the feel of a kiss gentle upon her lips.
* * *
Rebekha didn't like her newfound crystalline memory, the ability to play the horrors over and over again in her mind. But she didn't seem to be able to stay away from it. Like a sore tooth, it kept calling her back to prod and poke. Finally she threw herself into study to avoid it. Tactics and history, music and theater, a broader spectrum of knowledge than she'd ever imagined possible was available to her at her merest whim. The Heracles had a vast library, and an even larger index that listed every publication available to the FSP. She could call up to the Comm officer any time and ask him to download the texts for her, and next time they stripped messages off a beacon, her 'books' would be waiting for her. Any relevant information went into her own impressive memory banks... she could easily store all of ancient Earth's literature in their crystalline depths and not take up even a quarter of their capacity. She imagined she could spend a lifetime filling them with things that interested her. And of course, if they ever got full, she could purchase more...
So she spent the next few days in escapism, but educational escapism. Meanwhile Sarah was equally occupied, if less pleasantly. After downloading the relevant records of Rebekha's simulator session, (carefully not including the interlude with Xena) to the Heracle's computer, she poured over them again and again with Captain Io, looking for details the might have missed. And ugly picture began to take shape, one that had only been hinted at before.
Through a labyrinthine haze of dummy companies and foreign interests, the majority of those ships had been purchased by one company: Olympian Industries Corp. Purchased from Hephaestus Shipyards in the Iridani sector, almost half of them had been 'pirated' before they reached their intended destinations, while they were manned only by skeleton transport crews that had disappeared without a trace. Of the ones that *had* made it to their new homes, all of them had been stolen in hit and run raids. A minimum of bloodshed and a quick surrender in most cases. A few massacres, but not many. All in all, they were taken far too easily. And only from Olympian, which was incredibly suspicious, but not proof of anything. After all, Olympian could hardly be blamed if some pirate held a grudge against them and choose to steal their ships. All they could do was beef up their security, or ask for Fleet escort... at least, that's what their lawyers would say.
No, the FSP needed more proof if they were going to accuse powerful political families of pirating. Olympian, owned by one Mr. Ian Drake-Osentor and his family, was the property of one of the richest families in the Core Worlds. They practically owned Mars, and ran most of Olympian's affairs from it.
So they needed proof, good *solid* proof of wrongdoing, and *that's* what Sarah and Io were looking for now. They wanted no loopholes for Drake-Osentor to escape through, and for now all they had the barest of suspicions. So they turned their attention to the few ships that had not been purchased by Olympian and reported stolen.
One ship in particular had not come down to the surface of the planet until after the carnage was nearly complete, apparently guarding for attack from the sky... or perhaps commanding from the rear. Rebekha had gotten only a glimpse of that ship, through a window, before the building had fallen on her. But that glimpse had been enough to grave all but a small snippet of it's ID numbers, painted in garish red on a shimmery gold hull. A very fancy paint job for a pirate ship, and it made them wonder.
A search on that number string turned up a large number of ships, but they were easily whittled down to just a handful. Most were well accounted for during the raid, or were the wrong size and class of ship. Of the ships who were the right size, and could theoretically have been in the area, three were luxury liners currently in service made them unlikely prospects. But one other caught Sarah's attention.
"Captain, what about this one?" She flashed him the specs on a large personal yacht, the Artyphice. "It's big enough, in service to a small private company that could easily be a blind." She called up more information, tracing it's ownership. "It's just recently been purchased from a very small, very wealthy artist's colony in the Stonewall system. It's called "The Oscar Wilds", very lush, very back-to-nature in a sybaritic sort of way."
"Who bought it?" Io focused more closely on the screen.
"Cirrah R&D. Now what would an R&D company need with a luxury yacht?"
"Ferrying buyers around, perhaps? Who owns Cirrah?"
"Talmadeus Cruise Lines."
Sarah quickly set up a search pattern to run it's way back to the original parent company. Then she let it run, while they worked on other leads. Several times Io had to key in Fleet overrides to classified information locks, and even so, it took nearly half an hour for the computer to come back with the relevant information. Flashing red on the screen, it read:
PARENT COMPANY: OLYMPIAN INDUSTRIES CORP.
"Hot damn! Let's bring up the rest of the details on this boat..."
"Captained by one Roger Neil-Paris, employee of Cirrah R&D. Crew of five, passenger capability of fifty, large cargo holds."
"What about Paris?"
"He's had his license suspended several times for brawling, and once for Bellfleur addiction. Took him several years to get it back, and frankly I'm surprised anyone would hire him. Certainly not the type to be flying a luxury liner."
Io paused, grinning evilly. "Unless, of course, you want someone particularly unsavory who has no reason to betray you and many reasons to be loyal..."
Attempts to hail the artists' colony that had supposedly "sold" their yacht to Cirrah R&D were less than successful, and Io asked Fleet to send a ship to check out the fate of the colony, tho' he suspected he already knew. Meanwhile, he put the crew on high security alert and set about to lay in wait for the bright and gaudy Artyphice.
* END CHAPTER FIVE *
* CHAPTER SIX *
Over the next few weeks Rebekha became more fully integrated into her ship body. When they dropped into normal space to strip messages from FTL beacons, she was even allowed outside the bay to practice her flight control. The crew was impressed, as were the other Brainship fighters. A few times they even went out with her, so she could get the feel of flying in formation.
However back inside the ship while they were in FTL and she had nothing to do but talk to Sarah and practice in the fighter sims, Rebekha refused to discuss her painful memories, burying them deep and turning away even direct confrontation. Nothing Sarah said could induce her to even admit she was troubled by them.
Privately Sarah reccomended to the Captain that they not activate the XNA's full weapons spectrum, and said that she was fairly certain the Rebekha was hiding a deep desire for revenge, and possibly some kind of psychosis. Io agreed with her assesment, and made sure that only he and the doctor knew the password which would put the systems under Rebekha's control. The last thing they needed on their hands was a rogue Brainship that could take on a light cruiser head to head, and *win*...
At first Sarah had been nervous about returning to her own simulation. She was afraid that Xena would reapear, and do something she couldn't explain away, couldn't make excuses for... But at the same time, she was hoping to catch a glimpse of the warrior... and was rather disapointed that after a whole sessin, there was no sign of her.
After that intial, uneventful session, she spent a lot of time in the sim with Rebekha. Walking, talking, getting to know the person inside the ship, Sarah found that she really and truly enjoyed Rebekha's company.
One day, walking in what had become their standard environment: the lush tropic vegetation dotted with streams, lakes, and waterfalls; Sarah suggested a new, more challenging excersize.
