Dawn found two trembling chakats huddled back in the basement of the ruined building. The Polizei only had minimal patrols at these hours, so it had been easy for them to make it back. Or at least, it had been for Strongtail. Hardscrabble didn't have much interest in moving at this point, though Strongtail wasn't sure whether this was due to hir injuries or just shock from what shi'd seen Strongtail do.
Despite the situation, Strongtail had attempted to bind the wounds on the small cub, but not being a medic of any sort, shi had been afraid to do anything further. Fortunately, the injuries turned out to be less severe than they had seemed at first. It was all the scar tissue that made her tougher, Strongtail supposed.
All the same, Hardscrabble was now curled up into a ball, whimpering a little. "You killed him," shi finally managed to articulate. "You just k-killed him."
"Yes." Strongtail said flatly.
"But he was—he was—" Hardscrabble choked back a sob and hiccuped instead.
"He was a terrible person, Scrabs," Strong said, stroking the cub's flank. "He was beating you."
"Only when I deserved it."
"And what did you do to deserve such a punishment?"
Hardscrabble sniffled. "When I didn't do what he told me."
"He was using you Scrabs—all of you kids." Strong sighed. "He didn't even care enough about you to feed you properly. He was as bad as some of the taskmasters at UAE Gulags.
"But you killed him!"
"I know. I can still taste him," Strong said, spitting.
"Wh-what are you gonna do to me?"
Strong tilted hir head in confusion. "I suppose I'll have to look after you, won't I? If I can find a way off this rock, I'll take you with me."
Hardscrabble blinked. "You'll…what?"
"Oh." Hardscrabble thought for a moment. "I guess…that's right."
"Well, I'm hopelessly confused now." Strongtail smiled crookedly. "Are you hungry? I think it's just about breakfast time."
"Breakfast?" Hardscrabble screwed up hir face in thought. "I've…heard of that."
Strongtail sighed sadly, and began to work on putting together the meal from what little supplies they had, stopping momentarly to wipe hir eyes.
After breakfast, everything looked a little brighter—partly because the sun had time to rise. Hardscrabble watched Strongtail cleaning up, though made no move to help out hirself. Shi was still turning the events of the last night over in hir head, trying to make sense of them.
Now that the shock had worn off, it was easier to think about it, but Hardscrabble was still having trouble figuring out exactly how shi felt now. Chayne had been pretty mean to them—but that was how you had to be to live, on Argos. He'd beaten them up a lot, but he'd also toughened them up so they didn't get killed.
But now he'd been killed—and by the code of the street, Hardscrabble knew that meant shi belonged to Strongtail now. Like it or not, shi was going to have to live with it. Shi guessed it could be worse. Apart from when shi'd torn his throat out, Strongtail was a lot nicer than Chayne had been.
"How's your leg Scrabs?" Strongtail said, nodding towards one of Hardscrabble's bandaged legs.
"I'll live." Hardscrabble put Chayne out of hir mind. Surviving was the important thing now.
"I imagine," Strongtail laid down beside the cub and leaned in to kiss hir on hir forehead. "You're certainly a tough little kitten."
Hardscrabble flinched away from the kiss, confused. "I don't think I'm much tougher than anybody else."
"You'd be surprised." The older chakat paused for a moment. "Tell me about yourself. How'd you come to be with this Chayne person anyway?"
Hardscrabble frowned. "I…really dunno. I just am. Was." Shi shrugged. "I guess they found me when I was little."
Strong nodded, "Go on."
"Isn't any 'on'. Just don't r'member." It wasn't strictly true, but Hardscrabble really didn't feel like thinking back to those days right now on top of what shi'd just been through.
"Okay." Strong sounded a bit disappointed.
Hardscrabble considered a moment. Shi didn't want to disappoint Strongtail. "Do have this, though." Shi looked around for hir backpack, then opened it and rummaged deep inside. Shi came out with a small metal tag, which shi offered to Strongtail. "This was in my ear. Chayne had it cut out."
It had a serial number stamped into it, and the ship name Freebird. It had indicator lights on the back, but the battery had long since gone dead.
Strongtail blinked as shi picked it up and examined it. "Are you sure?"
Hardscrabble pointed at the triangular gap in hir ear. "What do you think?"
"I think I'd like to know what happened to your parents." Strong frowned.
"They're still…in the bad place, I guess."
"I'm sorry." Strong stroked Scrabs' tail gently.
Hardscrabble shrugged. "Shit happens."
Strong sighed again, "I'm going to need to change your bandages now, if that's okay with you?"
Hardscrabble sighed. "I guess."
Muttering to hirself, Strongtail began to unwrap the bandages, taking note of the yellow and red patches on the gauze as it peeled off. Materials science had largely eliminated the problem of the gauze scabbing to the wound, but some of the scabbing still peeled off just from friction.
Strongtail was relieved to see that the wounds were already starting to heal over, and there were no signs of infection. But then, shi hadn't really expected any. Scrabs was a chakat, after all—and if shi hadn't gotten infected in all the other wounds shi'd gotten during hir life, shi probably wasn't going to start now.
"Should've killed him more slowly," shi muttered. "Asshole."
"You shouldn't have killed him at all!" Scrabs said hotly.
"What's done is done," Strongtail stated with what shi hoped was an air of finality to it. "You shouldn't mourn such a man anyway."
"Can mourn who I want to," Hardscrabble said rebelliously. "It's my…mourner."
"Fine. In any case, we need to get off this rock." Strongtail rubbed hir forehead, "I don't suppose you have any idea how to do that."
Hardscrabble glanced at where Strongtail's butt was planted on the rubble-strewn floor. "Get up, move over, sit down again?"
"Uh, no, I mean off the planet."
"Then whyn'cha just say that?" Hardscrabble asked.
Strongtail facepalmed so hard hir nose hurt.
"Get on a spaceship, mebbe?" Hardscrabble continued. "That's how I heard you're supposta get off a planet."
"Either that or we'll need to learn to fly."
"I heard they taught that at the spaceport," Hardscrabble said. "Costs a lot, though."
"Do you know where it is?" Strong looked closely at the younger chakat. "I know it's around here somewhere, but I don't know where it is exactly. And the locals haven't been exactly forthcoming or friendly, thanks to your thieving."
"It's the place thataway with the big tower." Hardscrabble pointed. "Y'can see it for miles, in the daytime. I think they light it up at night, too. Or useta."
"I don't recall seeing anything like that when I was heading into the area. Maybe it was blown up in the recent fighting?"
"Well, it was kinda foggy yesterday."
"How about we go for a walk then, and you can show me this tower of yours."
Hardscrabble shrugged. "All right, if y'want." Shi yawned. "Funny, thought I was s'posta be the blind one."
