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Reality Fault

Out of the Frying Pan...

    Hangover day has ended, and people are trickling back off to their normal lives. The University will be back in session soon, and the crew gathers at the Silver Egg, in preparation for a quick trip up to the Indigo.

Vash yawns softly, speaking to Aykuh while he waits for the others, "...might need some help getting the heaters up to Zil. You're sure you can handle a heat source like that okay?"

Aykuh says, "Well, how warm do they get? Will they burn me, or can you hold them? If you can hold on to one, it won't hurt me."

Vash says, "I don't think the bottom will burn you. They're cased in plastic- er, uh, something that'll stay cool, so they don't scorch what you put 'em on."

Douglas enters the Egg, carrying a pack and his sheathed naginata. He's wearing his ship-suit this morning, and it still fits him well, despite the inordinate fluffiness that his undercoat gives him. Sakura is wearing the dress that Larrikan gave her, since they're passing through the woods and she's not entirely comfortable with that yet. She has her medical bag slung over her shoulder, just in case. Aykuh says, "That should be no problem then. I'm sure Zildjian will be much happier."

Sakura says, "I hope she is. We don't like seeing her like this."

Vash says, "All right. Thanks, Aykuh. We shouldn't be too long, everything goes well, knock on wood-" He pauses again. "Er, figuratively speaking."

Aykuh looks confused at that but just says, "Good journey. We'll see you in a few days." Hotspur gives Vash a backpack of supplies, "Here. This will make things simpler." The minotaur smiles.

Vash grins. "Hey, thanks, Hotspur. We appreciate it. We'll see you in a couple days."

Douglas nods quietly in agreement, smiling quietly as he comes up to the group. "Are we all set?"

Sakura looks around. "I'm ready whenever you are."


The day is dawning into an afternoon that feels autumn-y, finally. There is thin, high cloud cover, which make shadows indistinct but the day not as cold. A light breeze tosses leaves across the path occasionally. Vash pauses after some miles, and looks around. He holds up a hand. "Excuse me a second, guys. Something I gotta do here."

Douglas blinks to Vash, looking around. Then he frowns. "Isn't this the place where the water hag is...?"

Vash nods, walking off the path into the forest. "Yeah," he says, "I'll be right back." Sakura follows Vash, with a determined look on her face. He is not going there alone. Douglas frowns and follows as well. Just in case, he looses the strap on the sheath covering the naginata's blade.

The cool breeze follows the creek a little more swiftly than through the woods, and ripples blow across the water, making it lap at one side of the enchanted path. Vash makes his way off the path to just about twenty feet above the waterline, then puts a pair of talons in his mouth and blows a shrill whistle. "Hey! Puta! Come up outta there, pendeja!"

Water roils at the far end of the pond, amidst the murk and fallen branches which still linger there. Mud seethes through the water.

Sakura stands back a bit from Vash but keeps a wary eye on the water. Douglas looks slowly at Vash, his eyebrows raising. He mentally cringes from the water and hides behind a big couch in his mind. "Captain," he says quietly, "-what are you doing, just so we aren't badly surprised?"

Vash says, "Nothing, but she mouthed off at us the last time we passed through here, and I let it slide. It's our turn now."

In one dark corner of the stagnant pool, streamers of weeds slide near the surface... or maybe it's putrid hair. The dark gleam of what might be eyes shows beneath it, and everyone feels as if a malicious force is watching them.

Vash says, "Ah, there you are! Hey, I got something to say to you!" Sakura has a classic I'm not sure this is a good idea, Sir look on her face, but keeps quiet. The hag -- if that is indeed the hag -- doesn't respond, merely watches hungrily.

Vash inhales deeply. What follows is a stream of profanity that stretches the boundaries of both good grammar and bad taste. Then he takes a few moments to catch his breath. Douglas deadpans, "This is going to mess with the translators, isn't it?"

The watching face and hair sinks slowly below the surface. Mud roils under the water's surface for a moment, and one little wave tries to wash over the path, but nothing else happens. Sakura laughs softly, "Well... the translators are one step closer to learning Foul Spanish."

Vash says, "Okay. That's all I had to say. Let's go. I expect we'll be getting another mouthful on the way back. This is becoming a real relationship."

Sakura shakes her head, grinning, and turns back to the road. Douglas blinks slowly. "Okay," he says finally, and follows Vash across the footbridge, carefully keeping near the runes there.

Vash shrugs. "All said, I'd rather sling insults than tentacles."

Douglas says, "Well, I won't argue that..."

Sakura says, "I've had quite enough of her tentacles."

Vash says, "So have I. That's why we just yell at each other now."


The Alshain is where the crew left it, a familiar shape in the grassy clearing. Its straight, white lines seem a little strange after so long in the woods, but it is exactly as remembered.

Vash says, "Anyway. Doug, you got the checklist?"

Douglas nods, digging into his pack for his nearly forgotten data-pad. "Sure thing, Captain. Let me do my once-around outside while you and Sakura-chan check inside?"

Vash says, "Right. Let's get underway."

Sakura nods, "Sounds good."

The ship seems normal outside and in. Self-checks and tests all prove normal, and the shuttle is soon ready for takeoff. Sakura sits down at her terminal and brings her computers up. She does a quick sweep of the area above the ship, just to ensure that they're clear for takeoff. Then she looks over at Vash. "All clear, Sir. The Alshain seems normal as well, Sir. Clear skies..."

Vash says, "Then let's roll, guys. Let's be on our way and get back... it's gonna get busy down here soon."