"Part of the purpose of this sim is to help you adjust to your new body image. One of the ways to do that is for you to learn to *change* how you see yourself. Here, in this world, if you change how you see yourself, your 'body' will change as well. Let's not try for the ship form just yet, though. That's too drastic a change. Focus on something simple, like your outfit. Right now you're in a standard jumpsuit... why don't you try something else?"
Rebekha raised one eyebrow, grinning mischeviously. "Did you have something in particular in mind, Sarah?" To her surprise, she thougt she saw the faintest hint of a blush creep across the doctor's face before she broke eye contact.
"No, not at all. Just pick something else. Something completely different, that you can visualize clearly."
Intrigued by the doctor's reaction, Rebekha visualized something rather revealing... but quickly found that changing her self image wasn't as easy as it sounded. After a few minutes she grimaced in frustration.
"I can't do it. No change at all." Then, challengingly, "Can you?"
"Sure I can. Watch," and closing her eyes, Sarah pictured herself in the lovely emerald green sarong and halter top that set off her eyes so nicely. In Saur'n SpiderSilk, it was by far the best (and most expesive) of her offworld purchases to date.
However, when she opened her eyes, she realized that something had gone quite astray. Instead of a deep green silk, she was wearing some kind of gray-green halter top. And her skirt, while definitely a wraparound style, was *not* deep green silk sarong. Instead it was a mud brown homespun,and it was short. Very, very short. To compliment the outfit she had a brown satchel over one shoulder, and a *stick* of all things. A big stick, with a bit of white fluff at one end. Carefully she hid her surprise, pretending she'd intended to switch to this all along.
"So, what do you think? Is it me?"
Rebekha looked it over critically, shaking her head. "I hate to be rude, but the color is horrendous. It looks like used carpeting! Ych. You have odd taste in clothes, doctor." Then she grinned. "On the up side, I never knew you had a belly button ring. It suits you! And you're in fabulous shape. You must work out quite a bit..."
This time Sarah *did* blush, and was unable to hide it. "Oh, ah, the ring. Yes well, misspent youth and all that. At least I avoided the Kernish tattoos. They grow with time, you know. Spread all over your body. Apparently it's all the rage at the moment witht the young Family brats, but the thought of having a fungus under my skin, even so benign and decorative a fungus as that, makes me itch all over. Anyway," Sarah cleared her throat selfconsciously, "Now that you know it *can* be done, if you would be so good as to attempt it again?"
Sighing, Rebekha nodded. "All right, once more." Scrubbing her hands through dark hair, Rebekha closed her eyes and concentrated. Finally, shaking her head, she opened her eyes. "No luck, doc. I guess I'm just... not... what? What's wrong?? Did I grow a second head or something?"
Sarah shook her head, unable to form a coherent sentence.
Looking down the length of her body, Rebekha's eyes widedned. Breasts! Leather... bronze, leather, legs... boots... "Is there a mirror around here somewhere, doc? This is *definitely* NOT what I was picturing."
"Uh... mirror. Right. Computer, over ride 13gama9. Insert mirror, glass, full length, free standing, wood frame." And there it was. Incongrous on the dirt road, amid waving leaves and vibrant nature, a full length mirror.
Shaking her head, Rebekha examined her outfit. "This is hardly practical. I mean, my whole chest is unguarded, I've got no helmet. This isn't armor, it's a travesty. A sword... and what's this thing? A sharp metal ring?"
Sarah shook her head. "It's *her* outfit, and it's less for protection than for comfort while impressing people. It made her look formidable, without restricting movement too much. And the thing... it's called a Chakram."
Sarah shook her head at the bad pun. "You're supposed to throw it."
"Really?" Rebkha hefted it in her hand. "How?"
"No, wait, Rebekha... don't!" But it was too late, Rebakha had tossed it overhand like a baseball: flinging it with great fervor but little accuracy towards a tree across the road. It hit the branch at an angle, sharp side not quite biting in, and then caromed around the clearing, bouncing off things but miraculously missing Sarah. Of course, the fact that she'd dropped to the ground moments before helped immensely. Spitting dirt she looked up at Xena. 'At *REBEKHA*. Not Xena. Her name is Rebekha... and I'm Sarah... and we're playing some kind of bizzare mind game here...' "Are you all right?"
Face pale, Rebekha nodded. In her hand, the bright chakram glittered like some kind of fancy decoration, giving no indication of it's deadly nature. Carefully Rebekha clipped it to her belt, eyes widening at the thin line of red on her palm. "I caught it. It came whizzing through the air towards my head, and I just caught it. I meant to duck, but I didn't, instead I stuck my hand out like an idiot and caught the fucking thing.... That's it. By Hades' cold-an'-clammy bone, I have *completely* lost my mind."
In the middle of her pronouncement, the scenery shifted dramatically from the tropical dirt road to the padded gray room, the shift catching them *both* completely by surprise. After a moment gawking, Sarah figured it out. "Hades. You said the trigger word." She laughed, but with an undertone of hysteria. "Of course. All very simple. Swearing can get you into more trouble than I thought, huh? Uh, Rebekha, how 'bout if we call it a day. It's almost chow time anyway, and I have to..."
"Sure. No problem. I'm tired of leather anyhow."
* * *
Back in her quarters, Sarah poured over the incident again and again in her mind, trying to figure out what had gone wrong. Her chaging into the sidekick outfit... worse, Rebekha manifesting Xena's weapons... The Chakram. Why... *how* did she know what it was, what to do with it? This wasn't just a split personality problem. It was quickly escalating into a shared delusional fantasy. She could loose her liscense for not reporting this the first time it happened, never mind letting it go *on* like this. By all rights, she ought to be screaming her head off to Io right now. An unstable Brainship, a Doctor who was getting sucked into her delusions... These were the horor stories one heard in Medschool, the ones students swore were made up just to frighten them. She should be turning herself over to the headshrinkers right now, just as soon as they pulled Rebekha out of the warship and shipped her off to be Counseled. Ought to be... so why wasn't she?
Sighing, she lay back on her bunk, staring at the bulkhead. She knew why. It was because somehow, against all reason, she *believed* this insanity. The long dead warrior, the soul of a bard, ancient gods and curses (or maybe blessings)... And somewhere amid her jumbled thoughts and guilty conscience, Sarah Gabriel fell asleep.
------------------------------ "Gabrielle, are you *sure*?"
"Xena, if I had a dinar for every time you asked me that..." The redhead harumphed in frustration. "I'm a grown woman, a *WIDOW*, Amazon Royalty for Zeus' sake, not a young kid anymore. I think I can pretty much tell what I want and what I don't."
