Hawkeye was actually elated at the physical progress being made by hir only patient. Baker-Jones improved by the hour, although she still tended to move slowly and deliberately. The chakat attributed that mainly to aches from old wounds and a habit of conserving energy, but also thought that the wolf morph was continually distracted. It was as if part of her was trapped in a daze. Which is perfectly normal after all that time alone. Magus must seem maddeningly bright and busy . And yet the wolf didn't retreat. Rather, she insisted on traveling, exercising her legs and seeing as much of the ship as security would allow. Hawkeye stayed by her almost full time; Sickbay was as quiet as a morgue, and Captain Marshall had instructed the chakat to keep watch on hir patient. Both of them were always under observation, but save for the transmitters they wore, there was little intrusion.
Hawkeye glanced down at hir patient's legs as the pair toured the decks of Magus . Aremist definitely favored her right leg, probably owing to the strength and endurance of her artificial left leg. "I'm going to have a therapy regimen crafted for you," shi told the wolf morph. "There's no reason for you to have to limp, and I'm sure it strains your back."
Aremist tilted her head and followed the chakat's gaze. "I hadn't noticed," she buzzed. "After my modifications, I was too busy to pay attention." She paused, checked her stance, and began striding again. "It isn't really important."
Hawkeye took a quick jumping step to catch up again, and chuffed with an irritation born of countless encounters with stubborn patients. "That's nonsense. Do you want to add back spasms to your list of cares?" Aremist stopped again. She kept gazing down the curved hallway. Hawkeye set a hand on her shoulder. "I'm sorry, Misty. I reminded you of something, didn't I?"
"It isn't important," the wolf repeated. "Most of my cares don't apply anymore."
What does that mean? Hawkeye wasn't sure if shi should ask. Shi often felt that way around the wolf morph. The chakat knew hir own empathic talents to be average at best, but shi had never experienced such confusion around another person. What was it Jacob had said? "The rest of us just muddle through" ? Shi couldn't even rely on basic psychology, because Aremist's cybernetics had severely blunted her body language. Not to mention years aboard a failing starship, and a good portion of that time spent alone. "Hold on," Hawkeye said. "I'd like to see how much your lower back tenses on each side as you walk." Shi moved hir hand to the base of Aremist's spine and prodded the muscles, then relaxed hir grip and directed the wolf on down the hall with a wave. "Mmm, I don't doubt that you need therapy. I suppose no one taught you how to use your limbs. It isn't entirely an intuitive thing, you know."
Aremist scratched idly at the tawny fuzz on her collarbones. "I'm used to finding my own way through problems, Hawkeye. I taught myself the basics of every field that was required to operate my vessel." She stopped to observe a crewman as he opened a computer access panel for servicing.
Hawkeye settled hir hand and tried to pierce the wolf woman's expression, without success. "No wolf is a starship, to murder an old phrase. A ship like this, or even yours, Misty, is a communal thing. It can't survive with one member any more than a village or a beehive can."
"I survived. And I wasn't alone. Believe me."
The chakat thought then that shi gained a new mote of understanding. "Aremist, come here." Shi guided the wolf morph down the hall until they were alone. With so many crewmembers on the surface of Vermitris-2, finding privacy on Magus was exceptionally easy. Hawkeye turned to Aremist, trying to find answers in her mechanical eyes. "Did you keep your shunts active the entire time that you were alone on the Packmaster ?"
Aremist nodded. "I could sense the others even in their hibernation, but they weren't clear. It was impossible to concentrate. I didn't have any alternatives." She paused. "I tried to manage without the implants for a little while, but it didn't work. I… began talking to my crew. So I reactivated the devices, and modified my voice in such a way that I wouldn't want to hear it." She attempted a small smile and shrug as if to reiterate, it isn't important .
Hawkeye worked to keep hir lip from trembling in pity. She couldn't have sensed them while they were in stasis. No one could. There's something very wrong with her . "We can replace and upgrade your voice in an hour or less, Misty," shi told the wolf. "And after that, I'd like for you to talk to someone. I'll go ahead and set up an appointment."
Aremist swiveled her ears towards the chakat. "Someone." Hawkeye was somehow surprised that the wolf's eyes didn't narrow. "No thank you, Doctor. I'm very aware of my troubles already."
"Please consider it. You haven't been able to talk to anyone in a very long time. Things need to be let out." Hawkeye's voice held a hint of a plea, and shi knew it. Something was vibrating in the air warningly.
The wolf woman took a gulp of air and panted several times before responding. "I've let things out before, Hawkeye. It never turned out well. No thank you." She touched a hand to the side of her neck. "My implants need adjusting."
Hawkeye let out a noise that was almost a hiss and shook hir head violently. "Every time we do that, you overdo it! Misty, those things are part of your problem. You can't just shut down your responses without consequences. Your brain doesn't work that way." Shi was aware that hir tail was lashing about, and shi shifted from foot to foot to foot, wanting to pace. The chakat reached up and put hir hands on the wolf's cheeks while willing hirself to calm.
The effect was immediate. Aremist sighed and shuddered. If not for her artificial leg and the gyroscopic implants in her hips, she might have fallen. "You see what I mean," Hawkeye whispered, more harshly than shi intended. "I can't pick up anything from you, but I knew you would be able to sense me. If those shunts could ever keep up with your Talent, they certainly can't do so anymore. How long did you keep them on?"
"It… three years," Aremist buzzed. Her eyes were open as always, but to Hawkeye, the wolf did not seem to be looking at anything.
Hawkeye stroked the sides of her head. "Stars, Misty, what did you think would happen? Your ability didn't die because you were starving it! It became stronger, more sensitive. It found new pathways. Even with those shunts, you can sense me without trying!"
Aremist stayed on her feet, but seemed to become smaller. "I thought… I was hoping that it would go away, Hawkeye."
The chakat chuffed. "You act just like every captain I've ever met. But why would you want it to go away, Misty?" Shi became gentle again, ran hir hands across the wolf's muzzle and neck. "It's a profound gift. Not an easy one to bear, I'm sure, but it is a gift. Come on now, let's go talk to Counselor Segar."
"This 'Segar' wouldn't understand," Aremist replied in her even tones. Her body seemed to hang weakly in the air.
Hawkeye tilted hir head. "Why not?"
"He isn't empathic."
"True, but that doesn't make him less able." How did she know that? Hawkeye wondered. To hir knowledge, it had never come up in conversation. Shi gasped, grasping the answer even as Aremist spoke.
