Even in the early stages of her death, the Vrael matriarch was beautiful.
Inside a cordoned-off corner of the main hospital the Star Corps members had erected, Winterwind reapplied a makeshift ointment to Xer Pandre’s burns, keeping hir face composed even though the vrael could likely understand little of hir expressions. The captain of the Sesem Ethemalu was slowly perishing from lifelong radiation poisoning, now compounded by injuries suffered in the shuttle crash. She was aware of this, and yet she was stoic, indeed almost cheerful about the news. Winterwind suspected that the vrael had been pondering her mortality for some time.
She’s like a grand willowy tree. The earth around her roots is eroding under a slow flood, but she won’t lose an ounce of her strength or dignity, even as she falls. “Magister, won’t you consider speaking with your crew?” the chakat asked through their shared translator. “We have informed our ship of your survival, and they have certainly communicated such to your crew. Your doctors can aid you better than I can.”
Xer Pandre did not respond for some time. Instead, she took several deep breaths through her hastily crafted respiration mask and once again examined the room and the aliens before her with a cocked head. Her glistening black eyes betrayed nothing to Winterwind, but the two shared enough emotional commonalities that the chakat could sense both fascination and curious serenity in the vrael, mixed with a predatorial undercurrent uncommon among sentient species.
Xer Pandre looked over Winterwind and her companions, Jacob and the human translator, and turned her eyes towards the Stellar Fleet security guard half a dozen steps away, each of them shrouded in a thin protective suit against the radiation still emanating from the newcomer. What a strange and motley bunch we must seem, the chakat mused, feeling almost drab next to the feathered alien. Winterwind saw nothing of nervousness in the vrael who, surrounded by aliens in such shapes as she had surely not encountered before, had every reason to be tense.
At length the Vrael captain gave her shoulders a forward rolling shrug, a motion that Winterwind had quickly taken to be a negative gesture. “I do not believe it will change matters, healer alien,” she said with the aid of the corpsman’s translator. “I have already given command to my first navigator, so I cannot order them, and they will know that they cannot greatly prolong my life. My last times should not be made to trouble them. Home Star!” she added, “My body aches. But many of Osid’s hunters have borne worse.”
Indeed, Winterwind could feel rolling clouds of pain within the vrael. Yet the creature floated gently, the tree preparing to let loose its hold and journey with the river. The chakat’s own fascination with hir new patient was only equaled by hir absolute admiration for Xer Pandre’s seeming tranquility.
“I would look into the eyes of our quarry before I travel on,” Xer Pandre was saying. “They caused so much harm. We should have let them go, I have had this thought. But Osid doln Lilsilin does not allow an easy path until the very last. This we have always known.” The vrael moved her clawed digits in a manner that superficially resembled kneading, but the impression that Winterwind received was more akin to that of an anticipatory hunter. It was so at odds with Xer Pandre’s manner that the chakat was somewhat nonplussed.
“Osid doln Lilsilin?” shi inquired, conscious of her inability to duplicate the clicks and stops within Xer Pandre’s words. “That is the star of your homeworld?”
Xer Pandre closed her eyes and raised her head towards the ceiling, as if recalling sunlight on her face. “It is everything.”
* * *
Shade struck out into the night.
It was too hard staying near all those new people. Winterwind was the only one who really made her feel comfortable, and the kind felitaur hadn’t shown back up yet. Shade knew that Winterwind was busy; she was the head doctor and very important. But she was also the one new person who didn’t feel like a stranger to the young wolf.
The others tried, the doctor and the nurses that had come by to see her, but they didn’t have everything in their heads, and couldn’t really understand what she was saying. Also, they kept lying about Desha. Shade’s twin brother was sleeping deeply, they said, and she couldn’t see him yet. But she knew what they really meant. They had tried to wake up Desha, but whole parts of him had gone wrong. He couldn’t wake up, maybe not at all, and they wouldn’t just tell her. But she could feel it anyway. Winterwind would understand, and would probably tell her the truth.
But Winterwind wasn’t close by, and Shade had needed someone to talk to and hold. Most of her cousins were so tired that she couldn’t imagine bothering them. But Lulu, her doll, was probably on the old ship where she had done most of her growing up. She would find her, and tell her all about it. Leaving was easy; most of the nurses and scientists were sleepy or asleep. The few really awake people were all concerned with someone else, some sick person that she couldn’t figure out as well. Shade had just slipped off the bracelet that would have made her easy to find and walked right out.
