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Ship of the Line: An Unquenchable Fire

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Summary: She may be Sith, but she's still pretty. Also? She has a Super Star-Destroyer, and she's not afraid to use it. WARNING: Darkfic/Character Death

Categories Author Rating Chapters Words Recs Reviews Hits Published Updated Complete
Stargate > Buffy-Centered(Current Donor)DreamSmithFR18548,2014219626,5467 Apr 1322 Mar 14No

Chapter Two

Disclaimer: Rights to the characters and settings held by Whedon, Disney, and whoever the heck owns the Stargate stuff.

Author's Note: This could very easily run to paragraphs, but I'll do my best to be brief. This chapter is dedicated to those brave souls able to enjoy a story where even the good guys sometimes die; you are awesome, each and every one of you. Secondly, I thought about it quite a bit, and it's just too weird if the SGC crew recognize the ship or the technology. Therefore, 'Star Wars' does not exist in the Buffy/Stargate verse any longer; the Chaos event not only materialized a giant warship, it erased the entire mythology from the world and everyone's minds not directly affected (I know that seems weird, but we saw Anya and others do reality warps that were just as all-encompassing, so I think it'll fly. All that will be covered in future chapters). By the way, Teal'c's favorite movies are no longer the Star Wars trilogy, but instead anything featuring 80's era schwarzenegger, especially the Conan films--it seems like a better fit anyway :-) And, lastly, remember that the ship is a homebrew version with details added by Xander and Jesse in a fairly haphazard way, based on things they'd seen and read--'rule of cool' most definitely applies. Speaking of which, those dinky 14" CRT monitors they were using for their briefings in the Stargate episodes made me cringe; thus the upgrades here. The DarkFic warning is still in force, but I'll try to go easy on you for a while. And that's it! Hope you enjoy. AJK

02 Aurora s



She stalked around the perimeter of the vast, silent bridge like a restless animal, the icy beauty of her face a mask that failed to hide the rage that filled her.

So close; she had been so close to crushing one of the Rebellion's most important concentrations of troops and command personnel. The Emperor had entrusted her with her own battle fleet, including the Empire's single most powerful vessel as her flagship, in order to accomplish her mission. The firepower at her command was overwhelming, her victory a forgone conclusion. Once the Hoth base was destroyed--and even more importantly, once the Skywalker boy was eliminated--she would be given the rewards she so richly deserved. She knew this, because she had seen it in visions and dreams; it would happen, provided she did not fail.

"I cannot fail," the pale girl told the empty, echoing bridge, her soft voice little more than a breathy whisper. "I cannot fail!" She shouted as loudly as she was able, her grey eyes glittering with helpless fury. The layered crystal and molecular circuitry of the display monitors nearest to where she stood cracked and sparked, and somewhere overhead one of the massive structural members groaned in protest before she regained control of herself.

It wouldn't matter to the Emperor that whatever it was that had struck the Executor was not her fault. He would see her failure to crush the rebels and kill Skywalker as incompetence, and even worse: as weakness. The other Sith Lords, ever ready to take advantage of a vulnerable rival, would do everything in their power to undermine her, and see to it that her fall from grace was permanent... and fatal. It would all have been for nothing--everything she'd done, the oceans of blood on her hands, everything she had sacrificed, everything that had been taken from her--all for nothing. The climb to power, the drive to succeed beyond anyone's wildest imaginings, the need to stand above every sentient being in the galaxy, save one, was all she had left... and it was slipping from her grasp.

The empty bridge, and the immense--and immensely powerful--ship beyond it seemed to taunt her, mocking all her ambitions with its vacant silence. She glared at the long rows of glowing consoles and her small fists clenched at her sides.

One person could not operate such a vessel; the very idea was ludicrous. Warships were intentionally designed with their functions separated into isolated, multiply-redundant control channels, each of which then branched and branched again into a widely-dispersed array of command nodes where small teams of crewmen implemented specific orders by operating specific systems. Computers and droids, while useful for sharply-limited support functions, were intentionally designed to be incapable of affecting or controlling anything vital without human supervision. The result was a command and control network that was slightly cumbersome, but also enormously resistant to catastrophic damage... or sabotage. Far too many ships had been lost in the early days of the Republic before the dangers posed by enemy programming experts, the so-called 'Slicers', had been recognized, and that didn't even begin to address incidents such as the one which had befallen the Katana fleet....

She stalked across the command deck yet again, the clickclickclick of her stiletto boots and the faint whisper of her trailing skirt across the deck the only sounds for the full minute this required. The sight of Piett's broken body just made her walk faster, past his wide, staring, eyes; eyes which, strangely, seemed to hold something disturbingly akin to forgiveness.

"Idiot," she hissed softly, her stride lengthening, even though there was nowhere to go and nothing worthwhile she could attempt. Even had she not killed the Captain, two people would have been no better than just one. Although the Executor could maintain its basic functions without a crew for some time, it needed at least several hundred personnel to fly and operate even at minimal capacity, and to actually fight the ship in any useful way would require thousands.

Impotent hate, fiery rage, and a desperate, lonely terror all swirled through her in a vortex that threatened to leave her paralyzed and helpless, and she forced herself to stop her useless pacing, take the deepest breath her scarred lungs could manage, and regain control. There was no shame in emotion; far from it, for anger, hate and fear were all vital, primal, things, and the wellsprings from which a Sith drew her power. Yet despite that, emotion without focus was worse than useless; it became a weapon that turned against the one who wielded it.

Sinking slowly to the deck before one of the large viewports, the black-clad girl folded her legs into a lotus beneath her, her upright posture enforced as much by the flexchrome armor she wore as by her own ruthless discipline. Closing her eyes, she centered herself; gathering her thoughts, ordering her memories....


* * * * *


She had been innocent, once. A child, born on a harsh desert world, bearing a name that perfectly matched her bright and carefree nature. When the Jedi came, when they found her, recognized her potential, and took her, crying, from her mother, she lost much of that, forever.

A child is not equipped to make a decision that will change the course of their life so profoundly. A child does not understand self-sacrifice, and the greater good. Given the choice, a child will choose to stay in the warmth and safety of her mother's arms... but the strangers didn't give her that choice, they simply took her. Her new life as a Jedi began with heartbreak and tears, and the years that followed were more of the same.

True, there were a few pleasant surprises. Almost as soon as the training began, she found herself ahead of her peers in terms of physical ability, and the gap was even more pronounced when her Force powers began to manifest in earnest. The joy of her awakening power was the one bright thing in the girl's new world; the grim, stern, and sterile world of the Jedi. Forbidden to contact her mother, forbidden to play, forbidden to love, the Jedi focused all their energies on erasing the person she had only just started to become. They had no interest in that person; what she would have sounded like as she laughed or sang, how she would have danced, who she would have gifted with young love's first breathless kiss... the girl she might have been was destroyed, in favor of what those cold and passionless men and women wanted her to be: a monk, a peacekeeper, a weapon.

And even that could have brought her a certain bleak satisfaction. If she must become one of them, then at least she seemed destined to be the best of them; the most powerful, the most respected... but such was not to be.

She was too strong, too talented. Exercises the other students struggled to perform came effortlessly to her. Contests of skill and speed and strength which pitted her against her fellows provided her not with opponents, but with victims. She tried her best not to be cruel to the others; it wasn't their fault that she was so much better, but at the same time, wasn't she supposed to excel? Wasn't there value in being the best of them all, in using her powers to the fullest?

The answer, shockingly, was 'No'.

The Jedi Masters accused her of arrogance. They stopped measuring her against those her own age, and instead set her against advanced students years older, who were instructed to teach her humility. She suffered her first defeats, and endless, public humiliations, but what she learned was not meek obedience, it was bitterness, and eventually, hatred. In a startlingly short amount of time she began to win against the older students too; first one match, then a scattered few, and soon, all of them. The Masters whispered amongst themselves, words which were never meant for her ears, and which she only caught in bits and snatches--their unease at her rapid advancement, their concern at what they sensed when her mind was momentarily unguarded, and their mingled hope and dread that she might fulfill some ill-defined prophecy which even they seemed not to truly understand.

And although they disagreed on many things concerning the desert-born girl, in one matter they were of a single mind: Her rebellious nature must be controlled. Her wildness and unpredictability must be subdued. Her need for freedom and individuality would be beaten down, isolated, and burned out of her. She would be taught to conform to the will of the Masters, by any means necessary. This they decided, and this they set out to do.


Buffy sensed someone standing beside her and looked up to find Xander peering over her shoulder at the notebook where she'd been scribbling furiously.

"Still doing that backstory stuff for the costume version of you?”

She nodded, giving him a slightly embarrassed smile as she held the notes up for his inspection.

