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Altinak C 

 

The Grand Shipyards are among the most impressive works of Lor civilization - a Dyson shell of solar panels and high-end lasers, surrounding the blue-white star and providing the fantastic energies that drive some of the largest energy-matter converters in Lor space, using material from the star's corona and what remains of its systems to build starships. The converters, massive skeletal spheres that dot the space around the star, each as large as a planet's moon, can't run independently; the Shipyards still need to import certain exotic minerals to build certain instruments of high technology like artificial gravity units and jump drives. But for the most part, the vast shape of the Shipyards, enclosing an entire star in a spidersweb of humanoid-built technology, can build a fleet all on its own. 

 

As the Horizon came out of warp in the Altinak system, it was clear a fleet was indeed being built here. Row after row of brand-new starships were in orbit of the system's few small rocky planets, a fleet-in-being as large as anything they'd seen during the war, not to mention the new ships still under construction near the converter complex closer to the vast blue bulk of the star. But the Horizon crew wasn't there for the view - they were there to meet an old friend. 

 

"Greetings, Horizon," came the military-sounding voice on the comm channel. Cavalier is waiting for you in the Grand Nauarcus's command center."

 

 

Cavalier's translator had given the Grand Nauarchus, the highest-ranking officer in the Lor Star Navy, a Mid-Atlantic accent - something that fit her short puff of bone-white hair and short stature that barely reached five feet. He could immediately see why her nickname was 'Grandmother Frankan.' She watched the holo again, the recording of the murder of a Star Knight, with a steely demeanor that belied her otherwise matronly air. "They put him down like a dog, didn't they? Barbarians," she muttered to herself before looking at Cavalier. "And you're sure these two are from your planet? That one there, with the tongue, doesn't look like any Terran I've ever seen." 

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Cavalier cringed as he watched the footage of Glort's murder play out again. He thought he was inured, given everything that had happened in the past year. He was wrong. But he tried to remain stoic in front of the Grand Nauarchus. "Humans are the predominant species on Terra," he said. "There are a number of variants on our planet, based on exposure to chemical, biological, or metaphysical elements." He was trying to get around it without having to go into "vampires and werewolves" territory; he knew that a bunch of species across the galaxy had their own strange variants, but for some of them, those variants were just as much folklore. "Some are humanoids capable to living under the ocean. Though the ones I'm aware of look more like Homo sapiens, I imagine they might have their own variants that look more like the... green female." 

 

He realized he really needed a better term for her. 

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"That planet's been nothing but trouble since First Contact." She winced and put a hand to her forehead, her pale, lined skin coloring. "Present company excepted, of course," she added with an apologetic nod and maternal smile to Cavalier. "If it was up to me, we'd have invited your people into the Republic back when we could have really helped you improve your culture. But I'll help you do everything in my power to make sure we catch those criminals before they do any more harm." She turned and studied the display again, her spine ramrod-straight beneath her uniform despite being at least a hundred years old. "The Star Navy will find a way. And your private contractors, naturally." She did not like the word mercenary.

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"Roger that, Control," Eclipse transmitted back, once she was in proper range; for about the fiftieth time, she made a mental note to ask Nae-Dae about a proper communications upgrade. She let the ship coast for a bit as the drive spun down before grabbing the controls and gently turning her ship toward their destination. "Coming in to land, weapons cold."

She hit the comms switch to end communication, purple eyes scanning the fetal ships as they passed. She wouldn't trade a single one of their shiny, newly-forged hulls for her baby's.

 


 

"Weapons cold" didn't mean "stupid", of course; even as the Alarian swept on her cloak she was pulling up the ship's security system to make sure it was appropriately paranoid. She'd been in the military for longer than she liked to admit - most of them were likely to be decent but even here she wasn't going to take chances. "C'mon, Rock, Nae-Dae," she called out, opening the main door with a hiss and stepping out onto the landing ramp. "Let's go see what the Knight and Grand Nauarchus want, and how much they're willing to pay for it."

 

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"I can't be th' only one who remembers what happened th' last time we did a favour for the crazy Terran Knight, yeh?" Nae-Dae chittered sullenly as she repositioned herself on Rock's shoulder, one of her four hands gripping the handle of her toolbox while she looked around suspiciously. "Barely made it out alive, just stuck fightin' a whole bloody war? Ring a bell, like?"

 

Getting to the bottom of the landing ramp, Rock took a moment to stretch to his full height, the uneven stones in his back popping and scraping against each other in a manner that was disconcerting for any shipwrights listening nearby but satisfying for the lumbering mercenary. Seeming much less worried than his diminutive partner, he posed the question, "Rock?"