The wolf girl beelined from the brightness of the camp and across the hot, baked earth. Ahead lay the ship on a higher plateau, partially illuminated from beneath even though almost everyone was at the camp. Blasts of hot air hit Shade every few seconds as she approached the vessel, crawling up her robe and making her raw skin burn. She clenched her eyes against the irritating wind, pulled her clothing more tightly around her, and slowly made her way to the nearest lowered access ramp. Sensors placed there were attuned to detect and warn of animal life, but like those at the camp, they didn’t care about her.
Inside, Shade wandered for a time. Nothing looked the same anymore. It was dark and cluttered and grimy. The walls weren’t intact, and the floor was littered with broken parts. Only emergency lights helped her find her way through the ship. Pipes sighed above the wolf girl. The ship seemed very tired, like it was full of old aches and twinges and just wanted to sleep, but its job wasn’t over yet.
In the crew quarters, she found dozens of things that she recognized as belonging to her cousins, and hundreds of things that she couldn’t remember having seen before. Mounds of parts lay atop heaps of old clothes and toys. Eventually, Shade’s nose and other senses led her out of the crew quarters, and she found herself near the sealed-off engine rooms. There, piled in a storage bin, were a number of objects with a familiar smell: shorts, shirts, tools, dishes, blankets, belts, even a cot.
Shade rooted around in the bin for several minutes, leaning over so far that her toes dangled in the air. Eventually she pulled a small, tattered wolf doll from the depths. The doll’s arm was coming loose, and one of its shiny eyes had gone missing. It smelled musty and gray. Its state made her want to cry, but if there was one thing she knew how to do well, it was how to be brave. The wolf girl held it carefully, hoping that someone at the camp would have time and patience to fix it.
The other items in the bin smelled so nice, though. Just breathing them in made her feel safer, more secure about Desha, about everything. Captain Misty had always made her feel that way. Unwilling to leave that smell behind, Shade instead removed her robe, then put on some of the older wolf’s shorter clothing, a black sleeveless top and shorts. The top barely stayed on her shoulders, and dangled almost to her knees. Even with the fastenings pulled all the way up, the shorts did not fit, so Shade put on Misty’s heavy tool belt and knotted it up until it held the shorts in place. She sniffed at the shirt and whined happily, feeling a presence she hadn’t realized that she missed. Captain Misty smelled a little sick, but she would get better.
The wolf girl threw her robe over one shoulder and gathered Lulu to her chest. Her quest accomplished, she could now head back to the camp. The ship she remembered so well didn’t really smell like home anymore, and she had almost everything she needed from it.
* * *
Awareness came to Hawkeye, but very little sensation. Hir cheek was pressed against a chill, hard surface that shi tentatively identified as a floor. Before hir eyes was a larger mass, a prone body perhaps. Wherever shi lay, it was suffused with a growing desperation, like a cloud that drifted over and into hir ears and eyes and settled within hir heart. Shi thought that shi had been injured in same way, but hir senses, although muddled, told hir that shi was essentially whole. Still, there was a hole, somewhere…
Hir vision refocused on a smaller, closer object. Hir left hand lay before hir, an injector tucked into the palm. Shi could not seem to locate the path between hir brain and that limb; it might as well have belonged to another person. The chakat rolled hir eyes, twitched hir ears, sniffed. Bright lights above hir, vague echoes, clean scents of the crewman lying unconscious before hir, another one just out of hir range of vision, and
Misty! Wild surges of directionless emotion began to swirl within Hawkeye, and shi forced them down so that shi could think. The lovely wolf was nearby, her limbs clean and whole, her fur sparkling nearly as brightly as her green eyes… but that had been a dream, hadn’t it? The Aremist shi could faintly smell now was the reality, a different person entirely. The one from Hawkeye’s dream would not, after all, hurt and drug crewmen, drug hir…
Fully awake now, Hawkeye found that shi could flex hir fingers and shift hir arms. If shi had been an average terran, shi would no doubt be paralyzed. But the drug that Aremist had pushed hir into injecting into hir veins was not in itself powerful enough for a chakat. Seems I’m not the only one who needs to bone up on biochemistry, shi thought.