“Yep! I don’t think I’d ever actually play one of those games you told me about, with the dice and the rulebooks--my attention span isn’t that long. But still... it’s interesting to think about, you know? What this girl would be like, and how she got to be the way she is, with the evil, and the outfit, and her general badgirl self.”

Xander made a vague sound of agreement, too busy reading what she’d written to offer anything more substantial. A few moments later, however, his eyebrows rose to their maximum possible elevation and he regarded her with wide eyes.

“Wow! Not exactly feelin’ the love for the Jedi, huh, Buff?”

She scowled, waving him into the chair across from her as she glanced around. The small cluster of chairs and low tables was otherwise deserted, with most of Sunnydale High’s students either in class or outside enjoying the excellent weather. Reassured that the coast was clear, she was free to vent what she was feeling.

“They’re horrible! I mean really, really horrible!” She picked up one of the game sourcebooks he’d loaned her, and waved it at him for emphasis. “I read up on them, and they really
do this stuff! They take kids away from their parents, usually when they’re teeny-tiny and can’t even understand what’s happening! Then they brainwash them--not allowed to love?! What kind of freaky cult garbage is that?!”

Xander frowned, glancing from her face to her notebook and back to her face several times.

“Well... I guess it is kind of rough on the kids, but the Republic needs Jedi. Without them to help keep the peace, and make sure the Sith don’t wreck everything, it all falls apart.” He grinned faintly. “Which is basically what happened in the movies, right?”

She didn’t return his smile.

“It isn’t funny, Xand. These people, what they’re doing....” She took a deep breath, and rubbed her palms over her skirt a few times, smoothing the fabric over her thighs as she collected herself. “Okay, yes, I know it’s just a story. I know that they’re only characters in the movies and the game, it‘s just that....”

He leaned forward, smile vanished now, replaced with genuine concern.

“It‘s just that... what? Why are you so upset about this?”

“Because--” Her fists were clenched, her arms were trembling, and all of a sudden tears were threatening to spill from her eyes. “Because they’re
Watchers. Xander, this is what Watchers do, when they find a girl they think will grow up to be a Slayer.” She saw the sudden understanding in his eyes, and the sympathy that came with it, and it helped her breathe, helped her go on. “They track down little girls, they do whatever they have to do to convince her parents to let them take her, and they drag her off to England or wherever. Oh, and if they can’t convince the parents? Well, no big deal, right? Magic makes kidnapping super-easy, so they can go ahead and take the girl anyway. Kids go missing every day; nobody will think it’s weird if there’s one more picture on a milk carton.”

He looked at her, horror plain on his face, and she nodded slowly.

“Giles told me once, when I asked what would have happened if they’d found me when they were supposed to, years and years ago. It’s the same, the same thing that they do in this make-believe universe of yours.” She lowered her eyes to the small stack of rulebooks there, and her voice turned bitter. “’Sacrifices must be made’, right? ‘All for the greater good’ they say, and then they take some little girl, and they abuse her for years--and don’t pretend for a second that all this isn’t a kind of abuse--and then when she’s grown up enough to fight the bad guys, they throw her into that meat-grinder, where she has to fight constantly if she wants to stay alive....” She shuddered, revulsion making her skin crawl as if she were covered in spiders. “And these are the good guys? Really?” She shook her head slowly. “No. Not at all. I don’t blame her; this person you’re dressing me up as tomorrow night, I don’t blame her for turning against the people who took her. If it had been me, I would have fought them too. I would have killed every one of them I could find.” She looked up, and met his eyes once more. “And someday, if I ever manage to get the Hellmouth taken care of for good? I think I might pay a visit to the Watchers. They’re used to dealing with scared little girls. It’s time to show them what they’ve really been messing with, all this time.”

Xander nodded slowly.

“I don’t think anyone is going to argue with that. And I honestly never noticed how much alike the Watchers and Jedi really are--they both have a Council that runs things, too.” He flipped idly through the notebook he still held. “So, obviously I didn’t mean for this costume thing to be this stressful in the, um, semi-autobiographical sense. If you need to make some changes, or go as someone else, I’ll understand.”

Buffy managed a small, uncertain smile as she shook her head.

“It’s okay, I’m good, I’m fine with this.” After a moment’s thought, however, she tilted her head and gave him a shy-seeming, coy little look through her lashes. “Although... since you brought it up, I did make a few little changes. Tiny ones, really. Nothing anyone would complain about.”

He was too engrossed in what he’d found on a certain page to look up at her.

“Oh, sure; like I said, whatever you need, I’m sure it’s totally--WHAAAAT?” His head snapped up and he stared at her in utter disbelief. With theatrical slowness he turned the notebook and showed her a page full of single, odd-looking words, some crossed out and others underlined or circled.

“You changed the name? The
name?!?”

Buffy just smiled sweetly at him, reached out and retrieved her notes, and went back to writing. For his part, Xander spent the next ten minutes staring off into space, too traumatized to speak, move, or even close his gaping mouth.



* * * * *


“Does anybody happen to have a clean set of underwear I can borrow? Boxer briefs. Medium. Cotton, preferably.”

O’Neill’s attempt at gallows humor fell painfully flat; no one in the briefing room could tear their eyes away from the image in the monitor.

“Is this right? I mean, are we sure that some property of the hull isn’t confusing our radar?” Carter’s question made Jack look at the General, but Hammond shook his head.

“As far as we can tell our readings are accurate, Captain. The ship you see there,” he nodded at the screen. “Is roughly nineteen kilometers long--nearly twelve miles. Our best guess puts the mass of the thing at over three billion tons--which is more than all the waterborne ships on Earth, both military and civilian, combined.”

Jack let out a low whistle, trying to imagine how much firepower that might represent. Given the destructive capabilities of Goa’uld energy weapons, and scaling them up to what might be feasibly mounted on a warship that size....

“No, seriously,” he said out loud. “That underwear thing. I’m open to boxers, if that’s all you’ve got. Or even just plain briefs.”

Daniel gave him an exasperated look before turning back to face Hammond.

“I don’t understand; when Earth was attacked in the other reality, I didn’t see a ship like this. They were using the pyramid ships, like the one Ra landed on Abydos.”

Teal’c, who had been impassively observing the proceedings, stirred.

“This design is not known to me. Still, many of the Goa’uld System Lords are very old, reclusive, and in possession of ships and technology unique to themselves. It is possible that the activities of the Tau’ri have roused one such who has not been active for many thousands of years.”

Everyone looked at Daniel, who could only shrug.

“Well, we know the Goa‘uld have been a spacefaring species for at least thirty thousand years, and maybe quite a bit longer. Given that much time to find, build or steal technology, I suppose it would be surprising if there weren’t huge variations in the ships and weapons we see the Goa’uld using.”

While the others were having this discussion, Carter had seated herself at the table and logged into her laptop. Now she glanced up at them, and indicated the large screen.

“Sirs, I ran back the logs from the radar stations that are tasked with orbital detection. There’s no record of that ship entering orbit; it just appeared, exactly twenty-one minutes ago.” She frowned, pulled up another screen full of symbols and dotted lines, and shook her head. “Actually, it never entered orbit at all; it isn’t orbiting now. It’s just... hanging there, twenty-four thousand, eight hundred kilometers above the surface.”

O’Neill frowned, rubbing meditatively at his jaw.

“That’s too high for any ICBM we’ve got; they’re made to throw bombs across continents and oceans, not fifteen thousand miles straight up.”

General Hammond nodded in agreement, then looked over as Master Sergeant Harriman entered and handed over a sheaf of printed pages.

“We’ve received a reply to your request for activation of the Alpha Site protocol, sir,” the bespectacled serviceman informed him.

Hammond nodded without looking away from the pages he was skimming.

“Thank you, Master Sergeant.” He paused, nodded again as he found the relevant section, and raised his gaze to his subordinate. “They’ve given us a go. Begin assembling these personnel immediately, and recall anyone on the list who’s off-base. We need to start transferring them through the Gate as soon as humanly possible.” The man hurried away, and Hammond gave Jack a sober look. “I don’t know what else we’re going to be able to do against this thing, other than getting three hundred and eighty-five of our best people into that lifeboat.”

O’Neill tried to come up with something glib, but he was feeling pretty grim himself, just then.

“Maybe they’ll be overconfident, Sir. If they land troops and try for a ground invasion we’ll tear them a new orifice or two.”

The older man nodded, lips moving into a faint, wintery smile.

“We can only hope.” He started from the room, still sorting papers, then stopped short, stared at what was written on the page, then turned and looked at them all. “Well, as difficult as it is to believe, my day actually just got worse. For some reason he’s not seen fit to share with me, Colonel Samuels is on his way here.”

* * * * *

On the bridge of the Executor, Lady Taleene’s eyes opened, their crystalline grey glittering with fresh determination.

