I woke to a pounding headache and the sounds of an argument in the background. I was breathing and there appeared to a mask over my nose and mouth. I tried to open my eyes but they seemed to be glued together. I lay back and listened to a three-sided argument half in Terran, half in Galactic with the third voice translating for the other two. I tried again managing to get my eyes open but all could see at first was a blur. Slowly shapes on the ceiling resolved into more familiar shapes. White painted stanchions arched overhead attached to them was an array of equipment. I knew where I was. I was in the med bay on a Terran ship this one looked similar to the one on the Santiago the ship that took me to Earth but there were a number of differences. I turned my attention to the voices as my still befuddled brain sorted the sounds. My heart almost skipped a beat. Tony, that was Tony and Marsha, the third voice I couldn't quite place. It hurt but I moved my head. I definitely wasn't hearing things it was Tony and Marsha the third voice was Admiral Komana. Standing with them was Alice and next to her a pale faced male T'Arni. I noticed something odd about them. Only Marsha was in Confederacy grey all the others wore dark blue uniforms including Admiral Komana.
"Tony, Marsha," I croaked my throat dry.
They all turned to stare at me. Tony's face lined with worry. Whatever Marsha was thinking she was hiding it well. Alice, Komana and the male T'Arni looked anxious.
"You are awake your grace," Tony said in Terran to me obviously reminding all concerned that I was Terran. I felt too exhausted to correct him.
"Good to see you Colonel," Komana said with a smile talking in Galactic.
"Sandra," was all that Marsha said her face a mask but I knew better, she was concerned about me.
"Where am I?" I had to ask. Clearly I was on a Terran ship, a ship which as far as I knew was still in Terran territory. Yet I had seen it from the column on Melanos, before something I wasn't easy about thinking about, Terrans and Confederacy working in harmony to destroy the Rhosani.
"On the Jakarta," Komana replied.
I realised that I had spoken in Galactic automatically I hadn't deliberately meant to offend Tony that was the last thing I wanted to do at the moment.
"Did we win?" I said trying to sit up.
Tony was at my side in the blink of an eye gently raising me up so I could see better. I smiled at him and my heart skipped a beat as he smiled beck. But behind it all was the worry that we had failed.
"Yes and no," Marsha answered.
Her words didn't fill me with confidence. Alice spoke to Tony translating for me as I continued to speak Galactic.
"The Rhosani cut and ran before we had time to destroy them," Komana said bitterly, "we hit them hard but they managed to get away."
"Great," I replied just as bitterly, "they'll just manage to set up somewhere else?" I took a deep breath but my ribs hurt.
"Just rest Sandra," Tony whispered to me in Terran.
I couldn't there was too much I wanted to know. How I ended aboard the Jakarta was one. "How did I get here?"
"A woman brought you here," Komana sounded as if she didn't believe her own words.
"A woman of stone, all dark of midnight," Komana glanced to Tony as she said that, "if you could have a statue that moves like it was flesh."
"I can't remember anything?" I said truthfully.
"Whoever she was she came through our shields and hull and deposited you on the bed in this medbay and vanished," Komana told me.
I stared at her. "This happened?" I tried not to sound if I doubted her.
"Scared the med bay officer half to death."
I moved my right arm it was pulsing with pain I noted the gauze around it. "My arm?"
"Second degree burns and radiation damage," Alice said to me.
I noted the T'Arni male with her was keeping a close eye on me a puzzled look upon his face. I envisioned spending more time in a cell stitcher. "And…" I stopped to the others' gasps.
A figure stood in the doorway. Just as Komana described. She was black from head to toe like the obsidian dagger Ellie had once shown me. The figure had that same glassy look. She looked familiar slowly I realised she was a glass copy of me.
"Who are you!" I demanded.
The figure laughed. "Come now Sandra."
It was Lottie as a black glass copy of me I easily recognised her voice. "Lottie?"
"I had to get you to safety," Lottie said to me, "my bargain with the Thousand for freeing them."
"Bargain?" Komana asked.
Marsha moved closer to me. I think she was protecting me from Lottie. I had no doubt that Lottie wouldn't harm me.
"Sandra understands. The Thousand returned me to Melanos after Sandra went on her jaunt."
