Chapter 5

       Aremist Baker-Jones lay in the rapture of perhaps the most contented slumber of her life. Her companion's presence blanketed her, enveloping every part of her body from her warm toes to her sleepy ears. Even in such a state, she could feel the protective purrs entering her body, the tiny hot breaths on her neck. The chakat's heartbeats were invisible, inseparably timed to Aremist's own.

       Sensations passed over her as an infinitely gentle brook, the combination of her Talent and the intolerable detachment of her implants creating in her a state not quite resembling consciousness. All that hiding and fleeing led up to nothing more than being in this room. No Vrael, no deaths, no eyes looking to me. Nothing here but us. Aremist stretched her limbs languorously, enjoying the sleepy tingle in her arms and legs. The breath on her neck made her ears twitch, and she touched her companion's arms and smiled. Her prehensile tail sought out another to coil around and hug.

       A pounding assailed her senses then, weighted echoes of shock and outrage. Aremist awoke, her eyes reactivating from their dormant state in an instant. She lay in Hawkeye's quarters, wrapped in the chakat's limbs. Aremist's body began to distinguish itself from the phantoms of Hawkeye's senses. Her arms did not tingle, her ears could not twitch, and that tail was a mere figment of her empathy. She turned over and slowly disengaged herself from the chakat, rising to a seated position. Hawkeye mrowled in hir sleep, discomfited by the loss of warmth and contact. Aremist adjusted until the chakat's handpaws were wrapped around her organic leg.

       What woke me up? She wondered, and ferreted out the answer before she could fully formulate the question. The stronger impulses on the ship told her that the Sesem Ethemalu had been contacted. The Vrael had sent over someone (their Magister, she was much beloved, no, is beloved, she's not dead yet), and that someone had been attacked. Anger directed at me, betrayal, the Vrael are convinced now that the Magus is my ally. But what did I do?

       The satellites. Aremist's last line of defense had been to program those devices to seek out Vrael beacons while overloading their own miniature power plants, turning them into camouflaged missiles. Thanks to her modifications, there was almost zero chance of a Vrael vessel detecting the satellites before detonation. But I never thought that the Magus would leave them in orbit, given Captain Marshall's distrust of me. She looked around the room, as if seeking some device that could repair the damage she had surely inflicted. And you know he was right to do so. These people have done nothing without keeping my interests and well being in mind.

       No, she corrected herself. Hawkeye had done everything just for her. Aremist moved a cybernetic hand to stroke the chakat's tortoiseshell-spotted fur, then stopped short and made a fist instead.

        They're going to come here and take me, and tell her what happened.

       Aremist felt a sense of motion then, all the stronger for that it was directly related to her. Rushing footsteps, tensed muscles, disciplined minds defying nervousness. She could 'see' the Magus's Chief Security Officer; although she did not know his name or face, she could have easily picked him out of a crowd.

       And she knew what he would do, what all of them would do from moment to moment. The wolf's empathic Talent sorted through their feelings, patterns of movement, and automatic responses. Aremist could not predict the future, but with her implants so neglected, she could know another person's reactions even more intimately than they did themselves.

       Hawkeye stirred again, sensing the approaching security team through the wolf woman. Aremist let go of the chakat entirely before shi could awaken, and braced herself against the expected influx. She was not disappointed. Most of the ship was aware of an attack on the Vrael (on their shuttle) and were fearful, worried, or angry. Distance muted the crew of the Sesem Ethemalu, but the wolf had a strong sense of their outrage as well, the violation of their trust and the blame they placed on the aliens before them. Aremist gasped and gurgled as she tried to drive back the sensations, fighting as if she was struggling hand to paw with a Renzar madman. She shook her hands above her, clenching her fists until the polymer coating on the palms squealed under the pressure. And the storm of emotion and sensation abated, if only for a few moments.

       A short reprieve won, the wolf woman stopped and again took in her surroundings, with that slowed sense of time occasionally afforded to the desperate. The security team had just reached her door, and the chief officer was speaking, doubtlessly overriding the locking mechanism. Aremist examined them in the space of a heartbeat, her own body memories adjusting to theirs.