"I know because my implants need adjusting, Hawkeye." The wolf leaned over slightly, overwhelming the chakat with her stare. "I know that there are two hundred and nineteen people aboard this ship right now; I know that my brother Lopalo is awake on Vermitris right now." Hawkeye let hir hands fall away, momentarily overtaken by strange, dull fear. "And I know that you think I was hallucinating when I said I heard my crew, even through the stasis. I wish I had been. I need those adjustments." The wolf paused as her chest hitched.
Hawkeye lifted hir hands, made contact again. The wolf's tension began to ease at once, and she put her hands over Hawkeye's. "I'll help you, Aremist. We need to find another solution, but I'll stay by you until we do. You can learn to deal with this."
"I don't want to deal with it, Hawkeye. I want it to stop. I've had enough years of this. I just want to be alone." But she did not push away the chakat's hands.
"There isn't a choice," Hawkeye replied in a firm but kind manner. "It's the way you were born. These machines aren't going to deal with your troubles for you."
Aremist's face half-contorted, then went slack and sober again. "As I said, I have my own ways of solving problems." The wolf woman wrapped her metallic hands around Hawkeye's wrists and separated the two of them. Again the synthetic limbs were a void between them. But this time Hawkeye could see the change that lack of contact precipitated. Aremist noticeably stiffened, forcibly regaining her artificial composure. She kept her body deliberately tensed, so much so that it pained the chakat to watch. "Alone, I said." The statement was vicious.
Hawkeye almost snarled as shi pulled hir hands away from that grip. "I can't force you to do anything, Captain, but I don't have to help you hurt yourself, either. I'm not going to put the screws to your brain again, not when I can see how you are without that crutch!" Shi could feel hir lips peeling back, and made an effort to keep control even as shi stepped forward, almost nose-to-nose with Aremist. "You were implanted with an addiction, and you can't even see it." She took several deep breaths. "You're braced right now, like you're trying to hold back all of Magus, keep everyone in it from touching you. Do you think you can do that forever?"
"I've done it before," Aremist began, and then cut herself off.
The chakat's ears lay flat on hir head. "And what happened? It's damned obvious that nothing good came of it. If you don't want my help, Captain, I'll ask about getting you a cabin for the rest of your stay. But you're not returning to my sickbay for the purpose of lobotomizing yourself!"
"Don't call me that," the wolf woman stated flatly. Her muzzle tilted up, and she gazed over Hawkeye's shoulder. The chakat half-turned, and saw a small security detail behind hir. They were watching Aremist with careful eyes. "Don't call me that," the wolf was repeating from beside hir.
Hawkeye turned back to her. "You don't have a choice about dealing with it, Aremist. You only get to decide whether you let me help with your Talent, or keep trying to kill it and yourself through neglect." Shi nodded over hir shoulder. "If you insist on these 'adjustments', you can accompany these men. Captain Marshall won't allow you to roam freely aboard ship, so take your pick." Shi crossed hir arms and waited.
Aremist stood still at first. Finally she nodded. "I need… to have my vocal implants upgraded, Doctor. If you will." Hawkeye reached for her then, but the wolf backed a half step away from hir touch. "Not here. Please. I'm having too much trouble now." She passed a hand in front of her muzzle vaguely, as if to brush away something.
"Follow me, Misty."
* * *
"Really, I'm amazed that you're alive. I wouldn't have thought the term 'meatball surgery' could be applied to induced hibernation, but it rather fits. Drink this," Chakat Winterwind ordered, passing a bottle to hir bedridden patient. The shaven, dark-skinned wolf morph nursed the liquid, whining a little as his neglected stomach came to life. Winterwind watched him with half an eye as shi took notes and made corrections to hir planned course of treatment. Hawkeye's discoveries about the bodily chemistry of the Packmaster's crew might have saved a few lives. Heaven knows I wouldn't have seen the differences until after I poisoned someone, shi mused. I just hope this fellow can help fill in more gaps for us.
The wolf finished his drink with a weak belch, and Winterwind smiled at him. "Careful, I might start to think you like that stuff and put you on it full time." Shi took the bottle away and rescanned his digestive tract, trying not to laugh when his muzzle suddenly contorted in disgust. "Uh huh. I thought your sense of taste might take a little while to kick in. There it goes."
Lopalo Baker-Jones shook his head violently and grabbed his blanket, using the edge to wipe his tongue clean. "That proves it," he pronounced. "I'm not dead and you're not an angel, not if you would give me something like that." His voice was amazingly smooth and subtle for a canoid; accented much like a Terran's, but possessed of a flickering lilt that ran underneath. It made Winterwind wonder if he had a flute caught in the back of his throat. "I did think that at first," Lopalo continued, turning his head to hir. "You look the part, Doctor."
Winterwind tilted hir head and ears in a manner that was not quite shy. Shi was used to flirtatious patients, and never discouraged them. It usually made them heal faster. "Oh not me, Mr. Jones. I'm just a chakat."
"Taurofelis adamo, I know. I've seen videos of you. Well, not you, but of chakats and other hexapods. They don't do justice, though." Lopalo favored the chakat with a wolfish grin, then sighed and closed his eyes. "I'm still dizzy," he commented, and smacked his lips, trying to dispose of the foul flavor remaining in his mouth.
Winterwind watched his eyes, hoping he would open them again soon. Even shaven, the wolf morph was handsome. He had a short, slender muzzle, an amazingly lean build, hands and paws that were just tremendous. His eyes were a spark-lit green, not really canid in shape, not quite anything else she could recognize. The chakat liked them immensely. They reminded hir of Hawkeye, somehow.
"You're lucky to be alive to be dizzy, as I said," shi told Lopalo as he settled into his bed, one of many that had been set up in temporary quarters some five hundred meters from Packmaster . "Everything I've read indicates that those capsules shouldn't have kept you going for so long, Mr. Baker-Jones."
"I'm special, didn't you notice?" he asked without opening his eyes.
"So I did. Does it have anything to do with the Vrael elements?" Lopalo looked to hir now. "Your sister told us," Winterwind explained. "Probably to make sure we didn't do something stupid while waking you up."
"Where is she?" the wolf asked. He glanced at the ceiling of the temporary sickbay, then broke in before shi could answer. "Oh, aboard your ship. Is shi coming back soon?"
Winterwind blinked. "Hard to say right now. She was in a bad way, but the attending doctor on Magus says she's recovering fast. Those implants were the devil to work out, from what I hear."
Lopalo nodded. "I hate those damn things. I really do. They saved her life," he paused. "But Misty really isn't herself anymore."
"Her physician, Lieutenant Hawkeye, is none too fond of them either." Winterwind radiated sympathy and encouragement to the wolf morph. He was a somewhat open person, and shi wanted to keep him talking. The ground teams needed his trust before they could expect his assistance. According to what records had been located, Lopalo was the next best-qualified person, after his sister, to guide them through the Packmaster and its passengers. "You have similar devices imbedded in your frontal lobes."
