Star Dancer
by John R. Plunkett

"Here, Sarlen," Krita said, "Catch." She gently lobbed an empty food container. Sarlen darted out and pounced upon it; only after exploring it thoroughly did he return to Krita's side and solemnly hand it back. "Thank you." Krita gave him a gentle pat then started waving the container, making as if to throw it. Sarlen darted this way and that in anticipation of its trajectory if she did release it.

"He seems normal enough," Janis observed.

Krita spun the container offhand at Janis. Not expecting that she fumbled it; Sarlen streaked in like a bullet, crashing into her and wresting it from her grasp. "You little jerkwad!" she shouted as he darted away.

"Seems?" Krita asked.

"But-" Janis recalled suddenly to whom she was speaking and dropped back to her place on Krita's wing. "I'm sorry, Grandmother. He acts just like a regular child. But he doesn't speak."

Krita found it intensely amusing that Janis, who was in fact not that much older than Sarlen, spoke as if she and Krita were equals and Sarlen the odd one out, completely oblivious to the fact that, from Krita's point of view, both Janis and Sarlen might as well have been embryos. "When one has lived only a short time, events within that time are of grave importance, because they are your whole life," Krita said.

"But he's not that young," Janis protested.

Irony is wasted on the young, Krita thought wryly. "Try this, then. When you get as old as me, Janis, and have seen hundreds of children born, raised, live, and die, then you may come to see that the events of a single life- no matter how grave they may seem at the moment- are not so terribly significant when compared to the great flow of time. Sarlen doesn't speak because he's suffering from a terrible pain and doesn't know how else to deal with it. Our duty, as his family, is to comfort, not accuse."

"But- what if he never speaks?"

"What of it?" Krita shot back. "It doesn't mean he can't become a mighty warrior. His choice not to speak won't impair his children in any way. It's not a good idea to point fingers at those who see the world differently from you, Janis. You may very well find fingers pointed a you some day."

Sarlen had stopped tossing the container and was now studying it closely. With one finger he was tracing the lines of odd sigils the muck dwellers had imprinted upon it. Not for the first time Krita found herself wondering what those sigils were for. As a graphic design they were lopsided and uninteresting, but it seemed logical that the muck dwellers had put them there for a reason. At one point, when curiosity had bit her particularly hard, Krita had collected a pile of empty containers and studied the sigils carefully. She had detected a specific shift in the pattern; certain groups were repeated, while other groups changed. She still had no idea what that change might mean, though.

"I hope we can find more of that food," Janis commented.

"The warriors are out looking for another nest right now," Krita replied. Which was why she, the children, and the other women were off on this long and basically pointless journey. Parn had deemed it too dangerous to take them along on his reconnaissance expeditions, but nor could he bring himself to leave them behind. So he sent them on a mission of their own, escorted by a single warrior. It was no surprise- at least to Krita- that the warrior ended up being Parn himself, though he would rather have led the recon missions. The simple fact was that if any other warrior were detailed to look after the women by himself, there would inevitably be arguments and fights over who it would be. Parn was Starlord; no one would argue his right to monopolize the women, at least for a time.

Still... Krita glanced at Parn, who had stationed himself off to one side. He had split up the group as if it were a combat patrol: Azaria and Toki, Gava and Khalia, then Krita, Janis, and Sarlen. But young women were not warriors; they didn't like travelling alone, even with assigned wingmen. Over time they tended to clump together, which was exactly what Parn had been trying to avoid. As a result, ever so often he would harangue them, driving each flight back out to its station. Krita found the plan somewhat disturbing, though she understood the tactical reasons for it. With no less than four attractive, healthy females at his disposal- any one of which would have been more than willing to bear a child for the Starlord- he hadn't even tried to make overtures. In fact, she didn't think he even looked at them, except to check their positions. Every bit of his attention was focused on scanning the heavens for any possible sign of attack. Frankly, she was worried about him. It seemed terribly wrong for a man that young- not to mention attractive- to have lost interest in sex.

Krita's own words came back to haunt her. From her perspective, there wasn't so much difference between Sarlen and Parn....

"Sarlen!" Janis shouted, snapping Krita's attention out of herself. Sarlen had darted away; he seemed to find it necessary to rush everywhere at top speed, a behavior that made Krita's bones ache just to watch him. Nothing wrong with him in that respect.

Sarlen came up near Parn. When Janis started after him Krita restrained her; Janis was right to want to keep Sarlen from bothering the Starlord, but Krita wanted to see how Parn would react.

After a moment, in which Parn did not acknowledge Sarlen's presence in any way, Sarlen spun the container toward him. Just when it seemed that Parn would let it hit him, quick as a wink he caught it in one hand. After another moment he gently tossed it back. Sarlen fielded and returned it.

To Krita's immense relief Parn seemed willing to play the game- and the tension in him, which had begun to dull the beautiful finish of his skin, began to ease. He didn't even yell when the other four women began to close in around him.

"Grandmother-" Janis began.

"Hush, darling," Krita said. "The Starlord needs this. The Tribe needs it, too. Just... keep watch for him." Krita's senses were not what they had once been. Janis' were young and sharp- if, that is, she could be induced to use apply them conscientiously.

"Yes, Grandmother," Janis dutifully replied.

The women joined the game, playing catch with Parn and occasionally keep-away with Sarlen, but not very seriously. They were just using it as an excuse to stay close to Parn. Then Gava made the first overt move, drifting in close and stroking Parn's back. He stiffened suddenly, the tension returning tenfold- but Azaria, Toki, and Khalia moved in as well, touching and stroking.

"Please, Parn, don't fight it," Krita whispered. "They've lost as much as you have. They're just as scared, filled with just as much pain. They need it. Just as much as you...."


"It's nothing, darling." Krita stroked Janis, drawing hir close like a child, rather than a wingman.

Parn hurled the container. Krita rolled and caught it, grunting from the impact. Parn's fingers had dented its exterior.

"It's time for you to stay with me, Sarlen," Krita said sternly as he tried to pull the container from her grip. She held on firmly, not so much to keep it away from him but because it reminded her of Parn's hands, so powerful and yet to gentle, roaming over her skin. Just the memory of it was enough to make her shudder. Sarlen was young enough not to be particularly interested in what was happening around Parn; when Krita finally let him have the container he moved off with it and started playing. Janis was of an age to begin taking serious interest in such activities, and she watched with great attention as events unfolded. Parn and the women, naturally, had other things on their minds. As such, it perhaps was not so great a surprise when Krita looked around and suddenly noticed that Sarlen was gone.

