Return to Fury Part IV

by Chris Cook

"This is what will happen." The Admiral looked at the screens around him, displaying the captains who made up the task force he had assembled under the authority of the Inquisition. "Firstly, the renegade fleet must not be allowed to leave the gravity well of the planet. Our analysis indicates that they are able to use their drive once they are free of high orbit of a planet such as this. We will approach from the galactic core, using the local star to shield our ships from their sensors. Once we have sensor contact with the renegade ships, we will enter orbit of Coriana opposite them. We will launch sub-orbital transports now. As soon as the transports are launched we will spread out to blockade their ships, using our superior numbers to prevent them from either leaving orbit of dropping their shields to teleport their forces off the planet. Any light cruisers or equivalent class of warship will be our primary target in this phase. If the heavy cruisers attempt to launch dropships, make sure they do not reach the surface. We will have orbital superiority by the time the Guard make planetfall. They will engage and contain the surface forces, at which time Terra will make the decision whether to attempt cleansing with available forces, or hold position until further ground troops arrive. In either case, once the Guard has enclosed the renegades, we will begin the destruction of their fleet. We expect to hold a three-to-one advantage over their fleet. If they are joined by the alien craftworld ships, our reinforcements from the Segmentum control fleet will be on standby orders, and can hold off the aliens for the duration of this operation. We will engage the renegade ships one at a time. Before engagement, I want a complete communications blackout over the entire planet. It is imperative that we hold the upper ground during these initial engagements, until their fleet is depleted enough for us to encircle and engage the remaining ships. I remind you that we cannot let their heavy cruisers leave orbit. Outside the gravity well, our advantage of numbers is eliminated by their ability to manoeuvre. Remember also that they will not attempt to minimise casualties on our ships. I want all damage control teams on permanent alert, and a full backup crew ready to compensate for personnel casualties among weapons and tactical crews. Our latest counter-threat routines and tactical analyses are being relayed to your ships now. I expect your best, captains. For the Emperor."

In the cavernous transport bay of the Navy carrier Imperial Justice, Colonel Zim addressed his troops.

"Planetfall will be by dropship transport. Dropships will dustoff immediately upon our clearance, and provide covering fire during the Alpha assault. I want DCS and tactical briefing to be coordinated to counteract detachments separate from the main force of renegades. The renegades' target is equipped with anti-siege facilities. They will not have broken the defence line when we land, and we will eliminate outside forces and pin their main army against the defence walls. In the event of a counter-attack, I want Ogryn squads ready for mechanised redeployment at one minute's notice. Rough Riders will be providing cover for the flanks of any counter-assault force. Armoured platoons will remain mobile, and bombardment will begin once we have established our primary siege line. Artillery targeting units have been programmed with Coriana's gravity and atmospheric density. I want all gun teams to run three complete simulation drills with the updated units prior to deployment. We know that the enemy have less than one thousand troops on the battlefield. We will force them to spread these troops out around their target. If they concentrate their forces, fast attack units will begin flanking strikes until redeployment is in evidence. Once they are spread out, we will use our numbers to contain them and reduce their active squads to below strength. We hold a twenty-to-one superiority in infantry. I expect this to be used to full advantage. Group leaders will begin tactical briefing at T minus one hour. We are directly responsible for the preservation of the Coriana facility. For the Emperor."

"Okay apes, listen up!" The sergeant faced his squad, the squat end of a cigar still clutched between his teeth. "I don't give a damn what gang you ran with back home, or how many of your buddies you scragged. Here, you do what you are told. Anyone gets any funny ideas about making a hero of himself is gonna get killed. You hear me? Now, when the call comes through for drop, you will each be in your designated positions, you will have your equipment ready, and you will not be asking me some damn fool question about which man you're on the flank of. I expect our transport to be going like a sump bat out of hell not more than twenty seconds after we hit dirt. If any of you apes are still on it when it goes back up, you'll be in a whole world of hurt when I catch up with you. When we get to the business, you will pick your targets and hold to them. Anyone who starts trying to play sniper at someone in flashy armour will feel the butt of my pistol on his head, clear? You do your job, or it won't be the bad guys you'll be worried about. Now, the Imperium has spent, including training, equipment, transport and rations, upwards of half a million Imperial credits on each and every one of you lowlifes. Add in the two creds you're actually worth, and that's quite a sum. You will go down there, do your job, and bring all that expensive equipment back when you're done. Move out!"

