As he marched into the wardroom Professor Moseivitch was neither smiling nor well kept. His clothes looked as though he'd slept in them, and his expression was that of a man waking up with a bad hangover. "All right," he pronounced, flopping down on the couch. "Tell me exactly what happened."
"Star Baby disappeared," Valjean said. His eyes were wide, his face slack. He seemed to be in shock. Javert had a deck of tattered cards he was constantly shuffling.
Snowflake was sobbing. Hir whole body quivered; shi lay on the floor, face in hir hands. Occasionally shi would look up; hir expression was stricken. Each time, though, hir gaze would fall on Kit- and shi would start sobbing with renewed despair.
Kit was slumped in a beanbag chair, rubbing his temples slowly and continuously. He wasn't crying, but his expression was that of a man who had been handed a sentence of death.
"The Hugos, Liska, Dr. Janek, and myself were in our respective quarters, sleeping," Longstocking reported. "Sherlock was doing a maintenance inspection. Kit and Dr. Stallis were in her quarters, conducting a language lesson. Snowflake was in Ops. At the time of the, the incident shi was studying a sign language learning program."
"Let me see the record," Fyodor demanded.
"Computer, play clip," Longstocking said.
The big screen lit up and there was Star Baby. Shi signed something- then the screen whited out with a brilliant flash. Star Baby was gone.
"This is the same clip slowed down fifteen times," Longstocking said.
The slow-motion version began after Star Baby had finished signing. The color patterns on hir skin were jagged, sharp-edged, and moving rapidly. Blotches of whiteness began to appear, not all at once but gradually, like bubbles rising from a deep pool. When the bubbles reached hir skin the burst in brilliant flashes of light that seemed to eat away the skin around them. When all the skin was gone there was nothing but an intense ball of light, which rapidly collapsed in on itself and vanished.
"How was hir behavior beforehand?" Moseivitch wanted to know.
"Shi was restless," Kit replied through his hands. His voice had no tone at all; a computer's would have been more lively. "Shi was upset about something."
"What do the sensors show?" Darkstar asked.
"At the moment of disappearing shi emitted a powerful tachyon pulse," Sherlock said. "I can't tell you any more than that because it baked all of our instruments. Our tachyon sensors are for calibrating drive coils; they couldn't handle the power level. No one else sensed anything; the station's containment shields successfully contained it."
"You should call the observatory control room," Kit said. "Their tachyon sensors are designed for that sort of thing."
"Before you ask, Darkstar, no one saw anything," Longstocking put in. "I contacted Chakona Aerospace Control and Security Force command. Not so much as a glimmer."
Fyodor sighed. "Very well. Longstocking, I need you to open an encrypted channel to Dr. Zerak Chakra of the-" His coat began beeping. After a moment he reached in, drew out his personal communicator, and flipped it open. "Moseivitch speaking," he said. His eyes widened, then narrowed, his brows soaring then plunging. "Why, yes. Have you found something? Ah. I see. Thank you very much." He closed the communicator and put it away. His expression was enigmatic. "Talk about coincidences. That was none other than Dr. Chakra himself."
"What did he want?" Darkstar asked.
"To tell me that he's found Star Baby."
"Sir, we have intercepted the Chakastra system outer marker," Commander Dawnfire reported.
Captain Keith Walker nodded. "Mr. L'Clerce, have we heard from Chakona Aerospace Control?"
"Yes, sir," Warrant Officer Marisa L'Clerce replied. "They just came on line."
Captain Walker nodded. "Very good. Any navigational updates?"
"No, sir. They say we're in the groove."
Captain Walker was unable to hold back a modest smile. Not a bad piece of navigation for a single-stage jump directly from Cait. The smile vanished. The F.S.S. Isaac Asimov had been pulled away from her routine duties- in this case resupplying a number of remote research stations- by an urgent order that had come directly from the Commander in Chief of Starfleet herself, requiring Captain Walker to make best possible speed to Chakona, where he would receive additional instructions from a Dr. Ygor Stannus of the Science Corps. The orders had been maddeningly vague about what exactly what the Asimov was supposed to do for Dr. Stannus or why he rated the service of one of Starfleet's most advanced and capable science vessels. It had better be something important, Captain Walker thought grimly. Admittedly acting as resupply ship wasn't exactly a high-profile assignment, but at least Keith could see the scientific importance of it. Several of the research stations were sending back artifacts that required special care and handling... plus one body, that of the unfortunate security officer from a station on Nelhut Three, killed in a bizarre accident. Captain Walker had been forced to replace him with a member of the Asimov's own compliment. Ensign Boots may not have been a distinguished officer, but he thought of hir as part of the family, as he did every member of the Asimov's crew.
"Mr. L'Clerce," the captain began, "Please compose a message from me to-"
"Dr. Stannus, of the Science Corps?" Marisa ventured.
Captain Walker frowned, more in perplexity than annoyance, then swiveled his chair so he could look directly at the communications station.
"A message from Dr. Stannus just came in, sir," Marisa explained. "Encrypted, for your eyes only."
Keith sighed. "Very well. I'll take it in my ready room. Number One, you have the bridge."
"Sir." Commander Dawnfire moved to stand beside the command chair. Shi did not sit because shi was a Chakat and the chair had been designed for a humanoid. Not for the first time Captain Walker wondered what would happen if a Chakat were captain. A Chakat captain with whom Walker had personally served had ordered a special chair to be installed- a fact that had led to some difficulties when then Lieutenant Walker had been required to stand as Officer of the Watch. The new chair had been basically just an elongated bench mounted on the standard pintle. Without the weight of a lower body for balance it tended to spin rather too easily. On more than one occasion- and much to the amusement of the bridge crew- Lieutenant Walker had ended up on his face after trying to jump to his feet too quickly.
A door at the back of the bridge led directly to the captain's ready room. Captain Walker sat at the desk and opened a workstation. Behind him were view ports looking out into the swirling, hypnotic colors of hyper-space. When he had first assumed command the desk had faced the view ports; he ordered it turned because if he stared at the constantly shifting psychedelic patterns for more than a minute or so he'd become enthralled and end up wasting hours and hours of valuable time. Frankly, he didn't understand why anyone would bother to install view ports in the first place. There was rarely ever anything to see- except hyper-space, which he would just as soon not see.
Dr. Stannus' message was waiting. Keith applied his personal encryption key and the message opened. "Attached to this message is a detailed briefing summary of the project with which I require your assistance," Dr. Stannus began. "I was going to present this to you in person, but I'm afraid an emergency situation has developed. Whatever contact information was in your original orders, I am hereby canceling it. You must take the Asimov to the following coordinates." Dr. Stannus vanished, replaced by the data. "Review the briefing data en route," his voice continued. "When you arrive, contact me at the address specified in this message. Use only encryption five or higher. That is all."
Captain Walker opened the first page of the briefing summary and skimmed through it. He then re-read it carefully. Halfway through the third page he stopped, copied the navigational coordinates to a data chit, then returned to the bridge. "Give me a plot on this," he instructed, handing the chit to Lieutenant Ronald Legaspi, navigation officer.
Ronald took the chit and fed it into his console. "That's the Deep Space Hyper-Spatial Anomaly Detector of the Mileva Memorial Hyper-Spatial Observatory."
"Very good. Log and execute." Captain Walker turned to Marisa. "Notify Chakona Aerospace Control that we are aborting our approach."
Commander Dawnfire glanced questioningly toward hir captain. One corner of Keith's mouth twitched; an odd expression had settled over his features. It looked like a mix of about equal parts excitement and trepidation.
"It would seem that our mission just became a Hell of a lot more interesting," he commented with a dry chuckle. "Number One, please summon Lt. Goldstrype. I need to see you and hir in my ready room right away."
Kit blinked as the tug Security Venture dropped out of warp. Whenever he rode a ship into or out of hyper-space, he felt as if he'd dozed off for a second.
"Position check confirmed," Liska reported, glancing over hir instruments. "Range, thirty-six kilometers and closing."
"If the Array is sixteen kilometers long, and we're thirty-six kilometers from it, why can't we see it?" Valjean wanted to know. There was nothing in the view ports but blackness and a smattering of stars.
"We're at the very edge of the system," Darkstar replied. "Well outside the orbit of the outermost planet. There isn't enough ambient light to illuminate it, and because it's an open framework it doesn't block out the stars behind it."
"On screen," Longstocking directed.
"That's an affirm." Sherlock touched a control and suddenly the Array was there. Not the actual one, but a computer-generated image projected by the ship's heads-up display system. It looked like a fine rectangular screen about twice as long as it was wide. There was nothing around it to give any sense of scale; it might as well have been a screen door hanging in space just outside the tug's view ports. In that case someone had poked a broom handle through it; at the center of the rectangle was a small tear whose edges were frayed and curled back like torn cloth.
"Incoming transmission from the construction vessel Rosie," Sherlock reported.
Longstocking nodded. "On screen."
A window opened on one of the view ports, showing a youngish Chakat whose eyes were deep blue and whose face was white. About the rest of hir one could only speculate; it was covered by a bright orange space suit."This is Lieutenant Fleetwood, captain of the Rosie," shi began. Hir voice was hollow and slightly muffled because the lower part of hir helmet still covered hir mouth and nose even when the faceplate was raised. "Are you the university people?"
"We are," Fyodor declared, edging past Darkstar and stepping forward. Security Venture was some twenty times more massive than Rum Tum Tugger, but the tug's bridge was less than half the size of the shuttle's cabin. "I am Professor Fyodor Moseivitch, chair of the College of Xeno-Sciences. You have located our missing ship, Lieutenant?"
"Yes, we have," Fleetwood replied. "We'd just finished stringing new guy wires when it appeared, making a beeline for the power core. We tried to warn it off but there was no answer. We tried to fend it off with a tractor beam and it shot out the projector. It landed right at the top of the core, where the power conduits connect to the mass detector. We hailed it several more times with no effect, so I took in a servo to cut it loose. It blasted the servo to bits as soon as I lit up the cutter. If you please, Professor, we've be grateful if you could persuade your drone or whatever to let go. We're already behind schedule, and if those conduits get damaged it'll set us back months."
"Not to worry, Lieutenant, I'm sure we will have this resolved shortly. Would you give us a steer to the drone's location?"
"Right here, Professor." Fleetwood glanced down for a moment; hir arm moved, somewhere out of camera range. A string of numbers appeared on the bottom of the window. Liska touched a control; a red X appeared in the middle of the Array right at one end of the tear. "Is there anything else we can do for you?" Fleetwood added.
"Not right now, thank you," Fyodor replied. "We will be in touch after we've assessed the situation."
"So... what is it, anyway?" Fleetwood asked. "Why did it come here?"
"Frankly, we do not know why," Fyodor replied. "As to what... I fear that I am not at liberty to discuss that." He smiled apologetically.
Fleetwood's eyes flicked back and forth, obviously taking note of Longstocking, Sherlock, and Liska in their Security Force uniforms. "That's an affirm," shi said. "Fleetwood out." The window closed.
"They better not have hurt hir with all that screwing around," Snowflake growled. Hir eyes were narrowed, hir ears laid back.
"Since when does Star Baby have weapons?" Valjean exclaimed.
"According to Dr. Stannus, shi's had them all along," Kit supplied. "Four mounts, similar to phasers but not quite the same. One on each wing tip and two on the belly. I read his report while we were waiting for Longstocking to get the tug."
"Shi wouldn't shoot at us, would shi?" Javert inquired somewhat nervously.
"I wouldn't bet money on it," Longstocking commented. "Shi's lost, probably scared out of hir wits, and strangers have been picking on hir. That's why I suggested using a Security Force tug instead of a civilian one. This one has tactical shields. Just in case."
"What if... shi doesn't want to come back?" Snowflake had clutched hir hands to hir face. Hir eyes were brimming with tears, hir body quivering.
"I don't think we need worry," Darkstar said. "This is the first time shi's been alone for any extended period. If shi's as much like a regular child as shi appears, shi'll be glad to get back among people shi knows."