"Yes, but I don't really use them. They're just safeguards. My siblings and I, we had an experience that made them necessary." He looked to his sheets, rearranging the edges as he spoke. "Best to be safe."
"It's just Misty and me now. Our oldest cousins are a couple of years behind her."
"I'm sorry, Lopalo." Winterwind reached out, stroked his ear and cheek. "I don't know what I'd do without my sisters."
He managed a small smile. "That was a while back." Lopalo's expression grew thoughtful. "You were wondering about the hibernation capsules." Winterwind nodded. "I suppose it can only help to tell you. Vrael and some other species of Osidon can enter a deep hibernation. They have glands whose excretions cause cellular stasis. We were born with similar glands, but they had to be removed because we didn't have enough control over them." The wolf morph pushed against the bed, raising his head so as to see the chakat better. "But our body chemistry wasn't changed, so when we used the capsules, our Fathers synthesized the excretions and used them to put us to sleep."
"I was wondering how you were able to talk," Winterwind commented. "I thought sure you'd be mute for days, while your throat and lungs recuperated." Shi tapped on hir cheek absently. "So your whole system is made to be able to shut down."
"Well, now you know, Doctor. I feel miserable, but probably better than you would." He looked around the beige-walled sick room, where double rows of beds lay empty among huddled shelves of monitors and tools. "So I'm the first one up?" Winterwind nodded. "Let's see." He floated back down to his pillow, putting one hand across his eyes. "Wake… Megera, Rhea, Chelsera and Meresh next. They're smart kids." He dropped his hand, and shot upright, staring at Winterwind. "What is it?"
The chakat struggled to hold his gaze and speak. Those emerald eyes didn't deserve to be darkened. "Lopalo, six of the capsules failed. All the people you named are gone." Winterwind picked up the crew manifest that lay beside hir. "Here's the list. I'm so sorry." As shi handed it over, hir professional reserve fought tooth and nail with the urge to lay hir arms around the wolf. None of his family was awake or nearby to comfort him. Finally, Lopalo's expression decided it. Winterwind slid against the bed and wrapped hirself around his torso as he scrolled through reports. Shi wasn't sure if the wolf would have cried; his tear ducts had not come unsealed yet.
He took in a sudden, brutal breath and said something that the chakat couldn't understand. A sense of rage welled up from him and stabbed at Winterwind. "Are… are these dates right?" the wolf morph asked. Without waiting for an answer, he looked to the ceiling again and growled his sister's name. "Why didn't she wake us up?" Lopalo snarled to the datapad. "Why didn't she do SOMETHING?!" He threw out his arm weakly, tossing the datapad to the floor. Winterwind released him, let the wolf rage and hurl about until he lost his balance. Shi gently caught him, and returned him to his place on the bed. Lopalo panted and clutched at the bedding. "I've been under more than three years," he whispered, and a whine formed in the back of his throat. "She didn't have to do that. We could have taken a chance earlier, asked someone to pick us up. Why did she do that?"
Winterwind caressed his shoulder with a hand. "I don't know, Lopalo. Probably only your sister does. But she was killing herself trying to keep the Packmaster running, so there must be a reason for it." Shi leaned towards the wolf morph. "We need your help with the other capsules. You know more about how your bodies work than we do. Rest for a little while. I'll have to ask a lot of questions later."
Lopalo nodded without looking up, and laid his head down again. His body was relaxed, but only from weakness. A sort of panicky fury came from him. Winterwind thought the grief hadn't yet begun to take hold of the wolf. He has bad days ahead. We need to get his family to him. For a time, they were both quiet. Winterwind needed the wolf's help, but not at the expense of his health. Shi was willing to let him rest a little more. Occasionally a member of the away teams came inside to fetch a piece of equipment, but no one disturbed Winterwind and hir patient.
Lopalo quickly grew calm again. His eyes fell shut; his breathing became even and quiet. The sound was reassuring, tranquil to Winterwind's ears. It was a rare moment of rest for the chakat since hir arrival, and shi drifted down, almost dozing on hir feet. Shi imagined hirself back at home, stars away, sitting beside a crib in the dark. Hir first lifemate had given hir a child. The cub lay so peacefully; even the tip of hir tail was still. Winterwind reached down with infinitely gentle fingers and stroked the child's fur. For the first time in years, shi didn't feel the urge to be anywhere else, to be doing anything important. There wasn't anything more important.
The chakat settled to the floor beside the sickbed, curled up, and dreamed. Shi murred once, and was silent.
Lopalo slowly opened his eyes, raised his head, and peered down to the chakat. Hir front paw twitched, and he worked to settle his breathing and his thoughts again. The wolf's right eyeball rolled in lazy arcs as he gently pushed Winterwind into deeper sleep, and he hummed a lullaby one of his young cousins had made up long ago. Lopalo favored the slumberer beside him with a weak smile. It was no trouble at all to put a tired empath to sleep, even with his pathetic ability. He and his siblings had long ago learned that trick while handling their overactive cousins.
He picked up the nearest datapad from the table beside him. It still carried a residue of Winterwind's touch, which was far more than the wolf needed. He closed his eyes, ran his fingertips over the keys, and punched several sequences without looking. The unit, normally only responsive to authorized Star Fleet officers, came to life in his hands. It began to beep, but a shushing noise from Lopalo quieted it. Screens flashed before him, many of them requiring particular access codes. The wolf supplied them without thinking, his subconscious finding them within the device itself. Part of his mind sank down; the datapad became his intimately known body, which he used to navigate a world of light and pulsing electrons. Most of him was left behind, to interpret the data as it came forward. A fraction of him stood alone, that part which could not lose itself in the moment.
That part looked on in disgust and fear as he established a connection to the Magus and read the reports and logs of the Packmaster and its captain. I knew she was scared and ashamed, that she was having problems, and I ignored it as long as she was able to function. He shook with his own guilt, aware that he had taken her sense of responsibility for granted. I treated her like a machine that could never fail, even after I knew better. But Misty was the most mature of us. She should have said something. "I tried to cover up for you, Misty," he whispered. "And you almost killed us."
