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Third Species

By Elfin2

Word Count: 5,483
Date: 01/17/05
Series: One
Rating: K+
Category: AU
Pairing/Focus: E

Chapter 1: Third species

"Sensor contact," The young ensign announced. "Extreme range"

"Oh, good, just when life was getting boring," The very flippant Chief Ryant noted, taking her feet off the console and padding over to peer at the screen. "Never seen a signature like that before.

"Definitely not Kangas," Ensign Chen noted. "And not ours"

"Third species," Lieutenant Desultin, the watch officer, said. "If that isn't a blip you just made history"

"I'll run a check on all the sensors," Crewman Dmitri Ivanov said. "Make sure it's not a gremlin." "Gremlin?" Desultin asked. "Malfunction," Chen explained.

"The idea is that gremlins are responsible for all otherwise unexplained electronic malfunctions and foibles," Ryant said. "Dates back to, oh, twentieth century, I think. Ancient, anyway. Largely gone out of usage now. What is it, exactly"

"Something small, metallic, scanning and transmitting... ah, yes, just passing the system heliopause now"

"Heading where"

There was a pause while the numbers were crunched. "Straight for Avarin Three, sir," Chen said. "But it's small. Smaller than a Kanga planet-killer missile. Can't be more than a few tens of tonnes in weight or fifty metres long"

"Transmit a complete report and sensor recording to Miraq Base, Ensign," Lieutenant Desultin said after a moment. "And tell them to get the Admiral out of bed"

"Yes, sir." Chen typed in the commands on her board. After a moment, Ryant leaned over. "Let's just hope they're friendly. We've only just finished up one war. We don't need another"

"Amen to that," Ivanov agreed quietly. "Far too many people die in wars for my taste."

Chapter 2: Space and sensors

Lee Adama was more than a little uneasy about this patrol. On one hand, the fleet was in desperate need of water, oxygen, food, edible plants they could grow, soil, raw material and, well, basically everything. And this system had an apparently inhabitable planet. On the other hand they still had no idea where the Cylons were, his squadron of ancient Vipers were almost falling to pieces as it was, the fuel was as limited as everything else, and there had been those strange sensor ghosts the probe report had sent back that they couldn't identify at the time.

And that wretched Doctor Baltar had been about as much help as a wet haddock. Less, actually; a wet haddock could have gone on the dinner menu and improved the quality of the squadron's food remarkably.

He frowned, enjoying the view of space as he always did but not being seduced by it. He had read proposals for new, improved fighters shortly before the Second Cylon War, ones with no clear cockpits, just control panels, and he had hoped he would never be called upon to fly one. Still, there was something about the Big Empty...

"Got a contact," Starbuck's voice rang out over the intercom. "Looks like one of the long-range surveillance vessels entering the system"

"It's Cylon," Lieutenant Anderson confirmed seconds later; his Viper still had an upgraded sensor system. "They're coming in on almost a complete opposite vector from us. We're still screened by the comet head, they won't have seen us. Maybe they'll pass on by"

Lee glanced up reflexively at the comet head of ice and rock they had found in a convenient spot and hitched a ride behind. The fleet had also gobbled up what chunks of the ice they could catch and purify.

He put that thought aside. "Federia, power down as best you can. Make yourselves inconspicuous"

The captain of the Federia snorted. "Yeah, like a cargo freighter comes with stealth systems." They did what they could, and the entire squadron waited with bated breath for Anderson to pronounce whether they had to fight, run or just wait.

"I don't think they've seen us," he said. "They're heading straight for the third planet... oh, frak. It's altering course"

"Towards us?"

Lee braced himself for a fight. "Can we run for it? Or get past them, maybe"

"We might be able to get past them," Anderson allowed dubiously, "If we stay where we are, in the comet's shadow, and jump off at exactly the right moment. They're not heading in our direction"

Lee paused, doing the course computations. This comet wasn't a regular visitor to the system, it would pass through once and once only, at high speed. "Great," he said. "How do we get out again if they decide to hang around?"

