So as usual in such situations, I started wondering "What would happen if Honor met Buffy?" And after a little thought and a lot of hard work, I came up with this crossover fic. As usual when I write crossovers, no special knowledge is required of the non-Buffy fandom (though hopefully those that are familiar with it will appreciate the references). It's science fiction, and Honor is the captain of a naval starship; that basically covers it. Also, she's awesome, and ever-so-slightly over the top, and has a telempathic treecat called Nimitz. And for those not familiar with Season 8; Buffy and co are currently running away from the Big Bad, Twilight. In a submarine.
7392 words, rating PG, no warnings necessary.
(Buffyverse) Set in Season 8, during 'Retreat'. Buffy, Willow, Xander, Dawn, Satsu.
(Honorverse) Set a few months before 'Honor of the Queen'. Honor Harrington currently holds the rank of captain in the Royal Manticoran Navy.
Retrograde Tactical Manoeuvre
On board a starship, 'day' and 'night' have no meaning. The lights in the corridors and public areas burn at the same brightness, whatever the hour shown on the ship's clocks. There are always crewmembers on watch, manning the controls and going about their duties. But even so, there is a certain rhythm to the day; a time when things slow down - an almost imperceptible relaxation, an intangible hush spreading through the decks. And that happens during the hours when the Captain is in bed.
Lieutenant-Commander Andreas Venizelos, Executive Officer and second-in-command of Her Majesty's Starship Fearless, sat back in the command chair and enjoyed the quiet. Not that he had anything against the Old Lady, of course - in fact she was one of the best officers he'd ever served under - but she did have a habit of asking the most searching questions at the most inconvenient times. Keeping one step ahead of your CO was an executive officer's job, but Captain Harrington ran a taut ship and kept Andreas running to keep up. But now she was asleep - she'd gone off duty a couple of hours ago - leaving him temporarily in sole command of a 300,000-ton heavy cruiser of the Royal Manticoran Navy.
It was quite a responsibility, but Andreas was confident nothing would disturb the peace. He had a well-trained crew, and the bridge of the Fearless hummed with quiet efficiency. The ship was on a routine anti-piracy patrol in the Silesian Confederacy, so there was at least a chance of military action - but only a small chance, since any sane pirate spotting a heavy cruiser on his sensors would immediately turn around and begin accelerating in the opposite direction as fast as possible. For that matter, they'd just finished paying an official visit to what passed for a sector capital in Silesia - Ngamring, in the Tibet system - and even the local system defence forces were probably capable of seeing off pirates all by themselves. Assuming they'd not been bribed into looking the other way, at least. So tonight would be an opportunity for some quiet contemplation, and...
"Hyper signature! Large hyper signature, bearing 042 by 275!"
Jinx. Typical. Andreas came instantly alert, leaning forward as the sensor operator worked to refine her plot. He did his best to keep the impatience out of his voice as he demanded, "How 'large'?"
"Unknown, sir. I estimate at least twelve ships, but there's something funny about it. There's no scatter, like you'd expect from multiple point sources. I'm triangulating with one of the drones, trying to get a better fix on it."
"Thank you, Rebecca. Put the information on my screen, please."
Andreas frowned as he studied the data on the small repeater screen built into the arm of the command chair. Twelve ships could be a merchant convoy, although none were scheduled as far as he knew. It could be a unit of the Silesian navy on exercises. Or - the least likely scenario, but still worth considering - it could be a hostile fleet. Here to spark off one of the endless cycles of civil wars, coups and uprisings that forever bedevilled Silesia.
Should he alert the captain? Standing orders said she should be called to the bridge whenever the ship might be in danger. But she'd only just got off to sleep - and, well, she wouldn't be angry at being woken. She'd be polite about it, and that was ten times worse. He looked at the intercom button, then hesitated.
There was time to wait. See if they could identify the incoming vessels. After all, a competent executive officer should be capable of handling routine matters without turning to the captain to hold his hand every five minutes...
"Talk to me, Rebecca."
"Just integrating the drone data now, sir". Lieutenant Davis tapped her keyboard, inputting the final parameters. "Triangulation puts the source at ... HOLY FUCK!"
It was a most unprofessional outburst for an on-duty officer of the Royal Navy, but the reprimand froze on Andreas' lips as he saw the same thing she had. Fearless was nearly 14 light minutes inside the hyperlimit, which meant that any ship arriving from hyperspace would start out at 250 million kilometres away, minimum. Plenty of time to decide on a strategy.
But triangulation put the hypersignature at just 45,000 kilometres away.