Douglas finishes his walk-around, looks around once more at the clearing, and nods to himself. I can do this, he thinks. It's a clear day, it's no heavy weather -- that's why we waited for now -- it'll be a smooth run... oh, Hell, I think I just jinxed myself... He makes his way to the flight deck, swallowing back his tenseness, his mental voice too nervous to do anything but just sit there in his mind, in wide-eyed shock that this is about to happen. "All clear outside, Captain," he says calmly. "Nothing snagging the landing gear, either." He hesitates a bit at the pilot's station, then sighs and slips into the seat, reconfiguring the holo-sonic displays to tactile-visual ones.

Vash says, "When you're ready, Douglas." Sakura straps herself into the seat and watches her controls as Douglas readies the ship for takeoff.

Douglas lets out a breath, nodding as he runs a final diagnostic of the board, then switches to an engineering display to check on the engines. "Okay... rods engaged, going up to full military power on the reactor... turbines look green..." He switches the console to a full flight config, then swallows, taking hold of the throttle and stick. He nods, more to himself than to anyone else. "Preparing for takeoff..."

Slowly, the engines take on their not-so-familiar sound, rising in pitch. The Alshain begins to shift a little, then rises up out of the clearing sluggishly. Slowly it rises into the air, and Douglas points the shuttle in a generally easterly direction, switching to forward flight. While he's nervous, the procedure takes place with little fuss and no problems -- relatively routine. Shortly, the shuttle is gaining altitude. Vash sinks back in his chair and closes his eyes. "All right."

Three hours later Douglas, who has been watching the engines and the flight path closely, makes the cut-over to the orbital engines. The shuttle wobbles somewhat, but otherwise nothing happens. The engines burn for a little while longer, then the shuttle is in orbit and the engines shut down automatically. Doug breathes a sigh of relief and leans back in his seat. "Orbit achieved; we're due to rendezvous with Indigo in nine hours, Captain."

Vash nods. "Excellent. Let's go over the checklist for the ship one last time."

Sakura taps at her keys a moment, looking perplexed. "Sir... the Yellow Rose is... gone."

Vash says, "Gone? Shit, she couldn't have de-orbited... could she? So soon?"

Douglas sits up, blinking to Vash. He quickly checks the computer. "Let me check her orbital parameters, from when we first observed her. That'll tell us if her orbit was decaying or not, but I'm sure it wasn't..." Douglas calls up the records that they have of the Yellow Rose. It might mean setting up a datalink to the Indigo, so he preps the shuttle's transmitter.

Sakura says, "Sir... we'll be doing very nearly a complete orbit as we get to the Indigo. If the Yellow Rose went down somewhere, it'll leave a mark. We can look for it."

Vash says, "Unless she hit the ocean. I'd almost rather that. But something tells me it's just not going to be that simple." He sighs a little. "It never is, here."

Sakura nods, "Very true, Sir."

Douglas shakes his head. "The orbit was stable, Captain. She shouldn't have dropped out of orbit for another forty years at least."

Vash says, "Yeah... I figured." He rubs his eyes on the heels of his hands. "Oh, well. Let's get to our own ship first... we'll deal with this later."

Douglas says, "Maybe Indigo will have data logs of what happened to the Yellow Rose."

Vash says, "Possibly. We'll check it out then."

Sakura has, by the time they reach the Indigo, been able to scan much of the ground. She shakes her head, "As you said, Captain. Nothing is simple here."

Douglas has also been checking the Indigo's data logs, to see if there are any indicators of Yellow Rose's fate. A sharp intake of breath precedes an almost breathless, "Captain... Indigo has nothing about the Yellow Rose, but the security log's showing we've had multiple intruders aboard at several times. They didn't seem to have done anything while they were there." He adds unhelpfully, "Seem to, at least."

Sakura blinks, "Aboard the Indigo?

Douglas nods quickly. "Aboard the Indigo," he confirms.

Sakura taps at her keyboard and starts a thorough scan of the outside of the Indigo, paying special attention to the entrance points. She hmms, "Nothing unusual on the outside of the ship. No markings, scuffs, emissions. Nothing."

Vash hrmns. "Hell. We'll have to check the camera logs. Dammit. TAG is gonna hate this."

Douglas spends a few minutes going through the logs. He goes through them twice, then blinks slowly. "I don't know, Captain. There's no evidence of hatches being opened, no password cracking attempts, no airlocks were cycled. The hangar is still decompressed. But all the motion and infrared sensors indicate activity, and the cameras have been filming, which means something triggered their recording." He types at the console a bit. "Can't get to the video from here, though; the 'link is complaining about it using too much bandwidth for secure streaming."

Sakura's tail fur is sticking out on end. Vash frowns. "Let's get aboard. We've got to check the logs."

Sakura nods at Vash. "I'm curious..."

Douglas nods quietly. "Aye, Captain. Docking procedure commencing..."

The landing is normal and uneventful. The landing bay doors respond normally to the request to open, and Alshain and Indigo's computers chatter and provide the correct information for the delicate docking maneuver. The shuttle bay closes and the big lock re-pressurizes, heating up. Condensation forms on things and is whisked away by the heaters and dehumidifiers. Life support is normal.

Douglas stands and starts to go for his naginata, then instead looks to Vash for orders. Sakura doesn't unbuckle herself yet. She does one more scan, just to make sure that there's nothing on the ship but them. Vash removes the g-harness and stands up, drawing his weapon. He blinks at Doug, "Uh, Douglas? You're... not going to be able to swing that in the corridors."

Douglas smiles wanly. "No. Probably not. Trouble is, I'm not that good with firearms, Captain."

Sakura says, "Well, sir. Everything looks normal." She looks at her crewmates, "Except, perhaps your complexions. Are you all right?"

Vash shrugs, rolling his shoulders. "Been on the dirt-side too long... feels itchy in here. Side effects, I guess. Either that or there's a serious fungus brewing in here."