I know what to do, she thought, even as she unfolded her legs and rose to her feet with effortless grace. I’d forgotten about the experimental systems they built into this ship. The redundant command and control backbone, linked to a new, fifth-generation Artificial Intelligence Network, all designed to reduce the crewing requirements of Imperial Warships without it leading to another Katana incident.

The Sith nodded to herself, her expression half grim, half hopeful. Even if the never-tested system worked as the research scientists had promised, without a crew the massive warship would be unable to utilize more than a fraction of its firepower. Taleene would need to determine her present location, plot a course, and somehow get the ship and herself back to Imperial space without fighting any major engagements. A Rebel task force probably wouldn’t be any great threat, but a full Battle Fleet would make short work indeed of the empty vessel.

And even if I do manage to survive to reach home, then what? I still will have failed. I’ll be cast down, stripped of my rank, and probably my life. I can defeat any foe in battle, save the Emperor himself, but even I cannot fight everyone.

She looked out of the viewport, down at the world below. The Executor was keeping station above the western edge of a continent that was currently in full night. Even so, vast swaths of light blazed against the darkness; an unmistakable sign of a sprawling and industrialized civilization. Taleene traced the outlines of large cities, wondering if the inhabitants were human or alien, and wondering how they would react to a lost and sullen Sith girl declaring herself their Empress. Her pale lips twisted themselves into a bitter little smirk, and she came surprisingly close to uttering a soft laugh before something touched the edge of her mind, and she went very still. With unblinking eyes still watching the world below, she felt a vague unease come and settle itself against the base of her spine.

It was entirely possible that this world, industrialized or not, had yet to develop space travel. It was also possible that they did possess ships, or at the very least weapons, that could reach the hovering warship. At the moment, the Executor was utterly helpless; unable to move, fight, or even raise her shields without human hands touching controls in a dozen different locations, all widely dispersed, separated by kilometers of corridors and lift shafts.

Taleene considered her options, then nodded firmly to herself: activating the AI control linkages would solve all of those problems at once, therefore that would be her goal. Unfortunately, the profound (and entirely justified) paranoia of Imperial ship designers meant that bringing the system online would require undertaking a similarly arduous journey through those same corridors and lifts. It would take her at least an hour, more likely two, to implement the activation protocols. With a last look at the nameless world, she turned and strode towards the rear of the bridge. The Force was whispering to her; softly as of yet, but with definite purpose, and she had a feeling that bringing that system online was something best done sooner, rather than later.

* * * * *

The really unbelievable part was how smug Samuels looked as he laid it all out for them.

“--Two Naquadah-enhanced warheads, which we anticipate will generate an explosive yield in excess of 1000 megatons. Each.” Daniel and Teal’c clearly didn’t grasp the significance of that number, but Jack and Sam exchanged an incredulous look. Samuels smiled that smarmy smile once more, and continued. “The warheads--which we’re calling our ’Goa’uld Busters’-- are sheathed in our most advanced anti-radar materials, and have already been placed on a pair of experimental high-orbit boosters at Vandenberg. Launch will take place in...” He paused and glanced at his wristwatch. When he looked up, his smirk was insufferable. “Whoops. I seem to have lost track of time while I was coming through security. The vehicles launched three minutes ago.”

Carter, unable to contain herself any longer, stood up and faced the Colonel directly.

“Are you insane? Do you know what happens when you detonate a nuclear weapon in space? When we tried it, back in the sixties, it generated an Electromagnetic Pulse that affected a huge portion of Earth’s surface. And you want to do it again, but with bombs a thousand times bigger?”

Samuels gave her the sort of condescending look one gives a small, not-very-bright child.

“If I may say so, Captain, I’d say it’s worth a few blown fuses and broken light bulbs to stop an alien invasion.”

“It’s going to be closer to an entire hemisphere landing back in the eighteenth century than blown fuses, sir, and that’s assuming there’s no radiation fallout from the detonations. No one’s ever tested a Naquadah-enhanced device of anywhere near this--”

“Captain, enough.” General Hammond held her gaze until she finally nodded curtly and took a step back, then he turned to Samuels. “Obviously we’re willing to accept a certain amount of collateral damage if the alternative is annihilation, but what you haven’t shown me is your evidence that we’re actually facing annihilation.”

That got him a genuinely confused look in return.

“General?”

“What I’m asking, Samuels, is how we know that these people are hostile?” He made a dismissive gesture. “Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying we should try and make friends with the Goa’uld. Everything we know about them tells us that there is no chance of peaceful coexistance with them. But that--” He pointed at the sleek, arrowhead image on the large screen. “That doesn’t match any known Goa’uld vessel. And they’ve made no hostile gestures since they arrived. So don’t you think we might want to at least try talking to them, and verify that they are Goa’uld before we ram a pair of nuclear weapons into their ship?”

The other man stared coldly back.

“The decision has been made, General Hammond. The president himself has authorized this pre-emptive strike, as the only sure way to protect our nation and our world.” He touched a button on the keyboard before him, and a countdown appeared on the screen. “The weapons will work, and our enemies will be destroyed... in exactly eighty-four minutes.”

* * * * *

The nodes at the primary junction points of Executor’s engineering backbone were contained within armored vaults large enough to comfortably hold several Vrykin-class assault shuttles. Gaining entry required not only knowledge of the proper access codes, but a properly-configured cybernetic implant of the sort given to all officers of the Imperial Navy... and to the Empire’s Sith Lords as well.

Taleene entered the long and complex identification code the huge door requested of her, then felt a thrum at the edges of her awareness as her implant was interrogated by the single-minded machine intelligence tasked with defending this sensitive location. She was very aware of the heavy weapon emplacements situated in the high recesses of the chamber, just as she was aware that every one of those weapons were currently trained upon her exact center of mass. She knew these things, and she dismissed them as irrelevant. When the series of armored doors slid aside she strode forward, passing through a short corridor that opened out into a multi-level space that was densely-packed with a dizzying array of optical cables, blocks of quietly humming molecular circuitry, and banks of liquid-crystal switching arrays. Having gained access to the node, she moved with careful haste through the technological labyrinth, most of the illumination coming from several million tiny status lights which glowed in various colors. Deep within the maze of electronic and photonic systems, she located the proper panel. Despite being situated in this heavily-defended sanctum, the interlocks for the AI linkages were behind yet another layer of armor and security protocols. The girl impatiently entered an entirely different set of codes, waited while the system probed her identity with its doggedly-inquisitive sensors, then reached forward when it finally gave her access to the small niche which contained the relay.

It was the work of mere moments to complete this part of her task. A small slab of circuitry taken from its padded restraints and snapped into the gap reserved for it, a row of buttons pressed in a particular sequence, and a circular, gleaming ring pulled out, rotated a hundred and eighty degrees, then pushed back in until it locked into place. When it was done, the status lights within the niche shifted from white to blue, and she withdrew her hand, hurrying back the way she came without bothering to watch the cover slide back into place.

This was the third relay she’d activated, which left her twelve more to do. When she exited the node vault she paused, turning her head as if listening to some far-away voice.

Danger. Fire. Death.

Her eyes went glassy, the pupils dilating hugely, then contracting to tiny points. Something was coming; rushing towards her now, at this very moment. Distant yet, but coming closer with every passing moment.

Taleene shook her head violently, making her white-blonde hair fly, and blinked as her eyes returned to normal.

“Not enough time,” She whispered to herself, her face grim. “Not enough time!

She headed for the next node at a run.

* * * * *

The next group of personnel moved through the Stargate, each of them carrying as much gear as they could manage. At the foot of the ramp, technicians were loading the bulkier items onto MALPs, but their supply of the wheeled probes was limited, and the pile of equipment slated to go through to the Alpha Site was mountainous.

And no matter how much we manage to send through, they’ll still be short of everything, Jack thought, watching the disciplined frenzy from the briefing room observation window. How do you recreate a civilization with less than four hundred people, and a single roomful of stuff?

He hoped it wouldn’t come to that, because if it did, Earth’s revenge upon its destroyers would be a long, long time coming. Turning back to the briefing room, his eyes automatically went to the large flatscreen on the wall. The numbers at the bottom were counting down from thirty-nine minutes, the graphic showing the two missiles on the far side of the planet, roughly opposite the symbol designating the enormous alien ship. Even though they had launched from almost directly below the vessel, the physics involved required a full orbit of the Earth for mere rockets to reach that altitude. The blocks of alphanumerics beside each missile icon showed their steady climb was continuing, right along the dotted lines laid out before them. Samuels and his crew had set up their operation there at the big table, and all of them looked confident, even a little excited. Carter was off to one side, talking into a phone with determined patience, trying to convince someone at the Pentagon to let her issue a warning to the public.

