A Long Awaited Encounter
by John R. Plunkett


"You okay, darling?" Garrek asked, moving up. Goldfur had stopped at the foot of the gangway, apparently studying the place where it joined the floor.

Goldfur looked up, hir face lit with an absolutely incredible smile. "You bet I'm okay," shi purred, drawing Garrek close and nuzzling his cheek. "We have arrived." Very deliberately shi lifted hir forepaw and set it on the floor.

"One small step for Chakat, one giant leap for our family," Garrek chuckled, bestowing a kiss on Goldfur's cheek.

Forestwalker bounded up, prancing like a kitten. Shi threw hir arms around Goldfur and kissed hir with what some might call rather more than merely filial devotion. "What brought that on?" Goldfur inquired, slipping hir free arm around Forestwalker's torso and squeezing hir warmly.

"If there's cuddling going on, I want in on it," Forestwalker murmured, nuzzling Goldfur's other cheek.

"Me too!" Quickpaw exclaimed. Shi didn't quite pounce on the trio but shi did collide with them, throwing hir arms around Goldfur and Garrek and indiscriminately bestowing kisses left and right.

"Hey, kiddo, you're not a kitten any more, y'know," Garrek observed. The impact had nearly knocked him off his feet; Quickpaw was Goldfur's and Forestwalker's little sister only in the sense that shi was the youngest.

Quickpaw responded with a wet, sloppy lick applied to the side of Garrek's face. Forest and Goldfur laughed. Then Forest stepped back and, with great ceremony, removed hir chartreuse pullover blouse and tossed it away. It landed on Midnight's head.

"Shouldn't you wait 'till we get to the hotel, at least?" Garrek inquired.

"Why ever should I want to do that?" Forestwalker responded. Hir brassiere followed the blouse; this time Midnight caught it before it hit hir. "There's no indecent exposure laws on Chakona."

"I'll take a piece of that action." Katrina shed her satchel, then her blouse and bra.

"I'm sorry, Goldie, but I just can't take the peer pressure," Midnight apologized, then removed hir own top.

"Hooray!" Eudora pulled off hir shirt and threw it into the air.

"Pick that up, now!" Garrek exclaimed hurriedly, detaching himself from Goldfur. He retrieved the discarded shirt and turned to the other children, who were already shedding their clothing as fast as they could.

Goldfur watched, fighting the urge to smile. Shi supposed that as a parent and responsible adult shi should intervene, but found shi couldn't muster the will. Though not hirself moved to strip, shi understood the urge. They'd been planning for weeks and months, but stepping off the shuttle was the instant when coming to Chakona- permanently, not merely to visit- ceased being an intellectual concept and became viscerally real. Goldfur felt as if a tremendous weight had lifted from hir shoulders, a weight that had been with hir so long shi hadn't even noticed how heavy it was.

"Hey, Goldfur!" a new voice exclaimed.

"Huh?" Goldfur looked up just as a dun colored streak slammed into hir chest. "Oof!" shi exclaimed, staggering under the impact, but managing to keep hir feet. Even then shi couldn't see hir assailant because that person was now joyously licking Goldfur's face.

"Hello again," a different- older- voice said.

After a bit Goldfur managed to fend off the tongue so shi could see. The person who'd leapt into hir arms was a skinny young Chakat, around ten years old, patterned like a cougar. As with most of Goldfur's party, now that they'd undressed, the newcomer wore nothing but a belt pouch secured around hir waist. "Hello Aurora," Goldfur said, giving the child a kiss. "Have you been keeping yourself well?"

Under cover of the hugging and kissing Goldfur's hands surreptitiously explored Aurora's body. Hir fingers discovered ridges of scar tissue hidden beneath the fur, forming a network of lines across the back of hir torso and along the flank of hir lower body, and there was a suspicious knot in hir left thigh, but it didn't appear to impede functionality in any way. Goldfur heaved a mental sigh of relief; when shi and Aurora had last parted the latter had been riding in a padded carrier, suffering from no fewer than nine broken bones and more bruises and pressure cuts than could be counted. Under the circumstances, hir recovery had been remarkably complete.

"Of course," Aurora replied, the very soul of youthful innocence.

"I bet," Garrek snorted. He'd acquired an armload of cast off clothing.

"You'd win," the older voice put in. "Hello Goldfur, Garrek, everyone."

Goldfur shifted Aurora to one side. Coming up the concourse at a more sedate pace were two adult Chakats: a solid black one with a white muzzle and throat as well as white booties on hir feet. Shi looked to be around Goldfur's age- middle to late thirties- and quite markedly pregnant. The other was much older: late middle age, which for Chakats placed hir somewhere in the low hundreds. Shi resembled a lynx: slender body and fluffy coat, soft gray in color with dark speckles and a white underbelly. In lynx fashion hir cheeks were bearded, hir ears tufted, hir tail short and stubby with a black tip. Like Aurora, the newcomers wore only belt pouches.

"Glad to see you're keeping yourself well," the older Chakat said.

"You too, Darkstar." Goldfur set Aurora aside and gave Darkstar a warm hug.

"What about me?" the younger Chakat asked plaintively.

"Hey, I've only got so many arms," Goldfur responded, giving the black Chakat a hug as well. "Are you and your little one doing all right, Longstocking? Not too much longer to go, by the look of things."

"Not too long, no," Longstocking replied. "And yes, we're doing fine for the most part, except when shi starts pounding on my internal organs as if they were hir own personal drum kit."

Goldfur laughed. "Yeah, that's one part of pregnancy I could live without. On the other hand, it's reassuring to know that shi's strong and healthy. Can you sense hir feelings yet?"

"Well..." Longstocking's expression turned distant. "It's hard to tell, but I think so. Some times, when I'm dozing or not thinking of anything in particular."

"Yes, that's pretty normal," Quickpaw put in with an approving nod.

"Just wait 'till shi's pounding on your outside," Garrek put in.

"Ugh. Don't remind me," Longstocking sighed. "I get enough of that already from Aurora."

"Hellopurrs everyone," Forest called, moving up. "Want a piggyback ride, hon?" shi asked of Aurora.

"You bet!" Aurora pounced onto Forest's back.

"Now you've done it," Longstocking said with a chuckle. "Shi'll be stuck to you like a limpet from now on."

Forest grinned. "After carrying twins, one cub is nothing!"

"Sometimes I think Aurora's worth at least two, all by hirself," Darkstar commented with a chuckle, then returned hir attention to Goldfur. "Have you arranged a place to stay? The Admiral suggested it would be neighborly of me to put you up. Anyway, I suppose it could be said that I owe you all a picnic, at least."

"We'd love to have you," Longstocking puts in. "We have food and everything."

"We have some transient quarters lined up, and Midnight's mother agreed to help but I'm sure I speak for all when I say we'd be delighted to accept your offer," Goldfur announced.

"I second that!" Katrina exclaimed, grinning broadly.

"Oh, you're just in it for the food," Kris snickered.

"Yeah? What's your point?" Katrina countered.

"My stomach heartily endorses your plan, Darkstar," Forest put in.