Douglas felt, at the first movement out of the chair, a faintly uncomfortable feeling in the pit of his stomach. He ignored it. A minute or so later he blinks and goes... green... under the fur. "Urrrrrrrr," he... says... to Sakura. Oh, man... it's that Bald Mountain brew, I know it is, it's gotta be. It's trollish, it waited until my guard was down.

Sakura unbuckles herself from her chair and stands, "That's funny... I feel fine."

Vash says, "Great. Then you can take the point."

Sakura nods, "Yes, Sir." Next time, I'm going to fake it... point... great... She pushes off from her chair and floats to the nearest airlock, to release it and let them out into the Indigo.

Vash snickers and pushes off the back of the command chair toward the lock. "Heh, I'm just kidding, Sakura. Follow me, we'll hit the bridge first and access the security logs.

Douglas repeats helpfully, "Urrrrrrrrr," and starts to 'swim' for the nearest stash of motion-sickness pills. "Urrr-urp!" and he clamps a hand over his mouth. A moment later he muffledly says, "Sakura-chan... Captain... before we go in... if I could ask for some Dramamine...?"

Vash grins. "Heh, on second thought, why don't you take Doug down to sickbay, Sakura. I'll go to Security; I'll meet you on the bridge."

Sakura says, "Oh! Yes, of course, Douglas. Think you can make it to sick bay?" Douglas's complexion is normally not visible under his coat. That's changed, as somehow he manages to look completely and totally miserable. At least he's not going "Urrrrrrrr," anymore. Sakura pushes over to Douglas and grabs his belt. "C'mon, Doug-kun. Let's get you to sick bay." She pushes out the airlock and heads towards the little medical center. Vash pushes down the corridor toward the lift and Security.

Douglas lets himself be pulled through the airlock, managing to pull himself along a little so the onus of hauling his entire mass through the corridors is not burdensome on Sakura. Sakura grins at Douglas as she hauls him into the sickbay. "I'll try not to file this in our reports, Doug-kun." Sickbay is just as Sakura left it, spic and span and ready for use. Douglas' stomach is still upset, but the drugs seem to help some. Given a few hours he'll acclimate most of the way.

Douglas murmurs wanly, "Thank you, Sakura-chan. I'd hear no end of it from my former co-workers."


Vash sits down at the console in Security and logs into the computer. "It was you who broke my Mason plate." He silently wonders whose idea that password was, or if it was just designed to make him sound as foolish as possible. He scratches the back of his head, looking over the activity logs. It just starts and stops for no reason. He frowns, fiddling with the video logs.

Sakura comes back onto the bridge. "Any luck, Captain?"

Vash says, "I'm working on it right now. The logs make about as much sense as anything else lately. Trying to get the video feed right now..."

Douglas trails along behind Sakura, starting to look a little better, though his ears are still drooped and he looks like he was run roughshod over by a trollish truck. "Need any help with that, Captain?"

Vash says, "Maybe you should just sit down for a bit, Doug. You look like someone hit you with a brick."

Douglas nods solemnly. "It feels kinda like it," he confesses, pulling himself into a chair and buckling the restraints. It helps a little, but not much. Sakura just floats in the air behind Vash, watching over his shoulder as he fiddles with the video.

Vash says, "If I see little green men when this comes up, I'm resigning."

Vash fiddles with video feeds, one of the view-screens playing video back. When he finds the section the logs refer to, the pictures don't clarify too much. The camera on the bridge went off first, in a most peculiar way. Detecting heat and motion, it began recording. A dark haired human with slightly dark complexion seems to appear in the middle of the room. A yellow glow surrounds him for a few moments, as he waves a small box in front of him, turning slowly. The yellow glow fades, and the man reaches down and touches a control at his belt. The audio pick-up gets, "Belvengeance, this is McKurtz. We have an earth-normal atmosphere and no occupants, as scanners suggested." He turns and walks to the control banks, not touching, but moving the box over them slowly, and examining them with sharp eyes.

Douglas narrows his eyes a bit. "Human. Technological. Laws' people." This last is almost a growl.

Sakura says, "I wonder if they have anything to do with the missing Yellow Rose."

Vash says, "Fucking Star Trek refugees. They had to know we'd record them. What were they thinking?"

Sakura says, "What's he doing with that box?"

Douglas says, "Maybe they didn't know. Or maybe they didn't care or mind."

Vash says, "It's a scanner. Didn't you watch television?"

The human carefully and methodically waves his box over the entire control panel, making occasional comments to it or to the control at his belt; it's unclear precisely which. "All the stations seem to be labeled in a variation of Standard, except the pilot's station, which has a strange configuration, seemingly emitting ultrasonic emissions. Seems to be configured for a crew of four, which would match the reports." The crew gets a good look at the man, who seems to be reasonably good looking and in good physical shape, when he scans over the security camera.

Sakura says, "Television? Vash... med students don't have time for television. Unless it's ER reruns. Those are 'education'..."

Vash says, "The Company's lawyers are going to have a fit. So much for trading with these guys."

The camera changes to the Sick Bay, and McKurtz continues his slow examination, touching nothing. He comments, "Reasonable medical bay with good general medicine facility, although nothing too specialized, and no regeneration or cloning tanks."

Douglas says, "Admittedly, we did watch Star Trek in engineering school. The Trek 24 drinking game was popular..." He blinks. "Did he just say 'regeneration or cloning' like he expected to find them there?"

Sakura nods at Douglas. "Yes. He did."

Vash says, "Not that I think they'd want to trade with mere primitives like us..."

On screen, McKurtz doesn't pause or say much in the conference room or offices, his scanner telling him they are exactly what they appear to be. Security slows him down, as he scans the very controls Vash sits at now, commenting, "Ship's computer seems primitive, although of reasonable capacity. All systems reporting normal behavior, and security systems are active." He turns to go back out to the main part of the bridge.