"Analon," I said to her, "you said you had to get back the long way around."
"The Thousand gave me a lift back you arrived there a lot quicker than I did. It gave me time to convince them that their freedom could only be won if they joined us. Let me tell you that was the hardest part."
"Colonel," Komana warned me, "we're getting off track here we can discuss this at a later date."
"Sorry ma'am," I said to her.
Komana turned back to speak to Lottie. "You made a bargain with these Thousand slaves of the Rhosani?"
"I promised to help free them and showed them how. It's why when the Rhosani turned up to kill Sandra the Thousand were not with them. Which was why they had such a hard time trying to kill her. It gave her friend time to get her ship away." Lottie spoke to me. "The Rhosani are really angry with you. Because of you their ship was nearly crippled and without the Thousand they've had to retreat back into the void."
"Void?" Komana asked before I could.
"Their prison so to speak."
"They won't be back?" It was too much for me to hope that would be the end of them.
"Unfortunately no although it will be a while before they can try again."
"So we have time," Komana surmised.
I was surprised Tony hadn't said anything but then he had to wait while our words were translated so he was a few sentences behind us.
"Yes you will have time to build defences and new ships and be ready when they come back."
"You'll help us?" Marsha asked.
"Sorry, as much I'd like to the Thousand are leaving and I'm going with them. They have too much blood on their hands and they want to be as far away from here as possible."
"No?" Komana's rebuke was mild but I still winced.
"There are still Rhosani about," Lottie warned ignoring Komana, "they didn't all go back."
"Where?" I asked her.
"In the Commonwealth," she stated.
"That explains the Orsini we encountered on Farakas," I had wondered why they were there. Obviously the Rhosani had not cared that much about them to leave them with no supplies. I shuddered at the thought, they had been eating humans I did wonder if the Rhosani had done this deliberately.
Lottie continued. "There is a chance that they might be able to 'persuade' the Thousand to return to them," she said bluntly.
"And if they do?" Komana said with a look to me.
"Then they will prepare the way for the others to return," Lottie paused, "we will repair the damage to the sun the Rhosani caused."
"This sun?" Komana said to her, "we've detected no abnormally in this sun?"
Lottie gave Komana a string of co-ordinates.
She nodded thoughtfully on hearing them. "Captain Yanik find where this is?" I heard a dismissal in her voice.
"Yes ma'am," Marsha replied with a glance to me. I hadn't noticed but she had edged closer to me since we had started talking to Lottie.
"Once we've fixed what was wrong we'll move on and if the Rhosani do return they will have to start from scratch."
I envisioned more worlds ending up like Analon.
"I don't like the sound of that?" Komana admitted.
"Before we go we will provide you with info on how to detect Rhosani ships and how to counter them. We will also provide you with schematics for planetary shields to stop them taking worlds."
"We can't shield every world," Komana said.
"True but you could seal the Rhosani away before they try to return. You'll need to find the 'Builders' and get them to seal the void. They were the ones that did it."
"Can't the Thousand ask them?" Finding the Builders wasn't something I wanted to contemplate it would mean sending a ship into the galactic core. A place from where no ship had returned.
"No, that's not possible. The Builders failed to help the Thousand when the Rhosani enslaved them."
"How long have we got?" Komana got straight to the point.
"At least ten years without help from the Thousand."
Lottie's pronouncement had us stunned. I could see how Komana was thinking. No matter what the Thousand had done I would not countenance genocide. They were slaves if it had been the Rhosani that would be different, my twisted logic and me.
Lottie must have known what Komana was thinking. "If you think you are going to destroy them think again. The Rhosani may have made them slaves but where do you think the Rhosani got their tech from. The Rhosani destroyed their world and forced them into those globes. The Thousand were a pacifist people the Rhosani delighted in making them cause harm."
"Where will you go?" I asked to head off any argument between Lottie and Komana.
"Far beyond this galaxy as far as possible. The Thousand have pledged never to return."
I spoke with a lump in my throat whatever the others might think and even after all our arguments I considered Lottie my friend. "I'm sorry," I apologised. I meant for everything.
