by John R. Plunkett
"Here it comes!" someone shouted, pointing upward at an angle. The crowd pressed eagerly forward against the barriers, faces lifted to the sky. People jabbered excitedly, pointing or shading their eyes from the bright sunshine.
"You mean 'here she comes," May corrected.
The speaker eyed May quizzically for a moment then shrugged. "Sure, whatever." Shi returned hir attention to the sky.
May's ear flicked in irritation but he let it pass. He felt good today, much too good to ruin it by getting upset at someone who didn't know Star like he did. After looking carefully for a moment he spotted a tiny, flickering spark hanging in the sky to the west, out over the ocean. An upsurge of intense affection brought tears to his eyes. You truly are a beautiful Star, in fact as well as name.
The spark grew rapidly, dropping closer to the horizon. It looked like a tiny arrowhead trailing streamers of light. It dimmed suddenly, the streamers fading out. A minute later a crash like thunder rolled across the city. People yelped and clapped hands over their ears. May grinned like a fool, wagging his tail excitedly. Snowflake had worked hard to break Star of that, to no avail. The sonic boom never failed to get a rise out of the crowd and Star was, at heart, an incurable showoff. May appreciated that as a responsible adult his duty was to support Snowflake but in his heart of hearts he agreed with Star. He might have done a few low-level passes over residential zones in his day.
As she came over the beach Star descended to about a hundred meters- only a bit more than her length- and slowed considerably. Up close her form showed clearly: a long, sharply pointed nose with small, triangular canards near its base blended smoothly into a flattened, lifting-body fuselage. Elegantly swept, steeply anhedral wings with slightly hooked tips attached to strakes high mounted on the fuselage. Aft of them the tail flared out like a bird's into an elevator reminiscent of a dolphin's tail. Just ahead of it a pair of rudders jutted up, canted slightly outboard. Two pairs of short, thick struts- one inboard of and slightly aft of the other- that looked rather like arms, complete with five digited hands, fit neatly into channels along her belly. A pair of much longer, skinnier struts- also equipped with lean, bony hands- fit into the undersides of the strakes. A shimmering, opalescent glow like St. Elmo's Fire clung to her glass-smooth skin. May's throat tightened; she was, in his eyes at least, more breathtakingly beautiful than any jewel he'd ever seen.
An awed hush fell over the crowd. May empathized with them, thinking of his own first encounter with Star. She measured seventy-two meters from nose to tail, making her about the size of a jumbo jet. She'd been all over the news for the last few weeks and off and on for the past six years but images on a view screen utterly failed to prepare a person for the awesome reality of her. On top of that she made not a sound: no scream of jets, no repulsorlift whine, no nothing. Intellectually May understood it only meant that her lift and drive was vastly more efficient than anything Federation science could devise. Emotionally it felt terribly wrong to see a thing that looked every gram of its four hundred ton mass hanging in the sky like a cloud.
Quite without warning Star came to a dead stop. For an instant all conversation halted, then a nervous chatter washed through the spectators. She slid sideways and down, toward the barricades meant to keep her low-level approach route clear. As the shadow of her wing fell across them the crowd surged back in panic. Even some of the Peace Force officers on crowd control duty fell back when she extended one of her four strength limbs and lay her hand palm up on the ground. Her body blocked out the sun but glow from her skin bathed everything beneath her in gentle radiance shot with flickers of pale color.
May grinned and wagged so hard he feared he'd hurt himself. Star could sense things a dozen light years away or focus down tight enough to read text out of an ordinary book. He didn't know how she did it but somehow she'd picked him from the crowd of thousands- millions- packing the waterfront for her arrival. It touched him more than words could express. "Thanks, Star," he said and climbed up onto her hand. As soon as he touched it he felt a strange thrumming, not so much a physical sensation as like a mild current passing through his body. Some people hated it but to May it conveyed a sense of comforting aliveness, like the sound of a lover's heart beat.
"Hey!" a Peace Force officer dashed forward. "Sir!"
May presented his ID card, though the officer couldn't possibly see it from this range. It made no difference anyway; as smooth as an elevator rising Star lifted him off the ground and cradled him against her belly. Though covered with a chitinous shell Star's limbs didn't look like a crustacean's; they resembled ordinary humanoid arms clothed in tight-fitting armor and gauntlets. Her joints and the palm of her hand felt like plastic. May sat, kicking his legs over the edge of her hand and drumming his heels against it. Though Star resumed flyby altitude he didn't fear slipping; molebind fields in her skin kept him stuck as firmly as if he had glue on his buttocks. If he did fall Star would catch him, of that he had no doubt.
As Star swept over the airport fence and descended toward the approach end of the runway May stared straight down. He'd logged plenty of hours in air- and spacecraft but this was a view he didn't see very often. This must be what it's like to be a child, he thought. The sense that everything's new and wonderful. And you made it possible for me to feel it, Star. He wrapped his arms as far as he could around her finger and hugged it.
Instead of touching down and taxiing in- Star didn't have wheels, after all- she came to a hover over the main runway and translated sideways toward the parking area in front of the club house. While still a good ten meters up May pushed off and dropped; before he fell even the length of his own body the air around him seemed to thicken. His ruddy brown mane stood straight up as if charged; a faint, golden glow limned his head, shoulders, and outstretched arms. For all practical purposes Star's entire body was a tractor beam projector and her fine control absolutely amazing. May's feet touched lightly; behind him Star's hands crunched against the pavement as she settled her weight on them.
"Thanks, Star." May looked up at her and patted her massive pinky. As if in response to his words bands of vibrant color chased one another across her belly.
A crowd surged out from the club house's ground floor entrance. Most of them stopped halfway, reluctant to pass under the overhang of Star's wing. A handful didn't; May jogged forward to meet them.
Theobald Aaron Carson, Kit to his friends, hugged May tightly and swung him around so fast May's feet left the ground. "Hell of an entrance, old man!" he exclaimed, laughing. Kit, a Terran, stood about four centimeters taller than May but carried considerably more mass on his powerfully built, long-limbed frame. Lustrous, pale auburn hair spilled down from his crown in a wave that feathered out at the tips, framing a friendly, somewhat boyish face with gentle, Anglo features. He wore a comfortably fit sky blue jump suit sky blue jump suit with a vertical black stripe on the right side of the chest; the stripe's left edge exactly bisected a white, vertically elongated, five pointed star. A gold and silver Starfleet comm badge pinned to the left breast set off the design on the right.
"Hey, it wasn't my idea," May protested. He wasn't a Terran, though in general body shape he resembled one. His head looked like a fox's, complete with sharply pointed ears and a long, slender muzzle. Soft, fluffy fur covered every part of him, red-orange except for a white patch covering the front of his body from chin to crotch and the insides of his thighs and upper arms. Black fur covered the backs of his ears, his arms up to the elbows, and his legs up to the knees. A voluminous tail with a white tip sprang from the base of his spine, emerging through a slit cut in the back of his khaki aviator pants. As a concession to the hot, sunny weather in Amistad at this time of the year he wore no shirt. "I just wanted to watch Star come in from the water front," May continued. "She picked me out of the crowd."
"What about that little descent-from-Heaven bit at the end?" Snowflake wanted to know, stepping up beside Kit. Shi tried to sound stern but couldn't help smiling. Shi was a Chakat, which is to say a centauroid feline. Hir catlike head rested on the shoulders of a torso that wouldn't be out of place on a voluptuously figured Terran female if one ignored the fur covering it. Where a humanoid's hips would have been Snowflake's torso joined the forequarters of a body resembling a snow leopard's but about the size of a full grown lion's. A gray, salt-and-pepper streaked mane fell to the middle of hir upper back, drawn into a ponytail by an intricately tooled leather clip. Shi wore the top half of a jump suit identical in color and basic design to Kit's. Also, in spite of being female in every other respect and possessing apparently normal female genitalia, shi also had a penis. Chakats were, as a species, hermaphrodites.
"Ah, don't be fooled." Nova Stallis, doctor of Neurology, wrapped an arm around May's torso and crushed him against her chest, knuckling his forehead with her other hand. "Despite his quiet seeming, May's just as much a showoff as Star."
May's yelp of protest vanished into Nova's canyonlike cleavage. She resembled a lioness the way he resembled a fox; a short mane, slightly darker than her base color and braided into beaded corn rows, crowned her head. May came only to her shoulder; her massively muscled frame made even Kit look slender by comparison. She left the neck of her jump suit open, prominently displaying her prodigious bosom.
"Oh, quit teasing him, Nova." Ranthe Narbalek was another vulpinoid, very similar to May in coloration except that her mane was bright orange rather than rusty brown and hung down past her shoulders. Next to Nova she seemed tiny, though in fact she stood only a little shorter than May. Her trim, athletic figure made her seem smaller by comparison. "Besides, we need to get him changed for the reception," she added.
"Yes dear," May said meekly, but couldn't suppress a smile. Ranthe glowered at him. Kit giggled.
