January 16, 2000
Category: Original/Science Fiction
Author: Lledrith RavenWolf

[Disclaimer]

A Game of Battleships

Prologue
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Epilogue


Prologue

Note: For terran reading pleasure, the following excerpt from History of the Second Millenium has been translated into terran and crucial measurements such as time and distance roughly converted into terran.

2001 C.B., Year Epsilon Pegasi. The Council of Thirteen, leaders of the Dark Elf Empire, Planet Nyrachae-Brenith, officially recognized a crucial fact in the continued perpetuation of their race.

Due to the serious Space-Time (ST) fluctuations brought about in 1984, Year Zeta Unicorna, in the Great Wars from the use of the horrifyingly powerful new Sirius-Alpha bomb, the drow have been affected adversely through the contamination of the planet.

Slowly the souls of all elves on the planet were leached away to a mere shell. Scientific explanation for this phenomenon was confused and conflicting, until finally tenuously agreeing that the fluctuations had opened Gamma-type subspace portal to another dimension that overlapped theirs, sucking the souls of the so-called sentient creatures inside until the barest minimum required to actually keep the body going.

The gold elves died out in a horrifying sixty years, their lands on the Epiraeth continent abandoned wasteland. The green elves did so in a hundred, their final stubborn hold on the Kirath continent absolved.

The dark elves, through some luck of genetics, continued to survive somewhat as the leaching was not as severe on them, though with terrible casualties.

This leaching produced an unbearable hunger and emptiness in all elves older than the age of fifteen that slowly killed them off. Frantic scientific and spiritual research yielded no way to close the portal.

Finding themselves the last species of elves on the planet would have been welcome several years ago, but now any thought of military conquest was halted to try and save the species.

Slowly the dimension began killing off the life forms on the planet by sucking in their souls as well. It is not known what is the purpose of this parasitic dimension in taking such an immaterialistic source, and speculations have been theories at best.

The life-expectation dropped from nine hundred years to fifteen in what seemed over a night, and riots and brutal crimes rose in number across the territories of the Dark Elf Empire. It spanned the entire planet save that of the formerly impenetrable and unstable Carteran continent, and the two Polar Regions.

A dying, brilliant dark elf scientist constructed with a group of desperate colleagues a ST strobe that sent a message for help in the universal language of mathematics, spanning on a radius of a hundred thousand light years. Doing so drained several fusion-refineries and shorted out the nearest city, Mirach-Tyreth, that was seventeen che-li away (Universal code: one che-li = 10 kilometers). Nyrachae-Brenith was in an isolated galaxy, and ventures into space had only reached the perimeter of two thousand light years. Many space-programs had been stopped as the money was channeled into research to try and save the race.

The government of Mirach-Tyreth pressed charges against the freelance scientists, but Council of Thirteen delayed hearings in hope that someone may have heard - and could answer - the summons.

2131 C.B., Year Gamma-Chimera. An answering though weaker strobe returned the following, terse and controversial message that nonetheless galvanized planet-wide frenzied celebration in the pitiful remains of a once great Empire:

Greetings from Planet Earth to Planet Nyrachae-Brenith. We have located your position and will send a scouting team on the craft Athena-135B, under Admiral Thomas Harrison. Scientific research into the matter of 'souls' has generated a surety that we can regenerate our souls, and we may be able to help as scientists have also discovered a way to 'transfer' part of the souls. This team will look up your situation and determine what we may have to do and whether the device for soul-transfer works on your race. Athena-135B will be expected to be in your galaxy in at least three months if god wills.

Enclosed also were maps on how to find this 'Earth', and also pictures of the Earth-creatures, that were presumably taller and elf-like except with strange colored skin, hair, and ears that were not pointed.

The next three months were spent in tension. Elves planet-wide clamored for positions to try this 'soul-transfer' first, and bogus agreements were set up.

Then there were only three true cities left with only a thousand 'outsiders', or non-city elves. The largest of the cities, Kyraen-Kirath, now only had two million elves of a billion during the Great Wars, while the rest had less than a million each.

The current Council of Thirteen finally took all fake rights and such away, setting up diplomatic immunity to 'Earth' creatures.

The world held its breath when an unknown craft was detected several million che-li away from Nyrachae-Brenith and approaching. It had used a crude version of a subspace non-dimensional portal, showing that these 'Earth creatures', or Homo Sapiens as they called themselves, were technologically inferior to the dark elves. Also, the craft looked like a vague prototype of a 1872 C.B. design.

The craft entered a comfortable orbit and started communications with Nyrachae-Brenith. It was agreed that it would be easier if Nyrachae-Brenith were to send an unarmed spacecraft to pick up the Homo Sapiens, as the technology was higher. This was done.

Homo Sapiens were recorded to be 'stunned' by the simple spacecraft S'Raun-type 897, commenting excitedly on the directional capacities and the guiding systems. They were also 'surprised' by the appearance of the dark elves, as Homo Sapiens resembled the premier race of Nyrachae-Brenith closely.

Homo Sapiens, or 'terran' as they were apparently informally called, had already set up networks with other 'aliens', as they called non-Earth species, and enjoyed trade with some and suffered war with others. This Nyrachae-Brenith had not done so, due to their problems and their isolation.

The terrans, aided by the most advanced dark elf communication system, established a link to Planet Earth, surprising several of the Earth leaders. Apparently Planet Earth was still dominated by terrans, being the home planet, and they being the only intelligent sentient species that had evolved on their planet.

Negotiations were reached with the desperate Council when it was found that this 'soul-transfer' worked, and the souls of the terrans could indeed regenerate quickly over the span of a day. The dark elves needed this source, and they agreed nearly to 'everything', as a terran later put it.

The negotiations took a remarkably short time, and while that happened Earth agreed to Nyrachae-Brenith crafts to use their advanced subspace portals and ferry the remaining elves there. None of the elves were above fifteen now, not even the Council, while more Earth representatives would come to the advanced Nyrachae-Brenith to research on the problem at hand first and refine it.

2598 C.B., Alpha-Centauri. A final settlement reached and signed. The elves slowly began to thrive. Painstaking research found that terrans of age six regenerated best and took the transfer better. Transfer devices had also been refined.

However, for this the elves paid a heavy price. They were no more than creatures totally dependent on the terrans for help, as it turned out that terrans were the only creatures found that could 'regenerate'. The average dark elf was more intelligent and more dexterous, superior in many ways to the terrans. And the terrans had a surprisingly short life span of about ninety years.

Still, the elves had to pay. All scientists and such worked under the terrans, and the others trained for space fighting. The terrans were fighting a large space war with the Galactic Niran-Kadesh Alliance (GNKA). The Niran and Kadesh alien races were winning in several areas as they had more planets under their control than the terrans. The terrans formed an alliance with the faintly 'bug-like' Bulacan race, forming the Interstellar Terran-Bulacan Coalition (ITBC). Other alien races either stayed out wisely or played with either side for their own benefits. Though Bulacan technology helped, it was still inferior to the GNKA. Until the dark elves came in.

Dark elf technology and brains were to be focused on space warfare. Earth copied out the safer fusion-refineries as well as in most other areas.

Dark elves were shipped out in standard groups that grew slightly larger over the years to space in the new Colossus-type destroyer-size crafts with one six-year child to each. On the beginning of each new year they would be taken to the nearest cruiser, which was large enough to hold a whole town-city (several thousand) and link to another six-year child in a grand ceremony.

The system was modified into the system today.


Part 1

"2599, Year Beta-Centauri. The parasitic Dimension, known officially as the Eurystheus-01A, was discovered to have somehow 'attuned' itself to all dark elves and creatures whose home planet was Nyrachae-Brenith even when the creatures are millions of light-years away. Dark elves have grown more and more dependent on 'soul-transfer' as their souls are leached away every moment, such that each day an hour or so of this 'soul-transfer' with their linked and designated six-year child must commence or the elf would be subject to great mental and physical agony. This has become the last-resort punishment for elves, the withdrawal of one day of 'soul-transfer', enough to break the strongest will."

--Excerpt from History of the Second Millenium.

Jamie sat down on the stool, legs dangling into the air as she fumbled with the folds in her dress. Occasionally she would look up to regard the figure seated on the bed in the small room.

Tall and handsome, long white hair tied into a simple tail, wearing the formal red and silver Dark elf Regimental Officer of War (DROW) costume, Jamie's link-mate cut an impressive figure. Lieutenant Karyefein, Callsign Red Baron, 105th Kestrel Regiment lived up to his name by holding the record for most ships downed in dogfights for ten consecutive years, though there were other... reasons why his rank had not progressed as quickly.

"Have you finished?" Jamie asked again, "I think there's fifteen minutes left."

Karyefein looked up and smiled affectionately at Jamie. The child wasn't very bright to be sure, but she had an innocent charm. "Fifteen minutes it is," he said comfortingly. At least for this ceremony medals were not required, only the markings of rank. Karyefein pinned on the two small plain gold stars of a lieutenant onto his uniform, then bent down fluidly to lace up his black boots.

Jamie watched him impatiently, then her fingers accidentally brushed against the metallic, complicated bracelet on her wrist. Karyefein winced.

"Oh!" Jamie's hand flew to her mouth, "I'm sorry! I forgot to remove it just now." The child hastily remedied that, putting the bracelet in the pocket of her formal, small dress for safekeeping.

Karyefein nodded, his hand fingering the cold metal headband on his forehead whose pattern matched the one on Jamie's wrist. The soul-transfer device, created in such a way that until the ceremony the elf could only transfer from the designated child and only at the child's will, and only in certain places - the dark elf dormitory being one of them.

When Jamie willingly touched the bracelet, she had sent a bit of her 'soul' over to Karyefein, a disconcerting experience when one was not expecting it.

The elf stood up finally, and Jamie held out her hands. Karyefein carefully picked her up and balanced her in the crook of his arm while he stood in front of the doors and waited for them to slide open with a small hiss of air, then walked out to join the trail of dark elves holding their six-years towards the exit platforms.

"Did you remember what platform it was?" Karyefein asked. He knew perfectly well, but Jamie did like to answer questions.

She grinned happily at him. "Platform Delta, silly! And you'd be escorting! Isn't this just Draynark?"

Karyefein barely flinched at her mispronunciation of the dark elf word Drenarych, which approximately meant marvelous. "Oh yes," he said. All dark elves were expected to have as good a grasp of the human tongue as their normal tongue, but few humans bothered to learn dark elf. Jamie was, however, curious.

"Greetings, Kar," An ensign he knew as Maryenae walked up beside him, cradling the sleeping form of her six-year link, a boy known as Michel. Her smile was faintly strained.

"Hello Mary!" Jamie exclaimed, Maryenae winced slightly at the shortening of her name. "How're you?"

"Fine, thank you Jamie," Maryenae said, then looked at Karyefein. "Are you flying?"

"What do you think?" Karyefein inquired mischievously.