 

The cobalt blue furred mechanic glared at him from only a few inches away from his face. "Yeh it's still a favour even if you're gettin' paid. What kinda stupid question is that? We better be gettin' paid, s'all I'm say-- Ooh, I want one of those." She was immediately distracted from her grumbling as the multitool in the hand of a passing technician caught her eye.

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Cavalier bit his tongue. This was how it often happened in dealing with alien cultures with ideas of being the most exalted leaders of the galaxy - first came the passive insults, then came the apologetic gestures where they invited you to eat with the adults, rather than at the kid's table. You just weren't supposed to ask about the portions. "We have to also assume the possibility that our fugitives were sold a bad bill of goods," he said. "The Spectrum Knights had a rather... overwhelming way of delivering the idea that they were the good guys. Then again, for all we know, the targets may have a predisposition to violence that the Knights just fed into, so --" 

 

He cut off the speculation when he saw the Horizon crew enter. He turned around and gave something between a friendly wave and an informal salute. "Good to see you again, Eclipse, Nae-Dae, Rock. I'd say this probably isn't gonna be as much of a nightmare as the last time, but that never goes well, does it." 

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The Horizon crew found themselves with a smiling young junior officer named Garrek as their escort, a fresh-faced young Lor male in a saffron uniform who promised to escort them directly to the Grand Nauarchus and the Star Knight who had summoned them with a substantial offer of reward. The Grand Shipyards were certainly bustling with activity - the crowded corridors they passed were especially impressive when you considered how large the facility itself was. "Well, this is the largest single facility left to the Star Navy," commented the young man with a combination of youthful nerves and the edge of a too-adult grief, a grief felt by tens of billions across Lor space these days. "And between the Grand Nauarchus's time mapping the Outer Rim, and her years fighting the old Khanate and the Grue, and the years she spent as commandant of the Academy, almost half of the senior officers in the fleet have served under her command at one time or another. I was on my first rotation at the helm of her flagship when Lor-Van fell." 

 

 

"Welcome, welcome," said the Grand Nauarchus with a maternal smile as she greeted the Horizon crew. "I'm Grand Nauarchus Bucklin Frankan, welcome to the Shipyards. I believe you already know Cavalier of the Star Knights?" She gestured for them all to take seats around the main conference table - there had at least been a space set aside for Rock to stand. "Before we begin, on behalf of the people of the Lor Republic and the servicebeings of the Star Navy, I want to thank you all for what you did in the war against the Communion. Your reconnaissance into the Khanate was invaluable in our intelligence-gathering on the enemy - and Captain Eclipse, my marine CO, Colonel Kavit, was at Garron-9, and he credits what you did there with saving the lives of every sentient in his squad." 

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"Thank you, though I wasn't the only one there," Eclipse noted in uncharacteristic modesty. In the presence of someone like the Grand Nauarchus, it had taken physical effort to not straighten up; apparently you could take the Alarian out of the military, but.... "Other than the fool who tried to bring a tower down on our heads, everyone pulled their weight pretty well. Doesn't hurt that I have the best damn crew in the known universe, either - or that some of your people, Knight, can apparently take down anti-aircraft towers with their bare hands. Still," she said, flashing her extra canines in a grin, "thanks. I'm bettin' you two didn't call us all the way out here for thank-yous and a pat on the back, though."

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Technically this was Cavalier's case, Cavalier's mission, Cavalier's dead comrade - but the Grand Nauarchus just kept talking. "We've called you here because of the murder of Glort Ziolon, a canid from Rassilon in the service of the Star Knight Corps." She pressed a few buttons on the central table and produced an image of a dog-faced humanoid, first posed proudly in what looked like an official holo, then reposing peacefully in death. "We believe the killers are members of the Spectrum Knight Corps, a terroristic organization that's been working to undermine recovery in the Republic for the last several months - as well as operating in secret bases among the Grue and the old Khanate."

 

She took a seat and steepled her fingers, looking around at the mercenaries. "We would like to hire your group to assist Cavalier and elements of the Star Navy in capturing these two rogues. Given the penalties for terrorism after the fall of Lor-Van, and the murder of a Star Knight, I think you'll find that for this assignment, we can match the last...what was it, three or four payments you've received on the open market?" 

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"Rooock?" Rock spoke up from the corner where he'd been quietly keeping Nae-Dae from picking up anything that looked too important. He lumbered back over to the main discussion then, stony brow furrowed.