"Sear it!" Krita hissed, smacking Janis on the back so hard she yelped. "I told you to keep watch!" In truth she was more annoyed at herself. She was old enough to know better. "Come on," she growled. "We need to go find Sarlen."

"But- what about them, Grandmother?" Janis asked, pointing.

Krita dithered. It wouldn't be particularly wise for her and Janis to go off on their own, nor would it be very polite to abandon Parn and the others. But they needed this release... and Krita felt guilty for letting Sarlen slip away in the first place. "They'll be all right," she said. "Stay close and stay alert this time!"

"Yes, Grandmother!"

The search would have gone faster if Krita and Janis had split up, but Krita couldn't bring herself to do it. Losing track of Janis- or getting lost herself- would have been the crowning indignity. She, the almighty gerontarch, who was supposed to be so damn smart! Wouldn't that be a laugh!

"I see him, Grandmother!" Janis exclaimed.

"Not so fast!" Krita grabbed Janis as she tried to dart off. "Lead me in. Carefully."

"Yes, Grandmother."

Janis gasped and Krita groaned. That was why Sarlen had wandered off so far. He had found a muck dweller shell and was following it.

Chief Engineer Kip Akland's eyes snapped open. She was gasping for breath and her body was drenched with sweat. She sat up and slapped the light control. Nightmare shadows still clung to the fringes of her mind. After a few deep breaths to steady her nerves she looked around her cabin. What was it that had shocked her out of a sound sleep in a screaming panic? She didn't normally have nightmares. Except-

Even as Kip's hand reached for the intercom panel, it lit up with the face of Third Officer Lenny Cage. "Howdy, Kip," he said brightly. "Sorry to bug you, but Howie said you'd be up. There was a pretty big burp in the warp field."

"On my way." Kip rolled off her bunk and struggled to her feet. After pulling on a coverall- and nearly falling on her face in the process- she left her cabin and hurried to the bridge. It was a short trip; Qantas Challenger, for all her size, was no star liner. In fact she was the antithesis of everything glamorous about space travel: a bulk container ship, making a circuit of the Terran Expansion Zone before returning to her home port of Brisbane, on Terra. Already she was fifty hours late because of a long series of glitches and inconveniences, due mostly to the apparent inability of local factors to get their shit together. As if Home Office wasn't in enough of a snit about that. Now this.

"Morning, Kip!" Lenny grinned. Behind him, the master chronometer read 03:38.

"Fuck you, Lenny," Kip growled, shooting him a baleful glare.

"Why, I'm fine, thank you very much," Lenny replied, his good cheer dented not in the slightest.

As she boosted herself into the chair at the engineering station, Kip thought- not for the first time- that she'd like to dent his skull with a power-spanner. It just wasn't natural for a person to be that cheerful at such a Gawdawful hour. Even if the time of day was completely arbitrary.

Then, too, Kip Akland was not exactly what one thought of as a chief engineer. She was tiny, only 124cm tall, with delicate, Anglo features, large brown eyes, and pale, china-doll skin. Her golden brown hair fell in beautiful ringlets- or would, if she took better care of it. With a pair of butterfly wings stuck to her back she'd be a storybook fairy.

Kip hated her parents. Because they had given her an androgynous name that everyone assumed was male. Because they had given her a beautiful, delicate body and a keen, analytical mind that loved to tinker with things. If she'd been a fat, ugly girl things would have been easier, at least in her chosen profession. People might be more willing to take her seriously as an engineer.

"Great googlie mooglie," Kip muttered as she reviewed the drive data. What Lenny had described as a "burp" had been a severe instability, one that had pushed the drive to within ten percent of an emergency shut-down. Nor had it completely recovered; warp field power was fluctuating far more than Kip liked. "Hey, Lenny," she called. "Did we hit a subspace rift?"

"No, sir," Lenny replied. "Latest data from Hawking shows us clear all the way to Colulite."

Kip caught a stray curl in the corner of her mouth and began chewing on it. Qantas Challenger's warp drive was not in the best possible shape; asking the owners to cough up money for maintenance was like asking them to sacrifice their own children. Still, it wasn't in bad shape- due in no small part to Kip's continued attention. She was almost positive that the instability had not been caused by a malfunction in the drive itself. She'd like to shut it down for a complete check-over... but that would put the ship even more behind schedule, and she'd never hear the end of it from Home Office. If things went as they typically did on Colulite there'd be time to run a diagnostic, and planetfall was only two days off.

"Should I call the captain?" Lenny asked.

"Nah," Kip replied after a moment's thought. The Old Man would just get all pissed off that his rest had been interrupted. If asked he'd just reach the same conclusion Kip had, then berate her for bothering him with stuff she should have taken care of herself.

Still... if it wasn't the drive and it wasn't an irregularity in hyper-space, what had caused it? Sure, anyone who'd been in space long enough knew that weird things sometimes just sort of happened. But it took a lot to upset a warp drive that badly. Kip remained at the console, puttering aimlessly, even though there really wasn't anything she could do at the moment. Going back to bed was pointless; she'd just lay awake wondering. Might as well get some work done.

Sarlen was fascinated. He'd never seen anything like it. The object moved, not through shadow space, but something close to it, wrapped in what appeared to be a little bubble of normal space. He approached more cautiously this time, watching in rapt fascination as the bubble twisted and distorted in reaction to his presence. This was way more fun than the empty box- which he still clasped in one hand. You did not drop things while in shadow space, or Grandma gave you a hiding you'd never forget. He pressed himself into the bubble, reveling in the sensation as it swirled around him. It tickled.

"Sarlen!" Grandma bellowed.

Sarlen jumped- and dropped the container. He was already in serious trouble for wandering off; losing the container could only make things worse. Fortunately it had fallen into the bubble with the, the thing. He side-stepped in to grab it-

Kip leaned arched her back in a bone-popping stretch. Maybe she should go back to bed. She wasn't doing anything useful here, that was for sure.

