No Greater Love
by John R. Plunkett
The Launch Pad Saloon overlooked Dreamstar Station's main passenger concourse. Mayfurr liked going there after returning from a patrol; watching the people and listening to the sounds gave him much needed stimulation after what was, most of the time, several hours of utter boredom. If it wasn't... well, then he needed the release even more.
"Thought I'd find you here," a voice said. The chair across from May drew out and someone settled into it.
Mayfurr, his chin propped on his fist, shifted only his eyes. He saw a fellow about his own age, lean and fit but not particularly muscular. Though humanoid he was not human; golden yellow fur decorated with orange spots covered his body and a feline head rested upon his shoulders. Pointed ears protruded through his lighter yellow, neatly trimmed mane; his startlingly blue eyes looked out through a pair of square lensed glasses. As he sat a long, slender tail flipped around into his lap. His clothing consisted of dark blue sneakers, jeans secured by a black belt, a fatigue jacket with dun colored desert camouflage, and a white tee shirt with a black and white yin-yang symbol on the chest. A stylized tiger and dragon flanked the symbol on the right and left respectively. "Hello, Lindgold," May said.
"Where's your other half?" Lindgold inquired, keying his drink selection into the ordering pad.
Maybe I should ask you that, May wanted to say. It bothered him that Lindgold's question bothered him. He and Ranthe were only co-workers. Crew mates. Nothing more. Weren't they? "She's out shopping," May said.
Lindgold studied Mayfurr for a moment, idly stroking his whiskers. Like Lindgold May looked fundamentally humanoid but not human. Fur covered May's body, ruddy orange except for a white patch running from chin to crotch and black stockings on his forearms, hands, calves, and feet. His head looked fox-like, with a slender muzzle and sharply pointed, black backed ears. A short, neatly trimmed, rusty brown mane decorated his crown and a voluminous tail with a white tip sprouted from the base of his spine. He wore a white tank top, brown aviator's pants, and a somewhat battered, black leather flying jacket. A patch on the jacket's right sleeve proclaimed its owner to be a member of Beta Squadron, though May hadn't been for a while now. Is he edgy about me dating Ranthe or is he still upset about me being an ex-Imperial? Lindgold wondered. He found Ranthe to be a charming, pretty, and affable companion. He knew that the relationship created tension between him and May though May denied any involvement with Ranthe. Lindgold supposed that if he were really serious about being friends with May he should break off with Ranthe but after deserting the Imperial military he'd lived alone- and under suspicion- for far too long. Ranthe's offer of companionship- and acceptance- compelled him in a way he couldn't resist. "What's happening down there?" he asked, in an effort to steer the conversation back into safer territory.
Mayfurr looked over the railing, down into the concourse. People of various species straggled in long lines straggled through the arrival gates. They looked ragged and haggard, most of them carrying bulky cases, boxes, and bundles. They didn't look like the sort who usually came to Dreamstar Station, and certainly not in these numbers. "Refugees from Nekar," May said. "Apparently the Empire's stepped up its efforts there."
"May, that's why I left," Lindgold said. "I didn't want to be party to that."
"I suppose watching it happen to your own planet puts a different color on it," May commented, raising his glass and taking a drink.
"Yes," Lindgold agreed. "It does."
May stared at the lines of people. "I'm sorry, Lind," he finally said. "I'm just- Sundown's gone and shi's gonna be away for a long time."
A serving 'droid brought Lindgold's drink and processed his credit chit. Instead of starting on it right away Lindgold rolled the glass between his palms. Now he felt even more guilty about Ranthe. May wasn't exactly a social butterfly; them both being loners was, paradoxically, one of the reasons May and Lind ended up gravitating together. "But shi'll be back, won't shi?" Lind ventured.
"Eventually," May replied. "Then shi'll be going back to Chakona. That's three months one way and no telling how long shi'll have to stay." Not to mention that shi has a lover waiting back there, one shi's known a lot longer than me. However he thought about it the situation looked bleak. Sundown represented the only time in his life May had experienced what he would call real love. But their meeting had been a fluke, God tossing His dice and coming up eleven. After that tumultuous first encounter, and three glorious months on board the Isaac Asimov, May and Sundown's orbits seemed to be drifting apart. Try as he might May couldn't imagine a happy resolution. It seemed terribly unfair that he discovered love and companionship only to have it float out of his grasp. But typical of his life, really.
"Baby," Lindgold breathed, his eyes focused on a group just now coming through the gates.
"Hmm?" May searched the gates, trying to locate what had polarized Lindgold's attention. He found it quickly.
A woman stepped out of the gate. She stood out from the refugees because she didn't look worn. She wore a gray, open necked blazer, a matching tube skirt, and a white blouse. Silky black hair coated her hypnotically curved, athletically muscular body. The way she walked should have been illegal for fear of potentially lethal effects it could have on male cardiovascular systems. Her head looked horse-like with a spiraled, mother of pearl colored horn jutting from her forehead. Black wings folded at her back made her seem bulkier than she was. Even in the noise of the concourse May could pick out the tak-tak of her cloven hooves on the decking. A tail with a tufted tip, more like a lion's than a horse's, flicked behind her.