The Imperial fleet thundered towards Coriana, fusion drives blazing at full power. In the lead was the Sector Control Cruiser Spirit of Terra, flanked by the heavy destroyers Retribution of the Emperor and Divine Retaliation. Following were three Navy carriers, the Imperial Justice among them. Spread out around these were five destroyers, and behind them followed the cruisers Might of the Imperium and Heretic's Damnation. Finally, a group of ten cruisers, surrounded by twelve destroyers, their weapons powered in anticipation.

On the bridge of the Spirit of Terra, the Admiral turned in his control chair. Around him his officers worked their stations with practised efficiency, communicating vital information to each other seamlessly. It pleased the Admiral that he never needed to intervene in the running of his ship until it was involved in matters deserving of his attention. On that thought, he thumbed a tiny control, moving his chair between the rows of status monitors, until he faced the main screen. The motive unit for the command chair whirred quietly, its stabilisers flexing along the length of metal connecting the chair to the ceiling of the bridge. The Admiral leaned forward, as if trying to bring the planet closer by force of will.

"Long range sensors report ten heavy cruisers in orbit of Coriana, geosynchronous to the Exterminatus facility," reported one of the sensor operators. The Admiral smiled in satisfaction as he saw the trap closing.

"Proceed as planned. Bring us to the far side of the planet. Don't let them see us." The battleship banked as its thrusters fired, the string of vessels behind it matching its movements. In moments, the gentle curve of the planet had hidden the tiny green dots that indicated where, outside visual range, the Furies waited unaware of their hunters. The Spirit of Terra fired its thrusters again, stabilising its orbit, and the crew rattled off the reports from the other ships confirming their successful orbital paths.

In each of the giant, ungainly carrier vessels, huge doors slid open. The pilots of the dropships within peered through the steelglass viewports in their cockpits at the distant clouds below. Alarms sounded inside the vehicles, preparing their occupants for the journey ahead. At a silent signal from the Spirit of Terra, the carrier ships released the docking clamps on the forward-most dropship bays. The ships, tiny in comparison to their gigantic hosts, fell silently away from the fleet, their noses dipping towards the planet as the first hints of atmospheric flare began to form around their hulls. By the time the last flight of dropships had launched, the leaders were hurtling through the high atmosphere, their shields straining against the flames that battered against them as they plummeted down. Inside, the guardsmen heard the ships' engines screaming, and clutched their lasguns, trying to ignore the shaking of their seats and the roaring from outside.

The Spirit of Terra fired its fusion drives again, its path through high orbit mirroring the progress of the flights of transports burning through the clouds below. The fleet changed formation as it moved, the destroyers forming into a wedge, the powerful cruisers behind them, the carriers shielded behind them. The Sector Control Cruiser stood like a bastion among the front line, its weapons arrays towering from its hull, its huge engines bathing the ships behind it in a savage red glow.

The first of the dropships broke through the low clouds, and levelled out. Its atmospheric engines fired to full power, and it led its flight across the rugged terrain of the world below, heading for the distant horizon. In orbit, the destroyer wedge began to spread out, their lances ready to fire. The Admiral looked on from his bridge as the curve of the planet fell away, and the green dots representing the Furies fleet again came into view.

The Exterminatus facility was in sight now, a low shape, crouched on a rocky hill in the middle of a dry plain. Around the fortified factory were numerous smaller buildings, as if the factory was a citadel, looking down on some ancient city. The first flight of dropships smacked into the ground, their cargo bays opening as they landed. Chimeras roared out as soon as contact was made, and the ships heaved themselves back into the sky as their armoured cargo surged forward towards the city. Behind them more ships were landing, leaving huge formations of battle tanks and support artillery when they took off again. Throwing up a massive dustcloud, the army approached its target.

The Admiral nodded approvingly as one by one the destroyers relayed confirmation that their weapons had locked on. Tilting his head towards the communications bay to his left, he uttered a single word: "Fire."

Beams of energy leapt from the Imperial fleet, converging on their distant targets. The Admiral looked towards his sensor operators, knowing they would report the damage done to the enemy in the first barrage.

"Sensors report... sir," one of them stumbled over his words, "sensors are showing no change to the enemy fleet."

"We missed? Some sort of targeting jammers?"

"No sir, telemetry confirms that lance beams were on target, it's just that... nothing happened." The Admiral turned to the screen again, this time in confusion.

"Continue firing," he said, "and move us into visual range."

