Emma stepped out of the ship.
There were at least ten soldiers stationed around her and every one of them was armed. They were not aiming at her, but it was not far from it. She recognized the face of their commanding officer captain Degas from the screen.
“Miss Acord, would you please follow me? The vice admiral would like to talk to you.”
Emma doubted that she had any choice in the matter, so she just nodded and waited for him to lead the way. Only two of the soldiers followed them.
“It seems you have done some flight training, but your instructors must have neglected the safety bit.”
He said it with only a hint of sarcasm, just enough to let her realize that he wasn’t really scolding her.
“No, they didn’t. We just never had the same perception of what’s safe to do or not.”
“I can imagine that. If you will get the chance to talk with some of our pilots, I would be very happy if you can convey the message that your flying was reckless and was a poor choice done in desperation.”
“You think they will believe that?”
“No. That’s not the point. We have too many new pilots, and some of them don’t need the encouragement to try stuff like that. I’m sure you know what I mean.”
“Yes, I do. Don’t worry.”
“Perfect. Then let me say that that was some excellent flying. Perhaps you want to join us and fly some real beauties. Our kind got guns, you know.”
“Thank you, but I think our family has enough members in the Navy.”
The captain didn’t reply to that, but kept on walking in silence. When it seemed that he weren’t going to ask anything else, she decided she might as well be the one asking.
“Do you know the status of my team and their ship?”
“Are they ok?”
The captain’s lips tightened.
“No. There were some casualties, and some are still in emergency treatment. The two last attackers were trapped within the ship in the end. They committed suicide.”
Emma felt her stomach tighten so hard that she almost lost a step. She didn’t want to know, but she had to ask.
“The ambassador is dead, together with two other members of the team. Your friend is still in critical condition, but they think she will make it.”
That was all she managed to say. Another word would threaten to burst the bubble she had created to keep it all on a distance.
They stepped into one of the many ship elevators. The two soldiers were left outside. The captain entered his keycard and entered his hand into the DNA scanner. That was unusual, even for a military ship. He gave no voice commands and otherwise to nominate a destination, but the elevator started moving. She wanted desperately to just go somewhere and be alone, but she was well aware that they would debrief her as fast as possible. Hopefully they would focus on the Vanduul problem and not so much on the vanishing ship. She didn’t know what she would say if they asked her about that. Telling the navy the truth was not an option. What did they know anyway? This was an Advocacy mission, but with a Horde ship showing up like that there was bound to be an endless interest from almost every branch, civilian and military.
The elevator stopped and the door opened.
“After you,” the captain said.
She walked into what was a guard post and a quite heavily defended at that. Why would they need something like this here? One of the three guards waved them over and into a scanner.
“Please stand still, ma’am. The scan will only take a moment. I assume you have no weapons on you?”
“I don’t,” Emma said and stepped into the scanner.
The two other guards looked at a screen on the wall.
“I’m sorry, but you will have to leave all electronic devices behind. That includes both the MobiGlas and the storage crystal, ma’am.”
She looked back at the captain, who nodded. She didn’t really want to do it. Either they knew about the crystal, and this was the easiest way to take it from her, or they were clueless about it.
“Why? Where are you taking me?”
“It’s alright, Miss Acord. It will be perfectly clear to you in a moment and your stuff will be safer here than anywhere else,” the captain said.
If they really knew, refusing would be pointless in the end. If they didn’t know, it was better not to draw attention to the crystal. Still, she didn’t have to feign the annoyance when she gave them to the guard.
“Don’t worry, its standard procedure,” the guard said.
A door opened at the other end. She was not sure, but she had an idea about what was waiting on the other side. The added security onboard a navy carrier didn’t leave too many choices.
“Hello pumpkin,” said an all too familiar voice.
She could feel herself starting to blush and there was no amount of training that would stop it. Her father hugged her and just held her.
“I’m so sorry for what happened,” he whispered into her ear.
The tears started streaming down her cheeks, but she managed not to sob loudly. At the same time she wanted to scream at him, to yell at them all and break whatever near that could be broken, but it all faded away. He let her go, only to stare into her eyes.
“You are ok, aren’t you?” he asked.
Emma wiped away her tears, feeling like she was five years old again.
“Good, because we really need you to tell us what happened before all hell breaks loose out there.”
There were seven other people in the control center. Her father probably broke a couple of rules just by letting her know that this carrier was one of the intelligence command centers, and then some by letting her in here, but judging from the looks of people, nobody cared.
