As the shimmering, rainbow light of the transport field faded away it left behind a thirtyish Chakat dressed in a plaid, short-sleeve button-up shirt and carrying a portable workstation tucked under one arm. Hir pelt was sandy brown with dark spots, hir mane a deeper, nutty brown and tightly curled.
"Hello, Swiftsure, and welcome aboard," Dawnfire said. "Allow me to present our chief babysitter, Mr. Kit Carson."
"A pleasure to meet you, Mr. Carson," Swiftsure declared, stepping off the transporter platform to shake hands.
"Kit, please," Kit begged.
"Then you must call me Swiftsure," Swiftsure replied.
"Deal." Kit grinned.
"Nice digs." Swiftsure looked around the room, hir gaze ending up on Dawnfire. "When Darkstar told me I'd be going to a Security Force small craft repair station, I confess I expected something a little more... austere."
"You're on board the Asimov, actually," Dawnfire clarified. "Sigma one-seven doesn't have personnel transporters. Since most of the work is being done in the Asimov's labs but the, um, research subject has to be kept on board Sigma one seven, we docked them together for convenience."
"Oh." Swiftsure blinked. "But if this is a Star Fleet project, why didn't you just call me in yourself instead of having Darkstar do it?"
Dawnfire sighed. "Because, technically, this isn't a Star Fleet project. The Asimov's presence here is... something of an aberration." Shi fluttered hir hand. "We were called in by a Dr. Stannus of the Science Corps. He wanted us so kidnap Star and turn her over to him. When that didn't work he accused Professor Moseivitch of abusing his position as local director of the Janus Project. Professor Moseivitch responded by releasing video that, he said, showed Dr. Stannus abusing his position by making some sort of under-the-table deal. It turns out too that Professor Moseivitch's friends in the Security Force had been rather close-mouthed about what was exactly this project was all about. The kidnapping episode brought everything into the open; now Professor Moseivitch is now locked in a three way struggle between the government, Security Force, and Star Fleet. Oddly enough that's actually worked in our favor; by the time everything hit the fan we were already here. Sending us away would require explicit orders; since the sides can't agree on what to do they won't allow any orders to be sent. So..." shi shrugged. "We do our own thing."
"Ouch." Swiftsure winced. "All you need now is a big exposé with its attendant media circus."
"Don't say things like that," Kit pleaded, shuddering. "We're running on spit and pious thoughts as it is."
"Then how'd you manage to get permission to bring me in?" Swiftsure wanted to know.
"We didn't," Kit replied. "You talked to Darkstar, right? Well, shi has friends everywhere. Shi presides over a network that would make Star Fleet Intelligence green with envy. Shi arranged for the Asimov to be sent because shi and Captain Walker were old friends. Shi made the video that got Dr. Stannus in trouble." He shook his head in wonder. "Both hir and Professor Moseivitch have friends at the university. They pulled in some markers and here you are."
"Incredible," Swiftsure marvelled.
"You don't know the half of it," Kit sighed.
"Now who is Star and why do you need a sign language translator?" Swiftsure wanted to know. "Sign is basically the same as what we're speaking with a different symbol set. You don't need my translator to handle that. An ordinary language module would do fine."
"As to who is Star, it would be far easier to show than explain," Dawnfire said. "As to the translator... Darkstar thinks we may need of one before too long. Has to do with the kidnapping incident. I'll explain after you've met Star; it'll make more sense that way. If you'll follow me?" Shi turned toward the door.
In general shape and appearance the Asimov's corridors did not significantly differ from those of Sigma 17 but there were a great many more of them and they were considerably more crowded. After half a dozen turns and a turbolift ride Swiftsure was thoroughly lost.
"Is that the translator?" Kit asked, indicating the workstation.
"No, this is just a client," Swiftsure explained. "The actual translator itself requires some custom hardware. We're working on eliminating that; when we do, it'll run on any standard computer system."
The group arrived at a massive airlock door. Dawnfire opened it by applying hir thumb to a scan plate and it shut automatically behind them. "Oh, it's quite all right," shi assured, noting Swiftsure's concerned expression. "Asimov and the station are connected by a pressurized walkway."
"Then why do we have to cycle through a lock?" Swiftsure asked as the outer door opened.
"Containment," Kit explained, his face twisting into an enigmatic smile. "Just not of air."
Even before the door opened fully something barreled through the gap with Valjean hot on its heels. He snatched the intruder out of mid-air; Kit leapt aside to avoid getting knocked flat. "Hello," Valjean said, rising to his feet with a rangy young cougar Chakat- no more than eight or nine- held at arm's length to keep himself clear of hir flailing claws. Shi hissed and tried to bite his hand but a heavy glove protected it and his forearm.
"Ah, hello, Swiftsure," Darkstar called, jogging up behind Valjean.
"Gramma!" The child's face lit up with a beatific expression, hir disagreement with Valjean instantly forgotten. He dropped hir; shi twisted in the air, landed on hir feet, and bounded into Darkstar's arms.
"That's Aurora, Darkstar's granddaughter," Kit explained. "Shi's... um..."
"Precocious?" Dawnfire suggested.
"The Spawn of Satan," Valjean declared. Aurora stuck out hir tongue at him, retracting it smartly when he snatched at it.
"Shi's darling." Swiftsure stepped forward and stroked Aurora under the chin. Shi lifted hir head and purred contentedly.
"Oh, shi's just fine except when hir head spins around and shi vomits corruption," Valjean said. "Darkstar, your granddaughter is evil incarnate. We need to drive a stake through hir heart, cut off hir head, burn hir, soak the remains with holy water, and bury them in consecrated ground."
"You aren't giving Valjean a hard time, are you?" Darkstar asked, ruffling Aurora's mane.
"No, Gramma," Aurora replied, eyes widening as if the very notion shocked hir to the soul. Swiftsure chuckled; Valjean made faces.
"Then say hello to our latest guest," Darkstar directed, setting Aurora on the floor.
"It's a pleasure to meet you, Shir Swiftsure," Aurora said, every millimeter the dutiful, obedient child. Valjean stuck a finger in his mouth and made gagging sounds. Kit kicked him in the ribs of his lower body.
"This is Repair Station Sigma one-seven," Kit announced as the group moved through the pressurized tube. "Also known as Sky Crib."
"Because of Aurora?" Swiftsure ventured.
"Because of Star," Kit corrected.
"This place is starting to get crowded," Valjean commented as they entered the Operations Center. Nearly the entire team waited to meet the new arrival.
"This is our merry band," Darkstar announced. "Lt. Longstocking is the station commander, ably assisted by Warrant Officer Sherlock and Warrant Officer Liska Sharpears. Lt. Goldstrype is the Asimov's science officer and Commander Dawnfire you've already met. Our civilian specialists are Dr. Ito Janek, Dr. Nova Stallis, and now yourself. Valjean Hugo, Javert Hugo, Kit Carson, and Snowflake are student interns. That fellow over there is Ensign Skip Matheson, whom Captain Walker graciously loaned to us because he knows sign language and has experience with kids."
Skip smiled and waved. From head to toe he stood about as high as Kit's ear. His own ears- which like his head and fluffy tail were strongly rabbitlike- actually made him a bit taller than Kit. Sandy brown fur coated his head, neck, hands, and presumably the rest of his body, except for a white patch on his muzzle, chin, throat, and probably the front of his torso as well. He wore a Star Fleet tunic and trousers with a blue Science Section color stripe. Like the Hugos he had no mane.
"Everyone, Professor Swiftsure is chair of the College of Linguistics at Dewclaw University," Darkstar continued. "Not to mention the driving force behind the famous Swiftsure Translator, which shi has graciously placed at our disposal." Darkstar pointed toward the view ports. "There, Swiftsure, you will see the star of our little show, Star herself."
Swiftsure stepped forward, frowning because shi didn't see. The workroom looked empty- until a large section of wall appeared to cock at an odd angle. Swiftsure gasped, jumping back and almost dropping hir workstation. Star floated right in front of the view ports, her skin matching the background so exactly that from a certain angle she vanished entirely so long as she kept still.
"She's irrepressibly curious but a little shy about meeting new people," Nova explained. "I think that, that chameleon thing she does is a defense mechanism. Like how some baby animals have stripes or spots to camouflage them."
"Say hi to Swiftsure, Star," Kit directed, raising his hands and gesturing, then pointing at Swiftsure. Star gestured back, then waved.
"Wave," Valjean prompted, lifting Swiftsure's forearm and waggling it so that hir hand flopped back and forth.
"I introduced you," Kit translated, glancing at Swiftsure. "She asked me to say 'hi.'"
"What... is she?" Swiftsure finally managed to say.
"That," Darkstar replied, "Is what we're here to find out. Either she's an extremely sophisticated nanotechnological machine or an entirely new form of life designed to live in outer space. Either way she's clearly sentient; we've taught her sign language, which she speaks at least as well as a three year old Terran. Her language skills are sufficiently well developed that I'd like to give her direct access to the library computer. Then she can teach herself and save us a lot of work."
Swiftsure's mouth worked. "How... how do you know she's a girl?"
"We don't, really," Goldstrype replied. "Superficially her internal arrangements are similar to ours. She has a skeleton, a muscular system, a nervous system, a cardiovascular system, a digestive system..." shi counted them on hir fingers. "We've studied her physiology for several weeks now and still haven't any more than a vague idea what most of her organs do. She does have structures that appear to be low power transporters built into the strakes at the base of each wing. When she first hatched she couldn't feed herself so we postulate that she's a mammal, and these specialized transporters her equivalent of mammaries."
"What if it's the male takes care of the kids, like in sea horses?" Swiftsure wondered.
Dawnfire shrugged. "Then she's gonna be one confused kid when she grows up."
"She's a girl," Kit declared. "And she wants to meet you, Swiftsure. Sit down here and put your hands into the gauntlets." He tugged hir toward one of the servo control stations. "Touch her," Kit directed as the virtual hands appeared. "She likes to be petted and cuddled." Hesitantly Swiftsure complied- and gasped.
"What is it?" Snowflake demanded.
"Well, she looks- hard," Swiftsure explained. "But she feels- soft."
"Actually, her skin is pretty hard," Kit replied. "What you're feeling is an interaction between the virtual hands and her body's force fields."
"Looks like you won another convert," Skip commented as Swiftsure stroked Star's belly.
"I just sits 'em down, Star does the rest," Kit replied, grinning like a fool.
Suddenly Star broke from Swiftsure's grip and rushed to the opposite end of the work room. She hovered by the wall, rapping on it with her knuckles. The shocks made no sound but they propagated through the station's structure and came up through the floor.
"What'd I do?" Swiftsure asked, worried.
"Nothing," Javert replied. "It's time for walkies."
The comm console lit up, showing the face of a Chakat wearing a space suit. "Echo two one eight and two one niner to Sigma one seven, requesting permission to dock."
Longstocking stepped up. "Sigma one seven to Echo two one eight and nine. Come on in; we're all glad to see you. Especially Star." Shi chuckled. "Use pylons two and three."
"Roger, Sigma one seven. We'll be right along. Out." The screen went blank.
"We let Star out to exercise three times a day," Darkstar explained. "Security Force graciously lent us some interceptors to serve as escort."
"Interceptors?" Swiftsure frowned. "Why not just shuttles?"
"Wait until you see Star out in space," Skip said. "You need interceptors just to keep up with her." He looked at Kit. "Shall we get suited?"
"Righto." Kit waved to Star- who waved back- then followed Skip out.
"Where are they going?" Swiftsure asked.
"Since the kidnapping incident Star's afraid to go outside by herself," Dawnfire explained. "Which in a way is a good thing, though primarily for us, not her." Shi grimaced. "Whenever she goes out, in addition to the interceptor escorts, she has a sitter riding with her. She doesn't have a crew compartment so they wear suits and ride on her back. Because of that the sitters always go in pairs. Currently we have three teams: Kit and Skip, Snowflake and Sherlock, and the Hugo brothers. We had to build two saddles, one for 'taurs and one for humanoids."
"Saddles?" Swiftsure cocked hir head.
"You'll see it when Kit and Skip are done suiting," Dawnfire replied. "In the meantime, I'll introduce you to the interceptor crews. They should be up any minute now."
"By the way, what is this 'kidnapping incident' everyone keeps talking about?" Swiftsure wanted to know.
"As you see, Star is basically a living star ship," Darkstar explained. "As such, she does have a superluminal drive."
"Really? Where?" Swiftsure gave Star a quick look-over.
Darkstar shrugged. "No idea. We've scanned her forwards, backwards, and sideways. There's nothing in her even remotely like what we'd think of as a star drive. The closest match is a structure attached to the back of her brain." Darkstar patted hirself on the back of the neck. "It's almost as big as the brain itself and heavily interconnected with what Dr. Stallis thinks is Star's visual cortex. We theorize it's her equivalent of a mass detector. Anyway, we know Star has a superluminal drive because, one day when she was bored and frustrated, she used it. One minute she's here in the work room- almost exactly where she is now- and the next she's gone, vanished in a pulse of tachyons." Darkstar snapped hir fingers. "Then, out of the blue, we get a call from Dr. Chakra, who's in charge of operations at the hyper-spatial observatory. He says Star went to the Array and is clinging to it."
"Why'd she go there?" Swiftsure asked.
"We think she may have been attracted by signal bleed from the mass detector. If so her sensors are about an order of magnitude better than ours. We went to pick her up... and the Asimov shows up. Captain Walker was ordered by Dr. Stannus to take Star by whatever means necessary. In short, more damage was done to the Array and Star ultimately came back on her own. I immediately set to work getting you and your translator here."
Darkstar grinned, a bleak expression that gave Swiftsure chills. "Imagine you're a kid, maybe three or four years old. You're skipping happily through life when suddenly you look around and realize that you're lost. What do you do?"
"Um." Swiftsure rubbed hir chin. "Start howling for Ma, probably."
"Exactly. Since Star has a drive I find it difficult to believe that she doesn't also have a communications system. Now imagine that you're yourself. You're strolling along and you hear a child crying. What do you do?"
"Go see what's wrong."
"At which point you find that shi is being held by a pack of hideous alien monstrosities."
"Um." Swiftsure grimaced. "Ah. I can see how it's a situation that might lead to... misunderstandings."
"Especially when you don't realize that the alien is trying to tell you that he found the kid wandering in the woods and merely wants to find hir parents. When Star's folks show up they're going to be distraught, not at all in the proper frame of mind for a First Contact. We won't see then coming because we can't track their drive. We need to be ready to explain, and quickly."
"Well, I'll get right on it, then," Swiftsure replied. "I know how I'd feel if one of my cubs got lost."
Just then four Chakats in bright orange space suits entered the Operations Center. "Howdy, Darkstar," the first called, waving hir helmet. "Who's up this time?"
"Kit and Skip," Darkstar replied. "Swiftsure, I'd like you to meet a few of the brave and noble warriors who keep Chakona's skies safe. Flight Officer Lila and Warrant Officer Rowan are, respectively, pilot and GIF of Echo two one eight. Flight Officer Ariel and Warrant Officer Larissa are pilot and GIB of Echo two one nine." Lila looked Siamese, with a cream colored coat and rich chocolate patches on hir face and ears. Rowan resembled a classic silver tabbey, Ariel a leopard, and Larissa a cheetah.
"Gib?" Swiftsure cocked hir head.
"Guy In Back," Larissa explained. "Though the Windstorm interceptor has tandem rather than in-line seating."
"A deeply meaningful and highly technical term with a most dignified and distinguished history," Rowan added.
"Basically it means 'Person who Does Anything the Pilot's Too Busy To Do at the Moment,'" Ariel explained. "That's a rather long and unhandy moniker so we shorten it to GIB."
"Are you the Swiftsure?" Lila asked. "As in the Swiftsure Translator?"
"Guilty." Swiftsure raised hir hand. "Pleasure to meet you all."
"It'd be nice to be able to talk to Star without needing someone to translate," Larissa said, waving at Star. Star waved back and gave a thumb's up, which Larissa returned.
"Anything special today?" Lila asked.
"Nope." Darkstar shook hir head. "Out to Cha'turna and back, keep her away from the arrival and departure lanes."
"Kit to Darkstar, we're suited up and heading out," Kit's voice called from the comm station.
"They're ready? Then let's go." Lila beckoned and the others followed hir out.
"Roger, Kit, we're all set," Darkstar replied. "Your escorts will be in position once you're mounted. Swiftsure, go up to the ports and look down to your left."
Swiftsure did as directed. Star settled to the workroom floor, crouching until her belly and wing tips touched the deck. A pair of orange suited humanoid figures appeared, carrying an odd looking contraption between them. It looked like a pair of bucket seats bolted to a long, narrow frame. Star remained perfectly still as the figures walked up her left wing and across her back to the base of her nose. After setting the frame down one of the figures pulled the end of a carbon fiber ribbon from the side of it and walked around Star's nose, just ahead of the main wing but behind the canards. Swiftsure found it disconcerting to see him standing sideways, then upside down, even though shi knew there was no gravity in the work area. With the ribbon secure the figures took their seats and strapped down.
"We're go for launch, Houston," Skip announced. Star gave a thumbs up.
"That's a roj." Darkstar touched a control. Two windows opened on the view ports; one showed a close-up of the far wall with what appeared to be a mirrored cone in the lower part. It was, Swiftsure suddenly realized, Star's nose as seen by the two people sitting on her back. A sidebar next to it, titled Carson, Theobald A, showed vital signs and suit stats. The other window showed mainly the back of Kit's seat and helmet, except when the person looked aside. The sidebar was titled Matheson, Skip T. "Echo flight, are you in position?"
"Chase formation is go," Lila reported. Six more windows appeared. Two showed empty star fields, the other four the helmeted face of each crew member. "Is Star ready?"
"Boy, is she ever," Kit replied with a rueful chuckle. "Darkstar, if you don't open the space doors soon she's gonna go right through the wall."
"Can't have that. Range safety?" Darkstar glanced at Sherlock.
"Range safety is go," Sherlock replied.
"Right, then, Let's get this show on the road. Opening space doors now."
Star moved away from the floor and hovered, aimed straight at the far wall. Mars lights turned and a thin black line appeared on what had been an unbroken surface. As it widened Star skittered back and forth; Kit clucked and slapped her with one hand, gesturing with the other. Suddenly a pair of new suns seemed to spring into existence; the ports polarized automatically to cut the glare but Swiftsure shielded hir eyes anyway.
"That's the interceptors getting a head start," Darkstar explained. "In a second you'll see why."
Star twitched all over. She flattened her rudders and slipped through the gap while the space doors were still no more than half open. Swiftsure gasped; the upper valve passed so close that Kit and Skip ducked their heads. Star's entire body glowed brightly with a cold, bluish light; as she emerged into space it flashed to dazzling brilliance. By the time Swiftsure blinked it out of her eyes Star was gone.
"Yee-haw!" Kit shouted. His point of view closed with the two sparks of light. The heads-up display in his helmet carated them, identifying the left one was E218 and the right as E219.
"Catch us if you can, slowpoke! Break!" Lila called. The two sparks crossed one another and turned away in opposite directions. Star swung to follow E218. Lila threw hir ship into a series of short, hard turns, then rolled and slammed the stick back, breaking sharply away from hir original course. Star stayed on hir tail as if stuck with glue, then suddenly broke away. E219 was coming around for a head-on pass.
Despite standing on a firm, stable deck the wild gyrations were rather too much for Swiftsure's stomach. Shi turned away, picking up hir workstation.
"Pretty soon I'm gonna do that," Aurora declared proudly.
"Are you going to be an astronaut when you grow up?" Swiftsure asked, opening the workstation and uncoiling a length of fiber-optic patch cable.
"Nah! I've almost got my suit rating! Sherlock says I'll be ready to fly in a week if I study hard!"
Swiftsure looked up in surprise. "You aren't really going to let hir do that, are you?" shi asked, glancing at the view ports, then at Darkstar.
"Why not?" Darkstar asked. "As soon as shi got here shi wanted to go out with Star. I told hir I'd let hir do it if shi passed the Security Force pressure suit training."
"Shi's doing better than a lot of cadets I've seen," Sherlock commented. "And in about half the time, too."
"Shows what strong motivation will do," Darkstar added.
"For sure." Sherlock nodded sagely.
"But..." Swiftsure glanced at the ports. "Isn't it... dangerous?"
"That depends on what you call dangerous," Darkstar replied. "Star's relative inertia fields are considerably better than ours. In spite of what you see, Kit and Skip aren't experiencing any more Gee loading than you are right now. Star has an incredibly sweet and gentle disposition- for which I offer thanks daily to the Odd Gods of the Galaxy- and in the weeks we've been exercising her outside she's taken very good care of her sitters. If she has any fault, it is an excess of exuberance." Darkstar grinned. "But what child doesn't?" Darkstar lowered hir hand and beckoned; Aurora zipped over and rubbed hir head against it. "Besides, I promised. Would I be doing Aurora a favor if I kept hir locked in a box against the possibility that shi might be endangered? Shi's my daughter, not my property. My responsibility as parent is to teach hir to fly, though I understand that one day shi will fly away."
Aurora enjoyed being cuddled but it could not compete with the spectacle on the view ports. Shi left hir grandmother and hurried back to the front of the room.
"Why did you bring hir here in the first place?" Swiftsure asked.
"You might say as an expert consultant on the matter of childhood," Darkstar replied "And because I can't leave hir with a sitter for any length of time. Shi has a genetic condition that makes hir... prone to violence. If not properly supervised shi or others could end up seriously injured."
"Oh, my." Swiftsure's eyes widened. "How do you deal with it?"
Darkstar's mouth smiled but the look in hir eyes made Swiftsure shiver. "I have it too," Darkstar explained. "That's how Aurora got it in the first place. Do you need help patching into the computer?"
"I, uh-" Swiftsure looked around, flustered by the exchanged. "Yes, actually."
"Javert, give Swiftsure a hand," Longstocking directed.
"Righty-ho, chief." He hurried over.
every so often while they worked Swiftsure glanced at the windows. Kit and Skip whooped and shouted as if on the world's greatest thrill ride. The Security Force crews carried themselves with more dignity but they seemed to be enjoying themselves nonetheless. "How long does this go on?" shi asked.
"Anywhere from one to three hours, depending on how long it takes for Star to get tired," Javert replied.
Two hours later they were still at it- and so was Swiftsure. Interfacing with the station's computer system was fairly easy; establishing and maintaining a stable link to the university- with high encryption, Darkstar insisted- proved difficult.
"What's the matter?" Longstocking asked.
"Milnet is the problem," Javert replied. "The university isn't directly connected, so we have to route through a gateway at Security Force headquarters. It won't give us the bandwidth we need and it can't handle the translation from military to civilian encryption modes. The only way we're going to get this to work is if we establish a direct link to the university through a civilian channel."
"Civilian channels aren't secure," Longstocking pointed out.
"Even if someone intercepted the data and decrypted it, it wouldn't do any good," Swiftsure replied. "They'd need a translator program- our translator- the make any sense of it."
Darkstar sighed. "We might as well, Longstocking. You know we can't afford to wait for everything to be straightened out through normal channels."
Longstocking sighed heavily. "Darkstar, do you have any idea how many regulations we're already violating?"
"I'm not that familiar with Security Force regs but I'd guess somewhere between twenty and thirty."
Longstocking scrubbed hir face. "I'm going to be appearing before investigation boards until I die of old age. Okay, Swiftsure. Do what you have to."
"Sir, the feed barge is inbound," Sherlock reported.
"What, now?" Longstocking looked at the ports. "Kit, what's your status?"
"I think Star's about had it," Kit replied. He sounded rather winded himself.
"Tell the barge to hold," Longstocking replied. "We can't have them docking while Star's coming in."
Sherlock argued quietly with the comm for a moment, then looked up. "They say if they miss their window they'll abort and won't be back until tomorrow."
"Slag it!" Longstocking tugged at hir whiskers.
"Kit, can you stretch it a bit?" Darkstar asked.