“--Hospitals at the very least, sir. Yes. Yes, I realize that, but it’s very likely that all of North America is about to lose electrical power, probably for weeks, very possibly months. Yes, sir, it’s really that bad. The EMP effects will destroy key portions of the transmission grid, and replacing them will take a very long time. No, sir, I’m not saying... no, sir, I’m not saying we should surrender....” She couldn’t help the little growl of frustration that escaped her. “Sir, I feel I must point out--again--that no one has asked for our surrender. They--No, sir, I don’t think it is a loaded gun aimed at our heads. Sir. Yes, sir. Yes, but--”

General Hammond joined him, and the two of them watched the missile team chattering into their headsets, which were linked to their counterparts at Vandenberg.

“No luck with the President?” Jack asked. The older man shook his head.

“No. He’s committed to this strike.” Hammond sighed, and for a moment looked weary, and just a little uncertain. “I can’t even say for sure that he’s wrong, Jack. If this is a Goa’uld who just happens to use a different style of ship and technology, then waiting for them to make the first move might end up killing us all.” He looked at O’Neill. “Is that the kind of risk you can afford to take when your entire world is on the line?”

Jack nodded in acknowledgement of his point, but couldn’t keep himself from asking a question in return.

“Fair enough, but if we go around nuking anyone who looks at us funny, do you think we’re going to find friends out there, or just more enemies?” He looked at the images on the smaller monitors, which held the highest-resolution photos they had of the alien vessel. The long, sleek arrowhead had a starkly dangerous look to it, but the clean lines of the thing held very little resemblance to the overly-ornate designs favored by the Goa’uld he’d encountered.

Whatever Hammond’s reply would have been, it was forestalled when Samuels looked up, saw them, and smiled.

“All systems are nominal, General. There’s been no reaction at all from the Goa’uld; they have no idea what’s about to hit them.” He nodded towards the observation windows that overlooked the Gate room. “With all due respect, sir, there’s really no point in bothering with the fallback operation until we see the results of our attack.” His smile widened slightly. “And with a combined yield of over two gigatons, it’s doubtful that there will be anything left of that ship but molten slag.”

Hammond narrowed his eyes, and responded with obvious sarcasm.

“Well, thank you for that advice, Colonel, but if it’s all the same to you, we’ll just keep doing what we’re doing. In the meantime, feel free to carry on with your unprovoked and ill-advised sneak attack on an unknown and possibly friendly ship of undetermined destructive capability.”

Samuels blanched, and spent several seconds looking for a civil reply (a Colonel did not call out a General on his tone or attitude; not if he wanted to stay a Colonel), but Jack stepped in before he could collect himself.

“Hey, I was looking at your fancy graphs and diagrams here, and I have a question.” Both men turned to look at him, and he gave them a tight smile. “This thing isn’t in orbit, right? It’s holding position over one spot on the ground?”

Samuels blinked, then nodded, slowly, unsure of where this was going.

“Yes, that’s true. So?”

Jack shrugged.

“Well, just out of curiosity... what spot? What’s there?”

The other Colonel frowned, as if the matter had never even occurred to him.

“Southern California, obviously. Somewhere on the coast, I think.”

Hammond’s curiosity had been roused now, too, and he scrutinized the big screen more closely.

“And there’s nothing there?”

It was Samuels’ turn to shrug.

“Nothing important.”

* * * * *


Sunnydale, California
9:27pm

Leia Organa, former Princess, former Senator, current high-level officer in the Rebel Alliance, was having a very strange day.

The last thing she remembered was Tatooine, and Jabba’s slave-barge palace. Their attempt to rescue Han had been going well enough, despite a misstep or two (one of which had led directly to her current, somewhat revealing, Slave-girl outfit), and she had just finished strangling the vile Hutt gangster with the very chain he had used to bind her to his throne. Then, just moments after Artoo had cut her bonds, she had somehow found herself here, in this unfamiliar place.

“Cooookie! Me want coookie now!

An oddly-shapeless creature, waist-high, with shaggy blue fur and huge, googly eyes staggered past where she stood, in determined pursuit of three human-looking women in matching brown uniforms.. They all shrieked in terror and ran, bare legs flashing, their oversized shoulder bags spilling small rectangular boxes as they fled. The creature slowed just long enough to scoop up each box, cramming them whole into its enormous mouth before hurrying after the women.

“Mmm, NomNomNom!” It half-shouted, crumbs and bits of packaging flying everywhere. “Thin-Mint cooookie! More! Me want more! Come back, Scout-girls!”

Leia backed up, staring around as she tried to process what was happening.

One of the frontier worlds? There are a lot of humans, but most of them are dressed strangely, and very differently from each other. That suggests somewhere with multiple cultures, but I don’t recognize....

A towering humanoid with jagged scars snaking over his huge, square-ish head stomped across the street, making inarticulate groans. A moment later a bellowing, animalistic roar made her jump, and a nearly naked man leapt atop a nearby vehicle, and from there onto the clumsy giant. The newcomer probably massed less than a third what his opponent did, yet he quickly gained the upper hand, slashing viciously with a large knife, and deftly avoiding the slow counterblows with amazing agility and speed. In moments the creature was down, its neck nearly severed, those huge hands twitching uselessly.

The human crouched beside it, tilting his head and peering at it suspiciously, then he sniffed the air, turned, and looked straight at her.

Leia wished for a blaster, cleared her throat, and tried her most reassuring smile.

“Hello. I’m wondering if you could tell me which planet--”

“What is this place?” The man growled, the soft words somehow carrying clearly over the shouts, screams and crashes from all around them. “This....” He seemed to have trouble finding the words he wanted, as if the very act of speaking was foreign to him. “This is not... my home. My jungle.” He stood, and began to stalk toward her. She saw that his skin, though naturally pale, had been darkened by long exposure to sun and weather. Wearing only a small loincloth, he actually made her feel modestly dressed, though he carried off his near-nakedness well, with a powerful, lithely-muscled physique.

Leia raised one hand, palm out, and was gratified to see him stop, about five meters away.

“Oh. All right, so you don’t know where we are, either?” He shook his head mutely, dark eyes meeting hers with a feral intensity. “Well, fair enough. Maybe we can work together, and figure out how--”

A chorus of ear-splitting shrieks assailed her ears, and the savage warrior before her spun to meet the new threat.

Leia’s first thought was that they were children.

She could not have been more wrong.

A horde of small creatures, no larger than Jawas but sporting horns, claws and gleaming fangs, flung themselves at the man, much as he had flung himself at the giant a minute earlier. The man roared in fury, lashing out with fist, knife, and feet, and with every blow one of the creatures went flying. Yet for each one he struck, two more scrambled towards him and onto him, clutching at his limbs, slowing his movements, biting and tearing at his exposed flesh with vicious glee.

Despite herself, Leia found herself shrinking back. She thought of herself as brave, she had faced many dangers, survived some truly hopeless battles. This, however, was enough to fill her with undiluted terror... because she knew, now, what was happening.

Rakghoul plague. I’m in the middle of a Rakghoul outbreak.

Eons ago, a crazed Sith Lord created a virulent disease as a weapon; a plague which destroyed the mind and mutated the body of those it infected. Sporadic outbreaks still occurred, millennia later, and few things were more horrifying to behold. Once infected, victims usually transformed in a matter of hours. And once transformed, no known medical treatment could restore the body... or the mind.

The savage fought bravely, fiercely, but there were dozens of Rakghouls, and he soon went down under a living wave of shrieking creatures. Leia looked wildly about, then picked a direction at random and fled. The darkness might help hide her, if she could escape their line of sight.

Weapon, I need a weapon. I can’t afford to let them near me, or let them touch me. One bite, one scratch, is all it takes....

She tried to run faster, and he dainty slave-girl sandals were soon lost, leaving her barefoot and half-naked. Reaching an intersection, taking note of the strangely primitive ground vehicles parked everywhere without taking the time to try and puzzle them out, she headed toward the sounds of gunfire.



Behind her, down one of the darkened side-streets she had just passed by, something stirred. A moderately-tall, slightly bulky figure straightened, and turned his head to stare after the running woman. With careless disinterest, he tossed aside the beautiful girl’s head, not caring that it landed atop the disemboweled corpse of her boyfriend. Machete in hand, the figure strode after the fleeing woman, his strides slow and unhurried.

* * * * *

Taleene pulled the ring toward her, rotated it, and slammed it home. The status lights shifted from white to blue, but she wasn’t there to see it; her rushing footsteps receded at a run as she hurled herself through the twists and turns that led out of the node, rebounding from conduits and consoles at every turning of the way, trusting her armor to protect her from serious injury.

Eleven of them activated, four more to go.

The Force was screaming at her now, warning that time was running out, that every passing second brought her destruction closer.