All at once Kip was gripped by horrendous vertigo. The bridge seemed not only to be swaying and spinning but twisting as well, folding back on itself like an M.C. Escher print. Colors shimmered and distorted, sounds soared up and down the scale, stretching and twisting like the bridge itself. When Kip was able to think again she was sprawled on the floor next to the console, retching. Even as her diaphragm spasmed she knew what had happened. A huge instability had tripped an emergency shutdown of the warp drive. As she hauled herself to her feet alarms were shrilling; according to the engineering status displays- now splashed with vomit- the ship was venting drive plasma. Red and yellow warnings flashed everywhere.

The purpose of a warp field is to hold all parts of the ship in the same energy state as the ship as a whole moves through hyper-space. If the field becomes unstable, different parts of the ship may have different energy states. Since energy is matter, parts of the ship may gain or loose mass, or start moving at different speeds relative to one another. The only defense against such an occurrence is to collapse the field before it gets too far out of whack. The quickest way to do that is to convert its energy back into mass, specifically the plasma which had been fed into the drive coil arrays to energize them in the first place. But the warp reactor is still producing plasma and can't be shut down that quickly. The only other option is to open waste gates and let the excess plasma blow into space. Such a shutdown was hard on equipment, though; drive coils could fuse, plasma conduits rupture, an energizer burn out, or- in the worst possible case- the reactor itself could rupture. Kip wasn't worried about that; if the Qantas Challenger's warp reactor went super-critical no one on board would even have time to realize that they were dead before they were converted to plasma hotter than at the heart of an exploding star. What made Kip's hands shake and her brow drip with icy sweat was the possibility that the drive might have been so badly damaged in the shutdown that it wouldn't start up again. Without warp drive the ship was dead in space- and mute as well. The subspace communicator was part of the drive system. They'd have to launch a message torpedo and hope that it go through, then hope that some other ship could find them. Hyper-space travel is not a straight-line affair; a ship exiting warp in an uncontrolled fashion did not necessarily return to normal space anywhere near where it had been travelling. Theoretically it could emerge anywhere in the universe. In the history of interstellar travel any number of ships had simply vanished without a trace, never to be heard from again. Kip wasn't afraid of dying. She was afraid of living, trapped in Qantas Challenger's less than abundant crew accommodations until the food and air ran out.

"Thank God!" Lenny exclaimed, and sounded like he really meant it. "There's a ship!"

"A ship?" Kip blinked in surprise. "Where did it come from?"

"Well- ah-" Lenny gaped. "I don't know, but it's right along side!"

"On screen," Kip ordered.

The viewer lit up and there was the ship. Tiny, it was, no larger than a star fighter. Streamlined for atmospheric travel, with swept wings and a pointed nose. It was carrying a liquid cargo container, and didn't seem to have any visible markings-

Kip's gut turned to ice. Hir mouth worked several times before words would form. "Lenny," she said. "Do you remember that alert we got just before leaving Amazonia? About raiders in the Langston-Banus system?"

"Yeah?" Lenny was frowning, more alarmed by the chief engineer's obvious distress than the content of her words. "What of it?"

"There was a profile of the raider ships. That's one of them."

"Sarlen, come here!" Krita bellowed, side-stepping out almost on top of him, grabbing him roughly and pulling away quickly. She'd seen how he popped the shell's bubble; she was afraid it would get angry and attack him.

"Grandmother, it's full of food!" Sarlen exclaimed.

That he has spoken aloud shocked Krita more than the import of his words. She had to spend a moment sorting everything out before responding.

"Grandmother?" Janis appeared, immediately taking refuge behind Krita.

The shell did not attack. In fact, it was just sitting there. When Krita examined it, she found that Sarlen was right. At least half of its cargo was food. "Parn!" she shouted. "My lord-"

"No need to shout," Parn replied, appearing beside her.

Krita yelped and nearly jumped out of her skin. "My- my- my- my-" she stuttered.

"When I noticed you were gone I got worried and came looking," Parn explained in a quiet, soothing tone. "Actually, finding you was relatively easy." He chuckled. "I just imagined what I'd do if I were a bored little boy looking for something to do. It wasn't hard at all." He turned Krita and gently stroked her arms until she let go of Sarlen. Her fingertips had bruised him. "What did you say?" Parn asked.

"It's full of food, my lord," Sarlen whispered.

"That's wonderful, Sarlen," Parn replied. "You've made an important discovery. One that will help the whole Tribe. I'm proud of you."

"Thank you, my lord!" Sarlen was fairly glowing with pride.

"You will be my wing man, Sarlen," Parn continued. "Form on me."

"My lord!" Sarlen was quivering with excitement as he took the coveted place on the Starlord's right.

"Now." Parn gazed up and down the length of the shell. "I think we should take this food. Fetching the warriors will take too long, so I'll need you all to help me get it out." A small tube leapt from the shell and began streaking away. Parn spun and fired; the tube vanished in a puff of vapor. "Curse it," Parn growled. "They're trying to send for help. We need to take care of this now. You women, form on me and fire on my mark!"

"My lord-" Azaria squeaked. Her voice was shrill with fear; her and the other women were clinging to one another a short distance away.

"Form on me!" Parn bellowed. With a chorus of frightened squeaks the women fell into ragged formation. Krita ended up in the number two slot, on Parn's left. "On my mark," he continued in a quieter but no less stern voice. "Krita and Janis here. Azaria and Toki here. Gava and Khalia here." He marked each location with low-power beams. "Sarlen, with me. Ready? One, two three, fire."

Power beams ripped through the shell's plating, tearing open the bubbles of muck-dweller atmosphere inside. Gouts of vaporized metal, escaping gas, and in some cases tattered muck-dweller corpses, exploded into space.

"Cease fire," Parn commanded. Sarlen and Krita had both fired accurately, though their beams did comparatively little damage- Sarlen's due to his youth and Krita's due to her age. The rest of the women had exhibited terrible marksmanship, though with the target sitting still and no appreciable range it hardly mattered. Several cargo containers had been ripped open, but so had every bit of the shell's interior. No muck-dwellers remained to tell of what had become of their shell.

"We will collect the food ourselves," Parn declared. "Azaria, Khalia-" they looked to be the strongest of the group- "grab those panels and get ready to pull." When they were in place Parn slipped back and fired a series of carefully placed shots. His beams sliced through the latches holding the cargo pods shut but did not damage the containers of food within. Things would go faster if he could have had the women shooting open the other pods, but he didn't trust their control. Either they'd shoot each other accidentally or they'd destroy the food.

