Harry Potter and the Chakat's Gift
by John R. Plunkett
"Good grief," Valjean Hugo exclaimed, pulling off his poncho and shaking his head. "Darkstar, is it legal for it to be raining this hard?"
"Consequences of a Maritime climate, I'm afraid," Darkstar replied. Through the bay window fronting the living room shi could see the porch, but the yard beyond it faded quickly into a seething grayness. The sound of raindrops on the roof was not merely a patter but a thunderous roar. "Like a cow pissing on a flat rock, as my daddy used to say," shi added.
"If you shake off in here I swear to God I'm gonna skin you alive, Javert!" Longstocking bellowed, bounding forward and gesturing threateningly with a rubber scraper coated with white frosting.
"Why, I wouldn't dream of doing any such thing," Javert Hugo replied with an air of injured innocence, surreptitiously straightening up and relaxing.
"Busssted," Aurora hissed as Longstocking herded the brothers into the laundry room.
"Bite me, rodent," Javert responded, shaking an admonitory finger. Aurora lunged, snapping at the finger, but Javert was too quick: he jerked the finger away and lightly bopped Aurora on the top of the head.
"Oh, let 'em be," said Theobald Aaron "Kit" Carson, gripping Aurora around the barrel and restraining hir from lunging at Javert. Aurora stuck out hir tongue; Javert responded in kind and thumbed his nose as well, hopping adroitly sideways as Aurora nipped at his flank. "Besides, we'll have time to get back at 'em later," Kit added. He scooped Aurora up, grunting with the effort. "Good grief, you're getting heavy," he commented as Aurora twisted around and gave him a hug.
"Shi sure is," Darkstar said fondly. Shi opened hir mouth to add something but thought better. It never ceased to amaze hir how far Aurora had come from the pitiful, bony, wasted little creature shi'd been not so very many years ago when Darkstar had first seen hir, but now didn't seem like an appropriate time to dredge up painful memories. "Well, since we're all here now, let's have a seat," shi said instead. "We have a lovely cake- chocolate with marshmallow frosting- plus lots of ice cream and fizzy punch. Oh, and everyone gets a party hat and a noisemaker." Shi handed one of each to Kit and Snowflake, who had stepped up to the table. The hats were paper cones decorated with brightly colored designs and having tinsel strips hanging from their points. An elastic band under the chin held them in place. The noisemakers were normally curled paper tubes that, when blown into, unrolled and made a squeaking sound. Kit tested his with a couple experimental toots, then tweaked Snowflake on the side of the head. Shi promptly responded in kind and the two of them fell into a furious duel.
"Calm down, we don't want to miss the roll out of the cake," Darkstar said, but only after letting the battle rage for a few minutes. "Longstocking's been working on it all week, so the least we can do is give it a proper reception."
"He started it," Snowflake protested.
"Did not," Kit responded.
"Did too!" Snowflake poked Kit in the ribs.
Kit let out a squeak and grabbed Snowflake's fingers; he was terribly ticklish. Quick as a wink Snowflake struck with hir other hand.
"Now, now, children, don't make me separate you," Darkstar warned, shaking an ice cream scooper.
"Sorry, Gramma," Kit replied, attempting to sound contrite and project an air of injured innocence and failing miserably at both. Snowflake snorted loudly.
The Hugo brothers emerged, more or less dried, followed by Longstocking. "Thank goodness that's over," Valjean sighed. Dry they might have been but Longstocking hadn't bothered to do any grooming; their fur stuck up in clumps all over their bodies, making them look more like hedgehogs than foxes.
Aurora jumped to hir feet, planting hir hands firmly on the table. "Did you bring it?" shi demanded as the brothers took their seats.
"Bring what?" Javert inquired.
"Don't you play games with me," Aurora snapped. "My present. Did you bring it?"
Javert and Valjean looked at one another. "What if I said we'd forgotten to order it?" Javert ventured.
"If that were true," Darkstar interjected smoothly, before Aurora could speak, "Then I'm afraid I'd have no recourse but to lock you two in hir bedroom until it arrives. Then shi can make you miserable instead of me."
Kit chuckled. That Valjean and Javert were having Aurora's eleventh birthday present shipped from Terra had been far and away the best known secret around Star home for months now. Since the one-way trip took approximately three weeks, no order could be expected to arrive on Chakona in less than six, and that didn't even count however long it would take the package to make its way through the mail at either end. Since the present was coming from the Hugo brothers' father, who lived in the wilds of New England Territory, that would most likely amount to a few weeks at least. And Aurora, Kit had no doubt, would be standing on Valjean and Javert's heads the entire time.