"Now that one I shouldn't mind getting to know," May commented.
Lind pursed his lips. "I'd be careful around her. Get fresh and she might just break you in half."
May looked quizzically at his companion.
Lind frowned. The woman was an expert in hand to hand combat. To Lindgold, who knew something of it himself, her training and skill seemed to shine out of her like an aura. But it wasn't something he could easily explain. It was the summation of so many small things: the way she walked, the interplay of her muscles, how her eyes moved, and much, much more. "Suffice it to say she probably knows more ways to kill you with her little finger than you've got hairs on your tail," Lind concluded.
May shrugged, his eyes never leaving the woman. "Surely even death on two legs has to let her hair down sometime."
Lind nodded. Not because he agreed with May's conclusion but because the woman was death on two legs, however one looked at it.
As she handed her ID card to the customs officer Natsumi let her gaze wander. She didn't really see much; she watched the lines of probability, letting the Force guide her attention. When her eye fell upon a pair of men sitting at a table overlooking the concourse she studied them very closely, especially the one on the left, who resembled a feline. As with the Twi'lek on the High Port there was something about that particular fellow-
A shrilling alarm broke Natsumi's concentration. She spun around; Kathryn had just stepped into the entryway, carrying a single small suitcase. The alarm came from the doorway itself; rods snapped out, trapping Kathryn in the narrow chute. Natsumi tensed as half a dozen guards rushed forward, drawing their weapons. Her lightsabers were packed but that didn't mean she couldn't kill four of the guards nearest to her before the first body hit the floor.
"Sir!" one of the guards shrilled in a voice an octave higher than normal. "She's a Borg!"
Natsumi dove between two guards and spun to face them, arms outflung to block their line of fire. "Yes, Kathryn's a cyborg," she said tensely. "She's also my friend. If you don't like either of those things we'll leave. If you take issue with it... well, you'd better expect it to be costly."
The six guards wore body armor and carried blasters. Natsumi's hands were empty and she wore only her suit. The guards looked frightened. She didn't. The standoff continued until another group of guards jogged up.
"What's going on here?" The speaker stepped forward, though the newly arrived group. She resembled a lithe, powerfully built panther, and wore a uniform instead of body armor.
"S- she's a Borg, sir!" the guard who had originally spoken stammered.
"Well, I don't see her trying to assimilate anyone and it seems one individual hardly constitutes and invasion," the woman observed. "Where'd she come from?"
"Off the refugee transport from Nekar."
"Upon which she apparently managed to travel without incident," the woman pointed out. "Stand down. I don't think we're in any immediate danger."
Reluctantly the guards lowered their weapons and stepped back. The woman moved forward, coming face to face with Natsumi. "You don't look like a Borg," she said. "Would you kindly step aside and let me see what the security gate has captured?" For a long moment Natsumi and the woman locked gazes. In the end Natsumi stepped aside.
Kathryn wore a grey coat and tube skirt similar to Natsumi's but with a closed collar shirt and a Navy blue tie. Since the barriers had trapped her she hadn't so much as blinked. Now she studied the woman facing her.
"I've never seen a Borg wearing a suit before," the woman declared. "May I see your ID, ma'am?"
Without releasing her suitcase Kathryn drew a card from her pocket and handed it through the bars. The woman inspected it. "You lived on Nekar all your life?"
"No," Kathryn replied. "I was born on Renlass. I don't know where my cyberware came from originally. Imperial scientists installed it- without my knowledge or consent- after an accident damaged my brain and left me in a coma."
The panther woman took a scanner offered by one of the guards and studied its display. "I hope you won't mind if we run some tests, Ms. Nebulart?"
"Of course not," Kathryn replied. "I can't imagine anything you might do being worse than what the ISB would if they caught me."
The woman smiled faintly. "We aren't like that. What with the Borg, the Empire, the Kilrath'i- and others-" She decided suddenly not to list them- "We have to be careful. But we try not to be cruel if it isn't absolutely necessary. Retract the cage." The bars pinning Kathryn snapped back into the walls. "Welcome to Dreamstar Station, Ms. Nebulart. I'm Sascha, Chief of Security for the first watch. If you'll come with me I think we can get this resolved quickly."
Kathryn fell in behind Sascha, case in hand. Natsumi walked beside her, glaring the guards as if daring them to argue. None of them did, but they formed a cordon around the group as they left the concourse.
The room, generally hex-shaped and containing several long, low tables with cushioned tops, did in fact look more like an infirmary than a prison cell but nevertheless the doors wouldn't open when Natsumi approached them. She turned away, pacing across the room and back. "This is a revolting development," she grumbled.
"It does seem that fitting in here might be harder than we thought," Kathryn replied. She sat on the edge of a table, watching Natsumi go back and forth. "But at the moment our choices are to do that, go back to the Empire, or wander off into unknown space."
"Sit down," Kathryn ordered, gently but firmly. "I see no reason to doubt Chief Sascha's word. I expect someone will be along to interview us presently."