"Excellent." Darkstar presented a data unit. "Authenticate here, if you please, so I'll have permission to re-route your luggage, and we'll be on our way."

"Sure." Goldfur applied hir left thumb to the screen, then typed in hir password.

"You have transportation lined up?" Kris asked.

"We sorta anticipated that you'd say yes," Longstocking admitted.

Darkstar checked the unit, verifying that the transaction had completed successfully. "All right," shi said. "Let's go eat."

"Yee-haw!" Aurora shouted, bouncing up and down excitedly.

"We're off!" Forest exclaimed, rearing up, but not so dramatically as to risk dislodging Aurora. "Um... Which way?"

"Follow me, if you please." Darkstar turned and set out.

Chakona Gateway Station was huge: more than three kilometers across. Not only was it the primary transfer point for cargos moving into, out of, or within the Chakastra system, it was also a principal transshipment point for goods moving into and out of portions of the Terran and Voxxan colonial expansion zones. In addition, it served as long-term housing for people working in Chakona's orbital factories and as a foundation for the planet's communication network. It truly was a city in the sky, positioned in a geostationary orbit directly above the equator.

A levitating tram whisked the party quickly, quietly, and comfortably past the station's sweeping concourses and arching galleries. Goldfur admired them; the station's designers had made virtue of necessity by decorating the interior trusswork with complex and imaginative kinetic art. Though some of it didn't look nearly as well made as shi remembered... until shi realized that those pieces had been hastily installed or rearranged in order to conceal the temporary framing behind it. Now that shi thought about it Goldfur noticed a great many such patches.

Goldfur felt hir smile fading. Eight months previously Chakona Gateway had sustained heavy damage during the Stariionae attack. Shi'd heard all about it on the news, of course, but it was something else entirely to see it. And realize how terrible the damage must have been for it to be so prevalent even after all this time.

"Dear?" Garrek asked, noting the change in Goldfur's expression

Goldfur licked hir lips. "Garrek," shi whispered, leaning close so the children wouldn't hear, "I want you to promise me something."

"Anything," Garrek replied, nuzzling Goldfur's cheek and slipping an arm around hir torso.

"Promise... that if something happens to me, you'll find someone else. I don't want you and the kids to... to go on alone."

Garrek started. Midnight and Forest, who'd been chatting, fell silent.

"Hush." Goldfur gripped Garrek's muzzle with hir hand before he could speak. "No, I'm not planning on... going anywhere. But the people here weren't either, when the Stariionae came. Or the ones at Cape York." Shi gripped his hand. "I'm saying it now because there's plenty of time. I don't... I don't want it to run out while I'm not looking."

Garrek wrapped his arms around Goldfur and hugged hir fiercely. Shi did the same, releasing his muzzle. "I love you so much," he whispered into hir ear, his voice thick with emotion.

"I love you too," Goldfur murmured back. Shi licked Garrek's cheek, and suddenly they were kissing, fiercely and passionately. Shi crushed hirself against him, clawing at his back.

"It is a good thing there's no indecent exposure laws on Chakona," Midnight observed. Hir tone was lighthearted but hir eyes were wet with tears. Shi took Forest's hand and squeezed it tightly.

"For sure." Forest returned the squeeze and threw in a lick on the cheek.

Darkstar said not a word. Shi put one arm around Longstocking and the other around Aurora. Both of them snuggled up to hir.

The tram stopped. "I don't believe I've ever been in this part of the station before," Midnight observed as the party trooped off.

"This is the general aviation section," Darkstar replied, leading the way down a corridor. At the end shi swiped hir ID card and typed a pass phrase on the adjacent keypad. A heavy airlock style door unlatched and slid aside. "Your chariot awaits," shi declared with a florid bow. "But first-" Shi turned to the party, studying them thoughtfully. "Let's see." Shi raised hir hand, ticking off each individual with hir finger as shi enumerated them. "Goldfur, Garrek, Forest, Midnight, Quickpaw, Malena, Trina, Kris-" shi stopped, taking a step to the side to get a better view. "You must be Leanna."

The individual in question was a slender and very small- only a meter and a half high- fennec fox woman, a biped rather than a 'taur. A slight bulge in the front of her pale blue trunks indicated her to be a shi rather than a she. Shi hadn't shed hir top, a plain white pullover. Shi pushed a trolley loaded with baby supplies; by Chakat standards it would have been considered small or at most medium sized, though in comparison to its keeper it seemed quite large.

"Yes, Shir Darkstar," Leanna replied with a polite nod. Hir eyes were large and expressive... except that they weren't, Darkstar decided after a brief examination. They looked open and innocent, but concealed a layer of reserve just beneath the surface.

Darkstar merely returned the nod and threw in a smile. Leanna had once been a slave; the reserve was most likely how shi protected hirself emotionally. Darkstar also guessed that Leanna would be very cautious of strangers, even Chakats, who had a well-deserved reputation as the most open and friendly people in the known galaxy. "You take care of the kids, I'd venture," shi commented.

"Yes, Shir Darkstar," Leanna replied in exactly the same tone as before.

"Darkstar-" Forest began, taking a step forward.

"Yes, yes, I know," Darkstar interjected, turning to the lock. "Let's get on board. That food ain't gonna eat itself."

"Do we have all the children?" Longstocking fretted, gazing with a certain amount of dismay at the number of baby carriers.

Goldfur laughed. "I know the feeling, believe me."

Darkstar glanced over her shoulder. "Eudora, Tailstalker, Snowcloud, Patchwork, Windrunner, Pouncer, Markus..." Shi paused. "Those three with Garrek must be Rikkal, Mallek, and Jallor, though I couldn't say which is which. I make an educated guess that the one on Trina's back is Mica and the one on Kris' back is Opal, though I'm hardly certain."

"Dead on," Kris put in, nodding approvingly. "You have an amazing memory, Shir Darkstar."

"Comes from supervising freshly graduated young officers," Darkstar responded. "Which isn't so very different from raising children, believe you me." Shi ducked through the lock, followed by an appreciative chuckle from the audience.

"This would be a Magalannes class container transport, wouldn't it?" Goldfur ventured, looking around the cabin after stepping through the lock. It had a very utilitarian look; black rubber traction matting covered the floor, the walls, and even the ceiling. Channeled metal rails with notches in them allowed for the securing of tie-downs, chairs, consoles, or whatever else might need to be carried. Light came from plain white glowstrips on the walls and ceiling.

"It would," Darkstar agreed, moving to the rear of the cabin and checking a number of shipping crates that had already been secured there. "Excellent; all your gear has arrived. Strap yourselves down and we'll get this show on the road."

"Shotgun!" Aurora shouted, dashing for the cockpit.

"Oh, no you don't." Darkstar caught Aurora by the scruff of the neck as shi streaked past. "You got to ride in the cockpit in the way up. I think-" shi looked the party over. "Goldfur, would you care to join me?"

"I'd love to," Goldfur replied, smiling brightly. Garrek, Forest, Midnight, Quickpaw, and Leanna herded the children on board; Kris, Katrina, and Longstocking helped them and everyone else get strapped down. Darkstar secured the lock, then retired to the cockpit. Goldfur followed.