On the surface, the Imperial Guard blasted apart the buildings surrounding the Exterminatus facility with heavy artillery bombardments. Colonel Zim had been watching the progress of the attack on the internal monitors of his Chimera, and now he climbed the ladder to the turret, opening the hatch and putting a magnifier to his eyes. He stared out at the ruined buildings, looking for the first signs of a counter-attack.

"Entering visual range sir." The Admiral looked immediately to his sensor operators. Several of them were now busy monitoring the seemingly-ineffective lance bombardment.

"Sir," said one, "visual indicates no enemy ships in the area."

"What?" said the Admiral. "Where are they? They couldn't have moved that fast, we had them on sensors the whole time!"

"No sir," said the officer, "they're still showing up on sensors, but... they're not there. Wait... the Heretic's Damnation has reported a visual on an unidentified craft off our port quarter... sir, it's Eldar, a stealthship!"

"By the Emperor, they've been with us all the time!" said the Admiral to himself. "That means they must have seen us approach, and the renegade fleet... they're doing something to our sensors. Relay to all ships, disregard sensor information, transfer firing controls to manual, look for more targets. Take those stealthships out!"

"Admiral," said a voice from the communications speakers, "this is Colonel Zim. Sir, this planet is deserted, there's no army here..."

"Sir," said a sensor operator, his voice loud with anxiety, "we read multiple hyperlight signals, closing on our position!"

"All ships, break off! It's a trap!"

Rows of flames leapt from the sides of the Imperial ships as their thrusters spun them away from their ghost targets. Turning to face away from the planet, they fired their main engines and headed out into space, powering towards the point where they would leave orbit and be free to move without the hindrance of the planet's gravity well. A series of flashes told them they were too late.

Artemis appeared above the Imperial fleet, blocking their path away from the planet. Alongside, two by two, the rest of the Furies ships appeared, forming an arrowhead around their leader. The Imperial destroyer group pushed on towards them, readying their lances to fire again.

"Lock targets," said Commander Warfield from the bridge of Artemis, "take out their weapons arrays and sensors. Program torpedoes to follow their engine emissions. Disable only. Fire."

The heavy cruisers let fly a volley of torpedoes, which veered sharply around the destroyers. The Furies then fired their beam weapons into the destroyers, tearing through the masses of lances mounted on the front of the ships. As the destroyers staggered under the barrage, the torpedoes impacted from behind, sending their targets spinning out of control as their engines overloaded and shut down. The struggling destroyer group passes through the Furies line, their remaining weapons lashing out against the larger ships' shields, then being silenced as beam arrays turned and fired, bypassing the heavy forward armour of the strike ships and cutting through their weapons from the side. The larger Imperial ships were approaching fast.

To one side of the battle, a glimmer appeared between the starlight. It wavered for a moment, then expanded, becoming a jagged hole in space. A web of lightning cris-crossed the opening, casting a hellish light over the two fleets.

"Analysis," ordered Stephanie, gazing at the viewscreen, "reinforce shields to starboard. Intercept and decode Imperial transmissions, see if they know what that is."

"Some sort of interspatial rift," said the chief tactical officer, his eyes passing over half a dozen sensor displays. "Like a warp gate, but there's no warp energy involved. If I didn't know better, I'd say it was a wormhole."

"Imperial comms are unclear," said an officer monitoring the transmissions coming from the Navy fleet, "unlikely they knew of this."

The hole in space bulged, swelling so as to dwarf the two groups of starships, then something began to emerge. The first signs of movement were a group of long, tapering projections, like lances charging forward. They were followed by the beginning of a hull, its armoured surface stretching away to both sides, and down below the weapons. Jagged edges ran along the lines of the hull, casting strange shadows across its surface. Tiny rows of lights showed the size of the thing, as more and more burst free from the portal. Vicious curved wing-like projections appeared, supporting yet more weapons, then a massive burst of red light signalled the arrival of the massive structure's engines. The portal closed, and the leviathan picked up speed, heading straight for the two battle groups. Its weapons flared, jagged beams of darkness tearing at the shields of both fleets, clouds of missiles hurtling towards them like rain. Then, without slowing, it was among them.

Following Artemis, the Furies pushed their engines to the limit, veering out of the way of the monster vessel. The Spirit of Terra, leading the remaining Imperial ships, wasn't so lucky. The leviathan slammed into it, a massive blast tearing apart the front half of the ship, sending the remaining wreckage of the Sector Control Cruiser hurtling back towards the planet, trailing debris. The collision had torn a gaping wound in the side of the leviathan, almost three hundred metres across - but when compared with the massive bulk of the vessel, it looked like a scratch.