Moments later a door opened and someone entered. She seemed to be some type of felinoid; she wore a dark green dress with an ankle length skirt and a brown cloak, all of which contrasted sharply with her dazzlingly white fur and shoulder length mane. "Greetings," she said in a voice that didn't seem loud but nevertheless carried clearly. "My name is Artania. I am the station's Director of Operations. I will now conduct a brief examination. Ms. Nebulart, please disrobe."
With Natsumi hovering nervously nearby Kathryn shed her clothing, carefully folding each item and laying it on the table. Artania watched with smoke gray eyes that revealed absolutely nothing.
"Up here, please." Artania patted another table. Kathryn climbed up and lay on her back. Artania held her hand just above Kathryn's belly button. Suddenly the fur, skin, and nails on Artania's hand melted away, turning shiny and metallic but also fluid, like mercury. Her fingers split apart into dozens of fine wires that fanned out and touched points all over the front of Kathryn's body. For about a minute nothing happened, then the wires retracted and Artania's hand resumed the appearance of flesh and fur. "It seems that you were injected with modified Borg nanoprobes," she reported. "Do you have any idea where the Empire obtained them?"
"No." Kathryn shook her head. "I'd never heard of the Borg before today. All I know is that apparently I was the only success out of a great many trials."
"I did not observe in you any of the structures I've seen in Borg drones that would allow the Collective to control or influence you," Artania continued. "Nor did I find any that would allow you to inject nanoprobes into an unwilling- or even willing- subject. Therefore I will report to Administrator Snortenheimer and Chief Sascha that your being a Borg does not, in itself, constitute a risk to the station. There is a compulsory debriefing for all Imperial refugees but other than that I see no reason to detain you."
Kathryn nodded. "I understand. And I thank you."
"For what?" Artania inquired.
"For being tolerant," Kathryn replied as she pulled on her clothes. "The Empire would have jailed and tortured us simply as a matter of course."
"We aren't like that," Artania replied.
"And you may rest assured that Natsumi and myself are immensely thankful for it," Kathryn said, with feeling.
"How was your interview?" Kathryn inquired as she and Natsumi left the processing center.
"A right pain in the ass," Natsumi replied.
"Good," Kathryn pronounced. Her own interview- a polite word for interrogation- hadn't exactly been a snap but she didn't feel unduly taxed by it either. Her cybernetic blood filters neutralized truth drugs as well as intoxicants; her cybernetic brain not only gave her perfect recall, it allowed her to control her physiological reactions well enough to fool human questioners and most lie detectors. That, combined with an extensive knowledge of interrogation techniques, allowed her to flawlessly adhere to any arbitrary cover story she desired. Better than flawlessly, in fact, because she could inject just the right amount of "slop" into her responses: enough to make them convincing but not so much as to be suspicious. Far more skilled- and ruthless- interrogators that this lot had failed to crack her. Natsumi, meanwhile, could use the Force to resist truth drugs, control her autonomic responses, and enhance her memory, but lacked Kathryn's experience and self discipline. Therefore, during the trip out from Coruscant, Kathryn had drilled Natsumi mercilessly on the details of their cover, then reinforced the lessons with round after round of brutal interrogation. It had seemed a reasonable supposition that if Natsumi could do well enough to please Kathryn, she ought to manage all right with anyone Dreamstar could throw at her.
Natsumi pantomimed sticking her middle finger down her throat, complete with gagging noises. Kathryn sniffed; Natsumi could whine all she wanted but the results, in Kathryn's opinion, spoke for themselves. Natsumi and Kathryn were now provisional citizens, with all rights pertaining thereunto, while not a few of their companion refugees languished in holding cells.
"Is this it?" Natsumi asked, stopping abruptly.
"It is," Kathryn affirmed with a curt nod.
The Dreamstar Exchequer and Exchange occupied a long stretch of frontage along the main promenade. Lines of people waited to deposit, withdraw, transfer, or exchange funds. Kathryn and Natsumi joined a queue and in due course took their turn before a teller.
"Good afternoon," the teller began brightly. He resembled a ferret, with dark markings around his eyes like glasses. In the Empire his job would have been done by a 'droid but other than a handful who'd obviously come from Imperial space Kathryn hadn't seen any on Dreamstar Station. "How may we assist you today?" he continued.
Kathryn set her suitcase up on the counter. "I'd like you to look after my luggage."
"This is the Exchequer and Exchange," the ferret replied. "The Baggage and Cargo terminal is in Sector Twelve."
"No, I think this is the right place. At least for my luggage." Kathryn opened the case and turned it around. Neatly arranged stacks of Latimum trade bars filled it to the brim.
To his credit the teller didn't goggle or gasp. He did stare for a few moments. "I'm terribly sorry, ladies, but I'll need to speak to a manager. Would you mind waiting a moment?"
"Not at all," Kathryn replied. Shortly thereafter a manager arrived and took them into a private office. Arrangements were made to convert a few of the trade bars into local currency and deposit them in an account from which Kathryn and Natsumi could draw. The rest went into a security vault against future need.
"You seem quite well prepared, compared to most refugees," the manager commented as he affixed Kathryn's and Natsumi's thumbprints to the documentation. He was a human, of all things, the only one Kathryn had seen so far.
