Life continued quietly after the wedding. The crew went back to their jobs, and the officers sat bored on the bridge, watching the pinhole stars inch closer towards the ship. Most of the engineering corps were busy working on the communications array or the warp core as the ship slowly plodded along space.

Gildedtongue wandered through the spine alone. Two heat cycles had gone by and shi and Thallon had yet to conceive. Shi had been putting this off for so long, shi worried that shi missed hir chance, but shi knew shi had several more decades of being viable; shi was just impatient. The stress and worry, though, furrowed hir brow as hir soft feet moved silently over the steel flooring.

"Dominic certainly does miss your classes, Wa- eh, let's drop it, Gildedtongue." Terry was leaning against the door to the medical bay, arms crossed as she smiled at the chakat. Gildedtongue blushed sheepishly at the observation. Since hir last episode, the students had gone back to lessons from the ship's computer, a wealth of knowledge more than what Gildedtongue could offer, but a cold and unhelpful teacher.

Sitting on hir haunches, Gildy looked back at the human. "Well, I do apologize for not being able to be there for them, but, obviously, I'm kind of a psycho right now." Shi shrugged. "I do feel like a bit of an absolute failure, though. I mean, letting down the kids, I'm just kinda sucking up space here, heh, even failing at having a cub... Some chakat I am."

Wu sighed slightly, "That sort of talk isn't going to help you either, and you know it, Gildedtongue. Besides, seems like you were successful in gaining two mates, am I not correct?" Gildy blushed and nodded. Wu smiled and continued, "Besides, as many mothers can attest, trying to have a child turns to be the biggest contraceptive, and trying to not have a kid (coupled with a night of heavy drinking) almost assuredly leads to the pitter-patter of little feet." Wu smiled, "Come with me. I think you need some relaxation."

Perking hir ears, Gildy followed the human into the medical bay and to the furthest back into a wide yet shallow room with a door on each end, looking like a tiny corridor. Gildedtongue looked around the room before shi heard the sound of a lighter right behind hir. Turning around shi saw Terry leaning against the wall, taking in one drag from hir cigarette, holding it in for a moment before exhaling lightly. "If I recall your records, you do smoke, do you not?"

Gildedtongue blushed slightly, nodding a bit, "Heh, thought these things were bad for your health? But, damn, has to have been well over a year last time I had one," shi mused, laughing out loud. "Yeah! Hee hee; the night I got arrested I was hoping to catch some kids smoking so I could confiscate their packs. Heh, guess I'm certainly no angel." Shi accepted the doctor's offering of one white cylinder, deftly using the offered lighter and worked it on the tip, taking in a breath to let the embers pull into the tobacco and light the object more properly. Taking the first drag, Gildy felt the smoke burn hir upper lungs, mostly regenerated from hir last time doing this. It made hir eyes water out of a sensation shi was no longer used to, but it made hir smile, enjoying the burning in hir upper chest before exhaling slowly. "Damn, that certainly feels good." Shi took another slow drag, letting the smoke dance around hir mouth before exhaling.

"Now, as your doctor, I can't really recommend these to anyone pregnant or may become pregnant, but I think it's a week before your next cycle..." Wu said, trailing off as she took another drag on hers, sighing contently, "I really ought to quit. Most planets have some serious restrictions on these things, your Chakona especially." she said, pointing the butt towards Gildedtongue before resuming another puff, "But, I guess a life without some wrong isn't lived right, no? Besides, what was it that Manfred said to the Abbot about not absolving oneself, to be accepted for vices and virtues?" she smirked.

Gildedtongue laughed slightly, shaking hir head. "A captain that reads Dante, and now a doctor who reads Byron? Here I thought only old fogies like me read ancient Terran texts." Shi smiled as shi finished hir cigarette, Wu having done with hirs as shi lead Gildy back into the main area, closing the door behind them. The airlock sounded, and soon the smoke and air was jettisoned into space. Gildy blushing hotly, "Erm, we were that close to The Nothing?"

Smiling, Wu shrugged. "Old Russian way of sneaking out for smokes, at least on Mir." She laughed a bit at how pale the chakat became, even through the fur. "As far as your first observation... there's a lot of nothing to do out in space, and ship databases usually contain a considerable amount of literature." Wu shrugged a bit, "Fifty terabytes of text is just a drop in the bucket really."

Gildedtongue chuckled, "I suppose, though I have to admit, it just isn't the same without the feel of the pages in your hand." Shi smiled and shrugged slightly. "But, I'm glad to hear it. Heh, suppose it's nice all the texts I read in the Monastery aren't limited to just there."

The doctor lead the chakat to her desk where she took a seat, still smiling."Well, yes and no. Spacers like us are a bit of a breed apart from most planetary folk. We often don't have access to the newer media out there, so there's a lot of opportunity to look over earlier works." Wu leaned back, looking at the ceiling. "Besides, the various Terran governments have key interests in maintaining ancient Terran cultures, especially to those from Space. The planet itself might be finite, but the words it creates can possibly last forever."

"For a cynic, you certainly have a bit of a romantic streak to you, Doc."

Wu's eyes narrowed. "And if you tell anyone, next time you're in for your check-up, I won't be as nice." She smirked, then let out a maniacal laugh. "But, seriously, no one can be always mean and rotten and all, right?" She sighed, seeing her computer flashing slightly. "Except when there's paperwork to be done. If you'll excuse me, I need to put my nose to the grindstone." Gildedtongue nodded and bid adieu to Terry, walking back out into the Spine.

Noises came from the door next to the medical bay. Sounds of hoots and hollers and metal clashing. The curious chakat peeked hir head into the cargo bay, seeing a group of people looking over the catwalk and into the hold. Gildy managed to nudge hir way through the crowd, listening to cries of "Get'm!" "Oi! Oi!" "To yer left!" "That'sa grapple!"

Making it to the railing, Gildy peered over. Hir eyes went wide as shi saw two figures between two large storage containers. The artificial gravity panel between them must have been turned off because they were both floating in the air, using electromagnetic cables to latch onto the containers and pull themselves around, in their primary hand they each carried a charged stick, about the size of a sword. Peering closer, Gildy's eyes went wide, seeing one of the combatants was hir mate Saldura, and by the looks of it, shi had hir opponent on the run. "What's going on?" shi shouted to the person next to hir to try and get over the din.

"Wha-? Oh? Issa fencin' match!" was all Gildy could get from the akita morph next to hir before there was the sound of a horn and cheers raising from the crowd. Both participants grappled themselves to the ground and pulled themselves down before the grav plate was reactivated, making Saldura's hair go from a flowing halo, to cascading down hir shoulders. Shi gave hir opponent, a relatively tall human, a congratulatory handshake and a pat on the back. After gathering their gear, they made their way up the stairwell, Saldura laughing and nodding to the crowd as the man gave a sheepish wave.