"Well?" Aurora crossed hir arms and glared. "Where is it?"
"Wouldn't you rather have some cake and ice cream first?" Valjean suggested hopefully. "I mean, if Longstocking put in all that work-"
"No stalling!" Aurora cut in.
"Certainly not," Snowflake put in. "They wouldn't even tell us what it was," shi added with exasperated look at Darkstar and Longstocking.
"Out with it," Darkstar said sternly. "If you'd confined yourself to teasing Aurora I would have been quite content to let hir suffer, but you trifle with me at your peril."
"Oh, all right," Javert said with a sigh of long-suffering. He unzipped his belt pouch and removed a small package. "You'd better appreciate this, runt," he glowered, unfolding Aurora's fingers and placing the package in hir hand.
"Thank you," Aurora said, then looked down. The package had been done up in red paper with a gold ribbon. It was small- hardly larger than hir palm- and thin. Everyone leaned forward as Aurora removed the ribbon and peeled off the paper... to reveal a sheet of folded parchment, hand-lettered in green ink.
"What's it say?" Snowflake demanded, excitedly.
"Just my name and address," Aurora replied. The folded paper was sealed with a blob of wax. Aurora broke it with a fork and unfolded the sheet. Inside was a data module, affixed with a label showing a heraldic shield. In the upper left hand quadrant a rampant lion against a red field faced, in the upper right hand quadrant, a snake against a green field. Below the lion, in the lower left hand quadrant, a badger against a yellow field looked over its shoulder at a golden eagle against a blue field, in the lower right hand quadrant. At the very center was a banner showing an ornately drawn capital H. Aurora studied the design for a moment then lay the module aside and looked at the parchment. More green lettering covered the inside.
"Read it to us, won't you please?" Longstocking prompted.
"Sure." Aurora's eyes flicked over the words. "It says.... 'Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Headmaster: Albus Dumbledore. Order of Merlin, First Class, Grand Sorcerer, Chief Warlock, Supreme Mugwump, International Confederation of Wizards. Dear Shir Aurora, we are pleased to inform you that you have been accepted at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Please see enclosed data unit for details. Yours sincerely, Minerva McGonagall, Deputy Headmistress.'"
"Hogwarts?" Longstocking blinked several times. "What in the world?" Shi looked piercingly at the Hugos.
"Let's find out!" Aurora exclaimed excitedly, scooping up the data unit. With it in one hand and the letter in the other shi dashed into the living room. The rest of the party followed along; Valjean and Javert paused to grab some ice cream before joining the rush.
Aurora loaded the data unit into the living room playmaster. The wall screen lit up, showing a pale blue evening cloudscape while a haunting melody played. A badge- the same device as on the data unit, but at higher resolution- emerged from the clouds and moved forward, taking a prominent place at the top of the screen. A banner just above it said 'Hogwarts;' one below read 'Draco Dormiens Nunquam Titilandus.' A menu appeared, with two columns: 'Year One' to 'Year Seven' on the left, and 'Potterpedia' and 'Muggle Studies' on the right. The music faded and a voice-over narration began: "Welcome, my friends, to the wonderful, magical world of Harry Potter. To hear the stories, select a year. To learn more about Harry's world, select 'Potterpedia'. Select 'Muggle Studies' if you'd like to know about the creation of the stores and their impact."
"Wait a minute," Snowflake exclaimed. "That sounds like-"
"Professor Chakra," Kit chimed in.
"It does indeed," Darkstar agreed, turning to face the Hugos. "However did you persuade him to do it?"
"Easy," Javert said smugly.
"We let him read the first book, then said we'd give him the rest if he did the voice acting for the menu system," Valjean concluded.
Aurora selected 'Year One.' It expanded to read 'Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone,' with sub-menus 'Text,' 'Audio Book,' and 'Film.'
"Who exactly is Harry Potter?" Longstocking wanted to know.
"The boy who lived," Valjean replied.
"Since we're all here, may I suggest the audio book?" Javert put in. "In our opinion, you really need to have the books down before going to the films."
"Just a minute," Longstocking cut in, just as Aurora was about to make the selection. "What is all this? Where did it come from?"
"You know our dad's curator of the Dixville Notch collection," Javert explained.
"Some time around 2030 or so a group of people decided to put together a collection of pop culture stuff from the 20th and 21st centuries," Valjean added. "They saw it as sort of a gigantic time capsule. When archeologists dig up old civilizations they only wind what the people thought was momentous and important, when what you really want to know about is the day to day stuff."