The wolf absorbed what he could from the link and then shut down his Talent completely. That gift was his secret, his unique treasure that blunted any envy of his siblings' greater abilities. Not wishing to have the Talents openly compared, Lopalo had simply never spoken of his own. It was easier that way. Even knowing that his Talent's weakness had probably saved him from death did not entirely dull the sense that he was somehow inferior to his sisters and brother. Theana had been strongly empathic, Aremist frighteningly so, and Aers…
Lopalo touched his head reflexively, recalling the last time they had all been together, in the base built on Osidon Delta from the remains of the grounded ship Scholar of Sparta. The cubs had finally been put to bed. Aers was passing a cup from hand to hand without moving a muscle, his face a picture of unbridled focus. Theana hummed and combed her hair as she perused a textbook, while Aremist fumed in a corner of the room as she reprogrammed a control station that the older cubs had somehow managed to unlock, allowing them to wreak havoc on her carefully arranged systems. Lopalo was suppressing a grin, but he felt a small guilty twinge at having supplied said cubs with the access codes as a joke. The young wolf casually studied the splayed-out scanner before him, praying he kept a straight face in front of Misty. Her Talents were more than enough to ferret out the truth of the matter, but Lopalo had learned how to hide himself under a façade of constant mischievousness.
Aremist had looked up then, twitched her ears and straightened her back. She padded towards the center of the common room in which they routinely gathered in the evenings. Lopalo forgot how to breathe for a moment as he watched his sister, certain that she had seen through him and was about to give him a vicious lecturing. She stopped, swayed slightly and gazed at the ceiling. "Do you hear that?" she asked of no one in particular. Her siblings all looked blankly at her. Aremist circled slowly in place, cocked her head and sniffed. "It sounds like, like hissing, or chirping maybe."
Lopalo had shaken his head. "Nothing at all, Misty. Maybe it's the vents." To one side, Theana shrugged and went back to her studying. Aers continued to watch Aremist, his own ears tilted to listen. Lopalo was almost sure that his brother was completely in love with Aremist. Lopalo shrugged as well and resumed his work, rewiring the device with his typical and much-envied ease.
The hissing caught his attention, made him look back up. But it wasn't the vents. It was coming from Aremist. The tall wolf uttered a long, slow stream of murmured hisses and soft, clicking syllables as she continued to look up. "Misty?" Aers asked as he stood and approached her with trepidation. "Speak up, what's wrong?" He laid a hand on her shoulder, and with the other one turned her muzzle towards him. Blood trickled from both of Aremist's nostrils, and the muscles of her throat were twitching. As Lopalo watched, her eyes began to roll in their sockets independently of one another.
Aers let out a hiss of his own, as if he had been burnt, and let go of his sister. He put his hand to his own muzzle and it came away wet and red as well. "Lo', 'Ana, what's this?" he asked, and then he clutched at his eyes and howled in anguish. Lopalo sat frozen while Theana stood and reached for her communicator. She dropped to her knees before she could reach it, and let out a feral growl. That broke Lopalo's trance, and he leapt to his feet.
Before Lopalo could take a step, something deep behind his temple had snapped.
Winterwind's communicator beeped, and the wolf started. Beside him, the chakat raised hir head and let loose a half-ecstatic yawn. She purred and rolled over, licked hir hand and smoothed down the fur on hir cheek. "How long have I been out?" shi asked in a tone that indicated shi didn't really care.
"Not as long as you needed to be, Doctor," Lopalo replied from his bed. "But it was nice to watch you sleep." I can't let Misty back on the ship again, he told himself. She put me to sleep that same way, and we almost didn't make it. She can't come back here alive.
* * *
Celeks Sraveen lay on his belly, nestled in the gently bobbing prime navigation compartment aboard the Magister Sesem Ethemalu . The seat had been especially crafted for his lanky frame, and had been his near-constant companion for the vessel's entire tour of duty. Five cycles around the Home Star, Osid doln Lilsilin, had passed since his ship had set forth in pursuit, and in that time he had rarely set foot off of the Sesem Ethemalu . But he had time to think. Celeks did not envy the builders on the sister world, who were active night and day creating habitats for their brethren, never given a moment to reflect, meditate and dream. The expanses between the Home Star and its many children were where he belonged, serving his magister, Xer Pandre Sesem Ethemalu.
The Vrael navigator took a rare indulgence and scratched his side. His featherings were trimmed down to their scaly roots, both to promote hygiene and to blunt the breeding call of bright plumage. But they itched. Normally Celeks could find his center and ignore his flesh, but with the target, the quarry so close, his instinct was aroused, and every measure of his skin seemed magnified. He settled back into the body-cradle and studied his screens with black, glistening eyes, trying to quell his spirit.
The Sesem Ethemalu's engines were almost completely powered down, its potent interior lights dimmed almost to darkness, its communications systems entirely silent. Slowly, it made its way towards the world where an alien vessel hovered above the stricken ship of the quarry. Although the sensors had been deactivated, Celeks imagined that he could see the two ships ahead, lying complacent like small, winged qesutah on the water. He clicked his fangs and flexed his fingers. His claws were kept shaven down, save for those on his ventral thumbs, yet still he felt the urge to slash. The Vrael chirped in anticipation, then cursed himself for his impatience. The Magister would never allow herself such base reactions, and he admired her ways.
Celeks heard a shrill chirrup and turned his head on its lithe, ropy neck. The Magister had appeared at the head of the bridge as if she had heard his thoughts. He stared through a sudden haze of adoration. Magister Xer Pandre Sesem Ethemalu was resplendent. As master of the vessel, she was not restricted by protocol. Her long, ethereal feathering and engraved talons were merely the finishing touches of her beauty. Xer Pandre stepped gracefully down to the command level, walking as if she had planned each and every movement many cycles before. The elder Vrael wore a qesutah-feather gown in near-perfect white over her coat of pale chartreuse feathers. She strode with her long, massive forelimbs held before her, elbows and wrists bent, hands side-by-side in a resting position. Her stride was so light and measured that the talons of her feet did not clack on the warm metal flooring.
Most Vrael needed a girdle and brace to walk upon two legs for long, but Xer Pandre's balance and strength had been honed over a long lifetime. Her steps were a glide rather than the stumpy limp often seen among the crew, most of whom had been recruited as whelps and who were still more comfortable on all four limbs. Though often uncouth, they were loyal, disciplined and skilled, many of them having been personally trained by the Magister or her students as the Sesem Ethemalu tracked its prey between the stars.
As Xer Pandre passed through the command level, Celeks found himself straining for control before her loveliness, his fighting glands threatening to discharge and fill him with killing speed. Her sharp, shapely muzzle and golden fangs were as perfect as those of a female a quarter her age, yet neither they nor her plumage truly accounted for her beauty. It was the Magister's poise and demeanor, the outward signs of her noble, contemplative spirit. She was enlightened, a true child of Osid doln Lilsilin, Star of Home and Life. Many Vrael, especially the younger generations, did not truly believe in the Home Star. They had not met Xer Pandre. Celeks would happily prostrate himself before her, as would any of the crew, but to do so would be an insult to her serenity.