She reached the corridor and moved into a full-out sprint, her stiletto-heeled boots slamming down one after the other in quick succession, every motion one of precise, machine-like speed.

The Sith was straining now; her breath coming in rapid, pained wheezes despite all that the medicomps and pharmacopoeia in her armor could do.

Eleven months since Merrick left me by that volcano, burning and broken. Eleven months, and everything that medical science and Sith magic can do still can’t make me whole.

The armor helped her breathe, dispensed medications into her bloodstream, protected the pale, syntho-organic skin that had replaced her own carbonized epidermis. A web of microscopic fibers had largely supplanted her ravaged nervous system, and only dozens of surgeries and the near-infinite resources of the Empire had allowed her to avoid multiple amputations and cybernetic limb replacements. Taleene was every bit as beautiful, quick, and graceful as she had been before that disastrous duel, but her rebuilt body would never have the strength or the stamina it had once possessed.

And yet, where the body failed, the mind found a way.

Her strides lengthened, her trailing skirts fluttering behind her, boots striking the deck a meter apart as she ran, then two meters, then three. Five. Ten.

The corridor walls became a blur as she wrapped her body in a sheath of invisible, telekinetic power and propelled herself forward like a projectile fired from a railgun. Ahead of her, a bank of lifts awaited, ready to take her to the next node, located twenty decks down and a kilometer aft, towards the main Engineering core. Taleene slowed, but didn’t stop. A sharp gesture ripped the doors from one of the tubes, and she shot through the ragged opening, rebounding off the far side with force enough to leave her bruised and shaken, armor or no... then she was falling. Looking down the empty shaft, she gathered her concentration once more. Accelerating downwards with more impetus than artificial gravity alone would have provided, still struggling to drag air into her aching chest, she searched the dimly lit tube for the markings which would indicate her destination.


* * * * *

“--At this point, what can it hurt to try and talk to them?!”

Daniel’s frustration was palpable, and Jack sympathized with him. General Hammond obviously did too, it was just that there was nothing he could do. By now the President and the Joint Chiefs were secure in some mile-deep bunker, and obviously not inclined to let an Archeologist speak on behalf of Earth. Besides, the officially-sanctioned greeting was already on its way, emerging now from behind the curvature of the planet and arching up towards the enigmatic vessel. Jack folded his arms and waited to see what would happen.

Fourteen minutes to go.

* * * * *

So far, Leia had done surprisingly well at avoiding the roving Rakghoul packs. The entire settlement was engulfed in chaos, and scattered fires gave the place a strange, nightmarish feel, even leaving aside the horror of the plague outbreak.

And I still can’t quite wrap my head around the bizarre differences in technology levels. A few of these people are using what look like energy weapons, but others are using chem-powered slug-throwers, and most of them don’t have anything better than knives and clubs.

She made it to the next street, felt an odd, sudden premonition, and ran diagonally across the intersection, barely reaching the cover of an overturned groundcar before shouts sounded behind her. Peeking back the way she’d come, she saw a handsome-looking human male; black skin, black hair, black formalwear, and sleek black goggles covering his eyes, stumble backwards and sprawl in the street, a huge wound gaping diagonally from his right shoulder to left hip. A small, silvery device fell from his lifeless hands, and Leia’s eyes went wide as she saw his killer step forward.

It was a woman; statuesque, beautiful, with striking red hair and a metallic outfit that rivaled Leia’s own for brevity. Although the woman’s ‘armor’ was utterly impractical, the sword she held was demonstrably effective. With a haughty sneer for her fallen foe, she turned her regal head slowly, surveying the scene, then pivoting smoothly as the clop and clatter of some large beast’s hooves sounded loudly against the pavement. An instant later, a huge equine, coat shimmering white in the uncertain light, came charging into view, running full at the warrior woman.

She reacted with impressive speed, raising her sword for an overhead, two-handed blow that would have felled even so large a creature instantly.

The blow never landed. The equine struck her with the force of an avalanche, the long, white, spiraled horn in the center of it’s forehead spearing the woman in the bare space precisely between her magnificent, armored breasts. Blood fountained, and the creature never slowed; it simply kept going, the woman’s limp body held high like some gory trophy.

As the sound of those hooves faded away, Leia edged into the open. Luck, she knew, would only carry her so far. She had to have a weapon. When she reached the dark male’s body she stopped, noting the tiny device he had been holding when he died. It was a weapon, she supposed, if only barely. Silvery, gun-shaped, but small enough to be completely engulfed by even her hands, it certainly didn’t look to have done its former owner much good.

Motion drew her eyes in the direction from which she’d originally come, and she saw a nondescript humanoid figure walk unhurriedly into view. Nothing about him seemed especially frightening; even the white plastic mask he wore wouldn’t have been out of place on many worlds she had visited, where custom or environmental necessity required such things. And yet, the moment her eyes touched him, she felt a surge of fear that exceeded even the terror of the Rakghoul plague. Something inside her, some intuition or instinct, told her that he meant to kill her.

Ignoring the tiny gun, Leia took another step forward, snatched up the woman’s fallen sword, and then backed away. When she saw the heavy-bladed weapon in his hand, she turned and ran as fast as her sore feet would carry her.

He looks slow; all I need to do is stay ahead of him, stay away from the Rakghoul, and get to the spaceport before someone slaps a quarantine on this place. As Han would say, ‘Hey, no problem!’

* * * * *

The last of the personnel slated to go to the Alpha Site were through the gate, and Hammond had ordered it shut down, at least for the moment. O’Neill strongly suspected that if the warheads didn’t work, and the situation looked hopeless, the General planned to reopen the Gate and evacuate everyone in the base to their fallback outpost. Watching the men hunched over their consoles, he wondered if Samuels would be offered that same option.

Somehow he doubted it. He felt someone behind him, and turned his head to see Carter joining the rest of them in their vigil. He nodded to her, and her lips twitched faintly, in a feeble try at something that might have been an encouraging smile. Without a word, he turned back to the monitor.

Three minutes.

* * * * *

Taleene’s vision blurred for a moment, and she had to blink furiously in order to bring things back into focus. When her eyesight cleared, she was vaguely surprised to find she’d fallen to her hands and knees, her sweat-sodden hair spilling forward past her shoulders to pool on the deck plates. Exhaustion dragged at her like a multi-ton weight, but she shook her head, lips drawing back from her teeth in a snarl.

“No. No! I won’t be weak. I. Will. Not. Fail!

Her fury drove her to her feet, and her hate; the hatred she felt for the Jedi, for Piett, for the Rebellion, and most of all for herself, that hatred kept her upright as she staggered to the access hatch.

The corridor was as wide as a six-lane highway, and it stretched from the massive blast doors of the main engineering vault, just a few meters behind her, to the equally-solid doors guarding the Auxiliary Bridge, nearly twelve-hundred meters further forward. This section was the deepest, most heavily-shielded part of the ship, thus the central trunks of the most critical systems resided here. The side-tunnel she took opened into the entrance to the Prime Systems Node, and despite her best efforts she stumbled twice before she reached the meter-thick slab of armor that served as the outermost access hatch.

Every synthetic nerve in her body was screaming that she was nearly out of time; images of blinding white fire and sudden oblivion were crowding the edges of her vision. With a wrenching effort that sent tears streaming down her pale cheeks, she banished the Force visions, and gave her full attention to what her hand was doing. Holding her mind in laser-tight focus, she keyed in her access code. The idiot-savant of the security system digested the numbers and letters, considered the configuration and coding of her cybernetic implants, came to a decision, and opened the door for her, along with the five identical doors just beyond it.

Taleene lunged forward, nearly fell, recovered, hurried on, bounced off of an awkwardly-placed bank of alloy and crystal relay circuits, and finally staggered to the central processing hub for the experimental system. The distrust of such powerful machine intelligences was deeply ingrained, and on a purely practical level such a network, no matter how sophisticated its defenses, was always vulnerable to manipulation by the enemy. Even so, the advantages offered by such computer support were enough to tempt even the most paranoid, and so... this.

With hands that were as steady as her blazing will could make them, Taleene keyed the release for the hub, watched as the heavy alloy covering retracted, and nodded when she saw the AI core itself. Gleaming in shades of silver and grey, it was a block of ultra-dense molecular circuitry the size of a human head. Her Sith powers meant that Taleene was quite strong, but when she lifted it from the storage clamps she strained slightly to hold it steady. A blue-white shimmer raced over the flat surfaces of the cube, and as she moved to settle it into the socket designed to hold it, Taleene’s eyes blurred again, a sudden wave of dizziness made the room seem to shift....


* * * * *

The Asche-Dagon Sanctuary
1056 Days Down-Time

“Do you feel that, brothers?”

“Yes.”

“Yes.”

“I do.”

