Crystal's StorySite

by: Maggie Finson


Chapter 1

The Prisoner

I first saw her in chains. Oh, not the old fashioned linked kind that you see in period pieces and historical tales on the Vid. These chains were pure energy, connected to slender cuffs on her wrists, ankles, and a silvery belt around her waist. At least technology in 3251 Old Count, 1244 New Terran relieved her of the ignominy bearing clanking and clashing chains would have caused. Her dignity in captivity was eloquent enough to preclude words, as she seemed to allow her guard detachment of six heavily armed First Strike Marines to lead her exactly where she wished to go.

Nothing shook that impressive dignity. Not the rough hustling along by her guards and jailors, nor the taunts from some of the crowd gathered to watch her loaded on the shuttle for the hop to the military transport waiting in orbit for her. Not even the open, if guarded admiration of just about every male watching the little processions’ slow progress towards the landing bay.

While watching her progress along with the other gawkers, I received the sudden, very uncomfortable feeling that something about her was familiar. A gesture, a stance when she was allowed to halt for a moment, or perhaps just a general sense of seeing someone I should recognize as something other than what she was now. Had I known her Human self? That was not a comfortable thought to harbor. Not at all.


"Morgana," the nearly reverent whisper hissed through the docking bay as they passed. Whether of admiration, fear, hatred, or regret at seeing her reduced to being pulled roughly along like some reluctant, disobedient cur, her presence brought that special, nearly religious feeling of seeing something -- or someone -- very rare and beautiful.

Morgana. Changeling, once human, and rumored to have been male, now Cheyrii, and definitely female, with the delicately formed features, frame, and beauty of that half-alien half-familiar race who dared stand against the mighty New Terran Federation. Not only dared, they had defied the military might of the most powerful single political entity in the spiral arm and kept a military machine that had destroyed entire races from so much as entering their home space for over three decades.

Morgana. Was she a traitor? I would suppose that depended on someone’s point of view. Should her Human roots and origins be used to judge her? Or her Cheyrii existence? In either case, the delicate appearing female being so hurriedly moved to the boarding ramp was a brilliant tactician and strategist. She had set the terrible, devastating trap on Kirus IV. Cheyrii forces had appeared very thin, had shown little resistance to First strike Forces, rolled back under the pressure of second wave reinforcements, then struck back with such devastating force that the fifty thousand survivors of the original half million conquest/occupation troops soon found themselves squeezed back into the circle of their original landing site. Fighting desperately to hold back the unbelievably potent attack/defense force that had seemed to appear out of nowhere to wipe out half the Human forces before many even knew they were under attack.

By the time the remaining twenty-four thousand, six hundred and forty-five survivors were lifted out under heavy fire, New Terran Strike Forces had been forced to accept that they had at last run up against something that had been unthinkable in the past. A race with the technology and will to best the scourge of the spiral arm in a face to face confrontation.

The defeat had stung. The Kirkus IV system would have given the NTF an opening into the very heart of the galaxy instead of leaving it poised impotently at the widening end of our spiral arm that joined with the central part of the Milky Way. It stung badly enough that the Top Brass needed to find some excuse for the debacle. Officers, surviving ones, were brought up on charges of incompetence or sheer misconduct no matter what their records had been in the past.

In retribution that the old, Earth based Confederation would not have tolerated or even considered, heads rolled, figuratively and otherwise. Troops already demoralized by the stunning defeat were further discouraged and enraged by the mass arrests and/or spot executions of their officers. Kirus IV was a blot on New Terra’s military machine that would be erased. But not before the repercussions sent shock waves throughout the iron fisted Federation that had supplanted the old Confederation by defeating Old Terra’s forces over a thousand years previously.

A gentle prod at my shoulder informed me that my own guards were ready to move me to the shuttle bay. A halfway embarrassed non-com, shamefaced with his duty, gestured towards the now open ramp. "Ok, Colonel Shapiro, time to go."

Giving the energy shackles I too was wearing a rueful glance, I looked the nervous young man in the face for a moment and nodded. "Then let’s go, Sergeant. Do your duty, son. I don’t hold it against you or your squad."

"Yes, Sir," the sergeant responded with a shadow of a grin. He returned my look with a searching one of his own. "What was it like down there sir? On Kirus IV, I mean?"

"Busy, sergeant," I responded without expression, then drew in a breath as I recalled the hellish carnage I had just about dragged the surviving half of my division and the flotsam of three others back to the Landing Zone through. Three quarters of those people made it to the L. Z. but nowhere near that many survived until Federation Space Forces had pried loose a narrow crack in the suddenly tight and deadly defensive sphere that had sprung into being around the small blue and white world named Kirus IV on Federation star maps. I finished bleakly, "Very busy."

"Yeah," he replied, then recalled that even under arrest, I was still an officer. "Sir. I’ve talked to some of the guys you led out of that hell hole. Every one of them says you smelled something wrong from the start, and that they wouldn’t have gotten out at all if it hadn’t been for you."

"Thanks, sergeant," I gave him a smile and allowed the weariness I felt to show in it. "That helps. That helps a lot. Tell them that I wouldn’t have made it out without them, either. Would you do that for me?"

"Yes, sir, I would be honored," the sergeant, younger than I first thought watched my face for a few moments then waved towards the waiting shuttle ramp. "But for now we’d better get moving."

I went without protest, walking calmly towards what could be the first leg of a journey to my own execution. The Federation was not a forgiving Mistress, nor a particularly gentle one. Especially to citizens who had failed or betrayed it. That I was being taken to New Terra for court marshal was at least encouraging; had there been no extenuating circumstances in the eyes of authority, I would be lying in an unmarked grave on the planet we were preparing to leave -- Sylvan, the Cheyrii had called it before Federation forces had wrested it from them ten years earlier -- with a majority of my fellow officers for company. I hoped their souls were at least quiet, if not free.

Cold penetrated my regulation fatigues as we neared the ramp that would lead to my destiny. Cold from the deeps of space that even the best of insulations could not keep out entirely in the stations that served as both military defense platforms and trading centers for the worlds they orbited. Soon, my breath, along with those of my escorts, was visible whenever we exhaled. If only for that reason, it was a relief to reach the interior lock of the shuttle, shielded from heat and cold by force generators that were not efficient enough to insulate an entire docking bay.

A grizzled and scarred Marine Sergeant Major met us at the interior lock, in full battle dress as required of marines on guard duty in any Federation vessel, even shuttles. The leader of my escort snapped to near attention and addressed the shuttle guard. "Sergeant Major."

"Cut the crap, kid," the veteran of many campaigns grinned tiredly then held out his gloved hand for the ID disk the younger non-com was carrying. "I can see that everything’s in order and you’re ready to turn your prisoner over to me. Give it here, and I’ll key in that you got the job done then you and your squad can be on your way."

"Here it is, Sarge," my escort’s leader appeared a bit out of sorts with having the formalities trampled like that, but handed the ID disk containing my own particulars over with something akin to relief.

The Master Sergeant punched in his own ID code on the pad with a dexterity coming from long years of doing such things, scanned the information with lively eyes, then keyed in a receipt confirmation. "Ok, kid, the information is uploaded, and your bosses have been notified that Colonel Shapiro has arrived as ordered. Better get back to your assigned area now."