"Anyway, to make a long story short, it survived the Gene Wars," Javert chimed in. "Valjean and I spent hours and hours going through it. We found all this and gradually put it together into a collection."
"We had Dad send it to us and we cut it together into a nice, pretty package," Valjean picked up. "Seemed like just the thing for our little buddy's 11th birthday." He reached out to ruffle Aurora's mane; shi snapped at his fingers. "Too slow," he admonished, jerking his hand away and shaking his finger, then adroitly dodged a second time when shi lunged yet again.
"But what is it?" Longstocking asked.
"Harry Potter is a character from a series of seven fiction books written by Joanne Rowling, a Terran, between 1996 and 2007," Javert explained.
"But-" Longstocking protested.
"Why don't we let Harry explain in his own words?" Valjean suggested. "Aurora? Let us begin, if you please."
"Amen to that." Aurora touched the 'Audio Book' selection.
The menu screen shrunk down to a square in the lower left corner of the display. A velvet curtain, as on a stage, appeared; it opened to reveal an ornately printed title that read 'Chapter One: The Boy Who Lived.' Below it appeared an illustration of a baby in a bundle, with stars above.
"Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much," began a male voice with a British accent. "They were the last people you'd expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious..."
"But what about the cake?" Longstocking protested, weakly.
"It's Aurora's day, dearest," Darkstar whispered. "Let hir make it what shi will."
"Okay." Longstocking settled at Darkstar's side, gripping hir hand firmly.
Longstocking's cake, over which shi had labored for so long, wasn't even looked at until many hours later. Fortunately, by then no one cared. Not even Longstocking hirself.
"Time to get up!"
"Huh?" Aurora started, blinking. Shi'd fallen asleep in front of the playmaster. No surprise, really; since the afternoon of hir birthday party shi'd been in front of the playmaster nonstop: all evening, all night, through the next day, and into evening yet again, stopping only when forced by sheer necessity to visit the bathroom or when Longstocking dragged hir off to eat. Otherwise shi'd been completely immersed in the world of Harry Potter, switching between text, audio book, and film versions of each story, often with a screen open to the Potterpedia and Muggle Studies sections so shi could check background information. But some time during the afternoon or evening of the second day biology had exacted its toll; shi'd transitioned so smoothly into sleep shi hadn't even known that it happened. Shi couldn't even remember what shi'd been doing; whatever programs shi'd set up on the playmaster had completed, eventually returning to the main menu when Aurora failed to issue any further instructions. No matter; having slept shi now had another day ahead of hir. Shi rubbed hir face and looked up-
"Well, come on already," Hagrid said impatiently. "Can't be waiting around all day, can we?"
Aurora blinked. It was none other than Rubeus Hagrid, keeper of the keys and grounds of Hogwarts, as portrayed by Robbie Coltrane in the films. Except that the film Hagrid had been only around two and a half meters tall; this one was the proper size as described in the book, around three and two thirds meters. The living room of Darkstar's house had a reasonably high ceiling but even so he was comically bent over to fit under it. The famous pink umbrella was clasped casually in one hand; he leaned on it like a cane to reduce the strain on his back.
"Oh, happy birthday," Hagrid continued, cheerfully. "I brought yeh something I might'a sat on it, but it oughta be fine. Made it meself." He dug in the pocket of his greatcoat and came out with a box, tied with string.
Hesitantly, Aurora took it, untied the string, and opened the box. It contained a crudely shaped cake with pink frosting. Green letters mostly spelled "Happy Birthday Aurora." In places the frosting had stuck to the bottom of the lid, so portions of the message were obliterated, but enough remained to fill in the rest. While Aurora stared Hagrid produced a pocket knife, cut a slice of the cake, and offered it. Aurora took it automatically; it looked like the cake would have been rather crudely formed even before suffering transport in Hagrid's coat, but the flavor more than made up for any deficiencies in appearance. It was rich, moist chocolate with cherries- just what Aurora liked- and cherry flavored icing. Aurora hastily cut out another slice; it was, if anything, better than Longstocking's, and that was saying a lot.
Hagrid grinned happily while Aurora ate. "Good, huh? C'mon. You've got school supplies to get. Or you wanna stay here?" He turned, flashing a grin over his shoulder.
Aurora flew to hir feet. Someone had laid a blanket over hir; it fluttered to the floor, forgotten. "Let's go!" shi exclaimed, excitedly.
