Lieutenant Longstocking stood at parade rest, hir expression composed but neutral, hir hands clasped lightly behind hir back. Shi wore a sky blue short sleeved pullover with a Security Force patch on the right arm, a name tape over the left breast, and rank tabs on the collar. A series of muted clunks signaled that the inner door of the transfer lock was about to open; as the panel drew aside shi stepped forward, extending hir right hand. "Welcome to Repair Station Sigma one-seven," shi began. "I'm Lieutenant Longstocking, station commander. Thank you for coming on such short notice."
"Not at all, Lieutenant, not at all." Professor Moseivitch stepped forward and took the offered hand. Both his smile and his handshake were warm and hearty. "It is our pleasure to be of service."
At 158 centimeters Fyodor Ivanov Moseivitch was rather short for a Terran male. A pot belly enhanced the roundness of his torso and his limbs were short but thick, as if he were a normally proportioned man who'd been vertically compressed. His head might have been hewn from granite: heavy brow ridges, a large, slightly bulbous nose, high cheekbones, and a square jaw, all sharply chiseled and covered with fair complected skin having the creased texture of well used leather. Fortunately his expression fell naturally into a bright, friendly smile, making his countenance grandfatherly rather than severe. His hair, iron gray streaked with snowy white, rose from his crown in a luxuriant wave and feathered out just above his shoulders. Complimenting it were a pair of eyebrows so bushy they stood out from his forehead, forming little shelves over his eyes. When his expression became animated they wiggled and danced like caterpillars crawling around on his face. Against that Longstocking barely noticed his impeccably tailored suit of brown herringbone tweed, grey vest, brightly polished black shoes, and navy blue tie.
"Allow me to present my protogé, Shir Darkstar." Fyodor gestured toward his companion.
"My pleasure, Lieutenant." Darkstar stepped forward to shake hands.
Darkstar was a Chakat, which is to say a creature that looked like someone had taken a cat, cut off its head, and spliced in a humanoid torso to create something like a feline centaur. Darkstar resembled a Canadian lynx: blunt muzzle, bearded cheeks, pointed ears with prominent tufts, a lean and long-legged lower body with oversized feet, and a short, stubby tail. A slender, elfin torso with long but not oversized hands connected hir feline portions. Soft, fluffy fur covered hir entire body, upper and lower: gray with dark speckles on hir back and sides, white on hir breast and belly, black and white striped on hir cheeks, black on hir ears and the tip of hir tail. A salt and pepper mane spilled loose down to the middle of hir upper back. From head to forefoot shi stood about eleven centimeters taller than Fyodor, making hir lower body about the size of a lion. As was not unusual for Chakats shi wore nothing but a belt pouch around hir waist; hir breasts, though small, sagged a bit. That, along with a whitening of fur on hir face and muzzle, indicated advanced age. Even so Longstocking found Darkstar attractive in a mature, dignified way.
"We've prepared a full briefing for you in the wardroom," Longstocking said, backing and turning. "If you'll follow me?"
Longstocking- also a Chakat- stood a couple centimeters shorter than Darkstar and looked about a third the age, maybe thirty five or so. Shi most resembled a domestic cat with a solid black pelt, white socks on hir hands and feet, and a white patch on hir muzzle and throat. Hir mane was cut severely short to fit easily inside the helmet of a space suit.
"But of course!" Fyodor stepped eagerly forward. Darkstar fell in behind, admiring Longstocking's shapely hindquarters. Shi appreciated Longstocking's trim but nicely curved form, and as was typical for Chakats shi wore nothing on hir lower body. Thus it was clearly apparent that, while female in every respect and possessing an entirely normal set of female genitalia, Longstocking also had a penis. This wasn't unusual; being as a species fully functional hermaphrodites all Chakats had them. An interesting cultural ramification of this physiological fact was their use of special gender pronouns and honorifics: shi instead of she/he, hir instead of her/him, and Shir instead of Mr./Ms.
Longstocking led hir guests along a corridor wide enough for four Chakats to walk abreast if they stood shoulder-to-shoulder. Black rubber traction matting covered the deck; from floor and ceiling the walls bowed outward slightly so that hand railings, mounted at waist height on either side, did not intrude into the walking area. Plain, off-white plastic panels smoothed the walls and rounded off their edges, leaving no sharp angles even at intersections. Glow strips running along the top and bottom edge of every wall provided illumination. A ladder ran the length of each and every corridor, affixed to the ceiling.
At journey's end the party entered a large room furnished with low tables, beanbag chairs, soft couches, and planters in which grew small trees or fragrant blossoms. On the inner wall several desktop workstations in semi-private cubicles flanked an ornate food synthesizer. Paneling made of what appeared to be roughly cut, weather beaten wood covered the side walls and supported several paintings of pastoral, farmland scenes. A row of floor-to-ceiling view ports completely filled the outer wall, which curved noticeably. Hanging there against a black backdrop of space, perfectly framed in the ports, was the planet Chakona itself. Intensely blue-green ocean filled most of the visible hemisphere, trimmed with smatterings of cloud and dazzlingly bright polar ice packs. Sweeping chains of islands and widely scattered sub-continents accounted for all the land. A pair of moons completed the picture: Cha'turna, smaller and close in on the right, Ka'turna, larger and more distant, on the left.
"Allow me to present the crew," Longstocking said, indicating a group of five people waiting by the doorway. "Warrant Officer Sherlock, executive officer. Warrant Officer Liska Sharpears, technical specialist. Our student interns, Theobald Carson and the brothers Valjean and Javert Hugo."
"A pleasure to make your acquaintances," Fyodor declared. Starting at the head of the line and working down he shook hands with each individual in turn.
"Thank you." Sherlock's hand engulfed the professor's. Hir white tiger pelt covered an appropriately muscular frame; though shi and Longstocking were of similar age and height Sherlock carried quite a bit more mass. Hir tunic enclosed powerful shoulders and an ample bosom; an incautious flex looked about enough to split it wide open. Hir striped mane barely existed, trimmed even more severely than Longstocking's.
"My pleasure." Liska offered a hand and a sultry smile. She wore a comfortably fitted sky blue coverall with cargo pockets on the chest and thighs, a name tape on the left breast, and a Security Force patch on the right arm. It covered but in no way concealed her long legs, sharply flared hips, shapely buttocks, and firm belly. She towered over the professor by a good twenty centimeters, placing her round, firm, and spectacularly large breasts right near his eye level. The front of her overalls had been unzipped far enough to show off her incredible cleavage and just hint at the presence of a black lace bra. Only from the neck down was she entirely humanoid, however; upon her exquisitely crafted shoulders perched an exceedingly fox-like head complete with a long, slender muzzle and triangular, sharply pointed ears. From all visible portions of her body- and presumably the rest as well- sprouted short, silky fur, coppery red on her back and sides, creamy white in front, black on her ears, hands, feet, forearms, and calves. A mane of lightly curled, firey red hair cascaded down to her shoulder blades, complimenting a fluffy, white tipped tail springing from the base of her spine.
"Please, sir, call me Kit," Theobald requested, smiling nervously. His squarish face with its vaguely Aryan features and flinty gray eyes could have been rather intimidating, especially set as they were atop a broad shouldered, thick chested body with long, powerful limbs, elevating him- even without his battered hiking boots- to a height twelve centimeters above Liska. Instead, a certain youthful softness took the sharp edges off, formed the beginnings of a paunch swelling the waistline of his gray and black short sleeved pullover and slightly faded khaki slacks, and made him seem even younger than his years, which couldn't have been more than early twenties to start with. Other than being Terran Kit shared one other quality with Fyodor; his surprisingly fine golden brown hair waved and feathered in a similar, but not nearly so extreme, fashion.
"A pleasure to meet you, sir." Valjean spoke as one whose lines are carefully rehearsed. He faced the professor but his eyes focused on Darkstar's bare chest.
"A pleasure to meet you, sir." Javert repeated not only the words but the tone and even the glance at Darkstar.
The Hugo brothers matched in appearance as well as mannerism. They were foxtaurs, centauroids like Chakats but vulpine rather than feline. Unlike Chakats they were only and entirely male, having attractively sculpted, broad-shouldered torsos and lithe, powerful lower bodies. From head to forefoot they stood about the same height as Liska and their basic color patterns matched hers closely but they lacked manes. Like Darkstar they wore nothing but belt pouches and shi did not hesitate to give them a good looking-over.
"Make yourselves comfortable and I'll begin," Longstocking declared, pointing toward the center of the room. A low couch and several beanbag chairs surrounded two tables pushed together; set out on them were a tray of pastries, a bowl of nuts, and two pitchers of juice.
"Thank you." Fyodor took a seat in the middle of the couch then had to scoot over as Darkstar climbed up. With the couch full Liska settled herself into a beanbag chair near the rightmost end of the table. Next to her Sherlock sat on the floor as a cat does, with hir tail curled over hir forepaws. Kit also sat on the floor, legs crossed, at the opposite end of the table. Valjean and Javert settled on either side of him, laying down as dogs do, with their lower bodies curled slightly to one side, their forepaws reaching straight out in front under the table.
Longstocking moved out in front of the table. "Computer, deploy view screen," shi commanded. A section of the ceiling hinged downward like an enormous trap door; what had originally been the top face of the panel was a gigantic view screen. It almost completely covered the food synthesizer and cubicles, effectively transforming the room into a movie theater.
"This morning, at 0230 hours Chakona Mean time, an unidentified object struck the Deep Space Hyper-Spatial Anomaly Detector, the prime sensing element of the Mileva Memorial Hyper-Spatial Observatory," Longstocking began. Behind hir on the big screen a dot of light appeared, expanding rapidly into a fine hex grid filling the entire view area. It's aspect ratio matched that of the view screen: sixteen to nine. The grid rotated until the observer appeared to be hovering above one corner. A blinking red X appeared in the upper right quadrant of the screen and moved diagonally downward, leaving a dotted trail behind it. When it touched the exact center of the grid the X disappeared and a yellow translucent cone grew out from the point of intersection, exactly bisected by the grid.
"How did this thing manage to get close without triggering the Array's anti-collision system?" Darkstar wanted to know.
"The object was travelling through hyper-space," Longstocking replied. "It emerged into normal space only two kilometers from the Array's center."
"Then the Security Force sentry ships, the Distant Early Warning sensors, or the Array itself should have seen it coming," Darkstar pointed out.
"All true," Longstocking agreed. "However, the sentry ships and DEW sensors registered nothing. The Array picked up a massless particle signature but couldn't match it to a mass shadow. Analysis of telemetry data shows that the sentry ships and DEW sensors did in fact pick up the signature but discarded it as noise."
Valjean frowned, leaning toward Kit until their shoulders pressed firmly together. "What's shi talking about?" he asked, whispering into Kit's ear and, in the process, sticking his nose in it.
Kit jerked his head away, furiously rubbing his ear. "Don't they teach you Robotics majors anything useful?" he whispered back, fixing Valjean with a baleful look.
"Yeah," Javert breathed, sidling up on Kit's other side. "How to make an assassin robot that'll murder smart alecs in their sleep." He licked Kit's other ear.
Kit shuddered violently but said nothing. Quick as a wink he whipped his arms around the brothers' necks, trapping their heads against his chest. "Okay, kids, Warp Drives 101," he murmured, pitching his voice so that only Valjean and Javert would hear. "You wanna move faster than light. You can't do that in this universe so you pop into hyper-space where the slowest anything goes is the speed of light. To get there you use a powerful gravity field and crush yourself into a singularity, like falling into a black hole. It's not natural for you to be in hyper-space so your warp field is constantly losing energy as massless particles. Due to quantum effects too complicated to explain here massless particles don't have speed or direction, they just exist. A ship emitting them can be anywhere in the universe. But the gravity field that put you in hyper-space does have a discrete location. Also due to quantum effects you need the particle signature and mass shadow to identify a ship's position, speed, and direction. Without one, the other is useless."
Valjean frowned. "How do you get into hyper-space without a gravity field?"
An odd expression flicked across Kit's face. He let the brothers go and scooped up a handful of peanuts. "As far as anyone here in the Stellar Federation understands hyper-spatial physics, you can't."
"The original object had a mass of between three hundred eighty and four hundred twenty tons and a maximum dimension of approximately sixty to eighty meters," Longstocking was saying. "Its precise configuration isn't known; the Array doesn't have any normal-space imaging capability." Shi smiled grimly. "We don't need detailed pictures to know that if the object had intersected the Array at any other point it would have passed through with little or no damage. Instead, the object struck squarely on the only part of the Array with any appreciable mass: the power core."
On the view screen the point of view zoomed in toward the center of the grid. At a much higher level of magnification a structure appeared: a skinny cylinder inserted through the grid and held perpendicular by a network of guy wires. Attached to each end of the cylinder was a ball of slightly greater diameter. The dotted red line came down at about a 40 degree angle, ending right where the upper ball joined the cylinder. The ball flew off like a golf ball from a tee and the cylinder went spinning away like a cheerleader's baton, ripping an enormous gash in the grid as it went.
"Fortunately the core didn't rupture or there might not have been anything left for us to find," Longstocking went on. "The downlink assembly was completely destroyed. The operators in the observatory control room back on Chakona were in a veritable panic. The collision alarm went off, then the entire Array went offline. They contacted Security Force Operations and requested an immediate investigation. A sentry ship was pulled off station and sent in, observed what had happened to the Array- and discovered that the unknown object had not been completely destroyed." The red X appeared again, departing the point of impact on a course shallowly divergent from that of the upper ball. "A salvage team recovered the artifact and brought it in for analysis."
"The object was a star ship," Darkstar pronounced.
"Not only that, it was of a configuration and composition which we have never before encountered," Longstocking replied. "Our science teams were utterly confounded and appealed to Dewclaw University for help. The university responded by sending us none other than the distinguished Chair of the College of Xeno-Sciences." Fyodor acknowledged the praise with a dignified nod.
Kit's mouth hung slightly open, his eyes wide. "You're saying it was a star ship- and it came from outside the Stellar Federation?"
"Correct," Longstocking agreed. "The technology used to construct the ship is like nothing any member of the Federation has ever developed or encountered. The drive system it used is similarly alien. And- this is why the matter is being handled with such urgency- preliminary scans suggest that inside the fragment we recovered are systems that are still operational."
Repair Station Sigma 17's Operations Center resembled a small movie theater. From back to front the floor sloped gently downward, giving a person at any of three rows of consoles an unimpeded view of the enormous view ports taking the place of a screen. Chakat architects left generous spacing between rows and didn't include chairs. Decor largely matched that in the corridors; brightly colored, intricately complex displays and control panels on the consoles themselves more than made up for any lack of decoration on the walls.
"There it is," Longstocking pronounced, entering then stepping aside to make way for the rest of the party. "It was delivered only hours ago."
Kit hurried down to the very front of the room where he could press his face right up against the transparisteel windows. He looked into a roughly octagonal volume about thirty meters wide, twenty meters high, and forty meters deep. Massive doors, now shut, filled the far wall. Racks of tools, parts, and other equipment covered every other surface except the floor. Channels crisscrossed the deck so tie-downs could be installed almost anywhere. In the middle of it stood a large cradle, gimbaled so whatever it held could be rotated into any conceivable attitude. In it now was-
"That's it?" Darkstar asked, walking down to stand beside Kit.
"That's it," Sherlock affirmed.
In his younger days Kit greatly enjoyed building plastic models and setting them on fire. Longstocking's artifact strongly resembled the aftermath of one of these episodes; Its surface humped and billowed like wax dripping from a candle, with intrusions of harder material sticking through at odd angles. Some areas looked smooth like polished glass, others broken and jagged. Outgasing produced zones of bubbles and pockmarks like caramel boiling, or frothy streamers not unlike fan corals. Over it all lay a riot of color: shiny black, pearly white, muddy brown, garish pink, translucent amber, gauzy reds, metallic greens and blues, intricately swirled yellows and oranges.
"Makes my eyes hurt just looking at it," Javert muttered. Valjean nodded sagely.
Fyodor walked to the middle of the second row and stood with his hands clasped behind his back, studying the artifact through slightly narrowed eyes. "Please tell us what you have learned about this fascinating object, Longstocking," he requested.
"For starters, it's about twelve meters long and masses approximately forty-six tons," Longstocking began. "It survived the collision because of a powerful structural integrity field apparently generated by the host vessel; at the very least no recognizable trace of the machinery remains. It's composed of plastics, metals, solvents, oxides, and a hundred other things all mixed together seemingly at random, resulting in a highly uneven structure shot through with fracture planes, intrusions, and bubbles. It's here at least in part because we were afraid that, under gravity, it would simply disintegrate. Beneath the outer shell, though- which is between one and about two and a half meters thickness- there's a force field that prevents us from scanning the interior. Enough energy is leaking through to make it clear there's an operating fusion core in there somewhere."
"Any sign of a warp reactor?" Darkstar inquired.
"None," Longstocking replied with a sad shake of the head.
"Or we wouldn't recognize a drive system component if it walked up and gave us a noogie," Sherlock pointed out.
"That too," Longstocking agreed.
Kit frowned. "Why protect this part and not the rest of the ship?"
"Obviously the aliens felt that this particular sub-system was of great importance," Fyodor observed. "Perhaps it is a crew module."
"Not much of a crew compartment for a four hundred ton star ship," Sherlock commented.
"If it is a crew compartment it's for a crew absolutely nothing like us," Longstocking said. "Among the metals mixed into the outer shell are a whole slew of heavy metals. Enough to give you a lethal dose of radiation poisoning within ten minutes if you were standing next to it. That's the other reason it's here. We're a power system shop, so we have the gear to handle hot stuff."
"Clearly our priority is to get inside," Fyodor declared. "Any suggestions, Darkstar?"
"Place jamming modules and sensor pods right against the shield," Darkstar replied. "The jammers punch holes through which the sensors scan."
"Can you do that, Longstocking?" Fyodor asked, turning.
"Not a problem, Professor," Longstocking assured. "We use a technique like that while we're testing reconditioned power cores. Liska, Sherlock, you both know what to do, so..." shi pointed.
"Aye aye, boss." Sherlock moved to a station at the left end of the first row.
"That's an affirm, chief." Liska went to the very front of the room. Four stations sat right up against the wall; instead of regular control panels each had a pair of gauntlets suspended above it and more controls on the floor under it. Liska kicked off her shoes and sat at the leftmost station, on the end of a long padded bench where a Chakat or other centauroid could also lay comfortably. She slipped her hands into the gauntlets and operated additional controls with her feet. A slightly translucent holographic image of the artifact shimmered into existence just above the console; using her gauntleted hands Liska poked and prodded it, tracing lines and denoting locations. Informational sidebars and groups of X's and circles linked by lines appeared in response to her gestures and quitely spoken commands.
Kit left his place by the view ports to stand beside Sherlock, watching closely as hir fingers flew rapidly and precisely over the controls. Valjean and Javert watched Liska, but they seemed more interested in the woman herself than her job. Darkstar noted both facts, then strolled over beside Longstocking.
"If this project is such a big deal, why do you still have student interns?" Darkstar inquired, speaking quietly so only Longstocking would hear.
Longstocking shrugged. "Dumb luck, mainly. We'd just finished servicing a couple Windstorm class interceptors when I get a call telling me to prepare to receive some wreckage for analysis, details to be forthcoming. Nothing to suggest that it's anything but routine. Then the tug arrives, drops this thing off, and I get told that this is all a very serious matter involving the highest levels of the Chakonan government, and for security reasons I am to impose communications discipline and all personnel are confined to the station. What could I do? They may just be student interns but so long as they're here they're subject to Security Force regulation. I couldn't send them away even if I wanted to. Besides, they're not too bad. I predict that Mr. Carson there will be one Hell of an engineer when he graduates."
"What about the Hugo brothers?" Darkstar wanted to know.
Longstocking pursed hir lips. "They're quite capable in their own way but... mmm... rather too easily distracted, I'd have to say."
Darkstar turned hir head and studied Liska for a moment. "That's one Hell of a distraction," shi observed.
"Hmm, well..." Longstocking allowed hirself a hint of a smile. "I suppose it is, at that."
"Programming complete, ready to execute," Sherlock reported.
Longstocking nodded. "On screen, if you please, and execute."
"Aye aye." Sherlock touched a control; a rectangular section in one view port turned black then displayed a computer-generated three dimensional wire frame image of the artifact. Inside it was a smooth surfaced, vaguely bean shaped region with six red dots affixed to various parts of it. Three orange lines appeared, converging on one of the dots.
"First we're going to beam out slugs of the shell material," Sherlock explained. "We'll save them for later analysis, and put the sensors and jammers in the holes."
A blinking yellow circle appeared around the first dot. Kit glanced at the actual object but nothing could be seen by the naked eye. Suddenly a second set of orange lines appeared; the first curved so their point of intersection was inside the bean-shaped volume.
"Bloody Hell!" Sherlock exclaimed, in shock and surprise rather than anger.
"Report," Longstocking demanded.
"Um... Whatever's inside there has a transporter of its own. It intercepted the matter stream."
"Any change in baseline readings?" Darkstar asked.
"No." Sherlock studied hir instruments closely. Shi glanced up- and started guiltily, as if shi had been caught doing something improper.
Longstocking glanced at Darkstar. A for an instant the two of them locked gazes, then Darkstar looked away. "Was the slug removed?" Longstocking inquired, as if nothing had happened.
"Yes sir," Sherlock replied.
"Then continue the program," Longstocking directed. "And monitor the baseline readings. I'd like to know how all this is affecting our..." shi hunted for a word. "Guest."
"I'll do that," Darkstar volunteered.
Again Longstocking and Darkstar locked gazes. This time Darkstar didn't look away. "Very well," Longstocking agreed with a curt nod. Darkstar moved to the station next to Sherlock's.
"Energizing," Sherlock reported as orange lines converged on the next dot. Again they bent off target. "Gulp," shi commented.
"No change in baseline readings," Darkstar put in.
Fyodor turned around. "If it can beam through the containment field, can we?"
"Yes," Sherlock replied, "But not without employing a high level of brute force."
"I see." Fyodor faced forward again. "Until we develop a better understanding of this artifact, I believe a more delicate approach is indicated."
"Drill it?" Liska suggested.
"Yes." Longstocking nodded. "Not as high tech, perhaps, but nonetheless effective."
Sherlock and Liska set to work once again. More lines and dots appeared on the display. "Ready to execute," Sherlock reported.
"Do it," Longstocking replied.
The cradle rotated, presenting a different face of the artifact. A mechanical arm deployed from one wall, selected a tool, and held it up against a relatively smooth spot. The computer generated image zoomed in; the drill bit, represented by a yellow arrow head, touched the surface and started in. Out in the work room pale light flickered around the point of contact like heat lightning. The arm and tool didn't move; the drill bit snaked into the artifact at the end of a flexible cable, represented on the graphic as a yellow line.
"The material's pretty uneven but so far nothing we can't cut," Liska reported.
"Be careful on the break through," Sherlock advised. "The cavity's filled with liquid oozing in from surrounding layers."
Liska guided the bit around potential obstacles, taking the easiest if not most direct route. Three times she had to back up and try a different path when the drill got into exceptionally hard or delicate areas. After close to twenty minutes of careful progress the yellow arrow almost touched the first spherical cavity left by the transporter.
"Watch it," Sherlock warned.
"Don't worry." Liska chuckled. "I'll slide it in gently."
"I imagine she has a lot of experience with drilling," Darkstar commented aside to Longstocking. Longstocking covered hir mouth and cleared hir throat several times.
"Damn!" Liska cursed.
"Report," Longstocking barked.
"Cutting head's jammed. The liquid in the chamber hardened suddenly."
Longstocking frowned. "I don't understand. Even if- let me see. Copy scan data to Sherlock's station."
"Aye aye," Liska responded, pulling her hands out of the gauntlets.