"I'll try, but you know how Star is."
"You see, we feed her toxic waste," Javert explained quietly in response to Swiftsure's quizzical look. "It's delivered once a day. We don't have facilities here to store large quantities. If the delivery doesn't come Star goes without. On the other hand, she's a devilishly curious kid. She always wants to go look at ships, satellites, and stuff. And things that aren't her keepers she doesn't mind bashing to bits. Not to mention that she seems to really like the waste." He grimaced. "If she got ahold of the barge... well, it's a risk we'd rather not take."
"Like a bunch of mice trying to raise a mastiff," Swiftsure commented.
Javert shook his head. "Tell me about it."
"Tell them to dock but be quick," Longstocking said. Another window opened on the view ports showing an odd looking ship hovering in space. An open frame spine connected a conical crew module to a boxy engine unit. landing struts jutted from either side of each module. Four large, rectangular containers hanging from the spine occupied the volume where a regular ship would have a fuselage.
"Liska, deploy the cargo handling arms," Longstocking directed.
"Aye aye, sir." Liska moved to one of the servo control stations.
One of the containers came loose and drifted toward the station. Liska caught it with a large mechanical grabber and fed it carefully into a cargo port. The next two containers went the same way but the last one apparently wouldn't come loose. After an interminable delay- and much arguing between Sherlock and the barge's crew- a pair of suited figures left the barge's command module and went to have a look.
"Kit, how are you?" Darkstar asked.
"Star's ready to eat," Kit replied. "We're coming in."
"Delay as long as you can. We're having some problems with the cargo transfer."
"What are those idiots doing?" Longstocking growled. "If the clamps are jammed, pull the manual release and be done with it!"
One of the figures climbed onto the container itself and reached between it and the ship. Suddenly the container came free but the figure still clinging to it. His safety line went tight, jerking his companion loose. The other end of the line wasn't secured to the ship and whipped free.
"Liska!" Longstocking shrilled.
Cool as could be Liska bumped the container with the grabber's finger. It turned and fell neatly into her grasp with the clinging figure safely on the outside where it wouldn't be crushed. The free-flying figure struggled wildly but futilely.
"Grab the line, you idiot!" Longstocking shouted. "Don't those people know anything about EVA?"
The loose figure swept in a majestic arc on the end of his line as it wrapped around the grabber. He wasn't moving fast to start with but as the line shortened he sped up. After striking the side of the container at a good clip and rebounding he stopped struggling and floated limply.
"Sir, the arm's fouled," Lisa reported.
"Are you ready for us yet?" Kit asked hopefully.
"No, we're still having problems with the cargo transfer," Darkstar replied.
"We're out of time," Skip put in. "Star's coming home, one way or another."
The first crewman released his safety line and tried to catch his companion but missed. As he floated away Liska caught him with another grabber.
"Bring him in!" Longstocking ordered.
"He won't let go," Liska replied. From the comm station Swiftsure heard tinny voices. Shi couldn't make out any words but there seemed to be a lot of yelling and screaming going on.
"Darkstar, watch out!" Kit shouted.
A blazing arrowhead of icy, blue-white light shot with flickers of blue, green, red, and yellow appeared in the exterior view. Swiftsure gasped; only when it extended a hand and picked up the two suited figures did shi realize it was Star. She didn't try to untangle the safety line; she rotated a little and a pale beam flashed from her right wing tip, neatly severing it. She tried signing to them but they didn't respond. Kit and Skip shouted incoherently and gestured frantically; after a moment Star moved into the work room and set the set the figures down, placing them carefully on their feet. The first crewman shuffled quickly to the second- running wasn't possible in the absence of gravity- and shook him. He flopped limply; it looked as if only pressure inside his suit kept him upright. A bit later Kit and Skip arrived; the three of them carried the fourth to the personnel lock. Darkstar bolted from the room with Longstocking and Sherlock close behind; Swiftsure dropped hir work and followed with Javert close on hir heels. Moments later they all burst into a suiting room two decks down. Kit and Skip emerged from the airlock carrying the hapless crewman between them.
"Get back!" Darkstar bellowed. The power of hir voice caused even Kit and Skip to step away. Darkstar unlatched the man's helmet and pulled it off.
He appeared to be a dog. Short, golden yellow fur covered his face and his long, floppy ears hung down the sides of his head. He gasped for great, eyes glazed, tongue hanging out the side of his mouth. "You all right?" Darkstar asked, slapping him gently on the cheek. He moaned.
The other barge crew member shoved forward, removing his- no, her- helmet. She too was a canid; chocolate brown fur with lighter spots covered her face and darker brown, more curly hair clung to her ears, which hung down to her shoulders.
"Would you two mind explaining just what the Hell you were doing?" Longstocking demanded.
"Of course." the woman straightened up, helping her companion to his feet. She pulled something from his equipment belt and thrust it into his hands; he fumbled for a moment then raised it. Swiftsure took a step back; it didn't look like one but the man held it as if it were a weapon. "I'm Renata Fayre of Chakona Network News. I was wondering if you could explain to our viewers just what's going on at this facility."
In the crushing silence that followed even the ventilation fans sounded unbearably loud. Tension lay so thick in the air Swiftsure found hirself gasping.
Darkstar blinked exactly twice. "Son of a bitch!" shi thundered.
Professor Moseivitch's bright blue sports car pulled off the street, into the driveway of his gingerbread Victorian cottage, and came to a stop in the car port. When after fifteen minutes he did not stir the car alarm sounded one short blat. Fyodor started, sat up, rubbed his eyes, and got out. After fetching his workstation and locking the car he shambled to the front door. When he lifted the big brass lion's head knocker its eyes lit, scanning his retinas. The door unlocked and swung open, the front hall lights coming on.
"Sir, you have a call," Jeeves said, speaking in a smooth, refined voice with just a touch of an English accent. His voice was the only human thing about him other than his arms, which were made of brightly polished metal and attached to a spherical body held aloft by a repulsor drive.
"Save it," Fyodor replied, dismissing Jeeves and the call with a flick of the wrist.
"I'm sorry, but I must insist," Jeeves continued. "It's from Aleksandr."
Fyodor froze with one foot on the stairs. The grandfather clock in the front parlor indicated ten minutes past midnight. As usual the hearings had dragged on all day and late into the night. There wouldn't be a session tomorrow- it was the weekend- but Fyodor would end up spending all of it in marathon sessions with his legal staff. With luck he'd get s few hours sleep and a quick breakfast. But that name. The only Aleksandr he could think of was one he'd known years ago on-
"Aleksandr Raskilov?" Fyodor asked, frowning.
"Yes, sir," Jeeves replied.
The professor's fatigue-blurred mind took several moments to assimilate that datum. He set his workstation on the stairs, walked back to the library, and switched on the phone occupying one corner of his brightly polished teak desk.
On the screen appeared a face with stern, aristocratic features and an Aquiline nose, like an ancient Roman senator. Jet black hair came to a widow's peak on his forehead and though heavily streaked with gray showed no sign of thinning or receding. A close-trimmed beard and sideburns enhanced his already powerful jaw. Steel blue eyes looked out from beneath heavy, faintly menacing brows. He wore a Star Fleet dress uniform with a red color stripe and a captain's rank tabs on the collar.
"Sorry to disturb you at this late hour, Fyodor Ivanov, but I need to speak with you on a matter of some urgency," the image began. He spoke with a faintly Slavic accent.
"It's... incredible to see you again after all these years, Aleksandr Ilytch," Fyodor replied after a long pause. "But... I'm afraid I'm rather busy at the moment."
"Yes, some legal problems, I understand. I'm afraid they can no longer be our first concern."
"Our?" Fyodor frowned.
"Matters of much greater significance are pressing down upon us, Fyodor Ivanov. Since this is not a secure link I cannot go into detail. We will need to meet face to face."
"But-" Fyodor began.
"Not to worry," Captain Raskilov cut in. "I have the matter well in hand." He glanced to his right. "Energize."
"But-" Fyodor repeated as the library dissolved in a spray of rainbow light.
"Welcome aboard the F.S.S. Lijang, Professor."
Fyodor blinked, turned toward the voice, and froze. A most remarkable individual stood by the transporter control console. He wasn't very large, only ten or so centimeters taller than Fyodor, but the sculpted perfection of his body was breathtaking. Soft, snow white fur coated every visible part of him, which was almost everything since his only article of clothing consisted of a blue bikini bottom barely large enough to cover his prodigiously dimensioned male organ and a comm badge affixed to the waistband over his right hip. His short but pointed muzzle and round ears reminded Fyodor of a weasel or a ferret. A wavy black mane spilled down to the middle of his back and a black tag adorned the tip of his long, fluffy tail. His feet were in fact paws with short, dog-like claws. He regarded Fyodor with large, deeply expressive, and intensely blue eyes.
"My name is Chase, Professor," he purred in a voice as sensually beautiful yet unmistakably masculine as his appearance. "I'll take you to the Captain."
Fyodor started, realizing that Chase wasn't the person who'd first addressed him. He glanced around; not a meter and a half to Chase's right stood the transporter operator, a Terran warrant officer of southeast Asian descent. Chase's presence so overwhelmed everything around him that Fyodor hadn't even seen the man.
"This way, Professor." Chase bowed, gesturing toward the door.
"Ah, yes, of course." Fyodor stepped down from the transporter platform and followed. He couldn't tear his eyes away from Chase's trim but powerful shoulders, firm buttocks, and muscular thighs. He found himself wondering what it would be like to run his fingers through that soft, silky fur. As an avowed heterosexual he found these thoughts perplexing and not a little disturbing but he couldn't help it. Physically Chase was attractive- stunningly beautiful, in fact- but there was more to it. Everything about him, from the way he walked to how he glanced at people walking by, oozed raw sex appeal. The total was something that just couldn't be ignored; every person they met in the corridors gave Chase a frankly speculative once-over as they passed. Age, sex, and species mattered not a whit. Chase didn't merely enjoy the attention, he reveled in it. Each glance he returned multiplied a dozen fold, his liquid eyes and warm smile somehow promising sexual delights that defied imagining.
"Here we are, Professor." Chase stepped aside, gesturing for Fyodor to enter first. Captain Aleksandr Ilytch Raskilov sat at a table in his tastefully appointed day room. Two glasses and a tall bottle, already open, stood before him. As Fyodor entered he filled both glasses and rose to his feet.
With Chase out of his field of view Fyodor's mind got back on track. "What is the meaning of this, Aleksandr?" he demanded firmly.
"I apologize for your abduction, Fyodor, but it was necessary." Captain Raskilov offered Fyodor a glass. "Thank you, Chase, that will be all."
"My pleasure, Captain." Chase bowed, giving Aleksandr an absolutely smoking look as he straightened up. He withdrew, rolling his hips even more than usual. Fyodor blushed hotly because he'd looked but Captain Raskilov seemed immune to Chase's aura. Or, at least, he hid his reactions better than anyone else.
"You're wondering about Chase," Aleksandr observed as he filled the glasses.
Moseivitch snorted. "You'd have to be dead not to wonder about that one."
Aleksandr chuckled. "Well, yes. But he is sufficiently useful for us to overlook his... idiosyncrasies. He is an empath."
Fyodor paled. "Please tell me he's not the ship's councilor!"
Aleksandr laughed out loud. "Oh, no. If that were the case we'd never get anything done. We'd all be- well, I'm sure you can imagine."
"All too well, I'm afraid." Fyodor took a sip and gagged. "This isn't synthehol!"
"Of course not," Aleksandr replied as if the very notion were grievously offensive. "It is real vodka with real ethanol. Brewed from real potatoes and distilled in a real boiler, according to a secret recipe that has been in my family since the time of Peter the Great." Raskilov took a sip, rolled it on his tongue, and swallowed. "Heavenly. You will find no better, anywhere in the galaxy."
"Isn't it illegal?" Moseivitch wondered.
Aleksandr dismissed the notion with a flick of the fingers. "What sort of world would this be if two old friends couldn't sit together and share a drink?"
"Good point." Fyodor took another sip, more judiciously this time. "I'm afraid it's been a rather long time since I've tasted real vodka."
"Then please indulge yourself." Raskilov opened a workstation and slid it across the table. "But we aren't here for friendly chatter, much as I'd enjoy it."
"Great Ghu!" Fyodor exclaimed, grabbing the workstation so he could study the displayed image in detail. At first he thought it was Star but where she had smooth, gracefully curving lines this ship was sharper and more angular, suggesting a faceted appearance. Also, a design made of curves and curlicues- it reminded Fyodor of paisley- covered the top of the fuselage. "Where did this come from, Aleksandr?" he demanded.
Aleksandr poured himself another glass and freshened Fyodor's. "Some weeks ago a Federation warship engaged a group of raiders attacking a gas mining colony. One raider was destroyed, the others disappeared. This is the one that was destroyed, reconstructed from the very complete wreckage Cumberland recovered."
Fyodor licked his lips. cudgeling his mind into action. The vodka went down smooth as silk but tired as he was it hit like a sledgehammer. "What... do you want from me?"
"That ship is the same class as the one your people are studying, is it not?" Aleksandr inquired. Fyodor nodded. "What I want is the full cooperation of your team and access to all your research material. In return I will give you access to all of my research, and the wreckage itself."
"Whobl-" Fyodor swallowed. "Who will be in charge of the project?"
"I will," Aleksandr replied. "Because of this." He turned the workstation, touched a key, then tuned it back.
Fyodor had to blink twice to bring the words on the screen into focus. Then his jaw dropped and the half-full glass of vodka slipped from his fingers, splashing its contents on the carpet.
"What's your name?" Renata asked in an exaggeratedly cheerful voice.
"Aurora," Aurora replied in barely more than a whisper. Kevin edged sideways, eyes fixed on the view finder of his servo cam. Behind him the big view screen displayed perfectly framed three quarters shot of Aurora seated on the couch with the wardroom view ports behind hir.
"Better not talk to hir like that," Javert said, but quietly so that only Kit and Valjean would hear.
"I've give you two pepperoni pizzas," Valjean said.
Kit shook his head slowly, placing a single peanut in his mouth. "Sucker bet." After chewing carefully and swallowing he picked up another.
"Why are you here?" Renata continued in her slow, exaggerated tone. Aurora whispered something unintelligible.
"Because I'm the psycho bitch from Hell," Valjean said in a squeaky- but quiet- falsetto.
"I'm sorry?" Renata leaned forward. Kevin zoomed in until Aurora's face filled the screen. Kit shivered; scale amplified the devilish glint in Aurora's large, otherwise beautiful eyes into an unholy fire. Kevin, looking in the tiny viewfinder, probably didn't even see it. If Renata were one to notice such things she would not have begun this line of questioning.
"Because..." Aurora looked up into Renata's eyes, offset slightly from the camera lens. "I don't play well with others!" Shi came off the couch like a striking snake, sinking hir needle-sharp fangs up to the gums in Renata's hand.
"That's gotta hurt," Valjean commented, shaking his hand as Renata stumbled backward, shrieking like a punctured boiler and batting furiously at Aurora's head with her free hand. The battering did not persuade Aurora to release hir grip. Kevin, ever the professional cameraman, zoomed out as he backpedaled hastily, recording the action as it happened.
"Aurora, stop that!" Kit commanded sternly as he jumped to his feet and hurried forward. He grabbed Aurora around the neck with one hand and pinched hir nostrils with the other. Hir chest heaved; after a couple seconds shi let go, gasping for breath. Kit released hir and jumped back as shi spun toward him, hissing and spitting like a wildcat. Javert grabbed Renata under the arms and hauled hir out of immediate danger. She kept her hand clutched against her chest; blood oozed between her fingers and stained the front of her tunic.
"Let me help you with that." Valjean grabbed Renata's wrist and gently but firmly pried it away from her body, then wrapped a trauma bandage around her hand and secured it with sprayseal. Meanwhile Kit and Aurora circled; he brandished a chair like a weapon. When shi charged he slammed it down, pinning hir to the floor. Shi let out a shriek like nails on a blackboard.
Kevin lowered the servo camera without turning it off, looking at Valjean and Javert helping Renata, then at Kit holding Aurora. "You all seem... pretty well prepared for all this," he commented.
Kit held up one hand. Jagged lines of white scar tissue ran down both sides. "Let's just say this isn't the first time it's happened," he said.
"Just wait 'till shi pounces on your tail," Javert put in, shaking his own for emphasis.
Renata shook off Javert's grip and struggled to her feet. She whirled, eyes blazing, mouth opening to launch a fusillade of invective-
A loud electronic tone signaled activation of the 1MC. "Now hear this," Longstocking's voice began. "All personnel will report at once to the wardroom. There will be no exceptions. If anyone is not present when I arrive I will drive them there with a pain stick. Anyone who doubts my willingness to follow through is invited to test it. I could use the exercise. That is all."
"What now?" Kevin demanded in a tone that he might have meant to be exasperated but came out as frightened and alarmed.
"I guess we'll find out," Kit replied, glad that he was already in the wardroom. He had no wish to test Longstocking's sincerity; the grimness of hir tone convinced him of it.
Ten minutes later when Longstocking arrived the entire staff was present, including Keith, Dawnfire, and Goldstrype, but excepting Ito. Longstocking looked around, nodded once, and left. Two minutes after that a hideous shriek echoed through the station's corridors; Ito crashed in a minute later, rubbing his backside. Longstocking entered right behind him, a short baton in one hand.
"In a few minutes Professor Moseivitch will arrive," Longstocking announced. "He will be making an announcement regarding the future of this project. Do not bother to ask me any questions, I can't answer them." Shi sat down next to Sherlock.
No one spoke. When Valjean coughed Kit flinched. Swiftsure looked around questioningly but no one responded. Liska fidgeted, glancing around furtively. Ito stewed, glaring hatefully at Longstocking.
Fyodor entered without a word and not smiling. Behind him came Captain Raskilov, his expression calm and composed.
"I'm terribly sorry to barge in on you at such short notice," Fyodor began. "First of all, allow me to introduce Captain Aleksandr Raskilov of the F.S.S. Lijang. He has brought some matters to my attention which..." Fyodor hesitated, apparently unsure what to say. He looked lost, defeated. "Star Fleet has found... the body of one of Star's people." A concerted gasp rose from the group. "Captain Raskilov has brought it here for us to study," Fyodor continued, raising his voice to override the babble of conversation that sprang up. "But... the project is now under his absolute authority."
"This is a Security Force installation!" Sherlock exclaimed, leaping to hir fleet. "Star Fleet has no jurisdiction!"
"But I do," Captain Raskilov replied. "Under the Emergency War Powers Act, Star Fleet may commandeer the military resources of any member state."
"The Emergency War Powers Act only applies if war has been declared," Darkstar pointed out. "With whom is the Federation at war?"
"With what the Federation Security Council has designated as Species 23330714," Captain Raskilov explained.
"But- that's the day-" Kit began, but didn't finish.
"The day Star's mother crashed into the Deep Space Hyper-Spatial Anomaly Detector," Captain Raskilov finished for him. "It is her species with whom we are at war."
"But- But-" Snowflake's protests were a despairing wail. "Why?"
"Six weeks ago twenty or twenty five unidentified warships attacked and destroyed a gas mining station in the Langston-Banus system," Raskilov explained. "A Federation warship, the frigate Cumberland, engaged some of them and sustained moderate damage. One of the enemy vessels was destroyed; it's remains are in the Lijang's cargo holds. The raiders escaped with between ten and twenty thousand tons of semi-refined petrochemical slurry. A week later the Qantas Challenger, a bulk freighter en route from Amazonia to Colulite, was attacked. Sixteen thousand tons of petrochemical slurry was taken while the rest of the ship's cargo, eleven thousand tons of manufactured goods with a higher book value, was left behind. In fact, an empty cargo container from the Langston-Banus raid was found near by. Two weeks after that an asteroid mining colony in the Naga system was attacked. Another Federation frigate, the Valaparaiso, was at the colony undergoing emergency repairs to her warp drive when the raiders arrived. In spite of this raiders got away with eight thousand tons of refined heavy metals and transuranics. Both Valaparaiso and the colony were severely damaged."
"But Captain, this is a First Contact, not a war," Nova protested. "I, I'm sure the raiders didn't realize what they were doing!"
"Under other circumstances, Dr. Stallis, I would be inclined to agree," Captain Raskilov replied. "As... grievous as these events are, they could be... mitigated by the promise of negotiations or an eventual treaty. But whatever the reason, these aliens have shown no regard whatsoever for organic life. They have made no attempt to establish communication with us and they continue to raid. So far their activities have cost the Federation two thousand, four hundred and ninety seven lives. Worse still, in each and every case the raiders executed helpless people. After the gas mining station's defensive array was disabled the raider punctured its pressure hull, allowing it to flood with toxic atmosphere and killing almost everyone on board. The entire crew of the Qantas Challenger was executed in exactly the same fashion. At the asteroid mining colony they did no more damage than was necessary, but it appears that they were in a hurry to leave. Yes, Star Fleet is dedicated to pushing back the frontiers of space and science, and to establishing peaceful contact with new species. But first and foremost our mission is to protect the lives and property of Federation citizens. Until such time as diplomatic relations with Species 23330714 can be established they are being regarded by the Security Council as hostile invaders. Therefore, by the authority vested in me under the Emergency War Powers Act, I am commandeering this station and all its personnel to aid in the war effort."
"We need to think of something better than Species 23330714," Snowflake announced. Shi sprawled against the centermost of the wardroom view ports, gazing out into space. The Asimov now blocked only half the view; Lijang covered the rest with a narrow strip of Chakona visible between. Cargo handling tractor beams moved thickly wrapped, oddly shaped objects between the vessels.
"Yeah," Kit agreed, but only because he felt that something needed to be said. Ever since Captain Raskilov's announcement he'd paced through Sigma 17's corridors. There wasn't anywhere new to go; in the ten weeks he'd been on board- six since Star's arrival- he'd gone over the whole station time and time again. Going through Asimov's corridors would be a welcome change of scenery, not to mention an opportunity to see new faces, but the docking tunnel was temporarily disconnected. All the walking did nothing to ease the knot of sickness forming in his gut. He felt that if he said too much, if didn't keep his feelings bottled up tight, it would come exploding out in a torrent of filth.
"It's so... impersonal," Snowflake continued. "It's so easy to- to-"
"Hate," Kit said. The word just popped out of his mouth.
Snowflake spun around. Tears matted the fur on hir face, hir expression stricken. "Oh, Kit!" shi wailed. "Where did we go wrong?" shi flung hirself into his arms, nearly bowling him over. Kit held hir, stroking hir head and back, because he didn't trust himself to speak.
"It wasn't us that went wrong," Skip said.
Kit twisted around. Despite his uniform Skip did not at the present look very military; he slouched and stared at his feet. He might have been in the wardroom all along or he might have just walked in; Kit hadn't noticed either way. "You're still with us?" he inquired.
Skip nodded. "I've been detached from duty with the Asimov. Captain Raskilov thinks what I'm doing here is more important and he's probably right. I was... just another junior ensign."
"But you're leaving your home and your friends behind and you wonder if you'll ever see them again," Kit said.
Skip nodded, his expression morose. "You know," he commented, "I had thought of a name. For Star's species."
"What?" Snowflake asked, lifting hir face from Kit's shoulder and wiping hir eyes with the back of hir hand.
Skip shrugged. "I don't know. It seems kinda... silly."
"It can't be worse than Species 23330714," Snowflake pointed out.
"I guess not." Skip looked up, but not at Kit and Snowflake. His gaze went past them, through the view ports to the dark bulk of the Asimov. "Stariionae."
"Skip, that's a beautiful name," Snowflake exclaimed.
"You think so?" Skip brightened somewhat.
"It's a damn sight better than anything I ever thought of," Kit said. "Stariionae." He spoke slowly, as if savoring it. "I like it. Like Snowflake said. It's..." He looked into hir eyes, gently caressing hir cheek. "Beautiful."
"We should go tell Captain Raskilov," Snowflake said, but made no attempt to pull away. "Do you know where he is?"