"Right this way." Hagrid hunched through the front door. Parked there was a motorcycle. It looked absurdly small as Hagrid mounted it and kicked the engine to life. "Hop up behind me," he directed.
Aurora leapt up, gripping the back of Hagrid's coat with hir claws, putting hir arms around his neck so shi could see over his shoulder. He revved the engine and popped the bike into gear. It took off with a spray of gravel from the drive and soared up, into the sky. Aurora shrieked with delight as the thick forests of the Silverlode Valley dropped away below; Hagrid banked into a broad, climbing turn and quickly ran up through the gears, until the wind tore at them. "Hang on!" he called as he cranked the throttle wide open.
Aurora laughed and shrieked. Shi let go of Hagrid's neck and waved hir arms, holding on with hir feet. Shi was flying. Not like in a shuttle or an aircraft but really flying, with the wind tearing at hir face and fur. The only experience in hir life even remotely like this was going walkies with Star, and Star's sheer size diminished the impact somewhat. Plus, Star shielded her passengers from slipstream and g-loading, which the flying motorcycle did not. Somehow, that made the experience even more viscerally real.
Afterward, Aurora couldn't have said how long the trip was. It seemed to take forever and an instant; first they were soaring through great cloud canyons painted with silvery moonlight, then Hagrid was throttling down, descending through the clouds and returning to earth. A brightly lit cityscape spread out below; a light drizzle made the air chilly and wet. Aurora huddled behind Hagrid's bulk, shivering slightly; shi was soaked to the skin, though shi'd completely failed to notice until just now. Every so often shi peeked out but couldn't identify any obvious target even as the glowing nighttime cityscape loomed ever closer. Hagrid maintained his descent as precisely as an airline pilot riding an ILS glide slope, but the endpoint of his path seemed to be a solid block of buildings. At what seemed like the last possible second, or possibly after, he hauled back and hit the brakes. The bike squealed to a halt in midair and dropped about four stories straight down, bouncing on its suspension as it hit a street that Aurora was absolutely certain hadn't been there before.
"Where-" Aurora began. But it could only be one place.
"Diagon Alley, naturally," Hagrid declared cheerfully, shutting off the bike and propping it on its kickstand. He pulled off his driving goggles and popped them in a pocket. "Where else ya gonna get yer school supplies? But let's have a sit in the Cauldron and warm up." He breezed through a brick archway and into a smoky, fire-lit room.
It was clearly a tavern. The floors and walls were all of age-darkened wood, with an open truss ceiling. Long, heavy tables filled the room, with people sitting at them drinking, smoking, reading, or some combination of all three. "Hey, Tom!" Hagrid called, waving and taking a seat near the enormous stone fireplace. "A couple butterbeers, won't'cha?"
"Righto." Tom grabbed a couple tankards and filled them from the taps. The drink, when Aurora's was deposited in front of hir, had a frothy head, like stout; shi sipped, then took a long drink. It had a rich, vibrant flavor, like spiced cider, but was also carbonated. It did not appear to contain alcohol- Aurora knew the taste- but it nevertheless filled hir with a satisfying warmth that instantly banished the chill of the trip. Aurora finished it quickly, licking the foam from the rim if the tankard, then let out a surprisingly loud belch.
Sorry," Aurora said, covering hir mouth, but couldn't help giggling.
"Better out than in, I always say," Hagrid responded with a grin, then let out a tremendous burp that Aurora swore rattled the windows in their frames. "Ready to go shopping?" he asked.
"Too right!" Aurora responded, practically hopping with excitement.
"What'cha wanna get first?" Hagrid asked. "Robes, books, cauldron, familiar-"
"Wand!" Aurora cut in. "I wanna get a wand!"
"Ollivander's it is," Hagrid agreed amicably, rising to his feet. On the way out he tossed Tom a few coins. Tom tipped his cap. "See you soon," Hagrid added.