"All right, all right!" Xena chuckled, smiling her winning smile. "I'm sorry! It's just that you've been less than eager to part with that particular item in the past..."
Gabrielle shook her head firmly. "Burn it. After the last time we ran into Palemon and Vidalis, and I had to put up with those wisecracks about rugs and yaks, I decided that I NEEDED a new outfit. And now that I have *this*," she gestured down at the bundle in her hands, "I *won't* be wearing that again. So go ahead, use it for kindling. We'll be cold without a fire, and the wood is damp... besides, I want to watch it burn." She grinned, pushing her wet hair out of her face and wrapping the blanket more tightly around her body.
Nodding agreeably, Xena tossed the spare green haltertop onto a small piramid of sticks while Gabrielle set her other one on a flat rock to dry. "And when you're done burning that one, you can do this one too!" Thunder crashed outside the cave, as if to punctuate her point, and the rain came down even harder.
Once they had a merry, (if smokey) fire going, Gabrielle untied the strings on her secret bundle, catching Xena's eye. "Turn around. I want this to be a surprise."
Xena arched an eyebrow. "Are you sure you won't need help getting into it?"
"Positive. I can dress myself. Now turn around."
Shrugging, Xena faced the cave entrance, legs crossed, huming under her breath. Gabrielle stiffled a giggle, and then there was only the sound of the rain and the various clanks, jingles, and creaks of the bard dressing.
"All right, Xena. You can turn around."
Gabrielle beamed at Xena's wide eyed expression. She was still wearing a small top and short skirt, but that was where the resemblance to her previous outfit ended. Butter soft red/brown leather fit to her form, and she was suddenly every inch the Amazon. "Well, do you like it? Ephiny said that the leather was smoke tanned, so even if it gets wet it won't stiffen up on me."
Xena stood, walking over to touch the leather on Gabrielle's shoulder. "Wouldn't want it getting stiff. Definitely not. But are you planning on getting it wet?"
Gabrielle blushed as Xena's finger trailed down the line of a seam. "Uhm, I think it may already be..."
"Hmmm, maybe we should take it off and check?"
"Sure." She swallowed hard. "You have no idea how hard it is to tie these things in the back without help... would you?" Gabrielle turned around so that Xena could get to the ribbons holding her top closed, and shuddered slightly as Xena's lips brushed the back of her neck.
"Gabrielle... have I told you lately that you're beautiful, no matter what you wear?"
The bard turned around in Xena's arms to answer her, but Xena put a finger on her lips. "But I really, *really* like this outfit. Good choice." With that, the top came away in her hands, and the skirt soon followed.
This was *hardly* the fisr time they'd made love, but Gabrielle could still see the wonder in Xena's eyes. Wonder that Gabrielle loved her, wonder that they were together. Smiling with pure joy that she could make her usually taciturn love look so happy, Gabriell gasped as Xena's gentle lips found their way down to her breasts. Her moans were covered by the crash of thunder, as it echoed again and again from the roiling sky.
For some reason the lightning was flashing red, instead of white, and the thunder sounding more like the wail of some strange animal...
Catapoulted out of her oh-so pleasant dream with her body still tingling and flushed, Sarah sat up in confusion to the blinking red lights and blare of a siren.
"All hands to battle stations. All hands to battle stations. Red alert!"
* END CHAPTER SIX *
* CHAPTER SEVEN *
Battle stations for Sarah meant a small room off the bridge, where she could keep track of the telemetry of the Brainship fighters during the course of the fight. She didn't mind not being in Sickbay, actually she preferred not just sitting around and waiting for the wounded.
She got there in record time, and the Captain did not scold her for shimmying through the access tubes. Then again, he was a little busy with the pirate on his screens.
"There it is, the Artyphice! Trip the ID scans and tell me what this birdie is packing..."
Elerion, the Weapons Officer, brought up the relevant data on the Captain's main screen. "Luxury yacht, no weapons except for a light laser asteroid defense unit. But Capn'," Elerion flashed another set of schematics, glaring with red marks, "The passive scans tell another story completely. If they are to be believed, that little yacht is almost a match for us. Thorough mix of projectile and beam weapons, the Artyphice lives up to her name..."
"All right, well we have two things to charge them with already. Messing with their ID and carrying illegal weaponry inside FSP space. That's good enough for me, we don't have to wait around for them to try to hit someone else... have they seen us yet?"
"No Captain. We dropped out of FTL in their wake as they rounded this asteroid. Got a good reading on them before they moved beyond the horizon, but unless they were watching for us we won't have set off any alarms. And none of the weapons systems were powered up when we scanned them."
"Good, then we have the advantage of surprise. Get the light ships out on the wing, I want to be completely ready for them."
The next few minutes seemed to stretch into forever for them, picking up speed to catch the Artyphice, wondering if Captain Io was really as confident about catching them as he sounded.
Then the cleared the horizon of the asteroid, the Artyphice springing into view almost as if by magic. The readouts showed quite clearly when they caught sight of the Heracles, the weapons systems coming on line frighteningly quickly. Captain Io hailed them, ordering them to disarm and prepare for boarding... but by the time he'd finished his sentence the first projectile weapons had been fired, and beam weapons were scouring the Heracles' shields.
After that it was lasers flashing back and forth, invisible in space but doing damage none the less... EM beam weapons, exploding projectiles of every variation. Sarah was too busy keeping track of the telemetry on the fighters to really pay attention to the main battle. It would go on it's merry way without her. She gasped as Arten's readings went wild, then realized he'd passed through a communication's jamming field... they evened out as he swung around the Artyphice and lined up with the Heracles once more. Like hornets swarming around an angry bear, the fighters swept in and out, trying to disable the enemy's engines and sensor systems. The point here was to garner captives to be interrogated, not blow the Artyphice out into a billion swirling atoms...
A flashing light on her board caught Sarah's attention. "Yes, Rebekha? I'm a little busy right now..."
"I know. I just wanted to ask, can you patch me a feed from your board? I want to see for myself the tactics the other fighters are using."
"Oh... yeah, I guess there's no harm in that. Here..." Sarah toggled several switches, opening a direct feed of incoming raw data to Rebekha. "Watch and learn, kiddo... watch and learn."
It seemed like hours later, though in reality it was more like minutes, when the unthinkable happened. The Artyphice was fading fast, shields failing, several direct hits to it's engine section. It still had insystem drive, but it sure wasn't going to hyper out any time soon. And then... then... that dead, cold asteroid that they had scanned so carefully when entering the system suddenly blossomed with life. And that life was not friendly...