"Not exactly Olympic rules fencing, I think," Gildy said to Sal as the badger got close. Hir partner laughed and gave the chakat a firm hug as the two walked back into the Spine together. "Seemed like a hell of a thing. Sorry that I just walked in on the ending." shi said as Saldura lead hir to the showers. The herms undressed, stuffing their things into a locker before finding an empty spigot.

"Well, when growing up in a low or no gravity environment, people sometimes change the rules for some games." Saldura smiled, starting to wash hir hair, stooping down to get the majority of the water onto hir. "To be honest, I'm considerably more comfortable in no gravity, as is most of the crew here." shi chuckled a little bit, shrugging.

Blushing, Gildedtongue gulped slightly. "Um, then I hope we're not keeping the gravity on for just me." shi muttered, starting to use some of the powdered soap to help clean hir lover, feeling the soft padding surrounding a strong, well muscled frame of the stocky badger. Sal lifted hir head to laugh at that.

"No, no, it's not just you. Trust me, it's not just you. There's some wonderful things about gravity, like having things you set down still be there when you come back, or a nudged box stopping a whole lot faster." Sal smirked some more. "Besides, Zero Gee sex? Be prepared for concussions and bruises. It's nowhere as slow and intimate as they show in movies." Sal laughed, giving a knowing pat to hir own head.

Gildy laughed and kissed hir mate's forehead lightly, then stuck hir tongue out after tasting the soap. Shi was about to comment on what a bad idea that was of hirs when the intercom blared.

"Attention all personnel aboard the Purgatorio, a meeting is to be held in the holo room in thirty minutes time. All available hands to be in attendance." The comm repeated itself. Saldura sighed slightly, then gave a smile to hir mate, standing up straight to return the kiss to Gildedtongue's forehead, stroking along hir cheek.

"So much for a quiet day, no?" The two herms laughed as they started to rinse off, taking the time to touch over each other as much as they could. They went to the dryers, turning on the large fans and used towels on one another to clear off the rest of the water.

"Heh, this one time I was in here, this guy, well, he couldn't keep his hands off of me." Gildedtongue admitted, hir ears as red as hir mane.

Laughing, Saldura winked. "That so? That so? Bet you liked it, didn't you?" All Gildy could do was nod sheepishly. "Right proper feline, feeling the need to be worshipped," the badger smirked, putting on hir uniform, belts and buttons strapped onto the large frame of Gildy's lover, finally plugging in hir monocle into the port around hir eye, the green transparent lens flashing to life. The chakat put back on hir usual long-sleeved, casual wear top. Sal leaned to kiss the chakat, "You ought to show off more," shi whispered.

"Not much to show off," Gildedtongue handwaved it off, drawing a shoulder punch to hir left from the badger as they made their way down the Spine towards the holoroom. The usually large room was packed to the walls with the available crew. Gildedtongue kept to the back wall as shi let Saldura move hir way through the crowd where Captain Matilda and a few technicians were standing, discussing something. Gildedtongue's sharp ears couldn't catch it through the din of the assembled.

Finally Matilda approached the crowd, clearing her throat. "Attention!" The group's conversations snapped shut like someone pulling the wire out of a speaker, making the audible noise of boots clattering on metal flooring as the crew turned to address their commanding officer. "Often these meetings are never good news, and considering our current situation, I'm sure everyone here is wondering if this is the meeting where we decide who gets eaten first." There was a small chuckle through the ranks. Matilda held up her hand and smiled. "Thankfully, this will be good news for once. Technician Rodriguez has an announcement for you all." Gildedtongue pricked up hir ears, staring at the jaguar morph wearing the technician's jumpsuit most of the engineering crew wore. Her hair tied back into a ponytail as her golden eyes looked across the room, a bit wide in her stage fright, grabbing her hands together before her.

"Thank you, ma'am. Um, yes, good news. During the third shift, me and Anna," Rodriguez nodded to the waving human woman behind her, "finally managed to get the ship's astro navigation running and operational again." She took some time to cough as murmuring ran through the audience.

'That would be to say we've been flying blind this whole time?' Gildedtongue's eyes were wide, a sense of fear and dread welled up inside of the pit of hir stomach, but shi swallowed it back, reminding hirself that obviously this has been put behind them.

"First shift today we all managed to calibrate the system, and we now know where we are." The holoroom's projection summoned up a map of the galaxy, a box highlighting and zooming in on a spot over and over before a pointed arrow showed the location of the Purgatorio. "Now, as you know, space moves. Not as fast as a ship, and not as fast as we're going now, but just enough to alter where things are at any given time. That's why a Nav computer is so important, having to calculate billions of paths and trajectories, something no sentient mind really can comprehend, unless it was plugged into an A.I. Machi-..." Captain Jefferson gave a sharp cough, indicating that the technician get on with it. "Right. Anyway, with the computers back online we found that this Federation Frontier Station," the point was highlighted on the map, "Delegation code Bravo, Tango, Tango, Alpha. This point is six months away from our location at our current maximum warp. Theoretically, we could also be in range for real-time communications in four months time, provided the repairs made on the comm systems are as successful as we think they are."

The crew was holding back their applause for just a moment, the question of 'yeah, so?' hung in the air. The jaguar female coughed into her fist, looking nervous, turning to her superior officer, who just gave her a smile and nod of encouragement. "Well, for starters, the station should have a military grade replicator. After the Federation stripped out computer's databanks on Purgy, erm, the Purgatorio we, of course, lost the data files pertaining to warp core manufacturing. We can get to the station, get the ship repaired, and get to our next destination from the station in about eight hours at maximum warp."

Rodriguez wasn't sure what to say next, but was luckily patted on the shoulder by a smiling Matilda. The captain addressed her crew, "Well, you heard what she said. We either keep our current course for the next four and a quarter years, or we change course and limp our way to the next pit stop. I think I can safely assume that you all would rather the latter option." The assembled let out a cheer of 'yes, ma'am!' Matilda grinned softly, nodding, "Crew opinion has been taken under consideration. Helmsman Watanabe, to the bridge and set course for F.F.S. Bravo, Tango, Tango, Alpha, maximum warp this ship can handle. Communication officer K'Therra, at 1200 hours each day, send a distress message towards the station, use direct comm paths and avoid using distress frequencies. Last thing we need is some other hungry wolf nipping at our toes, present company excluded." She gave a bit of a smirk at some of the wolves giving a grunt. "Dismissed!"