The image of the Array had grown until it filled, then overflowed, the forward view ports. Kit swallowed hard and shifted in his chair; as the edges of the Array receded into the distance his eyes tried to see it as a horizontal plain instead of a vertical wall. The illusion that Security Venture was diving straight down was so compelling that his stomach churned. Up close the Array transformed again; it's surface was not flat but rippled by enormous waves that formed hillocks and valleys on what was looking more and more like a landscape. The tear grew into a yawning chasm; the frayed edges were immense tangles of carbon fiber girders and beryllium monocrystal wire.
Liska swung the tug's nose so it was moving parallel to the surface. Up ahead a ball-topped tower commanded the artificial landscape; arrayed around its base were dozens of colossal spotlights, aimed upward at a point where the ball joined the body of the tower. The red X was centered there as well. Liska brought the shuttle to a relative halt about a hundred meters out.
"Deploy the virtual hands projectors," Longstocking commanded.
"Aye aye." Liska touched a control. Sponsons along the tug's sides began to unfold, reaching out into space like the spars of an umbrella. The force field projectors that created the virtual hands had to surround, on at least three sides, the volume in which the hands were meant to operate.
"Who does the deed?" Longstocking wanted to know, glancing around the bridge.
"I will," Snowflake volunteered instantly.
"It should be Kit," Nova said, putting a hand on Kit's shoulder and gently, but firmly, pushing him forward.
"But-" Snowflake protested.
"I agree with Nova," Darkstar cut in. "Snowflake, I realize you want to help. In your place I would, too. But Kit does have the best record of dealing with Star Baby. Now's not the time to take chances."
Kit stepped forward, licking his lips. His brow glistened with sweat and his hands trembled.
"Kit, listen." Darkstar caught his shoulder before he could sit down at the servo control station. "I know this has got you on the rack. I know how I'd feel if Aurora got lost. Hell, I'd be in hysterical convulsions. But you need to be calm. If you're upset, no matter how carefully you control yourself, shi's gonna pick it up. At best it'll make hir upset, at worst shi won't respond because shi won't recognize you. Forget about everything that's happened. Forget where we are. Forget how you feel. Think about what it's like when you're cuddling Star Baby and shi's rubbing against your hands. Don't think about tomorrow, yesterday, or anything but now. Star Baby loves you because of your heart, not your head." Shi jabbed him in the chest. "Let the love shine out of you, Kit. Let it be the beacon that guides Star Baby out of the darkness and back into the arms of the people who love hir."
Snowflake blinked. The change in Kit was subtle, yet shockingly profound. He stood straight, his chin up, his expression calm and composed but set with a quiet determination that was almost frightening to behold. He seemed- not older exactly, but somehow infinitely more mature. He sat down, inserted his hands into the gauntlets-
The sky seemed to burst apart in a blaze of eerie, silent color. Something shot out of the light like an arrow then seemed to stop suddenly and contract from behind, like a stretched rubber band snapping back into shape. The strange glow faded and the object could be seen for what it truly was: a star ship. In general form it resembled a dumbbell, with blocky accommodation and propulsion sections joined by a thick strut. It had four warp nacelles, arranged in an X configuration, and tall cooling fins jutting from the top and bottom of the stern. Four rectangular pods were fitted around the central spine; between them and the engine module was a thin, circular shield.
"What in the blue blazes is that?" Valjean exclaimed. He, and every one else, was staring straight up through the view ports in the roof of the tug's bridge.
"That is a Verne class science vessel," Darkstar replied. "Three hundred forty one point four eight meters overall length, one hundred eighteen thousand two hundred and sixty four gross registered tons, standard configuration compliment of three hundred ratings and one hundred officers, maximum speed warp seven point nine, maximum cruise range four years. In ultra-endurance configuration the crew compliment is one hundred and seventy-five ratings and twenty-five officers, maximum cruise range fourteen years."
"Why is it here?" Kit demanded.
"They have come to collect Star Baby," Fyodor replied.
"Orbits matched, sir," Lt. Legaspi reported.
"Very good." Captain Walker nodded. "Give us a visual, if you please." The main view screen at the front of the bridge changed from the navigational display to a computer-enhanced visual of the Deep Space Hyper-Spatial Anomaly Detector, which hung vertically directly in front of the Asimov's bow.
"Enlarge," Walker directed. The honeycomb grid seemed to leap forward in steps until the ball of the mass detector was clearly visible, centered in the screen. Also clearly visible was a small vessel floating beside it and another, somewhat larger one, anchored near where the power core passed through the Array's surface.
"Bustler class military tug," Dawnfire began, anticipating hir captain's next question. "Heavily modified Blackwell class space construction support ship."
"Where is the..." Walker began. He had red through the entirety of Dr. Stannus' briefing no less than three times and he still couldn't decide what to call it. Ship? Alien? Child?
"Sir, incoming live link from Dr. Stannus," Marisa said.
"On screen," Walker commanded.
An inset window opened on the main screen, showing Dr. Stannus' hard features. "Have you arrived on station, Captain?" he inquired.
"Just now," Walker replied.
"Then it is absolutely imperative that you take custody of the alien construct at once," Dr. Stannus insisted.
"There are already two other vessels on the scene," Walker replied.
"Sir, we're being hailed by the tug, C.M.V. Security Venture, and the construction vessel, C.C.V. Rosie," Marisa announced.
Two more windows appeared next to the first. In one was Lt. Fleetwood, in the other Professor Moseivitch.
"Federation vessel, this is controlled space, can you explain what is your purpose in being here?" Fleetwood demanded.
"Captain, we appreciate your timely arrival, but we do not require any assistance at this time," Moseivitch said.
"Captain, Professor Moseivitch is acting in direct contravention of Starfleet regulations," Dr. Stannus declared. "I instruct you to take him into custody pending a formal hearing!"
Walker's eyes flicked rapidly from one image to the next as all three persons spoke nearly at the same time. "Lt. Fleetwood-" he picked the name from the sidebar next to the image- "The Mileva Memorial Hyper-Spatial Observatory is a Federation installation. I do not have to explain my presence here." He pointed with his right hand and drew his left index finger across his throat. Marisa touched a control; Fleetwood's image vanished. "Professor Moseivitch, may I inquire what calls you to this location?"
"I am consulting with the Chakonan Security Force on a delicate salvage operation," Fyodor replied.
"The artifacts Professor Moseivitch is trying to salvage are the legal property of Starfleet," Dr. Stannus insisted. "The professor is attempting to abscond with them. You must stop him, Captain!"
"Captain, Dr. Stannus is mistaken," a second voice insisted. Professor Moseivitch was replaced by a Chakat in a Security Force tunic with a lieutenant's collar tabs. "The items we are here to salvage are clearly the property of the Chakonan government. Further, I must advise you that you are in violation of Chakonan territoriality-"
"As I pointed out to the other lieutenant," Walker cut in, gently but implacably, "According to the Janus Consortium charter, this location is legally a Federation installation. It is entirely possible that you are in violation of Federation territoriality. I will consult my legal experts." He made a pinching motion with his left hand. The border of the window turned red, indicating that the channel was still open but that audio and video from the Asimov had been muted. "Where is the construct?" he asked.
"Just under the mass detector," Goldstrype replied.
"Lock onto it and beam it into the cargo hold."
"We can't beam through the mass detector, it's too heavily shielded," Lt. Nagai- a Chakat- reported. "We need line of sight."
"Mr. Legaspi, maneuver the ship as required by Mr. Nagai."
"What are they doing?" Kit asked as the Asimov began to drift sideways, closer to the plane of the Array.
"Maneuvering for a transporter lock on Star Baby," Darkstar replied. Shi moved up beside Longstocking and whispered into hir ear. Longstocking nodded, then stepped up to the communications console and set to work.
"We have to stop them!" Snowflake exclaimed, leaping to hir feet.
"We're in a rather precarious situation," Longstocking pointed out. "Their captain is right. This is, technically, a Federation installation."
"But we got here first," Javert insisted. "Doesn't that count for anything?"
"Not really," Sherlock replied. "If we consider Star Baby salvage, then we have to take hir in tow or put a marker on hir before shi's considered ours. Until then, anyone who comes along can snatch hir up."
"But shi's not salvage!" Snowflake insisted. "Shi's- shi's a person!"
"Not legally, shi isn't," Darkstar said. "Shi has no ID, no birth certificate, no naturalization status. The only documentation shi does have is a claim of salvage filed by Professor Moseivitch on behalf the Security Force. Which establishes the precedent that shi is not a person, and is of questionable legality to boot."
Kit's head whipped around. "What do you mean?" he demanded sharply.
"I signed an agreement promising that I would turn artifacts and discoveries made by the observatory over to Starfleet," Fyodor replied. "I violated it by giving Star Baby over to the Security Force."
Kit jerked his hand out of the gauntlets and wiped his brow, which was running with sweat. "Sherlock, you said we have to take hir in tow. Is that all we have to do?"
"Pretty much," Sherlock replied. "At the very least, once we've got hir in hand, they'd have to fire on us if we refuse to give hir up."
"They won't do that," Longstocking declared. "That would be a violation of Chakonan territoriality, not to mention an act of war."
"Then we need to hurry," Snowflake insisted, hopping from foot to foot as if shi needed to go to the bathroom. "Before they get a lock on Star Baby!"
"I'm on it." Kit jammed his hands into the gauntlets and reached forward.
"Kit-" Darkstar began, raising a cautioning hand.
A brilliant flash lit the Security Venture's bridge. The deck shuddered; Fyodor stumbled against Darkstar.
"What the Hell?" Valjean exclaimed, shaking his head.
"Report!" Longstocking snapped.
"Star Baby fired on us," Sherlock replied. "We lost..." hir voice trailed off. The outermost four meters of one of the projector arms spun slowly past the view ports. It had been sheared off as cleanly as a yard worker could have done.
"What do we do now?" Javert demanded in a shrill voice tinged with hysteria.
"Can you fix the projector array?" Darkstar asked.
"I'm working on it," Sherlock replied, hir fingers flying over the controls. "There!" Shi stabbed one last button with a dramatic flourish. "Virtual hands on line, sir!"
"Do your thing, Kit," Valjean said, giving Kit a slap on the shoulder.
Kit made no move to put his hands into the gauntlets. He was staring at them blankly, clenching and un-clenching his fists "I... I don't understand. Why... did shi shoot at me?" He looked up at Darkstar, his expression dazed and frightened.
Fleetwood's face appeared on the view port. "Professor, I hate to be pushy, but your drone is starting to damage the power conduits-"
"Cut that noise!" Darkstar thundered. Sherlock stabbed a control almost reflexively; Fleetwood vanished. "Mr. Sherlock, if the ship is about to explode, then let me know. Otherwise I don't want to hear it."
"Yes, sir!" Sherlock sat ramrod-straight in hir couch, hir eyes gleaming with an almost frightening intensity.
Darkstar glanced out the side view ports. A red line had appeared on one and the Asimov was descending toward it. According to the counter next to it there was a minute and nineteen seconds remaining. Shi laid hir hand on Kit's shoulder; he started and looked up, his expression fearful.
"Kit, Star Baby attacked you because shi's frightened," Darkstar began in a calm, quiet voice. Otherwise the bridge was so utterly silent that even the sound of the ventilating system seemed loud. "You were distracted and upset. Shi didn't recognize you. That's not your fault, Kit. This is a stinky situation all around." Shi dropped to one knee so that their faces were level. "Remember what I said. Forget about the Asimov and all the rest of it. I'll worry about that. You, you let your love shine out. Bring Star Baby home."
"Yes, sir!" Kit thrust his hands into the gauntlets.
"Mr. Sharpears," Darkstar continued, "Maneuver the ship so that we're blocking the Asimov's line of sight."
"S- s- sir?" Liska stuttered. Hir hands hovered above the pilotry controls, quivering unsteadily.
"Do it!" Longstocking barked.
"Sir!" Liska grabbed the controls with something less than her accustomed delicacy. The deck lurched slightly as Security Venture shifted position.
"The, ah, alien construction just fired on the Security Venture," Goldstrype reported.
Captain Walker blinked. "Damage?"
"Minor. They lost a bit of their tractor array."
"It's refusing their assistance," Dr. Stannus said. "Captain, you are entirely within your rights to intervene on it's behalf."
