Two ships suddenly appeared out of nowhere on the main viewer. The crew's energy level spiked as they all reacted in shock. Even though they had been expecting something, it was still a surprise.
Vila said in amazement, "Where'd those come from?!"
Argus looked down at his nav panel and saw that more ships were ranged behind and to the sides as well. His voice was calm and commanding as always but full of alert energy. "We're surrounded. There are five other ones."
Avon said with significance, "They know we're here." This wouldn't have been much of a statement except that the Justice was in stealth mode. They had Avon's anti-detector screen on and no one should have been able to see them on their scanners.
They all turned their attention to their guest.
Marlena, seated on a couch next to Corinne and opposite Sester, said, "You wished to know our level of technology and how we would respond to conflict?"
There had been many discussions between the crew and Marlena over the last few days. Debates over how a matriarchy and a society dedicated to peace worked in an environment even more hostile than the Federation in some respects. Even though she had explained it, the jaded experience of the crew made it hard for them to envision that such a thing was possible, not unless they employed some of the violent methods of their neighbours. In their opinions, in a hostile atmosphere, the only way to win against an unreasonable aggressor was to beat them at their own game.
Avon had been most cynical of all. He had very little faith in humanity's ability to find a peaceful solution to anything. At least not one that fit within the frame of rationality and not foolish dreams. In his experience, ideals such as peace were little more than empty emotional sentiments but when it came to living it, people always compromised themselves by using the same methods as those they spoke out against. Such hypocrisy didn't surprise him at all; for him it was a fact of humanity and something that made him hate them. Anyone who claimed to be otherwise, he viewed with little confidence; either they fooled others or they fooled themselves. He had never found anyone who could do differently and highly doubted if one existed. Avon was no longer foolish enough to believe in anyone who professed they did. At times, he spoke with cold cynicism and at others, barely controlled anger tightened his throat and his chest seemed to strain with the effort to breathe.
Cally had been watching him carefully. They all had but she was the only one who understood that something was driving him. He seemed obsessed during the talks with Marlena, pushing and questioning her on every point; never satisfied with her calm and undisturbed answers.
The crew's journey to the Tellar Union's region of space had been uneventful except for the normal minor incidents. Normal because shooting first and asking no questions was routine in this Sector of space. Vila had made the comment that having the Federation here might actually be an improvement. Minor because no ships could match the speed, firepower and shield capabilities of the Justice. At least none so far. They hadn't even bothered to use the anti-detector screen until they neared Tellar space.
Marlena was not bothered by the crew's inability to believe what she was saying. She always remained reasonable and pleasant, answering all questions to the best of her ability and with great patience. Avon seemed to puzzle her and she took great care in responding to his queries and challenges. Marlena had proposed a practical test.
This was the test. They would come into Tellar space, and act aggressively and wait to see how the people of peace would respond.
Argus hesitated for a moment as everyone turned to him to wait for his decision, then his orders came fast and clear. "Dain, turn off the anti-detector screen and activate the force wall. Zen, bring the navigation and battle computers online."
Dain said, "Screen off. Force wall activated, sir."
Zen reported a moment later, / Navigation and battle computers online. /
"Avon, anything about the ships?"
"Nothing in our database."
Zen said, / Information. Incoming communications from ship bearing two two mark three eight. Audio and visual portion. /
Argus said, "Put it on the main view screen, Zen."
/ Information, hull sensors register scanner beam activity. /
Avon looked sharply at his information panel as his fingers were busy entering commands. He said in warning, "Their sensors have penetrated the hull."
A man in a blue and white uniform appeared on the viewer. He was an older man with greying hair and intelligent eyes. There was no aggression in his manner and his voice was hospitable but there was a definite firmness in his tone when he spoke. "My name is Captain Varro. You have crossed over into the region of space commonly known as the Tellar Union. Do not be alarmed. We mean you no harm. We only wish you to identify yourselves and to state your purpose here."
Avon said in a low tone that only the others could hear, "Very polite, considering they have us surrounded."