Which was utterly impossible, by all the laws of physics. But there was even worse news than that. In terms of space combat, 45,000 kilometres was point blank range. An unidentified ship had just appeared where it had no business to be - not only inside missile range of Fearless, but in energy weapon range.
Andreas was no longer worried about waking the Captain - or for that matter any of the rest of the crew who were currently off duty. His hand reached out, not for the intercom but for the clear plastic cover on the console; and flipping it up he mashed down on the large red button it protected.
Six minutes later, Captain Harrington strode onto the command deck. She was still adjusting the collar of her skinsuit, and her hair was rather tousled, and those were the only visible signs that seven minutes earlier she'd been fast asleep. She smiled at Andreas as they recited the formal words that relieved him of the watch and put her back in command of her ship, and then she settled into her command chair with easy grace.
"No reaction from the bogey yet, ma'am. I've rolled ship to put the wedge between us."
Honor nodded her approval. The band of focussed gravitational stress that propelled a starship through normal space was impervious to any known force, so manoeuvring to use it as a shield was a sensible precaution in case the intruder was hostile. On the other hand, it worked both ways - the Fearless's own sensors were also unable to penetrate the wedge to get a good look at the mysterious vessel.
From the tactical officer's desk, Lieutenant Rafael Cardones reported that the ship was fully at battle stations, all crew positions manned, guns armed and sidewalls at full power. Ready for whatever orders Honor should give. Still considering her options, she turned to Lieutenant Davis.
"Your initial report mentioned twelve ships, Rebecca. Where are the other eleven?"
"Er... sorry, ma'am, that was my error." The lieutenant - who looked disturbingly young for her job, though Honor knew this was her third deployment - was blushing, but she didn't hide her eyes from meeting her captain's. "From the size of the signature, I assumed it was a multi-ship transfer. I didn't consider the possibility that it could instead be a small transfer, just really, really close to us. I'll try to--"
"This far inside the hyperlimit? You couldn't have known," Honor reassured her. "Though it's good for an officer to never assume anything, on general principles. So, how do we explain a ship appearing where it's physically impossible for her to be? Ideas, people?"
"Hyperdrive failure of some sort?"
"Not possible. She'd have been destroyed, this close to the primary. Unless everything we know about hyperspace physics is wrong..."
"Which it could be!"
Honor quelled the incipient argument with a raised hand. "Any other suggestions?"
"Some kind of decoy? A ship lying in stealth, letting off a - I don't know, a flare of some kind that mimicked a hyper signature?"
"Or maybe they don't use Warshawski drives at all. Maybe that ship uses a completely different technology?"
"But that would mean... aliens?!"
"Or an experimental vessel of some sort. A prototype on its test run, gone astray somehow."
Honor sat back in her chair, letting her subordinates argue through the options, all the while keeping one eye on the sensor screen that showed the unidentified vessel still lying there, motionless and apparently inactive. Were there aliens on board? Humanity had encountered other sentient species a round dozen times since the Diaspora into space began, but none of them had had technology much beyond the iron age level. Certainly none possessed an advanced civilisation or starships of their own. But there was always a first time for everything... Mind made up, she leaned forward again and cut off the ongoing discussion with crisp orders.
"Rebecca, please continue sensor scans of the surrounding volume. If there are other ships out there in stealth, I want to know about it. Rafe, prepare a sensor drone. Let's get a better look at that ship, without exposing ourselves to any weapons she might have pointed this way. I take it she hasn't attempted communications with us yet?"
"No, ma'am. I tried hailing her, but no response."
"Very well. I imagine we should try again, but let's do this by the book." She turned to her executive officer, face stern to hide the bubble of amusement she was feeling inside as she asked him, "Can you brief us on the RMN's doctrine for carrying out First Contact with an advanced and unknown alien species, please, Andy?"
"Um, do we even have a doctrine for that? It's not like we've ever... Sorry, ma'am. I'll, uh, have to look that up on the computer." As he did Andreas cursed himself silently. Once again, the Old Lady had managed to find a question he didn't have the answer for. It really wasn't fair...
None of the attempts to contact the mysterious vessel succeeded. The drone, carefully manoeuvred into place by Rafe Cardones, showed it to be tiny - barely the size of a pinnace, and massing less than half a percent of Fearless's displacement. It did not appear to be under power - indeed, it was spinning slowly around its axis - but showed up warm against the background of space, indicating that there was some kind of heat source aboard. In Honor's mind, that worsened the odds on "aliens" and made "prototype vessel on experimental mission that went horribly wrong" more likely - but she was still keeping her options open until she learned more. Still, if there were scientists aboard, perhaps trapped in a vessel without power or life support, it was her duty to try to help them.
