Stunned silence greeted me as I finished my explanation.
Finally Shawna found her voice. "Your deadly serious aren't you?"
"I wasn't joking these Guardians are only out for themselves."
"Why would they do this. We would have helped?" Marsha said with a glance to Shawna.
"I wish I knew," I replied, "if I die they'll find a replacement and at the moment all they have are students and archaeologists. Not one of those have any combat experience."
"No matter what they have done to you," Ocynca suddenly spoke out, "you are still you. Your aura confirms it. Before when you stepped aboard from the Terran ship your aura was brighter than the sun almost like a flame burning too quickly. The same aura is yours but it's back to what it was when you first came to us."
"Whatever has been done to me this doesn't go beyond this room," I warned them.
"Agreed," Marsha said.
"I'll have to step down from being your XO," I told her.
"No, you will not!" Marsha stated firmly, "Shawna?"
"Marsha has faith in you," Shawna nodded to Ocynca, "we all do."
"If Lottie is keen to help then let her," Ocynca said. I noted he referred to Lottie as her so he must have accepted her.
"I will keep Sandra safe," Lottie said.
I winced I had neglected to tell them that Lottie could speak through me or that she could control my body. I think their attitudes would have been different if I had.
"Another gift from the Guardians," I said hastily, "it allows Lottie to speak through me."
"Sandra is still Sandra," Lottie said, "I'm only here to help her against the Rhosani nothing more."
"See that you do," Marsha said with a deep sigh, "all of this doesn't address what we are going to say to Com Ops and the captains?"
"We tell them the information came from the archives," I told them.
"That's basically true," Shawna sounded thoughtful.
"Join hands and we'll pledge and oath for the sisterhood," Marsha said, "I'm afraid you will have to step outside Ocynca. This is Valkyrie only."
"But we're not Valkyrie," I protested.
"What was that XO?" Marsha said sternly.
"And this will do?" I stuck to my point. I had no intention of becoming a Valkyrie.
"Do I have to go blonde and wear blue lenses?" Shawna asked.
"Only if you want to," Marsha told her, "I like you as you are."
Reluctantly I joined hands with Marsha on my right and Shawna on my left. Shawna squeezed my hand before bowing her head. I noticed Marsha do the same then complied. I heard Marsha muttering under her breath so low I couldn't catch a word she was saying. She lifted her head and nodded at Shawna before releasing her hand. I was unsure exactly what had gone on. I doubted she would tell me, another of the strange rituals that Valkyrie did. I was certain I had seen a squad of Valkyrie do the same. It meant something to them but I would always be an outsider despite Sigrunn's ideas.
"I called for a pledge of silence," Marsha stated, "this will be something you will learn."
I think that was directed more at me than Shawna. "So what's next?"
"I make a call to Com Ops and let the others know," Marsha said, "what we know stays with us. I would seal it in blood but I would need the advice of our Clan Mother."
I noted she said 'our, but I wasn't about to push it.
Marsha called Com Ops and the ships captains. I was surprised to see Kyrikia in place of Chivers on the Elafi. The young T'Arni face seemed more composed. Admiral Prmi didn't seem so composed. He looked angry. Marsha quickly detailed the story we had put forward. I was dreading Lottie's interruption she remained silence and I was thankful for that.
"This puts a different light on what we know about the Guardians," Admiral Prmi said, "you say it glowed green when you touched it?"
I had to tell him what I had seen. What worried me was that he didn't seem surprised by my revelation. I began so suspect that there was something going on. Ellie had been speaking of a new task force when her holo appeared at the Prince's party. I had thought it still months away but now it seemed that it was a done deal.
"I'm sending another ship through the wormhole with one of your as you called them shurikens and a ground team to augment the archaeologists and run protection for them."
I was glad of that not for myself but because of Joyce. Ellie should know she had another aunt. I figured that Camelia would tell her. I hoped I wouldn't be as I had found out.