Sester said in a quiet voice as well, "They can afford to be." The faint amusement on his face indicated he was enjoying this.
Vila also muttered lowly, "I thought this was a matriarchy. Shouldn't there be a woman in charge?"
Argus asked, "Avon, have they been able to access Zen or any of the onboard computers?"
"Not as yet," replied Avon. He knew that the Federation had unsuccessfully tried to create a computer interceptor but failure had forced them to use Auron technology to access the weaker point of a ship, the human element. "But that doesn't mean that they can't." The Tellarans would definitely interest him even more if they were successful. Without ORAC, they no longer had that capability themselves.
Argus acknowledged, "Point taken. Keep an eye on it. They know more about us now then we do about them. Can you interfere with their efforts if they do try to access the computers?"
Avon thought for a moment. "There is something. A rotating encryption might slow them down. It'll take a few minutes."
Argus looked at Marlena once again.
There was quiet confidence in Marlena's manner as she said, "It is up to you how to proceed with the test. All I can assure you is that you will not be able to hurt them, nor will they hurt you. My people will understand that you needed this test once it's explained to them."
Argus said, "Alright. Zen, open up a communications channel to the lead ship. Let's begin the test."
/ Communications channel open. /
He said curtly and with a distinct lack of friendliness, "This is Argus. Why do you have my ship surrounded? I consider this a hostile act."
Captain Varro's eyes seemed to brighten with momentary amusement but his voice was firm, pleasant and neutral again when he spoke. His words were pronounced carefully, almost slowly, as if he was anticipating speaking to someone who would require much patience. "It was not our intention to appear hostile…Argus is it? But neither are we defenseless. We are very capable of protecting our own region of space. You will not be harmed if you do not make an aggressive move."
Argus seemed to gather himself and he deliberately lowered his voice in a harsh warning, "I recommend that you don't either. None of the ships in this Sector can match us in firepower or shield capabilities."
Captain Varro's manner did not change in response to Argus's increased belligerence. He was still friendly but firm and reasonable. "We are aware of that, Argus."
Avon said quietly, "Their scanners must have told them that."
Argus said, "I would recommend that you get out of our way or we will make you get out of our way."
Varro sighed. "You do not want to do this, Argus. As I said, we will not harm you unless you make an aggressive move. That unfortunately would qualify as one." Varro sounded sadly regretful but resigned.
Argus said with an angry sneer, "We'll see about that! Zen, cut communications. Dain bring up the radiation flare shield. Vila, ready the neutron blasters. I want a third power only."
"A third?" Vila asked with surprise.
"Can you do it?"
"Yes." Vila began working at his panel.
Argus directed, "Cally, switch to manual. Head to…" He looked down at his panel and said, "Two two mark four nine. Stay below standard by seven. Be prepared for evasive action."
Cally took hold of the manual flight controls. "We're trying to go between them?"
Argus sat back in his seat. "That's the idea. Let's see what they do."
Cally said, "Alright. Whenever you're ready."
Avon remarked dryly. "This will be interesting. We are not going to harm them and Marlena swears they will not harm us. What do we plan to do to each other? Speak loudly as we pass by?"
Argus said, "Oh, I expect them to do more than that."
Vila asked, "How do you know?"
Sester said, "Because of what they did to Marlena."
Vila turned to him. "How does that make sense?"
Argus was finding it to be a full time job to stop himself from appearing annoyed whenever Sester said something. The man seemed to think that his help with the Chandar situation entitled him to be part of the ship's activities now. Argus had refrained from barring him from the flight deck because of Reya.
Argus replied before Sester could, causing the other man to smile. "The only way the Chandarans were able to defeat them was through the use of trickery. That means that they have some way of protecting themselves either defensively or offensively."
Vila said, "Then should we be doing this? That way of protecting themselves might not be good for us either. Whatever it is."
Argus grinned. "That's why you're using a third power."
Vila asked, "We're going to pretend to hurt them? But what if they don't know we're pretending? What if they overreact? It's not like its unknown here." He turned to Marlena. "No offence." He hoped that Corinne wouldn't take any either.