"Sarlen, get in there and start throwing them out!" Krita commanded.

Sarlen darted into the pod. "Grandma, they're all stuck together!" he replied.

"Tear them apart!" Krita snapped.

"Wait," Parn cut in. "Let me see." He drifted around the pod, examining it from various angles. He reached in and tugged at one of the containers; they were square and their corners locked together. Breaking them apart would work, but some of them would inevitably be broken. "How did the muck dwellers pack them in here?" he mused, tugging at the container at each corner of the array. Much to his surprise one slid out easily. He studied it carefully, running his fingers along the edge- and suddenly he had it. "The grooves and ridges slide together," he said. "See this? Grooves on these two sides, ridges on these two. Look at how the containers are arranged, then go to the edge that has adjacent ridges exposed." He pulled out an entire row, still locked together, and attached the first container to the end of it. "If we leave them locked together, we can carry more at a time."

In short order food containers were being pulled from all of the cargo pods and built into an enormous raft. When complete one person would grab part of the raft and they'd carry it back to the rendezvous point as a single unit. For Sarlen, though, this was all too much like work. With much blasting, tugging, and twisting, he was finally able to pull the cover from one of the pods that wasn't carrying food- only to discover it packed with smaller boxes. He prized one out and picked off the end. Inside was fantastic treasure, at least to young boy. He shook out one of the strange contraptions and turned it over in his hands, studying it carefully.

The object was long and wide but not particularly thick, with a rounded bulge on one side. The other side was flat, and seemed to have four small rollers, one at each corner. There was a narrow track running the length of the shell, between the cargo pods fixed to its spine. The object fit nicely when Sarlen set it there, roller side down. He pushed it along, applying gentle pressure to keep it from floating off, and it slid down the track on its little rollers. He giggled excitedly and slid it back and forth while the adults worked. But in his excitement he pushed too hard; the bulge collapsed, the rollers bent, and suddenly it wouldn't roll very well any more. He tossed it away and got another one.

"Sarlen, come along!" Grandma called. "We're going now!"

Sarlen dropped the container and rushed to Grandma's side, one the exciting new roller-toys clutched in his hands.

"Where did you get that, Sarlen?" Parn asked in a tone that was mostly bemused.

"In the box, my lord," Sarlen replied, pointing.

"May I see it?"

Sarlen fidgeted. The Starlord had asked politely and his tone was gentle, not to mention that he was the Starlord. But Sarlen was reluctant to give up his fantastic treasure. The Starlord might want to keep it.

Krita began to speak; Parn raised a hand to forestall her. After a moment of struggle Sarlen drifted over and offered the toy.

"Thank you." Parn took the object and handled it with appropriate reverence. It was fantastic, though Parn's amazement had a different source than Sarlen's. Hundreds of parts, of dozens of different materials, had been carefully crafted and fitted together to create this thing. A tremendous amount of gadget-making skill had gone into the creation of this one artifact- and the shell was full of them. Not to mention the shell itself.

In that instant a realization struck him, like the eruption of a supernova in his mind. The Tribe survived by fighting; combat was a skill they had developed and mastered which allowed them to hold their own against a hostile universe. These muck dwellers... frankly, Parn had never once given a thought as to where their shells and gadgets came from. Certainly the muck dwellers built them, but he'd always thought of it as an instinctive thing, like bees building a hive. Could it be that they had not been predisposed to these things, that they had applied the power of Mind to the creation of these artifacts?

Parn looked at the roller-toy. It was a toy only because people were so much larger than muck dwellers. On the surface of a planet- such as where muck dwellers typically lived- gravity would pull the object down. It was easy to see that it would roll across the ground on its rollers. The bulge opposite the rollers was hollow; inside were several structures that looked like they might cradle muck dweller bodies. This was not a randomly made object; it was a mini-shell. Probably it allowed them to travel to places on the surface of their planet that would be difficult or impossible to reach on their own, just as the large shell allowed them to travel in space.

An icy chill of fear began to spread through Parn's innards. He had always thought of muck dwellers as separate from their gadgets. Individually they were laughable creatures: tiny, soft, and helpless. Limitations they had overcome by building clever machines, perhaps? It was a terrifying thought. It meant they recognized their own helplessness and sought to overcome it. For all his own skill, and the Tribal history before him, Parn couldn't even begin to imagine how even a thing like this mini-shell had been made, to say nothing of the huge interstellar one.

Muck dwellers build machines to multiply their power. So much have they multiplied it that they can travel among the stars and fight on nearly equal terms with people.

"Here." Parn handed the mini-shell back to Sarlen, who took it and darted back to Krita's side.

Once the raft of food containers had been safely translated into shadow space, Krita switched places with Gava, placing herself as close as possible to Parn. "Thank you," she said quietly.

"Hmm?" Parn's mind had been elsewhere. "Sorry?"

"Thank you. For being... so patient with Sarlen."

"I... know how he feels," Parn replied. "What he wanted was... such a small thing. It made me- it made me-" Parn didn't know how to continue, how to explain that helping Sarlen, as much or more than being with the women, pushed back the icy calm that made it possible for him to kill and kill and kill without thought or feeling. "It made me feel more... human."

"That's good," Krita replied. "A Starlord has to be compassionate as well as brave and skilled in battle."

"But... Krita, I do it for myself," Parn said. "Because I don't want to... to feel like a monster."

"Is that as a bad thing?" Krita demanded. "There's far worse things you could do than to do a kindness for yourself by doing one for another."

Time passed in silence. The women did well; better than warriors would have because they didn't upset the group effort by trying to show off. No surprise, really; collecting and carrying food was traditionally what women did. In their own way they were as skilled and disciplined as men were at fighting.

"That reminds me," Parn said aloud in response to his own thoughts. "I've come to a decision. We can't go on like this. There aren't enough warriors to search for food, patrol for Enemy, and look after you women."

"But what can we do about it, my lord?" Azaria wanted to know.

"Simple," Parn replied, allowing a note of humor to creep into his voice. "I'm going to teach you how to fight."

"My lord!" Torgai exclaimed. Then, because he couldn't think of anything to add, he repeated himself. "My lord!"

"My lord, you can't teach women to fight!" Hesai exclaimed.

"Why not?" Parn countered.

"Because- because they're women!" Hesai was shaking with the intensity of his feelings. "Women collect food and care for the children. Men fight. That's the way it is."