The Magister looked his way, and the dangerous glands in Celeks's neck and thick tail quivered in a kind of ecstatic fear. Xer Pandre rarely came to the bridge, and each time she did, she was somehow more majestic. As she passed between the Sesem Ethemalu's command seats, Xer seemed to give off her own glow in the dim light. Celeks clucked his tongue in confusion as she stopped before him.
"Celeks Sraveen Vos Sergelith, withdraw from your post," she commanded in the splashing, accented trills of Osid's fiery midlands. "Your calling is here no longer. Walk with me, as the Ascended walk together to Home." To illustrate the immediacy of her demand, Xer Pandre extended her full, feathered ruff. It rippled once, then settled. A swirling, multicolored pattern had been painted upon it, feather by feather. Celeks, who had been rising from his seat, stopped, his mouth agape. Xer Pandre's offspring had meticulously illustrated the symbols of the Magister's Final Path upon her ruff.
Celeks stood and tightened his own weighted girdle, making sure to keep his shorn head tilted to the right in proper deference. His seat lowered and grew dark, its functions immediately subsumed by the screens of the secondary navigator's post. He felt naked and unworthy, standing hideous without his plumage before Xer Pandre, especially in what might be her final hours. "Magister… you are called Home?" he asked haltingly, his fingers shaking in agitation.
Xer Pandre shook out her ruff, and Celeks averted his gaze. It was too much. "The scales fall from my belly, my student," she responded. "The fires of the Home Star at last burn too brightly for this poor shell."
The younger Vrael nodded, his gaze upon her feet. The stellar system of Osid was a fierce home. Radiation belts formed from flares of the Home Star and permeated much of it. Although his folk were blessed with strength to survive under the gaze of their parent sun, eventually all Vrael fell before its light, and began their journey upon the Final Path.
"Do not grieve, Celeks Sraveen," Xer Pandre was saying, "for I am old and ashen-tongued. The Path holds much promise for me."
"I do not grieve, Magister," Celeks countered, holding his muzzle high for a moment in defiance of the blasphemous rage that some held against the radiation of the Home Star. "But you have much to learn yet, and much to teach."
"The most important lesson is that of my journey upon the Final Path." Xer Pandre leaned her head back and thrummed a low, steady beat in her throat. It pulsed in Celeks's chest, making him think of the joyous calls under the moon of the sister world, on the last night before the pursuit had begun. "Though we travel far from Osid doln Lilsilin, still its fires ever burn within each of us. We may spread far to ensure our survival, but we all walk the same path at the last."
"But I walk it first," she proclaimed, and traced her claws across her ruff. "You begin a smaller Path now. You are aware that aliens have heard the calls of the quarry, and speak with them even now."
Celeks bobbed his head, angered at the mention of the prey. "They destroyed Magister Vos Milistisith, his vessel and crew, and now lick their own wounds. We can send them into darkness with certainty."
"We cannot," Xer Pandre replied. Celeks looked at her. "'Certainty' means engaging the aliens as well, and this I will not do. Impure they may be, but they are a threat to Osid and the sister world, and we will not make battle with them." She turned and strode towards the head of the Sesem Ethemalu's bridge, Celeks trailing behind, bouncing to keep up with her purposeful strides. "We do not know how many of the quarry are now aboard the other ship, how the aliens would react if we slew some of their crew, if the folk of their home stars would attack in revenge if their ship was lost. We must send the killers, and only the killers, into the darkness. We are still too far from our prey to lose ourselves in the Hunting Trance. We must know more… and so, I will use my last time in this shell to convene with the aliens, and learn what I can."
"Magister, we cannot risk you so!" Celeks nearly shrieked in dismay. The fighting glands in his neck erupted, and his body began to tremble, hormones speeding his body in preparation to kill or flee. But there was no fight before him, no way to escape. He only shook.
Xer Pandre raised a hand to silence him. "I shall be gone irregardless, Celeks Sraveen. There is no time for my return to Osid's warmth, but I hope to feel it through me at the end." She dropped her hand and regarded him. "There is more. You, Celeks Sraveen Vos Sergelith, shall become Magister the moment my feet leave this vessel. My only command, not to be disobeyed even after my departure, even after I walk the Final Path, is that you shall not engage the aliens. The ruin of our people shall not be made this day."
"You, who are my navigator, shall not fail me. A path exists between those two ships, and we shall find it. When the killers walk that path, we will be waiting in the dark places just ahead of them. Osid doln Lilsilin!" she hissed. "The Life and Light call me! My prey walks blind in the shadow of the Home Star!" The Magister clicked her claws together, stretched her supple neck, and rowled at the dim lights overhead.
* * *
"Are you sure you won't have one, Misty? Lieutenant Tanner stowed away more candy than this. We won't run out." Hawkeye waved a chocolate before hir companion's eyes, then shrugged and put it to hir own mouth. Shi licked it slowly, then placed it on hir tongue and chewed it with a purr. The chakat kissed melted chocolate from hir fingers while keeping hir gaze on Aremist. Wish I was Winterwind, shi thought with a mental sigh. Shi can make people open right up. I'm an amateur at this . Establishing rapports with others was so natural to Hawkeye that shi found it nearly impossible to do so deliberately.
Aremist gave a slight nod from her prone position, as if agreeing with Hawkeye's thought. The two lay in the chakat's quarters, giving the wolf woman's still-frail lungs a chance to rest. They had been in constant contact for almost a full day as the chakat ran the rounds of a light schedule, Hawkeye using what Talent shi possessed to mute Aremist's empathic reception of the other crewmembers. Shi found the experience tiring, but agreeable. Hawkeye had never spent so much uninterrupted time with another person before, not even a chakat. She didn't understand Aremist, but shi was beginning to feel deeply connected to the wolf. Shi could feel Aremist's motions before they occurred, and experienced a sense of dèja vu every time the wolf spoke.
Is this what it's like to be in love? Hawkeye wondered, then felt a thrill in hir spine as shi realized that Aremist had certainly picked up on that sudden notion. Shi looked down at the wolf woman, who lay still with Hawkeye's front paw across her belly. Aremist held her artificial hands above her head, well away from the chakat, as she observed an unobtrusive artistic hologram on the ceiling with a blank expression.
"Chocolate increases your libido," Aremist said without looking at Hawkeye. Her throat barely moved, most of the effort of speech coming from her artificial larynx. Hawkeye had replaced the wolf woman's voice with a program derived from old recordings of her original tones in Packmaster's logs. She no longer buzzed, her voice now carrying a curious accent that Hawkeye's sharp ears placed close to a faint, fluid woodwind. The effect was not perfect; Aremist tended to pronounce each syllable distinctly and abruptly. But the chakat was enamored of the change, and of the tiny electric shocks of surprise that Aremist radiated at the sound of her own voice.