Hir moment of superior amusement plunged immediately into the well of dread within hir chest. What had Aremist done? Hawkeye raised hir head, then brought a sluggish arm underneath hir and pushed up. Shi was lying in one of the shuttlebays aboard Magus, stretched across a lit guiding strip, with an unconscious crewman on either side. The bay was neatly arranged, save for mobile shelves, each loaded with tools, that had been brought out from their sconces in case of emergency. The one remaining shuttlecraft rested at the ready with its hatch open. It thrummed lightly, having been prepped since the incident with the Vrael shuttle.
Aremist stood beside the shuttle, at an open access panel along the nacelle. Two more crewmen lay in a heap a few feet from her. The wolf woman was turned away from Hawkeye, but upon sighting her, the chakat was stricken by intimate sensation. Shi could feel the wolf’s right eye rolling, the fabric touching her skin, the cold floor under her organic foot. Beyond that lay the connections that she had established with others: Several members of the bridge crew, including Captain Marshall, and, more distant but much firmer, the wolf woman’s link to her own people on the planetary surface.
They were her bulwark, Hawkeye thought, but not for much longer. Deep within, beneath their presence, shi could see that Aremist was buckling. The wolf’s stance was mechanically steady, but her thoughts were beginning to teeter and cave in at the same time. Oh Misty. Hawkeye could protect her with ease, but shi had been shut out entirely. Even so, Aremist’s emanations were so wild and strong that the chakat could miss little.
But what was she holding? In Aremist’s left hand she clutched a live pistol, and in the other, a small and chaotic mass of parts that Hawkeye guessed to be a hastily modified diagnostics tool. Wires trailed from it to the recesses within the open shuttlecraft panel. What is she doing? The shuttle was ready, and she can’t get out anyway!
Aremist tapped a communications panel and began to speak. Hawkeye listened, and hir ears slid back to lie flat against hir skull. Shi set hir feet and pushed up into a deadly crouch. The chakat checked each of the nearby crewmen in turn. Hir senses said that they were essentially unharmed, but they would not recover quickly enough to aid hir. But one of them, shi noted, was an armed guard.
* * *
“There’s something else, Captain.”
Thaddeus Marshall rubbed his temples and suppressed a grumble. The Osidon situation was becoming more difficult by the minute. And there had been so many minutes. Many among the crew were certainly as tired as he was, their nerves worn down by the possibility of battle. And now another blasted headache had seeped in behind his eyes. He knew that he had been growing more upset over the course of the last half hour, since learning that the Vrael would almost certainly be joined by another member of their sparse, spartan fleet within a day. Now it felt as if the blood vessels in his skull would kill him long before that arrival.
“What would that be, Commander?” he began to ask, but the voxxan was already continuing. Marshall wondered vaguely if he had lost a second or two.
“Security reports that the team responsible for Sickbay isn’t checking in.” Commander ili Rusla paused. “No, it’s confirmed. They’ve been incapacitated, and Sickbay is empty! No wolfmorph, no Hawkeye.” His voice hitched up as he finished his statement.
Marshall turned and gaped at the voxxan, then his left temple spasmed in pain. “Damnit!” He growled and gritted his teeth. “How did she get out without sounding an alarm? Where is she?”
“Shuttlebay Two, Captain,” ili Rusla replied seconds later. His voice grew quiet. “She wants to talk to you.”
“Get Security down there now,” Marshall said, forcing his mind to clear. “They have full authorization to eliminate the threat.”
Ili Rusla looked up from his screen. His eyes were wide, his face somehow grown younger. “Security is waiting, Sir. You need to speak to her.”
Marshall nodded, sending a new, blistering spike through his head. A moment later, Baker-Jones’s clipped tones could be heard. “Captain Thaddeus Marshall? Are you there?”
“You know I am, Jones. Surrender immediately.”
“I won’t do that just yet, Captain.” A second passed. “As your people can tell you, I have control of the shuttlebay, and have removed safety protocols and remote shutdown programs from one of your shuttles. I have opened a nacelle and am currently powering up the engines.” Marshall looked to ili Rusla, who nodded, his eyes still as large as if he had been surprised by a spotlight.
“Your people will certainly incapacitate me shortly, so I am not playing any games. Do not stall or argue. I have a deadman’s switch readied, and am willing to detonate the shuttlecraft and cripple or destroy Magus unless you immediately open fire on the Vrael craft nearby. Drive them from the system or kill them, I don’t care, but if I do not sense your compliance in sixty seconds, I will carry out my threat.”