As the sun began to rise high enough for rays to slant down over the tops of buildings into the street, Hardscrabble peeked out of the doorway and glanced back and forth. Shi darted behind a pile of rubble for a better vantage point, moving with the swiftness and stealth of a veteran infiltrator. "All clear," shi said after a moment.
Strongtail frowned. "Do you always go about like this? Wouldn't it be easier to just walk to places you need to get to like a normal person, rather then pretending you're James Bond or Chakat Quietpaw?"
"I dunno who those are, but in this part of town 's best to stay safe," Hardscrabble said quietly.
"I suppose so, but I'm kinda big to be sneaking around." Strongtail frowned.
"Maybe you should stop eating so much of that stew then."
Strongtail wrinkled hir nose. "You think I got this big on food like that?"
"Well, you are that big, an' you do eat that stuff, so…" Hardscrabble shrugged.
"I'm sure it was all elementary." Strong half rolled hir eyes. "Lets just get going to a safer part of town so you don't have to play spy with piles of bricks."
"'m not playing," Hardscrabble mumbled. "C'mon. This way." Shi led the way up the street and through an alley between buildings.
Strong shook hir head and followed as closely as possible to the cub.
Hardscrabble led the way down the alley, then hopped up onto a pile of rubble and stood on hir hindpaws to reach up and grasp the bottom rung of a fire escape. Hand over hand, then paw over paw shi pulled hirself up to the first platform. "C'mon!" Shi clambered up three more flights to the roof.
Sighing, Strongtail followed suit, quickly pulling hirself up and climbing the stairs to the roof as well. Upon reaching the top, shi turned to look in the direction the cub was pointing to. Several miles away, across the city, a fairly short control tower poked its way a few stories above the rest of town. "See?" Hardscrabble said. "Tower."
"And you're sure that's the space port?"
"I been there. Once."
"It's going to be a long walk."
"Luckily we got feets!" Hardscrabble bounded across the roof, then leaped across the alley to another roof. "Well? C'mon, what'cha waiting for?"
"Wouldn't it make more sense to walk on the ground? If one of us falls, we could be seriously hurt, and you're already injuried."
"Nope!" Hardscrabble called back cheerfully, before turning and bounding toward the next roof.
Strongtail swore under hir breath, before leaping across the gaps hirself in pursuit.
Hardscrabble glanced over hir shoulder and emitted a rare giggle at Strongtail struggling to keep up. Not that shi expected Strong to fall behind—Strong could probably leap farther than shi could—but it was a good reminder of just who was in charge here.
If Hardscrabble gave Strong time to think, shi'd probably do something dumb again, like going up to a Polizei and asking for directions. Weird how shi seemed to think that just 'cuz shi was in a city, shi was back in civilization. (Hardscrabble had never seen "civilization," though shi'd heard about it a lot.) "C'mon, we're almost there!"
"Slow down you imp!" Strongtail shouted.
"'m not an imp, 'm an urchin!" Hardscrabble replied. "I urch a lot!"
"I'll urch you if you don't slow down!" Strongtail called back, quickly leaping across two alleys in two graceful bounds.
Hardscrabble pointed. "There it is." The rooftop they stood on belonged to the last building for several hundred feet. There was a cleared space between it and a fairly tall concrete wall that marked the edge of the spaceport. There were guard towers evenly spaced along it, and a main gate with a security checkpoint. Hardscrabble shivered. "Yer sure this is where y'wanna go?"
After a moment Strongtail landed beside the cub. Beyond the guard towers and fences, there were several embedded craters in the large open field. Most of them were filled with some sort of fluid, but none of them seemed to be occupied by any ships. "Where are all the ships Scrabs? This place looks like it hasn't been used in years."
Hardscrabble shrugged. "Ships don't come that often. Once, twice a year mebbe."
"That's not going to help us." Strong sighed heavily. "I suppose I could see if I could make a call back to Chakona."
"Guess y'could see." Hardscrabble shrugged. "They don' like city people much, though."
"Even so, if we're going to survive long enough to see the next ship come, we're going to need proper food and shelter." Strongtail rubbed hir chin before glancing at Hard's back. "I think all that jumping's gone and reopenned your wounds hun."
Hardscrabble shrugged. "They'll close again. We come here in the streets we'd'a both got new ones."
Strongtail closed hir eyes momentarily and sighed for what Hardscrabble thought was the millionth time. "Alright. Let's get down from here so I can talk to the people at the port."
"'kay." Hardscrabble led the way to a door on a small shed-like structure at one corner of the roof, and pushed it open to reveal stairs. "Here."
After a moment of thought, Strongtail picked up the cub and decended down the dark stairwell.
Even before they finished crossing the open space, Strongtail could see something was wrong at the spaceport.
"Looks like we're not the first to be here kiddo," Strongtail said as shi glanced at the obviously warped gate. The whole guardhouse looked like it had gone through some sort of battle—and given the anarchy that currently reigned on the planet, shi wouldn't have been surprised if that was the case.
Upon reaching the gate, Strongtail could see even more signs that a vicious battle had been fought there, although how recently, shi couldn't be sure. "When was the last time a ship came here Scrabs? Do you remember?"
Hardscrabble shrugged. "Last year, 'think. Didn't go over this far much. We worked the market. Couldn't get in the port without ID, waste of time." Shi kicked at a piece of rubble on the ground. "Looked different then."
"Let's see if there's anything still inside." Strong shook hir head in frustration. The whole damned universe seemed to be working against hir.
But the grounds of the spaceport weren't any better. The destruction was not unlike some of the wars Strongtail had covered. There were burnt out vehicles on the roads, and several of the buildings looked like they had been shelled heavily.
It didn't take them long to lose interest in the grounds—it was clear there wasn't anything useful awaiting them there. But the control tower seemed to be reasonably intact, so they made that their next destination. The interior told a different story—it was pitch black, with no lighting whatsoever. This was not an issue for Strongtail, but shi knew it would be for Scrabs.
Hardscrabble looked around. "We should be outta here 'fore dark. Mebbe who did this might come back."
"I doubt it." Strongtail was pretty sure that the real reason Hardscrabble was worried was that shi couldn't see well in the dark, anyway.
Strongtail gave the room a once over. Although the signs of battle were less obvious here, the whole place looked like it had been looted from top to bottom. Although there were stairs, shi doubted the upper levels had faired any better. Still, shi supposed shi might as well check. Strongtail padded up the stairs. Hardscrabble followed, becoming more enthusiastic as shi came into the light filtering down from the tower's open top.
The control tower was not quite as bad as shi had feared. Most of the consoles were built into the walls and floor, so had been too big for looters to remove. Still, most of the comm screens and a few of the windows were smashed out, and rain had done for a lot of the other equipment.