"In Ops, talking to Star," Skip replied.
"What?" Snowflake leapt almost straight up into the air. In a flash shi left, as fast as hir legs would carry hir.
"Wait!" Kit shouted. He started after hir, though it was a hopeless contest. His two legs, while plenty long, were no match for Snowflake's four.
"Kit!" Darkstar stepped directly into Kit's path; he skidded to a halt, very nearly crashing into hir. "I need to talk with you about what was happening in the wardroom just before Captain Raskilov made his announcement," shi declared.
A sharp retort died on Kit's lips, killed by something in Darkstar's tone that filled him with a shiver of unease. He swallowed, shifting from foot to foot. Suddenly he felt like a child who'd been caught doing something naughty. Darkstar turned and started off without a word or even a gesture; Kit didn't even consider not following.
"Kit?" Skip hurried up to the intersection. Darkstar and Kit went one way, Snowflake another. Skip glanced back and forth between them, momentary torn. He'd been close enough to hear Darkstar's statement and he'd heard that tone of voice before, usually when some hapless underling was in for a serious hiding. Often as not the underling had been Skip himself. Over the past few weeks he and Kit had become fairly close but whatever was going on between him and Darkstar Skip wanted no part of it. He followed Snowflake toward Ops.
Four 'taurs and a large humanoid wouldn't fit in Darkstar's cabin all at once so Valjean and Javert waited outside. Kit stood scrunched up against the wall. Aurora lay in a miserable little heap in the middle of the floor, hir eyes puffy and hir face wet with tears. Shi made not a sound but hir expression was that of a person waiting for the firing squad.
"I just had a very illuminating conversation with Ms. Fayre," Darkstar said. "I have to say that despite her journalistic background her description of what happened in the wardroom was rather... slanted. Still, it was enough for me deduce the truth. Which is why the three of you are here now. You had all been interviewed and had personal experience of Ms. Fayre's sometimes abrasive style. You knew she was going to interview Aurora. Not only did you guess what might happen you were hoping for it. Enough that you, Valjean, stopped by the infirmary to pick up some trauma bandages and a can of sprayseal. In any case you did nothing to prevent it- which, in my book, makes you three as culpable as Aurora hirself."
Kit swallowed, clasping his hands tightly behind him to keep them from shaking. Darkstar's calm, almost emotionless delivery somehow cut far deeper than open anger or any other emotion could have. He was going to be punished; he couldn't imagine how but coming from Darkstar it would be swift and terrible.
"I've told you that Aurora has some behavior issues," Darkstar continued. "Shi's aggressive and likes to fight. I brought hir with me because I've found that other people, Chakats in particular, don't seem to have what it takes to deal with hir properly. I figured that a trio of young, testosterone-soaked Neanderthals like yourselves would be just the thing to use up hir excess energy and I was right. I've seen you stalking each other in the halls, heard you fighting behind closed doors. And you love it. Enough that, in spite of your constant bitching, you keep encouraging hir. For that reason I ignored most of the scratching and biting because you brought it on yourselves. I know of one specific incident where you, Kit, bit Aurora." Darkstar opened a drawer and took out a black plastic case. From it shi removed a short baton. Kit recognized it because he'd seen Longstocking wielding one not too long ago. It was a pain stick.
Pain sticks existed as an alternative to violence in difficult crowd control situations. Emitters in the stick induced an unharmonious resonance in the traget's nervous system which the victim experienced as sharp, stinging pain. That's not to say there weren't dangers; on rare occasions people went into convulsions or cardiac arrest. Police and security agencies used them and private citizens could carry them if properly licensed. In any case using them on children was illegal.
"Aurora and I have an agreement," Darkstar said. "If shi inflicts a wound that draws blood on a person who isn't a willing participant shi receives a one second application of the pain stick. If shi inflicted the wound intentionally shi receives five seconds." Darkstar grabbed Aurora by the scruff of the neck with hir free hand. Aurora began to whimper. "Don't you dare look away, Javert. I have no authority to punish the three of you but you will observe the consequences of your involvement." Using hir hand and forepaws to pin hir down Darkstar applied the tip of the pain stick to Aurora's back.
Aurora emitted a sound so sharp and intense it made Kit's teeth itch in their sockets. It lasted, unwavering in volume or intensity, for the entire five seconds. It was not a sound Kit could have imagined coming from any living creature, to say nothing of a sentient. When it ended Kit's ears ached from the silence. Aurora lay on the deck, gasping and sobbing; shi'd struggled so violently hir claws ripped furrows in the traction matting.
"That is all." Darkstar put away the pain stick, pushed Kit out of the room, and closed the door, leaving Aurora sobbing and alone. Valjean and Javert nearly fell over each other in their haste to escape but Kit didn't move. As Darkstar sat down in the hallway he remained, staring fixedly at hir.
"Aurora's fortunate," Darkstar said, looking up into Kit's eyes. "The condition shi inherited was diluted by two generations. As a child I was much worse. My father didn't bother with a pain stick; shi beat me until I couldn't stand. I understand now why shi did it. If shi hadn't I'd have probably ended up like Aurora's mother. I've even managed to forgive hir... but I've never been glad shi did it. I've spent my entire life wishing shi could have found another way to deal with me." Darkstar smiled a black, humorless smile. "Now I'm doing it to Aurora. Because it works, and in Marla- Aurora's mother- I saw graphically the consequences of failure. I hate what I do and I hate what I've become but I love Aurora too much to let hir suffer the same fate as hir mother." Shi crossed hir arms and started straight ahead.
After a few minutes Kit turned and walked slowly way. He didn't cross Darkstar's line of vision; he couldn't shake the feeling that hir gaze would burn him.
At the sound of footsteps that weren't Kit's Darkstar looked up. Fyodor came down the passage, shoulders slumped, head down, hands in his pockets. His hair looked wild and unkempt, his suit rumpled and loose. Red tinted the periphery of his eyes and tear tracks stained his cheeks. "Fyodor?" shi asked, blinking in surprise and concern.
"I failed." Fyodor stopped opposite Darkstar and slumping against the wall. "Everything I did was to keep Star out of Star Fleet's hands. Now..." he shrugged. "It was all for nothing."
"It wasn't for nothing," Darkstar insisted. "You've... welded this group into a team. That really cares about Star. You're here now because Captain Raskilov needs you. To keep us happy."
Fyodor shook his head violently. "I didn't do shit, Darkstar." His eyes locked on hirs. "You did it. You're the one who made all this come together. You persuaded Longstocking to go along with me. You pumped Kit up so he'd do what was needed to bring Star back from the Array. Captain Walker helped us because you asked him to. All I did-" he gulped back a sob. "-was screw everything up so badly that if Aleksandr hadn't come along I'd have ended up in jail!" He covered his face with his hands, trying- unsuccessfully- not to break down. "You were right about me," he mumbled. "You were right."
Darkstar licked hir lips. Shi leapt forward, grabbing his arms and pulling them away from his face. "No," shi said. "I was wrong. I called you a liar but really it was me. I... I came here because when you came to me and made your spiel I believed." Shi gently lifted his face. "I wanted to be a part of what you were doing. So much I could taste it. When you said you needed me...." shi couldn't continue.
"It was a lie," Fyodor sobbed.
"No." Darkstar shook him. "It wasn't. You just said that I was the one who made all this come together. If you couldn't have done it yourself then you really did need me." Shi stroked the loose hair back from his brow. "Fyodor-" hir voice caught; a moment passed before shi could continue. "I came here because I believed in what you were doing. Because I believed in you. Nothing else could have brought me. Nothing."
Fyodor threw his arms around Darkstar, hugging hir tightly. "Why do you still love me?" he gulped, his voice distorted by sobs and muffled by Darkstar's fur.
"Damned if I know," Darkstar whispered, hir throat too tight for anything more. "But I do. I always have."
"I know." Fyodor wiped his face on he back of his sleeve. "And... I hated myself for it. I always thought... I was keeping you from finding what you really needed. That if I didn't... encourage you, you'd give up and go find someone else!"
"Fyodor, you stupid, stupid, stupid-" Darkstar clung to him, struggling to keep hir ragged breaths from becoming sobs. "Since when have you ever seen me give up? Especially on something that's- so import to me?"
"I know." Fyodor buried his face in Darkstar's shoulder. "I... hated myself for that most of all. Because... I knew it, but... I was too chicken shit to admit it."
The door to Darkstar's cabin opened and Aurora came out. Shi gave Darkstar and Fyodor an inscrutable look as shi turned up the corridor. Shi tried to walk away without looking back but didn't quite make it. At the next intersection shi looked back, hir expression was troubled, as if she really wanted to say something but couldn't bring hirself to do it. Shi darted out of sight.
"You punished hir for biting Ms. Fayre," Fyodor said. It wasn't a question. Darkstar nodded. "And now," Fyodor continued, "You blame yourself. Because there should have been something else you could have done." After a long pause, Darkstar nodded again.
"Now you listen to me," Fyodor insisted, grabbing Darkstar's face. "Aurora's the person shi is because of you, not in spite of you. Shi's an adorable child who's well on hir way to growing up into a beautiful and loving adult. Just like hir grandfather."
Darkstar gulped. "Even... even when shi bites your knee?"
Fyodor gritted his teeth, sighing heavily. "Okay. Maybe not in the exact moment hir teeth are sinking into my leg... but I can't help forgive hir for it afterward."
Darkstar sighed. "I can't imagine how a pushover like you ever got to be such a bigwig."
"I'm not," Fyodor replied. "Any more than you are. And now-" he closed his eyes for a moment. "I owe you something, Darkstar. I've put off paying you back because I'd always managed to convince myself that I had other things to do. But not any more." He slipped his arms out of his jacket, letting it fall to the deck. "Everything I've built... is in other hands now." He couldn't quite manage the buttons on his shirt so he ripped it off. "I've nothing left to do but be with you, Darkstar." He caught hir chin in one hand, the back of hir head with the other, and kissed hir.
Darkstar make an odd whiffling sound. Hir hind legs quivered, then collapsed. Shi would have fallen completely if hir arms weren't already around Fyodor.
"Yes, I know what I'm doing," Fyodor said as he turned hir around and guided hir into hir cabin. "It's what I should have done years ago, when you first came back to Chakona. I'm going to be your lover."
"What are you doing?" Snowflake shrieked as shi burst into Ops.
Captain Raskilov looked over his shoulder. He sat at one of the servo control stations, stroking Star's belly with the virtual hands. "Star and I are having a pleasant conversation," he replied.
Snowflake huffed. Raskilov's genteel reaction derailed hir train of thought.
"I'm sorry, Star, I have to go away for a moment," Raskilov said, drawing his hands out of the gauntlets. A second pair of virtual hands reproduced his words as sign language.
"Okay," the computer replied, reproducing Star's signs as words.
"I'm not the monster you think I am, Shir Snowflake," Raskilov continued in a slightly more serious tone. "I don't relish the prospect of making war upon Star's kin. Good people will die regardless of the outcome."
"Then why do it?" Snowflake demanded. "Why do we have to fight them? Why can't we talk to them? You carry on like it was the only choice!"
"Because it is the only choice," Raskilov stated. "We don't know how they communicate. Swiftsure's translator is an amazing piece of programming but without an input mechanism it's useless. How can we turn what Star's people use as speech into something the translator can process if we don't even know what it is? I suppose we could teach them sign language if they gave us the time but will they stop raiding while we do it?"
"Stariionae," Snowflake muttered.
"I'm sorry?" Raskilov frowned.
"Stariionae," Snowflake repeated. "That's... what we call them."
"Indeed." Raskilov stroked his beard. "Much more euphonious a term than Species 23330714. I'll enter it into the official record at once."
"What are you here for?" Snowflake demanded.
"Over the past two weeks I've conferred with dozens of experts and read hundreds of reports," Raskilov said. "They've given me a great deal of advice on how to proceed, much of it conflicting. In one area they tend to agree: that this station lacks the facilities for proper research and that you all, as her keepers, lack the training and experience to care for her."
"And who exactly has more training and experience than us?" Snowflake shouted.
"No one," Raskilov replied, as calm as ever. "Which is why I've decided to leave her here, in your care. She feels safe and she does not mind the moderate amount of poking and prodding to which she is subjected. Not to mention that I found her to be a charming and engaging young lady."
Snowflake shifted uneasily. Raskilov really didn't seem like a monster but shi just could not bring together the facts that he seemed to regard Star as a person on one hand but was ready to go kill her relatives on the other.
"You still don't believe me," Raskilov stated. "I freely admit that part of my reasoning is that until we better understand her star drive, any attempt to take her against her will is bound to be futile. The only force keeping her with us is that she wants to be here. It is in my best interest to capitalize on that. She is, after all, of incalculable value to the Federation. As a scientific resource and as a bridge between two very dissimilar cultures. If I fail disastrously in my primary mission it may be that she is the one thing that will prevent conflict between us and the Stariionae from growing into something that could destroy us. If we can't track them there's no way we can effectively safeguard our interstellar shipping. Without shipping the Federation economy ceases to be. Without an economy the Federation ceases to be. Not in centuries or even decades but months. A year or two at the absolute most."
"If so much is riding on it," Snowflake said, barely loud enough to hear, "Wouldn't it be... better to let others take over?"
Raskilov's brows furrowed for a moment. "Perhaps," he allowed. "One reason that I'm here now is because twice, in the past, I've faced situations like this. First time, the decision had already been made by the time I arrived. Second time, I chose... wrongly." For just an instant something flickered in his eyes. It was there and gone too quickly for Snowflake to do anything but note its passing. "This time, since the Security Council has given me power to handle matters as I see fit, I choose to err on the side of caution. Meaning that which will ease the burden on my conscience in my old age, if I am fortunate enough to have one."
"Are you crazy?" Nova exclaimed, leaping to her feet. "If you've read all the reports then you know what happened to Kei!"
With two exceptions Sigma 17's wardroom housed the entire team. Valjean and Javert were on duty with Star; Kevin and Renata had been taken on board Lijang. Captain Raskilov called them his guests but no one doubted that, in fact, they were prisoners. As a concession to the increased percentage of humanoids several chairs had been brought over from the Asimov's wardroom.
"I know," Chase purred. "I've been briefed on the risks."
Nova took several deep breaths. At the word briefed her eyes slipped down to Chase's crotch. Only after a visible effort could she return them to his face and that after lingering for a while on his chest.
"Chase has skills and experience Kei lacked," Raskilov said. "And the risk is a necessary one. Without a means to track them the Stariionae are free to strike when and where they choose, a situation I cannot allow. Chase theorizes that they can be tracked telepathically. Since we have a Stariionae at our disposal here we can subject that theory to experimental verification without placing innocent lives at risk."
"What if Chase ends up a gibbering vegetable, like Kei?" Longstocking asked. Shi didn't even try not to stare.
"Then the experiment will be a failure," Raskilov replied.
"A failure?" Longstocking exploded, leaping to hir feet. "A member of our crew get his mind atomized and you call it a failed experiment?"
"You shouldn't speak that way about things you don't understand," Chase commented. He didn't seem the least bit perturbed by either the overall conversation or any of the outbursts.
"Chase is not a member of my crew," Raskilov continued. "He is..." they exchanged glances. "My son. He stays with me for much the same reason as you keep your granddaughter with you, Shir Darkstar." Raskilov allowed the corners of his mouth to quirk up in a little smile. "Because others have shown themselves unable to deal with him. Star Fleet overlooks the... idiosyncrasies of our relationship because we are both useful, in our own ways. As to the matter of Star, Chase and I argued about it constantly ever since we first heard about her. We have analyzed the risks as best we can with the data at our disposal; I cannot say that another telepath would necessarily face any less risk. Chase's qualifications are impeccable and he is here, ready to hand. The only compelling reason I have to refuse is my parental concern." Raskilov's tone and expression didn't change but something flickered through his eyes, like a moth around a candle flame.
"I thought you said he was an empath," Fyodor commented.
"When it comes to powers of the mind, classifications mean very little," Chase put in. "A telepath, technically, is someone who hears thoughts. Like having a little radio that picks up brain waves." He smiled. "I can't do that. I can tell that you're all thinking... and I can sense what you feel about it... but I can't make out the words themselves. Like listening to conversations at a cocktail party. Because I sense emotions they call me an empath. People think that's somehow less that being a telepath, when in fact a mere telepath is far less than what I am." His sensual eyes gleamed with an almost frightening intensity. "A telepath can only hear what you happen to be thinking at any given moment. What are you thinking about most of the time? Meaningless things. Your feet hurt. It's too hot. Lunch was nice, I can't wait for dinner. I really wish the moron parked in the turn lane would pull his thumb out and get moving." Chase grinned. "Unless the telepath happens to be listening at just the moment when you think 'gee, I'd really like to murder my wife,' what good is it? But thoughts are only the smallest portion of our minds. Not even merely the tip of the iceberg, they're more like the surface of the tip. Underneath that surface are feelings, emotions, sensations... and those only the ones we consciously feel. Below the water are the bulk of the feelings, ones we never even know we have. Like the ice in the iceberg, they define the shape of who we are. They give us our thoughts. When I look at you- each and every one of you- I see that. From experience I can guess- pretty accurately- the thoughts they produce. I can't hear you think that you'd like to kill your wife but I can tell at a glance if you're ready to do it. I know about how your wife squanders your money and constantly puts you down. I know that you dream of being an astronaut instead of an insurance adjuster. I even know that your father sodomized you when you were a child. Because it, like everything else you've experienced, has sculpted your feelings." He waved his hands in intricate, sinuous patterns. "Just as wind and wave sculpt the ice."
Liska suddenly lurched shakily to her feet, knocking over her chair. With a choked noise somewhere between a sob and a scream she fled the room, hands clutched over her face and tears running from her eyes. Sherlock moved to intercept; Liska shoved brusquely past, sobbing piteously.
"What the Hell?" Sherlock exclaimed, blinking in shock.
Chase's grin became almost demonic. "Maybe her father really did sodomize her when she was a kid."
"Chase." Captain Raskilov did not raise his voice but it rang with authority. Chase spun, locking gazes with his father. His will was that of the willow: soft and supple, lacking raw power but possessed of a dogged persistence that could, in time, crack even the hardest stone. But Captain Raskilov's will was that of iron: hard and giving at the same time. The willow could neither find purchase nor resist its strength.
"I'm sorry," Chase muttered, looking down and scuffing his feet. He looked like a child who'd just been chastised. Kit gasped; he'd been holding his breath without realizing it.
"Please accept my apologies," Raskilov said, addressing the room at large. "Despite his appearance Chase is rather young and thus inclined to be naughty." He raised an eyebrow; Chase wilted under the scrutiny. "Chase, after we are done here, you will apologize to Warrant Officer Sharpears."
"Yes, sir," Chase mumbled.
"What did he do?" Longstocking demanded suspiciously.
"What Chase neglected to mention is that, in addition to sensing emotions, he can also affect them," Raskilov explained. "To continue the analogy of the iceberg, he can reshape the ice through a gentle but persistent application of pressure. Since this mostly occurs in the unconscious the subject is generally not aware that it's happening."
"Mind control?" Sherlock exclaimed, horrified.
"Not as such, no," Raskilov corrected. "Chase can't force a person to do anything. But most people believe that their feelings are who they are and do whatever their emotions tell them, regardless of how nonsensical it may be." He smiled, coldly. "A determined and disciplined mind, even without telepathic abilities, can resist. Nor can he make permanent changes to a person's thoughts, unless he works continuously for several months and the subject does not resist. The danger in Chase is that he acts as a mirror, reflecting back the hidden portions of your own mind. What you see are all the thoughts and feelings you've put away because you don't want to deal with them. Most people don't react well when confronted with that."
"That's why he's so useful to Star Fleet," Kit said, his eyes narrowing. "He's the world's best lie detector."
"Not only can he tell instantly if a person is lying, he can in most cases compel them to the tell the truth even when they are not consciously aware of it," Raskilov replied, nodding. "You should remember, though, that Chase is himself a person, with thoughts and feeling of his own. What he sees- and therefore reflects back- is filtered through that and therefore altered by it." He jabbed Chase sharply in the shoulder. "Which is what I keep trying to drive into that thick skull of his. His powers, great as they are, are useful only to the extent that he understands and accepts that fundamental fact."
Chase nodded. "Yes, Father," he mumbled.
"Why doesn't he wear a headband?" Snowflake asked.
"I wasn't trained that way," Chase replied, rather sharply. "Quite frankly I find them barbaric. It is exactly the same as if any of you were taken to a nation of the blind and forced to wear blinders. They mark you as someone different. People fear you because they know you're different but can't understand how. Over time they start to hate you because people always end up hating what they fear. So you put on your blinders because it's so much easier when you can't see that everyone despises you. In time you come to despise your sight because you feel like it's the thing making you an outcast. You even dream about putting out your eyes and becoming normal. Naturally that makes it impossible to ever properly develop your sight because doing so means accepting the fact that you're a freak. And yet in your heart you know that you're supposed to be sighted. So you spend your life in misery, wishing that there was some place where you could be normal and sighted at the same time."
"And yet," Raskilov interjected, "If you do not respect the beliefs of those around you, even if you don't agree with them, all you do is justify their fear."
Chase's face twitched. His shoulder slumped and he looked down. "I'm sorry," he mumbled.
"If a sighted person treated his blind companions with love and respect they wouldn't fear him," Darkstar said. "In fact... I think in time they'd come to love and respect him. Eventually they wouldn't even think of him as sighted. He'd just be... a friend."
Chase looked up slowly, his eyes brimming with tears.
Aleksandr laid a hand on Chase's shoulder, squeezing gently. "It isn't wrong to have feelings," he began, speaking softly and gently. "We all have them. It isn't wrong if you can't control them. None of us can. If you show them, all you're doing is showing that you're human. Like everyone else."
Chase leapt out of his chair and fell into Aleksandr's arms, sobbing piteously. Aleksandr held him, stroking him tenderly. "Whatever you do, wherever you go, you will always be my son," he whispered. "Whatever the future holds, my love is always with you."
After a while Chase sniffed, wiped his nose, and stood up. "Are you ready to go on?" Aleksandr asked. Chase nodded, resuming his seat.
"How did you come to be his father, Aleksandr?" Darkstar asked.
"Accidentally," Aleksandr replied. "I was investigating a related matter and happened to encounter him. His situation concerned me and I delved into it. I found that he was being bounced from agency to agency, treated like an object by people who had no idea of and were not at all prepared to meet his emotional requirements. I took him under my wing because I saw that, if left alone, he'd become a danger to himself and others. In time..." He ran his fingers through Chase's mane, rubbing the fine, silky filaments between his fingers. "I came to love him in his own right. He provided me with a challenge, something that forces me to keep my mind sharp and alert at all times. He will try to take advantage of me, if he can get away with it." Aleksandr chuckled. "He also reminds me of everything that is good and joyful about being human. That in spite of everything I've done, I can still love. Lastly, no one else was doing the job and it's not in my nature to leave important work undone." He looked around the room, briefly and unflinchingly meeting each and every pair of eyes. "That is all I choose to say about the matter."
"What is he?" Kit asked. "I mean, what species?" he added quickly.
"A Recombinant," Raskilov replied, meaning an individual or species that had been created through genetic engineering. "He was built to be a love beast, a living sex toy. Which probably explains his aura, and... appetite." Chase grinned. "If you'd like to have sex with him don't hesitate to ask, he'll be glad to oblige. He can't make you pregnant- he's sterile- and he is designed to resist almost all sexually transmitted diseases. His skill in delivering pleasure is without equal. However, he will also show you things about yourself that you may or may not wish to see. In short you proceed at your own risk, just as in any other relationship. His appearance is based on that of the ermine, which is a type of weasel in its winter coat. Chase stays the color he is year around, however." Raskilov stood. "Now we will go to Ops and get on with the experiment."