"Coming from the Empire myself I knew what would happen if Imperial forces ever reached Nekar," Kathryn replied. "Natsumi and I converted all our assets into a form that didn't depend on institutions or governments. Most people seem to think that their cred sticks are some sort of magic talisman, that'll somehow still work with the city in flames and the government collapsed. Most refugees are the sort who tell themselves nothing's wrong until the Imperial fleet's bombarding them from orbit. Then they run in panic, without any plan or preparation." Kathryn shrugged. "What I don't understand is how people just assume that their way of life is inviolate, unchanging. I'd already started over twice. Once after my accident-" she tapped her antennae- "and again after fleeing the Empire the first time. Against that, the idea that I might have to flee Nekar wasn't ever far from my mind. Naturally I made plans. Almost from the day I arrived, as a matter of fact." The interrogators at the debriefing had asked her a very similar question and in much greater detail.
The manager nodded. "Very prudent of you, Ms. Nebulart. If all our refugees showed your foresight then caring for them would be a lot simpler." He sighed. "Here are your credit cards. I hope you find what you're looking for."
"Thank you." Kathryn took a card and passed the other to Natsumi. "Right now what we'd like to find is a place to live."
"That's easy," the manager replied. "Check out the residential deck."
"Here we are," Kathryn announced. "Quarters, sweet quarters."
Natsumi looked decidedly nonplussed. "I've been in closets bigger than this," she commented.
Kathryn shrugged. "We're on board a space station packed with refugees. What did you expect?"
Natsumi entered the room. An autochef occupied the right hand wall, a fold-out desk and entertainment center the left, and a pair of fold-out bunks the rear. "On board a ship this would be a third class cabin," she pointed out.
"Good thing we travel light," Kathryn put in. They'd arrived with little more than the clothes on their backs. Not inappropriate, given their presumed status as refugees. She unfolded the desk and activated one of the workstations.
"Ehh, I've been cooped up too long," Natsumi declared, shunning the workstation and its implications with a brusque wave. "I gotta find somewhere I can stretch." She did so, extending her arms above her head, flexing her spine, rising up on her toes, and sticking her tail straight out behind her. Her wings unfurled but even a room twice as big wouldn't have accommodated them at full extension.
"Don't do anything I wouldn't," Kathryn advised.
"When I decide to join a convent I'll let you know," Natsumi riposted, then slipped out before Kathryn responded. In the hallway she shook her head sadly. Kathryn didn't seem to realize that she pursued work in exactly the way she accused Natsumi of pursuing pleasure. In point of fact, she pursed work as if it gave her as much pleasure as Natsumi derived from her activities. But Kathryn didn't derive pleasure from her work. Quite the opposite, in fact. The deeper Kathryn descended into her duty the more bitter, aloof, and generally unpleasant she became. Almost as if she enjoyed-
The sensation of being watched hit Natsumi so hard her step faltered. To cover she stopped and tossed her head, running her fingers through her mane and stretching. A surreptitious glance didn't reveal anything untoward so she set off once again. If anyone was watching, better not to let on that she knew. But the feeling of an unfriendly gaze on her back made her shoulder blades itch. She wanted to spin around and lash out with all her might. Never mind that her blows wouldn't strike anything; she needed to break the tension. Through an exertion of iron self control she managed to amble nonchalantly out onto the main concourse. Mixing with other denizens eased the pressure; she picked up her pace but only a little, as if she were touring rather than headed anywhere in particular. Arriving in a section lined with clothing shops she slowed down, pausing occasionally to admire the displays. At the same time she reached out, feeling the ebb and flow of Force around her. The source of her discomfit came from above, probably within the decorative trusswork supporting the concourse roof. Unable to think of a way to look up without being obvious she continued onward, until one of the shops really did capture her interest. It's displays didn't so much advertise clothing as its lack, in the form of well constructed male and female figures draped with revealing, sexually provocative outfits. Natsumi entered and tried on several sets of lingerie, partially out of interest in the garments themselves and partially to see if the unknown watcher would follow. It didn't; she sensed it waiting outside. She considered slipping out the back but that would also reveal that she knew about the tail. She purchased two outfits and a bikini, then as an afterthought a second bikini. With a bag in each hand she left the shop and strolled on. Her invisible tail stuck like glue, apparently certain of its invulnerability. As time passed, however, Natsumi became less and less so; her unseen stalker had a mind, albeit an alien one. At the same time, though, it felt strangely familiar. She stopped, examining the shops as if looking for something. She was, but not with her eyes. Something caught her attention... and her face lit up. "Oh, baby," she whispered, drawing her credit card and running her tongue along its edge.
Colored lights and animated holographic projections decorated one of the establishments; music and sound effects from the darkened interior blended into a gentle cacophony. Patrons wandered about or stood before machines, eerily illuminated by the pale, flickering light of holographic or flat screen displays. Natsumi moved in and looked around, ignoring games that simulated target shooting, hand-to-hand combat, or driving. She ignored all the games, as a matter of fact, except for a group in one area that simulated air and space combat. The centerpiece was a machine with six stations arranged in a circle. At each station a player could sit in a simplified star fighter cockpit surrounded by holographic displays. A large holotank mounted over the center of the machine allowed spectators to watch the combat. At the moment six young men occupied the stations, shouting and hooting at each other as their virtual star fighters engaged one another. Natsumi watched the holotank for a while; the men were good. Then she circled the installation, studying the men themselves. The sight of one caused her face to split in a demonic grin; she licked her index finger and touched it to her hip, hissing softly. It was the man she'd noticed on the first day, the one resembling a spotted feline.