The younger of the two nodded then turned to me and made a surprising gesture. Holding out his hand to me, he spoke very clearly, "It has been an honor meeting you, Sir. I hope you get exonerated back at Central Command. You don’t deserve this, Sir."

"He deserves whatever the court hands to him, kid," The older non-com tiredly told the youth. "You’d better remember that before your mouth and sense of honor get you in deep trouble. They don’t ship seditious non-coms back to Central Command for trial these days, they just shoot them quietly in some out of the way place and notify the family that their son or daughter has been killed in action.

"That still doesn’t make it right," the younger man began to argue. "What they’re putting some fine officers through over this mess....."

"Stop right there, kid, and that’s an order," the older man interrupted with a scowl. "I agree, but neither one of us is going to like it if we’re charged with sedition or insubordination. Let it go."

"He’s right, sergeant," I put in before the youth was able to say another damning word in my behalf. "You have a long career in front of you if you’re careful and lucky. Don’t jeopardize it over me, or anyone like me. My life is pretty well screwed by now, but yours isn’t. Just hold your piece, do as I asked earlier, and wait to see how all this turns out. With a war on, this is no time for a barracks rebellion, and the Federation won’t tolerate so much as the intimations of one."

"I understand, sir," he replied, though clearly unhappy with what was essentially a gag order the sergeant major and I had put on him. With a salute to me, and a nod of respect to the veteran soldier, he turned and ordered his squad out of the shuttle.

"Damn it, sir," the sergeant major spat out. It was a statement that covered what we both had just told the kid to do, and the entire situation I had become entangled in.

"I know, Sarge," with a tired grin of encouragement, I turned my chin in a gesture that took in the interior of the shuttle. "Nothing we can do, beyond what we did. Better get me inside so my new keepers don’t get antsy over the delay."

"You got that right, sir," he replied and keyed in the combination that would open the interior lock. "I just don’t like the idea of turning you over to those bastards in the I.G."

The Inspector General’s Office held suzerain over all cases involved with either incompetence or outright sedition in the military branches of Federation government. The reputation those in that echelon had earned for themselves was not good, and the worst sorts of humanity often drifted into it. I shrugged, "Like you told the kid, Nothing we can do about it. Let’s get this part over with."

"Yes, sir," was all he answered with while directing me through the lock and following. As that lock clanged shut accompanied with the hissing of air leaving the interior we had just been in, I shuddered internally at the idea that a very long chapter in my life was finished. And the next one was likely to be very short. How wrong I was, but I didn’t know that at the time.

We had no more time for conversation since the walk to the detention area was quite short. An officious, arrogantly self assured officer wearing the I.G. insignia and a captain’s bars that I was sure had never been earned in any wholesome manner met us outside an obviously high security door with a cold glance towards the sergeant major and contemptuous glare for me.

"Very good, Sergeant Major," he dismissed the other without so much as a real glance, so missed the glare that one favored him with. "Your prisoner has been transferred to the proper authorities and I have it logged in. You may return to your usual duties."

The sergeant major gave the man a reluctant salute, then nodded to me before turning to leave. Once he had returned down the corridor we had traversed to reach the high security area, the I. G. Captain inserted his security card in the slot beside the heavy doors and followed that with a vocal command before placing his palm on an I. D. plate. Once all that had been finished, the heavy security doors snapped open with a whoosh of displaced air.

"You, of course," the captain stared stonily at me while gesturing for me to proceed him through the hatch, "are fully aware of all the security systems here. You are being closely watched even now, so any move to get away from me would only result in a great deal of discomfort for you and accomplish nothing."

"Where would I hide even if I could get away?" I questioned with a half feral grin that had my erstwhile jailor drawing back with one hand at the belt where his sidearm was hanging; still strapped into its holster, I noted with contempt of my own. "An interstellar vessel only has so many places anything could use for a hiding place. Don’t worry, Captain, I’ll be a good boy for you."


For now, I thought privately while meekly entering the area that was to be my prison for the duration of the voyage. We were met by a small contingent of seriously worried looking guards who at least had their weapons drawn.

"I. G. has it’s own protocols," I noted aloud, then glared at the troops gathered to receive me. "But Federation regs require a salute to a superior officer even when that officer is under arrest. Last I checked, the eagles haven’t been stripped off my uniform yet and I expect the respect my rank is due. Even in I. G, territory."

That threw them for a loop, and I grinned to myself as they struggled with the quandary of whether to hold to their weapons and orders, or to respect the regulations of the Federation Military that had been beaten into every recruit who ever went through basic training. They compromised, lowering their weapons and grudgingly acknowledging my presence and rank with sketchy salutes.

That little victory on my part angered the Captain, and I knew those poor grunts would pay for giving me that much, and I nodded to them with a tight smile that told them I knew what the gesture had cost them. Even if it had come only after I forced the issue.

"Move along," the captain ordered a little brusquely, working to re-establish his control over the enlisted men and giving me a light shove to show he was still in control.

I went along quietly, though a look through slitted eyes told the captain that if I ever found him alone and not in a military jurisdiction, he’d better be a whole lot better than I thought he was or I would take great pleasure in breaking his damned neck. He got the message, and flushed with a mix of anger and fear, though not acknowledging the fear to anyone but himself.

At least he made no move to touch me after that. A fact that his men did not fail to notice. I was a hero, decorated by Federation officials on numerous occasions, and had been unjustly accused of malfeasance in the debacle on Kirus IV. All of us knew that made no difference, though. I was a prisoner on my way to a court marshal, no matter what my records were in the past. And I had nowhere to go if I did escape; no place in the Federation would shelter me if I was declared a traitor without standing trail to exonerate myself.

The party I had become part of, no matter how unwillingly, came to a halt after a short walk down the corridor. We halted in front of another high security door and the captain used his key card, palm print, and vocal identification again to open it. Tension among the troopers escorting us rose as that door slowly opened and I knew why even before the still nameless (to me) captain turned to gesture me inside with a cold smile.

"We’re short on space this trip, sir, so I’m afraid that you’ll have to share accommodations with the changeling bitch. Go ahead and kill her if you like. That would save everyone a whole lot of trouble once we get back to Central Command."

"I’ll keep that in mind," ignoring his rank, a calculated insult, I stepped over the threshold then turned to give him a chill look of my own. "At least she might be civil enough to observe the proper forms with me. Enjoy your voyage, captain."

"What I’ll enjoy," he retorted, finally taking my bait, "will be watching you publicly executed for incompetence in the face of the enemy."

"Which one?" I questioned with a negligent nod towards the interior of the cabin I would spend the better part of a month in, then with a wave towards him. The meaning was very clear.

I got no answer. Only the door sliding silently closed between us. With a shrug, I turned to look at the Spartan, but more than adequate furnishings of my temporary prison.

There was a central area used for a common room when prisoners weren’t being transported in the area, with several doors leading to individual sleeping quarters. Behind one of those, I knew, Morgana waited. Which was just as well, as far as I was concerned. I’d known the person Morgana was rumored to have been, respected and liked that one. I feared that I would feel the same way towards an enemy who had engineered the deaths of troops I had been responsible for, and who was, indirectly, responsible for my own situation.

That was a fear I would have to face, whether I wished to or not. Two people in such a confined area wouldn’t be able to avoid each other for twenty-four hours let alone a month. Evidently, she realized that, too, and had decided to take steps that would get the first meeting over with.