Chapter 3: A bad cliché

"Alright, let me get this straight," Admiral Istia Fenway rubbed her temples. "We have a probe coming in from one direction, followed by this little fleet who are trying to hide behind that anomaly of a comet the astronomers spotted last month. And we have a ship roughly equivalent to a destroyer heading here from another direction, and it's not the same kind of ship. So we've got two different sets of ships, both arriving in-system at the same time, one hiding and one hunting. Does anyone else feel that we've arrived in someone else's war?"

"And a bad cliché besides," Captain Tamsin Reese noted. "Quite frankly, Admiral, if I read this in a book I'd throw the book out the window."

"Well, whoever they are, the single ship is going to arrive in orbit within two hours," Commander Dashwood remarked. "And they'll pick up the normal chatter a bit before that; this colony never needed to keep its communications stealthed, after all, so we can't keep it all quiet without shutting down just about every computer on the planet."

"Well, this colony wasn't built to be a true military stronghold either," Fenway said. "We've got four orbital platforms, two destroyers, one fighter squadron and the ground missile emplacements, plus the Marine Corps militia and the Guardian Force, such as it is." Both forces were made up of weekend warriors, retired military personnel and eager young teenagers who hadn't finished their schooling or had dropped out early. There would be little hope for the colony in an ongoing battle unless they could hold on for the three weeks it would take for a Fleet convoy to arrive. There were drawbacks to being the first colony out that far, after all.

"Well, we can hope for the best," Captain Nakshitarh said gloomily. "But I'm not having my crew stand down from battle stations until this is over. Ma'am." He nodded through the viewscreen. "Call me paranoid, but this situation makes me very, very uneasy. I don't want to get caught in someone else's war, ma'am, not one bit."

"I agree completely, Captain," Admiral Fenway said, the deep lines in her face and the silver in her hair suddenly seeming very real. Fenway had served the Terran Fleet for nearly sixty years, and suddenly her quiet semi-retirement was looking to become very unquiet indeed. Yet she didn't seem to mind. "But just in case, let's see if we can find some anthropologists. Who knows, we might have a chance for peaceful contact for once."

"But we can't afford to assume it," Reece said.

"And in case we don't, what do we know about the weapons systems on these ships?"

Chapter 4: A distant battle

"The Cylon ship is heading for the planet, not for us," Anderson finally reported. "But Captain? There's something in orbit, several somethings, and they're not Cylons."

"Another species?" Someone asked. "Or a lost colony?"

"Could be almost anything," Starbuck said. "Question is, are they friendly?"

"How's the Cylon responding to them?" Lee asked. That was the crucial question, because they really didn't need another enemy. The Cylons were quite bad enough.

"Hold on a momen... the Cylons are close... the Cylons have opened fire." The battle was far distant and showing only dimly on most of the scopes, and the Federia wouldn't even be seeing that much, since it was an old cranky ship without modern equipment or anything even close to it. "Whoa! The Cylon ship was just destroyed"

"What, just destroyed? Just like that?"

"Evidently, sir," Anderson said.

"Well, that was... unusual," Starbuck said. Even the entire squadron would have been hard-put to do that kind of damage in ten times the time.

Chapter 5: Body Parts and Writing

Reece picked her way through the mess of equipment the salvage crews were laying out on the destroyer's hangar bay. She bent down to look closely at some of the panels.

"Shouldn't you be looking at the circuitry?" A voice behind her asked. "Or the computers?"

She didn't turn around. Lieutenant Commander Thieu had made no secret of the fact he considered patrol duty a gross injustice, with his skills with computers.

"Notice anything about these panels?"

"They're not too badly damaged."

"Right. They're also internal panels. See this? Bracket marks, and this one has part of a light panel attached to it."

"So they're internal panels and not part of the hull. So what?"

"This one here is about the fiftieth I've looked at. Not one of them has anything on it."

