Winterborn watched as Quin'tel loomed ever closer. Most of the planet was verdant, with large oceans of sapphire-blue contrasting the deep greens. Orbiting all around the planet were ships of all shapes, sizes and incomprehensible designs. While many followed the design philosophy of strict efficiency that Humanity favored, others learned towards the almost gaudy. The Athena's A.I. had been updated with the general specifications of these ships with tags hovering over each on the display, identifying the ownership of each vessel. A constant input of projected pathing information came from each ship, streaming into Winterborn's mind. They were making their way to an orbiting station to dock. There, they would take a shuttle to a space elevator which served as the primary means of egress from Quin'tel.
She ordered the ship to come to a synchronous orbit with the station. Ren'brus had explained that she would receive a message with a guided path to dock when it was her turn. She didn't have to wait long; the message came, the coded instructions rapidly being interpreted into a flight path. Winterborn signaled her confirmation of the flight path, then fired up their antimatter thrusters. The docking port opened almost organically, looking much like the docking bridge the Vol'en'brus utilized. In moments, they were clear of the door. The ship was then surrounded by forty-five tiny vessels. They encircled the Athena, latching on at multiple points throughout the ship. The drones then fired precise jets, guiding the ship into a bay. This method was used to dock ships which weren't designed to operate anywhere but in space.
Winterborn and the other officers disengaged from the link. She stepped out of her access node, feeling slightly dizzy as her perspective shrank from that of an entire ship, back into her own limited one. She looked at Commander Val, waiting for her to reorient as well.
"Oversee the rest of the docking procedures, Commander. I need to step out and see to a certain Lieutenant about sleeping on the job."
Val gave a faint smile in reply as they snapped off a salute to one another, and Winterborn took off walking towards the medical bay in double time. She stopped in front of the entrance, taking a deep breath before palming it open. She nodded to Commander Johanna, dismissing her salute. "Is she ready to be seen?"
The medical officer smiled. "Yes, she is awake and able to take visitors. Be aware that she isn't ready for duty quite yet. She'll be going through A.I.-assisted therapy for the next week at least. If she tries to stand, feel free to give her a good smack behind the ear. She's been stubborn, and I feel like you might be the only one to actually get her to behave."
Winterborn laughed with a mirth she hadn't felt since Rosa had been injured. "Will do, Commander. Thank you."
With that, she walked through the door leading from the reception area. She could walk the distance to this room blind at this point, having spent every night she was allowed at Rosa's side. When she stepped through, Rosa sat up in her cot. Despite being hooked up with IVs and monitoring equipment, she looked like an angel to the Captain.
She stepped forward, cutting off whatever Rosa had been about to say from with a kiss and a deep embrace. They held each other for what could have been thirty seconds or an eternity. Eventually, Winterborn pulled back.
"Well," said Rosa, a touch breathless, "I was going to ask if you'd found someone else, but I think that answers that." They both laughed, more at the pleasure of one another's company than the joke.
"I missed you, Rosa. More than I can say. Don't you dare do that to me again!" she said, mock severity in her tone.
"What, get my neck broken by an alien shapeshifter?" she asked wryly.
Winterborn waved an admonishing finger. "Exactly. Don't ever get your neck broken by an alien shapeshifter. There'll be hell to pay of you do."
They laughed uncontrollably, holding each other again, trying to stop the mad fit of giggling. Gradually though, the laughter turned to tears, then great heaving sobs. They cried together, releasing the pain, fear, stress, and worry they'd both held onto for days.
As they finally calmed, a message appeared in her vision—a request from Commander Val to meet in her ready room. It was time to prepare to disembark.
She broke their embrace with a kiss, not minding the snot and tears which wet their mouths.
"Duty calls?" Rosa asked, her voice breaking.
Winterborn nodded. "I'm sure you've read the brief, it's time to head planetside. The next time you see me, I'll be an Empress."
"You'd better follow your own advice," said Fallborn.
"Don't get your neck broken by a shape-shifting alien monster, of course."
Winterborn laughed again, wiping her face clean. Just before leaving, she turned back with a smile. "If I do, I expect you to come down and put me back together."