"Blast!" one of the men- a vulpinoid- shouted, rocking back in his chair and throwing up his hands.
"Too slow, Tet!" the spotted feline shouted, laughing.
"I got you now, Lind!" a dark furred wolf-man declared.
"Dream on!" the spotted feline riposted.
Shortly thereafter two other players were knocked out of the game, a wolf named Karza and gray fox whose name Natsumi didn't catch. The three remaining players- Lind, the dark wolf, and a rat with a black face and white body- fought on. Suddenly the rat threw up his hands and cursed.
"Sorry 'bout that, Bueller," the wolf said, though he didn't sound sorry.
"Ahh, same to you," Bueller replied without heat. He slumped back in his chair, watching the last two players duke it out.
A crowd gathered. "Who's playing?" someone whispered.
"Lindgold and Blackwolf," another voice replied.
"Ten on Lindgold," another voice offered.
"I'll take that," someone else responded.
Natsumi waited a moment for the betting to pick up, then pushed through the crowd. She walked up to the station Tet had occupied, just to the right of Blackwolf. "Hi," she said brightly to Blackwolf, crossing her arms and leaning on the back of Tet's chair. "Can I play?"
Blackwolf glanced away from his screens for a moment. Natsumi smiled at him. He probably never noticed; he couldn't seem to tear his eyes away from her cleavage. His inattention cost him; Lindgold let out an exultant shout as his cannons found their mark and Blackwolf's ship disintegrated.
"Hey, that's no fair!" Blackwolf shouted, leaping to his feet. "She- I mean-" he stuttered to a halt. His friends laughed uproariously.
"If the Empire ever figures out that all they've got to do is send sexy female pilots after us we're sunk," Lindgold commented, chucking.
"I'm sorry," Natsumi put in contritely. "May I buy you a game to make it up?"
"No, it's all right." Blackwolf scratched himself between the ears. "It was my own damn fault."
"Then may I play?" Natsumi asked, clasping her hands together and bouncing excitedly on her toes, her eyes wide.
"You really want to?" Lindgold asked.
You really think you're that good? Natsumi translated. "Yes," she said aloud, smiling coyly. "I've had my hand around a joystick once or twice." Lindgold grinned; some of the crowd whistled or hooted. "Tell you what," Natsumi added, seeing that Lindgold wasn't quite convinced. "I'll throw in dinner and dancing for every frag."
"For all of us?" Blackwolf inquired.
"Sure," Natsumi replied. "Why not."
"Here, you can have my slot," Tet offered. "I was just getting my ass kicked anyway."
"Thanks!" Natsumi gave him a peck on the cheek as she slipped into his station. She inserted her credit card into the slot; the holographic displays around her lit up. "Oh, you boys will be gentle, won't you?" she added. "It's my first time." She batted her eyelashes.
"Sure thing, darlin'," Bueller leered.
Natsumi settled herself in the seat, caressing the stick as if it were a lover. She giggled; she hadn't promised to go easy on them. The countdown concluded and the game began.
When he realized that he was pacing Administrator Snortenheimer forced himself to stop. He sat on the edge of his desk, partially spreading his wings so they wouldn't bind. His smooth, mostly hairless skin shone with an emerald green cast; his face came to a rounded point, like a reptile's. A short, black mane capped his head and ran down the back of his neck. A pair of small, sharply pointed ears jutted up through the mass. The tip of his thick, muscular tail twitched as if with a life of its own.
"You disagree with my assessment?" Artania inquired. She stood in the center of the Administrator's office, arms folded across her chest.
"These two worked for the Imperial Security Bureau," Snortenheimer exclaimed.
"As slaves," Artania clarified.
"We have only their word on that," Snortenheimer pointed out. "And Ms. Nebulart is immune to the truth drugs."
"Ms. Nebulart told us that beforehand," Artania responded. "Ms. Tenko isn't immune and she gave us the same story."
"A story we can't check," Snortenheimer observed.
"We haven't any practical way to check what any of the refugees tell us," Artania replied. "For all we know every one of them could be a spy."
Snortenheimer frowned. "That's absurd."
"What's absurd is singling out these two," Artania shot back. "Their stories aren't so unusual compared to what I've heard from other refugees. A great many of them are deserters, escaped slaves, or political criminals. As near as I can tell the only reason you suspect Ms. Nebulart and Ms. Tenko is because Ms. Nebulart is a Borg and they both have connections to the ISB."
"Isn't that enough?" Snortenheimer demanded.
"What about Lindgold?" Artania riposted. "A decorated flying officer in the Imperial star fleet who arrived here in his star fighter." Artania uncrossed her arms, raising her right hand, which transformed into a long, gleaming sword blade. "If it comes to that I'm a thousand times more dangerous to you and the station than Ms. Nebulart could ever hope to be, Borg or no. But you let me stay."