"We'll discuss this again when the ship reaches you. Prmi out."
The screen went blank that wasn't much more we could do until the ship got here. The last few hours had started to weigh heavily on me. I couldn't remember when I had last got a good night's sleep. I felt as if I was running on adrenaline for too long. I cracked a yawn hastily covering it with my hand.
"Get your head down for a few hours," Marsha said.
"I'll be ok," I replied stifling another yawn.
"That's an order XO!" Marsha reprimanded me.
"Marsha?" I asked.
"Shawna and I have a few things to talk about."
It was a dismissal of sorts so I headed to my quarters conscious of Lottie's silence.
"Lottie?" I said quietly in my mind.
"Sorry Sandra I did want to bother you. It my problem and not yours."
"It is my body," I told her.
"I can't do it!" she moaned.
"Access the systems.
"What do you mean access the systems?" I said wearily, her words had me on edge.
"When I was your implant I was able to access information through your comms. Now I can't do any of that."
"What do you mean?"
"I've got to access them physically through a terminal."
"I don't understand?"
"Those bloody idiots put me back in your body and just that." My hand raised itself and touched my nose. "Sorry Sandra I can physically control your body but as to what I could do for you before I am totally useless. I can advise you but anything else is now beyond my control."
My mind whirled at Lottie's revelation I wanted that even less than anything else. "Look I'm not thinking straight. I need to sleep we can discuss this when I feel a bit more coherent."
"Sleep well Sandra,"
I sincerely doubted that.
Vorra was on duty outside my quarters. "All clear colonel," she said.
"Thanks Vorra," I just wanted my bed but I had a few things to attend to before I could sleep.
Showered and smelling fresh I lay down in my bed and closed my eyes.
"Sandra!" Lottie yelled jerking me out of my sleep.
Through blurry eyes I could make out a figure in my quarters. That had me fully wake and I leapt out of my bed and at the figure in my quarters. It was Marsha, she had a pair of scissors in her hands and looked both startled and guilty.
"Marsha," I was shocked to see her there, "what are you doing?" I demanded.
"I'm can't apologise enough. I wanted a lock of your hair."
"My hair?" I couldn't have sounded more shocked, "you could have asked." My hair wasn't even its natural colour thanks to the Valkyrie.
"And took the chance you would have said no. I'm sorry this won't happen again you have my word on that!"
"Why Marsha why?" I asked, she was acting strange even for a Valkyrie.
"I 'can't excuse myself it was a spur of the moment thing as the Terrans say it. I wanted a keepsake. Another of those Terran expressions you're so fond of."
I noted she was saying 'can't' a lot.
"I…" she faltered, "I don't know what I was thinking."
"Did you ever consider Shawna's feelings?"
"I wasn't thinking straight," she admitted.
"Marsha I'm your friend and only that and I want to remain so. I can't cope with the complication," great now I was saying 'can't'.
Suddenly Marsha straightened up. "Right again Sandra, Shawna loves me and it's not lust its pure and here I am throwing it in her face." She backed out of the door her face set hard.
I took a deep breath and strode over to the mirror on the wall of my quarters. I stared at my reflection trying to see if she had cut off any of my hair. I still hadn't got it cut. The trouble was I hadn't the time there was too much to do.
"Is that you," Lottie said out loud.
"What?" I said, I couldn't see anything different about me. Well that was if you discounted the blonde hair and blue eyes. I wondered how much longer it would take for the contacts to dissolve. My hair was another matter, It would look a mess as the new hair grew and replaced whatever the Valkyrie had done to it. I briefly considered cutting it very short but discarded the idea. I had done it once in basic and swore afterwards never to do it again. I have some vanity left. No it would have to remain as it is.
"I've seen images of you but never looked at you with your eyes."
"What do you mean never looked at me through my eyes?"
"Before I had to content myself with images from vids. Now I can sense, feel and see everything. It's as if I have a body again. It's been so long since I could feel things."