Goldfur didn't pay much attention as Darkstar settled onto the pilot's couch, but as Darkstar reached back to secure hir lower body Goldfur saw something that caused hir to do a double-take. Shi had to look twice, to make sure shi hadn't been mistaken the first time. Shi wasn't; Darkstar's belly bulged, subtly but unmistakably to the experienced eye. And Goldfur's was very experienced, both from a first and third party perspective. "Darkstar," shi began, with rather more than merely a hint of accusation in hir tone, "Exactly when did you plan on telling us that you're pregnant?"

Darkstar's head snapped up. Hir eyes, the gray of polished steel, looked just as hard. Shi drew a breath-

"What?" Forest exclaimed, appearing the cockpit door, hir eyes shining like gemstones. "Darkstar, you're pregnant? That's wonderful!" Shi leapt half over the center console to give Darkstar an enthusiastic hug.

"Forest!" Darkstar roared in a strikingly stentorian voice for once with such a slender frame. Forest recoiled in shock from the sheer force of it, hir eyes wide, hir mouth hanging agape.

"Not that I don't appreciate your enthusiasm, but we'll be undocking shortly," Darkstar continued in a quieter, calmer, and considerably more conciliatory tone. "I can't fly the ship and cuddle at the same time. I'll tell you about it once we're in the air, okay?"

"Okay," Forest replied, hir tone flat, hir expression blank. Shi backed out, returning to hir place in the rear compartment.

Goldfur opened hir mouth to speak but closed it instead. Shi wanted to be shocked and horrified at Darkstar's savagery, but even as shi entertained the notion shi couldn't help thinking of Ketta. Darkstar didn't have a monopoly on violent feelings, not by a long shot. Then, as suddenly and unexpectedly as meteor strike, Goldfur found hirself considering a very different interpretation of events. The principal emotion Goldfur had felt while confronting Ketta might have been rage, but it had spawned from a very different feeling: fear. Fear for Eudora's safety, in that particular case. Could Darkstar possibly be afraid?

Given the size of Darkstar's belly, Goldfur judged hir to be around three months along. Just enough for it to start showing, but not obviously. It was the nature of Chakats to be very sensitive to the state of their fertility; Darkstar would have known within a few days, and no more than a week. Even at that, shi'd had two whole months before Goldfur and company left Terra, but shi hadn't said a word. Though, if pressed, Goldfur would have to admit that shi and Darkstar weren't exactly dearest of friends. On the other hand, in Goldfur's experience a Chakat who found hirself pregnant wanted to tell everyone shi could, even total strangers. But Darkstar still said not a word, even when shi must have known that shi couldn't hide it...

Goldfur released hir straps and rose.

"Goldfur-" Darkstar began, hir vice catching ever so slightly.

The pain in that one word tore at Goldfur's hearts. "If anyone should apologize, it's me," shi said, taking Darkstar's hand and squeezing gently. "I shouldn't have shot off my mouth like that." Reluctantly shi let fingers slip free of Darkstar's and moved into the rear cabin.

"Is it true?" Midnight demanded as Goldfur settled hirself.

"Yes," Goldfur replied.

"Then what's the problem?" Kris demanded sharply. "Why did shi have to go blow up at Forest like that?"

"Because it's none of our business," Goldfur responded, quietly but firmly. "If shi wants to tell us, that's hir prerogative. If shi doesn't want to tell us, that also hir prerogative."

"Stand by for cessation of artificial gravity," Darkstar announced briskly. Goldfur drew a breath but Darkstar ramped off the gravity gently instead of merely switching it off. As a result the experience was more like going over the top hump of a roller coaster than jumping off a cliff. The kids, for the most part, shrieked with delight, though a couple of the babies started crying.

The docking clamps released with muted clunks. Whatever Goldfur might think of Darkstar as a person shi couldn't possibly doubt Darkstar's qualifications as a pilot. Darkstar handled the ship quite briskly, but hir control inputs were so smooth and precise they didn't feel rough at all. Goldfur couldn't see the instruments but shi could extrapolate the stages of flight from the motion of the vessel: moving clear of the station... assuming the proper attitude for the transfer orbit burn... then-

The thrusters lit with a whoosh that rapidly built to a thunderous roar. Inertia fields kept the passengers from suffering the effects of high gee loading, but left them feeling... congealed inside, as if their blood had turned from liquid to some kind of gooey sludge. The experience was mercifully short: after twenty seconds Darkstar dialed back the thrusters, their noise fading out along with the stickiness of the inertia field.

Eudora released hir straps and impelled hirself toward the cockpit. Despite a lack of experience shi moved remarkably well in micro-gravity.

"Hey!" Garrek exclaimed. Goldfur lay a hand on his shoulder. He grimaced, then reluctantly subsided.

"Darkstar?"

"Yes?" Darkstar turned away from the instruments; the shuttle was on auto pilot for this phase of the flight and could look after itself.

"Are you really pregnant, Darkstar?" Eudora asked.

"Yes." Darkstar nodded.

"That's a good thing... isn't it?"

Darkstar hesitated for a fraction of a second before responding. "Yes," shi said. "It is. Longstocking and I have been trying for- for a long time. I... I'd given up hope." Shi blinked; tears leaked from hir eyes.

Gripping the hand rails with hir hind paws, Eudora leaned across the center console, put hir arms around Darkstar, and gave hir a hug. Darkstar returned it, with interest.

Midnight could just see into the cockpit by craning hir torso to one side. "Damn, the kid's good," shi mused.

"Shi's a chip off the ol' block," Goldfur announced proudly.

"I seem to recall having something to do with it," Garrek interjected archly.

"Did you?" Goldfur replied, affecting surprise. "I'm sure I would have remembered-"

Garrek interjected with a raspberry. Quickpaw, Kris, Katrina, and Midnight laughed.

Forest didn't laugh. Shi undid hir straps and walked to the cockpit, bracing hir hands against the overhead to keep hir feet in contact with the deck. "Darkstar?" shi asked, from the doorway, with some trepidation.

"Yes?" In some odd way, Darkstar sounded just as hesitant.

"What... I mean... is everything all right?" Forest asked. "If you don't mind my asking, that is?"

Darkstar looked at Eudora, stroked hir face, then turned hir attention to Forest. "No, it's all right," shi said. "And... I'm sorry I snapped."

"Is everything all right?" Forest asked.

"So the doctors say," Darkstar replied. "But... well... believe it or not, it's my first time."

Forest blinked. "You mean- you've never been pregnant before, in your entire life?"

"Not a once."

"There's no need to apologize for that," Forest replied. "I... I was delighted, my first time... but I was scared, too. It seemed like... there were so many things that could go wrong, and my poor little baby would suffer if they did."

Noting that everyone in the rear cabin was craned forward, ears straining, Midnight glanced somewhat self consciously at Longstocking. "You must be proud," shi said. "You've been trying for... some time now, haven't you?"

"Since before Starshine here, yes," Longstocking replied. "But this one isn't mine."