"How, exactly, would you suggest that I do that?" Walker inquired, a slight edge in his voice. "Firing on them would seem rather impolitic, under the circumstances."
"Use a tractor beam," Dr. Stannus said.
"That could still be considered a provocative action," Walker ventured. In truth he wouldn't hesitate to use a tractor beam- or the ship's main weaponry, for that matter- if it would prevent a criminal action from being committed. He was arguing to buy time; something about Dr. Stannus' choice of words didn't seem quite right. The briefing had presented the alien artifact as some kind of AI drone. Very sophisticated, yes, but fundamentally just a mechanism. How does a machine "refuse assistance?" Then there were broader questions. The artifact had been recovered from the wreckage of a ship that had collided with the Array. Well, he could see that the Array was damaged. Why had this ship been allowed to get close enough to hit it? How had the Chanokan Security Force ended up with it? If this was what the Asimov's mission to Chakona was all about, why hadn't he been fully briefed at the outset? Why were Professor Moseivitch, the Janus Project's local representative, and his Security Force allies, acting as if Captain Walker were the enemy? Shouldn't they be welcoming the advanced scientific capability the Asimov could bring to bear on their research?
"Sir, the tug is moving to block our sight line," Goldstrype said.
"Captain, they are taking overt action!" Dr. Stannus exclaimed. "You cannot fail to respond!"
The briefing had been carefully and meticulously constructed. Which meant, to Captain Walker, that any information not included had been deliberately left out. Now Dr. Stannus was pushing him to act on insufficient information in a situation that could have far-reaching consequences.
"Captain!" Dr. Stannus shouted.
On the other hand, orders were orders. Walker had been instructed, in no uncertain terms, to place himself and his ship at Dr. Stannus' disposal. The whole purpose of military discipline was to insure that when orders were given they were promptly obeyed. There simply wasn't time to explain to everyone why the orders should be obeyed. Frankly, he didn't particularly like Dr. Stannus- but Dr. Stannus was his superior, by order of the Commandant herself. Walker had sworn an oath; regardless of how he felt about Dr. Stannus, if he refused to obey the orders of a superior, what right did he have to expect his orders to be obeyed? The discipline ran both ways.
"Mr. Kingsley, lock the tug. Tractors on line."
"Sir!" Lieutenant Aaron Kingsley, at the Weapons and Security console, had anticipated the order. The firing solution was already in the computer; all he had to do was commit it- which he did with a single sharp stab of the finger.
The Electronic Warfare console began to beep loudly. "Sir, the Asimov has weapons lock on us and is charging tractor beams!" Sherlock announced.
Kit gulped and looked up. He had been waving his hands back and forth, twiddling his fingers. "My problem, remember," Darkstar said, squeezing his shoulder. He nodded and got back to work. "Hail them," shi said, shoving Fyodor forward and stepping back out of pickup range.
A window opened, showing the interior of the Asimov's bridge. The floor was staged so that those in the back could easily see over the heads of those in front. At the center of it all was the captain, sitting comfortably but alertly in the command chair. Darkstar found hirself thinking of how Kit might look in another twenty or so years; Captain Walker was neither quite as tall or as heavy as Kit, but his body was firm and reasonably well proportioned- with just a touch of fleshiness around the edges, giving him (in Darkstar's opinion) a pleasantly cuddly look. Age and the rigors of command had chiseled his strongly Anglo-Saxon features, hardening, sharpening, and squaring them. Not so much as to be fierce, but enough to appropriately accent his air of quiet command. A small scar on his left cheek broke the symmetry of his face but added character. His hair was trimmed short- not quite a helmet cut but pretty close. At one time it had been silky black, but now it was streaked with iron gray and noticeably thinning above the forehead. Standing to the right of the captain was a Chakat who seemed about the same age as him, late forties or early fifties. Shi wore the top half of a regulation Starfleet uniform: a long sleeved black tunic with an open collar and a diagonal color stripe across the chest- red, in hir case, for Command section- a comm badge on the right, and a row of decorations on the left. On her red-trimmed cuffs were flashings indicating hir rank as that of Commander. Obviously shi was not wearing the matching black pants and boots. Hir figure was neither excessively full nor slim; most of hir visible fur was a darkish ruddy orange highlighted by patches of white. Exceptions were hir mane, which was long, black, and tied up in a bun, the tip of hir tail, also black, and a chocolate brown boot on hir left hind foot.
"Captain, I demand an explanation!" Fyodor shouted, drawing himself to full height and glowering fiercely.
"I'm the one who should be demanding an explanation, Professor," Captain Walker replied, as calm and unruffled as ever. "I have it on good authority that this artifact you are attempting to salvage is Starfleet property. Do you intend to turn it over to Starfleet after you've recovered it?"
"Star Baby is not a thing!" Snowflake screamed, shoving Fyodor roughly out of the way. Longstocking's mouth opened and Darkstar had taken a step but Nova was faster than any of them. She flung herself on Snowflake's back, knocking hir down and pinning hir arms. That gave Sherlock enough time to leap to hir feet and join the fray. A moment later Nova and Sherlock carried Snowflake, still kicking and screaming, from the bridge. Longstocking took Sherlock's place at the controls.
Kit gritted his teeth and shook his head to dislodge the sweat dripping down his face. His hands continued their weaving uninterrupted. Come on, Star Baby. Come to Daddy. A section of trusswork shimmered and suddenly he could see Star Baby, limned by a pale, white glow almost lost in the glare of the spotlights, the pattern of the trusswork still printed on hir skin but slightly offset, as if hir body were made of thick glass that refracted the images. His jaw dropped; shi looked so- so tiny. His eyes began to sting. Tiny, lost, and alone. He couldn't see; tears blinded him, but at this point it didn't matter. He opened his hands-
Dr. Stannus was speaking but Captain Walker didn't register it. His mind was focused on that young Chakat's startling outburst. It seemed a rather emotional response to the treatment of what was, essentially, a piece of hardware. Not to mention that shi was clearly a civilian. And where was the tug's captain? He had assumed it was the Chakat lieutenant, but shi had taken over the Operations console and now seemed to be waiting for orders like everyone else. Professor Moseivitch was clearly a great orator but he did not have the aura of commander. There seemed to be more people on the tug's bridge, but with the video sensor set on narrow field he couldn't see them. At least one of them was a foxtaur; Walker had briefly seen his tail and hindquarters. Then there was the lioness, who dressed like a civilian but fought like a master of unarmed combat. There could be two, possibly thee, more. Just what in the blue blazes is going on here?
"We have transport lock," Lt. Nagai reported
Captain Walker's hesitation was so brief that only Dawnfire or someone else equally close to him would have noticed it. "Energize," he commanded. Better to err on the side of caution. If this is a legitimate salvage operation, I'll just blame it all on Dr. Stannus.
Kit's palms began to tingle with a strange pins-and-needles sensation. He blinked rapidly to clear his vision; Star Baby had let go of the trusswork and drifted almost within his grasp. The glow around hir had brightened suddenly and was beginning to sparkle with rainbow colors. "No!" he screamed, throwing himself against the console. His hysterical strength sprung the gauntlets from their mountings; the glowing orange hands shot forward but simply shimmered out of existence when they passed beyond the range of their projectors.
There was a tremendously bright flash. The view ports polarized automatically but enough got through to momentarily dazzle everyone's eyes. When Kit's eyes cleared a second later Star Baby was gone. He ripped his arms out of the gauntlets; bits of metal and plastic clattered to the floor as he surged to his feet. The muscles in his arms were knotted; his breath came in ragged gasps between tightly clenched teeth. He looked directly at the distant bulk of the Isaac Asimov- and there was something in his eyes that caused even Darkstar to pause as she reached for him. He looked directly ahead, at the trusswork attaching the mass detector to the top of the power core. There was a ragged gash in the structure.
Then, to everyone;s consternation, he began to laugh.
"Transport failed," Lt. Nagai reported.
"What happened?" Dr. Stannus demanded a fraction of a second before Captain Walker could ask the same question.
"As the dematerialization sequence began there was a huge power spike," Nagai replied. "It blew out the entire integrator array."
"What happened to the drone?" Dr. Stannus was beginning to look alarmed.
"I don't know, sir. It wasn't dematerialized, though."
"Mr. Goldstrype?" Walker called.
"Scanning," Goldstrype replied.
"Shi's where?" Fyodor frowned, cocking his head.
"There," Kit replied, pointing. "Wedged between the mass detector and the power core."
Fyodor started to speak then clamped his mouth shut and stabbed a control. The channel to the Asimov closed. "Very well. How do we get hir out?"
"We won't be using the virtual hands or any part of the tractor beam system," Longstocking said. "Star Baby shot out the power conduits. The whole array is out of action."
"I wonder what's so fascinating about that particular spot," Valjean said. "Hir mom homed in on almost the exact same one."
"Someone has to go in there and talk to hir," Kit said.
"Kit, what are you talking about?" Javert sounded perplexed and just a tiny bit frightened.
"Someone has to put on a space suit, go over there, and talk to Star Baby face to face," Kit replied. "It has to be a person because shi's already had bad experiences with servos. It has to be someone shi knows, someone shi trusts,someone who understands hir." He swallowed. "It has to be me."
Valjean opened his mouth. Darkstar silenced him with a curt gesture. "Do you understand what it is that you're suggesting, Mr. Carson?" shi asked, hir eyes searching his face. It was pasty and gray, his eyes hollow, and he was shivering as if he were freezing.
"Yes, sir," he replied. His voice was calm and perfectly controlled. "Star Baby is only here because shi wants to be here. If we keep screwing around shi'll decide shi doesn't want to be here. Then shi'll disappear, just like on Sigma 17. We won't be able to track hir, and shi'll be gone for good. I know it sounds crazy, but- but-" he scrubbed his face with quaking hands. "I, I'd rather take that chance than risk not ever seeing hir again."
"Do you have a pressure suit rating?" Darkstar asked.
"Yes, sir. Last term I took a course in suit operation as an Astronautics elective."
"And you do understand that if Star Baby decides to get rough there won't be enough left of you to mail home in an envelope?"
Kit's cheeks took on a decidedly greenish cast. He nodded convulsively.
"Is it really worth that much risk, Kit?" Darkstar asked. "What we've learned already is of incalculable value."
Kit licked his lips. "If it were your granddaughter out there, would you go?"
Darkstar's eyes narrowed, locking gazes with Kit. He did not look away. "All right then." Shi smiled, but hir eyes were sad. "I admire your courage, Kit. You remind me of me, when I was young and foolish. Come on, I'll help you suit up."
"Darkstar-" Fyodor began.
Darkstar's head snapped around. "Are you going to deny him the chance to lay it on the line for someone he loves? Are you?"
Fyodor swallowed. He wilted under Darkstar's withering gaze.
"I thought not." Darkstar took Kit's hand in hir own and led him out.
"It's stuck between the mass detector and the power core," Goldstrype said. "There's no way we could get at it with the transporter, even it was functional. There's too much shielding in that area."
"Captain, you must recover that drone!" Dr. Stannus exclaimed.
"So you've said," Captain Walker replied, rather more sharply than he'd intended- but not much. "Relax, Doctor. We're not defeated yet. Mr. Goldstrype, what's the tug doing?"
"Nothing, sir. Holding station. Their tractor system is completely disabled, but they're making no effort to repair it."
Walker drummed his fingers on the arm of the command chair. An AI drone is just a type of robot. We keep our robots relatively dumb because, frankly, we had enough trouble with "artificial" people during the Gene Wars. But this drone was made by- someone else. Someone out there. His eyes flicked to the star field that was visible above and behind the mass detector. It's body is far more complex than anything we could build. His left hand unconsciously found and traced the scar on his cheek. The Professor's own people have given it a pet name, and they call it shi instead of it. Not to mention that it- shi?- is behaving very irrationally. But not irrationally in the way one would expect a damaged or improperly programmed computer to behave. It shot out the tug's tractor system with precision, inflicting only enough damage to achieve the desired effect. It didn't attack at all until Nagai tried to beam it up. Now, by accident or design, it's taken refuge in the one place where neither the Asimov nor the tug could get at it.