 

The small simian on his shoulder made a wet sound. "You got a real talent for understatement, y'know that? 'Cause it sounds like some whackjobs got their hooks on Star Knight armor which ain't supposed to be possible." She knew this from multiple attempts to purchase even minor components from a functional suit on the black market to satiate her own curiosity. Only a Star Knight was supposed to be able to use a Star Knight's armor and the idea of a murderous gang cracking that security feature was not a comforting thought. "Why ain't the Knights takin' care of this themselves, like?"

 

With a low, reproachful rumble, Rock interjected, "Rrrrock." They all knew why not: there just weren't enough Star Knights left in the galaxy to meet demand. Assigning a decorated Knight and war hero with the authority to recruit additional help was enough to show how seriously the order took yet another death among their dwindling numbers.

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"Things aren't as they should be for us, either. Normally I'd send a Republic Intelligence taskforce to assist you," this would be a destroyer or two, and ground personnel to go with it, "but we've tracked their escape from the forward Spectrum Knight base and it's taken into unaligned space along the old Khanate border. Current policy renders military deployment into Khanate space inadvisable at this time. The Senate prefers to maintain peace with the new regimes." She smiled thinly and folded her hands in front of her, her opinion on that subject clear but kept perfectly professional all the same. 

 

"So how about it, Captain Eclipse?" she asked the Horizon's commanding officer, still smiling. "Can your crew handle this mission? Cavalier tells me that you're the best in the business." 

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"Aw. Flattery well get him everywhere," Eclipse assured the pair, grinning. "Pay sounds fair, for chasing down a couple murderers. I hope stolen armor doesn't work as well as the real thing, though, Knight - you might get the honor of that fun scrap, if it comes up; the rest of us aren't really equipped for an aerial engagement outside the ship."

 

She shrugged, still grinning. "Been meaning to get that jet pack. For now, though, you have any information on our targets? Pictures, known equipment and resources, special abilities or suspected training? I hate going into these things blind, and they must've been something or really lucky to do what they did."

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Sitara was trying her best to be another face in the crowd, just another jumpsuited technician working on systems. It was all carefully planned though with Grand Nauarchus knowledge, through a carefully planned chain of Intel, she was the kind of commander who knew every face in her command. Sitara had meet this commander many time before, she couldn’t help but be cautiously impressed.


She didn’t have any problems with the bounty hunters causing trouble, she’d meet many who she’d trusted with her life, but she was curious to see how they would react to this job. To be honest how all of them would react. And thing were going much as expected and that the Grand Nauarchus loved the sound of her own voice.

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"The armor has been substantially modified," said Cavalier. "Not in the sense of 'improved,' necessarily, but in the sense that these people have effectively tried to crack some of the most advanced tech in the universe, which could result in extreme output but also increased vulnerability." Which was a very complex way of saying "We don't freaking know" - the armor was still back in the depths of Citadel's labs, being worked on by techs who were trying to reverse engineer who the armor had been re-engineered. 

 

"As for our targets... both are variants of sapient species on Earth. One is adapted to life in aquatic environments, and was last seen in a modified variant of the Star Knight armor. The other is a superpowered human, capable of incredible strength and able to take one hell of a punch. As far as we can tell, they may have been brought to the planet and given the Spectrum Knights sales pitch, but they didn't drink the -- I mean, they didn't buy what was being sold. However, as the Spectrum Knights decided that false flag techniques were the best way to punctuate any sales pitch, they really aren't predisposed to trust the Star Knights." 

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At Cavalier's words, holographic images of their two targets sprang into life. 

 

The aquatic humanoid seemed to leap in front of the 'camera', screaming something that the displayed subtitles read as "No! Leave her alone, you monster! Space is full of MONSTERS!" Neglecting the double tridents she held in two long-fingered, triple-digited hands, the amphibious creature dealt out a savage kick that knocked the 'camera' (now recognizable as a Star Knight's suit recorder) backwards some half-a-dozen feet. An instant later, a blue flash showed where the Star Knight had been stabbed from behind, the vitals displays on each side of the screen suddenly and almost immediately going dark. 

 

But the camera kept running, though, giving the Eclipse crew a clear look at both the green-armored aquatic woman and the person she was protecting - a semi-conscious, battered-looking humanoid who looked very familiar indeed to Captain Eclipse. She'd seen her before, tearing apart drones with her bare hands. 