"What the hell is THAT?" Io practically bounced out of his chair. For surely as the Heracles had been able to sense the illicit weapons packages aboard the Artyphice, it's scanners should also have detected *this*. No asteroid after all, but one huge station cut into the rock. Somehow they had jammed the Heracles' scanners, looking like cold stone while inside the fighters hurried their way from a cold start to full readiness... And now they swarmed out, ship after ship, from tiny fighter to five man Escort class, beelining for the Heracles.
"How long until they get here?"
"Two point five minutes, sir."
"Tight beam communication to the nearest Fleet base, FTL link. They *need* to know about this new tech. Send them our sensor logs from ten minutes before we entered system. Send it *now*, and keep sending."
The bridge fell silent as the communications officer keyed in his message. Captain Io would never have sent them just that raw data if he expected to be able to report in person...
The battle after that was short, and bloody. Sarah watched, her eyes growing darker by the moment, as ship after ship flickered off her display. Arten, Jens, Eloise, Thatcher... Wiping tears from her eyes, Sarah strained to keep focused on the surviving Brainships. Manually she sent a flood of pain deadeners to Kes's brain when her hull was damaged, taking part of her control systems with it. Not that it mattered much, as a moment later Kes threw herself in front of a missile intended for the Heracles' engines...
The Heracles would have to abandon it's light fighters to the pirates to run, but even that wasn't really an option. You don't just turn a cruiser around on a dime, and to vector out of the system in the direction they were facing meant speeding *around* the asteroid, using it as a slingshot. And not insignificantly, bringing them closer to the ground based weapons...
"Sarah!" Io shook her shoulder to get her attention.
"Didn't you hear me. I want all nonessential personnel in the life pods *now*. Go, go, go."
"But, sir, what about..." Sarah trailed off at the look in his eye. "Yes sir. On my way."
Sarah was half way to her assigned life pod before she remembered something very, very important. There was one person who'd been watching the battle and listening, but could *not* get into a lifepod... and she was sitting in docking bay twelve with no way to open the bay doors...
"Oh my god, Rebekha..."
* * *
Sarah could hear the sound of pods blasting free of the ship as she slid to a stop in front of bay twelve. The tide had turned, and now it was the Heracles that was too valuable to the enemy be blasted into bits. That bought them a little time, and a little room to maneuver, but not *much*... She cringed as weapons fire impacted the nose, rocking the ship and slamming her into the bulkhead. She yelped, but managed to slap the doorpad for entry anyway.
She was already yelling instructions as she dashed through the door. "Rebekha! Power up your engines, NOW! I'm slaving the docking bay doors to your control..." this as she frantically typed at the console. "As soon as I'm out of the bay, blow the doors and get the hell out! Run for the back side of the asteroid. I'm going for your ARG0 unit, I'll meet you there as soon as I can. If you don't see me soon, power down and float. See if you can sneak away. Whatever you do..." Sarah's voice broke, "don't let them catch you. They can torture regular humans, but the things they could do to a Brain once they got you out of your ship don't bear thinking about. Sensory deprivation alone... Just, be careful."
Sarah sprinted for the doors, but stopped to look back at the last minute, door held open. "Oh, and Rebekha... Supercalifragalisticexpialidocious."
With that, the lovely doctor was gone, door clapping shut behind her. Fully aware of the urgency of the situation, Rebekha was already blowing the bay doors out into space as she tried to access her internal library to figure out what the hell that word meant... Which is perhaps why it took her an extra millisecond to remember to run an internal systems check. She was already blasting away towards the backside of the asteroid, leaving scorch marks on the decking as she zoomed out at a tangent from the Heracles' course, before she remembered to run that check. She still hadn't figured it out when she realized that all her systems were green, across the board. *Including* her weapon's systems.
* * *
Cold starting a space vehicle and taking off without running any kind of preflight check list was not exactly high on her list of things she'd always wanted to do, *especially* since she was no kind of pilot. In fact, she *HATED* piloting ships, even airsleds. She'd rather walk or take public transport, which was always readily available... but this time Sarah didn't have the option of waiting for the next bus. It was now or never, as they say.
"All right, old girl, I hope your AI knows how to follow simple instructions... here goes nothing." Taking a deep breath, Sarah reached out and pushed the glowing red button on the console in front of her.
* * *
Rebekha watched in what would have been open-mouthed awe, (if she'd had a mouth to open), as one of the larger pirates closed with the Heracles. Not the Artyphice, but one of the others, bristling with weaponry. She had never *ever* expected to see a Fleet cruiser boarded. It just didn't happen. The pirate's docking clamps closed, and she caught the burst of heat and static as the crew bay doors blew. Then, suddenly, the pirate vessel seemed to be trying to pull away... firing full reverse thrusters and blowing the bolts on the docking clamps. However, they didn't get far. Just as Rebekha was figuring out the implications of the attempted flight, a brilliant light flared outwards... overtaking the pirate in a microsecond, perhaps less. Fragments of the Heracles' hull whirled, spinning past Rebekha into the deepness of space.
And in the darkness of her powered down hull, Rebekha whispered to herself...
* END CHAPTER SEVEN *
* CHAPTER EIGHT *
The moments seemed to drag by, each second a millennium as Rebekha watched the Heracles fragment and expand... Over and over in her mind she ran the calculations. Distance from her docking bay to the one that held the ARG0, the average human's top running speed, average time for cold startup of a mid sized ship... Sarah *ought* to have had enough time to get off the Heracles. Barely enough, but *ENOUGH*. The question was, had she? Had she been slowed down by explosions? Unable to get to the bay? Had she been caught by a pirate vessel as she exited? Was she still alive?
Rebekha listened as carefully as she could to what her passive scans could tell her, but there was too much radiation, too much heat, to many masses. The pirates were scattering to get away from the shrapnel that could punch holes in their ships. They weren't looking for anyone right now, but they *would* be. As soon as it was safe to come back to this area. And hour, maybe less... If Sarah had gotten out, and had avoided getting holed by whirling bits of hull, she'd be laying low for a moment, waiting for them to get far enough away. So there was no way to find her, right now. All Rebekha could do was wait, and watch, and hope...
And still the seconds dragged like hours, like days. Rebekha thought she might go mad. And her anger built, and built. Fury, rage, concern for the crew of the Heracles (and Sarah. SARAH...) swamping her, turning into molten emotion sweeping along her circuits, suffusing her brain with endorphins. The pirates deserved to die! Like the clenching of fists, the powering up of her weapons was an automatic reflex...
If Rebekha could have whipped around and looked behind her, she would have. Instead she quickly checked all incoming lines of communication... finding them silent.