"It has a lighting panel."

"No writing. No labels. I can understand that they might not have manufacturers' marks or batch numbers on them, but how could any crew hope to remember what was behind the panels if they weren't labelled? There's no sign of anything, any form of writing at all, in this lot."


"There's also been absolutely nothing we recognise as body parts. So maybe this ship was completely automated. Which might explain why it attacked like that - maybe our ships and satellites fit its criteria for something dangerous."

"Or it was remote-controlled, or there were bodies and we just haven't found them, or the life forms on board didn't leave a residue we'd recognise."

"Always possible - but we've got people analysing the spectra of the explosions and so far they've found no sign of organic compounds beyond simple synthetics and plastics. This stuff is primitive." She waved eloquently. "This hull panel? We were using this stuff round about the time we first ran into the Kangas. Most of this materials technology is four or five hundred years behind ours."

"Which explains why we won so easily."

"Yes, but was this a huge probe, a minor probe, a warship or an almost insignificant old boat?" Reese asked. "That's the crucial question."

Thieu snorted. "We'll find out soon enough. We have pretty much all their transmissions recorded, for one thing."

"How'd they manage that?"

"They fell into the limits we normally use to run the SETI program. We didn't know about it until half an hour ago when some bright intern pulled the satellite records and checked them."

"Yeah. That old program was about as much use as a chocolate teapot when it came to hearing Kanga transmissions. No wonder we didn't check. We'll have to downscale our thinking." She paused, drumming her fingers on her thigh. "Lieutenant Commander, in your opinion, would this craft have been a danger to a colony less well protected than ours?"

"Absolutely, Captain," he responded to the change in attitude at once. "Avarin is a lucky colony; we're right out at the Edge, so we could get a large chunk of the old military equipment the Old Worlds were replacing after we finished up the Kanga Wars. Most colonies this size have two satellites with minimal missile platforms and an armoury of hunting weapons in the central town. We've got ships, a garrison and ground emplacements. A normal colony might easily have damaged the ship but not destroyed it; it was a highly manoeuvrable design for its technology level and almost ludicrously well-armed."

She paused. "If there was no real need for a life support system on board, would that account for the extra speed and firepower?"

"Huh. I'll run the figures. It could account for it. But if that's right, we're going to need our edge of better technology. It may be the only one we've got."

Chapter 6: Potential ally

Commander Adama looked around in surprise. "Just one Viper?"

"Yes, sir. Coming into communications range... now." Lieutenant Duella remained calm and collected. "Galactica calling Viper. Do you read me?"

"Galactica, this is Lynch," Lieutenant Caroline 'Lynch' Laroche said, her voice tinny from the old speakers. "I need to speak to Commander Adama."

Adama picked up the nearest headset and nodded to Duella, who patched him through. "This is Adama. Go ahead, Lieutenant. What's wrong?"

"We were approaching the system when we detected a Cylon scout ship headed for the third planet, sir," she said. "We remained hidden as best we could, but they didn't even seem to notice us. They headed to the planet, opened fire on an area of it, and were destroyed. We have no idea who they were attacking."

Looks were being swapped. "Were you spotted?"

"I don't think so," Lynch said. "No one tried to contact us that we could tell, and no one and nothing came in our direction. Instructions, sir?"

Adama and Tigh swapped looks. "Hold on a second, Lieutenant. Duella, get President Roslyn on the line. If we've found a potential ally, she'll want to know." Not to mention a potential safe haven for their tired battered fleet to settle on, even temporarily.

Chapter 7: Enemy enough

Laura Roslyn was dozing in her seat, papers and reports spread around her like leaves around a tree, when Billy came in to wake her up.

"Madam President, the Commander has asked to speak with you," he said gently. "It's about something the Vipers and the Federia found"

She sat up and rubbed her eyes. She'd been falling asleep working all too often of late, trying to get the fleet functioning well enough to hand over to a successor before her body failed her. "Something useful"

"Something that destroyed a Cylon scout ship." She looked up, staring, and then got up and left the scattered papers where they were, heading for the bridge.