Anger surged through Marshall, and was immediately blunted by a fresh stab to his temple. “You do like to destroy things, Jones. Don’t you ever learn new tricks?”
“Explosions are simple, Captain,” she replied tonelessly. “Just shut down the vents and apply pressure. Fifty seconds.”
The vulpinoid shut down the communications link. “Snake in the grass,” he muttered. “Commander, prepare to arm batteries.”
“Sir?” ili Rusla queried wonderingly. “You can’t mean to do that.”
Fire on the Vrael? “If no other solution is presented within thirty seconds, perhaps so.” Marshall growled.
“Security is doing everything possible to get to her without allowing her to detonate, Captain, but they won’t take her down fast enough! She’s armed and has blocked off the main access doors.”
Fire on them. Marshall’s tongue seemed paralyzed. It wanted to say nothing else. Doing so would save Magus. If only he could think.
* * *
“You miss your home.” It was more a statement on Jacob’s part than a question.
The vrael thought for a moment, then uttered several phrases that, even translated, were incomprehensible to the others gathered near her. When Winterwind expressed the group’s confusion, Xer Pandre grew silent for a time. Finally she replied, “How can I miss what is all around me?”
Winterwind arched an eyebrow and leaned in. “Magister, is Osid a place or a belief?”
The translator told them that the vrael was experiencing gentle amusement, matching Winterwind’s impression. “We should not speak of such matters without speaking the same language, healer alien. Your translator is for rules and laws and machinery, not for thoughts that run deep.” She clicked her remaining claws together. “But I will show you what I can.” Xer Pandre stood, and immediately sat down again out of weakness. “Take me outside, away from the lights,” she requested, and repeated her request despite Winterwind’s protests, until the chakat acquiesced.
Twenty minutes later found them away from the camp and its lights, with star-laden darkness above them. “No critters too close by, just a couple of our people,” Jacob informed the quintet after a quick scan, and all eyes save those of the security guard turned again towards Xer Pandre.
The vrael, resting on a bobbing stretcher, pointed at the sky. “Where is my home star?” she asked. After entering a few queries on his equipment, Jacob pointed low and to the northeast. “And its light reaches this place, yes? That is all I say. Osid doln Lilsilin can be seen in all the universe. Its light adds to all life.”
“All stars do that much,” Jacob responded, his lips pursed in consideration.
“And all stars are Osid,” Xer Pandre returned. “And that which is not stars is Osid. Our bodies take in light and give back light, and one day it reaches all others that look to us, that would miss us without that radiance. That is why we do not fear the radiation of our star system. It makes us glow more brightly in the end. My star and my people are shining towards me now. How can I miss them?”
Winterwind sat back on hir haunches and looked up towards the horizon, while the Vrael matriarch slid from her stretcher and craned her neck to the place that Jacob had pointed out. A heavy breeze shook Xer Pandre’s feathering, swirled through the chakat’s hair and fur. Shi wondered if hir family could feel hir at that moment.
A small voice spoke from the darkness. “I know who you are.”
* * *
As she closed communications with Marshall, Aremist strove not to wonder what she should have done differently. It was all very straightforward to her: the new commander of the Vrael vessel was almost deliriously angry over her booby-trap and its result, but even so, he would not fire on Packmaster while she was aboard Magus and unobtainable. The attack on the Vrael shuttle made it more likely that she would be turned over to them, though, and that could not be allowed. The wolf woman’s only recourse was to remain unreachable, by committing acts for which these representatives of the Stellar Federation would have to prosecute her. If they would not release her, the Vrael could not claim her, and the impasse would remain stable.
The deadman’s switch in her hand was a dummy, of course, if a clever one. It was little more than a prop for the sensors and any camera that might be on her. She had an affinity for tools, but certainly could not quickly bypass and rewire the advanced technology before her without an upgrade in training. It was moot, at any rate; she would not harm the ship that… someone was aboard.
The point was that Captain Marshall knew her to be an expert at jury-rigging, and that he believed her capable of any action. He was almost correct. Certainly he knew what had been done after the fifth pod failed, when the supplies had begun to run perilously low. And that meant that eventually the cubs would find out. She couldn’t see them again, not ever. Couldn’t face them. That left only one option for telling the cubs that she loved them, and that was to ensure the Vrael could not come near them. They would fare better as refugees in the Federation without her, anyway.