       She saw that the Head of Security would enter first, not wanting his people to take more risks than himself. Aremist would move to the door, be only an arm's length away when it opened, and the officer would fire without hesitation. Her left arm would take the shot, while her right plucked the weapon from his too-slow grasp. Other guards might fire on her then, but her partially Vrael biochemistry, adapted to survive intense energy discharges, could handle the low settings they would use. A snap kick from her left leg, and the Head of Security would fall. Aremist's eyes and the gyroscopes in her shoulders and hips would allow her to fire accurately at the same time, dropping one, possibly both of the guards immediately behind the man. She would spin and fire again, incapacitating the awakening Hawkeye before the chakat could assess the situation. The weapon would be primed again by the time she spun back, and any remaining security guards would fall before they knew to reset their weapons. Then into the hall…

       Hawkeye. The chakat still lay comfortably, trusting enough to sleep in the same room as the wolf. Aremist regarded hir for a second that lasted longer than her entire journey aboard the Packmaster.

       What am I doing?

       I can't win here.

       When the door slid open, the security team found Aremist standing with her back to them, her fingers locked behind her head. Hawkeye awoke with a start, coming almost to a standing position in one motion. Shi gaped at the wolf woman in shock, hir tail flat and frozen, unable to even speak.

       “Remember to have my implants adjusted,” Aremist stated flatly, wishing she could take her eyes off of the chakat. “It can't wait long.”

*         *          *

       “Commander, please come with me.” Lieutenant Jacob Tanner's manner was so anxious and grave that Winterwind was actually taken aback. The friendly quange was like the bedrock of confidence itself; to see him apprehensive, no, afraid was nothing short of unnatural.

       Winterwind stood and waved hir fingers at hir patient. “I'll see you soon, Shade, honey. A nurse will be over here even sooner to help you out. And I promise, I'll tell everyone to be on the lookout for Lulu.”

       “Okie dokie,” the shaven little wolf morph agreed, and began playing with the monitors stuck to her chest and arm. Her skin was almost raw in places, and her eyes were encrusted and swollen, but she was grinning.

       Grinning! Trusting soul. Winterwind gave her a stroke on the arm and a parting smile before striding over to meet Jacob, out of earshot of any bed. “What is it, Jake?”

       “Check your screen, Commander. There's an emergency situation up top.” Winterwind unfolded a PADD and began scrolling as the quange continued. “The Vrael sent their captain over to open relations, and the shuttle the aliens were using was shot down. Seems those satellites we found are booby-trapped.”

       The chakat couldn't believe hir eyes. Their captain! And that wolf in Sickbay is to blame. Lopalo's feelings and silence regarding his sister had been enough to convince Winterwind that Aremist Baker-Jones was unstable, but shi had had nothing concrete to send up the chain of command about the wolf morph. Winterwind could only hope that Hawkeye was safe; communications were severely restricted until the situation was resolved.

       “The Vrael ship powered up their shields and weapons when the attack came,” Jacob was saying, “so Magus had to go to yellow alert and raise shields also. That left no one to retrieve the shuttle, so it made an emergency landing about twelve hundred kilometers from here. The Vrael didn't even try to rescue their people.” The quange's lip was curled.

       “Neither would I, if it meant opening my ship up to more attacks.”

       Jacob thought for a moment, and nodded. “Hard decision, Commander. What now?”

       Winterwind looked over the available information. Sesem Ethemalu was making no attempts to rescue their shuttle, which was completely understandable if they thought the Magus was ready to attack. Commander ili Rusla had relayed coded orders to mark the location of the downed craft, and make contact only if it could be done in absolute safety. The only way it could be safe is if the passengers are all dead, the chakat thought in a mocking tone, and then admonished hirself. Of course the commander knew that. He was leaving the decision to hir.

       “Put together search teams, Jake. We have to save them if we can.” The quange began calling out orders on his communicator while shi continued. “They'll probably be irradiated even more heavily than Captain Baker-Jones, so make sure the teams are properly shielded. There is to be no approach if an active power source resembling a weapon is detected. And Jacob…”

       The quange paused as well. “Yes, Commander?”

       “Try not to let any of your 'alien bait' get eaten.”

*         *          *

       Aremist massaged her temples and breathed deeply. Even with what adjustments Hawkeye had authorized, the amount of information impressing on her nervous system grew by slow degrees. Flashes from crewmembers stabbed at her like the pangs of old injuries, reminding her not to grow lax and comfortable. Letting down her defenses would be a surrender to ruin.