Most of the crew made their way back into the Spine, feeling the holoroom too cramped with all of them in there. Gildy kept to the back, letting people walk around hir before starting to make hir way towards where the speakers were. Matilda was still talking with Rodriguez, and Saldura was chatting away with Susan Labs. The badger and rat turned to the approaching chakat, smiling warmly. "Well, great to hear a bit of good news for once, isn't it, Wanderer?" Susan smiled, having dyed hir headfur to a dark purple, some black spots on hir cheeks that were either dyes or grease from the engineering bay.

"Ah, please, Susan, just call me Gildedtongue or Gildy. Everyone else on this ship knows and calls me that anyway." Gildedtongue chuckled. "Besides, it's sometimes confusing to keep answering to someone else's name. Guess I'm not good at theatre." The three chuckled as Gildedtongue thought. "So, wait, the replicators here can't build warp cores? What if, well, like our condition here, we're stuck and in desperate need to fix or replace our warp drive?"

Saldura gave a bit of a chuckle, "Uh oh, Gildy, you've opened up a huge tin of worms here. Stick a fiver in this one and shi'll talk weapons and engineering for hours." Shi slapped Susan's shoulder gently, the rat turning to stick hir tongue out at Sal.

"Well, it isn't just engineering and weapons, but, rather restrictions on them. Warp cores themselves are rather highly regulated, much like nuclear materials were in the 20th and 21st century, and for the same reason. A warp core explosion is a terribly destructive force that pretty much makes things disappear. Essentially it makes all the atoms in its radius go to warp, in random directions, since a warp bubble, like what we're in now, is what makes us keep in one piece, in a little pocket of real space as space all around us is folded."

Gildedtongue nodded. "Erm, so, like how Madeline L'Engle described it? A wrinkle in time is the fastest method of travel." Susan touched hir nose and pointed to Gildedtongue, nodding to hir answer. The chakat thought, "Wait, isn't our warp core is damaged? Aren't you concerned that we might cause this to explode all around us?"

"Ah, good question, Gildy. See, unlike the movies where everyone is running around screaming, 'Oh God! Oh God! The warp core has gone critical-slash-unstable-slash-whatnot!' Warp cores are more stable than most people give them credit for. The only way to explode them, really, is on purpose. There would have to be no warp bubble formed, the antimatter supply would have to be set to full, the warp drive would have to probably be cranked to eleven, and all that without any of the fail-safes and other restrictions kicking in. No no, the most likely thing to happen is a warp bubble popping, like when that grav mine got us in the attack, and even then, the bubble generator is so entwined with the core, that when one's shut off, the other powers down immediately." Susan looked at Gildedtongue's confused face. "Um, okay, in layman's terms, it's nigh impossible for us to go boom that way. The reason why we can't make warp cores is because they have to be tracked by the Federation, at least in this space, and made to their specifications lest they're turned into a weapon more powerful than a hundred fuel-air bombs, and more psychologically scarring than a hundred nuclear bombs."

"I think I'll just sit here and nod while you say the smart things," Gildedtongue chuckled slightly.

Saldura laughed and slapped Gildedtongue's shoulder. "That's what I do when shi gets like this suits me just well." Susan stuck out hir tongue again and Gildy noticed the appendage's light teal colouration, cocking hir head to one side.

"Um, your tongue is a bit green, Susan are you... feeling okay?"

Laughing, the rat smiled at Gildedtongue. "Fit as a fiddle. A throwback gene to one of my ancestors. Guess some point in time someone wanted to be their own Captain James T. Kirk and wanted to bang some green, quote unquote, 'alien' chick," hir hands lifting up to give 'fingerquotes.' "I'm rather lucky my nose is pink, but under this fur is a green skinned mouse." Shi laughed, "No, I'm not photosynthetic."

"Seems like you know a lot about your family," Gildy said, cocking hir head to one side.

"Quite a bit." Susan smiled, puffing hir chest out in pride. "I've got my whole genealogy mapped out to the anthros first created in the laboratories."

Saldura patted Susan's shoulder, then wrapped hir arm around Gildy's. "And we ought to leave it at that, or shi'll talk your ears clean off." The badger smirked, bidding hir friend a good day before escorting Gildedtongue to Sal's quarters. Thallon was on the bed, snoring loudly in a nap. "Guess he missed the meeting. Will be good to tell him we'll be making dock soon. His wanderlust has been kicking in I've noticed."

Nodding, Gildedtongue kissed hir lover, holding the badger close, careful not to wrinkle or mess up the uniform shi wore, feeling the brass buttons press against hir belly and chest as shi had to crane hir head up to get to hir lips. Both sighed after the kiss, holding each other quietly for a moment. "I love you, you know that, Sal?"

Nodding, Sal smiled, moving to sit down on the side of the bed, minding the sleeping centauroid on it. "I know. So, guess we'll be out of this mess soonish it seems." Shi blushed a bit, giving Thallon's scrotum a pat, making him grunt in his sleep. "Suppose we can end 'Operation: Breed the Chakat' then, eh?"

Gildedtongue blushed, trying not to stare too much at hir dozing husband as shi looked back to hir spouse, shaking hir head, "Well, I certainly don't want to stop. I told you, I love you and I love Thallon, and if you both would let me, I'd love to carry his cub. Hell, I'd carry yours if that was possible." Sal smirked and nodded to that. "Yeah, the courtship and marriage was all rather whirlwinded, and some lawyers and such could argue that I'm not quite in sound mind and body, but..." Gildedtongue trailed off, sighing softly, "I feel happy, and safe, and, for the first time in my life I feel like I actually belong in someone's life."

Sal beckoned the chakat over as Gildy moved in to another kiss, holding hir lover tightly as both groaned in happiness. Thallon roused from his slumber, seeing both of the herms in their lovers' embrace, letting his dark purple tongue loll out playfully, "Don't think Gildy is quite in heat, but, I suppose that doesn't stop us from some... practice."

And practice they did.


"Citizen Wanderer, please report to the Bridge. Wanderer to the Bridge," the speakers blared in Saldura's room. The chakat quickly got dressed as shi made hir way up along the Spine, combing hir mane en route. This was the first time shi had ever been called anywhere, hir eyes wide and nervous. Shi didn't recall doing anything wrong, so shi didn't think shi'd be reprimanded, and even so, shi'd be spoken to from hir location, not summoned to the control sector.