It was still dark but dawn's glow was lighting the sky as Aurora and Hagrid left the Leaky Cauldron and returned to Diagon Alley. Nevertheless, there were a few people out and about. Some of them, Aurora had to say, looked rather shifty, but none of those seemed inclined to make trouble with Hagrid, and mostly slipped away, trying not to attract notice. Aurora paid no mind; shi only had eyes for the shops themselves and the amazing things within. There was Quality Quiddich Supplies, with a Firebolt on display in the window. Then Eyelop's Owl Emporium; not yet open but the owls were already up, their eyes glinting in the half light as they watched the newcomers pass by. Flourish & Blotts Bookstore, with several copies of Magical Me by Gilderoy Lockheart prominently on display. The Gilderoy on the dust cover of the first copy was smiling and waving as Aurora passed, but the second had been caught napping; he hastily put his curling iron away and waved, but his hair looked funny, half in ringlets and half loose. Next up were Madam Malkin's Robes for All occasions and Florean Fortescue's Ice Cream Parlor. And then-
"You don't wanna go down there," Hagrid warned. "It's a nasty sort that hangs out down there, believe you me."
A side street led off to the left. A street sigh read Knockturn Alley. But Aurora spared it only a glance; hir attention was focused to the right, on the imposing facade of Gringott's Bank. As shi watched a tiny goblin with enormous ears waddled up to the front doors and unlocked them with an enormous brass key.
"Here we are," Hagrid declared.
There it was. A tiny little place, stuck in between two other shops as if an afterthought: Ollivander's, Makers of Fine Wands since 382 BC.
"Go on," Hagrid prompted, giving Aurora a gentle push. "I'll be at the Magical Menagerie."
"I want a bat," Aurora exclaimed suddenly.
"A bat?" Hagrid looked surprised. "But-"
A bat," Aurora repeated. "The biggest one you can find."
"Okay," Hagrid agreed. "No rush. You go get your wand and I'll meet you." He clapped Aurora on the shoulder and ambled off.
Aurora stood a moment. Ollivander's didn't look open for business but the door wasn't locked. Aurora stepped into a narrow, dusty room with walls lined from floor to ceiling with shelves, all of which were stacked with long narrow boxes.
"Hello there!" A voice exclaimed suddenly, causing Aurora to start. A wizened old man hurried from the back, smiling brightly, hands clasped together. "Welcome, my dear," he said, taking Aurora's hand and patting it. Then he examined it closely, studying the lines on hir palm. "Ah, I know just the one," he declared, moving to the shelves and picking through them. He pulled out a box, opened it, and removed a wand: a slender shaft of wood with an ornate, carved handle. "Nine and three quarters inches, cherry wood, with a unicorn hair core. Give it a wave, my dear." He placed it in Aurora's hand.
Aurora gave the wand a wave but shi knew beforehand that it wasn't the one; it was just a stick of wood. Nothing happened.
"Hmm..." Mr. Ollivander thought a moment, then selected another wand.
"No," Aurora said, even before Mr. Ollivander had opened the box. "Let me see..." Shi walked along the shelves, then stopped. "That one." Shi pointed. Shi didn't know how shi knew but shi did, as surely as shi knew hir own name.
Mr. Ollivander seemed mildly amused. "Very well then. Let's see, shall we?" He took down the indicated wand. "Fourteen and seven eights inches, ash, with a dragon heartstring core. Taken from a particularly fierce Romanian Longhorn." He removed the wand from its box and placed it reverently in Aurora's hand.
As soon as hir fingers touched the polished wood Aurora knew. A warm, golden feeling suffused hir, like when Gramma and Longstocking hugged hir at the same time. Shi raised the wand and waved it in great swooping arcs. A bright white light sprang from the wand's tip, leaving trails of silver sparks in the air. Mr Ollivander chuckled indulgently but Aurora hardly noticed. Shi was completely lost in the wonder of the moment. Shi could feel the power flowing through hir, concentrating in hir hand and spurting from the wand's tip like water from a hose. The sparks changed to little pinwheels and firecrackers that popped faintly.
Mr Ollivander said something. "I'm sorry?" Aurora asked, realizing suddenly that the remark had been directed at hir. But when Mr. Ollivander repeated the question Aurora couldn't hear. Shi couldn't even see him; he and the shop had vanished behind a cloud of sparkles and little comets. Aurora turned back and forth a couple times, seeking him... then let out a gasp of horror. Hir wand! It was gone. Hir hand clasped but shi couldn't feel the wood anymore. Shi must have dropped it, or put it down, or something. Shi looked around but couldn't see it. As shi cast desperately about the air seemed to thicken; hir motions slowed to a crawl as if shi were mired in tar. Shi tried to cry out, to ask, to speak, but shi could make any sound; hir mouth wouldn't move. Hir arms were trapped at hir sides; they didn't seem to be restrained but shi couldn't move them. With a Herculean effort shi fought off the strange paralysis and opened hir mouth-
Longstocking leapt back with a yelp as Aurora surged to hir feet, looking around quickly with a wild, desperate light in hir eyes. It was morning; sunlight streamed in through the windows. Aurora found hirself in the living room at Gramma's house, still partially covered by the blanket Longstocking had laid over hir the previous evening. Aurora's hand clenched painfully but there was no wand. It had all been a dream. Just a dream...