Marlena gave him a warm smile, "None taken. After your experience in this Sector, it's a reasonable expectation."
Argus said, "We still have Marlena if things don't go...as we hoped."
Marlena agreed, "Yes, I can always step in to explain."
Vila looked at Corinne's mother and then to Corinne. "I suppose that's alright."
Argus directed, "Alright, Cally. Take us out. Let's see if you can get pass them. Avon, let me know if they power up their weapons."
The ship began to move slowly forwards heading towards one of the gaps. The Tellaran ships responded immediately and moved to block their way.
Cally said, "Hang onto something." The ship suddenly increased in speed and quickly swerved to the left. Everyone grabbed onto various pieces of the flight deck to prevent themselves from becoming flying objects inside the ship.
The Tellaran ships shortly appeared in front of them again, blocking their way before they could get through. Cally made several more quick and unexpected manoeuvres but each time the Tellarans blocked their way before they could escape.
Cally sounded as if she was running a race as she said, "They're good. And they are not firing on us." She made a sudden climb with the ship and then a drop to the left.
Argus said, "Not so far. This is a good sign."
Avon was hanging onto his control panel but he was also trying to program the encryption and keeping an eye on his monitor panel and the view screen. "Not only that, they're fast. You've noticed that they're at the same distance they were when we started moving?"
Argus looked down at his own nav panel. "You're right. We're no closer to them. Cally, increase speed to standard by eleven."
Cally said, "I would recommend holding onto two somethings then." The view screen registered the increase in speed as they rushed towards the ever-elusive gaps, jerking in one direction then another.
Vila remarked, "I think my stomach needs something to hold onto."
Unexpectedly they were in one of the gaps between the Tellaran ships. Everyone held their breaths. Suddenly the Justice began losing speed rapidly.
With confusion on his face, Argus looked down at his panel for information. "What's happening? Cally, why are we slowing down?"
Cally was also looking at her own flight console. She said with equal bewilderment, "I don't understand it. According to our instruments, our engines are at standard by eleven. We're still drawing on power."
Avon was also looking at his own monitors. His was the only face that was not confused and still searching for answers when he looked up again. "We're caught in a tractor beam. Two to be precise. Powerful enough to stop this ship at almost full power. I would recommend a different course of action or reducing speed before we overload our engines."
They could all feel the strain of the ship very noticeably now. The ship seemed to be shaking with the effort of trying to escape its invisible bonds.
Argus said, "Not yet. Can you identify where the tractor beams are originating from? I mean, where on the ships."
Avon entered several commands on his panel. "I have a possible location. Port side."
"Send the location to Vila. Vila, aim close to their tractor array without hitting them."
Vila leaned forwards over his console and set several controls, "Two blank shots as ordered." Two neutron blasts raced towards the ships, passing near them without hitting.
Argus said, "Zen, open two-way communications channel to the lead ship."
/ Communications channel open. /
Argus demanded, "This is Argus, deactivate your tractor beams or we will fire on your ships again and this time you will feel it."
There was no response.
Argus said, "Zen, close communications. Vila, let's see how good you really are. I want you to just clip one of their tractor arrays. Can you do that?"
Vila looked down at his panel. "We're close enough. I suppose it's possible. I've never tried something that specific before."
Argus said encouragingly, "Go ahead, Vila."
Vila set the controls. "Well, here goes nothing." He pressed the button and a neutron blast stream sped towards the lead ship. It was very precise and Argus had opened his mouth to praise the accuracy when the energy disappeared against a shield that wasn't there before.
Avon had been looking down at his console monitor. This time his voice hinted of excitement. "That's remarkable."
Argus asked, "What is it, Avon?"
Avon turned and looked at him, "Their shields." His finger pointed at the readings on his monitor. "They didn't just deflect or dissipate the energy. It absorbed it."
Argus rushed over to look. "That's impossible."
Avon said, "Apparently not. This means that as long as we fire against their shields, it replenishes their shield energy."