"In that case, want some?" Hawkeye asked with a grin, and waved the box of candy over the wolf's head. Aremist rolled over then, onto her stomach and away from the chakat. Hawkeye's face fell. Shi dropped the box and bent towards hir companion, quickly reestablishing contact. "Misty, I'm sorry." Shi didn't voice hir question: Is it because you can't have sex? But the thought hung before hir like a banner, a sense of it easily perceived by Aremist.
The wolf shifted position, crossing her arms so that they covered her belly. "I couldn't afford to become intimate on Osidon Delta, before I was injured." She took a deep breath.
Hawkeye lowered hir eyes, then leaned in further and gently licked the wolf's cheek. "So you've never been with anyone. Come here, Misty." Shi moved into a fully prone position, lifted hir legs on one side, and pulled the sparely built lupine closer, wrapping hir limbs around hir companion. Aremist did not resist, but her organic portions became momentarily tense as Hawkeye encircled her. "There's more than one way to be intimate," the chakat said softly, and began licking Aremist's neck and head while purring into her ear. The wolf's body gave almost no sign that she noticed, but the combination of relief and shame that she radiated was so sudden and intense that Hawkeye wanted to cry.
Aremist pushed away and leapt to her feet in an abrupt, jerking motion. She stared at a wall while her voicebox emitted chirps and fluid hissing noises. The wolf was holding both arms before her, elbows bent and hands angled downward, as a quadruped might do when standing on its hind legs. She cocked her head in a birdlike fashion and sniffed the air.
Hawkeye, who was now standing on the bed, opened hir mouth to ask the wolf what was wrong. But as hir initial surprise at Aremist's actions faded, shi began to register strange sensations across hir own body. The chakat's fur stood on end, then moved in waves. A curious combination of lethargic patience and predator alertness came over hir, and Hawkeye felt the urge to comb hir claws through hir hair and crouch in preparation to spring. But spring upon what? Only Aremist stood there. "Misty?" shi asked. "I'm feeling them through you, aren't I? The Vrael arrived."
"Yesss," Aremist responded. " Magister Sesem Ethemalu is its name." She turned towards Hawkeye. Her right eye spun in its socket, and her hands went to her left shoulder and hip. "Some aboard that vessel were among those on Osidon Delta. They came, and Aers died, and Theana." Her breathing was increasing in rapidity. She held out a hand. "I need to make it stop," the wolf pleaded.
Hawkeye leapt to her and wrapped hir arms around the wolf woman. The sensations briefly increased: Hawkeye's fanged snout opened to take in the scent of a passing shipmate; hir neck and tail throbbed with glands readied for battle; hir long ventral claws scraped across pleasingly hot metal deckplates. Then the feeling passed, and shi was holding a calming Aremist. "Are you all right?" the chakat asked, already knowing the answer to be no.
"This is the same thing that happened on Osidon, Hawkeye," the wolf whispered. "I wish they had killed me then." Hawkeye had an impression of pain then, and understood it to be a memory of injuries, of projectiles impacting hir body, shattering hir arm and shoulder, leg and hips. Shrapnel struck hir in the chest and neck, the metal searing the wounds shut even as it cut into hir. Shi dragged hirself across the earth on one elbow for a few moments, insensate to the totality of hir injuries, until shi heard voices closing behind hir. Shi looked back then, and saw how much of hir body was left.
It's a miracle that I have you here now, shi thought. "What happened there?" The details were not important to Hawkeye, but shi wanted Aremist to talk. The wolf was so secretive at her core, and something deep inside there was killing her. It's terrible that only this pain can make her speak up.
Aremist's breath hitched, and she swallowed several times. "The Sesem Ethemalu is here. We should contact your captain."
"They'll already know. If Captain Marshall needs you, he'll call for us." Hawkeye clambered onto the bed without breaking contact, and pulled Aremist to a seated position. "You can't distract me like that, Misty."
Hawkeye received an impression from the wolf that seemed to refute hir statement and agree with it at the same time. "As best as I understand my ability," Aremist murmured, "it's a total sympathetic connection." She looked at the chakat. "I can feel your hearts beating without even touching you, and my own body acts in response, timing itself to you. I can feel what it's like to have seven limbs as a chakat does. I have some sense of every movement of your body. Empathy isn't only a sense of pure emotion, Hawkeye, you know that. It's baser impulses, habits, instincts, the interactions of every nerve and hormone. When my implants are not active, I can know everything the people around me are going to do and say by the impulses in their bodies."
Jacob's words came back to Hawkeye then. It must be like standing in a room full of half-awake people all the time, he said. It's like that with Aremist. No one ever grasps what she's going through.
Hawkeye glanced down the length of hir own body, and back at Aremist, who was already nodding. "Just so. When you twitch your tail, I want to twitch my chakat tail also." She raised her right hand, stretched and flexed the fingers. "It makes these impossible to stand sometimes. My body wants to respond to what I receive from other people, but the new sensations remind me of what is missing." Her spine trembled. "Every time I come near someone, it's as if I'm an amputee all over again."
The chakat almost touched Aremist's chin. "Contact with me is hurting you?"
Aremist shook her head. "It's better than no contact. Hawkeye, I have seizures without my implants because I receive everyone around me. My body tries to respond to all of them sympathetically. It's… I don't know, like running hundreds of programs simultaneously on a machine only built for one. I can stand your touch because you project so clearly and immediately." The wolf woman made as if to stroke Hawkeye's fur, looked at her own artificial hand, and let it drop again. "No one else can get through when you're near."
The sense of security coming from Aremist was almost unbearable. Hawkeye put hir muzzle against the wolf's throat and nuzzled her while kneading the bed with hir handpaws. She willed safety and warmth to Aremist, encouraging her to continue.
"I could always endure my siblings and cousins while growing up," the lupine was saying in a quiet voice, "because we had been together so long and developed so gradually. I was supposed to be receptive to them; that was the whole point of including skunktaur coding. But I ended up blocking them all out more and more as new cubs were born and introduced. I was managing things." She paused, clenched her hands. "But it was so hard, Hawkeye. I couldn't do anything without thinking about how it would affect others. If I got upset at a cub, their feelings would bounce right back upon me, and intensify my own. And I was so strong that my anger would upset everyone." Hawkeye felt the wolf attempt a smile. "Lopalo used to say, 'If Momma isn't happy, nobody is happy.'
"But I was managing. I felt like Atlas sometimes, but I was managing. Then I killed my brother and sister."
Hawkeye could not stop a gasp. "No. No, you didn't do that, Misty. I can tell."
"Not alone, no. But I… if I had only learned to use it instead of just fighting and pushing through it… I might have known enough to protect them." Hawkeye had an impression of Aremist reaching towards her eyes, as if to wipe away tears that didn't exist. But the wolf suppressed the urge, and her hands lay still.