"Where's Doctor Baltar?" she asked. "And what do we know"

"They're waiting for you before they hold a conference." He ushered her into Colonial 1's cockpit. The pilot handed her a headset. If she wasn't being shuttled over to the Galactica, it had to be urgent.

"This is President Roslyn," she said. "What's going on, Commander"

"Captain Adama's squadron detected a Cylon scoutship. Before it detected them, it attacked a section of the planetary surface and was destroyed somehow. We're trying to decide whether or not to scrub the supply mission and how to make contact"

"Should we make contact?" Laura asked. "They may decide to dislike us as well. Aren't the Cylons enemy enough?"

Chapter 8: Opening talks

Captain LeBeau, the commander of the interceptor squadron, and Lieutenant Commander Thieu stared at each other across the table in shock before both lunging for the comm unit.

"Admiral Fenway?" Thieu said. "I think we've found something very important. Can you please come down here?"

A minute later Istia Fenway, Tamsin Reece, I-Chen Phuket, Florian Dashwood and a much-baffled sergeant pressed into service as a note-taker were crowded into the tiny cubicle.

"Alright, talk," Fenway said.

"We were going over the recorded transmissions from the battle and a bit before and after," Trace LeBeau reported. "There was one bit we isolated as being from the ships hiding behind that comet that's about to pass out of the solar system. It was scrambled, but once we filtered out the garbage and ran some decryption programs, we got this." She ran a recording that was mostly static. "Now, if I were human, I never would have caught it…" Fenway waved an arm for her to continue. Trace LeBeau was over three hundred and forty years old, a biosynthetic computer who had utterly enjoyed her three hundred and thirty years as a fighter pilot. She and Tamsin had grown up together, in as much as a computer could be said to grow, and had often served together as close friends. The fact that she wasn't human was no secret, although never advertised openly. "But I heard speech. Human speech. Once I knew what I was listening to I refined things a bit, and we got this."

She hit the play button for a second sound recording.

"Got a contact. Looks like one of the long-range surveillance vessels entering the system." A female voice, young, with a strange accent.

"It's Cylon." A male voice, same accent. "They're coming in on almost a complete opposite vector from us. We're still screened by the comet head, they won't have seen us. Maybe they'll pass on by."

"They weren't screened from us," Thieu muttered. Fenway waved a hand to hush him.

"Federia, power down as best you can. Make yourselves inconspicuous."

"And they speak English," Reece noted. "Which is unlikely even for humans."

"Yeah, like a cargo freighter comes with stealth systems." An older, huskier voice but still with the odd accent, the strange pronunciation of vowels.

"See how much closer to the comet head you can get."

"Any closer and I'll be scraping ice off the viewscreen. We're not exactly nimble here, Captain."

Trace hit the button. "There's a couple of hours more to analyse. I'm unscrambling as I go and having the computer prepare a transcript. I can tell you a couple of things - that accent is Old North American, from Earth. So's the dialect, more or less. And this scrambler system is basic as hell. They're a long way behind us, technologically."

"But they speak English," Reece said. "Even the Kangas never really learned English. They're probably human. But where'd they come from? Is there even a ship registered anywhere called the Federia?"

"There are seventeen," Thieu sighed, "of which nine are cargo freighters. But they're all accounted for so far as the database goes. Which isn't very far - there's even a corvette named the Federia in spacedock at Procyon, being dismantled for scrap since it was too badly damaged to be worth repairing. Oh, and they use Captain and Lieutenant as a military rank, and their fighters only carry one man apiece, unlike ours. We're still processing."

"Can you get me a com-line to them on the same frequency and rig it up to be scrambled just like their conversation?" Fenway asked.

They all looked at her.

"Yes, ma'am," Thieu said after a moment. "If you think it's a good idea."