Douglas nods to Vash, looking sour. "In their defense, they probably didn't know that we were still alive when they came on board." He shakes his head. "'Security systems are active.' And he doesn't seem concerned at all..."

Vash says, "I honestly don't think they care, Doug. They think good intentions are all the justification they need. Sinister and fruity like a Hitler Youth poster. Or the 4H..."

Douglas says, "All they need, then, are road signs saying, 'This way to hell'." Sakura snorts.

The video continues as the carefully prying human takes another look at the bridge controls and readouts. He says, "All ship systems reporting nominal and all maintenance completed, unlike the other ship. This may signify the crew is more competent, or it may merely mean that they are more obedient. As there seem to be no weapons controls, I would suspect the crew is not as trusted, and therefore the latter case more true." Having so said, he moves back to the point he came in and adds, "Return transfer, please." A moment later he is surrounded in a gentle blue glow, and fades away. Two minutes later the bridge cameras stop recording, deciding there's nothing interesting going on.

Vash straightens up a little. "Obedient? Hey, fuck you, man." He folds his arms. "Well, hell. That wasn't creepy. That was just irritating."

It may take a moment to realize, but at the word 'obedient' Doug's fur has all stood out on end, lending a significant increase to his apparent size -- at least those parts of him that aren't covered by the ship-suit. Which means his head and hands look entirely too large for his body. Oh, and his still-growing tail looks just this side of 'sad.' Sakura laughs, "At least we keep our ship more tidy than the Texans did."

Vash says, "I'd hope so."

Douglas's whiskers twitch. "My sentiment exactly, Captain." He mutters, "I'll show them 'more obedient'..." Within the faint haze of massive irritation, a thought does strike Douglas: "I'd be interested in seeing what their evaluation of Yellow Rose is. Was."

Vash says, "It hardly matters now." He calls up the next set of recordings.

The recordings on the other floors are similar; oddly, none of the interlopers ever used the elevators. The same person, McKurtz, explored the recreation deck, using a flashlight when the lights required touching a physical switch, which he was apparently unwilling to do. The only really interesting comment is, "A great deal of technical ingenuity has been expended to reproduce what could be duplicated in a simple holo-tank. Despite that, the crew seems well appointed for." He vanishes as he did the first time.

Douglas deadpans, "We'll pass his compliments on to TAG." Sakura laughs!

Vash says, "Now I remember what this reminds me of."

Douglas says, "What's that, Captain?"

Vash says, "The Discovery Channel. Like pygmies in space. Jesus."

Sakura says, "Douglas, if you're going to pass his compliment on to TAG, could you maybe adjust it to say 'crew seems well appointed for, despite horrific lack of a printer'?"

Douglas winces to Vash. "Ouch. We're reduced to a documentary." He looks up and over to Sakura, and smiles. "That'll be the first thing in the report." Sakura grins at her crewmates.

The video for the storage and flight deck is not as clear. Someone called Davis appeared in the Flight deck, despite it being depressurized. The form of the slightly balding, slightly overweight, middle aged man appears and makes a slow circuit of the room, waving his apparent scanner over things, again including the security camera. He is surrounded by a thin yellow glow, which apparently means the lack of atmosphere doesn't bother him. As there is no atmosphere, the cameras didn't pick up anything he said. The cameras in the storage rooms picked up the images of someone appearing and pointing a flashlight around before they vanished, but they were set only to take single frames every thirty seconds, so no dialogue was recorded.

Vash says, "You know, given how badly this guy seems to hate touching anything, and since he's treating us like we're the new exhibit at the zoo, I think the first thing I'm gonna do when I meet him is piss on his leg." Sakura covers her mouth and laughs behind her hand.

Douglas says, "I'd offer to 'mark' him, Captain, since that's what my genetic forebears did, but that would mark him as my territory, and I'm not sure he'd be a low-maintenance pet."

Vash says, "I don't wanna keep him; I just wanna take a leak on him."

Davis appears in the crew quarters lobby and methodically walks through the rooms, looking carefully at all the fittings. In the quarters, no video exists, but the audio gets the comments, most of which aren't interesting. He notes the sizes of the beds, the lack of hydraulics, the lack of food generators, and use of a delivery system. Vash quirks his mouth to one side, "Hydraulics? In the quarters? Hey, cochese, we're not all lowriders."

Douglas says, "He's complaining about lack of hydraulics in the crew compartment?" After a moment he asks, "Just what the heck did he think we were supposed to be doing for the entire trip?"

Sakura bristles, "If I find out he was looking at my unmentionables, I'm going to do something extremely unkind to him."

Vash says, "I'm serious. I'm offended on behalf of Hispanics everywhere. Apparently they don't have dark-skinned people in the future."

Douglas says, "Captain, for not the first time, I think you've confused me."

Vash says, "Don't mind me, Doug. Next." He keys for the next video.

Engineering's video is more interesting. Davis appears again, with the yellow glow, and makes a quick scan, then vanishes. Another person -- this a short, slightly stocky woman with salt-and-pepper hair -- appears, carrying the now familiar scanner and wearing a larger one slung over her shoulder. She looks confident. Although the other two did too, hers is different. She seems at home with the big machines around her, and examines them with interest. The pickups get her saying, "Belvengeance, this is Ardent. Engineering seems to be rather primitive. Gravitic reaction type engines, and some sort of microfission plant."

Vash says, "You see that, Doug? She's talking down on your engines, man."

Sakura says, "Captain, when we meet them, can we show them just how primitive we can get? Downright Medieval, even."

Video of Ardent has her continuing, "This ship's design is fairly different from the other. While the other was reasonably capable in normal space, this one seems to be simplistic, solving with brute force what the other solved with complexity. In contrast, this one has more redundancy and should be more reliable and easier to maintain, not to mention fuel and operate. It is an interesting selection of design choices."