 

"As you can imagine," the Grand Nauarchus was saying, "we're very concerned about that kind of technology in the hands of unknown Terrans - especially what appears to be a Class Five clone of the woman code-named Wander. Some of our scientists believe that the modified Spectrum Knight armor allows the wielder to tap directly into the Zero Zone, putting potentially unlimited power in the hands of people with a decidedly limited view of the Galaxy and its citizens." 

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Captain Eclipse's tail curled up like a bitten snake at the video, though she seemed less concerned by the aquatic than the more normal-looking Terran. Normal-looking perhaps being the operative term.

 

Her next few words were Alarian, archaic, and difficult to translate even for technology of Cavalier's quality, but seemed to be shocked, quiet profanity having something to do with the mating habits of lizards. "....that's the one," she finally said, unconsciously moving a hand to rest on her gun. "Or a clone of her, fine. Wander's the one from the Communion tower job. She took down an anti-air tower by herself, easily. She casually bent hand prints into a drop ship hull."

 

Apparently realizing that having a hand on her gun in a room with the Grand Nauarchus probably wasn't polite, Eclipse consciously brought it up to run it through her hair, still watching the picture. "We'd better hope the clone's not as good as the real one, or we're gonna need more firepower."

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Nae-Dae shifted from one of Rock's shoulders to the other as the recording played, the contents of her toolbox clanging about noisily as they shifted. "Ttch, we really hadda watch your little snuff film, yeh? Poor bugger..." Her simian brows scrunched together as her mouth twisted into a sour expression. "See how she kicked him back onto the blade like that? @#$% vicious, is what."

 

There was a harsh grating sound as Rock shifted his considerable weight from one foot to the other. He regarded the recording ponderously, recalling what Eclipse had told them of the Terran she'd met on the Garron-9 mission. "Rock?" he inquired grimly.

 

"Oh there's a happy little though," groused Nae-Dae.

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"We're currently trying to reach Terra to confirm that it is Wander, yes," said the Grand Nauarchus without batting an eyelash at Rock. The old woman had been many, many years in space - and knew sentients quite well. "But the planet's communications systems are like something out of the Dark Ages..." she went on, shaking her head sadly. Turning, she addressed the communications technicians next to Sitara, a blonde, dark-skinned woman with a cybernetic arm and implants along one side of her face. "Rye-07, do we have a fix on them yet?" 

 

"I'm currently in binary communications with the Terran facility at the mouth of the Sol wormhole. We should have a visual real-time feed to the Lighthouse within two intervals," replied the woman cooly before going back to her work, shooting a distinct side-eye Sitara's way before reconnecting to the station's mainframe. 

 

"As far as we can tell, that version of Wander is either holding back considerably or has been depowered. Either way, she doesn't appear as formidable as the original." Frankan folded her hands and peered up at the now-frozen hologram. "Can you imagine what a young woman like that could accomplish if she were part of the Republic?" she asked idly. 

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"Speaking from experience, about half what she can get done outside of it," Captain Eclipse supplied, all smiles. "Maybe a third, if politicians get involved."

 

It was an interesting thought, though, and despite herself she inspected the hologram again, one eye dilating as a cybernetic eye zoomed in. "Still, she'd make a good crew member," she admitted, though she followed it with a shrug. "If you could get past the language thing. Pretty sure she had a translator last time; they don't seem big on learning useful languages for going off-planet. S'what you get when dealing with races that haven't hit faster-than-light yet, I guess. ....and I wouldn't want her bending up my ship. Only Rock gets to do that, eh?"

 

She shot the latter a grin. "Might want the Knight to talk to Wander - or whoever we get - when it finally comes through, at least at first. Translators aren't perfect - maybe he'll get more out of 'em than we will."

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Cavalier grimaced, holding back as he saw the death of Glart play out once more. He'd seen the footage before - several times over, as Mentor tried to parse it for emotional content, signs of duress (beyond the obvious), and other details indicating that something else may have been going on. It still didn't feel good to see it played again, so loudly - another goddamn reminder. He was surprised he hadn't fully recognized the face in the field. Wander, though... she was a powerhouse. One of the Liberty League's wrecking balls. All things considered, he said a silent prayer that the damage wasn't worse

 

"She doesn't exactly seem happy with what she's doing," he said, trying to be impartial. "Then again, most people are right before they commit murder. And that's nothing compared to how they feel once they realize they've done the act." Emphasis on "trying." "When we approach, we should try to earn their trust. That's going to be very hard earned, and they're most likely not going to buy it - but if we can get them to buy we're not mad and don't want to make them pay, we can make this go a lot easier." 