"No," Parn replied shortly. "Not the way it is. That is the way it has always been. Not the same thing."

Hesai glanced nervously at Torgai. It was obvious that Parn had let the stress get to him. If Torgai would support a change in leadership-

"Torgai, you have lived longer than any of us," Parn said. "In that time you have gained skill, courage, and above all, experience. You know I hold that experience dearly. It is our greatest treasure. I need it now so that I may lead the Tribe wisely. Please tell me: in all your life, has there ever been a time when the Tribe was so few?"

Silence fell thickly. No one spoke, not one even moved. Everyone knew that Parn was Starlord largely because Torgai supported him.

"No," Torgai admitted. The warriors gasped and muttered. Krita wanted to sing out with joy, but remained silent.

"And whose fault is that?" Garan muttered.

"Mine!" Parn thundered. "Because the Starlord is responsible. For everything."

"Maybe it's time for someone else to be responsible," Hesai said, hardly believing his luck.

"I'm glad you think that way, Hesai," Parn replied. "I've been thinking about it quite a lot lately. I keep wondering what's going to happen when I die and have to stand before the Ancestors. I'd been worried what I was going to say when they asked me how the Tribe's legacy fared under my stewardship. I'm so glad that you're willing to take that burden from me, Hesai, and risk eternal damnation in my stead." Parn waited, but Hesai did not speak. Parn drifted close- then slapped Hesai so hard that his claws drew blood. "You question my leadership, but you aren't willing to risk your soul in my place?" Parn demanded in an icy calm, almost lilting voice. "Do you know what that's called, Hesai? It's called cowardice. For that the ancestors banish you to the eternal darkness between galaxies, never again to feel the warmth of the Ancestor's touch, never to enjoy the blessing of the Creators. If you ever question me, Hesai, I will send you to their judgement. You had best pray that you can either defeat me in combat or that your soul is pure when you go." Parn drifted back to his original position. "By following the wisdom passed down to us by the Ancestors we have thrived," he continued in a more normal tone of voice. "But even that is only the second most precious gift they have given us. The most precious gift, the one their wisdom was meant to safeguard, is their seed." He beckoned Sarlen forward and held him, stroking him gently. "I want to know who among you is willing to stand before the Ancestors and tell them that you let their precious seed die out because that was easier than confronting a situation where comfortable tradition might no longer apply?" Parn waited a moment for his words to sink in. "Nothing is more precious than the seed," Parn pronounced, letting each syllable fall like a hammer blow. "Nothing. Not even the ancient and revered wisdom. Without the seed there is no wisdom!"

"But... who will train them, my lord?" Shev squeaked.

"We all are," Parn replied. "Then we will each mate with them, in turn, until they are all pregnant. You won't know if your seed was the one that took until the children are born, so if you feel the temptation to go easy on the woman carrying your baby you won't know which one it is. All you will know is that if one of them dies because she wasn't adequately trained, it could very well be your child that was lost with her."

"When do we begin?" Torgai asked.

"Immediately," Parn declared. "We need to move quickly. The Enemy will find us eventually, as they always do. And these muck dwellers could... make things difficult for us."

"My lord," Torgai said after the meeting had broken up, "Do you have any idea where this course of action will lead us?"

"No," Parn replied. "And if I thought for even a moment that you did, I'd abdicate to you in a heartbeat."

Torgai made a sound that might have been a chuckle. "Then perhaps it's just as well that I don't. I do not envy you, my lord, and I certainly wouldn't want to be Starlord. Not even if things were going well. Being a great warrior is trivially simple compared to being a great leader."

"I just wish- I wish-" Parn began.

"My lord," Torgai cut in, "If you wake up and some of us are still alive, then you're a great leader. As you said, all that matters is the seed."

"Yes," Parn replied. He wished he could believe it so effortlessly, the way Torgai seemed to.

"Go train your women," Torgai added. "You've piqued my curiosity, my lord. I want to see what sort of warriors they make."

"Why does life have to be so complicated, Torgai?"

"If it wasn't complicated, it wouldn't be life. Only death is easy."

Parn found himself thinking of the muck dweller bodies spilling from the ruptured shell. Yes, death could be very easy indeed.

"Echo two one niner to Security Windhoek," Flight Officer Ariel announced. "We have completed our sweep of Grid 6D79 and are proceeding into Grid 6D80. Bugger all to report. Echo two one niner out."

"I don't recall seeing the term 'bugger all' in the communications handbook," Warrant Officer Larissa commented. Shi had a metal slinky shi was passing from hand to hand. The rasping sound it made was starting to drive Ariel nuts.

"With all due respect, the handbook can pucker up and kiss my hairy backside," Ariel declared- but first shi glanced at the communications status panel to make sure that hir words weren't being broadcast.

Larissa shook hir head sadly. "Sir, If I didn't know you so well, I'd think you had a serious attitude problem."

Ariel grunted. Larissa's comment was clearly insubordinate but Ariel was not disposed to make an issue of it. Larissa's behavior, when it really mattered, was more than adequately professional. Besides, after being crammed in Echo two one niner's cockpit for nearly three and a half hours during which time absolutely nothing of any consequence had happened, Ariel was feeling a little insubordinate hirself. Not to mention that shi had developed an itch near the middle of hir lower back, and because of hir space suit shi couldn't scratch it. Of course shi understood the need for these exercises; Chakona was a major transport node between the Terran and Voxxan sectors, and thus the local space lanes were heavily traveled. Raiders wouldn't dare operate this deep into Federation territory, but there were any number of entirely prosaic reasons that a star ship could get into trouble. Machinery malfunctions, lack of fuel, poor navigation, sudden changes in hyper-spatial topology, lack of food or other supplies, even mutiny. In one highly publicized case a ship had become stranded because its crew had been incapacitated by food poisoning. Security Force had to be ready at a moment's notice to lend assistance or conduct rescue operations. None of which meant that Ariel had to like it.

"Would you please put that thing away?" Ariel asked, not for the first time.

"C'mon, Chief, you should give it a try," Larissa replied. "It's great for relieving stress- hullo." Shi dropped the slinky, leaning forward to look closely at hir instruments.

"What is it?" Ariel asked, hir voice tense.

"Sir, we have a large normal-space contact," Larissa reported. "With an operational but not active warp drive."