Vash says, "Don't bother, Sakura. It'll just make them worse."

Sakura nods at Vash. "Yes, Sir."

Douglas bristles, though not as much as before. "Primitive!" he exclaims. "Primitive! Took us only a few years to come up with Gate drive! They'd probably be saying that the Tacoma Narrows bridge was done in by 'primitive knowledge of waveform physics' or some malarkey like that..." He folds his arms, and just falls silent, his whiskers twitching... though he does mutter, "Damn right it's reliable."

The image on the screen spends a long time using both the little scanner and the other equipment she brought on the Gate drive on the bottom hull before she reports, "This ship's Gate drive is quite primitive, but effective. I have never seen this design before." Having apparently collected enough data, she walks back to where she came in and asks, "Return transfer, please." She vanishes, and the tape stops.

Vash folds his arms. "Well. That was fun."

Douglas says sourly, "Part of me would hope they'd never seen that design before." But he's not bristling so much anymore.

Sakura says, "I wonder if they are the Doctor's men..."

Douglas says, "I would say they are, Sakura-chan. Or at least associated with Laws."

On the big view-screen forward, the entire crew notices something changing, even before the sensor array emits a sharp beep for Sakura's opinion. The ship which has faded in from nothingness hangs in front of the Indigo. It is nothing like they have ever seen Earth produce. It has a long, low section, lined with several floors worth of windows, which backs into a larger, vaguely spherical section which shows no windows at all. Strange, glowing engines are mounted on either side of it, extending out back past the spherical part. Landing lights blink in a familiar red, green, and white pattern inherited from ancient maritime use, and spotlights pick out the name "Belvengeance" on the sides. The ship appears silently, and simply hangs there in space.

Vash says, "Oh, for chrissakes..."

Sakura can't help herself. She says, "Sir. The Romulans have decloaked."

Vash says, "I thought med students didn't have time for television." Sakura grins.

Douglas blinks, glancing to the front... then stares. After a few moments he deadpans, "Okay. Coolness factor has been noted."

Vash folds his arms. "Don't encourage them, Doug. I expect they'll be hailing us here shortly."

The comm board beeps -- the ship is being hailed. Douglas says, "I'd say you were precognate, Captain, except we all know they're just predictable."

Sakura says, before anyone answers, "This is the Indigo, thanks for calling. Will you hold?"

The voice on the comm system announces, "Greetings, Indigo. I am Captain Marcus Frederick, of the Federated Civilizations' ship Belvengeance. Is Captain Vash Montoya available?"

Vash says, "This is Montoya."

The Belvengeance does not transmit a video signal, but the human's voice that comes across is sure and confident. He continues, "Good afternoon, Captain. I am pleased to be able to officially greet you in the name of the Federated Civilizations."

Vash says, "Right, greetings. And the little visit you paid my ship on the sly, that was the unofficial one, right?"

The reply from the other channel seems at ease and confident, "We made no attempt to damage or harm your ship in any way, nor did we avoid your security measures. I am sure you were able to review all of our actions."

Douglas murmurs, "Most of them..."

Vash says, "I think that's beside the point, but there's no point in arguing now. You have our attention, Belvengeance, what's your business with Indigo?"

Captain Frederick says, "My sources on the planet say that you have recently lost a crew member, because of some terrible misunderstandings with powerful natives. You have my deepest condolences. We have spent a great deal of time learning how to interact with new peoples and primitive races safely, for both their sake and our own. We would be pleased to give you training in these important skills, so that you would not lose another crew member in a terrible accident like this."

Vash says, "That's very kind of you, Captain, but the fact of the matter is our crewmember left of his own accord and in defiance of his superiors. He knew what he was getting into." Douglas visibly tries to keep calm, despite the increase in bristleage he shows.

The voice of the other Captain finishes, "Therefore we would like to extend an invitation you to accompany us to our home world for this training. You are welcome to join us aboard our ship, if you like. We await your reply."

Sakura checks to make sure that the communicator isn't sending. "I think we're doing just fine without their 'benevolent interference'..."

Douglas reaches over and touches the 'mute' key. "If you're looking for opinions, Captain," he says wryly, "-my vote is for 'stick it up their keister.' But politely. We still don't know what happened to Skydancer when he went looking for them, and he came back the next morning with nothing but memories that he was for some reason talking cheerfully with them all night."

Vash shakes his head. "I doubt they're going to take no for an answer. Doug, go get the beacon pod ready to launch... just in case. Flag it with the 'get your asses up here' codes, and tube them. I want them ready to go just on the outside chance these outer space fascists decide we're going along with anyway." He touches the communications console, "Again, that's a very kind offer, Captain, but Indigo will have to politely decline. We have extremely pressing concerns with our parent company as well as here on Karlstrasse that require our attention. Perhaps when the Company sends through more 'official' representatives, they'll be interested in discussing with you."

Douglas nods and drifts over to the engineering console, prepping and tubing the next beacon pod, loading it with the security logs and a constant stream of the current radio conversation.

A long moment passes before the unusual reply from the Belvengeance comes back. A field of sparkling energy, vaguely yellow in color, comes in a diffuse beam from an emitter on the bottom of the spherical part, which covers almost half of the Indigo. The sensor array chirps again, more insistently, indicating a physical presence. It is apparently reading this beam as a collision. Captain Frederick's voice sounds genuinely positive as he says, "We are pleased you have chosen to accompany us."

Vash says, "I fucking knew it. Douglas, hit it, now!" Douglas fires off the pod even as Vash is saying his name.

Sakura says, "What?!?"

Vash grabs Sakura's arm, "C'mon, we're gonna try and bug out in the Alshain. We'll swing around the other side, try and get the planet in between us and them."

Sakura snarls at the computer screen as Vash grabs her arm. "Bakayarou." She pushes off as fast as she can, heading for the Alshain.