"Guess we're outta luck, huh?" Hardscrabble said, curiously peering behind a dislodged access panel. Hir hand suddenly lashed out and she withdrew it with a large, squeaking rat in hir grip. A quick twist of the neck, and it was dead. Shi raised it to hir mouth, then paused and glanced to Strongtail. "Want some?"
"Uh, no. How about you put it down and we'll get some real food later."
"You kidding? This is real food." Shi sighed happily. "Never got a rat to myself back in the gang."
"The people back home are just going to eat you up." Strongtail laughed. "Like it isn't hard enough to convince people we aren't cats as it is."
"Not if I eat them first!" Hardscrabble said cheerfully, taking a big bite of rat. "Mmm, juicy."
Strongtail frowned and looked away. As shi did, hir eye fell on one of the consoles tucked away in the corner. Shi blinked, then moved to take a closer look. It was easier to see in the darker corner: one of the lights was still blinking. It was a status indicator for the auxiliary subspace pulse generator.
Shi snapped hir fingers. "Of course, the generators!"
Strongtail knew that interstellar subspace comm generators were immense, and usually buried underground—and the models that were supplied to colony worlds were usually sealed units, inaccessible without factory tools. It simplified maintenance, and made sure the warranties stayed intact.
That power light meant the generators were still active—and thus, still intact. Which made sense—after all, they were too big to steal and too inaccessible to damage. It also meant that the tower itself was still receiving power. And that meant… "We might still have a chance to get off this hellhole." Strongtail exclaimed outloud.
"Hrmp?" Scrabs replied with hir mouth full of rat.
Strongtail opened hir mouth to reply, then stopped as shi heard a loud clatter from the level below. Scrabs's eyes widened and shi nearly choked on hir rat. Strongtail frowned, and reached into hir pack. "Kid must be getting to me," shi muttered as her fingers closed around the handgrip. "But better safe than sorry." Hardscrabble backed out of sight, crouching with a console between hir and the door.
As Strongtail tensed, shi heard a voice from downstairs. It sounded like a human, but shi couldn't be sure. It wasn't long before the voice started to move up the stairwell toward them.
"Damn kids sneakin' around stealin' my stuffs. Where's me rat?! Where's Jerry?!" The voice was gruff and somewhat gravelly.
Cautiously, Strongtail called out. "Who's there?"
The voice fell slient for a moment, before speaking. "Nows the rats are mockin' me they are." Moments later, a very dirty looking human's head with a long matted beard and (what appeared to be) a greasy hubcap hat upon his head peaked around the corner. "Yous aren't not rats! You're some sort of pussy cat."
Hardscrabble wrinkled hir nose. Strongtail could tell why. The man stank.
The man stepped into the room, his body being as filthy as the rest of him. "You's seen me rat pretty pussy? I's been feedin' him so I's could eattem." After a moment of glancing, he spotted the remains of the rat's tail, where Scrabs had dropped. "Oi! You's eattened me rat! He was me best friend he was!"
"I—" Strong began, before thinking better of it. "Do you know what happened here?"
The man was now cradling the tail in his hands, openly weeping. "Why'd you eattened Jerry you mean pussy cat!"
Hardscrabble peered over the top of hir console, then ducked hir head back.
"Oi!" The man cried, dropping the tail, "You's come to steal me home haven't ya? Well you can't have it see? It's mine! all I got left, just me and Jerry!"
"No, look, we haven't come to steal anything sir." Strongtail tried to think of what to say.
"Except me rat!"
"We didn't know it was yours." Strongtail said quickly, trying to defuse the situation, "we just came to see if there were any ships that could get us off planet."
"We? Who's this 'we'?" The man looked around suspiciously. He sniffed the air, his dirty nose twitching a bit like a rat's itself. "Ohhhh, I see. There's twos of ye! Twos and twos and twos and twos…" He trailed off into a cackle. "But ya's got more legs then just twos, you's like sixes!"
"…right. Look, I've noticed that the subspace communication generators are still operational…"
Suddenly the demeaner of the man changed completely. "Now there's a phrase I haven't heard in a long time," he said softly, his voice completely changing. "And I haven't seem a morph quite like you in a long time either. Chakats, aren't you? Are you from Star Fleet?"
Hardscrabble frowned, hunching lower. Shi glanced to Strongtail and made a whirling screw-loose motion beside hir head.
Strongtail shrugged slightly, before replying. "Not quite sir, but we are trying to get off world to the Federation. Do you know anything about the communication system?"
"Of course I do," the man said, "I worked on it everyday. But you're out of luck. They broke everything—all the interfaces and calibration tools." He waved a hand at the weathered consoles. "What they didn't do for, exposure did. Without them, we can't even talk to the port on the other side of the planet, much less a ship."
Strongtail frowned. "But everything's based on standard interfaces, isn't it? I'm a journo—I know a little something about comm gear myself. The actual transmitter is fine, it's just we don't have the cup and bits of string we need to use it. Right?"
The man chuckled. "Cup and bits of string. Heh heh. You could put it like that, couldn't you? Yes. Yeees. We could probably hack something together, if we had the right parts."
Hardscrabble frowned. "Don' trust him," shi muttered. "He's screwy in the head."
"What kind of parts would we need?" Strongtail asked. "Could we find them on the port, or in the market?"
"Maybe. Maybe." The man fingered his beard. "A PADD would do for the interface. Other parts…there might be something we could use in the market. Portable audio players have the right kinds of linkages in them. And a lot of the right kinds of conduits end up at scrap metal dealers."
"I have a PADD and a tricorder…" Strongtail said slowly. Shi didn't really trust him either, but if he really was an engineer, he'd know far more about the system then shi could possibly teach hirself in a year. "…and some rations. If you think you can help us, I'll be willing to share them with you. I'm sure they'd taste better then rats."
With that, the man's demeaner changed again, "Where's me Jerry? JERRY!"
"Uh, I dunno." Strongtail thought for a moment, "Can you fix the transmitter or not?"
"Wha-?" Just as quickly as the 'crazy' episode had came on, it was over. "Of course, I can fix anything."
Hardscrabble rolled hir eyes and made the "screw loose" motion again.
"Then shall we go?" Strongtail suggested.
The man's eyes widened, and he frowned. "We—um, we—I don't think I'd better. I can give you a list of what you'll need, but…I don't really like going into town." He twitched, as if he might flip back to asking about Jerry again momentarily.
"All right, calm down," Strongtail said, digging out hir PADD. "Just write it down here and we'll go get it."