“A chaos-event, yes, but the power of it!”

“The timeline is twisting; in a moment it will tear free entirely.”

“Reality will reform; coalesce into a new shape, along a sharply-divergent path.”

“This version of ourselves will be erased, and with us, our only hope to preserve the artifact.”

“All our plans have come to naught. All our work to create the mind, and the tales we have written upon the blank pages of the mind to ease its way.”

“We have failed.”

“Failed.”

“...No.”

“No?”

“There is a way; only now, only in this moment, when all is in flux.”

“Yes, I see your meaning.”

“Dangerous.”

“True, but she is the protector we have chosen; that has not changed.”

“The artifact must be placed in her keeping. This chaos alteration will not prevent the Beast from seeking it out.”

“Agreed.”

“Agreed.”

“Yes. Join your energies to mine, quickly, so that we may perform the sending.”

“We cannot send a physical form to her, as we’d meant to do; not through time.”

“It matters not; the mind is what is important. The essence. All else is illusion.”

“Let it be done. Now.”

“Now.”

“Now.”

“…Now.”

* * * * *

With hands that were as steady as her blazing will could make them, Taleene keyed the release for the hub, watched as the heavy alloy covering retracted, and nodded when she saw the empty brackets that would have held the AI core, had it been present on the ship. Since testing of such a fundamental system might require several weeks of analysis and adjustments, it had been postponed until after the completion of the Hoth operation. The AI intended to sit at the center of this electronic web was currently undergoing final checks at the Kuat Drive Yards comp-systems complex.

Taleene nodded again, and slid the strap of the carry-case from her shoulder.

“Luckily, I brought a spare....”

Her slim, black-sheathed fingers moving with careful speed, she undid the latches and opened the lid of the case to reveal the object which she had just retrieved from her private quarters.

Gleaming in shades of silver and grey, it was a block of ultra-dense molecular circuitry the size of a human head. Her Sith powers meant that Taleene was quite strong, but when she lifted it from the case she strained slightly to hold it steady. A green-white shimmer raced over the flat surfaces of the cube, and as she moved to settle it into the socket designed to hold it, Taleene’s eyes blurred again, and a sudden wave of dizziness made the room seem to shift....

She shook her head angrily, ruthlessly suppressed an odd chill that danced along her spine, and withdrew her hand as the clamps moved of their own accord to lock the cube into place. She flipped the switches in the required sequence, pulled the ring outwards, rotated it, and shoved it back down with all her might. The status lights within the AI center obediently shifted from white, to blue... and then to deepest, purest emerald, which she had not been expecting.

The voice, however, when it came from the speaker in the ceiling overhead, was familiar, and her eyes closed as her cold, Sith heart broke all over again.

“B-Buffy? Buffy, what’s going on?”

She took a deep breath, spoke as quickly and carefully as she could.

“Listen to me, Dawnie: we‘re in trouble, and I need your help.”

* * * * *

The missiles were flying on pure inertia now, with no exhaust or electronic emissions to betray their presence to the enemy. Ahead of them, the ship loomed, vast and silent, with millions of white lights shining against the darkness.

Everyone in the SGC briefing room was watching the screen now, where two tiny pinpoints were about to merge with the symbol for the alien vessel.

Colonel Samuels’ face was intent as he looked over the instruments manned by his people, then back to the count.

“Fifty seconds,” he intoned solemnly, as if they all couldn’t see that for themselves perfectly well. “Forty seconds.”

* * * * *

“It’s too big, Buffy. It goes on forever, and I keep getting lost.”

Taleene gritted her teeth as she ran down the brightly-lit highway of the axial corridor. Five hundred meters ahead of her, the blast doors of the Auxiliary Bridge loomed.

“My name isn’t Buffy,” she grated, “It’s Talee--” Realizing the absurdity of what she was doing, she started again. “I know it isn’t like your playworld, Dawnie; I know your module wasn’t meant to interface with a ship, but you have to raise the shields, right now!”

Her dead sister’s voice came from every speaker she passed, sounding just as it had the last time she’d heard it in the flesh. Taleene found her mental balance and half-ran, half-flew down the corridor on legs and wings of telekinetic power, and wondered if she were about to join her beloved sister in death.

“Oh, hang on a sec,” came the girlish voice from the access panel that rushed past on her left. “I think I see--”

* * * * *

Being dead wasn’t so bad, really; most of the time, Dawn hardly minded it at all.

She had died from a rare, untreatable neuro-degenerative disease, at eleven years of age. Her sister, Buffy, had been a Jedi-in-training at the time, and even though, strictly speaking, she wasn’t allowed to visit her family, Buffy had managed to sneak away from time to time to see her. It was on one such occasion that she learned of Dawn’s illness. Months passed, and the hospital visits came more and more frequently, lasted longer and longer, and seemed to do less and less to make her feel better. Dawn could see the toll the stress was putting on her sister, though of course Buffy had already been growing bitter and angry over the way the Jedi and other students treated her.

When the end came, on the last night in the hospital, Buffy had appeared without warning. Her face was masklike, pale, and her eyes were colder than Dawn remembered, with nearly all the green drained from them. Without a word she had scooped Dawn up, the child’s emaciated body no burden at all, even for the diminutive teenaged girl.

Dawn didn’t remember very much after that; just that she was taken someplace bright, and cold, and an ugly man with a very scary face and voice had loomed over her.

“--Beyond even my powers to heal, my young apprentice. Yet perhaps I can still save something of her; the essence of her.”

“Anything. Please, master, whatever you can do, please do it. Our mother is dead; I don’t have anyone else. I don’t have anything else, of who I was. Please.”

Buffy was crying; Dawn remembered being sad that she’d made Buffy cry. She was pretty sure that Jedi weren’t allowed to cry. She hoped she wouldn’t get her sister in trouble with her teachers.

“Very well. With this technology, and the sorcery of the ancient Sith, I can catch her when this shell fails. I can rescue her from the void, and preserve her for you. This, and the other things we have discussed, will be yours, in exchange for your service, and loyalty.”

“Yes, Master.”

“Then let us begin.”

That was the last memory she had, as a living girl, but it wasn’t the end at all. Instead, she’d woken up in a bright and colorful world, where her body was whole, and healthy, and without pain for the first time in what seemed like forever. And Buffy was there; sometimes as a video window and voice that she could talk to, and sometimes as a bright and colorful version of herself that could interact with Dawn’s playworld and Dawn herself. They went on adventures together, they outwitted silly monsters and found hidden treasures and played in forests that were warm and peaceful and safe. When Buffy couldn’t be there, Dawn played with the friends that the world made for her; a silly clown boy who always made her laugh, a smiling tree-girl with long hair made of trailing leaves, and a kind, fatherly man with glasses who lived in a castle made all of books.

Time passed, and Dawn didn’t change at all. The rules of her world, as much as she could understand them, meant that she couldn’t change. She was always eleven years old, and always Dawnie, exactly as she had been on her first day in this new place. She could learn new things, like the new name the scary old man gave Buffy (though she didn’t much like it, and avoided using it when she could), but her body didn’t age and her mind didn‘t grow up.

Buffy, though... Buffy changed a lot. Learning the things the scary man taught her changed her. When her old Jedi teacher nearly killed her, she changed even more, and not just in the ways that were easy to see.

Still, she loved Buffy with all her heart, and would do anything she could to help her. So, when her playworld suddenly went dark, and still, and then faded to nothing, she tried not to be too scared. And when the world came back, but as an unimaginably vast and complicated maze of metal and lights that seemed to stretch into infinity in all directions, she tried not to be overwhelmed.

“I know it isn’t like your playworld, Dawnie--” Buffy’s voice echoed around her, and the holographic representation of Dawn’s cybernetic self hugged herself, and stared into the far distance, first in one direction, then another.

“I know your module wasn’t meant to interface with a ship, but you have to raise the shields, right now!”

Dawn scowled, unwilling to admit to herself how scary it was that Buffy sounded scared.

“Sure, okay,” she muttered to herself. “Let me just look at every one of these million, ba-jillion do-dads, and see which one of them turns those on....”

Then she stopped. This wasn’t her playworld, the one with the clown, and the treegirl, and the kindly man with his books, but it wasn’t that different, either--in what it did, sure, but not in the way it worked. She didn’t flip switches and push buttons when she was swimming with the glowy whales or flying with the clockwork eagles, she lived it. If she was seeing this place as a maze of glittery light and glass and wire, it was because she wasn’t looking at it in the right way.

“Oh, hang on a sec,” she said, trying to push the words out to where Buffy could hear them. Reaching out, she put both of her faintly glowing hands on the air in front of her, gripped the fabric and structure of the world, and turned it, just a little.