"Captain, what course of action do you intend to take?" Dr. Stannus wanted to know.
Walker frowned. He was annoyed at the doctor for breaking in on his reflection, but nor was the sort of person to stand by and do nothing. "Mr. Dawnfire," he said. "Put together a salvage team and get over there."
"Sir." Dawnfire saluted smartly and left the bridge.
Captain Walker's hand twitched. He wanted to catch hir hand, to look into hir eyes and tell hir to be careful. But that would not be an appropriate way for a captain to speak to his executive officer. At least not while Dr. Stannus was watching.
Face up against the wall, Snowflake wheeled about, then took one step. Now shi was up against the other wall. The cabin in which Nova and Sherlock had imprisoned hir was not very large. Shi wheeled about again and repeated the process. There wasn't anything else to do.
The door latch clicked and withdrew. Snowflake crouched, ready to spring-
"Kit!" Snowflake skidded to a halt nearly chest-to-chest with him- then backpedaled quickly. He looked he'd stopped by on the way to his own funeral.
"Hi," Kit replied. His smile was ghastly, the rictus of a man being garroted. "I'm really sorry about everything, but I need your help."
"What for?" Snowflake's hindquarters were hard against the wall. The cabin was not large at all.
"To go get Star Baby. I'm going to suit up and go talk to hir, face to face as it were. Try to get hir calmed down so we can work things out. But, you see, I've had maybe ten hours of suit time in my entire life. Darkstar's suit rating expired before I was born. Longstocking or Sherlock could do it, but they haven't worked with Star Baby. Right now I don't think it would be a good idea for anyone shi doesn't know to try and get close. Which leaves you."
Snowflake licked hir lips, then looked down. shi couldn't meet Kit's eyes; they reminded hir too much of those of a dead fish. "Kit... I don't know if I'm the best person for the job. Shi... Star Baby's never liked me much. Not like... not like shi likes you. And... we didn't exactly part on the best of terms."
"Snowflake." Kit stepped into the room and caught Snowflake's hands. "I... please come with me." His hands were quaking, the palms and fingers slick with sweat. "I'm... scared, Snowflake. If I tried to go out there by myself, I'd, I'd, I don't know. I'd fail. I can't do that, because, because Star Baby needs me. Us. And-" Kit swallowed, his Adam's apple bobbing jerkily. "Snowflake, I, I need you. I can't do this by myself." His grip upon hir hands was crushing. "I can't."
Snowflake looked up into his eyes. The deadness was gone, replaced by a light a hope and joy, as if he were gazing upon Salvation.
"Okay," Snowflake said. "Let's go."
"Sir, the tug is..." Goldstrype inspected hir instruments more closely. "Opening an airlock. Two persons going EVA, a Terran and a Chakat."
"Captain, you must prevent them from reaching the drone," Dr. Stannus exhorted.
Captain Walker gritted his teeth. I'm getting tired of that refrain. "Shall I have Commander Dawnfire issue boarding pikes and cutlasses?"
Dr. Stannus' brows drew together until they met over his nose. "Your levity is not appropriate, Captain!"
From somewhere at the back of the bridge there was a muffled snicker. Captain Walker had to struggle to keep his face composed. Marisa, probably. She's the youngest member of the bridge crew. "What is the status of Commander Dawnfire's expedition?"
Marisa cleared her throat. "Requesting permission to cast off, sir."
So it was Marisa. "Bid them Godspeed."
"May the Creators smile on you," Darkstar said. Hir voice was tinny, coming through speakers in Kit's helmet.
"Thanks," Kit managed to gasp.
"Gravity off," Sherlock said. "Outer door opening."
Kit gritted his teeth as the floor seemed to drop out from under him. But what really bothered him was the utter blackness that greeted him as the outer door slid open. He'd gotten used to the computer-enhanced images displayed in the view ports, and subconsciously forgotten that they weren't real. It was a good thing that the gravity was off or he might have swooned. "This is a bad idea," he muttered.
"Now you tell me," Snowflake muttered back.
"You're facing directly toward where you want to go," Darkstar said. "Watch out for loose wires, though. If you get one wrapped around you, you're in a world of hurt."
"Roger," Snowflake replied. "All right, Kit. Let's go." Shi stepped forward into the doorway, looking all around. Shi placed one forepaw on the hull outside the hatch then shuffled forward, gradually completing the ninety degree change in orientation. Kit swallowed hard and shuffled forward. At the edge he looked down- which proved to be a mistake. He was looking along the shaft of the power core toward the surface of the Array, and the distant spotlights mounted to the Array's girders. His inner ear was firmly convinced that he was perched on a precipice above a very long drop, even though he, the tug, and the Array itself were technically all falling free together. He swallowed hard.
"Kit, I'm upping your carbon dioxide," Darkstar said. "You're starting to hyperventilate."
"Kit." Snowflake crouched on hir forepaws, bending hir torso forward. "Take my hands."
"Okay." He forced his arms up and gripped hir forearms. She pulled him gently forward, holding him firmly while he set one foot, then the other, on the outer hull. Now he was staring straight "down" at the ground.
"Kit, get on my back." Snowflake turned sideways and crouched.
"But..." Actually, Kit was more worried about letting go of Snowflake's arms.
"It'll be easier that way, Kit."
"Okay." He lifted his right leg and swung it carefully over hir lower back. He began to swing himself up as if he were mounting a horse, then clutched frantically with his legs as he started to rebound. Molebind fields in the soles of his boots kept him stuck to the hull, but there weren't any in the seat of his pants.
"Put your arms around my torso," Snowflake continued, guiding his arms under hirs. Kit realized, in a detached sort of way, that he was grabbing hir breasts. Even through the bulky material of the suit the front of hir torso bulged significantly. At the moment that fact was way down the list of important considerations.
"Here we go," Snowflake said. Shi crouched low, steadied hirself, then jumped. Actually, "jumped" was too strong a word. "Pushed off gently" was more like it. Kit twisted his head around but found his view blocked by the side of his helmet, so he relaxed and looked straight ahead.
The power core was the size of a small office building. The open framework of girders surrounding it made it look like a building, one that was still under construction. The girders themselves were not silvery gray as they had appeared from the bridge, but actually shiny black. The carbon fibers from which they were woven gave them their color, and a coating of diamond gave them their high-gloss finish. The result was that the spotlights didn't show them clearly; up close they were nothing but collections of constantly shifting glare spots cross-braced by wires that seemed to glow like the filaments of a light bulbs. Far from illuminating the scene, the spotlights seemed only to emphasize how terribly, utterly dark it was. The Array was a black shadow against the black of interstellar space, apparent only because, when looking out across its surface at this comparatively shallow angle, it did block the stars. Near the base of the power core the framework was open enough that one could look through it, but glare from the spotlights washed out the pale glimmer of distant stars.
Snowflake was tumbling slowly end over end, and near the end of the trip Kit found himself looking back at Security Venture. The tug was a squat, ugly thing, its design dictated by utilitarian rather than aesthetic considerations. Its flattened hull was vaguely crab-like, an impression only heightened by the enormous manipulator arms folded against its belly. The bridge was a raised blister along the back. Kit could actually make out faces lining the view ports. the Hugo brothers were recognizable primarily because of their color. Kit smiled and considered waving, but couldn't bring himself to let go of Snowflake.
"We're almost there," Snowflake said. Kit wondered how shi knew. There was a slight jar; Snowflake bent forward until hir forepaws contacted the girder.
"My word," Kit exclaimed. That the Array was blacked out actually helped him; Snowflake was technically standing on the side of the power core, but his eyes enforced their own idea of up and down. Suddenly the shaft of the power core was horizontal; the spotlights were off to Kit's right, the mass detector to his left, the tug directly overhead.
"You kids okay?" Darkstar asked.
"Yeah," Snowflake replied.
"That's an affirm." Kit let go long enough to give a thumb's up, though most likely only Snowflake could see it. "Where do we go now?"
"Straight in," Darkstar replied. "Watch out for the power conduits. They're pretty heavily shielded, but the flux is awfully dense."
"Wilco." Snowflake switched on hir helmet lights and stepped forward. Kit squeezed his eyes shut as shi seemed to dive off the side of the girder, but in the absence of any larger frame of reference his eyes once again enforced their own perception of orientation. The shaft of the power core was down again; he and Snowflake were standing on top of it. Thinking about it made him dizzy, so he looked around.
The girders, which had seemed so thin and spindly from a distance, were wide enough that three Chakats could walk abreast- in suits, no less- without crowding. They glittered like cut jewels, surrounding Kit and Snowflake in an impossibly dense cluster of rainbow colored stars.
"My God," Kit breathed. "It's beautiful."
"Yeah," Snowflake grunted. Hir attention was focused on the power conduits, which looked about the size of elevator shafts. The energy flowing through them was ten times the maximum output of the Asimov's warp drive- and Star Baby had damaged them. If they failed... well, the only consolation was that in that case Kit, Snowflake, Star Baby, and in all probability everyone on the tug as well, would be blasted into plasma before they even had time to feel it. It wasn't a very comforting thought. Snowflake had sometimes wondered what happened when this life was over, but shi was in no particular hurry to find out.
"There shi is!" Kit shouted, sitting up suddenly.
Snowflake let out a yelp and pulled hirself down into a crouch. "Kit-" shi growled.
"I see Star Baby," Kit interrupted. "Shi's almost directly ahead, stern toward us.... it looks like shi clawed hir way through the girders."
Snowflake gasped. Now that Kit had pointed it out shi saw, too. Hir body was surrounded by a cold, flickering light even as hir skin duplicated the diamond glitter of the girders around hir. To make room for hirself shi had cut the girders and pushed them aside; the ends were sheared as cleanly as if they'd been sliced by razors. Hir wings were bent almost straight downward, and hir rudders lay flat. Hir strength limbs were partially extended, gripping the girders to hold hir in place.
"Kit, Snowflake, this is commander Dawnfire of the F.S.S. Isaac Asimov," a strange voice said. "I must order you to desist at once. The item you are attempting to salvage is the property of Starfleet."
Kit laughed. "Star Baby doesn't belong to Starfleet." Snowflake halted in surprise; Kit nudged hir in the ribs with his heels as if shi were a horse and shi started moving again.
"Professor Moseivitch illegally took possession of-" Dawnfire began.
"Shi doesn't belong to Professor Moseivitch either," Kit cut in. "Shi doesn't belong to the University or the Security Force."
"Then who?" Dawnfire wanted to know. "You?"
Kit laughed again. "No. I'm just hir father."
"Kit, Snowflake, don't worry about these jokers," Darkstar said. "We'll keep 'em off your back. Just do what you gotta do."
"That's an affirm," Kit replied.
Snowflake stopped. When Kit realized why he gulped. Star Baby's wing was laid across the girder shi'd been following.
"Um," Snowflake said in a voice that quavered slightly. "Y'know, Kit... those virtual hands can really screw you up. I, I kept thinking of hir as, as, y'know, small. A handful." shi cupped hir hands in front of hir.
"Shi's not, is shi," Kit said, licking his suddenly dry lips. Now that he was standing right next to Star Baby it suddenly hit home exactly how large shi was.
"Well... what do we do now?" Snowflake asked.
"Ah..." Kit's mind had gone blank. The swell of Star Baby's upper hull rose above him like the back of a beached whale.
"Touch hir, Kit," Darkstar said. "Stroke hir. Like you do back a the station."
Kit shifted sideways until his boot touched the girder, then swung himself off of Snowflake's back. He completed the operation successfully only because Snowflake grabbed his arm and there was no gravity. He bent over, looking at the edge of the wing. It was slightly rounded instead of sharp, but even up close the material itself was smooth and seamless. He reached out and touched it. Snowflake gasped; the pale glow seemed to adhere to his fingers, like traces on a Kirlian photograph. He began to giggle, sweeping his hand in wide circles. Flickers of color raced across the surface like ripples on water.
"Kit...." Snowflake said, but couldn't think of anything else to say. He lifted his foot and set it on the wing; glow concentrated around it and took on an orange cast, but the molebind fields wouldn't grip. When he tried to grab the edge of the wing his gauntlets slipped off; the surface seemed to be entirely frictionless.