So fifteen minutes later, one of Fearless's own pinnaces left the docking bay and angled around towards the unknown ship, with a full squad of marines on board. Major Ramirez had insisted they go in fully armed and suited in battle armour, just in case the occupants were hostile, or alien, or both - Honor had agreed, but cautioned him to keep weapons slung and not behave in a threatening manner unless the strangers proved hostile after all. She didn't want the guilt of turning humanity's first (potential) contact with an alien civilisation into an interstellar war, after all - at least, not if it could be avoided.
The Navy pilot slowed the pinnace to a crawl as it neared the vessel, and Honor and her command crew watched avidly from the bridge as the pinnace's nose-mounted cameras swept over it. The craft was painted very dark grey, unlike the reflective white that was standard for all ships of the RMN. It was curiously shaped; streamlined, almost like a teardrop, and Honor realised that it must be designed for atmospheric manoeuvres. There was no sign of alpha or beta nodes; indeed, no visible method of propulsion at all, unless...
"Good God! Is that a propeller?"
Honor leaned forward, her eyes following Rafe's pointed finger, and blinked in surprise. It certainly looked like a multi-bladed screw propeller at the very stern of the vessel. But it couldn't be, not on a spaceship... unless this ship was designed to operate not only in planetary atmospheres, but in their hydrospheres too? But why not just use gravitics, in that case?
Unless they didn't have gravitics, of course. The odds on 'aliens' just improved again...
"I think I see the airlock, sir. In the superstructure there." The pilot's voice was relayed onto the bridge speakers. "It doesn't look like it's designed to mate with our own hatch."
"I see it, Chief. Can you match rotation and velocity while I speak to the captain?" A moment later Major Ramirez's face appeared on Honor's own console as he spoke to her directly. "Are you picking this up okay, ma'am?"
"Yes, thank you, Tomas." As she spoke Honor watched the pilot performing the tricky manoeuvre of matching the pinnace's trajectory to the spinning, tumbling unknown craft, while making it look easy. "I take it you're considering an EVA assault?"
"If we have to." The marines' battle armour was, of course, fully vacuum-sealed and capable of zero-gravity manoeuvring. "I'd like to try connecting the portable docking tube first, though. It should come across as less threatening than sending a bunch of leathernecks in combat gear crawling all over the outer hull of their ship."
"Assuming they react like we do..." Honor thought for a moment, then nodded. "Do it, if you can get a good seal. But don't endanger your people."
The major looked a little put out at that - Honor carefully hid her grin as she contemplated the unwisdom of telling Royal Marines to their faces to stay out of danger - but he nodded agreement. Moments later his voice came over the relay as he passed instructions to his squad.
The flexible docking tube extended slowly out from the pinnace's airlock, guided into place by a petty officer gently tweaking the control stick as he watched from the flight deck. The clunk as the magnets engaged with the unknown vessel's hull vibrated through the tube, then there was an anxious moment as he checked the readouts - then looked up as they all glowed green. "Airtight seal. I think that ship actually has a steel hull; definitely ferrous, anyway. The magnets are firmly locked."
"Steel?" It had been over a thousand years since spacegoing vessels had last used steel in their hull construction. But however strange, at least it meant the docking tube was securely fixed in position. Major Ramirez ordered his squad to move out, with his most experienced noncom taking point. Over on Fearless's bridge, the view on the screen switched from the external pinnace camera to the helmet-mounted pickup in Gunnery Sergeant Babcock's armour.
Marine battle armour was impervious to small arms, and the servos in the limbs capable of exerting forces far greater than the human body was capable of unaided - but the downside to that was the suits' bulk. The marines had to move down the docking tube in single file, then wait as the Gunny examined the ship's hatch. The mechanism seemed simple enough, and she studied it for a moment then flipped the hatch open.
Behind it was a crude airlock. Empty. She advanced cautiously, then grunted in surprise as her trajectory took her gently through the air to impact on the far side of the chamber. With a grace surprising for someone wearing a half-ton metal suit, she grabbed a projecting stanchion and swung herself into a braced position against the wall, then activated her intercom.
"Either they have no gravity in here, or they've lost power to it. Checking the atmosphere composition... huh. Oxygen/nitrogen, pretty much Terran standard. Whoever they are, they breathe the same air as us."
"Confirmed, Gunny. Miller and Wu, take up flanking positions, then Babcock, you open the inner hatch."