"I'd like to know what we just killed, Lieutenant, and where this little fleet fits into the equation. I want some answers. Besides, I doubt they were alone. This planet is only lightly defended and all too easy to overwhelm. I want to know what's out there to attack us. Let's head up to the bridge, and you can get me that comline. Captain LeBeau, find out what officers we have who took diplomacy and first contact courses."

"Already checked, ma'am," she sighed. "You got a choice of four - Ensign Martin Llwellyn, of the Marine Corps - he's full-time in the quartermaster's office…"

"Wasn't he the one who started the food-fight last year?" Dashwood asked suspiciously.

"Yes," Phuket said. "Got six days confined to barracks scrubbing floors, too."

"He's also got a missing foot," Reece said. "Lost it in combat, and he's the unlucky one in fifty-five thousand who can't take transplants. Even ones cloned from him. I had him in sickbay last week for a check-up and a physical." Reece was the senior medical officer on the planet, among her other duties, and had an encyclopaediac memory for her patients. "Lieutenant Shinghua Wu," LeBeau continued, "Who passed the course on paper but has been heard to say tact is a mutual agreement to be full of shit."

"I've met her," Fenway said. "If we ever need another interstellar war, I'll send her to do the negotiating. No. Who else?"

"Commander Atarani. Your XO on the Alabama."

"No way. He's great at routine and terrible at anything else. Besides, I want to have a head diplomat who can look after themselves in a fight, if they're not friendly. And how come there's only four?"

"It's a very unpopular course," Dashwood said. "It's never been needed since we stopped trying to talk to the Kangas, so most people don't take it and do something like biochemistry instead."

"Who's the fourth?" Phuket asked.

"Tamsin Reece."

Reece's jaw dropped. "Yeah - three hundred years ago! When I was at the Academy on Midgard. I was nineteen, Trace, and the rules were different then. Besides, I only took it so I'd have an easy class in between maths and military law in the morning!"

"Suit yourself, but the four of you are the only ones who have any idea what the legal, ethical and military protocols are for first contact. Admittedly a lot go out the window since this lot speak English and could be human, but still…"

Thieu shook his head. "She's our only military doctor. Can we spare her?"

"For routine things, the orderlies, nurses and corpsmen have everything in hand," she said. "And for the surgeries and the like, you can call on the civilian doctors. I lend them a hand often enough that they won't mind repaying it too much. But if you do intend to keep me being a diplomatic, you should request another CMO." She shook her head. "What am I saying? I hate having to watch what I say all the time."

"I can think of one very good reason it should be you, Tamsin," Fenway said. "I doubt anyone else on this planet has as good a grasp of the need to hang onto secrets. I can trust you not to reveal things that would be imprudent. Even the Intelligence officers wouldn't know what to say and what not to in that regard."

"You mean not to tell them what we can and can't do, what our forces are like…"

"How wretchedly vulnerable since we started demobbing after the Kangas lost their homeworld…"

"Where we think the Kanga remnants fled to," Reece said slowly. "If any of these people know where to find them…"

"Then we could be in the shit well and proper. Those blasted politicians have run our military down so much in the last twelve years we're hardly fit to fight another war. We're so out of position it's not funny. Whatever else you do, Tamsin, don't let them know that. Now get me that comlink, Thieu."

Minutes later they were standing around on the bridge with a recorder rolling. The strangers' conversation was broadcast on the main speakers.

"But I still say we could sneak in, around the backside of the planet…"

"If I could make missiles like that, I wouldn't be so stupid as to leave a blind spot covering half a planet," someone else replied.

"We need those supplies, Captain," a third voice said. The voices were distorted and crackly, far poorer than the Terran Fleet were used to; their equipment was meant to give clear communication. "The Fleet's…"

"I know what state the Fleet is in," a male voice ground out. "And we wait for orders, clear?"

Trace made a motion to catch Fenway's eye. "That's the guy in charge, I think," she said. "I think his name is Adama."