Snortenheimer drew a breath to respond but let it out as a sigh instead. "All right, Artania, I take your point," he admitted. "However, I do feel compelled to observe that none of what you've said proves that they aren't spies."
"Oh, I know that." The sword sprouting from Artania's forearm turned back into a hand. "Which is why I've scheduled them for a psi scan to be administered by our best telepath."
Natsumi let her aim drift slightly to the left as she turned onto the tail of Bueller's fighter. As she'd expected he broke left, straight into a hail of fire from her ship's cannons. "Arrgh!" he screamed, slumping back in his chair as his fighter disintegrated.
"Got you!" Karza shouted. While Natsumi lined up on Bueller, Karza had lined up on her. He opened fire an instant too soon, hosing shots past her but closing fast. Natsumi giggled, yanking her throttle to full reverse thrust and flicking her weapon selector to 'missiles.' Karza's ship blew past so close it filled her screens. Natsumi launched a missile; there wasn't time for it to lock but it didn't matter. At such close range it couldn't miss, and didn't. Natsumi slammed the throttle forward and broke right, narrowly avoiding Blackwolf's cannon fire as he came in for a head on pass.
"You sure you've never done this before?" Lindgold asked as he tried for a missile lock. Natsumi danced right at the edge of his acquisition envelope so that, try as he might, he never quite got it. Then he broke off, realizing that she was drawing him into an ambush.
"I've never played this game before," Natsumi replied, giggling.
"Cover me, I'm going in!" the gray fox shouted.
"Watch yourself, Leon, she's tricky," Bueller advised.
As Leon turned to attack Natsumi snapped off a missile. It locked but he dodged it easily. "Hah!" he exclaimed triumphantly. "I got you now, my pretty!"
"Do it to me, baby!" Natsumi shouted, pulling away perpendicular to her run in, jinking violently but holding her base course. Leon dropped in on her six; bolts flashed on her screens as he fired and missed. Then he let out a shriek as his ship exploded. Natsumi's missile had circled around while she kept him flying in a more or less straight line. "Was it good for you too?" she asked, blowing him a kiss.
"My friend, I think we're in serious trouble," Blackwolf commented.
"That's an affirm," Lindgold agreed. "Form on me."
"Roger." Blackwolf tucked his ship in on Lindgold's right.
For quite a while no one fired. The engagement became something much more like an actual battle: each side maneuvering carefully to get an advantage on the other without exposing themselves. Both Lindgold and Blackwolf were excellent pilots and once they started working together- and taking the fight seriously- they became formidable opponents. At this point familiarity with the hardware would make a telling difference- and Lindgold and Blackwolf clearly had it. Natsumi proceeded carefully, no longer taking chances. She scanned the probabilities, looking for an opening, but nothing presented itself. She'd about decided to throw caution to the wind and attack when a cusp appeared. She approached it cautiously, letting the Force guide her. She couldn't help gritting her teeth; waiting wasn't ever something she did well. But she needed to stay alert so she could exploit the opportunity when it appeared-
"W- what?" Lindgold started guiltily and looked up.
Natsumi whipped around and fired. Lindgold's ship disintegrated; Blackwolf broke away barely in the nick of time with heavy damage. Apparently his flight controls had suffered; Natsumi heard him grunting as he struggled with them and his ship maneuvered sluggishly. She locked a missile and let fly; he cursed and threw up his hands even before it hit, watching in the holotank as the warhead tracked in and detonated. Only then did Natsumi look up at the room around her.
A huge crowd had gathered. Judging from the noise quite a few wagers had been made- and quite a few of the wagerers disliked the fact that Natsumi had won on the basis of a distraction. Lindgold rose from his station, nervously facing someone who shoved brusquely through the press. Natsumi stood up on her seat and saw a female vulpinoid emerge from the crowd. She wore a filmy, peach colored gown, matching high-heeled shoes, and delicately applied makeup. She'd gathered her wavy, ruddy orange mane with a ribbon that matched her gown. Because of that, and the fact that her gown was backless, everyone could see the fur on her neck and shoulders standing up. Her lips had drawn back from her teeth in a feral snarl, her eyes narrowed. "Lindgold!" she bellowed in a voice that would have made a drill instructor quaver. "What the Hell are you doing?"
"I- I- I-" Lindgold stammered, his eyes wide. He gestured vaguely, looking around desperately. None of his erstwhile friends would meet his gaze.
Natsumi almost laughed. Everything was coming together beautifully. While Lindgold struggled under the woman's withering gaze to come up with a suitable reply Natsumi pushed her way forward. "Hi!" she exclaimed brightly, draping an arm around Lindgold's shoulders.
"I don't believe this!" the woman hissed, rage glowing white hot in her eyes. "Not only are you in here playing your stupid video games, you're doing it with- with- her!" She indicated Natsumi with a contemptuous wave. "Well, since you apparently forgot about our dinner date, you can forget about me, too!" She spun on her heel and marched away.
"Ranthe, wait!" Lindgold called, lunging after her.