A tear trickled down my cheek.
"Are you crying?" I had to ask the question.
"Yes, and before you protest I know it's your body. I'm a lodger, an unwelcome one at that."
"Just be sure that you do," I said but my heart wasn't in it.
"Noted," Lottie said sounding sad, "I missed this but I wouldn't hesitate to go back to being your implant. I'm totally useless to you in this form."
I changed subjects before Lottie became too maudlin. "I wanted to ask you what you make of Marsha's behaviour?"
"She seems to have a fangirl obsession with you. You are her ideal of an action girl. Strong, brave, able to take on whatever the task is despite the odds. In all in if I am correct the model Valkyrie."
"Me a model Valkyrie?" I had a horrible feeling Lottie was correct but I wasn't going to let it go that easily. "No, there must be more to it?"
"I'm only going on your past record. What do Valkyrie love? Strength, bravery, honour and loyalty that's what she sees when she looks at you."
"Look I don't want to think of this now," I was still tired.
"I don't think that she wants to hurt you," Lottie wanted to continue.
"Lottie shut up!"
I managed to get back into my bed and close my eyes. I'm sure I could feel Lottie sulking in the back of my mind.
Marsha was in her seat as I entered the bridge at the start of my watch. I felt refreshed despite my restless sleep.
"XO," she said nodding in my direction as if nothing had changed.
"Reporting in ma'am," I saluted smartly. It was expected. "Do you have the Sit Rep ma'am," I said making it sound like a normal watch hand over.
"All quiet on the bridge," she replied handing me a datapad, "the reports."
"Thank you ma'am sleep well." I was determined not to let last night destroy our friendship.
"Have a quiet watch," she replied and left.
I sat in her chair on the bridge for a while just staring into space. I hated moments like this with nothing going on. I tried to read the datapad several times but found myself getting distracted. Lottie wasn't speaking to me not that it really mattered. I looked across to the young human male seated at Sensor Console. He was my second on this shift when I was away from the bridge. I had no doubts about his competency. He was more than qualified than I was to command but he deferred to me because he respected the chain of command like Lieutenant Armaradies.
"LT," I said to him.
"Ma'am?" he responded.
"I'll be in the captain's ready room making sense of these reports."
I was surprised to find Marsha seated behind her desk her eyes on the terminal in front of her.
"Problems Sandra?" she said looking up from her terminal.
"I was just going to review the data on this pad. I couldn't do it on the bridge."
"Please sit for a moment," she said indicating the chair on the other side of her desk. She stared at me before speaking again. "Are we still friends?"
I could hear the pleading in her voice. "That won't change," despite what she had tried to do she was still my friend, someone I could trust with my life.
"Good," she seemed happy about that, "pull me up when I do something stupid like that."
"Don't worry on that score. I am the same person I was I just have more luggage I have to carry."
"Hey that's unfair!" Lottie protested she must have guessed I was referring to her.
"Just seeing if you're awake," I quipped.
"Wonderful," Lottie moaned but I knew she wasn't being serious.
"Sandra?" Marsha asked sounding concerned.
"Yes, just talking to Lottie."
Marsha gave me a look. "Ok Sandra. I know things can't be different."
"That's true," I said.
Marsha nodded sadly. I knew what she wanted from me but I wasn't going to provide it. I had an idea it was a long shot but it would appeal to her.
"I know what will cheer you up," I told her.
"And that is?" she sounded hopeful.
"A sparring session."
"That would be nice." Marsha actually cracked a smile. I knew that called to her blood.
"Are you serious!" Lottie sounded alarmed, "have you totally lost your mind?"
"Deadly," I replied.
"You do know where this is headed don't you?" Lottie complained.
"I'm not stupid that's why Shawna will be there to do what I won't."
"Shawna will do this?" Lottie sounded like she didn't believe me.
"She's off duty I have seen the rosters and so is Marsha. We fight and Shawna can help her relax."