A crowd, mostly reporters shouting questions or pointing cameras, surged up around the group. Nova and Kit used their mass to cut through the press, opening a channel for the others. Near the clubhouse doors a Security Force honor guard in sky blue dress uniforms rescued them, pushing back the spectators. In the lobby a very different sort of crowd had gathered: one of glittering uniforms, beautiful gowns, and expensive suits. Nearly as one they turned to face the new arrivals... and applauded.
Kit grinned and waved as he led the way up the grand staircase. May's own smile and waves were considerably more restrained- and strained; he felt like a street urchin at a fancy dress ball. The people here were admirals, presidents, and captains of industry. That they applauded him only made it worse. Underneath it all he was fundamentally just a star fighter pilot... and certainly not the best one. When he thought of the things people saw as his accomplishments, most were just... lucky accidents. Others he'd done because he was scared out of his mind and had to do something or die. He had made friends with Star when many others failed- but that wasn't hard. For May, at least, it had come as naturally as breathing.
At the top of the stairs Ranthe caught May's arm and jerked him out of the line. "Time to get changed, flyboy." She hustled him down the hall at a fast walk and shoved him into the locker room. "And don't dawdle or I'm coming in there after you!"
May smiled fleetingly. He wouldn't mind getting undressed with Ranthe... but not in front of her. The very thought made him sick to his stomach. He kicked off his boots and shed his trousers, then pulled on a carefully cleaned and pressed blue jump suit. After a moment to brush the fur on his head he was ready. "Ta dah," he announced, opening the door with a flourish. "How do I look?"
Ranthe smiled gently. "You look great, May." She offered her arm. May hesitated briefly, then accepted. Arm in arm they entered the ball room.
May found himself uncomfortably aware of Ranthe's close physical proximity. Their present situation mirrored their relationship for the past several years: side by side, close enough to touch, but separated by an uncrossable gulf. May found Ranthe quite attractive and he wouldn't mind moving the relationship to a more intimate level- but she didn't seem to like him very much. Despite his loneliness May didn't dare ask her; if she rebuffed him working together would become impossible. However uncomfortable their current relationship might be at least it was a relationship. The alternative-
The alternative was being alone. Again.
Just as Ranthe and May took their places Admiral Kline rose, rapping his glass for attention. "Gentlebeings, thank you all for coming," he began. "Five years ago on this very day many of us met at the dedication of Star Home. We mourned the passing of our brave and valiant friends who lost their lives during the tumultuous First Contact with the Stariionae. We celebrated the establishment of a place where we and the Stariionae could exist together in peace and harmony. Today once more we meet to commemorate both an ending and a beginning. For our Star Home crew, five years of study, training, and research have at long last drawn to a close. They stand ready to usher in an exciting era of cooperation and discovery with their very first official mission." He paused, waiting for the applause to die down. "Allow me to present Commander John Blackthorn, captain of the F.S.S. Sutherland, the person who will be in overall command of the expedition." Admiral Kline stepped aside with a nod.
Commander Blackthorn, a Terran, looked as though he'd stepped out of a recruiting poster. His impeccably tailored dress uniform- Starfleet black with red trim instead of Security Force blue- clothed an athletic, beautifully sculpted, and perfectly proportioned body. Fair, unblemished skin covered his aristocratic features. Every strand of his glossy, auburn hair might have been individually arranged. A precisely trimmed goatee of a slightly darker shade enhanced his air of maturity and dignity though May doubted he was much older than Kit.
"I can't say how proud I am to be selected for this exalted position," Commander Blackthorn began. "And I confess, I'm excited and delighted at the chance to work with the Star Home people, about whom I've heard so many wonderful things. Especially Star-" he gestured toward the windows- "who is surely the star of our endeavor, just as she is the star of her parents' eyes." He flashed a brilliant smile as he nodded to Kit and Snowflake. "We know that the Stariionae possesses senses more discerning than our finest instruments. In our upcoming mission to Barnett 916 Star will have the opportunity to employ those senses in the service of exploration and the noble quest for knowledge. The successful outcome of this expedition will conclusively demonstrate the value Star and her siblings contribute to the noble cause of the Science Corps."
"Not like Dewclaw University had anything to do with it," Nova muttered under her breath.
May glanced at Nova but said nothing. He hadn't been around for the worst of it but he knew that the smiling faces hid a great deal of animosity. First Contact between the Stellar Federation and the Stariionae began about six years previously when Star's mother collided with the Deep Space Hyper-Spatial Anomaly Detector, in distant orbit around Chakastra, the planet Chakona's primary. The Chakonan Security Force discovered the embryonic Star entombed within a fragment of her mother's body and turned it over to Dewclaw University for study. But the Mileva Memorial Hyper-Spatial Observatory, of which the Deep Space Hyper-Spatial Anomaly Detector- or Big-Ass Array for short- was a part, belonged to the Federation Science Corps, the research and exploration wing of Starfleet. The Science Corps tried to claim Star based on a hidden clause in their agreement with the Chakonan Government; when that got bogged down in court they tried to kidnap Star when she escaped briefly from her keepers. That attempt was foiled because a member of the university team happened to be old friends with the captain of the science vessel sent to perform the snatch. The issue of jurisdiction became moot when a group of Stariionae raiders arrived and attempted to take Star away with them. She refused to go and they withdrew but left one of their number behind. At that point it could no longer be disputed that the Stariionae were in fact sentient life forms, albeit a type the Federation had never before encountered. Star Home was founded as a place where Star and her two half-siblings, Strelka and Zarya, could live while scientists from all over the Federation studied their culture and physiology. Though technically open to all the Chakonan government provided most of Star Home's funding and Dewclaw University its personnel. Even now the university staff suspected the Science Corps would steal away the whole project given half a chance and the Science Corps accused the university of trying to hog for itself a discovery that had far reaching implications for the Federation as a whole.
The corners of May's mouth quirked up. It was because of that conflict that this mission was taking place. Kit and Snowflake- who also happened to be Star's adoptive parents- had learned to play the factions against one another to get what they wanted. As far as May could see things got done more efficiently than if all the groups had been working together harmoniously.
"What's so funny?" Ranthe whispered.
"Just thinking," May whispered back. "No matter what people look like, politics stay remarkably the same."
Commander Blackthorn finished speaking and sat down. Apparently he'd told a joke; May chuckled politely along with the rest of the audience. Next came a string of dignitaries giving speeches. May tuned them out, letting his mind wander. He glanced at Star; she'd settled onto her belly with her limbs tucked under her. Though not under immediate supervision she showed no inclination to fidget or wander off. Hard to believe that she was only six years old.
On the other hand, in only five years she'd run through twelve grades of public education and four levels of college, enough to qualify for a bachelor's degree in Astronautics. Her brain could assimilate information about a hundred times faster than an organic one; May had once seen her read a four hundred page novel in just over five minutes. Yet she communicated without difficulty at merely human speed, which for her had to seem glacially slow. May didn't pretend to understand it but as a star fighter pilot he saw that it made sense. In space things tended to happen either very quickly or very slowly; often as not survival depended on keeping track of both. Star didn't have a computer to do it for her; for all practical purposes her brain was the computer. Having a child that didn't get bored might seem a Godsend but there were problems as well. Just because she could wait didn't mean she would. Once already she'd run away because her appetite for knowledge wasn't satisfied. Star Home maintained a cadre of instructors who existed only to teach and answer questions. Through them- and a direct link to the University's library computer- Star absorbed knowledge at an unbelievable rate. Other aspects of her development- ones that required human interaction- proceeded far more slowly. Thus on the one hand Star knew more than a great many adults but in some very important ways she was still very much a six year old. That was the reason Kit and Snowflake had pushed so hard for this mission. Star needed real-world experience, a chance to develop maturity as well as knowledge. Survey by robot probe indicated that the star labelled Barnett 916 had a complex system of planets and even one that might be marginally inhabitable. In other words, lots to see but nothing the Colonization Authority deemed worthy of immediate exploitation. Therefore the survey team could take its time, focusing on the educational opportunities.
"C'mon, May, its time for the group photo." Ranthe's hand on his arm tugged May to his feet.
An enormous painted screen covered one wall of the ballroom. The artist had attempted to capture Star in flight, her hull surrounded by a rainbow corona and streamers of light trailing from the tips of her wings and fins, all against a backdrop of stars. May frowned; an electronic image displayed on a view screen would have been better. Absorptive pigments, no matter how finely made or skillfully applied, couldn't possibly capture Star's glowing beauty. In May's eyes the painting wasn't a tribute to its subject, it was a mockery.
"Let's have the Star Home crew first," the photographer, a particolored Chakat with a black and white face, announced. May found himself placed to Nova's right with Ranthe to his right. Kit stood on Nova's left, with Snowflake beyond him. Still the photographer hesitated, frowning thoughtfully. "Aren't there supposed to be six of you?" shi asked.
