'Erik, the Scimitar and Nemesis have departed and are approaching the settlement spaceport,' said Freya softly via neural link.

'Good. Now jump to the NAU Naval Headquarters orbiting Nova Terra. I have things to discuss with our Admiral Turner.'

'Perhaps you should take a break and rethink your intentions, Erik. Humans in emotional turmoil tend to make hasty and ill-advised decisions.'

"Navigator, set coordinates for the Terra Nova Naval HQ and jump within 10kms."

"Aye, Sir. Jumping...now..." The ship shuddered and jumped. The image of the NAU Naval HQ floated serenely 10km away. "I'll be back within a watch. I doubt anyone over there has concerns about where my loyalties lie." He walked off the bridge and took his time walking to the Fighter Flight deck. It was normally crowded with scores of fighters and fighter/bombers. Now, it looked barren even though there were more than a score of fighters and more than 50 fighter/bombers.

"Erik, what can I do for you?" asked, Lin Cheoh, officially Air Marshal Cheoh, but like Erik, was not much for formality. "Come to ask me to teach you to fly?"

"No, Lin, not this time. I've come to ask you to ferry me over to the NAU Naval HQ orbiting Nova Terra. We're only 10kms away and I want to meet briefly with Admiral Turner. I'd like to take Nathan Fletcher along. It's been a while since he's been home. This seems to be a proper thing to do for him, don't you think?"

"Shedding excess cargo in preparation for a fight is always sound thinking, Erik." She paused then continued, speaking quietly since the flight deck maintenance crews were working. "Especially when you don't think you'll be coming back?"

Startled, he looked at her and said, "Why would you think such a thing, Lin? Farseeker is a warship, not some orbital fortress protecting grounders. The Farseeker is a battleship and as such, goes into battle along side friends and allies. The Empire may be ruthless and corrupt but our purpose is pure and clean. Perhaps you should have joined Marcus and flown patrols seeking an enemy that will be engaged light years away. Can you assign me a pilot or must I ask Turner for a ride?"

"I will fly with you, Lord King. I could use a change of scenery," Mroaw said quietly. "And I've never been on an NAU vessel before. I'm sure it will prove...interesting."

"Good. Prepare a shuttle while I find Nathan and strong-arm him into leaving Farseeker and rejoining his navy. He has been too long out of the thick of things. A man like Fletcher should be in command, not watching others do the job he could do better with his eyes closed."

Mroaw refrained from using the worm tech to approach the Naval HQ. Instead, she carefully used her internal thrusters to poke along. Scythians have preternatural hearing and Mroaw could hear every word spoken by the two humans even forward of the cabin.

"Erik, I feel like I'm abandoning you in your time of need. I understand your reasoning but I put my career on the shelf when I agreed long ago to 'submit to your justice'. Best damned decision I ever made."

"Nonsense. You've absorbed more knowledge about Farseeker and our methods and technology than you are even aware of. You will be invaluable to Admiral Turner in the coming months and years. I will miss you, Nathan. You've become one of my closest and most trusted friends."

Nathan choked up. "I don't know what to say..." when Mroaw interrupted and hissed "You might want to say 'This is Captain Nathan Fletcher of the Lexington and I want to land right gods-damned now not when it suits you'."

"Mroaw, perhaps we should simply worm onto the flight deck and power down. I'm sure Admiral Turner isn't expecting us. After all, that antique pile of junk is light days away." He chuckled, not at all serious, just trying to ease the tension a bit.

"By your command, Lord King," as Mroaw opened a wormhole and expertly pinned the tail on the flight deck and seconds later, all felt the grav chocks make contact with the flight deck. Mroaw closed the wormhole and powered down chuckling at the sudden activity on the flight deck.

"Holy shit, Mroaw, that was some awesome flying! I'd best go first. Those security people are less likely to blow me away than they are a bipedal tigress. Remember, few have ever seen a being other than humans. Yes, I'll go first," he chuckled and undid his belts and opened the hatch - and came face to face with a squad of armored Marines.

Fletcher walked down the gangway and said loud enough for all to hear, "Gunny, you'd best be an impromptu honor guard for the VIPs I have traveling with me. I'm sure you'll properly greet a senior captain, late of the 'Lex', as well as King Erik, commander of Farseeker and our most excellent pilot, Commander Mroaw, Ambassador to the Vikings from Scythia."

"Admiral on deck!" a rating called out as Joshua Turner and most of his staff hurried onto the flight deck. He was the reason for the landing hold. He'd wanted to properly greet the Viking shuttle himself but events turned out otherwise.

Instead of the usual fanfare, Turner grabbed Fletcher in a bear hug and boomed out, "Damn, Nate. You sure do know how to make an entrance. How's the ticker?"