"I still think this is a bad idea," Nova muttered. She stared at Chase's buttocks, clearly visible because the strap of his bikini bottom ran under the base of his tail. Nova leaned against a console, arms folded across her chest. When she started rubbing one of her nipples with her thumb Kit looked away.
"I still don't see what's to keep you from getting blasted like Kei was," Snowflake said. Shi couldn't seem to decide wether to look at Chase or at Star. The front of hir jacket was thick enough that one couldn't see the state of hir nipples. The head of hir penis kept coming un-sheathed, though every so often shi pulled it back. Kit offered a prayer of thanks that he wore pants.
"Because of their headbands, a Skunktaur's powers are off until hy removes it," Chase replied. "That sudden appearance might have started Star or provoked some sort of reflexive psychic reaction. Also, there may have been a warning that Kei didn't notice. If I touch her very gently, I should be able to see what's happening without getting nuked."
"And if not?" Snowflake wondered.
Chase grinned crookedly. "I'm also a lot more powerful than the average Skunktaur, though it isn't obvious. I'll get to find out if I'm as strong as I think I am."
"But..." Snowflake stamped hir forepaws. "I don't understand. Why are you so eager to take this chance?"
"Because it's there."
Snowflake blinked. "Huh?"
"There's a story that a climber was about to climb a particularly tall and dangerous mountain and a reporter asked him why he was doing it," Chase replied. "The climber replied, 'because it's there.' He meant that as a mountain climber he existed to climb mountains. Refusing to climb this particular mountain would mean turning away from what he'd spent his entire life becoming. Then what's the point of being a mountain climber in the first place?" He shrugged. "Star is my mountain, Snowflake. I understand the risks and I accept them. If I turn aside now I'll spend the rest of my life knowing that I threw away the one thing that gave my life meaning. All because I chose to be safe." He turned toward the view ports. "Better to go out now in blaze of glory."
"Achilles' choice," Nova commented.
"Huh?" Kit glanced at her.
"The Fates asked Achilles if he wanted a long, dull life or a short, exciting one," Nova replied. "He chose short and exciting."
"Kit, why don't you take over the hands in case Star gets excited?" Longstocking said, waving him down to the front of the room.
"No," Chase cut in, before Kit had taken more than a step. "If you and Star really do have a psychic connection she's going to pick up your unease. Let Valjean and Javert do it."
"I can control myself," Kit said, eyes narrowing.
"No you can't," Chase replied in a matter-of-fact tone. "In fact, you're angry at me right now because you think I'm coming between you and Star. You're jealous because you've seen Snowflake staring at me. You don't have the training or discipline to keep from infecting Star with your agitation. Since my life is at stake I think that gives me the right to insist."
Kit swallowed. He glanced at Snowflake, who looked at him quizzically. He flushed. "Whatever!" he shouted, storming to the back of the room. Darkstar caught him before he could leave, pulling him to hir side and keeping a hand on his arm.
"Is everything ready?" Captain Raskilov asked, looking around. Sherlock stood by hir console, Valjean and Javert each had a pair of virtual hands active and were both holding Star, stroking and cuddling her. Chase stood comfortably with his hands clasped behind his back.
"As ready as we'll ever be," Valjean put in.
"That's for sure." Sherlock nodded in agreement.
"Then whenever you are ready, Mr. Chase." Raskilov turned to face the view ports.
Chase's hands fell to his sides. His whole body relaxed as if it's animating force had suddenly departed, but though it wavered it remained upright. Suddenly he gasped, a convulsive intake of breath, and went rigid. Star's skin blazed with jagged patterns of harsh, bright color; Valjean and Javert yelped as she tore herself from their grasp and flung herself against the bulkhead with a crash that knocked Kit off his feet. She slammed the extended fingers of her upper right strength limb against the view port in front of Chase is if trying to grab him. Searingly bright coronas of energy blazed around her fingertips as the shearing fields in them struggled against the structural integrity field in the bulkhead. The transparisteel panel bulged and cracked.
"Kit!" Longstocking shrilled. He was on his feet and dashing for the servo control stations even before the word left hir mouth. He bowled Valjean off the couch and sat down, reaching for Star. She whirled and slashed at his hand; he screamed because her claws felt like red hot razors slashing his skin. At once Star forgot her anger, taking Kit's hand in all six of hers, caressing and stroking it gently. When he looked up Kit suddenly noticed Chase standing beside him.
"You forgot to be angry at me when Star needed you," Chase said. "It's better for her if you stay that way.
"Kit, he's right," Darkstar called. After only a brief hesitation Kit turned back toward the view ports, stroking Star with his other hand.
"Shee-it," Valjean muttered. The damaged pane bowed inward alarmingly, more than half sprung from its frame, the uprights to either side noticeably distorted. Milky whiteness occluded the formerly clear panel; on the workroom side deep pits surrounded by concentric crazing patterns marked where Star's fingers gouged it.
"That's three centimeters of transparisteel and I had the structural integrity fields at full power," Sherlock put in, shaking hir head in wonder.
"Chase, what happened?" Raskilov wanted to know.
Chase left Kit's side and walked back to where he'd started. "Star has a sophisticated psionic defense system that appears to be hard-wired into her brain and it operates at a very high energy level. Kei was lucky not to have been killed outright." He smiled bleakly. "Or maybe not, if surviving meant losing hys powers."
Fyodor sighed heavily, his shoulders drooping.
"No, Professor, you were right," Chase continued. "You couldn't have known the risks and Kei was the best person available to you."
"Why... did she try to attack you?" Snowflake couldn't tear hir eyes away from the damaged panel.
"Part of the defense system," Chase replied. "She recognized that I was the one touching her mind."
Moving only his eyes, Kit glanced sidelong at Chase, who gave no indication that he noticed the attention. WHAT'S WRONG, STAR? Kit asked, pulling his hands from the gauntlets and keeping them close to his chest. No one in Ops could see what he signed.
"I want to stay with you," the computer said, faithfully translating Star's reply.
Kit nodded thoughtfully, slipping his hands back into the gauntlets. You don't have to be an empath to know when someone's feeding you a ration of hooey, he thought to himself.
The comm panel beeped; Sherlock moved to it. "Captain Raskilov," shi called. "For you, from Commander Jackson of the Lijang."
"Thank you." Raskilov moved up to the console; the screen showed a heavily built Terran woman. Skin as black as obsidian covered her round, fleshy face except for her thick, dark red lips. She wore her hair close to her scalp in tightly braided corn rows.
"Sir, we've just received word that the Cumberland and Mactan are on final approach," Commander Jackson reported. "The Biscay and Hawke will be arriving late tonight and tomorrow morning, respectively."
"Very good. Thank you." Raskilov looked up. "I'm afraid I have to leave. I will be leading a flotilla to go in search of the Stariionae and there are innumerable preparatory details which require my attention. As for the research you have all been doing, I see no reason that it shouldn't continue and I leave you to it. Good day." He turned and strode out. Chase joined him.
"I don't trust him," Snowflake muttered darkly.
"You should," Darkstar replied. "Trust him to do whatever is best for the Federation, regardless of the cost to himself or anyone else."
Chase walked dutifully at Captain Raskilov's side until they reached the captain's ready room on board the Lijang. "Well?" Raskilov asked.
"Tracking them will be easy," Chase replied. "Star's mind is very... bright, if you will, and her thought patterns very distinctive. Doing it without setting off her defenses... well, that's the trick. We'll need P10's, at least."
Raskilov nodded thoughtfully. "I see. And the rest?"
"No go." Chase shook his head. "When I tried to plant a suggestion in her mind she knew it at once. She even knew I was the one doing it. I don't dare try to influence Kit, either. They have a strong psionic link and as perceptive as she is she might feel me through it."
"Then we'll have to convince them the old fashioned way," Raskilov declared. His comm badge beeped; he touched it. "Raskilov here."
"Sir, Captain Walker and Commander Dawnfire are here, as you requested," Commander Jackson's voice said.
"Excellent," Raskilov replied. "Send them in. Out." He touched his badge to deactivate it. "Thank you, Chase. That's all for now."
"Thanks." Chase gave Raskilov a kiss on the cheek and hurried out. A few moments later the door chimed.
"Enter," Raskilov called. Captain Walker and Commander Dawnfire came in. "Captain, Commander, welcome. May I offer you refreshment?"
"No sir, thank you, " Keith replied. "May I ask why we were summoned?"
"The Asimov is equipped with a Swiftsure Translator, not to mention a great deal of scientific apparatus," Raskilov said. "I am going to need all of that when I go in search of the Stariionae. Therefore, under the authority granted me by the Security Council, I am placing the Asimov under my command."
"I... see. Sir." Keith's remained expressionless, revealing nothing. "May I ask how this will affect the research?"
"The work you've done so far on Star's physiology is of inestimable value but at the moment not my prime concern," Raskilov replied. "We need to discover the mechanics of how the Stariionae communicate so that we can set the Translator to learning their language. You may wish to speak with a Dr. Eltjo Chakra; he's with Dewclaw University's College of Astrophysics and also Director of Operations at the Mileva Memorial Observatory. Given that the observatory is the best- not to mention most expensive- instrument of its type in the known galaxy, I'm sure that it must have recorded something of value before Star's mother smashed it." He smiled mirthlessly. "When find out we will fire up the translator and go looking for them."
"Sir, what if they attack us?" Dawnfire asked.
"Against that possibility, Asimov will be escorted by the Lijang and four other warships," Raskilov replied. "I'll leave you now to your work. If you have any questions or concerns please do not hesitate to call me. And by the way, one thing has not changed. This project is still under lock down. The Security Council has not announced that we are at war with the Stariionae, nor that the Stariionae even exist."
"Yes, sir." Keith nodded, saluted smartly, then withdrew with Dawnfire at his side.
"Five ships," Dawnfire commented as they moved briskly along the hallway. "One of them a Changi class heavy cruiser. Not bad."
"Cumberland, Mactan, Biscay, and Hawke," Keith replied. "Two Balmoral class frigates, designed primarily for security and patrol work, not warfare. Two ancient Biscay class cruisers, ships that are still in service only because Star Fleet Command is too cheap to replace them. You've seen how Star flies and she's just a kid. What if she were full grown and there were twenty or thirty of her?"
"Oy," Dawnfire muttered.
"And a half," Keith added.
"I'm glad you asked," Dr. Chakra said. He looked even older than Professor Moseivitch, only slightly taller, and much slimmer; it seemed that in a strong breeze he'd blow away like a dried leaf. His ancestors had likely originated somewhere on the Indian subcontinent. "Professor Moseivitch asked me if I could offer an explanation for why both Star and her mother found the Array so fascinating. I learned also that Star likes to sit in a particular part of the room she occupies. I did some research and found that the station has a drive coil test rig located in that particular rig. Further research revealed that this instrument and the Array use very similar telemetry systems. I requested logs from Lt. Longstocking and compared them to data taken from the Array. I noticed similar patterns of interference; after some study I managed to isolate them from the telemetry stream." He grinned. "So yes, I do believe I have discovered how she communicates, and as a by-product made a recording of her voice."
Captain Walker clenched his jaw to keep it from dropping. Dr. Chakra was supposed to be one of the smartest people in the Federation. In little more than his spare time he'd solved a problem that stymied Asimov's science staff for weeks. "Ah... thank you very much, Professor. If it wouldn't be too much trouble, could you slug us your research data?"
"No trouble at all, Captain." Dr. Chakra touched a control; a status bar appeared at the bottom of the screen, zipping quickly from zero to one hundred. "I'm only glad that I may be of service."
"Thank you ever so much, Doctor," Dawnfire put in. "If there's anything we can do-"
"There is... one small thing," Dr. Chakra replied, smiling apologetically. "Is it possible... that I might be able to meet Star?"
"I'm sure that can be arranged," Captain Walker replied. "After all, it's the least we can do. Your research may have just saved us weeks or months of work. I'll call you just as soon as everything is set."
"My thanks to you, Captain. And of course the lovely Commander Dawnfire." Dr. Chakra's image nodded to each in turn. "I bid you good day and wish you the best in your endeavors." The view screen went blank.
Keith heaved a sigh and leaned back in his chair. "Incredible," he breathed.
"Well, they say that Dr. Chakra's head of the observatory because he's one of the smartest hyper-spatial physicists around," Dawnfire observed, popping a data chit from the workstation on Captain Walker's desk and holding it up to the light. "Should we be surprised if he's already cracked the problem?"
"If he has, I'll give him his tour and whatever else he wants," Keith replied. "But frankly, this disturbs me some. Security on this project is beginning to resemble a wheel of Swiss cheese. Deliveries of toxic waste, an entire squadron of interceptors, Swiftsure, and now Dr. Chakra. I'm beginning to understand how a pair of reporters could sneak in."
"I'm sure Captain Raskilov is taking care of it," Dawnfire said, somewhat grimly. "At any rate, that's not our problem. Let's take a look at this data and see what we've got."
"We have, at long last, cracked the problem of how the Stariionae communicate," Goldstrype announced.
Kit tried to remain focused but found himself fidgeting and glancing around. Lijang's wardroom provided more useable volume than the Asimov's or any place on board Sigma 17 other than the work room. It wasn't the new environment that discomfited him; after being cooped up for so long he welcomed it. Nor was it the new faces; he welcomed them too. It was, rather, the character of the faces. Asimov's people, despite their uniforms, seemed very like those Kit knew around the University: friendly, outgoing, and relaxed, concerned primarily with study and research. Lijang's people, on the other hand, seemed as hard and grim as their captain. Kit felt terribly out of place here in a way he'd never felt on the Asimov- and, in his heart of hearts, he feared what these stern, seemingly humorless people might be capable of doing.
"Dr. Eltjo Chakra, director of operations at the Mileva Memorial Hyper-Spatial Observatory, theorizes that they transmit information in modulated graviton pulses," Goldstrype continued. "He noticed characteristic patterns of corruption in the observatory's telemetry data at two specific times: just before Star's mother crashed into the Array, and while Star herself was clinging to it. At his suggestion we studied data from several instruments on board Sigma one seven and discovered similar patterns of interference. Again with Dr. Chakra's gracious assistance we have filtered all these recordings to remove the telemetry data and have isolated what we believe is Star's 'voice.'"
A hand was raised.
"Yes, Lt. Raytip?" Goldstrype said.
"How does she generate graviton pulses without drive coils?"
"We're still working on that part," Goldstrype replied with an apologetic smile. "Apparently she uses tachyons to affect the gravitons but that of course begs the question of how she generates the tachyons. On the up side, if we figure that out we should have her supraliminal drive figured out as well, since both systems appear to rely on the same principle."
"Maybe she just wishes and it happens," someone called.
Goldstrype waited briefly for a smattering of laughter to die down. "Believe it or not, we've actually considered a psionic explanation. Of course given that we can't clearly explain some psychic phenomena even as they apply to our electrochemical brains, that makes it exceedingly difficult to explain them as they apply to Star's photo-optronic one. On top of that, Star's psionic defenses make studying her in that area a difficult and dangerous task. It's fortunate, then, that our science and engineering teams have developed a way of inducing a regular warp drive to emit modulated graviton pulses. We'll test the system by regenerating the signals Dr. Chakra recorded and seeing how Star responds to them. If it works we'll use it to draw the Stariionae to us."
"This is nuts!" Kit exclaimed, jumping up before his mind fully appreciated the implications of his actions. When he saw everyone staring at him he almost fainted. "Um... the recordings you mentioned were taken while Star wasn't... in a very good emotional state. If she was a regular kid she'd have been bawling her head off. Has anyone given thought to what effect that might have on the Stariionae who hear it?"
"As a matter of fact, I have given that very question a great deal of thought," Captain Raskilov cut in, rising smoothly to his feet. "I believe that the sound of Star crying will be most effective in compelling the Stariionae to appear at the time and place of our choosing. As to whether or not they will be in an appropriate frame of mind for a First Contact when they arrive... the fact is that we can't start learning their language until after we meet them. We can't ask them to a meeting until we know their language. As with so much else about this project, I fear that we simply have no alternative."
"How do you intend to judge if Star's responding or not?" Kit asked. As if I didn't know.
"As the only person who can tell us in detail what's happening in Star's mind, we shall have to rely on Chase for that," Raskilov replied.
Kit's eyes narrowed. He felt something hot and angry welling up inside him. Captain high-and-mighty Raskilov has the balls to waltz in here like he was God incarnate, then cries that we have to do everything his way because there's 'no alternative.' "Well, you'd better start looking for one," Kit announced. "'Cause you ain't messing with Star's mind any more."
"No!" Kit shouted, his face flushed with emotion. "You think I don't know what he tried to do to her last time?"
"Chase is the only person available to us who can tell us whether or not our experiment is working," Captain Raskilov replied, apparently unfazed by Kit's outburst. Only he, Kit, Fyodor, Darkstar, Longstocking, and Chase attended this meeting, hastily convened in Sigma 17's wardroom.
"Don't give me that," Kit growled. "With your Emergency War Powers you could take whatever you wanted. Why not another Skunktaur? If one isn't enough, how about a gestalt? When they work in concert they can be very powerful."
"This isn't a matter of strength," Raskilov replied. "What's required here is skill. Delicacy. It is not at all certain that any number of Skunktaurs posses the degree of... fine manipulation Chase can bring to bear."
"And give him another chance to try and take Star away from us? No way."
"Kit-" Darkstar began.
"It's all right," Captain Raskilov interrupted gently, raising a hand. "Mr. Carson, in terms of power- as near as we can define the term with respect to psionic abilities- Kei and Chase were more or less equivalent. The difference between them is an ability to apply that power in the most effective way. For that reason Chase is rated as a P12 while Kei was only a P8. On a more immediate level it is the difference between Chase, who stands beside me hale and hearty, and Kei, who lays in a coma from which hy may or may not ever recover. Mr. Carson, if I bring in a team of Skunktaurs, and they end up like Kei, are you going to be the person who writes to their families and explains what happened to them?"
Kit's face turned ashen. His mouth opened but nothing came out. Darkstar grimaced, preparing to speak-
"Let me speak with him privately," Chase requested.
"What, so you can twiddle my mind?" Kit demanded.
"If I were going to do that you'd have agreed a long time ago," Chase replied. "I want to know why you hate me so much."
"You tried to fuck with Star's head!" Kit retorted.
"That isn't the real reason," Chase said.
"Why should we allow it?" Longstocking demanded.
"For my own part it doesn't matter," Chase replied. "I don't want Kit to hold back because he feels constrained by the presence of others."
"Fine by me," Kit growled, giving Chase a look as if speculating on how difficult it would be to break him in half.
"Frankly, Chase, I'm not so sure I should trust you, Star Fleet notwithstanding," Longstocking said. "Kit may be an intern and not Security Force personnel per se but we've grown rather fond of him. I'd feel bad if anything happened to him." Hir expression suggested very clearly that in that eventuality bad things would come to others, swiftly and certainly.
"With all due respect, Lieutenant, you don't have the authority to choose," Captain Raskilov said. "Mr. Carson would refuse any order that he felt would put his relationship with Star in jeopardy, whether it came from me or you. He is not a soldier, who has had the habits of discipline impressed upon him. Even if he were I doubt it would matter. He loves Star with a parental zeal that I admire, though at times it is inconvenient to my purpose. At the most basic level, if he does not agree his feelings will prejudice Star against us." His gaze focused on Kit. "You may advise him, but ultimately the decision is his."
"I'll do it," Kit announced.
"Kit, are you sure about this?" Darkstar asked.
Kit nodded. "I've been hoping for an opportunity to have some words with Mr. Chase for a while now."
"All right." Darkstar got to hir feet. "I'll agree to this on one condition." Shi looked at Kit. "When it's over, Kit, I'd like to talk to you about it. Is that all right?" Kit nodded. "Good. I'll be waiting just outside so try and keep the screaming to a minimum, okay?"
Kit sat down and waited silently while everyone but Chase filed out of the wardroom. Longstocking paused and looked back for a moment but in the end left without speaking. As soon as the door closed Chase took off his bikini bottom.
"What are you doing?" Kit exclaimed as Chase stretched, keeping his back to Kit.
"Relaxing," Chase replied. "Clothing makes me feel confined."
"You call that clothing?" Kit muttered, staring at the discarded bottom.
"Yes." Chase spun on his heel, slowly raising his arms and clasping his hands over his head. "Look at me," he commanded.
"Why?" Kit riposted.
"Because you want to." Chase began a series of sinuous motions, somewhere between a sequence of stretches and a slow motion dance. "Because looking at my body gives you pleasure."
"I'm not like that!" Kit protested, his face flushing.
"Like what?" Chase pirouetted gracefully.
"Like-" Kit couldn't continue. He looked away.
"What about Snowflake?" Chase asked.
"This has nothing to do with Snowflake!" Kit blazed.
"This has everything to do with hir," Chase replied, unfazed. "You lay naked in a bed with hir. You touched hir penis. You stroked it, massaged it... you sucked on it." Chase massaged his own organ; quickly it stiffened to erection. "You let hir come in your mouth. You even swallowed."
Kit licked his lips. He shook all over and his blush deepened to a boiled lobster shade. "This- isn't about me. Or Snowflake. It's about Star. You- tried to do something to her! Don't deny it!"
"I don't," Chase replied. With his left hand he stroked his penis; with his right he fingered himself in the anus. "Dad told me straight out that I should try to make Star to come away with us. Your whole operation is slipshod, quick fixes piled on top of happy coincidences. Professor Moseivitch thought he was dissecting a piece of alien technology; Star's birth caught him totally off guard and everything that's happened since has been a game of catch-up." He leaned forward until his head touched the floor then inched his feet outward until he rested on his shoulders, his body bent almost double. "You said yourself that Dad could get whatever he wanted, which is true. With all the resources of the Federation at his disposal, do you really think that this-" he waved at the room- "is the best he could find?" Chase fingered himself with both hands; with his exceptionally long and dexterous tongue he licked the head of his penis.
Kit grimaced. "I thought we were here to talk, not for you to fuck yourself."
"You don't want to talk," Chase replied. "You've already decided not to believe anything I say. But you like watching me."
"I do not!" Kit blazed, surging to his feet. "This is- this is-" he couldn't think of a word.
Chase unfolded and rose to his feet without taking his fingers out of his anus, a feat even Kit had to admit demonstrated amazing flexibility and balance. "You called me the world's best lie detector." He pulled his fingers out and licked them. "You like what I'm doing. It excites you."
"You only say that because you think it's what's proper." Chase sank to his knees in front of Kit, leaning back and massaging himself on the chest, belly, and thighs. "When you were young you had sleep-overs. You'd get naked in a sleeping bag with other boys and fuck each other in the ass."
"Everybody does that," Kit muttered, looking away.
"Actually, no," Chase replied. "Not everyone. But a great many who don't fantasize about it. Just like you fantasize about having sex with the Hugo brothers."
"I do not!"
"You shouldn't lie to me, Kit. Not because it's right or wrong but because it's impossible. Not to mention that it's bad for you. People who lie habitually start believing themselves and don't see important things because they think the lies are what is." Chase's expressive eyes blazed like a pair of blue giant stars. "You wonder why I stay with Captain Raskilov. The answer is that he gave me exactly what you give Star. When I was lost, alone, and scared, he comforted me." Chase moved around behind Kit, putting his hands on Kit's shoulders and gently massaging them. "When others treated me like a thing, something to be studied and dissected, Dad treated me like a person. Someone whose dreams and fears were as important as anyone else's. Someone who deserved to be loved and nurtured, not because of my utility to him or Star Fleet but in my own right." Chase leaned against Kit's back, reaching down and rubbing his belly. "He stood up to a lot of people to make sure I got what he felt I deserved. Powerful people. He put his career on the line because he loved me." Chase's hands found the edge of Kit's shirt and slipped under it.
Kit expression was pained. "Then... why does he keep trying to take Star away from me?"
"Star isn't yours," Chase said. "She doesn't belong to you any more than she belongs to Professor Moseivitch or Dr. Stannus. Any more than I belong to Star Fleet. When you love someone you think about what's best for them. If that means staying with them you stay. If not... you go. You let go because you love, because someone else's well being is more important to you than your own. Which, ultimately, is why Dad decided to leave Star here, in your care, contrary to the advice of many experts. Because he felt that it was better. For her."
