'War Goddess Descending'
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The men and women of the SGC were going about their tasks with a grim intensity that he'd seldom seen before, even here. It was different this time. It was one thing to send their people into battle on some other world, or even to fight an alien threat within the tunnels and corridors of their base. This time, the enemy had bypassed what was supposed to be Earth's first line of defense, and dealt them a pair of terrible blows.
“--Second ground zero identified as Sunnydale California, listed as a Baker Three priority target: no nuclear facilities, no significant research or industrial assets, population less than fifty-thousand--”
“--Reporting the Delphi constellation is down to five birds, and every
satellite in the Argus net is gone; it'll be at least two hours before we can reposition something to overfly either of the targeted locations.... Yes, yes sir, we're readying reconnaissance aircraft now--”
“Additional ground forces are mobilizing; Army units and California National Guard--”
“--The western defense zone air patrols are already en-route. Yes ma'am, they're scrambling fighters out of Travis and Edwards to reinforce them right now, and putting everything they've got on the ready line in case of further--”
“--Need to keep emergency services in the loop also; until we know what we're dealing with here, in terms of radiation or toxic materials, they're to observe every possible safety protocol when they reach the sites and begin rescue operations--”
Turning away from the techs sitting at their stations, O'Neill lowered his head and frowned in thought. Vandenberg was at least a logical target; it had been the launch site for the missile attack on the alien ship. The second one, the town on the California coast... what was the point of that?
A less-than-medium sized burg in the middle of nowhere, seemingly unremarkable in every way. Unremarkable except for....
Jack looked up. Carter was buried in data, reading three screens at once as she tried to pull together everything they'd recorded during the bombardments. Hammond was looking over her shoulder, while speaking into a handset that connected him to the commanding officer of the NORAD complex, six hundred feet above them.
“Yes. Yes, I agree completely, General,” Hammond was saying. “At their current altitude, we do
have options open to us that we didn't have before.” He listened for a moment, then nodded as he spoke. “I concur. Nothing we're seeing here contradicts that.” Another pause, then: “Understood. We'll contact you if the situation changes.”
Reaching a decision, Jack moved to join the man, turning his head and catching Teal'c's attention as he did so. Hammond looked up as they approached, and his face showed his worry all too well.
“All US forces are on full alert, and the Pentagon is in contact with the United Nations and our NATO allies.” He glanced at the screens showing the immense ship hanging motionless over the west coast. “I wish there was more we could do, but other than helping to coordinate things, it looks like the SGC is out of this fight.”
“Actually, sir, about that....” Jack indicated the screen, and the immense vessel displayed there. “We might not be able to get on board that thing, but we can
get to... where was it? Sunnyvale?”
“Sunnydale,” Teal'c supplied, his voice impassive, though he was watching O'Neill closely. “In the state of California.”
“Right. There.” Hammond was regarding him doubtfully, so he looked to Carter for support. “You said the ship showed up directly over this town. Is it still holding position?”
She looked up from her screens and nodded.
“Yes sir. They've adjusted their altitude, but the ship hasn't shifted away from that spot.”
O'Neill looked back to Hammond.
“And they fired on that town... why? It's not like some little tourist trap town was going to start lobbing missiles at them.”
The General's eyes went thoughtful.
“You're saying there's a reason for the second attack beyond simple revenge. Something they were specifically targeting?”
“Maybe. This might be whey they came here in the first place; to get rid of something hidden there, something they didn't want us to have. In which case I think we should definitely
have it, if it survived that attack... and we need to find out if it did ASAP.”
Hammond considered this only briefly.
“Agreed.” He looked immensely relieved to be doing something
about the situation, and Jack could absolutely relate to that. “What kind of transport did you have in mind, Colonel? I'd like someone from the SGC to be on-site to lead the search, but time is a factor, if there's still anything on the ground that's recoverable.”
O'Neill had a ready answer for that one; he'd been itching to spit it out ever since the notion had occurred to him.
“The X-44, sir.”
Hammond looked at him sharply.
“The MANTA? That's a fighter
“It's also the fastest thing we have in the inventory, and one of the testbed aircraft is at Peterson for evaluation right now.” Peterson was the Air Force Base that was effectively the surface portion of the Cheyenne Mountain complex. “Give the word, and I can be in the air in fifteen minutes.”
One of his favorite things about his commanding officer was his ability to act quickly in a crisis. Barely two seconds passed while Hammond weighed the various factors and possible repercussions involved in commandeering a billion dollar aircraft before he nodded.
“You have a go.” Carter pulled off her headset and began to rise from her chair, only to have him put her back with a look. “Not you, Captain; I need you here.” She was definitely unhappy, but sat back down without argument. Jack gave her a sympathetic half-smile, already turning and heading for the door.
“C'mon, T,” he told Teal'c. “We've got a sweet ride waiting for us topside.” * * * * *
The lift doors slid aside, and Buffy hurried out, only to give a strangled “Gurk!”
of surprise and launch a punch that could have shattered brick... had it actually connected with anything solid. Instead, her small fist passed effortlessly through the face of the ghostly girl who'd been waiting for her just outside the elevator. That girl blinked, her expression going from concerned to very
concerned as she watched the Slayer stagger and spin through a full circle as the momentum of her swing nearly pulled her off her feet... and the insanely high-heeled boots that encased them.