Maryenae rolled her eyes. "Ah yes. Red Baron."

"Thank you," Karyefein said. "Are you?"

"Kappa wing." Maryenae said proudly. "First escort flight."

"Have fun," Karyefein said dubiously. "Frankly, I ha - that is, seriously dislike escort flights. You never get to have any fun."

"The less fun the better," Maryenae said meaningfully, then remembered something. "Sir."

Kar grinned. He was new to the Lieutenant rank, so hardly anyone remembered. "That's ok, ensign. Have the replacements come yet?"

"Yes," Maryenae said, "Last night from Poseidon. Mostly Bulacans."

Kar nodded absently. While the elves had to go to the cruisers for the annual ceremony, the base had to be defended. Especially this one.

***

Delta platform had been cleared, with the passenger craft Prometheus-type 139N prominently on the main boarding platform near the entrance. Kar handed Jamie over to the terran officer in charge, and waited till she was seated before waving to her and walking off.

The platform was crowded with DROW and non-DROW elves alike, with their six-years. The Prometheus would hold a hundred or so of the six-years along with those elves that were not flying and the personnel, a total of two hundred and ten passengers.

Kar squeezed his way over in the cavernous, long Delta platform. The other end that led out to space was a complicated affair of rails and lights, but from his angle looked like there was a large hole in the wall with no barrier to the deadly atmosphere of space.

It was dark elf craftsmanship - no need to bother with metal parts and such. There was a thick adaptation of a force field that covered the wall, generated by tiny, black squares on the sides and the top.

Kar didn't claim to understand it, but it was useful. Merging seamlessly onto any exiting plane like someone poking a finger through a film of soap bubble, it didn't allow any foreign particles to come in. When a ship flew in to land and passed through the field, any foreign particles would be killed off immediately.

Kar walked quickly to the four Pegasus-type crafts in neat wedge formation of Delta wing. Other DROW Delta members were already giving their crafts a last minute inspection.

The Pegasus craft was distinctly unappealing to the eye. In deep shades of blue and black and gray, it looked no more like a dour, evil-looking bird.

Its nose was a blunt point tipped with a sharp metal rod, body shaped vaguely like Planet Earth's Jet-fighters developed after their World War, wings that tapered off into sharp points, two large missile banks like twin elongated huge gray tubes that sandwiched the sleek body. A fin like that of a long extinct Earth-creature known as a shark sat on the rear portion of the craft near the three jets.

Smaller jets on top and under of both ends of the winds, and at the nose could turn on in a millionth of a second, allowing the Pegasus incredible, precise maneuverability.

For example if the pilot wanted to 'roll' the Pegasus to the right, the smaller jet on the bottom left wing would turn on, and at the same time the top jet on the right wing would also switch on, pushing the craft into a roll.

The Pegasus could only be flown by DROW with lightning quick reflexes, even for DROW. It could carry a reasonable amount of ammunition, and a surprising amount of fuel. Those could fly the Pegasus normally accorded high rank, as the ten levels of qualifying for a license were incredibly strict and painstaking.

This was also due to the fact that Pegasus crafts had the most sensitive trigger-stick equipment, and the flyer had to be able to automatically judge by how much to move the stick and such for the craft to fly as he (or she) wanted, or it could easily go out of control.

Pegasus was considered an intercept - its maneuverability mostly to 'intercept' and destroy oncoming enemy warheads before they hit friendly ships, an often-suicidal endeavor, and also to destroy the powerful turrets and other artillery on enemy destroyers or larger ships.

Delta Wing consisted of Pegasus intercepts, Hercules bombers, and the standard Theseus fighters.

Karyefein took a deep breath, and climbed up to settle in the cockpit, the cover sliding back over his head and in front of him firmly. He pulled the helmet over his head, and heard the small hiss as air began to fill the cramped chamber.

He took another deep breath and pulled down the visor.

The view fuzzed, then flickered on. The small complicated white square that seemed to be on the glass of the cockpit's cover, along with a small icon of his craft on the bottom, that seemed to be surrounded by a thick, white egg-shaped casing separated into four sections, that represented his shields. Currently they were full on.

Words seemed to appear on the top right hand corner, with the three other Pegasus crafts in Delta wing that were under his control, and the percentage left of their shields. He checked that they were at a full one hundred, then turned his attention to the rectangle under the words, of which there was a small model of the Prometheus he was escorting, and the percentage of its shields.

There was another larger rectangle on the left corner that he hoped would not be filled this trip - the systems allowed the craft to 'target' specially on one enemy craft. Sensors would transmit the model of it into the box, and the approximation of the shields, and the name and sometimes even the number if he was close enough.

The rectangle on top of that was for any terse written messages that could come from Command. Another rectangle at the bottom right showed the names of his weaponry for the flight and where applicable how many were left.

All the images were a type of virtual reality interposed with 'reality', allowing the pilot a visual guide to what was happening, and still allowing him a full view of everything.

There was a crackle as the communications equipment turned on and locked to all the crafts. DROW Vice-Admiral Gyranlar was heading Delta Wing, though the Wing was split into the three craft types with different leaders and his customary precise tones floated out as if he were standing right next to Karyefein.

"Ready for take off, sir," he said.

The terran Admiral-Gen. Borchardt, Head of the Destroyer they were on, replied, "Very well. Three... two... one. Admiral."

There was the bare sound of a whoosh and a flare of intense blue flame in front, and a lone Theseus craft rose vertically and launched forward, passing neatly through the force field.

Borchardt waited until the Admirals of all the Wings were a standard two hundred meters away and ascending from the platforms, then said, "Theseus."

The Theseus team rose together and neatly and flew out of the shield, following the Delta Vice-Admiral into position.

"Hercules," Borchardt said. The bombers were slow and plodding, but they had the heaviest shields and 'armor', and carried the most deadly weapons. However, they were also usually the first to go down during any dogfights that might ensue. The team rose ponderously into the air and flew out after the Theseus team.

Karyefein got a tighter grip on his trigger. After what seemed an indeterminable period of time Borchardt finally said, "Pegasus."

His hand went with the ease of practise onto the vertical launch button, and maintained pressure on it until the plane was at the correct height, then turned on the main jets. He passed through the shield without looking back to see if his team had followed, and moved into position safely in space, turning off his launch jets.

"Prometheus," Borchardt said, and he nearly jumped at the voice. He waited until the large craft moved into vision underneath his team, waited until it was at a safe distance of three hundred below, then turned up his engines to the comfortable flying speed.

Only then did he look out hungrily over the vast expanse of space. Behind him was the Destroyer he had been on for the past few years. Vaguely now he remembered the name - Athens.

***

Destroyer-type Athens was one of the more famous destroyers. It was in one of the more unstable political territories, the Helios node, which also housed a lot of pirate activity. The galaxy housed many nebulas and planets that provided a rich source of fuel, and so was hotly contested. Athens was ITBC's main representative.

It was famous in that of ten of the DROW, terran or Bulacan fighters who went there, only about five would survive. Athens had the most DROW, and also the highest DROW casualty rate.

"Going to Athens" was seen both as a chance for honor in battle, or as certain death. Many who were posted to Athens would receive the congratulation of their families. Their families would be proud of them, then when they left, would speak of them as if they were dead. It made it easier.

The ITBC ST permanent portals could not be seen visually or otherwise on enemy radar, but on friendly screens was outlined in complex structures of green lines. It was also triggered for friendly crafts only, and was considered impossible to destroy, such that to "destroy a portal" was to do something impossible.

In such a manner, portals were not needed to be guarded, and were usually located in areas with the greatest ST fluctuations, considered unsafe to set up base for more than a few months. This was why an escort was required, as the Prometheus was to travel through much of space towards the portal, through 'neutral' territory.

Neutral territory was the worst territory of all - home of bandits and pirates, and sometimes even enemy ships. Enemy territory would only house enemy ships, and friendly territory friendly ships, but neutral was unknown, and therefore the most feared.

Grimly, the Prometheus forged on, the escorts falling into standard protective formation.


Part 2

"Ranks are given to DROW personnel that were similar to Terran fighters, though less complicated. As many as a third of the small dark elf population in the universe are more suited to science work, after all. Most DROW are ensigns for most of their lives, the lowest rank other than a trainee. After ensign would be Corporal, then Lieutenant, then Commander, then Captain, then Commodore, Rear Admiral, Vice-Admiral, and finally Admiral. Symbolically, there are only thirteen full Admiral DROW which make up the Council of Thirteen, and all live in cruiser-type crafts. DROW could also be awarded service medals as seen fit by the ITBC."

--Excerpt from History of the Second Millenium.

Karyefein shifted uncomfortably in his seat. The formal uniform was sturdy but certainly more uncomfortable compared to the light, flexible kevlar-Nyranium standard DROW fighting uniform.

Nyranium was a comparatively new type of metal that had been an alloy of an Earth metal known as titanium and a Nyrachae-Brenith metal known as Nyranvaen. It was as flexible and as soft as leather, but could stop a fired slug or deflect a laser beam. And what was more important, Nyranvaen could absorb dangerous radiation like Gamma radiation like an Earth metal known as lead. However, for lead six inches of it was necessary, while only a mere millimeter of Nyranvaen was necessary. However, Nyranvaen was incredibly dense and heavy.

An alloy of light titanium and heavy Nyranvaen created a metal of acceptable weight and also with the benefits of true Nyranvaen. Light surcoats were usually worn over them to show the regiment colors and rank.

In the case of all the escorts, the formal uniform, a stiff-shouldered, suit-like, starched affair, was worn over the kevlar-Nyranium uniform for practical purposes. Karyefein decided that his uniform was definitely feeling a little tight around the shoulders, and shifted again.

The seat was designed to mold onto his body for comfort and also in the case of emergency, to absorb shock. Karyefein forced himself to relax and diverted his attention between the stats of Prometheus, Pegasus team, and his radar system.

"We have reached the asteroid belt," Vice-Admiral Gyranlar announced.

"Prometheus 139N, cut engines," Admiral Borchardt's voice commanded. Karyefein pulled the stick of the trigger towards him carefully, and the Pegasus rose upwards into position, the rest of the Pegasus team spreading out protectively while the Hercules fighters stayed slightly behind Prometheus, and Theseus staying close to both the bombers and the main plane.

Karyefein felt a small stab of pride. Prometheus 139N was first!

"This is not a race, sir," Corporal Hielnae, second Pegasus-team flyer, commented, and he realized guiltily that he had spoken aloud. At least he had left his two-way link only with his own team.

"I realize that," Karyefein said, belatedly trying to keep the snap from his voice.

There was a chuckle from the fourth Pegasus-team flyer, Nimaeral. "We're all under tension," he said good-naturedly, "Relax, sir."

"Relax, Nimaeral?" Tiernarxle asked, "In neutral territory? You must be... how do they put it? Ah yes. Kidding me."

"Shut up, the lot of you," Karyefein said, "Here come the rest."