"Yes!" a breathless voice replied. A young- no more than teen aged- Chakat in a Star Home jump suit bounded up. Shi resembled a cougar; golden brown fur covered most of hir body with white on the bottom half of hir face, hir breast, belly, and the underside of hir lower body. Black flashes marked the sides of hir muzzle, the backs of hir ears, and the tip of hir long tail. Though slender and athletic- even more so than Ranthe- rather than fulsome like Snowflake or Nova shi was, May had to admit, quite stunningly attractive. Considering how hir small but nicely formed breasts stood proudly on hir chest shi'd probably enhanced nature a bit with a push up bra. "Hi, May, hi Ranthe," shi said, taking a position to Ranthe's right. "Sorry I'm late." Shi spent a moment smoothing down hir jump suit and honey blonde mane, which shi wore so short as to be almost a crew cut.
"You missed all the speeches, Aurora," Snowflake said reprovingly.
"I did?" Aurora clasped hir hands to hir cheeks in an expression of comically exaggerated shock. "Oh dear me!" May couldn't suppress a chuckle; Snowflake rolled hir eyes.
"Now let's have the families join in," the photographer called after taking several shots. "Kit, if you'd step up here with your folks..."
Up to Kit came a man who looked very like an older version of him, a bit shorter and with a fleshier build. His hair, pale brown-gold streaked with gray, waved and feathered exactly like Kit's. He augmented it with a short, bushy beard and sideburns. He wore a flannel button up shirt, denim pants, and hiking boots. A prominent paunch bulged his waistline. Beside him walked an equally tall and robustly built woman; her straight, dark red hair hung to her shoulders, framing a roundish face with very fair skin and a dusting of freckles on her cheeks. Like her husband she possessed a rounded, fleshy body; she clothed it in a flower print dress with a wide neck that showed a dusting of freckles on her shoulders and also the tops of her quite substantial breasts. She dashed ahead of her husband to enfold her son in an energetic bear hug; only after repeated kisses on the face and cheeks did she finally turn him lose. The man shook hands first then pulled Kit into a tight hug. They stood to either side of Kit, man on the left and woman on the right, their arms around Kit's shoulders, grinning like maniacs as the photographer snapped pictures.
Snowflake greeted two Chakats: a large, powerfully built red tiger and an only slightly smaller black panther. The tiger wore a sleeveless, pale yellow button up blouse and the panther a snugly fit, fringed leather top decorated with intricate, colorful beadwork. Hir fulsome construction left no doubt as to wherefrom Snowflake obtained hir voluptuous figure. They hugged one another all at once, with lots of nuzzling and licking. Then the tiger lifted Snowflake's forequarters and the panther hir hindquarters, holding hir up as if presenting a prize. Snowflake put hir arm around the tiger's neck and hir tail around the panther's. The camera clicked.
Only a single person came up to Nova, a lioness who looked exactly like her except that her fur seemed a little less sleek and her mane, also in corn rows, hung to the middle of her back. She wore a dark red, knee length tube dress with a very low neckline and slits up to the hip on either side. Sandals with garters shod her feet, leaving the toes of her catlike feet exposed. Cleverly applied makeup and carefully styled fur failed to hide a significant amount of scarring on her feet, calves, and hands. Tears ran freely from her tightly closed eyes as she hugged Nova; she dabbed at her face with a hanky before turning to the camera. Nova dropped to one knee by the woman's side and she lay a hand on Nova's shoulder. At a request from the photographer they swapped positions before the pictures were taken.
Aurora leapt forward excitedly to greet hir family. So much so, in fact, that shi almost knocked the first one down. That individual happened to be an aged lynx Chakat; the natural gray of hir pelt hid extensive whitening of the fur on hir face and muzzle but a pronounced sag in hir small breasts gave a clear indication of hir advanced age. Shi shared Aurora's slender, athletic build and wore nothing at all. Beside hir came a much younger Chakat, a generic feline with an all black pelt except for white patches on hir throat, muzzle, hands, and all four feet. Shi wore a long sleeved Security Force dress tunic. Beside hir came an even younger Chakat, a child of no more than five or six. Shi seemed to be a color reversed lynx: hir tufted ears, bearded cheeks, and stubby tail looked just like those of the older lynx but the youngster's pelt showed pale, white speckles against a dark, smoky gray base. Shi wore a sky blue top which prominently displayed the Star Home logo. For the family photo Aurora put one arm around the lynx an the other around the black cat so they all stood cheek to cheek. The lynx held the youngster- who grinned and waved excitedly- in hir arms.
As the photographer turned to him May's heart lurched. He had no family. Not even like Ranthe, who'd left her family behind. His life began at the approximate age of twenty when he'd come to consciousness with absolutely no recollection of his existence up to that point. If he had a mother, a father, or siblings, they'd vanished into the darkness of his theoretical childhood. Since then no one had ever come forward claiming to know him. Over the years he'd pretty much gotten used to it... but somehow this moment brought back the old pain as intense as ever. It forcibly reminded him that these people he'd worked with for the past five years were not discrete individuals but part of something larger, while he.... wasn't. The photos taken here would end up on newscasts all over Chakona and the Federation... and they would show May alone.
But after only a glance the photographer shifted hir attention to the whole group and backed up. "Everyone together now," shi said. "If I could have everyone line up with their family members..."
May found himself placed between Ranthe and Nova's mom, who looked him up and down appraisingly. "Nova, darling, you never said he was so cute!" She slipped an arm around May's shoulders and crushed him against her chest exactly as Nova had done earlier. She threw in a torso wiggle for good measure.
"Be gentle with him, Mom, we need him in working order for the departure ceremony," Nova admonished.
"Now we know where Nova gets it," Ranthe commented, arching an eyebrow.
"Ah," May replied because he couldn't think of anything else to say. He still looked dazed when the photographer took the picture. After that shi thanked the team and withdrew. A mob or reporters- much smaller than the one outside but apparently no less rabid- rushed forward. Fortunately- at least to May's way of thinking- Commander Blackthorn intercepted them and seemed more than happy to occupy the spotlight. May and Ranthe slipped off to the buffet.
"Did you enjoy getting tit-sandwiched by Nova and her mom?" Ranthe inquired as May loaded his plate with a selection of delicacies.
May froze, about to pick up a piece of Teriyaki pork on a bamboo skewer. He considered and discarded a variety of replies. "Yes, I did," he replied, nibbling on a bite of a cheese blintz with blueberry sauce.
"Would you like to sleep with them?" Ranthe continued.
May eyed Ranthe more than a little uneasily. As so often seemed to be the case with her he couldn't tell whether she was being facetious or serious. "No," he said, deciding to take her question at face value. "Nova's too much in love with Snowflake and Kit. I... couldn't come between that. Arda..." He glanced at Nova's mother, currently involved in an animated conversation with Mr. and Mrs. Carson. "As nice as she is, she's got a daughter only ten years younger than me whom I know personally." He grimaced. "The idea of sleeping with my friend's mom is just too weird."
"Arda's only four years older than you," Ranthe commented.
"But-" May stuttered. He could do the math; it made Arda fourteen when Nova was born. Hardly more than a child herself.
"I think you're right about Nova, though." Ranthe chuckled, tossing her head and running a hand through her mane. "A few years ago, maybe... but not now."
May felt his heart thudding in his chest. His mind didn't register what Ranthe had said, he was too busy staring at her. She wasn't beautiful, not like Snowflake, for instance. Nor was she young; like May himself she'd seen the wrong side of forty. If one knew where to look- as May did- one could see how care had worn her even more than time. But somehow that only made her more beautiful, not less. Like a fine wine, aged to perfection. On top of that she was... well, she was Ranthe, a fact which somehow outweighed all others. She must have noticed something his expression because she looked at him curiously. Something told May that now was the time. He should tell her all the things he'd been afraid to say. But he couldn't open his mouth. Fear paralyzed him, fear built up over all those years of being alone, of being an outsider. He couldn't face the possibility of being rejected again. Not here, not now.
Ranthe turned away, breaking the spell. "Sundown and Swiftsure are here," she commented, glancing toward a pair of Chakats advancing through the crowd. Both resembled generic felines; one had tawny golden fur and dark stripes only on the fronts of hir legs, not on hir arms or body, and a lighter, slightly wavy, shoulder length yellow-gold mane. Shi wore a blue blouse trimmed with ruffles and a silk cravat. Hir companion had a lighter, dun colored pelt decorated with dark spots and a curly, dark auburn mane. Hir clothing consisted of a white button up blouse, a Navy blue tie, and a gray jacket. "If you want to see them you should do it now," Ranthe continued, looking down and picking up a cinnamon roll. "There won't be time later."
"Yeah." May nodded glumly. Suddenly he wasn't hungry; he would have set his plate aside if there were any place to do it. What he'd eaten sat like lead in his stomach. "See you." He turned away. He didn't see Ranthe squeeze her eyes shut or the tears running down her cheeks.
"May!" The stripe-legged Chakat rushed forward; shi would have bowled May off his feet had shi not immediately thrown hir arms around him. The other Chakat deftly caught his plate before he inadvertently dropped it or spilled his food.
"It's good to see you, Sundown." May stroked hir head and nuzzled hir cheek. Shi licked his face. "And you too, Swiftsure." May offered his hand; the spotted Chakat took it and enfolded him in a hug.
"So this is it," Swiftsure commented, nuzzling May's other cheek. "Off you go into the wild blue yonder?"
"Black," Sundown corrected.