"My name is Xena. I've made the mistake you're about to, Rebekha. The results weren't pretty then, and they wouldn't be now... At best, you'd get yourself killed. At worst, you'd become what you hate. Think, Rebekha. Think before you go in, guns blazing..."
"Where are you?"
The voice sighed, "Does it matter?"
"All right. Close your eyes... or, whatever. Look within. I will show you where I am."
Doubtfully Rebekha muted all but a few outside sensors, focusing on herself. Feeling her heart beat, listening to the hum of the warm engines... After a time, it seemed that she could see down a long tunnel, like a singularity, like the inside of a wormhole. Brightly colored darkness in soft curves and sine waves that nonetheless stretched out straight before her...
Then, in that darkness, form began to shape itself. A hallway that stretched through the ages, and shadowy forms standing on pedestals, each looking like a funhouse mirror image of herself. As she stepped into the hall, they turned and looked at her. A feeling of warmth and remembrance swept around her, and hundreds of voices murmured... "Another... Hello, my child... Welcome..." She could feel their love, like a caress, like a summer breeze. But at the same time they surrounded her, threatening to overwhelm her with the weight of the years. Suddenly Rebekha felt claustrophobic. Trying to back away, she was mired, pulling against shadows and held down by the air around her...
"ALL RIGHT, LADIES. You can chat with your descendant later, for now there's business to attend to." And with that, Rebekha's focus narrowed, pulling in until their was only a small darkness and a familiar seeming figure in dark leathers and bronze armor.
"What is this place? Who...?"
"Them? They're, well... it's hard to explain. Rather like a genetic memory, I suppose. Your ancestresses, my children. A part of them passes along to each new generation, a part of me. I have been with each of them: Melinda, Jessica, Zina, Evara, Ziniko... Some of them knew it, some did not. But as I was linked to them, so now they are linked to me. And to you. They come in handy, sometimes, if you need advice. If you can learn to come here on your own, and talk to them. They are not ghosts, nor trapped souls. More like a solid memory, an imprint if you will. I am something a bit different, but that's not important for now. I can't stay for long, it's very... draining. And you won't need me for long, either."
"Why do I need you at all?"
"Well, I've helped you once already. If I hadn't distracted you, you'd have charged in, weapons blazing... and died. Valor is good, but a plan is better. You really don't want to fight whole armies without *some* kind of plan, hmmm? Think about it. Ah, we're saved, another voice of reason approaches. Listen to her, she'll do a better job than I ever could. She has a gift for these things..."
Those words seemed to reverberate, setting up a vibration that built and built, until Rebekha realized it was her proximity alarm. Panic surged, until she realized that it was the ARG0 speeding towards her. And on a tightly focused comm band a familiar voice called, one of the most welcome sounds Rebekha had ever heard.
"Sarah! Yes, yes I'm here. No, I was just powered down to stay out of sight, I'm not damaged. Are *YOU* all right??"
* * *
Slipping into her docking port on the ARG0 unit felt natural, as though she'd rehearsed it a hundred times. Circuits clicked closed, and she had control of the larger ship. It responded perfectly, not as her body (like the XNA33 did...) but like a well trained horse responded to subtle shifts of body weight and the gentlest pressure on the reigns...
"Oh, I think I'm going to *like* this."
Sarah chuckled. "Well, I'm sure you were meant to. After all, this transport was designed with you specifically in mind. The AI can drive it, and it's smart, but it's better off with you at the helm." Sarah gladly got out of the pilot's chair, stretching her legs. "I was afraid I wasn't going to be able to find you... but then you powered up your weapons. Showed up on my screen like a beacon. Then you powered down again. What exactly *were* you doing, anyway?"
Rebekha stayed silent for a moment. "I, uh... nearly lost my temper when I thought y... well, when the Heracles exploded. Fortunately something distracted me, and then you showed up. So I didn't go running in there and get myself killed. That would have been pretty stupid, I guess. But Sarah, what do we do now? We need a plan... or the rest of the crew is going to die. Or worse."
Rebekha flashed an image on the screen in the main cabin, video feed from the ARG0's scanners showing pirate tugs darting through the rubble, beginning to pick up the life pods. Their distress beacons made them easy to find in the floating wreckage.
Sarah stared at the tugs, gritting her teeth. "The Captain sent a message to Fleet. They have, or will have when it gets there... the Heracles' sensor logs, they'll know there's a base here. The pirates couldn't destroy the ship before we did that, and they *heard* it go out. That means they're going to be running. They have to. If we squawk for help now, they'll hear us, and they can sure get to our location long before any Fleet vessels can. It'd be suicide, pure and simple. On the other hand, if we hyper out of here," she could almost hear Rebekha shaking her head, rejecting the idea, "by the time we bring help, the pirates will be long gone, and what's left of our people with them."
Rebekha winced mentally, thinking of all the families on her colony that had been taken by the slavers. Over half the population had been missing, taken gods knew where...
"Well then, that leaves us two options. We can sit here and hope they don't notice us, which isn't likely, or we can try to get our people out on our own."
"Rebekha, you're *one* fighter against a small armada! They destroyed the Heracles, a whole bloody Fleet Cruiser! We had over twenty fighters just like you aboard, but with more combat experience, not to mention the Heracles' weapons that were brought to bear... They got swatted like flies! You can't stop a whole army by yourself!"
"Not in a fair fight, no. But Sarah, I never said I planned to fight fair..."
* END CHAPTER EIGHT * * CHAPTER NINE *
"Pleasure yacht Artyphice, this is the medical transport Argo. Please respond."
Sarah, sitting at the console, self consciously checked her white lab coat again, to make sure no Fleet or FSP logos were showing. Hair back in a no-nonsense clasp, she looked every inch the medical professional. She just hoped the Captain of the Artyphice thought so...
"Sarah, you look fine." Rebekha's voice was warm and confident, coming from the speakers in the cabin interior. "They have no reason to think we're anything but the simple transport we claim to be. With all but my life support powered down and shielded, I might as well be another hunk of junk in your hold. With all the other debris we picked up, they won't be able to tell me from a broken down groundcar. And once we're inside, you just worry about staying in character... I'll take care of the rest."
On the viewscreens Sarah could see the Artyphice, a long string of lifepods being pulled one by one into it's bay doors by small tug units. The asteroid, alive with activity as ship after ship was loaded at the dock, launched, and headed outsystem. "Damn, they work fast."
Rebekha agreed. "They must have been expecting something like this for a while. It looks like they had everything ready to go... I'll be there's a secondary base just waiting for them, out there... somewhere..."