"We have to get under hir," Kit said, stepping carefully onto the side of the girder, then out along a cross-brace.
"Kit!" Snowflake called, taking a step forward then having to duck suddenly as Star Baby shifted and the wing came back toward hir. Shi scuttled around the other side of the beam but found the way blocked by something projecting from the top of the power core.
As Kit walked along the brace he reached up, letting his fingers trail along the underside of Star Baby's wing. when he couldn't reach any more he just walked until he was standing right beside hir body. He set his hands flat against it and gasped; he could feel it thrumming faintly, even through his heavy gauntlets. "Oh, Star," he breathed, prostrating himself against hir. "You're so... beautiful." He swept his hands in wide circular motions. reveling in the odd, frictionless sensation of it. It must have been an illusion, but it even felt warm.
"Kit?" Snowflake called. "Are you all right?" Hir voice was oddly distorted.
"Yes, I'm fine," he called back- then yelped as Star Baby moved, pushing hirself up and out of the nest of girders. Kit kicked his feet, trying to get a grip on the girder before he slid off- but his boots flailed in nothingness, and the surface that had been frictionless a moment before was suddenly sticky. He was stuck to Star Baby's side. He made a strangled sound as Star Baby brought up hir front right strength limb; the only reason he didn't scream is because his throat was too tight. Shi did not try to pick him off as he'd been afraid shi might; shi just held hir upturned palm near him- and suddenly something pulled him away from hir side and into hir hand. The force was rather abrupt but not excessive; he landed on his back and grunted, but was not hurt. A quick scan of his suit telltales indicated that it was not hurt either.
"Kit!" Snowflake screamed. Hir voice was distorted to the point of being barely recognizable.
"I'm okay...." Kit called back, his voice trailing off. Star Baby's body was not merely glowing but shining. Bright, shimmering bands of color raced and blended, swirling and exploding.
"Kit... getting... bad... -tion," Darkstar said. The rest of hir words were unintelligible.
Kit got to his feet. Whatever part of him touched Star Baby's hand adhered, but not too strongly. With hir lower pair of strength limbs Star Baby made a series of gestures. Even with Nova's intensive training Star Baby had to repeat them several times, because Kit was seeing them from a strange angle.
"Yes, it's me," Kit replied, signing his name. K-I-T.
"No, wait-" he shouted as shi clasped him against hir belly with both hands. He wanted to say don't squeeze too hard but he couldn't breathe.
The world dissolved in light so intense it seemed to burn through to his very soul.
Globules of light shimmer, blend, and separate like blobs of warm honey. Time and space swirl and tangle like strands of spaghetti.
"Where am I?" Kit asks. He speaks but has no mouth. He sees but has no eyes.
"Where... where are you?"
Outside. With you.
Kit is one of the globules of light. He feels himself flowing through the strands if time and space like oil up the wick of a lamp. He sees the Universe, laid out before him in all its glory. He is filled with awe at the majesty and splendor of Creation. All he has to do is reach out his hand and embrace it-
Take me home, Daddy.
"Huh?" Kit is confused. "What's the matter, Star?"
I want to go home.
"But-" Kit looks out across the multifaceted vistas of What Is.
Don't leave me, Daddy. Please?
Kit dithers. Knowledge of Everything is literally within his grasp.
"No," He says, mostly to himself. Not if the price of it is to give up Star. "Come on, Star. Let's go home."
"Uhhh..." A sharp pain in Kit's mouth jerked him toward consciousness. He tried to ignore it but couldn't. Worse yet, it brought to his attention the pain his chest. He groaned.
"Kit, please wake up!"
Desperate fear in the voice punched through the fog around Kit's mind. With a Herculean effort he forced his eyes open; filling his vision was something gray and fuzzy. It took him a moment to realize that the thing was fuzzy because it was covered with fur, not because of a defect in his vision. "Snow?" he croaked.
"Kit!" Snowflake crushed his face against hir bosom. Kit moaned because that's all he could manage with his mouth full of soft fur. His ribs felt as if someone had gone over them with a meat tenderizing hammer. "I was so scared," Snowflake continued, stroking hir face against Kit's neck. The fur on hir face was wet. "I was afraid you- you-" shi couldn't continue; shi squeezed him even tighter, sobbing into his shoulder.
"He's all right, just a little bruised," another voice said. It was masculine, but not anyone Kit recognized. Firm but gentle hands disengaged him from Snowflake's grip, then lay him down and pressed a hypospray against his shoulder. The coolness of it felt good, and it felt even better as it washed through him, gently blanking out the pain. He smiled dreamily, letting himself settle back into blissful unconsciousness-
A second hypospray shocked him awake. Kit didn't particularly want to be awake, but even though it wasn't hurting his whole body seemed to be buzzing slightly, rendering sleep impossible.
"Sorry about that," the voice apologized. "It's a stimulant to speed healing. Better than being sore for the next week, though, isn't it?" The speaker chuckled. "We need to move him to the sick bay. Is there a stretcher-"
"I'll carry him," Snowflake volunteered.
"All right, then. Crouch down here. Darkstar, if you'll give me a hand...."
Hands gripped Kit under the arms and hoisted him up, then dragged him across Snowflake's lower back. The stimulant had woke him up but did not restore his strength; his head flopped forward because he couldn't lift it. He was still wearing his space suit, but the face plate was open and the flooring looked suspiciously like that on board Sigma 17. A pair of large, gray-furred paws on his left were obviously Darkstar's; a pair of feet and legs on his right in black shoes and slacks might have belonged to a Terran, but the voice didn't sound quite right. With Darkstar supporting Kit's torso Snowflake rose to hir feet and started walking. Because he was sitting sideways, and Darkstar was holding his head, Kit finally saw the other member of the party. He was a vulpinoid, like Liska, except that his feet were humanoid rather than canine. The fur on his face and head was sandy brown trimmed with black, as was his tail. His mane was golden brown, trimmed reasonably but not excessively short. His hands were dark brown. About the rest of him one could only speculate; his black Starfleet uniform with the blue Science Section color stripe covered it completely.
"Sathitet ne Tongawar, chief medical officer for the F.S.S. Isaac Asimov," he said with a friendly nod when he noticed Kit looking at him. Otherwise his attention was focused on the medical scanner in his left hand.
"You... you're from Nisavar," Kit managed to croak.
Sathitet blinked. "Why, yes," he replied. "How did you know?"
"Accent," Kit replied. "I... grew up there."
"You grew up on a Voxxan colony world?" Darkstar asked.
"Yeah," Kit said. "Near... West Nuremor."
"How's that for coincidence," Sathitet exclaimed. "I grew up in East Nuremor, just across the river. I don't remember there being a Terran enclave, though."
"Wasn't," Kit replied. "Just us. Me, Mom, and Dad."
"That explains a few things," Darkstar commented.
"What do you mean?" Snowflake demanded, more than a little bit defensively.
"Such as why his two closest friends are foxtaurs," Darkstar replied.
In the sick bay Darkstar and Snowflake hoisted Kit onto one of the examination bunks. Despite his size and the added bulk of his suit they handled him easily; they were both stronger than they looked.
"Get the suit off," Sathitet directed, switching on one of the diagnostic modules. Darkstar had already unlatched his helmet and pulled it off; Snowflake started working on his boots.
"Um...." Kit said.
"'S'matter?" Darkstar asked as shi released the waist articulation and started disconnecting the support pack.
"There... wasn't a liner in my size," Kit said.
"You mean he's naked under that?" Sathitet demanded.
"Yep." Darkstar set the support pack aside and disconnected Kit's gauntlets. Snowflake had lifted his legs so that shi could slide the lower half of the waist articulation under his buttocks.
Sathitet shook his head. "Bad for the skin," he muttered.
Snowflake licked hir lips and watched avidly as shi pulled down the front of Kit's suit pants. He struggled, but no avail; his legs were trapped in the pants and Darkstar had shoved his arms halfway out of the sleeves, so they were trapped inside the torso unit. Anyway, he hadn't the strength.
"Oh, for Heaven's sake, get him a sheet, at least," Sathitet exclaimed as a brilliant flush spread across Kit's face and neck.
Darkstar fetched one and spread it across his midsection. "Aw," Snowflake exclaimed, screwing up hir face in a comical pout.
As the last of his suit came away the sheet stuck to Kit's bare skin. Copious quantities of sweat had dried there, making it tacky. In some spots- under his arms and between his legs- there were still wet patches.
"Nothing a little rest won't cure, thank goodness," Sathitet pronounced once he had finished with the diagnostic unit. "You seem to be a very lucky man, Mr. Carson."
"Where... am I?" Kit asked.
"On board Sigma 17," Snowflake replied.
"What am I doing here?" the last thing kit remembered was- was- something about Star Baby.
"We were hoping you could tell us," Darkstar said. "After you and Star Baby disappeared, you had us all in a state."
"We thought- you were gone for good." Snowflake's voice- and hands- trembled.
"I asked Longstocking to check the station and see if you were there," Darkstar said. "Star Baby was there in the work room, happy as can be. You were sprawled in the floor, just inside the personnel lock. We flew back as quick as we could because the remote sensors couldn't tell if your were alive or not. Apparently you are."
"How... did I get there?" Kit demanded, blinking in surprise.
"That's what we'd like to know," Darkstar replied. "According to the logs, none of the station's airlocks were cycled. Apparently you just popped out of thin space."
"He needs to be washed," Snowflake said.
"He needs to rest," Sathitet corrected, gently but firmly.
"Actually, I think a bath wouldn't be a bad idea." Darkstar wrinkled hir nose. "You'll take care of that, Snowflake?"
"Yes." Snowflake's reply was barely a whisper. Shi had laid hir hands on Kit's belly and was stroking gently.
"But-" Sathitet began. Darkstar caught his eye and shook hir head fractionally. He frowned, but fell silent. Darkstar took his arm and led him out, closing the door behind them.
"What you did for Star Baby," Snowflake began. "It was incredibly brave."
"It was incredibly stupid," Kit muttered.
"It was brave," Snowflake insisted. "And selfless." Shi stroked the hair back from his face. Hir eyes were shining. "Let's get you to the 'fresher." Shi slipped hir arms around his torso and lifted him up. As their chests touched Kit was suddenly cognizant of the fact that Snowflake was naked. Hir breasts were pressed against his pectorals; he could feel hir nipples poking him. Suddenly the sheet was not an adequate separation, not in the slightest.
"Well, parts of you are certainly recovering," Snowflake commented with a dry chuckle as shi slid him off the cot. At the last instant he remembered to his feet down. With one hand leaning heavily on Snowflake and his other clutching the sheet, he managed to stagger to the refresher. He sunk to the floor of the stall, slumped against the wall. Snowflake took the removable shower head in hand and switched on the water. "You're going to have to give up the sheet," shi commented.
"Um..." Kit's hands moved vaguely. The sheet was again shielding his modesty- but only because his knees were bent. He yelped as Snowflake turned the spray on him, playing it across his chest, belly, and legs. The sheet slicked down against his skin. With hir thumb Snowflake popped open the shampoo bottle and sprayed some onto the vicinity of Kit's navel.
"It doesn't do much good with the sheet there, does it?" Snowflake asked, lathering the shampoo with hir hand.
"But..." Kit swallowed. The stall had a lip so it could double as a tub. Snowflake was laying on the floor, leaning against it from the outside. Hir breasts had flopped over the edge.
"What you did for Star Baby was noble and compassionate," Snowflake said. "And... so was what you did for me. The logical thing would have been to go with Sherlock. But you did the right thing. For Star Baby... and for me. I'd about convinced myself that the best thing I could do for the project was quit, and leave Star Baby's care in competent hands. Can you imagine how it felt, suspecting that even the Hugo brothers were better parents than I was?" Shi slipped hir hand under the edge of the sheet, across the front of his thigh, and around the shaft of his penis. "I wanted- I needed- to thank you. For helping Star Baby. For giving me a chance to help. For needing me. For making me believe in myself again." Shi rose, stepping over the lip of the tub and hanging up the spray head. Hir hand, lubricated by shampoo, squeezed and caressed Kit tumescent member. "I just... want to give you back some of the joy you've given me." Without interrupting hir ministrations shi caught the edge of the sheet and pulled it away. "If... if you don't want it, just, just say so." Hir voice quavered; fresh tears ran over the partially dried stains on hir cheeks. "I just... what you've given me is so wonderful. I... I don't know how else I can repay you." Using hir elbows shi gently pushed his knees apart, lowering hir torso until shi could squeeze his penis between hir breasts.
