Lieutenant Longstocking stood at parade rest, hir expression composed but neutral, hir hands clasped lightly behind hir back. Hir uniform was Space Service Casual: a plain, sky blue, short sleeved pullover with a Security Force patch on the right arm, a name tape over the left breast, and rank tabs on the collar.
A muted clunk signaled that the inner doors of the transfer airlock had unlocked; as they slid open Longstocking stepped forward, extending hir right hand. "Welcome to Repair Station Sigma one-seven," shi began. "I'm Lieutenant Longstocking, station commander. Thank you both for coming on such short notice."
"Not at all, Lieutenant, not at all." Professor Moseivitch stepped forward to take the offered hand. Both his smile and his handshake were warm and hearty. "It is our pleasure to be of service."
At 158 centimeters Fyodor Ivanov Moseivitch was rather short for a Terran male. His body was compact, thickened around the waist by considerably more than merely the suggestion of a pot belly, his limbs blunt but not quite short enough to be considered stubby. The overall effect was as if a normal sized man had been vertically compressed but otherwise retained his original dimensions. Clothing this odd little body was an impeccably tailored suit of brown herringbone tweed, a grey vest, brightly polished black shoes, and a navy blue tie. Surmounting all this was a head that might have been hewn from granite: heavy brow ridges, dark eyes, a prominent, slightly bulbous nose, clifflike cheekbones, and a powerful jaw. His face- and indeed the rest of his skin as well- had the creased, slightly mottled texture of well-used leather. Easing the severity of his features was the fact that they seemed to be perpetually locked into a brilliant, friendly smile.
Curious as they might be, though, all other aspects of the professor's appearance paled in comparison to his hair. As befitted his years it was iron gray streaked heavily with snowy white, but a man of any age (and no few women) would have envied its luxuriant fullness. It rose up from his crown, spilled down the sides of his head in an incredible wave, then feathered out into beautiful ringlets. As if that weren't enough, his eyebrows were the same color and texture- and so bushy they actually stood out from his forehead, forming little shelves over his eyes. When his expression became animated- which was often- they wiggled and danced like caterpillars crawling around on his face.
"Allow me to present my protogé, Chakat Darkstar." Moseivitch half turned and gestured to his companion.
"My pleasure, Lieutenant." Darkstar stepped forward to shake hands.
Darkstar was a Chakat, which is to say a creature that looked as if someone had taken a cat, cut off its head, and spliced in the torso of a humanoid female. Hir feline characteristics most closely resembled those of the Canadian lynx; hir lower body was lean, with long legs, oversized feet, and a short, stubby tail. Hir torso was slender and elfin, with small, firm breasts. Hir hands were normally proportioned, though the fronts were black and the fingernails markedly pointed. Hir head was entirely lynx-like, with a blunt muzzle, tufted ears, and bearded cheeks. The only addition was a salt-and-pepper mane that spilled down to the middle of hir lower back. Overall- including hir torso- shi was covered with soft, fluffy fur, gray with dark speckles on hir back and sides, white on hir breast and belly. Black trimmed hir ears, striped hir cheeks, and capped the end of hir tail. From head to forefoot shi was only about eleven centimeters taller than Moseivitch and hir torso slimmer, but in toto shi was considerably more massive because hir lower body was as big as a lion or a medium-large tiger. Hir only article of clothing was a belt pouch fastened around the waist of hir humanoid torso.
As they shook hands Longstocking allowed hirself to briefly admire Darkstar's body, in particular hir chest. Darkstar's breasts, though small, were a bit saggy- a fact which was, as much as the whitening of fur on hir face and muzzle, an indication of hir advanced age. Even so shi was quite attractive, in a mature, dignified sort of way. Longstocking, also a Chakat, was considerably younger- probably less than half Darkstar's age- and shorter- by about four centimeters- but significantly fuller of figure, particularly in the chest. Shi did not closely resemble any particular type of cat; hir pelt was solid black except for white boots on all six of hir limbs, and a patch of white on hir muzzle and throat. Hir mane had been cut severely short so it would fit easily inside the helmet of a space suit.
"We've prepared a full briefing for you in the wardroom," Longstocking said, backing and turning. "If you'll follow me?"
"But of course!" Moseivitch hurried forward to walk beside Longstocking. Darkstar contented hirself to fall in behind- and to admire Longstocking's attractively crafted hindquarters. As was typical for Chakats Longstocking wore no coverings on hir lower body. For which reason it could be seen that, although shi was entirely female in every respect and had what appeared to be an entirely normal set of female genitalia, shi also had a penis. This wasn't unusual; Darkstar and in fact all Chakats had them, because as a species Chakats were hermaphrodites. An interesting cultural ramification of this curious physiological fact was their use of special gender pronouns: shi instead of she/he and hir instead of her/him.
Longstocking led hir guests along a corridor wide enough for five Chakats to walk abreast if they stood shoulder-to-shoulder. The floor was coated with black rubber traction matting; from floor and ceiling the walls sloped outward slightly so that the hand railings, mounted at waist height on either side, did not intrude into the walking area. Interior decoration consisted of plain, off-white plastic panels whose edges were curved so that there were no sharp angles, even at intersections. Illumination came from glow strips running along the top and bottom edge of every wall. Affixed to the ceiling, running the length of each and every corridor, was a ladder.
At journey's end the party stepped into a large room set against the station's outer hull. It was furnished with low tables, beanbag chairs, soft couches, and large planters in which grew small trees or fragrant blossoms. On the inner wall was an ornate food synthesizer unit and several desktop workstations set up in semi-private cubicles. The side walls were paneled with what appeared to be roughly cut, weather beaten wood and hung with paintings of pastoral, farmland scenes. The outer wall- which curved outward- was entirely filled by a row of floor-to-ceiling view ports. In them, perfectly framed against the black backdrop of space, was the planet Chakona itself. The visible hemisphere was filled mostly by intensely blue-green ocean. Land consisted of a handful of sub-continents and scattered chains of islands. Each pole was capped by a brilliantly white ice pack. Completing the picture were Chakona's two moons: Cha'turna, smaller and close in on the right, Ka'turna, larger and more distant, on the left.
"Allow me to present the crew," Longstocking said, indicating a group of five people who were waiting at the doorway. "Warrant Officer Sherlock, executive officer. Warrant Officer Liska Sharpears, technical specialist. Last but not least our student interns, Theobald Carson and the brothers Valjean and Javert Hugo."
"A pleasure to make your acquaintances," Moseivitch declared. Starting at the head of the line and working down, he shook hands with each individual in turn.
"Welcome aboard," Sherlock said. Shi was a Chakat, patterned like a white tiger and with a build to match. Though about the same height as Longstocking the thick bands of muscle rippling under hir skin gave hir a lot more mass. In fact hir tunic seemed to be having some difficulty enclosing both hir ample bosom and hir powerful shoulders; it appeared that one incautious flex would split it wide open. Hir mane was striped and, like Longstocking's, trimmed short.
"My pleasure." Liska offered her hand and a sultry smile. She was a fox; her body, though entirely humanoid, was covered with fur: coppery red in back, creamy white in front, black on her hands, forearms, calves, feet, and the backs of her ears. In place of feet she had canine style paws. A long, fluffy tail- coppery red with a white tip- sprang from the base of her spine. Her head was that of a fox: narrow, triangular face, long, slender muzzle, and tall, sharply pointed ears. She did have a mane and it was not cut short: it spilled in a fiery cascade down to the middle of her back. She was a fox in the other sense, too; a comfortably fitted sky blue coverall- with cargo pockets on the chest and thighs, a name tape on the left breast, and a Service patch on the right arm- covered but in no way concealed her voluptuous figure. Her limbs and torso were smooth and finely formed, her waist trim, her belly firm, her hips and buttocks most compellingly curved. The neck of the coverall was open enough to hint at the presence of a black lace bra, which contained a pair of round, firm, and spectacularly large breasts. If Fyodor was accused of studying them for longer than strictly necessary he could claim that he had no choice: Liska was a good twenty centimeters taller than him, which placed that incredible cleavage right near the level of his face.
"Please, sir, call me Kit," Theobald requested, a nervous smile flitting across his face. Like the professor he was a Terran male; unlike the professor he was tall- 190 centimeters even without his battered hiking boots. Not only that he was wide: broad shouldered, deep-chested, with long, powerful limbs. His squarish face, vaguely Aryan features, and flinty gray eyes might have been rather intimidating when combined with that body, but a certain excess of flesh took the hard edges off both, making him seem even younger than he was- which couldn't have been more than early twenties to start with- and formed the beginnings of a paunch that swelled the waistline of his slightly faded khaki slacks. His golden brown hair was slightly less than shoulder length, waving and feathering in a manner similar to Fyodor's but not nearly to the same degree. Completing his ensemble was a gray and black patterned short sleeved pullover.
"A pleasure to meet you, sir." Valjean spoke with the air of one whose lines are carefully rehearsed. Which was perhaps just as well; though facing the professor his attention was focused on Darkstar's bared breast.
"A pleasure to meet you, sir." Javert repeated not only the words but the tone as well, even the glance at Darkstar.
The Hugo brothers were identical to the degree that one description served as well for both. They were foxtaurs, a type of creature very like a Chakat but based on a fox rather than a cat. Their pelts matched Liska's except only that the base color was a bit more ruddy than orange, and they did not have manes. Unlike Chakats, the brothers were only and unequivocally male; from head to forefoot they were about the same height as Liska, but their torsos broader, deeper, and more muscular. Their lower bodies were lithe and firm. Overall they were sleek, powerful, and attractively proportioned. Since they, like Darkstar, wore only belt pouches, Darkstar did not hesitate to return the favor by giving them each a thorough look-over.
"Make yourselves comfortable and I'll begin," Longstocking declared, pointing toward the center of the room. Two tables had been pushed together; along one side of the double-length surface had been placed a couch and several beanbag chairs. A tray of pastries, a bowl of nuts, and two pitchers of juice had been set out.
"Thank you." Moseivitch took a seat in the middle of the couch, then had to scoot over as Darkstar climbed up. Since there was no more room on the couch Liska settled herself into one of the beanbag chairs near the rightmost end of the table. Next to her Sherlock sat, on the floor, as a cat sits: with hir tail curled forward over hir forepaws. Kit also sat on the floor, legs crossed, near the leftmost end of the table. Valjean and Javert settled on either side of him, laying down as dogs do: with their lower bodies curled slightly to one side, their forepaws reaching straight out in front under the table.
Longstocking moved out in front of the table. "Computer, deploy view screen," shi commanded. A section of the ceiling hinged downward like an enormous trap door; what had originally been the top face of the panel was a gigantic view screen. It almost completely covered the food synthesizer and the cubicles, effectively transforming the room into a movie theater.
"This morning, at 0230 hours Chakona Mean time, an unidentified object struck the Deep Space Hyper-Spatial Anomaly Detector, which is the prime sensing element of the Mileva Memorial Hyper-Spatial Observatory," Longstocking began. Behind hir, on the big screen, a dot of light appeared that rapidly expanded into a fine hex grid that filled the entire view area. It fit perfectly because its aspect ratio was identical to that of the screen: sixteen to nine. The grid rotated until the observer appeared to be hovering above one corner. A blinking red X appeared in the upper right quadrant of the screen and began moving diagonally downward, leaving a dotted trail behind it. When it touched the exact center of the grid the X disappeared and a yellow translucent cone grew out from the point of intersection, exactly bisected by the grid.
"How did this thing manage to get close without triggering the Array's anti-collision system?" Darkstar wanted to know.
"The object was travelling through hyper-space," Longstocking replied. "It emerged into normal space only two kilometers from the Array's center."
"Then the Security Force sentry ships, the Distant Early Warning sensors, or the Array itself should have seen it coming," Darkstar pointed out.
"All true," Longstocking agreed. "However, the sentry ships and DEW sensors picked up nothing at all. The Array did in fact pick up a characteristic massless particle signature, but was unable to match it with a mass shadow. Analysis of telemetry data shows that the sentry ships and DEW sensors did in fact pick up the characteristic signature, but with signal processing modules that were considerably less sophisticated than those in the observatory, the signals were discarded as invalid."
Valjean frowned, then leaned toward Kit until their shoulders were pressed firmly together. "What's shi talking about?" he asked, whispering into Kit's ear- and, in the process, sticking his nose in it.
Kit jerked his head away, furiously rubbing his ear. "Don't they teach you Robotics majors anything useful?" he whispered back, fixing Valjean with a baleful look.
"Yeah," Javert breathed, having sidled up on Kit's other side. "How to make an assassin robot that'll murder smart alecs in their sleep." He licked Kit's ear.
Kit shuddered violently but said nothing. Quick as a wink he whipped his arms around the brothers' necks, trapping their heads against his chest. "Okay, kids, Warp Drives 101," he murmured, pitching his voice so that only Valjean and Javert would hear. "You wanna move faster than light but you can't do it in this universe, you gotta get into hyper-space where the slowest anything moves is the speed of light. To get there you surround yourself with a high-intensity gravity field that squashes you into a singularity, as if you'd fallen into a black hole. Since it's not natural for you to exist in hyper-space, the gravity field that put you there is constantly loosing energy in the form of massless particle radiation. To keep the field from collapsing and dumping you back into normal space you pump it up with power from a warp reactor. So, as you propagate through hyper-space you're leaving behind a wake of massless particles, which can be detected. But- due to quantum effects that are too complicated to explain here- you can't tell where a ship is physically located by sensing its massless particle emissions. But the gravity field that put you in hyper-space does have a discreet location- which corresponds to the most probable location where the ship would re-enter normal space if the drive were shut down at any given moment. By correlating those two data you can plot a ship's position and speed relative to the normal universe. Without the gravity field you can sense the massless particles but the ship itself could theoretically be anywhere in the universe. Standard hyper-spatial sensors pick that sort of thing up all the time, but they're programmed to ignore it 'cause the information is useless."
Valjean frowned. "How do you get into hyper-space without a gravity field?"
An odd expression flicked across Kit's face. He let go of the brothers and scooped up a handful of peanuts. "As far as anyone here in the Stellar Federation understands hyper-spatial physics, you can't."
"The original object has a mass of between 380 and 420 tons and a maximum dimension of approximately 60 to 80 meters," Longstocking was saying. "Its precise configuration is not known; the Array does not have any normal-space imaging capability." Shi smiled grimly. "We don't need detailed pictures to know that if the object had intersected the Array at any other point it would have passed through with little or no damage. Instead, the object struck squarely on the only part of the Array that has any appreciable mass: the power core."
On the view screen the point of view zoomed in toward the center of the grid. At a much higher level of magnification a structure became visible: a skinny cylinder inserted through the grid and held perpendicular by a network of guy wires. Attached to each end of the cylinder was a ball whose diameter was slightly greater than that of the sphere. The dotted red line came down at about a 40 degree angle, ending right where the upper ball joined the cylinder. The ball flew off like a golf ball from a tee and the cylinder went spinning away like a cheerleader's baton, ripping an enormous gash in the grid as it went.
"Fortunately the core didn't rupture, or there might not have been anything left for us to find," Longstocking went on. "Naturally the downlink assembly was completely destroyed. The operators in the observatory control room back on Chakona were in a veritable panic. The collision alarm went off, then the entire Array went off-line. They contacted Security Force control and requested an immediate investigation. A sentry ship was pulled off station and sent in, which observed what had happened to the Array- and discovered that the unknown object had not been completely destroyed." The red X appeared again, departing the point of impact on a course shallowly divergent from that of the upper ball. "A Security Force salvage team was dispatched to recover the artifact and bring it in for analysis."
"The object was a star ship," Darkstar quietly pronounced.
"Not only that, but it was of a configuration and composition which we have never before encountered," Longstocking replied. "Our own science teams were utterly confounded, and appealed to Dewclaw University for help. The university responded by sending us none other than the distinguished Chair of the College of Xeno-Sciences." Professor Moseivitch acknowledged the praise with a dignified nod.
Kit's eyes were wide, his mouth hanging slightly open. "You're saying it was a star ship- and it came from outside the Stellar Federation?"
"Correct," Longstocking agreed. "The technology used to construct the ship is like nothing any member of the Stellar Federation has ever developed or encountered. The drive system it used is similarly alien. And- this is why the matter is being handled with such urgency- preliminary scans suggest that inside the fragment we recovered are systems that are still operational."
Repair Station Sigma 17's Operations Center was a room that bore a resemblance to a small movie theater. The floor sloped gently downward toward the front, there were aisles running along the side walls, and the triple row of consoles were curved slightly to give every operator a view through the enormous view ports that took the place of a screen. As was typical with Chakat architecture the spacing between rows was generous and there were no chairs. Decor was simple and utilitarian, generally matching the hallways. Plainness in the walls was more than made up by the brightly colored, intricately complex displays and control panels on the consoles themselves.
"There it is," Longstocking pronounced, entering the room through a doorway in the back right corner, then stepping aside to make way for the rest of the party. "It was delivered only hours ago."
Kit moved quickly down to the very front of the room, where he could press his face right up against the transparisteel window. The actual work area was a huge- sixty meters long and eighty meters wide- roughly octagonal volume with massive doors- now shut- on the far wall. On the whole it resembled nothing so much as a garage; every surface except the floor was filled with neatly arranged racks of tools, parts, and equipment. The floor was crisscrossed by channels so that tie-downs could be installed just about anywhere. The only permanent fixture was a large cradle, gimbaled so that whatever was held within could be rotated into any conceivable attitude. Held in the cradle's arms was-
"That's it?" Darkstar asked, walking down to stand beside Kit.
"That's it," Sherlock affirmed.
The object didn't seem to look like anything in particular. In overall shape it was vaguely like a slightly flattened egg, but the extreme unevenness of its exterior defied simple description. Parts of it were smooth like spun glass. Other parts were jagged and broken like crushed gravel. Some areas had a melted, runny look, like billows of wax dripping from a candle. Mixed in with those were areas dotted by pockmarks and bubbles, like caramelized sugar frozen in the act of boiling. Still other zones had erupted in frothy streamers. All these textures were jumbled together without any apparent rhyme or reason- and their colors, as seen under the glaring work lights, were just as just as varied and chaotic. Everything from jet black to pearly white, muddy browns, translucent ambers, vivid pinks, muted reds, intricately swirled oranges, and metallic greens.
"Makes my eyes hurt just looking at it," Javert muttered. Valjean nodded sagely.
Professor Moseivitch had walked to the middle of the second row and stood with his hands clasped behind his back, studying the object through slightly narrowed eyes. "Please tell us what you have learned about this fascinating object, Longstocking," he requested.
"For starters, it is about twelve meters long and masses approximately forty-six tons," Longstocking began. "It survived the collision because of a powerful structural integrity field that was apparently generated by the host vessel; at the very least no recognizable trace of the machinery remains. It is composed of plastics, metals, solvents, oxides, and a hundred other things all mixed together seemingly at random, resulting in a structure that is highly uneven and shot through with fracture planes, intrusions, and bubbles. It is here at least in part because we were afraid that, under gravity, it would simply disintegrate. Beneath the outer shell, though- which is between one and about two and a half meters thickness- there is a force field that prevents us from scanning the interior. Enough energy is leaking through the field to make it clear that there is an operating fusion core somewhere in there. We estimate the power output as approximately equivalent to, say, a Geelong class runabout."
"Any sign of a warp reactor?" Darkstar inquired.
"None," Longstocking replied with a sad shake of the head. "Apparently this isn't part of the star-drive system."
"Or we wouldn't recognize a drive system component if it walked up and gave us a noogie," Sherlock pointed out.
"That too," Longstocking agreed.
Kit was frowning. "Why protect this part and not the rest of the ship?"
"Obviously the aliens felt that this particular sub-system was of great importance," Moseivitch observed. "Perhaps it is a crew module."
"Not much of a crew compartment for a four hundred ton star ship," Sherlock commented.
"If it is a crew compartment, it's for a crew that's absolutely nothing like us," Longstocking said. "Among the metals mixed into the outer shell are a whole slew of trans-uranics. Enough to give you a lethal dose of radiation poisoning within ten minutes if you were standing next to it- and that's not counting bleed energy from the power core. That's the other reason it's here. We're a power system shop, so we've got the gear to handle hot stuff."
"Clearly our priority is to get inside," Moseivitch declared. "Any suggestions, Darkstar?"
"Place jamming modules and sensor pods right against the shield," Darkstar replied. "The jammers punch holes through which the sensors can scan."
"Can you do that, Longstocking?" Moseivitch asked, turning about.
"Not a problem, Professor," Longstocking assured. "We use a technique like that while we're testing reconditioned power cores. Liska, Sherlock, you both know what to do, so..." shi gestured vaguely.
"Aye aye, boss." Sherlock moved to a station at the left end of the first row.
"That's an affirm, chief." Liska moved down to the front of the room where there was a row of four stations right up against the bottom of the view port. Each of these had a pair of metal gauntlets suspended over it and more controls on the floor underneath. These stations included a place to sit: low padded benches, running not side to side as one might expect but rather front to back, so that when Liska took a seat at the leftmost station she was actually sitting on the end of the bench. She inserted her hands into the gauntlets and they constricted to fit; a holographic display of the object shimmered into being in the space between them. She began to murmur instructions to the computer, manipulating the translucent image as if it were a physical object. The image responded as if it were; icons, lines, and little text sidebars appeared in response to Liska's manipulations and spoken directions.
Kit left his place by the window to stand beside Sherlock, watching closely as hir fingers flew, rapidly and precisely, over the controls. Valjean and Javert were watching Liska, but they seemed to be paying more attention to the woman herself than to what she was doing. Darkstar noted both these facts, then strolled over beside Longstocking.
"If this project is such a big deal, why do you still have student interns?" Darkstar inquired, pitching hir voice so that only Longstocking would hear.
Longstocking shrugged. "Dumb luck, mainly. We'd just finished servicing a couple Windstorm class interceptors when I get a call telling me to prepare to receive some wreckage for analysis, details to be forthcoming. Nothing to suggest that it's anything but routine. Then the tug arrives, drops this thing off, and I get told that this is all a very serious matter involving the highest levels of the Chakonan government, and for security reasons I am to impose communications discipline and all personnel are confined to the station. What could I do? They may just be student interns but so long as they're here they're subject to Security Force regulation. I couldn't send them away even if I wanted to. Besides, they're not too bad. I predict that Mr. Carson there will be one Hell of an engineer when he graduates."
"What about the Hugo brothers?" Darkstar wanted to know.
Longstocking pursed hir lips. "They're quite capable in their own way but... mmm... rather too easily distracted, I'd have to say."
Darkstar turned hir head and studied Liska for a moment. "That's one Hell of a distraction," shi observed.
"Hmm, well..." Longstocking allowed hirself a hint of a smile. "I suppose it is, at that."
"Programming is complete, ready to execute," Sherlock reported.
Longstocking nodded. "On screen, if you please, and execute."
"Aye aye." Sherlock touched a control; a rectangular section of the view port turned black then displayed a computer-generated three dimensional wire frame image of the object's surface. Inside that was a smooth surfaced, vaguely bean shaped object with six red dots affixed to various parts of it. Out in the work room the cradle began to rotate; the image in the view port conformed exactly to its movements. Three orange lines appeared on the image, converging on one of the red dots.
"First step is we're going to use a transporter to beam out slugs of the shell material," Sherlock explained. "The slugs are samples we can analyze, and the holes where they were gives us a place to put the jammers and sensors."
A blinking yellow circle had appeared around the first dot. Kit glanced at the actual object but nothing of what was happening could be seen by the naked eye. Suddenly a second set of orange lines appeared; the first set began to curve so that their point of intersection was inside the bean-shaped volume.
"Bloody Hell!" Sherlock exclaimed, in shock and surprise rather than anger.
"Report," Longstocking demanded.
"Um... Whatever's inside there has a transporter of its own. It intercepted the matter stream."
"Any change in baseline readings?" Darkstar asked.
"No." Sherlock was studying hir instruments closely. Shi glanced up- and started guiltily, as if shi had been caught doing something improper.
Longstocking glanced at Darkstar. A for an instant the two of them locked gazes, then Darkstar looked away. "Was the slug removed?" Longstocking inquired, as if nothing had happened.
"Yes sir," Sherlock replied.
"Then continue the program," Longstocking directed. "And monitor the baseline readings. I'd like to know how all this is affecting our..." shi hunted for a word. "Guest."
"I'll do that," Darkstar volunteered.
Longstocking glanced again. Again shi and Darkstar locked gazes. This time Darkstar didn't look away. "Very well," Longstocking agreed with a curt nod. Darkstar moved to the station next to Sherlock's.
Five more times the orange lines converged and the transporter energized. In each case the slug was successfully removed but intercepted by the alien object. None of it had any recognizably adverse effects.
"I wonder what it's gonna do when we try to beam in the hardware," Sherlock muttered.
"Only one way to find out," Longstocking replied.