“Can you get me a channel to the Lady of the ship?”
“We can try. Why? What happened? What’s this about?”
“Just let me talk to her.”
Her father grounded his teeth, like he always did when he didn’t like where things were going.
“What are you going to say to her?”
“Just trust me on this one. I’m only going to say that I’m alive.”
“Are you implying that all of this was because of you? What the hell happened after that fight?”
She shouldn’t have been surprised that he knew.
“I’ll tell you everything, just let me say I’m alive. Ok?”
Her father turned and nodded to another officer.
“Stand over there,” he said and pointed towards a white wall.
“They are not responding,” the officer said.
“Send them live feed, and zoom in on this,” Emma said and held up her ring.
They waited for ten seconds, and then a Vanduul was onscreen in front of her. He looked at her and made a growling sound. She didn’t know what he had planned to say, but she knew the feeling he was projecting.
“Her Lady will receive you shortly.”
The male translation voice was the same as always. They should really do something about that. What if you become annoyed with that voice, then what? The screen flickered and the Lady was standing in front of her. She looked tense, but at the sight of Emma there was a little relief.
“I see you are full of surprises, dearest friend.”
Emma was curious what exactly she was referring to.
“I am lucky, that’s what I am.”
“Isn’t luck a sort of surprise? No matter. I must regret that someone did not like my gift to you. I believe they thought it an insult to bestow on you the ring.”
Clever. Was that a backup plan, or just coincidence?
“Is your Knifemaster ok?”
“He’s wounded, but only in his pride. We understand that all of them are dead, is that true?”
Emma looked at her father, who nodded.
“I think so, yes.”
“Ok. I think it’s best we will be leaving now. Until next time.”
The feed ended before Emma could make any reply.
“Sir, their engines have engaged,” another officer said.
“Nothing changes, follow original plan,” her father said.
Emma felt herself lean all her weight on the wall behind her.
“What’s the original plan?” she asked.
“Come with me,” her father said.
He led her into what was his office. It was strangely neat and tidy, nothing like how his office at home was like. As soon as she was inside and he had closed the door, he grabbed her hand and looked at the ring. It had been some time since she had seen him angry.
“What the hell is this all about?!”
“The Lady gave me this. It signifies my importance to her, amongst other things. I’m not quite sure of all the details yet.”
“And why the hell would you accept this gift from that lizard?!”
Emma could feel her own rage building up with a terrifying speed. She broke his grip with a yank of her arm.
“Are you fucking serious? Do you ask me why I would accept a gift from one of the few leaders that probably exist within the Vanduuls? You’re supposed to work in the intelligence sector. Figure it the fuck out!”
She could feel tears forcing themselves out again. Family. How easily they could anger her. Her father looked at her, shaking his head. He opened his mouth, but seemed not to know what to say for once. She was on a mission, and here she was crying and arguing with her father. She was not going to say anything first. That the Lady didn’t give her an apology was one thing, her father another. He sat down in his chair. All anger had left him it seemed.
“So all of this was because someone didn’t think you were worthy of that ring?” he said.
“Gives me a new perspective on history and all the myths about why wars are started. If something had happened to that Horde ship,” he took a deep breath and leaned back in his chair. “I think if anything could ever unite the Vanduuls, that would be it.”
“Sometimes history is a coin flip.”
“Don’t go all philosophical on me.”
“Yeah, I forgot. You pretend that you’re dealing with facts only. Now that’s the mother of all fucked up assumptions.”
That gave her a scowl, but there was something akin to a smile behind it.
“I’m sorry, but in between seeing your daughter being chased by killers and trying to avoid the worst war imaginable, one can be somewhat distracted. I mean, for years I imagined this scenario, you in trouble, me having to make a choice between impossible choices. That was the only good thing with you leaving the Advocacy, but when I think about it now, it was perhaps the best thing.”
Emma felt like crying again. She had expected an apology, but not that.
“We still need to debrief you. Some of my people will do it. We should do it at once, even though I guess you are dead tired. You understand why.”
She just nodded.
“But please tell, how did you make that sound?”
Emma felt herself go completely stiff.
“When you saw that officer at the beginning at the feed, you made a sound just like them. I think you scared the hell out of half my crew. How did you do that?”
The confusion must have been written all over her face, by the way her father looked at her. If it showed just half of what she felt, she could understand it well.