"Well, we can't worry about any of the rest. If we can get our hands on the Artyphice, I'm betting her databanks will have plenty of information... but even if she does, we've got to get our people out of there."
Unspoken between them were the fears that the pirates would kill out of hand anyone who looked like they might pose a threat, including the entire contingent of Fleet marines that had been stationed on the Heracles...
Suddenly, the speakers crackled.
"Medical transport Argo, this is a privately owned docking facility, and
you aren't on any of our rosters. What are you doing here?"
"Artyphice, we were having FTL drive trouble, and dropped out into normal space not too far from here. I was in the process of fixing what I could, hopefully enough to get us where we were going, when I caught an incoming transmission, heavily encrypted. Then shortly after, a series of distress calls. I don't know what happened, but it looks like something *big* bit the dust here. If you've got survivors, I'd be happy to volunteer my help. I'm a fully trained and licensed medic."
Still voice only transmission, and the man on the other end of the line didn't sound too convinced.
"What's a doctor doing piloting a medical transport?"
Sarah sighed, making sure he heard her. "To whom am I speaking?"
"What's your name, son?"
"Everett." He sounded a little confused, and that was exactly what Sarah had in mind. She carefully recalled the tone of voice senior physicians used to cow lowly interns... and then used it.
"All right, Mr. Everett. My name is Doctor Sarah Gabriel. I have more degrees than you have brain cells, and why I'm working as a pilot is *my* business. However, out of courtesy, something you're sorely lacking in by the way, I'll share it with you. The firm I'm contracting for is as tightfisted as an Alonrian bank teller, and when they found out that I not only knew how to administer the medication I'm carrying, but I'm *also* a fair hand at driving a space-bus, they stuck me on an AI ship and sent me off without a by-your-leave. Apparently it's important to them to save the money they would have spent hiring a real pilot. Fine by me, but I'm hardly a professional engineer... I gave the coordinates to the AI, and was happily reading the latest medical journal when for some completely unknown reason we fell out of FTL. I'm just glad the damn thing didn't drive me into the nearest star. Now I *think* I've fixed the problem. But in case you don't recall, it's still standard procedure to answer any distress signal before going on about your business. *ANY* distress signal, no matter how inconvenient that might be. So here I am. Now, let me repeat. *IF* you've got wounded, I'm a doctor, and I'm required by several oaths, not to mention contracts, to offer aid. *YOU* are a on a luxury yacht. You may have a ship's doctor aboard, but very likely the most strenuous thing he's had to deal with lately was one of the ship's passengers eating too much caviar and experiencing indigestion. I, on the other hand, know my way around the business end of a laser scalpel, and I've worked with space construction crews, who see more space induced fatalities than the bloody damned Fleet does. So, Mr. Everett, do you need my help? Or can I get back to my scheduled route, and actually make some money for a change?"
After a long pause, the vid screen directly in front of her came to life, and she could see one nervous looking boy with Ensign's pips standing up, making room in front of the pickup for someone who looked like he had considerably more authority. Suave, confident, handsome despite some facial scarring, Captain's bars... he gave Sarah the willies.
"Doctor Gabriel, please, forgive Mr. Everett's insensitivity. We've all been working long shifts over here, and he wasn't expecting company. I'm Captain Paris, and if you'll give us a link to your AI, we'll bring you in to the other docking bay. I'm sure our ship's doctor could use the assistance."
A few more pleasantries while the link was established and confirmed, and then the Captain signed off, ostensibly to go check on the survivors of the 'accident'.
Sarah slumped in her chair, weak with relief. "Gods above and below, I didn't think that was going to work."
Rebekha laughed. "You worry too much. And by the way, you were marvelous. You sounded like my mathematics teachers at home... and *everybody* is intimidated by *them*. Plus, you didn't even have to ask for the link to their computers, they gave it to you free of charge. NOW we're talking. They may have security measures, but I'll be willing to be they haven't got something like ME. They'll never notice I'm there, until it's *way* too late." She chuckled evilly. "It may take fifty of them to get that hunk of gaudy, overweaponed junk to do their bidding, but *I* can do it and sing opera at the same time. Now if you'll excuse me, Sarah, I'm going to get cracking on those security codes. Before you know it I'll have gassed the whole crew into unconsciousness and we'll be merrily on our way home."
* * *
Fifteen minutes later, as the bay doors of the Artyphice slid past and they settled gently onto her deck, Rebekha still hadn't gotten into their computers. "Bloody things are..." Rebekha swore colorfully as she narrowly avoided setting off several sets of alarms. "Sarah, just keep them busy. Too busy to look in here, okay? I've almost got this, but I need a few more
"Right. Keep them busy. I'm sure I'll think of something..."
Two armed guards were waiting as the doors slid open, their demeanors less than friendly. Sarah wondered how long they intended to keep up the charade of a luxury yacht, and feared that that time was measurable in very, very small units. After a moment, she also noticed they were in a different section than the pods... there was no way to tell if people were being tranked or just killed as they stepped out of their small havens into the waiting arms of these monsters...
"This way, the Captain wants to see you."
"What about the wounded? I thought they'd need my help immediately..."
"Captain wants to see you first. This way, please."
Sarah winced as one of them took her arm, none to gently. The bruises she'd gotten slamming up against the Heracles' bulkheads twinged painfully, and it was all she could do to keep from yelping.
The lift was decorated in real (and therefore very expensive) wood, with brass railing and a mirrored ceiling. Red velvety carpet caressed her feet, and she almost felt like she could sink into it up to her knees. Whatever else they'd added to this boat, they certainly hadn't gotten rid of the 'luxury' part...
The Bridge was similarly luxurious, nothing purely practical when it could be decorative as well. The occupants, however, seemed singularly rough and out of place in such a lush setting. Grim and surly looking, the lot of them, and none too clean either. What *WAS* it about pirates? Did they use the sonic showers for storing loot? Or simply forget how to use them... one of the mysteries of the universe, Sarah was certain. No, they all looked out of place... all but one.
"Captain Paris. How nice to meet you." She was afraid she didn't sound all that sincere...
"Doctor Gabriel." He kissed her hand, she strove not to shudder.
"I'm afraid you've dropped in on our little party, my dear. Dropped in totally uninvited. And now, of course, we can't allow you to leave."
Sarah tried to pretend she didn't know what he was talking about.
"What party? I thought you said there was an AI navigational accident, a freighter running into your little asteroid... Don't you have wounded workers that need to be taken care of?"