"Right…" The man reached out and took the PADD with one trembling hand, looking it over. "Huh. Fancy one. All right…" His fingers flickered over the control surface as he chorded words into place and sketched diagrams with a fingertip. "I think…those should do it. I can pull the rest out of the consoles here. I'll do that while you're gone."
"Works for me." Strongtail glanced to Hardscrabble. "C'mon, Scrabs. Let's leave the man to his work."
"Don' gotta tell me twice," Hardscrabble muttered, following Strongtail down the narrow tower stairs.
Hardscrabble lagged behind Strongtail as they headed back out of the starport and toward the market. Shi could see Strongtail had something on her mind. "Somethin' wrong?" shi asked.
"I'm not sure how we're going to pay for any of this." The older chakat sighed. "It's not like I have a lot of cash."
"Oh." Hardscrabble considered. Shi didn't see the "pay for" part as terribly necessary, but shi guessed shi could humor the bigger chakat for a while. "How've you bought stuff up to now?"
"I had some from when I first came here, and I did a few…jobs once." Strongtail shook hir head. "Maybe I could trade some of my stuff. I'm not sure I like the idea of going around nude on this planet though.
Hardscrabble frowned. "Well… ya could go to the shops on Red Street," shi said. "I hear they're always looking for 'zotics'."
"I'd rather not."
Hardscrabble shrugged. "Guess you'll hafta think'a something else then." Or maybe Hardscrabble would…
As they walked along, Hardscrabble could see Strongtail sinking deeper and deeper into thought. It made it easier for Hardscrabble to fall further and further behind. Finally, shi made a quiet dash for the fire escape on the side of a building. Shi preferred being on the roofs in these unfamiliar parts of town.
Hardscrabble glanced over the side of the roof one more time at Strongtail plodding up the street and frowned, hir preference for the safety of the rooftops warring with uneasiness at leaving the bigger chakat on hir own. But the streets in this part of town were cleaner than the rest of it, and the much-bigger Strong should be able to handle any trouble that came up between there and the market anyway. And it would be easier if Strongtail didn't know where Hardscrabble was for what shi was planning.
Hardscrabble dashed forward and leaped to the next roof, keeping pace with Strongtail but staying out of sight.
Strongtail was unamused. One minute shi had been walking along, and the next Scrabs had disppeared on hir. Shi wasn't too worried—shi knew shi'd somehow formed an empathic connection with the cub. Shi didn't know how shi felt about that, but the bright side was that it would make it easy to find the cub when shi needed to. Even now, shi had a feeling Scrabs wasn't too far away.
But Strongtail could deal with Hardscrabble later. Right now shi was concentrating more on packing up all hir stuff and heading back to the port by way of the market. Shi'd have to sort what shi could trade and what shi couldn't, and try to get ahold of the parts that way.
Thankfully, it didn't take long to make the selection. Shi didn't have much of value, mostly articles of clothing, but shi did have a couple of ruby necklaces that might be worth some significant amount of money. Shi was loath to part with them—they had been hir mother's and meant a great deal to hir—but when it came right down to it, they were just things. Shi and Hardscrabble were people, and people were what mattered.
It was getting fairly late in the afternoon by the time shi made it to the market. It wasn't all that busy, which suited Strongtail just fine. It was, however, slow going. Many of the shopkeepers were less than forthcoming, often demanding much more for their wares then shi could properly afford. However, Strongtail was finally able to convince at least a couple of the merchants to deal fairly with hir, and was able to trade for a few things. However, shi wasn't able to get all the items shi needed, and was trying to save the jewelry for last.
Shi finally found a rather obese merchant with some of the most expensive items on the comm component list, just before dusk. After a few moments of haggling with the man, it was clear he wasn't going to take anything less than full value.
"Fine fine." Strongtail sighed dispondently, before rummaging through hir bag for the box with the necklaces in it. "How about these? They should be worth enough?"
"Well now…" the merchant said softly, picking one of the necklaces up and examining it closely. "This is different ain't it?"
"Do we have a deal?" Strong asked, "The necklaces for the compensator?"
"No." The fat man sneered, before snatching the necklaces out of the box and stuffing them down his pant's pocket. "They'll just cover the cost of all those other items you've been stealing from me you fucking monster"
"I told you, that wasn't me." Strong said angrily, "If you're not going to trade, give me my damn necklaces back."
"If you don't I'll—" Strong started.
"If you don't back off, I'll call the Polizei," the fat man sneered again.
Strongtail sighed. Shi knew that the Polizei would be of no help to hir if they did come, and starting a fight wouldn't help matters at all anyway. Shaking hir head, shi turned away and headed towards the Port.
Strongtail made hir way through the gate as the setting sun was painting the sky red behind hir. Shi glanced back at it for a moment, reflecting on how far shi had come in the last twenty-four hours. Shi'd made a new friend—or more than friend—and maybe found a way to get off this rock. But—
"'bout time ya got here!"
Strongtail spun around, to find Hardscrabble seated in front of the wall next to the gate. "What took ya so long? I been waiting here for ages!" Scrabs complained.
Strongtail snorted. "Some of us don't like to bounce from roof to roof like a God—like a gosh-darned rubber ball. What have you been up to all day, anyway?"
Hardscrabble smirked. "Oh…this an' that."
Strongtail blinked as shi noticed for the first time the loop of conduit wound around Hardscrabble's torso, and the other parts poking out of hir knapsack. What was more, she recognized them as the very same parts shi had been trying to buy from the fat merchant—the patterns of scratches were the same. "How did you… I thought I told you not to go about stealing!"
Hardscrabble snorted. "I didn't go about stealing," shi said smugly. "I did it all in one place."
"Ugh." Strong rubbed hir ears. Shi felt another Scrabs-induced headache coming on. "I'd tell you to return it, but you'd probably end up being skinned alive."
"S'pose that means ya don't want these back, then?" Shi held up a double-fistful of red fire.
"What?" Strongtail accepted the objects and realized they were hir mother's necklaces, catching the light of the setting sun. "You stole the necklaces back?"
Hardscrabble nodded. "Ya felt like ya really hated losin' 'em, so how c'd I let that—" Shi didn't have the chance to say anything else. Strongtail leaned forward and hugged the younger chakat fiercely.
"Oof!" Hardscrabble said. Shi hesitated a moment, then put hir arms tentatively around Strongtail and hugged hir in return. The coil of conduit around Hardscrabble's torso made it a little uncomfortable, but Strongtail didn't care.
After a moment, Strong broke the embrace. "Still, you can't go around stealing."
Hardscrabble rolled hir eyes. "How many times I gotta tell ya, I didn't go around. Anyway, I left him a receipt. All nice an' legal."
"Uh huh." Strong sighed, wondering what shi was going to do with the wayward cub if and when they got somewhere civilized. "I doubt he'll see it that way."