"How could you know, love?" The wolf did not seem to notice the endearment. "There was no one else who could know what you were going through, who could show you how to live." Hawkeye stroked the wolf's light fuzz of fur. "It's no wonder that you retreated from everyone. But you don't have to do that now."
"It isn't that easy," Aremist began in response before cutting herself off.
The chakat cried out then as shi recognized the source of the affinity that shi had felt in Aremist. Hir body tensed in preparation for flight, but shi held hir ground, dug hir claws into hir bed to steady hirself. I'm sensing myself reflected in her! The chakat drew back with an effort, appalled at what shi saw hirself doing, even unintentionally. It was as if Hawkeye's very self was slowly imprinting on the wolf, until Aremist's mental reactions and physical impulses were dictated by those of the chakat. "Aremist, you were…"
"Yes. I was scared of everyone while growing up, Hawkeye. They kept imprinting themselves on me. How can I know when I'm hungry if I feel everyone else's hunger? It is simpler to handle when it is just you, but you can see how easy it is to fall into the trap." Aremist turned her muzzle toward the ceiling to watch the slowly changing images there. "Don't try to get close, Hawkeye. You might sense what you project to me and mistake that for profound rapport."
The chakat's first impulse was to argue, to show Aremist that she was wrong. But how could shi know? To be close to Aremist, shi would have to keep hir emotional distance, so that their reactions would be honest. But it was beyond impossibility to create a relationship with such detachment and reserve. Who would know what was real?
Aremist would know. Hawkeye settled hir gaze and the set of hir ears squarely on hir companion. "You said 'might'," shi stated hesitantly. "What's your opinion, Misty?" Sensing the wolf's thought, shi added, "and yes, I do want an honest answer." At least, I hope that thought came from her.
"I know that everyone thinks they do," the wolf woman replied, and changed the subject. "You see now what I meant about your counselors. They can sympathize until the universe collapses and they won't understand any better." She sighed, and her right eye flicked, saying even you barely understand. "Are you getting an idea of why I'm used to doing things my own way?"
"I'm beginning to, I think." Traces of old despair came from Aremist now, biting at the chakat, and Hawkeye was hard put to resist them without deflecting the wolf entirely.
Aremist nodded. "So do I, Hawkeye. I didn't recognize my problem until long after my modifications. I couldn't see what I wanted or needed before my implants; I was always fighting back everyone else."
"But when my implants function, I can't see the difference between wants and necessities. Hawkeye… that's a very cold place." She stared at her hands. "I destroyed the Vos Milistisith , and worse."
Hawkeye didn't ask her to continue; the chakat became very sure that shi didn't want to hear more. But hir uncooperative mind asked the question anyway, and Aremist responded to that.
"I don't remember most of it, but I saw a video log later. My siblings and I were together, relaxing in the evening, about ten meters underground. The Vrael colony ship passed less than a kilometer overhead." A pause. "Five hundred and twenty-four Vrael, and I could sense every one of them. I felt my hands activate landing sequences, remembered security protocols, thought about mates and families left behind."
"My body tried to imitate everything that they were doing aboard that ship." Hawkeye felt the wolf shiver, her body recalling the experience even if her mind did not. "I blanked out. My nerve endings started dying, and I went into seizures. And I took my brothers and sister with me. Lopalo went into a coma that lasted six weeks. Theana," her breath was forced. "Theana died and kept convulsing. And Aers…" Aremist came to a stop, pulled away from Hawkeye until only one of the chakat's hands rested on her organic shoulder.
"He hurt you."
"I hurt him first. He didn't know what he was doing. Aers had a telekinetic talent, and when he started convulsing, it defended him. Thirty-five seconds after the ship passed over us, he caused my left eye to combust, along with the surrounding tissue. But then it stopped." Aremist let out a small sound of pain, and her shoulders and arms drew together. "He turned his ability back on himself instead, and he just… burned up. I don't know why. I don't know why it wasn't me."
Hawkeye took a step forward and laid her head against the back of Aremist's neck, projecting what comfort shi could. Hir muzzle was contorted from the effort to contain hir tears, to spare Aremist hir empathic grief. "I know why, Misty." Shi thought shi could see Aremist through Aers's eyes, all iron strength and crystalline fragility. Rough calluses concealing soft pads.
"I woke up with my new eyes and roughly designed implants in my head. And as soon as I could walk, I went to chase the Vrael off of our planet. I hated them, just for a little while, but it was long enough."
"Misty? Your wounds, the limbs… I thought the Vrael chased you down and shot you." But Hawkeye already knew the response that would come.
"They did." Aremist lifted a curtain then, showed the chakat a glimpse of the mad grief and cold decision that had mixed in her years ago. "I never said they fired first."
It was too much for the chakat. Shi took a step back, breaking contact, and put hir hand over hir mouth instead. "How many?" shi whispered.
Aremist looked over her left shoulder, showing Hawkeye only her blank grey eye. "Most of them. Their habits were imprinted on me, so it was easy. I only had to reach for a keypad and I could remember having entered codes on it before. I detonated the engines on the colony ship, and began sniping survivors with their own weapons. It took them three hours to find me. When they opened fire, they did this." She waved her hand across the length of her body.
"My Fathers found me and we escaped, evacuated in our support ship. The engines were damaged by a premature attempt at full warp speed. It took years to crawl to the edges of Vrael territory on minimum power. All that time in the vicinity of the Osidon star poisoned my Fathers with radiation. So in the end, I killed them too." Aremist's voice had reassumed some of its unnervingly disconnected tones. "They never told anyone that I was the cause of our flight."
Hawkeye could feel the crew of the Magus pressing in on Aremist's mind, the wolf woman's partially freed empathy beginning to surrender to the wave of sensations and urges produced by so many people. But the chakat could not bring hirself to reach out and touch the wolf again. She was a murderer, hundreds of times over. She was the reason the Magister Vos Milistisith drifted dead.
Aremist moved away from Hawkeye, as if agreeing with the chakat's fear and sudden revulsion. "Doctor Baker and Doctor Jones felt responsible for my actions. They never said so, but after Osidon, they always thought of me as insane. They only left me in command because they knew I wouldn't harm my cousins." She paused. "I wish they had been right about that."
The chakat winced and clutched at hir own forehead, not in pain but in greater understanding. Aremist could never bring herself to pilot the Packmaster to inhabited space, to risk the Stellar Federation discovering that her Fathers had conducted illegal experiments in sovereign space, and that the end result had been a murderer. She could not endure the thought that the trusting later generations for which she cared might be told of her actions. She had hidden them all away, unconsciously doing everything in her power to delay having to make that choice. "Aremist, you know I have to report all of this," Hawkeye stated flatly. "Why did you tell me?"