"Fine, Admiral. Uh, Erik and Mroaw are onboard. I wasn't sure how the deck marines would react seeing a blonde Viking giant with a sword and a Scythian warrior turned-diplomat leave the shuttle first," he said with a chuckle as first Erik then Mroaw walked down the gangway.

Turner grinned broadly and clasp forearms first with Erik and then with Mroaw as was the custom. "Well met again, Erik. Mroaw, how are those kits? Growing like weeds I'm sure. Is Ch'tor waiting to debark? Our medical staff has a thousand questions for her."

"No, Admiral. Ch'tor is in her tree nest probably planning for the coming battle by meditating. You know how the Chrysals are. She does send her greetings though and asks after your health."

"My health is fine. You look anything but fine, my young friend. What can the NAU do for the Farseeker?" He was shocked to see how haggard the young king looked and wondered if the Wasting Sickness had emerged from remission.

"You can give us a role in the upcoming meeting with the Empire. The Scimitar and Nemesis are positioned in orbit around Goldilocks V to protect our grounders. Broaddnax is in command of the orbital defenses and my...and Natalya has evacuated to the surface with any Valhallans with dependents...so Farseeker is at your service, Admiral."

"Let's take this discussion to more suitable quarters. I'll have my staff put together a briefing on our plans and deployments. Your opinion on our plans is most welcome since you know more about the Imps and their capabilities than we do."

M'rek was awakened by her executive officer, more formally, Chief Swordwielder, with urgent news.

"Commander, we have sniffed out the ion trail left by the Imperial ship that bombarded the Xingxian capital. Given the density, it must be at least a light, but more likely a heavy cruiser heading towards the Expanse at maximum light speed. We are only a few hours behind it. Your orders, Commander?"

"Why are we just now detecting it? Surely our sniffers should have detected this trail sooner?"

"Your pardon, but we have just crossed its wake, as it is heading many degrees off the course we anticipated where the NAU would be massed."

"That means the main Imperial body is planning to cross the Expanse at its widest and the entire mass of NAU ships will be out of position to do much more than chase their tails. Send a priority data packet to our headquarters and to the NAU giving them our position and the probable course of the Imperial raider. Increase our speed to maximum and lets get within weapons range and see where the Imp is heading to confirm my suspicions. Have Talon and Razor parallel our heading but at least two light hours away. That way if the Beast changes course, one of our flankers will cross its wake and advise us of the new heading."

"As you can see, our doctrine has changed somewhat to one of 'forward defense' using our new PTB class as the first line of defense. We have 'connected the dots' of the probable course the Empire will follow based on the locations of the automated transports that have been pre-positioned to provide troops and thorium fuel to the main body. We are still trying to decode the cyphers the Imps use on their data storage drives of the transport we successfully boarded and hacked."

"And your forward defense consists of small craft, shield mine fields and passive satellite sensors? Am I understanding you correctly, Commander Seaforth? Standard is not my first language," said Mroaw. To her the defense seemed fragile and thin although she understood the practice of putting out 'trip wires'.

"What if the Empire doesn't come along the 'dots'? What if this is just like the false flags planted by the Imperial cruiser that was reported on several worlds, most recently, Xingxia?"

Seaforth almost rolled her eyes but answered with the standard response. "This is tha narrowest part of the Expanse. Ion storms are heavy and almost impossible to predict in this part of space. The Drone Battle was fought here as well as your own run-in with the Trill. Farseeker itself crossed out of the Expanse in this very same area."

Erik saw what Mroaw was getting at. "Have any of your new patrol boats gone further up the 'line of dots' to determine if there are other pre-positioned transports or tenders?"

Seaforth looked uncomfortable and almost whispered, "No. We haven't sent further reconnaisance missions up the 'dot line'. We have to assume we're correct otherwise our position would be untenable."

"Admiral, I propose using Farseeker as an armed reconnaisance vessel, moving up the line of dots as far as it goes until we meet with the forward screening elements of the Imperial Fleet. That will accomplish two things. First, prove that the 'string of dots' does, in fact, run deep into the Expanse. Second, we will be able to provide you with a position and course of their main body. We can jump into the Expanse, perform our mission and be back before the end of day tomorrow."

"If we're out of position with the main body, we'll be chasing after them instead of meeting them on our terms. Yes, by all means, I accept your offer. Intelligence is the key to our entire defense and if it's been misled..."

"Mroaw, how soon can we get back to Farseeker?" He was already planning his course and anticipated time.

"After you buckle your arse in tight, eleven seconds given the density of traffic surrounding the HQ platform."

There were uncomfortable smiles all around the table. No one seemed to appreciate Scythian humor but Erik and Nathan both grinned and chuckled.

After quick farewells, the shuttle craft exited the bay, created a wormhole and appeared almost in Farseeker's docking bay.