"Oh," he smiled whimsically, "There *are* wounded, but never fear, they'll be 'taken care of' soon enough. For now, a little cryo-sleep won't hurt them. Then a little interrogation, which *might*... But in the end, it won't matter much. No good as slaves you know, these Fleet types. They have far too much stubborn pride, as a rule. More trouble than they're worth to break, and so many die in conditioning anyway... *YOU*, on the other hand... now *you* have possibilities. Tell me, Doctor, how much do you like living?"
Sarah swallowed, hard, then smiled weakly.
"Living? Well, you know..." she shrugged, "it beats rolling rocks up hills for all eternity, wouldn't you say?"
He laughed, and there was nothing friendly about it.
"Skilled labor, *and* a sense of humor too. Wonderful." He gestured to her guards. "Put her in with Jerry. Maybe he can help her see the... privileges... of cooperation, and the unfortunate side effects of rebellion, hmmm? In the mean time, I want an inventory of the Argo's holds. Medicines always bring a good price on the black market."
* * *
Rebekha practically glowed with satisfaction as the next-to-last set of security codes dropped into place under her expert guidance. Gently, ever so gently, she started probing for the next set. Sampling the flavor of the security programs, acid and sharp as the last one had been sticky and poisonously sweet...
Suddenly, the clang of metal on her hull pulled her attention back to the outside sensors. Three men, standing outside her doors. She upped the audio.
"Bitch must've locked it when she got off. We don't have time to beat the codes out of her. Jans, go get a cutter. It shouldn't take us long to get throught the airlock...."
'Uh oh.' Rebekha swore to herself. 'I'd better move a little more quickly, if I don't want to be entertaining guests *real*, *real* soon...'
* * *
Sarah sprawled forward onto that deliciously soft carpet as her captors tossed her through the open door. She sighed as she heard it slide shut behind her. Raising her eyes a bit, she encountered the lower edge of a bed, or a couch... and a pair of delicate, coffee and cream colored ankles bound in lovely golden sandals.
"Honey, lying there on the floor isn't going to be good for your back. You'd better come up here. Do you want something to drink? Personally, I'd suggest some vodka. Howabout the bottle, hmmm? After all, you won't be going anywhere for a while."
"That's what *you* think," she said, as she picked herself up. "I don't plan to sit around here like a lump..."
The sandaled boy just shook his head, adjusting the folds of his brilliant
white linen kilt as he crossed his legs. He looked like some Roman artist's pipe dream, tall sandals, short skirt, just out of adolescence and still smooth cheeked... muscles (but not *too* beefy)... and a pretty face. "That's what they all say. My goodness, when I was captured, I fought to get away for weeks. Then I tried to kill myself. Didn't do any good, of course. They just patched me up and kept on going. Oh, I suppose I might have been allowed to succeed, if the Captain hadn't taken a fancy to me. But where are my manners?" He stood up, offering Sarah his hand. She eyed him dubiously for a moment before shaking it.
"My name is Jerry. Jeremiah Hellenna, to be more precise, formerly of the 'Oscar's Wilds' men's artist's collective. Once upon a time I was a quickly rising meteor in the art circles. The next Michelangelo, or so the critics said, a genius in any medium.... Now, I'm a pampered plaything. If I'm good, Paris lets me design holomodels of the sculptures I'd create. He won't let me near a set of vibro-chisels of course, too much like weapons, you know. But he says if I continue to please him, he may let me have a set of oil paints." Jerry laughed bitterly. "And you? What dreams and ambitions have you just said goodbye to? You look like a scientist."
Sarah nodded. "A doctor, actually. Cyberneticist. And I haven't said goodbye to anything. I'm sorry you've had a rough time of it, Jerry. But giving in doesn't solve your problems. Unless you *like* being a slave? Maybe you like Captain Paris after all, eh?"
Jerry bounced to his feet, ready to slap her, before he realized he was being goaded intentionally. Smiling grimly she nodded. "Well, at least you have some spirit left. Now you listen to me, little man. I need to come up with a distraction, and I need it *now*, or there is going to be a *lot* of trouble. So if you ever want to see the outside of this garbage scow again, you'd better pull yourself together and give me a hand. What can we do to get their attention, hmm? What have we got to work with?"
* * *
The cutter whined, and then purred to life, a brilliant beam striking the side of the Argo. Rebekha winced as the hull quickly began to heat. "Just one more sequence...." Suddenly an loud voice blared across the ship's intercom.
"Hull breach on deck seven, prepare to evacuate! I repeat, hull breach on deck seven, prepare to evacuate!"
Alarms and sirens went off as deck crew hit panic buttons, closing the bay doors to incoming traffic. Mass confusion reigned as they scrambled for their evac pods. Inside her hull, Rebekha laughed maniacally as she heard Sarah take a deep breath and start again.
"Hull breach on deck six! Please proceed to your assigned emergency pods in an orderly fashion!"
* * *
Sarah was still talking into the pickup, making up emergencies as she went along, as the door to the cabin slid open. A guard loomed over her, and she whirled in time to partially block his slap.
"BITCH! What the FUCK do you think you're doing! It's going to take an *hour* just to get everyone calmed down and back to their duty stations!! What did you think you were accomplishing? Even if everyone had evacuated, and you have to know that we wouldn't make it that far without checking for damage, we'd only come back once we realized there was something wrong. You can't run this ship by yourself, you know!"
Sarah glared up at him defiantly from the ground. "Oh, I don't know. I'm a pretty resourceful girl. Maybe I'd have found a way to do some damage!"
Growling, the guard drew his foot back to launch a kick at her. Nowhere to go, Sarah braced herself for impact... but none came. Instead, a meaty thunk and the tinkle of broken glass... Then the guard crumpled like a wet rag. Jerry stood over him, bits of a broken vase in hand. "All right, we got their attention. Now what?"
"I have an idea..." A voice trailed in over the comm.
"That's right, in the.. uh... flesh. So to speak. Listen, Sarah, I need you to do me a favor."
"What, the distraction wasn't good enough?"
"Well, it did save my hide for the moment, thanks. But I have one, tiny problem. I can drive the ship right now, but I can't gas it. There's a manual switch on the Bridge. If I take the ship now, they can get it back from me before I get us home, and I can't knock 'em unconscious without a hand on that button. I guess they were scared of a mutiny or something, can't imagine why. It's disguised, by the way, on the Captain's chair. It's the one that says 'Self Destruct'." Rebekha chuckled. "I guess Paris didn't think anybody'd try pressing that one, just in case..."
Sarah sighed. "Oh *great*. Into the lion's den...."
* * *
Jump-suit open to the navel... showing quite a bit of acreage... Sarah strutted boldly into the nerve center of the pirate ship.