It was four months since the Astro Nav computers came back online, a full year since the pirate attack. Gildedtongue's lower belly was swollen heavily, more than average for a chakat with cub, and shi could count the reasons. 'Twins!' shi thought, still not quite fully grasping the weight of the matter. 'I'm sixty-eight years old, never had to help raise a cub in my life and God decides, I think you need a double shot. That does it, God's a woman, only She could enjoy such bless'd irony.' Hir outfits and uniforms were starting to fill out as well, no longer the baggy clothes hiding hir body as the new life had kicked hir regenerative qualities into overdrive, swelling hir bosom out a bit nicely.

The chakat panted, finally getting to the door at the end of the Spine, making sure this was to the Bridge and not Engineering as shi looked it over, looking for a place to knock. Shi sighed, putting hir hand on the lock and, to hir surprise, it opened up.

The Bridge wasn't like anything shi expected. To be honest, shi almost expected it to look like the observation deck on Nemo's Nautilus, with huge windows and sweeping bronze and iron pipes and fittings. Instead there was no windows, not even the type found in the quarters. Hundreds of screens flashed information in the cramped room. The main screen displayed a map measuring the distance between the ship and its destination with weak scanner pings hunting for anything incoming. The helmsman sat behind one computer, reading a magazine and the communications officer fiddled with his own machine. Saldura and Matilda were seated in a corner, speaking quietly with a younger human officer, whom Gildy has only seen a few times in the galley, Yeoman Gunther, shi recalled. Gunther saluted and made his way out of the bridge, slipping around Gildedtongue. The chakat approached hir mate and hir mate's superior officer, giving each an awkward salute. Matilda laughed, "No need to worry about that, Gildedtongue. At ease, at ease."

Gildy blushed sheepishly, looking around the cramped room. "Um, not to question your orders, Captain Jefferson, but, why am I here? Certainly you don't think I am going to steer the ship in or anything like that."

Shaking hir head, Saldura smiled at hir spouse, "No no, don't worry about that. All we want you to do is stand in the background and look cute." Gildedtongue shot a confused look at hir mate, then at the captain. Sal continued, "Most Federation officers have a soft spot for chakats they're pretty much the organization's golden child. So, often it helps out to have a few in view when speaking to the officials. Hope you don't mind using you just a little."

Gildy shook hir head softly, "Well, this is certainly one of the less invasive ways to use me, I guess." The chakat looked between the two, "So, we're going to be able to talk to the Federation station from here? What are they going to ask, what are they going to say?" shi asked, confused.

The man at the communications desk turned around, another very fair-skinned human with blonde hair, which Gildedtongue had learned was common among the "Spacer" humans, "They'll probably be asking the usual questions who we are, why we're in the middle of nowhere, and what are we doing, and, hopefully later, what our location is and what's our problem so they can pick us up. This ship can fit easily in a Federation battleship's warp bubble, so, hopefully they can give us a tow, so to speak."

Matilda nodded at the assessment. "And we made initial contact with the station fifteen minutes ago. We wanted to be ready to make another call. All hands to your stations! Gildedtongue, stand behind me to one side, and for God's sake, smile!" Matilda adjusted her longcoat as Saldura gave a final assessment to hir sash and hair. The helmsman chucked his magazine under the console as the comm officer counted down before sending another request for real time communications.

It took half a minute, the longest half-minute Gildedtongue remembered in recent history, but soon the image of a portly skunk morph appeared on the screen, wearing the uniform befitting a Federation commander. The way the top stretched was evidence of the morph's breasts, but as soon as audio feed came through, the person on the other end was obviously a hermaphrodite with a deep, bass voice, sounding almost Churchillian through hir fuzzy jowels. "Purgatorio, we read you, but your signal is very weak. This is Commander Kim Johnson of the Federation Frontier Station Bravo, Tango, Tango, Alpha. We've received your distress call, what is the problem?"

Matilda took a half a step forward, her shoulders pulled back slightly, giving her a gallant look through her coat, "F.F.S. BTTA, this is Captain Matilda Jefferson of the Purgatorio, independent ore frigate currently en route to Mining Colony Omega 56-74. We were hit by a pirate attack and our engines and communication systems were badly damaged. We've managed to partially fix our commsys, but direct transmissions are all we can do now. Requesting a Federation ship to pick us up and bring us to you for repairs."

Three minutes of silence passed. Gildedtongue was beginning to think that the commander was ignoring them, but shi soon started to speak again, the chakat putting two and two together and realizing there was a heavy delay, but three minutes for hundreds of thousands of light years isn't bad. "We read you, Purgatorio, however there are no ships docked here large enough to take you in. We have two squadrons of fighters and that's about it. Will you be able to make the rest of the trip yourself?"

There was a collective sigh of disappointment in the bridge, two months to span something any battleship could breeze through in hours. Matilda kept a stoic look, though, "Understood. We'll be fine, F.F.S. BTTA. Our estimated arrival time is 57 Terran days. I request daily communication between this ship and your station, say, fourteen hundred hours?"

Another long pause. "Very well. Keep safe, Purgatorio. We'll keep in touch. Batta out." And the main screen flipped back to the stellar map. Sal and Matilda slumped back to their seats as the two crewmen went back to occupying themselves. On the whole though, it was the first time they managed to speak to anyone but themselves in over a year, thus there was some progress.

Matilda, though, didn't seem thrilled, leaning towards the badger, "I'd like for you to join me in my quarters at 2000; will that be a problem?" Saldura perked hir ears, looking at Gildedtongue who gave hir spouse a small smile and nod. The badger told Matilda shi'd be there, and that seemed to warm the captain a little.

"If it pleases you all, I'll be heading back," Gildy said, crossing hir arms behind hir, "I don't want to be in anyone's way." They nodded to the chakat. "Captain Jefferson. Corporal Holbock," shi bowed slightly, giving a smirk to them both who both stifled a quiet giggle. Gildedtongue walked out of the bridge and stretched as much as hir felitaur body would let hir. Shi couldn't believe how cramped it was in there, and the Spine looked more big and endless than it usually did.

Gildedtongue's stomachs growled loudly at hir as shi sighed. Stuffing two stomachs was work, but now shi had to feed six! Shi made hir way into the galley. Shi took extra servings of sandwiches, soups, and other foodstuffs. Shi felt a little guilty about how much shi was eating lately, but both the chefs, the quartermaster, the doctor, and the captain all assured hir that shi wasn't taking undue rations, and the ship was doing fine. More so now considering the proximity to the space station. The chakat saw Thallon and Susan talking with one another as shi took hir tray to them. The huge foxtaur quickly moved a chair out of the way, looking for a cushion for Gildy to sit on. The leonine 'taur laughed, shaking hir head at Thallon. "Dear, I'm barely past the first quarter. You don't have to dote on me. I'm made of harder stuff." Shi and Susan laughed as Gildy looked at the bowl in front of Susan, a few spears of pickle sticking out of a bowl of ice cream. The chakat lifted an eyeridge, "Um, are we expecting more little ratlings?"