With a wail of despair Aurora slapped Longstocking's hand away, rushed to hir bedroom, and slammed the door. Hir sobs echoed faintly through the panel.
Longstocking stood, rooted to the spot, staring in shock, hir hand extended. Many time shi tried to move, tried to speak, but the enormity of it all left hir utterly paralyzed, hir mind rushing in circles. When Darkstar came padding out Longstocking whirled. "What the Hell?" Shi snapped. "I just- and shi-" Longstocking gesticulated vaguely.
Darkstar caught Longstocking's hands and held them, gently but firmly. "There was a time, not long after the Quezon City accident, when I was laying in by room, napping, because I'd worked myself practically to death. suddenly, in walks Momma. Shi gave me a hug and a kiss and said shi was terribly sorry shi'd missed my promotion and shi'd come just as soon as shi could. I rushed into hir arms and shi held me, cooing softly and stroking my head while I bawled like a baby. And then..." Darkstar gazed off into the distance. "Then the ship's doctor woke me up. He was worried that I'd been working so hard." Again Darkstar gazed off into some other time and place. "The surgeons did an amazing job. They stitched his face back on so well you couldn't even tell, except for a nasty scar under the right side of his chin. He refused to let charges be brought against me, on the condition that I went for counseling."
For a long time Longstocking couldn't speak. "But-" shi protested. "It isn't real, Darkstar! It's just a story, no matter how good it is!"
"Aurora's mother raised hir like an animal, leaving food and water for hir in bowls and beating hir to keep hir quiet," Darkstar replied. "Is it any wonder that shi feels akin to Harry, discovering suddenly that there's a place where the qualities that set him apart are valued and treasured? That there are people who love and cherish him?"
"But shi is loved and cherished," Longstocking whispered in a quavering voice, tears streaming down hir cheeks. "Shi is valued and treasured."
"Shi knows," Darkstar insisted, giving Longstocking's hands a gentle squeeze. "But when something you want more than anything you've ever wanted in your entire life is snatched away... that hurts, and shi's at an age where such things are keenly felt. Shi'll need hir momma to comfort hir." Darkstar stepped backwards, drawing Longstocking with hir. At the door to Aurora's room Darkstar pushed it open with one hand, holding Longstocking's with the other. Inside, Aurora lay on hir bed, face buried in hir pillow, sobbing piteously. Darkstar gave Longstocking a push; hesitantly at first, then with growing conviction, Longstocking moved up. Without a word shi settled onto the bed, hir fore-shoulder pressed against Aurora's flank, and started stroking Aurora's head. Aurora stirred but didn't resist. After a moment shi put hir arms around Longstocking's waist.
Darkstar smiled. Shi couldn't see; shi was blinded by hir own tears. Shi stood a moment, the walked to the bed and settled opposite Longstocking, with an arm around each of the two people shi loved and cherished more than anyone or anything else, even hir own life.
Valjean lay on the floor, his lower body supine and his torso erect, a data unit laying across his forepaws. "Good grief," he muttered. "I never thought I'd say this, but I miss the good old days when they gave you homework and at least told you what the problem was."
"Consequence of running with the big dogs, I'm afraid," Kit commented. He lay sprawled in a chair, studying a data unit propped on his knee, idly nibbling on the tip of a stylus. "At this level, the purpose of the assignment is to find out what the problem is."
With a sigh Valjean threw his head back, rolling it around on his neck to loosen the muscles. "If this is what being a good student means, I'm not sure it's worth it," he sighed. "Life was so much easier as a wastrel."
"You mean you aren't?" Kit asked, looking up in poorly feigned surprised.
"We know where you live, smartass," Javert put in tartly. Kit chuckled.
Valjean picked up another slice of pizza. It was, far and away, the worst he'd ever eaten. But it was cheap and plentiful, which mattered far more than quality in carrying one through a long study session. An advantage of being young, with a physique like a lion and a constitution like an ox, was that he could eat garbage and keep an obscene schedule without suffering any ill effects. Or, at least, not knowing or caring what ill effects he might be suffering.
A ping broke the silence. Valjean unzipped his belt pouch and fished out his communicator, which he flipped open and brought to his face "Y'lo?"