The log launches normally, firing out of its port, which happens to be on the opposite side of Indigo. The radio comes to life, saying cheerfully, "We are pleased to hear you take your responsibilities to your home organization and the people below so seriously. We would be happy to send them a statement and official greetings also. Before we leave, would you like to send a message back to those on the planet below, letting them know of your departure? We are not barbarians, and it would be thoughtless to leave people wondering, when your well-being is assured."

Vash says, "Douglas, meet us in the hangar post-haste -- we are out of here." Douglas clambers out of the seat as soon as he has confirmation that the pod launched, and pulls himself through the corridors towards the hangar post-haste. Damn them, damn them, DAMN THEM! There's no DAMN way I'm leaving Crossroads... leaving the trolls... leaving Annifred willingly!

As Douglas slides into Alshain, Vash says, "Blow the doors, Doug, we're not waiting." He straps himself into the command seat in Alshain, "We don't have twenty minutes to wait to depressurize the hangar." He touches his console and says quickly but clearly, "Command override, Cast in the name of God." He turns to Doug, "Blow the doors, Doug, we don't have any time left to wait."

Sakura straps herself quickly into her seat, tightening the belts for what is sure to be a bumpy ride. Douglas dives into the seat, looking increasingly green, and links in Vash's overrides. He turns away for a moment to address the engines but turns back quickly as the console chirps at him. "SHIT!" he snarls. "Computer needs a second override, it... it says there's something blocking the hangar doors!" He looks to Vash, saying quickly, "We don't know what's out there, Captain. Shall I override it?"

Vash says, "Try and get as much of Crossroads between us and them, Doug, and get us into the atmosphere ASAP. We can count on a little cover from the magic. More so if we can actually hit dirt-side and get into the trees..." He grits his teeth and snaps, "Override Beta, Cast in the name of God, Ye not guilty!" Sakura scans the doors quickly, to see if she can figure out fast what's on the other side. Vash adds, "Blow the fucking doors, Doug! If you wanna see Broken Horn again, blow the doors!"

Douglas slams his hand onto the console -- no, he hits the right keys quickly and brings on the orbital engines, hoping the interior of the hangar will take the engines' blast. As soon as the doors open and he's got a clear flight path right out, he's going to trigger them on at least a ten-second burn to get clear, which will hopefully give them enough time to reorient and burn for atmosphere.

Sakura growls. "The scanners don't say what's out there, just keep insisting that we've hit something."

Nothing particularly solid seems to be on the other side of the doors. The computer acknowledges Vash's directive, and follows Douglas' request. The doors pop open, slamming apart as fast as their hydraulics can take them, in an attempt to keep the exiting atmosphere from sucking the ship into them. The expected turbulence doesn't happen, though, as the atmosphere stays put, held in place by the strange yellow glow that is revealed when the doors open. The hangar bay faces the Belvengeance directly, completely covered by the strange field. The yellow field slowly creeps in through the open doors.

Vash says, "I don't believe this."

Sakura's jaw drops open. "That had better not be a force-field."

Douglas swallows and quickly tries to link into Indigo's computer, trying to get the big girl to rotate so that the hangar exit is NOT facing the damnable ship! "Come on, Indigo, girl," he murmurs. "Yaw, pitch, roll, something!" Douglas's commands flicker through the computer linkages, and Indigo claims to be responding. Aboard the Alshain, no effect is visible.

Sakura says, "Captain... if we can't get out of here..."

Vash shakes his head. "Provided we can't get away, which is looking like a strong possibility... well, we can always blow up the ship." He sounds like he's only half-joking.

Douglas tries not to let himself get distracted by that thought. We WILL get out of here! Captain WILL see Blue again! Sakura-chan WILL see Larrikan again! I WILL see Annifred again! We WILL see Zildjian again... He runs through the names like a mantra as he works. He starts to give an exclamation of joy at the response but, looking up, he still sees the baleful yellow of that damnable ship. His ears droop, but then he goes back to the console, urgently trying to get the thing to respond, dammit! Thrusters... braking thrusters, even, hell, even the gravity drive, won't that work, even a little...?

Sakura says, "What do we do if they take us, Sir? The old 'Name-Rank-Number' routine?"

Vash says, "That's up to you, Sakura."

Sakura nods. "Thank you, Captain-san..."

Vash says, "Don't get yourself hurt for the sake of the Company." The comm panel beeps again. Vash says, "I don't think I have the patience for this. What now?"

Vash says, "Go on, Sakura. Open the comm."

Sakura flicks the comm on irritatedly. "This is the Indigo."

The voice of Captain Frederick comes through to the cabin, "I am terribly sorry to see that you are so unhappy about joining us. This is, however, rather important. I ask again, would you like to send a message to the people below, reassuring them you will return in a few short months? A message from you would be much more reassuring to them than one from strangers like us."

Douglas stares at the console, even as he feels a faint tremor through the Indigo transmitted into the shuttle. His hand is clenched tightly, shaking, and he doesn't move until the console beeps at him insistently, warning him of engine stress increasing. With his other hand he touches controls to shut down the big gravity drive and the other engines, before starting to clench, his claws baring, glinting in the faint cockpit light, looking unutterably angry and confused and frustrated, seeing red beginning to cloud his vision. A small drop of blood smears upon the console face from his clenched hand, and that bit of moisture seems to drain all the anger and temper from him; slowly he relaxes his tension, ears and tail drooping, shoulders sagging. "Bastards," he whispers softly.

Vash says, "Hear this right now, Captain. You can release my ship immediately, or I promise you I will destroy it and most likely yours as well. We're not interested in your benevolent assistance, and this is plain and simple piracy. We were captives before, you know. One way or the other, Captain... we will stay free."