"Plotting now." Larissa's fingers, even when encased in heavy suit gauntlets, operated the controls swiftly and precisely. On Ariel's side of the cockpit new information began to appear on the navigation display. As soon as the new course was up shi executed it.

"Security Windhoek to Echo two one niner," the stellarcom announced even as Ariel was preparing to key it. "We've just gotten word from Razagal about a possible de-fold event in this area. Stand by to receive."

"Windhoek, I think we may have found it," Ariel replied as the data came through. "We just picked up a kiloton mass with a definite warp signature. Intercept in... nine minutes."

"Roger, Echo two one niner. Keep us informed."

"That's an affirm, Windhoek. Echo two one niner out." Ariel switched to the intercom circuit. "Is there anything on the movement list that would tell us what this is?" shi asked. "Did we pick up any distress calls or warp trails?"

"Negatory." Larissa was still bent over the instruments. "Everything on the movement list seems to check out okay. No distress calls, no unidentified warp signatures. So far as I can tell, this baby just popped out of the blue."

Ariel grunted. That wasn't a good sign; it meant the ship had displaced a very long way when its drive shut down, which spoke of a catastrophic failure. Shi keyed the stellarcom. "Echo two one niner to Windhoek. You might want to notify Rescue to stand by."

"Already done, Echo two one niner. They're scrambling now."

"Roger. Echo two one niner out."

"I just hope there's someone for them to rescue," Larissa muttered.

"Since the ship wasn't blown apart, and the drive readings seem to be stable, I'd say there's a good chance," Ariel replied. Larissa merely nodded.

When the moment came Ariel closed hir eyes and clenched hir teeth. Hir stomach gave a sickening lurch as Echo 219 returned to normal space. It was terribly unfair; some people felt it and some people didn't, and no one seemed to know why. Worse still, Larissa was one of the ones who didn't.

"Boxhall class container ship," Larissa reported while Ariel choked back bile. "Sixty-seven kilotons... Warp reactor is on line and stable... but the main energizer is shut down and some of the plasma conduits are burned. Emergency shutdown, it looks like. According to hir transponder shi's Qantas Challenger out of Brisbane, Terra, registered to Queensland Interstellar. I've tried hailing and there's no response."

"On screen," Ariel directed. Larissa touched a control; Qantas Challenger appeared- thought only as an elongated speck in the view ports. As Echo 219 got closer, more detail was visible.

Qantas Challenger was, basically, just a long spar with freight containers bolted to it. At the bow and stern were thruster modules for maneuvering in normal space; in the center was a thick bulge containing the warp drive system and crew accommodations. A pair of rather skinny looking warp pods jutted out to either side.

"Any life boats?" Ariel asked.

"Negative," Larissa replied. "There seems to be some serious damage to the superstructure, but I can't localize it through the drive interference."

"Then we'll do it the old fashioned way." Ariel disengaged the auto pilot and guided Echo 219 in a close loop around the derelict.

Larissa gasped. Ariel's intestinal discomfort came back full force. The entire top of the crew module had been blasted open, its interior reduced to a tangle of jagged, fused metal. Ariel didn't need the sensors to know that someone had phasered it, very carefully and deliberately, so as to puncture all of the areas that could hold atmosphere. Unless they had been taken off beforehand, the entire crew was dead.

"There's... organic material in the debris cloud," Larissa reported in a voice that quavered slightly.

Ariel shifted hir attention to the cargo pods. Several of them had been cut open and emptied. A few had been opened but not or only partially emptied.

"What in the world is that?" Larissa exclaimed.

Ariel brought the ship to a halt near the strange object. "It looks like a ground car," shi replied. "Rather a nice, one, too. At least, it was."

The car had been a sporty sedan with soft, rounded lines and a bright yellow finish. Now it was a wreck; the roof had been smashed down into the passenger compartment with enough force that frame itself was slightly bent. Anywhere but in outer space Ariel would have thought that something heavy had been dropped on it- except that there was what appeared to be a gigantic hand print on it.

"Looks like somebody stepped on it," Larissa commented.

Ariel unfastened hir gauntlet and pulled it off, staring at hir bare hand, and tried to imagine a person large enough to make that print. They'd have to be about twelve meters tall.

"Windhoek to Echo two one niner, have you located the disturbance?"

"Ah- yes, we've just arrived," Ariel replied. "It's a derelict container ship. Stand by- slug that data, Larissa."

"Got it."

"Any survivors?"

Ariel licked hir lips, forcing hirself to look again at the shattered wreckage that had once been Qantas Challenger's crew module. "No, no survivors. Better notify Security Force command. The ship was attacked by raiders, and they exterminated the crew. Larissa... shields up. Charge all weapons."

Larissa hesitated only a fraction of a second before executing the order. It had been a bit more than fifty years since any unit of the Chakonan Security Force had engaged in actual combat. These days piracy and smuggling was done mostly by lawyers and middle managers, the pitched battles fought in court rooms. Still, if by some chance a raider appeared, Ariel was prepared to fire without the slightest hesitation. As part of hir training shi had been exposed to mild decompression. Contrary to popular impression, bodies don't explode in vacuum. Most ships and space habitats are pressurized at the equivalent to about thirteen hundred meters above sea level, which reduced atmospheric pressure considerably. Explosive decompression killed by a combination of suffocation and nitrogen narcosis, where bubbles of gas formed in a person's bloodstream. Qantas Challenger's crew, those not instantly incinerated or cut down by flying shrapnel, had died slowly and in excruciating agony while they suffocated and their blood boiled.

"Do you think the raiders are still around?" Larissa asked, actually looking up from hir instruments and glancing around.

"Oh, I certainly hope so," Ariel breathed, caressing the firing teat with hir thumb. Shi would fire very carefully, to disable the engine modules without destroying the ships. Then shi would turn back. Give them plenty of time to watch, to wonder, while shi lined up for the kill. A short burst would do, just enough to rip open the raiders' cockpits. Then shi would watch while they spilled out, flopping and gulping like gaffed fish. Shi would be very careful, oh yes. Shi wanted them to live long enough to die like their victims had. When a ship de-folded nearby Ariel had fed on power and swung Echo 219's nose around to get a lock before realizing that it was Security Windhoek.

"Windhoek to Echo two one niner. The ship's drive seems to be in reasonably good order, so we're going to attempt to board it and fly it in. Keep overwatch for us."