"That's an affirm," Sherlock replied, shaking hir head. "Energizing... gulp. There goes the first pod." Shi looked up at Longstocking. "It intercepted the matter stream before the jammer could materialize."
"No change in baseline readings," Darkstar put in.
Professor Moseivitch turned around. "If it can beam through the containment field, can we?"
"Yes," Sherlock replied, "But not without employing a high level of brute force."
"I see." Moseivitch faced forward again. "Until we develop a better understanding of this artifact, I believe that a more delicate approach is indicated," he pronounced as if speaking before a lecture hall.
"Drill it?" Liska suggested.
"Yes." Longstocking nodded. "Not as high tech, perhaps, but nonetheless effective."
Sherlock and Liska set to work once again. More lines and dots were plotted on the display. "Ready to execute," Sherlock reported.
"Do it," Longstocking replied.
This time there was more to see. The object rotated; a large mechanical arm deployed from one wall, selected a tool from one of the many racks, and moved it up against the side of the object. The computer generated view zoomed in close on the work area so that everyone could see as the tool's needle-like tip was brought in contact with the object's surface. In the work room the point of contact was indicated by a bright, actinic flickering such as might be generated by an arc welder. The tool remained fixed in place; the cutting head extended on the end of a flexible cable as it bored its way into the object. On the display, the drill path was indicated by a steadily lengthening yellow line.
"The material is pretty uneven, but so far nothing we can't cut," Liska reported.
"Be careful on the break through," Sherlock advised. "The cavity has filled with liquid oozing in from the surrounding layers."
The drill's design allowed it to snake its way around potential obstacles, taking the easiest if not the most direct route. On three occasions Liska had to interrupt the program and alter the route to keep the drill from trying to punch through exceptionally hard or delicate areas. After close to twenty minutes of careful progress the drill was very near to intersecting the first spherical cavity left by the transporter.
"Watch it," Sherlock warned.
"Don't worry." Liska chuckled. "I'll slide it in gently."
"I imagine she has a lot of experience with drilling," Darkstar commented- quietly. Sherlock made a strangled noise and had to clasp a hand over hir mouth.
In the last half centimeter Liska took manual control of the drill, using the gauntlets to direct the cutter's progress and sense subtle variations in the material. Everyone found themselves leaning forward as the gap closed-
"Damn!" Liska cursed.
"Report," Longstocking barked.
"Cutting head's jammed. The liquid in the chamber hardened suddenly."
Longstocking frowned. "I don't understand. Even if- let me see. Copy scan data to Sherlock's station."
"Aye aye," Liska responded, pulling her hands out of the gauntlets.
Longstocking stepped up next to Sherlock, forcing Kit to jump aside. Instead of merely looking, Longstocking leaned forward until hir nose was practically touching the console.
"What happened?" Moseivitch inquired.
"The cutting head uses force fields to shear through whatever it's cutting, so supposedly it can't jam because the cutters aren't physical," Sherlock explained. "It looks like the liquid not only solidified almost instantly, it's somehow preventing the shearing fields from focusing."
"How is such a thing possible?" Moseivitch wanted to know.
"Nanites," Darkstar replied.
Longstocking snapped erect. "Excuse me?"
"Nanites," Darkstar explained. "Microscopic machines, used to build integrated circuits and advanced composites-"
"Yes, yes, I know," Longstocking cut in. "I also know that nanties are exceedingly delicate and only function under very precise conditions. The inside of that thing-" shi pointed without looking- "is the equivalent of an explosion at a toxic waste dump. Nanites couldn't possibly function under those conditions."
"You mean our nanites could not function under those conditions," Professor Moseivitch clarified, his tone as pleasant and mild as ever.
"Well- yes," Longstocking allowed after a brief hesitation. "For what we usually do here, we don't deal with nanotechnology, you see-"
"Of course," Moseivitch interjected, gently but very smoothly and precisely. "In this matter, none of us are expert. So, if you will allow me the use of your communications suite, I shall summon one. An expert, that is."
"This is so weak," Valjean groused, pulling open a lower bunk and flopping down on it.
"We're getting free room and board, plus pay," Kit pointed out. He was slouched crossways on another lower bunk, reading from the screen of a portable workstation balanced on his thigh. "What more do you want? A suite at the Ritz-Carlton?"
"Would have been nice," Javert put in.
The bunk room was a long chamber with fold-out bunks for ten people, in two rows of five, along one wall. Opposite the bunks were lockers and cabinets for personal effects. At the very end was an enclosed area containing toilet facilities. Since the persons meant to be housed were Chakats the room was very long but not especially high. Kit had selected a lower berth because if he sat up on an upper his head would strike the ceiling.
"At least it's better than the dorm room," Valjean commented, rolling onto his belly and letting one arm flop over the side of his bunk, tracing loops on the floor with his fingertip.
"The dorm would be a lot better if you ever cleaned it," Kit replied.
Javert, who was standing, glanced at Valjean, who inclined his head ever so slightly. "Y'wanna know what really sucks about this place?" Javert demanded, side-stepping with his hind legs so that he rotated to face Kit squarely.
"Not particularly," Kit replied, without even looking up from his workstation. If he had he might have noticed the maniacal grin spreading across Javert's face, or the fact that Valjean had clasped a hand over his mouth to keep from laughing aloud.
"What I really hate about this place," Javert declared, moving carefully into position, "Is that there just aren't enough women. I haven't had a date in- in hours. My God, I don't think I can control myself any longer!" He reared up, pinning Kit to the bunk with his forepaws. When Kit tried to twist away Javert wrapped his arms around Kit's neck and started humping his leg. Kit struggled frantically and bellowed a string of what might have been vile curses if they hadn't been muffled to incomprehensibility by Javert's chest fur. Valjean could no longer restrain himself and fell out of his bunk laughing. He laughed even harder when Javert threw his head back and let his tongue loll out.
"Okay, I give all ready!" Kit shouted, managing finally to turn his head away from Javert's chest. "I swear, I'm gonna tell Longstocking you tried to rape me!"
Javert tossed his head disdainfully. "Never hold up. I'll tell the court you led me on with your provocative dress and flirtatious demeanor. I have witnesses." Valjean solemnly raised his right hand.
"Besides-" Kit leaned down to recover his workstation and brush the fox fur off of it- "how can you say that any place Miss Sharpears is doesn't have enough women?" He glanced to one side, letting his jaw drop and fanning the side of his face with his hand.
"Oh, Liska is plenty of woman, to be sure." Javert allowed himself a shiver of joy as he contemplated that fact. "But the operative word there is woman." He he held up one finger. "However great she may be, though, there is only one of her."
Kit dabbed at his forehead. "I don't think any of us would live to see thirty if there were more than one of her."
"Look, we're not saying this is a bad gig," Valjean put in, settling back onto his bunk but holding his torso erect. "As a summer job, with every weekend off, I'd say it's just this side of Heaven."
"But now we're stuck here, all the time, for however long Professor Moseivitch and the mucky-mucks at Security Force Command deem fit to keep this mess under wraps." Javert picked up the commentary without a break; a person who could not see them and did not know them well would never have noticed the switch.
"This is the sort of thing that could drag on for years," Valjean continued. "What happens in the fall when classes start?"
"Exactly how long do they expect to keep us locked up here?" Javert concluded. "I mean, why do they need us anyway? We're just interns, after all. There's gotta be about a zillion people, all of whom are way more capable than us, who'd give their left tit to be here right now."
Kit's expression had become thoughtful, his eyes unfocused. A smile appeared on his face, growing rapidly into a broad grin. He set his workstation aside and looked up. "Pure, dumb luck," he declared, rubbing his knees. "We just happened to be here when this gig came down the pipe. The reason we're still here is 'cause it's simpler. Sure, there's lots of repair stations, but what if this was the only one that happened to be open at just the right moment? Brass could have sent the alien artifact to any of them, but then there'd have to be an explanation for why the schedule was being changed. There are three student interns on board, but so what? They lock us down, security is preserved. What are we gonna do, jump out the window?" He shrugged. "In short, we're here because a lot of difficult explanations get deferred until later when they can be properly spun."
"The applicant's thesis is thoughtfully reasoned and well presented," Javert said, "But it begs one very important question: why would Security Force Command want to sit on this? An honest to God alien star ship drops into our back yard, and we even manage to recover a piece of it that still works. This is the find of the century."
Kit's face became blank except for a slight narrowing of the eyes that gave his expression a frightening intensity. "Don't you see it?" he asked. "There's what, two or three dozen member races in the Stellar Federation? Of those, five- six including Terrans- developed space travel on their own. Every one of them hit on the notion of super-gravity compression to force their ships into hyper-space. The drive we use today is kinda the average of all those, taking the best of each design. But this morning, at 0230 hours, everything the Stellar Federation thought it knew about interstellar travel became obsolete." He extended the index finger of his left hand. "The alien ship does not use super-graivty compression, so it can't be tracked by our sensors. There could be a zillion of them out there right now and we'd never know it." Middle finger. "The alien ship sustains itself in hyper-space without the use of a warp core-"
"Objection," Javert cut in. "The witness has alluded to evidence that has not been entered into the record."
"Your Honors, the defense submits that it has not violated any procedures," Kit replied. "The energy required to sustain a space-warp field generated by super-gravity compression is enormous. The only currently known practical source for that quantity of energy is the reaction of matter and anti-matter. When equal quantities of matter and anti-matter are brought in contact, one hundred per cent of the matter is converted to energy. Problem is, any matter will do. Which is why our star ships are rigged to eject their warp reactors if they come into distress. If the core's integrity is violated, and fuel elements are allowed to touch either the structure of the core itself or the ship carrying it, you get a big-ass boom. That did not happen, or- as Longstocking so eloquently pointed out- there would not have been anything left to find."
"The Defense's arguments are persuasive, but no not banish reasonable doubt," Valjean said. "The object we recovered could be the warp core."
Kit shook his head. "No. I was looking over Sherlock's shoulder, remember? The containment field inside the object is not anywhere near powerful enough. Which is to be expected given that it is powered by nuclear fusion, which produces only one twentieth the amount of energy as matter/anti-matter. Therefore, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, the alien ship was not carrying a warp reactor. Now, Your Honors, I ask you to consider this: what would be the public reaction of it were commonly known that there exists an alien race, about which we know nothing, whose ships can move through our space without being detected, and can be refueled simply by scooping hydrogen?"
Valjean and Javert looked at each other. "There'd be mass panic," Valjean whispered.
A view screen on the wall lit up, displaying Sherlock's head and shoulders. "Howdy, gents. Just calling to let you know that Professor Moseivitch's guest will be arriving in approximately thirty minutes. If you want to get some dinner before the evening's festivities commence, you'd best do it now. Bye." Shi vanished.
"That was quick," Kit muttered, opening his workstation and checking the time. Professor Moseivitch has placed his call a bit less than two and a half hours ago. "Well, I don't know about you two, but I'm gonna go eat."
"I'm not sure I'm hungry any more," Valjean muttered- but nonetheless he got to his feet and followed Kit and his brother out.
"What d'ye suppose this new expert is gonna be like?" Javert inquired, picking up a slice of pizza and folding it in half before eating it.
"Probably some dried up old prune, given the way things have been going," Valjean put in. He was scraping the toppings from his slice, then eating them separate from the crust.
Kit shrugged, dabbing his mouth with a napkin before transferring another slice to his plate. With properly applied persuasion the food synthesizer would produce a pepperoni and sausage pizza (with three cheeses and extra sauce) that was actually quite palatable.
"I resent that," Darkstar pronounced, running the fingers of one hand through hir mane. "I am certainly not dried up. In fact, I think I could teach that young buck a thing or two about what goes on in the bedroom."
"You've got good ears if you can hear them from here," Longstocking commented, leaning slightly to hir right so that shi could see past Darkstar's shoulder. The three young men, gathered around a table on the other side of the wardroom, seemed to be speculating about how ugly Professor Moseivitch's expert was likely to be.
"Never been anything wrong with my hearing," Darkstar replied, taking a drink of juice. "It's my vision that's shot to Hell. Can't see worth a damn at night any more."
"Must have been a useful talent for keeping all those junior officers in line." Longstocking carefully cut a section from hir hamburger and ate it with a fork.
"Oh?" Darkstar raised an eyebrow.
"Oh, come on." Longstocking added a dash more barbecue sauce before taking another bite. "You were in the military, Darkstar. It's in the way you stand, the way you walk, the way you speak... It's oozing out of your pores. Since I haven't heard of you in the Security Forces, I figure you must have been in Starfleet. Twenty years, at least. What I can't figure is how someone like you got hooked up with Moseivitch."
Darkstar's eyes unfocused for just a moment. "Thirty-seven years. I met Fyodor after I... retired and came home. He... persuaded me to take a part-time teaching position at Dewclaw University."
"What did you teach?"
"Funny." Longstocking concentrated for a moment. "I've had my share of Astronautics interns, and none of them ever mentioned you."
"I've been out of that for oh, eight years now." Darkstar took a tentative sip of hir ramen to test its temperature. Finding it satisfactory slurped a spoonful.
"What do you do now?"
"The usual." Darkstar shrugged. "Putter in the garden. Read books. Hang out at the community center, swapping lies with the other old farts. Chair the township council. Take care of my granddaughter."
"Granddaughter, huh?" Longstocking chuckled. "You must have dozens of them. Got any pictures?"
Darkstar shook hir head. "No. No pictures."
Longstocking gaped in exaggerated shock. "A grandparent who doesn't have a sheaf of pictures of hir grand kids? I don't believe it!"
Darkstar glanced up. There was no obvious change in hir expression but hir face had suddenly become closed, as blank as a mask. "I gave up carrying pictures a long time ago. When my loved ones are with me I don't need pictures of them. When they aren't... the pictures just remind me of what's not there." shi picked up hir bowl and began sipping the broth. "What about you? You're old enough to have kids, if not grand kids. Where are your pictures?"
Longstocking toyed with the remains of hir hamburger. "I don't have any," shi confessed. "In high school I had a terrible crush, but shi went to a different college and I never saw hir again. In college I tried several times but it always ended up fizzling out. What with studying and all there just wasn't time. Then I went into the Service and had even less time. Now...." Shi shrugged.
"Shi's a jealous mate, the Service is," Darkstar commented.
"Yeah." Longstocking nodded.
Some minutes passed. Darkstar finished hir soup; Longstocking continued to shuffle bits of hamburger around on hir plate with no apparent interest in eating them.
A chiming sound indicated that the public address system had been activated. "Ops to Commander," Sherlock's voice announced. "Dr. Janek's shuttle will be arriving in ten minutes."
"Acknowledged." Longstocking got to hir feet. "Sorry, gotta go. Been nice talking." Darkstar merely nodded as Longstocking collected was left of hir meal and fed it into the recycle slot on the food synthesizer.
Professor Moseivitch came hurrying in, patting his hair into place. He took a seat on the couch, adjusted his coat, and after what seemed like a moment's thought his face lit up with an incredible smile.
"What a phony," Valjean muttered, using the pretense of scratching his ear to glance at the professor.
"At least I'd say he's got reason to smile," Javert put in. "Considering that he and Miss Sharpears were both out of sight for a while, eh?"
"Here they come," Kit cautioned.
Longstocking was first. Next-
"Oh, baby," Valjean exclaimed, doing a comical double-take.
"Yiff, yiff, and yiff," Javert added, licking his palm and using that to slick down the fur on the top of his head.
"That is most certainly not a prune," Kit observed thoughtfully.
The subject of all this attention was the young- early twenties at most- Chakat who had followed Longstocking into the wardroom. This individual was patterned like a snow leopard, light grey with dark roseated spots. Hir mane was salt-and-pepper, more light than dark, and held back from hir face by an elegant, hand tooled leather clip. Hir torso was clothed in a doeskin jacket decorated with long fringes and intricate beadwork. And what a torso it was; the front of the jacket swelled under the influence of a bust line that only a tape measure could have said was any less than Liska's. The rest of the newcomer's body could only be described as full figured, but nevertheless lithe and firm.
"I know what I want for dinner," Valjean said, licking his lips in a most lascivious manner.
"Yeah, but please don't eat it at the table," Kit replied.
"Why not?" Javert wanted to know.
"It would be disgusting."
"What if I agreed to share?" Valjean wanted to know.
"That would be even more disgusting."
"Ah, Dr. Janek, so good to see you," Moseivitch exclaimed, starting forward with his hand extended to shake. He went right past the young Chakat to the person standing beside hir, whom neither Kit nor the Hugos had even noticed. Dr. Janek appeared to be a Terran male, though he was even shorter than Fyodor. In general appearance he could have been as young as his companion; his body was firm, athletic, and perfectly proportioned, like a Greek statue come to life. His face was rounded and smooth, his features fine and aristocratic. In his own way he was as stunningly beautiful as Liska- and like her he was not a Terran. His skin was jet black, the kind that appears to be very dark blue under bright light. His almond-shaped eyes were the red of fresh arterial blood, and his shoulder length, ramrod-straight hair was the white of bleached bone. Finally, his ears were quite long- they stood out from the sides of his head- and came to sharp points.
"What's he?" Kit asked, leaning toward Javert.
"An elf," Javert responded.
Kit frowned. "Never heard of them. Where are they from?"
"Nowhere," Valjean responded. "They're genetically engineered. I understand they were all the rage about a hundred years ago."
"That is the big problem with elective genetic surgery," Kit muttered, crossing his arms. "What do you do when your kids go out of style?"
"Everyone, please allow me to introduce Dr. Ito Janek, professor of Nanotechnology, from our very own College of Inorganic Chemistry," Moseivitch announced. "And of course the lovely Chakat Snowflake, student intern, Astronautics major, and a most capable pilot."
"I got your joystick right here, baby," Valjean commented with a self-satisfied smirk.
"Shi can fly me any day," Javert added.
"Will you two just sheath it?" Kit slapped each brother on he back of the head. "Or am I gonna have to get the fire hose?"
Snowflake may or may not have overheard what was said but it was clear that shi had guessed the meaning. Shi gave the trio a measured look, then tossed hir head and flipped hir tail.
Professor Moseivitch quickly introduced the team. "Now, if you would care to have a seat, Longstocking will present a briefing-"
"No," Ito cut in, turning to face the professor. "Skip the briefing. Just show me the scan data. The set those samples you sent me came from."
Moseivitch shrugged. "As you wish. Longstocking?"
"Got it." Longstocking moved to one of the cubicle mounted workstations and started typing. "Here goes." The view screen deployed, the room lights dimmed, and data began to appear.
Valjean and Javert quickly lost interest and spent their time admiring Snowflake. Kit continued to watch the parade of graphs, diagrams, and images though he understood no more than a fraction of it, frowning slightly in concentration as if he could absorb knowledge by sheer force of will. Because of this he did not notice that Darkstar was watching him, a thoughtful expression on hir face.
"Stop," Ito said. Longstocking touched a control; the parade of images halted. "Darkstar," Ito began, turning his head toward that person, "I understand you theorized that the material had been constructed by nanites?"
"That's correct," Darkstar agreed.
A wry little half smile spread across Ito's face, exposing some of his perfect, dazzlingly white teeth. "That was a very astute observation. I'm sorry to tell you that it's only half right."
"Oh?" Darkstar cocked hir head.
Ito's smile widened. "Yes. The material that jammed the drill head was not made by nanites. It was made of nanites. You were drilling into a cavity full of liquid, yes? That liquid was a nutrient solution with nanites floating in it. The nanites linked together, like, like-" he searched for words, hooking his index fingers as a demonstration.
"Cockleburs?" Darkstar suggested.
"Yes." Ito nodded. "The nanites linked together like cockleburs to form a solid mass. The reason the drill couldn't free itself is because each individual nanite has a force shield around it that's meant to protect it from intense radiation. Those shields also diffuse the shearing fields in the drill bit. Moreover, after quickly reviewing the complete data set it's clear to me that all the material thus far analyzed had been created the same way. Obviously more detailed study is required, but I'm confident in saying that your alien artifact is composed entirely of nanites, the same way an organic body is composed of cells."
"How... how is that possible?" Sherlock asked, somewhat hesitantly tossing hir question out into the stunned silence following Dr. Janek's incredible pronouncement.
Dr. Janek's expression became somber. "Frankly, I have no idea. Rest assured that I'd like very much to find out, because to our science, it's not. Whoever built this star ship has forgotten more about nanotechnology than the entirety of the Stellar Federation has ever known."
Professor Moseivitch looked up in surprise as the door to his room suddenly burst open and Darkstar stepped in. "I'm leaving you, Fyodor Ivanov," shi declared.
Fyodor closed his personal workstation and folded the desk back into the wall. His quarters, under normal circumstances, would have housed one of the station's senior officers. Even so it was not very large; the desk, workstation, and bunk were all fold-out units. Deploying them all at once left hardly enough room for a humanoid, much less a Chakat. "Why?" he asked, resuming his seat on the edge of the bunk.
"Let me tell you a story, Fyodor Ivanov," Darkstar began, taking a seat on the floor. "Midmorning yesterday I was laying in the sun on my front porch, looking forward to a pleasant nap. The next thing I know, this funny little man has appeared and is regaling me with fantastic stories about alien technology and even a possible First Contact. He asks me to come with him, and against my better judgement I find myself compelled to do so, just to see if what he says is really true. For a wonder it is. Now, having seen what I came to see, I'm going home. I need to be with Aurora." Shi started to rise.
"Please don't go," Fyodor entreated quietly. "I need you."
"You are a lying sack of shit, Fyodor Ivanov." Darkstar spoke with a calmness that comes from having long ago exhausted all the emotional energy in a subject. "You don't need me as a scientist, you've got a hundred people at your fingertips who are infinitely better than I ever was. My expertise is Astronautics, while extensive, is rather dated. So why do you need me, Fyodor Ivanov?" Hir voice had suddenly developed an edge as sharp as a razor, and hir eyes became as hard and merciless as cold steel.
Fyodor's face sagged. He wasn't afraid, he was just... sad. "What do you know about the Janus Project?"
Darkstar frowned, hir expression wary. "Never heard of it."
"It is the consortium that funded the Mileva Memorial Hyper-Spatial Observatory," Fyodor explained. "Scientific organizations from Terra, Voxxa, Cait, Merrak, and right here on Chakona put up fifteen billion credits to fund the development and construction of the instrument."
Darkstar blinked. "That is a Hell of a lot of money for a scientific organization to cough up, even if it is a multi-national."
Fyodor nodded. "That's because sixty percent of the cash came from Starfleet."
Darkstar's eyes were still narrowed but hir expression had changed from one of distrust to one of calculation. "Why haven't I heard that?"
"Because Starfleet doesn't want the public to know. The money was channeled primarily through an organization called the Tenspan Foundation, which is a front for the Federation Science Corps. It's how Starfleet funds military research when they don't want the public to know it's military."
"There's more," Darkstar said. It was not a question.
"The new observatory was to be placed in the Chakastra system, it was said, to take advantage of the concentration of scientific study at Dewclaw University," Fyodor continued. "The uplink, data processing, and control centers were built right on campus. In fact, the College of Astrophysics was completely rebuilt to accommodate it- including a real-time hyper-wave link to the Razagal Observatory on Voxxa and the Hawking Observatory on Terra. The University has been guaranteed generous access to all these facilities- access with which it may do anything it likes, including resell."
"All of which costs the University what?" Darkstar wanted to know.
Fyodor began to smile but it was bleak, unpleasant expression. "Not a cent. All costs generously absorbed- not by the Janus Consortium, of which Dewclaw University and the Chakonan Government are technically members, but the Tenspan Foundation directly."
"And your part in all this?"
"I am the Janus Consortium's Chakonan representative. My job was to sell the whole idea to the university and the government. Easy, because I was waving a lot of money around. Hard, because I had to skillfully deflect questions about wherefrom that money was coming. In return, all the power and prestige that come from it are mine alone."
Darkstar tipped hir head back, thoughtfully stroking hir throat and chin with the back of one hand. "After all that, the Tenspan Foundation might come to think that they owned you."
Fyodor nodded. "They might very well think that. They might expect that when a Federation science vessel arrives in a week or so I will turn everything over to the Science Corps."
"You're a dirty, conniving little bastard, Fyodor Ivanov," Darkstar said. "It would serve you right if I just left you to hang."
"Please, Darkstar. You of all people can appreciate what's at stake. Yes, I traded my personal integrity for power. I persuaded the university's board of trustees to trade their scientific integrity for money. But the power I've gained has put me in a position to do some good and I need your help to do it."
"What are you going to do, Fyodor Ivanov?"
"Keep this discovery in civilian hands," Fyodor replied. "If Starfleet gets ahold of this they'll turn it into a black project. Once they realize what they've got they'll decide it's simply too upsetting to let the general public know, and it'll vanish as if it had never existed. I think that would be a terrible mistake and I intend to stop it."
