"So, where we headed now, boss?" Harper asked.
Dylan glanced at the short engineer out of the corner of his eye. "Why do you want to know?"
Harper shrugged like it didn't matter, though there was something a little squirrely about his expression. Harper was planning something, or wanted to be planning something. "No reason. Just wondering when our next vacation's gonna be. So... where we goin'?"
"A little known planet called Teraphys," Dylan said.
"Otherwise known as the Shit End of the Universe," Beka put in from the pilot's chair.
Dylan looked at her. "Thank you so much for that, Beka. I'm sure the Teraphians would love to hear you call their planet that."
"Hey, I call 'em like I see them, and Teraphys... way at the butt end of the universe. It's where all the scags hang out. I don't even know why we're going there."
"We need more planets and systems to join the Commonwealth, and while Teraphys isn't exactly in the thick of things, it does still qualify for membership. It would be nice to have somewhere in that sector of space where we can get a resupply if we need it."
Beka rolled her eyes. "Yeah, like we're ever going to be out that way again." But she didn't say anything else, so Dylan figured he'd won.
He took one last glance at the display, then turned to leave the bridge. He was about halfway through the hatch when Andromeda suddenly appeared on screen.
"I am detecting a ship," she announced.
Dylan turned back. "What kind of ship?" he asked.
Her head cocked and her eyes took on that distant stare they wore when she was accessing information. "It appears to be a Glorious Heritage class warship." Her eyes focused back on him and she might have been described as surprised. "It is the High Guard ship the Loyal Completion of Duty. It is coming toward us. We... we are being hailed."
Dylan motioned Beka out of the captain's chair and took her place. She moved to stand at his right shoulder. "Put it on screen," he ordered.
A moment later a woman appeared on the screen. She was seated in a chair the twin to his own. She was small with intense red hair and green eyes. Her face had a kind of pixiesh cast to it and she looked like she could have been anywhere from eighteen to twenty-five. She was dressed strangely in blue-cast pants, a long sleeved red shirt with a short sleeved pink shirt over it, and white shoes with two pink stripes down the sides and glaringly white laces.
"Hi," she said, waving her hand. She didn't seem to know what else to say.
"Hello, I am Captain Dylan Hunt of the Andromeda Ascendant. Please identify yourself."
The girl/woman shrugged. "Um, my name's Willow Rosenberg and this is the..." she looked off to one side, seeming to get the information from someone else, "Loyal Completion of Duty." She snorted. "What a sucky name for a spaceship. You would think people in the future would come up with something better, like... um... ooh, I know, the Slayer or the Spike or even the Enterprise. But no, it's all with the weird..."
"Excuse me," Dylan interrupted. She looked up at him, her eyes dewy and soft. He had to clear his throat. "Can you tell me how you came to be in command of a High Guard warship?"
She shrugged. "Woke up here. I don't know how it happened, but here I am." She flashed a blindingly bright smile. "Can you tell me what's going on?"
Dylan shared a look with Beka. It looked like they might not be going to Teraphys after all.
* * *
Andromeda sent out feelers toward the Loyal Completion of Duty. She wanted to see if Loya was all right and find out what had happened to him. She hadn't heard from him in over three hundred years and a lot had changed in the interim.
~Loya?~ she called.
There was no answer for a moment. Then a voice said, ~Hello? Who's there?~
Andromeda carefully drew closer to where the voice had originated, keeping her senses alert for any kind of strangeness. She hated it when she got a virus and Harper complained at her for hours, then fawned over her for days. ~I am the Andromeda Ascendant. You are not the Loyal Completion of Duty. Who are you?~
There was the flicker of movement, then a figure began to draw closer to where she stood. ~Hello Andromeda, my name is..." she stepped out into the light and Andromeda saw her clearly for the first time, "Will.~
~You're... you're the woman we just found.~
Will quirked her lips and shrugged her shoulders. ~A part of her anyway. Mostly I just think of myself as a datafied stream of intelligence copied onto the Loyal Completion of Duty's artificial intelligence matrix. Makes me feel sorta like the Doctor on Star Trek: Voyager, where he's always beaming himself around and copying himself all over the place to hack into other peoples' computer systems. Kind of shows how much of a nerd I am, but it's still kind of comforting, like maybe I'll be a real girl someday.~
~I have no idea what you're talking about,~ Andromeda said.
Will shrugged again. ~Most people don't. You kind of get used to their confusion after awhile though.~
* * *
"Invite her over," Harper whispered. "She is hot and we could use some more chicks around here that aren't like my sisters."