Aremist bit her tongue, forced herself to concentrate. It was all very straightforward, really, but it would have been much easier to accept with her implants adjusted. Marshall did not have time to verify whether or not she could detonate the shuttlecraft, and he would assume that she could. If he ordered an attack on the Vrael, they would retreat in short order, and the Packmaster would be safe. If he did not, Aremist would be arrested and held anyway, and the Vrael would have no chance of taking her.
She preferred the certainty of the first outcome. Sesem Ethemalu was deadly for a Vrael ship, but it would be forced to flee or face destruction if the Magus attacked. And such a battle would end all diplomatic ties for some time, cementing her position.
Her demands were not enough to compel that result, though. Marshall would not be easily threatened aboard his own ship, this Aremist knew; and so she had stacked the deck with her own Talent, impressing urgency and violence upon the vulpinoid with her unwanted power. He was not weak, but apply enough pressure...
Fire on the Vrael, she pushed.
Fire on them.
A stray response touched her mind then, a small thing, full of unquestioning trust. In order to maintain her balance even for a short time, Aremist had tethered herself to the cubs and cousins on Vermitris. From one of them, more sensitive than most, came a voice of consent.
“Shade?” the wolf woman called aloud, a tremor of fear warbling through her speechbox.
* * *
“I know who you are,” the tiny silhouette repeated as it stepped closer. Jacob turned the light he had been carrying on the figure, revealing a dark wolf girl in shapeless black clothing. Her hands clutched a sickbay robe and a torn lump of cloth before her. Her deep eyes were fixed on Xer Pandre.
“Shade?” Winterwind asked, and took a step, two steps, towards her. Something about the wolf had changed, something that made the back of the chakat’s neck tremble. “It’s late. Why are you here, dear?”
The wolf girl never looked in hir direction. “You’re one of them,” she told the vrael. “You hurt Captain Misty. You hurt my mother.” Shade let the robe drop to the ground, and with a jerking motion drew the pistol that had hung from Aremist’s tool belt. She leveled it at Xer Pandre.
“NO!” Winterwind and Jacob shouted together. The chakat was peripherally aware of the security guard moving as shi and the quange both began to lunge forward, to place themselves between the wolf and alien. Xer Pandre said something that went untranslated, and Shade fired on the vrael, and fired again.
* * *
Fire, spoke the very cells of Hawkeye’s body. Fire. Hir hand trembled around the pistol, the arm trying to rise of its own accord as the wolf woman’s overflowing psyche imposed on hir own. But the chakat held back, hir mounting rage at Aremist’s betrayal warring with the fear of unleashing that anger, even upon someone so deserving.
By small degrees, shi worked hir fingers around the weapon until shi located the controls shi needed. Shi stroked them, reducing the power output of the weapon to a level that would only stun most healthy creatures. Even then, shi paused, unwilling to take that final step.
Almost ten meters away, Aremist was shaking her head violently from side to side, right eye wide and staring, body held incongruously balanced and still by various implants. She was saying one word over and over. Shade.
The meaning came to Hawkeye through the leaking of the wolf’s Talent. The small, dark cub was the wolf woman’s major anchor, one of her empathic stops against the closer sensations of the crew of Magus. But the link between them ran both ways. Fire, Aremist had urged Marshall. And as the unintentional empathic spillover emanating from her was nearly enough to overwhelm Hawkeye, it had been far too much for the trusting child to resist, even at orbital distances.
Hawkeye knew what Shade had done. What Aremist had made her do. The chakat’s face broke into a snarl as shi again increased the setting on hir pistol, adjusting it to its maximum level, and then raised the weapon until the wolf was in hir sights.
If her implants had been intact and adjusted, Aremist would have been incapable of surprise. But as her right hand came apart from the wrist in a flash and whine of light and heat, all she could do was stare in shock.
The hand clattered to the floor, the switch still held tight in its grip. A brief but searing wave of pain struck Aremist at the same time as the nerves in her wrist burned away under the excess heat.
The wolf woman looked up, still mouthing Shade’s name, and dimly perceived a chakat aiming a pistol in her direction. A moment later, the chakat fired again at a lower setting, directly into Aremist’s stomach. The wolf’s entire abdomen seized up and she doubled over, retching and squealing. The pain brought her away from the child on the world below and back to the shuttle bay, and there was only rage in that place.