One of the closed cabin doors opened with a quiet whoosh that reverberated through my mind and soul as if it had been the Gates of Hell opening to receive me.

Gates that yawned open with an enticing sense of familiarity, of knowing the person who stood so silently regarding me from the safety of her now alien guise and perspective. Or at least of having known the person she had been before the Cheryii had converted a Human Being into one of their own.



Chapter 2



We stood staring at one another in silence for what felt like an eternity that lasted all of several seconds. Close up, she was just as beautiful, and even more imposing than I had seen at a distance. Slim, straight, standing at a diminutive five feet and maybe an inch, with her thick mass of hair framing a heart shaped face so lovely it was heart breaking in its fine featured, alien delicacy, she regarded me with a curious half smile while waiting to see how I would react.

To my own surprise, setting my own discomfort aside, I bowed. Only a slight inclination of the head with a slighter bend at the waist, but it was a bow. Even in captivity, wearing the energy shackles and alone among hostile aliens, her presence seemed to demand at least that much courtesy.

"Well," her voice was light, somewhere between a soprano and contralto, with a melodic lilt that gave her pure tones a sweetness that was deceptive.

"You’re looking well, Shapiro, under the circumstances."

"No thanks to you," I responded a little tightly. "That was brilliant, what you managed to pull off on Kirus IV. Now I have to pay for that, and my apparent inability to counter what you and yours did to us out there."

"We would not allow another Sylvan, Curt," she replied quietly, using my first name in a way that was far too familiar for my comfort. "Did any of you even think we would?"

"I didn’t," the answer came freely, with a tinge of bitterness for staff officers who had failed to heed what their field personnel had tried telling them. "But in the long run, that didn’t matter. We got sent there to take the planet and got our butts kicked but good. Over a quarter million good people died on that hellhole when you snapped the trap shut on us."

"Thirty million of my people perished on Sylvan during your Federation’s invasion," her response was quiet, with more than a hint of grief in it. "Mostly innocent non-combatants who had no shelter from the initial barrage from orbit, or who were too stunned to hide when First Strike Troops landed and started clearing the L. Z. for succeeding waves."

I knew that. I’d been a newly commissioned captain on Sylvan during that initial attack and the treatment of non-combatants had sickened me as well as many of my fellow officers. The barrage from orbit, and the killing frenzy of those damned First Strike Troopers would only have ended once the planet had been taken and we knew that. So, we, too had been guilty of trampling innocents to reach our goals. But an awful lot of those First Strike Troopers fell to "friendly" fire during our advances. Not that it helped the poor, Cheyrii civilians much.

"I’m not proud of that action," my eyes stung at the memory of smoke and absolute disgust at what I’d seen after making planet fall there. I’d gotten several medals for that action, but only wore them when going through an inspection or in a public function where the lack of them would have raised uncomfortable questions.

"Nor am I," she returned with a heavy sigh, "of what we did to your troops on Pegasii. War, it seems, brings out the ugliness in even the most beautiful of beings. I regret what I have been forced into doing as much as you and many of your fellow officers do.

But I would not, could not, stand idly," her voice grew in intensity and gained strength as she continued, "as yet another world of my people was ravaged by your rapacious Federation. I personally would not tolerate such a thing if there was any way to prevent it. Neither would any of my people."

‘No one would have," taking a seat on a couch as far away from her as possible in the confined cabin, I watched her for any reaction to my statement. "Your actions are understandable, and under the circumstances, forgivable. You won, we lost on Kirus IV, or Pegasii as you call that world. Now I’m paying for that loss, which is why we’re here to talk with each other at all. I don’t hold it against you, or your people."

She nodded, then abruptly seemed to change the subject. "Is it true, what I heard about you on Sylvan? That you and the troops under your command actually protected some of my people when First Strikers would have killed them?"

"They were non-combatants," I answered without really answering. She understood and nodded silently with a small quirk of her mouth that could have passed for a smile if one used imagination. "Thank you."

"For what?" Several squads of First Strike Marines had decided that a building filled with mostly children and elderly Cheryii was a nest of snipers and saboteurs. Their pre-emptive attack was stopped abruptly by an already sickened battalion of mixed armor and support infantry. I just happened to have the honor of commanding the latter. There were no survivors of the former to tell tales. To tell the truth, it had felt good, seeing those arrogant, bloodthirsty bastards fall to the concerted and unasked for fire of my own troops. Real good.

"We both know the answer to that, Colonel Shapiro," her quiet answer drew a tiny grin out of me despite my very real misgivings at being in such close proximity to an almost fabled leader of a very competent enemy. "I won’t belabor that any longer, but to tell you that I was also on Sylvan during The Invasion. I lost what you would call my husband and all but one of my children in that horror. The one child who did survive was among that group you would not allow First Strike to kill. I thank you for that, on both a personal and official level.

Your actions, and those of other officers during the fighting on Sylvan gave my people a closer insight into the better side of Humanity than changelings such as I could give them," with a halfway bitter smile, she gracefully seated herself in a floating couch opposite mine. "Truthfully, now you Humans are more alien to me than to other Cheryii, though I was once one of you."

The silence between us after that short exchange was an uncomfortable one. Both of us knew we could do nothing to change our situations as things stood, and to spend the month long voyage back to Command Central was even more idiocy piled on what had gone before. But we had been, were, enemies. People who had stood on opposite sides of more than one battle, I was sure, and who should remain hostile, at least guardedly so, in our present situation.

"What the hell," I gave a sigh as a decision I hadn’t really been aware of worrying over was made. "We’re prisoners of The Federation, both of us, so may as well be at least civil to each other on the trip. I won’t try killing you if you can agree to the same regarding me."

"Agreed, Colonel Curtis Shapiro," with a regal nod, my unlikely and half unwelcome companion accepted my terms. "Now that we have decided not to entertain our keepers by attempting to kill one another, what should we do next?"

"I plan of getting a little sleep after I clean up, providing the facilities in this cabin are still working."

"They are quite functional, Colonel," Morgana waved back to the cubicle she had exited from earlier with a slight lift of eyebrow and tilt of the head that actually showed a sense of humor. "If a little....cramped and primitive. I’m afraid you’ll have to make do with a real water shower instead of the cleaner ultra-sonics."

"Water?" I grinned, thinking this tub must have been one of those luxury yachts I. G. had pre-empted for their own use. They were slime, the people who drifted into I. G., but slime with an eye towards their own comfort. "There are a couple of unhappy ratings aboard this ship then, because we’ve been given their cabin space. I just hope the water’s hot."

It was, and I spent an inordinate amount of time under the relaxing, almost healing stream of steaming water without concern for conservation. If my keepers were concerned over that they would shut the water off themselves. I did wonder at being given such V. I. P. treatment, especially by a branch of the services that was universally despised by the regular troops they watched for proper actions. The answer came to me as I slid between real sheets in the first real bed I’d rested in for over a month. True it was simply a large cot, but it did have a mattress.

I was too hot for regular military transport, just like my traveling companion. I. G. didn’t trust regular grunts not to let me escape while they were watching something else important. There were places where humans could live in varying degrees of comfort that were generally out of reach to the Federation, and I knew of most of those. And ways of getting there without being found.