"Oh?" Midnight's eyes widened in surprise.

"You remember when the Admiral stopped by to drop off his family?" Aurora put in. "He and Gramma went on a camping trip." Shi flashed a grin which strongly suggested that the trip had involved more than hiking and looking at scenery.

"My word," Midnight exclaimed. "It's Boyce's?"

"We haven't done a blood test or anything, but I don't think there can be any doubt," Longstocking replied. "We tried everything we could think of, short of voodoo, and it never worked. But then shi came back from the trip, and shi was- shi was-" Longstocking's face lit up with a beatific smile as shi relived what shi couldn't put into words.

"Glowing," Midnight suggested, hir own expression becoming markedly similar.

"Yeah," Longstocking agreed. "Glowing."

"Do you have a midwife?" Quickpaw inquired.

"No." Longstocking grimaced. "I'm not sure it would be a good idea to mention it, either." Shi lowered hir voice to a conspiratorial whisper. "Fact is, getting hir to go to the doctor at all is like- like lion taming, I swear. I'd like to get hir one, I really would, but I'm afraid whoever it is would end up buried in the garden."

"It guess that depends a lot of what condition shi's in when shi's buried," Midnight commented.

"Try shredded, and chopped up into bloody bits," Longstocking muttered.

"Nah," Aurora put in. "Gramma'd never waste that much meat. Shi'd smoke hir, then make stew with whatever's left over, and lay the skin in front of the fireplace."

"Aw, I've handled hard cases before," Quickpaw assured.

"Maybe, but it's only fair to warn you that Darkstar is the standard by which all other hard cases are measured," Longstocking cautioned.

"Has shi felt the baby's mind yet?" Goldfur asked.

Longstocking frowned. "I... don't know. How long does it usually take?"

"It varies," Goldfur replied. "It starts around four months, usually, but may be as early as two or as late as six."

Longstocking shrugged. "Shi hasn't said anything either way."

"Huh." Goldfur stroked hir chin thoughtfully.

"Could that be a problem?" Garrek inquired.

Goldfur shrugged. "Maybe. Maybe not."

After about forty minutes of free flight Darkstar sent everyone back to their seats. Shi brought the shuttle out of its ballistic trajectory with a single long blast on the braking jets, of which Goldfur heartily approved, though enduring the intense inertia field wasn't very comfortable. It meant that Darkstar hadn't succumbed to the temptation to brake early, thus greatly lengthening the final leg, nor had shi needed to correct hir initial insertion. Goldfur guesstimated that they'd be on the ground in ten minutes. The actual number proved closer to six: Darkstar came in hot and flared hard, but nevertheless the shuttle's skids kissed the earth as gently as a mother kissing her baby. Both sides of the rear cabin opened, the top half swinging upward and the lower half dropping down to form a ramp. Fresh, clean air carrying a rich smell of conifers wafted through; the ramps opened upon an expanse of lush grass lined at the edges by ferns and tall trees.

"Great landing," Garrek said, unstrapping himself. "Where'd you learn to fly like that, Darkstar?"

"Doing combat drops from the old Illustrious," Darkstar replied. "The Kestrel assault boat has a performance profile a lot like this ship here. I'd love to get my hands on one of the new Kingfishers, though. I hear they're really hot."

"A bit too hot, if you ask me," Garrek muttered.

"How's that?" Darkstar inquired.

"This talented fellow here-" Goldfur clapped Garrek on the shoulder- "managed to flip one while coming in for a landing."

"That's not too hard," Darkstar replied. "Once I came in after a night hop and got caught by a microburt just as I crossed the threshold. I managed to keep her upright, but I reversed all four struts and plowed a trench twenty meters long."

"It was in broad daylight, without a cloud in the sky," Goldfur explained, grinning broadly, while Garrek wilted. "Not a trace of wind, surface or aloft."

"What happened?" Darkstar frowned. "Mechanical problem?"

"You might say that," Goldfur continued. "You see, there were three Foxtaur vixens- sisters- who'd taken to sunbathing in the grass by the pad-"

"Ah." Darkstar's brows rose. "Let me guess: not paying attention to the markers?"

"Rather, let's say, paying attention to the wrong markers," Goldfur amplified. "He's late switching to lift-and-drive. Reflected thrust from the pad starts him pogoing. Just as he's correcting the skid hits... and boom, over she goes."

Darkstar laughed. "After a performance like that, you should have gotten a little sympathy, at least."

"Not hardly," Garrek growled.

"The thrusters were still on when he went over," Goldfur explained. "Back blast scooped all the stagnant water out of the drainage ditch by the pad and spattered it all over them. They weren't very happy with him after that."

"That's right, laugh it up," Garrek growled, a clearly redundant instruction since the entire party, including Darkstar, Aurora, and Longstocking, were already doing so.

"Ahoy the ship!"

Goldfur turned toward the voice and beheld two Chakats who seemed to be a of a similar age to Darkstar. One was an orange tabby, the other a tortoiseshell.

"Hey, just in time!" Darkstar called, prancing down the ramp and giving both Chakats an enthusiastic hug. "Come on up and I'll introduce you." With an arm around each shoulder Darkstar led the two newcomers up into the cargo bay. "Everyone, this is Hyacinth and Petalbright." Shi indicated he tabby, then the tortoiseshell. "This is Goldfur; we met on Terra while Longstocking, Aurora, and I were on honeymoon."

Goldfur was aptly named; in build and general coloration shi resembled a cougar, but hir base color was more yellow than brown, giving it a brighter, more vibrant hue. Hir long, lightly waved mane was pure blonde, worn in a single pigtail. "Glad to meet you both," shi declared, offering a hug with both Hyacinth and Petalbright gladly accepted.

"You're Silverbolt's granddaughter, aren't you?" Hyacinth inquired.

"That's right," Goldfur replied, nodding. "This is my sister, Forestwalker."

Though similar in size and build to Goldfur, Forest's pelt was jaguar patterned: dark, roseate spots against a tawny orange background, with a white underbelly. Hir mane, however, was straight and solid black. Another quality shi shared with hir sister was a generous figure: hir lower body was well proportioned and muscular, hir torso finely formed and sporting a most generous bosom. "Call me Forest," shi requested, offering hir own hugs.

"And I'm Quickpaw, hir other sister," Quickpaw put in. Shi was clearly younger by some years than hir older sisters, who looked pretty close. Hir pelt was calico, more or less evenly divided between white, orange, and brown regions. Shi shared hir sisters' generous figures.

"This is Garrek, Goldfur's mate," Darkstar continued.

Garrek was a Foxtaur, not a Chakat; his pelt was red, with a white underbelly and black extremities. His figure was nicely trim: slender, but athletic rather than lean. "Hi," he said, offering a hand, but Hyacinth and Petalbright hugged him anyway.

"Malena is Goldfur's other mate," Darkstar went on.

Malena, also a Foxtaur, shared Garrek's generally trim build. Her pelt had a stronger brown component, giving it a deep, rusty color. Her mane was brighter, falling loose in beautiful ringlets to the middle of her upper back. Her hugs were not the least bit tentative, and she threw in some licks and nuzzles to boot.