On the surface, the Guard stood in confusion, uncertain of their next move now that orders from above had been cut off. Colonel Zim made another scan of the area, more out of habit than necessity, but found it still as lifeless as before. The facility was empty, the small city of support personnel and unskilled labour likewise deserted. The armoured columns stood ready to move, the support artillery had reloaded, fast attack and counter-strike units were in position, but there was no enemy. Zim tried the orbital link again, and received only jumbled shouting and static. He gave up and switched to the frequency connecting him to the small fleet of dropships which, according to the operational plan, had set down a safe distance from the expected battle once they had completed their sweeps for groups of marines outside the facility perimeter.

"Colonel Zim to all dropship flights," he said after the coordinating pilots had signalled their readiness to receive new orders, "dustoff and rendezvous here for immediate evac. I don't know what the hell is going on up there, but I'll be damned if I just sit here and wait." The flight leaders checked off their orders, and Zim heard the rumbling of their engines a moment before he cut off the link. He again opened the hatch of his Chimera and looked towards the horizon. After a moment, the first flights of ships could be seen, tiny specks against the settling dust that the Guard vehicles had thrown up in their advance.

"Keep trying to contact the Spirit of Terra," Zim ordered his lieutenant, leaning back down the hatchway. As he straightened up again, a flash of light caught his eye, among the approaching dropships. One hand groped around the inside of the hatch for his magnifier, while the other reopened the link to the pilots.

"This is Zim, report status," he said, raising the magnifier to his eyes. He squinted through it, trying to keep focussed on the craft as they neared the army. There was another flash, not among the ships, but behind them. Where it had been, there was something small, dark, getting closer.

"Dropship pilots, report!" he repeated. More flashes, static answered him. As he turned to look back down into the body of the Chimera, the first of the dark bolts hit.

In a shower of tangled metal the first dropship ploughed through the ruined buildings, finally slamming into a Leman Russ. More ships fell, and Zim could now clearly make out flyers behind the dropships, firing into them with some sort of energy weapons. The guardsmen scattered, falling back towards the facility they had surrounded, as the wrecks of their transport craft fell among them. As his Chimera rumbled into life, Zim trained his magnifier on one of the attackers, boosting its power to full. He saw a savage curved prow, some sort of weapon extending from above it, swivelling and firing, then the craft turned slightly, and he saw the rows of armoured figures riding the sides of the vehicles, their rifles clutched in their hands, cruel blades twisting out from their barrels.

"Dark Eldar!" he yelled to his crew below, "pirates! Defensive formation, take down those transports!" The fleet of Raiders had dropped down to nearer ground level now, and Zim could see other vehicles joining them. Several tanks were returning fire, but the barrage of dark matter weapons was constant, hammering the Guard as they retreated. In a moment they would be too close for cannons, and the battle would be decided by combat. Zim remembered the last time he had fought against the pirates, when night had shrouded their advance and they had attacked without warning, ripping and tearing as they went, an unstoppable tide of destruction. He could make out the individual vehicles with his bare eyes now, the Raiders with their crews of warriors, eager to spill blood, the massive weapons platforms, their engines roaring as their weapons fired one after another, the torture engines skimming along barely a metre above the ground, their claws snapping in anticipation.

"Nothing is lost forever, is it sister?" Stephanie's eyes widened as the familiar voice echoed around the bridge. The viewscreen changed, replacing its image of the huge warship with that of a dark throne room inside. Mist swirled around the floor and the pillars, chains hung from the hidden ceiling, ending in vicious barbed hooks and blades. In the centre was the throne itself, an ornate construction of stone and steel. Dark shapes moved in the background, the dim light glinting off their purple armour. The commander recognised their leader instantly. She stood apart from the warriors, toying with a double-ended blade. Her expression was one of amusement, but something in her face suggested cruelty in more than just the way the uneven light fell across it. Her armour, what little there was of it, was blood red, and her eyes had none of the light that had once shone from them.

"You thought I was dead?" she said, her voice pleasant, but again seeming to suggest something darker waiting. "I was, for a while. But there's a way back, for those of us who can find it. You and me, the only ones who know. You could see for yourself - you always wanted to undo the damage, but you can't, can you? It was done ten thousand years ago, and we spent so long trying to undo it, and now I've found out the secret. Do you want to know? There is no right or wrong. It's all just an illusion, something that weak people tell themselves to make it easier to sleep at night. The weak don't deserve our help. We're so much more than them. Can't you feel it, calling to you? This is what we were born to be! Don't refuse it, sister. This is your destiny." All eyes were on the commander as she stood from her chair and walked slowly towards the viewscreen, stopping when she was face-to-face with the image of her sister. She spoke quietly, but in the strange calm that had descended her voice carried easily.