       The nearby security officers occasionally touched their own heads in unconscious sympathy, unaware that their discomfort was really hers. Aremist looked them over with a blank eye, careful not to extend her senses towards them more than was necessary. The two guards she could see were large Rakshans, both of medium build and in excellent condition. They radiated suppressed, embarrassed attraction to one another, temporarily placed aside in their attention to duty. They also gave off a strong sense of unease; these two guards, and the three out of sight of Aremist's cell, knew enough that they did not entirely trust the sturdy chamber and force field to contain her.

       Smart of them.

       Aremist turned her attention to the charged barrier blocking egress from her cell. She doubted that the setting was high enough to keep her inside, if she cared to push through the pain and burn injuries. But what then? There was nowhere to go. The wolf woman might balk some few of the systems aboard Magus, but never all of them, not even most. The Federation technology and organization defeated any plan in her mind before it could even be seriously considered.

       And I have to get out, she thought. The odds of my being handed over to the Vrael are a hundred times greater than they were an hour ago. She had sensed no desire in Marshall to let harm befall her or her cousins on Vermitris-2, but the choice was not entirely in his hands. And whether or not he turned over Aremist, the Vrael might fire on Packmaster. She could see no way the Magus could prevent that, short of launching a preemptive attack on the alien vessel.

       The wolf woman sat motionless as she considered. The Magister Sesem Ethemalu could not stay in this solar system; it would be destroyed in an ideal scenario, buying her crew more time to evacuate…

       Crew? Family.

       And why do you care what happens? You let them waste away; did anything you could think of to keep them in stasis so you wouldn't have to hear them. The good times were bad enough; to actually see them lose all trust in you…

       And it was so quiet when they were all in hibernation. Not at all like on Osidon Delta. Keeping everyone from chewing on power cords or eating coolant, chasing yowling cubs, breaking up fights. Aremist slid from her cot onto the floor, ending up on her hands and knees. She could sense the guards watching her, passing glances to their out-of-sight comrades, but it did not matter. The wolf was alone. Feeling how warm the cubs could be. Watching them sleep. Like watching Hawkeye sleep.

       She slowly lowered herself until she was curled on the floor of the cell, knees pulled almost to her chest in the way to which she had grown used while sleeping aboard Packmaster. Curled up because the ship was so empty, unwilling to leave her limbs projecting into the unpeopled vacuum around her. Those limbs were always so cold now, as if they had never touched anyone. Aremist's left hand lay palm up before her muzzle. It occurred to her that she had rarely held anything with her new hands that was not a tool or a weapon.

       I can't let the Vrael hurt my family. I have to have a chance to tell them. Aremist wanted to howl. There was nothing she could do now to protect them; so much of her had sought to absolve herself of responsibility, and instead she had forsaken her right to that responsibility.

       The wolf woman lay on the bare metal floor for some time. It reminded her of the chill storage bay in the bowel of her ship, the bay she had seldom visited except in emergency. Those sleeping wolves had been an omnipresent reminder of the obligations placed on her before she was born. And each time she punched the commands to open the bay doors, part of her had hoped the capsules would be empty when she entered. But now, the wolves of Osidon were being awoken by the Stellar Federation's medical personnel, and Aremist felt as if she was missing the births of her own children.

       The wolf wrapped her arms around her belly and pulled her legs closer.

       A blaring screech assaulted Aremist's ears, and she raised her head. The guards were making hurried adjustments to a communication console and sending alerts to whatever central command managed the ship's security. Squawks of feedback emanated from the console, stinging the ears of the security officers. Aremist's impervious ears merely found the sound offensive, but she raised her head more and tilted her ears. There was something else…

       The guards got the console under control, called in the incident again, and requested a diagnostic scan from Engineering. Aremist lowered her head again, mulling over the random squawk of noise. The wolf's ears had recorded the sound, and quickly rendered the feedback into a visual pattern that displayed on her eyesight. Not so random. There are numeric patterns encoded here. But who would do such a thing? Aremist restrained her expression, which might have been either a smile or a grimace at the implications. Lopalo.

       Her slightly younger brother was a telemechanic, a fact he believed to be his secret. Aremist had known of it even before he did, but kept her silence so as to afford him the illusion of privacy that she couldn't have. Now Lopalo was using his ability to communicate with her, giving up his secret as he saw it. What could he want her to know that badly?