"Hey," Star said. Her voice sounded exactly like Aurora's; in most cases even Valjean had trouble telling them apart but he could see Aurora sitting on the other side of the wardroom, and in any case the comm showed the source of the call as Star's alias. "You busy?"
Valjean glanced down at the data unit. "Yeah, but it's not like that means much around here. S'up?"
"I'm worried about Aurora. Shi's stopped coming to the Quiddich planning meetings."
"Hmm." Valjean rubbed his chin. Since Aurora's 11th birthday Harry Potter's influence had swept through Star Home like a virulent disease. The most visible effect was an explosion of knitted scarves: red and gold mostly, but plenty of green and silver, with the occasional black and yellow or blue and bronze. Robes had made a brief appearance but they really weren't safe or practical in a space habitat, so instead people exchanged their ordinarily blue or orange jump suits for ones in the same colors as the scarves. Of those, no small number had added a house badge in addition to the Star Home mission patch. Judging by the colors, Valjean estimated Star Home's resident population to be about one third Gryffindor, with a slightly smaller fraction as Slytherin. The Hufflepuffs and Ravenclaws were not nearly so numerous but made up for it in dedication to their roles. The walls of several main corridors were plastered with hundreds of artfully framed data units showing what looked like still pictures but were, when examined, found to be animated scenes. Most were very crude; no more than looped video of a posed scene. The best were sophisticated AI programs that could actually interact with passers by. Prizes were handed out based on how well a given entry simulated the look and feel of an actual painting while presenting the most entertaining interactive content. Valjean and Javert had taken the grand prize by developing a series of units, networked together so that characters could not only leave their home frames but interact with those on the frames they visited.
Of it all, the project which had most effectively and persistently captured Star Home's collected imagination was developing a way to play Quidditch. In the books, the game was played by people riding flying broomsticks. Some modest successes had been achieved in developing a personal repulsorlift unit but it couldn't be made to have sufficient performance while remaining small enough to be considered personal, and in nay case Star refused to endorse any solution that didn't allow her, Strelka, and Zarya to play. The current favorite was for somehow adapting the project's Windstorm interceptors. A subcommittee worked on developing quaffles, bludgers, and golden snitches that could both survive the rigors of play and demonstrate appropriate behavior. One of the prototype bludgers was now the kids' favorite toy for taking along on walkies and the Chakonan Defense Force had commissioned several for use as gunnery practice targets.
In short, Quidditch had become the defining characteristic of the Pottermania that swept Star Home. And Aurora, due to hir diligent study, was considered as the premier expert on all things Potter. If shi'd stopped coming to the meetings-
"It's like shi's just going through the motions," Star added. "Shi isn't really enjoying it."
"That's not good," Kit commented, looking up from his work. He glanced to his left but couldn't see Aurora without obviously turning his head.
"No, it isn't," Javert put in. He cast a questioning glance at Valjean, his twin brother.
As always, Kit tried to follow the exchange. He could see Valjean's and Javert's faces display a rapid sequence of expressions, as if they were holding a lengthy discussion, but without taking the time to say the actual words. The brothers were not, so far as anyone knew, telepathic, but at times their thought processes were so perfectly in sync that they might almost have been a single mind with two bodies. As a result of their non-verbal discussion they both got up and padded over in Aurora's direction. Kit spun his chair around so he could watch, while ostensibly remaining focused upon his work.
"Hey, squirt," Javert said, peering over Aurora's shoulder. "What'cha doing?"
"Trig," Valjean amplified, peering over the other shoulder. "Ah, that brings back memories."
"sine, cosine-" Javert continued, with an air of fond reminiscence.
"Isn't that what you do when you're getting a loan?" Valjean put in.
"Oh, it's nothing, really," Aurora said. Since it was Valjean and Javert, shi didn't feel obligated to cover up the doodles shi'd drawn on hir scratch paper instead of working the assigned problems.
"Nothing?" Javert recoiled in shock. "I'll have you know I still have nightmares about inverse cotangents coming to torture me in my sleep."
"Trigonometry is an ancient torture technique invited by sadistic educators in order to make students' heads explode," Valjean declared. He plucked Aurora up in his arms, rolled onto his back, and balanced Aurora on his four upthrust feet. From there he bounced hir up and down and spun hir around, but while shi endured the treatment gracefully shi clearly didn't derive any particular pleasure from it.
"What's up, kiddo?" Javert inquired, laying down adjacent to his brother. He and Valjean passed Aurora back and forth. "Don't you like our present?