His radar picked up blips in green, friendly ships. One drew more or less level with them. Turning his head, he could just make out the lights of Prometheus 140N, Epsilon Wing.

"Prometheus 140N, cut engines," Admiral Borchardt's said.

Karyefein mentally counted all the names until the tenth and last turned up. The Prometheus-type crafts moved closer together, and the other teams spread out as evenly as possible around.

"Herewegoherewegoherewego," Nimaeral crowed as the Prometheus-type crafts started forward. The Pegasus-team flyer was the youngest in the team, and this was also his first major escort-flight.

"I said, shut up," Karyefein called. Pegasus flyers were usually more relaxed and closer to other Pegasus-class flyers than the rest. Perhaps it had something to do with their survival rate, which was also lower than the rest. To fly a Pegasus was an honor, and also a large suicide note. More often than not exploded warheads took the Pegasus that had shot at it out with them.

Instead of taking offense as Theseus flyers would have if he spoke so to them, Tiernarxle laughed and Hielnae let out an unwilling chuckle.

"Your wish is my... my..." Tiernarxle groped for the terran phrase.

"Command, I believe," Nimaeral said cheerfully. "Sir."

"A good Pegasus flyer does not go 'herewegoherewegoherewego'," Karyefein said severely, "A good Pegasus flyer does not quote odd terran sayings at every turn."

"And a good Pegasus leader does not nag like a mother hen, sir." Hielnae commented solemnly. Tiernarxle burst into a fresh peal of laughter, but he kept his craft as straight as the others.

"I nag less, the lot of you bug me less?" Karyefein asked hopefully.

"What if we bug each other, sir?" Tiernarxle asked.

"That bugs me too," Karyefein admitted.

"Well, too bad, sir." Hielnae said.

"We have passed the asteroid belt, and are picking up speed," DROW Vice-Admiral Verlaren of Prometheus 136N, Alpha Wing, announced suddenly as they left the dim brownish, floating blocks of stone.

"Proceed with caution," Admiral Borchardt said.

***

Terran Vice-Admiral Matthew Thomas had a faint sheen of perspiration even in the cool air-conditioned Command room, and nervously twiddled with the buttons on his coat.

"Nerves, Thomas?" Borchardt asked, suddenly turning around from the microphone device and allowing a small smile of sympathy.

"Yes sir," Thomas grasped at the explanation gratefully. He was new to his post, after all. He decided to make a pertinent contribution as Borchardt switched off the comm-link for the time being. "Is it like this every year, sir?"

"Yes," Borchardt sighed. "Every year since I first became Admiral six years ago. Every year my heart feels like it's been put through the wringer than dumped into my boots at the end, then I have to go through it again after the ceremony and when they come back here."

There was a pause as the Vice-Admiral and the Rear Admiral absorbed this new emotion from the normally robot-like Admiral.

"Yes sir," Bulacan Rear Admiral Calca said at last. Calca, like the rest of his race, had very large, terran-like eyes and a slightly bulbous forehead, and a chalky colored skin with the fine scales of a terran gecko. Bulacan color ranged from gray to blue to orange and even a light green. Thomas looked at the creature.

Calca, a male, had the ivory tusks sticking downwards from the upper jaw of the mouth, a thing of vanity like some terran females had for their hair. The mouth was elongated and squarish like that of a 'Tyrannosaurus Rex', a creature that had once lived on Earth, with the sensitive nose above it. Bulacans were about the size of a terran, though with wider shoulders, and their bodies tapered down.

They had two sets of hands, the pair at the shoulders with beefy palms and immense strength, and the lower set around the ribs more delicate and fragile and dexterous. The bones of a Bulacan were slightly hollow to be lighter, and therefore more easily snapped than human bones.

The two legs were strong and muscular with three toes in front and one at the back, allowing them to run and jump better than any terran. A tail balanced off a Bulacan neatly, though rather stiff with ossified tendons, that also strongly resembled a 'dinosaur' tail.

In fact, Bulacans were simply called 'Bug-like' in the face of the evidence because of their large eyes and six limbs. Most Bulacans were garrulous though good-natured even though they were designed to be carnivores, but again, most Bulacans were fighters. What few Bulacan scientists still had better technology than terrans when they started because the Bulacans had existed much longer than terrans had.

Bulacans identified with terran Norse Mythology, and enjoyed calling their crafts and such after names in the myths. For the sake of terrans who had very limited vocal ability, they gave each other pronounceable, short nicknames, using their full names only in ceremonies.

There were several Bulacan Admirals, and always the exact same number of Terran Admirals. Equality, of course. Bulacan-Terran relationships had become slightly vague of late, though still not strained.

"Good," Admiral Borchardt said.

Vice-Admiral Thomas forced himself to stop worrying. He knew he shouldn't have let in that stranger to his office months ago, and knew he shouldn't have tried the 'relaxing tea' that the stranger had brought. But how was he to know?

The tea had the Kadesh Dreams drug, which gave the drugged being a dream of his fondest desire until it wore off. eedless to say, the drug was incredibly addictive and outlawed in all ITBC territories and several other neutral territories.

The lectures always taught to say 'no', and made it sound that dropping the addiction was perfectly easy so long as one had the will.

Thomas had never had the chance to say no. When he'd woken up, he knew he had been hooked. He just prayed devoutly now that the stranger would keep his promise - wherever he was and what he was doing.

"Has Athens ever been attacked during a ceremony, sir?" Calca asked.

Borchardt frowned. "Why, yes," he admitted, "But Bulacan and Terran fighters take turns each year to guard during the ceremony. And it's only for one day, after all. Don't worry, Rear Admiral - Athens at least is fully prepared. It's the Prometheus-type crafts that I'm worrying about - all those children."

Thomas hoped the sickly feeling in his stomach wasn't mirrored on his face. "And the dark elves, sir." He said.

Borchardt blinked. "Them as well," he added, though as if with an afterthought. Borchardt had not been linked when he was a six-year, as his parents were rich. Linkers were usually poorer families who needed or wanted the money, and those children who went to Athens were from the poorest of all. Also, a link usually had some higher... status, especially if linked to a high-ranking DROW. The system was rather complicated, and Thomas, also one who had not linked, didn't want to understand it.

"Twelve of the best DROW fighters a Wing with ten Wings, sir?" Calca asked, "That's enough to take down a cruiser, sir."

"Let's hope it doesn't come to a cruiser," Borchardt growled, his eyes fixed on the radar screens. "Let's hope it doesn't come to anything, but that's too optimistic."

"Optimistic, sir?" Thomas asked, voice nearly a squeak.

"Here in Athens," Borchardt said, apparently not listening, "Something always happens, Vice-Admiral. Something always does. Which is why we always take a different route each year. We can only pray that nothing serious happens this year."

The Vice-Admiral and the Rear Admiral were both silent. Athens had lost more than its fair share of Prometheus-type crafts before, and then again when they returned from the cruiser they usually went to.

Thomas merely swallowed.

**

The clock struck Universal ST 5:30 p.m. Throughout Destroyer Athens, hundreds upon hundreds quietly put down what they were doing and excused themselves. Quietly and innocently so as not to draw much attention.

ST 5:50 p.m. A lone Bulacan fighter walking out from the briefing center rounded a corner to go to the restroom, and paused, instincts telling him something was wrong. The doors slid open from the mess hall suddenly, and a hand went for his gun.

He nearly spilled the contents of his stomach. Inside the mess hall was a grisly vista of blood and gore, eviscerated remains of both humans and Bulacans alike in horrid heaps on the ground, the tables, and the chairs...

The fighter was not stupid. He backed away silently to the nearest alarm-case instead of going alone to investigate.

Two red and black creatures suddenly dropped down from the ceiling of the mess hall and noticed him. Nirans, spider like on six gecko-like legs with the suction pads, two 'hands' on their backs that could rotate nearly 360 degrees like an owl's head, their heads with a remarkable resemblance to an Earth-dolphin. They reacted immediately, throwing some metal sparkly things at him.

Loosing a standard laser gun in Athens would have set off all the sensors and triggered an alarm. But metal...metal didn't set off anything. They really were very smart.

One went through his throat, the other, as he twisted, through his lung. The Bulacan sprang for the case, mouth filling up with blood, eyes a red mist... he smashed it in with one muscular hand, impacting the large button then collapsed with a smile on his expressive Bulacan features as the darkness came, a darkness punctuated with the shrill shrieks of alarms.


Part 3

"The GNKA has been a well-nigh impossible organization to penetrate. Originally a small faction of Niran and Kadesh bandits, it has formed over time to the strongest opposing faction of the ITBC. With Niran force and Kadesh brains, the alliance has been broken at times but always patched up quickly, as the two races worked rather well together. The Niran home planet is the well-known Bukran (Book-REN)-Nira of the Nira galaxy, and the Kadesh home planet is Kadnykxa (KA-DH-nee-XA). Kadesh money is mostly made from mines and resources and of course their notorious drugs. Niran money is made from the slave trades and tithes from subordinate planets."

--Excerpt from the History of the Second Millenium.

"What the hell is that?" Borchardt demanded, when the shrill squeals of alarms sprang up. "What the hell is happening?"

"There are no enemy ships on the radar or on the visual, sir!" one of the personnel on the complicated rack of equipment and scanning devices said.

"Then give me a visual on the base! Inside the base, idiot!" Borchardt lost his tenuous grip on civility during an emergency, but underneath it he kept his head, proven as he grabbed the communication base-link and switced it on. "All available personnel are to..."

The doors slid open, and he whirled. "Wha...?"

Calca watched in horror as a laser gun blasted a large hole in the admiral's chest, and the terran crumpled. He fumbled for his gun, but froze when he looked up to see the business end of Thomas'.

"Drop your gun, Rear Admiral," Thomas said shakily.

Calca looked at the intruders. "Those are Nirans, Vice-Admiral! I can smell them! What are you doing?"

"I said. Drop. The. Gun." Thomas said quietly. Calca did so, and the gun clattered on the floor.

The terrans that had come into the room walked stiffly, then the first one seemed to reach under his face. The others compied the motion, and with a wet clank, the bodies fuzzed and formed into that of a Niran.

"Useful device, Rear Admiral Calca," Thomas said shakily to Calca, "New from GNKA - body-recall, I believe it is called. Tricks our minds to see superimposed images set onto our retinas. But apparently does not work on smell."

The closest Niran scuttled up to Calca and raised itself onto its hind legs. The light shone off its exoskeleton. It looked at Thomas with its dolphin-like face, which usually looked faintly ludicrous due to the permanent grin but now looked frightening.

"Good work, Acting-Admiral Thomas," the creature said in a rasping, rattling voice as if there was something permanently obstructing its throat. "Now, Rear Admiral Calca..."

The Niran swung out with its top claw when Calca suddenly sprang with a primal growl in his throat; large jaws snapping open to show the dagger-like teeth. The claw sliced deeply into the Bulacan, but Calca already had a firm lock on the Niran's throat, muffled snarls emitting through piercing cries from the Niran. Another Niran calmly shot off the Rear Admiral, the blast sending both bodies spinning.