Argus grimaced, "But it drains our energy banks?"
"As I said, remarkable."
Argus asked, "If we bring the neutron blasters up to full power, could we overwhelm their shield's ability to absorb energy?"
Avon mused, "Hard to tell. We don't know enough about this technology."
"You mean that the only way to find out is to try it?"
Avon pointed out, "Risky if you don't intend to harm them."
"I know. But I don't like the feeling of being helpless."
Avon stared at him.
/ Information, incoming communications from… /
Argus walked back to his flight station as he said, "Put it on the main viewer, Zen. Enable two-way communications."
Captain Varro's voice came over the main speaker. "Argus, let's be reasonable. You are not from this region of space. You do not have to do this."
Argus quickly asked, "Avon, have they gotten into our computers?"
Avon checked. "There is still no indication of outside access or interference." He quickly continued working on the encrypting algorithm again.
Captain Varro said, "We didn't require access to your computers to determine that you're not a native of this Sector."
Argus said, "Our ship. You don't recognize it."
Varro said, "Not that. If you had been from this region, you…"
Sester said at the same time as Varro, "We would have shot first and not tried to miss."
There was a slight smile on Varro's face as he replied, "Yes." He turned his head slightly and seemed to be trying to look to the left edge of his screen at the man who had spoken but was not on his screen. Varro looked towards the front again. He said with formality, "Commander Argus, of the Justice."
Several mouths around the flight deck dropped open in shock.
Argus said warily, "You know who I am?"
Varro's manner was guarded but friendly. "Your reputation precedes you as does those of the rest of your crew. Kerr Avon, Cally of Auron, Vila Restal, Reya Reeve and Charles Sester. And of course, your ship is hard to miss."
Argus's jaw tightened at the inclusion of Sester as part of the crew. He said guardedly, "You seem to be well informed." Avon left his station and stood beside Argus.
Varro looked at the new arrival on his screen and said, "Too well informed, Kerr Avon?"
Avon's posture stiffened at being marked by the Tellaran. "You can never have enough information."
Varro said with understanding, "But unfortunately our level of information about you presents a threat, does it not?"
Avon said, "It depends on how the information is used."
Varro responded, "Very true. Rest assured that our information is only used for defensive purposes, never offensive."
Avon said, "Words are only proven by action."
Varro nodded in acknowledgement of the truth behind his words.
Argus directed, "Cally, cut the engines before they overload."
Varro addressed Argus again, "It did surprise us that you made such an aggressive move against our ships without provocation. But our guess is that someone must have told you about us and this is a test of our true nature."
This time Argus said, "Zen, suspend audio channel. Cally, do you sense anything? Are they telepathic?"
Cally closed her eyes and extended her awareness towards the ships.
Avon remarked, "If they were telepathic, cutting communications would be pointless, as it seems this entire exercise is also becoming."
When Cally opened her eyes again, she said, "I sense no hostile intentions and no indication of telepathic abilities. They are guarded but…" There was curiosity in her voice that was reflected in her eyes. "Peaceful."
Argus said, "Good. Zen, open audio channel again."
/ Audio channel open. /
Argus said to Varro, "You are correct that this was a test."
Varro asked, "And did we pass?"
Avon said, "It depends on when you recognized this was a test."
Cally's voice projected to Avon, * Avon, I sensed they were peaceful. *
He turned his head slightly towards her when he answered. * I know, Cally. I do not mean to doubt you. But peace, like neutrality can mask many things. We need to be certain about these people. *
Cally asked, * Why, Avon? Why must you be certain? Why is this important to you? Why have you been pressuring Marlena and now the Tellaran captain? *
Avon refrained from turning his head fully towards her. She always read him too well.
His tone when speaking to her with his mind was always slightly warmer. * I will explain later. Can you trust me? *
* I have always trusted you. * She reinforced her statement by sending the barest ripple of how she felt.
Avon turned his full attention back to the screen.
Varro smiled. "I had heard that you were a cautious man. You see much farther than others."