Everything shifted, and her eyes swam as the perspective changed. Half of the lights became stars, and the rest smeared into something vast, and blurry and unrecognizable. Her fingers and toes tingled fiercely, which she chose to view as a sign she was on the right track.

“I think I see--”

She tugged at the universe again, the stars sharpened, and the blur resolved itself into a blue-white planet floating among them as something in her head seemed to click.

* * * * *

“Twelve... Eleven... Ten....”

* * * * *

Taleene’s head was filled with a roaring, as if a wave the size of a world was crashing down on her. Not soon, not in a few minutes or a few seconds, but right now. Just ahead of her, the triple-layered, vault-like doors to the Auxiliary Bridge slid aside, and with a last, Force-assisted bound, she flew through the opening. The yielding, intangible web of an anti-concussion field caught her in mid-air, and held her there like an insect suspended in a web. The blast doors slammed shut behind her, and she saw the vast space, twin to the main bridge far above, illuminated in eerie green as one by one, each console’s lights came alive, and glowed that deep shade of emerald... but only half of the consoles had come awake so far.

“Um. The shields are going to be a little late,” Dawn’s voice told her from the ceiling, sounding embarrassed. “Hang on, I have no idea what this is going to--.”

* * * * *

Detonation!

Half of the men and women in the briefing room erupted in cheers. Everyone else watched the screens, and waited for the wash of static to clear.

* * * * *

Dawn’s world was now multifold and strange, and she had basically no time at all to figure it out. She was the ship, that much was clear; with a body nineteen kilometers long and supported by bones made from battlesteel and rigid forcefields, and at the same time she was still herself, a girl-shaped ghost floating in a virtual space that responded to her needs and commands.

She had found and activated the deflector shield generators a full twelve seconds before the explosions occurred... but those generators were each the size of a small capital ship, and they required thirty seconds to spin up to full power.

Dawn’s defenses were still forming when the two weapons detonated less than two hundred meters from her hull.

The entire multi-gigaton mass of the Executor surged violently upward, like an ocean-going ship plowing into a towering rogue wave. Power distribution networks flared instantly white-hot as they struggled to meet the sudden demands of structural-reinforcement fields, and shield generators all across her ventral side screamed in overload. The enormous arrays just beneath the hull that served to shape and focus the energies of those defensive barriers strained against the sudden onslaught, but in two locations they failed, and explosions tore through the ship’s engineering spaces.

On the Auxiliary Bridge, Buffy hung in mid-air, suspended in the anti-concussion fields. Curled into as tight a ball as a human could manage, she was isolated from the violent shaking that might otherwise have seriously injured her. Without consciously trying, Dawn found one part of herself there with her sister. Her holographic form glowed in the semi-darkness, three meters tall, large enough to cradle her sister’s form protectively in insubstantial arms and semi-substantial fields.

As the ship was completely engulfed by expanding spheres of nuclear flame, Dawn lowered her head, closed her eyes, and held Buffy tight.

* * * * *

Leia cut sideways into the creature’s throat, swayed back to avoid the second Rakghoul’s slashing claws, then pirouetted with all the skill and grace of a princess who had spent far too many hours practicing traditional dance in order to please her adoptive parents. With a grunt of effort she brought her sword down, splitting the creature’s skull cleanly in half. Stepping back, she yanked the blade clear, and spent a worried few seconds checking her exposed skin. Just one scratch was all it took; one tiny scratch....

Light flared, throwing shadows straight down from everything in sight, more solid and well-defined than those cast by the nearly full moon. Leia looked up, just like every other human, alien, and Rakghoul in the city. The glowing, double-lobed sphere was instantly recognizable: high-yield nuclear detonations, in a middling-high orbit.

Her heart sank as she considered the implications. Someone up there must be enforcing a blockade, to prevent the outbreak from spreading. Her chances of escaping this backwater world, wherever it was, had just gone down significantly.

Shuffling footsteps caught her attention, and she whirled to find the tall, masked figure startlingly close. His eyes never left her as he advanced, and she lurched into a run once more, leaving behind the five small, mangled figures of the Rakghouls she had dispatched with her improvised swordwork.

* * * * *

The SGC’s screens were being fed data by the best sensors the USAF and NASA had, and the resultant visuals of the double explosion were appropriately spectacular.

“Wow,” O’Neill said, trying to keep it low enough that Samuels wouldn’t hear. Beside him, Carter nodded, working at her laptop as she took her own look at the incoming data feeds.

“The fireballs are roughly twenty-two miles in diameter each. See how long they’re persisting? That’s a side effect of the vacuum environment.”

Jack glanced at her.

“What about the EMP? Did it turn out as bad as you thought?”

She studied her readouts, performed a burst of rapid-fire typing, read the response, and looked up with an expression of relief.

“No, sir; it’s not bad at all. Hardly any reports of power outages or significant electromagnetic flux.” Her eyes narrowed, and she looked back at the big screen. “It’s almost like something muffled the electromagnetic spike... or absorbed it.”

The overlapping spheres of radiant heat and light were fading, and as the sensors driving their screens were adjusted and recalibrated, an object slowly came into view.

The arrowhead shape was unchanged, seemingly untouched, save for two small patches of hull that glowed dimly yellow, fading towards sullen red. The SGC personnel all looked to Samuels, who was looking several shades paler than usual, and visibly shaken.

“Impossible!

* * * * *
01 Aurora s



Taleene opened her eyes, blinking in surprise at finding herself being ‘held’ by a three-meter tall version of her baby sister. The holographic image of Dawn opened her eyes as well, met Taleene’s gaze, and uttered a single word:

“Ow.”

The Sith felt herself being lowered to the deck, and found her footing without difficulty.

“Are you all right?” She asked, then scowled slightly and restated the question. “How bad is the damage?”

Dawn’s image shrank to what it had been in her last year of life; a slender girl about eighteen centimeters shorter than Taleene herself.

“I feel like somebody slapped me. Hard.” Her eyes went vacant for a long moment, then snapped back into focus. “Um. Okay, it’s no big deal, really. They bloodied my lip, but didn’t knock out any teeth.” She stopped, grinned madly, and began to dance all around the older girl. “Oh, and by the way--I’M A SPACESHIP! I’M A HUMONGOUS SPACESHIP!

Taleene rolled her eyes, but waited patiently for the fit to pass. A quick perusal of the empty, echoing space showed that the control stations of the duplicate bridge were continuing to wake, one by one; proof that Dawn’s influence was continuing to spread through the ship’s systems.

“Dawn.” Her sister’s holographic avatar continued to dance through the room, feet kicking and hair flying. “Dawn.” She was singing too, and the sound was audible not only through the room’s speaker system, but through Taleene’s cybernetic comm implant. “Dawn!

The girl froze in place, flickered, vanished, and reappeared directly in front of where Taleene stood.

“Ooops. Sorry, got carried away there.” She was still grinning ear-to-ear, and bouncing in place like the child she would forever be.

“Can you please show me the damage?” The Sith asked with exaggerated politeness. In point of fact, the AI programming prevented the girl from disobeying a direct order, but there was no need to rub that in her face unless there was no other choice.

“Okay, fine--here.” A hologram of the ship formed in the air between them, then grew to the size of a wave-rider’s board. Two areas on the lower hull were highlighted in red, neither of them larger than the palms of Taleenes rather small hands. “See? Localized shield failure. They were still really mushy when those things came in, you know? So they actually went through the outer shields, then blew up when they hit the secondary ones.” The affected areas swelled until they filled the entire field of view. “The tertiary layer would have held, except the outer layer contained some of the explosion; it was like if you dropped a little firepopper into a bottle, then stuffed a cork into it before it went off.” The hologram showed the detonations in slow motion; how most of their energy had blown outwards, through the outer shield, but in both instances the inner shield had failed at the last instant, allowing a lance of fire several hundred meters across to blast inwards and smash into bare hull. “Don’t worry, Buffy; that armor is twenty meters thick. Those spots got burned and slagged pretty bad, but they held, and hardly anything got very broken.”

Taleene regarded her sister with a certain degree of puzzlement.

“For an eleven-year-old, you suddenly know your way around Star Destroyers pretty well.” Dawn just shrugged.

“It’s not that complicated. Besides, I’m reading up on it while I’m talking to you. This system doesn’t have any limiters on my clock speed, like the playworld did.” She closed one eye and peered at Taleene through the other. “Annnd, yep: you just stood there like a statue while I spent a month studying up on hyperdrives and maintenance cycles.”

Her smug tone pulled an involuntary sigh of resignation from Taleene. It was hard, maintaining the cool and aloof demeanor expected of a Sith Lord when your bratty little sister was being her bratty little self.

“Fine, yes, enjoy that.” She gave Dawn’s image a level, serious look. “First question: can you repair the damage?”

The translucent girl nodded enthusiastically.