Erik stepped on to the bridge and was greeted by Briga who quickly vacated the command chair and returned to her navigation station. Quietly, almost a whisper, she said, "Erik, are you well? You look terrible. Are you showing any symptoms of..."

"No, Briga. I'm fine as I'm sure Ch'tor will tell you herself. Now, why aren't you down on 'V' with the kits and others with dependents?"

"They are with Natalya and the twins. My place is here, with you, on Farseeker." She didn't even acknowledge Mroaw's existence.

Mroaw growled something in her native tongue and left the bridge for the flight deck. Whatever might have been between the two of them was gone, the only hint, the two kits down on Goldilocks V.

On the command deck of the Singularity, named appropriately for its only purpose, Admiral T'sang spoke quietly with its commander and was soon smiling broadly.

"So, if I understand you correctly, Captain Chang, you've upgraded the potential of Singularity to swarm at least four waves of our new antimatter drones? I am impressed beyond words. Yes, truly, there are no words to describe the impact your achievement will have on the coming 'demonstration' battle. After annihilating the forward forces of the NAU, we will move in-system and demonstrate the futility of further resistance."

"Admiral, I'm not certain we will be able to totally destroy the one useless planet in the system. The 'generator' is capable of it but there will always be 'chunks' left that escape the maw of the singularity. Eventually the singularity will disperse as it devours itself. We have no idea of how long that will take."

T'sang smiled and put a hand on the captain's shoulder. "Even partial destruction along with the threat of applying a swarm to their home world will bring them to their knees and end useless resistance. Your name will long be remembered, Chang, as the fleet captain who was instrumentall in reestablishing our Empire. Well done, indeed."

There was no 6th pre-positioned transport on the supposed course the NAU strategists had forecast.

"Freya, please display the planets of the Thorium System at their current position in relationship to one another." He looked at the holo display and sighed. "The Goldilocks planets are far apart, probably making an assault on Nova Terra their primary and perhaps only target. Please move the display forward in time until I tell you to stop."

"Stop! How much time has elapsed from today until the planets are aligned as shown on your display?"

'Erik, the three planets will be at their closest alignment in 84 system days. If the Imperial force exits the Expanse here,' and she made a point of light blink on the edge of the Expanse boundary, 'and moves inward at maximum light speed, the current defenses of the NAU will be more than 74 light hours out of position.'

"I agree with your analysis. Please send a data packet to Admiral Turner and to Marcus Broaddnax. It's a good guess that the Empire isn't staffed by fools and have figured out this entrance into the Thorium System as the planets favorably align. Other than the intense ion storms, there are no impediments to them walking in and taking out the skimpy planetary defenses and landing shock troops."

It would take 6-days for the data packet to reach Nova Terra and the Viking world. Erik had Farseeker jump to the coordinates of Freya's 'point of exit' and then begin a slow movement up through the Expanse searching for proof of the Empire's intentions.

It was a full lunar before the Farseeker literally ran into one of the AI transports as the jump ended. "Shields!, ALL STOP," shouted Briga. She'd been bored and was sitting with the 4th watch crew kibitzing about nothing at all when the ship appeared only a few kilometers from the transport.

"By Loki's Balls, that was quick thinking, Briga. Another two seconds and we'd have been engaged in penetrating the transport."

Briga slapped the back of his head. "Bjorn, is that all you think about? Wake the King and report our near-collision."

'You anticipated my actions by 0.22 seconds, Briga. Quick thinking, indeed, for a human. There are no life signs on the transport and its AI has powered down and is barely aware of us as of yet.'

"Weapons on-line. Valeria, weapons free. Blot that beast from our sky."

'NO! Farseeker is far too close to the transport especially since we have no idea of its cargo. Withdrawing to 100kms... Now, you may fire when ready, Valeria."

Just as Erik stepped onto the bridge, the sensor suite officer called out, "I have three, no, four destroyers heading our way. They were dormant else we'd have sensed them."

'They are unmanned drone destroyers just like those we encountered in the Thanatos system a Sol ago. They will fire shipkillers then attempt to ram us and self-destruct if we don't kill them first.'

Velaria's fingers danced over the console and bolt after bolt of plasma from Farseeker's rail guns hit the destoyers but they seemed to have rudimentary shields and several bolts just lit up their shields but follow-on plasma bolts tore up the destroyers. The results were catastrophic to the destroyers as some bolts found their way into the cargo of shipkillers. The titanic eruption of so much anti-matter made the Farseeker seem to lurch and sway until the inertial dampeners steadied the deck.

"Well done. I'd say this is the first of a series of 'dots' and that validates our supposition that the Empire will cross the Expanse at its widest point. Freya, jump us to NAU HQ. I want Turner to see the tapes of our engagement."