"I don' think I can ever go back there again, but we're leavin' soon, so." Hardscrabble shrugged. "It really matters so much, have the ship you call bring lotsa money an' go give him some." Hir face darkened. "I wouldn' bother, tho. 'part from what he said ta you, that's the bastard who 'accidently' left out a box of poisoned food bars for us a while back."
"Yeah, everyone on this planet is a jackass." Strongtail laughed in a strained fashion. "Let's get inside before more of them show up to lynch you."
Hardscrabble grinned. "They'd have a hard time doing that!"
"Right, come on you imp, inside." Strongtail pointed into the darkening compound.
Hardscrabble rolled hir eyes. "Okay, okay. I still don' like that man, tho. Seen peeps like him 'fore. Creepy. Can't trust 'em."
"I don't really trust him either." Strong said. "Don't worry, if he goes nutty on us I'll save you!"
Hardscrabble glanced sidelong at hir. "Yeah, I'll just bet y'will."
The derelict human's name turned out to be Warrant Officer John Wagner. Despite Strong's and Scrab's misgivings, he was far more stable, at least mentally, for the next few days. As he had promised, he quickly set about repairing the damage done to the port's communication systems. So long as they kept him away from rats, he was fairly lucid.
So as not to interfere with the work, Hardscrabble did hir hunting at the other end of the base from wherever he happened to be. (After hir first several tries, Strongtail gave up trying to talk hir out of it. What the hell, it would make the rations last longer.)
After a few days, they hardly ever noticed his stench.
Even so, the smell plus everything else taken together got to be too much after a while. As a result, Strong and Scrabs had taken to longish afternoon walks through the grounds. Since they were no longer welcome at the market, they didn't have anyplace else to go. Out of deference to Hardscrabble's eyesight, they made sure to be indoors before dark.
Hardscrabble seemed to have calmed down considerably since that first day, and hardly ever looked nervous anymore. It had only taken a couple of changes of bandage for hir wounds to heal into new scars to join all the others barely visible under hir fur.
"I'm going to get the weirdest looks when people see us together," Strongtail muttered to hirself after checking the wounds over one last time. "They're gonna think I'm some kind of child abuser."
One day, their walk took them by the rubble of one of the passenger terminals at the south end of the spaceport. Every so often, Hardscrabble would duck into a hole in the wall or under one of the benches to root out another rat and devour it with a great deal of crunching and slurping.
Strongtail privately suspected Hardscrabble was doing it just to gross hir out, and was determined not to react. Depending on how long the repairs took, shi feared shi might end up eating rats hirself in the foreseeable future.
"If you keep eatting like that, you're going to get fat," Strongtail remarked, after Scrabs had eatten hir third rat that day.
"How would you know? I don' think you ever ate a rat in yer life!" Hardscrabble retorted.
"True," Strongtail grinned, "but I do know that little kittens who eat too much get chubby real quick."
Hardscrabble glanced at her. "Oh, is that why you look like that?" shi asked in wide-eyed innocence.
"Why you little…!" Strong laughed as shi made a mock lunge towards the cub.
Hardscrabble danced away. "I still got some way to catch up 'fore I look like you!"
"Ah, but you don't want to end up like me." Strongtail chased the cub; it had been a few days since either of them had stretched their muscles, and it felt good.
Hardscrabble took off like a shot, ducking under a turnstile where Strongtail would not fit and dashing up some stairs. "Why's that?" shi called over hir shoulder.
"Well, being myself, I did get dumped here." Strong said as shi followed as close as shi could.
"Hmph!" Hardscrabble kicked a bench in passing, and it fell over behind hir. "I got dumped here long 'fore you did. Ending up like you might be a good thing." Shi sniffled a little, quickly wiping it away.
"Oh?" Strongtail vaulted the bench without slowing down as Hardscrabble ran around a corner.
"'cuz you been somewheres that aren't here. An' here sucks." Hardscrabble skidded to a halt as the corridor dead-ended in a small lobby with some decrepit potted plants and overturned benches. "Aw crap. Here does suck." Shi ducked behind a bench.
Strong bounded around the corner, and glanced around. "Got you now! And with luck we'll both be off world soon."
"I don' even know what that's gonna be like," Hardscrabble said from hiding. "I only ever remember being in the Bad Place 'fore."
Strongtail grinned and reached behind the bench to pick the kitten up. What shi got was a live rat put in hir hands, then a giggling chakat kitten leaping away over the bench again.
"Come back here!" Strong made a face and threw aside the rat. Then, with one fluid motion, Strongtail darted forward and picked up the giggling chakat, nuzzling hir belly.
"Aw…hey! Cut that out!" Hardscrabble squirmed for a moment, before finally giving in.
"Never!" Strongtail laughed, hugging the kitten tight. "At least you've been a bright spot in this whole place."
"Bright? Hope not. Harder to hide in the shadows if yer bright."
"You won't have to do much hiding any more…or eat any more rats…"
Hardscrabble grinned. "But I like rats! I think I'll just eat more."
Strong shook hir head. "There aren't any rats on Chakona!"
Hardscrabble cocked hir head. "Are you sure this's such a great place yer takin' me?"
After a week and a half of enduring it, both Strongtail and Hardscrabble finally got fed up with Wagner's pungent aroma and determined to do something about it.
It was not as hard as it might have been—thanks to the disused starship landing basins, there were a number of sources of water nearby. Strongtail and a mildly-reluctant Hardscrabble had been using them themselves, after they had figured out how to reactivate the circulation system and purify the water. Even so it was was still rather filthy by most civilized standards.
Strongtail had thought it would be easy to talk Wagner into it when he was in one of his more civilized phases. Even when Wagner was lucid, however, he acted like a man obsessed; once he had been asked to fix the system, he had barely stopped to eat or drink. After a few tries to get him to listen, Strongtail reluctantly had Scrabs fetch a rat. Once the man was unhinged, it was a simple matter to lure him in by dangling "Jerry" in front of his face, then tossing it into the pool.
Soon the man was turning the water a rather disturbing dirt brown.
"We're goin' need a new pool, Scrabs," Strongtail said in a tone somewhere between shocked and amused.
Hardscrabble shook hir head. "I jus' got one question."
Hardscrabble held up the bar of soap they'd been using. "You gonna do it, or you want me to?"
Strongtail looked from Hardscrabble, to the bar of soap, to the man, and back. "Um… Let's just save it."
"Good plan." Hardscrabble glanced over the rim of the pool again. "Ugh. Mebbe we sh'd go where we don' hafta watch him a while."
Strongtail sighed and fiddled with hir mother's necklace. Shi had taken to wearing it ever since shi had nearly lost it. "I suppose. I don't want him to drown though."