Susan looked confused for a moment, then looked at hir meal and laughed, "Oh? Oh! Oh no!" shi smiled wide, "No no. But, I have to admit, that's what got me to try this. Was looking over some mid 20th century American media, and someone said something about pickles and ice cream. I guess that female humans craved it when pregnant or something. Anyway, I was kinda curious and, well... I have to admit, the saltiness and the vinegar of the pickle compliments the sweet cream really well. Want to try? Might be good for the cubs!"

Gildedtongue feigned away the green stick with the dripping ice cream pointed to hir. "That's okay, hon. I think I'll be a neglectful mother and avoid such foods for now." Susan gave a soft 'suit yourself,' as shi resumed eating the bizarre meal. Gildy turned hir head to Thallon, giving the taller 'taur a scritch on the shoulder, "Well, apparently they can't send anyone to come get us, but, don't worry, in less than two months, we'll be on the station, get repairs done, and then we'll be on our way once more." The chakat gave a small smile. Shi could feel hir husband's anxiety rising, a general sense of claustrophobia clinging to both the foxtaur and the chakat. Collectively, they took in a deep breath and let it out, trying to compose themselves.

"That so? Cheapskate Feddies. Can't live with them, and without them would be a bit of anarchy. Quite the conundrum they make." Thallon's grey eyes slit halfway as he sighed slightly.

Gildedtongue nodded quietly, "So, is that the reason the League of Non-Aligned Worlds have kept as a separate faction from the Federation?"

"That's a good question," Thallon leaned back, glad for something to take his mind off of things. "Probably best for Sal or Captain Jefferson, but from how I see it, largely it deals with a difference of opinion on how to run an interplanetary government. See, while the Federation doesn't get involved with local governments per se, there are various contractual clauses stating that 'in times deemed necessary, the Federation has the power to utilize a planet's resources, population, and military as seen fit by the Federation Council.' So, just like you, yourself, were 'conscripted' into the Federation's needs, so have many other people throughout this galaxy." Thallon tapped a claw on the metal table. "Also, the Federation demands tax and tribute for their services, keeping their space clear and protected from pirates, though many planets view this as a form of... well, like the Syndicated Criminal Organizations from Terra, or, even pirates of today, how they offer 'defence' in return for 'protection money.' Refuse, and you might have trouble stepping out of your airspace with a Federation cruiser informing you that you're in a restricted zone."

Gildedtongue had a slight look of horror about all of this, but Thallon gave the chakat a small pat, "But, I'm just talking about the bad things. They do a lot of good as well. They send resources and scientists to places that need it the most. They do actually provide protection in the more core planetary areas. And compared to what they could be taking from some planets, they do offer their services relatively inexpensively." Thallon smiled. "I'm just listing the reasons why some places wouldn't like the Federation." The foxtaur laughed, "A bit of irony is that Chakona itself could be more aligned with the LNAW if it wasn't for the fact that the Federation is footing the bill and all." Gildy cocked hir head slightly, making Thallon laugh. "Most chakats aren't exactly one for bureaucracy."

The chakat ohed slightly, leaning to give the foxtaur a one-armed hug, Thallon returning it as Susan finished up hir interesting meal. Blushing, Gildy looked at the standing rat, clearing hir throat. "Um, probably not tonight or anything, but, um, Susan, if you're ever inclined to join Sal, Thall and I... um, I think that could be arranged." Susan blinked at the offer, then blushed hirself, nodding.

"Heh, I'll keep that in mind. But, now I've got to head off to work. Glad to have spent time with you both!" Shi waved and headed out, Thallon chuckling loudly.

"Well, looks like we're making a proper chakat out of you, yet!" he teased, stroking Gildy's sides. Shi continued to blush, but rested against the hybrid's larger form.

"Maybe, maybe. But, for now, I think I'd like a nap after all that food," shi said, looking at the meal shi wolfed down as Thallon was talking. "And, um, don't think Sal will be joining us tonight. Methinks shi and the captain have some... debriefing to do tonight."

Thallon grinned, "Oh, don't lie to me, love. You and I both know Sal doesn't wear briefs!" They laughed as they went to their bedchamber.


Terry was making a few scans of Gildedtongue's womb, nodding with a smile, "Things seem to be going well; they're both growing healthfully and you yourself seem to be getting stronger."

Gildedtongue nodded slightly; it was the day before docking with the Frontier Station and Wu wanted to give the chakat one more once over, smiling wide. Shi was already halfway through hir pregnancy and hir breasts had capped off at a small C cup, the nipples having moved to a more appropriate position as they had been getting ready to express true milk. Gildedtongue's mane, however, hadn't changed its streaked nature, but with all the food they had been pushing on the chakat, hir face and body had plumped up as well, giving the felitaur a healthy set of curves rather than looking like a starvation victim. Wu did mention that on Terra, Gildy was essentially starving hirself, eating such small portions, and that finally shi was on a proper diet.

"How are the hallucinations?" Dr. Wu asked, looking over hir PADD. Gildedtongue looked over in the corner, seeing Creekstripe staring at hir in disapproval.

"Still there," Gildy sighed, looking back at Terry, "But, I guess I've been getting better at ignoring them." Shi shrugged, not exactly feeling happy about that. Wu smiled, giving Gildy's foreleg paw a gentle squeeze.

"You're doing great, then, Gildy," she encouraged. "Don't beat yourself up about this; it'll only make things worse. Honestly, this isn't something anyone can cure, just what they can deal with. You're doing very well." Wu put a hand on the lion chakat's shoulder, offering a smile.

Gildedtongue sighed, rolling off of the examination bed, stretching slightly, "Maybe, maybe. But, suppose I can't help but feel that my children deserve better than some psychopath..." Hir ears splayed slightly, feeling hir mood dropping again. "I'm sorry, I really need to stop doing this. Every time I start to think about these things, it just gets worse and worse."

Nodding, Terry offered a quick hug. "Slipping into the mire is really easy. Getting yourself out of it is really hard, nearly impossible without help. It's annoying that there isn't anyone here really able to help you, but keep your chin up and try to smile a little bit. I'm sure once we get you to your destination, you'll do fine. The chakats there will be able to help you out and get you on a path where you aren't on a balancing act all the time."

Gildedtongue nodded quietly, forcing hirself to smile a little to Terry, who gave hir a genuine smile. Gildy slowly made hir way out of the medical bay, loosing a held breath. Shi hated people fussing over hir and hated even more feeling helpless and unable to simply fix hirself. That pigheadedness and stubbornness never did hir well growing up, but never seemed to have left hir as an adult.