Kit's breath came in ragged gasps. His head was flopped to one side, his eyes glazed, spittle dribbling from the corner of his mouth. His arms lay at his side, fingers twitching. He didn't say no, so Snowflake continued.
"How is your young man?" Captain Walker inquired. He stood before the wardroom view ports, gazing out into space. A person might have thought he was looking at Chakona, except that the planet was now obstructed by the Asimov's angular bulk.
"Dr. Sathitet thinks he'll be okay," Darkstar replied. "Thanks for the loan."
Keith turned away from the ports. "I figured it was the least I could do, under the circumstances. I'm afraid, though, that all we've done is buy a little time. Dr. Stannus is going to be looking for an arse to boot when he finds out what's happened."
Longstocking had been following the conversation, glancing from one person to the next. "Um... I don't mean to be rude," shi interjected, "But I get the impression you two know one another?"
"Many years ago," Keith began, "More now than I care to remember, my very first deep space assignment after graduating from Cape York was on board the F.S.S. Hudson- under the command of a Captain Darkstar, whom all us junior officers referred to as the Stub-Tailed Devil. Whatever shi may seem like now, back then shi was a monster, a demon in flesh, who turned the first five years of my active duty into a living Hell. Even ratings got better treatment than us junior officers because, as shi liked to put it, at least they had some useful skills."
Darkstar smiled. "I considered it my duty to whip you young gentlemen into shape."
"I'd like to think that you succeeded, at least in this case." Keith's heels clacked together as he came to attention, saluting smartly.
"Oh, stop that," Darkstar protested. "I'm not your superior and haven't been for a long time. And sit down, already. Just looking at you like that is making my joints hurt." Still, shi had to dab at hir face.
"Oh, I bet you could still put the fear of God into a gaggle of ensigns," Keith commented, grabbing a folding chair and turning it backwards before sitting.
"Oh, shi can, I assure you," Longstocking put in.
Darkstar shook hir head. "Longstocking, I'm really sorry about-"
"Don't be." Longstocking forestalled further protestation by raising hir hand. "I can fix star ships and keep this madhouse running more or less smoothly, but I'm not a star ship captain. You were right to assume command, and frankly I'm glad you were along to do it."
Darkstar sighed. "Thanks, Longstocking. I know what it's like to be... displaced from command."
Longstocking frowned. "Frankly, Darkstar, I can't imagine anyone bumping you."
"Not overtly no," Darkstar replied. "But... When the Changi was commissioned, my name was at the top of the list of OIC candidates. Promotion to commodore, command of the pride of the Federation fleet... I was pulling for that one, believe me. But I didn't get it."
"Why ever not?" Dawnfire demanded. Shi had taken a seat next to Keith and handed him a drink.
"The promotion board found some... irregularities in my file."
"That doesn't make any sense," Longstocking protested. "If those 'irregularities' didn't stop you from becoming a captain, how could they stop you from moving to flag rank?"
"You forget how old I am," Darkstar replied. Shi settled hir torso against the back of the couch, which shi had to hirself. "The 'irregularity' in question took place before any of you were born. In fact, before some of your parents were born. I was Executive Officer of the Illustrious, under Captain C'habali. We were told that raiders were operating from Hadris Two, a planet that had been slated for colonization. We did find an unlisted settlement, but weren't sure if it was raiders or just colonists who'd jumped the gun. I get put down with a strike force and told to check it out. We hump in on speeders. The terrain was awful. Jungle, bayous, and swamp. Up close there's no doubt but that it's a raider camp. They've got all sorts of star ship repair equipment hidden under null-screens. Then comes the kick in the pants. My medical officer tells me they're Sauron."
"What are Sauron, exactly?" Longstocking asked, frowning. "I mean, I've heard of them, naturally, but..." shi let hir voice trail off.
"Of all the genetically engineered super-soldiers that were produced on Terra during the Gene Wars, Sauron are the very worst," Darkstar explained. "They are not exceptionally strong, fast, or healthy. In fact, except to a genetic analysis, they are indistinguishable from regular Terrans. What makes them deadly is that their bodies are constantly manufacturing and releasing plague viri- with a random factor built in, so that vaccines developed today won't work tomorrow. Just being in contact with them will make enemy soldiers- and civilians- get sick and die. Even their corpses are dangerous; they have to be incinerated. To make them harder to detect- and provide some control over their ability- they only become virulent after intimate contact with another Sauron of the opposite sex. No other form of contact will do, so you're safe as long as the men and women are kept separate. You can even let them interact with regular Terrans. But if only two escape- and they find one another, by chance or design- you're in serious trouble. Worse still, they can interbreed with regular Terrans- and though hybrid Sauron lose the ability to produce disease, they can have pure breed offspring. When people speak of how over ninety-nine percent of the Terran species was exterminated by genetically engineered diseases, they are speaking mostly of Sauron plagues.
"Now, we jump ahead to the preset- or, what was the present in the final quarter of the last century," Darkstar continued. "By then a treatment has been developed, whereby Sauron could be rendered harmless without otherwise affecting them. But it has to be individually administered- to people who have learned, the hard way, that to reveal their ancestry was to earn themselves a life sentence in a prison colony or, often as not, a shot in the back of the head and a trip to the nearest incinerator. General Order 418 had excepted Sauron from the guarantee of basic human rights, thus they could be killed by any one, at any time, for any reason. The result of all this is that Sauron go underground- where they can't be tracked or treated- and into enclaves, where their natural tendency to reproduce results in new outbreaks. At stake are the populations of not one but dozens of worlds. On Hadris Two it means that all the Terrans in my command have to stay behind because we didn't have the supplies to treat them if they got sick. No great loss, fortunately, because most of the crew was Caitian. But it meant that we had to take this camp, and make sure that no one escaped. I decided that the only feasible course of action was to storm the camp by surprise. So, in the dark of night, we surrounded the camp on two sides with autoguns and antipersonnel mines, then we attacked from the fourth. It worked perfectly; they tried to escape into the jungle and were cut down like wheat. Those that stood didn't put up much of a fight- and after it was over I found out why. All the men were off, probably on the raider ships. We had found the women, children, aged, and infirm. They'd sent the kids out first; we found them in the woods, some two hundred of them, stacked like cordwood in front of autoguns. We took about fifty prisoners. I asked Captain C'habali what to do. We didn't have facilities for fifty Sauron prisoners on board the Illustrious so he called Sector Command for orders. Commodore Hanson's reply came back within the hour. He said no prisoners."
"But- you already had prisoners," Longstocking protested. "I- don't understand."
"What Darkstar means," Captain Walker said, his tone and expression grim, "Is that shi was ordered to kill them."
"But-" Longstocking blinked. "Starfleet would never do something like that!"
"That is what they rather have us believe," Darkstar replied. "Which is why my promotion was denied."
"What did you do?" Dawnfire asked quietly.
"We had the prisoners in a mess hall," Darkstar continued. "I ordered it rigged with demo charges. When the work was done I took the detonator in my hand and pressed the button." Shi pantomimed the action. "As commander of the expedition I was responsible. I would not allow any of my people to carry this... atrocity on their conscience. When it was over we planted a nuke, pulled back to a safe distance, and blew the whole site to em cee squared."
"And... that was it?" Longstocking asked after a long, pregnant pause.
"Yes," Darkstar replied. "In the last century, that sort of thing happened all the time. Sauron plague outbreaks were common enough that many felt it was... justice."
Longstocking's eyes narrowed. "Did those children deserve to die just because of how they'd been born?"
"Certainly not," Darkstar replied. Hir tone had not changed even slightly.
"Then for God's sake why did you do it? That order was immoral. You could have- should have- refused it!"
Darkstar shook hir head sadly. "No, Longstocking, I couldn't. At that time if I'd refused I'd have been brought up before a Court Martial and, at least, discharged from Starfleet. My family had been wiped out just a few years earlier. Starfleet was my family. Without it... I couldn't have lived." Hir voice remained steady but hir hands were shaking. "Besides... if I'd refused, Captain C'habali would have had to do it. I... couldn't put that on him."
"What about now?" Longstocking demanded, jumping to hir feet.
"If I tell my story now, Starfleet will deny it," Darkstar replied. "There's no evidence. Even if there were, I'd be the one charged with war crimes. Then who'd take care of my granddaughter?"
Longstocking paced in a circle, growling and tossing hir head. Darkstar watched hir with an expression that grew more pained by the second. Finally shi got off the couch.
"No!" Longstocking shouted, leaping sideways as Darkstar approached. "I- I-" Longstocking clawed at hir mane. "Darkstar- I'm sorry. I- I just need to get the Hell out of here." Shi spun and marched out without looking back.
Darkstar stared for about a minute. Hir whole body was trembling; hir cheeks wet with tears. A drop rolled off hir muzzle and landed with a splat on the deck. Dawnfire opened hir mouth, but Keith silenced hir with a hand on the shoulder. Darkstar started forward, leaving the room as Longstocking had: without looking back. Dawnfire looked at Keith, whose expression was sad but not the least bit shocked or surprised.
"You knew," Dawnfire pronounced quietly.
"I suspected," Keith replied. "I knew shi had a... checkered past. And I knew what Starfleet had done in the earlier century, though I wasn't supposed to. And before you say anything, please remember this." He caught hir face with his hand, lifting it to his. "Everything that I am, shi made me. Shi was my commander, my mentor... and, in an odd way, my friend. I owe hir a debt- not that I'd betray my oath for hir, but enough to forgive. If I thought that publicizing hir story would do some good I'd do it. But what difference would it make? At best it would embarrass Starfleet and create a scandal. At worst it would destroy a fine officer who has given more to Starfleet than either of us can ever imagine. And tell me this: would you want to be the one who has to explain to Aurora why hir grandmother's being taken away? What greater price can we expect Darkstar to pay above and beyond having had to carry this burden on hir soul?"
Dawnfire didn't speak. Shi rose, stepped forward, and nuzzled Keith's cheek. "You believe in duty, but you're strong enough to forgive," shi murmured. "That's why I love you so much."
Keith said nothing. He pulled Dawnfire close, hugging hir tightly. His tears rand down his cheeks and, one by one, disappeared into hir mane.
Kit returned to consciousness like a bubble rising in a deep, dark pool. The waking world gradually took shape and definition, then suddenly he was awake. The stimulant must have worked, because he felt only moderate stiffness as he flexed his arms and shoulders. When he tried to stretch his legs, though, they wouldn't move. After an instant of panic he identified the problem. His lower body was smothered under something soft, warm, furry, and rather heavy.
"Oy gevalt," Kit muttered. This wasn't the first time something of this nature this had occurred. Valjean and Javert sometimes thought it was funny to climb on top of him during the night. He'd wake up with a mouthful of fox fur and his body half asleep. The brothers would be rolling on the floor in fits of hysterical laughter while Kit lurched around like Frankenstein trying to restore his circulation. Kit had finally put a stop to that by sneaking a taser to bed with him. This time it wasn't a fox, though; the fur was softer and finer. Anyway, Kit didn't have the taser with him.
"Good morning," Snowflake purred.
For a subjectively eternal moment Kit could only stare in mute shock. Then the jumble in his mind began to sort itself out. He had spent last night having wild sex with Snowflake. Now he was in bed with hir, naked. He must have tensed or something, because shi lifted hir torso and hir expression became concerned. "Are you all right?" shi asked.
"Uh..." Kit's mind was reasonably alert but his body felt bruised and battered. Last night's activities had undone much of Dr. Sathitet's work.
"I'm sorry." Snowflake covered hir face and started to get up. "I... I don't know what came over me. I, I couldn't help myself. I needed-"
"Don't apologize." Kit caught hir arm. "I, well, I can't say I didn't enjoy it." He smiled crookedly. "And maybe... maybe I needed it too." He stroked hir hand, then squeezed it. "Anyway..." His expression firmed. "You're a beautiful person, Snowflake. I appreciate everything you did for me. All of it. I couldn't have done what I did without you."