In death, the Rear Admiral still hadn't let go of the Niran, who shuddered convulsively and then stilled in death. The other Nirans watched it without any expression, waving their guns at the other personnel.

Another Niran, presumably the next in line, looked consideringly at the Bulacan personnel, then made a decision. "Shoot the Bulacans."

Thomas whirled to face him, face working with effort. "No! They're innocent!"

The Niran turned to regard the Vice-Admiral. Nirans all hated Bulacans, and Bulacans returned the same feelings. "No Bulacan is ever innocent of anything, Acting-Admiral Thomas."

Nirans opened fire, and in seconds all the Bulacans were grisly, smoking heaps on the ground.

"The next to go will be terrans," the Niran said, "Unless someone turns off the alarms."

There was a brief hesitation, then one terran extended a shaking hand to the controls and touched a few of them. The alarms went off suddenly, leaving a near-palpable silence.

DROW Vice-Admiral Verlaren's voice suddenly crackled overhead, and Thomas jumped. "Sir, we have reached the nebula."

"Now, Acting-Admiral Thomas, you are to go on with the next league of our plan." The Niran said, its rasping breath echoing in the silent communications room.

Thomas swallowed. "Our agreement..."

"Sir?" Verlaren's voice asked worriedly then paused. "Admiral Borchardt?"

The Niran swung up his gun to point at Thomas, the hands on his back looking incongrous. "Do it."

Shivering, Thomas reached for the comm-link.

**

Karyefein blinked when Vice-Admiral Thomas' voice came in instead. "Admiral Borchardt has been called away for an important message-link from Cruiser Poseidon," he said. Karyefein tensed immediately - there was something that seemed very - frightened, from Thomas' voice.

There was a pause. Then Verlaren's voice came back. "Sir, nothing is more important now than this flight, sir. Admiral Borchardt would not go away just like that, sir."

"How are you to know what Admiral Borchardt thinks, Vice-Admiral Verlaren?" Thomas asked seemingly after hesitation, "Well? Continue towards the nebula."

There was another pause. "I know Admiral Borchardt very well, sir," Verlaren said calmly. "I would like you to call for Rear Admiral Calca to speak."

There was a strained pause, and Karyefein was surprised when he found his fingers had tightened over the trigger. He heard a small rasping at the comm-link, something familiar, a voice that he had heard on an offensive mission that had earned him a medal...

He switched on his link. "Vice-Admiral Thomas, with all respect, sir, there does seem to be Nirans at your back."

There was another strained pause, and then Verlaren spoke up. "Quite so, Lieutenant Karyefein." he said, his normally pleasant voice lowering to a growl. "What has happened, Command?"

"Nothing," Thomas began, then there was the sound of the comm-link being snatched by something.

"Listen, Vice-Admiral Verlaren," the rasping sound of a Niran crackled in, "Athens is now under GNKA control. Proceed to the nebula, or we will kill all others on board the Athens." The hair rose on his neck.

"There is obviously something waiting for us in the nebula, sir," Vice-Admiral Minvaen, Beta Wing, said seriously.

"The fate of the Prometheus-type crafts are of utmost importance," Rear-Admiral Kringlar, Zeta Wing, agreed.

"Why then, Acting-Admiral Thomas, in the regrettable absence of Admiral Borchardt, will put out a message to all Cruisers that the elves of Athens have staged a revolt and have kidnapped several hundred terrans, most of them six-year children, and have taken to ground in this galaxy," the Niran said calmly.

"Pictures of the...carnage will be sent to all Cruisers. Many dark elves throughout the universe will be cut off from the transfers. How long can you hold out, elves? Only one day, and your craving will kill you off yourselves, as you cannot board Prometheus in a mere fighter without extension equipment. We need only wait, elves. Time is on our side."

"Permission to speak," a terran voice announced, from one of the Prometheus crafts suddenly. There was a pause. "Well, you're having it any way. Turn off the link to Command." That voice could only belong to Carl, a senior terran engineer with a serious lack of 'respect'.

There was a click somewhere. "Turned off, Engineer Carl," Verlaren said.

"Very good. In at most an hour I can set up a communications device with engineers on board all Prometheus crafts. Crude but will suffice to contact Poseidon to notify them of what is happening to us." There were murmurs from the other Prometheus-type crafts.

"Why is this so?" Minvaen asked.

"Because each year not only six-years go to Poseidon but also inventions and discoveries," Carl said calmly. "And most inventions each year, Vice-Admiral, are communication devices."

"Quite so," Freyn, Rear Admiral of Eta Wing, commented. "One hour it is." There was another click as the communications system to Prometheus was terminated.

Command suddenly broke in. "Do not do that again," the Niran said harshly. "Proceed to the nebula, elves."

"Prometheus expeditions will only take orders from Admirals and not enemies." Verlaren said.

"When an Admiral dies a Vice-Admiral is Admiral in his place," the Niran said.

"When an Admiral is betrayed by a Vice-Admiral," Kringlar said, "That Vice-Admiral is immediately stripped of his rank."

"That has to be proven in a court of law." The Niran hissed.

"Court of law consists of seven or more Rear-Admiral or higher rank." Verlaren said. That elf seemed to have an encyclopaedic memory. "There are six Rear-Admirals and four Vice-Admirals on this expedition."

"Ah, but they are dark elves," the Niran said calmly.

"The law says Rear-Admirals or higher," Verlaren said, unperturbed, "It does not mention what species."

"All terrans know that the dark elves are an inferior species..." the Niran began.

"That is a small thing compared to a Vice-Admiral betraying his entire race." Verlaren commented, though there was now a sharp edge on his voice. "As leader of Alpha Wing and therefore default leader of the Prometheus expedition in the absence of Admiral Borchardt or Rear-Admiral Calca, I order the other Admiral-class DROW to debate this."

"You know the answer, Verlaren," Freyn said. "Vice-Admiral Thomas, you are guilty of high treason against the ITBC, and reduced to outlaw class."

"You think your decision matters to us?" the Niran chuckled, a harsh grating sound, "Surrender yourselves and the crafts or face the consequences - the total destruction of the Prometheus expedition, and the eventual blame of the deaths on the DROW officers in charge. Two GNKA destroyers are coming along with their escorts, which you will know outnumber yours. Your decision, elves?"

There was a pause. Then Verlaren asked quietly, "I will not make that decision. The highest-ranking non-elf officer on each Prometheus shall."

Karyefein nearly growled. Verlaren was actually allowing the idea that they were an inferior species? Common sense kicked in after a while - if terrans made the decision, no blame could be put on the elves."

"Well?" the Niran asked.

The terran officer on 136N, Alpha Wing spoke up. "Are not civilians allowed safe passage?" he asked.

"Do you not understand?" the Niran asked, "The GNKA are taking the expedition hostage and for ransom."

"Will the hostages be treated well?" the officer asked in distaste.

"Rest assured the children will be," the Niran said. "We will, however, enjoy watching all the elves starve slowly to death."

"As a Christian I cannot allow this barbaric activity," the officer said firmly. "Well, my colleagues?"

The Bulacan officer on Prometheus-type 143N, Theta Wing, spoke up. "I am not a member of terran worship," he said slowly, "But the Lord Bharaken will also condone such activity. I will not be party to it."

"For the sake of the children..." the terran officer of 144N, Iota Wing began.

"You trust Niran promises, Kavin?" the Bulacan of 138N, Gamma Wing asked, "Do you remember the other hostage crisis three years ago?"

"You may not trust our promises," the Niran said, "But you can trust that we will destroy you all if you do not obey."

Karyefein's eyes were pulled down to the blips. Several angry red ones were approaching from the nebula.

"Our crafts are coming," the Niran said. The blips stopped near enough for Karyefein to see the lights. "Well?"

A beam shot out from the closest, and he flinched. It accurately hit Verlaren's craft, which immediately exploded.

"Oh gods," Freyn said softly, "Oh gods."

"An example," the Niran said coldly, "Of what will just as easily happen to the rest of you."

That was going too far. Karyefein nearly snapped the comm-link when he grabbed it. "In an act of war," he said in cold tones, "Pegasus fliers are allowed to act out of jurisdiction as well as possible, without blame falling on GNKA." He was gambling on that last bit, but the cold rage was threatening to overwhelm him. "As leader of Delta Wing's Pegasus team..." he pressed the controls on the side of his trigger, sending an attack message to his team.

Delta Wing's Pegasus team charged, their engines humming. The Pegasus-type crafts were the fastest. Perhaps they would be able to distract the destroyers or their escorts enough.

There was a stunned silence, then the Niran snarled, "Stop, or the Prometheus-type crafts will all be destroyed!"

"I think that will be a last resort," Karyefein said coldly, "You may destroy all the DROW, possibly, but you want those Prometheus crafts both for your designs and maybe for your 'story'. There is no reason in your faked story to say why we would destroy a craft when we need the children inside."

At the edge of his vision, he saw the other Pegasus fliers of other teams following. He turned up his speed, the exhilaration filling him as he raced the others towards the enemy Destroyers.


Part 4

"Unlike other class fighters like Theseus and Jason, Pegasus-class teams are led by merit in battle other than rank. This is because in a class with the lowest life expectancy there is not much point, as an Admiral once candidly put it, of giving leadership to someone with just a hefty title and not much experience to go with it. Unfortunately, both ITBC and GNKA are not immune to corruption, and in some places titles can be bought as well as medals. Terran, Bulacan, and Pegasus-class fighters vote for Pegasus team-leaders. Pegasus leaders are given full responsibility for their team, and also due to some obscure rule in 2610 C.B., Gamma-Phoenica, their actions are diplomatically not associated with ITBC Command at all."

--Excerpt from History of the Second Millenium.

"Slip the fighters and get the turrets!" Karyefein told his team. The Pegasus shot onwards, closing fast. Karyefein got a fleeting glimpse of the main enemy fighter 'Krazak', a craft that was sleek and black and always ended with points. Nicknamed the 'Hedgehog' as it was not exactly fast, but could pack quite a punch.

If you let it get close enough to lock you with its Seeker missiles. Karyefein automatically began to dive and roll erratically to avoid Seeker-lock, while the Krazak swerved wildly out of his way.

On the radar he could see the larger blips of the bombers flying towards the Destroyers, and the smaller blips of Theseus-fighters dividing between guarding the Prometheus-crafts and engaging enemy Krazaks. The smallest blips of all, the Pegasus, were also rather divided between flying towards the Destroyers and staying near Prometheus incase of warheads.

That was none of his business. His business was to take out as many turrets and beam cannons as he could.

"Primary weapon - Stymphalian," he said.

There was a whirring sound from the missile banks.

"Secondary weapon - Harpy."

This time the sound was clanking. He spared a glance to the missile boxes to see that the Harpy missiles had full banks, then nodded to himself absently.