"Alright. Thieu, you ready?"

"Speak and you're on the air, ma'am," he said, turning to face her and taking his hands off the keyboard. "It should work. It's really not all that complicated a scrambler to set up." Reece let a flicker of amusement cross her face at his arrogance, but she was the only one.

"Captain Adama?" Fenway said into her microphone.

"Who was that?" The voice said after a moment.

"Admiral Istia Fenway, Terran Fleet. Mind telling me what you're doing in my solar system hiding behind a comet?"

The silence on the airwaves could have stunned an ox.

Chapter 9: Frak me

"We'll wait for Lynch to get back," he decreed.

"Is that wise?" Starbuck asked. "We're losing our chance."

"Yes. We'll wait."

"Captain Adama?" The voice sounded strange, like the speaker had trouble pronouncing some sounds, and said the vowels oddly. It certainly wasn't one of his squadron.

"Who was that?" He asked.

"Admiral Istia Fenway, Terran Fleet. Mind telling me what you're doing in my solar system hiding behind a comet?"

He hunted for words, mildly stunned.

"Frak me," Kara muttered.

"If that word means what I think it does," The dry voice said, "Then sorry, lady, but I'm already married, and my tastes don't run to women. Thanks for the offer, though."

Someone laughed. Lee finally found his tongue. "I didn't know it was anyone's solar system. We just came for some supplies."

"A statement which begs a wealth of questions," She said. Fenway. What sort of a name was that? Was there any Admiral Fenway on the Colonial Fleet rolls? And what was the Terran Fleet, anyway? Where was this Terra? Or was it Terr? "Let me put it another way. Are your intentions hostile? And I am talking about your people in general as well as the ships with you in particular."

He worked his mouth hard. "We're not here to start a fight," he said.

"That's it? 'We're not here to start a fight'? Well, I doubt you're on the same side as that ship we blew up given you're cowering behind a comet at the moment, but I'd like to know who they were and how many more are coming up behind them. Not to mention where you all fit into this little jigsaw puzzle we've got here."

"What's a jigsaw puzzle?" Kara asked. Lee wanted to kick her.

"They're Cylons," he said simply. "We're at war with them."

"They're not anything to do with the Kangas, are they?"

"Who are the Kangas? I've never even heard of them."

"How about Trolls?"

"What are they?"

"Well, that answers that one. If you'd met them, it would have made quite an impression. They tend to do that, usually right after they've wiped out a planet or two." The cold even voice made his stomach clench. Had they wandered into a war even worse than the one they were escaping? "Alright, Captain Adama. Let me put it this way. I'm not going to get annoyed over invasion of territory or some such idiocy; what I'd like to do is send a ship back with you to your home…"


"Why not?"

"We won't lead a ship of people we don't know back to our home." No need to give away what that 'home' was.

"Alright. We probably wouldn't just give you the coordinates of our home planet either. How about a shuttle, or a single fighter?"

Lee wished like fury he could ask for advice on a private channel, but he didn't have one. And how the hell had they cracked the naval codes in the first place?

Could he ask advice and still be leader?

He thought furiously. "We'll take a single ambassador. But not on one of your ships. On one of ours."

"Hold on a moment." There was a click.

"Lee, what the hell are you doing…"

"Captain, we can't just…"

"If we…"

"The President said…"

"Everyone shut up," he said. "They might still be listening."

"We are," Fenway said. "We'll send one person, in a space suit, out to your location and you can take them back to your fleet or station or outpost or whatever, alright? But I won't send them unarmed, and I will expect them to communicate within twenty-four hours, or there will be - how do diplomats put it? An Incident." He could hear the capital letter. "I will not just abandon one of my people, Captain. I expect them back."

"I understand," Lee bit the words off. "I will pass that message along to my commanding officer and the civilian authorities." Was that too pompous? No, it was just right. He couldn't take responsibility. Not sole responsibility, anyway. He only commanded a Viper squadron.