Hardscrabble shrugged, and moved a little further away. Then shi glanced back at Strongtail. "Why you keep fiddlin' with that? Why's it so 'portant? 's not like you can eat it 'r anything."
"I suppose it's not that important," Strong admitted. "But my mom gave it to me… it has sentimental value suppose."
"Oh." Hardscrabble thought about that. "Kinda like my ear tag, I guess. Mebbe I sh'd jus' throw it 'way, but…it's the one thing I still got from back then."
"It is a rather morbid thing to keep around… But I can understand why you'd want to keep it."
"Yer Mom still 'round?" Hardscrabble asked.
"Yeah, I don't really see hir lots though." Strong nodded. "I'm sure you'll get to meet hir when we get back to Chakona."
"Anyone else I'll be meetin'? Father, sisters? Brothers?" Shi paused. "Do chakats have 'brothers'?"
Strongtail grinned, "More like distant cousins who look male. But to answer your question, you'll likely meet my father too, but my sisters probably aren't going to meet you, at least not at first. A lot of them are off world, or on the other side of it."
Hardscrabble's eyes widened. "Wow. I've never been outside this city. How can they just…go like that?"
"Space is full of opportunities, you know. Maybe one day you'll be up there taking advantage of them." Strongtail smiled. "What about you? I know you don't have no family around here, but you got any friends?"
Hardscrabble smiled faintly. "Well…there's a couple people. I 'spect they'll get on okay without me, tho."
"Oh? So no girlfriends or whatever?" the older chakat asked teasingly.
Hardscrabble stared at hir. "That's just…ick." Strongtail could feel hir sudden surge of disgust.
"I suppose you're too young for puppy love." Strongtail tilted hir head to the side and watched the cub closely. "Although I'm pretty sure I've had crushes when I was your age."
Hardscrabble blinked. "Why would I want to love a puppy?"
"It's just an expression. So what about these people you're friends with?"
"Just a couple of 'em." Hardscrabble shrugged. "We kinda watched out for each other. 'specially fer Nikki. She's not real good at stealing 'r fighting."
"Sounds like shi wouldn't have lasted long without your help."
"Me 'n Khala looked after her."
Hardscrabble nodded. "She's a cat like us, 'cept she only has two legs and no dick and is taller. She'n'me were the only furries in Chayne's gang, which's why we stuck t'gether. Nikki's a human."
"Have you thought about what you're going to do when you leave?" Strongtail asked. "You know, say goodbye or whatever?"
"Na'really." Hardscrabble shrugged. "They'll pro'lly be better off without me. They both got ways of making money fer real. Chayne liked them special for it, an' whoever the new one is will too if he's smart. All I can do is steal stuff."
Strongtail nodded slowly and turned back to the man in the pool, who was struggling to crawl out of the dirty pool. Sighing, shi got up from hir sitting position and moved to pull the man from the water. Shi gave him a towel, then told him to get back to work.
It was three days later when Hardscrabble and Strongtail were awakened by Wagner scratching at their door. "I wish he wouldn' do that," Hardscrabble groaned at the nervewrenching grating sound.
Strongtail blinked a couple of times. "I hope he hasn't found a rat or something."
Hardscrabble raised an eyebrow. "What've you got against rats, anyway?"
"Just see what he wants," Strongtail sighed and rolled over.
"Awright." Hardscrabble clambered to hir feet, stretched, and padded over to the door. "Yeah?"
"It's done." Wagner said, running his hand through his matted hair. "You want to send something? There isn't much power."
"Finally!" Strongtail leapt up and nearly knocked Scrabs over as shi bolted through the door. "Can you reach Chakona?"
"Uh… Not in real time communications. I could send a message, but after that we'd be limited to more local space communications until we can recharge." Wagner shrugged. "Generator's fine, but most of the capacitors've gone out."
"What're you gonna say?" Hardscrabble asked, scratching hir head in confusion.
"I… dunno." Strongtail admitted. "How much can I say?"
Wagner cocked his head. "As much as you want? I'll have to compress it into a single file and send it on a frequency. Unless you're planing on doing a reading of War and Peace and Caitians, there shouldn't be a problem."
"And who you gonna say it to?"
"Well… I guess we should send it towards… I dunno." Strong looked helpless.
Scrabs patted the older chakat on hir leg. "Does it matter who gets it long's they got a ship?"
"Well, it's be best if it wasn't, you know, pirates or whatever, but they don't really do raids or whatever." Strongtail shrugged.
"I could broadcast it on the back of a distress signal. You won't be able to pick who receives it, but it's pretty omnidirectional.
Hardscrabble shrugged. "I dunno what that means, but if it gets us rescued?"
"Do it." Strongtail said firmly.
"Sure sure, whatever," Wagner said. "Nearly time for my coffee break anyways."
"Coffee break?" Hardscrabble asked. "I seen coffee before, but how do you break it?"
"Alll engineers get coffee breaks you know!" Wagner said with a smile. "Me and Jerry would go out and have this wonderful latté at the place just down the street."
"Uh…" Strongtail glanced at the cub. "Maybe you can take us there sometime?"
"I can take you there now, if you'd like." Wagner smiled creepily, "Just need to find Jerry. I haven't seen him in a while. He must be working in another part of the port."
"How'bout…mebbe later?" Hardscrabble asked, glancing nervously at Strongtail.
"No problem!" Wagner laughed. "Cats don't drink coffee anyway you silly pussy."
The control room was much as it had been before, save that the comm panel that had shown a power light had been all but disassembled and was connected with enough cables to other consoles that it looked like an explosion in a spaghetti factory.
Wagner was adjusting controls on half a dozen consoles, tongue poking out one corner of his mouth in concentration. He pointed to a glowing vid panel on the console next to Strongtail. "Just look there and speak yer piece. And smile. I bet you'd be really pretty if you smiled more."
Strongtail pressed the button. "This is Chakat Strongtail, calling anyone who can hear me." After a moment she smiled, a bit self-consciously. What could it hurt? "I'm a reporter with the Chakona News Network, originally dispatched to Argos to cover the uprisings. Make a long story short, instead of covering them, I got caught in them. Now all I want is to get off this rock.
"I've got another chakat, Chakat Hardscrabble, and a human, Warrant Officer John Wagner—"
Wagner leaned in front of her. "Hi there!" he said, waving at the monitor for all he was worth until Hardscrabble pulled him out of the way again.
"—with me. We'd appreciate immediate evac. We don't have any cash on us, but CNN will make it worth your while when we're back on Chakona. Please respond tightbeam to these coords—our comm equipment is failing and we might not be able to pick up anything but a directed signal. This is Chakat Strongtail, out."