"Hostile lock - cannon." Karyefein said.

On the visor a small red triangle was superimposed onto the black shape of the nearest Destroyer. The 'hostile' rectangle showed a picture of the deadly beam cannon, already swiveling to fire.

"Damn!" Karyefein said. Beams took a long time to reload, but when they did..."

"Prometheus expedition!" the Niran was still on the comm-link. "Base has called to say we do not need all of your crafts, Prometheus! Watch as we destroy one! Cannon lock on 136N!"

The picture of the cannon moved to point at an angle beneath Karyefein's plane.

Karyefein said a word which any Lieutenant and higher rank would have punished him if they heard. He bit his lip, as he knew what he had to do. The cannon's picture was already starting to glow with a faint mist of blue as the particles were charged for a blast.

He sent the craft down at a dive, pressing buttons to transfer all shields to the front of the Pegasus, then transferred weapon-energy to shielding, and there was a whirring sound as the banks closed tight.

The picture began to pulse in blue. Karyefein grimly transferred engine power to shielding, and the engine switched off. He had enough thrust left to angle his craft up to directly face the holes of the cannon, in front of the path...

It was a desperate gamble that the shields would hold. Karyefein had his finger poised on the last shield, a ten-second intensive shield that was supposed to work against warheads. However, since you could only use it once until you reloaded on a ship, it usually did not make much difference on Pegasus-class flyer casualty rates.

An intense blue beam shot out, and he pressed the button. Space in front of his screen gleamed a milky white, glass-like sheen and then a diluted blue as the blast hit him full on. The craft shuddered wildly, everything apparently becoming as bright as the sun. Karyefein threw up a hand to shield his eyes even as his other hand remained on the trigger.

Dimly he could hear startled cries from his comm-links. Then the light went off abruptly, though leaving a faint gray-blue mist behind around his ship. He looked vaguely at the detailing of his craft - shields all gone, hull integrity 36%. When hull integrity reached zero, his craft would automatically self-destruct rather than subject the flyer to slow strangulation in the vacuum of space.

Only then, blinking spots out of his eyes, did he look up to gape at the Destroyer. Where the cannon had been was a large gaping hole with the liquid edges of a beam-shot, and there were small explosions around the area. Four friendly bombers had somehow woven their way through Krazak ranks, and loosed their Cyclops warheads, too close to even bother about warhead-locking such a large target, then turned back quickly to try and escape the explosion.

Karyefein saw with slow motion as the tiny specks flew on and impacted the Destroyer. There was a second as nothing seem to happen, then he felt rather than heard the roar and boom, the immense blue rings spreading out from the impact zones.

Another second and the Destroyer abruptly blew apart in a large orange-red explosion, the fires feeding greedily on the Destroyer's large store of breathing oxygen. The shockwave sent his freewheeling craft spinning, and Karyefein automatically started to breathe deeply and regularly to try and push back the nausea.

He recognized his exhilarated feeling, the pulse of adrenaline and the quick breathing, stuttering, excited speech. Karyefein realized that his teeth were clenched shut, and he unlocked his cramped jaw with difficulty.

He transferred all energy levels back to their normal balance, and the engine turned on.

"What happened there? We have a beam cannon?" he turned on the comm-link to Pegasus team.

"You were directly facing the beam. It bounced vertically off the shields back through its path and went through the cruiser, sir!" Hielnae said excitedly, then paused, "Are you all right?"

Karyefein realized something. The craft seemed a little colder than before.

With horror he realized that the conditioning system had been seriously damaged, but in his heady state he immediately took it in stride. "Nothing inherently serious for now," he said, lying between his teeth. Well, it would get incredibly serious after an hour or so.

He didn't seem to be flying properly either.

"With all respect, sir," Tiernarxle said, "There's a small fireworks going off on your left wing."

Damaged wing? Karyefein cursed again, turning off the link, then snarled when a disembodied voice next to his ear said, "Missile launch detected. Impacting four... three... two..."

He forced himself from panic and yanked the trigger hard towards him. "Afterburner!"

He could hear the roar as the engine galvanized into action and he shot vertically upwards.

"Missile evaded." The voice said with its normal dead calm.

"I bloody well know that!" Karyefein snapped, "Afterburners off!"

The engine regained its normal low hum. At least something hadn't been damaged...

"Primary weapon - Stymphalian." Karyefein said.

Stymphalian was a larger version of a laser gun; good for penetrating shields and then the hull if you could aim well enough. It was dumbfire, which meant that it didn't lock like heat-seekers or other missiles. The fusion chamber needed for the penetrative plasma-laser was inside the missile bank, thankfully not taxing on engine power as earlier designs did.

"Secondary weapon - Harpy," Karyefein said tightly.

"Secondary weapon - offline." The disembodied voice commented. "Secondary weapon two - Phrixus - offline. Missile Bank two - offline..."

"Shut up!" Karyefein shouted, frustrated. Without the tracker secondary weapons, he was going to have a distinct disadvantage, as they were more powerful than primary weapons. Two direct hits with Harpies could take out a Krazak.

"Secondary weapon report terminated." The voice was still irrepressibly calm.

Suddenly Karyefein realized he was furious. He was furious at himself, the voice, at the Nirans, at their predicament, at his own race for getting mixed up with the terrans in the first place and at everything else in particular. Faintly he wondered how Jamie was, but pushed that thought to the back of his mind. He turned his damaged ship around forcefully to face the Krazak attacker. He only had the Primary weapon? So be it.

***

Terran Admiral George Vander JR of Cruiser-type Poseidon looked worriedly at Bulacan Vice-Admiral Nalka.

"Has a comm-link been established?" he asked, "They should have gone through the portal half an hour ago!"

"No sir." Nalka said worriedly, one of his delicate hands fingering the buttons on his uniform nervously.

"What is wrong with them?" the Admiral growled.

"Sir, the area around Prometheus is neutral, sir," Nalka said, "Could it be they met some... interference?"

The Admiral glared at him, and the Bulacan shut up. Admiral Vander could stare down a cat, and there was always an air of a coiled spring in him. Sometimes the pressure was lower and sometimes higher, but everyone knew when it was near snapping point, and would take figurative cover.

Now it was the closest the Bulacan had ever seen him to snapping point.

"Set up a visual link to Athens." Vander's voice became steely and cold. Nalka swallowed.

"But sir... to do so is an unprecedented..." Balkra, the Bulacan communication officer, faltered under the Admiral's eyes. "Yes sir."

There was a crackle of static, then the large virtual-reality communication screen switched on in front of the Admiral. Virtual-link was considered impolite as it gave no warning of appearing, but Vander didn't like Borchardt, and would like to see the other Admiral jump.

Gasps echoed around the room. Nirans filled the screen, with a nervous-looking Thomas surrounded by them.

The creatures blinked, but immediately recovered to their normal deadly calm, and then a Niran stepped forward to glance at them. "Aaah. Admiral Vander of Cruiser Poseidon?"

Vander turned a deep shade of beet red. "What the hell are you doing in Athens?"

The Niran made a rasping chuckle. "Quite obvious. I am pleased to announce that Athens is now under GNKA control. Do you remember the Argos expedition a year ago?"

"Researchers from Cruiser Hera to Athens," Vander growled, "Made all sorts of discoveries." He paused, then Nalka watched, fascinated, as he turned a deeper shade of red. "What did you do with them?"

The Niran smiled faintly. "Somewhere on their way the Argo crafts were hijacked. All were killed and their images superimposed onto a select team of Nirans, namely us. We arrived safely in Athens. We have you to thank that there are few Bulacans in Athens, and none in the research section, ITBC. The legendary Bulacan sense of smell would have broken our subterfuge. A year of honest 'working' for your ITBC had paid off."

"Damn you!" Vander snarled. "The Prometheus?"

"Are all under our control." The Niran said smoothly. "The GNKA has demands in ransom for them."

"What bloody demands?" Vander growled.

"Release the Tiryns and Alpheus systems to us, and release Admiral Vykazyan and what is left of his troupe. Distressingly, our Admiral has some importance to us, as you have surmised." The Niran said.

"Admiral Vykazyan is locked up in Cruiser Zeus with the rest of his flaming followers and as far as I am concerned he can bloody well spend the rest of his sorry life there." Vander growled.

"Oh dear oh dear," the Niran said, unperturbed, "In that case we will destroy your Prometheus crafts. Riots will break out in Poseidon over the loss of all those terran children, will they not? You have precisely an hour to deliberate, Admiral Vander. Now, before we demonstrate by killing off 136N, do turn off this screen."

"Turn off the visual," Vander said with some effort. Balkra did so immediately.

Nalka looked at Vander covertly. The Admiral was shaking with suppressed fury, like small earthquakes before a volcano erupted.

There was a near palpable silence for several minutes, which Nalka several times nearly broke, but decided against it. All eyes in the Command room were fixed on the Admiral, who was clenching and unclenching his fist, including the usually unflappable Rear Admiral Valca.

Then there was a beep that sounded deafening in the silence. Balka looked at the signals, then said in a voice that trembled, "Unidentified comm-link, sir. Shall I activate?"

"We bloody might as well," Vander growled. Vander and Borchardt were alike in this way, though Borchardt's temper was considered mellow compared to Vander's.

"Activate comm-link," Balka's voice faltered.

There was a louder crackle of static as if the link was a crude early one. Then a terran voice spoke. "This is Senior Engineer Carl of the Athens Prometheus expedition. I assume I am speaking to Poseidon command?"

"You are," Vander's voice was slightly astonished. "How...?"

There was a muffled cheering of hundreds of voices, most childlike, in the background. "Right. On behalf of the expedition I request immediate assistance from Cruiser Poseidon. We are just west of the Athens-Nebula 65 and are under attack."

"Not captured?" Vander nearly shouted.

"No sir." Carl said, his voice with a worried tinge, "One Destroyer left and estimate two hundred fifty Krazak with some bombers, sir. Our DROW fighters are outnumbered and running out of ammunition."

There was more muffled, though louder cheering and applause, then Carl's voice came back on, this time more smugly. "Correction, sir - no Destroyers."

Vander didn't seem to be listening - he was already barking orders.

***

The last Destroyer exploded with a satisfactory cloud of fire. Karyefein grinned to thumb up the bombers and Theseus specks in the distance that had done the job even though they wouldn't see him, and concentrated on his target.

He pulled back the stick and started strafing it with the Stymphalian bolts. Slowly, the hull integrity estimate of the desperately fleeing enemy ship lowered as the Red Baron grimly shot on, and then it too exploded. Karyefein felt a faint stab of ecstatic pleasure and triumph.

He glanced at the rectangle detailing his team and noted that Hielnae's craft was no longer on, but there was no time for grief. Grief was for spare time.

Nimaeral's craft status abruptly disappeared as well, and he had to fight harder against the welling pain. The DROW was only twenty-two!