Hawkeye’s fury rolled over Aremist in an irresistible tide, and in an instant her own thoughts were of nothing else. There was no chakat before her, only a threat, an enemy, something to be disposed of, swept away like the Vrael intruders in a flash of white-hot flame. A third shot struck Aremist’s right shoulder as she stood hunched over and gagging, but though her nerves were both fire and ice from the blasts of energy, they were not enough to subdue her modified physiology. Aremist raised her own stolen weapon and returned fire, her mechanical eyes and arm working automatically as the rest of her shook with the effort of consciousness.
Her shot pierced the focusing crystal of the chakat’s weapon. The energy spilled over into Hawkeye’s arm, and the chakat screeched as hir limb was agonizingly paralyzed by the power surge. The weapon fell from hir numb, smoking fingers, cracked and sparking. As shi clutched at hir hand, Aremist’s own body was wracked by a new series of spasms, and her mind went momentarily dark as she choked and vomited.
With hir only weapon ruined and catching fire, Hawkeye’s wrath would allow hir no other option than to charge down the wolf woman. Even as Aremist doubled over, Hawkeye was leaping over the pistol and lowering hir head into a dead run at hir opponent.
Before shi had taken two steps, Hawkeye knew that shi had failed. Aremist was recovering too fast, and would have her own pistol at the ready before the chakat could possibly reach her. Hawkeye ran anyway, headlong into death, driven by the danger to hir vessel and the fury of the betrayed. Aremist straightened, stared down the chakat, and brought her undamaged left hand and the weapon in it to bear…
and the pistol which Hawkeye had dropped disintegrated in a flash, a high-pitched bang, and a concussive wave that took the chakat’s legs out from under hir and propelled hir into the already falling wolf. The two slammed against the shuttle in a tangle of limbs, flying tools and shrapnel, and landed dazedly together. They lay stricken for only a moment before the psychic extremes of contact forced them into action.
Aremist had taken the worst of the impact, but her artificial limbs had afforded her some protection. Despite that, she was wheezing through cracked ribs and bleeding from her nose and mouth.
Hawkeye’s numb right arm had struck the shuttle hull, but shi had come out mainly unscathed save for bruises and a diabolical ringing in hir skull that drowned out everything else.
The chakat’s rage, which had pounded against the wolf woman’s empathy even at range, became a rampaging monster in her mind. Aremist snarled and snapped, and her intact hand ripped fur from the chakat’s shoulder.
That wrath, now made her own, was transmitted back to Hawkeye, who could not defend hirself from the sheer strength of Aremist’s projections. Hir nails tore at the wolf’s limbs, and the two were instantly locked together, trying for one another’s throats.
They rolled away from the shuttle, one bleeding, the other weeping, and shoved apart. Hawkeye was on hir feet in only a second, but so was Aremist, who rolled up into a crouch that hir gyroscopic implants instantly stabilized. The chakat came for her again, and they wrestled madly but ineffectually, unable to force one another down with damaged arms.
Hawkeye, though, still had an advantage of limbs, and used hir handpaws to pull Aremist’s fleshy leg out from under her. The wolf fell and rolled onto her stomach in preparation to push back up, and the chakat hopped halfway onto her back. Shi fought to put a chokehold on hir foe, but had to leap away when Aremist’s monstrously strong left hand almost found purchase on hir flank.
As the wolf rose again, though, Hawkeye whirled in place, caught one of her legs with hir long chakat’s tail, and flipped her. Aremist landed hard, and the chakat was atop her in a second, landing a fearsome punch to the wolf woman’s jaw that left her struggling to move her limbs in concert. Hawkeye surged forward, intending to pin Aremist and knock the breath out of her by virtue of greater weight. But as shi moved above hir foe, Aremist’s left shoulder and elbow clicked.
As if it were a jackhammer, the wolf woman’s arm drove three punishing blows into Hawkeye’s feline torso before shi could react. On the second and third blows, ribs gave way, and the chakat let out a gargling screech that only amplified the pain.
Clarity returned to hir then, and in hir fear for the both of them, Hawkeye fought to escape. Shi caught Aremist by the throat with one handpaw and tried to push away with the other, but the wolf’s artificial limb was still in motion, and it found a handhold.
Still in the throes of amplified rage, Aremist fought without thought. She caught the handpaw that had begun to press upon her neck, her fingers lacing between Hawkeye’s toes, and made a quick, thorough, wrenching motion. The bones ground together and snapped between her fingers.