Kit shifted uneasily, licking his lips. He seemed unaware of Chase's roving hands. "Then... explain to me how this experiment is going to help Star."
"I shouldn't have to do that," Chase replied. "You're plenty smart, Kit. Once we figure out how Star talks we can talk to her relatives. Or is that the problem? Is that what you're trying to avoid?"
"That's ridiculous!" Kit exclaimed.
"It it?" Chase eased around until he and Kit stood chest to chest. "You were born on a Voxxan planet. The kids you grew up were nice enough. You were close friends with some of them. Even so you find yourself wishing that at least a couple of them were Terran. Just because you wanted to be around other people who were like you. Which brings us to the true heart of the matter. You're afraid that if we make contact with the Stariionae then Star will leave you and go away with them."
"No!" Kit shouted. He clenched his fists so hard his knuckles turned white. His entire body quivered with tension like a wire rope stretched to the point of breaking.
Chase shook his head sadly. "Kit, if you can't even convince yourself, how can you convince me?"
Kit grimaced. Then, as if something inside him snapped he collapsed onto the couch, clasping his face in his hands and choking back sobs.
"Kit, remember what Dad said the first time we all met?" Chase asked. "About feelings? How it isn't right or wrong to have them? Merely human?" He stroked Kit's face. "I can see how you feel. You love Star dearly but you're terrified of losing her. I feel that way about Dad. I don't know what I'd do without him." Chase looked away for a moment; when he looked back pain and tears filled his eyes. "Being the great and powerful empath hasn't helped me control how I feel, not even a little. If anything it's made it harder. Because I hate having to admit that when it comes to emotions I'm just as helpless as everyone else." He wiped his face with the back of his hand. "I didn't want to tell you that. I really didn't. But I had to, because it's important that you believe me when I tell you that Star loves you. As much as you love her. I saw it, as clearly as I see you now." He sniffed, grabbed a napkin from the table, and blew his nose. "The only way you could lose her is if... you try to stop her from becoming what she needs to be. Permission to be myself is the one thing Dad gave me that no one else would... and the only way I can repay him is to love him back." He reached up, gently wiping the tears from Kit's cheeks. "Have the courage to let Star be who she is. She'll reward you with love... and then you'll never be separated. Because she'll carry you with her in her heart."
Kit collapsed slowly, as if his body were deflating balloon. He fell limply across the couch, his head flopped over on his shoulder, his eyes unfocused. He twitched slightly when Chase unzipped his fly and reached inside. As Chase drew out his penis and coiled his tongue around it Kit squeezed his eyes shut but did not resist.
Kit lay on the floor, on his back, staring up at the ceiling. A beanbag chair propped up His head and shoulders. "Chase?" he asked.
"Hmm?" Chase lay draped across Kit's legs, making a sound very like a cat's purr.
"Did you sleep with me to make me agree to Captain Raskilov's plan?"
"I didn't sleep with you."
"You know what I meant."
"Yes," Chase replied. "No."
"Huh?" Kit frowned. "Which is it?"
"Neither," Chase replied. "Both. I wanted you to agree. I figured that having sex with you would put you in the proper frame of mind. But I'd have done it anyway even if you'd said no."
"Because I like you." Chase ran the tip of his index finger up the center of Kit's chest then across to his right nipple. "You're pretty."
"I'm not pretty," Kit muttered.
"How would you know?" Chase asked. "You've lied about your appearance for so long that you can't even see yourself any more. But sometimes- like when you talk to Star, for example- you forget to lie. Then you're beautiful. You don't even have to be an empath to see it. Star sees it. Snowflake sees it. Even Darkstar, though shi's not the sort to express it by having sex with you."
"Speaking of which, why are you always flirting with people? Why does everything around you have to be about sex?"
"When I was turned upon the Lathe of Heaven, that is how I was shaped," Chase replied. "I was made to give sexual pleasure. And I enjoy it, certainly. You see, because I'm an empath, when you feel pleasure, I feel it, too. Since it's all in the mind there doesn't even have to be any physical contact. Anyone who looks at me and thinks lascivious thoughts, it's as good as having sex with them."
Kit blinked. "But then everyone-" A look of almost comical horror spread across his face. "It'd be like- like you're constantly having sex!"
"Yep." Chase crossed his arms on Kit's belly and laid his chin on them.
"Og." Kit rubbed his eyes. "I... I don't know if I could handle it."
Chase sighed. "Believe it or not, I know what you mean. I have exactly the opposite problem. I can't imagine what it's like not to be constantly immersed in pleasure. Which makes things very difficult sometimes. People have all these hang-ups about sex that, try as I might, I just don't understand."
"Like mine?" Kit asked.
"Yes," Chase agreed. "But you don't cling to them so tightly as others I know. Once I persuaded you to let them go you allowed yourself to experience the pleasure without... a lot of noise."
"I guess I have Snowflake to thank for that," Kit sighed.
"And Darkstar," Chase added.
Kit chuckled. "I imagine you and Liska would get along famously."
"No." Chase shook his head.
"No?" Kit frowned. "But-" Suddenly he remembered Liska fleeing in tears and Captain Raskilov explaining that Chase reflected one's hidden thoughts. What could possibly be so terrible-
"Liska is a lie," Chase said. "Her appearance, her past, her name... everything about her is fakery designed to hide a horrible, ugly truth that is the heart and soul of who she is. The irony of it is that to anyone who's even mildly perceptive all her lies do is point straight back to the very thing she's trying to hide. As soon as our eyes met she realized that I knew. I didn't have to say a word; just the fact that I'd seen the truth was too much for her to handle. Don't ask me what it is." He fixed Kit with a meaningful look. "You have dark secrets of your own. Would you want me whispering them to my next lover?"
"I-" Kit swallowed. "No. But- I mean-"
"I could still enjoy fucking her because she's got a hot bod?" Chase suggested. Kit nodded but Chase shook his head. "No. Remember what I said about you letting yourself enjoy the sensation without a lot of noise? Liska is committed to her lies with every particle of her being. Unlike Dr. Janek and the Hugo brothers I can't ignore them. Sensing her emotions is like- like diving headfirst into a pool of lukewarm snot."
"Og." Kit's face turned ashen. "Now every time I look at her I'm going to see a bathtub full of phlegm."
Chase giggled. "That's funny." He sat up, straddling Kit's pelvis. "As a reward I'm gonna give you something really special." He grinned, his eyes gleaming with a maniacal intensity that made Kit uneasy. "In fact I can absolutely guarantee that it'll be nothing like what you've had so far." He took several deep breaths, then squeezed his eyes shut and braced himself. Abruptly his entire body stiffened; he gasped and moaned as one in intense pain and spittle flecked at the corners of his mouth. Kit yelped as Chase's nails dug painfully into his chest. A moment later Kit forgot his own discomfort as he stared in shock and horror at Chase. His skin twitched and shivered, stretching or slumping as the flesh underneath reformed itself. His shoulders narrowed, his arms becoming slimmer and more delicate. His chest bulged in front. His pelvis widened, his thighs flaring and smoothing. His genitalia shriveled and vanished back into his body.
"Omigod!" Kit squeaked. He tried to scramble away but couldn't, partially because Chase pinned him down and partially because he couldn't seem to coordinate his arms and legs. "You- you-"
"I'm a woman?" Chase suggested, arching his- her- back and stretching sinuously. She retained her male form's athletic build and fluid grace; even her voice was the same except for its timbre.
"Bu- bu- bu-" Kit stammered, staring wide-eyed at her prominent, startlingly pink nipples, set on very large, round breasts, as if they might impale him.
"Oh, come on," Chase protested, rolling her fulsome hips so her vulva massaged Kit's penis. "Skunktaurs do this all the time. And you're the one with a Chakat lover."
Kit gulped. His thoughts might be in turmoil but his body had no doubts. The female Chase was every bit as stunningly beautiful and irresistibly sexy as the male one had been. Kit's penis stiffened; Chase massaged it with her fingers and gently guided it into her vagina.
"No!" Kit heaved himself up, tumbling Chase onto her back, and fled behind the couch.
"Bullshit," Chase growled, rolling smoothly to her feet. "When I'm a man you fuck me six ways from Tuesday but when I'm a woman you get all virtuous because you don't want to cheat on Snowflake? Do you have any idea how phony that is?" She marched behind the couch. Kit scampered around to keep it between them, clasping his hands over his crotch. Chase feinted one way, then the other; each time Kit managed to anticipate the move. Chase paused, studying Kit thoughtfully. She lifted her right breast, curling her tongue around the nipple. Kit's eyes flicked down for a moment. In flash Chase did a handspring over the couch, landing right in front of Kit, who stumbled backwards. She hooked his ankle with her foot and he crashed to the floor; while he struggled she stomped his belly. He flopped once like a gaffed fish as the air whooshed out of him, then lay still. "If you don't want to fuck, then don't," Chase said. "But don't lie about it. If having sex with me now would be cheating on Snowflake then it was before, too. If not, then it isn't now, either." Kit wheezed, struggling for breath. "You know what? Now being around you is like swimming in snot. You're so wrapped up in your lie you'd rather die that let it go. I'd say go back to Snowflake but it won't do any good. You'd have to confess what you did and you won't do it because you'd have to give up your precious lie." Chase scooped up her bikini bottom and pulled it on. The material wasn't quite elastic enough to go over her hips and it hung loose in her crotch. She marched to the door and opened it; Darkstar waited there, laying on the floor. Shi got to her feet and started to speak but froze mid-syllable, staring in shock as Chase walked by and down the passage. Once Chase left hir field of vision shi shook it off and entered the wardroom.
"Kit?" Darkstar noticed him sprawled on the floor and hurried over. "Kit?" shi repeated, laying a hand on his shoulder.
He looked up at hir for a moment, then closed his eyes and started crying.
"'Smatter?" Darkstar settled beside Kit and stroked his shoulders.
"I- I had sex with him!" Kit wailed.
Darkstar grimaced, though hir hand did not falter in its ministrations. "Obviously," shi said. "I wouldn't figure you got all naked and sweaty playing Scrabble. So?"
"But- but-" Kit wiped his face with the back of his hand. "I cheated on Snowflake!"
Darkstar sighed heavily, closed hir eyes, and rubbed the bridge of hir nose with hir free hand. "Kit," shi began, "Did you ever promise Snowflake you'd never sleep with anyone else?"
"Yes or no?"
"Did shi ever ask you not to sleep with anyone else?"
"No," Kit admitted after a lengthy pause.
"Then what is the malfunction, soldier?" Darkstar jabbed Kit in the chest with her index finger. "You didn't do anything wrong. If you still feel bad about it, go to Snowflake. Right now. Tell hir you had sex with Chase, you had an attack of conscience, and now you want to reaffirm your love for hir. Ten to one shi'll want to have sex with you on the spot. Good God, you Terrans are so hung up about procreation I can't imagine how your species managed to survive this long." Shi waited expectantly but Kit made no move. "All right," she said tiredly. "What's wrong now?"
"I don't deserve Snowflake," Kit mumbled.
Darkstar's ears twitched. Gradually hir expression relaxed until shi appeared entirely calm and peaceful. If Kit could have seen the light blazing in hir eyes, though, he would have quailed in terror. "That, Mr. Carson, is complete and utter horse shit," shi said. "Worse still, you know it's bullshit. The truth is that you'd rather throw away your relationship with Snowflake than admit that you made a stupid mistake. Well, Kit, that ain't gonna happen. You told me once that you thought Snowflake was full of love and all you wanted to do was make it possible for hir to realize hir potential. You weren't lying when you said that and if you try to tell me you were then you're a damn liar. Furthermore, for the past weeks you've treated Snowflake with kindness, dignity, and affection. You weren't lying then, either. All that's happened is that you've hit a minor and temporary setback. Therefore you are going to march your ass down to Snowflake right now and make up with hir. Do I make myself clear?"
"Yes, sir!" Kit squeaked.
"On your feet! March!"
Kit scrambled to his feet and bolted out of the wardroom without even pausing to pick up his clothes. Darkstar collected them, exhaling a huge sigh. "What I do for these kids," shi muttered, shaking hir head. But hir eyes were cold, hard, and calculating. "And as for you-" Shi started off in the direction Chase had gone, moving in a very determined fashion.
At the sound of someone knocking on the cabin door Snowflake blinked and looked up. "Now who could that be?" shi wondered aloud, sliding off the bunk.
Normally Snowflake slept in a bunk room with Sherlock and Liska. At the moment shi and Kit occupied one of the station's private rooms. Longstocking left it vacant for the express purpose of giving crew members a place where interpersonal interactions could occur that wouldn't be appropriate in shared areas such as the wardroom.
Kit's brow furrowed slightly as Snowflake opened the door. He had a sneaking suspicion of who it might be-
"Hello," Chase said.
"What do you want?" Snowflake demanded. Shi might have said more but Chase's sex change stunned hir into silence. Shi looked Chase up and down, paying particular attention to her breasts. Chase wore a bottom sized to her new proportions but no top.
"I need to talk to Kit," Chase replied. "I... need to apologize to him."
"I suppose Daddy Raskilov sent you," Snowflake snapped.
"No. Darkstar did."
Snowflake found hirself lacking a ready answer. Shi drew a series of sharp breaths, preparing to speak but never actually doing it.
Kit sat up. He started to draw a sheet across his lap then decided to let it be. "Let her in," he directed. Snowflake stepped aside with great reluctance; Chase entered and stood before Kit, waiting silently. Kit looked her up and down, slowly and methodically. His penis stiffened; he made no attempt to cover it. "Why would you come just because Darkstar said so?" he asked.
Chase licked hir lips. "I... Dad would have told me the same thing. And... shi's like Dad in a lot of ways. If I'd met hir at another time...."
Kit's expression softened. "I know. Shi... makes you want to be a better person." Chase nodded, wiping her face.
Snowflake struggled to hold hir anger and mistrust but it slipped away. "I imagine Captain Raskilov isn't exactly very... demonstrative of his affection," shi commented, more sympathetically than shi'd intended.
Chase shook her head. "No, he isn't." She chuckled dryly. "Which, oddly enough, is why he ended up being my dad. Until I met him, anyone I met I could... massage until they gave me whatever I wanted. But Dad... he's very hard. He's not ruled by his emotions. I can't... squeeze things out of him. But... he's so in control he's cold." She looked up, her eyes wet with tears. "Sometimes you want people to be demonstrative. You want them to smile at you, to stroke your cheek and say that they love you. Dad... doesn't do that. Not easily. That... that's why I wanted you, Kit. Your love is so... beautiful. Untainted by lies and ulterior motives. The Hugo brothers just want to fuck. You... you care about people. I... I want that. But every time I try to grab it... it slips away." She clenched and unclenched her hands, sniffling and dabbing at her face.
Time passed in silence. Finally Kit reached out, stroking Chase's cheek with the back of his hand. "Y'know, I just thought of something. I was thinking of what Captain Raskilov told you when we first met. Which reminded me of what you'd told me about Liska... and that reminded me of something Darkstar had said. Y'see, I couldn't understand how someone who could sense people's emotions could fail to understand the effect they have on people. But I think it's like what you said to me, about the lies we tell ourselves. They're like blinders. They keep you from seeing things... and what you do see is... tinted. Distorted. It looks sort of what's really there but somehow it isn't. Darkstar told me that the only way out is to... confess. Tell all the things you're holding back because you're afraid of what people will think. Don't try to explain or defend them. Just... lay it out. The people who love you... they'll understand. They'll love you more, because they're finally seeing the real you. Not- not the wrapping if lies you've put around yourself."
Chase's ear and cheek twitched. Suddenly she threw herself into Kit's arms. Somewhat awkwardly he patted her head and back. "Thank you," Chase whispered. "Kit..." she lifted her face. "Will you let me thank you now? Like- like I meant to before?"
"Um-" Kit shifted uneasily. His penis, now fully erect, pressed against Chase's crotch. "Only if Snowflake can, can be a part of it too." He glanced up at Snowflake. "That is, if- if you want to."
Snowflake shifted from foot to foot, hir tail lashing. Shi couldn't keep hir eyes on Kit's face; they drifted down to Chase's buttocks. "All right, dammit, I want to," shi said tightly. "And I confess I can't wait to find out if you're really as flexible as all that." She grinned, stretching. Hir penis unsheathed, as fully erect as Kit's.
"Chase?" Snowflake asked.
"If you... I mean-"
"You mean, since I can change sexes, why don't I call myself hy like the Skunktaurs do?" Chase ventured.
Chase clasped her hands behind her head. She lay with her torso propped against Snowflake's lower body and her legs over Kit's abdomen. "Because I'm not a Skunktaur and frankly I don't care to be like one. Meaning no disrespect, Snowflake, but in liberating the Skunktaurs from the Three Firms all the Chakats did was exchange drugs and manacles for a more genteel form of slavery. In the short term the Skunktaurs are better off but in the long term they won't ever realize their true psionic potential until they're released from the confines of numbskull culture. But you can't tell them that. They've deluded themselves into thinking that what they have is all there is."
"But what's the alternative?" Snowflake wanted to know. "If Skunktaurs don't wear their headbands they're in constant psychic contact with everyone around them, especially Chakats. How could you get anything done while you're being bombarded by all those thoughts and feelings?"
"How do you get anything done while being bombarded by your own thoughts and feelings?" Chase countered. "Simply a matter of training and experience. And what makes you think it would be a bad thing?"
Snowflake grimaced. "Knowing what everyone really thinks about me? I have to say I don't like the sound of that one bit."
"Because you're afraid of it," Chase said. "And the reason you're afraid is because you don't know. The joke is that everyone else is tiptoeing around wondering what you think of them. It's so ridiculous you'd laugh your ass off if you could see it." She looked up into Snowflake's eyes. "Answer me this, then. What would it be like to never again worry about what people thought of you? What would it feel like to have the love and support of your friends and family with you every instant of your life? To never, ever be alone?"
"Oh," was all Snowflake could say, hir eyes wide.
"What about people who hate?" Kit asked. "Who need to dominate and control?"
"All those things are born of ignorance," Chase replied. "Could you still do them if you knew everyone as intimately as a lover?"
Kit frowned, more in concentration than annoyance. "I can't see it being that simple."
Chase shrugged. "I don't for a minute think it'll be an instant Utopia but it's worth looking into, isn't it?"
"Yeah, I guess," Snowflake allowed.
Kit sat up. He looked at Chase, then stroked her belly. She sighed, shifted a little, and started purring just like a cat. A large one, yes, but a cat nonetheless. "Chase," Kit asked, "Where did you come from?"
"I was created by a Psi Corps black project trying to isolate how Skunktaurs developed their psionic powers."
"But-" Snowflake frowned, shifting restively. "Star Fleet wouldn't- I mean, they exist to stop stuff like that! Creating love beasts is illegal and creating ones with psionic powers even more so!"
"They've done worse," Kit said grimly, his expression hardening.
"Like what?" Snowflake challenged.
"Ever heard of a planet called New Mordor?" Chase asked.
"Wasn't that a colony that rebelled?" Snowflake ventured.
"In a manner of speaking," Chase replied. "It was where the United Nations of Terra World Government sent all the Sauron they'd interned to prevent the spread of gene plagues. Technically it was a prison colony; Star Fleet controlled all access and no one transported there could ever leave but the people on the ground could do pretty much as they pleased. Then Star Fleet discovered that Sauron still at large were smuggling people from New Mordor and stashing them in enclaves scattered across the Colonial Expansion Zones. They blockaded the planet and launched a campaign to sweep up the enclaves. They managed to prevent any serious outbreaks but the Federation Security Council concluded that simply keeping Sauron separate from everyone else wasn't practical. They concluded that only by depriving Sauron of their ability to produce plagues could a long term solution hope to succeed. At that point a treatment did exist that would shut off a Sauron's plague producing genes but it worked by disabling their reproductive systems. It achieved the desired effect but to a great many Sauron it was nothing but a more polite form of genocide. Faced with what looked like the Gene Wars all over again the Security Council ordered Star Fleet the administer the treatment by force."
"Wait," Snowflake protested. "It's illegal to sterilize people against their will, even prisoners."
"Not for Sauron, it isn't," Kit put in.
"General Order 418, enacted in 2134, exempted Sauron from the guarantee of basic human rights," Chase said. "And it was still on the books in 2220 when the Security Council gave the go-ahead for Operation GRAPPLE, the invasion of New Mordor. Implementing the order proved problematical, though. For obvious reasons the invading army couldn't have Terrans in it. The Voxxans refused to risk their troops on what they regarded as a Terran problem and the Caitians feared that the plagues might jump species. As a compromise solution UNTWG proposed sending an army of Chakats."
"But- but Chakats aren't war beasts!" Snowflake exclaimed.
"Actually, in a very real sense, they are," Chase replied. "The technology used to create them came directly from war beast projects of the previous century. Their genome was made largely of pieces lifted from existing war beast designs, either directly or with modifications. Only by giving their creations a gentle, un-warlike disposition did the Doctors Turner diverge from the war beast model. However, Star Fleet planners calculated that a successful conclusion would require an army of several million- nearly all the Chakats that existed at the time- and could expect casualty rates as high as thirty percent. When they heard of it the leaders of the Chakat community heard of it they flatly refused to have any part of it."
"I should hope so," Snowflake sniffed.
"Since the Chakats would not do it UNTWG chose to create new ones."
"What?" Snowflake started. "They created new whats?"
"Chakats," Kit clarified, frowning. "At least that's what I thought you meant." He eyed Chase closely.
"I did," Chase affirmed. "Physically Chakats already were war beasts. UNTWG scientists created a new strain, identical to the original but with enhanced aggression. They called it the Military Specification Chakat, or Chakamil."
"So where are they now?" Snowflake demanded.
"Nowhere," Chase replied. "Just as the project was ramping up the Three Firms Scandal broke. In that climate UNTWG knew it couldn't survive the PR fallout when people realized they were, in effect, creating a new species of war beast. They shelved the project and killed all the Chakamils they'd already created. Without them, though, there was no army and without and army there was no invasion. Star Fleet planners came up with an alternate plan, Operation BISMARK. In 2230 Star Fleet set up a battery of mass drivers in orbit around New Mordor. For ten solid months they bombarded the surface with gigaton sized nickel-iorn asteroids. When the barrage finally lifted New Mordor was no longer capable of supporting life. As to the Sauron still at large Star Fleet formed special units to hunt them down. This time they didn't bother with internment or inoculation; most captured Sauron were executed out of hand. And the problem-" Chase slowly put her hands together, as if closing a book- "was finally solved."
"How do you know so much?" Kit asked in the heavy silence that followed.
"Dad told me about it."
"How'd he find out?" Kit persisted.
"Because he is one. A Sauron, that is."
Kit started. "Captain Raskilov is part Sauron?"
"Not part," Chase corrected. "He is Sauron. Full, one hundred percent pure. Of course he's been treated. I think that may have partially been why he adopted me. Somewhere under that crusty exterior he wanted children but couldn't have them on his own. So, when I came along, he took me in."
"Then why does he work for Star Fleet?" Kit demanded, his eyes narrowing.
"He doesn't believe that the Sauron could ever win," Chase replied. "But he could see the conflict dragging on, for years or even decades, until it plunged the Terran species into a new dark age or even extinction. He feels that, in spite of everything, Star Fleet- and the Federation- represent the best hope for peace and stability in the future."
"In spite of everything that's happened?" Snowflake's ears lay back, hir tail lashing. "How can he go on, pretending like this- this atrocity never happened?"