"We all die sooner or later," Karyefein muttered, noting absently that his breath produced white clouds in the air of his craft. He wondered briefly why his teeth were chattering.

"Yes sir." Tiernarxle said. Had he left the link on? There was a pause. "Sir? You sound like you're freezing... damn. Sir? What's wrong with your conditioning?"

"Noth.... nothing," Karyefein chattered, then clenched his teeth shut.

"Hah, yes," Tiernarxle muttered, "I see the Red Baron want's to turn blue by freezing to death," then switched on a link. Karyefein barely heard his frantic report to other wings as he grimy locked on to another Krazak and went for the kill.

"Lieutenant Karyefein," said the terran officer of 136N spoke up sharply, "Return to nearest Prometheus and stay there."

"With all regards sir," Karyefein commented through clenched teeth, "Since I'm probably as good as dead I might as well take out a few more, sir."

"Lieutenant Karyefein, that is an order." The officer said sharply.

Karyefein felt a faint shocked disbelief at himself that was cushioned under rising euphoria as he got close enough to strafe. He was disobeying a terran, higher-ranking officer!

"Lieutenant Karyefein!" the officer barked, "Return!"

Slowly and deliberately, Karyefein reached out and turned off all the comm-links. The small white cross in a circle on the center of the virtual-reality visor that represented where the dumbfire Stymphalian would go was expertly focused on the small red targeting circle near the nose of the enemy craft, and he grimly pressed the trigger again and again.

The green bolts shot up as he matched speed with the enemy, curving trajectory to go precisely through the red circle to hit the craft, over and over until it abruptly exploded.

Karyefein made a roll away as his target lock, now on automatic, showed that the closest was charging at him. The craft overshot close enough for him to see the cockpit and the helmet of the large squid-like Kadesh inside, and he immediately turned his craft to fire without even bothering about crosses and circles.

Through the grace of luck and near-constant practice, the craft was hit. Desperately the Krazak tried to turn to face him so as to enable missile-lock, but he cunningly swung to the tail end of the enemy and started firing again.

Bolts went in through the jets and the craft exploded. For the second time in the day, Karyefein flew through a blinding explosion.

He checked his hull integrity when he cleared - 30%. His shields were starting to regenerate.

Karyefein dimly realized he couldn't feel his toes or his fingertips anymore, but turned his ship again towards the next target. Either he was going to get shot down by a lucky Krazak or freeze to death.

"We all die sooner or later," he muttered again. This time, it sounded as though he was trying to comfort himself.


Part 5

"Soul-transfer can only take place when the six-year link is willing and touching a worn bracelet with the other hand. The bracelet is made to regulate and pace the transfer such that no lasting hurt will be made on the child or on the elf, and the headband, unique to each elf, to guide the transfer precisely to the right elf. The soul, like liquid, is slowly passed from the child into the elf, where it immediately takes the 'shape' of the new 'container'. If done slowly, the child only feels a sense of loss, but is not hurt, and the elf a feeling of gaining something precious. Transfer automatically links a child to the elf emotionally, the elf feeling what the link feels as strongly as if it were his/her own feelings, and vice versa. I.e., if the child feels unhappy, so would the elf. The link-mates have an intense sharing experience during transfer that can be uncomfortable if not expected, as if they had abruptly been wrenched into becoming a part of a larger entity."

--Excerpt from History of the Second Millenium.

Karyefein wiped away the light dusting of ice on his visor again, controlling himself by breathing regularly and trying to think of heat. Lots of sunlight and heat... and warmth - he wasn't succeeding very well. If anything, it just made him feel colder.

Then he 'felt' a ST ripple. Something was portalling in! He could only pray that whatever it was, it wasn't enemy backup. From what he could see of the battles of others, most crafts were using primary weapons now, and the bombers had long retired to the Prometheus-type crafts.

There was a brilliant pinpoint white light, and then huge ripples of green-blue speckled with white spread outwards. Seconds later, another pinpoint of light appeared several hundred meters away.

Whatever it was, it was bigger than a Prometheus.

Two warships, smaller than Destroyers but solely for war-purpose and not for living in, came out, followed by more specks of ships than he could safely count.

A portal looked odd, even through the new film of ice that was forming on his visor. At his angle, it looked like the crafts were coming out of thin air, as a portal-ripple was 2-Dimensional. Humans or Bulacans, both of whom were not as sensitive to such things couldn't feel ST ripples, but they could certainly be felt by elves. And possibly Kadesh.

He looked to his radar and irritably used his free left hand to scrape away the thickening crust of ice, then felt a surge of hope and relief. The blips were green!

Karyefein looked at the comm-link button, and realized it was frozen solid, which explained why he hadn't known about backup, but he didn't care - the Prometheus expedition was as good as saved. Already the friendly fighters were flying towards the fleeing Krazaks and the single, smaller beam-cannon on each warship tracing angry red lines through the deep dark of space.

The craft suddenly jerked violently from the impact of a missile, and he crashed into the side. The mechanism for the cushioning seat that would hold him in place had frozen solid long ago.

There was a crackle of static, and Freyn's voice came in, "...Salvation in sight... all ships that require repair or reloading to land on the nearest warship... Karyefein? Karyefein, if you can bloody hear me, you better get your..."

"Freyn," Kringlar said in warning, "No bad language when we're linked to Prometheus, thank you. Karyefein? Answer me, Lieutenant!"

Karyefein didn't bother to waste heat by opening his mouth. He turned his craft steeply upwards into a large loop, gambling, and ended up somewhat below the enemy Krazak on his tail that had decided to do pot shots on him, and opened fire.

His mind registered that there seemed to be a band of ice surrounding his forehead, and he tried to dash it away automatically until he realized it was the metal headband, freezing cold and probably already stuck to his skin.

The missile bank, thankfully not connected to the ship other than through their outer layers and through very sensitive wiring devices, were still relatively fine. The Stymphalian bolts stitched through the back of the Krazak, and it burst into another satisfactory bloom of orange and red. He tried flying through the fiery cloud, but it didn't help much.

"He's alive, all right," Minvaen growled through the link. "I recognize that suicidal loop over there. Karyefein, if you don't fly over to the nearest warship right now, we are going to get some Theseus over and ram you there."

Karyefein blinked through the frost forming on his eyebrows. They wouldn't!

"You have five seconds to start moving in the right direction, Lieutenant." Minvaen growled, "ITBC cannot afford to lose a fine fighter in wartime. Now move! Five... four..."

Karyefein reluctantly pulled his trigger to fly the ship towards the nearest warship. He seemed to be thinking through a blanket of fog, and he did want to sleep. Sleep... where it was warm.

A shrill, earsplitting whistle that emitted from the comm-link made him jump. "Right, sir," Tiernarxle said, "I know what it feels like when you're freezing - got locked inside Athens' freezer once by accident. You'd want to sleep. When you sleep, you'd never wake up... so I'm going to whistle like this every few seconds."

"Right, ensign," Minvaen said in a pained voice, "Just do turn off the comm-link to anyone else first. Your whistle is most..."

"Piercing, sir?" Tiernarxle suggested cheerfully.

"Yes." Freyn said.

"Sorry sir." Tiernarxle said. There was the hint of a click somewhere in the comm-link, then Tiernarxle whistled again.

"Gods, Tiernarxle," Karyefein forced through chattering teeth, "I might just faint from the noise right now."

"You're not a bat, sir," Tiernarxle said, "It won't hurt your ears enough. And do use your afterburners."

Karyefein nearly burst out laughing. Freezing to death while being bullied and nagged on by everyone including ensigns? It seemed so hilarious. But he managed to say, "Afterburners."

There was the familiar roar as the afterburners engaged, and the Pegasus sped off towards the warship.

***

Karyefein slowly rose to consciousness somewhere soft and warm. Savoring the moment for a while, the inevitable question rose to mind - where the hell am I? Immediately, the next thought came - wherever I am, I think I'd stay put. The headband did still feel cold, however, but it seemed looser now instead of adhering to his forehead. Being used to it, he then ignored it.

Reluctantly, he opened his eyes a little. He was in some plain hospital room, sterile ceiling, sterile walls, sterile sheets, sterile white shirt and trousers, and even a sterile smell. As usual whenever he saw such disgusting cleanliness, he was tempted to do something unhygienic in it.

Then he wished he hadn't woken up. His hands and legs suddenly sprouted excruciating, fiery pain, and he twisted instinctively to try and get up, sounding an annoying, beeping alarm in the process.

The door opened immediately to show two terran nurses and a doctor. The nurses immediately pushed him back down, and he instinctively fought against it before realizing himself and sinking down obligingly.

"My hands..." he began. The doctor, a dapper, small man, ignored him and looked instead at the monitors next to his bed. Karyefein looked down to see several white tubes that were fixed onto his arms and snaked down under the sheets.

"What's wrong with me?" he demanded. One of the terran nurses, a blonde, tall one, shushed him.

The doctor scribbled on some board, then looked at him. "Severe frostbite on your limbs," he said in a voice that seemed to imply it was his fault, "We almost had to take off your hands. Luckily for you," this part had some unconscious emphasis as if Karyefein should be eternally grateful for their help, "The staff on the warship was trained enough to keep you intact until you got here. Grafts taken from your skin has covered the raw parts, and the worst is over. You were lucky not to catch pneumonia or influenza, but your lungs are still weak and there is a danger of infection."

"The ceremony?" Karyefein asked anxiously.

"You are on Poseidon," the doctor said unnecessarily, "The ceremony is in three hours."

"The Prometheus crafts?" Karyefein asked again.

"All safe and well," the doctor said, "However, I am now to give you a checkup to see if you are recovered enough to use a liftchair against my better judgement." This last bit was said in heavy disapproval. Karyefein almost grinned.

The doctor nodded to the nurses who flicked off the sheet and then he examined the bandages, then looked at the monitor and twiddled a few buttons. He glared at the screen as if daring it to prove him wrong then looked at Karyefein again.

"You may use a liftchair," he said unceremoniously, "But you had better not try to stand up or hold anything or exert yourself in any way, do you hear?"

Karyefein was tempted to demand if the doctor thought he was speaking to a defective child. By the looks of the terran, he was in his forties, and Karyefein was already well past his second century of life. Deciding against it, he just nodded.

The nurses immediately moved out of the room while the doctor made a sound like "Hrumph," and scribbled furiously on the board, sniffed, then pressed a button on the computer. All the tubes immediately snaked away back into the machine. Minutes later the nurses bustled back in, guiding a liftchair in front of them.

A liftchair looked complicated, with a soft molding seat and had a mechanical sliding cover over the support for the legs for protection. The cover also went over part of the lap to let the occupant write. There were many sensors visible on the liftchair, for pulse, temperature etc, which would be transmitted every ten minutes or so to the hospital section command. It would also ring alarms in the hospital if the occupant's condition worsened, and it had a tracking system correct to several millimeters within the immense Cruiser itself. Why it was called a liftchair was because it levitated a few feet off the ground.