“Um, Taleene... are you okay?” The projection's translucent lips moved in sync with her words, though the voice came from all around them. “And by 'okay', I mean 'Have you stopped being crazy yet?'”
Buffy finally managed to get her balance properly sorted out, but didn't dare move until she got a better grasp on what was happening to her. The physical sensations were incredibly strange and distracting; her body felt decidedly cold, without quite
being uncomfortable, though she couldn't tell if that was just her perception of temperature lying to her, or if the functioning temperature of her body had actually been altered. Likewise her skin felt... odd; not numb, but something that was similar, despite somehow at the same time being almost too
sensitive. The flexible armor that encased her was tighter than skintight, and even sleeker and sexier than the costume she'd been wearing, only this had an unnatural weight and solidity to it, as if it was made of something denser than steel, yet as supple as latex and leather. The weight didn't bother her, just the way it firmly squeezed every inch of her body, falling only slightly short of real discomfort—that
part she didn't like at all, only she had the distinct impression that if it were removed she would be left feeling horribly exposed and vulnerable, since even though she felt as strong as ever, there was also an unmistakable and unsettling sense of being somehow... fragile. She put her hands to her face, tracing her features with her fingertips, trying, despite the gloves, to verify that she was still herself, that she was still Buffy.
“Guess that's a 'no' on the not-crazy thing,” the small, translucent girl in front of her muttered quietly, her cute features scrunching up in a look that combined exasperation and worry. The Slayer took a breath, and gathered what composure she could muster—Willow needed her, needed her now
“Computer,” she said, addressing the projection before her. “I need to get down to Sunnydale.” She tried her best to sound like she had the authority to order that, even as she struggled to find the appropriate sciency-sounding terminology. “Activate thrusters, lower the wheels, or legs, or whatever this thing has, and begin un-orbit-ing, um... procedures?” That got her nothing but a blank look from the techno-ghost, so she plowed desperately on. “Maximum power to the anti-matter and the Vorp Drive! Stat!”
The girl-shaped image before her was now looking very
Buffy pointed at the floor.
“Down, I want to go down
.” She was very much aware that even her voice sounded different now; silvery-soft and whispery, even when she tried to use a normal tone, with a faint trace of something electronic lurking underneath, like half her vocal cords had been replaced with a high-tech musical instrument. “Land immediately, as close to the town as you can. Right now!
The girl's projected expression went incredulous. “Land?
You want me to land the ship? This
ship? On the ground?!?”
Buffy's frustration and growing panic made her feel like she was caught in a nightmare, where everything was happening in slow motion, and nothing she did could affect the world around her. Pressing her gloved palms to her temples, she squeezed her eyes closed tight. This isn't working. Willow is hurt, maybe dying, and I'm wasting time trying to figure out what to do, when I
know what to do
As confusing as the physical sensations were, the situation inside her head was worse. Two sets of memories: sixteen years of the old Buffy, the one who was the Slayer, and sixteen years of another Buffy, who had grown up to become Taleene, dark Lady of the Sith. Both of them were her, because she had lived
through the entirety of both of them. Willow's need had pulled her thoughts onto the track that proceeded from the Slayer's memories, because that version of her had known the shy girl, and the Sith never had. Now, though, in this place, at this moment, being the Slayer wasn't helping her or
Willow. She made the decision, released her mental hold on herself, and the transition happened almost instantly, with a horrible twisting wrench that left her momentarily dazed and breathless. And then....
Taleene straightened, lowered her hands, and opened her eyes.
The holographic projection of her sister eyed her warily, as if she might start gibbering like a Gundark at any moment.
“Do you think you should go lie down for a while? Or maybe your medicine dispensers need refilling or something, 'cause you're reallyreally scaring me with how you're--”
Taleene shook her head firmly.
“No. Now be quiet and listen.” Dawn's mouth snapped shut and the Sith spoke with calm authority. “Deploy a scouting force of stealthed probe droids to the settlement we just attacked; do that now. Set them to observe and evade only; no offensive action against the inhabitants. Also, prep my Fury for immediate launch, and make sure Central Medical is operational after the damage we took earlier. Tell the medical droids to expect a human patient with critical injuries. Keep your shields up, and point-defense on standby, but do not
fire on any more ground targets without my direct order.” The girl nodded, looking grateful to receive instructions that actually made sense, though the last part made her pout just a little.
“Okay, doing all that, but where are you going to go in your—Hey!”
Taleene hadn't waited for her answer; she was sprinting down the corridor at her best speed, her body once again feeling right and natural (or as natural as it ever did, these days) now that she was experiencing it from this side of herself. Ahead of her, another image of Dawn flickered into existence beside the arch that led out into the huge garden atrium.
“Are you going to fly down to that DarkSide energy thing you told me--”
She was past that image too, out and onto the walkway that spanned the gulf between the central admin tower and one of the several that held her palatal quarters. A telekinetically-assisted leap carried her the full length of the bridge faster than she could have run it, her long black skirt fluttering behind her like a wind-whipped banner as air rushed past, and then her stiletto-heeled boots were touching down at the far end with a delicate precision that instantly transitioned back into a full run as she sprinted inside and through a series of spacious, opulent rooms and tastefully-decorated hallways. A decidedly irritated-looking Dawn materialized in front of her just as she reached a wide intersection of darkly-paneled corridors.