"What difference would it make to drag it all into the open now?" Chase wanted to know. "You could go to Ms. Fayre and do a big exposé. I predict that it would make a big splash for a while- a few months or maybe a couple years- then fade out. People don't want to know that Star Fleet, who they've set up as the symbol of all that is just and decent, is capable of such things. Far easier, and more comfortable, to go on believing that right and wrong are clear-cut matters of starkly contrasted black and white. You won't find much in the way of convincing evidence; Star Fleet knew it couldn't hide what happened so it concealed it behind a storm of misinformation. In the hundred years since all the crackpot theories and spurious evidence they circulated have taken on a life of their own. Even with proof no one would believe it. If people did believe, what could you accomplish? Except for a few old relics like Darkstar everyone who was directly involved is dead."
"What do you mean like Darkstar?" Kit's brow furrowed, his eyes narrowed to slits.
"Shi was two years old when New Mordor was sterilized," Chase said. "Shi spent most of her career hunting Sauron. That's why shi retired; rumors of atrocities stymied hir promotion to flag rank."
"So you know everyone's dark secrets?" Snowflake demanded, hir tail still lashing.
"I can't help it," Chase said. "It's like- like covering a machine with a silk cloth. You can't see the machine but the shape of it is unmistakable. For most people, everything about them screams of the things they most desperately want to hide. They're like children who say they didn't eat the chocolate while it's smeared all over their face."
"What about you?" Snowflake demanded. "You were going to tell us where you came from before we got side-tracked."
"Psi Corps wanted to know if psionic powers could be engineered the way an organism's physical qualities could be," Chase began. "They built a secret lab out in deep space. Skunktaurs being the only known example of a species spontaneously developing abilities the team started there. They created some Skunktaurs just as Dr. Curtis had done, by modifying Chakat genetic material. Then they subjected the Skunktaurs to cycles of drugging and withdrawl to see how it would affect their brains."
"They performed medical experiments on sentients?" Snowflake demanded sharply.
"Sentients bred specifically to be experimental subjects," Chase clarified. "And they succeeded. They isolated how a non-psionic brain could be caused to develop powers. They even created a mutagen so the change could be applied to anyone."
"And they gave you the shot?" Snowflake ventured.
Chase shook her head. "No. I was born the way I am, powers and all. One of the researchers decided to test the mutagen on himself. He developed powers on a scale that make even mine look like nothing. He took control of everyone on the station, combining them all into a single super-mind. Using only his psychic powers he re-engineered the station, it's equipment, and even the people. He thought he was a god, you see. He was going to create an army of super soldiers and take over the galaxy."
"What stopped him?" Snowflake asked. "Or did it happen and we just didn't notice?"
"I happened," Chase said. "Or, more accurately, he defeated himself. I was merely the catalyst. Despite his power he was- just a regular person writ large. He may have had the power of a god but he didn't know how to be one."
"I see," Snowflake said. "Like- like a person who wins the lottery as opposed to someone who gets rich by careful investing. The lottery winner hasn't learned how to manage hir money to stay rich."
"Excellent analogy." Chase nodded. "In this particular case our godling couldn't bring himself to cast aside his sexual urges. Since he'd made everyone in the lab part of his super-mind, having sex with any of them was like masturbating. He needed a partner who was a person, not an extension of himself. But not one who could challenge his godhood. So he built one from scratch."
"You?" Snowflake ventured.
"Me," Chase agreed. "He gave me all the qualities he felt a perfect sexual partner should have. Beauty. Agility. Strength. Dexterity." She stood and, while keeping it perfectly straight, raised her left leg until it lay against her shoulder. After lowering it she repeated the demonstration with her right. "And the ability to change sex, of course. Why, after all, should my capacity to give pleasure be limited by mere physiology?" She lay down again, this time with her head in Kit's lap and her legs across Snowflake. "Finally, so that I would be a delight to all the senses, he gave me the power to... read a mind's emotional contours in exquisite detail. So that I might see exactly how best to pleasure it, you understand. And he gave me the power to... massage those contours so that the mind in question would experience maximum pleasure. He did a bang-up job, too. Even before I came out of the tissue culture vat my powers developed. He touched my mind... and as I had been made to do I gave him pleasure. I did it so well, so perfectly, that he stood there basking in it until he starved to death and dropped dead."
"I remember once hearing that rats with electrodes in their brains will do the same thing," Kit Snowflake.
"They will," Chase agreed.
"What happened then?" Snowflake asked.
"By the time I came out of the vats things were pretty grim," Chase continued. "All the other creatures, they were so closely bound to their master they literally couldn't live on their own. I found them dead, starved to death in pools of their own filth. Because there wasn't anything else to eat I scavenged from them."
"Ick." Snowflake grimaced. "Didn't you get sick?"
Chase shook her head. "I can digest things that would make a goat toss its cookies. I'm immunized against just about every known disease or parasite. Still, I'd probably have died there except that a ship came by to see why the lab had been out of contact so long. As soon as they saw the place they knew something had gone horribly wrong. They were going to sterilize it- blow it to bits, that is, and me along with it. I persuaded them to take me away with them. They named me Chase because of a note taped to the tank I'd come out of. Actually it said 'chance' but they misread it."
"Was Captain Raskilov the one who rescued you?" Snowflake asked.
"No, I didn't meet him until later. When the ship returned Psi Corps took me into custody. They studied me, and they pieced together what had happened at the lab. They decided that even though the experiment was technically a success, pursuing the research was simply too dangerous. They destroyed all the notes and banished all the witnesses."
"What about you?" Snowflake asked.
"They planned to destroy me, too. I didn't legally exist so it wasn't technically murder. They deemed it safer to study my dead body than my living mind. As soon as I figured out what they planned I escaped." Chase smiled grimly. "They thought their telepaths could hold me. This after I'd defeated the most powerful telepath who'd ever been before I was even born. How I met Dad was that they sent him to track me down."
"But if you're so powerful, how could he stop you?" Snowflake asked.
"That's the trick," Chase replied. "You see, I was designed for a very specific purpose. My creator didn't bother giving me things he didn't think I'd need. He pre-programmed me with the knowledge of how to pleasure telepaths... but he didn't teach me how to affect numbskulls. The techniques were similar enough that I could twist most people, but those with determined, disciplined minds- like Captain Raskilov- could overcome it. He defeated me, Snowflake, by turning my own power against me. He let me look into his mind- and see that no matter what I did, not matter what I made him feel, he would come after me- and keep coming after me- until one or the other of us dropped dead." Chase blinked, wiping tears from the corners of her eyes. "In that instant... I fell in love with him. I know it sounds kinda twisted but I mattered to him. He... he didn't dismiss me as irrelevant. He didn't treat me like a thing. He respected me. Because I was dangerous, yes, but no less because of that. No one... no one had ever treated me like that before." Chase sniffed; Snowflake handed her a tissue and she blew her nose. "He took me back to Psi Corps. I stayed because he wanted me to. This time Psi Corps didn't try to kill me; they had a much healthier respect for my power. They tricked me, drugged me, and injected liquid nitrogen into my brain to destroy the part that gave me my powers. It worked, at least until the damaged portions grew back. When that happened I called out. And Daddy heard me." Tears ran freely down her cheeks. "From across the galaxy he came for me. He rescued me and carried me away with him." She blew her nose again.
"But... why would they just, just let you all get away with it?" Snowflake asked.
"Because we're both useful," Chase replied. "And because Dad cut a deal. We don't talk about where I came from and I make myself available when Star Fleet needs me. In return Star Fleet lets us be."
Snowflake stroked Chase's head, a sad expression on hir face. "How could something like that happen in this day and age?"
"No one ever thinks that what they're doing is evil," Chase replied. "Once you convince yourself that the safety of the Federation is at stake, or that you're averting some future tragedy, anything is possible. Noble, even."
A loud knock sounded on the door. Before anyone could respond the panel opened, revealing Captain Raskilov. "I'm terribly sorry to interrupt," he began, though he didn't sound the least bit apologetic. "Mr. Carson, I need to know if you agree to the experiment. Yes or no, I can't wait any longer for an answer."
"Ah-" Kit blinked, reflexively reaching for something to cover himself but there wasn't anything in reach. He flushed hotly; Chase's head covered his nether regions but that didn't make him feel any better. "I, I guess it's okay," he said distractedly, looking around for his clothing. He felt he should be more concerned but all he could think about was Chase's comment about Darkstar. He knew she'd served in Star Fleet but he'd never thought much about it. Exactly what had shi done for all those years?
"Are the modifications complete?" Captain Walker inquired.
Commander T'leth Kannain straightened up slowly, scratching the back of his head. He was a Voxxan, older and somewhat heaver than Doctor Sathitet, with a pelt of the same basic pattern but darker and less vibrant. He cast one last look over the bank of instruments before turning to his captain. "Yes sir," he reported. "We've managed to bash it into the configuration Dr. Chakra recommended but with a forty-two percent loss in efficiency. I estimate that our maximum safe cruising speed is now about warp four point six six."
"I see." Keith stepped back and looked up. The Asimov's engineering control center occupied an alcove at the forward end of the engine casing; large transparisteel view ports in the aft bulkhead showed him the grey bulk of Warp Reactor A, a massive cylinder that towered up through six whole decks. Reactor B filled a smaller casing further aft. "I assume it won't explode as soon as we light it up?"
"If it does I'll write Dr. Chakra a stiffly worded complaint," T'leth replied.
Keith nodded. If Asimov's drive did go super-critical she and everything else within fifty kilometers would vanish in a nuclear fireball that, as seen from the surface of Chakona, would blaze fifty times brighter than the noonday sun. Anyone looking at it would be instantly blinded and probably suffer severe radiation burns. Captain Walker wasn't concerned, though; he had complete faith in Dr. Chakra's calculations- and even more in Commander Kannain's ability to apply them. He tapped his comm badge. "Captain to bridge. Inform Lijang that we're ready, then cast off and take us to the programmed start point." At the power levels selected for this test Asimov shouldn't translate into hyper-space when her drive came on but while experimenting with an untested drive configuration wasn't the time to take unnecessary chances.
"Aye aye," Dawnfire replied. "Executing now."
Keith felt the deck seem to come alive under his feet as the Asimov's maneuver systems came on. Unconsciously he stroked the console; T'leth noticed but said nothing. He felt the same way; Isaac Asimov was a good ship and he was immensely proud of her. She'd never let her people down and wasn't about to start now. Still, just for luck, he kissed his fingers and patted the instruments.
On the Lijang's bridge Commander Jackson moved up to stand beside and slightly behind the command chair. "Sir, Asimov reports all green."
"Very good." Captain Raskilov nodded thoughtfully. His eyes remained fixed on the main screen; half of it showed technical readouts relayed from the Asimov, the other half a view of Sigma 17's Operations Center. "Is everything ready on your end, Lieutenant?" he asked, raising his voice slightly.
Longstocking looked up from hir console. Sherlock stood at hir station, relaxed but alert. Liska sat at hers... and looked like Hell. Judging from her appearance she'd slept in her coveralls and hadn't washed or brushed her fur in at least a day. She seemed to be studying her instruments, or maybe that was just how her head fell after she'd slumped into her chair. What the Hell did Chase do to her? Longstocking wondered, casting a black look at that person's back. From that angle, with her hips hidden by a console, she didn't look so obviously different, excepting only for the more delicate build of her upper body and how her waist tucked in. Longstocking looked away; she wasn't at all comfortable with Chase's sudden change of sex. Sure Skunktaurs did it but at least there you knew they did it. They didn't spring it on you out of the blue. "Hey Kit," shi called. "You ready?"
"Yes, ma'am." Kit nodded. He occupied the first servo control station, with Snowflake beside him at the second. Shi raised hir right hand and gave a thumbs up.
Longstocking cast one last look around the room. Valjean and Javert stood by Kit and Snowflake but stared at Chase. For lack of a chair Nova sat on a console in the second row but she also spent a lot of time looking at Chase. Aurora stood on hir hind legs with hir forepaws on the bulkhead so shi could see through the view ports. At the back of the room Fyodor and Ito sat side by side; Fyodor watched the proceedings but Ito had his face in the portable workstation he always seemed to have with him. Swiftsure say by hirself, looking not at Chase but at Sherlock. Darkstar stood between Kit and Snowflake, a hand laid on each shoulder. Chase leaned against the first row of consoles, facing the view ports. Her face and arms hung slack, her eyes slightly glazed. As usual she wore only a bikini bottom. Again Longstocking had to look away- and hir gaze settled on Liska. In the rush to set everything up for the test Longstocking hadn't found time to deal with her and now it was too late. At least Liska's participation wasn't critical to the test- which was probably why shi hadn't worried about it, Longstocking realized with a stab of guilt. "We're go, Lijang," shi reported. The deck shivered slightly as Asimov released her moorings.
By the time Captain Walker completed a leisurely walk from engine room to bridge Asimov was nearly in position. He strolled to the command chair, sat, and settled himself comfortably. He did not ask for a report; information sidebars on the main screen told him all he needed to know. The navigational fixes were so precise that the ship might as well have been on rails, and despite T'leth's misgivings the engine readouts were all well within acceptable limits. So far, everything was going as smoothly as one could hope.
"Sir, we are passing the start point... now," Lt. Legaspi reported.
"Very good." Keith nodded. "Mr. L'Clerce, notify all stations. Mr. Legaspi... execute."
"They're transmitting now," Sherlock reported, looking up from hir station. Everyone crowded forward, trying to see how Star would react. For the moment she did nothing other than play with Kit. Suddenly she stopped, her skin flashing with patches of dazzlingly bright color. She zoomed around the room as if looking for a way out. Even after Kit and snowflake herded her into a corner she kept struggling.
Chase twitched and moaned as if in the grip of a seizure, spittle dripping from the corner of her mouth. All at once she let out a whoop and back-flipped down the aisle. "It works!" she bellowed. "It works! It works!"
Captain Raskilov chuckled. "Very good," he murmured. "Very good indeed."
"All right, you can shut down, Mr. Legaspi," Captain Walker said. With great relief he watched the telltales return to standby; he could feel that the drive's calibrations had been changed and it made him slightly queasy.
"Thank goodness that's over," Snowflake muttered, brushing hir forehead.
Darkstar frowned, glancing back toward Chase or possibly Professor Moseivitch. "No," shi replied. "I'm afraid it's only beginning."
Parn awoke with a hideous cry. Gava yelped in fear and scrambled away from him. Everyone, warrior and women alike, briefly stopped whatever they were doing.
"My lord?" Krita wanted to approach but hesitated. She'd seen a great many warriors struggle with the demons now ravaging Parn. A man in the grip of nightmares would likely lash out if startled and Parn was easily strong enough to seriously injure or kill someone.
"I- I-" Parn dragged his claws through the methane snow coating the tiny worldlet the Tribe had selected as its temporary home. "I thought- I heard-"
"A baby?" Sarlen cut in.
Dead silence fell. Krita trembled but dared not move. Sarlen didn't realize how violent Parn could be when his mind strayed into dark places-
"What," Parn grated in a voice as icy and terrible as Death itself, "Do you mean?"
Sarlen shifted uneasily, beginning to sense the danger he was in. "N- nothing, my lord. Only- that I heard it too."
This time the silence stretched on and on. Krita wanted to scream just to break it.
"Then-" Parn's voice quavered. "I... didn't dream it." He shivered violently. "I didn't dream it," he repeated, more emphatically. Suddenly he leapt upward and streaked off into the sky at full speed. "She's alive!" he bellowed, spinning and firing at random. Krita yelped because some of the beams struck dangerously close to people. "She's alive! Alive! Alive!" He started laughing.
Krita stared in shock, stunned not by his behavior but his laughter. Because, between the massacre and now she'd never heard it, not even once. For an instant she wondered what new madness might have taken him. Then she cast aside her doubts and capered after him as if she were no older than Sarlen.
"But..." Hesai stared, unable to decide what to make of it. "My lord?"
"What's on your mind, sonny?" Torgai asked.
Hesai struggled to organize his thoughts. "What is this?" he demanded.
"Something we desperately need that has been in rather short supply," Torgai replied.
"What?" Hesai demanded, more sharply than he should to one so much his elder.
"Hope." Then Torgai too leapt off and joined the gay dance. After a moment Hesai went as well. Everyone else was and it wouldn't do to be left out.
"Since the test was such a success the squadron will depart tomorrow afternoon," Captain Raskilov announced as he took his seat, "
"But the wreckage is still on board the Asimov and there won't be time to transfer it," Ito protested."
"Then you will come with us, Dr. Janek," Aleksandr replied. "Asimov's facilities are better suited to the research in any case. I will also require the assistance of Dr. Stannus, Professor Moseivitch, and Professor Swiftsure. The rest of you will remain here and continue the work you're doing now."
"Captain, with all due respect, I can't be away that long," Swiftsure said. "Really, I only came to set up the translator."
"I understand your concerns but I fear that I cannot dispense with your services," Raskilov apologized. "Learning the Stariionae's language will be the greatest test your translator has ever faced, not the least because we understand so little of Stariionae psychology. The Asimov is equipped with the latest version of the system but given the gravity of the situation should it not be tended by the one who knows it the best? I have already spoken to the university and they have graciously agreed to release you for as long as required."
"Well... okay," Swiftsure allowed. "I just- need to make some arrangements-"
"Again I must apologize," Raskilov cut in, gently but firmly. "Due to security concerns I'm afraid I can't allow you to communicate with anyone. Already this project has suffered badly because of leaks. Which is one of the reasons that I am keeping the new scientific work on board the Asimov. We wouldn't want a repeat of that shocking incident with the reporters, would we?"
"Of course not," Ito said, shifting uncomfortably.
"Why are we taking Dr. Stannus?" Fyodor demanded.
"You of all people should understand that Fyodor Ivanov," Raskilov admonished. "He is an influential member of the Science Corps. In short, I am constrained by political considerations."
"Then why is Fyodor going?" Darkstar asked.
"When we make contact with the Stariionae, someone will have to speak with them," Raskilov said. "What better person than Professor Moseivitch? He is head of the College of Xeno-Sciences, whose function is to train First Contact specialists. He is an accomplished orator and negotiator. Not to mention that a success of this magnitude will no doubt persuade the Powers that Be to forget past disagreements. In short, Fyodor and I were once friends, after a fashion. If I can do him a favor and fulfill my duty at the same time, so much the better."
"What about the reporters?" Valjean asked.
"They will remain my guests." Captain Raskilov allowed himself the merest hint of a smile. "If things go well I may have use for them."
"To cover your triumph?" Darkstar asked.
"Yes," Raskilov replied. "Are there any other questions?" No one spoke so he rose to his feet. "I wish to thank you all. For making this wonderful discovery and for allowing me to be a part of it. Now I must take my leave. There is much still to be done." He got up and departed.
"I wish I was going," Nova muttered, fingering her pendant.
"You may ultimately be glad you were left behind," Darkstar commented grimly. "There are simply too many ways I can see this whole thing going terribly wrong."
"Why, what would you do differently?" Nova asked.
"Probably nothing," Darkstar replied. "And I wish I was going too."
Five paces brought Renata to one wall of the cell she shared with Kevin. Turning on her heel and taking five more steps brought her to the opposite wall. Kevin watched through the viewfinder of his servo-cam; all his memory units had been taken so he couldn't record anything but it was better than doing nothing- and much better than trying to talk to Renata in her current state of mind.
A flicker of motion drew Kevin's eye. He swung the camera and neatly framed the brig's main entrance just as Captain Raskilov stepped through it. Kevin panned back to Renata, zooming in for a portrait shot of her profile as she whirled. "You!" she shouted; Kevin pulled back to a three quarters shot as she raised her fists as if she were going to pound on the security field. At the last instant she caught herself; the field was charged in such a way as to discourage that sort of thing.
"Miss Fayre, Mr. Dye," Captain Raskilov began. Kevin rose smoothly and crabbed sideways. Flipping the camera's pan mirror allowed him to cut to a tight profile of Renata without changing position. Her eyes narrowed, her lips drawing back from her teeth. She looked about ready to leap through the security field and tear out his throat.
"I demand that we be released at once!" Renata exclaimed. "We are civilians and members of the free press! you have no right-"
"Miss Fayre," Captain Raskilov cut in, "You misrepresented yourselves in order to gain access to a secured military facility. You actively conspired with Dr. Janek and a member of the station's crew. Under the emergency powers I have been granted that gives me the authority to bring you before a Court Martial charged with espionage. If convicted I would have the authority to sentence you to death."
Only the camera's auto-stabilizers kept it from shaking as Kevin's hands began to tremble. He couldn't quite bring himself to believe that Captain Raskilov was serious- but he didn't want to find out the hard way. Even Renata fell into shocked silence.
"I haven't charged Dr. Janek with any crimes because he is useful to me," Captain Raskilov continued, his tone calm but brisk. "If you two make yourselves useful, I will arrange to forget what you've done. I will grant you exclusive right, under your own bylines, to cover my impending First Contact with the Stariionae. What I expect in return is that you will not, without my express permission, report on anything you learned while on board Sigma one seven. If you accept I will grant you free run of the ship and permission to interview whomever you like, with the proviso that I retain final editorial discretion. If you refuse you will remain here until I find a way to conveniently dispose of you. No part of this agreement is negotiable; you accept or reject it as is. Nor will I waste time in debate; if you refuse to explicitly answer I will take it as a no. What do you say?"
Renata licked her lips. Kevin flipped between her and Captain Raskilov; he could see the debate playing itself out in Renata's features but the Captain's were as impassive as those of stone statue. "We agree," Renata said.
"Excellent." Raskilov gestured; the security field vanished.
"Do we still get to publish if you fail?" Kevin couldn't resist asking as he stepped out of the cell. He went in tight on the captain, whose aristocratic features filled the viewfinder.
Raskilov's face turned slightly, looking straight into the camera's lens. Kevin shivered; he was an excellent cameraman because the viewfinder acted as a filter, insulating him from whatever the camera saw even though it was right in front of him. Disaster, tragedy, or death, he filmed it all with superlative skill because it never personally touched him. In a very real sense he was merely watching it on video just like everyone else. This time it didn't protect him; Raskilov's hard, steel blue eyes stabbed right through the video screen and straight into Kevin's soul. "If that happens," the captain continued in exactly the same tone he'd been using all along, "then in all probability none of us will be alive to worry about it."
A sleek, swept-wing ship maneuvered with the fluid grace of a leaping marlin. A corona of hauntingly beautiful rainbow light softened its otherwise razor edged lines. Energy beams, pale and gray against the dazzling light, stabbed from its wing tips. The point of view reversed, showing a much larger star ship A cylindrical engine module supported a pair of warp pods, one on either side. A slender spine connected the module to a blocky crew module that tapered to a chisel pointed bow. As the first attacker withdrew a another rolled in, its beams slicing through the larger ship's hull armor like cruel knives. After it came still more in a long line, each attacking and pulling away as gracefully and precisely as dancers in a water ballet. Their withering fire eroded the other ship like deadly rain; eruptions of vaporized metal sent plumes of glittering debris spinning away into space. When the attack finally ended little remained of the larger ship but twisted wreckage clinging to a skeleton only barely recognizable as having once been a star ship.
"That was how the F.S.S. Valaparaiso met her end," Captain Raskilov declared, rising to his feet and marching to the head of the room as the big view screen went dark and the room lights came up. "I must impress upon you that the simulation you just watched was slowed down by a factor of four. In the actual raid Valaparaiso had less than ten seconds warning before she came under attack and she was reduced from a warship in fighting trim to a charred wreck in less than three minutes." He paused to let his words sink in. "You all must understand that these raiders are not like anything Star Fleet has ever previously encountered. These vessels have no crew compartments. All of their interior volume is devoted to weapons, armor, and engines. Their performance is not hampered by the need to protect delicate organic life. Each and every one is equipped with the equivalent of a Class A tactical computer- and what is more, this computer is guided by an intelligence as capable as your own but able to react a hundred times faster. If you encounter these ships you will have between three and five seconds warning and the battle will be over in thirty." Raskilov paused again. "If you hesitate- if you aren't at the absolute peak of your performance- you will be destroyed. Your ship will be lost, just as the Valaparaiso was lost. Because of this, it is my standing order that all ships in the squadron will be maintained at full combat readiness at all times. However, I must also remind you that the first and foremost goal of our expedition is First Contact. These ships are not merely things or machines. They are people. We know that they speak... which means that we can speak with them. This is our goal. To speak with them, not to fight with them. To illustrate what I mean, let me now show you a different side of these strange and wonderful people, whom we call the Stariionae." He stepped aside, the lights dimmed, and the view screen lit up, showing a montage of scenes taken on board Sigma 17. Star being fed. Star being petted. Star playing with her blocks and other toys. Star and Kit playing patty cake. Valjean reading Star a story, then having to stop and try to explain what up and down meant.