"No need to be Sandra I'll always treasure our time together even if the Guardians made you my unwilling partner." Lottie turned to Komana. "Check your databanks Admiral I've uploaded the data to your computers. All the info you need will be there."
"I'll hold you to that!" Komana replied.
Lottie turned her gaze to me. "Get better soon Sandra and goodbye." With that she vanished.
There was nothing but the sound of equipment in the room before anyone spoke again.
"I want a full report from the both of you," Komana said to Alice and her companion. "Captain Yanik should you be somewhere else?" her rebuke to Marsha wasn't mild. She winked at me as she said that.
"Yes ma'am," Marsha saluted and stormed out.
"I'll be reviewing this data I hope it stands up to scrutiny." At that Komana headed out the door Alice and the T'Arni following behind.
I saw the two of them holding hands I knew it wasn't a tepe thing. It was time Alice had a bit of happiness in her life even if mine was in the 'head'. I deliberately used navy parlance with that thought. I was alone although that wasn't strictly true Tony had not left.
"Did you mean what you said?" he said to me speaking Terran and moving to stand beside my bed.
"What do you mean by that?" I asked him I had a sinking feeling that he had heard my recording.
"I heard what you said to your helmet comms unit," he grimaced, "what I had to have translated."
"Does everyone know?" I was dreading the answer.
"Not yet," I felt his intense gaze upon me, "did you actually mean it?"
I had no choice since I had spent what I had thought were my last few moments thinking about never seeing him again. "Yes," I whispered.
"You sure?" his gaze never left my face, "I just want to be certain."
"Yes to it all," I answered. I had meant it at the time and I meant it now.
Before I had a chance to object he leaned down and kissed me. I was glad that there was no one else here I would have blushed crimson. "Thank you," he breathed once he had let me go.
Reaching over he held my hand. Instead of feeling embarrassed I felt comforted by his closeness.
I swiftly changed subject my emotions all over the place. "Hey what's with the uniform?"
"Oh I'm in the TCA."
"Terran Confederacy Alliance," he said promptly.
"Shouldn't that be CTA?" I said glad to be on safer ground before I said something I would regret later or made a commitment I hadn't thought my way though.
Tony laughed it was good to see him laugh. "Some would say that."
"But why blue?"
"The colours of the old surface navy, it was supposed to light blue."
He must have been referring to the old Terran water navy. "Why change it to dark blue."
Tony shrugged. "You know how it goes with requisitions. They sent us the wrong materials. Admiral Komana said run with what we had and here we are." He paused as if deep it thought before speaking again. I noted the seriousness in his voice.
"I have a confession to make. It isn't fair keeping things from you after what you have been through."
"What isn't fair?" I dreaded his answer.
"We been on you tail ever since to transferred to the Havoc."
"Did Marsha, I mean Captain Yanik know?" Whatever I had been feeling before burned away by my anger.
"She does now."
I notched down my anger. "Why?" I gave him my best frosty stare.
"There was a good chance the Rhosani would attack you. Given their record they have gone out of their way to kill you. It turned out that they were a head of us all the time?"
I moderated my glare he was right of course but I wasn't going to let it go lightly. "Tony?"
He couldn't look at me directly all he did was look at his hand when he spoke again his voice was low. "We couldn't intervene when you were kidnapped. We wanted to but Admiral Komana told us it was well in hand and ordered us not to interfere. It nearly caused a split with the Confeds." He seemed to forget that I was one.
I remembered seeing him sitting with Komana and Alice around a table when I took my involuntary journey when I touched that column on Melanos. Somehow Alice and her T'Arni friend had sensed me. Which would mean he was a tepe as well.
"Ok," I conceded the point, "you've been following me all this time." I shuddered thinking that the Rhosani replacements knew about this and that had me worried. "Com Ops knew all this?"
"Admiral Jericho, Admiral Prmi and Admiral Katares knew about us no one else on the Confed side did."
"Had no choice it had been written into the peace treaty. Mutual co-operation against the Rhosani using the best resources available."
"But why Jericho there is a chance the Rhosani would have read the plans from his mind?"
"Admiral Jericho is part tepe so they couldn't."
"So what else have you not told me?" I hadn't meant to be snippy but I was starting to feel tired.