"Right," Swiftsure replied, nodding. "Wild black yonder. The Final Frontier. To boldly go where so one has gone before and all that."
"How's Fiora doing?" May heard himself asking. Because they were so close he felt Sundown tense ever so slightly.
"Hir feet haven't touched the ground since shi came back from that tour of Star Home you arranged for hir class," Swiftsure replied.
May forced himself to smile. He couldn't blame Sundown for getting pregnant; shi and Swiftsure had been lovers long before he arrived on the scene. Then Captain Raskilov all but shanghaied Swiftsure when he led his task force off to search out a group of Stariionae who were raiding Federation installations and shipping. He hoped to use Swiftsure's universal translator to learn their language but never got the chance. The Stariionae attacked without warning; only two of the squadron's six vessels survived. Back on Chakona Sundown could only wait and wonder until Lijang limped into port several months later; only then did shi know for sure that Swiftsure had survived. Their reunion was, to say the least, tumultuous. May had heard it said that Chakats could stop themselves from fertilizing with an act of will. It wasn't true but he could see how a person might come to believe it. Chakats could sense their fertility state to a high degree of accuracy and as hermaphrodites always had an alternative to activities that might pose undue risk. Even without contraceptives Chakats almost never had unplanned pregnancies. Which didn't at all mean that every decision to have a child was made in the cold light of reason. A Chakat who woke up in the morning with second thoughts could have an abortion but that rarely happened. Culturally and genetically Chakats loved their offspring; if an individual didn't feel ready to have a child shi gave it up for adoption. More often than not shi ended up joining the adoptive family and raising the child anyway. For Sundown the question wasn't even that difficult. Shi'd wanted to settle down with Swiftsure for a long time; having a child on the way gave hir a reason to do it. No, May couldn't blame Sundown for marrying Swiftsure and having hir child... even though, in a dark corner of his mind, he wanted to. "Why isn't shi here?" he asked.
"Shi's recovering from a nasty strep throat," Swiftsure explained.
May blinked. "But- then why did you come?" Considering how important children were to them, both Chakats in general and Swiftsure and Sundown in particular, It didn't seem all like them to leave the beside of a sick youngster.
"Because, May, you're going away again," Sundown whispered, stroking his cheeks. "It seems like every time we meet we're saying goodbye."
May shrugged. "It's my job," he mumbled, glancing down to hide his embarrassment. "Admiral Kline says we'll be back in a year or so."
Sundown licked hir lips, shifting restively from foot to foot. "May, you could... you could come with us. Swiftsure and me. We... we'd be glad to have you."
May swallowed hard. "I know that." He caressed Sundown's cheek with one hand and took Swiftsure's with the other. "I just... other than being a star fighter pilot I don't really have any marketable skills. I... I don't think I'd make a very good house husband."
"May, we both have good jobs," Swiftsure said, squeezing his hand. "You wouldn't have to work. And... seeing how you've been with Star these last few years I think you'd do well as a father. Very well indeed."
"I..." May blinked as tears welled up in his eyes. He hugged Sundown tightly. Over hir shoulder he saw Star, her back gleaming in the sunlight like an arctic snowfield. "I can't back out now," he said. "But when I come back we'll talk. I promise." He kissed Sundown on the nose. After a brief hesitation he pulled Swiftsure close and kissed hir, too. Shi didn't resist; if anything shi responded as avidly as Sundown.
"May?" Swiftsure said.
"I will. I promise."
"If you don't-" Sundown let the threat hang. Shi stepped back, wiping tears from hir cheeks with the back of hir hand. Shi slipped an arm around his waist and turned him away from the buffet, impelling him across the floor to where Aurora and hir family chatted with Kit and Snowflake. "Darkstar wants to talk to you," shi added enigmatically.
"I wish you were coming with us, Darkstar," Kit said.
The lynx Chakat smiled, stroking Kit's head. "Adventuring is a job for the young."
"You aren't old," Snowflake insisted.
Darkstar chuckled. "I am too old. I'm a hundred and eleven, you young whippersnapper." Shi made a face and shook hir fist at Snowflake but shi- and everyone else including Darkstar hirself- only laughed.
May knew that Chakats routinely reached a hundred a fifty, so a hundred and eleven really wasn't so terribly much. Darkstar seemed much older, though, especially around the eyes. They had seen things that aged their owner beyond mere years.
"I've gone on more adventures that I can count," Darkstar continued in a more serious voice. "When I was your age it was exciting. After... many years, it became... just another job. I'm ready to settle down now. With Longstocking." Shi slipped an arm around the black Chakat and nuzzled hir cheek. "With my family."
"I wish you were coming, Gramma," Aurora said plaintively.
"Oh, no you don't." Darkstar took Aurora's cheeks in hir hands and rubbed them gently. "You're getting to that age when you aren't going to want your crotchety old grandmother peering over your shoulder all the time. Believe me, I know." Darkstar chuckled. "I was once your age... and so much like you. Full of... lust for life. Besides, Aurora, this is your adventure. You worked your ass off to be here. I want you to collect all the credit."
Aurora lay hir hands over Darkstar's. Tears ran down hir cheeks. "Oh, Gramma," shi whispered. "I never coulda done it without you."
Darkstar kissed Aurora gently on the muzzle. "That's all the thanks I need, pumpkin. Knowing that I put you where you needed to be to grab your dream." They embraced.
"When do I get to go?" the child demanded.
"When you finish college, darling," Longstocking replied.
The child glowered. "How long is that gonna take?"
Longstocking shrugged. "Dunno. Your sister managed it in six years. If you apply your usual diligence, I'd say... oh, some time in the next century."
"That isn't funny," the child groused, though everyone else snickered.
Darkstar's eyes met May's. "Hello May," shi said. Hir tone sounded casual but hir eyes seemed to pick him apart, dissecting him with a clinical precision that missed not the tiniest detail. "'Scuse me a sec, folks." Shi gave Kit and Aurora a firm hug. "I'd like to talk to May for a bit."
"Sure thing." Kit slipped an arm around Snowflake's shoulder. "Aurora, I know you've worked hard to get on the team and all but I'm not so sure we should have a kid along."
"Yeah," Snowflake chimed in. "I wonder if the director's seen that video of you biting Renata."
Aurora made a belligerent face. "You even think about showing hir that and you'll be swallowing your own teeth."
"Let's hit the buffet," Longstocking suggested. Gently but firmly shi laid a hand on Sundown's upper arm and led hir away. The group moved off with them.
"What did you want to talk to me about?" May asked. Even to his own ears he sounded defensive. He couldn't help it.
"For someone who just met the love of his life you don't seem exactly transported with joy," Darkstar observed.
May sighed. "Shi... asked me to mate. With hir and Swiftsure."
"Would that be such a bad thing?"
May didn't answer. I fell in love with Sundown because... hir feelings for me were so... unconditional. Being with hir made everything simple. And I felt like I belonged. I wasn't alone. But now there's Swiftsure and Fiora-
"I know how you feel," Darkstar continued. "After my family died I spent a long time alone. Longing to belong. I got so good at it that I continued being alone, even while surrounded by people who loved me. In the end it took Longstocking giving me a proverbial slap in the face to snap me out of it. What I'm saying is that love isn't something you find. It's all around you, like air." Shi waved hir hand. "But like air, you don't see it. Opening your eyes doesn't help. You have to open your heart." Shi jabbed him in the chest. "When you do that, then you see it. And you realize that love isn't somewhere else. It was right with you- right under your nose- all along."
May blinked. "But- I don't understand."
"That's right," Darkstar agreed. "Love isn't something you understand. All you can do is experience it."
"But-" May swallowed. What if the person you love doesn't love you back?
"May, there's no safe way to do it," Darkstar said. "You bare yourself. You open your heart and let everyone see what's there. The good, the bad, and the ugly. Safe is being alone. You know what the funny thing is? There's really no risk at all. When you give of yourself the people who love you will respond. They can't help it. One day you open your heart... and suddenly love is all around you. But it doesn't look like what you thought it did. That's the scary part." Shi took his hand in hirs. "Don't make the mistake I did, May. Don't wait. Because one day you'll die. Or worse, the other person will die. Then it will be too late." Shi gave his shoulder a firm squeeze, then moved off with a nod and approached Ranthe.
"Huh?" May turned rather abruptly toward the source of the voice. It was Mrs. Carson, with her husband beside her. "I, I mean how do you do, Mrs. Carson." He offered his hand.
"Please, Mayuandi, call me Juliana." She took May's hand, squeezing it and laying her other over it instead of shaking.
"And call me Michael," Mr. Carson put in. "You know, Kit's done nothing but go on and on about how wonderful you are with Star."
"Well-" May drooped his head in embarrassment. "I... do my best."
"Mayuandi-" Juliana stepped forward abruptly, bringing May's hand up to her chest. For an instant May saw an aching need reflected in her eyes; then she looked down, her cheeks coloring. "I- I- I'm sorry, Mayuandi. I- I feel like I'm just being a silly woman. You're Kit's friend, not ours-"
"Kit's everything to us," Michael interjected gently. "But he's... well, he's young. Young men are wont to follow their hearts instead of their heads. Just look at Snowflake and Star. He married a Chakat and adopted a star ship. Not than I'm one to point fingers." He slipped an arm around Juliana's shoulders and kissed her on the temple. His face tightened and tears glistened in the corners of his eyes. May realized with a shock that he was trying not to cry.