"Star is how the Stariionae first came to our attention," Raskilov continued after the clip ended. "She is an intelligent, friendly, and sweet tempered child. Under the care of her keepers she has flourished. In time I have no doubt that she will become a beautiful and loving adult."
The screen lit without the lights dimming. one half showed a Stariionae raider, frozen in the act of launching a missile. The other showed Star having her belly tickled. "What we all must remember is that what we see here are nothing but opposite sides of the same coin. Yes, people of the Federation have lost much at the hands of the Stariionae. Wealth, property, and worst of all, lives. But we must resist the temptation to demonize them, to hate them because we do not understand their motives. The history of First Contact is full of tragedies. Each and every one stem directly from the fact that one or more of the parties gave in to fear of the unknown." Captain Raskilov's gaze swept the crowd, seeming to meet each and every eye in it. "Our mission is to confront the unknown. To banish fear. To extend the hand of friendship to all beings." He held out his right hand, palm up. "On the other hand-" he extended his left- "We are also guardians. The citizens of the Federation have placed their faith and trust in us, that we will not hesitate to march into danger if the lives and safety of those people we are sworn to protect are endangered. Naturally we would rather talk than fight- but if fight we must, we will do so without hesitation and without reservation. We will fight until the danger that threatens our loved ones and our way of life is no more. To do any less is to betray the sacred confidence that has been invested in us. Therefore, gentlemen, I call you to be resolute. Your comrades stand beside you, at one with your noble purpose. I call you to be forgiving. Do not allow the memory of past sorrow stand in the path of future friendship. I call you to be brave. Fear will defeat you before the battle is even joined. I call you... to do your duty. Each and every one of you is here today because you have set yourself a task, labored long, and against all odds succeeded. You are the ambassadors of humanity. You are the chosen few, who stand above all others. You are Star Fleet."
"He sure knows how to work a crowd," Longstocking commented. She reclined in Sigma 17's wardroom, watching the scene relayed from Lijang's wardroom.Despite hir attempt to make light of the speech, though, hir tone was awed. Shi thought of Professor Moseivitch's avalanche. The stones had been cast for sure now. Shi wondered if anyone really had any idea how powerful this avalanche would become or how far it would reach.
Darkstar stared at the view screen as if nothing else existed. Hir eyes brimmed with tears; the longing in them was so acutely painful that Longstocking had to look away.
Only light from outside illuminated the wardroom when Kit entered. Because of that he didn't notice Darkstar by the view ports until he'd come right up to them himself. "What are you you doing here?" he exclaimed, hopping back a step.
"Same as you," Darkstar replied. "I came to watch the squadron pull out."
For departure the ships maneuvered into a delta formation. Lijang took the lead, with Biscay and Hawke on her right, Mactan and Cumberland to her left, and Asimov astern. The two frigates were, Kit had learned, the same type as Valaparaiso. Compared to a Stariionae they looked large; compared to Lijang and Asimov they looked... not diminutive, exactly, but definitely small. Even the two cruisers didn't seem especially large. Then too Lijang and Asimov were two of the Federation's largest vessels. Even Sigma 17 looked small in comparison to them. Kit watched them maneuver with the fluid grace of slow motion dancers. He couldn't keep his attention focused, though; he kept glancing at Darkstar from the corners of his eyes.
Finally Darkstar caught him doing it. "What's wrong, Kit?" shi asked.
Kit's expression hardened. "You hunted Sauron," he said.
Darkstar's ears twitched. Shi looked away- but only for an instant. "Yes," shi admitted.
"Did you kill them?"
Again Darkstar hesitated, but only briefly. "Yes."
For a long time Kit stared, his eyes blazing. "I- I can't believe it," he muttered shaking his head. "All this time... I respected you. And you- you- turn out to be a murderer!"
"Kit-" Darkstar raised a hand.
"No!" he shouted. "Don't talk to me! I don't want to see you again! Ever!" He whirled away.
"Kit!" More than just a trace of the old steel came into Darkstar's voice, though shi raised it only enough to make sure Kit heard. "Kit," shi repeated, more gently. "I knew you were part Sauron from the instant I first laid eyes on you. Don't look at me like that. I spent my life hunting people like you, remember? Your parents settled on a Voxxan colony world, where they wouldn't have to pass genetic screenings to get a visa. But not in an enclave, which would be more likely to be spot checked. Your family isn't very wealthy but you turned down a Star Fleet scholarship. Instead you came here to Dewclaw university and got into essentially the same program. And you got rather defensive at the notion of a telepath poking around in your head. I'm surprised you let Chase get anywhere near you."
"He- she- has her own secrets," Kit muttered.
"Now that the truth is out, you what I'm going to do?" Darkstar announced. "Absolutely nothing. Because you can't be more than a quarter Sauron at most... and even if I knew you were a pure blood I wouldn't do a thing. Because it's not my job. Not anymore."
Anger returned, gathering like storm clouds in Kit's face. "Is that what it was? A job?"
"Yes," Darkstar replied. "A job. A duty. A way of life." Darkstar turned and gazed out into space. "After my family died I had nothing but Star Fleet. It was my family. My life. My alpha, my omega. Sometimes I didn't like what Star Fleet demanded of me... but I did what I was told because I believed in my duty... and because without Star Fleet I would have no reason to exist. Back then I was still afraid of death."
"You murdered people because it was more comfortable than the alternative?"
"Don't talk about things you don't understand." Darkstar's head whipped around, hir eyes hard. "You've never seen what Sauron plagues do to people. You haven't had to stand helplessly by while individuals and entire populations die horribly."
"The plagues can be cured," Kit insisted, but he seemed less certain.
"Up to a point," Darkstar allowed. "Beyond it the disease is always fatal. But the victim lingers on for quite some time. In horrible agony. These diseases were designed to sap a nation's strength by caring for the sick so they have long terminal phases. I was preventing that."
"So it's the Sauron's fault for being what they are?"
Darkstar shook hir head. "I wish on my soul that it was. If they'd done it maliciously then doing my job would have been so much easier to bear. But I was not granted even that much comfort. The Sauron I arrested- and killed- were, for the most part, just as innocent as the people who died from their sicknesses. I fought, I struggled, I suffered, good people died, and all for what? So that you can stand here and accuse me of being a murderer, in a world where people don't even understand why the Sauron threat was ever a problem." Shi drew a shuddering breath and slumped against the view ports, shivering violently. "Kit, I wish I could take it back. I wish to God I could take it back." She drew a quivering hand across hir face. "I wish I'd died with my family. At least then I could have died honestly, cleanly. Which would have left Aurora without a mother." Shi laughed; it was a bitter, hysterical sound. "You know what's so funny, Kit? I spent my life hunting Sauron. Do you know about New Mordor?"
"Yes." Kit nodded. "My mother told me about it."
"Do you know about the Chakamils?"
"Do you mean the military Chakats?" Kit asked. "Chase told me about them. I'd never heard of them before."
"Did he tell you that they were all killed when Operation GRAPPLE ended?"
"He's wrong." Darkstar grinned. It was a hideous, terrifying expression. "Some of them escaped and blended in with the regular Chakat population. No one ever looked for them because no one knew they existed. My father was one." Shi laughed again. "It's funny. Chakamils were created to hunt Sauron and that's what I spent my life doing."
"That's why Aurora's so aggressive," Kit said.
Darkstar nodded. "Yep. And why only I can effectively care for hir. Regular Chakats are too gentle to properly deal with Chakamil cubs. I don't know what I'm going to do when shi grows up and wants to mate."
"Does shi know?" Kit asked.
Darkstar shook hir head. "I know I need to tell hir... but I just don't know how. Every time I try... I just- I just-"
"But..." The anger drained from Kit's face, leaving mostly confusion- and perhaps a touch of compassion. "Then why'd you go on with it? The hunting and all?"
"Because I didn't know!" Darkstar wailed. "Not until years later. When I met Keith. Captain Walker. He told me about something that happened to him while he was at Cape York academy. Apparently he stumbled on an old bunker somewhere in north Queensland where a colony of Chakamils were still living. After he described to me what they were like I got suspicious. I did some research. There was never any clear evidence, of course, but my instincts pointed the way. If I'd been looking for Sauron I'd have been convinced. My father was a Chakamil. What a delicious irony."
"No it isn't," Kit protested. "It- It's awful."
Darkstar's face worked. Shi turned to face the view ports, clasping hir hands behind hir back. "It's my punishment for being a monster."
For a long time Kit stood, visibly struggling. He wanted to reach out to Darkstar. He wanted to withdraw and forget what he'd heard. He couldn't decide which course to follow. Surely being what shi was didn't excuse what shi'd done. On the other hand, hir remorse seemed genuine... and in a sense, was it not so that shi could be considered a victim of an insane world as much as those shi'd pursued?
A vision of Snowflake flashed through Kit's mind. When he went to hir and confessed his affair with Chase shi assured him that it was nothing- but shi didn't treat it like nothing. Shi thanked him for being honest and forgave him. In that instant the weight of sorrow had lifted from him and he was transported by joy. Perhaps-
Kit stepped forward, reaching out a hand-
Faster than Kit would have imagined possible Darkstar whirled and caught his wrist before his hand could touch hir shoulder. He winced; her fingers bit painfully into his flesh. "Give me your friendship or give me your hate, I don't care which," shi stated flatly. "Don't give me your pity. I don't want it." Shi shoved him back and turned away.
A thousand thoughts roared through Kit's mind. He knew he should say something, that it was only the pain shi'd endured for so long exploding out... but he didn't know what to say. Shi was the one who'd always guided, always knew the right thing to say. What did he know? Slowly, reluctantly, he turned away and shuffled out. Behind him Darkstar sank slowly to the floor and started crying.
Kit glanced up as he passed the transfer lock. He seemed to recall passing it before, though once or a dozen times he couldn't say; he hadn't paid any attention. He remembered walking and he remembered watching corridors sliding by. He didn't remember where he'd gone because it really didn't matter. He needed to walk but wasn't ready to arrive anywhere just yet.
Liska stood in the lock chamber, facing the outer door and wearing not a stitch. She touched a control with her left hand and the inner door started to close. Kit stopped, his brow furrowing. He couldn't imagine what she might be doing; with the task force gone there wasn't anything out there. Unless she intended to-
Realization struck like a bolt of lightning. Kit grabbed a fire extinguisher and leapt at the door, the canister thrust out before him. Luckily he arrived just in time for the door to slam on the extinguisher instead of his arms or torso. Servos whined as they tried to force the panel into place; the canister bent alarmingly but held.
Liska whirled. "Kit!" she shrieked, tears streaking her face. "What the Hell are you doing?"
Kit's hands shook uncontrollably. He realized suddenly how near he'd come to having parts of his body chopped off by the door mechanism. "I should be asking you that!" he snarled. Fear and adrenaline made his voice as harsh as tearing metal. "Planning to take a space walk without a suit, were you?"
Liska did not move or speak. She stared at Kit, mouth slightly agape. All at once she collapsed, like a marionette whose strings were cut. "I wanna die!" she shrieked, breaking out in wracking sobs.
Kit shifted uneasily, feeling an icy chill spreading in his gut as he recalled Chase's comments. What was Liska's ugly secret? Something so terrible she'd changed her name, her appearance, everything about herself? He opened the door and kicked the canister aside; fire-fighting foam drizzled from a crack in its side. For safety's sake the contents weren't pressurized; an integral turbo-pump propelled the foam when the trigger was pressed. Kit grabbed Liska under the arms, dragged her out, and closed the door. Thankfully it sealed properly; if it hadn't an alarm would have gone off.
"Liska? Liska!" Kit shook her but she remained insensible. He wanted desperately to talk to her but not here. With the departure of the squadron- and no small part of the original staff- the corridors seemed echoingly empty. Even so Longstocking or Sherlock might come along at any minute, particularly if they'd noticed activity on the lock status panel. Kit wasn't ready to try explaining the situation; he needed a private place where he and Liska could talk without other people butting in unexpectedly. Fortunately there was such a place. He knelt, hoisting Liska and throwing her across his shoulders like a sack of grain. Rising to his feet he staggered and almost fell; she stood nearly as tall as him and he hadn't appreciated how much mass her fulsome construction added to her frame. He gritted his teeth and hurried along as best he could; having her breasts crushed against his shoulder and his arm across her buttocks was distracting, to say the least. Worse still- if such a thing could be imagined- she wouldn't hold still and kept struggling weakly.
I spent weeks fantasizing about getting my hands on your naked body, Kit thought sourly at Liska as he headed for the cabin he, Snowflake, and Chase had used only hours earlier. Now all I want to do is let go as soon as possible.
Thankfully the cabin wasn't in use and Kit reached it without meeting anyone. With great relief he let Liska's fleshy bulk slide off his shoulder onto the fold-out bunk. He shut the door, locked it, and sank to the floor with his back against the bulkhead, sighing with relief.
"Why'd you stop me?" Liska asked in a dull, lifeless voice.
"I-" Kit began. Truth was he hadn't acted out of any motivation that stood up under the cold light of reason. He'd just... done it.
"What good is my life now?" Liska continued in the same tone. "Everything I've done is garbage. Everything I dreamed... is smoke."
"It can't be that bad," Kit replied, thinking of Darkstar. He couldn't imagine a more tragic tale, though Chase's story came pretty close-
"How would you know?" Liska demanded harshly, sitting up suddenly. "What have you ever done?"
"Not much," Kit admitted. "But my grandmother was killed by Star Fleet because she was Sauron. My grandfather killed himself so he wouldn't betray their daughter, my mother." He shrugged. "Then I find out that Darkstar, the one person I'd really come to respect, is one of the people who murdered her. Maybe not literally, but in spirit."
"At least you have parents," Liska muttered.
"What happened to yours?" Kit asked.
"Nothing," Liska replied. "They're fine. I just wish they were dead."
Liska shuddered and seemed to collapse in on herself. For some time she sat, hir legs drawn up against her chest, staring forlornly at the floor. "I suppose Chase told you," she muttered.
"No," Kit replied. "He just... told me it was there. He didn't say what it was."
"Then why should I tell?" Liska demanded. "Would you tell me your dark secret? The truth so horrible you've buried it in the deepest, darkest corner of your soul? The one thing you'd rather die than say?" She stared at Kit, her eyes seeming to burn right through him. "I thought not."
"I-" Kit shuddered. "I slept with Chase."
"So?" Liska was nonplussed.
"While he was a man," Kit clarified. "And- he was right. While I was a kid I had anal sex with my friends- and I've- I've fantasized about it. About... doing it with Valjean and Javert." He clenched his hands so tightly his knuckles turned white.
Liska blinked. Her expression had changed, subtly but completely. "Why are you telling me this?" she asked in a surprisingly gentle voice.
"Because I was thinking of Darkstar," Kit replied. "I didn't realize it until just now... how much shi's being eaten up by what shi's done. All the things it's too late to change." He looked up; Liska gasped and cowered away because there was something bright and terrible in his eyes, something beautiful but deadly and utterly implacable, like an alpine avalanche. "I realized that if I let you walk out that airlock, whether it's now or later, I'd spend the rest of my life wondering if I could have stopped it." Beads of sweat popped out along his brow; he wiped them away with a hand that quivered violently. "I've decided that I'm not going to let that happen and I don't care what it takes."
Liska licked her lips. "Kit... have you ever fantasized about being a woman?"
Kit's eyes narrowed.
"I know I promised," Liska muttered, nervously scratching the back of her left ear. "I... I'll tell you. But this is part of it, you see?"
"All right." Kit nodded one. "Then... yes. I've... thought about it."
"Why didn't you do it?" Liska wanted to know. "Medical science being what it is, all it would take is money. With the right coverage you could even get insurance to pay."
"Well-" Kit frowned, staring into middle space. "I... didn't think my folks would understand. I didn't know what I'd do. I guess... I guess I was just scared." He looked up- a look of dawning comprehension, with a touch of horror, spread across his face. "That- that's what Chase meant. You- you used to be a man."
"That's right." Liska stood. "Not just a man but an ugly one. Buck teeth, freckles, acne. Skinny, pasty skin, and a tiny cock." She clasped her hands above her head and turned slowly around, allowing Kit to study her from every angle. "So tell me, Kit. Can you still look at me and see a beautiful woman? Do you still want to sleep with me?"
Kit's face twitched repeatedly as if he'd suddenly developed a severe palsy. "I don't know," he finally said. "To me you've never been anything but a beautiful woman. And... you still are. Yes, I still want to sleep with you."
Liska swayed like a willow in a strong wind. "It doesn't revolt you? Knowing that I'm not a real woman?"
Kit rubbed his forehead with the index and middle fingers of his left hand. "After I'd finished having sex with Chase as a man, all of a sudden he turns into a woman. My first thought was Thank God. Now it's all right to fuck her." He giggled; it was a shrill, maniacal sound. "It didn't matter a God damn that I'd watched her change right in front of my face. Because she was a woman and I was a man it was okay to want to fuck her. In that instant I suddenly realized that everything I thought I'd known about me and sex was... a tissue of lies." He looked up, his expression grim and drawn. "I made up a story that I was something called straight because I was afraid. That people would think I was weird if I didn't play along. I acted like the straight people I saw around me but inside I was terrified because I hadn't a fucking clue what being straight even was. But I had to be straight because if I wasn't, well, I had to be gay and everybody knows that being gay is bad because it's not straight." He rubbed his temples, gathering up wads of hair and pulling it away from his scalp. "Then along comes Chase. He does exactly what Captain Raskilov said he would. He says, in effect, 'if you really believe all this crap about gay and straight, what Hell are you doing with your cock up my ass?' Then I actually looked at what I'd said... and it was so bloody pathetic a fucking three year old could have seen through it. That's why I didn't sleep with Chase the woman. It didn't have anything to do with gay, straight, or bisexual. It didn't even have to do with Snowflake; I knew shi wouldn't mind or I wouldn't have slept with Chase the man. No, the reason I didn't sleep with Chase the woman, even though I wanted her like I wanted air, was because I couldn't stand that she'd shown me up as a bloody liar."
"How did you get through it?" Liska asked. On the last word her voice caught ever so slightly; in her eyes was- a flicker, like the glimmer of a candle deep inside an otherwise black cave.
"Darkstar came to me," Kit continued. "Shi told me... well, basically what shi did was slap me upside the head and told me to forget about the lies and concentrate on the truth."
"Which is?" Liska prompted.
"That I care about Snowflake and want be with her," Kit replied. "So it came down to a simple choice." He cupped his hands before him. "Either I could have Snowflake-" he bounced his left arm- "or I could have the lies." He bounced his right arm. "And if it hadn't been for Darkstar reminding me why I'd fallen in love with Snowflake in the first place, I'd have chosen the lies." He rose to his feet and took Liska's hands. "I guess what I'm trying to say is if you've gotta die, please pick something better to do it for than a pack of lies."
Liska's eyes shimmered as tears pooled in them and dribbled down her cheeks. "How- how do you know there's anything in me but lies?" Her voice quavered on the verge of sobs.
"If there wasn't anything good in you, you wouldn't care that anybody knew," Kit replied.
Liska threw herself into Kit's arms. The impact of her body slamming him against the bulkhead knocked the air out of him and he slumped bonelessly to the deck. While he lay there Liska started removing his clothes.
As Kit lay staring up at the ceiling he felt a sense of déja vu. First Snowflake, then Chase, and now Liska. He would have laughed if the situation hadn't been so incredibly bizarre. "Liska?" he asked. "Why do you hate your parents so much?"
Liska stirred; Kit grunted as she leaned momentarily on his abdomen. "They were always criticizing me," Liska replied. "Everything out of their mouths was about how lazy, stupid, ugly, and worthless I was. Then I came to be a teenager and found out that I got hard thinking about naked boys." She chuckled. "I grew up in Ozarkia. That's in the heart of the Holy Christian Kingdom of North America."
"Never heard of it," Kit replied.
"Lucky you," Liska sighed. "It's on Terra. Founded by religious extremists who survived the Gene Wars by hiding out and shooting anyone they didn't know. They thought the plagues were sent down by God as punishment on a sinful world. So the only way to keep it from happening again is to purge absolutely every trace of godlessness. And somewhere in the Bible it says that 'for man to lay with man, as with woman, is an abomination.' Or words to that effect. By the time I came along they weren't murdering fags like they used to but anyone suspected of being a homo could expect a midnight visit from a group of the community's upstanding, God-fearing sons. So when Pastor Coffin fucked me in the ass and told me that if I said anything God would punish me, I believed him. Some years later, at a church function, Ombudsman Hardesty asked me up to his office. By then I understood how these things worked; in return for my services I could usually squeeze money or presents out of them. If I'd known- well-" Liska shrugged. "Knowing what I do now, I'd have gone anyway. Back then, I'd have run for my life. The Ombudsman wasn't merely interested in a little buggery and oral sex. What we did involved handcuffs, ropes, whips, and hot candle wax dripping on sensitive parts of the anatomy. After it was over I stayed in my bedroom for a week. I had to let the marks heal; if my folks saw them they might guess what I'd done. Next thing I know I'm being approached by a United Nations Peace Force investigator. I didn't tell him anything but suddenly I had an idea on how I could get away. I went to Hardesty and told him that if he didn't pay me a big bribe I'd go to the investigators and testify about the sexual abuse, skimming money from the city coffers, Satan worship, and anything else I could think of. If I got the money, though, I'd disappear like I'd never existed. He paid me four million credits."
Kit gagged. "F- four-"
"Apparently he really was skimming the coffers," Liska continued. "As soon as I left his office I took a cab to the airport and bought a strato ticket to New Canaveral. Once there I went to the nearest plastic surgery clinic and told them I wanted to be a big titted vixen." She sat up, cupping her breasts in her hands. "It ended up costing almost half the money but it was worth it, don't you think?"
"Yes," Kit replied, quite honestly. "Wherever it came from you do have a beautiful body, Liska."
Liska sighed. "Then I flew back home and seduced my dad. It was shockingly easy, considering how much he carried on about fornication." She giggled. "He even told me it wasn't really a sin because I was a Recomb and didn't really have a soul. I asked him if it wasn't bestiality, then, and he said no because I wasn't an animal. Interesting, since when he caught me downloading pictures of naked Recombs off the Net he told me it was lust, fornication, and bestiality all at once. Then he whipped me raw. So I made a video of us having sex and mailed it to mom."
Kit started. "But- why?"
"Because," Liska replied as if she were discussing the weather, "I wanted them to hurt like I hurt. They were such sanctimonious prigs that they wouldn't dare do anything about it for fear the community would find out. So they'd spend the rest of their lives with it eating them out from the inside, like cancer." Liska lay down again, crossing her wrists on Kit's chest and pillowing her head on them. "Sometimes I regret it but there's nothing I can do about it now. Even if I went to see them they'd never believe it was me. They wouldn't dare, for fear of what it would do to their comfortable little belief system."
"So then you came to Chakona?" Kit ventured.
Liska shook her head. "No. I pissed away the rest of the money. I still a stupid teenager. One day I woke up with no money, no home, no family... and I was stuck in this body. I considered suicide. While I was wandering around trying to decide how to do it some guys propositioned me and suddenly I had it. I already knew how to make people pay for sex; I figured I might as well earn back some of what I'd invested in my new body. I was amazingly successful; being a queer in Ozarkia gave me an excellent set of survival instincts. Once I'd socked enough away I emigrated- and that changed my life. I dated the liner's third pilot... and I discovered something I really liked doing. Other than sex, that is. I wanted to fly star ships. I wanted to be a pilot on a liner, where I could fly and have endless sex at the same time. I went to school, I worked like a slave, and when the chance came I joined the Security Force on a scholarship. I get my training, I get paid, and when I get out in a few years I've got my pick of liner billets. What could be better?"