Longstocking stepped up next to Sherlock, forcing Kit to jump aside. Instead of merely looking, Longstocking leaned forward until hir nose practically touched the console.
"What happened?" Fyodor inquired.
"The cutting head uses force fields to shear through whatever it's cutting, so supposedly it can't jam because the cutters aren't physical," Sherlock explained. "It looks like the liquid not only solidified almost instantly, it's somehow preventing the shearing fields from focusing."
"How is such a thing possible?" Fyodor wanted to know.
"Nanites," Darkstar replied.
Longstocking snapped erect. "Excuse me?"
"Nanites," Darkstar explained. "Microscopic machines, used to build integrated circuits and advanced composites-"
"Yes, yes, I know," Longstocking cut in. "I also know that nanties are exceedingly delicate and only function under very precise conditions. The inside of that thing-" shi pointed without looking- "is the equivalent of an explosion at a toxic waste dump. Nanites couldn't possibly function under those conditions."
"You mean our nanites could not function under those conditions," Fyodor clarified, his tone as pleasant and mild as ever.
"Well- yes," Longstocking allowed after a brief hesitation. "For what we usually do here, we don't deal with nanotechnology, you see-"
"Of course," Fyodor interjected, gently but precisely. "In this matter, none of us are expert. So, if you will allow me the use of your communications suite, I shall summon one. An expert, that is."
"This is so weak," Valjean groused, pulling open a lower bunk and flopping into it.
"We're getting free room and board, plus pay," Kit pointed out. He slouched crossways on another lower bunk, reading from the screen of a portable workstation balanced on his thigh. "What more do you want? A suite at the Ritz-Carlton?"
"Would have been nice," Javert put in.
Ten bunks lined one side of the room, in two rows of five. The opposite wall housed cabinets for gear and personal effects. Since the persons meant to be housed were Chakats the room was very long but not especially high. If Kit tried to sit up on an upper berth his head struck the ceiling.
"At least it's better than the dorm room," Valjean commented, rolling onto his belly and letting one arm flop over the side of his bunk, tracing loops on the floor with his fingertip.
"The dorm would be a lot better if you ever cleaned it," Kit replied.
Javert glanced at Valjean, who inclined his head ever so slightly. "Y'wanna know what really sucks about this place?" Javert demanded, side-stepping with his hind legs so he rotated to face Kit squarely.
"Not particularly," Kit replied without looking up from his workstation. As such he didn't notice the maniacal grin spreading across Javert's face or Valjean clasping a hand around his muzzle to keep from laughing out loud.
"What I really hate about this place," Javert declared, moving carefully into position, "Is that there just aren't enough women. I haven't had a date in- in hours. My God, I don't think I can control myself any longer!" He reared up, pinning Kit to the bunk with his forepaws. When Kit tried to twist away Javert wrapped his arms around Kit's neck and started humping his leg. Kit struggled frantically and bellowed a string of what might have been vile curses if they hadn't been muffled to incomprehensibility by Javert's chest fur. Valjean fell off his bunk, literally rolling on the floor in fit of hysterical laughter. When Javert threw back his head and let his tongue loll out Valjean laughed even harder.
"Okay, I give all ready!" Kit shouted, managing finally to turn his head away from Javert's chest. "I swear, I'm gonna tell Longstocking you tried to rape me!"
Javert tossed his head disdainfully. "Never hold up. I'll tell the court you led me on with your provocative dress and flirtatious demeanor. I have witnesses." Valjean solemnly raised his right hand.
"Besides-" Kit leaned down to recover his workstation and brush the fox fur off of it- "how can you say that any place Miss Sharpears is doesn't have enough women?" He glanced to one side, letting his jaw drop and fanning the side of his face with his hand.
"Oh, Liska is plenty of woman, to be sure." Javert allowed himself a shiver of joy as he contemplated that fact. "But the operative word there is woman." He he held up one finger. "However great she may be, though, there is only one of her."
Kit dabbed at his forehead. "I don't think any of us would live to see thirty if there were more than one of her."
"Look, we're not saying this is a bad gig," Valjean put in, settling back onto his bunk but holding his torso erect. "As a summer job, with every weekend off, I'd say it's just this side of Heaven."
"But now we're stuck here, all the time, for however long Professor Moseivitch and the mucky-mucks at Security Force Command deem fit to keep this mess under wraps." Javert picked up the commentary without a break; a person who could not see them and did not know them well would never have noticed the switch.
"This is the sort of thing that could drag on for years," Valjean continued. "What happens in the fall when classes start?"
"Exactly how long do they expect to keep us locked up here?" Javert concluded. "I mean, why do they need us anyway? We're just interns, after all. There's gotta be about a zillion people, all of whom are way more capable than us, who'd give their left tit to be here right now."
Kit's expression became thoughtful, his eyes unfocused. A smile appeared on his face, growing rapidly into a broad grin. He set his workstation aside and looked up. "Pure, dumb luck," he declared, rubbing his knees. "We just happened to be here when this gig came down the pipe. The reason we're still here is 'cause it's simpler. Sure, there's lots of repair stations, but what if this was the only one that happened to be open at just the right moment? Brass could have sent the alien artifact to any of them, but then there'd have to be an explanation for why the schedule was being changed. There are three student interns on board, but so what? They lock us down, security is preserved. What are we gonna do, jump out the window?" He shrugged. "In short, we're here because a lot of difficult explanations get deferred until later when they can be properly spun."
"The applicant's thesis is thoughtfully reasoned and well presented," Javert said, "But it begs one very important question: why would Security Force Command want to sit on this? An honest to God alien star ship drops into our back yard, and we even manage to recover a piece of it that still works. This is the find of the century."
Kit's face became blank except for a slight narrowing of the eyes that gave his expression a frightening intensity. "Don't you see it?" he asked. "There's what, two or three dozen member races in the Stellar Federation? Of those, five- six including Terrans- developed space travel on their own. Every one of them hit on the notion of super-gravity compression to force their ships into hyper-space. The drive we use today is kinda the average of all those, taking the best of each design. But this morning, at 0230 hours, everything the Stellar Federation thought it knew about interstellar travel became obsolete." He extended the index finger of his left hand. "The alien ship does not use super-graivty compression, so it can't be tracked by our sensors. There could be a zillion of them out there right now and we'd never know it." Middle finger. "The alien ship sustains itself in hyper-space without the use of a warp core-"
"Objection," Javert cut in. "The witness has alluded to evidence not entered into the record."
"Your Honors, the defense submits that it has not violated any procedures," Kit replied. "The energy required to sustain a space-warp field generated by super-gravity compression is enormous. The only currently known practical source for that quantity of energy is the reaction of matter and anti-matter. When equal quantities of matter and anti-matter are brought in contact, one hundred per cent of the matter is converted to energy. Problem is, any matter will do. Which is why our star ships are rigged to eject their warp reactors if they come into distress. If the core's integrity is violated, and fuel elements are allowed to touch either the structure of the core itself or the ship carrying it, you get a big-ass boom. That did not happen, or- as Longstocking so eloquently pointed out- there wouldn't have been anything left to find."
"The Defense's arguments are persuasive, but no not banish reasonable doubt," Valjean said. "The object we recovered could be the warp core."
Kit shook his head. "No. I was looking over Sherlock's shoulder, remember? The containment field inside the object isn't anywhere near powerful enough. Which is to be expected; fusion produces only one twentieth the energy of matter/anti-matter. Therefore, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, the alien ship was not carrying a warp reactor. Now, Your Honors, I ask you to consider this: what would be the public reaction of it were commonly known that there exists an alien race, about which we know nothing, whose ships can move through our space without being detected, and can be refueled simply by scooping hydrogen?"
Valjean and Javert looked at each other. "There'd be mass panic," Valjean whispered.
A view screen on the wall lit up, displaying Sherlock's head and shoulders. "Howdy, gents. Just calling to let you know that Professor Moseivitch's guest will be arriving in approximately thirty minutes. If you want to get some dinner before the evening's festivities commence, you'd best do it now. Bye." Shi vanished.
"That was quick," Kit muttered, opening his workstation and checking the time. Professor Moseivitch placed his call a bit less than two and a half hours ago. "Well, I don't know about you two, but I'm gonna go eat."
"I'm not sure I'm hungry any more," Valjean muttered- but nonetheless he got to his feet and followed Kit and his brother out.
"What d'ye suppose this new expert is gonna be like?" Javert inquired, picking up a slice of pizza and folding it in half before eating it.
"Probably some dried up old prune, given the way things have been going," Valjean put in. He scraped the toppings from his slice and ate them separately from the crust.
Kit shrugged, dabbing his mouth with a napkin before transferring another slice to his plate. With properly applied persuasion the food synthesizer would produce an eminently palatable pepperoni and sausage pizza with three cheeses and extra sauce.
"I resent that," Darkstar pronounced, running the fingers of one hand through hir mane. "I am certainly not dried up. In fact, I think I could teach that young buck a thing or two about what goes on in a bedroom."
"You've got good ears if you can hear them from here," Longstocking commented, leaning slightly to hir right so shi could see past Darkstar's shoulder. The three young men, gathered around a table on the other side of the wardroom, seemed to be speculating about how ugly Fyodor's expert was likely to be.
"Never been anything wrong with my hearing," Darkstar replied, taking a drink of juice. "It's my vision that's shot to Hell. Can't see worth a damn at night any more."
"Must have been a useful talent for keeping all those junior officers in line." Longstocking carefully cut a section from hir hamburger and ate it with a fork.
"Oh?" Darkstar raised an eyebrow.
"Oh, come on." Longstocking added a dash more barbecue sauce before taking another bite. "You were in the military, Darkstar. It's in the way you stand, the way you walk, the way you speak... It's oozing out of your pores. Since I haven't heard of you in the Security Forces, I figure you must have been in Starfleet. Twenty years, at least. What I can't figure is how someone like you got hooked up with Professor Moseivitch."
Darkstar's eyes unfocused for just a moment. "Thirty-seven years. I met Fyodor after I... retired and came home. He... persuaded me to take a part-time teaching position at Dewclaw University."
"Funny." Longstocking concentrated for a moment. "I've had my share of Astronautics interns, and none of them ever mentioned you."
"I've been out of that for oh, eight years now." Darkstar took a tentative sip of hir ramen to test its temperature. Finding it satisfactory shi slurped a spoonful.
"What do you do now?"
"The usual." Darkstar shrugged. "Live off my pension and investments. Putter in the garden. Read books. Hang out at the community center, swapping lies with the other old farts. Chair the township council. Take care of my granddaughter."
"Granddaughter, huh?" Longstocking chuckled. "You must have dozens of them. Got any pictures?"
Darkstar shook hir head. "No. No pictures."
Longstocking gaped in exaggerated shock. "A grandparent without a sheaf of grandchild pictures? I don't believe it!"
"I gave up carrying pictures a long time ago." Darkstar's face went blank. "When my loved ones are with me I don't need pictures of them. When they aren't... the pictures just remind me of what's not there." shi picked up hir bowl and sipped the broth. "What about you? You're old enough to have kids, if not grand kids. Where are your pictures?"
Longstocking toyed with the remains of hir hamburger. "I don't have any," shi confessed. "In high school I had a terrible crush, but shi went to a different college and I never saw hir again. In college I tried several times but it always ended up fizzling out. What with studying and all there just wasn't time. Then I went into the Service and had even less time. Now...." Shi shrugged.
"Shi's a jealous mate, the Service is," Darkstar commented.
"Yeah." Longstocking nodded.
Some minutes passed. Darkstar finished hir soup; Longstocking continued to shuffle bits of hamburger around on hir plate with no apparent interest in eating them.
An electronic chime signaled activation of the 1MC, the station's public address system. "Ops to Commander," Sherlock's voice announced. "Dr. Janek's shuttle will be arriving in ten minutes."
"Acknowledged." Longstocking got to hir feet. "Sorry, gotta go. Been nice talking." Darkstar merely nodded as Longstocking collected what remained of hir meal and fed it into the recycle slot on the food synthesizer.
Fyodor hurried in, patting his hair into place. He took a seat on the couch, adjusted his coat, and after what seemed like a moment's thought his face lit up with an incredible smile.
"What a phony," Valjean muttered, using the pretense of scratching his ear to glance at the professor.
"He's got reason to smile," Javert put in. "Considering that he and Miss Sharpears were both out of sight for a while, eh?"
"Here they come," Kit cautioned.
First came Longstocking. Next-
"Oh, baby," Valjean exclaimed, doing a comical double-take.
"Yiff, yiff, and yiff," Javert added, licking his palm and using it to slick down the fur on top of his head.
"That is most definitely not a prune," Kit observed thoughtfully.
Behind Longstocking came a young- early twenties at most- snow leopard patterned Chakat with a long, luxurious, salt and pepper gray mane pulled into a single queue by an elegantly hand tooled leather clip. A doeskin squaw jacket decorated with long fringes and intricate beadwork clothed hir torso- and what a torso it was; only a tape measure could have said whether shi or Liska had the larger bust line. The rest of hir body, beneath soft gray fur decorated with dark, roseated spots, could only be described as fulsome but firm.
"I know what I want for dinner," Valjean said, licking his lips in a most lascivious manner.
"Yeah, but please don't eat it at the table," Kit replied.
"Why not?" Javert wanted to know.
"It would be disgusting."
"What if I agreed to share?" Valjean wanted to know.
"That would be even more disgusting."
"Ah, Dr. Janek, so good to see you," Fyodor exclaimed, starting forward with his hand extended to shake. He passed the young Chakat, going instead to a person standing beside and slightly behind hir.
"Mmm, not bad," Liska commented, stroking her chin thoughtfully and giving Dr. Janek a thorough looking over. His smooth face, fine features, and diminutive stature- four centimeters less than Fyodor- spoke of youth. His body, athletically sculpted and perfectly proportioned like a Greek statue come to life, was that of a man- and a stunningly beautiful one at that. Liska smiled, imagining him without his dark gray slacks and a light gray jacket
"Quite," Sherlock agreed, though hir attention focused on the Chakat.
"What is he?" Kit whispered to Javert, frowning. Dr. Janek's sensuous, almond shaped eyes were the red of fresh arterial blood, set in a face covered with skin so black it looked blue, framed by long, perfectly straight, bone white hair. His ears grew to long, sharp points.
"An elf," Javert responded.
"Where are they from?" Kit asked.
"Nowhere," Valjean responded. "They're genetically engineered. I understand they were all the rage about a hundred years ago."
"That is the big problem with elective genetic surgery," Kit muttered, crossing his arms. "What do you do when your kids go out of style?"
"Everyone, please allow me to introduce Dr. Ito Janek, professor of Nanotechnology, from our very own College of Inorganic Chemistry," Fyodor announced. "And of course the lovely Shir Snowflake, student intern, Astronautics major, and most capable pilot."
"I got your joystick right here, baby," Javert leered. Valjean giggled.
"Will you two just sheath it?" Kit slapped each brother on he back of the head. "Or am I gonna have to get the fire hose?"
Snowflake may or may not have overheard but shi grasped the gist of the conversation clearly enough. Shi gave the trio a measured look, then tossed hir head and flipped hir tail.
Fyodor quickly introduced the team. "Now, if you would care to have a seat, Longstocking will present a briefing-"
"No," Ito cut in, turning to face the professor. "Skip the briefing. Just show me the scan data. The set those samples you sent me came from."
Fyodor shrugged. "As you wish. Longstocking?"
"Got it." Longstocking moved to one of the cubicle mounted workstations and started typing. "Here goes." The view screen deployed, the room lights dimmed, and data began to appear. Valjean and Javert quickly lost interest and spent their time admiring Snowflake. Kit continued to watch the parade of graphs, diagrams, and images though he understood no more than a fraction of it, frowning slightly in concentration as if he could absorb knowledge by sheer force of will. Because of this he didn't notice Darkstar watching him, a thoughtful expression on hir face.
"Stop," Ito said. Longstocking touched a control and the stream halted. "Darkstar," Ito continued, turning his head toward that person, "I understand you theorized that the material had been constructed by nanites?"
"That's correct," Darkstar agreed.
A wry little half smile spread across Ito's face, exposing some of his perfect, dazzlingly white teeth. "That was a very astute observation. I'm sorry to tell you that it's only half right."
"Oh?" Darkstar cocked hir head.
Ito's smile widened. "Yes. The material jamming your drill wasn't made by nanites. It's made of nanites. You drilled into a cavity full of liquid, yes? That liquid was a nutrient solution with nanites floating in it. The nanites linked together, like, like-" he searched for words, hooking his index fingers as a demonstration.
"Cockleburs?" Darkstar suggested.
"Yes." Ito nodded. "The nanites linked together like cockleburs to form a solid mass. The drill couldn't free itself is because each individual nanite has a force shield to protect it from intense radiation. Those shields diffuse the shearing fields in the drill bit. Moreover, after quickly reviewing the complete data set it's clear to me that all the material thus far analyzed was created the same way. Obviously more detailed study is required but I'm confident in saying that your alien artifact is composed entirely of nanites, the same way an organic body is composed of cells."
"How... how is that possible?" Sherlock asked, somewhat hesitantly tossing hir question out into the stunned silence following Dr. Janek's incredible pronouncement.
Dr. Janek's expression became somber. "Frankly, I have no idea. Rest assured that I'd like very much to find out, because to our science, it isn't. Whoever built this star ship has forgotten more about nanotechnology than the entirety of the Stellar Federation has ever known."
Fyodor looked up in surprise as the door to his room burst open and Darkstar stepped in. "I'm leaving you, Fyodor Ivanov," shi declared.
Fyodor closed his personal workstation, folded the desk into the wall, and retreated into a corner so Darkstar could enter and shut the door. Under normal circumstances a junior officer inhabited these quarters; the price paid for privacy was having to live in a volume about the size of a walk in closet. "Why?" he asked.
"Let me tell you a story, Fyodor Ivanov," Darkstar began, taking a seat on the floor. "Midmorning yesterday I was laying in the sun on my front porch, looking forward to a pleasant nap. Next thing I know this funny little man appears and regales me with fantastic stories about alien technology and even a possible First Contact. He asks me to come with him and against my better judgement I find myself compelled to do so, just to see if what he says is really true. For a wonder it is. Now, having seen what I came to see, I'm going home. I need to be with Aurora." Shi rose.
"Please don't go," Fyodor entreated. "I need you."
"You are a lying sack of shit, Fyodor Ivanov." Darkstar spoke with a calmness that came from having long ago exhausted all the emotional energy in a subject. "You don't need me as a scientist, you've got a hundred people at your fingertips who are infinitely better than I ever was. My expertise in Astronautics, while extensive, is rather dated. So why do you need me, Fyodor Ivanov?" Hir voice developed an edge as sharp as a razor and hir eyes became as cold and hard as steel.
Fyodor's face sagged. He wasn't afraid, just... sad. "What do you know about the Janus Project?"
Darkstar frowned, hir expression wary. "Never heard of it."
"It is the consortium that funded the Mileva Memorial Hyper-Spatial Observatory," Fyodor explained. "Scientific organizations from Terra, Voxxa, Cait, Merrak, and right here on Chakona put up fifteen billion credits to fund development and construction of the instrument."
Darkstar blinked. "That is a Hell of a lot of money for a scientific organization to cough up, even if it is a multi-national."
Fyodor nodded. "That's because sixty percent of the cash came from Starfleet."
Darkstar's expression changed from one of distrust to one of calculation. "Why haven't I heard that?"
"Because Starfleet doesn't want the public to know. The money came primarily through an organization called the Tenspan Foundation, which is a front for the Federation Science Corps. It's how Starfleet funds military research when they don't want the public to know it's military."
"There's more," Darkstar said. It wasn't a question.
"The new observatory was to be placed in the Chakastra system, it was said, to take advantage of the concentration of scientific study at Dewclaw University," Fyodor continued. "The uplink, data processing, and control centers were built right on campus. In fact, the College of Astrophysics was completely rebuilt to accommodate it- including a real-time hyper-wave link to the Razagal Observatory on Voxxa and the Hawking Observatory on Terra. The University is guaranteed generous access to all these facilities- access with which it may do anything it likes, including resell."
"All of which costs the University what?" Darkstar wanted to know.
Fyodor's face twisted into a bleak, unpleasant smile. "Not a cent. All costs generously absorbed- not by the Janus Consortium, of which Dewclaw University and the Chakonan Government are technically members, but the Tenspan Foundation directly."
"And your part in all this?"
"I am the Janus Consortium's Chakonan representative. My job was to sell the whole idea to the university and the government. Easy, because I waved a lot of money around. Hard, because I had to skillfully deflect questions about wherefrom that money came. In return, all the power and prestige that come from it are mine alone."
Darkstar tipped hir head back, thoughtfully stroking hir throat and chin with the back of one hand. "After all that, the Tenspan Foundation might come to think that they owned you."
Fyodor nodded. "They might very well think that. They might expect that when a Federation science vessel arrives in a week or so I will turn everything over to the Science Corps."
"You're a dirty, conniving little bastard, Fyodor Ivanov," Darkstar said. "It would serve you right if I just left you to hang."
"Please, Darkstar. You of all people can appreciate what's at stake. Yes, I traded my personal integrity for power. I persuaded the university's board of trustees to trade their scientific integrity for money. But the power I've gained has put me in a position to do some good and I need your help to do it."
"What are you going to do, Fyodor Ivanov?"
"Keep this discovery in civilian hands," Fyodor replied. "If Starfleet gets ahold of this they'll turn it into a black project. Once they realize what they've got they'll decide it's simply too upsetting to let the general public know, and it'll vanish as if it had never existed. I think that would be a terrible mistake and I intend to stop it."
"How can I help?" Darkstar crossed hir arms and leaned back slightly.
"I can't take Starfleet head on. I'll have to fight this as a maneuvering battle, and for that good intelligence is essential."
"You want me to be your spy master," Darkstar said.
"You're the only person I can trust. You have powerful friends and lots of them, who'll listen very carefully to what you say."
Darkstar stood. Shi wanted to pace but there wasn't room so shi sat back down. Hir face became hard like an iron mask, hir eyes burning like coals. "I understand how important this is," shi said in a voice almost too soft to hear. "I agree with everything you said. But-" Shi stood, moving forward and pinning Fyodor against the wall. "I remember another time were together. I remember you saying you needed me." Hir eyes narrowed to slits, hir ears laying back. "You were lying." The word came out a venomous hiss.
Fyodor swallowed. "I'm sorry for that, Darkstar. I regret it. Terribly." He rubbed his face; tears oozed between his fingers. "You... you deserve so much better than me." He straightened up, lifting his chin. "Tell me what you need me to do to make you believe me and I'll do it."
Darkstar cocked hir head. "Anything?"
The calculating look returned to Darkstar's face, but only momentarily. "Take off your clothes," shi ordered, unfolding the bunk. "Make love to me."
"I have a solution to your problem," Dr. Janek pronounced. "If everyone will gather around I'll demonstrate." A nod of the head dropped the virtual reality goggles down over his eyes and he slipped his arms into the control gauntlets.
Sigma 17's Hazardous Materials Laboratory was a miniature version of the Operations Center. Consoles lined the back and side walls, control stations the front. A transparisteel view port separated the control room from the actual lab, a room about half the size of the wardroom. Instead of using mechanical arms attached to the walls or ceiling Dr. Janek employed a servo, a robot controlled remotely by a human operator. This particular one looked oddly centauroid: an approximately humanoid torso with two arms and a head attached via a flexible articulation to a bulbous body with four spindly, insectile legs.
Under Dr. Janek's direction the servo approached a bench with some equipment set up on it. "This is a slug cut from the outer shell of the alien artifact," Ito explained. The servo pointed at a shallow pan containing a disk of slightly translucent dark amber colored material about ten centimeters across and one centimeter thick. "Now I'll pour over it a solution containing the nanites I developed." The servo picked up a beaker full of murky, greenish liquid and poured it into the pan. At once the fluid turned purple and started bubbling. After half a minute or so all activity ceased; the servo reached into the pan and scooped out a handful of bristly fibers coated with thick, greasy sludge.