The other nurse, a petite brunette, took a neat pile of formal uniform and gave it to him. He looked at them blankly.

"Would you like assistance to wear your uniform?" There was the faintest hint of a sneer in the doctor's voice.

"No," Karyefein said firmly and quickly. The doctor nodded. "Call when you are finished." He led the nurses out of the room and closed the door.

Karyefein growled when he tried to take off his shirt. The pain was nearly unbearable, but he'd be damned if he had to humiliate himself by asking help to get dressed. Terran help, too, with nurses who treated him as if he was a training unit and a doctor who treated him like something a Niran dragged in.

With a few more grunts and sharp intakes of breath, he managed to put on the uniform, noting in satisfaction that this one was different and looser. He must have damaged the older one irreparably... the thought alone made him feel much happier with life in general.

"Doctor?" he asked tentatively. The door opened after a short pause, and the nurses bustled in, somehow managed to get him into the chair, then opened a panel on the side and pressed a button.

The metal slid up smoothly, and a small, controlling trigger folded out. The nurse closed the panel.

Karyefein held the trigger in his right hand, then noted the nurses were staring at him oddly. He looked down, and sheepishly realized that he had put is hand in the position of a fighter-trigger - four fingers grasping tight, thumb poised on the firing buttons on the top. He grinned and removed the thumb. The nurses seemed to forget what he had done, and bustled him out.

The doctor was there. He looked at Karyefein again, then said, "Do you need painkillers?"

Karyefein battled between his pride and common sense. Pride won out. "No," he said firmly, suppressing a wince as his right foot accidentally brushed the toes on the top of the metal cover, sending white-hot darts up his leg.

The doctor raised an eyebrow. Stubborn, bad dog that poops repeatedly on carpet, he seemed to say. Stubborn dog that doesn't have any sense. "Very well," he said, "I heard that the Admiral would like to see you. In case you get lost in the cavernous cruiser, your liftchair has been set with an automatic route there." The doctor reached over before he could protest and opened the panel, flipping a few switches. "There." He said, his voice now with a bit of malice.

The liftchair automatically started moving, and Karyefein sighed, suppressing the stab of irritation and rage. Some terrans and Bulacans acted like that, as if they were distasteful, stupid but essential weaponry that needed a bit of maintenance every day, but the rest were quite... ok. Karyefein was of the majority dark elf idea that they didn't have much to complain anyway, considering what the terrans had done and are doing for them, trusting them with their vulnerable six-years.

With such a gift, he was willing to put up with the demands and occasionally with the bad treatment and strange terran behavior. Anyway he had heard somewhere before that terrans once had some compulsive slavery faction that enslaved members of their own race, except of different colour. Not even the dark elves had done that, or even tried enslaving elves of other species.

Terrans were automatically jealous of something higher than they were. Bulacans, in terran view, were unconsciously considered ugly, and therefore whatever better qualities were... accepted.

But elves? Elves looked like humans, except generally more beautiful, intelligent, dexterous, long-lived... the list went on. Humans only had better constitution, and a sheer bloody-minded will to adapt and survive. It was surprising what they had survived - the nuclear wars on their planets, the hundreds of fatal diseases they had encountered in their home planet, the first Great Wars in which GNKA nearly exterminated all those in space until Bulacans came along... the list went on. In ways they were more tenacious than a Kadesh Vaklrn* was.

Terrans who ran into him in the corridor either gave an approving look Good Dog, or ignored him, or looked at him as though he was a curious exhibit, or a question as to how he felt now, was he ok? He much preferred the last. Thankfully, the last was the most common.

After several embarrassing encounters with other dark elves (those who knew him grinned, those who didn't just shot him looks of either awe, pity, or curiosity), he reached the sliding doors to the Admiral's office, and the whirring automatic thing shut off, returning him manual control.

The doors slid open, and he expertly maneuvered the thing in.

Admiral George Vander JR, like his famous father, had an impressively florid face with a long hooked nose and keen gray eyes. The man was also as big as his father had been, towering over most terrans and Bulacans alike in Poseidon. The Admiral had a perfect, unblemished career, and was also a decorated officer. He looked up from the screen that was set into his desk, presumably a report from the number of words on it.

The Vice-Admiral Nalka and Rear Admiral Valca, both Bulacans, had worried expressions on their faces.

"Greetings, Lieutenant Karyefein," Admiral Vander said tightly.

"Greetings, sir," Karyefein said cautiously. He suddenly had a feeling he was sitting in front of a coiled spring, a strangely familiar feeling until his mind registered that he had felt this before twenty or so years ago when speaking to Admiral George Vander, elder, at Cruiser Apollo. Now that he recalled it, he remembered that it hadn't been about anything good, either.

Admiral Vander looked down at the screen again, and when he looked back at Karyefein, his gray eyes were burning with anger. "I hear you disobeyed orders twice from Admiral-class DROW." He said.

"Yes sir." Karyefein admitted. Vice-Admiral Nalka was nervously fiddling with his buttons.

"And acted once on unthinking impulse by charging at the enemy,resulting in you losing half your team."

Karyefein opened his mouth to protest - he was allowed to do that! But something stopped him - maybe if he hadn't done that, Hielnae and Nimaeral would still be alive. "Yes sir." He said quietly. Something rebelled faintly in him. "A Pegasus leader is allowed..."

"I don't give a damn about allowed!" Vander suddenly roared, "Your action forced the hands of all the fighters of the Athens-Prometheus expedition, resulting in the destruction of nearly a third of the DROW fleet and the serious damage of another half! You had been reprimanded twice before about your rash actions in the Sirius mission twenty years ago by Admiral Vander and in the..."

Karyefein's jaw nearly dropped open. This was unfair! "They threatened to shoot a Prometheus if we did not surrender, sir. As to the Sirius mission, if I had listened to Command fully the Niran Admiral would not now be sitting under prison in Zeus, sir."

Vander glared at him as if he hadn't heard. "Do not interrupt when an officer-in-charge is speaking!" he roared.

"And in case you are wondering if we should have complied, sir, they also threatened to starve all elves to death, and watch in the process," Karyefein snapped, also ignoring the other, his voice rising, "You remember the hostage crisis before, sir. What they did to the prisoners."

"To be a fighter is to be able to obey orders!" Vander shouted. Both Nalka and Valca winced.

"You mean that to be a dark elf is to obey? Unthinkingly?" Karyefein demanded, "We can feel too, if you realized, sir. We are not weapons, weapons to be used and then discarded and looked on as if we were contagious diseases!"

Vander turned an interesting shade of red. Even Valca was looking worried. "In case you did not read any rule books or kept your bloody eyes open," Vander said tightly, "No terran officers or Bulacan officers are allowed to disobey orders as blatantly as you have. Any who have done so have been and will be severely punished, and sometimes their rank has been stripped from them."

"Commander Jayn," Karyefein snapped, naming a legendary terran war-hero who had acted on his impulse, saved several million people, and got promoted to Admiral.

Vander looked at Karyefein, mouth working, then abruptly leaned back on his chair, laughing heartily. Karyefein stared at him, at this sudden unpredictable change then at the other sub-Admirals for clues. They two had severely puzzled and concerned looks on their faces, as if they believed that Vander had suddenly gone mad.

Vander recovered quickly, wiping tears of mirth from his eyes. "Jayn was a hero, and heroes aren't punished in public due to public opinion," he said seriously, "Jayn got promotion but secretly he was also punished with a severe scolding and given kitchen duty for a year or so during his spare time. Secretly, of course."

Karyefein gaped at him.

"Unlike you," Vander snorted, "Jayn never complained. Or shouted, either." He raised a bushy eyebrow at Karyefein. "What, you want me to dig up the classified tapes? You'd like to see the legendary Jayn checking through all the bins and the robots? For your information again, Lieutenant, any officer of Commodore and above watches some of those tapes, to remind them what can happen if they overstep themselves."

"No sir," Karyefein said hastily, forcing down a gulp of laughter at the thought.

"Good, because the Admiral council will have me flayed for that," Vander said. "Fortunately for you, you are also somewhat of a war hero. There was some impressive Prometheus footage of you diving into the beam to deflect it. Unfortunately, you did commit those indiscretions very openly. Though maybe less openly than Jayn did."

"Do I have to do kitchen duty then, sir?" Karyefein inquired with a faint grin.

Vandar sniffed. "Jayn, whatever the stories say, was a very ordinary looking fellow, and fitted right in through the kitchen employees. You, however, are a dark elf, with bloody conspicuous white hair and black skin and pointy ears. Your punishment is that for this mission you won't get any great promotion like Jayn had, even though you nearly sacrificed your own life."

Karyefein bowed his head. It was better than kitchen duty.

"However," Vander added, as though just remembering, "After tonight's ceremony there will be another medal for you - Medal of Honor, First class."

Karyefein blinked. The highest ITBC service medal that could be awarded? Vander was beaming at him, something that didn't look natural on his face. An answer seemed necessary.

"Thank you, sir," Karyefein said awkwardly.

[* Vaklrn - a tenacious burrowing, large insect living under the sands of the Great Kadeshian Desert. A fearsome carnivore that can eat whole Xynak++, it had existed since the beginning of insect life on Planet Kadnykxa, immune to radioactive pollution and even a comet striking Kadnykxa in prehistory.

++ Xynak - a four footed creature adapted to the harsh conditions of the Desert, resembling a Earth Caribou in shape and size though with three splayed hoof-toes and several other adaptations including nostrils that can close at will and double-lidded eyes.]


Epilogue

"Cruiser-class crafts are entirely self sufficient. Food is possible to be grown on the topmost layer, which is covered with a transparent glass-Nyranium alloy, and meat also to be cultivated in the form of various livestock kept in the immense craft. Waste products are fed to a converter and converted to energy enough to power the Cruiser through its everyday routines. However when a Cruiser is attacked then its stores of fuel come into use through the four beam cannons and fifteen heavy turrets and other defensive artillery. Fighter-class ships are assembled in a Cruiser, and warfront scientists and doctors also research there. Parts are made on ITBC planets, of course. A Cruiser is too large a craft to construct on a planet, and must be done in space - usually next to another Cruiser. This may take several years."

--Excerpt from History of the Second Millenium.

"Greetings, Jamie," Karyefein grinned. Her parents were holding the girl, a pair of relatively poor terrans that didn't look all too bright either. The mother beamed at him, then carefully put her on the lap cover. Jamie stood up and gave him a hug.

"Hello Kar," Jamie said solemnly. "How're you?"

"Fine, except I can't walk properly," Karyefein said.

"That's ok," Jamie said brightly, "I can sit on the cover. Isn't this fun?"

"Oh yes," Karyefein grinned. Jamie had her bracelet on, though she put that hand firmly in the pocket of her dress, as if afraid she would accidentally touch it.