"Midnight, meanwhile, is Forest's mate," Darkstar said.

Midnight was a panther Chakat; hir pelt was solid, shiny black that took on a faintly bluish cast in the bright sunshine. Even hir mane, which hung down to hir lower back, was black. Only hir pale blue eyes broke the uniformity of tone. "Are you Darkstar's mates?" shi asked after giving hir hugs and kisses.

"No," Petalbright replied. "Darkstar's parents hired me to look after their estate while they were away. Hyacinth is my mate."

"Oh," Midnight replied, somewhat awkwardly. Darkstar's parents had never returned; their liner exploded on the way to Voxxa.

"Hi, I'm Kris," Kris said, stepping forward to fill the silence. He, like Garrek, was fox-like, but bipedal rather than centauroid. His pattern matched Garrek's except that Kris' base color was a bit more orange, and he had a black, shoulder-length mane. Kris' build was also heavier and more muscular.

"And I'm Trina," Katrina put in. She was also a biped fox; her pelt was smoky silver tinged with white.

"Kris and Trina are mated to Forest, and also one another," Darkstar explained.

"Who's that?" Petalbright inquired, catching sight of Leanna, who'd set to unloading the shuttle.

"That's Leanna," Forest put in.

"Leanna?" Petalbright blinked. "You mean the Leanna?"

"Yes," Darkstar interjected. "But please don't make a big thing out of it."

"No, no, of course not," Petalbright mused thoughtfully.

"I see there's still a passel of kids," Hyacinth commented.

"Yes." Darkstar turned. "Come on out, you lot."

The children surged out in a great, gleeful wave, running about and chattering excitedly. They introduced themselves, more or less, but since they were all shouting at once it wasn't really possible to distinguish individual names. Petalbright and Hyacinth didn't mind; in fact they basked in the attention. "You've certainly been very productive," Hyacinth commented to Goldfur, picking up a Chakat child whose pelt was a mix of ruddy orange and bright yellow that shimmered almost like fire as shi moved. "What's your name, darling?"

"Blaze," the child replied proudly.

"We do our best," Garrek replied with a very immodest grin. Goldfur gave him a hug.

"Shall we help you unload?" Petalbright offered.

"Absolutely not," Darkstar declared. "All that stuff's waited since Terra; it'll wait another evening. Let's eat." Shi rubbed hir hands together gleefully.

"Music to my ears," Midnight put in, licking hir muzzle.

Darkstar had landed the shuttle on a gravel drive; astern lay a paved road, ahead a sprawling, ranch style house. Somewhat startling to Goldfur's city bred eyes was that the entire building was constructed of wood, from the roof peak right down to the foundations. It consisted of a center section and two wings; the right side wing reached forward, enclosing a volume as large as the center itself; the left wing was much smaller, only about a third the size, though there were stone foundations laid out in a mirror image of the right. Since the additional construction had never been done, the foundation had been converted to a flower bed filled with a riot of brightly colored, richly scented blossoms.

Goldfur followed Darkstar up to the front door. A covered porch ran the full width of the center section; a bay window just to the right of the front door looked into a large, comfortable front room, floored with polished hardwood and covered with rugs. Frames with futons on them stood around the walls. To the right a hallway led to the right wing and rooms along the back and side of the house; to the left was a dining area, separated from the kitchen by a counter and a row of folding shutters; a corridor in front of it led into the left wing. Darkstar bypassed the kitchen, walking through the dining room and out through a set of French doors into a large wooden deck. Grills, coolers, and a table laden with serving and dining utensils had been set up; more tables dotted the grass beyond. The right wing, Goldfur now saw, also extended back; the left one would have too if it had been completed; as in front the empty foundation had been converted to a garden. Another garden crossed the back of the yard, turning it into a quadrangle. The tall trees which enclosed the lot formed a majestic backdrop.

"Darkstar, this is incredible!" Goldfur exclaimed. "It's absolutely beautiful- there's plenty of room-" The right wing, now that shi'd seen its full size, looked like it would easily hold everyone. If not, the left one would provide some spill room. The yard gave plenty of space for children to run and play.

Darkstar nodded, placing a box full of fresh meat by one of the grills. "My folks built it. They figured we'd all come home with a couple mates and a flock of kids."

"Then why-" Goldfur began. Shi'd meant to ask why didn't they finish. The answer struck hir like a blow to the head: because there weren't any mates or children. Every one of them, except for Darkstar, had been blasted into component atoms when a plume of drive plasma from the Quezon City's ruptured main energizer had vented through the part of the ship where their cabins were.

Goldfur knew Darkstar because, many years ago, Darkstar had saved the life of Goldfur's grandmother, a Chakat named Silverbolt. You saved the life of my mate, hir mother, hir children, and the children yet to come, Garrek had said when Darkstar told the story. Penta and Longstride, Darkstar's parents, had no doubt had the same dream when they created this homestead... but it had all been swept away, by an accident as capricious and random as the one which had almost claimed Silverbolt. A whole family lost... and not only that but all the generations of children that would never be. All that remained was Darkstar hirself... and this house. This great, echoing, empty house, transformed in a flash from a place where the future was nurtured to a monument to a future that would never be. For the first time since shi'd heard of it the story became viscerally real instead of a remote event. Shi couldn't help imagining what it would feel like if hir own family were suddenly taken away... and shi knew how terribly, unbearably, it would hurt-

"Are you all right?" Petalbright asked, laying a hand on Goldfur's shoulder.

Goldfur drew a shuddering breath and straightened up. "How- how does shi manage?" shi asked, after a surreptitious glance to make sure that Darkstar had moved out of earshot.

"I've wondered that myself, every day since it happened," Petalbright replied. "Shi's just like hir father: hard. As hard as diamond."

"Diamond shatters if you press it hard enough," Goldfur pointed out.

"Yes." Petalbright nodded. "It does."

With the food laid out, Petalbright and Hyacinth set to preparing it. Goldfur, Midnight, Forest, and Darkstar set to unloading the family's luggage while Garrek, Kris, Trina, Leanna, and Longstocking looked after the children and kept them, as much as possible, from ripping up the garden.

The right wing, it turned out, had a side entrance of its own. In fact, it wasn't so much a wing as an attached house, with a front room, dining room, kitchen, bedrooms, and bathrooms of its own. Rather to Goldfur's surprise it was fully furnished. "You didn't move this all in just for us, did you?" shi asked, somewhat guiltily.

"No," Darkstar replied. "It's been here all along. I figured I might as well get some use out of it."

Goldfur couldn't help wincing at the notion of moving into what was still someone else's home, for all that they'd vacated it a long time previously. Then the incongruity of that notion struck hir: the people who'd lived here had gone away more than seventy years ago, but from the look of things they might have departed last week. Which brought another thought to Goldfur's mind, and swept away hir doubts. This house was meant to be lived in, not to be a mausoleum. Longstride and Penta would surely approve, especially if it prevented their last remaining daughter from becoming a relic hirself.