The microphone in her helmet picked up the faint hiss as the hatch opened, and then Miller moved smoothly through, with Babcock and Wu close behind him. The interior of the vessel was cramped: exposed metal surfaces everywhere, with pipes and cables running exposed along the walls. To Honor's eyes, watching from the safety of the Fearless's bridge, it looked hopelessly crude and primitive. But there was light, and heat, and air - even if there was no gravity... and no signs of the crew.
The marine squad moved deeper into the vessel, alert for danger. Corporal Wu slid open a screen door, his left hand braced against the wall to stop the reaction sending him drifting off backwards - then muttered a brief imprecation under his breath as he saw what was confronting him.
The compartment beyond was full of people. Humans, by the look of it; and all of them frightened, shocked - and angry. As the cameras panned round the room, Honor was surprised to realise that everyone there was a woman - no, a girl. None of them seemed to be much beyond her teens, if that. While first impressions could be deceptive in a society with the prolong process - Honor herself, at 43 T-years old, appeared no more than half that age - the looks in the eyes of these girls told her they were exactly as old as they seemed.
So what were they doing here? Were they the crew? Were they passengers? Prisoners? An ugly suspicion grew in Honor's mind; the genetic slave trade was rampant here in Silesia, and a cargo of teenage girls would fetch an excellent price in some quarters. Maybe their captors had abandoned them here when they saw the Fearless approaching - or maybe they'd somehow managed to escape or free themselves, but had no way to control the ship they'd taken.
She was just about to order the marines to move back, to avoid alarming the women, when suddenly one of them pushed herself off the wall into the centre of the compartment, hooking a foot behind a pipe to remain steady in full view of everyone. She was a tiny thing, blonde and beautiful, despite looking as angry as the other women - but there was not a trace of fear in her eyes as she looked at the marines and spoke a single word:
And pandemonium erupted. The girls transformed into howling furies as they hurled themselves across the compartment at the marines; more came boiling out of a hidden chamber behind them to take them from the rear. Honor grabbed her microphone, calling out an order to "Hold your fire!"; but it was too late. By pure trained instinct Miller's pulse rifle was unslung and levelled at the blonde woman who'd given the attack command, and his finger tightened on the trigger. Hypersonic darts ripped through the air and shredded the bulkhead behind where she'd been floating... but she herself was unharmed. Honor rubbed her eyes in astonishment. She'd trained under some of the best coup de vitesse masters in the Star Kingdom, and not one of them could have moved that fast. She wasn't sure anybody human could have reacted so quickly, dodging gunfire at point-blank range - but this woman had done just that.
But there wasn't time to reflect on the situation, because something even more surprising was going on. Miller was never going to get off a second shot, because a whirling fireball of rage bounced off the ceiling - or what would be the ceiling if this ship had gravity - and impacted with him. Honor had a brief view of lips drawn back from perfect teeth in a snarl, and almond eyes shaped much like her own, passing in front of the camera lens - and then Miller was flying backwards and sprawled against the deck, and his weapon arm was pinned.
Which was impossible. The battle armour's servos could exert enough pressure to crush stone... and they were being held immobile by a fifty-five-kilo girl. Using her bare hands.
All through the compartment the same story was being repeated. Judging by their curses her marines were uninjured - but every single one of them had been swiftly and efficiently rendered helpless. An entire marine squad in battle armour put out of action in less than a minute, by a group of unarmed teenage girls.
"They're aliens." Rafe Cardones' voice held not a single trace of humour. "They've got to be. There's no other explanation."
"Maybe they're robots. Advanced androids disguised as humans - that would explain the strength."
Honor had her own theory - escaped slaves, genetically manipulated into superhumans in Manpower Inc's laboratories - but she kept it to herself for now. Instead she fiddled with the camera controls, trying to pick up a signal from a helmet camera that could still offer a good view of the situation - meaning a marine who was not being held face-down. At last she found one, and despite everything smiled to see that a similar conversation was taking place on the other ship.
"...So you did good work. Whatever else Twilight sends at us, we'll be ready." Honor recognised the voice of the blonde woman who'd sparked off the fight, and she also recognised the unmistakable snap of authority in it. There was no doubting who was in command here. "And Satsu, thanks for the save. I hate men with guns."
"I hate people shooting at you, ma'am."
A third voice broke in. "Are we sure that's what we're dealing with here? I mean, are they even people?"
"What else are they going to be, Dawnie?"
"Well, they could be robots. Don't look at me like that. Great big metal men clomping in here..."
"You can't clomp in zero gravity."
"I hate you. And anyway, they made enough clomping noises when they bounced off the walls, didn't they?" There was a general stirring of laughter from the women pinning down the marines at that remark. "Maybe we should try to open one up. Or get Will up here, she's the robot expert."