"Star isn't exactly the grandchild we expected," Juliana continued. She couldn't repress a wry smile and Michael chuckled. "But... Kit loves her with all his heart." Her face fell. "It... we wouldn't be his parents if we did any less ourselves. And Snowflake... is his wife. Which makes hir ours too." Juliana squeezed May's hand with almost painful intensity.
"Now they're going away," Michael said, his voice quavering. "Not like summer camp or college but away. Into the unknown. And he's placing his fate- and that of his wife and daughter- in the hands of that- that Starfleet fop." Suddenly Michael's eyes narrowed, blazing with such intense hatred that May would have recoiled if not held by Juliana's grip. Seeing an expression like that on a face so much like Kit's disturbed May more than the expression itself.
"We've studied your background, Mayuandi," Juliana said. "You're a decorated military officer with a distinguished service record. You have... real experience. Maturity. Wisdom. We know it's only a training mission... but if anything happens..." she swallowed, tears welling up in her eyes. "We trust you to take care of them, Mayuandi. And... to bring them back to us." Her voice quavered and tears ran down her cheeks. "They're... all we have."
Sunlight winking from Star's back drew May's eye. His reflexive protestations died in his throat, which tightened from the intensity of the emotion he felt. "I understand," he said, laying his free hand on Michael's shoulder. "I'll look after them. I've... become rather attached to them myself. Your son is one of the finest men I've ever met."
"Thank you, Mayuandi." Michael lay his hand over May's a squeezed. "Let's go, darling." He gently drew Juliana away.
"Bless you, Mayuandi," Juliana said, letting his hand slide out of hers instead of letting go all at once. Michael grabbed a napkin from the buffet table and offered it to Juliana, who wiped her face and blew her nose. A moment later Michael did the same.
"Need a tissue?"
May turned and found himself face to face with Sundown, offering a napkin. "Ah, yeah," he replied, taking it and blowing his nose.
"Come on." Sundown took May's arm and led him toward the ballroom entrance.
"Where are we going?" May asked.
"The locker room."
"Because this is the last I'm going to see you for a year," Sundown replied, leaning against him and laying hir head on his shoulder. "Because we have a while before this reception winds down... and I don't feel like sharing you anymore." Very deliberately shi lay a hand on his crotch and squeezed.
"Uhh..." Only dimly did May register the voice calling his name. Sundown lay on hir back and he on hir belly, his hips pumping frantically. Hir forepaws around his chest held him tight; hir hands massaged his head and shoulders while his hands roved over hir torso and breasts. Hir stiffly erect penis pressed against his belly and chest.
"May," the voice repeated, louder and more assertively. It sounded like a young Chakat... a lot like Aurora, in fact. Hir sister, perhaps.
"May-" Sundown gasped. Shi clasped hir hands over his, pressing them hard against hir breasts.
"May, the departure ceremony starts in ten minutes," the voice warned. "Sundown, I'm really sorry to interrupt but we need him back now."
"Damn, damn, damn!" Sundown cursed. Shi rolled suddenly, throwing May onto his back. Then shi backed up and sank to hir belly, grabbing his hips with hir hands. Shi took him into hir mouth, sucking hard and vigorously applying hir tongue. Like the cats from which hir species had been genetically engineered Sundown's tongue was quite rough. May winced as it dragged over his delicate glans but the increased stimulation brought him to climax. He let out a shuddering moan as his seed spewed forth. Sundown sucked with each pulse, as if trying to draw the most shi could of out him. As the paroxysms faded May slumped back with a sigh; he felt physically and emotionally drained, as if he'd just finished an energetic workout. In a sense he had; Sundown weighed more than twice what he did.
"All right, May, you've had your fun, now get up and get dressed," the voice ordered. "Move it, pilgrim!" it bellowed, sounding so exactly like John Wayne that one might believe The Duke had come back to life.
"Star!" May exclaimed, sitting up. His jump suit lay over a bench; he'd folded it with the comm badge on the inside. "How long have you been listening?"
"All along," Star replied, giggling.
Of course Star lacked anything like vocal chords or lungs. She couldn't detect sound except as minute variations in air pressure and even then it had to be excruciatingly loud. Her "voice" was electronically synthesized by a device strapped to the pinky of her right outboard strength limb. She commanded it by radio; her ability to generate electromagnetic signals was amazing and not limited to the visible light spectrum. Her fine control and capability for high speed processing allowed her to do absolutely astounding things. For one she could perfectly imitate any voice or sound after listening to it only once or twice. She could imitate voices so well, in fact, as to fool voice print security systems. Because of that all the command I/O systems at Star Home accepted only thumb or retina prints. She'd also learned to simulate accent, tone, inflection, and all the other emotional shadings that comprised spoken language. The operative word, however, was simulate. Like a person operating a puppet, Star consciously created the emotional content of her voice just as she did the words. As such, not only did her tone not necessarily reflect her true feelings, but she tended to speak more calmly and evenly the more upset she became. Only by watching the color patterns on her skin- or how she moved her hands if she spoke in sign language- could one accurately assess her emotional state.
Sundown giggled as a comically stricken expression came across May's features. He felt like Star had been peeking in on him while he and Sundown made love. Which, in all seriousness, she might have in fact been doing. Many people, upon first meeting Star, observed that she did not appear to have eyes. In fact she didn't; she sensed her environment by detecting minute variations in gravity fields. Because of that she could, theoretically, 'see' through any matter. Nor did her senses lack anything in the way of discrimination; May had seen her read ten point type from a closed book. At times- like now- May felt an urge to cover himself whenever she was nearby, even when normally opaque barriers separated them. Intellectually he knew that was nonsense- she could see through his clothes as easily as the walls around him- but it didn't help how he felt.
"Get dressed, May!" Star commanded. May hurriedly pulled on the jump suit. At the moment he didn't have time to consider the existential implications of Star's senses.
"Hold still," Sundown commanded. Shi produced a brush from hir purse and quickly touched up May's mane, face, and neck. "There. Now you don't look so much like you just got laid." Shi admired him for a moment, then pulled his face down and gave him a long, passionate kiss. He tasted his semen on hir lips; at another time in his life that might have shocked him but not now. He'd tasted hir semen, after all, and not by so indirect a means.
"Thanks, Sundown." May stroked hir cheek, resisting the urge to kiss hir. If he started he wouldn't be able to stop.
"May!" Star snapped.
"Yes, yes!" May exclaimed. "I'm coming, I'm coming!"
"What, again?" Star inquired.
Sundown burst out laughing. "Incorrigible," May muttered, unlocking the locker room door and hurrying out. Nevertheless he couldn't help wagging his tail.
"The prodigal returns!" Someone bellowed as May stepped out. A powerfully built young foxtaur male pounced on him, knocking him off his feet and enfolding him in a hug that made his ribs creak. He gasped for breath.
"Hey, Javert, you break him, you bought him," Kit called.
"'S all right." Another foxtaur, identical in every respect to the first, came up. "Good show, old man! Getting some last minute nookie, eh?"
"But- but-" May stammered, his jaw dropping in shock. Had Star told everyone?
"Valjean, stop teasing!" Snowflake ordered sharply, stamping hir forepaw. "Come on, May," shi added. "Sundown takes you off for some one-on-one time? It don't take a genius to figure that out." Shi licked Kit's cheek.
"Kit, you are so goddamn lucky," Javert groused, casually handing May to Ranthe. Though a tad shorter than May Javert's shoulders spanned a noticeably wider distance. Thick, ropy muscle rippled beneath the silky coat on his torso and also his lower body. Five years ago he and his brother- who were identical twins- had been lithe and athletic. Since then they'd developed into practically the foxtaur equivalent of Greek gods. May noticed even Ranthe admiring them appreciatively.
"Yeah," Valjean chimed in. "When do we get to go on a mission?"
"Ahh, you'll get your chance." Kit swept them both into an energetic bear hug. "As soon as you whip that brat of yours into shape."
Snowflake snorted. "I don't think putting Zarya under the care of these two was a good idea. They're far less mature than he is."
"Brother," Javert said, said, turning to Valjean, "I believe this person just questioned our maturity."
"Oh, no!" Valjean recoiled in shock. "We can't have that!" Both of them stuck their thumbs in their ears, waved their fingers, and made faces. Snowflake burst out laughing.
May noticed two other newcomers. One was a trim young man who looked like a rabbit with sandy brown and snowy white fur. Next to him, with a hand through his arm, stood a young woman who looked rather like a hedgehog. Long black spines with white tips sprouted from her head and the back of her body; fine white fur covered her arms, legs, and front. She came only to her companion's shoulder but made up for it with a plump and amply curved figure. That combined with her pointed muzzle, round ears, and large, dark eyes made her look, May felt, excessively cute. Where Valjean, Javert, and the rabbit all wore Star Home jump suits she wore a garment resembling an oversized tee shirt that hung down to her knees. Its color and decoration matched those of the jump suits, including the comm badge.