"I assume we can control this?" Sherlock asked. "I mean, we don't want to dissolve the whole thing."
"Not to worry." Ito pulled his hands out of the gauntlets and took off the goggles. The servo, directed now by the computer, cleaned up the mess. "I made my nanites as tough as I could, but inside the artifact they'll last maybe a minute before radiation destroys them. About the best we can hope for is that they'll keep the drill bit clear until you place your sensor pods."
"We have an adequate supply on hand?" Fyodor wanted to know.
"Yes," Longstocking replied. "Security Force has an orbital nanite factory used to make spare integrated circuits and holographic logic units. I had Dr. Janek's specifications sent over last night; they'll be delivering our nanites in, oh-" shi glanced at a bulkhead chronometer- "any minute now."
"Only three days," Darkstar commented. "Not bad."
"That's what military discipline will do for you," Sherlock declared, drawing hirself up proudly.
"Not to mention a military budget," Darkstar put in.
"That too," Longstocking allowed.
"Excellent." Fyodor rubbed his hands together excitedly. "Then let us retire to Ops and prepare, shall we?"
"The nanites are loaded," Sherlock announced, glancing at a panel.
"Liska?" Longstocking inquired.
"Hot to trot, sir," Liska replied from the first control station. All was as it had been before: 3D graphic and informational sidebars on the view ports, manipulator arm poised and ready. Dr. Janek stood beside Sherlock, Longstocking and Fyodor on either side of Darkstar. Kit, Valjean, Javert, and Snowflake clustered together off to one side.
"Do it," Longstocking commanded.
"First pod in place," Liska announced. "Your nanites are working like champs, Doc." She gave him a very warm smile. He returned it with a sly wink. Liska giggled. Snowflake folded hir arms, huffed loudly, and rolled hir eyes.
The cradle rotated again. A mechanical arm moved to start drilling the second hole-
"Yow!" Liska exclaimed.
"Report," Longstocking demanded.
"There was a tremor," Sherlock reported. "Something shifted inside the object."
"Junior's getting restless," Valjean muttered. Snowflake had grabbed Kit's arm. He looked at hir quizzically; shi let go and stepped away, head drooped in embarrassment.
"May I call up a seismograph view?" Darkstar asked. Longstocking nodded; Darkstar touched some controls and another window appeared on the view ports. In it a jagged line crossed a slowly scrolling graph; a prominent spike was visible but far from alone.
"Pretty active, isn't it," Longstocking commented.
"And getting more so," Darkstar reported. "Sensor logs indicate seismic activity was almost nil when it arrived but increased steadily over the past three days."
"Can you handle it, Liska?" Longstocking asked.
"Uh- yes, sir. It just caught me by surprise."
"Carry on, then."
As drilling continued Kit noticed Snowflake staring intently at the seismograph display. "What is it?" he asked quietly.
"Huh?" Snowflake blinked. "Um-" Shi frowned, lashing hir tail in vexation. Fragile thoughts forming in the back of hir mind dissolved when shi tried to examine them closely. Something about visiting hir father, an obstetrician, while shi was attending to a patient. But what could that have to do with this?
In less than half an hour all the sensors and jammers were in place. "I'm getting telemetry," Sherlock announced. A window opened showing nothing but static, like a TV tuned in between stations. "Damn, that force field is tight. Can't hardly get through even with the sensors right up against it. Darkstar, would give me a hand?"
"Sure." Darkstar stepped up. As the two of them worked strange patterns emerged and receded, like forms dimly glimpsed through heavy snowfall- or perhaps merely the result of the mind trying to make sense out of randomness. The image dimmed almost to blackness, brightened until it whited out, then finally began to stabilize.
"What the Hell is that?" Valjean wondered, cocking his head first one way, then the other.
Snowflake frowned, eyes narrowed. A curved white border crowded into the right side of the image; the rest was mottled gray and black crisscrossed with blurry lines and curves of varying thickness. The mental picture of hir father at the hospital came back even more strongly. Snowflake could see the patient, a young Chakat pregnant with hir first child, laying on a low bed. Snowflake's father sat next to the bed, aiming a sensor wand at the mother's tumescent belly. A view screen on the wall showed a hazy outline of the infant's skeleton while a sidebar graph monitored fetal heartbeat and vital signs-
A series of spikes appeared on the seismograph view. The jumble of lines moved; suddenly in Snowflake's mind they became foreshortened three dimensional forms instead of merely two dimensional shapes.
"Oh my God!" Snowflake shrieked, clutching hir hands to hir cheeks. "It's a baby!"
Fyodor finished his coffee, set the mug on the table, and folded his hands over it. Behind him shadow eclipsed the disk of Chakona except for a few glimmers of light from scattered urban areas, a large electrical storm in the northern hemisphere, and a narrow sliver of sunlight along the eastern rim. Darkstar sat across from him, Ito to his right, and Snowflake to his left. Otherwise the wardroom was empty.
"Professor, please tell me you're not taking this seriously," Ito pleaded in what he no doubt thought was a reasonable tone. "Whatever we have in there is fantastically complex and certainly the product of a technology far in advance of ours, but it's synthetic. For the love of reason, it's just a machine!"
"Professor, just because I'm not some high mucky-muck scientist doesn't make me the drooling idiot Dr. Janek seems to think I am," Snowflake growled. Hir eyes were narrowed, hir ears laid back, hir tail lashing angrily. "My father happens to be doctor of natal medicine. I've spent a lot of time in the hospital with hir. I even took a year of premed before switching to Astronautics. If you put what we just saw side by side with a third-trimester Chakat nine of ten people couldn't tell the difference! It has a skeleton. It has hands! You saw it, Professor!"
"You're far too modest." Ito's tone dripped with sarcasm. "You must be a great scientist if you can tell all that from studying one poor quality scanner image!"
"And you can?" Snowflake retorted, slapping hir hands down on the table and jumping to hir feet.
Fyodor's outburst shocked both parties into silence. Even more shocking was the livid rage etched into his normally saturnine features. "Both of you are acting like children," he snapped, leveling a finger as if it were a lethal weapon. "I remind you that we are all here to learn. Dr. Janek." Fyodor skewered him with hard, merciless eyes. "You yourself theorized that the object was composed of nanites in the way an organic body is composed of cells. If one extends that analogy to its logical conclusion, you are in fact proposing the idea of a synthetic machine that, to a high degree, mimics the form and function of an organic body. Snowflake." Shi shrank back as Fyodor's eyes transfixed hir but shi could not look away. "If you wish to play the role of scientist you must follow the rules. Because you saw something in scan image that bears a passing resemblance to a fetus does not prove that what you saw was a fetus. At this point there is no evidence to support any conclusion. More investigation is required. To that end we are going to return to Chakona, where the scan data and samples we have collected can be analyzed with better equipment than is available here. That will include having it reviewed by fetal experts from the College of Life Sciences. If it is- or is not- a fetus, let that judgement be rendered by those who are expert on the subject." Fyodor got to his feet. "We will leave as soon as all materials have been packed for shipment." He turned on his heel and walked out without looking back.
"I'd get moving if I were you," Darkstar said as Ito and Snowflake glanced at hir for support. "And especially I wouldn't cross him again. The Professor is made of sterner stuff than you might imagine."
Rum Tum Tugger was a Webber class shuttle, a small vessel intended for intra-system transport or short interstellar hops. Its lines suited its utilitarian nature: a short, boxy fuselage with a blunt pointed stem and a flat stern housing a drop-down cargo ramp. A pair of low-mounted warp pods doubled as landing skids. Inside, cargo or passengers filled a single open cabin with two pilot stations at the front. Tracks in the deck allowed cabin fixtures to be added, removed, or rearranged at need. Thirty humanoids, sixteen centauroids, a ton and a half of cargo, or any reasonable combination of the above could be loaded with appropriate fittings installed.
"Anything else you need?" Longstocking asked. Shi stood in the transfer lock, holding the controls of a motorized palette jack loaded with half a dozen large containers liberally plastered with biohazard and radiation warnings. With Tugger's stern mated to the outer door cargo could be carried straight in, as Kit and Sherlock had just done with six other canisters.
"No, we've got everything," Darkstar replied, checking the tie-downs on each canister by thumping them with hir hand.
"You're sure those are the right cannisters?" Ito anxiously inquired, skittering about and trying to look at the labels as Kit and Sherlock transferred the rest of them.
"Sit down, Doctor," Darkstar directed, gently but firmly aiming Ito toward a chair. "If Longstocking says they're the right ones I'm sure they are."
"Cargo is loaded and secure," Sherlock reported, giving the tie-downs one last tug. "'Smatter, don't trust us?" Sherlock inquired good naturedly as Darkstar re-checked each container.
"When it comes to locking myself in a small space with a load of intensely radioactive, virulently toxic crap, I don't trust nobody," Darkstar responded. "Good work." Shi gave Kit And Sherlock a clap on the shoulder and settled into the pilot's couch. "Prepare to cast off."
Sherlock, Kit, and Longstocking retreated into the station. First the inner door of the transfer lock closed, then Tugger's cargo ramp, and finally the transfer lock's outer doors.
"All hatches sealed, cabin pressure stable, umbilicals disconnected," Darkstar said in a singsong voice. "Releasing moorings now."
Artificial gravity inside the cabin reduced but did not eliminate the sensation of movement. Darkstar fed on power, swinging Tugger's nose onto the Chakona approach vector, placing the planet itself off the shuttle's starboard beam.
"When we come back I'm bringing Aurora with me," Darkstar announced.
"But Darkstar-" Fyodor began.
"No buts, Fyodor." Darkstar's tone brooked not the slightest possibility of contradiction. "I am not a whacked-out workaholic to whom family are an inconvenient obstacle on the path to success. I quit that insane asylum you call a university to get away from the rat race. Technically I'm still retired. If you want me to work with you then Aurora is part of the project. That is not negotiable."
"Yes dear," Fyodor replied in that tone surely recognizable by husbands anywhere in the universe. Darkstar fixed him with a cold stare; he met it with a bland smile. Shi sniffed and looked away; his smile widened a bit.
Half an hour later Rum Tum Tugger dropped through Chakona's upper atmosphere. Above the stars twinkled, blurred a bit but still bright. Below the lights of Berdoovia formed a glittering carpet across the landscape, sharply constrained by the urban growth boundary. Chakona's civic planners understood the costs of urban sprawl and kept it under tight control. Tugger wasn't coming down there but off to one side, where chains of light connected small clusters of illumination like beads on a necklace. Darkstar aimed for one of the clusters, which gradually resolved into a tight group of buildings. Bright red and green beacons marked a rooftop landing pad.
"We have arrived," Darkstar announced, bringing Tugger down to an almost perfect landing. As the cargo ramp dropped cool, night air lightly scented by fresh grass, blossoms, and trees swirled through the cabin. Darkstar found it intensely refreshing after Sigma 17's closed, artificial atmosphere.
Ito got up and hurried down the ramp. Abruptly he froze, mid-stride. "Professor," he called, "Are we expecting visitors?"
"No," Fyodor replied. "Why?"
"There's a couple of Peace Force officers here."
Darkstar and Fyodor hurried down the ramp. Two Chakats in grey tunics materialized from deep shadow just outside the landing circle.
"May we help you, officers?" Fyodor asked, stepping down onto the pad.
"Are you Fyodor Moseivitch?" of them asked, stepping forward.
"I'm terribly sorry, sir." Shi produced a chit. "I have a warrant for your arrest on the charge of willful misappropriation of Starfleet property."
"What are you?" Kit whispered, curling his fingers against the transparisteel view port as if trying to claw through it. "Why did you come here?"
The Operations Center was quiet but not silent. Consoles clicked, pinged, or chimed as they carried out various automated tasks and the ventilation system sighed softly. Listening carefully one could even hear faint groans and creaks as the station's fabric responded to thermal and tidal stresses. Kit's conscious mind ignored it, as people who spent extended periods on board space habitats tended to do. Directly above him the seismograph display rippled with continuous low level activity.
Kit started guiltily and spun around. Only one person he knew had a voice like that-
"What'cha doing?" Liska asked. Her overalls were unzipped even farther than usual, enough to reveal where the cups of her bra joined together. Her hips rolled hypnotically as she walked down to the front of the room.
"Well... y'know... just... sort of... looking around." Kit gestured vaguely and looked away. His cheeks reddened.
"Why aren't you up in the wardroom with the rest of us?" Liska wanted to know.
Kit shrugged one shoulder, looking at a point just to the left of Liska's waist. "Dunno," he muttered. "I can't... I can't get this thing out of my head." He turned back to the view port. He didn't want Liska to see his face; he didn't want to admit that he'd left the wardroom because of her. With Fyodor and company gone and research halted until they returned there wasn't much to do other than socialize. Valjean and Javert would hit on everyone in sight and Liska in particular. One or the other would succeed; the Hugos were very talented- and persistent- in that area. That left only Chakats as potential partners and that was a matter Kit definitely did not wish to discuss. How do you explain to someone that you don't want to sleep with them because they are, effectively, half animal? And, to top it all off, they're basically a woman with a penis? That all the Chakats Kit knew were exceptionally friendly and understanding only made it worse. If they'd been ugly or unpleasant at least he'd have some rationale to explain his feelings.
Liska chuckled; Kit's heart flip-flopped in his chest. "You're almost as bad as Dr. Janek, the way you're obsessing about this thing."
"I'm nothing like Dr. Janek," Kit said bitterly. Even he would admit that Ito was stunningly attractive. What female would choose Kit if Ito were there?
"You're right," Liska said. "You're nothing like Dr. Janek. He's beautiful on the outside but he already has a lover."
"Who?" Kit really didn't care but he wanted Liska to stay.
"Himself." Liska tossed her head. "He'd never let something as ordinary as a woman distract him."
"You're not an ordinary woman," Kit heard himself saying. Where the Hell did that come from?
"Why, Kit!" she exclaimed, grinning mischievously. "Are you hitting on me?"
Kit's mouth worked. Grey fog clouded his mind, blocking any possibility of rational thought.
"Since you're so interested in Professor Moseivitch's alien object, how would you like to touch it?" Liska asked.
"Huh?" Shock at the sudden change in subject allowed Kit's mind to function once again. "But- how? There's no atmosphere in the work room and I thought it was too radioactive to approach."
"It is," Liska replied. "But you can still touch it. Come here." She put her hand under Kit's arm and led him to one of the control stations. His knees quavered; her intoxicated him like no spirit ever could. "Sit here," she directed. "And take off your shoes."
"My shoes?" Kit repeated, looking blankly at her.
"Your shoes," Liska repeated. "You have to use your feet to operate the auxiliary controls. Or you'd have to keep pulling your hands out of the gauntlets, which is inconvenient." She dropped to one knee and undid the knot on his left boot. Kit could only sit and watch while she removed his footwear, including his socks. "Computer, activate Virtual Hands," she instructed.
The console beeped. "Virtual Hands ready," the computer replied.
"Put your hands into the gauntlets and wiggle your fingers," Liska directed. "They'll automatically resize to fit."
Kit gasped. The gauntlets shrank around his hands, fitting snugly but comfortably. Out in the work room a pair of gigantic, translucent orange hands shimmered into being. Composed of simple cylinders, wedges, and boxes, they looked like the hands of a puppet but they conformed exactly to the motions of his actual hands as he wiggled his fingers.
"Now touch something," Liska directed.
"Like what?" Kit asked.
"Anything. The computer won't let you pick up or disturb something unless you unlock it first."
Hesitantly Kit made a fist, then extended his index finger. The giant hands did so as well. He touched the far wall.
"Omigod!" he exclaimed. "I felt it!"
"Of course you did." Liska chuckled. "The virtual hands have full tactile feedback."
"Wow." Kit smiled, gently cupping his hands around the object. The arms the cradle were cool and metallic; the object itself felt warm and sort of plasticy. When spikes appeared on the seismograph chart he actually felt them as minute tremors in his fingertips. "Say, Liska... do you suppose Snowflake could be right? That maybe there's something... alive... in there?"
Liska frowned in thought. "I think you'd need a pretty liberal definition of 'alive.' It's made of synthetics and nanites, powered by nuclear fusion. Who heard of life like that?"
"That doesn't mean it couldn't exist, does it?" Kit stroked the object gently, which seemed to soothe it. The tremors eased.
Liska shrugged. "I suppose not. But how could something like that have evolved?"
"It didn't have to," Kit replied. "Look at the Chakats. They didn't evolve, but they're here. Just because they were genetically engineered doesn't make them any less alive, does it?"
"I suppose not," Liska allowed, cocking her head. "But that doesn't mean... I mean, like what Dr. Janek said. It may be very complex, but still just a mechanism. Or even just part of a mechanism."
"I've been thinking about that," Kit said as he gently explored the object's nooks and crannies. "If it really is a mechanism as complex as a living thing, how can one part of it still be alive after the rest got blown to bits? That's like as if someone's leg got cut off and the leg kept on living."
"Well, it would, at least for a while," Liska pointed out.
"A couple hours at best, unless it's deep frozen," Kit replied. "It's been days since this was discovered and it's still active. In fact, it's more active than when it was found. A severed leg would be less active, wouldn't it?"
"I guess so." Liska shrugged.
"Call up the images," Kit said. "I-" He tried to pull his hands out of the gauntlets but they wouldn't release.
"Okay, okay." Liska leaned past Kit, touching a sequence of controls. Kit froze; one of her breasts pressed against his shoulder. The console's holographic display presented one of the sensor images.
"Just look at that," Kit said. "Don't those look like bones?"
"Well..." Liska scratched her jaw. The image showed a series of curved lines joined to a single transverse member; it didn't take a lot of imagination for it to become something like a rib cage. A network if lines might possibly be collar bones, shoulder blades, and arm bones. If so the arms were crossed over one another, making it hard to pick out details. More lines, connecting structures beyond the image's boundaries, further confused things. "There's no head," Liska pointed out. "If it's a baby, where's it's head?"
"That cone-shaped thing pointing down and left," Kit replied.
Liska frowned. She rotated the image, calling others of the same area from different angles. What Kit declared to be a skull looked like a truncated cone attached at its bulbous base to the presumed spine and folded under the presumed body. "What kind of skull is that? There's no eye sockets, no sinuses, no mouth."
Kit smiled craftily. "If we assume it's a baby, what kind of baby is it?"
"I don't follow."
"Think of it this way," Kit explained. "If you looked inside a Chakat, for example, you'd expect to find a baby Chakat, right? So if you look inside a star ship...."
Liska frowned even more. "A baby... star ship? Don't you think that's a bit of a stretch?"
"No," Kit pronounced. "It's made of nanites the way an organic body is made of cells. It even looks like something organic. It survived the catastrophic shut down of its mother ship, which suggests that it's a self-contained, self-sustaining system. There are cases where babies have been born- alive- after their mothers died."
"Hold on," Liska protested. "What if it's a symbiote or a parasite?"
Kit's smile widened to a grin. "It could be argued that by brining that up you're conceding that it's alive. If it was a symbiote it wouldn't be surviving on its own. It it's a parasite- well, parasites can survive on their own, but didn't Professor Moseivitch call this thing a sub-system of great importance? The mother ship used its resources to make sure this bit survived, even though doing so guaranteed the mother ship's destruction. I can't imagine someone going to such great lengths on behalf of a parasite- except insofar as that a developing fetus is a parasite on its mother. Going to such lengths to protect an offspring makes perfect sense."
Liska shifted uneasily, glancing back and forth between Kit and the object. "Wait," she exclaimed suddenly. "You still haven't explained why it doesn't have eyes, a nose, or a mouth."
"Oh, that's easy." Kit dismissed it with a casual shrug. "Noses are for breathing and smelling, pointless activities in space where there's no air. Mouths are for eating, which it doesn't need because it's got a transporter. It can beam whatever it eats directly into its stomach. Eyes are for seeing, an ability of use only when travelling in normal space. For any star ship, the ability to navigate in hyper-space it what matters- and for that you need a mass detector, not eyes."
"I-" Liska clenched and opened her hands. Kit giggled with delight at how he'd neatly maneuvered her.
A light on the communications console flashed and a chime sounded.
"Excuse me." Liska dashed over to the console. When she opened the incoming comm channel Darkstar's face appeared on the view screen. "Repair Station sigma one-seven, this is Warrant Officer Sharpears," Liska announced.
"Mr. Sharpears, a rather serious matter has come up and I need you to connect me with Lt. Longstocking at once," Darkstar said.
"Ah- yes, sir," Liska replied. "Please hold." Another screen activated, showing a portion of the wardroom. "Commander, I'm sorry to interrupt, but Darkstar is on the horn and needs to speak with you at once."
A moment later Longstocking's face filled the second screen. "Yes, Darkstar? What is it?"
"Lieutenant, a Dr. Ygor Stannus of the Federation Science Corps has filed a complaint against Professor Moseivitch alleging that he deliberately misappropriated scientific artifacts belonging to the Corps. There is going to be an arraignment hearing in the morning; if the judgement goes against us all artifacts recovered from the collision with the Array- including and especially the one we've been working on- will be seized pending a trial. You and your crew need to come down at once to confer with our legal staff and be prepared to testify in the morning."
"What about the student interns?" Longstocking wanted to know.
"They aren't named in the suit so I see no reason to involve them," Darkstar replied. "However, I do need to speak with Mr. Carson."
"Kit!" Liska called.
"How do I get out of these?" Kit shot back.
"Press the red button by your left toe!"
"Okay." Kit did as instructed; the gauntlets released. He hurried over to the console. "Yes, Darkstar?"
"Lieutenant, it might be better if you didn't hear what I'm about to say, in case you're called to testify about it later," Darkstar said.
"I... see." Longstocking stroked hir chin thoughtfully. "Mr. Sharpears, put me on the 1MC."
"Sir." Liska touched a control.
"Attention all personnel, this is the commander speaking," Longstocking began, hir voice echoing from the stations's PA speakers. "All station personnel are ordered to report at once to the wardroom for an emergency briefing. All student personnel are ordered to report to Ops, where you will be briefed by Mr. Carson. That is all." Hir screen went blank. Liska gave Kit a look that seemed to express both regret and relief at the same time, then hurried out.
"Kit, listen carefully," Darkstar said. "What Dr. Stannus really wants is to get his hands on that lump you've got there. The real reason I want you and the others to stay behind is because I don't want our object left unattended. Sometime between now and morning some Peace Force officers are probably going to show up with warrants to seize the object as evidence in a criminal trial. Since you aren't Security Force personnel you can honesty say you don't have the authority to grant them access to a Security Force installation. Since the duly authorized commander of the installation isn't available they'll end up having to go to the Judge Advocate General. Then all we have to do is stonewall until the magistrate hands down a ruling at the arraignment hearing. But I don't want you taking any silly risks, you hear? Do you understand what I'm asking?"
Kit nodded. "Yes, I do. You can count on us."
Darkstar smiled warmly. "That's what I wanted to hear. Just sit tight until morning. Whichever way the ruling goes it'll be over then." Shi kissed hir hand and touched it to the screen.
"Thanks." Kit put his hand on the screen. For a reason he couldn't clearly articulate Darkstar's sentiment touched him deeply. Hir image vanished.
"Hey Kit, what's happening?" Valjean wanted to know as he entered the room with Snowflake and Javert right behind him.
Kit drew a deep breath and let it out slowly. "The Prof is having some legal trouble. Apparently Starfleet is trying to snatch our artifact. Longstocking and the crew are going down to testify at a hearing. All we have to do is sit tight; if anyone tries to snatch Junior, we lock the doors and play dumb."
"So, we get to spend the foreseeable future babysitting a lump of undefined alien technology," Javert observed with a conspicuous lack of enthusiasm. "Great."