The other Captain sounds pained as he asks, "Captain Montoya, why do you think I would let you do such a terribly useless thing to yourself? You did see, did you not, that we have transfer technology which allows us to board your ship immediately, wherever we need? We have your ship's map and measure at hand. That technology can work the other way, too, securing you aboard our vessel where you will be unable to harm yourself because of short-sighted thinking or overly emotional reaction. We have been trying our very best not to have to resort to such unpleasant measures. It would be much more pleasant to have you as our guests, or for you to remain in the security and comfort of your own vessel. You are not captives, and you will be able to return here or to your homes, just as soon as we have had a chance to give you the benefit of our experience."

Vash says, "Cut it, Sakura."

Sakura flicks the switch off. "Is there anything I can do or say to convince you that we do not need to be antagonistic towards one another-" The captain is cut off. Sakura gives the comm console a rude gesture.

Vash says, "I think if anyone has anything they wish to say, they'd best say it now."

Sakura smiles at Vash and Douglas. "It has been a pleasure working with you both. You're true friends."

Vash says, "I'm sorry it had to turn out this way."

Sakura says, "Don't be sorry, Vash-kun. Better this than slaves again."

Vash says, "I don't think he's lying about pulling us off. If you're certain, I still have my gun."

Sakura says, "No... I don't think he's lying either, Vash-kun. I think he's quite serious. So, I suspect, are you."

Douglas snarls -- after a moment he realizes he's being incoherent, and says simply and sharply, "Bullshit!" He slowly, surely calms himself, looking to Vash and swallowing, still looking hurt and angry. Sakura's words drain all the anger from him, replaced by a resigned but genuine smile. "As were you both, Sakura-chan, Cap... Vashti." He nods a bit, looking forward out the window. "TAG will find out. The beacon pod got away." At Vash's offer, though, he visibly winces and glances down at the console. He doesn't say anything more for the moment.

Vash says, "I think the decision has to be made quickly." The comm system beeps again. The sensor system beeps again. Vash says, "Check the sensors, quick, Sakura... ignore the comm for now."

Sakura scans what she can from her console, though she's not certain she'll get anything more than she got last time, which was not much at all. A moment later she says, "Captain! The ship is towing us out of orbit... and there seem to be two people hailing us."

Vash says, "Two? If you've got anything to say to the new guys, now's the time to say it."

Douglas grits his teeth at the news that the ship is being towed out, away from Crossroads, away from -- he blinks. "Depends on who they are..."

Sakura says, "Looks like they're both from the Belvengeance... one is a standard frequency. The other is an encoded, tight-beam transmission."

Vash says, "Oh, what the hell. Let's hear the coded one."

Sakura turns the standard hailing line to muzak, effectively putting them on hold, and flicks the encoded line on, "Indigo." She smiles to herself at the thought of muzak piping into the bridge of the Belvengeance. Douglas blinks, perking his ears a bit... but he tries not to get his hopes up that it's someone who wants to help them.

A deep, oddly flat voice says, "You fools. You should have listened to me before. It's not too late, yet."

Vash blinks. "Is that...?"

Douglas blinks, sitting up. "I know that voice!" he breathes. "It's... it's the Master! From Drekaris' castle!"

Sakura blinks. "How?"

Vash says, "Doesn't matter. Hey, hermano, nice to hear from you again, but you better say what you gotta say right now."

The Master's voice says, "If you want to get out of this, do what I say. Now is not a good time to talk; we'll be monitored. Tell them you'll go with them." The comm channel clicks and the connection is lost.

Douglas's heart pounds so hard it feels like he's breaking ribs. Then he blinks. "Go WITH them...?!" But he goes silent, hearing the connection close. He looks quickly to Vash and Sakura.

Vash says, "Well, friends, your thoughts?"

Sakura says, "It's worth a shot, Vash... if it doesn't work, there's always your gun."

Vash says, "They're not going to let me keep it if we go with them. It's all or nothing. We staying or going? I'm letting you both vote."

Sakura says, "There's always other ways. Remember, they said they wanted to keep us on our ship. My vote is that we follow his advice and hope it works. If it doesn't, we'll seek other avenues."

Douglas swallows quietly. "We have no reason to trust him," he says softly. "Unless... this Federated Civilization is the people he was escaping from. It would make sense, if they saw him as just a machine, and he wanted freedom... and they took him back, and he doesn't like it..." He closes his eyes and sighs softly, leaning back in the seat. "If it means that there's a chance we can come back here... I vote for living, Captain, and having the bastards think we're cooperating."

Vash says, "Then the vote's in. We're going. Sakura... you can take them off the muzak now. Let them know we're going."

Sakura flicks the other switch off of hold. "Indigo."

The Belvengeance says, "Have you had a chance to talk it over among yourselves? If you would like, we can still relay a message back for you, to reassure those on the planet."

Vash murmurs, "Up to you, guys."

Sakura says, flatly. "We will go with you, Belvengeance. I, for one, would like to send a message home; the others may as well."

Douglas starts the procedure for shutting the hangar doors and re-pressurizing the hangar. A wince of pain makes him blink at the piercing his claws left in his hand. I didn't even feel that... Distractedly he looks up and nods. "Y-yes. Yes, I would, too." After a thought, "Are we guaranteed that the messages won't be altered in any way? No paraphrasing, no 'transliteration,' anything like that?"

The Belvengeance's Captain says, "I am pleased to hear it, Indigo. I would recommend you close your bay doors -- ah, good..." A moment later he asks, "Our sources indicate you were to deliver a package to the lamia remaining behind. Would you like us to see she is taken care of?" He answers Douglas' question with, "We will not alter your message, but you may be asked to choose different words."

Douglas murmurs, "Of course." He glances to Vash, the phrase, 'taken care of' obviously worrying him.