"Do us proud, Kit," the rabbit said, gripping Kit's forearm.
"We will, Skip, I promise." Kit returned the grip with a broad grin.
Skip offered his hand to Snowflake but shi wouldn't have it. Shi enfolded him in a tight embrace and kissed him passionately.
"Hey now!" the hedgehog protested. She grabbed Kit's collar, hauled him down to a convenient height, and put him in a lip lock at least as impressive as the one Snowflake had on Skip.
"Nice to see you too, Elizabeth," Kit said after she released him and he gulped a breath. "But I am a married man, you know."
"So?" Elizabeth asked, pinching his cheek. "Does that mean I can't look?"
"That was a pretty high impact look, darling," Skip commented, gathering Elizabeth- carefully- in his arms and nuzzling her cheeks.
"Snowflake did it first!" Elizabeth countered plaintively, but her eyes twinkled with merriment.
"Now now, children," Valjean admonished.
"If you can't play nice we'll have to put you all to bed," Javert concluded.
"And wouldn't you just love to get into bed with us." Kit snaked an arm around Valjean's neck and knuckled his forehead.
"Damn right!" Javert exclaimed, letting his tongue loll out and panting excitedly.
Kit laughed. He shifted his grip to Valjean's shoulders and slipped his other arm around Javert in a companionable way. "I really do wanna go on a mission with you two."
"We'll be ready by the time you get back," Valjean assured. "Count on it."
"Hell, we'll probably end up going to get you!" Javert Gave kit a friendly punch on the shoulder. All three of them laughed; May found himself smiling and wagging his tail.
Suddenly the ballroom doors opened. Admiral Kline and Commander Blackthorn emerged, escorted by a squad of Security Force troopers. "Time to go," the admiral declared, flashing a bright smile. With the commander at his side he led the way downstairs. The Star Home people fell in behind with the honor guard fanned out on either side.
During the reception day had given way to night but one would hardly know it from how things looked outside the club house. Every light in and around the terminal seemed to be on at full intensity. Spotlights and banks of enormous floods painted the scene with cool brilliance. In the center of it all lay Star; the lights awoke waves of iridescent color from her skin. Without sunlight to wash them out the colors looked even more dazzling then they had in daylight. As the main doors opened a tremendous noise flooded the club house lobby; with Star on the ground the public had been allowed onto the airport grounds. A narrow path defined by barricades manned by Security Force troopers cut through a throng packed at least as tight as the crowd by the beach had been. As they caught sight of the team emerging their cheering redoubled in intensity. All the Star Home people waved energetically- including May, once Ranthe gave him a sharp nudge in the ribs. Finally they arrived at a raised platform erected near Star's wing tip.
A technician handed Kit a microphone. He composed his expression and straightened his stance, then cleared his throat. The sound echoed across the airport, amplified by loudspeakers set on poles. "Thank you all for coming to see us off," he began. The sound system compensated for the much greater speed of electronic signals than audible ones so his words weren't lost in a welter of echoes. "It means more to us than we can say so I'm not going to try. We had enough speeches inside. More than enough, probably." He grinned and the crowd chuckled. "What I am going to do is introduce to you the one person without whom none of this would be happening. Seeing as how everyone has something to say she'd like to say a few words herself. But just a few, she promises." The crowd laughed. "Gentlebeings, it is with greatest pleasure that I present to you... my daughter, Star." He turned, gesturing with his free hand.
Star's color brightened. She rose vertically from the ground, unfolding her strength limbs. "Thank you Daddy," she said, her synthesized voice booming out over the loudspeakers. A single one of her fingers weighed considerably more than both her adoptive parents put together but with amazing control and delicacy she gently brushed Kit and Snowflake with the tip of one. Then she rose, rotating and lifting her hose until her belly faced the crowd with her body slanted upward at about a forty-five degree angle. "When I said I wanted to say something here and now a lot of people offered to help me create a speech," she began, forming the words in sign language at the same time she spoke them. "I'd like to thank them all because they came up with some wonderful ideas. But every time I tried writing one it kept getting longer and longer without really expressing how I felt. So instead I'd like to recite a poem. It was written by Pilot Officer John Gillespie Magee, Junior, in the year nineteen hundred and forty-one. Even though that was almost four hundred years ago what he said touches how I feel about this mission more perfectly than any words of my own could. It's called 'High Flight.'" The colors in Star's skin changed; flecks of bright red, yellow, blue, orange, and purple danced against a background of mottled green in a way that reminded May of a field of wildflowers.
Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings.
Starting near Star's nose and working down the green gave way to pale blues punctuated by whites, grays, and golds. At no point did anything like a specific image form but May found himself thinking of the sun breaking through after a summer rain, driving away the clouds.
Sunward I've climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds- and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of- wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov'ring there,
I've chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air.
The grays and whites slid diagonally across the background field, as if the clouds were moving or the point of view panning across them. Speckles of color appeared, grew, and faded.
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I've topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or even eagle flew-
All the colors flowed away down Star's body like paint running in the rain, leaving behind an ebon blackness so complete it showed even against the night sky. In it a thousand points of glimmering silver appeared.
And, while with silent lifting mind I've trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Star raised her right outboard strength limb, the palm turned outward. A bright spark appeared in the center of her hand, growing into a dazzlingly bright golden disk. Rays from it ran along her arm and out until it suffused her entire body. A shimmering corona of golden light seemed to hang in the air around her. The light's intensity made May's eyes water but he couldn't look away.
Put out my hand and touched the face of God.
The glow faded from Star's body as if she were an ingot cooling after being taken from the furnace. The light in her hand persisted a little longer, diminishing to a bright silver spark before fading away. She extended all four of her strength limbs to the crowd, her hands open, then retracted them and settled to the ground on her belly. "Thank you," she said.
May couldn't speak. Emotion squeezed his throat shut and tears flooded his eyes. Thunderous applause erupted from the crowd and May clapped as hard as he could and kept at it until his hands ached. Finally he let his arms fall because he couldn't go on. Admiral Kline, Commander Blackthorn, Valjean, Javert, Elizabeth, and Skip stepped to one side of the platform, forming a receiving line. Kit returned the microphone and gestured; Star lowered her wing until the tip rested on the edge of the platform. Kit went along the line, shaking hands and exchanging words with each person. He waited for Snowflake, took hir hand, and together they started confidently up the slope of Star's wing toward the passenger module fastened to her back. Tendrils of yellow-orange light radiated from where they placed their feet, leaving fuzzy, slowly fading footprints behind. Though Star's skin looked about as slick as wet ice Kit and Snowflake seemed to have no more trouble than they would on ordinary sidewalk. Nova and Aurora went next, then Ranthe and May. The others stayed behind on the platform. Kit waited by the module's door until everyone came up, then opened it and waved everyone inside with a courteous bow.
Star couldn't carry passengers inside her body any more than an organic person could. In any case her insides weren't a place organic persons would desire to be; her blood was virulently toxic and her tissues laden with highly radioactive materials. Her internal shields and a highly efficient metabolism kept all the dangerous things safely contained, enough that unprotected organic passengers could safely ride on her back. Obviously that wasn't practical for long journeys, to say nothing of in space. Hence the passenger module; it looked like the top half of an air liner's fuselage with a flexible skirt that smoothed the joint between it and Star's hull. A molebind field kept the skirt firmly anchored to her back.
"This sure is a step up from that saddle we used to use, isn't it?" Snowflake asked as shi boarded.
"Oh, I don't know," Nova commented, glancing around. A small airlock led into a suiting room just behind where the cockpit would be. Glancing through the doorway May saw a room that certainly looked like a cockpit, complete with large view ports and full instrumentation, but lacking flight controls. "I thought riding in the saddle was fun," Nova concluded.
"Me too but not for two months or more," Kit said. "Wouldn't surprise me if we end up sick of this thing by the time we reach Barnett 916. Take your places, everyone, and let's do it."
"I'll sit in the passenger area," May said. The cockpit had only four stations, two for humanoids and two for 'taurs.
"I'll join you," Ranthe said, following May as he headed aft. Past the suiting room lay a small galley, then a cabin with chairs and overhead luggage bins just like in a regular air liner. First class, of course, with plenty of room. May sat and fastened his seatbelt.
Ranthe emerged from the galley with several squeeze bulbs, drink containers meant for use in free fall. "Would sir care for an in-flight refreshment?" she asked, offering him one.
"Thanks." May took a bulb and sipped from it. "Oh, stewardess, got any peanuts?"
"Don't push it, bub." Ranthe punched May's shoulder. He snickered.
As Ranthe fastened her belt May saw the ground suddenly drop away. He didn't feel a thing other than a slight change in the thrum emanating from Star. He didn't even hear air rushing over the hull; force fields in her body kept the slip stream from actually touching either her or the passenger module. Since night had fallen he couldn't track their progress by watching the sky darken; the only indication that they'd left the atmosphere was when the stars ceased twinkling. In space, without air to blur them, the stars looked as hard and sharp as diamonds.