My career had taken a turn into something almost as dark as I. G. following the Battle of Sylvan. I’d transferred into Special Operations, and had risen in the ranks slowly but steadily. We were the guys who got called when the Federation Council, such as it was, or the almost imperial President, didn’t need to know exactly what was going on. Just that whatever the problem was would be fixed.

But I’d gotten enough of that several years before the abortive landings on Kirus IV. Actually, I could have been promoted to the rank of Brigadier, but to get that upgrade in rank would have meant joining I. G. since that arm of the military had taken over the higher echelon command positions in S. O. some months before I came up for promotion. After dealing with I. G. pukes for almost eight years on a regular basis, I had wanted no more to do with any of them and actively sought transfer out of Special Forces. That was a joke, under the circumstances. Even if a bitter one.

Sleep finally managed to catch up with my fevered thoughts and put them gently, if abruptly, to bed. I slept soundly for almost six straight hours. Without the usual nightmares that had been plaguing me for years. I hadn’t had one of the cleanest jobs in Federation Forces history, myself and had dirty hands from more than one questionable operation.

But I could get some satisfaction from the knowledge that I hadn’t ever caved in to I. G. demands for wholesale slaughter during any of those missions, and was still regular military.

* * *


I awakened mostly refreshed, and feeling physically, if not emotionally clean. To be honest, I gloried in those feelings for several minutes before rising to take another shower. This time mindful of shipboard water conservation protocols I only spent long enough to rinse off the sweat of the night and clear my head of the remains of sleep.

When I emerged from the cubicle that contained the bed I’d slept in and the washing/relief facilities it was to find my cabin-mate poring over a comp screen. She looked up when I entered the common room with a quirk of the lips that so far passed as a smile to me from her.

"It would seem, Colonel Shapiro," with a gesture at the comp screen, she went on almost fatalistically. "that our captors care little about what information we gain access to on this voyage. So long as it has nothing to do with our final disposition or military secrets."

"My future," with a shrug, I leaned over to see what she had been reading and was not surprised to see my own personnel file on the screen. "Is going to be relatively short, I’m sure. I. G. and I don’t get along well, and they are the President’s direct arm into the military. I’ll likely end up with a very short trial, be found guilty of whatever they decide will work, and then be guest of honor at an even briefer execution. I’m to be a public example, I think. An object lesson to keep the general population in line and most especially to keep a rein on the regular military."

"And what does mine hold in your opinion?" she questioned almost lightly with a lift of one eyebrow. "My future among Humans?"

"Probably a long, painful interrogation by I. G." I answered bleakly. Then whatever is left will be imprisoned for later uses. Whatever those might end up being."

"I had thought as much myself," with a nod, Morgana returned her attention to the comp display as if I’d just told her she would be going on a pleasure trip once we reached Command Central as the honored guest of the Federation.

"You have had an exemplary career, Colonel Curtis Shapiro," changing the subject, she shut off the comp and turned to regard me carefully. "You are correct in the belief that we were acquainted when I was Human, but I lost track of you soon after graduation from the Academy."

"I never mentioned anything to you about my thinking I’d known you as a Human," I protested. "Or did you pry that out of my mind without my knowledge?"

"Oh, no, old friend," with a soft laugh, she watched my reactions to my own fears, and smiled as I put them down and stored them back in the deep, dark corner of my mind where they generally resided. "I can no more read minds than you can, but your responses to me and other signs, body language, facial expressions, among them, have told me of your suspicions."

"Old friend," I hesitated, tasting the words on my tongue. They were bitter, very much so, and tinged with the coppery taste of blood shared and shed. "Who the hell are you?"

"Who I am," she replied slowly with a fluid hand gesture to herself, "Is very evident to you is it not? I am Morgana-Iey-Sylvanus-A’’chddra’im of the Warrior Clan Yllar’ium. Your enemy, the ‘Elven Bitch’ who has killed so many of your kind in combat.

Who I was, though." she continued softly, "Is another matter entirely, Colonel Curtis Sheldon Shapiro. Ah, that is a completely different thing, is it not?"

"It is," I answered, with a narrowing of eyes as I tried to penetrate the female Cheryii to find the lost Human. "Are you going to keep me guessing, Lady?"

"I could," amusement circled her presence, mixed with a sadness for something lost forever. "You would piece the puzzle together on your own given time. But if you like, I will save you the trouble."

"Okay, so tell me who you were, Morgana-Iey-Sylvanus-A’’chddra’im of the Warrior Clan Yllar’ium."

My use of her full name/title pleased her, and drew the first true smile from her that I had seen. "You do me honor, Human, to use my honorifics in speech. I will tell you, Curtis, but you must agree to listen to all of my tale without interruption. Once I have finished, you will be able to ask any questions you wish. Is that agreeable?"

"What else do I have to do?" looking around the sparsely furnished common room with a grimace, I turned to this strange, beautiful and terribly unsettling creature. "Of course I agree. Tell your story, I’ll listen to all of it."

Without preamble or further acknowledgement of my agreement to her terms, she began speaking in that almost hypnotic voice. I could have sworn I was actually seeing pictures of what she was telling me as the tale began to unwind to my halfway fearful, completely fascinated consciousness.




Chapter 3

An Ending and a Beginning


Ensign Michael Leonid Morgan flexed as he rose from the rather tight fit of his bunk aboard the Federation Frigate Delancy. His new billet was a first class exploration/fighting vessel that had been commissioned and tested for service only two years before Mike had graduated from the Federation Academy with high honors. Serving on such a new ship was a rarity for someone newly commissioned himself, and the distinction hadn’t been lost on him. He could have put in for a billet on a larger, older ship that would have remained within charted Federation territories, or at least on the periphery of that intangible line where Human domination began decreasing like warmth from a star on more distant planets in a planetary system.

But the way to rapid promotions and upgrades in skills lay in "Riding the Whirlwind" as patrolling the far flung edges of Federation influence was called by military personnel. Michael Leonid Morgan was ambitious, bright, and had already shown signs of a tactical genius promising to be astonishing if he managed to reach his full potential.

The interior lights of his cabin flashed red accompanied by the warbling alert klaxon and a call for all hands to man their stations. Not just duty crew, but all hands. Mike hastily grabbed his boots while charging out the door into a companionway filled with organized chaos as off duty junior officers in varied conditions of undress struggled into uniforms while making their ways to assigned stations.

Mike briefly admired the indecently exposed but rapidly covered form of Ensign Amber Holly, his co-pilot on the armed shuttle/fighter that was the general assignment for hot-shot young ensigns in the Federation Navy. Amber gave him a twisted grin as she yanked her tunic into place while pacing him, then scowled in mock outrage. "Better get your jollies later, ensign, sir, we got something more than a training exercise here."

Emphasizing the point for her, Delancy shuddered as something big hit her shields and the anti-acceleration generators buzzed while compensating for some fast maneuvering. Holding grimly to a stanchion with one hand while offering the other to Holly for support Mike nodded with a mixed look of fear and excitement in his eyes.

"Damn! Action with you at last and it has to be real action," he moaned theatrically as the pair, along with half a dozen others crammed themselves into the lift that would take them to the shuttle and fighter bays.