Most of the crew were busying themselves around the ship, making sure everything was as repaired and shipshape as they could get it. Fourteen months after the pirate attack they would finally have the resources and methods to fix the ship proper. Thirtysilver, however, was not quite ecstatic, running through the numbers over and over again, making sure that the ship could afford the expense, often mumbling about her desire to join a trading company rather than remain independent.

Making it back to Saldura's room, the chakat flopped on the bed, feeling drained from hir current bout of depression. Creekstripe breathing hotly over hir neck, a tremble ran through hir body as shi turned around to face the phantom, not seeing hir sire anywhere. Both of Gildedtongue's hearts pounded faster and faster as hir fear thickened. Shi wasn't sure what shi was more afraid of, ghosts, or losing hir mind. No, shi knew shi feared insanity more.

Closing hir eyes, shi willed hirself to try and keep sane, for as good as it would do hir, clinging on a bit of hope that perhaps there was a couple of chakats aboard the station that might help hir psyche. Clutching on that bit of hope, shi embraced a bit of sleep.


"Boarding with Station in three hours," the comm channels rang, waking up Gildedtongue, whose nap took far too long. Hir bleary eyes blinked away the sleep clutching to hir lids as shi overheard another message, "Citizen Wanderer to the holoroom for a meeting."

Grumbling, the chakat sighed as shi was forced to wake up now. Shi took off hir top, looking at the mirror. First shi took stock of hir face and mane, rubbing hir fur the right way and did some spot grooming, then ran hir fingers through hir mane, trying to get it looking somewhat cared for. Shi blinked a bit at the mirror, seeing something wrong. Shi raised a hand to hir chest, feeling Frank's cross missing! Shi pounced the bed, pulling sheets and the mattress away, panicking. Creekstripe laughing at hir in the corner. "Some friend you are. That was an heirloom from someone who thought you were a good friend, and now you just lost it like a pen. Wonder what he would think?"

Gildy continued to hunt, rubbing hir neck idly, the speakers gave another call for the chakat as shi sighed, realizing shi had to give up for the moment, putting on one of the active duty uniforms laid out for the chakat. Shi marched hir way to the holoroom, looking around the Spine, realizing that it was a very old piece of jewellery, and likely the chain broke from constant wear. It had to still be on the ship, obviously. That didn't give hir much comfort as shi arrived at hir destination. Saldura, Matilda, Thirtysilver, and Terry sat at a table, nodding to the chakat as shi sat down at one reserved spot. "You look like hell, love," Sal said bluntly, looking at hir spouse.

"I lost Frank's cross," shi muttered quietly, feeling childish for being so distraught over some piece of metal, but, it was something that hir first and closest friend gave to hir. Saldura nodded, putting hir hand on the chakat's shoulder.

"It's on board, I assure you," the badger smiled. The chakat composed hirself a little bit better, looking at the assembled officers.

Shi felt a little intimidated, being thrust with everyone hadn't, traditionally, been the predecessor of happy times, but the captain offered a warm smile. "I'm sure you're confused about what's going on here." Gildy nodded quietly, "Well, Commander Johnson has expressed interest with meeting you. Shi mentioned that shi'd like to have dinner with us and yourself.

"Now, you understand our predicament is a little awkward, considering the lack of another chakat on board." Matilda continued, "Thirtysilver and chief Holbock have fudged the records a little bit and have added one more casualty, a denmate of yours, Chakat Marlow, child of Tetra and Wintercoat. It may or may not come up in the meal, but if you feel you aren't sure what to say about hir, just tell our host that the trauma has made you too distraught to discuss hir."

Gildedtongue sighed, more lies. And lies on top of lies. Shi was getting jaded from the oft romanticized spy thriller, realizing that this sort of thing wasn't any sort of fun, and gave hir a headache trying to keep up with who was who. At least shi had memorized hir cover name. "Well, hope you're not expecting me to talk too much. I mean, I'm certainly no good as an actor, as my time here I think has shown."

Nodding, Matilda looked over the chakat. "It'll be okay. I'm pretty sure that we will be able to keep a few Federation officers entertained. Some stories, some talk of places visited, should be simple enough." Matilda stood up from her seat, looking at the map of the sector, as well as a diagram of the Frontier station, looking like a massive top slowly spinning in the heavens. Matilda moved her conversation tangentially, "You'll probably find the members of the station to be a little... eccentric. Frontier stations aren't quite as contacted as controlled space ones unless there's a problem or a discovery, or whatnot, so, they tend to have a bit of cabin fever, so to speak." Matilda looks over hir PADD, "In theory, Frontier crews are rotated every five years because of this. Beta, Tango, Tango, Alpha, however, hasn't been sent a relief crew in the last fifteen years." Matilda shrugged slightly, "This, however, isn't all that unusual. I've read reports of one crew spending twenty years stationed on one Frontier. The Federation just doesn't have all the people necessary to keep that sort of rotation up. So, if people at the station seem unusually inquisitive, or a bit socially... strange, try your best to keep your smiles on and your good graces forward."

Gildedtongue smirked to hirself. "Because there's nothing more normal than a psychologically deranged chakat?" shi joked. "But, I see, I see. I'll keep doing my best to stay under the scanners, until all the repairs are made." Shi blushed a bit. "Um, I know it's a bit late, but sorry about all these setbacks. I'm guessing they're being rather costly."

The Caitian cocked her head in confusion, "Sorry about what? Are you in league with those pirates? Have you set us up or something?" Gildy shook hir head, blushing slightly as shi looked at the assembled. Thirtysilver shook her head gently. "I know you like to apologize for everything, but this happened out of your realm of influence, Gildedtongue. We appreciate the concern, though." Gildedtongue nodded and Saldura gave hir a comforting pat on the shoulder and a smile.

Matilda dismissed the meeting as Saldura walked out with Gildedtongue, smiling at the chakat still. "You'll do fine. If you're feeling put on the spot, just give me a poke on the shoulder and I'll do my best to keep everyone else occupied." The badger gave the chakat a one-armed hug as they made their way back to Saldura's quarters. Thallon was inside, bouncing about like his usual self, the wanderlusting hybrid ecstatic that he would be able to enjoy some different sights and smells soon. He gave both Gildy and Sal a firm hug, tousling the chakat's hair, who smirked and poked Thallon's chest. Gildedtongue sighed softly, leaning against the larger 'taur.