Snowflake leaned forward and picked something from the shoulder of Kit's shirt. Valjean and Javert pushed close to examine the object, which turned out to be a fine red hair. Snowflake frowned and sniffed suspiciously. "Hmm," shi commented. "Been spending some time with Miss Torpedo Tits Sharpears, have we?"
Valjean and Javert gaped in amazement. "You- you mean she was in here, with you?" Javert exclaimed.
Kit flushed hotly. "Look, it wasn't-"
"My brother, I think we may have been wrong about this boy," Valjean commented. "So how was it?" he asked brightly.
"Look, we didn't-" Kit tried.
"Oh, please don't tell me you just sat in here and talked!" Javert tossed his head, clutching at his face. "You felt her up at least, didn't you? Didn't you?"
"She was just- showing me how to work the servo systems," Kit mumbled, staring at the floor and scuffing his feet.
"Oh, lay off," Snowflake cut in impatiently- and maybe a bit remorsefully, at the avalanche hir teasing set in motion. "So... what were you doing with the servos?"
Kit brightened immediately at Snowflake's lame attempt to change the subject. "I touched the artifact!"
"That hardly seems very exciting," Snowflake commented.
"Yeah, but I really touched it- with the virtual hands, I mean."
"You did? Cool!" Valjean hurried down to the first control station and slipped his hands into the gauntlets. When the hands appeared he made a series of rude gestures.
"I wanna try too," Javert added, following.
"Um... are you sure we should be doing this?" Snowflake inquired.
"Liska said the computer won't let us touch anything unless we unlock it first," Kit replied.
"Well-" Snowflake began.
"Touch it!" Valjean goaded.
"Incredible." Javert ran his virtual finger over the artifact.
"What's it feel like?" Snowflake asked.
"See for yourself," Valjean suggested. Snowflake hesitated but curiosity got the better of hir. Shi settled onto the couch and put her hands into the gauntlets.
"Hey, it jumped!" Snowflake jerked hir hands away.
"That's okay, it does that," Kit replied.
The artifact twitched again. This time Kit actually saw it quiver; the spike on the seismograph window was so large the graph changed magnification settings.
"How often does it do that?" Javert asked.
"Never, as far as I know," Kit replied in a tiny voice.
"Um... maybe we should leave it alone?" Snowflake suggested worriedly, pulling hir hands from the gauntlets.
Several minutes passed. All four of them stared intently and fearfully at the object. Nothing happened.
"Let's go see what games are in the library computer," Valjean suggested, turning to go.
"Okay," Javert agreed, falling in step beside his brother.
Snowflake turned but hesitated. "Kit?"
Kit sat down at the first servo station. "I'm gonna stay," he said.
"Suit yourself," Javert responded.
Snowflake continued to hesitate. "Kit, why are you so interested in this thing anyway?"
"I have no illusions about by place in the world, Snowflake," Kit replied, his eyes fixed upon the artifact. "I'm just a college student. It's pure dumb luck that I'm here at all. And this- this is the find of the century. If even half of what Dr. Janek says is true, studying this thing is gonna advance our understanding of nanotechnology by hundreds of years. And then, when we figure out where it came from, there's gonna be a First Contact." He rose slowly, pressing his hands and face against the view port. "This... is probably as close as I'm ever gonna get to any of that. At least... this way when my grand kids learn about it in school, I can tell them I was part of it, in some small way."
Because Kit was looking through the view ports he did not observe the sequence of expressions that crossed Snowflake's features. Surprise, emerging comprehension, agreement, and finally- tenderness? Affection? "I know you'll tell it to your grand kids," shi agreed quietly, reaching out to touch his shoulder- but pulling back at the last moment. Shi was young but not naivé; there were people who simply could not accept the notion of being physically intimate with a hermaphrodite. Over the last three days Snowflake had never once seen Kit make overtures to any Chakat. But here he was, spending time alone with Liska the Doorknob-
The artifact shuddered violently. Alarms beeped on several consoles and an entirely new crack opened on he object's surface.
"What's happening?" Snowflake shrilled, eyes wide, voice cracking with tension.
Kit jumped as if stung. For a moment he could only stare, then his eyes flicked to the seismograph window. I showed another enormous peak and second appeared as he watched.
"I think it's trying to get out," Kit heard himself say, amazed at how calm he sounded.
"We- we- we-" Snowflake's voice squeaked as if shi'd been inhaling helium and shi hopped nervously from foot to foot. "We have to call Professor Mos-"
"There's no time!" Kit grabbed Snowflake's arm as shi started toward the communications console. "Snowflake, even if we can reach the professor, there's no one who can get here in time to do anything! It's us or nothing!"
"But-" Snowflake glanced at the view ports. Another crack opened in the object's surface; fluid spurted out, hardening into gauzy traceries as it flew.
"Snowflake, we can do this." Kit gripped Snowflake's upper arms, his eyes locking onto hirs. "Help me."
"Okay." Snowflake couldn't look away.
"Call the Hugos in here, we're gonna need them. Then stand by the sensor console."
Valjean and Javert appeared in what felt like seconds. "What's happening?" Javert called.
"It's trying to break out from the inside but every time it makes a crack the fluid hardens in it," Snowflake said.
Kit thrust his hands into the gauntlets. "Javert, come down here and help me. Valjean, heat up the transporter and start dematerializing the shell where the fracture planes are forming. Snowflake, open the cradle and spot for Valjean."
"Where do you want me to beam the stuff?" Valjean wanted to know.
As the cradle opened the object tried to jump right out of it. Kit grabbed hold; it was like holding an angry cat in a bag. He almost lost his grip before Javert lent his hands to the effort.
"Don't think that'll be a problem," Kit replied. "Junior's probably gonna slurp it up just like he did the sensors."
Snowflake had activated the targeting display. Newly formed fracture planes appeared as flashing yellow lines. "There!" shi shouted. "There, and there!"
"Got it." Valjean wielded the transporter like a scalpel, slashing through tendrils of nanites even as they formed.
Kit felt the object coming apart in his hands. A crack opened; he tried sticking his fingers in but they wouldn't fit.
"I'm on it!" Javert declared, hitting a sequence of controls with his forepaws. The tips of his virtual fingers changed into pointed talons. He jammed them into the crack; Kit rotated the artifact to give Javert better purchase. Fortunately virtual hands didn't have virtual arms so Kit and Javert could work without bumping into each other. As the crack widened harsh, actinic light burst out along with jets of plasma as improperly dematerialized matter turned into random energy.
"Careful, Valjean, it's coming out!" Snowflake called.
The artifact split apart into three fragments. A roiling cloud of multicolored liquids and solids erupted from its interior, coating the view ports and hardening into a mucousy crust. Javert yelped, ripping his hand out of the gauntlet. "Sonofabitch!" he screamed. "It bit me!"
Something hot and slimy slithered across Kit's hand. He clutched at it; it squirted out of his grip. It was like trying to hold on to a fish. After a moment of struggling- and by touch alone- he managed to trap it in his cupped hands.
"Jeez, it's trying to beam up everything in sight," Valjean muttered.
"Did it eat the stuff you beamed out before?" Kit asked.
"Sucked it down like raw oysters," Valjean replied.
"Then keep it up," Kit directed.
"Should we be doing that?" Javert wondered, massaging his left palm with his right thumb.
"How the Hell should I know?" Kit snapped.
Javert recoiled in shock. "Sorry, he grumbled, shooting Kit a jaundiced look.
The thing in Kit's hands stopped struggling. He relaxed his grip, massaging it gently with his fingers. It felt more like a frog than a fish, with spindly little limbs and smooth skin. "Snowflake, can you clear the view ports?" he asked.
"Got it." Snowflake switched on a force field; hardened material fell away from the windows in a shower of fragments.
"What a mess," Valjean said, rubbing his forehead. Varicolored material coated everything like the aftermath of an ice storm. Shell fragments and bits of gear knocked loose in the excitement protruded from ossified billows of alien resin. Gobbets that hardened before touching anything bounced around like marbles.
"Big time technicolor yawn," Javert added.
Kit felt a sharp twinge in his right hand. A shower of brightly colored sparks erupted between his virtual fingers, dissipating in a cloud of black dust.
"Junior's done eating," Valjean commented.
Kit brought his cupped hands up to the view port and slowly, carefully, opened them. Valjean and Snowflake dashed down to the front and waited breathlessly. Snowflake let out an odd little yelp and clutched hir hands over hir muzzle.
Kit found himself thinking of a penguin. Make that a skinny and emaciated one without feet or eyes and whose beak is just where the front of its body tapers to a blunt point. A cluster of six shockingly humanoid limbs, complete with four fingers and opposable thumbs, sprouted from its belly. Two of them were long and skinny, four of them short and thick, all of them shelled and jointed like a crustacean's. Pulsating chartreuse veins crossed its otherwise purple-black skin.
"Oh, Kit, it's so cute!" Snowflake exclaimed, hir eyes shining. "Can I hold it, please?"
Kit stared in dumb amazement. Cute wasn't the first word springing to his mind. Also, the virtual hands distorted one's sense of scale. This creature- Kit could no longer think of it as a thing- was an eight meter long, fusion powered chunk of unimaginably alien ultra-technology. He opened his mouth to say that but couldn't form the words. Since he didn't say no Snowflake stuck hir hands into the gauntlets and gently scooped the baby- whatever it was- from Kit's unresisting grasp. She stroked and cuddled it, cooing and talking in baby talk. Kit licked his lips- which were as dry as old leather- and hit the button to release the gauntlets. As he pulled his hands out he noticed angry marks where force feedback had bruised him. His palms and arms gleamed with a layer of greasy sweat; enormous stains marked the chest and armpits of his shirt. He dabbed at his brow and found his hair and eyebrows soaking wet. As he slung a load of sweat off his fingers his hand started trembling.
"Um... Kit?" Valjean tried to sound calm but his voice quavered. "What... what did we just do?"
Kit shut his mouth; speaking took too much effort. The room became soft and hazy, the voices of his companions echoing and indistinct. He couldn't feel the floor under his feet; when he groped for it with his toes there wasn't anything there. Then the floor found his head; impact drove from him what remained of consciousness.
"Is that him?" Sherlock whispered.
Darkstar nodded. "Yes."
A Terran male of Caucasoid extraction strode briskly down the white gravel path. He looked easily Kit's height but lean and gangly, like a scarecrow, with a hard, bony face, hawk-like nose, and deep set eyes. Liver spots spattered his bald pate and lanky hands; scraggly gray hair hung down from the back and sides of his head to just below his shoulders. Against the early morning chill he wore a dun colored turtleneck and gray slacks. He stopped in front of a stone bench set at the edge of a small lake. Trees crowded down to the water's other three edges, with the fairy spires of Dewclaw University's College of the Performing Arts rising above them in the distance. Sunlight painted the towers in bright, burnished gold; fine mist rendered the mirror smooth water and surrounding trees in soft, glowing pastel.
"Good morning, Dr. Stannus!" Fyodor, seated on the bench, jumped to his feet and offered his hand, fairly bubbling over with good cheer. "Just the person I wanted to see!"
"Dr. Moseivitch." Dr. Stannus gripped Fyodor's fingers for the shortest possible time that satisfied the requirements of protocol. "Now could you explain to me why we needed to meet here at such an ungodly hour?" He swept his long arm in a gesture that took in the whole scene.
"As if we were inconveniencing him," Longstocking muttered.
"I'll give him an inconvenience," Sherlock growled, massaging hir clenched fist. "Right in the kisser."
"We are meeting now because it gives us plenty of time before the hearing starts," Fyodor began, clasping his hands behind his back and pacing slowly in a small circle. "We are meeting here to avoid the media frenzy already developing around the court building."
"Incidental whys." Stannus dismissed them with a curt gesture.
"I wish to settle our differences out of court," Fyodor declared.
Dr. Stannus' irritated expression vanished, along with every other trace of emotion in his face or body. "Why?"
"If this case goes to trial it will drag on for weeks. Possibly years. Regardless of who wins, valuable time will be lost. The inevitable media coverage will be a source of embarrassment for us as individuals and the organizations we represent. To that end I am willing to grant you and your people full access to the materials, in return for which you must agree to drop all charges and refrain from contesting their ownership."
"Why would I agree to your terms?" Dr. Stannus' tone was not argumentative, merely curious.
"If the matter goes before a magistrate, why of course all facts of the matter must be brought to light," Fyodor replied. "Such as, for example, the details of certain agreements made between myself and representatives of the Tenspan Foundation."
"Even if you could prove that any such agreements took place, they have no legal bearing on the matter at hand," Stannus replied. "You made a contractual agreement granting the Federation Science Corps full access to any discoveries stemming from use of the observatory or it's equipment. Clearly this is such a case and you have failed to honor your commitment."
"Whether or not I violated my agreement hinges on who actually made the discovery," Fyodor pointed out. "A magistrate might rule that since a Security Force vessel first observed the artifact the Chakonan government then has proprietary interest- and they can, without prejudice, assign the research to Dewclaw University- whose duly appointed representative I happen to be. Agreements between myself and the Tenspan Foundation may not directly relate in a strictly legal sense, but the suggestion that such things exist might cause certain members of the government to think that an attempt was being made to circumvent Chakonan sovereignty."
"The Chakonan government is not likely to look kindly upon the fact that you were a party to it," Stannus pointed out.
"True," Fyodor admitted. "At the very least I would be dismissed in disgrace from the university. At the worst I could be jailed or deported. Of course I would be forced to confess that I acted- ultimately- in collusion with the Federation Science Corps."
Seconds passed. Absolutely nothing about Dr. Stannus' expression or stance gave the slightest indication of what went on in his mind. "Very well," he said. "I agree."
"Excellent!" Fyodor rubbed his hands together excitedly. "Then let us adjourn to the court building so that our respective legal teams can hash out the details."
"And that's a take," Darkstar said, lifting the servo camera's viewfinder reticule and massaging hir eye. "God, I'm getting too old for this shit. Old bones don't like laying for hours in cold, wet underbrush."
Sherlock frowned. Shi, Darkstar, and Longstocking lay on their bellies just inside the forest edge, screened by a line of ground cover. "Am I to understand," Sherlock began slowly, "That Professor Moseivitch made an agreement with the Federation Science Corps to give away this artifact we discovered?"
"The agreement couldn't anticipate this particular discovery, of course," Darkstar clarified, flipping the viewfinder back down. The camera, strapped to hir shoulder, continued to track Fyodor and Dr. Stannus as they moved away up the path. "But yes. In return for putting the new hyper-spatial observatory here on Chakona, the Corps wanted first crack and any important scientific discoveries it made. Professor Moseivitch was their mole."
"You know," Sherlock said, shifting uneasily, "When I joined the Security Force I swore an oath. To protect Chakona from all aggressors, foreign and domestic."
"And you are," Darkstar replied. "Your assistance is helping to insure that Dr. Stannus doesn't steal away the Security Force's discovery."
Sherlock wasn't reassured. "Why should I trust Professor Moseivitch?" shi demanded bluntly. "He made an agreement to betray Chakona."
"It is a valid point," Longstocking pointed out. "It could be said that Professor Moseivitch has already demonstrated himself to be a traitor."
Darkstar's face twitched. For a long time shi stared out across the lake. Rays of sunlight poked through the trees, slanting down onto the water. "Yes, I see what you mean," shi whispered. Something flicked through hir eyes, which fortunately neither Sherlock nor Longstocking could see. "Let me put it this way. By now I'm sure you've seen that Fyodor is a shrewd politician. He has managed to maneuver himself into a position of great power. Ask yourself this: would you rather have him with you or against you?"
"Expediency doesn't justify it," Sherlock declared.
"Doesn't it?" Darkstar wanted to know. "Isn't that what politics and governments are about? Finding the expedient solution and spinning it to the public? As long as you two have been in the military, you can't tell me you've never faced a situation where the expedient solution superceded the ethical solution. If resolving conflict was a simple matter of black and white we wouldn't need laws or courts, would we? Or governments and militaries, for that matter. The purpose of a government is to tell people to shut up and quit squabbling. The purpose of a military is to enforce those orders in the only way that ultimately makes any difference, which is to say at gun point. Everything we call society falls out of those basic principles."
"But it doesn't have to be that way," Sherlock insisted. Shi seemed less certain.
"By saying that you're admitting that what I said is true," Darkstar pointed out. "Fyodor made an agreement that was unethical, illegal, and possibly treasonous. He did it to gain power and prestige for himself. But if that's what matters, why risk it now that push comes to shove? Why should he put everything he's so carefully built on the line in what can only be called a mad gamble? Especially when losing could very well mean ending up in prison? He's decided that something is more important than all that, even his own life. If that doesn't move you, think of this. If Fyodor fails, your artifact goes to Starfleet. You go back to fixing star ships. Years from now you'll look at the history books and read about how Starfleet made the greatest discovery of the century and there won't be a damn thing you or anyone on Chakona can do about it."
Longstocking tapped Darkstar's shoulder and pointed. Darkstar swung the servo camera and zoomed in on a pair of Terrans- a male and a female- emerging from the underbrush on the other side of the lake. They strolled casually toward the trail wearing sneakers, jogging suits, and bulky backpacks; their faces, magnified in the camera's viewfinder, were flushed and sweaty.
"Who are they?" Sherlock wondered.
"If they aren't lovers who just concluded a very energetic sexual encounter, they're probably folk who spent the last few hours crouched under a null screen, scanning the area with a sensor pack," Darkstar replied.
Null screens were the final word in camouflage. Deactivated they resembled thin sheets of clear plastic. Activated, they took on the colors, patterns, and reflective properties of their environment, blending in perfectly. Objects then placed beneath them became as nearly invisible as modern technology could make them. A problem arose if the object- such as a person or a piece of machinery- generated heat. To keep its own external temperature steady the null screen trapped heat generated inside it. Over time, especially in the chill pre-dawn air near the lake's edge, a small screen- such as might fit in a backpack- would get uncomfortably warm trapping the body heat of two adult Terrans. Temperature being a function of enclosed volume, though, a much larger screen- such as would require two adult Chakats to carry- remained comfortable even while masking three much larger bodies.
"I think we can go now," Darkstar said after the pair vanished from sight. Shi switched off the servo camera and returned it to its case. Longstocking and Sherlock un-pegged the null screen and began rolling it up, sighing in relief as cool morning air washed in.
"Why would Dr. Stannus have people following him around?" Sherlock asked shi kneaded the rolled up screen with hir forepaws to force air out.
"To find out if we recorded the meeting." Darkstar secured the last of the camera equipment in hir saddle packs and slipped them on. "To find out how good we are at playing the game."
"Darkstar," Longstocking said, "Why do you trust Professor Moseivitch?"
"Because-" Darkstar's eyes misted over. "He saved my life. And, for a time, we were lovers."
"Oh, my great God in Heaven!" Longstocking exclaimed as shi stepped into the Operations Center and saw the condition of the work room. Shi froze in the doorway, effectively blocking it. Ito vaulted over hir lower body; Darkstar grabbed Longstocking's tail and tugged sharply. Longstocking flinched, stepping out of the way.
"What in the world happened here?" Ito demanded. His gaze settled on Kit. "What did you do?"
"Mr. Carson!" Fyodor brusquely shoved his way through the crowd, not hesitating to use elbows where necessary. His suit looked clean and neat as always but his hair stood out in disarray and dark circles marked his eyes, giving him a positively frightful seeming. "Before we discuss what happened last night I want to see it."
"S- s- sir?" Kit stammered. His clothes looked like he'd slept in them, sweat beaded all over his face and neck, and his whole body trembled like a tree and in a windstorm.
"I want to see it," Fyodor repeated, pointing at the view ports. All eyes followed his gesture.
"I don't see anything," Ito stated accusingly. Remnants of the artifact's shell showed clearly where they had once enclosed a hollow space but no obvious trace of what it might have contained remained among the crusted gook spattering everything in sight.
"Shi's just- shi hides," Snowflake put in, stepping up to one of the control stations and activating the virtual hands. "I'll bring hir out for you."
The orange hands shimmered into being. Instead of reaching for something Snowflake twiddled hir fingers. Ito let out a strangled squeak; a section of wall seemed to detach itself and move in way neither random nor ballistic. As it passed between the virtual hands and the view ports it suddenly sprang into perspective.
The soft, lumpish thing of last night had changed dramatically. Its formerly blunt nose came to a needle sharp point flanked by small, triangular canards. Its wings lengthened into rakishly swept, razor sharp anhedral fins with slightly hooked tips. Its tail flattened out into a smoothly swept elevator like a dolphin's flukes. Just ahead of the elevator a pair of rudders sprouted from the top of the tail cone. The body itself firmed into a sleek lifting-body shape, the limbs folding neatly into smoothly faired channels along the belly. Its skin gleamed with the hard, smooth shine of spun glass; colors and patterns flowed and shimmered across it like desert mirages, some distorted reflections of the room at large, others apparently random. But for lacking engines and a cockpit it resembled nothing so much as a sleek, hypersonic fighter jet. It pressed its back against Snowflake's hand, presenting its belly to the view ports. Snowflake obligingly tickled it.
For long time not a word was spoken. "What... is it?" Longstocking finally asked.
"It's a baby star ship," Snowflake replied in a tone of hushed awe.
"Shi's... beautiful," Sherlock breathed, eyes wide with wonder. Snowflake beamed as showing off hir own cub.
"Very good," Fyodor murmured, stroking his chin. "Very good," he repeated, more loudly and briskly. "Now-" he faced the group- "we shall retire to the wardroom. I- and Longstocking as well, certainly- will want a full report on what happened here last night."
"But- what about-" Snowflake glanced between Fyodor and it.
"Not to worry, my dear," Fyodor replied with a gently reassuring tone and expression. "Longstocking will set up a remote view from the wardroom. If out little darling needs us, we shall know at once."
"Professor!" Ito exclaimed, shocked and scandalized to his very core. "Please don't tell me you actually believe that this- this thing is alive!"
Snowflake pressed hirself forward against the console, cupping the presumed baby protectively in hir hands. Longstocking made a face as if shi smelled something unpleasant. Darkstar's face went completely blank. Fyodor looked down at the floor, massaging his temples. "What I belive, Dr. Janek, is that we should refrain from drawing conclusions in advance of the facts."
"I'm not the one carrying on like- like this thing is my first grandchild!" Ito shouted.
"How can you be so certain that it isn't someone's grandchild?" Darkstar inquired, apparently no more than mildly curious.
"It's a machine," Ito pleaded. "It looks like a living thing because that's what a complex nainite-based mechanism would look like. But it's not alive! It can't be!"
"Why not?" Valjean wanted to know.
"It's made out of plastics and composites. It's powered by nuclear fusion." Ito counted points on his fingers. "There's no way a system like this could have evolved. It was made."
No one moved. No one spoke. Everyone looked at Ito- except Fyodor, who looked at everyone else. A subtle but significant change came over the room.
"Longstocking, would you escort Dr. Janek to the shuttle?" Fyodor announced briskly. "He and I will be returning to the surface immediately."
Longstocking gestured minutely with hir head, glancing at Sherlock.
"Let's go, ear boy." Sherlock stepped up and reached for Ito's arm
"What are you doing? Get away!" Ito pulled away. Sherlock slapped him hard on the shoulder, spinning him around and knocking him off his feet. Shi caught him before hi fell and shoved him toward the door. He struggled uselessly, unable to overcome hir size and strength. "Professor, you can't-" he protested.
Fyodor turned his back. Ito's shouted protests faded as Sherlock hustled him away down the corridor. "Snowflake, go prep the shuttle for flight. After dropping us off return here. Darkstar, please compile a detailed report on what happened here between the time we left yesterday and returned today. When you finish, please send it to my office at the university. If Dr. Stannus or anyone else contacts you, forward them to me. Do not answer any questions or give out any information." He massaged his face then ran his fingers through his hair. "The rest of you, keep studying-" he frowned at the view ports- "whatever that is." He turned sharply and left the room.