"Go back to hell."

The Archon let out a sigh, as if deeply disappointed.

"I expected so much more," she said sadly. "You know I'm right, yet you deny your own power," her voice trailed off, then her eyes flared in anger. "I will make you spend eternity in pain! You dare to defy me!" The bridge crew backed away from the raw anger, but Stephanie stood motionless. The image calmed, then smiled faintly.

"I will enjoy making you bleed," she said softly, "I will enjoy making you enjoy it." The screen flickered off, and the commander slowly turned away, facing the stunned bridge.

"Signal all captains," she said, her voice steady, "target that ship and fire at will."

The Guard army staggered as the Dark Eldar plunged into it, cutting jagged, bloody holes in its battle line. The warriors leapt from their transports, rifles spitting and blades flashing as they carved further into the heart of their enemy. The bombardment of dark lances was joined by the brilliant explosions of disintegrator cannons as the heavy platforms slowed their advance and brought their full firepower to bear. The screams of the dying began to drown out the roar of engines.

"This is Colonel Zim to any Imperial vessel," Zim yelled above the noise of his own transport's engine, "we need immediate evac! Repeat, teleport immediately! We have no dropship support, and our artillery is gone! We cannot maintain formation, request teleport at once!"

The open transmission reached the bridge of Artemis, as it rocked under the impact of the leviathan's weapons. The commander turned to look at the fleet of Imperial ships, which was making a vain attempt to shield the transport cruisers from the incoming fire.

"Signal the Imperial fleet," she said. A moment later the communications officer confirmed that the link was open.

"Imperial ships, this is the Artemis."

"Back off traitor," came the reply, "we don't have..."

"Shut up and listen!" Stephanie put every ounce of authority she could muster into the single command. It worked - the Imperial captain fell silent. "Your army on the surface is under attack. We'll use our ships to shield your transport cruisers. As soon as we're in position, have the transports drop their shields and begin teleporting. You got that?"

"Wait... yes, confirmed Artemis," said the captain uncertainly. The commander wondered if he would do as he was told, but there was no time to find out the easy way.

"Move us in among the Navy warships, full defensive line against that thing," she waved a hand towards the giant ship hurling blast after blast against the two fleets. "Shields to maximum, I don't want anything hitting those transports when their shields go down. Full engine power, go!"

The heavy cruisers broke to port and starboard, passing the giant Dark Eldar ship, their weapons arrays continuing to fire as they went. The leviathan wasn't shielded, but its sheer bulk made even the most powerful weapons virtually useless. Full volleys of torpedoes had barely penetrated the hull armour, and lances simply didn't do enough widespread damage to start shutting systems down. The dozens of weapons arrays tracked the heavy cruisers as they passed, returning their fire shot for shot.

"Concentrate fire on the weapons," ordered Commander Warfield, programming her own ship's targeting routines herself, "try to reduce the level of firepower. Power conduits, energy amplifiers, anything you can find."

The Furies turned to face the giant ship, side to side with the remaining Imperial cruisers. The leviathan drew closer, battering the line with every weapon at its disposal.

The screams were closer now. Zim watched helplessly as the army slowly fell back, leaving great masses of dead and dying. The barrels of the guardsmen's weapons ran hot with the volume of firepower they poured into their attackers, but it was not enough. Zim watched as his own Chimera's multilaser tore a hole through a Raider, sending it crashing to the ground. Another emerged behind it, and one of the torture engines as well, its tail spraying splinter fire wildly across its path. Even from the wreckage of the crashed skimmers, more warriors emerged. The sky was full of dark winged shapes, and crystal splinters fell like rain beneath them.

Zim ordered his vehicle's heavy bolter to fire on a group of warriors approaching a nearby squad. The massive shells of the weapon detonated among the warriors, throwing their bodies into the air, but still there were more. Zim ordered the turret to turn as the enemy reached assault range of the guardsmen - who shimmered and vanished in columns of light. More squads were disappearing, denying the enemy their targets, opening up ground between them and the core of the Guard army, which began to fire sustained volleys of laserfire into the pirates. Zim ordered his driver to fall back to the centre of the army, as he saw more outlying squads being teleported away.