       The wolf woman shut down her eyes again, focusing on the encoded message sent by Lopalo. Her affection and guilt regarding her brother, combined with the encroaching voices of Magus crewmembers, made each sweep of the data before her a thorn-coated hurdle to surmount. Slowly the information began to make sense: algorithmic pass codes that the wolf undoubtedly had stolen from his saviors and transmitted for her benefit from whatever device he had accessed on Vermitris.

       Aremist moved back to her cot, and there she sat and stared at the data for several hours, ignoring a meal placed before her and the inquiries of her guards. Her sensations of others faded to almost nothing, but she was unaware of even that. A decision was forming in Aremist's mind, and her focus upon it was such that even her Talent seemed less than secondary.

       The wolf woman stood, and without hesitation, walked face-first into the force field sealing her cell. There was a crackle, and a shearing pain stroked and slashed her entire body before she was shoved back. Aremist held her balance and lowered her head towards the barrier. She pushed into it again, and a third time, and another, making no effort to penetrate it, only to make contact. Her newly regrown fur smoked. The security team bolstered the strength of the field and warned her to back away.

       Aremist shoved her head into the barrier once more, and maintained contact for several seconds. Her muscles shook in agony, and awful noises escaped her throat. But then she felt the voices rushing towards her, the cracked dam that protected her thoughts finally shattering altogether. The wolf stumbled back from the barrier, her fragile implants ruined, and began to shudder as the universe poured in.

*         *          *

       The grasslands of the southern latitudes of Vermitris were no place to go walkabout. The animal population was sparse, but very dangerous. They seemed to be all teeth and claws. Even the herbivores were often so armed, and the predators overcame them by virtue of greater size and amazing stealth. That did not bode well for a quange whose ears were continually fooled by the breeze in the grass, and whose nose was unused to the living smells of this world.

       Jacob Tanner raised his nose to the wind and sniffed, curling his upper lip to trap the odors. Not one recognizable scent. That very fact would unnerve many of the sharp-nosed beings that formed the majority of the Stellar Federation. Creatures who relied heavily on such an intimate sense often could not tolerate alien environments. It took particular training to recognize and manage that discomfort, and not all potential Fleet and Corps recruits were up to the task. The peculiar serenity and cheerful stoicism of many Quange, those traits which made them seem slow and stolid to undiscerning eyes, gave the species unexpected advantage at such times; the quange simply accepted his surroundings and moved deeper into the elephantine veldt.

       “Anything yet?” he inquired over his shoulder to the trio of Star Corps members following in his wake. Jacob acted as the trailblazer, cutting and pushing aside the heavy grass for his smaller compatriots while they manned the scanners. The quange was a better choice to sort through the lifesign data, but he would never put such inexperienced people in the forefront of a dangerous situation.

       “Nothing much bigger than bugs, Lieutenant Tanner,” came the reply. “I think our shuttle and the Vrael have scared off most of the wildlife.” The crewman paused and stifled a sneeze precipitated by the dust and foreign pollens that Jacob had kicked up. “They should be easy to spot if they're alive. Maybe they couldn't handle this atmosphere, or their shielding failed on entry. They didn't seem to have much going for them in the way of technology.”

       Jacob grunted at the crewman's expression and turned back to the task of clearing a path. “Don't assume they aren't resourceful. These beings made their way into space, same as us. They landed, so someone survived.” Blamed kids. No matter how many intelligent species are discovered or created, everybody always falls into the “It doesn't look like us, so it can't be very intelligent” trap. “And remember,” Jacob added, “Star Fleet had it that the Vrael originate in a radiation-intense system. If anything, they're better suited to survive a crash-landing than we are. How far are we from the site?” he asked the Star Corps recruit that had accompanied them.

       “About three hundred meters, Sir. I detect airborne particles from their hull, engine emissions – probably where the nacelle plating eroded from heat damage – and some traces of smoke. No real power emissions. The site has mostly cooled due to the breeze, but there is strong residual radioactivity,” the Caitian corpsman paused. “A large pocket that looks like the shuttle, and two smaller signatures within forty meters of it. I believe that those are parts of the shuttlecraft.”

       “Uh huh,” Jacob responded without looking back. “Lss'ar, did the reports say that the Vrael shuttle made a vertical landing?”

       “Yes, Lieutenant.”

       “Did you ever see a shuttle make a controlled landing with chunks of it flying off?”