Kit watched silently as the professor marched past. He noted, with some concern, that Fyodor's hand trembled slightly.
Bright sunshine unobstructed by even a trace of cloud illuminated the gleaming office towers of Berdoovia as Rum Tum Tugger descended toward them. Instead of turning aside toward Dewclaw University Snowflake brought them to a rather brusque landing atop a skyscraper clad in pink marble with windows tinted to match. On each face of the building a triangular section had slightly larger windows and a darker finish, creating a stair-stepped division starting at the top corner of each face and running diagonally down until it hit the opposite side. The diagonals on adjacent faces ran in opposite directions so that top and bottom ends met on opposite sides of the building. All the nearby buildings were brightly decorated, some quite flamboyantly. Snowflake ran up the thrusters even as Fyodor and Ito hurried down the ramp; both men shielded their faces against a storm of grit as the shuttle roared off the pad and vanished into the sky. A stairwell led down to a heavy metal door with a screened small window looking into a small, elegantly furnished reception area. Deep pile carpet covered the floor, intricately patterned paper the walls. Light came through large windows, skylights, and from inset fixtures in the ceiling. Leather upholstered chairs- for humanoids- and couches- for centauroids- lined the walls. Opposite the windows stood low desk; on the wall behind it an intricately carved wooden relief depicted a snow-capped peak overlooking a placid mountain lake.
"Good morning, Professor." The receptionist, a stunningly attractive young foxtaur in a burgundy colored blouse, smiled warmly. Her pelt looked gray, the result of a white undercoat and black-tipped guard hairs. White with orange highlights coated her belly, breast, and throat. "Do you need to speak with Nakala?"
"No, not right now, thank you." Fyodor smiled winningly and took the vixen's hand; instead of shaking it he patted it gently. Then an odd expression flicked across his face and his smile broadened to a grin. "Though if hy could squeeze me in later today, or perhaps tomorrow, I would be terribly grateful. Right now, I would be deeply in your debt if you could summon for me three cars."
"Three?" the vixen asked, glancing at Ito.
"Three," Fyodor confirmed.
"But of course." She typed on a control panel, left-handed, without looking. "They'll be here in fifteen minutes."
"Nakala cannot possibly appreciate what a capable and attractive assistant he has," Fyodor declared, raising the vixen's knuckles to his lips.
"You say that to all the secretaries, don't you?" The vixen tossed her head, sounding more bemused than accusing.
"Of course," Fyodor replied. "Everyone knows that secretaries rule the world."
"Fyodor Moseivitch, you are an ass-kissing liar and I think you should leave while we can all still breathe." She fixed him with a very meaningful look. "You don't want to keep your cars waiting. I'll call you when I have an appointment scheduled."
"Lana, you are a gem. I do not know what I would do without you."
Lana snorted. "You'd be having your devilish way with some other secretary. Shoo." She flipped her hand at him. Fyodor gave her one last grin and headed for the elevators.
On the way down Ito glanced quizzically at Fyodor. Fyodor glanced back. "Flattery will get you everywhere, Dr. Janek. You would do well to remember that." Both his tone and expression were completely serious.
The elevator left them at a basement parking level. Three boxy, van-like vehicles waited at the curb. Fyodor inspected them and the scene; no one was around and they could not be seen from the street. He opened the driver's door on the first and climbed in.
"Where are we headed?" Ito inquired, climbing in on the passenger side.
"Nowhere in this vehicle." Fyodor set the windows to full polarization, entered destination coordinates into the auto-control system, and climbed out. The van pulled away from the curb and drove off, its windows solid black from the outside. He repeated the process for the second but he and Ito remained in the third. As the car drove up the ramp and pulled onto the street- under auto control, Fyodor touched neither the wheel nor the pedals- they passed a group of reporters with servo-cameras on their shoulders and baffled looks on their faces as three identical cars left the parking area headed in three different directions.
"Where are we headed?" Ito repeated.
"Just for a drive," Fyodor replied. "I want to show you something."
"What?" Ito looked around. Traffic was fairly heavy, but with the vehicles on auto control it moved briskly. Most of the cars were generic public vehicles- such as the one in which Ito and Fyodor now rode- or large freight vans. Private vehicles were more varied and more distinct: small sports cars, medium sized sedans, large pickups and vans, brightly or sedately decorated depending on the owner's preference. Convertibles had their tops down and non-convertibles generally had their windows open; people were enjoying the pleasant weather. Since all the vehicles were electric powered the atmosphere was not unduly noisy or unpleasant even here in the heart of Chakona's largest city. Traffic on the broad sidewalks was just as thick and far more varied; most of the pedestrians were Chakats but not all. Leavening the crowd were other centauroids: foxes, other canids, skunks, otters, ferrets, non-hermaphrodite felines, and even horses. For every 'taur there seemed also to be a humanoid equivalent. The result was a bewildering variety of body types and color patterns even before clothing, makeup, and other external decorations were added to the mix.
"The people," Fyodor replied. "All from highly varied backgrounds, economic classes, and even physiological classes. Yet they all have one thing in common: they, or their ancestors, were genetically engineered."
"Oh, that." Ito slumped back in his seat. "What's that got to do with anything?"
"Everything," Fyodor replied. "Why are so many of them here? On Chakona, that is?"
"Because the Chakats invited them to settle." Ito folded his arms, regarding Fyodor suspiciously.
"Why are the Chakats here?"
"Because this is their home world."
"But it isn't. Chakats did not evolve on this planet. They colonized it."
"Technically, they didn't evolve anywhere," Ito pointed out. "They were genetically engineered."
"On Terra," Fyodor continued. "Doesn't that make Terra their home world?"
"Is there a point to all this?" Ito demanded.
"Yes," Fyodor replied. "I want the facts clearly established when I make it. The very first Chakat was born on the twenty-sixth of September, 2129, at the Institute of New Generation Genetics in Brisbane, Australia. That birth was the culmination of eighteen years of work by Doctors Charles and Katharine Turner and the scientific team they led."
"All common knowledge." Ito dismissed it with a flick of the wrist.
"But even as this first Chakat is being born, in other parts of the world gene-engineered people- people as demonstratably sentient as you or I- are being rounded up and slaughtered. Why? Because in the previous century the science of genetic engineering had been used to create slaves, super-soldiers, and super-diseases that, in round after round of war and outbreak, led to the deaths of twenty billion people. The Institute of New Generation Genetics was founded to develop cures for the gene-plagues. In the face of that, why would the newly-formed United Nations of Terra World Government allow the Institute to create a new species?"
"To showcase the positive uses of genetic engineering," Ito said. "To demonstrate that genetically engineered people could benefit society."
"That's what the history books say," Fyodor went on. "In fact, Chakats were an instrumental part of the Reconstruction. They were built using super-soldier technology- to make them immune to all the gene plagues. So they could fight the surviving war beasts, if necessary. Because to them would fall the brunt of the work. Decommissioning old weapon factories. Cleaning up biological and chemical contamination. Restoring damaged ecosystems. Between 2129 and 2219, when the Chakonan colony was officially established, Chakats- and others- worked tirelessly healing the scars of war ravaged Terra. Without them there would not today be a Terran Dominion. The history books say also that Chakona was given to them as a home world in recognition of that service."
Fyodor stared straight ahead, his eyes narrowed but focused somewhere far beyond what was visible through the windshield. He held the steering wheel in a white-knuckled grip even though the car was still on auto-control. "Back in 2129 there were people who remembered all too well the horror of the Gene Wars. To some of them, Chakats were not symbols of hope for a bright future but symbols of evil from a dark past. For these people, the great achievements of the Chakat species were built on the corpses of twenty billion dead Terrans. No small amount of support for the idea of a Chakat home world came from those desiring to be quit of them. A less favorable interpretation of history could say that Chakats and their genetically engineered brethren are here because they were made to feel decidedly unwelcome on the planet of their birth. Today, two hundred years later, wounds inflicted during the Gene Wars still bleed. The Holy Christian Kingdom of North America asserts that Recombinants have no soul and cannot be saved. The "Humans First" coalition openly vilifies the genetically engineered and commits against them acts of individual violence and public terrorism. There are Chakats- and other Recombinant people- alive today who have suffered, physically and emotionally, as a result of this bigotry. There are people whose friends and loved ones have suffered." Fyodor's head rotated like a turret traversing to cover a target. His eyes, looking out from under his bushy brows, were as cold and merciless as the muzzles of cannons. "In light of all that, don't you think that perhaps your comment about something not being alive because it was made might have struck a nerve?"
All of Ito's composure fell away. His jaw dropped, his eyes bugged, and all color drained from his face- though it was hard to see with his dark skin tone. "I- I- I-" He swallowed. "Professor, I didn't mean it that way. I mean- I've lived on Chakona most of my life! I wouldn't- I couldn't-"
Fyodor sank back in his seat as if the mere act of looking exhausted him. "I didn't think you did." He seemed to be studying the instrument cluster. "I believe that in the heat of the moment you said something without giving thought to the broader ramifications. I brought you here to give... everyone involved a chance to cool down."
"And to prevent Sherlock from beating the crap out of me?" Ito suggested with the hint of a smile.
"That possibility had crossed my mind," Fyodor allowed. "It is fortunate that Chakats are, as a species, very forgiving." He smiled; not his professional smile but a shockingly bitter, sardonic one. "There are exceptions, of course."
Just then Fyodor's coat started beeping. From an inside breast pocket he extracted a personal communicator and flipped it open. "Moseivitch." His eyebrows underwent a series of comical evolutions as they drew together, arched, and relaxed. "I see. Come by my office and we shall discuss it. Thank you. Good bye." He flipped the communicator shut- Ito could hear someone still talking at the other end- and slipped it back inside his coat. "Dr. Stannus moves quickly," he sighed. Perhaps it's just as well I came down." He quickly typed in some modifications to the van's routing instructions.
"Professor, you should get some sleep," Ito suggested. "Dr. Stannus will keep until tomorrow."
"No, I'm afraid he won't." Fyodor rubbed his eyes and stifled a yawn. Suddenly he looked much worse, as if Ito's comment had reminded him exactly how long he'd been going without adequate rest. "Dr. Stannus is intelligent, tenacious, and does not suffer fools. Prevarication will only make matters worse. I might as well deal with him now. As for you, Dr. Janek... use the day as you see fit. I ask only that you be ready to return with me to the station this evening, and that you do not speak to reporters. If this string of emergencies ever lets up-" he chuckled wryly- "I will schedule a press conference. In the mean time, partial truths are likely to do more harm in the long run than unfounded rumors." Fyodor scrubbed his face. "That is the problem with reporters. You cannot explain to them that science is a dynamic field. If a scientists says one thing one day and another thing the next, reporters assume that the scientist must be lying or incompetent. I'm sorry, Doctor. Is there somewhere I can let you out?"
Ito glanced around. "Actually... right here is fine."
"All right." Fyodor stabbed a button; the van pulled over to the curb and stopped. Ito jumped out, watched the van until it vanished from sight. He threaded his way diagonally through the crowd to a public terminal. Though faces without fur or muzzles were rare no one paid him much attention; the people of Berdoovia were accustomed to highly varied mix. He pulled down the privacy screen- which muted out most but not all of the noise- and slipped his ID card into the slot.
"Ready," the terminal announced it in its generic, impersonal computer voice.
"Chakona News Network, please," Ito replied.
"Snowflake, we can do this." Kit took hold of Snowflake's upper arms and looked deeply into hir eyes. "Help me."
"Freeze," Darkstar said. Shi reclined comfortably on two of the wardroom's many beanbag chairs.
With hir left index finger Longstocking touched a control on the portable workstation laying open on the table in front of hir. The image on the big screen- a wide-angle shot of the Operations center, taken from just above the door- froze.
"Back five seconds and hold," Darkstar continued.
Kit let go of Snowflake and turned to face the view ports. Snowflake gradually started hopping then stopped abruptly. Their voices were of normal timbre and clearly recognizable but the words unintelligible, as if they were speaking a foreign language.
"Portrait shot on Kit and play," Darkstar directed.
The view came in tight on Kit until his face filled the screen. At that level of magnification the image started to look blocky from raster artifacts. "There's no time!" he exclaimed. The camera kept his face centered as he moved slightly. "Snowflake, even if we can reach the professor, there's no one who can get here in time to do anything! It's us or nothing!"
"Freeze. Camera two, tight on Snowflake, play."
The point of view changed to the other back corner of the room and zoomed in.
"But-" Snowflake's eyes were wide, hir mouth slightly agape, hir whiskers quivering. Shi glanced away, giving the camera a perfect profile.
"Snowflake, we can do this," Kit said. "Help me." He seemed to be smiling but he wasn't; tension in his face pulled up the corners of his mouth. It enhanced the lines in his face, adding years to his apparent age. A fire in his eyes seemed to reach right out of the screen and compel the viewer's attention.
"Well?" Longstocking prompted after the silence had dragged on for a minute or so.
Darkstar rolled off the beanbags and stood. "Hold the tight shot. Resume playback." For the most part shi only saw Kit's profile; he kept his eyes glued to what was happening in the work room. When he stood up at the end he looked terrible: sweat plastered down his hair as if he'd dunked his head and his face had a sickly pallor to it. He started fading the moment his hands were out of the gauntlets; the spark left his eyes like a candle guttering out and he dropped to the floor. Snowflake shouted to the Hugos; they left their stations and picked Kit up. Unconsciousness softened his face, making him seem much younger than his years. If not for the height and breadth of his body one might have thought he was a child.
"Well, I'd say there can't possibly be any doubt that Mr. Carson was in command of the situation," Longstocking observed- with more than a hint of amazement in hir tone.
"Except for that nosedive at the end, of course," Darkstar replied. "But on the whole, I agree. Didn't think he had it in him?"
Longstocking shook hir head. "Frankly, no. He always struck me as the nerdy type. Plenty smart, but shy and introverted. Terrible around women. He'd sit in the wardroom staring at Liska as if she were the lost riches of El Dorado, but I think if he ever tried to talk to her he'd choke to death on his own tongue."
"Really." Darkstar stroked hir cheek with one finger. "You weren't aware that they were alone together last night?"
Longstocking did a double-take. "They were?" shi exclaimed.
Darkstar nodded. "When I called in, Liska answered from Ops. When I asked to speak with Kit, she put him right on."
"That's true, come to think of it," Longstocking mused. "She'd left at the same time as Snowflake and the Hugos brothers, so I assumed- well-"
Darkstar frowned. "Two foxtaurs and a Chakat? Is Warrant Officer Sharpears really that... flexible?"
"Oh, yes." Longstocking nodded emphatically. "Very much so."
"The voice of experience?" Darkstar inquired.
Longstocking smiled crookedly. "I swore an oath to do my duty, not to be celibate. Surely you couldn't have failed to notice Mr. Sharpears'... assets?"
Darkstar sniffed. "Please. I'm not that old." Shi nodded toward the screen. "Show us Ops, say, five minutes after Warrant Officer Sharpears left the wardroom. If she's is as good as you say, maybe I'll have a crack at her myself."
Longstocking shook hir head sadly. "You're a dirty old Chakat, Darkstar."
"Life without sex ain't worth living. Play the record."
Longstocking selected a point of view in the front right corner of the Operations Center looking toward the back. In the extreme right Kit could just be seen, leaning against the view ports. As if on cue Liska came through the door; as she walked over to stand beside Kit Longstocking switched to a camera in the opposite corner of the room and zoomed in, framing Kit and Liska in a three-quarters shot.
Darkstar watched without comment as the scene played itself out. "Freeze," shi said when Liska went to the communications console.
"Will wonders never cease," Longstocking marvelled. "I've never seen a man get the better of Liska. To say nothing of someone like Kit."
Darkstar chuckled. "You said yourself he was smart. Liska was trying to put him off guard by making small talk. In so doing she made the mistake of letting Kit take the battle onto his turf."
Longstocking made a face. "If that's all it's about, why couldn't she just unzip her suit and say 'let's fuck?'"
Darkstar shook hir head sadly. "You don't understand these things. It isn't so much the sex itself as the thrill of the hunt. Stalking the prey, toying with it, that final delicious moment when the quarry realizes that he's trapped with no hope of escape."
Longstocking gave Darkstar a thoughtful look. "I get the feeling that knowing you when you were younger might have been... interesting."
Darkstar laughed. "You don't know the half of it. I was a slut puppy of the very first water. Anything that would hold still long enough, then anything that didn't run so fast I couldn't catch it. I was every bit as bad as Mr. Sharpears and then some. Of course I had to rely more on guile and cunning; I never had a genetically engineered fly-soaker of a body like she does."
"Genetically engineered?" Longstocking inquired.
"Isn't it obvious?" Darkstar asked, leveling a finger at the image of Liska. "Not overtly, of course. But look at her. The shape of her body, the color and texture of her fur, the composition of her face. It's perfect. An adolescent fantasy sculpted in living flesh. A Venus in fur."
"Too perfect?" Longstocking suggested.
"Exactly." Darkstar nodded. "That body is just as artificial as the clothing and makeup she uses to decorate it."
Longstocking grimaced. "You know, when you put it that way it doesn't seem nearly so- so-"
"Exotic?" Darkstar suggested.
"Yes. As a natural beauty she's rare and precious. As something bought from a store, she's so- so-"
Darkstar sighed heavily. "I'd like to say that was the reason I didn't have myself modified."
"You?" Longstocking exclaimed. "How?"
"Isn't it obvious?" Darkstar cupped hir breasts, lifting them. "I dreamed about having a great big honkin' pair. The sort where people would run into walls and things because they were staring at my boobs. And a tail. A long, beautiful, sinuous one I could wrap around things."
"You'd look funny."
Darkstar laughed. "Of course I would. But it's easy to say that now, with the benefit of experience and maturity. Make that a lot of maturity." Shi sighed heavily. "Try telling it to a young firebrand whose very emotional survival hangs on every casual glance and nod."
Longstocking shuddered. "Adolescence is the worst time of life."
"No argument there." Darkstar plumped the beanbags and carefully re-settled hirself. "Let's skip ahead to where they carry Kit out, then fast-forward through the rest of the night."
Snowflake spent most of the night in Ops. Twice shi called the Hugos in for a feeding session; the rest of the time shi spent napping or cuddling the new arrival. Near morning shi retired and the Hugos took over; they fed the baby once then spent the rest of their shift refining the feeding process and playing computer games. Finally Kit returned. He spoke at length with the Hugos, after which they retired. He spent some time leaning on the view ports, as he'd been doing when Liska showed up. Then Baby woke up. Instead of calling the Hugos, Kit started the feeding process by himself.
"Freeze," Darkstar said. "Sidebar on. Play at normal speed."
A computer-generated representation of several consoles appeared, inset in the video, showing the readouts and control settings for those stations. Darkstar's eyes darted constantly between Kit and the sidebars, carefully noting the system's every response to his commands. Though every other feeding had required two operators- one to hold the baby and the other to operate the transporter- Kit flawlessly managed both tasks by himself.
Longstocking shook hir head. "I knew he was good with the hardware, but I never thought he was that good."
"He does rather well when he forgets to be self conscious," Darkstar mused. "I can understand why Starfleet wanted him."
"Come again?" Longstocking interjected.
"Mr. Carson is with us because he turned down a full academic scholarship from Starfleet Academy."
Longstocking's jaw dropped. "You're kidding!"
Darkstar shook hir head. "I had Fyodor pull up their academic records. Kit has just finished two of a six year Astronautical Engineering program. He's in the top ten percent of his class and he'd be in the top two if his course work was a little more consistent. I suspect that's the result of the Hugo's influence."
"How are they doing?" Longstocking wanted to know.
"The Hugo brothers are highly intelligent but lacking in discipline. Each has just finished two of a four-year program: Robotics for Valjean, Heuristic Programming for Javert. Their grades fluctuate wildly and on two separate occasions they have narrowly avoided academic suspension. The courses in which they do best seem to be those closely related to ones Mr. Carson is taking."
"At least they were smart enough to attach themselves to someone who could keep them in school. What about Snowflake?"
Darkstar tapped hir chin thoughtfully. "Shir Snowflake is preparing to begin the fourth and final year of an Astronautics and Piloting program. Hir grades were excellent in hir first year, then slacked off. Shi's been invited to apply to Security Force academy but hasn't responded. If shi doesn't improve hir performance shi won't get in." Hir eyes narrowed. "Freeze."
Longstocking blinked, then halted playback. "What is it?" shi asked.
"Remove sidebars, tight on Kit," Darkstar directed.
Kit's profile swelled to fill he screen. Feeding was over; he'd apparently been playing with the baby, holding it, cuddling it, stroking it. His eyes gleamed with a strange light; on his face was goofy but somehow radiant, grin.
Longstocking chuckled. "I'd know that look anywhere. New Parent Syndrome. My half-sister and hir mate were like that after their first kid was born."
"You don't feel that Mr. Carson is making an unwarranted assumption?" Darkstar inquired.
Longstocking opened hir mouth, then shut it. "I... all I can say right now is that obviously he doesn't think so." Shi studied the frozen image, drumming hir fingers on the table top. "Let's watch Junior and see what that tells us." Shi turned to the workstation. Kit vanished, replaced by a view of the workroom in its original state: clean and neat with the artifact clasped firmly in its cradle. At once the artifact shivered and cracked; after it split open and before Snowflake cleared the ports the view screen blanked as debris masked the video pickups. Darkstar paid particular attention to the feeding operations, which seemed to involve holding the baby on its back and aiming a transporter at it's belly. A simple enough process, one would think, but the baby wouldn't hold still and kept sticking its hands into the matter stream. This didn't seem to hurt the baby any but it disrupted the materialization process. Bright sparks, multicolored flashes, and eruptions of vaporized matter exploded from the target sphere- which looked about thumbnail sized, compared to the virtual hands. Baby seemed to enjoy this and did it whenever possible.
"Reminds me of the experiences I had trying to get my niece to take a bottle," Longstocking said.
"You didn't breast feed?" Darkstar inquired.
Longstocking shook hir head. "Not that I wouldn't have liked to, but there simply wasn't time. I was only on leave for a week. Coming back here with full bags and reeking of hormones would have been... rather disruptive."
Darkstar nodded. While Chakats were technically all the same sex they had hormonal cycles that alternated between masculine and feminine emphasis. A group of Chakats living together- especially in a closed environment such as a space habitat- would tend, over time, to synchronize their cycles so that all members of the group were male-disposed or female-disposed at the same time. Despite how it might appear this tendency was actually an advantage; it discouraged inbreeding within family units and minimized sexual tensions in an isolated setting such as the repair station. If Longstocking had so chosen shi could have started lactating by drinking hir half-sister's milk. Hormones in it would have stimulated Longstocking's mammaries- but also thrown hir cycle out of sync and left hir in a sexually excited state. It was not a situation conducive to maintaining discipline.
"The rest looks pretty familiar too," Longstocking continued. "Eating and sleeping, with brief periods of activity occasionally nestled in between."
Left to hir own devices the baby sought out one particular corner of the work room and settled there. Over the space of two or three minutes hir skin gradually changed color to perfectly match whatever was behind hir. Darkstar found that if shi closed hir eyes for a moment shi could lose sight of the baby even when shi knew exactly where it was. When Baby wanted attention shi waved hir limbs and flashed bright, opalescent swatches on the undersides of hir wings. Shi loved being stroked and whenever anyone activated the virtual hands shi'd rub against them like a kitten. Hir favorite play activity seemed to be grabbing the fingers of the virtual hands and either flexing or squeezing them. In fast motion Darkstar and Longstocking watched the night's little dramas played out- and also saw how the soft, lumpish newborn Kit first held in his virtual hands metamorphosed into the sleek, sharp-edged thing everyone else saw upon returning to the station that morning.
"Now you're starting to get the new-parent look," Darkstar commented.