"You didn't happen to see a small cross somewhere? Gold-plated aluminium, with most of the gold having flaked off? You know, the one I'm always wearing?" shi asked, hoping that maybe the large wolf/foxtaur had found it somewhere and put it away for safe keeping. Thallon, though, shook his head, making Gildy sigh and lean against him in defeat. "Shit! I have to find it. It's Frank's gift and..." shi was stopped by a kiss as Thallon held hir tightly.

"It's on board," Thallon whispered, breaking the kiss, stroking Gildy's mane gently, "The advantage of being on a space ship, even a big one, is that there just isn't that many places it'll end up. We'll keep a look out for it. But, first we've got a docking to attend to."

Sal nodded, stroking Gildy's back. "And a dinner to prepare for. But, we'll find it, love. Just, try to calm down, okay?" Gildedtongue nodded to hir mate, kissing the badger's cheek lightly before going to freshen up. Exhaling, shi wiped hir face with a small amount of water, cleaning the 'just woke up' look on hir face. As shi looked in the mirror, Creekstripe stood as clear as day, tilting hir head to one side.

"I'm really sure that Frank will be soooo pleased to hear that his family artefact got lost by such a clumsy cunt like you. And now you're getting so distraught and nervous, you're gonna freak out at the dinner, eh? Maybe you'll haul off and attack that commander skunk, and they'll have to put your crazy ass down for good! More than you deserve, let me tell you." The phantom continued on as Gildy muttered to hirself, repeating a mantra that has been keeping hirself somewhat stable, or, at least shi thinks shi is.

"Don't be crazy, don't be crazy, don't be crazy, don't be crazy..." Splashing a bit more cold water on hir face, Gildedtongue sighed to hirself, at least turning down the litany of negativity the anthropomorphic avatar of hir subconscious to a dull whisper. While continuing to whisper this to hirself, the chakat started to brush hir headfur, pulling hairs out with each firm stroke. Hir hand gripping the plastic handle harder and harder, the blue colouration starting to go white.

A knock on the door broke Gildy out of hir daze as the brush clattered in the sink. The chakat opened the door, letting in Saldura, "You were in here an hour, was making sure you're okay," Sal said, looking over the chakat, frowning slightly. "Are you feeling okay?" shi asked, concerned. Gildedtongue shook hir head, leaning to hug the badger tightly as shi started to cry, shi wasn't exactly sure why. Sal closed hir eyes and stroked the chakat's mane, trying hir best to comfort the centauroid, letting hir unbottle the emotions jumping around inside of hir.

Gildy sniffed slightly, making sure not to wipe hir nose or face on Sal's dress uniform. Shi pulled back hir head, taking in a deep breath, "Fuck! How the hell am I supposed to raise cubs when I can't even take care of myself? This isn't fair to them, this isn't fair to you, Goddammit."

The badger continued to rub over Gildy's shoulder softly, giving hir a firm snug. "This isn't fair to you either. Once we get you to Chakona, things will be better for you. There'll be people who can help you and get you on a more stable path. Until then, Thallon and I will be here to keep you afloat as best we can. We love you," shi whispered, kissing the chakat's cheek.

Gildy sighed a bit, looking at the mirror again. "You both are going to keep on the ship though? Probably won't see each other for years at a time." Saldura looked down, nodding softly as hir fingers fell from Gildy's shoulder. The chakat shook hir head, giving a faint smile. "Well, if I am getting better there, I probably won't be too idle there." Shi blushed as Sal kissed hir cheek.

"I wouldn't ever want you to be idle, love," Sal whispered before starting to groom hir mate. Hir long, wavy hair pulled into a simple braid, faster than restarting on the brushing and combing. As they came out, Thallon had Gildedtongue's dress from the night of the party before shi left Earth. The chakat declined, putting on a new dress uniform.

"Sorry, Thallon, I just don't want to risk hurting that, especially after losing my cross. Besides, according to the meeting, I'm here to represent the Purgatorio, and so, well... best to at least look the part." Gildy laughed, kissing Thallon's cheek. "But, thank you. Are you coming to the dinner as well?"

Shaking his head, Thallon rubbed Gildy's shoulder, "Nah, I'd be a total pest there. I think I'm going to do some snooping around the place, get to enjoy the new sights and smells and stretch my legs out. I'm really not one for anything too formal." Gildy nodded and kissed Thallon's cheek, before Saldura took the chakat's hand, smiling to hir supportively before they made their way to the cargo bay. A large set of doors towards the aft were opened as engineers were moving to prep the bay for the repair and maintenance of the warp drive. The two herms were joined by the three other women ready for the meal. Thirtysilver was dressed in Caitian formal wear, looking both exotic and beautiful at the same time. Matilda didn't look too terribly different, except she opted out of her long coat, wearing a dark green uniform top that matched her blue slacks and boots. Terry, never one in a skirt or a dress, wore the same suit she wore to Gildedtongue's wedding.

The five stepped out of the ship and onto the hanger of the Frontier station, all taking in a deep breath. The air smelled different; it was the same recycled sort that was on the Purgatorio, but just knowing they were in a different place made them feel more at ease. The increased gravity tugged more knowingly on Gildedtongue's body as hir steps became more laboured, noticing that hir companions were also feeling the pains of acclimating to the artificial pull. It made Gildy feel a little better that shi wasn't the only one.

Surprisingly, there wasn't anyone in the hanger. No one living, that is. The sound of metal legs clicking on the metal floor of large, four spindly-legged robots scurrying around the area, each the size of a small horse. The engineers seemed to be nonplussed with their co-workers so Gildedtongue just took it as normal. One such bot came right up to the five, bowing its forelegs, speaking in a melodious, Terran voice. "Welcome, visitors, to F.F.S. Station Bravo, Tango, Tango, Alpha, or as the commander likes to call it, Batta. I shall be your guide for this evening; you may call me, Jasmine. Commander Kim Johnson is awaiting your company most eagerly."

"They send a machine out to greet us? I'm glad we rank so highly on the commander's priorities," Wu muttered dryly, eliciting a cough from the captain.

"These stations are often undermanned, Doctor. I'm sure our host is offering as many amenities as shi can." Matilda smiled softly, looking at her companions. "Besides, you know what they say about the mouths of gift horses."

Wu rolled her eyes as she joined the travelling. "Yeah, they bite." Saldura laughed, keeping to the right of Matilda, letting the captain take vanguard. Gildedtongue stayed near the wall, unconsciously lifting a hand to run along the wall as they walked. The metal felt different, was probably just a different texture, or the temperature of the structure, kept just a little cooler than the Purgatorio. The clicking sound of the bot's feet tapping on the metal floor became more and more monotonous, and Gildy was tempted to ask for it to stop, but logic reminded hir that it would be nigh impossible for the machine to move without doing so.