"Hey big boys, I hear y'all had a little... problem. Anything I can do to
Jaws agape for that crucial split second, no one moved. And by the time they *did*, she was hurtling towards the nearest meathead with a blaster. Tackle, roll, thump, roll... Sarah looked up into the laughing eyes of a bully as he got the upper hand and pinned her to the deck with his weight. She smiled sweetly and pulled the trigger of the gun in his holster, which she had conveniently wrapped her fingers around while they were playing footsie... He howled as it tore a hole in his leg, and she rolled him off her, coming up with the gun pointed at Paris's head.
"All right, nobody move. Otherwise you're going to be short one Captain. Or at least, your Captain will be a little shorter.... Jerry, come in here, will you?" She grinned and handed him the gun when he came around the corner. "I can't imagine there's anyone in here you'd feel inclined to hurt, you're such a *sweet* boy. But do me a favor and point this nasty thing at the good Captain over there... Captain, try not to make him nervous. I'm afraid his hands would shake, and... well... you know."
Careful not to come between Jerry and the Captain, Sarah made her way towards the Captain's chair. Grinning, she flipped up the cover on the 'Self Destruct' button, and reached for it. But she'd forgotten that none of the rest of the crew knew it wasn't what it seemed. The man behind her saw her reach for the total destruction of the vessel he was riding on, and drew his weapon. He didn't care too much about the Captain, but damned if he was going to get blown out of space by some nut in a lab coat!
Jerry saw him move, and turned and fired. At the same time Paris, unworried by her notions, jumped. He ended up with Sarah, and pressed a needler against her throat. "All right Jerry. Put down your gun. I'm sure you'd rather not see me ventilate the pretty thing, hmmm? Put it DOWN." His command voice was impressive, and Jerry shook. Then, tears in his eyes, he set the gun on the deck. "All right, all right. Don't hurt her..." He took a step forward, and another as Paris laughed.
Paris shoved Sarah away, grabbing Jerry's wrist and pulling him in for a fierce kiss. "My little pussy cat. You never had the guts to shoot me anyway. You like what I give you, and you *know* it!" Paris laughed again, and then, suddenly... stopped. Everyone stared, no one moving, as Jerry freed his hand with a jerk and stepped back, a shard of broken vase in his fist. Paris slowly slumped forward, trying to stop the flow of blood from his heart, eyes glazing. You could have heard a pin drop.
Suddenly, Sarah exploded in a blur of motion, reaching out and tagging the 'Destruct' button before anyone could stop her. Several shots were fired, slagging various parts of the cabin, and confusion reigned supreme until the hiss of gas floated softly through the ship and everything fell silent once more.
* * *
Rebekha hummed to herself as she sent cleaning servos scuttling through the depths of the ship. All the pirates had been stacked in cold sleep cabinets, along with the remaining crew of the Heracles. Almost 90 percent of them had made it, though some wouldn't live through the cold sleep process... Still, that was a far higher figure than she had expected.
And Sarah... she focussed her cameras lovingly on that beautiful face, so peaceful in it's still repose. She'd caught a stray beam, and a bit of shrapnel in the wild melee that had raged on the bridge until the gas took effect. Just a few seconds, but that was more than enough. The shrapnel had hit her in the chest... she'd lost a lot of blood. Then the beam weapon... that had burned her badly, completely taking off her right hand. Fortunately Rebekha had gotten to her in time. Patched her up as best she could, then dumped her into a cold sleep tank and triggered it. The wounds seemed severe, certainly, but they were nothing to a modern technology that could put people in spaceships... They'd patch her back up at the nearest Fleet space station with not even a scar to show for it. Her hand would be better than new, a cybernetic replacement that would probably be very useful in surgery... it'd never tire, never tremble... Of course, after such a traumatic injury and adventure, they'd insist that she take a sabbatical. Some time off work, at *least* a six month vacation. Rebekha smiled to herself. She had a few suggestions as to how the good Doctor might spend that time... or at least who she might spend it with.
And so there was only one wakeful form on board, other than herself, as Rebekha entered the FTL coordinates and faked Paris's voice over the comm to the other pirate ships. They'd be expecting the Artyphice at the rendezvous... my, wouldn't they be disappointed when she didn't show up?
"Jeremiah." He looked up from prepping his cold sleep dose. "Everything is in place. The engines on this puppy are damaged badly, it may take us a
couple of months to get home. What will you do, when you get there?"
He shook his head, eyes dark and unreadable. "I don't know. The pirates... they killed most of the colonists. Took the rest as slaves. I don't even know whether Vidalis is still alive. He and I were to be married..."
Rebekha sighed, wishing there were some comfort she could give, wishing that she had a shoulder for him to cry on.
"Listen, you mustn't give up hope. He may still be alive... and with the information we've got, we may well be able to retrieve him. But Jerry, even if he isn't alive, people need you."
"No one needs me!"
"Jerry, do you want the pirates to go on doing this? Pillaging, raping, killing people with no one to stop them?"
"Of course not!" He held back a sob, unwilling to appear weak in front of her now...
"Then listen to me. You were here, you saw what they did. That makes you our star witness. Without you, there's a chance that these men could walk free. With you, our case is airtight. So think about that, all right. Remember that you have to be around to testify, to make sure this never happens again."
Sighing, he nodded, and climbed into his cold sleep tank - syringe in hand.
"Jerry, how about you let me take care of that, hmmm?"
Hand trembling, he looked up at her camera, searching for gods only knew what. Apparently he found it, because he set the syringe down and laid back. With relief she administered the proper dose, and closed the lid, watching him fall softly into darkness.
Once she was certain he was asleep, she sent a servo to clean up in there, dumping the syringe that held a lethal overdose of cold sleep preps into the recycler.
"Wha...? Oh, Xena. Hi."
"More like goodbye. I couldn't have done it better myself... I'm proud of you, descendant. And impressed."
"Oh..." Rebekha felt as though, if she could have been, she'd have been blushing. "I did my best. It was a little sloppy, as plans go.. but it worked."
"Yes, it did. And I'm sure you'll get better with experience. Don't tell anyone," Xena whispered conspiratorially, "but half the time I had no idea what I was doing. Most of the time I was sure I was going to get myself killed." She chuckled. "Of course, it didn't turn out that way, exactly. But you get the idea. Anyway, I can't stay. But then, you don't really need me to. You're going to be just fine. Take care of Sarah, and more importantly... let *her* take care of *you*."
With that, Rebekha swore she could feel the lightest brush of a kiss on her brow... and the presence of Xena was gone.
* THE END *
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