"You’ll get over it," Amber grinned wickedly, using the press around them as an excuse to press her smallish, but well shaped breasts into his side. Then pulled away wearing her business as usual expression before the lift door opened to disgorge them into the bay’s prep area.

Delancy continued to shudder with hits and her own return fire, but it seemed the shields were holding for the moment while the pair climbed into and sealed their combat suits; not much more than lightly armored vacuum suits with side arms, comm gear, and rudimentary med kits attached in easy to reach but otherwise out of the way places.

"Good God," someone breathed as all of them glanced to the situation board. Delancy, shown in the center as a blue triangle, was surrounded in a swarm of red hostiles, and another, much larger red blip was approaching from behind the arc of the planet below.

"Positive ID on hostiles," the duty officer’s voice droned out over the comm, "We have a flock of Cheyrii Griffin fighters around us and a Monolith class carrier headed our way."

"Elves!" someone else spat out following that announcement, as if it was a curse.

"It’s really hit the fan now, Skipper," Holly grimaced as the pair entered their own craft and nodded in acknowledgement to the squad of marines already strapped into their acceleration couches before strapping into the piloting couches.

"Sure has," Morgan responded while activating the shuttle’s boards and responding with nods and grunts as Amber ran down the pre-flights and pronounced all boards green. "We might get our tails shot off before we even reach atmosphere."

"You take care of flying this crate," Amber grinned briefly, grimly, then returned her attention to the Shields and Weapons board. "I’ll keep them off our behinds."

"Right," with a nod, he pressed the systems active indicator to show they were ready and waited launch in the scramble. During that few quiet, tense seconds he brought up the mission profile and was not surprised to see they were on a pickup mission down below. Scanning the pertinent coordinates and who they were being sent down for, Morgan keyed in the slaved console over the marine sergeant’s couch to give him and his squad a look. "Looks like it’s going to be a rough ride, Sarge,"

"Just get us there, Skipper," Lane Harrison grunted in reply. "Then We’ll take over."

"Got a go, over here," Amber informed him as our small ship was literally hurled outwards from the launching bay and the engines automatically kicked to full power increasing the distance between them and the swarming fighters from an enemy they barely knew anything about and the beleaguered Delancy with a silent prayer that she would be there when they got back. Or that friendly fire didn’t get them on the way down.

Enemy fire getting us was problematic. The space surrounding Delancy was full of destructive beams and missiles, all meant to kill ships. The fighter/shuttle’s shields took a hit from an anti-ship missile and shook like some giant beast had it in its jaws as Morgan arced away from the attack in a tight loop followed with a series of random appearing jinks and jogs to that lined them up for a quick window through all the beams, blasts and debris.

One of the fast moving shuttles wasn’t as lucky or quick as an expanding cloud of debris fronting its explosive destruction began pinging off the shields.

"That was Ortiz," Amber informed Mike with a short curse as she angled an anti-missile beam to intercept another unidentified blip moving towards them at speeds no living thing could tolerate. "Promotes you to flight leader, skipper."

"Right," Morgan twisted the control yoke to give his copilot/weapons tech a cleaner line on the relentlessly nearing missile then activated the command comm circuits on his board, confident that Amber would deal death to the death bringer on their own tail.

"Ok, extraction mission ," he announced. "Ortiz is gone. All units report to Morgan and go. Repeat we are still a go."

Five other shuttles reported laconically, four less than had left the Delancy minutes earlier, but all six remaining were streaking towards atmosphere and out of the preliminary battle for the moment.

"Sensors show a pretty good mess planet side," Amber reported, "Lots of atmospheric fighters down there, circling and just waiting for us to come in."

"Then we do it hard and fast," Morgan responded, "and hope the shields hold up to it. "extraction, this is Morgan. Proceed to mission co-ordinates at max possible V. Repeat, max V."

"Better hold on Sarge," he keyed the shuttle’s internal intercom, "Going to be a rougher ride than we first thought."

"We heard," Lane responded without inflection. "leave the link open so we can see what’s goin’ on, can you?"

"Can do, Sarge," Morgan acknowledged while beginning to fight the controls in the beginnings of a high velocity approach. Amber took hold of her own control yoke to assist if needed. The wrong speed or angle and they could either skip off the atmosphere like a rock thrown across a pond or burn.

"Got Cheryii fighters coming in," Amber reported. "Count is five, no six bogies at nadir and swinging in an intercept arc. Estimated contact in thirty seconds."

"Take the weapons back from auto," Morgan ordered. "I’ve got us inserted now."

"Got ‘em."

"Slowing descent," he reported. As of yet, they were still moving too fast to risk firing missiles. They’d outrun the things until the shuttle trimmed its terrific velocity.

"Shields are taking a lot of heat," Amber reported, "Down to 60% and falling. Got incoming, too."

Morgan added more forward thrust to further slow their approach, carefully watching their air speed until the notch he had been waiting for showed. "Get them, Am,"

The shuttle shuddered as a grouping of anti-ship missiles fired from their pods. The deadly little needle shaped weapons seemed to move very slowly but picked up speed as the shuttle slowed even more.

"Got a lock on the bogies," Amber crowed as the eight missiles abruptly changed course to arc towards the waiting atmospheric fighters. "But the tubes are going to need cooling before I can get in any more shots."

The space between themselves and the enemy fighters filled with missiles as the other five shuttles decelerated enough to fire their own. Eyes on the vid representation of their scanners, Morgan nodded while keying in commands on the console while holding the yoke in a gradually slowing arc. "All we can do, Am. Let’s get down there and pick up what’s left of our side in this fracas."

"Got ground fire, now," Amber announced unnecessarily as the shuttle shook and the hull boomed with impacts barely shunted away by the flagging shields. "Extrapolating positions for return fire on mobile units and launching anti-personnel drones for the stationary ones."

Blossoms of fire flared on the rapidly nearing ground as the drones found targets and began peppering the areas with shrapnel producing mines and the deadlier (to ground troops in the open) needle bombs. Needle bombs exploded on impact with the ground, spreading a devastating wave of high velocity needles of high explosives moving fast enough to penetrate most lighter armor before exploding.

"Ready for touchdown," Morgan reported while keying the yoke controls for vertical landing. "Got your boys ready Sarge?"

"Ready here," Lane’s voice finally betrayed tension as his part of the mission neared.

"Fast, dirty, and light, Sarge," Morgan ordered. "We don’t have room for a lot of personals this time."

"Got ya, skipper," the marine acknowledged. The miners and troopers awaiting rescue would have to leave personal possessions behind and the marines would enforce that order.

"Damn!" the shuttle lurched then began to spin in its descent. Morgan frantically keyed in commands and wrestled the yoke, gaining control back long enough to give them a chance at any sort of landing. "Starboard main is gone."

Red lights began winking all across the command boards as he continued wrestling the wounded craft into an acceptable landing attitude while

the uneven ground neared at alarming speed. "Get your squad out, Sarge, we’re going down hard."

"Hold on to your bra, Am," Morgan gritted through clenched teeth as the emergency escape hatch opened and the marines used their individual flight packs to get clear. "I’ve got as much control as I can get on the old girl and we’re going in with one crippled wing."

"Just concentrate on getting us down," his partner responded, while frantically shutting down unessential systems. "I’ll spray the LZ with anti-perses, and hope for the best."