"Willow's resting. I don't want her disturbed. But maybe it wouldn't hurt to poke around..."
"Oh come on, Buffy, you know that's a bad idea." This new voice was, surprisingly, masculine, and Honor saw a quick glimpse of a man - or rather boy, no older than any of the others - wearing an eyepatch as he floated past the camera she was using. "Fiddling around inside an unknown robot? What if you trigger the self-destruct mechanism?"
"If they had one, wouldn't it have activated when we took them down? No, I think these are people in suits. You know, battledress power armour stuff, like in 'Iron Man'."
"Right. Or 'Starship Troopers'. Makes sense. Wonder if we can take the suits and use 'em ourselves?"
"What about the people inside them already? They might object."
"One of them tried to shoot me. Not really caring if they object right now."
"Hey, guys, come and look at this!" Honor started back in shock as a face appeared right up against her view screen, blue eyes apparently staring right into her own. The girl turned her head to beckon to her companions, long brown hair streaming out from her head in the zero gravity rather like the petals of a sunflower. "They've got cameras on their helmets."
"What, like in 'Aliens'? Cool. I guess that means there's someone watching at the other end." A pause, and then Honor found herself gazing into the face of the blonde woman who was in charge over there.
"If you can hear me, listen. We've got your people here, and so far they haven't been hurt. If you want them back, you can; but we're going to need some things in return. Play fair with us and nobody gets hurt. If not--" She shrugged, and her eyes went cold for a moment. But then she smiled again, and tilted her head towards the camera pick-up. "Do we have a deal?"
It wasn't quite how Honor had envisaged First Contact going. But adapting quickly to new situations was one of the duties her Queen employed her for...
Once two-way radio contact was established, negotiations proceeded smoothly enough. The strangers agreed to hand over their hostages if, in turn, the captain of the Manticoran ship would meet their own leader face-to-face and answer her questions. Honor consented to that immediately, despite Andreas's protests that she was needlessly endangering herself. She had plenty of questions of her own - though her attempt to discover how the women had overpowered her marines so easily was politely rebuffed. And so things were arranged.
The marine pinnace was still docked with the other vessel - whose occupants apparently referred to it as "the submarine", which made no sense at all to Honor unless it was a proper name. (Or a translation error, if they actually were aliens.) With the marines disabled the strangers had quickly taken over the pinnace too - its pilot, taken by surprise, surrendered without resistance. Honor therefore agreed to take a second pinnace and dock it with the first for the meeting.
"Bring no more than four people with you. Unarmed. I'll do the same. And I'll know if you try to cheat."
How would she know? Honor didn't know, but suspected that asking would be fruitless. One thing did bother her about the arrangements, though: "If we come unarmed, that will hardly be equal. We've seen what your people can do without weapons; we can't match that."
"Then you know that even if you do bring weapons, they won't do you any good. And guns make me nervous."
Honor doubted that anything could make the composed young woman in her viewscreen nervous, but she let it go. Besides, she held the ultimate trump card: a Star Knight-class heavy cruiser with enough firepower to reduce this 'Submarine' to a rapidly expanding cloud of plasma in microseconds. However good the strangers were at hand-to-hand combat, they couldn't beat that.
"Very well, I agree to your terms. In return, though, I want an answer to one question straight away."
The blonde woman lifted an eyebrow.
"Just what exactly are you?"
The pinnace pulled smoothly away from the Fearless and arced around towards its rendezvous under the steady hand of its pilot. Honor, in full dress uniform, sat quietly on the rear row of seats. She'd refused Andreas's request to accompany her, since she needed him and Rafe on the bridge; and so Stephen DuMorne, her third-in-command, backed her up. On an impulse she'd also asked the ship's surgeon, Fritz Montoya, to accompany her - she hoped his trained medical eye might reach some understanding of the strange abilities these women had. She shivered inwardly, not certain she even wanted to know. The hows and the wheres might still be a mystery; but at least now she knew the whys of their power. And the reason was not comfortable at all.
"We're Slayers." Two simple words, spoken by a petite, cute as a button young woman; and Honor had gazed into her clear green eyes and recognised, bone-deep, the truth of it. She was born and bred to kill, and would do so - had done so - without hesitation or remorse. And that wasn't the worst of it. Oh no. What was worse was that as their eyes met, Honor had seen the same expression cross the woman's face as she knew her own must show. A look of recognition. Her eyes were a mirror, and she saw her own soul reflected in them.