"I will!" she called out.
She walked briskly to the armory, nodding to the three security officers guarding the heavy ceramic-polymer door. She extended a hand to the lead guard, who pulled out an alien-looking device, resembling a twisting serpent made of a gleaming silver metal. On its head was a small spike. She didn't wince as the metal tip bit into her hand, taking a sample of her DNA to be analyzed by the device. A familiar small chime sounded, signaling that she wasn't a Ven. The security officer then sprayed a liquid bandage on the tiny wound, enabling it to mend quickly.
Winterborn opened the door, making her way to a dispenser on the wall. She proceeded to undress, folding her clothing and placing it neatly in the corner. She pressed her palm on the scanner, allowing the device to thoroughly scan her body proportions. A ding signaled that the preparations were made. She held her arms out at the sides, spreading her legs to shoulder width. Four automated arms descended from the ceiling, and two more from the floor; they got to work printing her environmental protection suite directly onto her body. In moments, she was covered from midway down the neck, all the way down to her toes in a black material, much like a second skin.
The suit would regulate her body temperature, monitor her vitals, plug wounds, and help her process foreign pathogens. It was made of a semi-organic bio-mesh, designed to help soldiers and guards in the course of their duties. The material was expensive, extremely difficult to produce, and would only last seventy-two hours before requiring a second application. As a result, it was only used outside of military confrontation when there was a distinct and pressing need. With the amount they were using, their supply of bio-mesh would take weeks to reproduce.
She redressed quickly, only sparing a single glance at a mirror to make sure she was presentable before leaving.
Winterborn walked into the ready room where Ava, Val, and Kali were waiting and all came to attention as she entered. Winterborn returned their salute, noting that each of them already had their bio-suits applied, the telltale black of the material showing on their necks.
"At ease," she said, sitting down in her chair.
"We are going to be heading out shortly. Do any of you have any last-minute questions before we go planet-side?" asked Winterborn.
She was met with silence.
Winterborn nodded. "I've already had our personal effects brought to the main cargo bay. The Quin'tel are loading them onto their ship as we speak."
There was chime at the door announcing a visitor. Winterborn accepted, giving permission to enter. Ren'brus stepped through the door, flanked by two Quin'tel unknown to her. They bowed their heads slightly as they entered.
"Prime," said Ren'brus, "the shuttle has docked. We are prepared to take you down to the surface."
Winterborn rose, as did the others. She sent a mental command to the group of officers assigned to the mission to meet at the main docking bay. Winterborn lead the way, flanked by Commander Val and Lieutenant Ava. They were met by the group of security officers and other personnel who would accompany them down to the surface. Ren'brus stopped just outside of the docking tunnel, bowing his head.
"This is where I leave you, Prime. As instructed, I will stay aboard the Athena until such a time when Sin'tel is both no longer Prime, and you have need of a second. I will be in communication with my agents on Quin'tel; hopefully, we can conclude the investigation into Sin'tel's affairs before the coronation ceremony begins."
Winterborn reached out a hand which Ren'brus took.
"Thank you," she said. "Together, we'll weed out the scheming bastards responsible for all of this. And when we do, we'll rip them out, root and stem."
With that, she released his hand and gave him a very slight bow—the proper inclination to indicate respect to one's subordinate, just as Ren'brus had instructed her. He responded with a lower bow—but not by much—the bow of a Second to their Prime.
They boarded the Quin'tel shuttle linking up with the station. Security officers made a sweep of the area before Winterborn stepped out of the shuttle. It was similar in style to the Vol'en'brus, representing an immense feat of botanical engineering; they were surrounded by a perfectly manicured jungle, paths cutting through the dense foliage leading directly to different sections of the station.
"Welcome to Sen'tin'tel, Prime-to-be," said a Quin'tel delegate. "Please come this way," he indicated to a cleared path, large enough for five or six people to walk abreast. They came to a docking bay filled with specialized craft, apparently designed to link up directly to the space elevator which served as the primary form of travel between the surface and orbit.
Once the security sweep was completed, they boarded the ship and began their descent.