"How can I help?" Darkstar crossed hir arms and leaned back slightly.
"I can't take Starfleet head on. I'll have to fight this as a maneuvering battle, and for that good intelligence is essential."
"You want me to be your spy master," Darkstar said.
"You're the only person I can trust. You have powerful friends and lots of them, who'll listen very carefully to what you say."
Darkstar stood. Shi wanted to pace but there was no room so shi sat back down. Hir face had become as blank and hard as that of an iron mask, but hir eyes burned like coals. "I understand how important this is," shi said in a voice almost too soft to hear. "I agree with everything you said. But-" Shi stood, moving forward so that hir forequarters pinned Fyodor's legs against the edge of the bunk. "But there's a scene I just can't get out of my mind. It was very much like this, now. You and I, alone, in a small place. You, confessing a terrible secret. You, telling me that you needed me." Hir eyes narrowed to slits, hir ears lay back. "You were lying." The word came out as a venomous hiss.
Fyodor swallowed. He wasn't afraid, just sad. Very, very sad. "I'm sorry for that, Darkstar. I regret it. Terribly." He rubbed his face; tears oozed between his fingers. "You... you deserve so much better than me." He straightened up, lifting his chin. "Tell me what you need me to do to make you believe me and I'll do it."
Darkstar cocked hir head. "Anything?"
"Anything." His face was clear, his expression serene.
The calculating look returned to Darkstar's face, but only momentarily. "Take off your clothes," shi ordered, climbing up onto the bunk.
"I have a solution to your problem," Dr. Janek pronounced. "If everyone will gather around, I will demonstrate." He slipped the virtual reality goggles down over his face, then sat down at one of the control stations and slipped his hands into the gauntlets.
The laboratory control room was a smaller version of the Operations Center. There was one row of consoles and a row of control stations; a transparisteel view port separated it from the actual lab, which was about two thirds the size of the wardroom. The equipment in the lab was all of a comfortably human scale and geared to handle mechanical, electronic, or chemical projects. Instead of mechanical arms attached to the walls or ceiling there was a servo: a robot, basically, meant to be remote controlled by a human operator.
"How appropriate," Javert murmured.
"What?" Kit asked.
The servo was a horrifying contraption. It had a head, torso, and two arms in a more or less humanoid configuration, though the designers had made no attempt to model any particular species. Instead of humanoid legs, though, the mechanical torso was attached via a flexible articulation to a bulbous body supported by four spindly, insectile limbs.
"That a Drow should be controlling a drider," Valjean put in.
"Huh?" Kit blinked.
"Explain later," Javert whispered, smiling innocently when Sherlock turned to glance at him.
Under Dr. Janek's direction the servo walked up to a bench that had some apparatus set up upon it. "This is a slug cut from the outer shell of the alien artifact," Ito explained. The servo pointed to a shallow pan containing a disk of slightly translucent dark amber colored material that was about ten centimeters across and one centimeter thick. "I will now pour over it a solution containing the nanites I have developed." The servo picked up a beaker full of murky, greenish liquid, and poured it into the pan. There was an immediate reaction; the fluid began to burble and quickly changed to dark purple. After about half a minute all activity ceased. The servo reached into the tray and scooped out a handful of bristly fibers and a thick, greasy sludge that seemed to be all the remained of the disk.
"I assume we can control this?" Sherlock asked. "I mean, we don't want to dissolve the whole thing."
"Not to worry." Ito pulled his hands out of the gauntlets and took off the goggles; the servo, directed now by the computer, cleaned up the mess. "I made my nanites as tough as I could, but inside the artifact they'll last maybe a minute before radiation destroys them. About the best we can hope for is that they'll keep the drill bit clear until you place your sensor pods."
"We have an adequate supply on hand?" Moseivitch wanted to know.
"Yes," Longstocking replied. "Security Force has an orbital nanite factory used to make spare integrated circuits and holographic logic units. I had Dr. Janek's specifications sent over last night; they'll be delivering our nanites in, oh-" shi glanced at a bulkhead chronometer- "any minute now."
"Only three days," Darkstar commented. "Not bad."
"That's what military discipline will do for you," Sherlock declared, drawing hirself up proudly.
"Not to mention a military budget," Darkstar put in.
"That too," Longstocking allowed.
"Excellent." Fyodor rubbed his hands together excitedly. "Let us retire to the Ops room and prepare, shall we?"
As everyone filed out of the room Kit grabbed Valjean and Javert by the backs of their necks. "Now what is all this about Drow and driders?" he wanted to know.
"Drow are a mythical race of dark skinned elves that live underground," Valjean explained. "Driders are cursed Drow, half elf and half spider."
"Ew." Kit glanced nervously at the servo, then slipped past the brothers so as to leave the room ahead of them. They hurled boos and catcalls after him.
"The nanites are loaded," Sherlock announced, glancing at a panel. "Ready when you are, Professor."
Fyodor nodded. "Please proceed."
Longstocking raised hir voice slightly. "Liska?"
"That's an affirm." Liska slipped her arms into the control gauntlets. Everything was as it had been before: the cradle rotated the artifact, the mechanical arms extended with tools in their grip, a computer-generated 3D graphic inset on the view port displayed how work was progressing.
"What's happening?" Snowflake hissed, sidling up beside Kit.
Kit glanced at Sherlock, then stepped away so as not to disturb hir. "This thing here," he whispered back, pointing at the artifact, "Is all that's left of a ship that smacked into the sensing array of the Mileva Memorial Hyper-Spatial Observatory. Something inside it still works, enough to generate a force field we can't scan through. So we're drilling holes to put sensor pods in. We couldn't use a transporter 'cause whatever it is eats transporter beams. We couldn't drill in before 'cause there's nanties in there that rebuild things as fast as you can cut through them. If Dr. Janek's nanites do the trick we'll be able to place the sensor pods and find out what's inside."
"First pod in place," Liska announced. "Your nanites are working like champs, Doc." She gave him a very warm smile. He returned it with a sly wink. Liska giggled. Snowflake folded hir arms, huffed loudly, and rolled hir eyes.
The cradle rotated again. A mechanical arm moved to start drilling the second hole-
"Yow!" Liska exclaimed.
"Report," Longstocking demanded.
"There was a tremor," Sherlock reported. "Something shifted inside the object."
"Junior's getting restless," Valjean muttered. Snowflake had grabbed ahold of Kit's arm. He looked at hir quizzically; shi let go and stepped away, head drooped in embarrassment.
"May I call up a seismograph view?" Darkstar asked. Longstocking nodded; Darkstar operated the controls, and a second window appeared beside the first. In it was a jagged wave form drawn on a slowly scrolling graph. The tremor was a pronounced spike, but it was far from alone. The line was full of small bumps and spikes.
"It's pretty active, isn't it," Longstocking commented.
"It's getting more active," Darkstar reported. "According to the sensor logs, seismic activity was almost nil when it was brought in, but has been steadily increasing over the last three days."
"Mr. Sharpears, can you compensate?" Longstocking asked.
"Uh- yes, sir. It just caught me by surprise."
"Carry on, then."
As the drilling continued Kit kept glancing at Snowflake- cautiously, for fear that shi might notice- but shi never did. After a while he realized that shi was staring intently at the seismograph display. "What is it?" he asked quietly.
"Huh?" Snowflake blinked. "Um-" Shi frowned, lashing hir tail in vexation. Fragile thoughts forming in the back of hir mind dissolved when shi tried to examine them closely. Something about Snowflake visiting hir father, an obstetrician, while shi was attending to a patient. But what did that have to do with this?
In less than half an hour all the sensors were placed. "I'm getting telemetry," Sherlock announced. The 3D image of the object was replaced by a hash of static, like a TV tuned in between stations. "Damn, that force field is tight. Can't hardly get through even with the sensors right up against it. Darkstar, would give me a hand?"
"Sure." Darkstar moved in. As the two of them worked strange patterns emerged and receded, like forms dimly glimpsed through heavy snowfall- or perhaps merely the result of the mind trying to make sense out of randomness. The image dimmed until it was almost blacked out, brightened until it was almost whited out, then finally began to stabilize.
"What the Hell is that?" Valjean wondered, cocking his head first one way, then the other.
Snowflake was frowning, deeply, eyes narrowed almost to slits. The picture was blurry, grainy, and flickering. At the far right edge of the window was a solid white border whose inner edge was curved. The rest of the image was dark, ranging from pale gray to almost black. Against that background were a jumbled network of lines and curves, varying in shape and thickness. Suddenly the picture of hir father at the hospital came back even more strongly. Snowflake could see the patient, a young Chakat pregnant with hir first child, laying on a low bed. Snowflake's father sitting next to the bed, aiming a sensing wand at the mother's tumescent belly. On the wall was a large view screen; on it could be seen a hazy outline of the infant's skeleton. A sidebar graph monitored fetal heartbeat and vital signs-
A sharp spike appeared on the seismograph view. The jumble of lines suddenly changed, and in changing could be seen as foreshortened three dimensional forms instead of merely intersecting two dimensional shapes. Other than the large event the seismograph was showing a series of small, regular humps.
"Oh my God!" Snowflake shrieked, clutching hir hands to hir cheeks. "It's a baby!"
Professor Moseivitch finished his coffee, then set the mug on the table and folded his hands over it. Behind him the disk of Chakona was dark except for a frosting of light from scattered urban areas, a large electrical storm in the northern hemisphere, and a narrow sliver of sunlight along the eastern rim. Darkstar was seated across from him, Ito to his right, and snowflake to his left. Otherwise the wardroom was empty.
"Professor, please tell me you're not taking this seriously," Ito pleaded in what he no doubt thought was a reasonable tone. "Whatever we have in there is fantastically complex and certainly the product of a technology far in advance of ours, but it's synthetic. For the love of reason, it's just a machine!"
"Professor, just because I'm not some high mucky-muck scientist doesn't make me the drooling idiot Dr. Janek seems to think I am," Snowflake growled. Hir eyes were narrowed, hir ears laid back, hir tail lashing angrily. "My father happens to be doctor of natal medicine. I've spent a lot of time in the hospital with hir. I even took a year of premed before switching to Astronautics. If you put what we just saw side by side with a third-trimester Chakat nine of ten people couldn't tell the difference! It has a skeleton. It has hands! You saw it, Professor!"
"You're far too modest." Ito's tone was quiet but dripping with sarcasm. "You must be a great scientist if you can tell all that from studying one poor quality scanner image!"
"And you can?" Snowflake retorted, slapping hir hands down on the table and jumping to hir feet.
Both parties were shocked into silence by Professor Moseivitch's outburst. They were even more shocked to see the livid rage etched on his normally saturnine features. "Both of you are acting like children," he snapped, leveling a finger as if it were a lethal weapon. "I remind you that we are all here to learn. Dr. Janek." Fyodor skewered him with hard, merciless eyes. "You yourself theorized that the object was composed of nanites in the way an organic body is composed of cells. If one extends that analogy to its logical conclusion, you are in fact proposing the idea of a synthetic machine that, to a high degree, mimics the form and function of an organic body. Snowflake." Shi shrank back as Fyodor's eyes transfixed hir, but shi could not look away. "If you wish to play the role of scientist you must follow the rules. Because you saw something in scan image that bears a passing resemblance to a fetus does not prove that what you saw was a fetus. At this point there is no evidence to support any conclusion. More investigation is required. To that end we are going to return to Chakona, where the scan data and samples we have collected can be analyzed with better equipment than is available here. That will include having the latest scan data analyzed by fetal experts from the College of Life Sciences. If it is- or is not- a fetus, let that judgement be rendered by those who are expert on the subject." Moseivitch got to his feet. "We will be leaving as soon as all materials have been packed for shipment." He turned on his heel and walked out without looking back.
"I'd get moving if I were you," Darkstar said as Ito and Snowflake glanced at hir for support. "And especially I wouldn't cross him again. The Professor is made of sterner stuff than you might imagine."
Rum Tum Tugger was a Webber class shuttle, a small vessel intended for intra-system transport or short interstellar hops. Its lines suited its utilitarian nature: a short, boxy fuselage with a blunt pointed stem and a flat stern which housed a drop-down cargo ramp. A pair of warp pods were low-mounted on either side, doubling as landing skids. The interior was a single open cabin with two pilot stations at the front. Tracks were distributed on the deck, overhead, and bulkheads so that cargo or cabin fixtures could be quickly and easily installed, removed, or re-arranged as needed. Configured for passengers it could seat thirty humanoids or sixteen centauroids. Alternatively it could be filled with up to a ton and a half of cargo. The present cabin arrangement was a compromise: six Chakat style couches (padded benches with fold-out torso supports), four humanoid style chairs (whose backs were notched since not all humanoids were without tails), and the rest left open for storing cargo.
"Anything else you need?" Longstocking asked. Tugger's stern was mated to Sigma 17's transfer lock; Longstocking stood in the lock chamber, holding the controls of a motorized palette jack that was loaded with half a dozen large cannisters liberally plastered with biohazard and radiation warnings. Kit and Sherlock had just arranged six more cannisters in Tugger's cargo area and were busy strapping them down with netting.
"No, we've got everything," Darkstar replied, settling into the pilot's couch. Fyodor selected the front most seat on the right side of the cabin; he couldn't use the copilot's station because it was also designed for a centauroid.
"You're sure those are the right cannisters?" Ito anxiously inquired, skittering about and trying to look at the labels as Kit and Sherlock transferred the rest from the palette jack to the deck.
"Yes, yes," Longstocking said with the quiet patience of one who has oft repeated hirself.
"Sit down, Doctor," Darkstar called over hir shoulder. "If Longstocking says they're the right ones, I'm sure they are." Reluctantly, Ito took a seat- last one on the left- and opened his portable workstation.
"Cargo is loaded and secure," Sherlock reported, giving the tie-downs one last tug. Still, Darkstar got up and tested the tensioning of each strap by thumping it with hir hand.
"'Smatter, don't trust us?" Sherlock inquired good-naturedly.
"When it comes to things for which I am assuming responsibility, I don't trust nobody," Darkstar responded. "Good work." Shi gave Kit And Sherlock a clap on the shoulder then returned to the cockpit. "Prepare to cast off."
Sherlock and Kit hopped into the transfer lock. Longstocking touched a control; the outer door rumbled shut with a muffled thud. Darkstar, after one last glance astern, touched a control on the console. The cargo ramp lifted. "Yawn," she commanded, fitting action to word. Fyodor obeyed without hesitation.
"Why?" Ito asked, glancing up. As the cargo ramp closed cabin pressure changed minutely; Ito began pumping his jaw to relieve pressure in his inner ear. Darkstar rolled hir eyes.
"Umbilicals disconnected," Darkstar said in a sing-songy voice, touching a control. "Releasing moorings now."
Artificial gravity inside the cabin reduced but did not eliminate the sensation of movement. Ito clutched at the arms of his chair. Darkstar advanced power and swung the nose onto the Chakona approach vector, which put the planet off the right beam, just visible through the rightmost of the cockpit view ports.
"While we're dirt side I'm going to go see how Aurora's doing," Darkstar announced.
"I am not certain that there will be time," Fyodor cautioned.
Darkstar glanced at him. "Then we will make time."
Fyodor was starting to look worried. "Darkstar, I-"
"No buts, Fyodor." Darkstar did not raise hir voice but hir tone brooked not the slightest possibility of contradiction. "I am not some whacked-out workaholic to whom family are an inconvenient obstacle on the path to success. I quit that insane asylum you call a university to get away from the rat race. Technically I'm still retired. If you want me to work with you then Aurora is part of the project. That is not negotiable."
"Yes dear," Fyodor replied in that tone of voice that would be instantly recognizable to any husband or mate anywhere in the universe. Darkstar fixed him with a cold stare; he met it with a bland smile. Shi sniffed and looked away; his smile widened a bit.
"And then there is the matter of your pilot," Darkstar added.
"You mean Snowflake?" Fyodor's smile broadened. "Shi is a dish, isn't shi?"
"Very much so." Darkstar's scowl deepened; if hir tail had been longer it would have been lashing. "But then-" hir face cleared; shi fixed him with an expression of cool appraisal that, under the circumstances, was somehow worse than hot emotion. "Since shi's a Chakat, I suppose I have nothing to worry about."
Fyodor looked away. He was no longer smiling. Ito hastily looked down at his workstation; neither Fyodor nor Darkstar glanced back toward him but he didn't wish to take the chance that they might. Silence fell heavily.
Half an hour later Rum Tum Tugger was dropping through the upper atmosphere. Above the stars were blurred slightly but still bright. Below the lights of Berdoovia formed a glittering carpet across the landscape- but outside the sharply defined borders were was darkness, or at most only small, scattered clusters of light. Chakona's civic planners understood the costs of urban sprawl and kept it under tight control. It also became apparent that the shuttle wasn't coming down in the city, but slightly to one side of it. The only thing differentiating that area from anywhere else was that the islands of illumination were somewhat more tightly grouped, and sharp eyes would detect chains of lights connecting them. Darkstar was aiming for one of those clusters; as it got closer the outlines of individual buildings could be made out, and on top of one was a brightly illuminated landing circle.
"We have arrived," Darkstar announced, bringing Tugger down to an almost perfect landing. As the cargo ramp dropped cool, night air lightly scented by fresh grass, blossoms, and trees swirled through the cabin. It was refreshing after the closed, artificial atmosphere of the space station.
Ito got up and hurried down the ramp. Abruptly he froze, mid-stride. "Professor," he called, "Are we expecting visitors?"
"No," Fyodor replied. "Why?"
"There are a couple of Peace Force officers here."
Darkstar and Fyodor hurried down the ramp. Darkstar blinked; hir night vision was not what it had once been. The two Chakats in grey tunics were almost invisible in the semi-darkness.
"May we help you, officers?" Moseivitch asked as he stepped down onto the pad.
"Are you Fyodor Moseivitch?" of them asked, stepping forward.
"I'm terribly sorry, sir." Shi produced a chit. "I have a warrant for your arrest on the charge of willful misappropriation of Starfleet property."
The Operations Center was quiet but not silent. There was the faint, breathy sighing of the ventilation system, and muted sounds generated by various consoles as they carried out automated tasks. Listening carefully one could even hear the faint groans and creaks as the station's fabric responded to thermal and tidal stresses. Kit was subconsciously aware of all this, as anyone who spends extended periods in a space habitat tends to become. He was down at the front of the room, leaning against the view port, all of his conscious mind focused on the strange object out in the work bay. Directly above him the seismograph display was still open. A sharp spike appeared, one more in a long chain. The event was not directly visible on the object, though.
"What are you?" Kit whispered, curling his fingers against the transparisteel as if trying to claw through it. "Why did you come here?"
Kit started guiltily and spun around. Only one person he knew had a voice like that-
"What'cha doing?" Liska asked. Her overalls were unzipped even farther than usual, enough to reveal where the cups of her bra joined together. The roll of her hips as she walked down to the front of the room was hypnotic.
"Well... y'know... just... sort of... looking around." Kit gestured vaguely and looked away. His cheeks reddened.
"How 'come your not up in the wardroom with the rest of us?" Liska wanted to know.
Kit shrugged one shoulder, looking at a point just to the left of Liska's waist. "Dunno," he muttered. "I can't... I can't get this thing out of my head." He turned back to the view port. He didn't want Liska to see his face; he didn't want to have to admit that he'd left the wardroom because of her. With Moseivitch and company gone, and research halted until they came back, there wasn't much to do other than socialize. Valjean and Javert would immediately start hitting on everyone in sight and Liska in particular. One or the other would succeed; the Hugos were very talented- and persistent- in that area. That left only Chakats as potential partners- and that was a matter Kit definitely did not wish to discuss. How do you explain to someone that you don't want to sleep with them because they are, effectively, half animal? And, to top it all off, they're basically a woman with a penis? That all the Chakats Kit had met during his two some years on Chakona were exceptionally friendly and understanding only made it worse. If they had been ugly or unpleasant at least he would have some rationale to explain his feelings.
Liska chuckled, a sound that made Kit's heart flip-flop in his chest. "You're almost as bad as Dr. Janek, the way you're obsessing about this thing."
"I'm nothing like Dr. Janek," Kit said bitterly. Even he would admit that Ito was stunningly attractive. What female Would choose Kit if Ito were there?
"You're right," Liska said. "You're nothing like Dr. Janek. He's beautiful on the outside, but he already has a lover."
"Who?" Kit really didn't care, but he wanted Liska to stay.
"Himself." Liska tossed her head. "He'd never let something as ordinary as a woman distract him."
"You're not an ordinary woman," Kit heard himself saying. Where the Hell did that come from?
"Why, Kit!" she exclaimed, grinning mischievously. "Are you hitting on me?"
Kit's mouth worked. There was nothing in his mind but grey fog; rational thought was impossible.
"Well, since you're so interested in Professor Moseivitch's alien object, how would you like to touch it?" Liska asked.
"Huh?" The change in subject was a shock, but it allowed Kit's mind to function once again. "But- how? There's no atmosphere in the work room and I thought it was too radioactive to approach."
"It is," Liska replied. "But you can still touch it. Come here." She put her hand under Kit's arm and led him over to one of the control stations. His knees quavered; her touch was intoxicating. "Sit here," she directed. "Now take off your shoes."
"My shoes?" Kit repeated, looking blankly at her.
"Your shoes," Liska repeated. "You have to use your feet to operate the auxiliary controls. Or you'd have to keep pulling your hands out of the gauntlets, which is inconvenient." She dropped to one knee and undid the knot on his left boot. Kit could only sit and watch while she removed his footwear, including his socks. "Computer, activate Virtual Hands," she instructed.
The console beeped. "Program Virtual Hands ready," the computer replied.
"Put your hands into the gauntlets and wiggle your fingers," Liska directed. "They'll automatically resize to fit."
Kit gasped. At first the gauntlets were too large; then they shrank until they fit firmly but comfortably. Out in the work room a pair of gigantic, translucent orange hands shimmered into being. Composed of simple cylinders, wedges, and boxes, they looked like the hands of a puppet- but they conformed exactly to the motions of his actual hands as he wiggled his fingers.
"Now touch something," Liska directed.
"Like what?" Kit wanted to know.
"Anything. The computer won't let you pick up or disturb something unless you unlock it first."
Hesitantly Kit made a fist, then extended his index finger. The giant hands did so as well. He reached out and touched the far wall-
"Omigod!" he exclaimed. "I felt it!"
"Of course you did." Liska chuckled. "The virtual hands have full tactile feedback."
"Hmm." Kit smiled, then gently cupped his hands around the object. The arms the cradle were cool and metallic; the object itself was slightly warm and sort of plasticy feeling. when spikes appeared on the seismograph chart he could actually feel them. "Say, Liska... do you suppose Snowflake could be right? That maybe there's something... alive... in there?"
Liska frowned in thought. "I think you'd have to have a pretty liberal definition of 'alive.' It's made of synthetics and nanites, powered by nuclear fusion. I've never heard of any kind of life like that."
"That doesn't mean it couldn't exist, does it?" Kit began to stroke the object gently. The action seemed to soothe it; the tremors eased.
Liska shrugged. "I suppose not. But how could something like that have evolved?"
"It didn't have to," Kit replied. "Look at the Chakats. They didn't evolve, but they're here. Just because they were genetically engineered doesn't make them any less alive, does it?"
"I suppose not," Liska allowed, cocking her head. "But that doesn't mean... I mean, like what Dr. Janek said. It may be very complex, but still just a mechanism. Or even just part of a mechanism."
"I've been thinking about that," Kit said as he gently explored the object's nooks and crannies. "If it really is a mechanism as complex as a living thing, how can one part of it still be alive after the rest of it got blown to bits? That's like as if someone's leg got cut off and the leg kept on living."
"Well, it will, at least for a while," Liska pointed out.
"A couple hours at best, unless it's deep frozen," Kit replied. "It's been days since this was discovered and it's still active. In fact, it's more active than when it was found. A severed leg would be less active, wouldn't it?"
"I guess so." Liska shrugged.
"Call up the images," Kit said. "I-" He tried to pull his hands out of the gauntlets but they would not release.
"Okay, okay." Liska leaned past kit to touch a sequence of controls. Kit froze; one of Liska's breasts was pressed against his shoulder. On the console's local display one of the recorded sensor images appeared.
"Just look at that," Kit said. "Don't those look like bones?"
"Well..." Liska scratched the side of her jaw. The image showed a series of curved lines joined to a single transverse member; it didn't take a lot of imagination for it to become something like a rib cage. There was even a network of lines that might possibly be considered collar bones, shoulder blades, and arm bones. If so, the arms were crossed over one another, making it hard to pick out details. But there was a second set of arm-like structures at the opposite end of the supposed rib cage, and nothing even remotely like an abdominal cavity or a pelvis. "There's no head," Liska pointed out. "If it's a baby, where's it's head?"
"It's head is that cone-shaped thing pointing down and left," Kit replied.