Hawkeye had begun a chilling wail before Aremist had even finished twisting, but with the artificial hand as a barrier, the wolf woman was protected from the worst of the reciprocal pain. Even so, she howled in response and released the chakat, who tumbled over, gasping and mewling.
As she pushed to her feet, the wolf woman clutched her chest. Her artificial limbs were strong enough to continue, but the connections between them and the rest of her frame had not held up so well. Bones rubbed against flexible rods in her breastbone and shoulderblade. Her lungs gurgled in time to her panting, and her left leg almost refused to bend as she stepped forward. Yet she managed to move over the chakat, and raised her remaining hand in a fist, ready to bring down upon hir head.
But she paused. The chakat’s pain was soaking through her, cooling her anger as if it had been dipped in a frozen lake. Only Hawkeye knelt before her now, the same person who had been there mere minutes beforehand, whose unwarranted trust had been like a sacrifice laid out before the wolf.
I’m sorry, she thought, looking at Hawkeye’s face, which was clouded and distorted by pain and fear. The chakat bled in half a dozen places, hir arm was beginning to swell, and shi shivered with the ache of trying to breathe. Shi managed, somehow, to look like a home left behind to the wolf.
I know, Hawkeye told hir without speaking, and Aremist gasped. The ship’s crew began to pour in upon her again as she stood exposed. The chakat reached out and laid a hand on her right arm, reestablishing empathic contact. The chaos calmed. Aremist lowered her fist. And Hawkeye’s grip tightened.
The chakat reared onto hir hind legs, at the same time catching Aremist with hir good arm and handpaw and snatching hir from the ground. Hawkeye twisted and hurled the wolf woman with all hir strength into the side of the shuttlecraft, losing hir own balance and tumbling over in the process. Aremist rebounded and rolled, her limbs limp as those of a rag doll. She lay facedown and senseless, blood pooling around her muzzle.
Hawkeye watched the wolf in the seconds before help came, wanting to go to her, to make sure she was all right, but terrified of laying hands upon her again. Hir senses told hir that Aremist was no longer a threat. But shi had been wrong about that before.
* * *
He looks like he’s been crying, Winterwind noted as shi approached the wolf. Good. Good. Hir mood was cruel and vengeful, and although shi knew that Lopalo was hurting terribly, the chakat could not put off hir words to him for even a minute.
Hir coat stood on end as shi stalked up to the lean wolf morph. He sat in a wiry chair that he had dragged outside, where he could watch the rising sun. The wind, warm even at night, would be hot in only an hour or two. Lopalo turned slightly so to face the chakat. His eyes and cheeks were clearly puffy under the minute layer of fur that had regrown across his face. That green spark that had entranced Winterwind was gone from them. Or had shi imagined it?
Before the wolf could speak, shi tossed a piece of cloth into his muzzle. Surprised, Lopalo pulled it from his face, paused, and sniffed at it. “Misty?” he asked.
Winterwind nodded fiercely. “Shade thought you’d want a shirt with her scent on it. She said you probably miss your sister as much as she misses her brother.” Hir fangs showed as shi spoke.
Lopalo leaned over and closed his eyes, clutching the shirt to his chest. A thin whine escaped his throat. Winterwind restrained hirself before shi could go to him, before hir heart could soften. Shi had heard only incomplete reports and spoken but briefly to Hawkeye, but the chakat thought shi had a good idea of what could come from letting one’s guard down around these mishandled, untrustworthy wolves.
“You had better hope,” shi told him, “that we can prove you broke into the ship’s systems. You had better hope so for your family’s sake. They don’t need you guarding them any more than they needed her.”
Lopalo nodded, then held the shirt to his face again. His eyes were becoming deep, wet wells. Even when he lowered it, he did not meet Winterwind’s gaze. “She agreed with me, you know.” His breath hitched up. “Misty knew I didn’t want her back here, and she agreed. She… she knew everything. I could tell from here.”
Winterwind shook hir head and clenched hir fists. “She didn’t know everything, Captain Baker-Jones. There are a lot of things I want to say to her that she wouldn’t understand, judging from her actions. Things you clearly wouldn’t understand, either,” shi added in a low, dangerous voice.
“How is the vrael?”
The chakat blinked. “In a hibernation pod, probably as good as dead. I don’t have the training to help her any more than that right now, and the commander of her ship has made it clear that they’re not risking their people or vessel to retrieve her.
“I notice,” shi continued in a near-growl, “that you haven’t asked about Shade.”