"Roger," Ariel replied as shi swung Echo 219 onto a racetrack course. Larissa said nothing; though looking at the instruments shi was watching Ariel out of the corner of hir eye. For as long as they had known each other Ariel had been as loving and gentle a person as one could imagine; this change in hir was frightening, even more- at least to Larissa- than the wreck of the Qantas Challenger. Frankly shi hoped the raiders never showed up, even if it meant they'd escaped. Larissa would do hir duty... but shi feared going into combat. Shi couldn't bear to be separated from Ariel, who in addition to being hir pilot was also hir lover. The only thing that could frighten hir more was the possibility that it might already be too late.

"Form on me!" Krita shouted. It was natural that she had been selected to command what was being called the Women's Wing. She had the most experience with combat and the other women were accustomed to obeying her.

Gava fell into the number two spot on Krita's right as smartly as any warrior could have done, and better that some Parn knew. Of all the women she seemed to have taken best to the training. Parn suspected he knew why; Gava might have recovered from her wounds but they left her hideously scarred. She who, at one time, had been called fairest of the Tribe. Parn would have been willing to bet that she was praying for the Enemy to show up.

Toki, in the number three spot, had also done well but only so long as someone was there to direct her. On her own she got flustered and didn't know what to do, but her flying and marksmanship were excellent so Krita took her as wing man.

Khalia, number four in the formation and Gava's wing man, was more independent minded than Toki but not quite so skilled. She would have been better, Parn thought, except that she seemed to think that these exercises were her opportunity to flaunt herself in front of the men. And here he'd thought that men were bad about that sort of thing.

The last two, Azaria and Janis, were frankly a conundrum. In point of fact Janis was a better all-around fighter but Azaria was older, so Parn had been forced to make Janis her wing man. It wasn't a total waste, at least; threatening to reverse the assignments had spurred Azaria to redouble her efforts. Being anchor man was bad enough; being subordinate to an adolescent would have been the crowning indignity. Parn wasn't so sure about Janis in any case; she had mastered the required skills quickly enough but did not seem to appreciate the gravity of what she was doing. Though in all fairness, her attitude wasn't so different from that of a male warrior of her age.

All in all, this experiment had forced Parn to reconsider much of what he had always assumed to be true about men and women. Given that they hadn't been drilled in combat almost since birth this group was doing quite well. Women were generally larger, slower, and less maneuverable than men, as well as lacking missile launchers, but all that meant was that in employing them one had to focus on gunnery tactics. Parn had always assumed that there was something about the female psyche that made them unsuitable for fighting, but in this group he could see no less dedication than in the men. Krita and Gava in particular carried themselves like veterans and Parn had do doubt at all that they would attack without hesitation when the moment came. Parn was also beginning to see that staying in camp and waiting for your man to come back from a mission wasn't so easy a thing as he'd always thought.

"Echelon right!" Krita ordered. The tight delta opened up and reformed into a slanting line, each person moving into place quickly and precisely. Parn said nothing but he was proud of them.

"Barrel roll!" Krita led into the maneuver; the rest of the formation followed as if they were welded into a single unit. Which, in a sense, they were.

"They are rather good," Torgai allowed.

"That they are," Parn agreed. At the completion of the roll the women executed a sequenced turn, which resulted in their switching their formation to echelon left. "But a man is not warrior until he's been blooded in battle."

"Have you... something specific in mind, my lord?" Torgai asked after a long pause, during which time the women had returned to delta formation, broke, looped around, and re-formed.

"Yes," Parn replied. "The large nest that Hesai discovered."

Krita formed on Parn's left, opposite Torgai. "Do we please you, my lord?" she inquired.

"You do," Parn replied. "And now, my new warriors, you will have the chance to demonstrate your courage and skill. You will lead our next raid. Torgai, signal the tribe to assemble."

"But, my lord, will they go back to the old ways when this is all over?" Torgai asked while the Tribe gathered around, pitching his voice so only Parn would hear.

"If the Tribe survives long enough for that to a problem," Parn replied, "I will consider it a great victory."

"Hey, Chief, how long are we going to be stuck here?" Spaceman First Class Harold Bride wanted to know.

"If you don't stop flapping your gums and get back to work," Third Engineer H'ralana replied, "It just might be for the rest of your life."

"Huh." Bride re-lit his fusion torch and casually cut away another section of burned plasma conduit. Despite his apparently lacksidasial attitude the cuts were as precise as dockyard machinery could have done.

H'ralana tried to wipe his forehead and was defeated by the face plate of his helmet. He muttered a curse and started scanning the next section of conduit. He needed to ascertain, with absolute certainty, which part of the conduit were in spec and which weren't. There weren't enough spares to replace the entire conduit; any mistakes and F.S.S. Valaparaiso would end up stranded somewhere in deep space- or waiting at Silver City until a depot ship arrived. H'ralana wasn't sure which would be worse. Only yesterday he had been preparing to turn in after a long shift when, quite suddenly, the Valaparaiso had seemed to roll almost on beam ends. He had been quite alarmed; under normal circumstances star ships with artificial gravity aren't supposed to do things like that. Naturally he had been recalled to duty; after several hours of frantic work the cause of the accident was identified. A plasma conduit in the portside warp pod had ruptured, throwing the ship out of hyper-space. The other nacelle was fine, so they were able to call for help. A commercial salvage tug had brought them to Silver City, an asteroid mining colony in the Naga system. Rather than submit to the indignity of being towed any further, Captain Rostron had decided to try repairing the damage. If consulted on the matter H'ralana would have vetoed it; replacing conduits was a dockyard job. But captains are not known to consult junior lieutenants.

Bride had stopped working- halfway through a cut this time- and was, literally, staring off into space. "Bride, if you're not working, you'd better be fucking dead," H'ralana growled, re-fastening the scanner to his forearm.

"What's that?" Bride asked, raising an arm to point. H'ralana twisted to look; the neck of his space suit didn't pivot enough to let him glance. At first he thought Bride was pointing at Silver City itself, Silver City, an apparently random collection of spherical and cylindrical habitats attached to a mountain-sized hunk of free floating rock about four hundred meters off Valaparaiso's beam. Then he noticed the lights: pale momentary flickers like a string of firecrackers going off. For a moment he stared, mystified; in this context he couldn't imagine what they were.