Liska frowned. She rotated the image, then called up several other images of the same area from different angles. What Kit presumed to be a skull was nothing but a truncated cone attached at its bulbous base to the presumed spine and folded under the presumed body. "What kind of skull is that? There's no eye sockets, no sinuses, no mouth."
Kit smiled craftily. "If we assume it's a baby, what kind of baby is it?"
"I don't follow."
"Think of it this way," Kit explained. "If you looked inside a Chakat, for example, you'd expect to find a baby Chakat, right? So if you look inside a star ship...."
Liska frowned even more. "A baby... star ship? Don't you think that's a bit of a stretch?"
"No," Kit pronounced firmly. "It's made of nanites the way an organic body is made of cells. It even looks like something organic. It survived the catastrophic shut down of its mother ship, which suggests that it's a self-contained, self-sustaining system. There are cases where babies have been born- alive- after their mothers have died."
"Hold on," Liska protested. "What if it's a symbiote or a parasite?"
Kit's smile widened to a grin. "It could be argued that by brining that up you're conceding that it's alive. If it was a symbiote it wouldn't be surviving on its own. It it's a parasite- well, parasites can survive on their own, but didn't Professor Moseivitch call this thing a sub-system of great importance? The mother ship used its resources to make sure this bit survived, even though doing so guaranteed the mother ship's destruction. I can't imagine someone going to such great lengths on behalf of a parasite- except insofar as that a developing fetus is a parasite on its mother. Going to such lengths to protect an offspring makes perfect sense."
Liska shifted uneasily, glancing back and forth between Kit and the object. "Wait," she exclaimed suddenly. "You still haven't explained why it doesn't have eyes, a nose, or a mouth."
"Oh, that's easy." Kit dismissed it with a casual shrug. "Noses are for breathing and smelling, pointless activities in space where there's no air. Mouths are for eating, which it doesn't need because it's got a transporter. It can beam whatever it eats directly into its stomach. Eyes are for seeing, an ability of use only when travelling in normal space. For any star ship, the ability to navigate in hyper-space it what matters- and for that you need a mass detector, not eyes."
"I-" Liska clenched and opened her hands. Kit was grinning with delight at how he'd neatly maneuvered her.
A light on the communications console flashed and a chime sounded.
"Excuse me." Liska dashed over to the console. When she opened the incoming comm channel Darkstar's face appeared on the view screen. "Repair Station sigma one-seven, this is Warrant Officer Sharpears," Liska briskly announced.
"Mr. Sharpears, a rather serious matter has come up and I need you to connect me with Lt. Longstocking at once," Darkstar said.
"Ah- yes, sir," Liska replied. "Please hold." She quickly operated some other controls; a second screen lit up showing a portion of the wardroom. "Commander, I'm sorry to interrupt, but Darkstar is on the horn and needs to speak with you at once."
A moment later Longstocking's face filled the second screen. "Yes, Darkstar? What is it?"
"Lieutenant, a Dr. Ygor Stannus of the Federation Science Corps has filed a complaint against Professor Moseivitch alleging that the professor deliberately misappropriated scientific artifacts belonging to the Corps. There is going to be an arraignment hearing in the morning; if the judgement goes against us all artifacts recovered from the collision with the Array- including and especially the one we've been working on- will be seized pending the outcome of a trial. You and your crew need to come down at once to confer with our legal staff and be prepared to testify in the morning."
"What about the student interns?" Longstocking wanted to know.
"They aren't named in the suit, so I see no reason to involve them," Darkstar replied. "However, I do need to speak with Mr. Carson."
"Kit!" Liska called.
"How do I get out of these?" Kit shot back.
"Press the red button by your left toe!"
"Okay." Kit did as instructed; the gauntlets released. He hurried over to the console. "Yes, Darkstar?"
Darkstar thought for a moment. "Lieutenant, it might be better if you didn't hear what I'm about to say. In case you're called to testify about it later."
"I... see." Longstocking stroked hir chin thoughtfully. "Mr. Sharpears, put me on the One-MC."
"Sir." Liska touched a control.
"Attention all personnel, this is the commander speaking," Longstocking began. Hir voice echoed from the stations's PA speakers. "All station personnel are ordered to report at once to the wardroom for an emergency briefing. All student personnel are ordered to report to Ops, where you will be briefed by Mr. Carson. That is all." Hir screen went blank. Liska gave Kit a look that seemed to express both regret and relief at the same time, then hurried out.
"Kit, listen carefully," Darkstar said. "What Dr. Stannus really wants is to get his hands on that lump you've got there. The real reason I want you and the others to stay behind is because I don't want our object left unattended. Sometime between now and morning some Peace Force officers are probably going to show up with warrants to seize the object as evidence in a criminal trial. Since you aren't Security Force personnel, you can honesty say you don't have the authority to grant them access to a Security Force installation. Since the duly authorized commander of the installation is not available they'll end up having to go to the Judge Advocate General. Then all we have to do is stonewall until the magistrate hands down a ruling at the arraignment hearing. But I don't want you taking any silly risks, you hear? Do you understand what I'm asking?"
Kit nodded. "Yes, I do. You can count on us."
Darkstar smiled warmly. "That's what I wanted to hear. Just sit tight until morning. Whichever way the ruling goes it'll be over then." Shi kissed hir hand and touched it to the screen.
"Thanks." Kit put his hand on the screen. For a reason he couldn't clearly articulate Darkstar's sentiment touched him deeply. Hir image vanished.
"Hey Kit, what's happening?" Valjean wanted to know as he entered the room. Snowflake and Javert were right behind him. Snowflake was adjusting her tunic and carrying hir hair retainer.
Kit drew a deep breath and let it out slowly. "The Prof is having some legal trouble. Apparently Starfleet is trying to snatch our artifact. Longstocking and the crew are going down to testify at a hearing. All we have to do is sit tight; if anyone tries to snatch Junior, we lock the doors and play dumb."
"So, we get to spend the foreseeable future babysitting a lump of undefined alien technology," Javert observed with a conspicuous lack of enthusiasm. "Great."
Snowflake leaned forward and picked something from the shoulder of Kit's shirt. Valjean and Javert pushed close to examine the object, which turned out to be a fine red hair. Snowflake frowned and sniffed suspiciously. "Hmm," shi commented. "Been spending some time with Miss Torpedo Tits Sharpears, have we?" shi added in a tone that was more bemused than anything else.
Valjean and Javert were dumbfounded. "You... you mean she was in here, with you?" Javert exclaimed.
Kit flushed hotly. "Look, it wasn't-"
"My brother, I think we may have been wrong about this boy," Valjean commented. "So how was it?" he asked brightly.
"Look, we didn't-" Kit tried.
"Oh, please don't tell me you just sat in here and talked!" Javert tossed his head, clutching at his face. "You felt her up at least, didn't you? Didn't you?"
"She was just... showing me how to work the servo systems," Kit mumbled, staring at the floor and scuffing his feet.
"Oh, lay off," Snowflake cut in impatiently- and maybe a bit remorsefully, at the avalanche hir teasing had set in motion. "So... what were you doing with the servos?"
Kit brightened immediately at Snowflake's lame attempt to change the subject. "I touched the artifact!"
"That hardly seems very exciting," Snowflake commented.
"Yeah, but I really touched it- with the virtual hands, I mean."
"You did? Cool!" Valjean hurried down to the first control station and slipped his hands into the gauntlets. When the hands appeared he made a series of shockingly rude gestures.
"I wanna try too," Javert added, following.
"Um... are you sure we should be doing this?" Snowflake inquired.
"Liska said the computer won't let us touch anything unless we unlock it first," Kit replied.
"Well-" Snowflake began.
"Touch it!" Valjean goaded.
"Incredible." Javert was running his virtual finger over the surface.
"What's it feel like?" Snowflake asked.
"See for yourself," Valjean suggested. Snowflake hesitated but curiosity got the better of hir. Shi settled onto the couch and put her hands into the gauntlets.
"Hey, it jumped!" Snowflake jerked hir hands away.
"That's okay, it does that," Kit replied.
The artifact twitched again. This time Kit actually saw it quiver; the spike on the seismograph window was so large the graph changed magnification settings.
"How often does it do that?" Javert asked.
"Never, as far as I know," Kit replied in a tiny voice.
"Um... maybe we should leave it alone?" Snowflake suggested worriedly, pulling hir hands from the gauntlets.
Several minutes passed. All four of them stared intently and fearfully at the object. Nothing happened.
"Let's go see what games are in the library computer," Valjean suggested, turning to go.
"Okay," Javert agreed, falling in step beside his brother.
Snowflake turned but hesitated. "Kit?"
Kit sat down at the first servo station. "I'm gonna stay," he said.
"Suit yourself," Javert responded.
Snowflake continued to hesitate. "Kit, why are you so interested in this thing anyway?"
"I have no illusions about by place in the world, Snowflake," Kit replied, his eyes fixed upon the artifact. "I'm just a college student. It's pure dumb luck that I'm here at all. And this- this is the find of the century. If even half of what Dr. Janek says is true, studying this thing is gonna advance our understanding of nanotechnology by hundreds of years. And then, when we figure out where it came from, there's gonna be a First Contact." He rose slowly, leaning forward to press his hands and face against the view port. "This... is probably as close as I'm ever gonna get to any of that. At least... this way when my grand kids learn about it in school, I can tell them I was part of it, in some small way."
Because Kit was looking through the view ports he did not observe the sequence of expressions that crossed Snowflake's features. Surprise, emerging comprehension, agreement, and finally- tenderness? Affection? "I know you'll tell it to your grand kids," shi agreed quietly, reaching out to touch his shoulder- but pulling back at the last moment. Shi was young but not naivé; there were people who simply could not accept the notion of being physically intimate with a hermaphrodite. Over the last three days Snowflake had never once seen Kit make overtures to any Chakat. But here he was, spending time alone with Liska the Doorknob-
The artifact shuddered violently. Alarms began beeping on several consoles, and an entirely new crack opened on he object's surface.
"What's happening?" Snowflake shrilled, eyes wide, voice cracking with tension.
Kit jumped back as if stung. For a moment all he could do was stare; then his eyes flicked to the seismograph window. There was another enormous peak and second appeared while he was watching.
"I think it's trying to get out," Kit heard himself saying. He was amazed at how calm his voice sounded.
"We- we- we-" Snowflake's voice was hardly more than a squeak and shi was hopping from foot to foot. "We have to call Professor Mos-"
"There's no time!" Kit grabbed Snowflake's arm as shi started toward the communications console. "Snowflake, even if we can reach the professor, there's no one who can get here in time to do anything! It's us or nothing!"
"But-" Snowflake glanced at the view ports. Another crack opened in the object's surface; fluid spurted out, hardening into gauzy traceries as it flew, shattering at it hit the walls.
"Snowflake, we can do this." Kit had taken hold of Snowflake's upper arms. His voice was quiet and calm; his eyes locked on hirs. "Help me."
"Okay." Snowflake couldn't look away.
"Call the Hugos in here, we're gonna need them. Then stand by the sensor console."
Valjean and Javert appeared in what felt like seconds. "What's happening?" Javert called.
"It's trying to break out from the inside, but every time it makes a crack, the fluid hardens in it," Snowflake said.
Kit thrust his hands into the gauntlets. "Javert, come down here and help me. Valjean, heat up the transporter and start dematerializing the shell where the fracture planes are forming. Snowflake, open the cradle and spot for Valjean."
"Where do you want me to beam the stuff?" Valjean wanted to know.
As the cradle opened the object tried to jump right out of it. Kit grabbed hold; it was like trying to hold an angry cat in a bag. He almost lost his grip before Javert lent his hands to the effort.
"Don't think that'll be a problem," Kit replied. "Junior's probably gonna slurp it up just like he did the sensors."
Snowflake had activated the targeting display. Newly formed fracture planes appeared as flashing yellow lines. "There!" shi shouted. "There, and there!"
"Got it." Valjean wielded the transporter like a scalpel, slashing through the tendrils of nanites even as they formed.
Kit felt the object starting to come apart in his hands. A crack opened and he instinctively tried to stick his fingers in it, but they wouldn't fit.
"I'm on it!" Javert declared, hitting a sequence of controls with his forepaws. The tips of his virtual fingers suddenly grew into sharply pointed talons; bracing with one hand he jammed the fingers of his other hand into the crack. Kit rotated the object to give Javert better purchase. It was fortunate that the virtual hands did not have arms attached to them, so Kit and Valjean didn't have to worry so much about bumping into one another. As the crack widened harsh, actinic light exploded from it, along with jets of plasma as the result of improperly dematerialized matter being converted to energy.
"Careful, Valjean, it's coming out!" Snowflake called.
The crack opened suddenly; the object split apart into three fragments. A roiling cloud of multicolored liquids and solids exploded from its interior, momentarily obscuring all view. Javert yelped and ripped his hand out of the gauntlet. "Sonofabitch!" he screamed. "It bit me!"
Kit felt something wet and slimy slither across his hand. He clutched at it; it squirted out of his grip. It was like trying to hold on to a fish, except that it was hot instead of cold. After a moment of struggling- and by touch alone- he managed to trap it in his cupped hands.
"Jeez, it's trying to beam up everything in sight," Valjean muttered.
"Did it eat the stuff you beamed out before?" Kit asked.
"Sucked it down like raw oysters," Valjean replied.
"Then keep it up," Kit directed.
"Should we be doing that?" Javert wondered, massaging his left palm with his right thumb.
"How the Hell should I know?" Kit snapped.
Javert recoiled in shock. "Sorry, he grumbled, shooting Kit a jaundiced look.
Kit was massaging it gently, cupping it in one palm while he stroked it. It wasn't a fish; it's skin was smooth and slick and it had spindly little limbs. More like a frog. "Snowflake, can you clear the view port?" he asked. Yellow-brown material had condensed on it like sleet freezing on glass.
"Got it." Snowflake switched on a force field; material shattered and blew away from the windows in a cloud of fragments.
The work room was a mess. Varicolored material had coated and hardened on everything in sight. Gobbets and fragments that had hardened before touching anything were bouncing around like marbles. The largest shell fragment had become stuck to the wall as fluid boiling out of it had hardened.
"Technicolor yawn, big time," Valjean said, wiping his brow.
Kit nodded. The inside of the workroom did in fact look as if some unimaginable giant had used it as a motion sickness bag. Suddenly he felt a sharp twinge in his right hand, and a shower of brightly colored sparks erupted between his virtual fingers. The sparks faded and dissipated into a cloud of black dust.
"Junior's done eating," Valjean commented.
Kit brought his cupped hands closer to the view port. Valjean and Snowflake dashed down to the front and waited breathlessly. Slowly, carefully, Kit opened his hands. Snowflake let out an odd little yelp and clutched hir hands over hir muzzle.
Kit found himself thinking of a penguin. A rather skinny and emaciated penguin that has no feet, no eyes, and whose beak is just where the front of its body tapers to a blunt point. Emerging from the middle of its belly are a cluster of six shockingly humanoid-seeming limbs, even to the point of being equipped with four fingers and an opposable thumb. Four of them were short and stubby, two were long and spindly. Instead being fleshy, though, the limbs were shelled and jointed like those of a crustacean. Overall the creature- Kit could no longer think of it as a mere object- was purple-black, shot with pulsating veins of yellow-green.
"Oh, Kit, it's so cute!" Snowflake exclaimed, hir eyes shining. "Can I hold it, please?"
Kit could only stare in dumb amazement. Cute was not the first word that came to his mind. There was also the fact that the virtual hands distorted his sense of scale; it wasn't a tiny creature that fit into the palm of his hand, it was a piece of unimaginably alien ultra-technology that was fusion powered and somewhere around eight meters long. He opened his mouth to make some sort of comment to that effect but could not articulate the words. Since he didn't say no Snowflake stuck hir hands into the gauntlets and gently scooped the baby- whatever it was- from Kit's unresisting grasp. She started stroking and cuddling it, cooing and talking in baby talk. Kit licked his lips- which were as dry as old leather- and hit the button to release the gauntlets. As he pulled his hands out he noticed angry marks where force feedback had bruised him. His palms and arms were shining with a layer of greasy sweat; his shirt had enormous stains in the center of the chest and under the armpits. He dabbed at his brow and found that his hair and eyebrows were soaking wet. As he slung a load of sweat off his fingers his hand started trembling.
"Um... Kit?" Valjean was trying to sound calm, but his voice was quavering. "What... what did we just do?"
Kit shut his mouth because trying to speak was just too much effort. The room had become soft and hazy, the voices of his companions echoing and indistinct. He couldn't seem to feel the floor under his feet; when he groped for it with his toes there was nothing there. Then the floor found his head; impact drove from him what remained of consciousness.
"Is that him?" Sherlock whispered.
Darkstar nodded. "Yes."
The person in question was a Terran male of Caucasoid extraction. He was tall- as tall as Kit- but his body was as lean and gangly as that of a scarecrow, his face hard and bony with a hawk-like nose and deep set eyes. He was old; his bald pate was spattered with liver spots and fringed with long, scraggly gray hair. Dressed in a dun colored turtleneck and gray slacks, he was striding briskly down the white graveled path. In front of the wide stone bench he stopped, turning abruptly to squarely face Professor Moseivitch, who was seated.
"Good morning, Dr. Stannus!" Fyodor jumped to his feet and offered his hand, fairly bubbling over with good cheer. "Just the person I wanted to see!"
"Dr. Moseivitch." Dr. Stannus gripped Fyodor's fingers for the shortest possible time that satisfied the requirements of protocol. "Now could you explain to me why we needed to meet here at such an ungodly hour?" He swept his long arm in a gesture that took in the whole scene.
Directly in front of the bench was a small lake. In the early morning stillness its surface was as smooth as glass and frosted with a layer of mist. All around it was thick forest, except for one side where the trees had been cut back to make way for the walking path. In the near distance the fairy-castle spires of Dewclaw University's College of the Performing Arts gleamed like burnished gold in the morning sunlight. By contrast the lake was rendered in soft, glowing pastels; the sun had not risen enough to clear the trees.
"As if we were inconveniencing him," Longstocking muttered.
"I'll give him an inconvenience," Sherlock growled, massaging hir clenched fist. "Right in the kisser."
"We are meeting now because it gives us plenty of time before the hearing starts," Moseivitch began, clasping his hands behind his back and pacing slowly in a small circle. "We are meeting here to avoid the media frenzy that is even now beginning to develop around the court building."
"Incidental whys." Stannus dismissed them with a curt gesture.
"I wish to settle our differences out of court," Moseivitch declared.
Dr. Stannus' irritated expression vanished, along with every other trace of emotion in his face or body. "Why?"
"If this case goes to trial it will drag on for weeks. Possibly years. Regardless of who wins, valuable time will be lost. The inevitable media coverage will be a source of embarrassment for us as individuals and the organizations we represent. To that end I am willing to grant you and your people full access to the materials, in return for which you must agree to drop all charges and refrain from contesting their ownership."
"Why would I agree to your terms?" Stannus' tone was not argumentative, merely curious.
"If the matter goes before a magistrate, why of course all facts of the matter must be brought to light," Moseivitch replied. "Such as, for example, the details of certain agreements made between myself and representatives of the Tenspan Foundation."
"Even if you could prove that any such agreements took place, they have no legal bearing on the matter at hand," Stannus replied. "You made a contractual agreement which grants the Federation Science Corps full access to any scientific discoveries which stem from use of the observatory or it's equipment. Clearly this is such a case, and equally clearly you have failed to honor your commitment."
"Whether or not I violated my agreement hinges on who actually made the discovery," Fyodor pointed out. "A magistrate might rule that since it was a Security Force vessel that actually discovered the artifact, the Chakonan government then has proprietary interest- and they can, without prejudice, assign the research to Dewclaw University- whose duly appointed representative I happen to be. Agreements between myself and the Tenspan Foundation may not directly relate in a strictly legal sense, but the suggestion that such things exist might cause certain members of the government to think that an attempt was being made to circumvent Chakonan sovereignty."
"The Chakonan government is not likely to look kindly upon the fact that you were a party to it," Stannus pointed out.
"True," Fyodor admitted. "At the very least I would be dismissed in disgrace from the university. At the worst I could be jailed or deported. Of course I would be forced to confess that I acted- ultimately- in collusion with the Federation Science Corps."
Seconds passed. Absolutely nothing about Dr. Stannus' expression or stance gave the slightest indication of what was going on in his mind. "Very well," he said. "I agree."
"Excellent!" Fyodor rubbed his hands together excitedly. "Then let us adjourn to the court building so that our respective legal teams can hash out the details."
"And that's a take," Darkstar said, lifting the servo camera's viewfinder reticule and massaging hir eye. "God, I'm getting too old for this shit. Old bones don't like laying for hours in cold, wet underbrush."
Sherlock was frowning. Shi, Darkstar, and Longstocking were laying on their bellies at the edge of the forest, screened by a line of ground cover. "Am I to understand," Sherlock began slowly, "That Professor Moseivitch made an agreement with the Federation Science Corps to give away this artifact we discovered?"
"The agreement couldn't anticipate this particular discovery, of course," Darkstar clarified, flipping the viewfinder back down. The camera, strapped to hir shoulder, had continued to track Professor Moseivitch and Dr. Stannus as they moved away up the path. "But yes. In return for putting the new hyper-spatial observatory here on Chakona, the Corps wanted first crack and any important scientific discoveries it made. Professor Moseivitch was to be their mole."
"You know," Sherlock said, shifting uneasily, "When I joined the Security Force I swore an oath. To protect Chakona from all aggressors, foreign and domestic."
"And you are," Darkstar replied. "Your assistance is helping to insure that Dr. Stannus doesn't steal away the Security Force's discovery."
Sherlock wasn't reassured. "Why should I trust Professor Moseivitch?" shi demanded bluntly. "He made an agreement to betray Chakona."
"It is a valid point," Longstocking pointed out. "It could be said that Professor Moseivitch has already demonstrated himself to be a traitor."
Darkstar's face twitched. For a long time shi stared out across the lake. Rays from the sun were beginning to poke through the trees and slant down onto the water. "Yes, I see what you mean," shi whispered. Something flicked through hir eyes, which fortunately neither Sherlock nor Longstocking could see. "Let me put it this way. By now I'm sure you've seen that Fyodor is a shrewd politician. He has managed to maneuver himself into a position of great power. Ask yourself this: would you rather have him with you, or against you?"
"Expediency doesn't justify it," Sherlock declared.
"Doesn't it?" Darkstar wanted to know. "Isn't that what politics and governments are about? Finding the expedient solution and spinning it to the public? As long as you two have been in the military, you can't tell me you've never faced a situation where the expedient solution superceded the ethical solution. If resolving conflict was a simple matter of black and white we wouldn't need laws or courts, would we? Or governments and militaries, for that matter. The purpose of a government is to tell people to shut up and quit squabbling. The purpose of a military is to enforce those orders in the only way that ultimately makes any difference, which is to say at gun point. Everything that we call society falls out of those basic principles."
"But it doesn't have to be that way," Sherlock insisted. Shi seemed less certain.
"By saying that you're admitting that what I said is true," Darkstar pointed out. "Fyodor made an agreement that was unethical, illegal, and possibly treasonous. He did it to gain power and prestige for himself. The question you should be asking yourselves is why would he be willing to put all that on the line now that push has come to shove? If personal power is all that matters, why would he be willing to risk everything he's so carefully built?"
Longstocking tapped Darkstar's shoulder and pointed. Darkstar swung the servo camera and zoomed in just as a pair of Terrans- a male and a female- emerged from the underbrush on the other side of the lake and strolled casually toward the trail. They wore sneakers, jogging suits, and bulky backpacks; in the camera's viewfinder Darkstar could see very clearly that their faces were flushed and sweaty.
"Who are they?" Sherlock wondered.
"Either they're a pair of young lovers who just concluded a steamy sexual encounter, or they've spent the last half hour or so crouched together under a null screen, scanning the area with a sensor pack," Darkstar replied.
Null screens are the ultimate in camouflage. In their neutral state they look like sheets of thin, clear plastic. When activated they assume the color and reflective properties of whatever they are laid over. Objects then placed under the screens are completely hidden. A problem arises when the object being hidden is a person or a piece of operating machinery; traditional camouflage cannot mask the heat those things would generate. A null screen traps that heat so that the screen itself is always the same temperature as what's around it. The disadvantage of course is that over time the heat builds up. Under a small screen- that could fit into a back pack, for instance- the body heat radiated by two adult Terrans would quickly raise the temperature to uncomfortable levels. A large screen- such as would have to be carried by two strong Chakats- would stay cool much longer, even while absorbing the body heat radiated by three adult Chakats.
"I think we can go now," Darkstar said after the pair had vanished from sight. She switched off the servo camera and began returning it to its case. Longstocking and Sherlock un-pegged the null screen and began rolling it up, sighing in relief as cool morning air washed in.