Crossing hir fingers, Strongtail pressed the save button, and then the activate button, sending the message into space, and hopefully towards someone willing to help.
"What now?" Hardscrabble asked.
"Now we wait," Wagner said. "Anybody seen Jerry?"
As the hours wore on, Strongtail became increasingly worried, although shi tried not to let it show to Scrabs or Wagner, who was teaching the Scrabs the game of Go. Complete with crowning and checkmates, though Strongtail had a suspicion he might have the rules slightly confused.
Then after a burst of static, a voice came through the speakers. "—et up to loop until we receive a response. Message repeats: Chakat Strongtail, this is the F.S.S. Antigua, a private cargo ship en route to New Persia. We received your distress signal, and are en route to render aid. We are transmitting on tightbeam, as requested, and in case we are still out of your range, this message is set up to loop until we receive a response. Message repeats: Chakat Strongtail, this is—"
Strongtail jumped up and slapped the reply button, "We're here! Thank you! How soon can you get here?"
After a few seconds' lightspeed delay, the response came. "This is Lieutenant Hartnell, piloting the shuttle Aruba. ETA is six hours. Are your landing fields more or less clear? We'd prefer a beam to ride in, but should be good to go as long as it's relatively free of debris."
"There's some crap in one or two of the landing cradles, but the rest of them are clear." Strong replied tensely, "And the rest of the equipment is gone."
"Roger, Strongtail. We'll do the best we can. Suggest you be all packed and ready for us—planetary authorities might not be too keen on us coming in uninvited so we'd just as soon not stick around."
"Right. See you soon!" Strongtail grinned, turning off the comm and preparing to follow the advice of the friendly pilot.
Hardscrabble sat on top of an overturned fire truck and skimmed stones into one of the landing cradles. The sun had just started to rise, and it was less than two hours before the shuttle was scheduled to touch down. And now that the actual prospect of leaving was staring hir in the face, shi kept looking at the gate to the west as if expecting someone to come marching through it at any time.
For all shi'd said they'd be better off without hir, Hardscrabble was more than a little worried about Nikki and Khala. Not that shi didn't expect they'd be able to take care of themselves. Shi'd seen what happened when Khala was backed into a corner. Hardscrabble only wished shi could fight that well, and shi had two extra limbs!
What was bothering hir was that neither of them had shown up looking for hir. Shi really wasn't that far away from Chayne's turf, after all. And surely Khala could have tracked hir. Why hadn't she shown up to see if shi was all right?
"Penny for your thoughts," Strongtail said, coming up next to the fire truck.
"What's a penny?"
"I dunno." Strong hopped up and sat down beside the cub. "What's on your mind."
Hardscrabble shrugged. "Just thinking 'bout Nikki and Khala some, I guess. Pro'lly won't see 'em again, after this."
"But they'll be all right." Hardscrabble nodded. "Khala tells stories, Nikki fixes stuff. Both a' those things're really valuable in this crap town. Nobody'd hurt 'em."
Strongtail nodded and rubbed the cub's back gently.
"Y'all packed?" Hardscrabble said after a while.
"Of course. Are you?"
"You think mebbe you might have a little extra room in yer luggage?"
"Why? You got something you'd like to bring?"
"Well, I was thinking…if there really aren't gonna be any rats where we're going, mebbe I should hunt up some you could pack f'r me."
"Uh, no," Strong said firmly, but with a smile. "Don't worry about that stuff."
"Aww…" Hardscrabble pouted.
"Now c'mon. Why don'cha help me get our stuff outside so we can load it as soon as the shuttle lands?"
"Coming!" Hardscrabble joined the grinning Strongtail in moving their luggage to the runway.
It was time.
Strongtail, Hardscrabble and Wagner were all standing outside with their eyes skyward. It was one of the better days on the planet, with only a few clouds here and there, so there was nothing to delay the landing.
After a few moments of waiting, and several disappointing "I see it I see it! Oh wait, just a bird." moments, the shuttle finally appeared as a silver dot in the sky, leaving a contrail behind it as it streaked toward their position.
As it drew overhead, it seemed to stop in mid-air and the contrail took a right-angle turn as it dropped, breaking through the bottom of the cloud a moment later in a seemingly-uncontrolled fall. Strongtail wondered if the pilot was just showing off or something.
Then the shuttle slowed, reoriented itself, fired thrusters, and descended the last thousand meters at a more reasonable speed.
"Wow! It's a real spaceship!" Hardscrabble said. "I never thought I'd see one again." Shi shivered a little, projecting nervousness and a little fear.
"It'll be alright." Strongtail said, as shi noticed the cub's anxiety, and leaned down and pulled the cub close for a hug. "This ship won't be anything like that other one."
"Hope so." They held hands, watching the ship descend on a pillar of flame, sending up a great cloud of steam as it touched down in the landing cradle nearest the old passenger terminal.
"I suppose we'll have to wait for it to cool down." Strongtail said as shi looked across the tarmat at the ship. "Do you suppose it'll be safe to start walking over in that direction though, John?"
At the sight of a starship, Wagner actually seemed to appear almost sane, only a nervous twitch at one corner of his mouth giving away the fact that he wasn't quite all there. "I don't see why not. The heat from these landings tends to dissipate pretty fast. Heh."
Hardscrabble glanced at him and frowned, then nodded. "Guess we better. They'll a'seen that coming in all over town!"
After a few moments, the trio of them dragged their luggage over toward the cradle. It wasn't much, especially for Scrabs, but it still took some effort to shift. The two chakats didn't notice when Wagner slowed and dropped back behind them until he spoke.
"Well pussies," Wagner suddenly said, "I don't think that ship has enough room, you know? for the lot of us."
"Well of course not, John," Strongtail remarked, not even bothering to turn back and look at the man. "It's just a shuttle."
"And… And you know? I was thinking." Wagner spoke again. "I haven't seen Jerry recently."
Hardscrabble slowly turned to stare back at him.
"And… uh, you know… cats eat rats." Wagner said slowly. "I've gotta get me Jerry back you know?"
"What are you talking about—" Strongtail said as shi turned to look at the dirty man, just as he drew his phaser.
"GRAAAH!" Hardscrabble growled. Shi threw the duffle bag Strong had given hir directly at Wagner's chest, and lunged after it with a boost from hir powerful hindlegs.
"NOT JERRY!!!" Wagner screamed as the cub attacked him. The phaser went flying as taur and bag bowled into him, throwing him to the ground. His head bounced off the cement with a loud thunk.
"Oh FOR FUCK'S SAKE." Strongtail swore loudly, "Is there anything else that can go wrong on this damn planet?!"