May drained his bulb. The liquor burned in his throat and left a pleasant warmth in his belly. "Ranthe?" he asked.
"Are you ever sorry you came?"
Ranthe turned her bulb over and over in her hands. "No," she replied. "My family cut me loose when we disappeared and wouldn't take me back even after we turned up alive. They were lost to me long before I ever left Dreamstar Station. At least here-" She tensed suddenly, glancing sidelong at May, as if fearing having said too much. "Chakona's a much nicer place to live," she concluded, and gulped down the rest of her liquor.
At least here you have what? May wanted to ask. The question perched on his tongue, trying to force its way past his lips, but he held it back. What he hoped she'd say and what he feared she'd say tore him apart inside. He looked out the window. It didn't make the pain go away but it did become less immediate. He didn't see Ranthe looking intently at him, her mouth working as if she too had words she couldn't quite bring herself to say. After a moment she also looked away.
As the atmosphere thinned around her Star directed her attention upward. Chakona's magnetic field channeled charged particles emanating from the sun into enormous, glowing streamers of energy that writhed across the heavens. It had disturbed her profoundly when she learned that the tiny people couldn't see them except at the poles where the particles emitted radiation of a particular- and very narrow- frequency band. The cosmos contained so many wonderful things and the tiny people never even saw most of it. Even worse, they tended to act as if what they didn't see didn't exist. They used words like empty and black to describe space because they didn't see the seething primordial energy vomited from the hearts of distant stars, clouds of dust, gas, micrometeorites, and interlocking gravity fields subtly warping space and time. What really annoyed her was that so many tiny people- even some of the scientists assigned to teach her- acted as if what she saw didn't exist because they didn't see it. Convincing them that she really did see what she saw was sometimes like- like trying to escape the event horizon of a black hole. Impossible, in other words. At the start of her formal education she'd entertained high hopes; getting her point across seemed no more than a matter of learning enough words. Five years and many words later Star appreciated the depth of her predicament more fully. The tiny people's language simply didn't have words for what she wanted to express. The very structure of it left huge gaps she hadn't the faintest idea how to fill. She might not even have noticed except that Grandmother Krita taught Star the language of her people, which did include appropriate words and structures. When she tried putting the two together she got a headache. It seemed like they described completely separate universes.
"Hi Star!" Zarya shouted, streaking in and forming on Star's right.
"You are so lucky!" Strelka added, coming up on Star's left. She managed to sound exited and envious at the same time.
"Hey, kids." Star buffeted them with tractor beams in a friendly way. "Luck's got nothing to do with it, by the by. I'm going 'cause I studied my lessons."
"Studying's for wimps!" Zarya pronounced, darting away and executing a snap roll. "What good's any of it do in the real world?"
"The knowledge itself isn't so important as learning how to learn," Star replied, hoping that she didn't sound sarcastic or pedantic.
"Yeah, right," Zarya grumbled. "I think they just like torturing us with boring lectures."
Star said nothing; she didn't trust herself to respond appropriately. At times she felt that rote memorization mattered more to her instructors than understanding. Occasionally she suspected that her instructors had memorized what they knew without ever bothering to understand it. Frankly Star really hated being eldest; it put her in the position of having to act as parent to her younger siblings when, more often than not, she agreed with their sentiments.
"Oh, Star, do you have to go?" Strelka exclaimed, tucking herself close under Star's wing.
"Well-" Star stroked Strelka's back to give herself time. The honest answer was no. But it pained her conscience to say that she wanted to so badly she could taste it, not the least to get away from her annoying little brother and sister for a while. "When you graduate you'll go on missions too."
"But a whole year?" Strelka exclaimed.
"Bleeding forever," Zarya groused.
"Yeah, it's a long time," Star admitted. The tiny people acted as if a year wasn't anything major. By the time Star returned it would be one seventh of her entire life. That sure as damn felt like a long time. Maybe not literally forever, but... "I'm gonna miss you two," she added, realizing with a shock that she meant it.
"Yeah, right," Zarya growled. He drifted slightly farther away.
After a moment Star pulled Zarya to her with a tractor beam. He struggled but only in a token way as Star drew him under her wing and stroked him as she'd done when he and Strelka were babies. They weren't babies any more but Star knew he remembered, just as she remembered being stroked and cuddled by Kit. The seething colors of anger and resentment gradually faded from his skin, replaced by calm if not contentment.
Suddenly Zarya rolled, turning his belly toward Star's. He gripped her hands, stroking her belly and the underside of her wing. Star shivered; the touch of his fingers awoke sensations in her flesh that didn't seem appropriate for one to feel toward a little brother. No, he wasn't a baby. Neither was Star, for that matter. She caressed his belly because her slightly longer reach allowed her to move him away without completely breaking contact.
Star approached and matched orbits with a small star ship. "Small" being a relative term, of course; it measured two hundred seventy meters from stem to stern or somewhat less that four times Star's length. A thick strut connected the ship's boxy primary hull to a more cylindrical secondary one. Two warp pods, one on either side, attached to the end of short fins jutting horizontally from the secondary hull. A vertical fin supported a pod containing various sensors.
"I have to go now," Star said, gently pushing Strelka and Zarya away. "We'll be leaving soon." She spoke a command; the passenger module detached from her back and she fed it carefully into the ship's hangar bay. Star herself wouldn't fit so four enormous lugs had been welded to the top of the primary hull. Star gripped them with her strength limbs, like a bird on a perch.
"Star?" Zarya said suddenly.
"Just... come back, okay?"
"I will. I promise." Star stroked him gently with a manipulator. "Now you need to move back. The captain's shuttle is on its way."
"Bye," Strelka said, taking Zarya and gently leading him off.
"Bye," Star responded, waving. Strelka and Zarya waved back. Star worked her fingers on the lugs; this was the moment she'd waited for, worked for, almost for her entire life. But then why did she feel so sad? "Next time we'll go together," she said. "I promise."
"Good grief," May exclaimed as he stepped out of the passenger module into Sutherland's hangar deck. Stacks of crates and palettes full of supplies crammed every available square centimeter of deck space. Crew members with grav jacks and hover sleds came and went in a continuous stream, like ants, moving the stores to other parts of the ship.
"Welcome aboard the Sutherland, gentlebeings." a Voxxan woman in the uniform of a Starfleet lieutenant, with a red Command section color stripe, stepped forward. "I'm Lieutenant Shiuandi nal Veda, Executive Officer and Chief Science Officer." She saluted smartly but nevertheless smiled warmly.
May felt himself starting to gape and clenched his jaw shut. The lieutenant looked about the same age as Kit and Snowflake, which was to say in her late twenties. She might have been the same species as Ranthe and May, being clearly vulpinoid, but her pelt differed radically. Her base color seemed to be gray, the result of black guard hairs over a white undercoat. This color also covered her face and cheeks, with white on her chin and throat and light orange on the sides of her head and neck. Gray extended down the outsides of her upper arms and thighs, giving way to blended orange and white on her forearms, hands, calves, feet, and the front of her body. A black mane crowned her head, which she wore in a close cropped spacer's cut so as to fit easily inside the helmet of a space suit. On top of all that she was absolutely, heart-stoppingly, breathtakingly, drop dead gorgeous. She had a trim figure, like Ranthe's, and in the best possible way. Her snugly fit uniform covered every part of her except her head, hands, and feet but the shape of her incredible body seemed to blaze right through it. Because it seemed to be the safest thing to do under the circumstances May snapped to attention and returned her salute. Star Home wasn't a military organization but old habits died hard.
"Oh, no need to be so formal, Flying Officer Mayuandi," the lieutenant said. Her tail swished back and forth and the gleam of almost childlike excitement never left her eyes.
"Ah.. in that case would you mind just calling me May?" May asked hopefully. He wasn't Voxxan, for all that his name was, and he still felt a little strange using it in front of authentic Voxxans. "May" felt a lot more comfortable; it had been his nickname before he changed his official one.
"I appreciate the sentiment but I'm not sure it would be appropriate," the lieutenant replied. The twinkle in her eyes grew to almost a mad gleam, her tail swishing even harder. "I mean, we haven't even slept together yet."
Kit snorted and coughed several times. Nova cleared her throat repeatedly. Snowflake curled hir tail in a way Chakats frequently did to express mirth. Aurora's shoulders heaved, both hands clasped around hir muzzle. Ranthe seemed perfectly composed but she brought her tail around in front of her body and gripped it tightly with both hands.
"I, uh-" May gaped like a landed fish, belatedly recalling that in Voxxan societies only lovers or close family used familiar names. Not to mention that the lieutenant's teasing paralleled May's own thoughts rather too closely and he wasn't a particularly agile conversationalist even under the best of circumstances.
"It's all right," the lieutenant said gently, laying a hand on May's arm. "I'll call you May if that's what you prefer. But only if you call me Shiuandi." The gleam came back full force. "And you don't have to sleep with me if you don't want to." May wilted. The team broke down in hysterical laughter.
"If you insist on pulling his leg until it comes off at the hip I do hope you'll at least have the courtesy to stitch it back on," Ranthe rather pointedly commented.