"Why would Dr. Stannus have people following him around?" Sherlock asked shi kneaded the rolled up screen with hir forepaws to force air out.
"To find out if we recorded the meeting." Darkstar secured the last of the camera equipment in hir saddle packs and slipped them on. "To find out how good we are at playing the game."
"Darkstar," Longstocking said, "Why do you trust Professor Moseivitch?"
"Because-" Darkstar's eyes unfocused and began to mist over. "He once risked his life to save mine. And, for a time, we were lovers."
"Oh, my great God in Heaven!" Longstocking exclaimed as shi stepped into the Operations center and saw the condition of the work room. Shi froze in the doorway, effectively blocking it. Ito vaulted over hir lower body; Darkstar grabbed Longstocking's tail and tugging sharply. Longstocking flinched but stepped out of the way.
"What in the world happened here?" Ito demanded. His gaze settled on Kit. "What did you do?"
"Mr. Carson!" Moseivitch brusquely shoved his way through the crowd, not hesitating to use elbows where necessary. His suit was perfect as always, but his hair was frightfully disarrayed and there were dark circles under his eyes. "Before we begin discussing what happened last night, I want to see it."
"S- s- sir?" Kit stammered. His hair was also disarrayed, and his clothes looked as if he'd slept in them. On top of that he was sweating and trembling.
"I want to see it," Moseivitch repeated, pointing at the view ports. All eyes followed his gesture.
"I don't see anything," Ito announced in an accusing tone. It was clear that the alien artifact had broken apart and that it was hollow, but other than the spatters of material coating the walls there was no visible sign of what had been inside.
"Shi's just- shi hides," Snowflake put in, stepping up to one of the servo control stations and activating the virtual hands. "I'll bring hir out for you."
The orange hands shimmered into being. Instead of moving to pick something up they just twiddled their fingers. Ito suddenly let out an odd sounding squeak. A section of wall appeared to have detached and begun moving in a way that was neither random nor ballistic. As it passed between the virtual hands and the view ports its true form became apparent.
The soft, lumpish thing of last night had changed dramatically without altering its basic form. The nose had grown into a needle-sharp point flanked by triangular canards. The wings had extended and hardened into razor-edged anhedral fins, the tail plane flattening out into a smoothly swept elevator with a pair of vertical fins between it and the trailing edges of the main wings. The body had firmed into a sleek lifting-body shape, the limbs folding neatly into smoothly faired channels along the belly. Its skin was still shiny, but it was the hard, smooth shine of spun glass. Colors and patterns, reflections of the room at large, flowed and shimmered across that surface like desert mirages. It stopped and rotated to present its belly to the view port; but for the lack of engines or a cockpit it resembled nothing so much as a star fighter, streamlined for atmospheric flight. It was even pretty close to the right size, somewhere around nine or ten meters long. It pressed its back against Snowflake's virtual hand and began waving its limbs; Snowflake obligingly tickled its belly. After a moment it retracted its limbs and passively submitted to the treatment. Snowflake rotated it so that the audience could study it from every angle.
For what seemed like a very long time not a word was uttered. "What... is it?" Longstocking finally asked.
"It's a baby star ship," Snowflake replied in a tone of hushed awe.
"Shi's... beautiful," Sherlock breathed, hir eyes wide with wonder. Snowflake beamed; shi was glowing as if shi were showing off hir own cub.
"Very good," Moseivitch murmured, stroking his chin. "Very good," he repeated, more loudly and more briskly. "Now-" he faced the group- "we shall retire to the wardroom. I- and Longstocking as well, certainly- will want a full report on what happened here last night."
"But- what about-" Snowflake glanced between Moseivitch and it.
"Not to worry, my dear," Moseivitch replied with a gently reassuring tone and expression. "Longstocking will set up a remote view from the wardroom. If out little darling needs us, we shall know at once."
"Professor!" Ito was shocked and scandalized to his very core. "Please don't tell me you actually believe that this- this thing is alive!"
Snowflake pressed hirself forward against the console and cupped the presumed baby protectively in hir hands. Longstocking made a face as if shi had just smelled something unpleasant. Darkstar's face went completely blank. Moseivitch looked down at the floor and massaged his temples. "What I belive, Dr. Janek, is that we should refrain from drawing conclusions in advance of the facts."
"I'm not the one carrying on like- like this thing is my first grandchild!" Ito exclaimed.
"How can you be so certain that it isn't someone's grandchild?" Darkstar seemed to be no more than mildly curious, as if shi were engaged in nothing but a scholarly debate.
"It's a machine," Ito pleaded. "It looks like a living thing because that's what a complex nainite-based mechanism would look like. But it's not alive! It can't be!"
"Why not?" Valjean wanted to know.
"It's made out of plastics and composites. It's powered by nuclear fusion." Ito counted points on his fingers. "There's no way a system like this could have evolved. It was made."
No one moved. No one spoke. Everyone was looking at Ito- except Moseivitch, who was looking at everyone else. A subtle but significant change had come over the room.
"Longstocking, would you escort Dr. Janek to the shuttle?" Moseivitch announced briskly. "He and I will be returning to the surface immediately."
Longstocking gestured minutely with hir head, glancing at Sherlock.
"Let's go, ear boy." Sherlock stepped up and reached for Ito's arm
"What are you doing? Get away!" Ito tried to pull away but Sherlock was too fast; shi slapped him on the shoulder, spinning him around and knocking him off his feet. Shi caught him before hi fell but now he was off-balance and in no position to resist. He tugged against hir grip to but to no avail. Shi was far too heavy and far too strong. "Professor, you can't-" he protested.
Moseivitch had turned his back. Ito's shouted protests faded as he was hustled down the corridor. "Snowflake, go prep the shuttle for flight. Once you have dropped us off, you will return here. Darkstar, I would like you to compile a detailed report on what has happened here between the time we left yesterday and returned today. When you have finished please send it to my office at the university. If you are contacted by Dr. Stannus or anyone else, direct them to my answering service. Do not answer any questions or give out any information." He massaged his face, then ran his fingers through his hair. Only Kit, who happened to be closest, noticed that the professor's hand trembled slightly. Without another word Fyodor straightened up and marched out.
Once again the glittering towers of Berdoovia grew as Rum Tum Tugger descended toward them. This time the sky was bright with morning sunshine, unobstructed by even so much as a trace of cloud. Also, instead of turning aside and heading for the university campus, five kilometers to the west, the shuttle was aiming to set down right in the middle of the city. With brusque curtness Snowflake brought the ship in for a landing on the roof of a skyscraper clad in pink marble with windows tinted to match. On each face of the building a triangular section had been done in a slightly different color with slightly larger windows; the result was a stair-stepped division starting at the top corner of each face and running diagonally down until it hit the opposite side. The diagonals on adjacent faces ran in opposite directions so that top and bottom ends met on opposite sides of the building. Neither the size nor the coloration of the building were exceptional; the core of Berdoovia was a forest of glass and steel towers, some of which had been decorated quite flamboyantly. Snowflake was running up the thrusters for takeoff even as Fyodor and Ito were hurrying down the ramp; both men had to shield their faces from a storm of grit as the shuttle roared off the pad and vanished into the sky. A stairwell led down to a heavy metal door with a screened small window; behind it was a small but elegant reception area. The floor was carpeted, the walls papered; light came mostly through large windows but also from inset fixtures in the ceiling. There were leather upholstered chairs for humanoids and cushions for centauroids. Opposite the windows was a low desk; on the wall behind it was an intricately carved wooden relief depicting a snow-capped mountain overlooking a placid mountain lake.
"Good morning, Professor." The receptionist was a female foxtaur. Her pelt was gray, the result of a white undercoat and black-tipped guard hairs. Her belly, neck, and throat were white with orange highlights. "Do you need to speak with Nakala?"
"No, not right now, thank you." Moseivitch smiled winningly and took the vixen's offered hand; instead of shaking it he patted it gently. Then an odd expression flicked across his face and his smile broadened to a grin. "Though if hy could squeeze me in later today, or perhaps tomorrow, I would be terribly grateful. Right now, I would be deeply in your debt if you could summon for me three cars."
"Three?" the vixen asked, glancing at Ito.
"Three," Moseivitch confirmed.
"But of course." She typed on a control panel, left-handed, without looking. "They'll be here in fifteen minutes."
"Nakala cannot possibly appreciate what a capable and attractive assistant he has," Moseivitch declared, raising the vixen's knuckles to his lips.
She tossed her head. "You say that to all the secretaries, don't you?" Her tone was more bemused than accusatory.
"Of course," Moseivitch replied. "Everyone knows that secretaries rule the world."
"Fyodor Moseivitch, you are an ass-kissing liar and I think you should leave while we can all still breathe." She fixed him with a very meaningful look. "You don't want to keep your cars waiting. I'll call you when I have an appointment scheduled."
"Lana, you are a gem. I do not know what I would do without you."
Lana snorted. "You'd be having your devilish way with some other secretary. Shoo." She flipped her hand at him. Moseivitch gave her one last grin and headed for the elevators.
On the way down Ito glanced quizzically at Fyodor. Fyodor glanced back. "Flattery will get you everywhere, Dr. Janek. You would do well to remember that." Both his tone and expression were completely serious.
The elevator left them at the basement parking level. Three boxy, van-like vehicles were lined up at the curb. Moseivitch inspected them and the scene; no one was around and they could not be seen from the street. Fyodor opened the driver's door on the first and climbed in.
"Where are we headed?" Ito inquired, climbing in on the passenger side. The car had humanoid seats in front and 'taur couches in back.
"Nowhere in this vehicle," Moseivitch replied. He set the windows to full polarization, programmed some destination and routing information into the auto-control system, and climbed out. From the outside the car's windows were black; it was impossible to tell if anyone was inside. It pulled away from the curb and drove away by itself, following the instructions Moseivitch had given it. Same process was followed for the second and third vehicles- except that Ito and Fyodor remained in the last one. As the car drove up the ramp and pulled onto the street- under auto control, Fyodor touched neither the wheel nor the pedals- they passed a group of reporters with servo-cameras on their shoulders and baffled looks on their faces as three identical cars left the parking area and immediately proceeded in three completely different directions.
"Where are we headed?" Ito repeated.
"Just for a drive," Fyodor replied. "I want to show you something."
"What?" Ito looked around. Traffic was fairly heavy, but with the vehicles on auto control it moved briskly. Most of the cars were generic public vehicles- such as the one in which Ito and Fyodor now rode- or large freight vans. Private vehicles were more varied and more distinct: small sports cars, medium sized sedans, large pickups and vans, brightly or sedately decorated depending on the owner's preference. Convertibles had their tops down and non-convertibles generally had their windows open; people were enjoying the pleasant weather. Since all the vehicles were electric powered and automatically controlled, the atmosphere was not unduly noisy or unpleasant even here in the heart of Chakona's largest city. Traffic on the broad sidewalks was just as thick and far more varied; most of the pedestrians were Chakats but not all. Leavening the crowd were other centauroids: foxes, other canids, skunks, otters, ferrets, non-hermaphrodite felines, and even horses. For every 'taur there seemed also to be a humanoid equivalent. The result was a bewildering variety of body types and color patterns even before clothing, makeup, and other external decorations were added to the mix.
"The people," Moseivitch replied. "All from highly varied backgrounds, economic classes, and even physiological types. And yet they all have one thing in common: they, or their ancestors, were genetically engineered."
"Oh, that." Ito slumped back in his seat. "What has that got to do with anything?"
"Everything," Fyodor replied. "Why are there so many of them here? On Chakona, that is?"
"Because the Chakats invited them to settle." Ito had folded his arms and was regarding Fyodor suspiciously.
"Why are the Chakats here?"
"Because this is their home world."
"But it isn't. Chakats did not evolve on this planet. They colonized it."
"Technically, they didn't evolve anywhere," Ito pointed out. "They were genetically engineered."
"On Terra," Fyodor continued. "Doesn't that make Terra their home world?"
"Is there a point to all this?" Ito demanded.
"Yes," Fyodor replied. "I want the facts clearly established when I make it. The very first Chakat was born on the twenty-sixth of September, 2129, at the Institute of New Generation Genetics in Brisbane, Australia. That birth was the culmination of eighteen years of work by Doctors Charles and Katharine Turner and the scientific team they led."
"All common knowledge." Ito dismissed it with a flick of the wrist.
"But even as this first Chakat is being born, in other parts of the world gene-engineered people- people as demonstratably sentient as you or I- are being rounded up and slaughtered. Why? Because in the previous century the science of genetic engineering had been used to create slaves, super-soldiers, and super-diseases that, in round after round of war and outbreak, led to the deaths of twenty billion people. The Institute of New Generation Genetics was founded to develop cures for the gene-plagues. In the face of that, why would the newly-formed United Nations of Terra World Government allow the Institute to create a new species?"
"To showcase the positive uses of genetic engineering," Ito said. "To demonstrate that genetically engineered people could benefit society."
"That's what the history books say," Fyodor went on. "They also say that Chakona was given to the Chakats as a gesture of appreciation for their efforts in helping to build the Terran Dominion. But consider this: in 2129 there were plenty of people who remembered the horrors of the Gene Wars. There were people who, when they saw a Chakat or heard of some great thing Chakats had done, saw those achievements as having been built upon the corpses of twenty billion dead Terrans. To those people, a Chakat was not the symbol of hope for a bright future, but the symbol of evil from a dark past. When the question of a Chakat home world came up it received widespread support- but how many of those people wanted to reward the Chakats and how many simply wanted to be quit of them? A less favorable interpretation of history could say that Chakats and their genetically engineered brethren are here because they were made to feel decidedly unwelcome on the planet of their birth."
Fyodor was staring straight ahead, his eyes narrowed but focused somewhere far beyond what was visible through the windshield. He held the steering wheel in a white-knuckled grip even though the car was still on auto-control. "Today, after more than two hundred years, echoes still resound. The Holy Christian Kingdom of North America asserts that genetically engineered creatures have no soul and cannot be saved. The "Humans First" coalition has openly vilified the genetically engineered and committed against them acts of individual violence and public terrorism. There are Chakats- and other people- alive today who have suffered, physically and emotionally, as a result of this bigotry. There are people whose friends and loved ones have suffered." Fyodor's head rotated like a turret traversing to cover a target. His eyes, looking out from under his bushy brows, were as cold and merciless as the muzzles of cannons. "In light of all that, don't you think that perhaps your comment about something not being alive because it was made might have struck a nerve?"
All of Ito's composure fell away. His jaw dropped, his eyes bugged, and all color drained from his face- though it was hard to see with his dark skin tone. "I- I- I-" He swallowed. "Professor, I didn't mean it that way. I mean- I've lived on Chakona most of my life! I wouldn't- I couldn't-"
Fyodor sank back in his seat as if the mere act of looking had exhausted him. "I didn't think you did." He seemed to be studying the instrument cluster. "I believe that in the heat of the moment you said something without giving thought to the broader ramifications. I brought you here to give... everyone involved a chance to cool down."
"And to prevent Sherlock from beating the crap out of me?" Ito suggested with the hint of a smile.
"That possibility had crossed my mind," Fyodor allowed. "It is fortunate that Chakats are, as a species, very forgiving." He smiled; not his professional smile but a shockingly bitter, sardonic one. "There are exceptions, of course."
Just then Fyodor's coat began beeping. From an inside breast pocket he extracted a personal communicator and flipped it open. "Moseivitch." His eyebrows underwent a series of comical evolutions as they drew together, arched, and relaxed. "I see. Come by my office and we shall discuss it. Thank you. Good bye." He flipped the communicator shut- Ito could hear someone still talking at the other end- and slipped it back inside his coat. "Dr. Stannus moves quickly," he sighed. Perhaps it's just as well I came down." He quickly typed in some modifications to the van's routing instructions.
"Professor, you should get some sleep," Ito suggested. "Dr. Stannus will keep until tomorrow."
"No, I'm afraid he won't." Fyodor rubbed his eyes and stifled a yawn. He suddenly looked much worse, as if Ito's comment had reminded him exactly how long he'd been going without adequate rest. "Dr. Stannus is intelligent, tenacious, and does not suffer fools. Prevarication will only make matters worse. I might as well deal with him now. As for you, Dr. Janek... use the day as you see fit. I ask only that you be ready to return with me to the station this evening, and that you do not speak to reporters. If this string of emergencies ever lets up-" he chuckled wryly- "I will schedule a press conference. In the mean time, partial truths are likely to do more harm in the long run than unfounded rumors." Moseivitch scrubbed his face. "That is the problem with reporters. You cannot explain to them that science is a dynamic field. If a scientists says one thing one day and another thing the next, reporters assume that the scientist must be lying or incompetent. I'm sorry, Doctor. Is there somewhere I can let you out?"
Ito glanced around. "Actually... right here is fine."
"All right." Fyodor stabbed a button; the van pulled over to the curb and stopped. Ito jumped out, then watched the van until it was out of sight. He threaded his way diagonally through the crowd to a public terminal. Though faces without fur or muzzles were exceedingly rare, no one paid him much attention; the people of Berdoovia were accustomed to highly varied mix. He pulled down the privacy screen- which muted out most but not all of the noise- and slipped his ID card into the slot.
"Ready," the terminal announced it in its generic, somewhat impersonal computer voice.
"Chakona News Network, please," Ito replied.
"Snowflake, we can do this." Kit had taken hold of Snowflake's upper arms and was looking deep into hir eyes. "Help me."
"Freeze," Darkstar said. Shi was reclining comfortably two of the wardroom's many beanbag chairs.
With hir left index finger Longstocking touched a control on the portable workstation that was laying open on the table in front of hir. The image on the big screen froze; it was a wide-angle shot of the Operations center, taken from a vantage point in the rear corner just above the door.
"Back five seconds and hold," Darkstar continued.
Kit let go of Snowflake and turned to face the view ports. Snowflake gradually started hopping then stopped abruptly. Their voices were of normal timbre and clearly recognizable but the words unintelligible, as if they were speaking a foreign language.
"Portrait shot on Kit and play," Darkstar directed.
The view came in tight on Kit until his face filled the screen. At that level of magnification the image started to look blocky from raster artifacts. "There's no time!" he exclaimed. The camera kept his face centered as he moved slightly. "Snowflake, even if we can reach the professor, there's no one who can get here in time to do anything! It's us or nothing!"
"Freeze. Camera two, tight on Snowflake, play."
The point of view changed to the other back corner of the room then zoomed in.
"But-" Snowflake's eyes were wide, hir mouth slightly agape, hir whiskers quivering. Shi glanced away, giving the camera a perfect profile.
"Snowflake, we can do this," Kit said. "Help me." He seemed to be smiling but he wasn't; tension in his face had pulled up the corners of his mouth. It also enhanced the lines in his face, adding years to his apparent age. There was a fire in his eyes that seemed to reach right out of the screen and compel the viewer's attention.
"Well?" Longstocking prompted once the silence had dragged on for a minute or so.
Darkstar rolled off the beanbags and stood. "Hold the tight shot. Resume playback." Shi watched very intently as the action continued. For the most part shi only saw Kit's profile; he kept his eyes glued to what was happening in the work room. When he stood up at the end he looked terrible: his hair was plastered down as if he'd dunked his head, and his face had a sickly pallor to it. He started fading the moment his hands were out of the gauntlets; the spark left his eyes like a candle guttering out and he dropped to the floor. Snowflake shouted to the Hugos; they left their stations and picked Kit up. Unconsciousness softened his face, making him seem much younger than his years. If not for the height and breadth of his body, one might almost have thought he was a child.
"Well, I'd say there can't possibly be any doubt that Mr. Carson was in command of the situation," Longstocking observed- with more than a hint of amazement in hir tone.
"Except for that nosedive at the end, of course," Darkstar replied. "But on the whole, I agree. Didn't think he had it in him?"
Longstocking shook hir head. "Frankly, no. He always struck me as the nerdy type. Plenty smart, but shy and introverted. Terrible around women. He'd sit in the wardroom staring at Liska as if she were the lost riches of El Dorado, but I think if he ever tried to talk to her he'd choke to death on his own tongue."
"Really." Darkstar stroked hir cheek with one finger. "You weren't aware that they were alone together last night?"
Longstocking did a double-take. "They were?" shi exclaimed.
Darkstar nodded. "When I called in, Liska answered from Ops. When I asked to speak with Kit, she put him right on."
"That's true, come to think of it," Longstocking mused. "She'd left at the same time as Snowflake and the Hugos brothers, so I assumed- well-"
Darkstar frowned. "Two foxtaurs and a Chakat? Is Warrant Officer Sharpears really that... flexible?"
"Oh, yes." Longstocking nodded emphatically. "Very much so."
"The voice of experience?" Darkstar inquired.
Longstocking smiled crookedly. "I swore an oath to do my duty, not to be celibate. Surely you couldn't have failed to notice Mr. Sharpears'... assets?"
Darkstar sniffed. "Please. I'm not that old." Shi nodded toward the screen. "Show us Ops, say, five minutes after Warrant Officer Sharpears left the wardroom. If she's is as good as you say, maybe I'll have a crack at her myself."
Longstocking shook hir head sadly. "You're a dirty old Chakat, Darkstar."
"Life without sex ain't worth living. Play the record."
The point of view Longstocking selected was in the front right corner of the Operations center, looking toward the back. In the extreme right Kit could just be seen, leaning against the view ports. As if on cue Liska came through the door; as she walked over to stand beside Kit Longstocking switched to a camera in the opposite corner of the room and zoomed in, framing Kit and Liska in a three-quarters shot.
Darkstar watched without comment as the scene played itself out. "Freeze," shi said when Liska went to the communications console.
"Will wonders never cease," Longstocking marvelled. "I've never seen a man get the better of Liska. To say nothing of someone like Kit."
Darkstar chuckled. "You said yourself that he was smart. Liska was trying to put him off guard by making small talk. In so doing she made the mistake of letting Kit take the battle onto his turf."
Longstocking made a face. "If that's all it's about, why couldn't she just unzip her suit and say 'let's fuck?'"
Darkstar shook hir head sadly. "You don't understand these things. It isn't so much the sex itself as the thrill of the hunt. Stalking the prey, toying with it, that final delicious moment when the quarry realizes that he's trapped with no hope of escape."
Longstocking gave Darkstar a thoughtful look. "I get the feeling that knowing you when you were younger might have been... interesting."
Darkstar laughed. "You don't know the half of it. I was a slut puppy of the very first water. Anything that would hold still long enough, then anything that didn't run so fast I couldn't catch it. I was every bit as bad as Mr. Sharpears and then some. Of course I had to rely more on guile and cunning; I never had a genetically engineered fly-soaker of a body like she does."
"Genetically engineered?" Longstocking inquired.
"Isn't it obvious?" Darkstar asked, leveling a finger at the image of Liska. "Not overtly, of course. But look at her. The shape of her body, the color and texture of her fur, the composition of her face. It's perfect. An adolescent fantasy sculpted in living flesh. A Venus in fur."
"Too perfect?" Longstocking suggested.
"Exactly." Darkstar nodded. "That body is just as artificial as the clothing and makeup she uses to decorate it."
Longstocking grimaced. "You know, when you put it that way it doesn't seem nearly so- so-"
"Exotic?" Darkstar suggested.
"Yes. As a natural beauty she's rare and precious. As something bought from a store, she's so- so-"
Darkstar sighed heavily. "I'd like to say that was the reason I didn't have myself modified."
"You?" Longstocking exclaimed. "How?"
"Isn't it obvious?" Darkstar cupped hir breasts, lifting them. "I dreamed about having a great big honkin' pair. The sort where people would run into walls and things because they were too busy staring at my boobs. And a tail. A long, beautiful, sinuous one I could wrap around things."
"You'd look funny."
Darkstar laughed. "Of course I would. But it's easy to say that now, with the benefit of experience and maturity. Make that a lot of maturity." Shi sighed heavily. "Try telling it to a young firebrand whose very emotional survival hangs on every casual glance and nod."
Longstocking shuddered. "Adolescence is the worst time of life."
"No argument there." Darkstar plumped the beanbags and carefully re-settled hirself. "Let's skip ahead to where they carry Kit out, then fast-forward through the rest of the night."
Snowflake spent most of the night in Ops. Twice shi called the Hugos in for a feeding session; the rest of the time shi was napping or cuddling the new arrival. Near morning shi retired and the Hugos took over; they fed the baby once then spent the rest of their shift refining the feeding process and playing computer games. Finally Kit returned. He spoke at length with the Hugos, after which they retired. He spent some time leaning on the view ports, as he'd been doing when Liska showed up. Then Baby woke up. Instead of calling the Hugos, Kit started the feeding process by himself.
"Freeze," Darkstar said. "Sidebar on. Play at normal speed."