Tony winced. "You're angry with me?"
I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. "Not with you," I told him the truth, "it's the whole situation. I was left out of the loop again."
"What happened on Nthus and Melanos made us reassess how great a threat the Rhosani are."
"And you just realised this now?"
"Not in so many words but there were some who didn't want to believe," he paused," "Long ago there was a ship called the Titanic those that built her thought her unsinkable."
"Yes but as she sank those aboard failed to see the danger until it was too late."
"And that makes it ok?"
I noted the warning in his voice. I couldn't fault him there those on Nthus that would have thought the same. I lay back suddenly feeling tired I closed my eyes for a moment willing the pain in my arm away.
When I woke Tony had gone and sitting on the bed opposite was Komana.
"You of all people should know about operational security?"
I guess she was on about my conversation with Tony earlier, well I assumed it was earlier there was no way to tell what the time was in here. It could have been yesterday or even the day before.
"Yes ma'am," I responded automatically.
"Enough about that I got something you'd want to see." She pulled out a datapad and touched the screen. An holo of Farakas appeared I recognised the area from my recon images. I could see the holo was hovering over C-19. Suddenly there was a flash almost too bright to see. When it cleared all I could see was a molten crater five kilometres in diameter.
"Good!" I felt relieved. The Rhosani was never going to use the complex as a base ever again.
"We may have defeated the Rhosani for the moment but the war goes on," Komana stated turning off the holo.
Komana gave me an odd look and sighed. "Don't go all formal on me Sandra you are more than just soldier."
"What am I now?" I know I sounded like a sulky child but I was at loss to where I stood. It looked as if I couldn't keep a secret and that annoyed me.
"Not a whiney sniveller," Komana said to me directly, "if I've got anything to say."
I sat up straight she had that effect on me. She was right I had sounded that way. "Sorry," I apologised.
She moderated her tone. "A lot has been thrown at you. Be as it may we have to go on."
"How long do I have to stay here before I can be transferred to the Havoc?"
"You aren't going back."
I felt a chill at the finality of her statement. "I'm Captain Yanik's XO."
"You have a new mission," Komana smiled, "you need to rest so it won't be that hard an assignment."
"That is?" I didn't want to be thrown into anything without preparation.
"The empress' wedding. You will be our Confederacy advisor to her majesty working on behalf of the Alliance."
"Why not you?" I couldn't think of anyone more suited to that than her. The Terrans respected her and Confederacy loved her.
Komana chuckled. "I don't know the empire as well as you do. Besides you are best placed to keep the interests of the Alliance at the fore. We may have won a victory here but the Rhosani will be back. I not certain about your friend's assessment but it helps to be prepared."
I knew she made sense. She had referred to Lottie as my friend. I was going to miss me but at least I didn't have her in my head anymore taking control of me when I didn't want her to. She did she save my life and that of the Havoc's crew. I couldn't find fault in anything Komana said. Someone had to handle the Terrans. I just wished it wasn't me. I was sure there better people out there.
"Now rest," Komana said to me, "you have a long journey ahead." She paused I got the feeling she had left something to the last. "One other thing. Once you are up and about your companion is waiting for you."
I was confused it must have shown on my face. I was sure she wasn't speaking about Tony.
"Gena's here!" I felt as if an ache in my heart had been healed. With Tony at my side and Gena at my back I felt I could take on the world.
"Now rest," she said with a nod. At that she left leaving me on my own.
Komana was right there was a long road ahead before I could relax. One of those odd Terran expressions I seemed to have picked up. The Rhosani had been defeated. I knew well enough they would be back and we had to be ready. I lay back in my bed my mind in a whirl. It looked as if I was going back to Earth. Again I was leaving the Confederacy the home in my heart and my friends. Back to the palace and politics. I hated the thought, hated the backstabbing and snide remarks all I had to look forward to was Ellie. I had to be strong for her she only had Camelia and I still owed her for not being fast enough to save her friend. So many lives lost all traced back to the Rhosani. This time I was determined to have my reckoning. It was going to be a long journey and I was just beginning. Who knows where my future would take me but first I had to fix the mistakes in my past. Slowly sleep took me and tomorrow would be another day.