"Spending the rest of your life with someone who loves you," Kit replied. He looked at the ceiling, not at Liska, his eyes focused somewhere beyond the present.
Liska scrambled away from Kit, backing until she hit the wall of the cabin and couldn't go any further, her whole body shivering so violently her teeth rattled. "But don't you see?" she wailed. "Who would ever love me?"
"I could," Kit heard himself say. He felt as surprised as Liska looked. Now why the Hell did I have to go say that-
Liska's expression hardened. "Do you mean that, Mr. Carson? Is it the truth, as in I swear before God on a stack of bibles, for fear of my immortal soul? Or is it if I say something nice maybe she'll fuck me again?"
"Ah-" Kit licked his lips; they felt as dry as old leather. He grinned, then began to giggle.
"What's so damn funny?" Liska demanded as Kit burst out into hysterical laughter.
Several minutes passed before Kit could talk. "I- I was just-" he clamped his jaw shut to keep from bursting out again. "I was just thinking. After having a Chakat lover- and one who changes sex- having one that used to be a man is almost- almost mundane." He started giggling again.
Liska actually smiled. "I guess it is kinda funny, since you put it that way. But you didn't answer my question."
"Um..." Kit's mirth diminished considerably. Sleeping with Chase was more or less a one night stand; Liska wanted something much deeper. Even if he was ready- and wasn't sure at all that he was- would Snowflake be okay with it? On the other hand he feared the consequences of saying no. All too easily he could imagine Liska running straight to the transfer lock. It seemed best to tell the straight truth- but what was the truth?"
"Yes," Kit said.
The door opened. Kit and Liska yelped and started, blinking in shock. "Here you two are," Longstocking exclaimed, framed in the open doorway. "I don't suppose either of you would care to explain why your codes were used to operate the transfer lock?"
"Kit saved my life." Liska said quietly.
"How is that, exactly?" Longstocking wanted to know. Hir tone remained calm and conversational but hir eyes narrowed slightly and hir ears flicked back.
"I-" Liska twiddled her fingers, then clasped her hands tightly when she realized what she was doing.
"Liska-" Kit cut in.
"No, it's okay," Liska interrupted. "I... need to talk about it." After taking a deep breath she looked up at Longstocking, meeting hir gaze almost unflinchingly. "I... tried to kill myself," she said. "Kit stopped me."
"I see." Longstocking came into the room, shutting the door behind hir. Kit got up and settled beside Liska to make room. "Is this going to be a continuing problem?" shi wanted to know.
Liska shook her head. "No, sir. Kit's... given me some things to think about. But- whatever disciplinary actions are required, they should be for me only. Kit didn't do anything wrong." She glanced at Kit with what Longstocking felt was an amazingly tender expression and squeezed his hand. He blushed.
"I inspected the transfer lock and no real harm was done, other than the loss of an extinguisher," Longstocking commented. "A section of the seal will have to be replaced. I think it would be a appropriate if you did it, Liska, and I'm going to fine you for the extinguisher. Other than that-" Shi looked at Kit thoughtfully. "I'm guessing you used the extinguisher to jam the door. Unconventional, perhaps, but I think we can call it expended in the line of duty. However-" hir expression hardened- "Liska, you know perfectly well that I could order a compulsory psych eval, the results of which would go into your permanent file. Which will have a significant effect on your future in Security Force or whatever else you do. I'm willing to let it slide because, while working with you has been, mmm, a bit trying at times, you're good at what you do." Shi smiled quirkily. "I'm referring of course to fixing star ships, not what you do, ah elsewhere." Shi looked rather pointedly around the room. "Though I'd not hesitate to admit that you're quite good at that too." Hir expression sobered. "I'm willing to trust you when you say this won't be a continuing problem but I want you- both of you- to understand that I'll have a signed order sitting on my desk. Any sign of trouble and off it goes, clear?"
"Yes, sir." Liska nodded. So did Kit.
"All right." Longstocking nodded. "And Kit, you realize this isn't something you can just, just walk away from like it's no big deal. At the very least I'd strongly suggest- as your commanding officer-" shi allowed hirself the glint of a smile- "that you talk it over with Snowflake. I think you'll agree shi has a stake in this too. Finally-" Longstocking struggled but couldn't keep hir face from splitting into a grin. "My God, Kit! First Snowflake, then Chase, and now Liska? Can't you leave some for the rest of us?"
Kit made a gagging sound, as if he were choking. A brilliant flush broke out on his face and spread all the way down to his toes. Liska snorted, then doubled over in paroxysms of laughter until tears streamed down her face and she fell off the cot.
"Hold still, you little hellion," Darkstar said.
"But Gramma, it's getting in my eyes!"
Snowflake paused in the hallway. The bathroom door stooding open; though shi couldn't see inside shi heard clearly the sound of water running.
"If you didn't squirm so much it wouldn't be so bad," Darkstar replied.
"Gramma, I hate getting wet!"
"You gotta get wet to get clean," Darkstar pointed out. "Unless you want to lick yourself."
Snowflake took a step forward but froze at the very edge of the door. Hir forepaws quivered, then shi eased back.
"Whoever's out there, either come in or go away," Darkstar called.
"Save me!" Aurora begged.
"Quiet, you, or I'll string you up by your feet and spray you down with the hose."
"You wouldn't dare!"
"Oh, yeah? Try me."
Snowflake swallowed, then stepped into the doorway.
"Best take off your jacket, unless you want it splashed with soapy water," Darkstar commented. Shi leaned over the side of the tub, holding Aurora by the scruff of the neck while spraying hir with the shower head. Aurora yelped and struggled; spatters of soapy water arched through the air. A great deal already lay on the floor.
Snowflake hung hir jacket on a peg by the door. Underneath shi wore a light grey blouse.
"What's on your mind?" Darkstar asked, grabbing Aurora around the base of hir tail and hoisting up hir hindquarters to spray hir belly.
"I suppose you've heard about Liska and Kit," Snowflake said.
"Yeah," Aurora exclaimed. "I heard he really jammed her good, too!"
Snowflake turned away suddenly. Darkstar frowned, then hung up the shower head. "You finish yourself up, and not too heavy on the conditioner this time," Darkstar said, flipping Aurora onto hir back and tickling hir tummy. "I have to talk with Snowflake for a bit." Quickly shi toweled off hir soaking wet arms and torso then strolled over to Snowflake. "Let's take a walk," shi suggested.
They walked for a while, Snowflake staring at the floor and saying nothing. "You're worried about Liska," Darkstar commented.
"But-" Snowflake wrung hir hands. "I mean- I thought-"
"You thought Kit loved you," Darkstar continued.
"Yes," Snowflake whispered.
"He still does," Darkstar replied.
"Snowflake, look." Darkstar caught Snowflake's chin and gently tugged it around. "Kit did what he did because he's that sort of a guy. And I don't mean a tomcat, doing every girl he sees. You know him better than that. Lisa was hurting. She needed someone... and Kit was there. You'd have done the same thing in his place. And you don't have to worry. Liska's not going to replace you in Kit's affections. Relationships based on shared trauma don't last."
"But- how can you be so sure?" Snowflake demanded worriedly. "He- he and I started the same way!"
"Not exactly," Darkstar contradicted. "You and Kit did something exceedingly stressful together but it came from a profound love for Star. That will endure even after the emotional high of saving Liska's life- and having her life saved- wears off. Liska doesn't want a long-term relationship and she definitely doesn't want to be a mother. If Kit were the sort who only cared about sex- like the Hugo brothers, for instance- he'd have nailed her long ago. Kit and Liska have nothing in common other than him saving her life. That, by itself, isn't enough to hang a relationship on. Believe me, I know." For an instant something flickered through hir eyes; Snowflake gasped and stepped back because it terrified hir, like the cold gaze of a snake about to strike. Darkstar looked away suddenly, shook hir head, and returned to the bathroom without looking back. Snowflake watched Darkstar go, then let out a breath shi hadn't realized shi'd been holding. Shi fingered the collar of hir blouse; shi'd left hir jacket in the bathroom. For a while shi wavered, torn between going to fetch it or not. In the end shi left it; shi didn't want to meet Darkstar while there was still the chance of seeing that terrible darkness in hir eyes.
"Howdy, Kit," Sherlock called, glancing up from hir station and flashing a smile.
"Hi." Kit gave a little wave as he passed on his way down to the front of the Operations Center.
Star played with her dolly. Kit supposed that it looked like a Stariionae though it took some imagining. The central body, made of black carbon fiber cloth and stuffed with cloth scraps and coils of Beryllium wire, was at least approximately the right shape. The bulges meant to represent wings and fins looked more like pseudopods. The hands, crafted from pieces of diamond coated carbon fiber tubing, at least looked like hands, if not's Star's in particular. Creating the dolly was Aurora's idea; shi pointed out that while Star had plenty of boy toys- blocks and the like- and she needed girl toys. Dr. Chakra not only donated the materials but had his contractors do the actual construction. Whatever anyone else thought Star loved her dolly; she spent hours playing with it, signing to it and manipulating its fingers so it would sign back. As Kit approached the view ports she drifted up to them, the dolly clasped loosely in one hand. HI KIT, she signed. "Hi Kit," the computer echoed after only a fractional delay.
HI STAR, Kit signed back. Through Nova's merciless drilling he'd learned enough sign to carry on an intelligible, if not particularly intelligent, conversation. Once he started actually talking to Star he picked up new words more easily. Now he found signing almost as natural as speaking.
"Hi Star," the computer dutifully repeated. Kit frowned; though unquestionably an amazing gadget the translator had difficulty reproducing tone and inflection. Everything it said sounded like a newscaster reporting the weather; not emotionless, exactly, but lacking any particular emphasis. Kit wondered if Star found the translations as dry as he did. He shut off the interface.
WHAT'S WRONG? Star asked. The colors on her skin swirled and shifted; not violently but more abruptly than usual, like looking into a reflecting pool while someone stirs it.
I DON'T KNOW WHO I AM ANY MORE, Kit replied. Not for the first time he wished he had more than two arms. Then he could stroke Star- as he desperately wanted to do- and talk at the same time.
YOU'RE KIT, Star replied. If speaking she would have sounded puzzled. How that came through was as subtle and complex as any body language: in how she moved her hands, how the colors shifted and blended on her skin. Kit could never have explained exactly what the precise combination of indicators was but he felt them as surely as if he'd been speaking to another Terran.
BUT WHO'S KIT? Kit asked. SO MUCH HAS HAPPENED OVER THE PAST FEW WEEKS. EVERYTHING... FROM BEFORE I MET YOU SEEMS TO HAVE BEEN A ZILLION YEARS AGO IN ANOTHER LIFE.
Star slowly flexed her fingers. Color patterns broke and reformed on her skin like waves crashing against a rocky point. Kit imagined a little girl, looking at him quizzically, her face going through a comical sequences of grimaces. He actually smiled thinking of it. YOU'RE MY DADDY, she said.
Kit's jaw dropped. If he hadn't been sitting he would have fallen over; as it was he wavered dangerously. He'd never consciously thought of himself as Star's parent; he and the others avoided using words like "mom" and "dad." If they needed to refer to what they did they called themselves "sitters." But though Star had never been specifically taught to say mom or dad she'd learned quite a lot in the last few weeks- and she was very intelligent. When Kit thought about it everything suddenly made sense. What they had here was a family, no doubt about it. Darkstar was the grandmother and regardless of what Security Force might think, matriarch. Longstocking, Sherlock, and Nova were aunts. Liska seemed more like an in-law. Valjean, Javert, and Skip were big brothers. Snowflake-
Kit swallowed. Snowflake was mom. And he, Kit, was dad.
Star moved forward and laid her hand against the view port. Sherlock gasped, then relaxed when shi realized that Star wasn't pressing. Kit stumbled to his feet and lay his hand on the inside of the pane. Fortunately all he had to do was step forward; tears blinded him. He wanted to tell Star how much she'd touched him but neither his hands nor his throat were sufficiently under control. If he opened his mouth he'd start bawling.
A hand laid on his shoulder caused Kit to yelp and start; he would have fallen if there hadn't been someone standing behind him to catch him. Once he'd wiped his face enough that he could see he realized it was Sherlock.
"I saw her say 'daddy,'" Sherlock explained, smiling- sadly? "It was a kick in the pants even for me, to be sure. But I'm glad you both see it." Shi nuzzled Kit's forehead. "I know it's sometimes hard to see things when you're in the middle of them but you've always been Star's daddy. And... you're a good one, too."
Kit wrapped his arms around Sherlock and hugged hir tightly, his sobs muffled by hir shoulder, his tears soaked up by hir fur. Finally he broke away, wiping his face with the back of one arm. He glanced at Star and moved to the first servo control station. "Would you ask everyone to come here?" he said, looking back over his shoulder. "We need to have a meeting."
"What about?" Sherlock asked.
"Well-" Kit slipped his hands into the gauntlets. "As Star's daddy, it's time I started thinking seriously about her future. And ours."
"We have to adopt Star," Kit announced.
Nearly everyone present reacted in the same way: their faces went slack in amazement, their mouths falling open. Darkstar, on the other hand, exhibited no reaction whatsoever.
"Can we?" Snowflake asked, glancing around at everyone.
"But... why?" Valjean blinked rapidly as if he'd come into bright light from darkness.
"The only reason Star is still here is because no one can decide what to do with her," Kit declared. "Everyone- from the Security Council right on down to the university- put off worrying about her to deal with things they felt were more immediately important. Captain Raskilov said as much before he left. When he comes back, though, things'll be different. Star'll be the first thing on everyone's mind and everyone's gonna want her. There'll be a vicious battle as people struggle for control of what they see as the discovery of the century. How many of those people will give a damn about what she thinks? What if Dr. Stannus managed to convince people that she's just, just a machine? What if people decide the needs of the Federation outweigh her needs?" Kit's eyes narrowed. his face hardening. "My folks are still married, thank God, but I know people whose parents divorced. I've seen what an acrimonious custody battle can do to a kit. We owe it to Star, and ourselves, to make sure that we're in a position to look out for her interests. That's why I see adoption as the best route. We apply for custody on the basis that she's a foundling. She was, in a sense, left on our doorstep." He grinned lopsidedly. "Since we've been looking after her and no one else has applied, at least as far as I know, I think we're in good shape. I understand that Chakonan courts are very favorable to custodial parents."
"They are," Darkstar concurred. "And no one has tried to apply. So far, all the legal arguments have centered around salvage rights and contractual obligations. In those Star is regarded as an object, or at best a chattel. We can thank Dr. Stannus for that; he didn't want her to become a person when it might cloud the issue of him getting his hooks into her. Besides, he knows how weepy and sentimental us Chakats can get, especially about children." Shi grinned, an expression anything but weepy and sentimental. "He would no doubt be delighted to know that his efforts have paved the way for our efforts." Shi unzipped her belt pouch and pulled out a data pad. "I've already opened an application; all you have to do is fill in the extra information and I'll send it off."
Sherlock blinked. "You were planning this all along," shi said.
"But- if it's as easy as that, why didn't you do it already?" Snowflake demanded.
"Because it's not," Darkstar replied. "You don't think that the adoption isn't going to be contested by everyone and their dog who has even a remote interest in Star? This is nothing but a legal wedge, to buy us time and keep Star here while the cases are fought in court. Whoever puts hir name on this as legal guardian will be jamming the works by sticking hir arm into them. Effective, but deucedly uncomfortable. Fyodor can't do it because his other obligations create a conflict of interest. Likewise Nova, Longstocking, Sherlock, Liska, and Skip are out, as agents of one of the contesting parties. I'd do it myself but it would pin me down. To do what I do I need to be free to maneuver. Not to mention that being Star's parent is a lifetime position and at my age I just don't have that much lifetime left to offer. If, on the other hand, someone else put hirself down- someone young and not otherwise encumbered- I would be free to fight for hir and Star's interests as I have so far." Shi slapped the pad against hir palm. "The only questions is who."
All eyes fell upon Kit, Snowflake, Valjean and Javert. The brothers wilted under the combined gaze like flowers in a furnace.
"If you had it all along, why'd you wait until now?" Kit asked.
"I wanted to know if you were serious," Darkstar replied. "If you put your name on this the whole course of your life will change."
Kit's mouth worked. He reached out and took the pad. "My life's already changed," he said. "So much, in fact, that I don't even recognize it anymore." He chuckled dryly. "I guess that's good, 'cause otherwise I'd be scared shitless."
"That is good," Longstocking put in. "Being scared means you understand what you're getting into."
Snowflake laid hir hand over Kit's. "I want to do it too," shi said.
"You sure?" Darkstar asked. "Once you choose there's un-choosing."
"I know." Snowflake squeezed Kit's hand; though technically answering Darkstar she looked at Kit. "Truth is, I'm here at least in part because I didn't know what I wanted to do with my life. Now I do."
Kit's face reddened but it was from the intensity of his feelings, not embarrassment. "Then... we should do this right." he set the data pad aside and took Snowflake's hand in both of his. "We don't want our child to be out of wedlock, do we?" He slipped off the bench and knelt on the floor. "Snowflake... Would you be my- my mate?"
Snowflake made an odd whiffling sound and turned away suddenly to cough, but shi didn't break Kit's grip. When shi turned back hir eyes brimmed with tears. "Yes," shi said.
Sherlock jumped to hir feet and applauded loudly, joined quickly by Longstocking, Liska, and Skip. Nova, unaccountably, started to cry. Darkstar offered her a tissue, then began clapping. After a bit even Valjean and Hugo joined in, though somewhat less enthusiastically.
"Lucky bastard," Valjean muttered. Javert nodded sagely.
"Right then." Longstocking cleared hir throat and looked at the data pad in hir hand. "I'm sure there's a detailed procedure for all this but my training is technical, not ministerial, so we'll skip right to the point."
Longstocking sat on the floor with the wardroom view ports at hir back. Kit and Snowflake faced hir, holding hands; Skip and Liska, as best man and maid of honor, stood beside and slightly behind their principals. Everyone else ranged in a loose semicircle around the core group. For the occasion Longstocking, Sherlock, Liska, and Skip all wore dress uniforms. Next to them Kit seemed rather plain in the best of his ordinary clothes but no one seemed to care. Snowflake's gown consisted of her jacket plus a a veil and bouquet made of carbon fiber cloth- which, aside from being black, fit te requirements nicely. Somehow Nova had procured an electric blue open necked gown with a pleated, knee-length skirt and liberally decorated with ruffles. Aurora looked incredibly cute in a pink blouse with short puffy sleeves and a large, brightly colored paper party hat that proclaimed "HAPPY BIRTHDAY." Darkstar and the Hugos, as usual, wore nothing. Even Star attended, after a fashion; the big view screen relayed a live image from the workroom.
"No doubt your respective folks will want to have a big, fancy ceremony with all the trimmings," Longstocking continued. "That is, if they don't drop dead from shock when they hear what you've done." There were some polite chuckles from the audience. "Anyway, I don't need to explain to any of you what the importance of all this is. Only that each of you is promising to be a full and committed partner, friend, and lover to the other, now and forever. So what do you say? Kit, do you so swear?"
Kit lifted his chin. "I do," he pronounced.
"And you, Snowflake? Do you so swear?"
Snowflake nodded. "I do."
"Then by the authority vested in me by the Security Force, and before the witnesses present, I pronounce it so." Longstocking held out the data pad. "Thumb print here." Once Kit and Snowflake had applied their thumbs to the scan plate shi put the data pad away and waved Skip forward. "Ring."
Skip took a long step forward and snapped his heels together so smartly his whole body seemed to quiver. The ring, woven from a strand of Beryllium wire, glittered like spun glass in his palm. Kit slipped the ring onto Snowflake's finger, lifted the veil, and kissed hir. Nova let out a particularly loud wail, blotting her face with a wad of tissues already soaking wet. Valjean and Javert laid their hands on their chests and bowed their heads.
"What are you two on about?" Darkstar inquired.
"We are mourning the passing of a worthy bachelor," Valjean said.
"It took a lot of work, but under our tutelage he became a man who could scull a brew and belch with the best of them," Javert added.
"And he didn't even get a decent bachelor party," Valjean concluded.
"You mean you didn't get a decent bachelor party," Darkstar replied. "I don't think Kit's going to suffer any shortage of... excitement in his immediate future." Shi licked her muzzle.
"Okay, that's enough," Longstocking admonished gently when it seemed that the kiss might go on for quite some time. "Throw the bouquet and let's eat."
Snowflake glanced at the audience and lofted the bouquet over hir shoulder. It hit the ceiling and fell to the floor; Darkstar let out a yelp as Valjean practically ran over hir to reach it. His hand had almost closed on it when Javert took him down in a flying tackle. The two of them rolled back and forth across the floor, struggling and cursing.
"Whichever one of them gets it, he's gonna make an awfully funny looking bride," Longstocking observed. The melee continued until it drifted too close to the food table and Sherlock put an end to it with a few well-placed kicks.
"Now that we're married, let's get this taken care of," Kit said, producing the data pad containing the application for adoption.
"Not yet," Valjean interjected. "You're forgetting one very important tradition. The cutting of the cake."
The wedding cake was a single sheet decorated to look like one of the consoles in the Operations Center. Controls and displays were rendered in amazing detail with bits of candy and colored icing.
"Well-" Kit glanced at Snowflake. "Could you cut it and just pass some down?"
"I thought you'd never ask." Valjean grabbed a handful and threw it in one smooth motion, catching Kit squarely on the side of the head. Instantly Snowflake returned fire with a slice of pizza. As the reception degenerated into a melee Longstocking protested loudly, at least until Sherlock hit hir in the face with a scoop of ice cream.
"You know," Darkstar commented, scraping up bits of cake and licking them off hir fingers, "I was looking forward to actually eating some of this stuff."
"So what's stopping you?" Javert asked as he picked random items off the table and piled them on a pizza crust. "You gonna eat that?" He picked a slice of pepperoni off Nova's nose.
"I figure if we leave them at it long enough, they'll take care of the mess," Sherlock observed.
"What about the stuff on the floor?" Longstocking wanted to know.
"What about it?" Sherlock countered as Valjean scooped up a piece of cake that had fallen on the deck and popped it in his mouth. Longstocking grimaced but said nothing.
"Hey, Darkstar, it's asking for a surname," Kit said, glancing up from the data pad.
"Whose surname?" Darkstar asked.
"Star's," Snowflake said, peering over Kit's shoulder.
"Ship," Javert declared as he picked bits of cheese out of his fur and ate them.
"No way," Snowflake snapped, giving Javert a venomous look. "No child of mine is going to go through life with a name like Star Ship!"
"Dancer," Skip said.
"What, what?" Kit looked around suddenly.
"I was just- thinking about when we're outside with her," Skip explained. "The way she moves." He wove his hands in front of him as he struggled to articulate his feelings. "When she flies she's so... beautiful. And graceful."
"Like a dancer," Longstocking commented, nodding thoughtfully.
"Star Dancer," Darkstar said. "I like it."
"Me too," Kit agreed, looking at Skip with an expression of wonder on his face.
"You have the soul of a poet, Skip," Nova said, slipping an arm around him and hugging him. He groaned and his eyes bugged out as her grip crushed the air out of his lungs.
"Would you like to do the honors, my dear?" Kit asked, sliding the data pad in front of Snowflake.
"Why, thank you." Snowflake picked it up and studied it. "Name of child," shi read. "Star Dancer." Shi typed it in, then pressed the "send" button with a dramatic flourish. "We have a family," shi whispered, looking into Kit's eyes. Hir own were shining with transcendent joy. Kit grinned, but whatever he might have been about to say was lost when Snowflake threw hir arms around him and kissed him.
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