"Well..." Aurora rolled onto hir back, reclining on Valjean's and Javert's upturned paws as if they were a bed. The brothers automatically shifted their feet for best support. With very few exceptions Aurora had a deep-seated distrust of adults; even Kit showed what Aurora would call disturbingly mature behavior. Valjean and Javert, on the other hand, could be counted on to be faithfully and unswervingly juvenile in all matters. As such it was safe to tell them things that would cause all sorts of trouble if it found its way to more emotionally mature ears. "It's great," shi said. "I love the stories. They're wonderful. And it's way cool to see everything. Just yesterday I saw one of your animated portraits flipping the bird at Dr. Stannus behind his back." Shi giggled.
"We're especially proud of that one," Valjean said. "We trained 'em to recognize the right sort of people."
"Then why aren't you happy?" Javert asked. "When we found the original books we did just what you did: we stayed up reading until we passed out and fell over. Harry Potter was even better than eating bugs."
For a time Aurora didn't speak. Then shi made hir decision. If anyone would understand it was Valjean and Javert, whom since reading the books shi'd dubbed Fred and George. "I had a dream," shi said. "Hagrid came and picked me up. He took me to Diagon alley. We had butterbeers at the Leaky Cauldron, then he sent me to Ollivander's." Hir voice caught; it had been weeks and weeks but it still hurt to think about. "He gave me a wand," shi whispered, barely audibly. "Fourteen and seven eights inches, ash, with a dragon heartstring core." Aurora turned over, staring intently down at the brothers' faces. "It was real," shi insisted. "As real as here and now. For just a bit I was a wizard. A real wizard. Then..." shi seemed to deflate, slumping like a sack of wet socks. "Then I woke up."
"I know how it is," Javert said seriously. "Once I impressed a fire lizard. Then fathead here woke me up." He elbowed Valjean in the ribs.
"I'm sorry and all, but the Wicked Witch of the West was trying to make me put on a gingham dress and drink tea with her," Valjean responded. "I wanted to wake up."
"Focus," Javert commanded, grabbing Valjean's muzzle. "What're we gonna do? Our little buddy's in a world of hurt."
Valjean glanced at Javert, then Aurora, then back to Javert. "Duh," he said. "We gotta find hir wand."
"You can?" Aurora exclaimed, scrambling to hir feet. Only some fancy footwork on Valjean and Javert's part kept hir from tumbling to the floor.
"Hsh!" Javert hissed. "We gotta pull in favors, y'see? Can't make no promises. Keep it under your hat, capiche? Not a word to nobody. Swear?"
"Swear!" Aurora declared, crossing hir heart.
"Good kid." Javert shook Aurora's right forepaw. "Now tell us about this Trig stuff. I'm sure I studied it but the experience was so horrible I must have blocked it out."
"Hey," Snowflake said. Kit started violently, throwing his data unit to the floor. He'd been watching Aurora and the Hugos so intently he hadn't noticed Snowflake's approach, even though shi ended up right beside him. "Good grief," shi exclaimed. "You been drinking too much coffee?"
"Naw." Kit picked up the data unit and inspected it for damage, then pointed. "Look."
"I've been," Snow agreed. While shi watched Valjean squinted at Aurora's paper, then asked a question. Snow couldn't make out the words but it made Aurora exclaim in exasperation and smack Valjean in the side of the head with the textbook. Then shi flipped to a particular passage and started explaining it to him in baby talk. "What did they do?" Snowflake asked.
"Dunno," Kit replied. "They talked, but I didn't hear. Now Aurora's trying to teach them trigonometry."
"I pity hir," Snowflake put in.
"Amen to that," Kit replied. He took Snowflake's hand and squeezed it firmly. Then he gave silent thanks to the Odd Gods of the Galaxy for whatever it was the brothers had said, because Aurora was now acting like hirself again when Kit had despaired of anything working.
"Hey Star, how are the broom trials going?" Aurora asked as shi closed the seals on hir pressure suit.
The Windstorms are still leading the pack," Star replied, her voice coming from speakers in the changing room. "The Comet two-sixty put in a good showing but the guidance is still wonky; they have to tear it down after every flight."
"What about the Firebolt?" Javert inquired, also in the process of sealing his suit.
"Spectacular," Star replied. "Energizer blew during the agility test."
"Ouch," Javert commented, "That's gonna set 'em back a ways."
"Too right," Star agreed. "A pity, too. It was doing great right up to the point where it exploded."
To Be Continued