An explosion signalled the demise of Artemis's port shield generator. The ship shuddered against the firepower of the leviathan. The bridge was lit by red emergency lights, the backup shielding systems were now in constant use, and the interceptor cannons were running at full capacity detonating all the missiles that swarmed towards the fleet.

"Re-route shield power through the plasma grid," ordered the commander, who had abandoned her chair and was manually adjusting the firing patterns of the remaining beam weapons. The ship's port side weapons array had been sheared off by the blast that had dropped their shields for an instant.

"The Agamemnon has lost ventral thrusters," someone reported through the noise of the battle, "the Bellerophon's plasma grid is overloaded, they've switched to fusion power."

"Status of the teleports?" Stephanie yelled over the noise, sending a stream of energy back towards the leviathan, silencing one of its lances.

"Estimated twenty-three percent complete, we can't hold the line for that long!"

"Maintain position! Divert fusion power to beam arrays!"

Another volley of fire from the beam weapons was answered by a massive blast from a dozen lances. The bridge lights blacked out completely for a moment, then returned. One of the Imperial cruisers hadn't been so lucky, its engine overloading from damage and exploding, crippling the ship.

"Fires on deck three," shouted an officer.

"The Clotho has lost life support on engineering decks," another reported.

"Hold the line! Don't let them through!"

Another blast knocked the bridge crew off their feet. The forward weapons arrays, along Artemis's armoured prow, were reduced to twisted wreckage, atmosphere from the breached decks venting in plumes of fire.

"Hull breach, deck ten!"

"Secure engineering decks, close blast doors!" Stephanie looked up at the giant ship, watching its lance turrets turn towards her defenceless ship.

"All power to forward shields, brace for impact!"

The lances glowed for a moment, then an explosion ripped through them, sending debris spinning into space. The commander turned to see another beam tear a hole through the leviathan's hull. Then the view was blocked, as the Thunderchild swept down to face the giant warship. As the glow from its hyperlight engines faded, tractor beams could be seen snaking out from its rear hull, each one holding an Ecclesiarchy strike cruiser.

On the bridge of the Amazon cruiser Avenger, Susan Alexandra watched as the tractor beams disengaged. Before her was the bulk of the pirate warship, its weapons still pummelling the fleet defending the transport cruisers.

"Amazons," she said, her voice echoing through the communications systems of each of the twelve strike cruisers, "attack!"

The ships had been built to strike first, and prevent the enemy from striking back. Their forward hulls were dominated by banks of lances and torpedo tubes, all designed to hit a single target with so much firepower that the small cruisers would never feel the need for the armour or versatility of their larger counterparts. Now their weapons fired, carving a blazing trail through space, opening up a massive wound in the side of the leviathan. Explosions broke through to the internal decks, and the ship began to veer away from the massive concentration of firepower, its turrets ceasing their fire against the fleet. As the cloud of torpedoes flew through the holes opened in the ship's armour, Thunderchild fired again, leaving a trail of explosions across the giant ship's hull.

"Commander," an officer reported on the bridge of Artemis, "the pirate troops on the surface are teleporting! They're falling back!"

The giant ship was indeed retreating, towards a glimmering point of light which stretched to form a gaping tear in space. With one last burst of speed it was gone, the hole sealing behind it with a last flash of energy. Stephanie let out a breath she hadn't been aware she was holding, and returned to her chair. She looked up to the viewscreen to see the bridge of Thunderchild, with Octavian sitting in the command chair.

"I hope I'm not too late," he said with a smile. His voice was strained, and it was obvious that his injuries had not yet healed properly. Stephanie noted the presence of an apothecary on the bridge.

"Just in time, Lieutenant Commander," she answered. "Good to see you back in action."

The stars seemed to lose their shine again, as the fleet once more put some distance between itself and the core systems. Perhaps not, thought Stephanie as she looked out of the darkened observation deck, maybe they always shine, even if we can't see them. She was silent for a long while. Eventually she heard movement behind her, and a hand slipped into hers.

"That's a lot of worlds," said Alisha, staring back at the lights of the galactic core. Stephanie nodded.

"I never had a home," she said quietly, "but I like to look at the stars. Each one's a home to someone."

"They used to say home is where the heart is," said Alisha thoughtfully. "Here," she added, placing a hand on her chest. She moved it to cover Stephanie's chest. "And here."

The Furies flew on into the night, their allies around them. Even with the galactic core behind them, there were always stars ahead.

The End / The Beginning...

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