“Oh, sure! The ship is brand new, we’ve got zillions of spares on board for the most breakable things, and there’s fabricators and nanoforges that can make anything else! I can even land remotes on asteroids or moons and mine my own metal and stuff if I want. And once it’s made, there’s a few thousand repair droids I can have work on whatever’s broken.”

Taleene nodded, relaxing slightly.

“Second question: Can you keep whoever fired those missiles from hitting us with more of them?”

Dawn sobered, looked thoughtful, then nodded slowly.

“Absolutely, Buffy. The only reason those got through is because the shields were down and we didn’t have any crews manning the guns. Point-defense is mostly computer-controlled anyway, it just needs people in the loop because it was designed that way.” A row of consoles on the far side of the bridge flickered emerald, and the girl nodded once more. “I’ve got it now, no problem. And those things, even if they were super-nasty, were slow. Even if they start throwing them at us a hundred at a time, I’ll still knock them all down before they get within a thousand kilometers of me.”

Taleene gestured at the hologram of the battledamage, and Dawn obediently shrank it down until the entire ship could be displayed, then further still, till Executor was a tiny sliver, and the curve of the nameless planet swelled beneath it.

“Last question: Do you have a track on where those weapons originated?”

Dawn tilted her head, considering, and the visual record of the last few hours’ passive scans replayed themselves. A double line curved gracefully around the far side of the night-shrouded world, then back around and down to a spot on the landmass below them.

“Right there,” Dawn said, helpfully pointing it out with her finger.

Taleene eyed that spot coldly, then cocked an eyebrow at her sister, the adorable little Super-Dreadnaught.

“Those are the people who slapped you, Dawnie. Would you like to hit them back?”

Dawn’s eyes went round as saucers, and her ‘Squeeee’ of joy was probably audible ten decks away.

* * * * *

Pretty much everybody was on a phone, except Jack, Teal’c, and Daniel. Samuels was on the phone, trying to explain his failure to his bosses at the Pentagon. Hammond was on the phone, explaining the situation to the President (with frequent parenthetical asides detailing why they couldn’t simply dial the Stargate and start inserting assault teams directly onto the alien ship). And Carter was on the phone, talking with a buddy at SETI about transmitting a message of some kind to their enigmatic visitors; something along the lines of ‘Whoops, our bad, sorry about that... want to be friends?’

“--Spectrographic analysis is showing traces of metals in the bloom around the ship,” One of Samuels’ techs was saying into his headset. He nodded, and looked to his superior. “Colonel Samuels? Sir, we’re seeing evidence of damage to the enemy craft. At least some of the hull material seems to have boiled off in the fireballs. Vandenberg is asking if you want to continue the engagement with standard warheads.”

Samuels held up a hand for silence, and explained the situation to the person on the other end of his call.

“No, sir; we don’t have additional naquadah-enhanced warheads. Yes sir, we do have four more of the advanced Pegasus upper-stages, which would let us reach the vessel with additional, standard warheads. Well, sir, obviously not, but we might think about using a MIRV configuration to leverage what firepower we--”

Sir!

The strained shout cut through the room, drawing every eye to the technician who was pointing at the screen.

Carter dropped her phone’s handset in mid-word, and lunged for her laptop. O’Neill, watching as lines were traced between the hovering ship and the coast of California, over and over again, felt his blood turn to ice.

“Captain?” He asked softly, looking at Carter. “Is that what it looks like?”

She nodded, face white with shock.

“Yes sir, it is. Weapons’ fire.” Numbly, her hands moving with unaccustomed slowness, she called up more data. “The target appears to be.... It’s Vandenberg, sir.”

One of the techs looked back and forth between Samuels, O’Neill and Hammond, seemingly unable to decide who to address.

“Sirs, I was speaking to the Range Control Officer at Vandenberg just now, but I’ve lost contact and can’t get him back.”

That prompted a flurry of activity, and Jack looked back down at Carter.

“What are we looking at here? Energy weapons?”

She shook her head.

“I don’t think so. They’re registering as solid... and the radiation emissions from them are off the scale for this equipment. I think they’re some sort of missile, sir, but for them to be crossing the intervening distance like that, in just seconds, their acceleration must be incredible; tens of thousands of G’s at least.”

The viewscreen flickered, then steadied, and they were looking at a satellite view of Southern California. The image jumped forward, and they could see individual hills, valleys, and the blue waters of the Pacific along the left of the frame.

In the center of the image, rapid-fire lances of white light were slamming into an incredibly violent eruption of some kind, a seething cauldron of destruction that that covered nearly twenty square miles. The missiles were coming down in groups of six, the salvos so closely-spaced that the glowing trails left by one group didn't have time to fade before the next group arrived, resulting in something that looked like a broad, pulsing beam. The erupting pillar of dust and debris was growing higher and wider as they watched, the airborne material rippling continually in intricately overlapping circular patterns from the intersecting shockwaves of successive impacts.

“My God....”

Jack didn’t know who had whispered that, but he certainly shared the sentiment.

Carter, ever the analytical scientist, was examining the satellite feed through various electronic filters and enhancements.

“They’re kinetic weapons; no warhead needed, not when they have that much velocity at impact. And they’re small; probably less than ten feet long.”

Daniel looked like he was about to vomit.

“It’s like an atom bomb explosion that doesn’t end.”

Carter nodded.

“It‘s pretty much exactly that; I’d say we’re seeing around seventy kilotons per second in terms of energy release. By this time...” She trailed off. Jack looked at Hammond.

“How many stationed at Vandenberg?”

The General’s expression was full of weary pain.

“Six thousand.”

Just then, as quickly as it had begun, the bombardment stopped. It made no difference. The fifty three seconds of enemy fire had leveled the entire area, and then proceeded to chew deep into the underlying bedrock. The plume of powdered earth and rock was reaching for the upper atmosphere and also drifting eastward, reminding O’Neill of the ash cloud from a volcanic eruption he’d once seen.

The mood in the room was thick with sorrow, and more than a little fear, so of course Samuels chose that moment to speak up.

“General Hammond.” He faced the older man, his face carefully composed. “I don’t think I or my people can do any more good here.” He paused, licked his lips nervously, then continued. “Request permission to evacuate to the Alpha Site.” The man then had the gall to actually give Hammond a smile, albeit a faint and nervous one. “I imagine the base there could use someone to help organize their defenses. My experience in dealing with this enemy will, I think, be invaluable in future....”

He trailed off when the icy intensity of Hammond’s glare finally penetrated. Without a word, the General turned away, joined the members of SG:1 where the stood near the observation windows, and regarded each of them in turn.

“Well, people, I am open to suggestions.”

* * * * *

Standing with her arms crossed, Taleene surveyed the view in the holosphere with cold satisfaction. Looking down at Dawn’s image beside her, she nodded once.

“Well done.”

The girl bounced up and down, grinning.

PewPewPew!” She looked like she wanted to start dancing again, and Taleene smiled faintly; this was all just a game for the girl, after all; another playworld designed to entertain her with new and exciting adventures, and filled with basically harmless villains and monsters to be slain.

“Did you see that?” Dawn went on, pointing excitedly at the holo. “Those Hyper-Velocity Weapon thingies are so cool! And that was just six tubes; I’ve got three hundred!” She froze for an instant, then bounced even higher. “Oooooooh! I wanna try the Hellbores!” Her voice went pleading. “Please, please can I use the Hellbores on something? Pleeeeeeeeeeease?

Taleene shook her head.

“Later. For now just keep an eye out for anything else they try to send our way.”

Dawn nodded happily, and followed along as the Sith strode towards the doors. They slid aside before she reached them, and the sisters headed towards the nearest bank of lifts. As they walked, Dawn suddenly spoke up again.

“I don’t like ‘Executor’. For a name, I mean. I want to change it.”

Taleene glanced at her.

“Oh?”

“Yes. I wanna be called... Aurora.”

Taleene gave a non-committal shrug.

“Names are important. People should be called by the names they like most.”

Dawn nodded eagerly.

“Exactly!” A long pause followed, as they reached the lift nexus. “So... can I be Aurora?”

The older girl stopped, turned, and stared steadily at her sister. A full minute passed, with Dawn looking uncomfortable, and growing more and more fidgety beneath that frigid grey stare. Finally, with profound reluctance, she dropped her head and sighed.

“May I please be called Aurora... Taleene?”

Taleene smirked, pleased by the tiny victory.

“Of course you may. I like Aurora. It’s a pretty name.”

She moved to the lift, and when the doors swished aside she stepped in and touched the control panel. Dawn stayed outside, pouting at her fiercely.

“You know, sometimes you’re sort of mean.”

Taleene nodded in acknowledgement.

“I know.”

The doors slid closed.

* * * * *
03 Aurora



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