"I washing my hands of you," Lottie growled.
I knew she wasn't serious. "The briefing room in half an hour," I said to Marsha, "and bring Shawna. I know she has a new bottle of massage oil."
Marsha's eyes flashed. "Bring it on Sandra!" she hesitated, "but you're on duty?"
"Lieutenant Wilson can handle things he'll call me if anything comes up," I replied brushing away the last of her objections.
I stood in the briefing room waiting for Marsha the table and benches had been recessed into the deck. I was dressed in my PT gear and had a fresh set neatly folded into a corner in case mine got ripped or bloody. It was hard to tell when sparring with a Valkyrie. I was running through a few warming up exercises when Marsha walked in with Shawna in tow. Shawna looked anxious while Marsha looked remarkably calm. I suddenly began to regret my offer.
"Have you told Shawna what we're doing?" I asked Marsha.
"Sure let's get started," she said and turned to Shawna, "wait outside please dear heart."
"You sure?" Shawna asked.
"Yes dear and please have the oil ready for me."
Shawna actually broke into a smile. "Later," she breathed and closed the door behind her as she left.
I had hardly enough time to get in position when Marsha attacked. She nearly had me within her first three moves but I managed to get my defences up. Another series of moves had my back against the wall. I ducked and rolled narrowly missing her kick and finally launched a series of punches. Slowly she was driven back. Suddenly she slipped through my defences and stuck. I folded over her fist as she hit my stomach. I managed to score a hit of my own as I fell to the mat. Quickly I stood scrambling away from her counter attack. She leapt at me her longer reach and greater body mass overwhelming me and I was on the mat again. At least this time I had the chance to elbow her in the eye as I went down face first onto the mat. We continued in this vein for some time longer. I was starting to see the mat as an intimate friend since I had ended up on it so often.
Someone's comms unit chirped. I had told Lieutenant Wilson to call me if it was urgent. Marsha hauled me to my feet a broad grin on her face.
"Wilson," I answered it.
"Message from Com Ops ma'am."
"Put through to the screen in the briefing room."
"Another time Marsha," I said.
Admiral Prmi appeared on the screen. We saluted.
"Admiral Prmi?" I said without cracking a smile at his perplexed expression.
He raised an eyebrow I expect he could see our condition. I know Marsha looked a mess but I had the worst of it.
"You have a logical explanation for the state you are in?"
"Yes sir!" Marsha and I said together.
"Just training sir," Marsha told him before I could say anything.
Admiral Prmi stared at us. "I'd hate to see it if you were serious," he grimaced, "that message you sent the info is correct?"
"Unfortunately yes sir," I replied.
"I am not doubting you," Admiral Prmi said, "I've made that mistake before. Your information was confirmed by the computer."
That must have been the same computer programme that started all this so many months ago. Yet I sensed there was something beyond it and that the admiral wasn't telling me the full story. I would have to ask Vorra later it was likely that she would know more.
"It seems that these Guardians aren't as truthful as they make themselves out to be," Admiral Prmi continued.
"May be if we delved deep enough that they would give us an answer?" I suggested but my comment was really aimed at Lottie.
"We could," she responded to my thought.
"And we could find out why the Rhosani are stealing worlds that must be a reason to it?" I said.
"Should have made that a priority," Admiral Prmi said, "do so now."
"Yes sir," I saluted smartly.
"The Axon will be with you in about nine hours. Get me that data I want it ready by the time the Axon reaches you."
The screen went blank as the admiral ended his comms.
"Can you do it?" Marsha asked sounding concerned.
"Lottie?" I asked.
"If you can't I can just let me have a crack at the index," she said out loud.
"Don't break it!" I blurted out startling Marsha. She gave me an odd look. "Lottie?"
"It means I'll give it a try. Next time I'll use words you can understand," she sounded sarcastic and a little condescending.
"Sandra?" Marsha sounded even more concerned.