“--DarkSide thing you told me about?”
Taleene ran through the projection, turning right and covering another forty meters before she found the room she wanted, sliding to a stop just inside the door, and thrusting out a hand. A dozen different types of lightsaber hung on the chamber's far wall; ranging from long daggers to something a native of Japan would call a Naginata. A sword that fell somewhere in between those two extremes leapt off the wall and across the room, slapping firmly into her palm. She was back through the doorway in an instant, running down a different corridor, towards a large reception room.
It was taking all of her wind to maintain this pace, so when Taleene finally answered, she spoke silently via her cybernetic comm implant.
[Yes, I'm going down to the planet.] The rapidfire clickclickclick
of her heels sounded loudly on the marble floor as she ran at inhuman speed down the long corridor. [Rush my ship's prep as much as you can; I need to get down there now
She reached the end of the corridor and ran out onto the expansive balcony, where another of Dawn's projected images was waiting for her.
You can't go down there yet! Those humans are--”
Taleene ran past, her legs a blur, and without hesitation dove over the railing. It was a twenty-five meter drop to the courtyard below, but the Force wrapped itself around her black-clad form, and she drifted downwards like a falling leaf. Using telekinesis to move herself like this was difficult; more than a few seconds at a time created an escalating feedback loop that required more and more strength to support herself, quickly making even her negligible weight impossible to support. So, she could leap great distances and save herself from falls, but sustained flight was beyond her.
“--Are going to be really
upset with us!” Dawn called up to her, from where she'd materialized on the flagstone patio below. “We just blew up two of their forts or villages or whatever—and they were trying to murder us even before
we did that!”
Touching down lightly, the Sith girl sprinted across the open area and down the length of a gently curving walk, towards a large arch set into one of the towering bulkheads that sectioned off her private sanctum from the rest of the ship. Her breathing was rapid and labored now, and she felt additional systems in her armor coming on-line to assist her scarred lungs as they pumped air in and out, while simultaneously feeding oxygenating compounds into her bloodstream to help support the high level of exertion.
[I don't have time to argue, Dawn.]
Another translucent image of her sister was waiting for her beside the blast doors, which responded to Taleene's approach and transmitted commands by obediently sliding aside.
“At least let me finish flattening the town first, so there won't be mobs of those people trying to--”
She ran through the gap where the massively-thick doors were still sliding apart, down ten meters of brightly-lit tunnel, then through yet another set of still-opening doors. Just beyond that was an open space which held a bank of turbolifts. She threw herself at one of the waiting lifts, and another Dawn flickered into existence beside her in the pod as she keyed in her destination.
“Okay, then wait for me to load up a landing barge full of hovertanks to go down with you. Maybe even a couple of B--”
[No.] The doors slid closed, and the pod dropped swiftly down its tube, towards the lowest decks of the ship. Dawn was staring at her with wide, fearful eyes, and Taleene looked back without expression.
“It... it would only take twenty or thirty minutes to get them ready, and then you wouldn't have to be all alone down there--”
.” Breathless as she was, the delicate, softly threatening music of her voice was still firmly resolute. “Twenty minutes is too long, Dawn. Two minutes is too long. I'm going now
The digital ghost of her sister looked ready to cry, frustration and fear plain on her face as she pleaded with Taleene.
What's going on?
Taleene looked down, noted that she still held the lightsaber, and reached up and back, pulling the silken fall of her platinum-blonde hair aside with one hand, so that she could clip the meter-long sheathed weapon to her back with the other.
“There's someone down there. Someone I know.”
Dawn tilted her head slightly to the side and squinted at her doubtfully, looking like she was back to having doubts about her sister's state of mind.
Taleene nodded, a little hesitantly.
“It's sort of confusing, and I'm having trouble understanding all the details myself right now,” she admitted. “But she's hurt. She needs my help. And it's possible that I... care... about her.”
The lift doors slid open, and the Sith was through them like a shot, her telekinesis granting her more acceleration than the fastest sprinter ever born. Ahead of her, one of Aurora's
many hanger bays loomed, a vast, brightly-lit cavern filled with gleaming weapons of war. One of them, her personal ship, was surrounded by droids and support equipment, the engines already whining as they spooled up.
She crossed the distance in seconds, hoping she wasn't already too late. * * * * *
Willow's universe was composed of exactly three things.
The first, and most obvious one, was pain. She hurt; she hurt so badly that where, exactly, the pain was coming from was completely irrelevant. Whether it was one injury, or a thousand injuries, or maybe even no injury at all, just did not matter. She couldn't remember what had happened to her; perhaps she'd fallen, maybe she'd been attacked... it was even possible that some random bit of magic was affecting her, and making her think
she was in agony, when it fact she was sitting in an extremely comfy chair (because there had
been that one time, with the cursed jade marble they'd found, where Xander had been absolutely certain that he had been transformed into a very small dragon).
The second component of her universe was the effort she was expending to stay alive. Every moment, and especially every breath, required a deliberate, heartbreaking effort. Everything she had, every particle of stubborn determination, went into dragging air in and pushing it back out, one small sip at a time. Every slow, labored beat of her heart was an act of will. She couldn't keep it up, she knew
she couldn't keep it up, but this breath wouldn't be her last one, and neither would This
one, and neither would THIS
And then there was the third thing, the last component of the three that currently composed her entire world, the one that made the other two bearable: Buffy.