Longstocking blanked the screen and rubbed hir eyes. "Darkstar, I may not be a scientist but I do understand the danger of drawing conclusions based on how we think or want things to be rather than how they are. Intellectually I realize that Dr. Janek was merely trying to warn us that anthropomorphizing this- thing- is a seductive and dangerous trap. And I agree completely."
"But?" Darkstar prompted as the silence lengthened.
"I found Kit's reasoning... compelling," Longstocking continued. "Still, it wasn't too hard for me to set it aside. He's just a kid. Dr. Janek's a scientist, for all that he's an opinionated little prick." Shi stared at the blank view screen as if some fundamental truth might be revealed there. "But if I hadn't spent the last two weeks here with Kit... If I hadn't met Dr. Janek... If all I'd seen were those recordings..." She wiped hir face with both hands, starting on hir nose, going over the top of hir head, and down to hir neck. "But it sure acts like a baby, doesn't it? Enough that it reminds me of my niece."
"I'd been thinking that way too," Darkstar admitted. "After all, we're genetically programmed to love our children, to want to take care of them. The legacy of a billion years of evolution. Yes, I know that technically Chakats didn't evolve, but that doesn't matter. We inherited the legacy of our creators just as any child inherits from its parents. Furthermore, contact with other intelligent species has shown us that strikingly similar evolutionary patterns can emerge in completely different biospheres. If our Junior was, as Dr. Janek says, created, what of the people who created hir? They endowed hir with their legacy. The possibility that our legacy and hirs may be similar is not, I do not think, so vanishingly slight as Dr. Janek would have us believe."
Longstocking's eyes, as she gazed at Darkstar, began to shine the way Kit's had as he gazed at Junior. When Darkstar turned to look at hir, though, Longstocking looked away.
"Longstocking?" Darkstar inquired as the silence lengthened.
"I can't do this," Longstocking said. Shi gasped as if the atmosphere had suddenly become only marginally breathable.
"Why not?" Darkstar asked- quietly, gently; avoiding any suggestion of judgement.
"Darkstar, I- I've been living with these kids for a month." Longstocking rubbed hir eyes. "You... You've been here for, what, three days? You've hardly spoken more than two words to any of them... and you know more about them than I do! The damage done amounts to millions of credits. Whatever I write in this report- it's gonna affect the rest of their lives! I'm just a glorified mechanic, a commander by administrative courtesy only! Not like you."
"Actually, you're just like me," Darkstar replied, hir eyes misting slightly. "I recall something that happened long ago. Longer than I care to remember, really. A young ensign, fresh out of the academy, got hir promotion to lieutenant, junior grade. It was the proudest day of hir life, even more than graduation, because it meant that shi'd proven hirself: not just in the theoretical world of academia but in the real world. Starfleet acknowledged the merit of hir service. The next day- the very next fucking day- the new JG learns that a member of hir section was arrested for raping an underage Voxxan girl." Darkstar wiped hir face. "As I recall it, the JG went to hir CO and said something very similar to what you just said to me. The JG was scared out of hir fucking mind. Shi knew shi was nothing but a dumb kid and shi was being required to sit in judgement over another dumb kid. The CO told the JG that no matter what hir grades in the Academy had been shi had passed, which meant that Starfleet had assessed the level of demonstrated performance as satisfactory for a new officer. Furthermore, the ensign had been promoted to JG- which meant that shi had, in the process of active duty, demonstrated fitness for the rigors of command. To say otherwise was to defy the collected wisdom of Starfleet, from the Commander in Chief right down to that individual CO." Darkstar smiled. "He said other things, too, but they were rather unflattering. To you I say this: the Security Force may have put you here to fix star ships but they made you an officer because they believe in your ability to lead. If there was someone better, they'd be here instead of you. Look at it this way, too: they want to know if Mr. Carson and his friends misused the equipment left in their care. Who better to make that decision than you, an acknowledged expert in the use of said equipment?"
Longstocking stared at the brightly lit disk of Chakona. "What happened to that young man?"
"He was found guilty and sentenced to death," Darkstar replied. "He was the first person to die under my command."
"Do you still... I mean..."
"Do I still think about him? Do I remember?" Darkstar's eyes unfocused, gazing away to a far distant place and time. Hir voice took on a warm, nostalgic tone, the sort a grandmother would use to share memories with her grandchildren. "His name was Spaceman Second Class Charles Benson. His father was Albert, his mother Tina. He had joined Starfleet on a scholarship program so he'd have money for college. He had a girlfriend named Angie Henderson; they were going to get married at the end of his tour. I see his face every time I close my eyes. When I lay down to go to sleep I hear him sobbing, begging me to save his life."
Longstocking closed the workstation. Shi moved around the table, pulling off hir tunic and letting it fall to the floor. A layer of fake fur coated hir brassiere so it wouldn't disrupt the lines of hir clothing. For just an instant a troubled expression flicked across Darkstar's face, like a cloud momentarily obscuring the sun. In that moment, reflected briefly in hir eyes, was the memory of some terrible pain. "I'm old enough to be your grandmother," shi said quietly.
"Life without sex isn't worth living." Longstocking stroked hir cheek against Darkstar's. One hand found its way to Darkstar's breast and squeezed gently.
"Tell me to stop." Longstocking lifted Darkstar's breast and ran hir tongue slowly over the nipple. "Tell me you don't want me to. Make me believe it, the way you made me believe in myself."
"Longstocking?" Darkstar's eyes closed.
"Why don't you carry pictures of your grand kids?"
Darkstar lay sprawled on hir back, staring up at the ceiling. Only hir eyes moved, shifting to look at Longstocking, propped up on hir elbows. "Do you really want to know, or are you just making conversation?"
"I really want to know."
Darkstar's eyes unfocused. "I don't carry pictures of my grand kids because I don't have any. I never mated."
"What about Aurora?"
Darkstar clasped hir hands behind hir head. "I didn't know about hir until recently. Many years ago, while I was attending Cape York Academy on Terra, one of my many lovers was a Chakat named Iris. One evening shi told me shi was madly in love with me and wanted to have my baby. I was nineteen years old, full of hormones and way too much alcohol. I fucked hir six ways from Tuesday. Next day shi was gone, vanished as if shi'd never existed. I searched and searched, to no avail. Years later, after retiring from Starfleet, I came back to Chakona to have a look at the old homestead. I hadn't seen it since- a very long time ago. A Chakat walks up to me and asks if I happen to be Darkstar, daughter of Penta and Longstride. I say yes. Shi says shi's Iris, and wants to tell me about my daughter, whom shi had named Marla."
"That must have been a shock."
"You can't even begin to imagine. When I'd recovered enough to speak I asked where Marla was. Iris said shi didn't know; Marla had disappeared fifty odd year ago. I confess that at that point I wasn't very diplomatic. I grabbed hir around the neck and told hir that if shi didn't tell me the whole story- quickly- I'd squeeze until hir face turned purple and hir eyes popped out of their sockets. Iris told me that shi'd flunked out of school and returned to Chakona. In the cold light of day shi didn't love me as much as shi'd thought but couldn't bring hirself to terminate the pregnancy. Shi found a mate, Elendil, and settled down to the business of raising kids. But there were problems. Marla was violent; shi beat up- and injured- hir sisters and classmates. As a child shi was surly and disobedient. As a teen shi was openly rebellious. Shi fought, shi took drugs, shi stole and prostituted to pay for them. After going in and out of Juvenile Justice more times than they could count Elendil and Iris had enough and sent Marla to a school for delinquents, where shi was the only Chakat. Eight and a half years later shi finally graduated. Before shi could be collected shi vanished. Half a year later shi appears suddenly at the family home with a piece of Tritanium tubing, with which shi beats Elendil to a bloody pulp and breaks all four of Iris' legs. Hir explanation is that hir parents, particularly Elendil, had never loved hir and always treated hir like a pariah. Then shi disappeared for good."
"Using the information I'd gotten from Isis and contacts I'd developed over the years I tracked Marla down. My inquiries eventually led to a dilapidated orbital habitat in Voxxan space, where Marla worked on the hull crew. I arrived two days after shi was killed in an accident. There wasn't even a body to take home; shi'd been caught between two pieces of hull plating. Nothing left but a bloody smear. It turned out shi had a daughter; no one knew who the kid's father was and shi'd been seized by Family Services because Marla was deemed an unfit parent. I eventually won custody of the kid- Aurora- by taking a blood test. I brought hir back to Chakona and the rest, as they say, is history."
"That's terrible," Longstocking whispered. "But... surely Iris and Elendil hadn't treated Marla that badly?"
"They didn't," Darkstar replied. "Marla had a genetic defect that affected hir behavior. One shi'd inherited from me, as a matter of fact."
"What about your sisters?" Longstocking inquired after a lengthy pause. "Didn't they have kids?"
"I'd rather not talk about it." Darkstar rolled onto hir side.
Longstocking frowned. "Tell me, Darkstar. You owe it to me."
"I'm ignoring my oath for you, Darkstar. I'm risking my career. For you, Darkstar. Frankly I couldn't give a damn about Professor Moseivitch as his Byzantine schemes. I'm doing it for you."
Darkstar drew a deep breath and let it out slowly. "All right." She rolled onto hir belly and slowly pushed hirself upright."My parents had three kids: myself, the oldest, Schwartzchild, and Corona. When I was eleven we went on a camping trip to Novaya Belarus. In fact you can just see where we went-" shi pointed out at Chakona- "at the northern end of the sub-continent, in the foothills. It was colder than shit and the snow averaged about a meter deep. Back then it was a pretty wild place. Still is, I hear. Mom set up an autogun-"
"An autogun?" Longstocking exclaimed.
"Have you ever seen a scimitar cat?" Darkstar asked.
"Only in textbooks."
"Then you can't appreciate the truth of it. The Chakonan scimitar cat resembles the Terran lynx but is about the size of a tiger. They hunt by stealth- and they can, in spite of their size, because their feet are large and padded with thick bundles of fur. Then they jump out and spear their prey with canines that can be up to twenty centimeters long. Their jaws are so powerful one bite can snap the spine of a creature twice their size. Anyway, Mom warned us not to play anywhere the autogun couldn't fire but you know how kids are. While Mom was distracted with something we wandered off. Then... the scimitar cat came out of a clump of dead grass I wouldn't have thought could hide a rabbit. It was so big it stepped over me. I looked up at the fluffy under-fur hanging from its chest. It's jaws closed with a clump, like if you took two blocks of wood and slapped them together gently. The last I saw of Corona was hir body dangling from the cat's jaws as it jogged away. Hir head, shoulders, and arms were completely inside its mouth. I always wondered why it picked hir instead of me. I was bigger, and closer." Shi shrugged. "Maybe my fur pattern confused it. I was the only lynx. Had enough yet?"
"No," Longstocking replied. "What about your other sister, Schwartzchild? Didn't your parents have more kids?"
Darkstar shook hir head. "Mom and Dad never had any more kids. I think... I think it was because Mom was crushed with guilt. For having lost one. Like that. The camping trip was hir idea." Darkstar smiled but hir eyes were bleak. "We were an old Starfleet family. Mom and Dad served, it was a given that we kids would. They didn't object when Schwartzchild opted out to start a family, though. I think they were afraid... they didn't like the odds. With only two of us left, that is. While I was off at the academy Schwartzchild mated and had a passel of kids. But Mom and Dad didn't want me to think that what I was doing wasn't important, so when I was promoted to commander and made executive officer of the Illustrious they packed up the whole clan and headed off to Voxxa to celebrate with me." Hir eyes focused on Longstocking. "You know what's coming. I can see it in your face. On the tenth of February, 2261, the family boarded the Cathay Pacific liner Quezon City at Chakona Gateway Station. Two days later the ship passes through a sub-space rift that induces a huge instability in it's warp field. Quezon City had a new lightweight core and it couldn't take the strain. The plasma manifolds ruptured right where they joined to the warp reactor body. Drive plasma vented into the engine casing erupted through the accommodation hatches, into the Tourist class passenger decks, and finally overboard through the view ports on the Tourist class promenade. Everything in the path of the plume vaporized instantly, even decks and structural members. Five hundred and seventy people died, either in the initial explosion or later as a result of radiation burns. As you know too, Illustrious was the ship sent to investigate the disaster. I was part of an away team searching for survivors. I couldn't belive anyone had survived; the ship's entire stern was reduced to slag. Then someone let slip that this was the Quezon City. I hadn't recognized it. Just a day earlier I'd gotten a hyper-gram from Mom, letting me know that they were coming. I checked the passenger manifest Cathay Pacific sent us. The family's suite of rooms was on D deck aft, an area so hot we couldn't even go in to search. Not that there would have been any point."
Longstocking's face went slack from shock. Hir jaw worked but shi couldn't form words. Shi reached out-
Quick as a snake Darkstar caught Longstocking's wrist before the hand could touch hir shoulder. "Don't start," Darkstar said flatly. "I know what you're thinking." Hir eyes pinned Longstocking with bolts of cold, gray steel. "I told you this because you asked and because I owed you. I do not expect, do not want, your sympathy or comfort. I have a family- Aurora- and it's enough. If you wish to honor me, do it for the works I've done, not for the tragedies I've suffered." Shi released Longstocking's arm, which fell limply, and walked out of the room without looking back.
"Who did you say the Prof was bringing with him?" Kit asked.
"Good afternoon everyone," Fyodor exclaimed as he bustled into Ops. Behind him came Dr. Stannus, Ito, Snowflake, and two strangers. "Allow me to present Doctor Ygor Stannus of the Federation Science Corps."
"Him," Valjean replied, pointing at Dr. Stannus.
"Is that the same Dr. Stannus who tried to get Professor Moseivitch thrown in jail?" Kit wondered.
"I thought only assistants were named Igor," Javert commented.
"That's Ygor, with a Y," Valjean corrected.
Javert frowned. "Y-gor? Doesn't sound right."
"Doctor Nova Stallis, a neurologist, from our very own College of Internal Medicine," Fyodor continued.
Dr. Stallis resembled a lioness the same way Liska resembled a fox. In addition to a leonine head, tail, and tawny yellow fur Nova possessed very catlike feet complete with retractable claws. Nova's bust and hips swelled as impressively as Liska's and she stood a good thirty centimeters taller, looming even over Dr. Stannus. Layers of sculpted muscle gave Nova an amazingly powerful as well as voluptuous figure; though merely humanoid she looked quite capable of folding a Chakat in half. An orange tank top and red shorts covered her chest and pelvis but nothing between of beyond. A green jade pendant hung around her neck from a fine golden chain, almost disappearing in her breathtaking cleavage. A belt pouch hung loosely around her waist; in one hand she carried a portable workstation, in the other a brushed metal equipment case. Her mane, slightly darker brown than her fur, she wore in corn rows decorated with beads.
"Oh, my God," Kit breathed, shaking his head in wonder. "They just keep getting bigger and bigger."
"Ain't that the truth," Valjean sighed, gazing longingly at Nova's bosom.
"Here, kitty, kitty," Javert added, licking his muzzle.
Sherlock snorted disdainfully. "Best you doggies not try chasing that cat. She'd gulp down the both of you without so much as a belch." The frankly speculative look shi gave Dr. Stallis suggested shi might be willing to take the chance hirself, though.
"And this is Kei of House Redpaw, a telepath," Fyodor concluded.
Kei was a Skunktaur. One would think that made hym a centauroid creature based on a skunk as, for example, the Hugo brothers were centauroids based on foxes. For the most part that was so; Kei had a triangular, skunk-like face, small, round ears, and a big, fluffy tail. Hys lower body, though, more resembled in a cat than a skunk. Hy did have an appropriately skunk-like pelt, solid black except for a pair of parallel white stripes running the length of his spine and tail. Hy also had a wavy, white mane falling to the center of hys back, a diamond shaped white blaze in the middle of hys forehead, and a stylized red paw print on hys right breast. Hy wore only a belt pouch around hys waist and a red bandanna around hys head.
"I thought skunktaurs were hermaphrodites," Kit whispered to Valjean. Kei looked as completely and exclusively masculine as the Hugos, though not quite as buff.
"They are, but not like Chakats," Valjean whispered back. "Skunktaurs are only one sex at a time but they change back and forth. That's why they use different pronouns." Kit nodded.
Fyodor quickly introduced Kei and Nova to the rest of the team. "And that," he finished, pointing toward the view ports, "Is Star Baby."
Since early that morning a fearsome debate had raged over what to name the new arrival. As discussion continued- at times quite heatedly- "baby star ship" metamorphosed into "Star Baby." Since no one had so far managed to propose a generally acceptable alternative Star Baby became the de facto official appellation.
"Amazing," Nova breathed, her eyes wide.
"Wow," Kei put in, eyes also wide.
"Fascinating." Dr. Stannus' eyes narrowed slightly.
"Since our scanning apparati are no longer obstructed, our first order of business shall be to conduct a detailed physiological analysis," Fyodor announced. "I trust everything is in readiness?"
"It is," Longstocking replied. "Mr. Carson, Mr. Sharpears, if you please?" Kit and Liska sat down at adjacent control stations.
"Why do you need both of them?" Dr. Stannus wanted to know.
"Liska to operate the equipment, and Kit to operate Star Baby," Longstocking replied.
"Excuse me?" Dr. Stannus' expression suggested that he felt he was being put on.
"Star Baby can be rather- rather-" Longstocking began.
"Contrary?" Darkstar suggested.
"Yes. Contrary. Of all of us, Mr. Carson seems to do best at getting hir to behave."
"Hir?" Nova asked. "Is shi a hermaphrodite?"
Longstocking shrugged. "Frankly, we haven't the faintest idea. We couldn't very well call hir it, could we?"
As soon as Kit activated his virtual hands Star Baby pounced upon them like a kitten upon a bit of string. For several minutes they wrestled; in the end Star Baby became quiescent as Kit pinched hir wings, tickled hir belly, and stroked hir back. "Shi likes being cuddled," he explained.
"Deploying scan heads," Liska reported. Arms reached out from the walls- and occasionally had to jerk back as Kit's virtual hands went by.
"Kit, can you stop for a moment?" Sherlock asked.
"'Fraid not," Kit apologized. "If I stop now shi'll wake up even crankier."
"Can't you just restrain it with tractor beams?" Dr. Stannus wanted to know.
"Of course," Darkstar replied, forestalling an angry outburst from Snowflake with a soothing gesture. "But there are... political considerations. I foresee a First Contact in the not too distant future- at which time we might very well be asked how we treated someone's darling baby. Strapping said baby down with tractor beams might prejudice that encounter against us, don't you think?" Dr. Stannus did not respond.
"Okay, we're getting data now," Sherlock muttered. A display window opened on the view ports in which a 3D model of Star Baby began to assemble itself.
"Now we get to the good stuff," Ito whispered, rubbing his hands together and literally hopping with excitement. He opened his portable workstation and connected it to one of the consoles with a patch cable.
"Shi seems to have both internal and external skeletons," Nova commented.
"The outer skin is just a shell that holds the extremities in shape," Ito replied, his eyes never leaving the screen of his workstation. "The inner skeleton carries the structural load."
"Any evidence of a star drive?" Dr. Stannus inquired.
"Not that I can see," Sherlock replied. "Darkstar?"
Darkstar peered at the information displayed at Sherlock's console. "Me either."
Ito glanced up. "Sherlock, what's happening to the data stream?"
"I'm losing resolution," Sherlock replied. On the 3D view only the outer layers were clearly defined; features near the center were fuzzy and indistinct.
Sherlock frowned. "Sir, Star Baby's insides are full of interlocking force fields. I can't get through them."
"Then we'll just have to plant sensor pods, like we did last time," Ito said- then suddenly realized that everyone was staring at him. "What did I say this time?" he demanded petulantly.
"Doctor, we're no longer talking about sectioning an inanimate object," Darkstar said, restraining Snowflake with a hand upon hir shoulder. "We're talking about performing vivisection on a living organism that may be sentient. We can't predict what... long term effects this surgery might have on hir."
"Which is why I asked Kei and Dr. Stallis to come along," Fyodor interjected smoothly. "I have no doubt that they will help us to shed light on the matter. Of Star Baby's sentience, at least."
"I appreciate the confidence but I don't think it's going to be quite that easy," Nova replied. "My neurological analyzer-" she hefted the case- "has a maximum range of about a meter and it only works on organic brains."
"Telepathy depends a lot on having a common frame of reference," Kei put in.
"But I thought telepaths could connect with any mind," Snowflake protested.
"Theoretically yes," Kei agreed. "On a practical level, the only minds you can communicate with- and therefore properly assess- are those of people who see the world like you do. Or, you have to learn how to see the world like they do. If not you may still get a lot, but it'll be unintelligible nonsense."
"I don't follow," Valjean said.
"It's like this," Kei explained. "I could make contact with- with you, for instance. I could even read what you're thinking, because you think in words and they're in the same language I use. If I contacted someone who spoke a different language I couldn't understand the thoughts any more than I could understand their speech. I could guess what the person meant because along with the words there'd be feelings, sensations, images- all sorts of non-verbal things- that I could pick up. But what if the person doesn't even use language as I know it? Like animals, who don't use words or anything like them? What about creatures like, like dolphins or bats, who see with sonar? The images are there, but my brain doesn't know how to interpret them because I don't have sonar." He looked at Star Baby. "I'm no star ship engineer but I'd say it's pretty clear that whatever senses shi uses are completely unlike anything I've ever seen. Probably unlike anything any organic creature's ever had."
"Would you be willing to give it a try?" Fyodor inquired.
"Hell yes." Kei's eyes shone with excitement. "I wouldn't miss it for the world. If the Chakats would care to leave the room I'll get started."
"Why do the Chakats have to leave?" Kit whispered.
"Skunktaurs don't have complete control over their powers," Liska replied. "Skunktaur and Chakat brains are very similar. I understand they were engineered from the same basic stock. When a skunktaur activates hys powers- by taking off the headband- telepathic contact spills over to all nearby Chakats."
"Are we okay?" Kit asked, somewhat apprehensively.
"Oh, yes. It only affects Chakats."
"We'll watch from the wardroom," Longstocking said. Shi, Sherlock, Darkstar, and Snowflake filed out. Kei closed his eyes, hands clasped under hys chin as if praying, then reached up and took off hys headband. Kit blinked, then extracted his left hand from the control gauntlet and scratched the side of his head. The inside of his ear seemed to be itching-
Kei let out a horrific shriek, rearing up until he fell over backwards. Hys head struck the deck with a nasty crack and hy lay of the floor thrashing and gobbling, apparently trying to curl backwards into a ball. The fur on hys muzzle turned bloody as hy chewed on his own tongue. Nova vaulted over the row of consoles in one smooth motion, landing in a crouch and delivering a vicious punch that rendered Kei instantly unconscious and left hys jaw hanging at an unnatural angle.
"Valjean, Javert, help Dr. Stallis carry Kei to the medbay," Fyodor ordered in a voice that cracked like the popper of a bullwhip. "Liska, contact Chakona Gateway and tell them to send a medical shuttle at once." The directed parties jumped immediately to their tasks; in the face of that voice disobedience could not even be considered.
Kit glanced fearfully over his shoulder. The jovial professor was gone; the man in his place seemed to tower over everyone present, physical size notwithstanding. "What should I do, Professor?" Kit asked.
"Stay here and keep Star Baby calm," Fyodor replied. "I can't imagine what she did to Kei, but I don't want to make it worse." He smiled; not his usual friendly one but a grim, shark-like one that made Kit shiver. "Other than that I'd say we've all had about enough science for one day, don't you think?"
Kit looked at Star as a way of breaking eye contact with Fyodor. Shi seemed unmoved by the drama in the Operations Center; Kit stroked hir to settle his own nerves.
All lights in the wardroom were off. Illumination came only through the view ports, painting the scene in long, alternating bands of cold light and inky shadow. Longstocking hesitated in the doorway; shi found the effect unsettling.