There was a grumble of protest from her lap, and Honor broke off her morbid train of thoughts as she looked down fondly at the final member of her entourage. Nimitz hated it when she started brooding and moping, and wasn't slow to make his displeasure felt. So she apologised, and ruffled the treecat's cream-and-white fur as a peace-offering. Nimitz gave a rather smug *bleek* of pleasure, then sat up on her lap, bracing his truehands on the seat in front for balance as he looked forwards to the main view screen, for all the world as if he were conning the vessel.
Honor knew that technically, she could probably have got away with bringing along another human as well - but in her eyes Nimitz was just as much a person as the rest of her crew; and besides, his empathic talents would be useful in the meeting with these strangers.
The pinnace nosed up alongside its mate, and there were a series of muffled thuds as the two craft became connected. Honor scooped up Nimitz and stood, lifting the 'cat to his usual place on her shoulder then adjusting her white beret into place. A quick glance showed her that her human companions were also ready, and she gave a brisk nod.
"Let's be about it, people."
The two groups approached each other down the open deck of the marine pinnace - since it was designed to carry troops in battle armour, the usual seats had been stripped out for space. Honor took the opportunity to study the mysterious strangers in the flesh for the first time. The blonde woman led the way, with the man in the eyepatch standing just behind her and to her right in a pose that, to Honor's experienced eye, instantly said 'Executive Officer'. The Asian woman with eyes like Honor's own stood at her other side, a fierce and protective look on her face. Behind them stood two more women; the long-haired girl with blue eyes and a redhead Honor hadn't seen before. They all looked so painfully young; but Honor knew how deceiving looks could be. She studied them in frank curiosity, and saw that they were doing the same with her own party.
"Aww! Kitty!" The brown-haired girl suddenly pointed at Nimitz, a delighted grin on her face as she nudged her companion. The redhead followed her gaze, and her own face lit up with a smile. Nimitz - always a shameless attention-seeker, in Honor's fondly biased opinion - recognised that he was being talked about and sat up straight, literally preening himself with pleasure. Then his grass-green eyes happened to meet the hazel gaze of the redhead - and he gave a sudden *bleek* of surprise and went rigid. Their eyes locked together, and Honor was vaguely aware of something just beyond her perception passing between them. Then Nimitz gave a terrified whimper, his ears flattened against his skull and to Honor's shocked surprise, he actually attempted to crawl around behind her neck and hide behind her.
On their homeworld, treecats were known to face down predators ten times their size through sheer ferocity (plus numbers, organisation and the clever use of opposable thumbs). They were fearless. So what on earth could have spooked Nimitz so? Honor stared at the young woman angrily, her own protective instincts roused...
...Only to realise that she was standing there with a stricken look on her face, her hand stretched pleadingly towards Nimitz.
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to scare you. Come on, kitty?"
From behind Honor's neck there was a muffled *bleek*.
"No, I won't hurt your person. Or you."
"That's right." She stood for a long moment motionless, apparently not saying another word; but then to Honor's surprise Nimitz slipped back onto his usual perch and began preening his whiskers as if nothing had happened.
"What was that all about, Stinker?"
"What was that all about, Willow?"
Honor and the blonde woman spoke simultaneously. Their eyes met - and then they both began laughing, and the ice was broken. Nimitz didn't deign to reply, but the redhead - Willow, her name evidently was - stepped forward and pointed to him.
"He's not a cat, Buffy. Or at least not just a cat."
"And what about you, ma'am?" Honor tried hard to stamp out her sudden pang of jealousy. "You can actually talk to Nimitz? What are you?"
"Me? I'm human. We all are." The redhead quirked a smile. "Well, eff-cee-vee-oh human for some of us."
"So I gathered. Are you going to tell me how exactly you managed to disable an entire squad of my marines without firing a shot?"
"I told you already. We're Slayers. It's what we do." The blonde woman - Buffy - levelled her gaze coolly at Honor. "Are you going to tell me why you sent armed men on board our ship in the first place?"
"Some of them were armed women, Buff." That from the man in the eyepatch. Buffy turned around to glare at him, and he shrugged. "Just keeping the record straight."
"I think it's cool that they have women space marines here. Maybe they are the good guys after all. Ask them if they're ruled by an Emperor or a Federation."
"Dawn, I'm not interested in..." Buffy sighed in resignation. "Okay, first question. What sort of government do you have here?"
Honor blinked in surprise. Where were these people from? But she'd promised to answer their queries in exchange for the return of the hostages, so she answered straightforwardly. "We're currently in the Confederation of Silesia, which is supposedly a republic depending on who's actually in power this week. But my ship is from the Royal Manticoran Navy, of the Star Kingdom of Manticore."
"'Star Kingdom'? That sounds... kinda halfway. What do you think, Xander? Emperors are always evil, but I'm not sure about kings..."