       The only reply was an embarrassed groan. Jacob nickered. “Those hot spots are our survivors, Greenie. When we get to within two hundred meters, I want everybody suited up. And no complaints about the heat. I'll have it worse than any of you.”

*         *          *

       Jacob completely understood Winterwind's position on the shuttles, even if he didn't necessarily agree with hir. Shi felt that keeping both vehicles ready to take to the air and respond to an emergency was better than risking hostilities by trying to land directly at the site of the Vrael craft. If the Vrael starship detected a shuttle converging on the crash site, it was certainly possible that they would react violently.

       He continually reminded himself of that fact while marching in a thin, sealed hazmat suit. The Vermitris star overhead and shuttlecraft emissions combined to transform the lightweight outfit into a portable sauna. Jacob looked to his team through a clear inflated mask, careful to avoid any expressions that would tell them how miserable they actually appeared. While it was true that the quange was hotter than anyone else in his suit, he possessed reserves of endurance that most other species couldn't match. The faster their spirits sank, the sooner they would drop.

       “Range and heading?” Jacob asked for the third time in as many minutes, trying to keep his people concentrating on their scanners and mission, rather than their discomfort. The replies were almost identical to the last round. Gotta pick up my pace a bit, before these kids get sick. Jacob worked his shoulders until they felt raw, slashing away at the grass with a power tool that was really too small for him. Gonna have some recommendations for equipment modifications when we get back, that's for damned sure.

       And then the Vrael shuttle lay ahead. It sat awkwardly in a nest of blackened rocks, at least half a meter off of an even keel. The visible damage was considerable, even from a distance. A great blackened crater lay in the center of the port nacelle, and Jacob could make out hull fractures close to the epicenter of damage. Moving closer, the team saw that layers of the outer hull had vaporized, although the vessel had remained essentially intact. Any markings that had once adorned the shuttlecraft were now less than smoke in the upper atmosphere.

       The quange cut off his team's exclamations and comments with a sharp question. “Where are the other signatures? Quick!” As soon as a response came, Jacob began clambering through the ragged stone, concentrating on not breaking a hoof or ankle in the process. “Get that translator ready!” he called back. “And watch for weapons signatures!”

       The search was short. A thick, partially charred corpse lay on its back some thirty meters from the landing site. A trail of sloughed-off bits of skin and ash indicated that it had been dragged. Jacob saw no tracks on the hard stone. He peered about, but his hearing was slightly dulled by the radiation suit, and his sense of smell was completely inhibited. He could not even catch scent of the burnt remains before him. Small favors.

       Jacob began to ask about the location of the other signature, but the hum of an activated phaser froze his tongue. The caitian, Lss'ar, was holding his weapon at the ready. It was pointed just past the quange. “Lieutenant, Sir, there it is,” Lss'ar said in a voice close to both a whisper and a growl.

       It crouched not ten meters from the quange and almost directly behind him, camouflaged by a patch of grass. Jacob could make out a tall, weighty creature painted in bright colors, with a muzzle that almost resembled a beak. He had a moment of true fear, imagining some atavistic beast stalking him, until he realized that the creature was dressed in some sort of loose robe. “Holster your weapon,” he ordered, and waved his hand to the caitian. “Got the translator?”

       “Yessir,” said another crewman beside her. “It's only programmed with a few phrases and structures, though. We don't even have all the data the Magus collected.”

       Jacob gestured for him to step nearer. “Then bring it up, Man, and play the greeting and assistance calls.” The Corps recruit hesitated, and Jacob spoke to him in the tones of a person trying to reassure a frightened animal. “Hurry up. We don't want her to think we're planning something.”


       “Just a feeling I have. And I hate saying 'It'. Come on now.”

       In all likelihood, the prerecorded messages were stilted and highly imperfect, but Communications had made assurances that they were at least technically accurate. Still, Jacob Tanner watched apprehensively as the Vrael listened to the collection of hisses, shrill and soft chirps, and odd deep murring sounds. The alien did not step forth from its cover, and the message was replayed.

       At last it did move, and approached Jacob with no recognizable hesitation. He was awestruck. “She” stood almost as tall as the quange, with heavy limbs that likely made her twice the weight of a human. The Vrael's forelimbs were as large as her legs, yet she carried them before her without a hint of difficulty. The claws tipping each digit were almost the length of a finger, save for an extra, much larger talon that grew opposite the base of the thumb. Several claws were broken. Her body was coated in gold-green feathers, some like honey on leaves, some so delicately patterned that they seemed to have been painted. Her step was ponderous, but graceful despite her size, and Jacob could very easily imagine her capturing prey from ambush with the controlled poise of a ballerina.