Buffy knew she was hurt. Buffy was on her way. Buffy was coming to save her.
She didn't know how she knew that; she had no energy to spare for things like details or doubt. All that mattered was that her friend would come, and all Willow had to do was hold on until Buffy found her.
Just one more breath.
And the one after that.
And the one after that
Willow wouldn't give up, she wouldn't. But it hurt so much, and she was so very, very tired.... * * * * *
Busy as she was, Samantha Carter was not blind to the irony: after months of lying to her friends and family about what, exactly, she was doing for the Air Force, she was in fact, at this moment, studying deep space radar telemetry. Of course, her cover story hadn't included things like gigantic starships and hostile aliens, though there was little doubt that those would be headline material the world over for months or years to come.
Assuming of course that Earth's human population had
months or years, because if the aliens wanted to carry out genocide, they certainly had the firepower to do so. Either one of the weapon systems they'd used so far could effortlessly destroy cities... or reach even the deeply-buried room where she herself now sat.
With an impatient shake of her head, Carter dismissed those thoughts and focused on the task at hand.
“Have you been able to reacquire any of the smaller ships?”
The three technicians working with her all looked up from their consoles.
“Not so far, Captain.”
She nodded acknowledgment and waved them back to their tasks. Before the second bombardment, eight smaller vessels had separated from the main one (though 'smaller' lost its usual meaning here, since each of those ships was far larger than anything humanity had been able to put into space so far). The lesser vessels had only been visible to Air Force instrumentation for a short time before they'd activated some kind of electronic countermeasures which completely masked them to radar. After that, only optical telescopes had been able to track them, and even that hadn't lasted long, since the ships had promptly split up and headed out of the inner solar system. Incredibly, they were moving at over twenty percent of lightspeed when the 'scopes lost their track, and still accelerating. Given the enormity of space, and the small size and insane speed of those ships, Carter didn't hold any great hope of finding them again.
And so, while her assistants scanned the sky with every optical instrument to which they could commandeer remote access, Sam herself concentrated on the gigantic triangular dagger still hovering in Earth's sky. That one wasn't bothering to hide itself on any wavelength, and so she was able to get a very good look at it. Radar and Lidar imaging of the hull showed only small areas of barely-visible damage to the underside, nearest to the where the super-warheads had detonated. The rest was mostly just a bewildering jumble: vast expanses of smooth metal dotted with odd structures, lines and seams that suggested enormous hatches or access ports, and on the dorsal side, visible now that the ship had turned side-on to Earth, what looked like the skyline of a city; a dense, irregular mass of structures that shone with a multitude of blue-white lights.
She was using a high-resolution infra-red instrument to try and get better imagery of the leviathan's engine assemblies when movement at the edge of the frame caught her attention; a tiny blip emerging from the immensely larger vessel. Frowning, she reduced magnification, found the dot again, tracked it, and zoomed back in once more.
“Another ship,” she said, speaking aloud without having meant to do so. Checking her radar, she found it there too; a very faint return, as from a small target with at least some stealth characteristics. The image she saw in the near infra-red was of a vessel much smaller than the eight scouts or frigates that had departed earlier, but this one was not
heading for the outer system.
This one was headed for Earth. * * * * *
The ship was a Fury
-Class interceptor/long-range scout, and was basically the size and shape of a cross between a TIE fighter and a small courier or cargo freighter. It was moderately stealthy, very well-armed, and extremely
fast, which was why she'd chosen it for her personal transport. The night-cloaked western edge of a landmass filled her view as she drove the ship straight at the surface, and it was growing visibly larger with every passing second, but the flight time from that altitude was still over two and a half minutes.
Taleene spent those minutes trying to come to terms with what had happened to her. Everything I thought I knew is a lie. Maybe.
She shifted uneasily in her pilot's seat, despite the restraints that held her in place. I think I'm real, I
feel like I'm real, I remember living my life... but I remember being Buffy now, too, and Buffy remembers making 'Taleene' up based on the villain from a holodrama, or film, or whatever it is they call it here.
The Buffy memories were there when she reached for them, but were fainter than those of her life growing up in the Jedi temple, or even of her childhood on Tatooine. Both sets of recollections seemed complete, however, without the fragmentation that would accompany any form of mental conditioning or memory implant with which she was familiar. Which meant... what? They couldn't both be true, and Buffy remembered creating Taleene, not the other way around. So was that proof that the girl who had been kidnapped by the Jedi, who had learned so much and fought so hard and eventually destroyed her tormentors completely... was nothing but a lie? A fantasy? I refuse to believe that. Buffy remembers 'magic', too, and 'demons' , both of them things straight out of a child's story, so her memory of creating my history, and of watching those 'movies' that tell of the Empire's defeat by the Rebel Alliance,
those are the fantasy, those are the lie. They must be.
Taleene scowled, remembering her breakdown in her sanctuary tower, how the Buffy personality had exploded into her mind and taken control, nearly killing them both in a fit of despair and self-loathing.
Despair, and self-loathing. Familiar things, to Taleene; very familiar. I still don't know for sure. She seems so odd; so careless and unguarded and vulnerable. And yet... there is strength there too. There's fierceness, and determination, and rage. As ridiculous as this 'Slayer' business seems, the girl doesn't seem so very far from what I might be, if I had grown up in a more forgiving universe.