"Right," Morgan swung his head to get sweat out of his eyes, while watching the marines land - under fire - half a klick off the original LZ. "See if you can give Lane and his boys a little help, too."

"No go," came the terse response. "We’re not stable enough to target anything definite. If I spray the general area we’re as likely to get them as the bad guys.

Shields are completely gone," Amber screamed as another barrage pummeled the craft accompanied by the whining screams of torn metal and plastics. "Get us down Mike!"

A series of thudding impacts, careening equipment that had come unsecured, and body wrenching jerks announced that he had managed to do that, but the severely damaged shuttle was still caroming off rock outcroppings and tearing through buildings at a sickening speed.

It finally impacted against something that wouldn’t give way and shuddered to a reluctant halt so quickly the pair would have been decapitated if not for their still functional acceleration couches. As it was, neither were in all that good a shape. Amber stared at Morgan with one eye swollen shut and blood streaming from a ripped cheek. Morgan moved only to feel the unmistakable grating of broken bone in his left arm.

"We have to get out of here!" he shouted while fumbling one handed with

the locks on his harness. Once freed from the couch, he rapidly slapped a stim pack to his good arm followed by a hastily applied pain blocker. The control console was already crackling with unchecked flames as he moved to join his partner at an emergency lock that had at least opened enough for one at a time egress from the dying shuttle.

"Get moving!" he shoved, doing his best to ignore the pain lancing through his injured arm all the way into his toes while praying that the pain block would kick in soon.

Amber stared for a moment in sheer befuddlement, then with a clearing shake of her head awkwardly lurched towards the partially open lock. The young woman made it outside the dying shuttle then fell into a shuddering heap with a moan.

Morgan was able to briefly wonder at the feel of bone grating against bone in his arm without the bolts of mind numbing pain that sensation had held earlier while leaping down from the damaged lock himself. Rapidly assessing their situation and position, he decided that the situation would be a grim one even if Ensign Holly had been able to move any further under her own power.

A rapid scan over her form with the crude medscope supplied with their suit med kits showed him a grimmer picture than he had expected. Internal injuries from the jostling received during their crash landing were bad enough that it was amazing she had even been able to stand, let alone get herself out of the shuttle. An action which had likely made her injuries worse. Ensign Amber Holly would not be walking away from this crash.

"Then I’ll carry you," Mike grunted to no one in particular as he laboriously and gently shouldered the surprisingly light burden that his copilot turned out to be. Careful not to jar her any more than absolutely necessary, he recalled the position fix he had last seen on the now ruined control console and rapidly extrapolated the direction -- he hoped -- would at least get them to friendly ground. With luck.

But moving Amber as he now held her, over his shoulder, would surely kill her before there was a chance of getting her help; and his own injury would allow no other method without equipment from the shuttle. Cursing, he covered his copilot as best he could, at least hiding her from casual view, and stumbled back towards the ominously sparking and smoking hulk that had been their shuttle.

A quick-access key miraculously accepted his code and opened one of the major locks, which grudgingly ground open and even halfway extended its warped ramp before its mechanism failed. It was a reach, especially with a useless arm, but with the flood of adrenalin in his system Mike managed to clamber onto the warped but still sturdy ramp and stumble back into the interior.

Emergency stores was a jumble, but that worked in his favor for a change. He located the needed equipment and supplies right away, but had to kick a path through other less critical to the moment things to reach them. It was a matter of moments to apply a soft splint to his injured arm, then scoop up an AG stretcher from the mess, then reach the open lock. The ominous creaks and internal sizzles he heard erupted into flame just as he reached the edge of the ramp.

A leap intended to simply reach the ground turned into a spectacular somersaulting arc propelled from behind by the explosion of flame from the interior of the shuttle. Mike landed on his feet, barely, regained his balance then oriented on the spot where he had left Amber Holly. Only to see a group of shadowy figures surrounding the badly injured woman.

"Jesus, God, Skipper!" Sergeant Harrison’s expletive held a note of awe that barely masked his relief. "I thought you damn rocket jocks saved all the gymnastics for when you’re behind the command consoles!"

"Goes to show," Morgan grinned while tossing the Anti-grav stretcher to the group in general and lowering his sidearm. "what a guy can do with a little push from the right direction."

Shaking his head while watching the now flaming hulk that had been a shuttle, Harrison then scanned the horizon nervously. "This is going to be like a beacon to the Elves down here. We got to move now, sir,"

"Why I went back in for the stretcher," Morgan acknowledged, giving the still prone form of Amber a worried glance then transferring that to the squad medic who was working feverishly over the inert woman’s body.

"She’s in bad shape, skipper," the medic, a competent corporal no more than nineteen herself, gave Morgan a half encouraging look. "But we can hold her steady for a while, providing we can get somewhere she won’t be constantly jolted around."

"That’s the plan, Angie," he answered while pointing out the direction that he hoped would lead them to at least a friendly position. "Over that way about two klicks, is a defended mine head and shaft. That’s where we’re headed."

"Unless, you have a better idea, Sarge?" Morgan questioned without rancor. He had often mined non-coms for their experience and expertise with generally god results. Not to mention respect from the non-coms serving with him. "I’m open to a more reasonable suggestion."

"Me too," Harrison gave the younger officer a quick grin. "But Damned if I have one. I just wanted to get us here in case you two needed help."

"Well, we do," grinning back, Morgan waved towards the ridge of furrowed soil and rock the shuttle’s skidding impacts had left ahead of them. "Set em up and let’s get moving, Sarge."

"Garcia, point, Xang take right flank, Levi, take left, the rest of you form up on the skipper and Ensign Holly," the sergeant quickly, quietly passed the orders and the marines efficiently moved into their positions with long practiced ease. "let’s get going boys and girls. Before we have Elves in our underwear."

Moving was marginally less nerve wracking than standing still. Morgan ruefully thought that at least now they were moving targets. Not that the distinction helped much. Cheryii ground troops were notorious for their uncanny abilities with weapons fired at either stationary or moving targets. A reputation borne out by the small group’s overland trek instead of their jetting back into atmosphere in preparation for docking with the orbiting Delancy.

"Damn!" Harrison growled as energy beams and the ping of projectiles fired from hand held weapons started raking their path. "Took too long getting going. Garcia, how many do you make out there ahead of us?"

"Twenty-five, thirty hostiles dug into cover," came the laconic reply over the suit comms while we scrambled for any available cover. "Bout the same number moving to flank and come in from behind."

"Got us boxed, sir," Harrison grumbled, then issued a series of rapid orders before giving Morgan a disgusted look. "Gonna be real messy, getting out of this one."

"Your jet paks still in working order?" Morgan questioned with his head raised slightly to see how much fire they were taking. Too much for anyone’s comfort, he decided."

"Getting worried, sir?" Harrison questioned with the gallows humor often shown by people under duress. "Or do you have some idea other than run like hell?"

"I’m no ground-pounder, Sarge," he responded with a halfway evil grin. "But if your JPs still work I’ve got an idea. Crazy as hell, but it has a chance if we work it right."

After Morgan outlined his sketchy plan, the sergeant grinned viciously. "Leave it to a flyboy to figure out something like that."

"We could sit here and slug it out," Morgan pointed out with grim humor of his own. "Show these Elves what the Federation military is really made of."