       “Look at her side,” he murmured to the others. The Vrael was burnt, her exquisite plumage ruined in a wide streak stretching from her left knee to her shoulder. The damage had split and blackened her white robing, which was itself woven of minute feathers. Jacob could not see the extent of her injuries for the thick plumes. He looked to her face for some sign. The alien's head was coated in backswept feathers as well, which grew smaller and finer, almost to the tip of her beaklike muzzle. She held her closed jaw in a way that the quange's instincts associated with fangs.

       The Vrael uttered a simple chirruping noise, and the two looked one another fully in the eyes. Hers were liquid black, with honey-gold around the edges and a long, drowsy lid. She cocked her head to the right as if in birdlike curiosity, showing Jacob a thick and sinuous neck, with a hard plate just behind the cheek on each side, under an especially heavy ruffle of decorated plumes. He was momentarily mesmerized as she chirruped again. “What did she say?” the quange managed without turning away from her.

       “Can't tell for sure that it said anything, Lieutenant. The program is still pretty dumb.”

       “Record every noise she makes,” Jacob replied unnecessarily. His breath hitched as the Vrael moved around him and to the remains of her crewmate. She bent and stroked its head, then delicately pried its jaws open and retrieved a small plastic object from its mouth. Coughing several times, she spat up a similar device, and replaced it with the one that had come from the deceased Vrael. After a rough gurgling sound, her breath returned to normal.

       “I suppose that's to help you breath,” the quange told the alien. She murred, and then coughed again. The Vrael brought the leftover device up before her eyes and examined it for several seconds, then discarded it with a hiss. Jacob took an involuntarily step back, then rushed forward as the Vrael slid slowly off her feet. He managed to catch her, and turned her over, cradling and carefully lowering her weighty frame. She wrapped curved claws around Jacob's shoulder without force and looked at him with an indecipherable, half-shut eye. The Vrael had almost stopped breathing entirely.

*         *          *

       Hawkeye's best efforts had amounted to little more than nothing. Aremist lay in a daze, alive and technically conscious, but nearly unresponsive. Having been drugged to dull her reactions to her empathic sense, she now only stared at the ceiling. Her breathing registered steady, but feeble. The chakat was heartsick. And I can't do a thing to help her.

       Not only was Hawkeye unqualified to make proper repairs to the wolf morph's implants, shi had been specifically forbidden to do so. Most of Magus's medical personnel were on Vermitris, and while Captain Marshall sought a peaceful dialogue with the Vrael, the possibility of combat required Hawkeye to stay at the ready. Shi could not be caught in the middle of an operation on Aremist if hir ship suffered casualties.

       The chakat looked morosely to hir equipment, planning procedures that shi would not even attempt. It would take so little to wake her up, Hawkeye thought. But what then? Back to a holding cell. Shi caught the eye of one of the pair of security guards that monitored the wolf woman. Crippled by her own mind, drugged into a stupor, and under a restraining barrier, and still they watched Aremist constantly. Hawkeye felt a brief but intense resentment towards hir captain. Shi desperately needed time to touch Aremist, to cry over her, but shi was forced to keep hir discipline.

       Though shi was silent, part of Hawkeye wailed. Why did she do that? She knew it wouldn't kill her. And I saw the look she gave me when they took her into custody. Misty wouldn't have just injured herself; she knows what it would do to me. What it did do to me. Aremist's pain had been hir own, if only for a second. Hawkeye reached out as if to stroke the wolf's fur. Hir fingers hovered just above the field. She thought it would help somehow. If only I could have been nearby when she made that decision. She would have talked to me. At least I'd understand why.

       Hawkeye removed hirself to hir small office, deliberately out of sight of the wolf, and began to pace. It struck her that Aremist had become progressively more remorseful as her implants had fallen out of sync with her body, and shi wondered if hir own feelings on the matter had compounded upon Aremist's guilt.

       “No,” shi spoke aloud, “No. Stop second-guessing yourself. Just because Misty warned you away doesn't make you wrong. She had a better handle on things than she wanted to admit.” Hawkeye crossed hir arms and bowed hir head, choking back sobs that would have brought the guards. Because if she admitted that… she'd have to admit to herself that everything she did was her own idea.