She wasn't sure what to believe, now; which of the two of them was real, and she had
Which was why she was doing this. The answers she needed, if they existed at all, were down there, in the ruins of a place called Sunnydale. Looking out at the world filling her view and growing larger by the second, she drew upon the Force and reached out, almost reluctantly.
It was there; bright and clear and unmistakable now that the wash of interference from the Nexus (from the 'Hellmouth'?) had faded to nothing. There
is a Force-sensitive down there. Female. Injured. And somehow familiar, though that should be impossible.
She pulled back, shut that point of light and agony away, and blinked several times.
“Willow.” The whisper was so soft it was barely more than a movement of her silver-frosted lips.
If she found the girl down there, if the person she was sensing now really was the same red-haired girl that featured so prominently in Buffy's thoughts and memories, then what would that mean? Would Taleene vanish in the face of that proof, leaving only the part of her that was the Slayer?
Her lips thinned, and her grey eyes glittered with anger and determination.
“I have to know.”
The first wisps of the planet's atmosphere flitted past the ship, causing a tiny tremble in the flight controls. The Sith took a moment to settle the featherlight cyberlink headset more comfortably on her head, and reached up to flip the switches that activated the shields and armed her weapons. The Force was murmuring softly to her, and she knew her landing would not be unopposed. * * * * *
Dawn had been desperately searching for possible options as far back as that trip down in the turbolift; by the time Buffy reached the the number six hanger bay, she'd spent a lot
of time looking for an answer.
Yes, she had exaggerated a tiny bit before, when she'd claimed to have expanded a single moment into a month of personal time, but she really could accelerate her mental processes and make the outside world seem to slow to a place of nearly-motionless statues. The effect didn't cross over very well to things she was doing outside her own neural net, though, like operating things via remote control, and besides, the silence and isolation of experiencing time like that got lonely (and sort of scary) pretty quickly.
In spite of that, she'd forced herself to do it, in several brief spates that lasted hours for her, and less than a second for the rest of the universe. She was terrified
of what would happen to her sister on the planet. Yes, Buffy was a Sith, and very smart, and super fierce, but there were billions
of humans down there. Not only that, they seemed to have a lot
of military hardware, much more than a properly-subjugated world of the Empire would ever be permitted to own. She could see lots of it mobilizing now, through her various sensor arrays, and just because those vehicles and weapons were primitive, that didn't mean they wouldn't work
—these people had certainly demonstrated that they knew how to build very good bombs.
Whether she would admit it or not, Buffy needed help, and Dawn was the only person within ten thousand light-years who could give it to her. So Dawn slowed time as much as she could, for as long as she could stand it, before letting it go, returning to real-time for a few moments to rest and 'breathe', to listen to her sister's final, confusing statement about the person down on the planet, and then she did it all again. While everything else moved at a crawl, she scanned the ship's inventory, she researched the capabilities of the various vehicles and types of equipment at her disposal, and skimmed accounts of battles where those things had been used against a less-advanced enemy. A lot of it was beyond her (she was only eleven years old... sort of), and even more of it was impenetrably dull (ditto), but she slogged through it as best she could.
By the time the lift doors had opened, Dawn had chosen her weapon. Before Buffy had sprinted half the distance to her ship, Dawn was dispatching every available repair droid to make a number of small, critical modifications to each of the attack craft she had selected. And even as her sister's vessel was launching, the girl was struggling with elements of her own computer network, trying to make the expert systems and semi-sentient helper intelligences understand just what kind of changes she needed them to make to the guidance and control programs for those vehicles.
Floating in the virtual space that was as real to her as the physical ship was to anyone else, Dawn's electronic avatar hopped anxiously from one foot to the other as she tried to keep watch on a hundred separate video, sensor, and cyber-network feeds. When she was in 'slow time', even the blink-and-you-missed-it actions of her peripheral systems seemed maddeningly unhurried, but when she let her perceptions fall back into their default one-second-per-second mode, the overwhelming sense that dire events were rushing past too quick to track left her shivering with dread.
Buffy's ship was screaming downwards, nose aimed straight at the center of the half-wrecked settlement, moving so fast that it had already overtaken the stealthed drop pods that encapsulated the probe droids Dawn had launched minutes earlier. Far below her, down in the middle atmosphere, a number of aircraft that had
to be military were heading towards that point also, their primitive sensors flailing about with radar pulses that reached Dawn's ears as an angry chorus of clicks and growls. Some distance further away, scores more of them were taking to the air from various widely-scattered locations, and most of them were turning, even as she watched, and accelerating towards the exact spot her sister was heading. Looking closer yet, she could even make out land vehicles, moving in suspiciously well-organized groups, rolling towards the still-smoldering valley they'd bombarded.
Lots and lots
of land vehicles.
Dawn whined softly to herself, briefly wishing she could just go back to her bright and warm pretend forest, where everything either loved her completely or was only evil in a comical and easily-defeated kind of way. Pushing that childish impulse away, the girl impatiently re-sent the order for the droids to hurry several hundred times over the next half minute, like someone endlessly pressing the call button to make the turbolift get there faster. Even though it seemed to take forever, the first batch of modified attack craft were mostly ready as Buffy's ship moved inexorably towards the planet. The armored access panels of each craft were now being replaced, and almost like they'd practiced it beforehand, groups of three droids climbed, in unison, into each of the vehicles to perform the internal modifications.