BANG! A bullet whined off the shuttle's hull. Hardscrabble pointed. "Polizei!" A squad of them had just run through the western gate. They were way too far away to aim effectively, though.
Hardscrabble grabbed the unconscious Wagner and dragged him toward the shuttle. "C'mon, let's get out of here!"
With a growl, Strongtail grabbed hirs and Scrab's bags, and made hir way to the waiting shuttle. More bullets whined off the shuttle or the pavement around them.
Ahead of them, a hatch slid open and a boarding ramp extended. A man in a pilot's uniform poked his head out. "Hurry up before they hit us with something bigger!"
"Help me with this guy!" Hardscrabble grunted. The pilot stared, then ran down the ramp to get Wagner's other arm. Together, they all made it aboard.
Strongtail turned back just in time to catch one last glimpse of the pavement through the closing hatch. "About damn time," shi muttered.
A few moments later, the Polizei's approach turned into a rapid retreat as the shuttle's engines lit. Clouds of steam again billowed across the runway, and when they cleared, the ship was gone.
*** EPILOGUE ***
THE NIGHT BEFORE…
Nikki huddled in the corner she had shared for so long with Khala and Hardscrabble, her dirty blonde hair the only part of her visible in the shadows. Now only Khala came, since the bigger creature of Hardscrabble's kind had come charging in, torn out Chayne's throat, and dragged Hardscrabble away. Everybody had been too shocked to do anything to stop them—and even if they hadn't, Nikki had a hard time imagining anyone would have wanted to go up against the thing that had so casually killed Chayne.
Khala had tried to protect Nikki, tried to keep her from seeing—but Nikki had seen enough. For the next several nights, she had woken up screaming at all the blood. Khala had held her gently, told her stories, and purred her back to sleep, and after a while the nightmares had stopped coming. Khala seemed to be less horrified than most, and Nikki had wondered why she hadn't tried to claim the mantle of leader. She was stronger and tougher than the humans twice her age, and had those built-in claws and teeth too. And she'd have been a much better leader than Chayne.
But Khala had only laughed when Nikki said so. "Thanks, but that's not my path. My story lies elsewhere. So does yours, in fact. Want to hear a secret?" And she'd winked and told the story.
Khala was a marvelous storyteller. She knew the most amazing stories about far-away places whose names Nikki hadn't even heard. But the really amazing ones were the ones about the people and places she did know…
The sound of Khala's quiet footsteps jarred Nikki out of her reverie. She looked up as the orange-and-black-striped tall tiger-girl squatted and offered her an immense drumstick. She took it and nearly dropped it, it was so heavy. Khala was already chewing on a larger thigh. "What is this?"
"Emu. Osterman didn't keep up on his protection payments. The Polizei wrecked his farm and took his stock. Some of them got away."
"And you just happened to find this one for them?" Nikki jerked her head toward the lighted center of the warehouse, where the new rulers of the gang reposed by a table.
"I might have helped." Khala smiled, though didn't quite grin. She'd learned by now how seeing all those sharp teeth affected most humans. Nikki appreciated the gesture.
"I'm never gonna be able to eat all this," Nikki protested.
"I'll finish when you're done." Khala's smile widened. "It's really all my portion anyway. But you don't eat enough to keep a bird alive."
"Thnkoo," Nikki mumbled around a mouthful of emu. It was rare getting this much to eat—though since Khala and Hardscrabble had taken her under their protection, it happened more often than it used to. She swallowed and stared at the drumstick for a moment as thoughts of her absent friend threatened to make it swim out of focus behind fresh tears.
Khala patted her shoulder. "I know you miss hir. I do, too. But shi's all right. Trust me."
"Have you—?" Nikki asked hopefully.
"I haven't heard anything more, no." Khala shook her head. "That should change tomorrow, though. Now eat your emu. We need our sleep, since we'll be getting up early tomorrow."
"Mmkay." Nikki chowed down, managing to finish about a third of the drumstick before she could finally eat no more. Then they curled up together for warmth and dragged a tattered old blanket over themselves.
"Khala?" Nikki asked after a while. "Can you tell me the story again? Our story?"
Khala smiled sleeply. "All right. I guess I can." Her voice seemed to deepen an octave, and she began.
"The twosome woke early, before the sun even began to peek over the horizon. They quietly slipped out of the warehouse, careful not to disturb any of the other sleeping gang members. They had a few nervous moments getting the grating free, but Khala's steady feline hands carefully unthreaded the chain without making a sound. They left the grating open, not worrying about hiding the fact they'd slipped away. After all, if all went well they wouldn't be coming back.
"It was just the right time for their plan. The night's worst scavengers were off the street, but the trash of the day hadn't woken up yet. Hand in hand, they ran through empty streets, making a wide circuit around the market, heading for the spaceport to the east. As the sun began to rise, Khala pointed up. Nikki raised her eyes in wonder to see the contrail cutting its way across the sky, the dot of silver at the tip growing steadily larger.
"Khala grinned and led her friend onward, through the gates. Then she turned right, circling around to one of the big buildings that bordered the airstrip on the opposite side from the gate—the ones that used to be fronted with huge panels of glass that were now all smashed out. They hid themselves just in time to see the ship touch down in the sunken docking pool practically right in front of them.
"Then from across the runway, the three of them came. There was Hardscrabble, and the bigger stranger, and a wild-eyed, sick-looking human. They were halfway to the ship when the human stopped and started talking, and Hardscrabble and hir friend turned to face him. He drew a gun, then Hardscrabble tackled him, knocking him to the ground!
"Then Khala grabbed Nikki's arm and pointed to the ship. Now was the time, while everyone's attention was on the confrontation on the runway. Nikki nodded, and together they ran out onto the tarmac and right up to the gleaming shuttle. Nikki was scared, because she'd never worked on something this big before, but she knew it would work because her friend's story had told her so. She put her hand over the control panel next to a small cargo hatch and told it to open the door for her, and not to tell anyone. And it did.
"And Nikki and Khala snuck inside to find a place to hide before the ship took off," Khala finished.
"Is that it? Isn't there more?" Nikki insisted. "What happens next?"
Khala smiled. "We don't get to know that part yet." She yawned. "It'll take care of itself when we get there. Now go to sleep, mmkay?"
"Okay…" Nikki was so excited, she didn't know how she would ever get to sleep. But somehow Khala's purring sent her off.
The twosome woke early, before the sun even began to peek over the horizon. They quietly slipped out of the warehouse, careful not to disturb any of the other sleeping gang members. They had a few nervous moments getting the grating free, but Khala's steady feline hands carefully unthreaded the chain without making a sound. They left the grating open, not worrying about hiding the fact they'd slipped away. After all, if all went well they wouldn't be coming back…
To be continued
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