"You asked my opinion, Hawkeye."
Aremist waved a metallic hand vaguely before her. "With the implants I received after Aers and Theana died, I could finally think without intrusion. And the first thing I did was to kill. I wanted revenge, but… I think I was trying to get rid of everyone so I would be alone for good. If there had been no Vrael to attack, I... don't know what I would have done."
"Then I put Lopalo and the cubs into stasis, and I was finally alone for the first time. But with the implants, I couldn't tell if that was what I even wanted!" Aremist's voice grew fiercer, and her muzzle twitched desperately. "You wouldn't let me maintain them, and now I'm just... somewhere. Hawkeye, back away while you can."
The chakat stepped from handpaw to handpaw. She told me about what she did to drive me away? No, that's not quite right, not all of it. Hawkeye's visage softened. "You saw how large and empty the universe really is while you were out there alone, Misty. But it didn't really come home to you until your implants were tuned down again. I think, maybe, that you decided that anything was better than living alone in it." The chakat stepped to Aremist, took her hands and turned the wolf woman around before she could object, shifted hir grasp until shi contacted flesh. "You finished separating yourself from your family by lying to them and to yourself about them. But you can't do it again. You can't stand the idea of being false with me, can you, Misty? Not now that you're starting to see again what it's like to be close to someone."
Aremist hesitated, then nodded with a sort of grateful shame.
Hawkeye moved closer until her body contacted Aremist's lanky form. "I can tell that you're scared and overwhelmed right now, and at the same time, you feel more free to be yourself than ever before. You want to do what you think is in my best interests despite the pain it would cause you. I think that's called love." Shi stroked the thin fuzz that coated the wolf's cheek. "You've done terrible things, and I can't imagine that things will go well when it comes out. But right now, Aremist, at least for a few minutes, that's all outside this room. Inside is just us." The chakat took a step back, pulling the wolf with hir. Aremist made as if to free herself, but there was no sincerity in her movements.
"Come on, Aremist. I told you, there's more than one way to be intimate." She moved the wolf to the bed and wrapped her in solace.
* * *
"Look at the guns on that thing," Lieutenant Dared whistled from the secondary navigation station. "What are they hunting with a system like that?"
"Eyes on your job, Lieutenant," Thaddeus Marshall responded as he stood before the viewscreen displaying the Magister Sesem Ethemalu . It was a black, brooding ship, battered and unadorned, drifting like a crocodile acting the part of a harmless log. "They sent that battleship and the Vos Milistisith to take down one decrepit transport vessel being piloted by a single sick wolf morph. I want a security team at Baker-Jones's location. I'm not taking the chance that she might interfere here." She's like their Moby Dick, the vulpinoid thought. But one way or another, this chase has ended.
"Hail them and transmit as soon as the translator is ready," Marshall ordered. He stood and assumed a patient stance, resisting the urge to stretch the tension out of his back and arms and tail. The confirmation of transmission came moments later; the Vrael would now be viewing Marshall's prepared greeting and statement regarding the Packmaster and its crew. And hopefully they are more reasonable than that ship implies.
The response was almost ten minutes in coming. I come on the light of the Home Star, Rising Magister Xer Pandre Sesem Ethemalu, for seeking those who murder my people. They live in the Shadow of the Star, making double their evil. I wish no battle, but the returning of them, the people of the other ship. I rule my ship as Magister. I will speak to you where our eyes will meet.
Captain Marshall bent his ears towards the screen as he reread the message. The translations would improve with time, but literal and often incomprehensible interpretations would be the rule for the near future. "Yes, I would like to speak in person, Magister. What is the Shadow of the Star?" The vulpinoid asked.
The people of the other ship are made wrong. Their doings show their evil nature. We will speak when our eyes meet.
"We can arrange to transport you and your entourage aboard Magus at your convenience, Magister."
There will be no body change machines used on us. We will move by our shuttle. We bring no battle or weapons.
Marshall considered. The only possible surprises he could see coming from the Magister Sesem Ethemalu were an attack during the shuttle docking, or hidden weapons or explosives aboard the Vrael shuttle itself. Neither was likely to succeed, given the technological superiority of the Magus and the retaliation which the Vrael would have to assume they would face. And this uncommon opportunity for a face-to-face encounter with the species could not be dismissed. "Signal our consent to them and arrange to receive the Vrael commander and its staff. I want this to happen as soon as possible."
Presently the Vrael shuttle, a modified SF vessel old enough to be considered an antique, made its way across the expanse separating the two ships. It sported few markings: only a numeric sequence along each side in curved designs that, from a distance, looked as if they had been clawed into the hull; and a bright circle of colors, like a stained-glass window design, across the bow. Marshall watched the vessel for a few moments, then turned over the bridge in preparaton to depart to greet the arriving commander.
"Captain Marshall!" called out the human navigator.
"Sir, the closest satellite left in orbit by the Packmaster has become active again."
"Is it scanning the Vrael ship?" Marshall asked, his lip contorting as he awaited the reply.
"It's already done so, Sir. The satellite has powered up its thrusters and is approaching us."
Lieutenant Dared's voice carried his nervousness to Marshall's ears. "Target the satellite, and warn the Vrael," the fox morph ordered. Damn that wolf! What did she do?
"The Sesem Ethemalu is responding, but confused, Captain. They've transferred power to shields and forward batteries, but haven't armed yet."
"It's…" Dared paused. "Captain, it isn't approaching us. It's moving to intercept the Vrael shuttle. The satellite's power signature is becoming erratic. I think its engine is overloading."
"Is the shuttle within our maximum shield perimeter?"
"No Sir! They've begun to veer off. I don't believe they'll make either vessel before being intercepted now."
"Tactical!" the captain barked. "Destroy that satellite!" And apologize to the Vrael afterwards.
Tense moments passed, then: "Complete battery missed, Captain! Compensating… firing."
Marshall fairly leapt to the nearest station to observe the progress of the satellite. "The damn thing's fitted with sensor refractors too! The shuttle can't even see it!" he hissed, remembering the low-grade but cunningly employed devices used by the Packmaster to evade the ships from Osidon Alpha. In addition, the energy surges from its reactor were creating ghost images on the Magus's sensor array. The vulpinoid could estimate what his tactical officer surely already knew with certainty: they would not have the satellite targeted until several long seconds after it reached its destination.
* * * * * * * * * * *
Continued in Chapter Five
* * * * * * * * * * *
Chakats, Chakona, Voxxans, and Voxxa are copyright Bernard Doove
The Quange are copyright Roy D. Pounds II
Story is copyright © 2006 Coyotenose
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