"We don't have to unpack, do we?" Midnight asked, collapsing with hir torso draped across a stack of suitcases.

"No, I think we can leave it," Goldfur replied. Shi was panting too.

"I'd say you've all worked up enough of an appetite to appreciate our cooking," Darkstar concluded. Despite being the most lightly built as well as two and a half times older, shi wasn't even winded.

"You got that right," Forest declared, shaking hir head and running hir fingers through hir mane. As Goldfur came up beside hir shi detached the scrunchie holding Goldfur's pony tail.

"Hey, what's that for?" Goldfur demanded.

"You look sexy with your hair down," Forest purred, nuzzling Goldfur's cheek while pulling out the braid with hir fingers.

"Mmm." Goldfur rubbed hir head against Forest's neck, purring contentedly.

"You two can stay if you want, but I'm going to eat," Midnight announced. "Food, that is," shi added.

"Yeah, we'll have time for this later." With Goldfur's mane loose Forest gave hir a lick on the cheek and headed after Midnight, hir arm around Goldfur's waist.

The odor which came wafting in from the deck stopped Goldfur dead in hir tracks. Then shi rushed out. Both grills were going, upon which cooked beef and fish steaks, sausages, and prawns. A variety of salads had been laid out on the table, and several buckets of ice cream.

"Less gawking and more eating," Darkstar commanded, thrusting a plate of barbecue ribs into Goldfur' hands. "I gotta get rid of this stuff somehow."

"Yes sir," Goldfur replied, supplementing hir load with some potato salad. Shi and Forest settled down on the grass, feeding one another tidbits.

Midnight at first headed to joining Goldfur and Forest but instead turned aside and settled next to Longstocking. "Does Darkstar live here by hirself?" shi asked.

"Not... exactly," Longstocking replied, licking sauce from hir fingers. "Shi's never lived here by hirself. After... the accident, shi came back for the funeral, but shi never spent the night here. Afterwards shi went away and stayed. When shi retired from Starfleet shi came back, but not... not here." Midnight sensed more behind the words but didn't press. "Shi didn't live here until shi found Aurora. But shi and Aurora spent some years here, yes. Though Petalbright looked in on them from time to time."

"What about hir friends?" Midnight asked.

"Well, there's Snowwalker," Longstocking replied. "Shi and Darkstar were in Starfleet together. When they emigrated from Terra they looked Darkstar up; she agreed to let them stay. They're visiting Flamefur's relatives in the Archipelago; that's why they aren't here now."

"There has to be more than one," Midnight pressed.

Longstocking pursed hir lips. "Darkstar spent more than sixty years in Starfleet. Anyone even close to hir age is dead or retired ages ago."

"There's other Chakats in Starfleet," Midnight pointed out.

"Sure there are," Longstocking agreed. "Most of whom retired decades ago, and are now Mother Longtails presiding over huge, exuberant broods."

"But- surely they'd invite hir into their homes," Midnight protested. "They wouldn't want hir to be alone."

Longstocking picked up another rib and stripped it before answering. "You remember when Aurora bit Snowcloud?"

"How could I forget?" Midnight responded.

"Darkstar's like that," Longstocking explained. "Only worse. Much, much worse. The reason shi came here instead of going to any of those friends you mention is to protect them. From hir."

For a moment Midnight said nothing, toying with hir food. "Why are you here?"

"Because I refuse to go away."

"Were we right to come here?" Midnight wanted to know.

Longstocking's stern expression faltered, giving way to something much more sensitive. "Oh, I hope so," shi said softly. "Shi's a good person, Midnight. In spite of everything." Longstocking wiped hir face; hir hand came away wet and the tears kept flowing. "Sometimes- it's like... shi's already dead, and just waiting to stop moving." Shi sniffed, then blew hir nose on a napkin. "I... want hir to live, Midnight. I... want hir to remember what it feels like to be... surrounded by love."

Midnight set hir plate aside and put an arm around Longstocking, hugging hir tightly. "Don't worry," shi said softly. "You aren't gonna get rid of us so easily either."

Quickpaw ate mechanically, without really noticing hir food. Turning hir head slightly to the right let hir see Goldfur and Forest, carrying on like a pair of teenagers in love. Looking straight ahead brought Garrek and Malena into focus, who looked on while Aurora and the other kids romped together in the grass. It didn't escape Quickpaw's notice that the adults kept a close, though surreptitious, eye on Aurora, more so than the other children. Or that Aurora's hind legs, particularly hir right, moved rather stiffly, and every so often shi faltered, as if from some internal twinge. Aurora had recovered amazingly from hir beating... but not completely. All too easily Quickpaw could imagine that shi never would.

A spurt of rage almost sent Quickpaw to hir feet. Aurora wasn't the danger. The very worst shi'd done to Snowcloud had been nothing at all compared to what a gang of Terran bigots had done to hir. Quickpaw's gaze shifted to the left; Darkstar was telling a story to Kris, Trina, and Leanna which involved a lot of gesticulation. A humorous one, judging from the audience reaction. Quickpaw rose and headed that way.

"-next morning Top comes barging in and wants to know what the Hell the Captain's jeep is doing on the roof of the commissary," Darkstar was saying. "I flew out of bed and went stumbling out there, and there it was." Shi shook hir head sadly. "I couldn't remember what happened last night; it was all a blur. Even I thought I'd done it. They got me good that time."

Kris and Trina were already giggling at the start and shrieking with laughter by the end. Even Leanna chuckled quietly. Despite hir mood Quickpaw found hirself smiling; the honesty of the mirth made it contagious.

"Enjoying the party, I trust?" Darkstar inquired, shifting hir attention to Quickpaw.

"Yes, thank you," Quickpaw replied. "The food is great, the cubs are having a wonderful time, the view is incredible, and the house is-" shi faltered, realizing that the thought which sprang first to mind might not be considered complimentary. Truth was, shi found the house unsettling. It was too... empty. Yes, it was big and no one lived there, but that wasn't the problem. It was that... the outline, one might say, of the previous occupants was so clearly printed on the space. Sometimes the feeling was so strong Quickpaw could almost feel them, hovering around hir like ghosts. Given the nature of their departure, it wasn't a comforting feeling in the least. "Amazing," shi finished, a bit hesitantly.

Darkstar nodded. "Mother and Father lived in the city back on Terra, in Sydney. When they came here they wanted to be surrounded by nature. They picked the best spot in whole claim and built their home out of all natural materials. Even the foundation is made of fitted stone."

"Where'd they find the labor?" Kris asked.

"In the beginning there were a lot of stakeless colonists," Darkstar explained. "All the Colonization Authority gave them was a pre-fab hut, some equipment, and tools. Mom and Pop attracted a lot of them by leasing parcels of land. Once they had a large enough gang, they built houses for everyone. There's a dozen original homes in the center of Marpletown, and more in Petalbright."

"Is Petalbright the town somehow related to Petalbright the Chakat?" Trina inquired.

"Yes," Darkstar responded. "Shi was born the very day plans were made for the second settlement. It was seen as an auspicious sign, so the town was named after hir."