"Alright," Admiral Fenway said. "How long before you have to go back?"

"Not long."

"What, an hour, a day, a week, ten minutes…"

"If we use the same units of time, about an hour."

"Alright, I'll have our best diplomat pack fast and dispatch a cargo shuttle. Don't be surprised if it's armed, pretty much everything in orbit here is."

"One condition, Admiral," he said. "We are at war with the Cylons…"

"So we shouldn't go giving them information? I'm not completely ignorant of how the game is played, young man. We will do our very best to give them no information that we do not also give you, but if they wish to establish diplomatic relations we'll give anything they say the same consideration we give to what you say. That's all the promise I'll make."

Lee thought about it for a moment. They had taken out a Cylon scoutship with a single missile. There were multiple ships in orbit, and this wasn't their home world. It might be a major colony, a tiny outpost or anything in between. They could use the weapons. They could also use the protection. And supplies… perhaps some kind of trade deal could be negotiated, if they had anything these people wanted.

"Alright," he said. "Make sure whoever you send has plenty of air. It's several hours to get back."

"Alright. I'll tell our newest ambassador to pack a bag." There was a pause. "We won't stop recording your conversations. I'm telling you that in all fairness; you're welcome to record anything about us you can. For us, that's normal operating procedure. If anything about this can be considered normal."

"Alright, Admiral Fenway. We'll wait for your… ambassador."

"Thank you, Captain." There was a click again, as if she'd stopped transmitting.

"Lords of Kobol," someone muttered. "That was strange."

"Who the frak are these people, Apollo?" The Federia's captain asked.

"I have no idea," he admitted. "I guess we're going to find out soon."

Chapter 10: Let's get this show on the road

The cargo shuttle, as they called it, was larger than the Federia. "You reading me, Captain?" A voice said.

"Yes. Who is this?"

"Ensign Makhra Juthandi. Pilot of this tub. I understand I am to deliver you one interstellar diplomat. Given we're talking people here, there's no paperwork."

"Is that supposed to be funny?"

"Actually, yes. I guess you've got to see the number of forms we usually have to fill out to understand. I am also under strict instructions from the Admiral not to, quote, initiate any action that could be considered threatening, endquote. I guess she doesn't want another fight so soon after the first one. Now I've just got one question."

"What's that?" Kara asked.

"Is our man going to have to hook onto the hulls of your little stubbies, or are they going to go on that big ship?"

"You could hook onto one of our Vipers?"

"I could," A new voice said, sweet and melodiously female, "Since they're ferrous, and our suits come with the option of magnetic boots. Or I could just find the airlock on your, ah, Federia, and use that. It's much the same to me. How much space is there on your cargo ship?"

"Very little," the captain growled.

"Alright, I'll just hook on a line to something on the outside. It's really no trouble. I've travelled under worse conditions in my time." The huge sleek white craft disgorged a tiny red figure from an airlock indistinguishable from the hull so far as Lee could tell and used suit jets to head straight for them. He hoped someone had a camera rolling. "Which one of you is in charge?"

"I am."

"I know that, Captain, which ship are you in is what I meant."

"I'd rather not say."

"That's alright, I'll read the name-plates. Ah." Seeming to spin in space as she arced over the top of the squadron, some kind of panel attached to one sleeve and a bag towing behind, she altered her vector to do a perfect landing beside his cockpit with barely a wobble conveyed. She might have been out for an evening stroll before squatting down on the hull so their eyes were almost on the level. Or presumably they were. It certainly looked human - two arms, two legs, a head, all in the right places. The helmet was opaque; he couldn't see any details.

It waved. "Morning," she - she? - said cheerily. "Let's get this show on the road, shall we?"

"All Vipers, head for home," he said. "And would you mind…"

"I know, I know, I make a better door than a window." She slid down to rest behind his cockpit, her boots staying stuck to the hull. "Nice paint job back here."