       The chakat clamped a hand over hir mouth, circled hir desk and settled down. There shi lay hir head on hir forearms and cried into hir fur. Really admit it, not just use it as a reason to push people away. A monitor on the desk, preset to display patient diagnostics, beeped once, but Hawkeye paid it no mind. It's no wonder she thinks Empathy is a curse. I'm in love with a murderer because of it.

       Shi couldn't reconcile hir emotions with that one, seemingly simple fact. It had made so much sense when the two of them were alone, but out here, in the light of hir upbringing and training, it seemed insane to care about Aremist. But shi couldn't stop. Hawkeye already felt such a strong rapport with Aremist that shi expected to feel the wolf's touch at any moment.

       Warm hands, the ones she still sometimes has in her mind. But what Aremist had done was beyond any penitence. How could Hawkeye love the person and despise her actions, and both so clearly?

       The voice that answered seemed almost to come from outside. As you said, stop second-guessing and trust yourself.

       Aremist is trying to atone even though she knows she can't, even though she doesn't see the right path. She lost more than her physical eyes; she lost her ability to see others. And when her sight finally began to heal, your wolf saw how she had lashed out in her blindness. She would have done anything then to be blind again.

       Even hold her eyes shut.

       Hawkeye raised hir head, feeling slightly calmer. Shi had felt hir own miniscule significance in the cosmos keenly since the Magus last took flight. The chakat was a more earthly creature than shi had suspected, and shi felt an unease in the open, empty places that shi couldn't dispel by hirself. Now shi had found someone whose apprehension eclipsed hir own, who would rather feel nothing at all than spend another second fearing crowds and dreading solitude. Hawkeye thought that Aremist was so overwhelmed by others that she had never understood the importance of a private connection, of a place to which only two people could retreat. She could sleep for years if she could find that security, the chakat reflected.

       And perhaps that was what had drawn Hawkeye to hir patient. Aremist yearned to be hard and untouchable, solely to protect herself, but she was not and never would be that insular. Her own Talent would not permit it. She was uniquely vulnerable, all the more so for her truncated childhood, which had left her paradoxically immature in so many ways.

       As an empath, Hawkeye could see the wolf's potential better than shi could her past; what she could become with a secure emotional bond made by choice, rather than one dictated by her power. The chakat knew that Aremist's decisions had not been made by a healthy, clear-minded person. She had been tormented into emotional disconnection simply through the presence of others, and had defended herself by heaping stones onto a cold barricade so high that she could not see the place from where she had been driven.

       But Aremist's reaction to contact had proven one thing: she did miss that place. It was the part of her that still wanted to go back, to try to reach out again no matter the certainty that she would draw back a wounded hand, that Hawkeye had fallen in love with.

       The chakat lay hir head down again, but now with a sense of, if not relief, at least an acceptance that outweighed hir confusion. All that shi and Aremist needed was to weather this storm, and they could talk again. Hawkeye sighed into the crook of hir arm, still riding a razor-edge of exhaustion from hir recent activities. Slowly shi fell into daydream: Introducing Aremist to Hawkeye's parents and family. Being introduced to her extended family, which was at least the size of most Chakat clans. Going on shore leave someplace where the air was crisp, and showing each other that the universe really wasn't any larger than any two people.


       The chakat slept soundly in hir office, hir eyelids fluttering. The monitor on hir desk beeped again, but did not even intrude on hir dream. Hawkeye was making hir rounds and having a good day. Hir patients were exuberant, and so pleased to see hir. They kept hir so busy, but it was a joy to care for them. Shi passed between the beds, giving out some medications, but mostly smiles.

       At the last bed, shi lingered. The wolf that was curled up there like a cub twitched one adorable ear. Hawkeye bent over her and half-whispered, “wake up, sleepy”, tickling the wolf's ear with hir breath. The wolf giggled and rolled over, and Hawkeye raised the bed to allow her to sit up. “Time to get some exercise!”

       Misty clambered out of bed, all awkwardly long limbs and grins, and moved to a table to wait while Hawkeye fetched clothing for her. Shortly they were ready, and set out to stretch their legs.

*         *          *

        The cubs. Not this ship, not the Vrael, not your damned self, not Hawk… Aremist caught herself, a hair's-breadth from losing control. Not anyone else. Only the cubs.