"Yeah, blood and guts, with a few scattered brains in the mix," Harrison chuckled. "All over the ground. We’re ready when you are, skipper."

"Then now’s the time," Morgan ordered without the hesitation he really felt. "Before they get their lines set and start tightening the ring until it chokes us."

"You got that part right, sir." the sergeant replied seriously, then winked. "Do you really think this will work?"

How the hell would I know?" Morgan grumbled with a grin of his own. "I’m making this up as I go. But it’s got to beat waiting here to be slaughtered like spring lambs."

Flying low and fast with the jetpaks around a small rise of ground that counted as a hill in the area, they hit the Cheryii line where it was still thin enough to break through. Not that it was easy, or without cost to either side.

Sergeant Harrison went down in a spectacular spray of flame and ammunition when his fuel paks were hit by an unlucky shot. But he caromed into the heart of the Cheryii formation, burning a hole through the line that those surviving made opportunistic use of.

Private Garcia, landed deliberately amidst a ring of the enemy setting up a small field piece that could have cut the small unit to shreds in seconds. Her abrupt landing and rapid firing of her weapon during a quick spin of her jets disrupted that formation, then her exploding fuel paks rendered the weapon, and its techs, totally useless.

Xang and Levi arrowed in from the flanks to take out heavy weapons emplacements and only Xang emerged from the imitation of Hell those positions had become.

"Get that stretcher through!" Morgan roared the command while using the rapid fire marine issue weapon he had appropriated from the arsenal Garcia had carried until its barrel began to smoke from the heat. The tiny explosive rounds peppered into the remaining enemy troops with satisfyingly horrific effect, further opening the narrow path to a dubious safety at the mine head. "Then get your own butts through with it!"

While following his own command, Morgan felt a sickening impact that penetrated his armor to crush ribs and more. Slewing sideways from the hit, he corrected course and added speed to slide through the rapidly narrowing gap in the Cheryii lines, ignoring the red flashing wound indicators and pain that forced its way through even the massive pain blockers he had taken previously. Unaware of the full extent of the wound, except that it was a bad one, the Ensign sped to the front of his diminished command.

"Move, move, move!" he shouted into the comm, showing the way by pointing himself in the -- hopefully -- correct direction to reach the mine head. "Just about there, people! Don’t quit on me now."

The medic, Cooper, angled to his side and gave the patch in his armor a critical examination as they jetted towards their destination. "That’s a bad one Skipper. You need to have it seen to, right away."

"No time, Angie, keep this one to yourself, and that’s an order," he grated, short of breath and shaking his head to disperse the red mist that filled his enclosed helmet with each exhalation of breath. "Just take care of Amber until we get out of here."

"Yes, sir," the medic responded in an emotionless voice. "It’s been a privilege serving with you, Skipper."

"Same goes for you, Angie, and the rest of your bunch," Morgan replied with only a slight wheeze. "It’s been an honor, let’s just get some of us out of this, ok?"

"Sure thing, Skipper," the medic answered with a wave of agreement. "If anyone can get us out it’ll be you, sir."

"We got problems, Skipper," Xang interrupted. "Forward scan shows the mine head is held by hostiles, but they are under fire from inside."

"They seen us coming?"

"Think not, Skipper," Xang responded with a lilt in his voice that denoted a certain grim satisfaction. "they’re kind of busy down there."

"Okay," Morgan responded, then sent out, "fuel and ammo status, all team members."

Enough of each for a fast, dirty approach and a quick sneak attack from the rear and above. Barely, from the answers he received. "Here’s the plan guys and gals. We hit fast and hard, reach the entrance and get our singed behinds inside before the surprise wears off the bad guys. Got it?

Close ranks and let’s do it, gang," Morgan told the remnants of his team. "good luck to all of you. See you inside."

The Cheryii troops were spread loosely around the mine entrance itself and concentrating on blasting an opening through the still defended armored and defended mine entrance.

Morgan’s squad formed a compact mass of armored bodies and very active weapons that crashed through the enemy formation like a rock through old style glass. The scattered enemy put up what defense they could, but the speed and ferocity of the unexpected attack scattered them in confusion.

Fuel packs exhausted, ammunition nearly gone, the small group prepared to go hand to hand if necessary to reach the pocked and smoking mine entrance.

That wasn’t necessary. Fire from the mine itself further scattered the enemy troops and a small, but effective group of armored ground troopers swarmed out to surround the worn, but successful group that had lifted the siege. The remaining Cheryii were wiped out in seconds and Morgan’s squad breathed a collective sigh of relief.

The quiet was unnerving as an armored figure limped forward and saluted the group in general. "Thanks people, that move save our asses. Those damned Cheryii almost had us before you showed up. I’m Lieutenant JG
Curtis Shapiro, and damned glad to see you."

"Curt!" Morgan moved forward, carefully hiding the pain that moving at all caused him. "Mike Morgan here. Been a while."

"Mike," Shapiro’s voice warmed momentarily. "should have known it was you what with that insane approach. Lucky you didn’t get your tails shot off pulling that stunt, but we’re glad you risked it. Bastards would have had us by now if you hadn’t come along."

Morgan and Shapiro had taken classes together, and briefly shared accommodations at the New Terran Academy. Though in different branches of the military, the men had become friends during shared cross training and a number of outrageous pranks that had gotten them separated and nearly expelled from the prestigious institution. Both returned to the business of survival.

"Got unarmed and untrained civs below," Shapiro informed the other, and a whole shitload of wounded."

"Well, Curt," Morgan nodded. "My shuttle is toast and my copilot and weapons officer is out of the picture until she gets some good medical care.

Not to mention that we’re about out of energy and ammo," the Ensign added wryly. "We were going to fight hand to hand just to get inside with you guys."

Looking over the battered group of marines with growing respect, Shapiro grinned through his faceplate. "You’d have probably made it, too. As for ammo and fuel packs, we have plenty, just not enough functional warm bodies to use them all. Grab whatever you need.

And there is another shuttle enroute to pick us up," Shapiro finished. "Provided they have better luck than you folks did."

Morgan noted that the other officer moved very carefully and then saw the raw gash of hastily self-repaired armor across the other’s leg. "Took a bad one there, Curt."

"I can move," the other shrugged, then gave Morgan’s own ravaged armor a critical look. "I’m surprised you can at all."

"Yeah," Morgan grunted in response, working to hide his labored breathing but not doing well with the attempt. "Help me smear some mud or something over the spot, will you?"

"That needs to be seen to," Shapiro argued. "Quick."

"Too late, Curt," Morgan shrugged in his turn. "Too many stims and pain blockers in my system now. The damage is never going to be fixable, and I have no desire to be cyborged."

"I hear that they have some very human seeming artificial forms now," Shapiro pointed out.

"Yeah, sure," Morgan grinned without humor. "I can just see myself in the body of some little pleasure droid, couldn’t you?"

"They wouldn’t do that to you, Mike," the other argued. "Not with your record and potential."

"Then I’d end up as some mechanical military piece of hardware with a human brain -- a freak in anybody’s view. No thanks. I’ll just make sure you and the others get out of here cleanly, then go down with a blaze of glory. At least I’ll go out as a human and a man that way."

"Your choice, Mike," Shapiro gave up as he realized the truth of what the other had said. "Here, let me scoop some of this mud up and smear it across that gash. Maybe it’ll hide the truth for a little while."