"Lottie can help get into the system," I reassured Marsha.
"You want your squad?"
I shook my head. "Go play with Shawna."
"I'll take a detour and see the Doc before I head down," I commed Ross, "prep the shuttle I'm heading back to the surface."
I headed out.
A bitter cold wind blew across the LZ. Even in the light of day the temperature wasn't that far above freezing. I felt so alone yet I wasn't Lottie was with me nestled in a part of my mind.
"I doubt that the Guardians are going to let us walk in and take the data we want?" I said to her.
"That's where I come in," she replied.
We lapsed into silence as we entered the caverns. It was still early and I could see signs of movement in the habitat. Ignoring the smells from the kitchen I ploughed on to the archive despite my protesting stomach. Perhaps after I could come back and sample some of the food that I could smell. The thought made me think of Gena I felt responsible. I had left her in the hands of people she didn't know yet I felt a chill I couldn't have brought her with me too much danger. I quickly passed though the habitat and into the archives. I spotted Joyce seated on one of the stone benches staring at the index column a still steaming mug of coffee on the bench beside her.
Joyce turned. "Sandra what are you doing back so soon?"
"Surprised to see me?" I asked.
"No, I'd thought you'd be out soldiering things."
It took me a while to work out what she had just said. "You sound like you don't approve of my vocation?" there I'd used a big word and felt proud that I had.
"You are better than that," she replied.
I stared at her momentarily confused. "What?"
"Frank had such high hopes for you," she grimaced, "sorry, I don't mean to be so maudlin I feel so frustrated," she gestured angrily at the index column, "I'm just angry that we've spent so much wasted time."
"How so?" It wasn't me that said that Lottie was talking through me again.
Joyce gave me an odd look and answered. "I've spent ages reviewing the data we collected. We have tons of it the poor students have done their best but none it is new," she sighed, "if the temperature hadn't dropped the way it did I was going to suggest excavating one of the ruined cities close by."
"Do you think your decision to excavate coincided with the sudden temperature drop," Lottie asked her before I could say anything.
"I hadn't considered that," Joyce mused, "It's possible they could manipulate the weather. We've had a lot of trouble exploring the small area surrounding the archives."
"Then you should warn your people," I told Joyce, "I'm about to upset the Guardians further."
"How?" I noted Joyce was giving me a thoughtful look.
"Lottie is going to help me gain access to the proper archives. I get the feeling they'll try and stop us."
"What do you want me to do?"
I'm not sure how but I want you to keep your people safe. Get them as close to the entrance to the caverns as possible. Captain Yanik will call in evac shuttles if there is any danger to you."
I sat on the stone bench watching Joyce hurry away steeling myself for the task ahead. My hand picked up Joyce's coffee and drank it.
"Lottie!" I protested I didn't like her taking control like she did.
"You needed that," she replied, "you'll need the caffeine boost. I'm sure Joyce won't mind."
I stood the coffee had been bitter but I felt more alert. "Ready," I said to Lottie.
"I'll run interference."
"Interference?" Another Terran term I wasn't familiar with.
"I'll watch you back," I'm sure I heard a sigh in her mental voice.
Reaching out with my marked hand the column burst into light steady and green, I was in. Thought about the Rhosani not sure what I should be looking for. Lottie would have been the better choice here. Suddenly it felt as if I was no longer in the archives. As before I was pulled towards a distance goal. I should have been spewing my guts with motion sickness but I felt unnaturally calm. As suddenly as we had taken off we stopped. I recognised the system I had been here before although a few years ago. Analon, it must be a past event since the planet was gone. My body hovered above the planet and from my viewpoint I could see a squadron of Confederacy warships clustered about Analon's one and only orbital station. It seemed as if I was viewing some past events. Before I had a chance to determine when I was jerked away from the planet and out to the edge of the system. A ship appeared coming through what I recognised as a wormhole. I had seen this ship before it looked less fuzzy that the DU images Com Ops had shown me at the academy just before I was dragged of to the Havoc with only the clothes I was wearing. It resembled a flattened fried egg with a few bulges on top. Surrounding it were dozens of black globes swarming around it like angry bees.