Dawn watched them, looked back to where Buffy's ship was now just kissing the outermost reaches of the planet's atmosphere, looked back at the rows of attack craft, and scowled at the hapless droids through her visual feeds.
“Time's up, slowpokes. You can finish on the way down.”
She issued commands, and the hanger bay's automated systems obeyed. Twelve vehicles, each about half the size of her sister's attack transport, slid forward in their cradles, to where mechanical rams locked thick, puzzle-piece sections of advanced polyalloy into place around them, encasing each craft in its own complexly-faceted egg of dull gray material. In two cases a droid was a half-second too slow in closing up the external panels and getting clear, and was crushed into junk by segments of stealth plating being slammed into place. Within each of the craft, droids carried on with their tasks, taking no notice of what was happening outside except to brace themselves firmly as the pods were slid into a long row of waiting tubes. Airtight hatches slid into place behind each one, outer doors opened, and then powerful mass drivers hurled the pods into space.
Still fidgeting anxiously, Dawn remotely activated the pods' thrusters, overriding several protocols to dial their power output past the imposed maximum, to just short of overload levels. The clutch of deadly eggs leapt forward like they'd been kicked, sacrificing most of their stealth characteristics in exchange for speed. Peering past the rapidly-receding shapes, she considered the sensor scans of the area surrounding Buffy's projected landing site and shook her ghostly head.
“I don't think twelve is going to be enough.”
The repair droids, who had been standing motionless in the bay, obediently turned and moved to the next row of attack craft, and began performing the same modifications upon those as well.
Satisfied that the second group would be ready to go soon, Dawn looked downwards once more. Four of the enemy aircraft were moving to intercept Buffy, with many more on the way, but the girl's electronic eyes were drawn to a single sensor return, one much further away from the target site than any of the others she was monitoring. Though it was obviously a product of the same primitive technology as all the rest, it was closing at a noticeably higher rate of speed, and looked like it would arrive not long after the second wave of fighters.
Dawn's ghostly fingers twitched, and weapon turrets out on Aurora's
hull turned and tracked in response, but Buffy's orders had been clear, and she didn't open fire. Even so, she resolved to keep an eye on that particular sensor return. Something about the way it was streaking across half the continent to get to her sister made her nervous. * * * * *
Fifty-five thousand feet above the Utah/Nevada border, Jack O'Neill was cursing the shortcomings of modern military communications. Sure, the signal from his plane's radio transmitter was being scrambled and encrypted and frequency-hopped to a ridiculous degree, far beyond any enemy's ability to decode without devoting a few weeks and a building full of supercomputers to the task, but that did him little good if that signal wasn't reaching the person on the other end of the connection... or vice versa, which was the situation at the moment.
“Say again,” he said, again. “This is X-ray four-four, calling Sierra base: did not read your last transmission, please repeat, over.”
Bursts of crackling static filled his ears as someone on the other end tried their best to route around missing comm satellites. Yes, the military net was supposed
to seamlessly adapt itself and work around the holes an enemy might blow in the supporting infrastructure, but in practice that kind of thing always fell short of expectations.
“--an you hear me now, X-ray four-four?”
“Finally,” Jack muttered, before keying his mike. “I read you, Carter. What were you saying before? It was hard to make out; I could have sworn you said something like 'they're invading'.”
Even through washes of interference her voice was grim.
, sir. At first it was only one ship, something that reads as being similar is size to an Al'kesh.”
Teal'c spoke from his position in the second seat, directly behind O'Neill.
“The Goa'uld also possess troop transport vessels similar in size to an Al'kesh, though much less heavily armed. Their carrying capacity is quite limited, however. They carry at most three hundred Jaffa warriors.”
Another burst of static overrode part of Carter's reply.
“--n't the only one we're seeing. We just detected another twelve objects deploying from the mothership. We're having trouble getting a decent radar image of them, but judging from the output of their engines, they may be significantly larger than the first one.”
Jack scowled down at the desert whipping past so far below.
“And all of these are heading for Bunnyvale?”
“Sunnydale. In the state of California.”
“Thank you, Teal'c. Carter?”
A pause, during which he could clearly picture her checking the latest data.
“Yes, sir; the follow-up flight also looks to be heading there.”
He checked his radar screens from pure habit, even though he knew it was useless. He was still more than six hundred miles away from the landing zone.
“What's going on with the first one?”
“It's entering atmosphere now, sir, at a sustained velocity that would destroy anything we have. A flight of four F-18's are about to intercept and engage.
Beneath his oxygen mask, O'Neill's lips tightened into a thin line.
“Understood. Keep me updated. X-ray four-four out.”
Checking his readouts, he ran the fuel calculations again. Thanks to the drop tanks they'd discarded over central Utah, they would arrive at their destination with a good fuel reserve; this despite traveling at multiples of Mach the entire way.