"If you please, what is the report on Kei's condition?" Fyodor asked quietly. He stood as if at attention before the centermost view port, hands clasped behind his back, staring out into space. The half full disk of Chakona formed a partial halo around his head and reduced his body to a textured shadow.
"Ah-" Longstocking hadn't thought Fyodor would noticed hir. "According to the physicians at Chakona Gateway, Kei suffered a stroke. Damage was neural tissue was comparatively minor but widespread. The prognosis-" shi licked hir lips, shifting uncomfortably. "The doctors say hy'll recover, but his telepathic abilities may be, be severely degraded."
"Computer, lights." Fyodor turned on his heel. Glow strips came on, the view ports darkening to cut glare. Puffiness and tear streaks marked his face, which looked haggard and very, very old. "Please forward a full report to Nakala Redpaw of Arcanum Industries. Include-" his voice caught; he looked down, bringing a hand up to dab at his face. "No, that won't do. I have to tell hym personally. Darkstar, would you take me down?"
"Of course," Darkstar replied.
Longstocking restrained hirself to keep from starting in surprise. With hir attention focused entirely on Fyodor shi hadn't even noticed Darkstar laying on the couch.
"Did the physicians give any indication of what might have been the cause of Kei's... attack?" Fyodor asked, taking a handkerchief from his coat pocket and wiping his face.
Longstocking shook hir head. "I'm afraid not, Professor. Kei was in excellent health; the- attack- was clearly the result of hys telepathic contact with Star Baby. Though none of the experts thus far consulted can offer any explanation of why."
"I see." Fyodor took three steps away from the view port then stopped and glanced at Darkstar. In that instant something passed between them. It was sudden and significant yet nearly invisible to those it didn't directly involve, like a spark in dry air. Darkstar went to stand beside him, laying a hand on his shoulder and squeezing gently. Fyodor straightened up and once again he was the familiar Moseivitch: friendly, calm, collected, and very much in control. "Longstocking, please tell Dr. Stallis and Dr. Janek that I would like them to continue their research while I am away. Tell Dr. Stannus that I would like him to accompany me to the surface. I will require his input on what will be said at the official press conference."
Longstocking frowned. "All this about security, and now you're holding a press conference?" shi exclaimed.
"The project's security has been blown right out the airlock, or it will be shortly," Darkstar said. "The Mileva Memorial Observatory cost a Hell of a lot of money. People want to know why steps weren't taken to protect that investment. Either it was administrative incompetence- or something extraordinary happened. To the press, either explanation is pure gold. Add Dr. Stannus' suit and what happened to Kei- both of which are matters of public record- and it doesn't take a genius to put it all together. Kei was maimed while participating in a Security Force black project involving something that was capable of destroying the Deep Space Hyper-Spatial Anomaly Detector in spite of all the money spent to protect it."
"Good God." Longstocking had to lean against the door frame. "There'd be a media frenzy. Of- of galactic proportions."
"Quite," Fyodor agreed. "If an avalanche is inevitable, better that I should throw the first stone so that the deluge goes in the direction of my choosing."
"And what direction is that?" Longstocking inquired distrustfully.
Fyodor grinned wolfishly. "I intend to accuse the Tenspan Foundation of shoddy design and incompetent management."
"But- won't they just throw it back in your face?" Now Longstocking seemed baffled.
"Of course. But if they tell the whole truth they reveal that they colluded with me to subvert the authority of the Chakonan government. If they tell only part of the truth it appears that they are attacking me to divert attention away from themselves. Dr. Stannus will make sure that my reputation remains unsullied."
Now Longstocking was really confused. "Wait a sec. Dr. Stannus hates you. Why would he help you like that? Especially if it means selling out his own allies?"
"So long as the truth about Star Baby remains hidden, there is the chance that the Chakonan government can be persuaded to give hir up," Fyodor explained. "If the government truly understood what it had, and especially if it knew about the Tenspan Foundation, it would never give hir up. As a matter of principle, if nothing else. Certainly not to the Federation Science Corps."
Longstocking's eyes narrowed. "That's why you invited him in, even after he tried to get you thrown in jail. Because if he tries to blow the whistle now, his hand is in the cookie jar, too."
"Exactly." Fyodor nodded.
"I'll go pass the word." Longstocking turned away so that neither Fyodor or Darkstar would see hir expression. Did ethics ever have anything to do with this? shi wondered, feeling sick to hir stomachs.
"That's a girl," Kit grinned like an idiot as he held Star Baby on hir back and stroked the roots of hir wings with the tip of his virtual finger. It left a diffuse streak of pale orange on hir hull, as if the color were leaking out.
"How does shi change hir color?" Nova asked.
"Damfino." Valjean sat at the station next to Kit, aiming a contraption at Star Baby's belly that looked as if it had come straight from the lab of B movie mad scientist. A brilliant light crackled from its tip, filling the whole work room with a harsh, actinic glow. "Ask Dr. Stannus."
"What do you feed hir?" Nova inquired
"Bits of the shell shi came in," Ito replied, watching with evident concern as a transporter dissolved a piece of that very thing. "We'll have to find a substitute soon because we're running out of shell. Shi's gained almost four tons and shi was only born yesterday."
"How does shi ingest it?"
"Transporter," Javert said.
"Then why all the ironmongery?"
"Shi can't break down matter on hir own," Kit explained. "We break it down for hir with a cargo transporter. Shi picks up the stream and does whatever shi does with it."
"But hir transporter isn't very stable," Javert put in, studying the instruments at his console and making constant adjustments. "If we're not careful we could overload our transporter, hir transporter, of just end up with a great gob of randomly materializing matter."
Valjean snorted. "We made a Hell of a mess figuring it all out."
"So shi's a mammal," Nova commented, thoughtfully stroking her chin. "How'd you figure out what to feed hir?"
"Dumb luck," Javert explained. "We used the transporter to cut hir out of the shell 'cause there wasn't anything else that could."
"Why not use Dr. Janek's nanites?"
Kit frowned. "Those nanites were made to dissolve the shell. The shell is made of the same stuff Star Baby is, except that it's been ossified by exposure to vacuum. What would they do to hir?"
"Nothing, actually," Ito put in. "Hir natural force fields would keep the nanites from even touching hir skin."
"Anyway, we couldn't stop hir from scarfing up the matter stream," Javert continued. "Shi seemed to be doing just fine and we couldn't think of anything else to feed hir, so we kept at it."
"'Tweren't as hard as we'd thought," Valjean said. "Star Baby just sort of... takes what shi wants and leaves the rest. We adjust the composition of the matter stream accordingly."
"What if you try to feed hir something shi doesn't like?"
"El Puke-o," Valjean declared.
"Big time technicolor yawn," Javert added.
"I believe the technical term is 'regurgitation,'" Kit concluded. "Shi spikes the matter stream and expels whatever shi's collected. You end up with stuff randomly materializing all over the place."
"An experience not unlike having a Founder's Day fireworks display shoved up your nose," Valjean put in.
"Speaking of which, I think it's time to shut down unless Dr. Stallis would like a practical demonstration," Kit said.
"Righty-o, chief." Javert shut down the transporter. Valjean put away the equipment and retracted the arms, then pulled his hands out of the control gauntlets and massaged them.
Nova stepped closer to the view ports. "Why do you stroke hir like that, Kit?"
Kit shrugged. "When I do it she lays still and lets us feed hir without a lot of fuss."
"But it only works well when he does it," Snowflake muttered.
"Shi likes our Kit, shi does," Valjean commented.
"Shi even knows when he comes into the room," Javert said. "If he doesn't give hir a pat and a cuddle shi starts knocking on the view ports."
"You oughta see it," Valjean continued. "Those panes are three centimeters of transparisteel. When Star Baby flicks one it bounces like cheap plastic."
"Shi's strong, our Star Baby is," Kit declared proudly, caressing hir belly with the tips of his fingers. Sparkles and streamers of color raced out from the points of contact and across the surface of Star Baby's hull like ripples on a pond.
"We've had to boost gain on the virtual hands by nearly a factor of ten," Snowflake added. "And we're gonna have to get hir a scratching post."
"What for?" Nova inquired.
"Y'see, the fingertips on hir strength limbs- that's these, the stubby ones- are pointed," Kit explained, gesturing with his virtual fingers. "Turns out they project shearing fields, like the blade of a vibrosaw. Lately shi's taken to clawing at the walls when shi gets bored. The work room is sheeted with surface-hardened tritanium, just like the hull of a star ship, but if we leave hir too long shi'll rip furrows in it."
Snowflake sighed. "Used to be- this was yesterday mind you- we could leave hir alone. Now we have to watch hir constantly."
"Gonna be a bitch when shi gets bigger," Javert observed.
"How big will shi get?" Nova asked.
"Hir momma massed around four hundred tons," Kit responded. "If Star Baby gets that big shi'll be about seventy or eighty meters long."
"We'll have to find a bigger place for hir," Valjean said.
"No we don't," Kit insisted, brow furrowing. "We just have to get hir out of here."
Flashes of color exploded across Star Baby's belly. Shi extended hir strength limbs and grabbed at Kit's fingers.
"Sorry," Kit apologized, his tone softening. "Didn't mean to upset you, Star Baby." He lovingly pinched and caressed the comparatively tiny hands until they withdrew. "Dr. Stallis, we can't keep hir in here," he pronounced. "I mean- would you keep one of your own kids locked in a box? Shi needs to be- out there." He pointed; his virtual hand pointed as well. Star Baby extended one of hir strength limbs and imitated the gesture.
"How do you expect to keep hir from running off?" Ito wondered.
"Sentry ships, to keep an eye on hir while shi's out exercising," Kit replied. "The Security Force could do it. They've got the ships and the pilots. You could call it- I dunno- a training exercise. Or something."
Snowflake nodded. "I think that's a great idea. For when shi gets older, of course."
Kit frowned. "How much older is older, Snowflake?" he demanded, though he continued to stare resolutely forward. "Look at how much shi's developed in the last- what- day and night. I think that older is going to arrive a lot sooner than you think."
"Kit, shi's a baby," Snowflake protested. "And shi's the only baby we've got. If anything happens to hir there's no second chance! Shi could get lost, injured, run away-"
"I think you're overstating the problem," Kit responded tightly- then winced as Star Baby pinched his fingers.
"All that's for Professor Moseivitch to decide," Ito pointed out.
Kit seemed not to hear. He remained focused on Star Baby; after a handful of strokes his face cleared, settling in an expression of warm contentment. Snowflake glanced at Ito out of the corners of hir eyes; hir lips drew back slightly and hir forelegs tensed, the claws extending and digging into the traction matting covering the deck. Valjean and Javert took studious interest in inconsequential things near themselves so that they were not looking at anyone in particular. Nova observed all this interplay with quick motions of the eyes and no more than minute motions of the head and body.
"How do you keep her from getting bored?" Nova inquired.
"Lots of cuddling and games," Kit said.
"Shi plays patty-cake," Javert said.
"If you make hand gestures shi'll imitate them," Snowflake added.
Valjean chuckled. "I taught hir to make a one-finger salute." He demonstrated, making a fist and extending his middle finger. The gesture was not aimed at anyone in particular, though it might have come closer to Dr. Janek than anyone else. Snowflake snorted and rolled hir eyes, but it was a tolerantly bemused expression.
"How smart is she?" Nova asked.
Kit blinked. "Why are you asking us?" He sounded genuinely surprised.
Ito frowned, an expression that did terrible injustice to his otherwise beautiful features. "I thought you were supposed to be the big brain expert," he commend, only half jokingly.
"I'm an expert on neurology," Nova replied, turning to face Ito squarely. "These young gentlefolk are the experts on Star Baby." She smiled; to Kit, Snowflake, Valjean, and Javert, who each saw it only from various side angles, it seemed like nothing but a casual expression. Only Ito saw it straight on- and there was something about it that made him take a sudden and intense interest in his own work. "So, Kit-" she turned to him- "how smart do you think shi is?"
"I dunno." He shrugged one shoulder and shifted uncomfortably. "Shi seems pretty smart. I've never heard of an animal playing patty-cake."
"Apes do," Nova said. "Up to an including the most advanced of the primates, Homo Sapiens Terra. Kit, would you help me with a small test?"
"I thought the neurological analyzer won't work," Kit responded.
"It won't," Nova announced. "We won't need it. What we will need is two shipping containers, large enough so Star Baby can handle them, strong enough that shi can't crush them, at least not easily, and one must fit inside the other."
"Drive coil shipping box?" Valjean ventured.
"Sounds good," Kit agreed, nodding. "And we've got plenty laying around. Won't matter if Star Baby smashes a few." He grimaced. "Not that a few containers would make any difference, considering how much equipment we've destroyed already."
"Where do you want 'em, Doc?" Javert inquired.
"Put the smaller inside the larger and set it where I can reach it with the virtual hands," Nova directed, taking a seat at the station beside Kit's and slipping her hands into the gauntlets.
"That's an affirm." Valjean stepped up to a console and keyed in a quick sequence of commands. A few moments later a hatch opened on the right side of the work room. From it emerged the container, a squat cylinder resembling a hat box.
"You got hir attention, all right," Kit said. Instead of merely stroking hir Kit now held Star Baby gently between his hands. The shifting colors of hir skin quickened, like a school of fish suddenly darting.
Nova picked up the container and tossed it from hand to hand. After while she passed it to Star Baby, who caught it in one hand and brought it up to hir belly, turning and fingering it. A strange, greenish glow flickered from the container's edges like St. Elmo's fire.
"Shi's trying to eat it," Snowflake explained.
Nova pantomimed tossing the container from hand to hand. Star Baby waved hir hands in imitation of the gesture but without releasing the container. Finally shi let go and caught it in another hand. After passing it back and forth several times shi missed and the container went spinning away.
"Let hir go," Nova directed. Kit complied; Star Baby zoomed after the container, snatching it out of the air like an eagle catching a fish. Nova cupped hir hands; Star Baby gave the container a gentle toss that sent it spinning into Nova's grip. Shortly thereafter Nova and Star Baby were playing catch.
"Incredible," Snowflake breathed.
"Yes, but dogs play catch," Ito pointed out.
"True," Nova allowed, keeping the container when it was next passed to her. "Let's try something else. Valjean, open the container."
Valjean touched a control. The lid of the container hinged open; Nova shook out the smaller container held inside. After shutting the lid she tossed them, one after the other, to Star Baby. After contemplating the situation for some minutes, Star Baby started picking at the lid of the larger container.
"Shi's trying to open it!" Kit exclaimed.
"Valjean, can you create a force field, about a meter square, say, so that when Star Baby touches it the container opens?" Nova asked.
"Sure," he replied. "What do you want it to look like?"
Nova considered for a moment. "It doesn't need to look like anything, I don't think. Leave it invisible. When the container's open, set it to pass matter. When the container's shut, set it to reject matter."
"Easier done than said." Valjean finished programming before Nova finished speaking.
"Where is it?" Nova asked.
"There." Valjean pointed; a patch on the workroom wall flashed orange. Nova touched it with the tip of her virtual finger; the container lid popped open. Star Baby shut it, contemplated for a moment, then extended a manipulator limb and touched where Nova had. The container opened. Shi began opening and shutting it repeatedly.
"Dogs don't do that," Nova pronounced, casting Ito a glance and a smile. A casual observer might have thought it almost flirtatious, but Ito appeared to find it rather unsettling. "At least," she added, "Not without a lot of careful training."
Kit's eyes were wide. "Do you mean... do you think that Star Baby could be, you know, sentient?"
Nova frowned thoughtfully. "As Kei pointed out, that's not so simple a question. Dolphins are sentient; their brains are large, they have complex social systems, they use abstract language... the only thing we do that they don't is use tools. In spite of which we still can't talk to them. There is a fundamental difference in how they and we use language. I'm afraid I'd have to say that probabilities favor Star Baby being like a dolphin. Living in outer space has more in common with living in the ocean than living on land."
"But shi has hands," Kit protested.
"Not an indicator," Nova contradicted. "Plenty of animals are capable of fine manipulation and not capable of complex, abstract thought. Fortunately there's a test we can do."
"What?" Kit asked.
"We will teach Star Baby to talk," Nova pronounced.
"How?" Ito wanted to know. "In vacuum shi can't hear or make sound." This time he seemed genuinely curious rather than sarcastic.
"Radio?" Javert ventured.
Kit shook his head. "Communication by electromagnetic radiation's nearly useless to a star ship. Over cosmic distances, light is just too damn slow."
"Hyper wave," Valjean suggested.
"I have to think that if Star Baby were making baby talk on hyper wave bands, Chakona Aerospace Control would be in an uproar," Snowflake commented.
"Besides," Kit added, "You need a warp drive to transmit hyper wave and Star Baby doesn't have one."
"Then how do you communicate with someone who can't hear and can't speak?" Ito demanded.
"Write?" Javert suggested.
"But can you learn to write without learning to talk?" Valjean wondered.
"Yes," Nova replied. "The problem there is that we'd need a writing surface Star Baby could see."
"College-ruled tablets in the handy-dandy billboard size?" Javert offered.
"Worse than that, I'm afraid," Nova said. "Let's not forget that for us, vision is our primary sense. For Star Baby... you summed it up pretty well, Kit. The ability to perceive light is of very little use to a star ship. Shi may or may not use a mass detector, like our star ship do- Dr. Stannus is convinced that shi doesn't- but obviously she has something, because shi knows what's happening around hir. Remember what Kei said. What Star Baby uses for senses aren't even remotely similar to what we use. We could spend decades trying to figure out how shi sees the world, and I don't think we'd ever really understand it. To save time we're going to skip the whole vision thing and go straight to a sense I know shi and we have in common."
"What?" Valjean wanted to know.
"Actually, Valjean, you gave me the idea." Nova gave him a very warm smile. "And you, Kit, demonstrated it." She squeezed his shoulder. "Look at how readily shi responds to touch. And how quickly shi learns to imitate hand gestures."
"But how can you express language through that?" Snowflake protested.
"Does the name Hellen Keller mean anything to you?" Nova asked.
Snowflake frowned. "No."
"Hellen Keller was a Terran woman who lived during the late 19th and early 20th centuries," Nova explained. "Due to a childhood illness she lost the ability to hear and see. Nevertheless she was taught not only to speak but also to read and write, and enjoyed a distinguished academic career."
"How? They didn't have cybernetic implants back then," Javert pointed out.
"She was taught to represent words and symbols with hand gestures," Nova explained. "Something that is called sign language. We will teach Star Baby to speak it."
"Who teaches us to speak it?" Javert wondered.
"I will," Nova replied. "I learned about it in college, in my Linguistics unit. I decided to learn it because I could make derogatory comments about my instructors and classmates right in front of them without them knowing." She grinned. "Shall we begin?"
Both Valjean and Javert grinned hugely, casting not-so-subtle glances at Dr. Janek. "Count us in," they chorused.
Kit watched Star Baby put one container inside the other then take it out, over and over again. "I want to talk to Star Baby," he said. "If this is what it takes, then let's do it."
With a heavy sigh Liska touched a control to open the transfer lock's inner door. The heavy panel released with a hiss and clunk; air pressure alone kept the door pressed tightly shut. Magnetic strips- like in the door of a refrigerator- and heavy clamps served as backup. After moving inward about two centimeters to clear the seal the valve slid aside on tracks like the side door of a van. A smooth metal rim ran along the inner edge of the doorway; it mated to a soft metal gasket on the door itself to form a tight seal. Since the bottom edge of the rim wasn't flush with the deck a pair of ramps lifted out of the floor to aid in walking or moving cargo.
Liska crouched, slipping a scanner from the cargo pocket on her right thigh. Rubber and plastic eventually turned brittle and cracked when exposed to vacuum; high precision machining of the metal faces and the gasket's ability to deform slightly formed the airtight seal. That meant someone had to periodically check the rim and gasket for dirt and damage or in time it would start leaking. Normally student interns, being lowest on the totem pole, got stuck with these menial housekeeping chores. Star Baby's arrival turned everything upside down; suddenly the student interns, as hir caretakers, moved to the top of the pile. Liska, being a few months behind Sherlock in seniority, ended up doing all the shit work.
The scanner hummed and clucked to itself as it examined the rim. Liska' eyes narrowed; she had to re-scan a section of rim because she hadn't paid attention to the readings. She didn't mind the work itself; it came with the position and was necessary to keep the station safe and habitable. In time she'd get a promotion and be able to assign others to this type of work or she'd resign and get a civilian job. Skilled pilots and servo operators- of which Liska was both- were pretty much assured of finding well paying positions in the private sector. What infuriated her to no end was being punished, in effect, because she didn't like children. She'd joined the Security Force to get away from them and become sterile so she wouldn't have one accidentally. Now she got stuck with extra work because everyone else was too busy oohing and ahhing at the baby star ship.
Liska's fall from grace didn't stop there, either. She'd spent a great deal of time, effort, and money crafting herself into an object of lust. What she expected in return for that investment was a steady stream of partners eager to satisfy her every desire. Up until now Sigma 17 had been an ideal hunting ground; every few months brought a fresh crop of generally young and sexually energetic student interns. On board they found Liska: voluptuous, sexy, and ever willing. Blessed relief for overactive libidos frustrated by the sharply limited range of available sex partners. Men, frequently, but hardly exclusively. Male, female, or hermaphrodite, to Liska it mattered little. Nor even did appearance, particularly; skill- or a willingness to experiment- counted for much more. In fact, people who thought themselves unattractive could be inspired to greater efforts in servicing their partners.
All in all it was an entirely equitable arrangement. Liska satisfied their needs and they satisfied hers. So what if satisfaction might involve an exchange of cash, goods, or services (in or out of the bedroom)? Everyone was got what they wanted. The Hugo brothers, for example, were so horny they'd happily screw a knothole if no better option presented itself. They'd do absolutely anything if the promise of sex lay at the end of it, they had incredible stamina, and they were handsome to boot. Kit was a lot more attractive than he seemed to realize and Liska had fantasies about his large, powerful, and amazingly dexterous hands. His excessive self consciousness made approaching him a difficult and dangerous process but she put up with it because the ultimate rewards were bound to be incredible. Even dedicated lifers like Longstocking and Sherlock could only endure so much jacking off and both were pleasantly attractive. They weren't good partners, though; Longstocking always balked at the notion of having intercourse with a subordinate and Sherlock had a mate to whom shi was fanatically faithful. They could be persuaded but with interns about it generally wasn't worth the effort.
Then along comes Fyodor bloody Moseivitch and his crummy project. He brings in people like Ito, Snowflake, and Nova, who are sufficiently pretty to divert attention away from Liska, and Darkstar who won't have sex except on hir own terms. The Hugo brothers go chasing after Snowflake and shi's more than happy to receive them. Longstocking is having sex with Darkstar and apparently enjoying it, in spite of Darkstar's obvious age. Fyodor isn't the sort of man who needs sex and besides he's much too besotted with Darkstar to notice anyone else. Ito focuses on his work with a monomaniacal intensity and when he deigns to be social he's only interested in his own needs. Kit-
Liska put down the scanner and took several deep breaths to calm down. Kit is falling in love with a God damn space ship and has no time for anything else. Nova is more than pretty enough but insists that she's not interested in girl-girl stuff. Which leaves only Sherlock- and even shi's spending all hir spare time with Star Baby.The upswing of it all being that for almost two entire days Liska had gone without sexual stimulation other than the self-administered kind and prospects for the future looked grim at best. It was an utterly intolerable situation.
Liska's ears twitched. She glanced over her shoulder and there was Ito. But not the Ito she'd seen previously, oh no. He wore a pair of white denim cutoffs that clung to his pelvis like a second skin. He'd left his lemon yellow short-sleeved tunic unbuttoned, revealing a generous amount of his finely sculpted chest and washboard abs. "Going to a beach party?" she quipped, primarily to buy herself time and put the conversational ball back in his court. The front of his jeans bulged prominently and she found it difficult not stare. In one particular respect, at least, the little runt apparently wasn't so little.