The path twisted and turned through the corridors. The lights were left low. Gildy could see fine, but hir companions were squinting a bit to get through the place; luckily the tapping made the bot's presence known and easily followed. Finally, they made it into the galley, the lights were much brighter, making all five morphs squint. Being lead around the tables, the bot buzzed at a door, making it open up. The opposite side of the metal doors were carved wood and the metal floor begat plush carpeting.

The officer's dining room was considerably more posh than the rest of the ship. Wood panelling wainscoting the room about a quarter high, and above some simple floral print wallpaper, enough to add an accent, but not enough to be too gaudy. Stained oak moulding ran along the sides, matching the large oaken table in the middle of the room. The place was lit by candlelight, a chandelier above, as well as several candelabras on the table, resting on silken sheets.

At the head of the table stood Commander Kim Johnson. The skunk, a portly herm, at first glance built similar to Saldura, at least in this gravity, but the motion of hir arms betrayed the atrophy of hir muscle. "Welcome, honoured guests. So good of you to join us tonight!" shi smiled, bowing hir head and back slightly. It was also apparent that the skunk was rather gravid, close to hir seventh month of pregnancy.

The guiding bot lead the guests to their chairs. Gildedtongue alighted on the softest cushion shi ever had sat upon. The whole thing was a bit overwhelming, such a stately place put the chakat off ease. A foreleg paw reached to stroke along two boards of the table, feeling different grains on them, a good indicator that this was made by artisans, and not simply replicated. A new bot, with a bow-tie taped on the front, padded silently through the room, carrying a shelf where it started to serve appetizers.

"Captain Matilda Jefferson. Would that be the of the same Jefferson family that owns several mining colonies out in the Betelgeuse system? What brings you aboard such an old ship?"

"Guilty as charged, shir Johnson. I'm surprised my family is known out here. We're understandably known back home, but I wouldn't think out here," Matilda commented. "As for my ship, I have plenty of siblings, and I can't say I'm terribly high on the inheritance chain. Besides, I found myself in need to get out, and enjoy the galaxy outside of my family's influences." She and the skunk continued to speak as Gildedtongue's eyes drifted. Creekstripe was in the room, looking over the architecture, picking up a grape from the wax fruit sculpture and proceeding to eat it. Gildedtongue's face immediately shot down to hir plate, trying to ignore hir phantoms and listen to the conversation.

"Now, Corporal Holbock. Saldura, that doesn't sound like Terran etymology..."

"It isn't," Sal answered, then correcting hirself, "Actually, it is; a dried up old river actually had my name, however, I was named for a friend of my sire's, a Rashkani shi worked with in the mines. Apparently the name comes from a Rashkani hero of old. A grand, romantic hero, if I recall right. Successful in bed and battlefield."

"Hah! Well, I hope that you're as successful as your namesake, then, my good brock." Johnson chuckled, stuffing hir face while listening. Creekstripe walked up to the herm, flashing hir tits and making lewd thrusting motions with hir forehips. Gildedtongue's eyes darted back down as shi resumed hir old mantra.

"Don't be crazy, don't be crazy, don't be crazy..."

"Shir Wanderer, is there a problem?" the commander asked, cocking hir head.

Shit, this was not a good idea, this was not a good idea at all. Gildedtongue stammered for a moment, looking blankly at Kim, trying to remember all of the bits of data shi was supposed to remember. What was the name of hir fake mate? How long were they supposed to have been together? 'Why can't I be quiet and sane?'

Clearing hir throat, Saldura rest hir hand on Gildedtongue's shoulder, giving a firm look at the commander. "You'll have to excuse shir Wanderer, Commander Johnson. Shi lost hir mate in the pirate attack, and the loss has affected hir greatly, and since we had no other chakats on board, there hasn't been anyone to comfort hir the way shi needs." Sal shot Gildy a supportive smile, "It's been hard, but, we're doing our best to get through this."

The skunk nodded silently about the dead, "It is a pity. Tell me, did you store the bodies appropriately for Federation review?"

Narrowing her eyes, Wu crossed her arms, "I'm sorry to say, no, we could not. Were we to have kept them, they would have been rotting, we did not have enough cold storage for that number of people." The doctor furrowed her brow, "Besides, I'm sure there's just one part of those that you really wanted to get your hands on. Sorry, the brains were disposed of as well."

Johnson didn't seem to appreciate Wu's words, tapping hir claws on the table, "Well, I will have to fine you for your actions, however, why would you think that I would be after those?" Shi gave a soft chuckle, "Do I look like a zombie or something?"

Wu shook her head, leaning back in her chair, "Not at all, you certainly don't seem the cannibal sort, at least, not that way." The doctor glanced around the room, "Rather, it seems odd that you use so many bots at your workplace."

"They work better, harder, and complain less. Why wouldn't one use robots in lieu of more fragile, more mistake-laden people? Besides, aside from maintenance, they cost considerably less." Johnson was biting back something, everyone in the room could see the fur starting to rise on the skunk's neck and face.

Matilda nodded, "Considerably less, aye. Now, recalling right, there should be a hundred thirty people stationed here, not counting ships arriving and leaving. Pilots for the fighters, mechanics for the station and ships, officers to chefs, and cleaning crew. All we've seen is yourself. Where are the other people on this station?"

Johnson was clearly agitated, balling hir hands into fists, "Drone fighters are more reliable and offer less loss of life. And the rest of the crew is presently occupied."

"Yes, occupied with our ship, being worked on by my crew and robotic drones. What happened to your crew, Commander Johnson?" Matilda inquired.

Johnson's teeth clenched, a growl started to rumble in hir chest, then, a calming smile, relaxing slightly as hir hands steepled before hir. "Like I have said, my crew is occupied, working on your ship, serving our food, cleaning the place." One bot scurried up next to Johnson, leaning next to hir as the skunk gently stroked its frame, the machine buzzing happily. "They're so much more content, much more efficient this way. I don't have to deal with insubordination, nor complaints about hours, leave, or them wanting to leave me." Johnson smiled wide, "And now, you won't be leaving me either."

Eight more bots came out of the doors around descended quickly on the five guests. Saldura threw hir chair at one, knocking it down for a moment, but just as quickly, it got back up. The smell of ozone ran through the air as electrical discharges stunned the Purgatorio crew. Gildedtongue backed hirself against a wall, trembling as the boxy machine's iris eye stared down at hir, the stun rod extended, waving at hir. Gildy reached to try and fight it off, but three other machines came from behind, and soon all was black for the chakat.



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