       Aremist had imagined that she was possessed of a strong will, to have managed as long as she had. The truth was sobering: the implants had done all the work for her for years, and her discipline and focus had eroded with disuse. Separating herself from others now was like erecting a ziggurat in the space of every step. But a different tactic had come to her. The wolf woman concentrated solely on her cousins on Vermitris, many of whom were awake. They were numerous enough to blur her empathetic reception from closer sources, and distant enough that they could not easily overwhelm her. But it was so very hard to listen to them, even at this range. Confusion and homesickness were common, but the surges of affection and trust nearly broke her each time they welled up.

       Yet it was the only way to maintain herself in the face of the hundreds of people aboard Magus and Sesem Ethemalu. Aremist looked around Sickbay. Just the few people in here would be enough to incapacitate her if they were conscious. Two drugged security guards on the floor and a chakat with a hypospray, hir eyes less than half open as shi swayed in a dream state. The chakat… Aremist managed to avoid thinking about hir too strongly. Just the cubs.

       The wolf woman continued to work at the main control station to Sickbay, punching in access codes derived from the information that Lopalo had sent her. The precautions arrayed against her were considerable. Security would be alerted if she left Sickbay, if a weapon was discharged, if any guard's vital signs dropped below a certain point, even if she used verbal access on any console. The sentries checked in at regular intervals as well, allowing her very little time to make ready.

       She spared the guards less than a second's glance. Muscle relaxers had put them out of commission, and would also serve to incapacitate the ones in the hall without slowing their systems enough to sound alarms. Aremist didn't need weapons just yet, at least nothing stronger than what she could find in the room. All that remained was a slight reconfiguration of the security programs, so that the computer would not register their exit from Sickbay.

       That task soon complete, Aremist approached the prone guards, retrieved their weapons, and hid the devices under her narrow patient's gown. She turned to Hawkeye. Now for the outside guards. Aremist opened herself up, only a little, and saw the directions in which the chakat's dreams were turning. It was an old skill she utilized now, one that had gone fallow for years. But the dreams of a weary empath were even easier to influence than those of the cubs she had put to sleep on many occasions long ago. Aremist had recovered more swiftly from the soporific drugs in her system than would a terrestrial morph. She had already caused the chakat to sleepwalk hir way to the pair of guards, paralyze them with a hypospray, and then unlock the restraining barrier holding down hir patient, all the while dreaming that shi was merely tending to the sick. Hir voice and presence would be Aremist's cover all the way to the main shuttlebays, if she was quick enough.

       A simple, gentle push, and the chakat walked to the main exit and overrode the door locks with a vocal command. Marshall was right, someone seemed to accuse from just behind Aremist's head. And you're about to prove Hawkeye wrong.

       I can't let the Vrael stay! she countered, and winced as she nearly lost her concentration. The spell over the chakat momentarily lurched. They could kill everyone. Only this ship can change that, and they won't.

       Mistakes on mistakes.

       Yet she pushed and tugged at Hawkeye. The chakat stepped through the doors, and Aremist detected the sudden alarm and readiness in the security team positioned there, followed by a not-quite-complete relaxation as they recognized the doctor. The wolf got to her feet and walked towards the still-open door, picking up a hypospray of her own.

       Hawkeye, whose lazily extended tail held the exit open, mumbled somnolently in response to the questions of the guards. Aremist felt two of them come closer, and pushed a bit more. The chakat stepped fully into the hall, raised the injector cupped in hir hand, and sedated both guards in under three seconds, hir lips curled in a vague smile and hir eyelids half-shut as shi imagined the good shi was doing.

       In that space of time, Aremist leapt forward and past the chakat, careful not to touch her, and came face-to-face with the third guard as he recovered from his surprise. He almost brought his phaser to bear, but the wolf snatched it from his grasp with the precision of a ferret killing a serpent. His other hand, which had been reaching for his comm badge, came up in instinctive defense instead. Aremist used her hypospray injector on his palm, then took a step forward and drove the butt of the pistol lightly against his nose with her lightning-fast left arm, spraying blood across one cheek. The man stumbled, reached for his communicator with swiftly numbing fingers, and then collapsed as the injection took further effect.

       Aremist managed to give little thought to what she had just done, though that voice behind her almost laughed. You can't blame the implants anymore. Who's your new scapegoat?

       The wolf didn't answer.

*    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *

Continued in Chapter Six

*    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *

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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