A computer-generated representation of several consoles appeared, inset in the video, showing the readouts and control settings for those stations. Darkstar's eyes darted constantly between Kit and the sidebars, carefully noting the system's every response to his commands. Though every other feeding had required two operators- one to hold the baby and the other to operate the transporter- Kit flawlessly managed both tasks by himself.
Longstocking shook hir head. "I knew he was good with the hardware, but I never thought he was that good."
"He does rather well when he forgets to be self conscious," Darkstar mused. "I can understand why Starfleet wanted him."
"Come again?" Longstocking interjected.
"Mr. Carson is with us because he turned down a full academic scholarship from Starfleet Academy."
Longstocking's jaw dropped. "You're kidding!"
Darkstar shook hir head. "I had Fyodor pull up their academic records. Kit has just finished two of a six year Astronautical Engineering program. He's in the top ten percent of his class and he'd be in the top two if his course work was a little more consistent. I suspect that's the result of the Hugo's influence."
"How are they doing?" Longstocking wanted to know.
"The Hugo brothers are highly intelligent but lacking in academic discipline. Each has just finished two of a four-year program- Robotics for Valjean, Heuristic Programming for Javert. Their grades fluctuate wildly and on two separate occasions they have narrowly avoided academic suspension. The courses in which they do best seem to be those closely related to ones Mr. Carson is taking."
"At least they were smart enough to attach themselves to someone who could keep them in school. What about Snowflake?"
Darkstar tapped hir chin thoughtfully. "Chakat Snowflake is preparing to begin the fourth and final year of an Astronautics and Piloting program. Hir grades were excellent in hir first year, then began to slack off. Shi has been invited to apply to Security Force academy, but has not responded. If shi doesn't improve hir performance shi won't get in." Hir eyes narrowed. "Freeze."
Longstocking blinked, then halted playback. "What is it?" shi asked.
"Remove sidebars, tight on Kit," Darkstar directed.
Kit's profile swelled to fill he screen. Feeding was over; he'd apparently been playing with the baby, holding it, cuddling it, stroking it. His eyes gleamed with a strange light; on his face was goofy, but somehow radiant, grin.
Longstocking chuckled. "I'd know that look anywhere. New Parent Syndrome. My half-sister and hir mate were like that after their first kid was born."
"You don't feel that Mr. Carson is making an unwarranted assumption?" Darkstar inquired.
Longstocking opened hir mouth, then shut it. "I... all I can say right now is that obviously he doesn't think so." Shi studied the frozen image, drumming hir fingers on the table top. "Let's watch Junior and see what that tells us." Shi addressed the workstation; Kit's face vanished, replaced by a view of the work room as if through the Ops center view ports but uninterrupted by the verticals separating individual panes. The work room was clean and orderly; the original artifact rested comfortably in its cradle. Almost immediately it began to shiver and crack; after it split open the view screen blanked out as the video sensors were masked by debris. Visibility returned a moment later when Snowflake cleared the view ports. Darkstar paid particular attention to the feeding operations, which seemed to involve holding the baby on its back and aiming the transporter at it's belly. A simple enough process, one would think, but the baby would not hold still and kept sticking its hands into the matter stream. This didn't seem to hurt the baby any, but it disrupted the materialization process. Bright sparks, multicolored flashes, and eruptions of vaporized matter would explode from the target sphere- which looked about thumbnail sized, compared to the virtual hands. Baby seemed to enjoy this and did it whenever possible.
"Reminds me of the experiences I had trying to get my niece to take a bottle," Longstocking said.
"You didn't breast feed?" Darkstar inquired.
Longstocking shook hir head. "Not that I wouldn't have liked to, but there simply wasn't time. I was only on leave for a week. Coming back here with full bags and reeking of hormones would have been... rather disruptive."
Darkstar nodded. While Chakats were technically all the same sex they had hormonal cycles that alternated between masculine and feminine emphasis. A group of Chakats living together- especially in a closed environment such as a space habitat- would tend, over time, to synchronize their cycles so that all members of the group would be male-disposed or female-disposed at the same time. Despite how it might appear this tendency was actually an advantage; it discouraged inbreeding within family units and minimized sexual tensions in an isolated setting such as the repair station. If Longstocking had so chosen shi could have started lactating by drinking hir half-sister's milk. Hormones in the milk would have stimulated milk production- but also thrown Longstocking's cycle out of sync and left hir in a sexually excited state. It was not a situation conducive to maintaining discipline.
"The rest looks pretty familiar too," Longstocking continued. "Eating and sleeping, with brief periods of activity occasionally nestled in between."
When left to hir own devices the baby sought out one particular corner of the work room and settled there. Over the space of two or three minutes hir skin would gradually change color to perfectly match whatever was behind hir. Darkstar found that if shi closed hir eyes for a moment shi could loose sight of the baby even when shi knew exactly where it was. When Baby wanted attention shi would wave hir limbs and flash bright, opalescent swatches on the undersides of hir wings. Shi loved being stroked and whenever anyone activated the virtual hands shi'd rub against them like a kitten. Hir favorite play activity seemed to be grabbing the fingers of the virtual hands and either flexing or squeezing them. In fast motion Darkstar and Longstocking watched the night's little dramas played out- and also saw how the soft, lumpish newborn Kit had first held in his virtual hands metamorphosed into the sleek, sharp-edged thing everyone else had seen upon returning to the station that morning.
"Now you're starting to get the new-parent look," Darkstar commented.
Longstocking blanked the screen and rubbed hir eyes. "Darkstar, I may not be a scientist but I do understand the danger of drawing conclusions based on how we think or want things to be rather than how they are. Intellectually I realize that Dr. Janek was merely trying to warn us that anthropomorphizing this- thing- is a seductive and dangerous trap. And I agree completely."
"But?" Darkstar prompted as the silence lengthened.
"I found Kit's reasoning to be... compelling," Longstocking continued. "Still, it wasn't too hard for me to set it aside. After all, he's just a kid. Dr. Janek's a scientist, for all that he's an opinionated little prick." Shi stared at the blank view screen as if some fundamental truth might be revealed there. "But if I hadn't spent the last two weeks here with Kit... If I hadn't met Dr. Janek... If all I'd seen were those recordings..." She wiped hir face with both hands, starting on hir nose, going over the top of hir head, and down to hir neck. "But it sure acts like a baby, doesn't it? Enough that it reminds me of my niece."
"I'd been thinking that way too," Darkstar admitted. "After all, we're genetically programmed to love our children, to want to take care of them. The legacy of a billion years of evolution. Yes, I know that technically Chakats didn't evolve, but that doesn't matter. We inherited the legacy of our creators just as any child inherits the legacy of its parents. Furthermore, contact with other intelligent species has shown us that evolutionary patterns strikingly similar to our own can develop in completely different biospheres. If our Junior was, as Dr. Janek says, created, what of the people who created hir? They would have endowed hir with their legacy. The possibility that our legacy and hirs may be similar is not, I do not think, so vanishingly slight as Dr. Janek would have us believe."
Longstocking's eyes, as she gazed at Darkstar, had to begun to shine the way Kit's had as he gazed at Junior. When Darkstar turned to look at hir, though, shi looked away.
"Longstocking?" Darkstar inquired as the silence lengthened.
"I can't do this," Longstocking said. Shi was gasping as if the atmosphere had suddenly become only marginally breathable.
"Why not?" Darkstar asked- quietly, gently; avoiding any suggestion of judgement.
"Darkstar, I- I've been living with these kids for almost a month." Longstocking was rubbing hir eyes. "You... You've been here for, what, three days? You've hardly spoken more than two words to any of them... and you know more about them than I do! The damage done amounts to millions of credits. Whatever I write in this report- it's gonna affect the rest of their lives! I'm just a glorified mechanic, a commander by administrative courtesy only! Not like you."
"Actually, you're just like me," Darkstar replied, hir eyes misting slightly. "I recall something that happened long ago. longer than I care to remember, really. A young ensign, fresh out of the academy, got hir promotion to lieutenant, junior grade. It was the proudest day of hir life, even more than graduation, because it meant that shi had proven hirself: not just in the theoretical world of academia, but in the real world. That Starfleet was acknowledging the merit of hir service. The next day- the very next fucking day- the new JG learns that a member of hir section has been arrested for raping an underage Voxxan girl." Darkstar wiped hir face. "As I recall it, the JG went to hir CO and said something very similar to what you just said to me. The JG was scared out of hir fucking mind. Shi knew that shi was nothing but a dumb kid, and shi was being required to sit in judgement over another dumb kid. The CO told the JG that no matter what hir grades in the Academy had been shi had passed, which meant that Starfleet had assessed the level of demonstrated performance as satisfactory for a new officer. Furthermore, the ensign had been promoted to JG- which meant that shi had, in the process of active duty, demonstrated fitness for the rigors of command. To say otherwise would be to defy the collected wisdom of Starfleet- from the Commander in Chief right down to that individual CO." Darkstar smiled. "He said other things, too, but they were rather unflattering. To you I say this: the Security Force may have put you here to fix star ships, but they made you an officer because they believe in your ability to lead. If there was someone better, they'd be here instead of you. Look at it this way, too: they want to know if Mr. Carson and his friends misused the equipment left in their care. Who better to make that decision that one who is expert in the use of that equipment?"
Longstocking stared at the disk of Chakona, which was brightly lit. "What happened to that young man?"
"He was found guilty and sentenced to death," Darkstar replied. "He was the first person to die under my command."
"Do you still... I mean..."
"Do I still think about him? Do I remember?" Darkstar's eyes had unfocused, gazing away to a far distant place and time. Hir voice took on a warm, nostalgic tone, the sort a grandmother would use to share memories with her grandchildren. "His name was Spaceman Second Class Charles Benson. His father was Albert, his mother Tina. He had joined Starfleet on a scholarship program so he'd have money for college. He had a girlfriend named Angie Henderson; they were going to get married at the end of his tour. I see his face every time I close my eyes. When I lay down to go to sleep I hear him sobbing, begging me to save his life."
Longstocking closed the workstation. Shi moved around the table, pulling off hir tunic and letting it fall to the floor. Hir brassiere was coated with a thin layer of fake fur so that it wouldn't disrupt the lines of hir tunic. For just an instant a troubled expression flicked across Darkstar's face, like a cloud momentarily obscuring the sun. In that moment, reflected briefly in hir eyes, was the memory of some terrible pain. "I'm old enough to be your grandmother," shi said quietly.
"Life without sex isn't worth living." Longstocking stroked hir cheek against Darkstar's. One hand found its way to Darkstar's breast and squeezed gently.
"Then tell me to stop." Longstocking lifted Darkstar's breast and ran hir tongue slowly over the nipple. "Tell me you don't want me to. Make me believe it, the way you made me believe in myself."
"Longstocking?" Darkstar's eyes were closed.
"Why don't you carry pictures of your grand kids?"
Darkstar was sprawled on hir back, staring up at the ceiling. Only hir eyes moved, shifting to look at Longstocking, whose torso was propped up on hir elbows. "Do you really want to know, or are you just making conversation?"
"I really want to know."
Darkstar's eyes unfocused. "I don't carry pictures of my grand kids because I don't have any."
"What about Aurora?"
Darkstar clasped hir hands behind hir head. "Many years ago, while I was attending Cape York Academy on Terra, one of my many lovers was a Chakat named Iris. We dated a few times, then shi disappeared. I never thought anything of it. Many years later, after retiring from Starfleet, I came back to Chakona to have a look at the old homestead, which I hadn't seen since- a very long time ago. While I was standing there a strange Chakat walks up to me and asks me if I happen to be Darkstar, daughter of Penta and Longstride. Shi explained that shi was Iris, and that we had met at Cape York many years ago, and that shi had washed out of the Academy shortly after dating me. On the way back to Chakona shi discovered that shi was pregnant. When the cub was born shi was very lynx-like. Iris named hir Marla. Eventually Iris mated and had more cubs, but somehow Marla never fit into the family very well. Shi ran away from home, shi argued with hir parents, shi fought with hir siblings. Shi was incarcerated at various times for petty theft, prostitution, and drug addiction. After some time shi disappeared and Iris never saw hir again. Shi suggested that with Starfleet to help I might be able to track hir down."
"What did you do?" Longstocking inquired.
"What I wanted to do was grab Iris around the neck and squeeze until hir face turned purple and hir eyes popped out. The only reason I didn't was because I knew it wouldn't make a damn bit of difference. I asked for all the information shi had. Shi gave it to me and we parted company, never to meet again. I contacted Fyodor, and he helped me chase down the leads. I followed the trail to a broken-down old space habitat in Voxxan space, where Marla was working on the hull crew. I arrived two days after she was killed in an accident. There wasn't even a body to take home; she'd been caught between two pieces of hull plating. Nothing left but a bloody smear. It turned out shi had a daughter; no one knew who the kid's father was, and shi'd been seized by Family Services because Marla was deemed to be an unfit parent. I eventually won custody of the kid- Aurora- by taking a blood test. I brought hir back to Chakona and the rest, as they say, is history."
"What about cousins? Didn't your sisters have kids?"
"I don't understand."
"I'd rather not talk about it." Darkstar rolled onto hir side.
Longstocking frowned. "Tell me, Darkstar. You owe it to me."
"I'm ignoring my oath for you, Darkstar. I'm risking my career. For you, Darkstar. Frankly I couldn't give a damn about Professor Moseivitch as his Byzantine schemes. I'm doing it for you."
Darkstar drew a deep breath then let it out slowly. "All right." She rolled onto hir belly and slowly pushed hirself upright."My parents had three kids: myself, the oldest, Schwartzchild, and Corona. When I was eleven years old we went on a camping trip to Novaya Belarus. In fact you can just see where we went-" shi pointed out at Chakona- "at the northern end of the sub-continent, in the foothills. It was colder than shit and the snow averaged about a meter deep. Back then it was a pretty wild place- still is, I hear. Mom had set up an autogun-"
"An autogun?" Longstocking exclaimed.
"Have you ever seen a scimitar cat?" Darkstar asked.
"Only in textbooks."
"Then you can't appreciate the truth of it. The Chakonan scimitar cat bears a strong resemblance to the Terran lynx, except that the scimitar cat masses between one hundred and one hundred fifty kilograms. They hunt by stealth- and they can, in spite of their size, because their feet are over-sized and padded with thick bundles of fur. Then they jump out and spear their prey with canines that can be up to twenty centimeters long. Their jaws are so powerful one bite can snap the spine of a creature twice their size. Anyway, Mom warned us not to play anywhere the autogun couldn't fire, but you know how kids are. While Mom was distracted with something we wandered off. Then... the scimitar cat came out of a clump of dead grass I wouldn't have thought could have hid a rabbit. It was so big it stepped over me. I was looking up at the fluffy under-fur hanging from its chest. It's jaws closed with a clump, like if you took two blocks of wood and slapped them together gently. The last I saw of Corona was hir body dangling from the cat's jaws as it jogged away. Hir head, shoulders, and arms were completely inside its mouth. I always wondered why it picked hir instead of me. I was bigger, and closer." Shi shrugged. "Maybe my fur pattern confused it. I was the only lynx. Had enough yet?"
"No," Longstocking replied. "What about your other sister, Schwartzchild? For that matter, didn't your parents have any more kids?"
Darkstar shook hir head. "Mom and Dad never had any more kids. I think... I think it was because Mom was crushed with guilt. For having lost one. Like that. The camping trip was hir idea." Darkstar smiled, but hir eyes were bleak. "We were an old Starfleet family. Mom and Dad had served, it was a given that we kids would. They didn't object when Schwartzchild opted out to start a family, though. I think they were afraid... they didn't like the odds. With only two of us left, that is. While I was off at the academy Schwartzchild mated and had a passel of kids. But Mom and Dad didn't want me to think that what I was doing wasn't important, so when I was promoted to commander and made executive officer of the Illustrious, they packed up the whole clan and headed off to Voxxa to celebrate with me." Hir eyes focused on Longstocking. "You know what's coming. I can see it in your face. On the tenth of February, 2261, the family boarded the Cathay Pacific liner Quezon City at Chakona Gateway Station. Two days later the ship passes through a sub-space rift that induces a huge instability in it's warp field. Quezon City had a new lightweight core and it couldn't take the strain. The plasma manifolds ruptured right where they joined to the warp reactor body. Drive plasma vented into the engine casing erupted through the accommodation hatches, into the Tourist class passenger decks, and finally overboard through the view ports on the Tourist class promenade. Everything in the path of the plume was instantly vaporized, even the decks and structural members. Five hundred and seventy people died, either in the initial explosion or later as a result of radiation burns. As you know too, Illustrious was the ship sent to investigate the disaster. I was part of an away team that searched for survivors. I couldn't belive that anyone had; the entire stern of the ship had been reduced to slag. Then someone let slip that this was the Quezon City. I hadn't recognized it. Just a day earlier I'd gotten a hyper-gram from Mom, letting me know that they were coming. I checked the passenger manifest Cathay Pacific had sent us. The family's suite of rooms had been on D deck aft, an area that was so hot we couldn't even go in to search. Not that there would have been any point."
Longstocking's face was slack with shock. Hir jaw worked but shi couldn't form words. Shi reached out-
As fast as a snake Darkstar caught Longstocking's wrist before the hand could touch hir shoulder. "Don't start," Darkstar said flatly. "I know what you're thinking." Hir eyes pinned Longstocking with bolts of cold, gray steel. "I told you this because you asked and because I owed you. I do not expect, do not want, your sympathy or comfort. I have a family- Aurora- and it is enough. If you wish to honor me, do it for the works I've done, not for the tragedies I've suffered." Shi released Longstocking's arm because it had gone limp, then walked out of the room without looking back.
"Who did you say the Prof was bringing with him?" Kit asked.
"Good afternoon everyone," Fyodor exclaimed as he bustled into the Ops center. Behind him were Dr. Stannus, Ito, Snowflake, and two strangers. "Allow me to present Doctor Ygor Stannus of the Federation Science Corps."
"Him," Valjean replied, pointing at Dr. Stannus.
"Is that the same Dr. Stannus who tried to get Professor Moseivitch thrown in jail?" Kit wondered.
"I thought only assistants were named Igor," Javert commented.
"That's Ygor, with a Y," Valjean corrected.
Javert frowned. "Y-gor? Doesn't sound right."
"Doctor Nova Stallis, a neurologist, from our very own College of Internal Medicine," Fyodor continued.
Doctor Stallis was a lioness in the same sense that Liska was a vixen. Nova also had a figure of impressive fullness and curvaceousness, but she was a head taller than Liska and considerably more massive. Nova's well-constructed frame supported a musculature of truly awesome proportion; though merely humanoid she seemed quite capable of folding a Chakat in half. She had a mane- the same tawny golden color as her fur- which she wore in beaded dreadlocks. Her clothing consisted of an orange tank top, matching shorts, and a waist pouch. Around her neck was a thin gold chain supporting a tiny green jade pendant that was almost lost in her cleavage. In one hand she carried a portable workstation; in the other a brushed metal equipment case.
"Here, kitty, kitty," Javert whispered, licking his chops.
Sherlock snorted disdainfully. "Best you doggies not try chasing that cat. She'd gulp down the two of you without so much as a belch." Shi looked Nova up and down with a frankly speculative look.
"And this is Kei of House Redpaw, who is a telepath," Fyodor concluded.
Kei was a skunktaur. Logically one would think that meant hy was a centauroid creature based on a skunk as, for example, the Hugo brothers were centauroids based on foxes. For the most part that was true; Kei's fur was silky black all over except for a blaze on hys forehead, two parallel stripes running down hys spine and onto hys tail, and his mane, which were white, and a stylized paw print on hys right breast, which was red. Ultimately only hys head and tail were clearly skunk-like; hys torso was humanoid and his lower body rather cat-like. Hy wore nothing but a red bandana tied around hys forehead and a belt-pouch around hys waist.
To all appearances Kei was as completely masculine as Valjean and Javert (though a bit shorter and not as muscular), but he was in fact a hermaphrodite. Skunktaurs- unlike Chakats- are only one sex at a time, though periodically they metamorphose into the other. For this reason they also use special pronouns, but different from the ones Chakats use: hy and hys instead of shi and hir.
Fyodor quickly introduced Kei and Nova to the rest of the team. "And that," he finished, pointing toward the view ports, "Is Star Baby."
Kit grinned; Valjean was unable to suppress a chuckle. Since about noon a fearsome debate had ranged over what the new arrival should be named. Valjean suggested Junior, that term being already unofficially in use. He was roundly put down by Snowflake and Sherlock, who accused him of being androcentric, but they were unable to propose an acceptable alternative. As discussion continued- at times rather heated- "baby star ship" metamorphosed into "Star Baby." When Kit pointed this out, "Star Baby" was reluctantly entered as the official appellation. When Professor Moseivitch called late in the afternoon he tried to suggest Strela (which meant "arrow" in ancient Russian) but Darkstar explained to him that trying to change the name now would spark off a civil war.
"Amazing," Nova breathed, her eyes wide.
"Wow," Kei put in, eyes also wide.
"Fascinating." Dr. Stannus' eyes narrowed slightly.
"Since our scanning apparati are no longer obstructed, our first order of business shall be to conduct a detailed physiological analysis," Moseivitch announced. "I trust everything is in readiness?"
"It is," Longstocking replied. "Mr. Carson, Mr. Sharpears, if you please?" Kit and Liska sat down at adjacent control stations.
"Why do you need both of them?" Dr. Stannus wanted to know.
"Liska to operate the equipment, and Kit to operate Star Baby," Longstocking replied.
"Excuse me?" Dr. Stannus' expression suggested that he felt he was being put on.
"Star Baby can be rather- rather-" Longstocking began.
"Contrary?" Darkstar suggested.
"Yes. Contrary. Of all of us, Mr. Carson seems to do best at getting hir to behave."
"Hir?" Nova asked. "Is shi a hermaphrodite?"
Longstocking shrugged. "Frankly, we haven't the faintest idea. We couldn't very well call hir it, could we?"
As soon as Kit had activated his virtual hands Star Baby had pounced upon them like a kitten upon a bit of string. For several minutes they wrestled; in the end Star Baby was completely quiescent as Kit pinched hir wings, tickled hir belly, and stroked hir back. "Shi likes being cuddled," he explained.
"Deploying scan heads," Liska reported. Arms reached out from the walls- and occasionally had to jerk back as Kit's virtual hands went by.
"Kit, can you stop for a moment?" Sherlock asked.
"'Fraid not," Kit apologized. "If I stop now shi'll wake up even crankier."
"Can't you just restrain it with tractor beams?" Dr. Stannus wanted to know.
"Of course it's possible," Darkstar replied, forestalling an angry outburst from Snowflake with a soothing gesture. "But there are political considerations. I foresee a First Contact in the not too distant future- at which time we might very well be asked how we treated someone's darling baby. Strapping said baby down with tractor beams might prejudice that encounter against us, don't you think?" Dr. Stannus did not respond.
"Okay, we're getting data now," Sherlock muttered. A display window opened on the view ports; a computer generated 3D model of Star Baby began to assemble itself.
"Now we get to the good stuff," Ito whispered. We was grinning like a maniac and literally hopping with excitement. He opened his portable workstation and connected it to one of the consoles with a patch cable.
"Shi seems to have both internal and external skeletons," Nova commented.
"The outer skin is just a shell that holds the extremities in shape," Ito replied, his eyes never leaving the screen of his workstation. "The inner skeleton supports all the load." He glanced up. "Sherlock, what's happening to the data stream?"
"I'm loosing resolution," Sherlock replied. On the 3D view only the outer layers were clearly defined; the center of the diagram was not empty, but the features there were fuzzy and indistinct.
"Any evidence of a star drive?" Dr. Stannus inquired.
"Not that I can see," Sherlock replied. "Darkstar?"
Darkstar peered at the information displayed at Sherlock's console. "Me either."
Sherlock frowned. "Sir, Star Baby's insides are full of interlocking force fields. I can't get through them."
"Then we'll just have to plant sensor pods, like we did last time," Ito said- then suddenly realized that everyone was staring at him. "What did I say this time?" he demanded petulantly.
"Doctor, we're no longer talking about sectioning an inanimate object," Darkstar said, restraining Snowflake with a hand upon hir shoulder. "We're talking about performing vivisection on a living organism that may be sentient."
"Which is why I asked Kei and Dr. Stallis to come along," Fyodor interjected smoothly. "I have no doubt that they will help us to shed light on the matter."
"I appreciate the confidence, but I don't think it's going to be quite that easy," Nova replied. "My neurological analyzer-" she hefted the case- "has a maximum range of about a meter, and it only works on organic brains."
"Telepathy depends a lot on having a common frame of reference," Kei put in.
"But I thought telepaths could connect with any mind," Snowflake protested.
"Theoretically yes," Kei agreed. "On the practical level, the only minds you can communicate with- and therefore properly assess- are those of people who see the world like you do. Or, you have to learn how to see the world like they do. If not you may still get a lot, but it'll be unintelligible nonsense."
