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Two Months After Contact . . .

Alarms rang and warning lights flashed as the ship suddenly appeared in the node. The gray-clad crew on duty all flinched, and any who were away from their duty stations rushed to take their places. On the tactical display that floated near the wall opposite those stations, blue and red icons showed the system’s defense force scrambling as ships pulsed their engines, moving in on the intruder. Weapons platforms signaled target locks.

James Calavone glared at the main display as the large ship barged in and passed uncomfortably close to a smaller outbound vessel just then approaching the node. No one entered Endmost system unannounced without challenge. The new arrival would have only moments to establish an acceptable identity, and failing to do so, all aboard would die. In the meantime, the outbound ship announced an emergency shutdown of its matrix drive field, a frantic attempt to prevent a cross-amplification that came a heartbeat from failure.

“Warship! A heavy cruiser,” Pete, the officer of the watch and nearest Calavone, announced. “They’re sending a signal. It’s . . . ” He turned and stared at Calavone. “Sir, that’s the Vengeance!

“I’ll be damned,” Calavone said quietly to himself. Out loud he said, “Answer them and determine their status. Maintain red alert.”

Pete nodded and said, “RDF Vengeance from station traffic control, stand down immediately or you will be fired upon. Advise of your status. Do you require assistance?” There was a pause, then he turned toward Calavone and said, “Sir, the commander of Vengeance wishes to speak to you directly.”

“Go ahead.” Light swam and then coalesced in front of Calavone’s station, forming the image of a pale, familiar face, square-jawed but a step back from handsome, clean-shaven from crown to chin. He wore the dark blue uniform of the Republic Defense Force, but with no sign of rank or decoration.

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