"Oh, forget about her!" Natsumi exclaimed, pouncing upon Lindgold from behind and nearly bowling him over.
"Get off!" Lindgold shouted, struggling with one hand to break Natsumi's grip around his chest and with the other to stop her from licking his face. Once again neither the crowd nor his friends proved of any help; they were all laughing uproariously. Lindgold grabbed Natsumi's arm and threw her over his shoulder. She tucked, rolled, and bounced to her feet.
"Oh, come on, Lind," Natsumi pouted. "She's gonna make you sleep on the couch no matter what." She struck a seductive pose, one arm draped over her head and the other straight out to the side. "Since you're already convicted, you might as well enjoy the crime." She swung her arm toward him, fluttering her fingers, keeping her eyes locked upon his. "Or are you looking forward to polishing your own joystick until she decides to forgive you?"
Lindgold turned suddenly. His expression didn't look that different, except for a hardening of his features and a creasing of his brow, but Natsumi unconsciously dropped into a ready stance. The crowd sensed it too, shuffling back hastily. "Games are games," Lindgold said. "And friends are friends. I don't get them mixed up the way some people do." He jogged off in pursuit of Ranthe.
Natsumi's hands twitched. I could make you love me, she thought at his back, her eyes narrowing. But if she did that Kathryn would have her hide and rightly so. The mission always came first.
Except when Kathryn's lying there on the deck, dying right before your eyes.
Blackwolf had come up beside Natsumi, hand raised and mouth opened to speak. She fixed him with a look that caused him to let out a yelp and jump back. Then she retrieved her credit card and left the arcade. Lindgold wasn't going anywhere and neither was she; there'd be time for a rematch later. Right now she needed to tell Kathryn about meeting Lindgold and warn her about the invisible watcher. And-
Natsumi's step faltered. The idea of Kathryn being in danger and Natsumi not being able to do anything about it made her sick with fear. Unconsciously she quickened her pace; she ended up crashing through the door to their quarters almost at a dead run. "M-" she began.
Kathryn's head snapped around. She still sat before the fold-out workstation. Her fingers froze mid-motion above the keyboard. For an instant that seemed to last forever neither she nor Natsumi moved or made a sound. "Are you all right, Natsumi?" Kathryn inquired, rising from her seat and stepping to the doorway.
Natsumi couldn't speak. A wave of intense emotion had closed her throat up tight. She slipped her arms around Kathryn and hugged her tightly. Kathryn put one arm around Natsumi and stroked her head and neck with the other. "Can- can we take a walk?" Natsumi managed in a tiny, quavering voice.
"Sure," Kathryn agreed, keeping one arm around Natsumi and guiding her out of the room. There were, after all, any number of legitimate reasons Natsumi might want to do this, not the least being that she wanted to discuss sensitive issues in a place where they wouldn't be monitored. But as they walked along, arm in arm, all she could think about was how Natsumi had come so very close to calling her mother.
"First, let me thank you both for your patience," Artania began. "Second, let me assure you that this will be your final interview. After this you'll be granted full citizenship."
Assuming that we pass, of course, Kathryn added to herself, resisting the urge to smile. Unaccountably she found herself liking Artania. She was extremely intelligent, incredibly perceptive, and not the least bit fooled or distracted by emotional outbursts. Most importantly, she wasn't wrapped up in her own thoughts and feelings. In other words, she was an exceedingly dangerous opponent... and therefore one unquestionably worthy of Kathryn's abilities. Kathryn felt obscurely honored to have the privilege of matching wits with her.
"Allow me to present Mr. Atoz, who will sit in during this session," Artania continued.
A door opened and Mr. Atoz shuffled in. He resembled nothing so much as a giant vulture; shiny black feathers coated his squat body and long, slender wings, currently folded at his sides. He waddled on short legs equipped with scaled, taloned feet. The way his head, with is wicked looking hooked beak, sat forward on its long, bare neck made him appear hunchbacked. "Good afternoon Ms Tenko, Ms. Nebulart," he declared in a voice that wasn't particularly high pitched but lacking in low frequency harmonics, giving it a somewhat squeaky, scratchy sound. He hopped onto a stool set opposite Kathryn and Natsumi and settled himself comfortably.
"Mr. Atoz is a telepath, specially trained for this type of work," Artania explained. "In fact, I'm quite pleased with him. We've done thousands of interviews together and he's never made a mistake."
Kathryn wanted to applaud. Through the entire process, and especially now, Artania's performance had been a wonder to behold, exhibiting not only consummate skill but possessing the dash of artistry which separated the mere professional from the true genius. She'd run Kathryn and Natsumi through the wringer, with round after round of questioning, depriving them of food, sleep, and relief. Not overtly, of course, but in such a way as to make it seem incidental. Just a little longer and we'll be done. Then we can all go to bed. But every time something would come up that had to be worked out right then. Now she casually mentioned that her victims were almost free, this final interview hardly more than a formality... and followed it up with the most vicious and devastating blow of all, which landed right when her subjects were the most vulnerable, weakened emotionally and physically by their ordeal, daring to hope that the long darkness had finally lifted. Kathryn would guess that most suspects broke down and confessed the moment Artania revealed Mr. Atoz as a telepath. If they didn't the battery of sensors embedded in the room's walls would pick up a spike of unease. Failing that, Mr. Atoz would administer the coup de grace; knowing that one was about to be telepathically scanned would reflexively bring to the surface of one's mind the very thing one most wished to keep hidden. Kathryn could hardly have done better herself.