"I don't follow," Valjean said.
"It's like this," Kei explained. "I could make contact with- with you, for instance. I could even read what you're thinking, because you think in words and they're in the same language I use. If I contacted someone who spoke a different language I couldn't understand the thoughts any more than I could understand their speech- unless I knew the language, of course. I could guess what the person meant because along with the words there are feelings, sensations, images- all sorts of non-verbal things- that I can pick up. But what if the person doesn't even use language as I know it? Like animals, who don't use words or anything like them? What about creatures like, like dolphins or bats, who see with sonar? The images are there, but my brain doesn't know how to interpret them because I don't have sonar." He turned and looked at Star Baby. "I'm no star ship engineer, but I'd say it's pretty clear that whatever senses shi uses are completely unlike anything I've ever seen. Probably unlike anything any organic creature's ever had."
"Would you be willing to give it a try?" Fyodor inquired.
"Hell yes." Kei's eyes were shining with excitement. "If the Chakats would care to leave the room, I'll get started."
"Why do the Chakats have to leave?" Kit whispered.
"Skunktaurs don't have complete control over their powers," Liska replied. "Skunktaur and Chakat brains are very similar. I understand they were engineered from the same basic stock. When a skunktaur activates hys powers- by taking off the headband- telepathic contact spills over to all Chakats that are nearby."
"Are we okay?" Kit asked, somewhat apprehensively.
"Oh, yes. It only affects Chakats."
"We'll watch from the wardroom," Longstocking said. Shi, Sherlock, Darkstar, and Snowflake filed out. Kei closed his eyes, hands clasped under hys chin as if he were praying, then reached up and took off hys headband. Kit blinked, then extracted his left hand from the control gauntlet to scratch the side of his head. The inside of his ear seemed to be itching-
Kei let out a horrific shriek and reared up until he fell over backwards. Hys head struck the deck with a nasty crack; he lay of the floor thrashing and gobbling, apparently trying to curl backwards into a ball. The fur on his muzzle turned bloody as hy chewed on his own tongue. Nova planted her hand and vaulted over the row of consoles in one smooth motion; she landed in a crouch and delivered a vicious punch that rendered Kei instantly unconscious and left hys jaw hanging at an unnatural angle.
"Valjean, Javert, help Dr. Stallis carry Kei to the medbay," Professor Moseivitch ordered in a voice that cracked like the popper of a bullwhip. "Liska, contact Chakona Gateway and tell them to send a medical shuttle at once." The directed parties jumped immediately to their tasks; in the face of that voice disobedience could not even be considered.
Kit glanced fearfully over his shoulder. The jovial professor was gone; the man in his place seemed to tower over everyone present, physical size notwithstanding. "What should I do, Professor?" Kit asked.
"Stay here and keep Star Baby calm," Fyodor replied. "I can't imagine what she did to Kei, but I don't want to make it worse." He smiled; not his usual friendly one but a grim, shark-like one that made Kit shiver. "Other than that I'd say we've all had about enough science for one day, don't you think?"
All lights in the wardroom had been turned off. Illumination came only through the view ports, painting the scene in long, alternating bands of cold light and inky shadow. Longstocking hesitated in the doorway; shi found the effect to be unsettling.
"If you please, what is the report on Kei's condition?" Fyodor asked quietly. He stood before the centermost view port, staring out into space. His back was straight, as if he were at attention, his hands clasped behind his back. The half full disk of Chakona formed a partial halo around his head and reduced his body to a textured shadow.
"Ah-" Longstocking hadn't thought that Professor Moseivitch could have noticed hir from where he was standing. "According to the physicians at Chakona Gateway, Kei suffered a stroke. Instead of one major blood vessel breaking, several smaller ones failed. The result was comparatively minor but wide spread damage to his neural tissue. The prognosis-" shi licked hir lips, shifting uncomfortably. "The doctors say hy'll recover, but his telepathic abilities may be, severely degraded."
"Computer, lights." Fyodor turned on his heel. The glow strips came on, the view ports darkening to cut glare. His eyes were puffy, his face strained and very, very old. "Please forward a full report to Nakala Redpaw of Arcanum Industries. Include-" his voice caught; he looked down, bringing a hand around to dab at his face. "No, that won't do. I have to tell hym personally. Darkstar, would you take me down?"
"Of course," Darkstar replied.
Longstocking had to restrain hirself from starting in surprise. Darkstar had been sitting on the couch; with the room lights off and all illumination coming in through the view ports, shi had been hidden in shadow. With the room lights on shi was clearly visible, but Longstocking's attention had been completely focused upon Fyodor.
"Did the physicians give any indication of what might have been the cause of Kei's... attack?" Fyodor asked, taking a handkerchief from his coat pocket and wiping his face.
Longstocking shook hir head. "I'm afraid not, Professor. Kei was in excellent health; the- attack- was clearly the result of hys telepathic contact with Star Baby. Though none of the experts thus far consulted can offer any explanation of why."
"I see." Fyodor took three steps away from the view port then stopped and glanced at Darkstar. In that instant something passed between them. It was sudden and significant, yet nearly invisible to those it did not directly involve, like a spark in dry air. Darkstar slid off he couch and went to stand beside him, laying a hand on his shoulder and squeezing gently. He straightened up, and once again he was the familiar Moseivitch: friendly, calm, collected, and very much in control. "Longstocking, please tell Dr. Stallis and Dr. Janek that I would like them to continue their research while I am away. Tell Dr. Stannus that I would like him to accompany me to the surface. I will require his input on what will be said at the official press conference."
Longstocking frowned. "All this about security, and now you're holding a press conference?" shi exclaimed.
"The project's security has been blown right out the airlock, or it will be shortly," Darkstar said. "The Mileva Memorial Observatory cost a Hell of a lot of money. People want to know why steps weren't taken to protect that investment. Either it was administrative incompetence- or something extraordinary happened. To the press, either explanation is pure gold. Add Dr. Stannus' suit and what happened to Kei- both of which are matters of public record- and it doesn't take a genius to put it all together. Kei was maimed while participating in a Security Force black project involving something that was capable of destroying the Deep Space Hyper-Spatial Anomaly Detector in spite of all the money spent to protect it."
"Good God." Longstocking had to lean against the door frame. "There'd be a media frenzy. Of- of galactic proportions."
"Quite," Fyodor agreed. "If an avalanche is inevitable, better that I should throw the first stone so that the deluge goes in the direction of my choosing."
"And what direction is that?" Longstocking inquired distrustfully.
Fyodor grinned wolfishly. "I intend to accuse the Tenspan Foundation of shoddy design and incompetent management."
"But- won't they just throw it back in your face?" Now Longstocking seemed baffled.
"Of course. But if they tell the whole truth, they reveal that they colluded with me to subvert the authority of the Chakonan government. If they tell only part of the truth, it appears that they are attacking me to divert attention away from themselves. Dr. Stannus will make sure that my reputation remains unsullied."
Now Longstocking was really confused. "Wait a sec. Dr. Stannus hates you. Why would he help you like that? Especially if it means selling out his own allies?"
"So long as the truth about Star Baby remains hidden, there is the chance that the Chakonan government can be persuaded to give hir up," Fyodor explained. "If the government truly understood what it was holding, and especially if it knew about the Tenspan Foundation, it would never give hir up. As a matter of principle, if nothing else. And certainly not to the Federation Science Corps."
Longstocking's eyes narrowed. "That's why you invited him in, even after he tried to get you thrown in jail. Because if he tries to blow the whistle now, his hand is in the cookie jar, too."
"Exactly." Fyodor nodded.
"I'll go pass the word." Longstocking turned away so that neither Fyodor or Darkstar would see hir expression. Did ethics ever have anything to do with this? shi wondered, feeling sick to hir stomachs.
"That's a girl," Kit said. He was grinning like an idiot, holding Star Baby on hir back and stroking the roots of hir wings with the tip of his virtual finger. It left a diffuse streak of pale orange on hir hull, as if the color were leaking out.
"How does shi change hir color like that?" Nova asked.
"Damfino," Valjean replied. He was at the station next to Kit, controlling the mechanical arm that was aiming a contraption at Star Baby's belly that looked as if it had come straight from the lab of B movie mad scientist. Adding to that effect was the brilliant light crackling from its tip, which illuminated the whole work room with a harsh, actinic glow. "Ask Dr. Stannus."
"What do you feed hir?"
"Bits of the shell shi came in," Ito replied, watching with evident concern as a piece of that very thing was slowly dissolved by a transporter. "We're going to have to find a substitute soon, because we're running out of shell. Shi's already gained almost four tons and shi was only born yesterday."
"How does shi ingest it?"
"Transporter," Javert said.
"Then why do you need all this ironmongery?"
"Shi can't break down the matter on hir own," Kit said. "We break it down for hir with a cargo transporter. Shi picks up the stream and does whatever shi does with it."
"But hir transporter isn't very stable," Javert put in. He was studying the instruments at his console, making constant adjustments. "If you're not careful we could overload our transporter, overload hir transporter, of just end up with a great gob of randomly materializing matter."
Valjean snorted. "Believe me, we made a Hell of a mess figuring it all out."
"So shi's a mammal," Nova commented, thoughtfully stroking her chin. "How did you figure out what to feed hir?"
"Dumb luck, mostly," Javert explained. "We used the transporter to cut hir out of the shell 'cause there wasn't anything else that could."
"Why not use Dr. Janek's nanites?"
Kit frowned. "Those nanites were made to dissolve the shell. The shell is made of the same stuff Star Baby is made of, except that it's been ossified by exposure to vacuum. What would they do to hir?"
"Nothing, actually," Ito put in. "Hir natural force fields would keep the nanites from even touching hir skin."
"Anyway, we couldn't stop hir from scarfing up the matter stream," Javert continued. "Shi seemed to be doing just fine and we couldn't think of anything else to feed hir, so we kept at it."
"'Tweren't as hard as we'd thought," Valjean said. "Star Baby just sort of... takes what shi wants and leaves the rest. We adjust the composition of the matter stream to give hir what shi wants."
"What if you try to feed hir something shi doesn't like?"
"El Puke-o," Valjean declared.
"Big time technicolor yawn," Javert added.
"I believe the technical term is 'regurgitation,'" Kit concluded. "Shi spikes the matter stream and expels whatever shi's collected. You end up with stuff randomly materializing all over the place."
"An experience not unlike having a Founder's Day fireworks display shoved up your nose," Valjean put in.
"Speaking of which, I think it's time to shut down unless Dr. Stallis would like a practical demonstration," Kit said.
"Righty-o, chief." Javert shut down the transporter. Valjean put away the equipment and retracted the arms, then pulled his hands out of the control gauntlets and massaged them.
Nova stepped closer to the view ports. "Why do you stroke hir like that, Kit?"
Kit shrugged. "When I do it she lays still and lets us feed hir without a lot of fuss."
"But it only works well when he does it," Snowflake muttered.
"Shi likes our Kit, shi does," Valjean commented.
"Shi even knows when he comes into the room," Javert said. "If he doesn't give hir a pat and a cuddle shi starts knocking on the view port."
"You oughta see it," Valjean continued. "Those panes are three centimeters of transparisteel. When Star Baby flicks one it bounces like cheap plastic."
"Shi's strong, our Star Baby is," Kit declared proudly. He was caressing hir belly with the tips of his fingers; sparkles and streamers of color raced out from the points of contact and across the surface of Star Baby's hull like ripples on a pond.
"We've had to boost gain on the virtual hands by nearly a factor of ten," Snowflake added. "We're gonna have to get hir a scratching post."
"What for?" Nova inquired.
"Y'see, the fingertips on hir strength limbs- that's these, the stubby ones- are pointed," Kit explained, gesturing with his virtual fingers. "Turns out they project shearing fields too, like the blade of a vibrosaw. Lately shi's taken to clawing at the walls when shi gets bored. The work room is sheeted with surface-hardened tritanium, just like the hull of a star ship, but if we leave hir too long shi'll rip furrows in it."
Snowflake sighed. "Used to be- this was yesterday mind you- we could leave hir alone. Now we have to watch hir constantly."
"Gonna be a bitch when shi gets bigger," Javert observed.
"How big will shi get?" Nova asked.
"Hir momma massed around four hundred tons," Kit responded. "If Star Baby gets that big shi'll be about seventy or eighty meters long."
"We'll have to find a bigger place for hir," Valjean said.
"No we don't," Kit insisted, brow furrowing. "We just have to get hir out of here."
Flashes of color exploded across Star Baby's belly. Shi extended hir strength limbs and grabbed at Kit's fingers.
"Sorry," Kit apologized, his tone soft and gentle. "Didn't mean to upset you, Star Baby." He lovingly pinched and caressed the- comparatively- tiny hands until they withdrew. "Dr. Stallis, we can't keep hir in here," he pronounced. "I mean- would you keep one of your own kids locked in a box? Shi needs to be- out there." He pointed; his virtual hand pointed as well. Star Baby extended one of hir strength limbs and imitated the gesture.
"How do you expect to keep hir from running off?" Ito wondered.
"Sentry ships, to keep an eye on hir while shi's out exercising," Kit replied. "The Security Force could do it. They've got the ships and the pilots. You could call it- I dunno- a training exercise. Or something."
Snowflake nodded. "I think that's a great idea. For when shi gets older, of course."
Kit frowned. "How much older is older, Snowflake?" he demanded, though he continued to stare resolutely forward. "Look at how much shi's developed in the last- what- day and night. I think that older is going to arrive a lot sooner than you think."
"Kit, shi's a baby," Snowflake protested. "And shi's the only baby we've got. If anything happens to hir there's no second chance! Shi could get lost, injured, run away-"
"I think you're overstating the problem," Kit responded tightly- then winced as Star Baby pinched his fingers.
"All that is for Professor Moseivitch to decide," Ito pointed out.
Kit seemed not to have heard. He was focused on Star Baby; after a handful of strokes his face cleared, settling in an expression of warm contentment. Snowflake glanced at Ito out of the corners of hir eyes; hir lips drew back slightly and hir forelegs tensed, the claws extending and digging into the traction matting that covered the deck. Valjean and Javert appeared to have taken studious interest in inconsequential things near themselves, so that they were not looking at anyone in particular. Nova observed all this interplay with quick motions of the eyes and no more than minute motions of the head and body.
"How do you keep her from getting bored?" Nova inquired.
"Lots of cuddling and games," Kit said.
"Shi plays patty-cake," Javert said.
"If you make hand gestures shi'll imitate them," Snowflake added.
Valjean chuckled. "I taught hir to make a one-finger salute." He demonstrated, making a fist and extending his middle finger. The gesture was not aimed at anyone in particular, though it might have come closer to Dr. Janek than anyone else. Snowflake snorted and rolled hir eyes, but it was a tolerantly bemused expression.
"How smart is she?" Nova asked.
Kit blinked. "Why are you asking us?" He sounded genuinely surprised.
Ito frowned, an expression that did terrible injustice to his otherwise beautiful features. "I thought you were supposed to be the big brain expert," he commend, only half jokingly.
"I'm an expert on neurology," Nova replied, turning to face Ito squarely. "These young gentlefolk are the experts on Star Baby." She smiled; to Kit, Snowflake, Valjean, and Javert, who each saw it only from various side angles, it seemed like nothing but a casual expression. Only Ito saw it straight on- and there was something about it that made him take a sudden and intense interest in his own work. "So, Kit-" she turned to him- "how smart do you think shi is?"
"I dunno." He shrugged one shoulder and shifted uncomfortably. "Shi seems pretty smart. I've never heard of an animal playing patty-cake."
"Apes do," Nova said. "Up to an including the most advanced of the primates, Homo Sapiens Terra. Kit, would you help me with a small test?"
"I thought the neurological analyzer won't work," Kit responded.
"It won't," Nova announced. "We won't need it. What we will need is two shipping containers. They both must be large enough that Star Baby can handle them, strong enough that shi can't crush them, at least not easily, and one must fit inside the other."
"Drive coil shipping box?" Valjean ventured.
"Sounds good," Kit agreed, nodding. "And we've got plenty laying around. Won't matter of Star Baby smashes a few." He grimaced. "Not that a few containers would make any difference, considering how much equipment we've destroyed already."
"Where do you want 'em, Doc?" Javert inquired.
"Put the smaller inside the larger and set it where I can reach it with the virtual hands," Nova directed, taking a seat at the station beside Kit's and slipping her hands into the gauntlets.
"That's an affirm." Valjean stepped up to a console and keyed in a quick sequence of commands. A few moments later a hatch opened on the right side of the work room. From it emerged the container, a cylindrical object resembling a hat box.
"You got hir attention, all right," Kit said. Instead of merely stroking hir, he was now holding Star Baby gently between his hands. The shifting colors of hir skin had quickened, like a school of fish suddenly darting.
Nova picked up the container and began tossing it from hand to hand. After while she lofted it toward Star Baby, who caught it in one hand then brought it up to hir belly, turning and fingering it. A strange, greenish glow flickered from the container's edges like St. Elmo's fire.
"Shi's trying to eat it," Snowflake explained.
Nova pantomimed tossing the container from hand to hand. Star Baby waved hir hands in imitation of the gesture but without releasing the container. Finally shi let go and caught it in another hand. After passing it back and forth several times shi missed and the container went spinning away.
"Let hir go," Nova directed. Kit complied; Star Baby zoomed after the container, snatching it out of the air like an eagle catching a fish. Nova cupped hir hands; Star Baby gave the container a gentle toss that sent it spinning into Nova's grip. Shortly thereafter Nova and Star Baby were playing catch.
"Incredible," Snowflake breathed.
"Yes, but dogs play catch," Ito pointed out.
"True," Nova allowed, keeping the container when it was next passed to her. "Let's try something else. Valjean, open the container."
Valjean touched a control. The lid of the container hinged open; Nova shook out the smaller container held inside. After shutting the lid she tossed them, one after the other, to Star Baby. After contemplating the situation for some minutes, Star Baby started picking at the lid of the larger container.
"Shi's trying to open it!" Kit exclaimed.
"Valjean, can you create a force field, about a meter square, say, so that when Star Baby touches it the container opens?" Nova asked.
"Sure," he replied. "What do you want it to look like?"
Nova considered for a moment. "It doesn't need to look like anything, I don't think. Leave it invisible. When the container's open, set it to pass matter. When the container's shut, set it to reject matter."
"Easier done than said." Valjean had finished programming before Nova had finished speaking.
"Where is it?" Nova asked.
"There." Valjean pointed; a patch on the workroom wall flashed orange. Nova touched it with the tip of her virtual finger; the container lid popped open. Star Baby shut it, contemplated for a moment, then extended a manipulator limb and touched where Nova had. The container opened. Shi began opening and shutting it repeatedly.
"Dogs don't do that," Nova pronounced, casting Ito a glance and a smile. A casual observer might have thought it almost flirtatious, but Ito appeared to find it rather unsettling. "At least," she added, "Not without a lot of careful training."
Kit's eyes were wide. "Do you mean... do you think that Star Baby could be, you know, sentient?"
Nova frowned thoughtfully. "As Kei pointed out, that's not so simple a question. Dolphins are sentient; their brains are large, they have complex social systems, they use abstract language... the only thing we do that they don't is use tools. In spite of which, we still can't talk to them. There is a fundamental difference in how they and we use language. I'm afraid I'd have to say that probabilities favor Star Baby being like a dolphin. Living in outer space has more in common with living in the ocean than living on land."
"But shi has hands," Kit protested.
"Not an indicator," Nova contradicted. "Plenty of animals are capable of fine manipulation and not capable of complex, abstract thought. Fortunately there's a test we can do."
"What?" Kit asked.
"We will teach Star Baby to talk," Nova pronounced.
"How?" Ito wanted to know. "In vacuum shi can't hear of make sound." This time he seemed genuinely curious rather than sarcastic.
"Radio?" Javert ventured.
Kit shook his head. "Communication by electromagnetic radiation's nearly useless to a star ship. Over cosmic distances, light is just too damn slow."
"Hyper wave," Valjean suggested.
"I have to think that if Star Baby were making baby talk on hyper wave bands, Chakona Aerospace Control would be in an uproar," Snowflake commented.
"Besides," Kit added, "You need a warp drive to transmit hyper wave, and Star Baby doesn't have one."
"Then how do you communicate with someone who can't hear and can't speak?" Ito demanded.
"Write?" Javert suggested.
"But can you learn to write without learning to talk?" Valjean wondered.
"Yes," Nova replied. "The problem there is that we'd need a writing surface Star Baby could see."
"College-ruled tablets in the handy-dandy billboard size?" Javert offered.
"Worse than that, I'm afraid," Nova said. "Let's not forget that for us, vision is our primary sense. For Star Baby... you summed it up pretty well, Kit. The ability to perceive light is of very little use to a star ship. Shi may or may not use a mass detector, like our star ship do- Dr. Stannus is convinced that shi doesn't- but obviously she has something, because shi knows what's happening around hir. Remember what Kei said. What Star Baby uses for senses aren't even remotely similar to what we use. We could spend decades trying to figure out how shi sees the world, and I don't think we'd ever really understand it. To save time we're going to skip the whole vision thing and go straight to a sense I know shi and we have in common."
"What?" Valjean wanted to know.
"Actually, Valjean, you gave me the idea." Nova gave him a very warm smile. "And you, Kit, demonstrated it." She squeezed his shoulder. "Look at how readily shi responds to touch. And how quickly shi learns to imitate hand gestures."
"But how can you express language through that?" Snowflake protested.
"Does the name Hellen Keller mean anything to you?" Nova asked.
Snowflake frowned. "No."
"Hellen Keller was a Terran woman who lived during the late 19th and early 20th centuries," Nova explained. "Due to a childhood illness she lost the ability to hear and see. Nevertheless she was taught not only to speak but also to read and write, and enjoyed a distinguished academic career."
"How? They didn't have cybernetic implants back then," Javert pointed out.
"She was taught to represent words and symbols with hand gestures," Nova explained. "Something that is called sign language. We will teach Star Baby to speak it."
"Who teaches us to speak it?" Javert wondered.
"I will," Nova replied. "I learned about it in college, in by Linguistics unit. I decided to learn it because I could make derogatory comments about my instructors and classmates right in front of them without them knowing." She grinned. "Shall we begin?"
Both Valjean and Javert were grinning hugely, casting not-so-subtile glances at Dr. Janek. "Count us in," they chorused.
Kit was watching Star Baby, who was putting one container inside the other then taking it out, over and over again. "I want to talk to Star Baby," he said. "If this is what it takes, then let's do it."
With a heavy sigh Liska touched a control that opened the transfer lock's inner door. There was a hiss and clunk as the heavy panel moved inward about two centimeters, clearing the seal. To clear the doorway the panel trundled to one side on a track, like the side door of a van. Running around the doorway on the inner face was a rounded metal rim; around the perimeter of the door panel was a soft plastic gasket that mated the rim the same way the lid of a Tupperware dish mated to its container. The clamps were a safety precaution; air pressure against the inner face of the door held it shut. Because of this the bottom the doorway was not quite flush with the deck; there was a low stoop over which one had to step. To make it easier to walk and move cargo a pair of ramps automatically lifted out of the floor when the door was open.
Liska crouched and slipped a scanner from the cargo pocket on her right thigh. The practical implications of the lock setup were that every so often someone had to inspect the rim to make sure it wasn't dirty, damaged, or bent, and the gasket to make sure it clean, supple, straight, and unobstructed. Failure to do so would lead to air leaks and ultimately a seal failure.
The scanner hummed and clucked to itself as it examined the rim. There had been a time when such housekeeping chores fell to the student interns, since they were lowest on the totem pole. Ever since Star Baby, that had changed. The student interns spent all their time looking after the kid, and Liska- having slightly less seniority than Sherlock- ended up with all the shit work.
Liska' eyes narrowed slightly, and she had to re-scan a section of rim because she hadn't been paying attention to the readings. She didn't mind the chores so much; it was all part of being in the Service. Either she'd get promoted and be able to dump the work on other people, or she'd resign and get a civilian job. Pilots and servo operators were pretty much guaranteed of well-paid employment, and Liska was both. No, the reason this situation infuriated her was much more personal. In short, she was no longer the center of the sexual world. She had spent a great deal of time- and money- crafting herself into an object of desire; what she expected in return for that investment was a steady stream of partners eager to satisfy her every need. Up until now Sigma 17 had been just short of Heaven; every couple months a fresh crop of interns showed up. Almost invariably they were young, sexually energetic, and horrified to discover that on board such a small habitat the opportunities for satisfying their sexual needs were rather sharply limited. Enter Liska, voluptuous, sexy, and ever willing. A dream come true for young, frustrated people with overactive libidos. Men, sure, but certainly not exclusively. Male, female, or hermaphrodite, it mattered little. Nor did appearance, particularly. Skill- or a willingness to experiment- was paramount. It was an entirely equitable arrangement; Liska satisfied their needs, and they satisfied hers. So what if satisfaction might involve an exchange of cash, goods, or services (in or out of the bedroom)? Everyone was getting what they wanted. The Hugo brothers were so sexually overstimulated that they'd happily screw knotholes if no better option presented itself. They'd do absolutely anything if there was sex at the end of it, they had incredible stamina, and they were handsome to boot. Kit's excessive self consciousness sometimes made things difficult but Liska was willing to put up with it because of his hands. Large, powerful, and amazingly dexterous, they could do unbelievable things when he was properly motivated. Even dedicated lifers like Longstocking and Sherlock could only endure so much jacking off, and they were both pleasantly attractive.