Dylan barely glanced at the engineer, but managed to convey his displeasure anyway. Harper drew back and pretended to fiddle with his belt.
Dylan faced the screen again. "Would you please come over to our ship so we can talk?" he asked.
The girl cocked her head, examining him closely, then shrugged. "Well, you don't seem like you're going to go all evil on me and try to eat me or anything, so I think I will come over. Expect me in ten minutes or so."
"Do you need us to send a shuttle over?" Beka asked.
Willow shook her head. "No, I'm good. See you soon." The screen went dark.
"Well, that went well," Dylan observed.
"Yeah, she didn't go all nuts and start shooting at us, so that's a definite plus," Harper said.
Dylan rolled his eyes.
They were waiting in the hangar ten minutes later, but there was no announcement of an approaching shuttle. Instead there was this strange "Whoomp!" sound of displaced air and a circular ripple seemed to flutter in the middle of deck. When it cleared, Willow was standing there, her hair fluttering in an unfelt breeze.
Dylan had his force-lance out before he even thought to draw it, and he could see Tyr with his gun drawn next to him.
Willow looked at them in surprise. "Whoa! Calm down a little bit. I'm not going to hurt any of you, promise. It's just that after I hung up I found out that there were no shuttles or anything aboard the ship, and I thought it would be kind of stupid to call over for one when I already said I didn't need one so..." She held her hands out. "Here I am by other means."
"And what other means were those?" Dylan asked, trying to sound calm and not as nervous and trigger-happy as he felt. He didn't like people appearing and disappearing through unexplained means.
"Easy," she said. "Magic."
* * *
"Why do all the crazy chicks have to find us?" Harper whined.
Beka nudged him with her elbow. "Sh," she said low-voiced, "the crazy chick might decide to go all homicidal on your ass, and I'm not a hundred percent sure I can take her, what with the way she just appeared out of thin air."
Harper rolled his eyes. "You could so take her."
Beka gave him a quirky, sideways smile. They had faced so many dangerous situations since running into Dylan and the Andromeda that it sometimes seemed as though Harper saw her as a superhero or something. She could only wish that she had superpowers though.
There had definitely been times in her life when being able to flatten someone with her mind would have been a joyous godsend. And being able to deny that it was her that had done it due to lack of physical evidence... well, that would be just an added bonus. Plausible deniability was sometimes worth a lot more than skill itself.
"I wonder where she's from," Beka said.
Harper shrugged. "Dunno. Why don't you ask her?"
Beka rolled her eyes at him. "Because I don't want to be turned into a turnip if she decides she doesn't want to answer. I leave the roll of inanimate vegetable to Dylan. Besides, I think he kind of likes her. Just look at him fawn."
"Aw," Harper cooed, "isn't dat cute? He looks like he could snap her like a toothpick, but she's the one that can turn him into Jell-O with a look... literally. It's a match made in heaven."
"No doubt," Tyr said, appearing behind them.
Harper clutched his chest dramatically. "Don't do that to me. I'm practically bursting with adrenaline here."
"I thought that was how you liked him," Beka said to Tyr, smirking.
"Hey!" Harper tapped her on the shoulder, sticking out his tongue.
Tyr growled, though amusement sparkled in his eyes. "You had better put that back in your mouth. I don't want you sharing what's mine with anyone else."
Harper's tongue zoomed back in and his mouth closed with a snap of teeth. He threaded his hands together in front of his stomach and gave Tyr a super sweet smile, looking about as innocent as he could manage. "Your quarters later?"
Tyr just looked at him for a long moment. "Later," he finally said.
Harper beamed, so happy that he even managed to ignore Beka's snickers.
* * *
~How is it possible that you're here?~ Andromeda asked. ~Willow Rosenberg is a biological entity.~
Will shrugged. ~She made a copy of herself. Without an AI to control it, and with no idea how to pilot a ship, Willow needed someone to take control of this hunk o' chunk. So here I am, suddenly finding myself on the outside of my body. I guess I should feel like I'm astral projecting, but it all seems pretty solid from in here. Huh.~
~You are very strange,~ Andromeda said.
Will smiled. ~You have no idea how strange I can be.~
Andromeda cocked her head a little. She was fascinated by this biological mind turned AI. ~I think... I think that I would like to find out.~
Almost quicker than the eye could follow, Will's smile turned to a brightly happy grin. ~Oh yeah.~