"That's amazing," Trina breathed, her eyes wide.

Darkstar shrugged. "It seems romantic looking back on it, but at the time it was just a lot of work."

"Surely it wasn't all bad," Quickpaw suggested.

"Mmm, no," Darkstar allowed after a brief pause. "There were moments, definitely."

"Who was shi?" Quickpaw asked.

"Hmm?" Darkstar responded. "What makes you think I was thinking of someone?"

"Weren't you?" Quickpaw countered.

A smile quirked the corners of Darkstar's mouth. "As a matter of fact I was. I was recalling Sunnybrook. We knew one another just as I was reaching puberty. I was desperately in lust with hir." Darkstar chuckled in reminiscence.

"How did it turn out?" Trina asked.

"Through sheer, dogged persistence I got into bed with hir eventually," Darkstar replied. "We dated for a few months, then we broke up. Literally, you might say."

"Why?" Quickpaw asked.

"We weren't compatible," Darkstar explained. "Sunnybrook wanted to stay in, play house, have tea parties with her dollies, and such like. I wanted to be outside running in the grass, climbing trees, catching bugs and little critters. I made myself do the things shi liked to be hir friend, but over time I couldn't stand it. We argued, and after a particularly venomous one I picked up her favorite teapot, told hir what shi could do with hir God damn tea parties, and smashed it. That was pretty much the end of it."

"That... wasn't very nice," Quickpaw observed.

"Nope." Darkstar shook hir head. "Sunnybrook's parents had brought the pot with them from Terra. It was hir dearest possession."

"Why'd you do it?" Quickpaw asked.

"Because I wanted to hurt hir, in the worst way I possibly could, and I knew that if I ripped hir with my claws Dad would whip me bloody."

"But why?" Quickpaw persisted. "I mean... why did you want to hurt hir?"

"In those days, being angry was reason enough," Darkstar replied. "Even aside from that, I liked it. Not the hurting, exactly... it was that I liked defeating people. It wasn't enough to be strong, smart, or fast. I had to be strongest, smartest, fastest. How I measured that was by how many people lost. I got a kick out of watching people lose because it meant I'd won. The hurting was just... a side effect, you might say."

"Did your father let you get away with it?" Quickpaw asked.

"Certainly not. Shi tanned me anyway, saying I knew damn well I was parsing the rules, meaning to get off on a technicality. Shi told me I was being punished because I'd meant to hurt Sunnybrook, and how I went about doing it was entirely irrelevant."

"You don't seem like that now," Kris commented, with a reproachful glance at Quickpaw.

"It took me a long time to learn better," Darkstar responded. "It wasn't until the Quezon City accident that I really knew what it felt like to lose."

For a long time no one spoke. For hir own part, Quickpaw didn't trust hirself to speak. Even worse than what Darkstar described was the calm, dispassionate way shi described it, as if talking about someone who'd lived a thousand years ago on another planet. Instead of trying to articulate hir feelings in words Quickpaw moved to Darkstar's side and stroked hir flank. Darkstar twisted hir head around, raising an eyebrow. "I've never met a pregnant Chakat who didn't like having hir tummy stroked," Quickpaw responded, a hint of a challenge in hir tone and expression.

For an instant an answering challenge flickered in Darkstar's grey eyes, but only for an instant. Shi lay down and rolled onto hir back. "Let me know when you do," shi requested with a contented sigh.

Quickpaw smiled, though shi felt a pang of guilt; shi had ulterior motives for hir kindness. Hir fingers tested the consistency of the flesh underneath as they ran through Darkstar's soft, fluffy undercoat. They found that flesh to be surprisingly firm; Darkstar's muscles might not be prominent but they were very, very solid. That suggested a relatively easy delivery when the time came, but also of possible problems in the interim. Darkstar did not appear to be putting on the extra fat shi would need to fuel her baby's development. But worse by far was that Quickpaw couldn't sense even the tiniest empathic echo from the fetus.

All Chakats had a mild empathic ability. In a few cases it developed into a true Talent, but for most individuals the connection was only apparent between those who were exceptionally close, emotionally. Parents and children, for instance, and even mates who weren't physically related. As a midwife Quickpaw was thoroughly trained in such matters; sensing the emotional state of an unborn child could often identify problems that a more rigorous but clinical analysis might miss. However, since the brain in question was still developing, it's emotional radiation tended to be very weak; detecting it required the sensor to be very close, often in direct physical contact.

Now Quickpaw had contact. Hir own empathic sense was average, neither particularly strong nor weak. Still, experience let hir notice things that one with a stronger natural talent, but less training, might overlook. Given the state of Darkstar's pregnancy, Quickpaw was sure shi should have felt something, if only the tiniest flicker. True, some babies developed faster than others, and some had stronger or weaker Talents, just like everyone else. But Quickpaw had never encountered a case where shi got nothing at all. On the other hand, hir experience was perhaps no so great as all that; shi'd only graduated a few months ago. Nevertheless, shi was absolutely certain that the matter required closer scrutiny. If shi was wrong, shi'd apologize. If not-

"What's hir name?" Quickpaw asked.

"Alaula," Darkstar replied. Hir tone was languid; hir eyes were closed and shi purred softly.

"That's a beautiful name," Quickpaw replied, but the feeling of dread inside hir only grew worse. Yes, it was possible- even likely- that Darkstar's snappishness was simply an aspect of hir character. Or, alternatively, it might be the result of an unconscious unease stemming from the lack of contact with hir baby. Not only was this Darkstar's first pregnancy, but hir history suggested that shi'd never had much experience of others' pregnancies either. Quickpaw wanted to ask, but doing so would lay bare hir suspicions and shi wasn't ready to do that yet. They may not amount to anything, after all; shi didn't want Darkstar and Longstocking alarmed over nothing.

Inspiration struck in a flash; Quickpaw couldn't help smiling and almost giggled, too. "Leanna, come here," shin invited. "I'd like you to meet Alaula."

Leanna approached somewhat hesitantly, glancing at Darkstar's face. Darkstar offered no objection, and Quickpaw's encouragement reassured hir. "Put your hand here," Quickpaw said, taking Leanna's in hir own and positioning them. "See? If you press gently, you can feel hir."

Leanna's face lit up with transcendent joy, and Quickpaw felt the hardest pang of conscience yet. Leanna loved children and was absolutely fascinated by every aspect of pregnancy and childbirth; it bothered Quickpaw to be using that pure love as a distraction while shi sought a second opinion. Shi fought it down grimly; however embarrassing it might be to guess wrong would be nothing compared to the suffering if shi guessed right and did nothing. "Excuse me," shi said and hurried over to Forest and Goldfur.

"Hey, kiddo." Goldfur wrapped an arm around Quickpaw's shoulders and gave hir a nuzzle.

"Hey, sis. How'd you like to meet Alaula?"

"Who's Alaula?" Forest inquired.

"Darkstar's baby," Quickpaw replies.

"Really?" Forest's face lit up. "That's-" shi paused, frowning, glancing over toward Darkstar. Then shi giggled. "Got hir with the old tummy-rub, did you?"