"Depends". The man turned to look at Honor. "Does your king in any way wear a black hood that covers his face?"
Beside her, Honor could sense DuMorne's outrage at the irreverence being showed to his monarch; but her own voice was calm as she said, with just a touch of emphasis, "Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth III of the House of Winton has never, to my knowledge, worn a hood. Except maybe when she goes skiing or snowboarding. I'm not really privy to the contents of her closet."
"Your queen goes snowboarding? That is so cool. She can't be evil then."
"You don't know that, Dawnie, she could...ow!" He rubbed his ribs where a sharp elbow just poked him. "Ah, sorry. I'm sure your queen is not at all evil."
"I assure you she isn't." Honor kept her tone deliberately light. "Do you have any more questions, before you release my people?"
The Asian woman, who so far had stayed out of the banter - Satsu, Honor remembered her being called - then stepped forward. "I've a question. What year is it?"
"What year? It's 282 AL, or 1902 Post Diaspora if you prefer." Honor looked at the blank faces, and struggled to remember the date in the old Terran reckoning. "That would be, um, 4003 AD, I think, if that helps?"
It certainly did, if the shocked looks on their faces were anything to go by. Then to her puzzlement, every one of the other group turned simultaneously to look accusingly at the redhead. Who blushed, and looked down and shuffled her feet, and muttered, "I said I'm sorry, okay?"
"Don't worry, Will. As long as you get us back safely we'll just chalk it up to experience."
"Personally, I think this is cool. Don't you think it's cool?"
"At least we're pretty safe from Twilight here. I imagine he's long dead."
Buffy looked stern. "We can't escape our problems by running away from them."
"Um, isn't that exactly what we are doing?"
"We're making a temporary tactical withdrawal. Retreating to a place of safety so we can regroup and recover our strength. It's not the same thing at all."
"I'm sorry, but to me it seems--"
"I said it's not the same thing, okay?"
Buffy's XO stepped in to defuse the argument. "Leave it be, Satsu. We all agreed to the plan, remember? There are... good reasons for doing this."
"Personally, I think Buffy's just jealous that she's not the only one to have visited the future. We all have, now."
"Shut up, Dawn."
"You can't make me. I think--"
"Dawn! Now is not the time..."
Honor, meanwhile, was observing the scene with interest. She was clearly dealing with the polar opposite of a disciplined military unit - and yet their capabilities must not be underestimated. And the mystery of their origin had just deepened even further. There were old spacers' tales of hyperspace anomalies, ships caught in a grav wave that distorted time and space around them, so that centuries passed in the outside world while only weeks went by on board. And everyone on Manticore knew the stories of the fall of Old Earth, the bio-engineered supersoldiers who had caused the Final War and almost wiped out humanity by their failed attempt to rule it.
Was she face to face with living survivors of that war? It would explain their powers, their strange story. And if so, she was in the presence of perhaps the greatest threat that her kingdom - the entire human race - had faced in over a thousand years. Maybe it was her duty to activate the secret transmitter in her pocket, send the signal to Rafe to fire the Fearless's broadside. She would die too, but at least she would eliminate the threat. The sacrifice would be worth it--
The word was not spoken out loud; it simply appeared in her head. Honor looked around in confusion.
Okay, sacrificing your life, very noble. But there's no need for it. We just want to go home.
None of the strangers were talking to her. But the redhead's eyes were piercing straight into her own, and somehow Honor knew she was communicating with her. Somehow.
Well done, you worked it out. Now, I don't want to worry Buffy; she gets cranky if you threaten to blow her up. I suggest you take that radio thingy out of your pocket and drop it on the floor, quietly.
"How do you know--?"
I can read your mind. Duh. And since I'm on board this ship too, I'd really rather you didn't blow it up.
Honor struggled to compose herself. Without speaking aloud, she formed words in her head.
"If you are who I think you are, it is my duty."
Buffy could stop you before your hand reached the button, if I warned her, you know?
"My second-in-command has orders to open fire if I don't return. Either way, I win."
You win? You'd be dead! That's a non-standard definition of winning. It's a crazy person's definition.
"Not to someone with a cause greater than her own life."
The red-haired woman blinked. And then to Honor's utter horror, when her eyes opened again they were no longer hazel, but solid black. Cold and dark as space itself. Her voice in Honor's head felt jagged and painful.
Your ship can't open fire if it's no longer there.
"What are you talking about? Is that a threat?"
No. It's a statement. Don't believe me? Take out your little radio.