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"Wait, what?" Frankan didn't exactly raise her voice - in their conversations, Cavalier had gotten the idea that if that did happen, heads would roll. But she certainly looked very surprised as she looked at the Star Knight and asked, "So what exactly are you-" 


She was interrupted by the holographic display in the center of the table crackled to life again, replaced with the visage of the one Terran most Lor could identify by sight - Daedalus, the autodidactic genius from the backwater world who had personally repulsed one of the Star-Khan's deadlier invasions of the Republic some decades earlier. Of course, one could ask if he had done enough, given what had happened to so many billions in the decades since. 

 

"Greetings, Grand Nauarchus and guests," said Daedalus. His transmission was patchy and his voice on a noticeable delay from the movement of his mouth - Terra really _was_ a backwater, even with a wormhole connection to the rest of the Galaxy. "I am here with Wander." Daedalus seemed to step away from the imager, then, and his holographic form was replaced by a familiar face. 

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Sitara had watched the recording almost as many time as Cavalier trying to find anything that could be of any use, especially as she’d missed the actual incident itself. Though she was Terran herself she’d been away from Earth for so many millennia that things still alien to her eyes, and whilst she’d remembered the old tales of those living in the ocean she’d never travelled far enough to see the ocean let alone meet its inhabitants. She was trying to learn about Earth as it was now, even having Cavalier teach her one of the planet’s main languages, but it wasn’t enough to be of any help right now.

 

 

Technology however was something she did understand, especially Lor technology that she’d struggles for almost a year to get to integrated with Delaztri technology. With everyone’s attention on the view screen she slid beside the clone technician and whispered into her ear.

 

“You're in luck I just happen to have contact with the Lighthouse before, it’s a long complicated story that I’ll happily share with you later. The Terran’s technology is fairly primitive and only uses a narrow range of bandwidth compared to Lor technology. If you narrow down to just these frequences.” she gestured at the panel, not wanting to interfere with Rye-07’s work “Should allow you to boost the power of the signal and maybe even allow bandwidth for some pre-processing to clean things up.”


She watched the technician work ready to fade back into the background once it was done, happen to allow the Lor technician to take all the credit.

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Wander appeared on the viewscreen after a moment of shuffling around, and immediately pinned each of the sentients on the other side of the screen with a piercing scrutiny. Her hair was the same auburn color that her former allies remembered, and she looked as tense and competent as ever, a marked contrast to the distraction and fear of the yellow-haired version. "Daedelus says you have news about Singularity," she began with no preamble. "Were you able to rescue her? Is she safe?" She continued looking into the screen as though she could make someone else appear by sheer force of will. "Is Aquaria with her?" 

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"We're still trying to identify exactly what we've seen," said the Grand Nauarchus smoothly. Erin saw the white-haired woman press a button on the console in front of her and suddenly another hologram appeared on her end of things - it was evident back in the Shipyards that the Lor hadn't bothered to filter the message Erin was seeing. 

 

The aquatic humanoid seemed to leap in front of the 'camera', screaming something that the displayed subtitles read as "No! Leave her alone, you monster! Space is full of MONSTERS!" Neglecting the double tridents she held in two long-fingered, triple-digited hands, the amphibious creature dealt out a savage kick that knocked the 'camera' backwards some half-a-dozen feet. An instant later, a blue flash seared the image almost dark, the displays on each side of the screen suddenly and almost immediately flat-lining. But the camera kept running, though, giving Wander a clear look at both the green-armored aquatic woman and the person she was protecting - a semi-conscious, battered-looking humanoid who looked very familiar indeed. 

 

"These are the two individuals that our agents encountered near the edge of the Galaxy," said the admiral, speaking slowly and clearly and using non-technical terms for the primitive. "Do they look familiar to you?" 

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See, this? This is what I meant about approaching from a place of understanding. Because, really, I may not know much about Wander, but I know what her double did out there. Do you really want both of them to be anxious and thinking of vengeance? But no, please. Let's lead with footage of the frog-woman - Aquaria, apparently, who seems to be in tight with the Wander clone and known fairly well to the actual Wander - killing a guy. This is a great plan. I'm going to enshrine it right next to the lessons of Alexander the Great.

 

This was what Cavalier would have said if he'd grown tired of keeping his tongue attached to his skull. Instead, he stepped back, watching the Grand Nauarchus open like she was talking to a kindergartener with a taste for snuff films. He just wondered how bad this might go - and how many times he'd have to watch that footage. 

 

Until it's done. Until these two are taken care of. And until the damn bastards behind this are utterly dismantled. 

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