"Holy shit!" Bride screamed and dove for cover inside the nacelle. H'ralana was only a half second behind; he had seen only a momentary flicker as sunlight reflected from a highly polished object, but it was enough- especially when he also saw pale beams of energy slashing out of the darkness. Though nearly invisible, they cut through Valaparaiso's armored hull like hot wires through soft cheese. By comparison, Valaparaiso's return fire was searingly bright even though H'ralana's visor polarized automatically to cut the glare.

"By the Sky Mother's hind teat!" H'ralana cursed. If Bride heard the words he probably didn't understand; they were in Caitian and an octave higher than H'ralana's normal speaking voice.

The battle proceeded in eerie silence. Enemy warships were sparkles of light that twisted and danced like fireflies, until one realized that they were huge, sleek craft moving at incredible speeds. They danced around the comparatively huge and bulky Valaparaiso, pouring on the fire. Not thirty meters away a dozen beams converged, drilling deep into the ship's engine module. Drive plasma erupted in a sparkling rainbow plume. H'ralana clung to the structure with desperate strength, praying that none of the jagged shrapnel tore his suit. Outside was not the place to be during a space battle-

Everything but Valaparaiso herself began to shimmer as if through thick head haze. The ship's shields were finally coming up, but H'ralana feared it was already too late. Too much damage had been done in the opening seconds of the engagement. Enemy fire intensified; the shields seemed only partially effective. The brace to which H'ralana clung shuddered as explosions tore through other parts of the ship. The shields flickered, then collapsed. The battle was over.

It took H'ralana almost a minute to realize that he was, in fact, still alive. He lifted his head and looked around. Valaparaiso's smooth, polished hull was rippled, torn, and blackened. Plasma and gases vented from a myriad of cracks and fissures, causing the ship to tumble with majestic slowness. The enemy ships- twenty or thirty in all- were clustered around Silver City, cutting open the cargo modules where processed heavy metals and trans-uranics were being stored for shipment.

"Hey, Bride, we made it," H'ralana called in a voice that quavered only slightly. "Bride?" he looked around.

Painting the nearby structure was an enormous black stain. Bright's right arm and leg still clung; the rest of him was gone except for a few tatters of suit material. A piece of shrapnel had cut him apart like a buzz saw. H'ralana clenched his jaw and swallowed hard to force back the bile rising in his throat. The last time he'd seen someone messed up that badly had been on Amazonia, almost nine years ago. At any rate, throwing up in a space suit was not a good thing. Now that he had time to think of it, H'ralana began to consider what to do. Bride was clearly beyond help, and plasma was still erupting from Valaparaiso's stern- which meant that the engine room crew was dead, incapacitated, or simply unable to control the venting. It hardly mattered which; the plume was a deadly radiation storm that even H'ralana's heavily shielded suit could not hope to withstand. Only with the bulk of the warp pod was between him and the plume would he have a chance. He crawled laboriously around the outside of the pod onto the underside, keeping one eye on his radiation sensor. Levels hovered right around the border between yellow and red. Ionizing radiation was smashing H'ralana's delicate tissues, but with a few weeks of therapy he'd be okay- so long as levels didn't approach the black range at the top of the scale. Up there they didn't even let you back on board because your corpse would be too hot to safely handle.

When the level rose sharply H'ralana pulled back, detached one of his rad sensors, fastened it to the end of a long wand and probed in front of him. The scale pegged. He tossed the wand away, watching it tumble slowly as it vanished into infinity. All he could do now was wait and hope that there was someone else left to pick him up. Since he had nothing else to do he watched while the raiders did their work on Silver City. They moved quickly and professionally; as each cargo pod was cut open between one and three of the ships would move in, using large manipulators to grab freight containers and toss them out. Desirable ones were added to a large raft forming nearby; others were simply tossed away. They seemed to know exactly what they wanted and didn't bother opening all the pods. Despite himself, H'ralana was impressed; he'd used remote manipulators and it was a lot harder than it seemed. Still, with skilled operators- as these obviously were- cargo transfer was accomplished more quickly and safely than could have been done if crews had come out of their ships. He wondered how they planned to move the cargo; with the quantity they seemed to be taking they'd need a full-sized freighter at least.

At one point one of the raiders shot at something that wasn't approved. One of the other raiders moved over and smacked the first with a manipulator. H'ralana frowned because that behavior didn't make any sense. It reminded him of the time he'd been supervising a cargo gang doing stores transfer.

All at once the raiders ceased their activities and clustered around the raft of containers. Some grabbed it with their manipulators; others moved out into what were obviously escort positions. For a second or two nothing happened- then the raft began to flicker with a strange light; whorls of glittering brightness raced across it, blending and branching until they'd surrounded it completely, at which point the entire formation disappeared in a blinding flash.

If there had been gravity H'ralana's jaw would have dropped. As it was he just stared, long after the raiders had gone. The sky wheeled slowly as Valaparaiso tumbled; glittering clouds of gas and debris surrounded her and Silver City. Then he began to sob.

"This is a disaster!" Garan wailed.

"How do you figure, exactly?" Torgai demanded, his tone dripping with contempt. "No one was seriously injured, and we got away with a fuck load of loot!"

"But the shell!"

"It wasn't there when I scouted," Hesai growled.

"No one doubts that," Parn cut in. "It didn't matter. The shell wasn't ready to fight."

"But- the women could have been hurt!" Garan exclaimed.

"Of course they could have been hurt," Torgai snarled. "That's why it's called combat instead of exercises."

"But-" Garan began.

"Garan," Parn interrupted, "Shut up." Silence fell. "This raid was a success," he pronounced. "No one was seriously injured-" except Kagan, who had suffered a nasty burn but with Khalia fawning on him he hardly had any reason to complain- "and we captured enough food that we can raise up our first batch of youngsters without having to find more. What's more, the muck dwellers, for all their clever gadgets, cannot see us." He paused to let that sink in. "Think about it. The muck dwellers weren't ready. They didn't know we were coming. Until we side-stepped out on top of them." He allowed a moment for the chuckles and comments to die down. "Which means that we don't have to leave after all. We can stay right where we are until the children are old enough to fight. Then we'll need more food, of course." His voice had dropped, taking on a lilting, almost singsong tone. "And the muck dwellers will yield it up to us, won't they?"

- Chapter 6 -

Characters & Story ©2000 John R. Plunkett.             Chakona & Chakats ©2000 Bernard Doove.



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