"I'm sorry, May." Shiuandi looked appropriately contrite, except for her eyes. "I am incorrigible, aren't I?" Suddenly, like a switch being thrown, she became entirely businesslike. "Please follow me. I'll show you your quarters and introduce you to the department heads."
"So, May, you gonna take up her offer?" Aurora asked, scampering up beside him as Shiuandi led them through Sutherland's corridors. "Do a little plowing?" Shi bumped hir forequarters against his hips.
May grimaced. Chakat tended to be quite open about sexual matters. He'd spent his life in a more conservative environment and didn't feel comfortable discussing his love life- actual or potential- with a person almost young enough to be his granddaughter.
"Leave the old fogeys alone, embryo," Snowflake admonished, slapping Aurora with hir tail.
"Huh." Aurora made a face but complied, trotting up to walk beside Shiuandi.
"So are you going to take up her offer?" Ranthe inquired, arching an eyebrow.
May regarded Ranthe suspiciously. Her sudden interest in his sex life alarmed him. Once again the truth looked safe enough. "Absolutely not," he replied, keeping his voice low so Shiuandi wouldn't hear. "I don't choose to give her the chance to whet her glass-edged tongue on my tender psyche, thank you very much." He tweaked Ranthe's nose. "I get enough of that from you." Ranthe chuckled and gently nipped his cheek.
"Here are your rooms," Shiuandi announced. "I wish we could offer you better but what with the publicity this mission is generating everyone and their brother in law wants in. Kit and May here, Nova and Ranthe here, Snowflake and Aurora here." She indicated each door in turn.
"We are mated, you know," Snowflake pointed out, laying a hand on Kit's arm.
"I'm truly am sorry," Shiuandi apologized, and looked like she really meant it. "Only one of the rooms accommodates 'taurs." Her comm badge beeped; she tapped it. "XO here," she announced.
"Sir, the captain's gig is on its way," a voice reported.
"Acknowledged." Shiuandi tapped her badge again to deactivate it and nodded, though the bridge officer wouldn't see it. "It seems my duties are catching up to me. Now that you know where your rooms are I'll leave you in the wardroom. Lieutenant Takura can introduce you to the department heads." She led at a brisk pace, threading her way expertly though crowed passages. It helped that lower ranked crew members got out of her way but members of the civilian science staff frequently didn't.
The wardroom looked no different from the halls, in that a great many people occupied it. In addition, stacks of gear and supplies stood about and the people argued vociferously as well as scurrying past one another. "Lieutenant Takura!" Shiuandi bellowed. The babble died out for a moment as people turned to stare at her. A large figure pushed its way through the crowd.
May gulped. The figure wore a Starfleet uniform with a gold Security section color stripe but it was a bear. A huge, black one with a swarthy, hairless muzzle and enormous feet terminating in long, sharp, non-retractable claws that clicked loudly on the decking. Female, too: broad, heavy hips, powerful thighs, large breasts. Thick waist; not svelte like Nova though at least as muscular. May found himself struggling to remember what female bears were called until a more relevant datum came to mind: she must be a Renzarii, a species of ursinoids who made their name as merchants and diplomats, interestingly enough.
"Lieutenant, these are the Star Home people," Shiuandi said. "Introduce them to the department heads, show them around, get them settled in. I'll be on the bridge." Without waiting for a reply she spun on her heel and departed.
"Yes sir," Lieutenant Takura growled in the tone of someone who has a a great deal to say, much of it colorful or conspicuously off color, but is constrained by military discipline. She studied the team for a moment; her expression reminded May of that which might be seen on a person who turns over a rock and finds a nest of slimy, disgusting insects underneath. "Over here," Takura commanded brusquely, turning and pointing. "These are the department heads. Dr. Glen Sanders, planetology, Dr. Julius Eikenburg, internal medicine, Dr. Gerald Penassi, climatology, Dr. Lila Kenross, geology, Dr. Owen Sturges, botany, and Dr. Lendi Favisham, biology."
May tried to follow the introductions but Takura ran through them so quickly, and with such curt gestures, that he couldn't pick out the individuals- until his eyes slid across a pair the lieutenant hadn't introduced but who stood out because May did know them.
"Omigod!" Aurora exclaimed, hir expression horrified. "It's them!"
"I believe that's my line," one of the two May had noticed commented, stepping forward. She looked like a dog, specifically a springer spaniel. Pale, chocolate brown fur covered the visible parts of her body. A darker shade colored the tightly curled hair on her long, floppy ears.
"I understand you already know Ms. Renata Fayre of Chakona Network News," Takura put in. "And her cameraman, Mr. Kevin E. Dye."
Kevin also looked like a dog, a golden retriever in his case. He wore a servo camera strapped to his right shoulder, which he operated through a pistol grip controller in his right hand. A viewfinder reticule fit over his right eye like a patch.
"Is that the reporter Aurora bit?" May whispered to Nova.
"Yep," Nova replied.
"Oy." May stroked his chin. "I get the feeling this is gonna be a very interesting trip."
"To the ancient Chinese that's a curse, you know," Nova pointed out.
"Yes." May nodded. "As a matter of fact I did."
"Let's go back to our quarters and get settled in," Kit suggested. "We'll have two months to get acquainted." He laid a hand on May's arm. "Want to watch the departure with me?"
"Where from?" May inquired.
"Best seats in the house," Kit replied, grinning.
"When you said we'd have the best seats in the house I thought you meant we'd be on the bridge," May commented.
"Why settle for that when we could be here?" Kit replied.
"I suppose," May allowed. He glanced over his shoulder but the sides of his helmet restricted his peripheral vision. He rose and twisted his shoulders; then he could see the quarter full disk of Chakona, partially masked by the starboard side of Sutherland's secondary hull. It wouldn't be long now.
"Don't worry, I won't let anything happen to you," Star said.
"I'm sure you won't, darling." May settled back down. Sitting outside with Star while Sutherland jumped to hyper-space was a neat idea but the reality of it unsettled him. "I'm just a little nervous, that's all."
"Me too," Star admitted.
"You, Star?" May blinked. "You've done this lots of times."
"No," Star replied. "I mean- exercises, sure. But this is for real."
May smiled warmly. "Don't sweat it. In my experience the training's almost always harder."
"It is?" Star asked timidly.
"Yeah," May replied. "In the training you gotta learn everything. In real life most of the time you only use a part of what you were taught. That's no reason not to learn the rest of it," he added quickly. "Every so often life throws something really strange at you and you're glad you learned all that esoteric stuff."
Whatever Star meant to say in response vanished in a howl of interference. She crouched lower, her body only a few meters above Kit and May where they sat on the back of her hand. Kit gave thumbs's up; May returned it. The strip of space Mayfurr could see between Star and Sutherland began to shimmer faintly as the ship's warp field built up. Suddenly the entire universe stretched. He remembered once playing with a blob of toy putty. When he smeared it on a magazine it lifted an image from the page. Then he could deform the transferred image in interesting ways by stretching the putty. Now he knew how the image must have felt; stars streaked away ahead and behind and he seemed to be looking down an infinitely long tunnel as everything within his frame of reference stretched and stretched and stretched-
Without a boundary May's mind could easily define everything became normal again. Except for the sky, that is; Sutherland appeared to be floating in a cloud of pale, flickering light. At a casual glance it looked like a bubble only slightly larger than Sutherland itself. If one stared at it the subtly shifting almost-patterns seemed to recede without moving until one's mind became lost in infinity.
Something bumped May's shoulder. He blinked, then shied away from the mass looming over him. It was Star's finger; she'd released one of her hands from the rungs and poked him. On the scale of things that was like using a steam shovel to nudge someone awake. As he'd noticed before, though, Star's degree of fine control was incredible. He did wonder why she'd done it- until he glanced at his suit telltales and realized that he'd been sitting for about five minutes. He shook Kit, who gasped and started. "Let's get back inside before they send a search party for us," May said. Then, unaccountably, he laughed.
"What's up, May?" Kit asked.
"I just realized why I came out here with you," May replied. "It's because I knew Star would take care of me. Just like I knew she'd catch me at the airport." He waved. "Thanks, Star."
"I love you, May," Star replied.
Mayfurr couldn't speak. If not for the lack of gravity he would have stumbled. He'd never felt such complete, unconditional acceptance.
Not since Sundown.
For an instant a shadow of sorrow settled across May's mind. He wouldn't see Sundown again for a whole year... but he would see hir at the end of it. For the first time since they'd met May really felt like he and Sundown were coming together instead of drifting apart. His throat closed and tears welled up in his eyes from the intensity of his feelings.
"You all right, May?" Kit asked as he guided May into the airlock.
"Yes," May replied, his voice hoarse with emotion. Suddenly he threw his arms around Kit and hugged him fiercely. "I'm happy, Kit!" he shouted, jumping up and down excitedly. "My God, Kit, I'm really happy!" He threw back his head and howled.
Kit clapped May on the back and spun him around. When the inner door opened the two of them spilled out on the floor, hugging and slapping each other on the back, laughing and howling hysterically.
The suiting room attendant crossed her arms. "Men," she snorted, but she couldn't help smiling.