Avon said in a voice infected with cynicism, "Not that it ever did much good."
Varro looked at him speculatively. He looked as if he wanted to say something further but decided not to. There was a brief hint of sympathy in his voice as he said, "I know many who would disagree with that but it's not the time to talk about such things."
Varro said to Argus, "Avon is right. Regardless of what we say, there isn't enough of a level of trust built up between us yet. I invite you to come to our central governing Council and you can increase your knowledge of us. Then we can build some trust."
Sester had come up to stand by Argus. He asked, more as a statement in the form of a polite question, "You already trust Argus and the others?"
Varro smiled at the new participant. "Sester, the psychostrategist. Yes, our trust comes from our study and observation of your characters and actions."
Avon's eyes narrowed, "You've been investigating us?"
Varro said, "Information is key to our survival as well as advanced science and technology."
Sester said, "There had to be something, otherwise a society like yours would never have survived. Especially not in the hostile environment of this Sector."
Argus asked, "What if we had been from this Sector and had a ship like the Justice? How would you have handled being fired on first?"
Varro said, "You are persistent." He seemed pleased for some reason. "We have analyzed your weapons yield. According to our estimates, you were only using partial power."
Argus said cautiously, "Perhaps."
"Our calculations indicate that even at full power, a full spread from your neutron blasters will have no noticeable effect on our shields."
Avon said, "There will always be someone who can penetrate your shields. Even your advanced energy-absorbing shields. No one is invincible."
"That's true. But we have many other contingencies." Varro paused for a moment to think about something. "Excuse me for a moment." Varro cut the audio link. They could see him turn to the side to talk to someone but they couldn't hear what he was saying.
Argus said, "Zen, mute outgoing audio on our side."
/ Confirmed. /
Argus asked, "What do you think?"
Avon said, "They do appear to have superior technology. Even more advanced in some ways than the Justice." His eyes were bright with interest. "I wouldn't mind taking a closer look at their shields. As far as I know, there is no one with this kind of technology."
Vila said, "It's a good thing they're on our side then."
Avon said, "That still remains to be seen. There are many sides."
Vila said, "I think you're just being paranoid. I mean, if they were going to kill us, with their superior technology, wouldn't they have by now? Why go through all this?"
Avon said, "You're…" He glanced at Corinne. "Not paranoid enough."
Sester spoke up, "Did you notice something interesting about their superior technology? So far, it has all been defensive in nature."
Captain Varro's voice spoke over the speakers again. "As a commitment to establishing trust between us, we are prepared to show you our advanced technologies. If you wish, you can even accompany us on one of our missions beyond Tellar space and you can see how we deal with hostile threats. But for now, we invite you to meet with our current governing Council."
Argus directed, "Zen, re-establish communications."
/ Confirmed. /
Avon asked Varro, "Why would you expose yourself like that? Why show us your technology?"
Varro replied, "As Sester has identified, from our own research and observations, we have already determined that we can trust you. It only remains for you to learn to trust us."
Argus said, "My apologies for the test. It is…"
Captain Varro said with warm sympathy, "Hard to believe? We understand and we take no offence. It is hard to have hope when you live in such dark times. It is hard to believe in anyone."
"Belief is hard but we are open to trying. Before we follow you to your planet, I have someone to show you. You guessed right when you said that someone told us about your people. She's here with us." He held out his hand to Marlena. Sester vacated his space beside Argus and she came over and faced the screen.
Varro's eyes regarded Marlena enquiringly.
Marlena's voice and face was full of emotion as she said, "It is good to see one of my own people again."
Varro's eyes widened. "You are…"
"My name is Marlena Seros. I am from Tellar. I have not been home for twenty-nine years. I was captured by the Chandar Alliance but Argus and his people rescued me."
Suddenly Varro's side of the screen was crowded with many people, male and female in white and blue uniforms, all trying to crane their necks towards the screen to catch a glimpse of her. The joy on their faces was evident. Varro said warmly, "It is good to see a lost daughter of Tellar again, Marlena Seros. We are looking forward to seeing all of you."