The X-44 MANTA was a technology demonstrator, an F-22 airframe that had been enlarged and rebuilt into what might
be the future of American air power, if it performed as promised. M.A.N.T.A. stood for Multi Axis No Tail Aircraft, which, while technically accurate, basically meant that engineers loved to hang cool names on their projects, and never mind the contortions required to make them fit. The essence of this design was that it had no control surfaces; none. No flaps, no rudder, not even a vertical tail. Instead, high-pressure air was diverted from the engine and through numerous ducts and nozzles to control the plane's attitude, like thrusters controlled a spacecraft. This led directly to several benefits; the oversized and greatly simplified delta wing provided greater lift, caused less drag, and allowed for greater fuel capacity and fuel efficiency. The monster engines they'd shoehorned into the thing to run the reaction control system also increased the top speed considerably. Effectively, only the structural limits of the airframe and the melting point of its skin imposed a top speed under Mach 4, and the supercruise capability of the F-22 had been preserved in this redesign.
All of which meant that at their sustained speed of Mach 3.5, Jack and Teal'c were a little over thirteen minutes away from the town that the aliens found so interesting.
“You know, I'm feeling less guilty now, about bullying that crew chief back at Peterson into giving us live ordinance.”
“Indeed. Though we are too late to engage the scout vessel, it may be that we can successfully intercept the main invasion force.”
Jack nodded, noting with approval the arrays of green ready lights that were spawning on his secondary console as Teal'c brought the weapons systems to life. The larger wing size and increased engine power allowed for a proportionally larger loadout of missiles too, as well as two rotary cannon where most modern fighters only carried one.
He wasn't wild about taking an unfamiliar plane into combat, but between the brute power of the thing and the reaction control system, it flew a lot like a hybrid between a Harrier jump-jet and one of the old F-15's, and he had plenty of flight time in both of them, so he figured he'd be able to manage.
“And who knows? We might just give that first ship down a little surprise too, if he tries to take off again with whatever it is he came down to find.”
He nudged the throttle a little further forward, carefully watching the temperature and stress sensors monitoring various parts of the airframe as their speed edged up to Mach 3.72. They really couldn't push it any further than that without ripping the wings off, but traveling at over twenty-eight hundred miles an hour, they were now only eleven minutes away. * * * * *
Taleene's eyes went glassy as her cybernetic implant streamed data directly into her mind even as sensor images of sleekly dangerous-looking aircraft and crawling webs of vectors and intercept trajectories helpfully arrayed themselves in precise order on small screens to her left and right.
It seemed that the humans responsible for the defense of this continent, what her Buffy memories called the 'United States Air Force', were going to try to kill her yet again, this time in a much more personal fashion.
“Let them try,” she murmured, her hands resting lightly upon the ship's controls. There was nothing but deeply-shadowed planet visible through her cockpit canopy now; near-total darkness broken by the bright-glowing latticework of light that was the work of humankind.
The thickening atmosphere started to buffet her ship, and she reluctantly reduced speed slightly, while reconfiguring the shields to a more aerodynamic shape to prevent excessive heating of her ship's hull.
Far below her, but coming closer with every moment, a cauldron of seething steam and smoke, lit from below by the red glow of widespread fires, marked the valley that held Sunnydale. Much nearer, a number of aircraft were moving to challenge her, arcing upwards even now, standing on their tails and boosting at a very steep angle to intercept, lashing her ship with what looked to be quite serviceable targeting radar.
Her power singing within her, Taleene smiled with grim anticipation.
“Kill me,” she whispered, making tiny adjustments to her course as the scan readings flickered at her and the Force murmured urgently in the back of her mind. “Go ahead and try
to kill me, I dare
The collision alarms buzzed, and she replied by shoving her throttles all the way forward, hurtling Earthward—and straight into her opponent's teeth--at twelve times the speed of sound. * * * * *
[Not now, Dawn.]
sensors were showing her things that would have had her hiding under a blanket in terror, if she'd had the cybernetic equivalent of one handy. Buffy's ship was ripping through the atmosphere, trailing a roiling wake of glowing, superheated air, diving straight towards the ground (which at those speeds was not far away at all
) and four of those Earth warplanes were climbing straight up and straight at
her, on what really-really looked like a course that would smash everyone together in one huge fireball.