"Oh, Kit." Shi lay own across him, hir torso on his, and nuzzled his cheek.
"Ah, Snowflake, I don't mean to be a party pooper, but I've gotta piss like a fire hose and if I don't eat something my gut's gonna cave in."
"Well." Snowflake gave Kit a playful lick, then stood up and stretched until shi was bent almost double. Hir penis was more than half unsheathed; when shi noticed Kit looking at it shi turned to give him a better view. "If you're gonna go, hurry up already," shi said. "You're not the only one who's gotta pee."
"Right." Kit struggled out of bed and lurched stiffly into the bathroom; at the door he couldn't repress the urge to glance back. Snowflake was laying on hir side, watching him intently, casually stroking hir penis with one hand. He staggered to the humanoid style toilet, pulled down the privacy screen, and flopped down. Only part of his relief came from releasing the pressure in his bladder; watching Snowflake flaunt hir masculine properties so openly was... unsettling.
And what exactly do you think of it? Kit wondered. Not only does shi have a cock that's three times as big as yours, but shi's part- about two thirds, by mass- animal. It's homosexuality and zoophilia all rolled into one package.
There was a loud knock on the outer door, then the person entered without waiting for a reply. "Good morning," Darkstar's voice called. "Where's Kit?"
"In the bathroom," Snowflake replied- somewhat tensely, it seemed to Kit.
"Good. Run along and get cleaned up."
"Now, Snowflake." It was the voice that would not be disobeyed. The outer door opened and shut. A fuzzy shadow moved up to the privacy screen and lifted it. It was Darkstar; shi was, as usual, wearing nothing but a belt pouch, but shi had a folded shirt and a pair of sweats tucked under one arm.
"Good morning." Darkstar looked Kit up and down. "Though judging from the evidence, I'd say last night was better."
Kit could only stare. There was nowhere to escape, and covering himself with his hands just seemed like an acknowledgement of how helpless he felt.
"Once you're done there, come over here and clean up." Darkstar moved away, leaving the privacy screen up. "I'm sorry to break in on you like this-" shi didn't sound sorry- "but I've given you as much time as I can. Professor Moseivitch, Dr. Stannus, and Captain Walker all want to speak with you, and they aren't people who like to be kept waiting."
Kit blinked. Captain Walker reminded him of-
"Star!" Kit lurched to his feet and ran for the door.
"Hold on, there." Darkstar caught him as he ran by. "I don't particularly mind if you go out naked, but at least take a shower first, okay?" Shi guided him to the 'fresher and helped him in. He sat there while shi adjusted the water and sprayed him down, and even when shi started lathering him up, but flinched when shi grabbed his buttocks.
"You're wondering why I'm doing this," shi asked, laying down and leaning against the side of the tub. Shi was in nearly the same position Snowflake had been last night, but hir breasts were too small to hang over the edge.
"Why are you doing it?" Kit demanded, frowning. Shock had given way to indignation.
"I want to see how you respond to being manhandled by a Chakat," Darkstar replied.
"Why should that matter?" Kit snapped.
"Are you planning on continuing your relationship with Snowflake?"
Kit opened his mouth then shut it, shifting uncomfortably. The question had caught him off guard.
"Kit, I know that the only time in your life that you've been around Chakats is while you were going to school at Dewclaw University," Darkstar said. "I also know that in that time you only dated humanoid females."
Kit blinked in surprise. "I- how did you know that?"
Darkstar smiled fractionally. "You just told me. Have you ever dated a hermaphrodite?"
Kit licked his lips, then shook his head. "No."
"How 'bout a centauroid?"
"Kit, I understand perfectly well that there are single sexed people who never can adjust to the notion of doing it with a hermaphrodite," Darkstar continued in a gentler tone. "I don't mean to say that it's right or wrong. It just is, like the color of your skin." Shi gently pinched Kit's upper arm. "There is, though, one thing I do think is wrong. That is deliberately misleading someone about who and what you really are. So... what I'm getting at is that Snowflake is only half female. If you continue having sex with hir, sooner or later shi's going to want to do guy things with you. If you aren't prepared for that, then it's far kinder- for hir and for you- to tell hir straight out. Before either one of you make unwarranted assumptions that will lead to sorrow later on."
Kit took the soap and started cleaning himself because it gave him time to think. Last night head done some things that, when he thought about them in the cold light of day, made him shiver. And yet-
"I don't know, Darkstar." Kit put the soap away and started rinsing off. "Last night I... did some things I never would have thought I'd ever do. The thought of doing them with- say, Valjean or Javert-" he shuddered. "Well... let's just say it's not something I'd care to pursue." He scrubbed his head. "But the only reason Snowflake did them... was because shi was trying to make me happy. And I, I didn't say no. It just... doesn't seem right to say no now, after I've done it and, well, enjoyed myself." He smiled hesitantly.
"You know, Kit, us Chakats are a very sensual people," Darkstar commented. "If we're feeling happy and want to share it, well, there's an obvious way to do it, isn't there? And, since we're hermaphrodites, any other Chakat is a potential sexual partner. If you stay with Snowflake, shi's going to want to have sex again. And shi's going to want to do it both ways because, well, that's what's natural for us."
"That's what I was afraid of," Kit muttered, picking at his toes. "You see... I'm not a hermaphrodite, Darkstar. How could I give Snowflake what shi really needs?"
Darkstar considered for a moment. "I think," shi began slowly, "That the fact that you're even willing to consider the possibility is a good sign." Shi rested a hand on his shoulder. "There are Chakats who have successful, long-term relationships with non-Chakats. What do you want, Kit?"
Kit's eyes unfocused. "I... Snowflake think shi's a bad mother. Shi thinks that's why Star ran away. But that's not true. She ran away because I left her." He dabbed at his eyes. "Sometimes Snowflake tries too hard... but that's only because shi's so full of love. I... I'd like for hir to be able to see that. Then... maybe... that would be enough to pay back what shi did for me."
"How do you plan to do that?"
"Well..." Kit shrugged helplessly. "I don't know, Darkstar."
"If I were you'd I'd start by doing the same things you do for Star Baby," Darkstar suggested. "As corny as it may seem, it works. Snowflake needs to be encouraged, taught, played with, and cuddled. Let your love for hir shine out, just like you did for Star Baby. Do that and you'll pay back what you owe, I guarantee it."
Kit sniffed, them wiped his nose. "Now I owe you, Darkstar."
Darkstar chuckled. "Well, don't worry. You don't have to sleep with me to pay it off." Her expression hardened. "My price is this, Kit. Promise me that you will always treat Snowflake with affection and respect, whether or not you decide to stay together."
Kit nodded. "I will."
"Good man." Darkstar clapped him on the shoulder. "Now let's get you dressed. The boffins want to ask you about a zillion questions and frankly so do I."
When the big view screen came on Kit saw a faintly glowing yellow-green blob surrounded by a network of rainbow colored lines. "What's that?" he asked, blinking.
"That's video taken from your suit's helmet camera," the strange Chakat said. Hir base fur color was light brown with orange stripes, but hir mane was solid black. Shi wore a black Starfleet tunic with a blue Science Section color stripe.
"I'm sorry," Kit apologized. "What's your name again?"
"Lieutenant Goldstrype," shi replied.
"Right." Kit nodded. Goldstrype was the Asimov's science officer. Shi was seated on the floor to the left of Captain Walker, who occupied a folding chair. To his right was Commander Dawnfire and beyond hir Dr. Sathitet. Seated on the couch were Ito and Nova, an interesting combination given their relative sizes. Snowflake, Javert, and Javert were clustered together but separate from Longstocking, Sherlock, and Liska- who occupied a bean bag chair. Darkstar sat by hirself, not associated with any of the other groups. "Um... where's Professor Moseivitch and Dr. Stannus?"
"They are, at this very moment, speaking before a special meeting of the Ministry of Science and Education," Darkstar replied. "Lieutenants Fleetwood apparently filed a very detailed report concerning yesterday's events. In short, the professor and the doctor are having to explain to the panel what's been going on here for the last few days, and how that led to what happened at the Array."
Captain Walker cleared his throat. Dawnfire glanced at him; his face was composed but his eyes twinkled, and his raised fist might have covered a smile. Shi twitched an ear but otherwise forbore to comment.
"Mr. Carson, could you tell us what you're doing here?" Goldstrype asked, drawing attention back to the big screen.
Kit stared at the image. It wasn't until an orange gauntlet appeared, coming into the frame from the bottom, that he realized he was looking at Star, nestled in the girders, his hand reaching out to stroke her wing. "Um-" he had to look away as the point of view seemed to wheel crazily as he stepped off the girder. Just watching it on a view screen made his stomach lurch. How the Hell had he managed to do that maneuver without spinning off into space or puking his guts out? "Actually..." Kit's memories of the encounter seemed to have no connection with what he was seeing on the view screen. "I wasn't really doing anything. Just... looking at the colors." As he walked along under Star Baby's wing the video quality began to degrade.
"Something is interfering with the suit electronics," Goldstrype commented. As Kit prostrated himself against Star Baby's side the image began to break up. Shortly thereafter it disappeared in a wash of static- then, just as suddenly, reformed without any interference at all. Kit was apparently standing in a corridor on board Sigma 17. He pitched forward on his face and did not move.
"I don't remember that part," Kit muttered.
"According to your suit electronics, no time passed between when you and Star Baby disappeared from the Array and when you reappeared at Sigma 17," Captain Walker said. "However, according to sensor logs from various ships and the station itself, you and Star Baby were... out of normal space for about twenty minutes. What happened during that time?"
"I..." Kit frowned. "I... I really don't know." He could remember being with Star Baby, but the memories were like something glimpsed from the corner of the eye that disappeared when attention was focused upon it.
"There was a large tachyon burst," Goldstrype put in. "There could have been... a temporal discontinuity of some sort."
"How did you and Star Baby find your way back to Sigma 17?" Longstocking wanted to know.
Kit shook his head. "I don't know. We just... went."
"Did you tell Star Baby to take you back to Sigma 17?" Dawnfire asked.
"I don't think so."
"Doctor, did you notice anything about Kit's condition that might have affected his perceptions?" Nova inquired.
"No," Sathitet replied. "Physically he was bruised, most likely from where Star Baby had grabbed him. Neurologically, I detected nothing to suggest that his perceptions were anything but normal."
"What I'd like to know," Sherlock muttered, "Is why shi went to the Array in the first place. Almost the same exact spot as hir mom."
"She," Kit corrected.
"Excuse me?" Darkstar asked.
"She," Kit repeated. "Star isn't a hermaphrodite."
"How do you know?" Longstocking inquired.
"I..." Kit frowned. "After spending time with Snowflake, I... knew."
Nova's eyes narrowed; with one index finger she tapped her chin thoughtfully. "We need another telepath."
"What for?" Darkstar asked.
"I'd like to have Kit here tested for telepathic ability."
"What makes you think he has one?" Captain Walker inquired.
"Ever since I arrived, I've been watching Kit and Snowflake in particular," Nova explained. "Kit, with no prior child-rearing experience, enjoys stunning success. Snowflake, whose father is a doctor of pediatrics, watches Kit and imitates his techniques almost exactly- and enjoys only lukewarm success. I never could figure out why that was. Now, Kit suddenly knows things about Star Baby, and can't explain where the knowledge came from. And something came to me just now. Way back when Kei first tried to scan Star Baby, Kit was scratching his ear. Why were you doing that?"
"Ah-" Kit blinked several times. With everything that had happened, Kei's examination felt like it had been about a hundred years ago. "My ear itched."
"How so?" Sathitet wanted to know.
"Kind of... a deep itch, straight inside," Kit replied, pointing at the side of his head. "It was really annoying because I couldn't get at it."
"When did it stop?" Dawnfire asked.
"Ah-" Kit swallowed. "Actually... right when Kei had his attack, or thereabouts."
"I believe that Kit has established some sort of telepathic link with Star Baby," Nova pronounced.