Sakura snorts and covers the receiver as she says, "Ah. Wonderful. The Intergalactic Culture Police and the Letter Gestapo all rolled up in one. I wonder what they will let us say? I suppose, 'Hello, Larrikan. Have been kidnapped,' wouldn't make it past the censors."

Vash shakes his head. "I don't think it's a good idea to give them any more leverage, especially not on Zildjian. If she dies, I'm going to dedicate the rest of my days to ending his. Just send your messages. I'll leave a message for Hotspur... something maybe he can do to hold her over in our absence."

Sakura takes her hand off the receiver. Douglas nods quietly to Vash and starts composing his message. Sakura nods at Vash also, and starts typing hers. "A moment, please. Belvengeance." She puts them back on hold.

The Captain offers, "We had in mind a small heater which could be recharged from the solar panels on the wrecked shuttle, as being noninvasive, self-replenishing, and small enough for the lamia to move about easily. It would be no problem at all to make sure one is sent to her."

Sakura looks up. "I'm done..." She flicks the switch again, shutting off the irritating muzak that is her small bit of Communicator's revenge. "Two of us are ready to transmit our messages."

Vash's message is short and very simple. Hotspur -- heat up some rocks in the fire, big ones; I know you can handle that. Hot as you can. Stack them in Zil's room. Get Aykuh to help. Warm them every morning. Ask Dow to help warm her. Hang tight. Blue -- I'm coming back. Wait for me. He nods to Sakura. "Send them when you're ready."

The Captain says, "Captain Montoya, I will relay your message exactly. I am a bit surprised that you do not wish a heater for your friend down-side. You are willing to let her freeze? You seemed so concerned for your responsibilities earlier...?" Vash doesn't reply.

Sakura looks over her message one last time, with a soft sigh. Larrikan,
I apologize that I have to tell you in this way, but we were not given a choice in the matter. We have been forcibly sent to another planet for 'training' in cultural assimilation by an organization that feels that we are a danger to all of you.
We are assured that we will be returned once our training is through, though I cannot tell you how long that will be.
Again, I am more sorry than words can tell, but we were forced. Abducted.
I will pine for you, Larrikan. I miss you already.
All my love,
Sakura

The Belvengeance's captain replies, "Ms. Murasaki, I fear I cannot in good conscience relay your message. Not only will it worry those you leave behind, I find it terribly negative and judgmental. Could you please choose less judgmental words?"

Sakura says, "I find your decision to pull us away from our loved one and our homes terribly negative and judgmental and it's Doctor Murasaki."

The captain's voice comes across, "I am terribly sorry you feel that way, Doctor Murasaki; however it would be a terrible shame if something similar to what befell your pilot overcame one of your obvious intelligence, skill and honor."

Vash says, "Let it go, Sakura."

Sakura says, "I am readying another letter, Captain." Vash mouths silently to Sakura, Only for now. This is not over. Sakura grins at Vash. Her grin is very nearly feral.

Douglas frets a bit, then after a couple of lines just gives up on trying to tell Annifred something that will get past the censors he's sure will be reading this: Annifred,
We've been pulled away from our trip. I already feel DONE with the people who invited us, because I'm already missing you, but here we are. It was an invitation we weren't able to refuse. We will be back somehow, someway, someday. Don't worry; we'll be fine, I hope. I will not forget you or the others in the home, but especially you.
Douglas,
Broken Horn.

Douglas leans back in his chair, tail twitching slightly. And if there is a Great Maker who watches over all things, by my tail and claws, it will be quickly that we're back... home.

The comm picks up, "Mister Percival, we will relay this message if you like, but are you certain you wish it to be so imprecise? Unless many unforeseen things occur, it should be only a few months. We certainly expect you'll be fine, too. You have our best guarantee of safety while you travel with us."

Sakura transmits her second message. Larrikan,
I have been told that my original message to you is unacceptable and that I must rewrite it, so I apologize for the fact that it says little to nothing of what has become of me.
I have accepted an invitation to study Cultural Assimilation. I would rather be with you and I will return to your arms as quickly as I possibly can.
All my love,
Sakura.

The still unseen voice on the comm sighs, and says, "Doctor, I fear that your first sentence will do more to frighten than to reassure. If you simply drop it, we would be pleased to pass on your love to your friend."

Sakura sighs in frustration. "Will I can't write what I want, so here's what they want do?"

The comm replies, sadly, "I fear not, Doctor."

Vash says, "Just let it ride, Sakura. This isn't benefiting us or them."

Sakura snarls, "Fine. Larrikan. I miss you already but I have to go elsewhere for a short time. I will be back as soon as I possibly can. Love, Sakura. Will that get past your censors?"

Douglas blinks a bit at the relay, arching an eyebrow. "Then please add this, Captain: We have been told we will be returned in a few months, and that we will be better trained when we return. They feel it's for the best. That would be all, I think."

Captain Frederick's voice comes over the comm, "Yes, both of those are much improved, and I am happy to relay them. You are welcome to remain in the comfort of your own ship, or we would be pleased to have you aboard our vessel; simply ask. The trip to the Gate will take approximately four days, time in Gate-transition will be about six days, and then another ten days to the closest Federated Civilizations facility with the needed staff. If you have any questions, someone will be monitoring our comm."

Douglas folds his hands quietly, sighing softly. Annifred, there's no guarantee you'll get the little message-in-a-message I'd hoped I'd put in... and I'm sorry if it's going to worry you. But maybe, just maybe... I don't know. Pray for us, Annifred. I will see you again, and it will not be in the Labyrinth.

Vash just sits back in his chair and closes his eyes. Captured by Buck Rogers... and our only hope is Twikky. We're in real trouble now, Nanno... Finally he says, "Well, guys... I'm going up to Rec. I want a drink. Who's coming?"




Last modified: 2002-Feb-24 19:58:13

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