"Thanks," Morgan gasped as the other touched the side of his torn armor and nearly passed out. "I owe you."

"Nope, the drinks will be for you from now on , pal," the other disagreed with a false grin.

"Just don’t cuss me too much,"

"Glen Feddigh, all the way, and the cussing will be good things." Shapiro answered, referring to the very expensive single malt scotch distilled only on one place and that one on Old Earth. "Nothing but the best for the guy who saved my ass down here."

"Damn, right, Curt."

Any further discussion was stopped by the familiar, and welcome roar of an approaching fighter/shuttle along with the friendly crumps of anti-personnel fire clearing its path to them.

"Your ride’s here," Morgan noted with a wan grin. "Get your people together for loading. No personals, sorry."

"Be happy enough to get off this damned rock," Shapiro agreed. "Things can be replaced."

"Good attitude," Morgan approved as he painfully moved to join the pitifully few wounded marines and troopers in either good enough shape to fight for a while, or so badly hurt that not even the advanced medical technology available to NTF troops would save them but still able to function for a short time. Those formed a protective perimeter for the civilians and those bearing lesser wounds. "Get yourself aboard that shuttle, Shapiro."

"Yeah, so long Mike," the lieutenant nodded " I’ll set a few bars on their figurative ears in your memory, once I’m topside and safe."

"Sure, Curt," Morgan grinned again while roughly pushing his friend towards the waiting shuttle. "Burn down a few barns later. Now get yourself aboard that shuttle. Otherwise, I’ve wasted this whole damned trip and hero thing."

Shapiro never saw Morgan again.

"We’re overloaded as is, Mike," the shuttle commander shook her head, not at all fooled by the mud smeared over the mid-section of the other’s combat armor. "I’ll get another shuttle sent in to pick you up right away, but that’s the best I can do."

"S’all right, Shan," Morgan nodded and turned to look at the battered assortment of troops who were staying behind. Walking dead men. They all knew it, and so did everyone else. "Just get these people out of harm’s way, along with the troops fit enough to have a chance at recovery. We’ll hold the ground until you get clear. Luck."

"Same to you, my friend," Shan replied with tears forming in her almond eyes. "May whatever gods watch over crazy sailors take good care of you."

"Get out of here, Shan," Morgan grated. "While you’re still able to lift ship without getting shot out of the air."

Retaken and captured ground emplacements held the Cheryii fighters at bay while the shuttle lifted off and screamed towards orbital velocity. The remaining ground troops held their shaky perimeter for another ten minutes before being forced to pull back to the mine head itself.

"Humans!" a weirdly beautiful, powerful voice pierced the smoke filled darkness as the lurid red sun finally set on the scene of so much bloodshed. "You have fought well and with determination. We of the Cheryii honor that, and those of you who stayed behind. Throw down your weapons and you will be well treated. We do not murder helpless prisoners, especially not those who have shown such tenacity and honor in the face of certain defeat. Continue fighting and we will regretfully kill you to the last man or woman. The choice is yours."

Morgan wearily glanced at the remaining five troopers who remained conscious enough to at least hold to their weapons. Each of those returned his regard with fatalistic shrugs and gestures to exhausted ammo packs.

"Hell, we can’t fight any more, anyway," Morgan admitted to the small group. No ammo, and none of us is in any shape for hand to hand just now. What do you folks say? One dissent and we go out fighting. Either all of us agree to surrender or all of us go down."

Members of that small, courageous group gave each other long looks, some halfway guilty, others impassive. Morgan knew none of them personally, but a non-com wearing the stripes of a Master Sergeant answered for the others.

"Hell, sir, none of us can fight any more and all of us know it. No real ammo that would have any effect on armored troops, no energy for beam weapons, and no strength to do much more than stand up if we had to. We got heart, sir, but even that runs low after awhile. I say we give it up and hope whoever that is out there is telling the truth, or at least will give us a quick end."

The others nodded in agreement, and Morgan returned the gesture. "All right. I’ll just say this once, people. It’s been a true privilege and honor to stand with you. Or sit as the case may be. Let’s toss these useless weapons out and see what happens.

All right!" he shouted into the darkness. "We’d come out if we could, but none of us is in any shape to crawl, let alone walk. Come on in and get us. We won’t stop you."

"Couldn’t if we wanted too," the sergeant quietly added. "Folks can push just so far, guys, and we’ve reached our limits."

Three of the five had died before the first cautious Cheryii troopers reached their positions. The others were barely breathing when Morgan blearily raised a hand in ironic salute to the apparent leader of the enemy, a fragile appearing male who stood no more than five foot five who nonetheless radiated strength and power.

"Dead men," that one marveled. "We have been held at by dead men while their comrades got away. Such a song this would make if only a bard was here to make it."

"Gave you a hell of a run, didn’t we?" Morgan coughed, having trouble keeping his eyes open and focused through the receding pain and gathering blanket of gray fog descending on his mind. "Wouldn’t mind hearing that song myself."

"You are the pilot, Morgan," the other knelt beside the dying human with something like compassion and pure admiration in his almond shaped emerald eyes.

"That’s me," Morgan nodded weakly, wishing the numbing fog would hurry it up and end this episode of failed human/alien relations so he could stop worrying about just drawing in a breath.

"You fought and led well, Morgan," the leader saluted him. "And refused to desert even those unable to move on their own despite your own injuries.

I am Sylvanus-A’’chddra’im of the Warrior Clan Yllar’ium and I give you the honor of one warrior to another. With something more, there is a chance that you may yet live to hear the song for the defenders of this place."

Morgan shook his head. "Too much internal damage. I’m dead already, just too stubborn to let go."

"There is a way for you and your surviving comrade to survive," Sylvanus repeated, if you agree to undergo the process that could save your lives."

"Hell, Sylvanus-A’’chddra’im of the Warrior Clan Yllar’ium," the human answered, "I don’t want to die any more than anyone else does, but don’t yank my chain over this. I’m gone and both of us know that."

"Your human self is," the Cheryii agreed. "But you could live as a Cheryii, given your agreement and a beginning of the necessary process before much more time has passed. Letting one such as yourself be lost to all races would be a crime, Morgan. Let me save you."

"A Cheyii?" Morgan questioned with more life than he had managed to show in minutes, mostly because he was incredulous. "One of you? Me?"

"Yes," the other pressed. "One of us. but alive, healthy, young, and with the endless possibilities that having been human would give you to end this carnage both our races are suffering. Will you take that chance, that opportunity?"

"Yes," Morgan breathed, mostly to get the persistent alien to leave him alone so he could die in peace. "go ahead and do whatever it is you want. I agree to whatever it is, and will abide by whatever strictures that will place on me. But I won’t fight my own people."

"A fair condition," the other chuckled in a disarmingly human manner, "Coming from one with no room to make conditions at all. But you will live, Morgana-Iey-Sylvanus-A’’chddra’im of the Warrior Clan Yllar’ium, and be a credit to both races before all is finished."

Morgan hadn’t noticed the change in his name the alien lord had used, or dismissed it as his own ears playing tricks on his mind. He sank into a restful peace of body and soul that presaged death as the alien began chanting in the oddly beautiful language of his race while a trickle of sweetish, thick liquid was poured into his mouth.



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