“I don’t need to ask,” Lopalo responded in a flat voice. “I’m nothing compared to Misty, but I have a little of what she has. Just like she has a little of my ability. That’s right,” he added, noting how Winterwind was a little taken aback by that statement, “she’s still dangerous. You’d better tell your captain. I don’t want anyone to get hurt if she decides to rationalize another escape attempt.”
“Little late for that, isn’t it, Captain?”
“I’m not captain, Winterwind. I’m not fit for the job.”
“As we well know now. But it’s the job you have, until someone better is found.” The chakat snorted. “That should be a quick task.”
The wolf winced. “What about Shade? I can feel her, but not what’s going on regarding her.”
“We can’t and wouldn’t charge her, both because of her age and jurisdictional reasons, and we certainly wouldn’t hand her over. She and most of the others will probably become wards as soon as we reenter Federation space. Until then, we’re going to bring them up a few at a time and make room for them, starting with the ones who grew up aboard Packmaster. A handful of them have cases of agoraphobia.”
“I know,” Lopalo said. He picked at a patch of drying ointment on the back of his hand. “They’re all hurt. Winterwind, we wanted to protect them.”
Shi made a deep noise. “Mostly your sister wants to protect herself, Lopalo. Everyone else is just in the way of that.”
The wolf shook his head. “No, no. She did! She just… didn’t know how. Misty couldn’t tell where she ended and we began.” He put a hand over his eyes. “How’s she supposed to know who needs what like that? I spent a lot of time watching her, Winterwind. She kept withdrawing more and more after we left Osidon. But her power kept compensating. Misty… I should have seen it sooner.
“She got to a point where she was convinced that she had pushed us all out and could think clearly.” Lopalo looked up, his wet eyes trembling. “But it was just the opposite, Winter. Misty can’t think for herself most of the time; she never learned how. She was built to react. Our Fathers decided that the first generation was going to help take care of the later ones. They added a smattering of psychic sequences, assuming it would make us love our job. They didn’t want children. They wanted servants.
“None of us wanted to see it, Winterwind. Nobody wants to see that in their parents.” Lopalo’s voice hitched, then broke, and he balled his hands into fists. “I hate them so much. They made her a slave to everybody! I don’t even know if she really wanted to escape, or if she just did it because of me. She agreed. That’s all I know.
“Of course we can’t trust her,” he finished. “She can’t trust anyone else. There’d be nothing left of her if she did.”
Winterwind’s anger was seeping away quicker than shi could restoke it before the wolf’s remorse and despairing love for his sister. It left hir empty and tired inside. “So where does the buck stop, Captain?” shi asked. Before he could respond, shi closed hir eyes, hugged hirself, and turned away. Others would have to help Lopalo, deal with him. Hawkeye was relieved of duty aboard the Magus, relegated to rest and therapy. Shi needed solace before Baker-Jones’s influence made hir wary of contact. The rest of the crew could handle the Packmaster. For Winterwind, there wasn’t anywhere more important to be than stroking hir friend while shi slept.
* * *
The minutes before Aremist could sleep again passed so slowly.
She sat on her bed, propped up in the corner against the wall, just waiting. She was not capable of much more. Her left arm, shoulder and leg had been removed entirely. Someone had assured her that simple replacements would be fashioned as soon as time allowed, but that didn’t really matter. The wolf woman felt better without them. There was no contradiction between her phantom senses and the reality so long as those limbs were gone.
Even if she was given a new set of hands, there was little that she could accomplish with them. She was kept medicated to ensure that she stayed docile and her power remained dampened. Though the effects were imperfect, she couldn’t focus enough to make sense of her empathy most of the time. In addition, a makeshift implant emitted miniscule charges that effectively shattered her concentration every ten seconds or so. There was really nothing to do except push her face against the soft wall and wait for the sleeping shift.
What really bothered her during the waking hours was not being able to find Hawkeye. Segar had told her that contact of any sort, even written, would not be allowed, but she had attempted to extend her senses and locate the chakat anyway. Some part of her was frightened of what she might find, but some part was hopeful, and so she tried. It was useless, though. Aremist couldn’t even reach her guards. Not when awake, anyway.
The wolf woman hummed a lullaby to herself and waited. She would fall asleep at the right time eventually, and that was when things were better. She could almost make it work then, could almost feel warm breath on her neck, and a long tail, and two more hearts beating with her own as shi stretched hir lazy limbs.
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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