Karyefein nodded again to Jamie's parents, whom she had not seen for several months, and then started the liftchair moving towards the Hall. Her parents were some sort of technicians who would be part of the setting-up crew for the Ceremony, and they had to go on their own way for a while.

Jamie kept up an excited monologue about all the signs and what they stood for, her words punctuated with "Daddy told me..." or "Mommy said that..." Karyefein, half-listening, only nodded at intervals and made small agreeing noises.

Instead of the normal cold metal floors, the living area of Poseidon where he had picked up Jamie had wooden floors, or at least polished wood squares on metal floors, with tastefully wallpapered walls to give a more friendly, homey look. Karyefein reflected that Destroyer Athens didn't have this comfort.

Then again, Destroyer Athens wasn't even ITBC anymore. A comm-link to Athens last night had the Niran spokescreature proclaiming the Destroyer was now known as Nirakna. Vander had reputedly nearly had apoplexy at the gall of the creatures and had to be restrained by both Bulacan sub-Admirals.

Karyefein vaguely regretted that all his earthly possessions were still in Athens including the medals, but nothing very important. Creatures that risked their lives everyday tended to have fewer possessions that were important.

When he neared the section with the Destroyer, it was beginning to get packed with worried parents holding their six-years or six-years playing small games while waiting with other children. He began to wish he had doubled back to use the main route the dark elves were to be taking when all the parents stopped their conversation to stare.

Jamie, unaffected by the looks, grinned and waved at all of them and this seemed to change the mood for the lighter. Karyefein nearly breathed a sigh of relief when he got to the room where the DROW were assembling.

The Admiral-class DROW stopped their conversation and trotted over, also holding their six-years, whom were all sleeping due to the late hour, and looked closely at him.

Karyefein was beginning to feel embarrassed again until Freyn spoke up. "Well, glad to see you're up," he said, "But you seriously upset quite a few terrans, Bulacans, and us, of course."

"Hello Freyn, Minvaen, Gyranlar, Kringlar, Nynael, Falcion, Zalnaye." Jamie grinned, then frowned. "Where's Verlaren and Caern and Vyren?"

Karyefein looked at the suddenly uncomfortable officers. Verlaren he knew about, but Caern and Vyren? He bit his lip. He hadn't known Caern at all, but Vyren had been a friend. And Verlaren had seemed like a fact of life only yesterday, who gave briefings and lectures where he (Karyefein) had usually fallen asleep, who could out-argue anyone terran, Bulacan or elf.

"They're not here, Jamie," Gyranlar said carefully. Then he looked at Karyefein again.
"As Head of the 105th Kestrels, I'd say I am proud that a member of my Regiment has received the Medal of Honor." A good Pegasus-class fighter, Gyranlar was still to fly Theseus for Prometheus expeditions - probably symbolic.

"Oh cut it, Gyranlar," Kringlar said with an amused grin, "It's something to share - the first dark elf to get the medal."

Jamie smiled at Karyefein, apparently forgetting about the missing officers. "Isn't this fun? Another medal!"

"Oh yes," Karyefein said dryly, "Another speech."

"You only need to say thank you in a few more elaborate terms," Falcion said. Falcion was very good at speeches. "And dedicate your medal."

"We know how experienced you are at it, Falcion," Zalnaye rolled her eyes.

"Thank you, Zalnaye," Falcion said, unperturbed.

Somewhere inside the Hall, music began to play and then the speeches from ranking terran officers. Karyefein recognized the gruff voice of Admiral Vander.

"...Vice-Admiral officers." Vander said.

"Whoops," Minvaen said, gently waking up his six-year, and hurried to the door, followed by the other Vice-Admirals. The doors slid open and they marched out, then the doors closed behind them.

The ranks went down gradually until Lieutenant. He turned the liftchair over to the Lieutenants marching out - at least he didn't have to do that silly, stiff walk. This year, Theseus fighters went out first, then Pegasus, then bombers.

The hall was cavernous, the left side with tier upon tier of seats packed with Bulacans and terrans, and the right mostly a platform with a speaker's box in the middle where Admiral Vander stood with Poseidon's terran and Bulacan officers above Commodore rank flanking him.

When they were in position, they turned ninety degrees to salute the Admiral and the other officers, then turned to salute the spectators. There was some music and 'new' six years came up the stage until one faced every officer.

They saluted the new six-years, then put down the 'old' ones, Karyefein twisting over to lower Jamie down, and ignoring the new shots of pain through his fingers, giving Jamie an encouraging wink.

Jamie, like the others, walked over to the new six years and removed their bracelets, handing it to their successors who snapped it on. Then the new six years walked to their elves, Karyefein bending over again to pick up his, a boy, this time. They saluted the old six years, who walked solemnly away. Karyefein could see that Jamie's lip was trembling; though she bravely kept away the tears. She wasn't the only one.

Then the elves turned again ninety degrees and went down the stage to exit the hall, where they split up, most to go to the very large recreational area or quieter areas to speak to their new links. Karyefein was grateful that there were no steps on the stage, but a ramp, which the lift chair could easily navigate.

Once out, however, Gyranlar was waiting for him. "Right," the Admiral said, holding his six-year, "Immediately after the Ceremony you are going to receive your Medal. We'd go back to the waiting room where I'd take care of your link for you."

The boy was staring at Karyefein, wide-eyed, not unlike Jamie last year... or now the year before, as the Ceremony took place at midnight. However, there was much more intelligence in his eyes, something sharp.

"What's your name?" Karyefein asked.

"Timothy," the boy said, "But everyone calls me Tim."

"Then Tim you shall be," Karyefein said solemnly, "My link used to call me Kar, if you'd like."

The boy nodded, then burst out, "Is being a fighter fun? I want to be one but my Da wants me to be a boring scientist. He says it's safer."

Gyranlar grinned, but his link, a girl, spoke up. "My Ma says I can't be one either."

"Best job there is, being a fighter," Karyefein smiled, "Tell your Da that it's the noblest job of all - risking yourself for others."

"My Da is a scientist," the boy said mulishly. "He believes that brains shouldn't be wasted on fighting."

Karyefein and Gyranlar exchanged a look. Then Gyranlar spoke up. "Well, only smart fighters survive, though sometimes they are prone to bouts of absolute stupidity..." he shot a look at Karyefein who grinned ruefully, "Does your father think Admiral Vander is stupid?"

"Oh no," Tim said quickly. Admiral Vander ruled Poseidon with an iron fist. The girl shook her head vigorously.

"Why then," Gyranlar grinned, "If you're smart and good you'd be promoted quickly. If you're stupid and good the most you'd be is ensign, and if you're stupid and bad you'd never even make it to a fighter."

The links considered this as they entered the Waiting room, where the ensigns still were. There were too many ensigns for all to go out at the same time, so they were doing it by classes.

"I'm good at simulations," Tim said hopefully.

"Which simulations?" Gyranlar asked.

"Those in the game room," the girl said, "Daystar 15."

"Well, perhaps," Gyranlar said carefully. The last class went out, and Karyefein began to fidget.

"What's your name?" Karyefein asked the girl.

Gyranlar grinned. "Her name's Marie, and we're getting on well, aren't we?"

"Oh yes!" Marie smiled. "Vice-Admiral Gyranlar likes cyan too!"

Karyefein nearly opened his mouth to ask what cyan was until he remembered it was a name of a light shade of blue. "That's nice," he said.

"What's your favorite color?" Tim asked.

"Black," Karyefein shrugged. "The darkness of space."

Gyranlar raised an eyebrow. "Karyefein here is a morbid fellow, as you'd learn soon enough, Tim."

"I like space too," Tim said defensively, "Um. What's morbid?"

"As gloomy as a Kadesh on nightmare drug," Karyefein said cheerfully.

"And as suicidal as one too," Gyranlar said darkly.

"I'm not suicidal," Tim said doubtfully, "But I can be gloomy sometimes."

"Oh good," Karyefein said.

"Try to be happy most of the time," Gyranlar advised, "Especially during transfer. Karyefein's last link was the most irrepressibly happy creature I'd ever seen, which was good for him."

Karyefein sighed. "I hope Jamie will get on well. She's a very nice girl."

Somewhere inside the Hall, the Admiral launched into a speech about Karyefein's past achievements, glossing over the bad points, then into a description of what he had done for the Prometheus expedition. Karyefein blinked - three assists and five unassisted kills? He hadn't noticed.

Gyranlar was also beaming like an idiot. He put down Marie and picked Tim off Karyefein's liftchair. "Time for you to go in."

Karyefein shot him a dirty look that made both Tim and Marie giggle, then maneuvered the lift chair in to more near -deafening music, up the stage to before the Admiral. Vander took the blue and gold Medal of Honor from the velvet cushion held up by Vice-Admiral Nalka, and pinned it carefully onto his uniform. Then he stepped back and saluted smartly, winking. Karyefein also saluted, then he turned to face the audience.

The Hall had been constructed carefully according to research such that anything said on the stage was magnified several times naturally. It saved on electricity, anyway.

"Greetings to the Interstellar Terran-Bulacan Coalition," he began. If he was right, those silly small flashes of reflected light were camera transmissions, "I am a DROW fighter not used to giving speeches and not suited to doing so, so I shall make this short." He hoped that would satisfy Falcion later.

"I would like to dedicate this Medal posthumously to Admiral Verlaren, Vice-Admiral Caern, and Vice-Admiral Vyren, three of the finest DROW fighters that I have known." He deliberately decided not to elaborate on how he had known them, etc, etc, and continued, "And to all the DROW fighters of the Athens-Prometheus expedition, not forgetting Senior Engineer Carl and his gifted team who managed to establish communications to Poseidon in time. Thank you all." He smiled, then with as much dignity as he could by maneuvering a wheelchair turned to salute those on stage again, before leaving down gratefully to exit.

He never really understood why they placed so much credit on sacrifices. In dark elf philosophy, Life was made up of several games with different stakes and different outcomes. There was never a certain 'Win' or 'Lose', and never the same board.

War was a Game where you had pawns, and each pawn controlled more pawns. It was a game where one could never win, only get a better hand. It was a game where you inevitably lost pawns and gained more. A Game with the highest stakes and more than its fair share of the darker emotions and grief, but a game nonetheless. To fight was the greatest game of all, one that he played well enough on his level, and in his opinion, which was as far as it went.

Gyranlar was waiting for him outside again, and he handed Tim over. "Nice speech," he said with a grin, "The regiment's proud of you."

"Thank you, sir," Karyefein said, "Now that Athens' gone, where are we going?"

"Poseidon can give us a temporary staying space though all of us have to share communal rooms like ensigns," Gyranlar shuddered, "I was with Freyn when I was an ensign. Do you know he snores?"

Marie giggled. "Loud?" she asked.

"Like a cruiser engine gone wrong," Gyranlar said miserably.

Marie and Tim started laughing, and Karyefein grinned at Gyranlar. "Happy New Year, sir" he said.

Gyranlar nodded. "May it be a happy one," he agreed.

Lledrith RavenWolf

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