A helpless observer I felt my anger stir. "Lottie are you getting this?" My request was met with silence. "Lottie?" I called again getting no response. I was about to call her again when I saw the globes move. Some headed towards the relay beacons to jam them I surmised. The tactical part of my mind agreeing with it but my other senses screamed in rage unable to do anything to stop them. Sudden I was flicked back to Analon hovering above the station as the squadron moved away and headed to towards the Rhosani ship. They must have detected the Rhosani ship on long range sensors. I pulled way from the station trailing behind squadron at an angle in some sort of isometric perspective. The Confederacy ships opened fire as soon as they were in range. My heart soared to see such a display of firepower. Missiles and railgun shells streaked towards their target and detonated in brilliant flashes of light stopping well short of the Rhosani hull.
"Get closer!" I found myself whispering like anyone was going to hear me in space, "concentrate on one spot destroy their shields!" I doubted that any of the Confederacy captains could hear me. I wanted this to end in a victory for my beloved Confederacy but I already knew how the battle was going to end.
A black globe vectored in on my position and held steady blocking my view of the battle. I tried to shift my position. I wasn't certain I could do it and found I couldn't but the globe remained constant blocking me. I didn't know how I knew it wasn't hostile to me. The sense it gave me was protective it knew I was there and it was sheltering me from the worst of the battle. I felt a deep abiding sorrow from it as if it hated what the other Rhosani were doing. I began to doubt that this was another Rhosani there was something about it that didn't gel with Rhosani cruelty. Suddenly it moved away to reveal what I had hoped I wouldn't have to see. The squadron had been destroyed. The globe seemed to echo the sorrow and frustration deep within me. Suddenly I was above the planet as the Rhosani moved in. I saw the planetary defences' fire upon the Rhosani, weapons that had been designed to keep a fleet away from the planet. Despite my hope on seeing them in action I knew the outcome was inevitable.
Again A black globe blocked the view of the battle. I was uncertain if was the same or a different globe it just hung there between the action and me. Suddenly it moved away, the station like the squadron was drifting wreckage. Although this time I could see streaks as parts of the station's remains burned as it plunged through the atmosphere. I guessed those looking up from the planet's surface were staring in terror. Anger and despair like the wreckage burned through my soul. I wanted to be somewhere else but I found I had to stay to find out how the Rhosani were stealing worlds. The Rhosani ship circled the planet picking off any shuttle that tried to escape. It was relentless I felt sick I no longer wanted to be here. The Rhosani ship did another circuit of the planet dropping what appeared to be satellites at regular intervals. Each seemed to be cross-shaped and took up a geostationary position above the world. One by one the satellites started to glow and beams of light shot out of their arms connecting it to the other satellites that surrounded it. Finally the planet was covered in a network of glowing beams. I couldn't even begin to think what was happening on the planet's surface. This was going to haunt me as much as Anoxi had but far worse. An another of those globes blocked my view. All it could see was a glowing corona surrounding it.
When it left the planet below glowed red rapidly growing in intensity until it was incandescent white. Then in a blink it was gone. I was left floating above a patch of darkness that was once a living, breathing planet. The globe was back and it hovered close. I felt numb there was nothing I could say, no gods to pray to. I had witnessed the death of a world. What made it worse was that I probably knew some of those that had died. I began to partly understand the Guardians reluctance to let us see this data. It was almost too much for me to bear. I would have wept if I had a body. At the moment I was a formless shape in space. The Rhosani ship turned slowly and limped away from the world it had destroyed. I wondered why since it seemed to have suffered no damage form the planetary defences of the squadron. The globe shifted closer I felt it envelope me. Blackness rushed to greet me and I felt myself fade.