Then along comes Fyodor bloody Moseivitch and his crummy project. He brings in people like Ito, Snowflake, and Nova, who are sufficiently pretty to divert attention away from Liska, and Darkstar who won't have sex except on hir own terms. The Hugo brothers go chasing after Snowflake, and shi's more than happy to receive them. Longstocking is having sex with Darkstar and apparently enjoying it, in spite of Darkstar's obvious age. Fyodor is not the sort of man who needs sex, and besides he's much too besotted with Darkstar to notice anyone else. Ito focuses on his work with a monomaniacal intensity, and when he deigns to be social he's only interested in his own needs. Kit-
Liska had to put down the scanner and take several deep breaths to calm down. Kit is falling in love with a God damn space ship, and has no time for anything else. Which leaves Sherlock, who has a mate to whom shi is fanatically faithful. Liska would have to wait until Sherlock got really desperate. The upswing of it all being that Liska had been forced to endure for almost an entire day with no sexual stimulation- other than the self-administered kind, that is. It was an intolerable situation. Utterly intolerable.
Liska's ears twitched. She glanced over her shoulder and there was Ito. But not the Ito she had known previously, oh no. He was wearing a snugly fit pair of white denim cutoffs that clung to his pelvis like a second skin. Around his torso was a lemon yellow short-sleeved tunic that was knotted instead of buttoned, leaving much of his finely sculpted chest and abdomen exposed to public view. "Going to a beach party?" she quipped, primarily to buy herself time and put the conversational ball back in his court. It was difficult to keep her eyes on his face and away from the prominent bulge in the front of his jeans. If authentic- and she was almost positive it was- then the little runt wasn't so little at least in one particular respect
Ito laughed. "I wish," he replied. "No, I just got tired of all this damn work. I was wondering if Madame would honor me with her presence at dinner." He gave an formal little bow.
Liska licked her lips; she couldn't help it. The little prick wants something. He wants it so bad he's willing to dress up in this ridiculous outfit and parade his hard little body around in front of me in the hopes that I'll bite. "Why, Ito, I'd love to," she exclaimed, batting her eyelashes and smiling as warmly as she knew how. Whatever he wants, he's going to pay for it with services rendered. In spades.
"My... name... is... Nova," Nova said, forming gestures with her hands to go along with the words. "Your... name... is... Star."
Out in the work room, Star Baby was hovering near the virtual hands, with all of hir limbs partially extended. Bright colors raced and flickered across hir skin, and occasionally one of hir hands or fingers would twitch.
"You've definitely got hir attention," Kit observed. "I don't think I've ever seen hir focus so intensely on something for so long."
"How long has it been?" Javert wondered.
"Coming up on an hour," Valjean replied, glancing at a console.
Snowflake was frowning. "You just... make signs at hir, and suddenly shi'll start talking?" Shi sounded somewhat skeptical.
"Essentially, yes," Nova replied. Her hands continued their work, forming the symbols for the sentence over and over again. "That's how babies learn to talk. By listening to their parents. Any of you got kids?"
"My half-sister has one," Longstocking put in. "But shi's only five months old. The kid, that is."
"And everyone who comes around is constantly making baby talk at hir," Nova said.
Longstocking grimaced. "I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't seen it with my own eyes. Rational, educated adults, carrying on like imbeciles. Imagine my horror when I started doing it." The warm smile that spread across hir face belied hir words.
"That's it exactly," Nova replied. "You talk to the kid, read to hir, play with hir. Eventually something clicks, and shi starts talking. Of course with a Terran or Chakat baby it takes months... but that has more to do with the fact that the kid's brain is still growing. Star Baby here seems quite well developed." She chuckled. "You might consider changing hir name to Star Toddler. Behaviorally shi seems about equivalent to a two year old Terran, or an eighteen month old Chakat."
"Why do Chakats mature sooner?" Kit wanted to know.
"Simple physics," Nova replied. "The mother's birth canal is larger, and therefore can pass a larger skull, which in turn can contain a more completely developed brain. Among nearly all humanoid species babies are born before they're fully developed, because otherwise the head would be too big to fit through the hole. With a centauroid the required brain is the same size but the hole is larger. Thus the baby can be kept inside longer."
"Something's happening," Longstocking said.
Star Baby had completely extended hir strength limbs. With the upper pair shi was hesitantly imitating Nova's gestures. When Nova stopped Star Baby continued, rather sloppily but recognizably completing the entire sentence.
"My God!" Snowflake exclaimed.
"How can shi learn so fast?" Longstocking demanded. "Shi's only... three days old!"
"I thought about that," Nova admitted. With her hands she continued making the symbols, then waiting for Star Baby to repeat them back. With each repetition Star Baby's signing became more confident and precise. "I studied Dr. Stannus' scan results to see if it would tell me anything about Star Baby's nervous system. There wasn't any data on hir brain because it's too heavily shielded. But it did show that hir neurons seem to be very similar to our own holographic logic units- except, of course, that hirs are an order of magnitude or so more optically perfect. Javert, you're the computer expert, right? How fast to signals propagate through a holographic logic system?"
"About 96% of the speed of light," Javert replied.
"Then why do computers seem so slow sometimes?" Snowflake wanted to know.
"Two reasons," Javert replied. "The first, and primary, is that usually your local computer is fetching data from somewhere else. Signal propagation on the network is glacially slow compared to inside the processor itself. The other is that most computers are built on a linear processing model, where each individual piece of data is processed in sequence, one at a time. To increase the speed at which data is processed, you have to increase the frequency with which processor instructions are executed. There's a theoretical limit to how fast you can go; eventually the logic switches inside the processor are moving so fast they start to behave erratically. Or, more accurately, the devices that control input and output can't tell what's data and what's noise. That's called a noise overload, and it causes the processor's behavior to become erratic. Which is bad, 'cause it's gonna do a fandango on your precious data." He demonstrated briefly. "Heuristic processors- like are used in AI systems, some robots, and of course real intelligence systems-" he tapped the side of his head- "process big chunks of data in parallel, all at once. But AI's can't be programmed. They have to learn, just like kids. And, like kids, they can develop undesirable behavior. Then all you can do is run a therapeutic on them or wipe the core and start over. Most low-level AI's- like the voice-recognition module in your personal workstation- reload from protected storage after each instruction step. That's to keep it's recognition patterns from changing over time. Another problem with heuristic systems is that they make mistakes. Gobs of them, in fact. There's no way around it; it's a function of how they do what they do. So when you're passing data to or from them, you have to take that into account. It's like getting all your information from the back fence gossip squad. Each piece has to be filtered to see if it's useful or not."
"What are you doing now?" Longstocking asked. Nova had changed the lesson slightly. Now she did the first part of the sentence- my name is Nova- point at herself, and wait for Star Baby to respond. Then she's do the second half- your name is Star- and point at Star.
"She's breaking the signal group into discrete chunks," Javert said. "Right now, Star Baby sees the whole sentence as a single unit. Nova's creating a distinction between the two halves, so Star Baby learns to interpret them as a sequence. Then she can focus on individual groups like me and you or Nova and Star to create more complex distinctions."
"That doesn't explain why shi learns fast," Kit pointed out.
"How fast do signals propagate along organic neurons?" Nova asked.
No one spoke. "Pretty fast, I assume," Longstocking eventually said.
"Not really," Nova contradicted. "Actually, they move at only about one hundred and twenty meters per second. Glacially slow, compared to even the most primitive computer processors. But, because our brains process in parallel, we still manage to respond quickly. In fact, we can respond to things we really can't see. Like hitting a ball with a bat, for instance. After it leaves the pitcher's hand the ball is travelling too fast for your eye to register it, so for all practical purposes it's invisible. And yet, based on data collected only during these first couple meters of flight, your brain can get the bat moving so that it intersects with the ball as it comes over the plate. Now, Kit- tell me. Why don't people hand-fly star ships through hyper space?"
"Variations in hyper-spatial topology come far too quickly for an organic brain to respond," Kit replied. "As good as it is, the organic brain's just way too slow."
"And we deal with that how?"
"By building high-speed AI systems-" A look of horror spread across his face. He began smacking himself on the forehead. "Stupid, stupid, stupid! I should have thought of that!"
Longstocking was nodded. "Okay, I see. A star ship needs a computer to fly it through hyper-space because the human brain can't respond quickly enough. Star Baby doesn't have a computer- or rather, hir brain is the computer, so it has to be capable of processing the data."
"Exactly," Nova replied. "Dr. Stannus thinks shi processes information about a million times faster than we do."
"But-" Snowflake protested. "Shi,,, I mean... how can we interact with hir at all if that's the case? To hir, we'd be like, like trees. Not even moving."
"Perception of time is very subjective thing," Nova pointed out. "Besides, if hir brain wasn't capable of adapting shi wouldn't be able to function at all, would shi? Even a very short trip through hyper-space would drive hir insane with boredom. Consider this also. You can train yourself to do things- like a hitting a ball- without having to think about it. Doing something is not the same as cogitating about it. Star Baby has to be capable of learning quickly because that's what flying through space requires. But thinking, manipulating abstract symbols, is something else entirely. For that... we'll just have to wait until Star Baby can talk to us. Then shi'll tell us what it's like."
"I believe that day may come sooner than any of us would have thought," Longstocking commented. Shi was watching Star Baby closely.
During her speech Nova had again changed the game. She would sign my name is- then wait for Star Baby to complete the phrase. Next she would wound sign your name is- and wait. Star Baby had begun to respond correctly, with Nova and Star respectively.
"Is shi really talking or just playing a game?" Snowflake asked, cocking hir head.
"What's the difference?" Nova responded.
"Well-" Snowflake blinked. "Talking is- is-"
"A game," Longstocking put in, chuckling. "You make noises, other people make noises back. A pretty fun game, I think."
Kit had been watching Star Baby closely. Now he was trying to imitate the symbols, mouthing the words silently.
"No, no, your name isn't Nova," Nova exclaimed as she noticed what Kit was doing. "Here, like this." She pulled her hands out of the gauntlets.
"Want me to put the hands on auto?" Valjean asked.
"No, no," Nova protested. "Star Baby knows when there's a live operator, right? I'll just be a moment. Your name is K... I...T. Got it?"
"K... I... T." Kit attempted to imitate the gestures. Nova corrected the positioning of his fingers.
"Nova, what's shi saying?" Longstocking demanded suddenly.
Nova looked. Star Baby had made a sequence of gestures and was waiting. When no one responded, after a short pause she repeated it. Nova grabbed Kit up in her arms and swung him around. "Shi said," Nova reported, grinning hugely, "'Your name is Kit.'"
Kit's jaw dropped. "You mean- she actually talked?"
"Sure looks that way," Nova replied, returning Kit to the deck. "Hey, Snowflake, come here. Let's try something. "Do like this: S... N... O... W. Good."
No sooner had Snowflake completed the sequence than Star Baby signed again.
"She said, 'your name is Snow,'" Nova translated.
"Hey, lemme try!" Valjean exclaimed, running down to the front of the room. "How do you spell 'Valjean?'"
"Want me to have dinner sent down here?" Longstocking inquired.
"Yeah, if you don't mind," Nova replied. "I get the feeling we're going to be here a while."
As he returned to his quarters, some time in the wee hours of the morning, Dr. Janek moved with a careful, stiff-legged gait that would have been shockingly out of character to anyone who knew him. Diminutive stature notwithstanding, Ito was accustomed to moving briskly and confidently. If he moved cautiously now it was because he had been sorely taxed, both emotionally and physically. He had anticipated that Liska would demand a steep price for her participation in his plan. He had even expected that her interest in him would be primarily physical, as opposed to, say, monetary. What he had not anticipated was the level of physical effort she had demanded.
Ito paused, leaning against the corridor wall, and massaged his buttocks. Having sex with Liska had been a workout for sure. That she was so much larger than he was no small part of the problem. She was huge, was covered with fur, and quite frankly Ito found her exceptionally well-padded figure to be positively grotesque. It was like making love to a cow. Then there was everything else. The fisting, for instance. It had been with a growing horror that he had inserted first his fingers, then his hand, then much of his forearm. He would not have believed that such things were physically possible. At least she hadn't demanded to do it to him. The dildo had been more than bad enough. Not to mention the collars, handcuffs, ropes, nipple clamps, and of course the enemas. All of which paled in comparison to the rimming. He had finally balked at being asked to put his tongue into her anus. Unfortunately she had no such compunctions. The sensation of her tongue slithering around between his buttocks would be in his nightmares for many years to come. It seemed inconceivable that she would do all those things on a regular basis. Perhaps she'd made an extra special effort just for him. Scary thought. But better get used to it, old boy. There's tomorrow... and night after... and night after that. Liska was far too clever a negotiator to settle for only one session when she could have many. As his end of the bargain Ito was required to present himself every night he remained aboard Sigma 17.
Grimacing with discomfort, Ito forced himself to straighten up and keep walking. The perfect end to a perfect evening would be to encounter Longstocking or Sherlock- or worse, one (or both) of the Hugo brothers. Thankfully they were still in the Ops center, working on Nova's sign language project. They'd been at it almost around the clock since yesterday, and when he'd last checked- just before leaving Liska's quarters- they were still at it. He shook his head sadly as he shuffled along. He couldn't imagine what they thought they were doing. Did they really think Star Baby was that smart?
Ito began to smile. If shi was, then so much the better. It only increased the value of what Ito had to sell. And there were buyers, oh yes. Who would deposit very large sums in a numbered off-world account if Ito delivered what he promised. Which he would; Liska's part of the bargain had been to provide technical expertise on the most difficult part of the operation. All that remained was for Ito to give the word. Best of all, Miss Mattress-Back Sharpears had no idea how much money she was giving up for her nights of pleasure. Which almost made it worth it in itself.
"Thank you ever so much, Fyodor," Ito said aloud, and actually chuckled. Flattery will get you everywhere, and the more brazen the better. Miss Sharpears practically raped me at dinner. His smile vanished. A magistrate would almost certainly rule that what had happened after dinner was consensual. Which did not change the fact that Ito felt violated. There could be no doubt that Liska had wrung him for everything she could get.
No matter. The smile came back. With all the money I'm going to make on this deal, I can get all the counseling I want. Unconsciously he fell back into his usual stride- but stopped almost immediately. I'll have to remind Liska to use more lubricant next time.
"F... O... X," Valjean said, forming gestures with his hand to correspond to each letter. "Okay, Star Baby. What's that spell?" He pointed to hir
Star Baby clenched and unclenched hir fists, then gave him the finger.
"O-kay." Valjean pursed his lips. "Maybe it's time to take a break."
"Let me try." Snowflake took a seat and slipped hir hands into the gauntlets. "C'mon, Star Baby. I know you know it. F, O-"
Star Baby retracted hir limbs and drifted to the far side of the work room. When snowflake reached toward hir, Star Baby grabbed one of the containers- shi had about a dozen now- and flung it. It ricocheted off the centermost of the view ports with a horrendous crash; the pane, three centimeters of transparisteel, bounced alarmingly.
"I think I'll boost the structural integrity field on the bulkhead," Javert commented, touching a control.
"I don't understand," Kit exclaimed. "It's not like hir to be this difficult."
"You do it, Kit," Nova suggested.
"Go on." Nova made a shooing motion toward the servo control stations.
Somewhat reluctantly Kit took a seat next to Valjean and slipped his hands into the gauntlets. Even before the virtual hands had completely materialized Star Baby was stroking hirself against them, like a kitten. Shi rolled hir belly toward the view port and made a sequence of three gestures.
"What'd shi say?" Kit asked.
"Fox," Nova translated. Kit attempted to repeat the gestures; Star Baby grabbed his fingers and corrected their positioning. Then Star Baby fired off a string of gestures.
"What was that?" Kit asked.
"Shi said, 'give me more words,'" Nova replied.
Kit swallowed. He started rubbing Star Baby's belly with his thumbs; shi retracted hir limbs and snuggled into his grasp. "Nova, I..." Kit swallowed. "Can't you do this?"
"Shi doesn't want to learn from me, or anyone else," Nova replied. "Shi wants to learn from you."
"But I totally suck! shi's correcting me, for Heaven's sake!"
Nova frowned. "Kit, you're raising a child here, not programming a computer. This is not a rational or intellectual process for Star Baby. For whatever reason shi's impressed on you. You're not just someone who feeds and takes care of hir. To hir, you're something much more. Tell me, Kit. Do you remember being a little boy? Do you remember how whenever you did something you wanted to run and show your parents? And all they had to do was look at it and smile and you were floating?"
Kit swallowed and looked down. "But... I not ready to be a dad," he mumbled. Nothing in the motion of his hands gave the slightest indication of his emotional distress, though.
Nova sighed and sat down next to Kit, shooing Valjean out of the way. "Look, Kit, no one ever is. You can spend your whole life preparing and think you're really ready. Then the first time you get your hands on real baby, it all goes right out the window. But you, you and Star Baby..." Nova shook her head in frustration. "Don't you see it, Kit? Don't you see how you are with hir?"
"I do," Snowflake said quietly. "Kit, when your're with hir you just... light up. Like your whole body was glowing. You get this goofy smile on your face... and I think shi knows it. I don't know how, but shi does. Shi knows how much you love hir, and shi, shi responds."
Nova sat behind Kit, sliding up against his back. "Ask this," she said, reaching over his shoulders and manipulating his fingers through the gauntlets. She walked him through a series of gestures. When it was over Star Baby extended hir strength limbs and replied.
"What... was that?" Kit asked, his voice quavering slightly.
"What do you think it was?" Nova replied.
"You had me say 'who' and 'you,' but I didn't catch the other word. Star Baby said something and then 'Kit.'"
"You said, 'who does Star love,'" Snowflake translated. "Shi said, 'Star loves Kit.'"
Kit licked his lips. He was staring at Star Baby, so he didn't see the tears running down Snowflake's face, tears shi made no attempt to brush away. He squeezed his eyes shut, letting his head droop to his chest. Then he straightened up. "Nova," he said, "I want to tell hir that I'm going to get more words, and when I come back I'll give them to hir."
"All right." Nova guided his hands through the sequence of gestures. Star Baby replied briefly.
"I got that one." Kit smiled weakly. "Shi said 'Okay.'"
"Right." Nova stood. "What now, Mr. Carson?"
Kit drew his hands out of the gauntlets and ran them through his hair. He was trembling. "Nova, I need to learn a shitload of sign language and I need to learn fast."
"Lucky for you I happen to be an expert," Nova replied. "Why don't you come back to my quarters with me for some intensive personal training?"
"Lucky bastard," Javert muttered.
"Not hardly," Nova snorted. "By the time I get through with you, Mr. Carson, you will be begging to get back to the easy, carefree life of a student of the hard sciences."
"That's what he was afraid of," Kit said, but he was smiling.
"What about us?" Valjean asked.
"Just... do what you've been doing," Nova replied. "If Star Baby wants to talk, talk. If she wants to learn, teach. If not... just keep hir happy until we get back. Shi's incredible; it would have taken weeks to teach a Terran child this much. The important lesson is that kids learn to talk by listening to people talk around them. Meaning that we should all use sign as much as possible. Star Baby's a fast learner, and the worst thing that could happen right now is that shi gets bored or frustrated. Just think, we'll have a Hell of a story for Professor Moseivitch when he gets back, eh?" She grinned broadly. "Okay, Kit. Let's hit the books."
"...but smaller... than the pen... of my... aunt," Snowflake read aloud. In the holographic display on the console in front of hir, the written words scrolled by while a pair of hands demonstrated the gestures. Shi imitated the gestures with a fair degree of accuracy. Because her attention was tightly focused, shi did not notice that Star Baby was also imitating the gestures- much more accurately.
Abruptly Star Baby moved away from the view port and settled in hir favorite corner, laying all six of hir hands flat against the wall. Shi did not know that the machine in there was intended to calibrate newly installed warp drive coils, nor would shi have cared if shi did. Its emanations were soothing and pleasant, like a combination of waves on the shore and curling up in front of a cozy fire. Almost as pleasant as when Kit stroked hir. After no more than a minute shi pushed away from the wall and started circling the room. The feel-good corner wasn't enough, not any more.
Kit was away getting more words. How long was that going to take, anyway? For the first time in hir short life Star Baby was beginning to feel the press of waiting. Shi settled onto the wall just to one side of the view ports, but it did no good. The wall had thickened, and now shi couldn't see through it anymore. At least the other three walls were still thin... but not as thin as they once were. At this rate they'd be totally blank before too long.
Star Baby retracted all hir limbs and drifted. The thought of not being able to see out was disturbing. There were periods when shi wasn't being played with or fed... or when shi was just waiting for a response from hir keeps. Sometimes that could take a long time. So, to pass time, shi gazed through the walls. Now that option was being gradually closed off. It made hir feel like- like-
The box caught Star Baby's attention. Shi snatched it out of the air and studied it. Something about the box... oh yes. Nova had taught hir a word. In. One box went in the other. Star Baby was beginning to feel... in. It wasn't a pleasant sensation.
Snow was still talking to- to someone Star Baby couldn't see, using words shi didn't know. Star Baby almost went over and rapped on the windows. But Kit got upset when shi did that. If shi did it now he might decide not to share words with hir... and that would be unbearable.
Waiting was unbearable. Star Baby spun the box away, then touched the spot on the wall. The lid flew open and the other box tumbled out. Shi didn't like Snow. Snow tried to make Star Baby do things. Kit... even if shi'd had more words it would have been difficult to articulate. Kit had a way of making Star Baby want to do things. Why did Kit have to go away and leave hir alone with Snow? Even Valj and Jave were better than Snow. (Star Baby got confused when a name had more than four letters.) But not as good as Kit.
The larger box had rebounded from the corner and was drifting back toward the center of the room. Star Baby retried it and the other box as well. Shi put one in the other, then took it- what was the word- Oh, yes. Out. For several minutes she put the boxes in and out, saying the words with hir other hands. Words were the most amazing thing shi had ever known. With words everything changed. Star Baby now had a finger, a hand, an arm, and a body. The other side of the coin, though, was that without words. things sort of... weren't. Looking through the walls, for instance. Out there was... something. Shi perceived it but couldn't get hir mind around it. It was like- like- a box that wouldn't open. You knew there were fantastic treasures waiting to be discovered, but you couldn't reach them. For the insatiably curious Star Baby, that was sheer torture.
Star Baby clenched hir fingers as hard as shi could. The walls of the box flexed, then collapsed under the force exerted by hir nuclear powered muscles. For the first time in hir life shi she didn't like being here. shi wanted- shi wanted-
Understanding exploded in hir mind like a supernova. It was nearly as brilliant, as profoundly transforming, as the instant when words had first come into being. One box could be out the other. Therefore-
"Star out," Star Baby said. Forming the words with hir hands somehow made them real in a way that just thinking them didn't.
Suddenly shi was out.
Snowflake blinked and looked up. The flickering light had been utterly silent, like distant heat lightning. Shi searched the work room, trying to imagine what might have caused it. But there was nothing there-
The word nothing floated around in hir mind like a tumbling leaf. It drifted, as hir eyes kept searching, her sense of bafflement growing. Then it hit bottom.
Snowflake leapt to hir feet. Shi thrust hir hands into the control gauntlets and wiggled hir fingers. The virtual hands appeared but there was no response. After a minute or more of wiggling shi started running hir hands along the walls. It shouldn't be this hard; Star Baby wasn't invisible, shi was just very good at camouflage-
"Computer-" hir voice caught- "Replay work room security record for past five minutes."
The sign language lesson vanished from the holographic display, replaced by a 2D image. It showed Star Baby playing with the crates. Then she dropped them. After doing nothing at all for several seconds shi signed something. Snowflake couldn't make out what because Star Baby's belly was turned away from the camera.
"Computer, freeze play," Snowflake commanded. "Reverse angle, back-step five seconds, resume play."
"There are no video scanners on that wall," The computer replied. Again Snowflake watched as Star Baby made the strange gestures. Then there was a flash that briefly whited out the entire frame. when it cleared, Star Baby was gone.
Snowflake became aware of a strange keening noise. Only later did shi realize that it came from hir own throat.
- Chapter 3 -
Characters & Story ©2000 John R. Plunkett. Chakona & Chakats ©2000 Bernard Doove.
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