Honor hesitated, but the icy voice in her brain brooked no delay. She reached her hand into her pocket, closing her fingers around the sleek shape of the transmitter - then jumped in surprise as it suddenly flared hot in her grip. And when she pulled her hand out of her pocket, only a fine shimmer of dust drifted between her fingers.
That was a demonstration. Y'know, I'm not sure if I've got enough power to do the same to your entire ship all at once. It's pretty big. But it probably won't work too well with big chunks of it missing, will it? I'll try not to hurt the crew if I can help it. They're not my enemy. I hope they've got space suits.
"You're bluffing." But Honor stared into those night-black eyes and knew she wasn't. Honor would sacrifice her own life willingly, but her ship, her crew... "Tell me what you want."
Good. All we want is...
"Will! Willow, what's happening? Your eyes have gone all scary! Are you evil again?"
"Wha-? No, I'm... The blackness leached out of the woman's eyes, leaving them perhaps a little paler than they were before. Buffy and Xander exchanged a significant, worried look. "I'm fine. I think the Captain here was about to make us a proposal."
"Willow, what did you do?"
"Nothing! I didn't do anything... well, not to her. Nothing bad. I just... wanted to convince her to play straight with us."
Buffy whirled around to confront Honor, her expression dangerous. "What's that mean? Is there a reason why you wouldn't play straight with us?"
Honor met her gaze levelly. "If you are a threat to my Star Kingdom and my queen, I will do all in my power to oppose you. Are you a threat?"
"I'd never even heard of your stupid Star Kingdom until ten minutes ago! Of course I'm not a threat to it - unless you manage to piss me off badly enough. Then you'll find out just how threatening I can be!"
"Guys, guys! Calm it down please!" Xander stepped between them, his hands raised placatingly. "Let's not fight? 'Cause fighting leads to badness and blood and screaming and broken bones, and not all of us here have Slayer healing."
"You could have stayed back on the submarine, you know," interjected Satsu. By the glint in her eye, she was quite looking forward to an all-out fight. But Buffy took three deep breaths, then spoke in a calmer voice.
"We're not interested in fighting you. We've got plenty of battles of our own. But first we need to work out how to get back to them. Will, do you have any idea yet?"
"I'm not sure. I think I've got it, but I want to be absolutely positive this time."
"Good plan. I hate to think where we might end up next. Probably at the battle of Yavin IV for real this time."
"Not helping, Dawnie."
"It would be cool though if we did..."
"Really not helping."
"Come on, at least now we know the date we arrived. You just need to correct for that, and then work out why we appeared in this sleazy confederacy thing instead of in Tibet..."
"But you are in Tibet." DuMorne, whose main job on the Fearless was Astrogation, looked puzzled.
"This is the Tibet system. Ngamring is the local sector capital. So--"
"Stupid. Stupid. Stupid." To everybody's surprise, Willow appeared to be banging her forehead against her outstretched palms while chanting a litany. She looked up, shamefacedly - then quirked a tiny little smile. "So I did get us to Tibet after all, huh? Yay me?"
Buffy stared at her reprovingly. Willow seemed to wilt inside. Then Buffy's face creased up, and she suddenly began howling with laughter. The mirth spread contagiously around the deck, and soon everyone was joining in. Willow blushed and looked down at her feet and waited for the outburst to stop.
"Sorry, Will. I really am. It's just--"
"Yeah, yeah, I know. Joke's on me. But at least I know what went wrong, so I'll be able to fix it, and we can be out of here."
"Great. Do you need anything else from these guys?" Buffy waved her hand at the Manticoran Navy personnel.
"I don't think so - unless; wait. Do you guys have five of these shuttle things?"
Honor replied in a cautious tone. "Three pinnaces and two gigs, yes. Why?"
"Can you, uh, this is going to sound crazy. Can you arrange them in a pentacle pattern around the submarine and get the crews to each light a candle at the same time?"
"You're absolutely right. That does sound crazy. Can I even ask why...?"
"Best not. Trust me. But I think we can give you your marines back now, can't we, Buffy?"
"I guess. If you're sure they won't blow us out of space as soon as we do."
"They won't." Willow's voice turned cold for a moment. "Will they?"
"You have my word," said Honor grimly.
"Ask if we can keep the battle armour!"
"I don't think they'd agree to that, Dawnie. Besides, it wouldn't fit you..."
Half an hour later, the five ship's boats matched course on what Honor had described to them as a 'training exercise'. She wasn't sure what would happen next... but whatever it was, she was expecting something more dramatic than watching the strange vessel simply disappear from the scanners. One second it was there, the next... gone.
She sat back in her chair and sighed heavily. She really wasn't looking forward to her next duty.
What on earth would she write in her report to the Admiralty?