[Taleene please please please don't get killed I don't mind if you're crazy I love you anyways and always and if you would just wait for five minutes I've got some attack ships on the way down that can help you fight these--]
Her sensors detected missiles separating from each of the human warcraft and streaking ahead, directly at her sister's ship. All but crying from an overload of fury and fear, Dawn stamped the digital representation of her foot over and over on the digital representation of a floor (that she had to briefly create just for that gesture to make sense) as she shouted (at the maddeningly unadjustable default volume of the comlink):
[Why don't you ever listen
to me I'm not a child
She broke off with a scream as the missiles merged with the Fury's sensor return, even as the human planes shrieked in right behind them, and then expanding blooms of wreckage were flying everywhere
. * * * * *
At those speeds and distances, it was all over in less than four seconds, and everything that happened passed in a series of flicker-swift flashes: --The Earth craft are accepting her challenge and coming at her head-on; no lack of courage there, just a profound ignorance as to who and what they are facing--
Experience and Force precognition warning her of the missiles an instant before they are launched, ingrained reflex and a flicker of thought through the cyberlinked control interface bringing her ECM up to howl across a thousand frequencies in a bid to confuse and distract--
NoNoNO! Stupid of her to think that would work; these missiles are too primitive for most of the jamming to even register, and too stupid to pay any attention to what they could detect--
The Force, showing her the mistake even as she makes it, her hands and thoughts snapping her ship through maneuvers which shift it only a few score meters in any direction off her base course, but doing it so quickly and unpredictably that the missiles are twisting and rolling frantically, trying to reacquire the Fury before--
She was through; threading the ship through the swarm, the missiles flashing past invisibly fast only to shatter and explode as they struck the trailing shockwave created by her passage through the atmosphere, the air like a solid wall under those conditions, all of it ignored as--
Targeting reticules flickering across her vision, the ruthlessly-controlled rage of her thoughts and the uncaring, icy light of the shipmind working together as one to bring death to those who dared--
A chill, a shudder, a flicker of something almost like panic, as part of her cries out in horror at what she's doing, screaming that the killing of humans is wrongWrongWRONG--
Taleene hesitates; incredibly, impossibly, she hesitates for a bare instant, her shocked mind reaching out through the Force as she starts another maneuver, moving to slip her ship through the warplanes instead of destroying them--
And they're firing at her; sensors showing the streams of projectiles even as a series of ringing blows hammer at the lightly-armored hull of her ship, somewhere off to her left, warning lights on her console and a flicker of data from the shipmind telling her of minor damage--
A scant handful of kilometers between them now, shrinking to nothing in the blink of an eye, barely an instant in which to react--
Firing back, acid-green lasers and ghost-pale particle beams lashing out in a reflex deeper than breathing, even as her hate and fury explode in reaction to the Buffy persona nearly killing her yet again--
Two of the Earth craft are shredded by her fire, and she's twitching the Fury from side to side to avoid the debris, then cutting her engine thrust to nothing as she flips her ship nose over, a genius pilot managing the impossible as she simultaneously reverses the shield aspect to give her craft some semblance of aerodynamic stability even while blasting through the air backwards at hypersonic speeds, her weapons now facing back along her course, questing for targets--
And the two surviving warplanes are past and arcing to either side in magnificent maneuvers of their own as they somehow manage to surf the Fury's shockwave, wings clawing at the air as they try to turn tightly enough to fire on their rapidly-receding enemy--
Only to die in flaming fragments as Taleene's lasers find them, their deaths filling her with a savage joy that almost drowns out the shock and sick dismay from her other self, ignored in the moment as the Fury roars towards the ground at more than thirteen times the speed of sound--
Shoving the throttles all the way forward, boosting the engines to emergency thrust, blinding glare of blue-white light aimed at the middle of Sunnydale as the ship comes roaring down, backside first, like a high-tech meteor, and she spreads the shields wide, an invisible parasol opening, dreadfully inefficient when dealing with matter instead of energy, but still able to tenuously grip atmosphere, like an invisible parachute that leaks air like a sieve but is fully two hundred meters across, instantly generating immense drag and a monstrous thunderclap that might well be audible for a thousand kilometers--
Taleene grunting as she's shoved deeply into her padded seat despite the inertial compensator, vision graying, hands and mind balancing a myriad of control inputs with a virtuoso's skill even as--
Even as the Fury slows rapidly, from hypersonic to supersonic to subsonic speeds in moments, and then, finally, settling into a hover, the engine thrust fading to a faint glow as the ship comes off its tail to assume a more natural attitude... exactly nineteen meters from the ground.
Taleene regarded the town that spread all around her, the shattered remnants of the settlement largely obscured by smoke and dust despite the light of the fires that seemed to be everywhere. Glancing upwards she could only just make out the starry sky through the haze, though her sensors showed her the still-falling wreckage of her opponents clearly enough.
“Yes, I am
the best starpilot in the galaxy; tell me that
wasn't real,” she told the empty cockpit, even as she shut down the shields and weapons systems, and brought the ship down to a gentle landing in an area that was mostly clear of debris. Pulling off the headset, she slapped the control that cycled the engines down to standby, freed herself from the chair restraints, and smoothly hurled herself to her feet and through the low access hatch in the rear bulkhead. The ship itself was large enough to support a crew of seven for several weeks if they didn't mind crowding or bland food, but she had no need of sleeping quarters or galley now. Hurrying across the common room, she paused at a storage locker only long enough to pull out a respirator and an emergency medkit. Moving to a wide alcove at the rear of the room, she issued mental commands through her cybercomm, pulling on the breathing device as she watched the hatch slide aside and the armored ramp beyond it slowly lower. Descending the ramp, she surveyed the devastation beyond.
Burning ruins stretched off into the night in every direction, thick clouds of smoke and dust born of pulverized earth and rock giving the scene a murky, nightmarish feel. She took a deep breath, her damaged lungs grateful for the filtered and oxygen-enriched air the mask provided.
“I'm not afraid,” she said softly, reaching out once more with her Force senses. Locating the living glow she'd seen earlier, she marveled anew at the crystalline purity of it. “Not of these people, not of this place, and not of you
, either.” The point of light in her mind was pulsing with agony and weariness, and she could see that it was weakening; fading from one moment to the next. With a last mental command for her ship to seal and lock itself, she started off into the ruins at a jog, then accelerated into a full run. * * * * *
Author's after note: I hope you enjoyed this chapter, and my apologies for leaving it on yet another cliffhanger. Willow's fate definitely needs to be resolved, and it will be, but there are lots of things happening at once, and I just couldn't fit it all into this chapter. Next time around we'll be wrapping up this section of the story, and clearing the way for things to progress further.
I very much appreciate you giving me your attention.
--Alan aka DreamSmith
AfterNote Part II
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