"But- that's absurd!" Ito exclaimed. "How is such a thing possible?"
Nova shrugged. "Right now, what we don't know about Star Baby is far more than what we do."
"If Kit's a telepath, how come it was never detected?" Longstocking asked.
"Lots of people have latent abilities," Darkstar pointed out. "Even in this day and age, most Espers are discovered by accident."
"Why not Snowflake, then?" Dawnfire ventured. "Chakats have more of a predilection toward telepathy than Terrans."
"Insufficient data," Nova replied.
"But after what happened to Kei, we don't dare bring another telepath here," Sherlock said. "We'll have to send Kit down to the surface-"
"Ah- I hate to butt in, but I don't think that would be a good idea," Kit put in.
"Why?" Darkstar asked.
"Well- We have proof positive that we can't keep Star locked up," Kit explained. "The only thing keeping her here is- is-"
"Her love for you," Darkstar put in. Kit flushed and looked down.
"Good point," Keith commented. "If she runs off again, it may not be so easy to bring her back."
"If you could call it easy," Valjean muttered, rolling his eyes. Javert nodded.
"Then I guess that will have to wait," Darkstar said, eyeing Kit. He was still staring at the floor. "At any rate, we're going to be without Professor Moseivitch for a while, but I see no reason to stop working while we're waiting. Dr. Janek has brought a matter of some importance to my attention. To wit, foodstuffs. We've been feeding Star Baby bits of hir shell, which at present rates of consumption will last another week, possibly two. I doubt very much that Star Baby will oblige us by ceasing to eat, so we must focus our attention on developing an alternative. Captain Walker, I should be very grateful if you could assist Dr. Janek in this matter."
Keith nodded. "Of course. It would be our pleasure, Darkstar."
Darkstar nodded. "Very good. Other than that..." Shi gazed thoughtfully at Kit. "Why don't you continue her language lessons? things would go much more smoothly if we could talk to her. And that, I think, is all we need to discuss at the present. I know that you all have your individual projects well in hand, so let's get to it, shall we?" Shi got to hir feet.
As the meeting broke up Keith jogged to catch Darkstar. "I have to admit, I've been wondering," he said. "It seems rather a remarkable coincidence that we should meet, doesn't it? After all, if Dr. Stannus had known that we were acquainted...."
"Then he surely would not have sent for you," Darkstar finished.
Keith raised an eyebrow. "He asked for the Asimov specifically?"
"He did." Darkstar nodded.
"And how, may I ask, did you happen to know that?"
Darkstar's ears twitched. "I... have a mole."
Keith stopped, staring in shock. "You mean to tell me that you have a spy in Dr. Stannus' office?"
"Not in so many words no," Darkstar replied. "But an acquaintance of mine, a Chakat named Tefty, works as an administrative secretary in the local office of the Science Corps. When I heard that Starfleet was sending a science vessel, I asked hir to try and find out which one. Shi told me that Dr. Stannus had compiled a list of choices, one of which was the Asimov. I remembered that you were captain of the Asimov, so I asked hir to move it to the top of the list."
For a long moment Keith just stared, absently rubbing the scar on his cheek. "And what," he finally asked, "Do you have on Tefty that shi's willing to risk so much on your behalf?"
Darkstar resumed walking. "That is an epic in itself."
"I have time. In fact, I wouldn't miss it for the world."
"Well..." Darkstar stroked hir chin, gazing up at the ceiling as shi walked. "First of all, you have to understand that where I live now is a very small town, in the foothills outside Berdoovia."
"What I remember of small town life," Keith put in, "Is that everyone had their noses in everyone else's back pockets."
"Exactly my point," Darkstar continued. "But it suited me. After retiring from Starfleet Fyodor- Professor Moseivitch- persuaded me to take a teaching job at the university. I didn't care for it, though. The politics were awful and what was important to them seemed so...."
"Trivial?" Keith ventured.
Darkstar shrugged. "I suppose you could put it that way, yes. One time an administrator told me that the upcoming budget meeting was a life or death situation. I told him that a life or death situation is where you send a squad into battle when you know they're going to die so that you can safely withdraw the rest of the company." Shi smiled bleakly. "But that's another story. I settled in Marpletown because it was small, and the pressing concerns of its citizens were all very... immediate. Personal. I did get pressed into serving as the chair for the township council... which is yet another epic. I didn't mind, though, because the demands of the job were modest and it gave me something to do. Then, a few years ago, Maleki, who ran the community center, decides to retire. Out of the blue, it seems, a young- thirty-five or so- Chakat named Tefty shows up and applies for the postilion. Hir credentials seems to be in order, and though there are some concerns about hir appearance, shi gets the job."
"Tefty is easily one the most, ah, robustly built Chakats I have ever seen," Darkstar explained. "And hir breasts are... well, they must be seen to be believed. But the children liked hir, which is what really matters, isn't it? In fact, the kids adored hir. I found that interesting, since Tefty had struck me as a shy, rather introverted person. One day my curiosity got the better of me and I asked Aurora why Tefty was so popular. Shi didn't want to tell me- and that really gets my curiosity up. After working on hir for a while Aurora finally tells me: Tefty is nursing them."
"Nursing?" Keith arched an eyebrow.
"Yes. As in every day, between classes, Tefty let the kids breast feed."
"What, all of them?" Keith frowned.
"Every one, from pre-schoolers to adolescents. Remember what I said about the size of Tefty's breasts? Nursing regularly stimulates milk production. Besides, since Marpletown is small, there weren't ever that many kids at the center at any one time."
"What did you do?"
Darkstar shrugged. "Nothing. The only harmful side effect I could imagine is that Tefty's boobs would keep getting bigger, but obviously shi didn't mind. And it kept the kids happy. So I let it slide."
"I gather that wasn't the end of it."
Darkstar sighed. "I should be so lucky. A few weeks later I suddenly notice that Aurora's developing one Hell of a rack." Shi lifted hir own breasts. "And shi's only eight years old, for God's sake. I rushed hir to a doctor in Berdoovia and demanded to know why shi's growing tits. The doc does a blood test, then takes me aside and very politely explains that while shi understands how a Chakat of my age might have some trouble lactating, I really should lay off the lactation-inducing drugs, because they can have side effects. At that very instant I knew that the whole Tefty thing was going to bite me in the ass. No sooner do we get back home than I get a frantic call. The whole town is in an uproar. An emergency council meeting is convened. Rusty- the township comptroller- had done some research on Tefty and found that shi'd been through a whole string of child care type jobs, and ended up leaving every one because of some sort of lactation related issue. Now the monster has its hooks in our kids. The council wanted to press criminal charges."
"What did you do?"
"First and foremost I wanted to smack Rusty up side the head. Why the Hell hadn't any of this come out during the interview process? I told them to draft a resolution and I'd serve it. I went to Tefty, with the resolution in my hand, and told hir to come clean with me or my next call would be to the Peace Force. Shi cried a lot and tried to run away. I had to restrain hir and comfort hir. Shi told me about hir child, born premature after a very difficult pregnancy. Shi couldn't seem to start lactating, so shi took drugs. Shi was already a hefty individual, and the drugs made hir blow up like a balloon. Then the kid dies. Due to congenital problems, nothing that could be considered Tefty's fault. Hir mate leaves hir because shi can't stand the fact that Tefty's so fat." Darkstar stopped, sighed heavily, folded hir arms, and leaned against the corridor wall. "So shi's sitting in a public park, horribly depressed and contemplating suicide. Shi notices a kid staring at hir boobs. Tefty asks the kid if shi'd like a drink... and the rest, as they say, is history. Naturally shi has to keep taking the drugs, otherwise shi can't produce enough milk."
Keith leaned against the opposite wall. "You comforted hir?"
"Yes. I felt like I was making love to a water bed. Shi wanted me to nurse, too- and that gave me an idea. Tefty had led a relatively sheltered life... and shi needed counseling, really. I knew that there were plenty of people who'd appreciate not only Tefty's fulsome construction but hir milk as well. We got on the Net and I got hir into a discussion group where people indulged their... abundant fantasies. Next thing I know it's dawn. I tell Tefty that if shi agrees to resign from the community center I'll broker a meeting with the fat lovers and take care of the council. Shi agreed. I went to the council and told them my plan. They didn't like it, but in the end I talked them around. As council chair I had, at one time or another, been privy to the dirty secrets of just about everyone in town." she grinned wickedly. "The charges were dismissed, Tefty resigned, and I helped hir interview prospective partners. In shi moved to Berdoovia, got a job with the Science Corps, and now has a whole passel of lovers who think shi's beautiful and will drink all the milk shi can produce."
"So," Keith concluded, "When you had questions about what Dr. Stannus was doing, Tefty was more than happy to help."
"Shi was at that, yes."
"That was definitely above and beyond the call of duty," Keith commented. "The easiest thing would have been to hand it over to the Peace Force and be done with it."
"Yeah." Darkstar rubbed hir face. "And... it would have been wrong." shi looked up; hir face was composed but hir eyes burned. "I've done... far too many overtly evil things to let a sin of omission slip by. In my old age I've started to think quite a bit about what happens after you die. If there is a Hell... I'm going there. I know what it'll be like, too. The faces of those dead children on Hadris Two, my family, Spaceman Benson... all the people who've died because of me. For all eternity I'll have to endure their cold stares, while they silently accuse me of taking away everything they were or ever would be." Shi covered hir eyes; hir hands were shaking.
Keith stepped forward, dropping to one knee and catching Darkstar's hands, pulling them gently away from hir face- which was wet with tears. "Sir," he said quietly, "If you weren't a good person, you wouldn't care. And if Longstocking didn't really care about you, hearing the truth wouldn't have upset hir so much. Don't look at me like that, Darkstar. You're the one who taught me that a commander has to be more than just a leader, an administrator, or even a teacher. You have to be... a parent. Going into combat isn't a sane or sensible thing to do. Getting people to do it takes a much deeper relationship. So you have to know your people. You learn to watch them carefully, to learn everything you can about them- most especially the things that don't get into recommendations and fitness reports. Longstocking is upset because shi loves you. Tefty loves you. Young Mr. Carson has enshrined you just below the throne of God. Everyone you touch loves you, Darkstar, because they see how much you care."
"But it's not enough!" Darkstar shrieked in a rising wail that would shatter glass. "I- I've poured everything I have into it and still Fyodor doesn't love me! Now Longstocking-" Shi slumped to the floor, sobbing.
"Longstocking what?" that person inquired.
Keith looked up. Longstocking was standing in the middle of the next corridor intersection, He had no idea how long shi'd been standing there. "How much did you hear?"
"Only what you just said," Longstocking replied. "About knowing people."
"Come here." Keith beckoned with his finger. "Darkstar just told me an interesting story about a Chakat named Tefty. I think you'll find it... interesting." He lifted Darkstar's chin. "Darkstar, tell Longstocking the story, just like you told it to me. Especially the part at the end, about why you did it." He returned his attention to Longstocking. "Listen to what shi says, Longstocking. When shi is finished, then you may judge. All right?" Longstocking nodded, then helped Keith lift Darkstar to hir feet. They walked off together, arm in arm.
"If there is a Heaven," Dawnfire said, "I'd say you just got yourself in."
Keith turned. Dawnfire was coming up the corridor from the opposite end. "How long have you been listening?"
"Pretty much the whole time," Dawnfire replied. "Getting Dr. Janek set up was easy. All I had to do was give the order; Goldstrype is the one to handle all the details. I'd seen you go after Darkstar and I followed."
Keith got slowly to his feet, rubbing his thighs. "I don't know about the Heaven part. I... haven't exactly been a saint myself. But... I owe Darkstar. Without hir help I'd never have made it this far... and being captain of a star ship is what I've always dreamed of. For as long as I can remember. I just... it seemed that if I could help patch things up between hir and Longstocking, it was the lest I could do."
"I was much more." Dawnfire took Keith's hand and licked it gently. "I heard from Liska that this station has a number of empty cabins. Let's find one."
"Well..." Keith smiled, caressing Dawnfire under the chin. "If you insist."
- Chapter 5 -
Characters & Story ©2000 John R. Plunkett. Chakona & Chakats ©2000 Bernard Doove.
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