"Never failed yet," Quickpaw replied with an impish grin.

"Squirt." Goldfur ruffled Quickpaw's mane. "Sure, let's go." Shi rose.

"Sis?" Quickpaw caught Forest's arm as shi turned.

"Yeah?" Forest frowned slightly; it didn't take an empath to sense Quickpaw's unease.

"Try to sense Alaula's feelings, would you?" Quickpaw asked.

"Is there something wrong?" Goldfur asked, pausing.

"I hope not," Quickpaw replied.

"I see." Forest nodded. "Don't worry, I'm on it." Shi gave Quickpaw a hug and followed after Goldfur.

By the time Goldfur, Forest, and Quickpaw arrived Kris and Trina had joined in on the tummy-stroking. Longstocking had appeared, cradling Darkstar's head on hir forepaws. Goldfur and Forest settled down on opposite sides of Darkstar's lower body, next to Trina and Leanna respectively.

"So what's the prognosis, doc?" Darkstar inquired while Longstocking stroked hir head and ears. Shi seemed to be enjoying hirself immensely.

"Prognosis?" Darkstar's question tweaked Quickpaw's conscience sufficiently that shi flinched ever so slightly.

"Yes," Darkstar expanded. Hir eyes were open now, and disturbingly lucid. "What do you think is happening that caused you to bring in your sisters for a second opinion?"

"I- I-" Quickpaw stammered, paralyzed by the intensity of Darkstar's gaze.

"I can't sense anything," Forest pronounced.

"Neither can I," Goldfur added.

Darkstar's eyes flicked from one to the next; Quickpaw almost fell over with them no longer pinning hir. "This is related to what you asked earlier, isn't it? About sensing the baby's feelings?"

"Yes," Forest admitted, looking more than a little worried.

Darkstar's attention returned to Quickpaw. "What does it mean if no one can sense anything?"

"It means that-" Quickpaw began. Shi stopped and swallowed; shi'd been about to explain that most likely it meant that the baby was dead or severely deformed. But for all that shi'd decided to live with being wrong, the possibility of being right loomed up in front of hir like a terrible, black pit.

"Quickpaw, you appointed yourself my physician," Darkstar said. Hir tone was quiet but with no more give in it than a wall of diamond. "Having done so, it is now your duty to give me the physician's answer."

Quickpaw swallowed again and licked hir lips. Utter silence had fallen; everyone was looking at hir with breathless anticipation. Even Goldfur and Forest, who knew the implications as well as Quickpaw hirself. But it was exactly as Darkstar had said: Quickpaw had placed hirself in the position of authority; now it was for hir, and hir alone, to make the pronouncement. "It isn't unusual for you not to sense your baby at this stage," shi began. "But... It's very unusual for no one to be able to sense hir."

"What does it mean?" Darkstar prompted.

"It means... there might be something significantly wrong. I think- it means you need to have a thorough examination done as soon as possible."

"What sort of examination?" Darkstar wanted to know. "Clinical? Empathic? Both?"

"Both," Quickpaw pronounced, feeling more confident. "The empathic examination will likely tell the clinical examiners what to look for."

"How serious do you think this is?" Longstocking asked.

Quickpaw swallowed; the question brought hir right back to things shi didn't especially want to say. But it was too late by far to back out now. "Very to extremely," shi said. "At the least, shi's not developing an empathic ability. At the worst, there might be... something not right about hir brain."

"I see." Darkstar nodded. "Thank you for your candor, Quickpaw. I'll schedule an appointment in the morning."

"But-" Longstocking protested.

"But what?" Darkstar interjected. "For this I have to go to Amistad, Berdoovia, or Curtisport. If I go tonight it'll be too late for anyone to see me and they'll hold me over 'till morning anyway."

"There's Star Home," Aurora suggested quietly. "There's a staff on duty there all the time."

Quickpaw opened hir mouth but Goldfur silenced hir with a hand on the shoulder. Longstocking also looked like shi wanted to speak but held hir tongue.

"Please, Gramma?" Aurora asked, taking Darkstar's hand in both of hirs. "I just... wanna know my little sister's gonna be okay."

The simple entreaty in Aurora's tone and voice brought tears to Goldfur's eyes; shi blinked them back with moderate success. Surely not even the hardest heart could resist such an appeal.

After a brief pause Darkstar squeezed Aurora's hands gently. A long life filled with far too many woes and not nearly so many pleasures had indeed hardened hir heart, as well as scarring it badly, but not that much, not by a long shot. "Okay, brat," shi said softly. "Go warm up the ship."

Aurora said nothing. Shi threw hir arms around Darkstar's neck and hugged hir fiercely, then rubbed Darkstar's cheek with hir own. Finally, shi bounced to hir feet and took off like a rocket.

"You really mean hir to prep the shuttle?" Garrek asked with a frown.

"Absolutely," Darkstar replied, rolling to hir feet. "Shi has a class C junior aerospace license." Shi chuckled. "Good thing you haven't unpacked, Quickpaw. Grab your duff and hit the ramp."

"What?" Quickpaw blinked.

"Are you my midwife or not?" Darkstar returned sharply. "All this about urgency and importance and now you're standing around gawping like some kinda slack-jawed faggot? Haul ass, solider!"

"Okay!" Quickpaw took off at least as quickly as Aurora had.

"Was that really necessary?" Goldfur demanded, though shi sounded more amused than outraged.

"Shi wanted to be my midwife," Darkstar replied, grinning.

"I'll go pack," Longstocking announced, turning way.

"One moment," Darkstar interrupted, frowning.

"Hyacinth and I will take care of Goldfur and hir family," Petalbright interjected smoothly. "Longstocking needs to be with you, Darkstar. For hir sake, if not yours."

"You're right." Darkstar sighed, taking Petalbright's hand. "Grab a few things for me, will you?" Shi added to Longstocking. "Remember, we don't need much; we have semi-permanent quarters up there already."

"Got it." Longstocking hurried off. Shi did pack quickly; it took hir scarcely longer than it did for Darkstar to walk around to the front of the house. While Darkstar was still reviewing the pre-flight checklist Longstocking arrived, carrying two small satchels. Quickpaw was already strapped down with hir travel cases.

Goldfur stood on the porch, holding Forest's hands, watching as the shuttle lifted off, then dwindled into the eastern sky. "I hope this turns out," shi whispered.

"Me too," Forest replied, pressing hir head against Goldfur's cheek.

A sound drew Goldfur's attention. Glancing to hir left shi saw Hyacinth and Petalbright, holding hands in almost exactly the same way as Goldfur and Forest, also watching the shuttle out of sight. "Petalbright," Goldfur said, turning hir head, "May I ask you something?"

"You may ask," Petalbright replied.

"Why did you stay? Why did you... keep this place going, all these years?"

"Because, Goldfur, I knew that some day Darkstar would come home. And when shi did, shi'd need a home to come to." Shi looked again at the sky, though the shuttle was lost from view. "And if that weren't enough... I knew that Longstride would damn me to Hell if I let hir daughter slip away. And shi'd be right."


Chapter 2

Preface

 


 

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