Ito laughed. "I wish. No, I just got tired of all this damn work. I wonder if Madame would honor me with her presence at dinner." He gave an formal little bow.
Liska couldn't help licking her lips. The little prick wants something. He wants it so bad he's willing to dress up in this ridiculous outfit and parade his hard little body around in front of me in the hopes that I'll bite. "Why, Ito, I'd love to," she exclaimed, batting her eyelashes and smiling as warmly as she knew how. Whatever he wants, he's going to pay for it with services rendered, oh yes indeed.
"My... name... is... Nova," Nova said, forming gestures with her hands to go along with the words. "Your... name... is... Star."
Out in the work room Star Baby hovered near the virtual hands with all hir limbs partially extended. Bright colors raced and flickered across hir skin and occasionally one of hir hands or fingers would twitch.
"You've definitely got hir attention," Kit observed. "I don't think I've ever seen hir focus so intensely on something for so long."
"How long has it been?" Javert wondered.
"Coming up on an hour," Valjean replied, glancing at a console.
Snowflake frowned. "You just... make signs at hir, and suddenly shi'll start talking?" Shi sounded somewhat skeptical.
"Essentially, yes," Nova replied. Her hands continued their work, forming the symbols for the sentence over and over again. "That's how babies learn to talk. Any of you got kids?"
"My half-sister has one," Longstocking put in. "But shi's only five months old. The kid, that is."
"And everyone who comes around is constantly making baby talk at hir," Nova said.
Longstocking grimaced. "I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't seen it with my own eyes. Rational, educated adults, carrying on like imbeciles. Imagine my horror when I started doing it." The warm smile that spread across hir face belied hir words.
"That's it exactly," Nova replied. "You talk to the kid, read to hir, play with hir. Eventually something clicks and shi starts talking. Of course with a Terran or Chakat baby it takes months... but that has more to do with the fact that the kid's brain is still growing. Star Baby here seems quite well developed." She chuckled. "You might consider changing hir name to Star Toddler. Behaviorally shi seems about equivalent to a two year old Terran or an eighteen month old Chakat."
"Why do Chakats mature sooner?" Kit wanted to know.
"Simple physics," Nova replied. "The mother's birth canal is larger and can therefore pass a larger skull, which in turn can hold a larger, more completely developed brain. Among nearly all humanoid species babies are born before they're fully developed because otherwise the head would be too big to fit through the hole. With a centauroid the required brain is the same size but the hole is larger. Thus the baby can be kept inside longer."
"Something's happening," Longstocking said.
Star Baby had completely extended hir strength limbs. With the upper pair shi hesitantly imitated Nova's gestures. When Nova stopped Star Baby continued, rather sloppily but recognizably completing the entire sentence.
"My God!" Snowflake exclaimed.
"How can shi learn so fast?" Longstocking demanded. "Shi's only... three days old!"
"I thought about that," Nova admitted. She continued making the symbols, then waited for Star Baby to repeat them back. With each repetition Star Baby's signing became more confident and precise. "I studied Dr. Stannus' scan results to see if it would tell me anything about Star Baby's nervous system. There wasn't any detailed data on hir brain because it's too heavily shielded, but it did show that hir neurons seem to be very similar to our own holographic logic units- except, of course, that hirs are an order of magnitude or so more optically perfect. Javert, you're the computer expert, right? How fast do signals propagate through a holographic logic system?"
"About 96% of the speed of light," Javert replied.
"Then why do computers seem so slow sometimes?" Snowflake wanted to know.
"Two reasons," Javert replied. "The first, and primary, is that usually your local computer is fetching data from somewhere else. Signal propagation on the network is glacially slow compared to inside the processor itself. The other is that most computers are built on a linear processing model, where each individual piece of data is processed in sequence, one at a time. To increase the speed at which data is processed you have to increase the frequency at which processor instructions are executed. There's a theoretical limit to how fast you can go; eventually the logic switches inside the processor are moving so fast they start to behave erratically. Or, more accurately, the devices that control input and output can't tell what's data and what's noise. That's called a noise overload and it causes the processor's behavior to become erratic. Which is bad, 'cause it's gonna do a fandango on your precious data." He demonstrated briefly. "Heuristic processors- like are used in AI systems, some robots, and of course real intelligence systems-" he tapped the side of his head- "process big chunks of data in parallel, all at once. But AI's can't be programmed. They have to learn, just like kids. And, like kids, they can develop undesirable behavior. Then all you can do is run a therapeutic on them or wipe the core and start over. Most low-level AI's- like the voice-recognition module in your personal workstation- reload from protected storage after each instruction step. That's to keep it's recognition patterns from changing over time. Another problem with heuristic systems is that they make mistakes. Gobs of them, in fact. There's no way around it; it's a function of how they do what they do. So when you're passing data to or from them you have to take that into account. It's like getting all your information from the back fence gossip squad. Each piece has to be filtered to see if it's useful or not."
"What are you doing now?" Longstocking asked. Nova had changed the lesson slightly. She did the first part of the sentence- my name is Nova- and pointed at herself. Then she did the second half- your name is Star- and pointed at Star.
"She's breaking the signal group into discrete chunks," Javert said. "Right now, Star Baby sees the whole sentence as a single unit. Nova's creating a distinction between the two halves, so Star Baby learns to interpret them as a sequence. Then she can focus on individual groups like me and you or Nova and Star to create more complex distinctions."
"That doesn't explain why shi learns fast," Kit pointed out.
"How fast do signals propagate along organic neurons?" Nova asked.
No one spoke. "Pretty fast, I assume," Longstocking eventually said.
"Not really," Nova contradicted. "They move at only about one hundred and twenty meters per second. Glacially slow, compared to even the most primitive computer processors. But, because our brains process in parallel, we still manage to respond quickly. In fact, we can respond to things we really can't see. Like hitting a ball with a bat, for instance. After it leaves the pitcher's hand the ball is travelling too fast for your eye to register it, so for all practical purposes it's invisible. And yet, based on data collected only during these first couple meters of flight, your brain can get the bat moving so that it intersects with the ball as it comes over the plate. Now, Kit- tell me. Why don't people hand-fly star ships through hyper space?"
"Variations in hyper-spatial topology come far too quickly for an organic brain to respond," Kit replied. "As good as it is, the organic brain's just way too slow."
"We deal with that how?" Nova asked.
"By building high-speed AI systems-" A look of horror spread across Kit's face. He began smacking himself on the forehead. "Stupid, stupid, stupid! I should have thought of that!"
Longstocking nodded. "Okay, I see. A star ship needs a computer to fly it through hyper-space because the human brain can't respond quickly enough. Star Baby doesn't have a computer- or rather, hir brain is the computer, so it has to be capable of processing the data."
"Exactly," Nova replied. "Dr. Stannus thinks shi processes information about a million times faster than we do."
"But-" Snowflake protested. "Shi... I mean... how can we interact with hir at all if that's the case? To hir, we'd be like, like trees. Not even moving."
"Perception of time is very subjective thing," Nova pointed out. "If hir brain wasn't capable of adapting shi wouldn't be able to function, would shi? Even a very short trip through hyper-space would drive hir insane with boredom. Consider too that you can train yourself to do things- like a hitting a ball- without having to think about it. Star Baby has to be capable of learning quickly because that's what flying through space requires. But thinking, manipulating abstract symbols, is something else entirely. For that... we'll just have to wait until Star Baby can talk to us. Then shi'll tell us what it's like."
During her speech Nova had again changed the game. She would sign my name is- then wait for Star Baby to complete the phrase. Next she would wound sign your name is- and wait. Star Baby had begun to respond correctly, with Nova and Star respectively.
"Is shi really talking or just playing a game?" Snowflake asked, cocking hir head.
"What's the difference?" Nova responded.
"Well-" Snowflake blinked. "Talking is- is-"
"A game," Longstocking put in, chuckling. "You make noises, other people make noises back. A pretty fun game, I think."
Kit watched Star Baby closely. He tried to imitate the symbols, mouthing the words silently.
"No, no, your name isn't Nova," Nova exclaimed as she noticed what Kit was doing. "Here, like this." She pulled her hands out of the gauntlets.
"Want me to put the hands on auto?" Valjean asked.
"No, no," Nova protested. "Star Baby knows when there's a live operator, right? I'll just be a moment. Your name is K... I...T. Got it?"
"K... I... T." Kit attempted to imitate the gestures. Nova corrected the positioning of his fingers.
"Nova, what's shi saying?" Longstocking demanded suddenly.
Nova looked. Star Baby made a sequence of gestures and waited. When no one responded she repeated it. Nova grabbed Kit up in her arms and swung him around. "Shi said," Nova reported, grinning hugely, "'Your name is Kit.'"
Kit's jaw dropped. "You mean- she actually talked?"
"Sure looks that way," Nova replied, returning Kit to the deck. "Hey, Snowflake, come here. Let's try something. "Do like this: S... N... O... W. Good."
No sooner had Snowflake completed the sequence than Star Baby signed again.
"She said, 'your name is Snow,'" Nova translated.
"Hey, lemme try!" Valjean exclaimed, running down to the front of the room. "How do you spell 'Valjean?'"
"Want me to have dinner sent down here?" Longstocking inquired.
"Yeah, if you don't mind," Nova replied. "I get the feeling we're going to be here a while."
As he returned to his quarters, some time in the wee hours of the morning, Dr. Janek moved with a careful, stiff-legged gait that would have seemed shockingly out of character to anyone who knew him. Diminutive stature notwithstanding Ito was accustomed to moving briskly and confidently. If he moved cautiously now it was because he'd been sorely taxed, both emotionally and physically. He'd anticipated that Liska would demand a steep price for her participation in his plan. He'd even expected that her interest in him would be primarily physical, as opposed to, say, monetary. What he hadn't anticipated was the level of physical effort she demanded.
Ito leaned against the corridor wall, massaging his buttocks. Having sex with Liska was a workout for sure. That she was so much larger than he was no small part of the problem. She was huge, covered with fur, and frankly Ito found her exceptionally well-padded figure positively grotesque. Like making love to a cow. Then came everything else. Fisting, for instance. With a growing sense of horror he had inserted first his fingers, then his hand, and finally much of his forearm. He wouldn't have believed that such things were physically possible. At least she hadn't demanded to do it to him. The dildo had been quite bad enough. Not to mention the collars, handcuffs, ropes, nipple clamps, and of course the enemas. All of which paled in comparison to the rimming. Finally he balked at being asked to put his tongue into her anus. Unfortunately she had no such compunctions; the sensation of her tongue slithering around between his buttocks would be in his nightmares for many years to come. It seemed inconceivable that she would do all those things on a regular basis. Perhaps she'd made an extra special effort just for him. Scary thought. But better get used to it, old boy. There's tomorrow... and the night after... and the night after that. Liska wouldn't settle for only one session when she could have many. As his end of the bargain Ito was required to present himself every night he remained aboard Sigma 17.
Grimacing with discomfort, Ito forced himself to straighten up and keep walking. The perfect end to a perfect evening would be to encounter Longstocking or Sherlock- or worse, one (or both) of the Hugo brothers. Thankfully they were still in Ops, working on Nova's sign language project. They'd been at it almost around the clock since yesterday and when he'd last checked- just before leaving Liska's quarters- they were still at it. He shook his head sadly as he shuffled along. He couldn't imagine what they thought they were doing. Did they really believe Star Baby was that smart?
Ito smiled. If shi was then so much the better. It increased the value of what he had to sell. And there were buyers, oh yes. Who would deposit very large sums in a numbered off-world account if Ito delivered what he promised. Which he would; Liska's part of the bargain was to provide technical expertise on the most difficult part of the operation. All that remained was for Ito to give the word. Best of all, Miss Mattress-Back Sharpears had no idea how much money she was giving up for her nights of pleasure. Which almost made it worth it in itself.
"Thank you ever so much, Fyodor," Ito said aloud, chuckling. Flattery will get you everywhere and the more brazen the better. Miss Sharpears practically raped me at dinner. His smile vanished. A magistrate would almost certainly rule that what happened after dinner was consensual. Which did not change the fact that Ito felt violated. There could be no doubt that Liska had wrung him for everything she could get.
No matter. Ito's smile came back. With the money I'm going to make on this deal I can get all the counseling I want. Unconsciously he fell back into his usual stride but stopped almost immediately. I'll have to remind Liska to use more lubricant next time.
"F... O... X," Valjean said, forming gestures with his hand to correspond to each letter. "Okay, Star Baby. What's that spell?" He pointed to hir
Star Baby clenched and unclenched hir fists, then gave him the finger.
"O-kay." Valjean pursed his lips. "Maybe it's time to take a break."
"Let me try." Snowflake took a seat and slipped hir hands into the gauntlets. "C'mon, Star Baby. I know you know it. F, O-"
Star Baby retracted hir limbs and drifted to the far side of the work room. When Snowflake reached toward hir Star Baby grabbed one of the containers- shi had about a dozen now- and flung it. It ricocheted off the centermost of the view ports with a horrendous crash; the pane, three centimeters of transparisteel, bounced alarmingly.
"I think I'll boost the structural integrity field on the bulkhead," Javert commented, touching a control.
"I don't understand," Kit exclaimed. "It's not like hir to be this difficult."
"You do it, Kit," Nova suggested.
"Go on." Nova made a shooing motion toward the servo control stations.
Somewhat reluctantly Kit took a seat next to Valjean and slipped his hands into the gauntlets. Even before the virtual hands completely materialized Star Baby was stroking hirself against them like a kitten. Shi rolled hir belly toward the view port and made a sequence of three gestures.
"What'd shi say?" Kit asked.
"Fox," Nova translated. Kit attempted to repeat the gestures; Star Baby grabbed his fingers and corrected their positioning, then fired off a string of gestures.
"What was that?" Kit asked.
"Shi said, 'give me more words,'" Nova replied.
Kit swallowed. He rubbed Star Baby's belly with his thumbs; shi retracted hir limbs and snuggled into his grasp. "Nova, I..." Kit swallowed again. "Can't you do this?"
"Shi doesn't want to learn from me, or anyone else," Nova replied. "Shi wants to learn from you."
"But I totally suck! Shi's correcting me, for Heaven's sake!"
Nova frowned. "Kit, you're raising a child here, not programming a computer. This isn't a rational, intellectual process for Star Baby. For whatever reason shi's impressed on you. You're not just someone who feeds and takes care of hir. Tell me, Kit. Do you remember being a little boy? Do you remember how whenever you did something you wanted to run and show your parents? And all they had to do was look at it and smile and you were floating?"
Kit swallowed and looked down. "But... I'm not ready to be a dad," he mumbled. Nothing in the motion of his hands gave the slightest indication of his emotional distress, though.
Nova sighed and sat down next to Kit, shooing Valjean out of the way. "Look, Kit, no one ever is. You can spend your whole life preparing and think you're really ready. Then the first time you get your hands on real baby it all goes right out the window. But you, you and Star Baby..." Nova shook her head in frustration. "Don't you see it, Kit? Don't you see how you are with hir?"
"I do," Snowflake said quietly. "Kit, when your're with hir you just... light up. Like your whole body was glowing. You get this goofy smile on your face... and I think shi knows it. I don't know how but shi does. Shi knows how much you love hir and shi, shi responds."
Nova sat behind Kit, sliding up against his back. "Ask this," she said, reaching over his shoulders and manipulating his fingers through the gauntlets, walking him through a series of gestures. When it ended Star Baby extended hir strength limbs and replied.
"What... was that?" Kit asked, his voice quavering slightly.
"What do you think it was?" Nova replied.
"You had me say 'who' and 'you,' but I didn't catch the other word. Star Baby said something and then 'Kit.'"
"You said, 'who does Star love,'" Snowflake translated. "Shi said, 'Star loves Kit.'"
Kit licked his lips. He was staring at Star Baby, so he didn't see the tears running down Snowflake's face, tears shi made no attempt to brush away. He squeezed his eyes shut, letting his head droop to his chest. Then he straightened up. "Nova," he said, "I want to tell hir that I'm going to get more words and when I come back I'll give them to hir."
"All right." Nova guided his hands through the sequence of gestures. Star Baby replied briefly.
"I got that one." Kit smiled weakly. "Shi said 'Okay.'"
"Right." Nova stood. "What now, Mr. Carson?"
Kit drew his hands out of the gauntlets and ran them through his hair. He was trembling. "Nova, I need to learn a shitload of sign language and I need to learn fast."
"Lucky for you I happen to be an expert," Nova replied. "Why don't you come back to my quarters with me for some intensive personal training?"
"Lucky bastard," Javert muttered.
"Not hardly," Nova snorted. "By the time I get through with you, Mr. Carson, you will be begging to get back to the easy, carefree life of a student of the hard sciences."
"That's what he was afraid of," Kit said, but he was smiling.
"What about us?" Valjean asked.
"Just... do what you've been doing," Nova replied. "If Star Baby wants to talk, talk. If she wants to learn, teach. If not... just keep hir happy until we get back. Shi's incredible; it would have taken weeks to teach a Terran child this much. The important lesson is that kids learn to talk by listening to people talk around them. Meaning that we should all use sign as much as possible. Star Baby's a fast learner, and the worst thing that could happen right now is that shi gets bored or frustrated. Just think, we'll have a Hell of a story for Professor Moseivitch when he gets back, eh?" She grinned broadly. "Okay, Kit. Let's hit the books."
"...but smaller... than the pen... of my... aunt," Snowflake read aloud. In a holographic display on the console in front of hir written words scrolled by while a pair of hands demonstrated the gestures. Shi imitated the gestures with a fair degree of accuracy but because her attention was tightly focused shi didn't notice Star Baby hovering near the view ports, precisely imitating hir gestures. Shi also failed to notice Star Baby break off and make several emphatic interrogatives.
Star clenched hir fists in frustration. Shi considered knocking on the view ports but thought better of it. Hir keepers got upset when she did that, Snow most of all. Snow got upset at everything. Shi wouldn't play really fun games- like bouncing containers off the walls or bending fixtures into interesting shapes- and shi punished every little infraction, such as when Star exercised hir claws on the walls. Once Star would have been glad to be ignored by Snow but not anymore. Shi moved away from the view ports and settled in her favorite corner, laying all six of hir hands flat against the wall. Shi didn't know that the machine in there was intended to calibrate newly installed warp drive coils nor would shi have cared if shi did. Its emanations were soothing and pleasant, like a combination of waves on the shore and curling up in front of a cozy fire. Almost as pleasant as when Kit stroked hir. After no more than a minute shi pushed away from the wall and started circling the room. The feel-good corner wasn't enough. Words changed everything.
By themselves words didn't mean anything. Attached to things they became names- and in that the incredible power of words struck Star's mind like a bolt of lightning, shattering her world like a riven oak. Suddenly shi had fingers, hands, arms, and a body. Hir keepers had names: Nova, Snow, Valj, Jave, Long, Sher, and of course Kit. (Star got confused when a name had more than four letters.) Shi had a name: Star. Words transformed hir existence in ways shi couldn't have even imagined before knowing them. Giving things names lifted them from the chaos of undefined sensation, giving them structure and definition. Somehow it made things real in a way they'd never been before. Star felt like a god, holding- literally- in hir hands the intoxicating power to create form from formlessness.
Only later did shi discover the down side of this ability. Anything without a name- even if shi could hold it in hir hand- was somehow as remote and inaccessible as the undefined infinity beyond the walls of her room. In an orgy of creation she'd given names to everything around hir- only have everything melt away when shi forgot the names. Only words that got shared stayed around- and there too Star hit a frustrating barrier. When shi made up words and tried to explain them to her keepers they never seemed to get it, as if whatever Star saw didn't exist for them. Likewise they used words that made absolutely no sense no matter how hard Star tried to understand them, like up, down, sky, ground, day, night, bright, and dark.
Star craved new words like she'd never desired anything in hir short life. Each new word added something novel and exciting to hir world. But now the supply had been shut off. Kit and Nova had gone away to get more and it was taking forever. Valj, Jave, and Snow stayed, but getting words from them was terribly frustrating. They lacked the ability to make words real the way Nova could. Now only Snow remained- and shi'd started making all kinds of new words but wouldn't even try to explain what they meant. Star almost believed Snow was punishing hir by deliberately withholding the words. It seemed like the sort of thing Snow would do.
Where were Kit and Nova anyway? Star settled against the bulkhead to one side of the view ports. Once the wall had been transparent and shi could watch her keepers moving around and doing things in the rooms beyond. Recently the wall had become opaque and now she couldn't hardly see through it at all. Shi could still see through the other walls- though not as well as shi once had- but the things beyond them weren't as interesting. Right now even looking at those things was better than this interminable waiting. But what would happen if all the walls became totally opaque? Then there'd be nothing to do while shi waited for hir keepers, which could on occasion take a very long time.
Star circled the room, hir hull flickering with agitation. There didn't seem to be anything shi could do about it and shi didn't know enough words to explain the problem to hir keepers. On one of hir circuits hir special box caught her attention and she snatched it out of the air. This box would open or close and another box could go in or out of it. This process was still sufficiently novel that shi spent several minutes opening and closing it, placing various other items inside it and taking them out. At each step shi formed the words with hir hands; in and out were things shi couldn't touch but somehow words them real, too. Shi didn't understand how that could be but it fascinated hir.
Halfway through taking a bit of wire out the box Star froze. An entirely new thought had suddenly materialized in hir mind. The wire could be in the box. The wire could also be out of the box. That happened, shi'd been led to understand, because the wire was small and the box big. Shi picked up a ball and tried putting it in the box but it wouldn't fit, obviously because the ball was big. In a blinding flash of inspiration Star suddenly realized that if the box were big then the ball would go in it. This seemed terribly important but shi couldn't see why and it frustrated hir to no end. Normally at this point she'd throw the things against the wall but if shi did that now Snow would punish hir. Being ignored wasn't pleasant but being punished was worse. She kept turning the thought over in hir mind, trying to extract the kernel of meaning she felt lurking just inside-
It came to hir as suddenly and momentously as words themselves had come. Putting the words big and box together created a big box, one that could hold the ball. Though shi couldn't touch it- it existed only in hir mind- words made it just as real as the box in hir hand. That being the case shi could even have a big ball- and a big big box to put it in. All at once comprehension dawned. Could not the walls of hir room be thought of as... a big, big, big box? And however big a box might be surely it's still a type of box. Therefore things could be in or out of it.
Star raced around the room, clapping hir hands excitedly. If the walls were a box then Star was in it. If Star was in it Star could also be out. Shi stopped, flexed hir fingers in eager anticipation, and formed the words: Star out.
And thus they became real.
Snowflake blinked and looked up. Shi'd noticed a silent flickering in the periphery of hir vision like distant heat lightning. Shi searched the work room, trying to imagine what might have caused it. But there was nothing there. As hir eyes continued to search the word nothing floated around in hir mind like a tumbling leaf. Finally it hit bottom. Shi leapt to hir feet, thrusting hir arms into the control gauntlets and wiggling hir fingers. The virtual hands appeared but there was wasn't any response. Shi ran her hands along the walls, hir perplexity slowly transforming into icy dread. It shouldn't be this hard; Star Baby could hide but not this well-
Realization burst upon Snowflake like a flash flood. Hir legs buckled and she collapsed on the floor. "Computer-" hir voice caught and shi had to clear hir throat- "Replay work room security record for past five minutes."
The sign language lesson disappeared, replaced by an image of Star Baby playing with hir blocks. After a few minutes shi dropped them and raced around the room, hir hull flashing brightly. Then she stopped, doing absolutely nothing for almost a full minute. Hir hull blazed so brightly shi became nothing but a white blob. As quickly as it came it faded- and Star Baby was gone.
Snowflake became aware of a strange keening noise. Only later did shi realize that it came from hir own throat.
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