"Yeah, flyin' to Mercury is dangerous for them who dunno what they're doing," the pilot said, twirling a set of keys on a stubby finger. "Overshoot a little and bam – you're swallowed up by the sun." He leered at the girl. "But you've found the right guy. Me 'n my baby could pull your ship through, no problem."

"How much?"

"Fifty thousand."

The high price wasn't unexpected, and she did technically have enough, but Diana still winced internally. She didn't like the pilot, either, with his boorish manner and probably-criminal background. Unfortunately, she didn't have many options, not to a place like Mercury…

She absently studied her turquoise drink, observing how it diffracted the light of a nearby lamp and scattered glitter on the rough surface of the table. Finally, she looked up and flashed an innocent, winning smile. "Alright, fifty thousand. Thank you."

The pilot grinned in return, lifting his glass. "To a good partnership then?" He chuckled at the joke, and the girl forced a laugh as she raised her own glass.

Before it can meet his, though, she found her hand suddenly slammed back down on the table. Some of the drink dribbled onto her wrist, which was currently being gripped by a rough hand.

Diana blinked owlishly up at the newcomer, who bent over to sniff her drink and snorted as he set it back down. "Sedative, really?" he said, releasing the girl. "A cheap one, too." His eyes flickered to the pilot as he continued in a deadly calm voice. "You're a grunt from some lowlife gang, I presume?"

Diana, though unused to using such language, swore under her breath. She was so stupid

Meanwhile, the pilot seemed to have shrunk into the seat. Still, he managed a glare. "Messin' with other people's business is rude, y'know. I'd be careful'f I're you."

The words might have been intimidating, except that they came out as more of a mumble. As it was, the stranger merely leaned casually on the back of Diana's chair.

"It so happens that I have business with this girl as well," he drawled. From a pocket, he pulled forth a gold medallion hanging on a chain and dangled it before the pilot's eyes. Diana recognized it immediately – the universal symbol of the Interstellar Alliance, the closest thing to a government in this galactic system. "Now, interfering with the Alliance's business… I could give the same warning to you." There was the gleam of teeth.

The pilot scowled, but he nonetheless scraped his chair back and left without another word. The vacated spot was promptly taken by the officer, who clasped his hands before him.

"Don't worry, I have some soldiers following him," he said, misinterpreting Diana's frown. "But, of course, I'm not here for petty criminals."

"What do you want?" said Diana harshly, before amending, "What does the Alliance want?"

"Take a guess," replied the officer, with a smile that didn't quite reach his eyes.

Diana hesitated. There was, really, only one thing that could possibly be of interest. "…This is about Ualal."

"Yes. News travels fast, as I'm sure you know. Now that Ualal has activated again, people want control of that power. And since you hold its key, you're going to attract all sorts of… well, demons."

The officer paused to let his words sink in. "Return with me to the Alliance's Hub here. We can offer you sanctuary as the Alliance decides what to do with Ualal. After all, if your key falls into the wrong hands, it would mean disaster on an unimaginable scale."

Ualal was a calculator, developed by the Astronomer's Society to determine when and where the naturally forming wormholes of the universe would appear. The control of transportation that Ualal offered had the power to determine trade routes, direct scientific discovery, decide the outcomes of wars… And for ten years, Diana had been alone in protecting its key.

"So now the Alliance cares about Ualal," Diana scoffed bitterly. "Where were they when Ualal activated ten years ago? When those 'demons' came for the Astronomer's Society, knowing we had the key to its power? When… the Society…" the last part came out as a whisper, and she couldn't bring herself to continue. Screams – cruel laughter – white snow stained red –

The officer studied her. "You are a survivor." It wasn't a question.

Diana took a breath to compose herself, but the officer continued. "I'm just a lowly soldier. I have no say in what the Alliance decides," and there was something almost like an apology in that statement. "But there are others far more interested in you and your key than the Alliance is. I don't exaggerate when I say that you risk not only your own safety, but the safety of our known universe."

"I am well aware of that," she replied coldly. "And I am perfectly capable of protecting myself."

The officer arched an eyebrow at that. "Are you quite sure?" he said pointedly, nodding at the turquoise drink still innocently resting on the table. Diana grimaced faintly at the reminder, but she nonetheless refused to waver. The Alliance could not be trusted with something so important.

Vividly, the events of a decade past replayed themselves in her mind's eye. How, after years of study, the Society's lead researchers finally managed to predict the seemingly-random nature of wormholes. How they quickly submitted their findings to the Alliance, eager to see their creation used for the benefit of all life. How, after no response, they sent another letter, and another. How their tone gradually increased in urgency and desperation, asking, no, begging the Alliance for protection from those who would do harm with Ualal. How the Society saw more and more unsettling strangers on their doorstep, eyes filled with malice and greed.

How the Alliance remained silent.

How days had slipped into weeks, into months, until one day, it was too late for protection.

"The Astronomer's Society sacrificed everything for Ualal," Diana snarled. "The Alliance has done nothing for us, and has no right to its control." Once upon a time, perhaps, she would have accepted the Alliance's offer of aid gratefully. But now…

The officer rested his chin on his hands. "So, you are rejecting the offer?" There was the barest hint of a warning note in his voice. Diana tensed, mind already formulating several escape paths.

But the officer only sighed as he got to his feet. "Well, I'm just the messenger. It's your decision to make, in the end. But if you ever change your mind, you can always find me at the Hub. I don't hold grudges." He gave a casual wave as he meandered out.

The girl's hands clenched into fists. This is about more than just a 'grudge'…!

Diana remained alone at the table for several long minutes, an island of silence in a sea of noisy chatter. When her heart's pounding finally subsided, she took a deep breath and stood, back straight and chin lifted.

She had a pilot to find.

A/N: I can't believe it's been over a year since I last added anything to this... Thus, I have added some old stuff. I should really write more...

This is pretty long, actually, probably long enough to be its own one-shot story. Eh, whatever, my fanfiction existence is a mess anyway