And yet, despite her evident skill and experience, Artania had made a fatal mistake. She'd failed to expose the fact that Natsumi also had telepathic abilities. Thus she didn't realize that Natsumi could use the Force to look into the future and find out who would be present at this final interview. Nor did she suspect that Natsumi might then use her telepathic abilities to enter that person's dreams- the time when the mind is in its most suggestible state- and influence it. Not all at once, of course, but gradually, over a period of days. The end result was that when Artania drew her Ultimate Weapon and pulled the trigger a little flag popped out that said "zap." That metal picture was so funny that it took all of Kathryn's skill and discipline to keep from laughing out loud.
Without realizing it Artania had told the simple truth: this final interview was nothing but a formality. The danger to Kathryn and Natsumi was past. However, the danger to Dreamstar station, and the civilization it protected, had now come into its own.
"How did it go?" Snortenheimer inquired.
"Ms. Tenko passed the telepathic screening within acceptable parameters," Artania replied. "Ms. Nebulart proved difficult to scan, probably due to the high percentage of cybernetic synapses in her brain. However, Mr. Atoz does not feel that the condition in any way invalidates his analysis; it merely took longer for him to obtain readings."
Snortenheimer frowned. "Are you sure of his results?"
"Of course not," Artania replied. "Since I am not myself a telepath I can only take his word for what he claims to have sensed. I will conduct additional surveys with other telepaths if you so require but if your intention is merely to have Ms. Tenko and Ms. Nebulart discovered as spies I suggest that you simply declare them guilty and save us the time and expense of retaining experts whose opinions you intend to disregard."
Snortenheimer grimaced. "Point taken," he sighed. "If Mr. Atoz's professional opinion is good enough elsewhere it ought to be good enough here."
"Unless some evidence suggests that it shouldn't be," Artania put in.
"Does any evidence so suggest?" Snortenheimer asked.
"Not to my knowledge," Artania responded. "Or I would have investigated it before submitting my report."
Snortenheimer drummed his fingers on the edge of his desk. "All right," he finally said. "I hereby authorize you to grant them full citizenships."
Artania nodded. And yet... she couldn't shake the feeling that she was overlooking something, something that might prove to be vitally important. That no empirical evidence supported this feeling only made it worse; she'd spent the last several sessions with Snorty convincing him to react with his head, not his gut. Mentally she added Kathryn Nebulart and Natsumi Tenko to the list of recent arrivals upon which she'd decided to keep extra close tabs. A moment later she bumped them to the top of the list.
"It's beautiful, isn't it?" Natsumi asked.
"It is," Kathryn agreed.
An open well running vertically through the station's core formed Dreamstar's hydroponics deck. Gravity grids on the cylinder's walls turned them into floors; an enormous tower supported an array of gigantic lights that kept the crops healthy. Kathryn and Natsumi strolled along a walkway running between rows of vines growing on rectangular frames, each about twice Kathryn's height and four times as long. Spongy cellulose matting along each frame's lower edge held the plants' roots; hoses injected water and thick, nutrient sludge. A few rows over a harvester moved along; it rolled on rails mounted beside the walkways, lifted above the frames on stilts. With a pair of long mechanical arms it picked up each frame in turn and tipped it sideways; fruit growing from the vines then hung out, their stems easily severed with the sweep of a cutting bar. A chute guided the produce into a collection hopper. Once both sides were harvested the frame went back in place. A 'droid supervised the process, intervening if a fruit had gotten stuck in the frame or if the vines had grown out too far.
"I know who our mysterious watcher is," Natsumi announced.
"Who?" Kathryn inquired. The hydroponics deck was also an area comparatively free of surveillance devices. The racks of growing plants would block any attempts at remote sensing except from directly above, where a hovering drone would be too obvious. Sensors could be mounted on the light pole running up the center of the well, but seeing the top of a person's head wouldn't help to reveal what that person might be talking about. A parabolic microphone would be hampered by the fact that the well's sheer size let some pretty stiff breezes develop. If there was any place on Dreamstar Station were Kathryn and Natsumi could discuss sensitive matters in relative safety, this was it.
"Artania," Natsumi replied.
"How do you know?" Kathryn asked. She'd never sensed any trace of Natsumi's invisible observer, even when Natsumi indicated that it had been present. Of course she'd never actively sought it; that would reveal that she knew, or at least suspected.
"Whatever's watching is definitely a person, not a thing," Natsumi explained. "When it's around I keep expecting to find someone standing behind me. And the person it feels most like is Artania. I doubted at first, but the more time I've spent around her the more sure I am."
"Fascinating," Kathryn mused. "Don't you find it interesting that the station's Director of Operations has the time to follow you around, Natsumi?"
Natsumi frowned thoughtfully. "That is odd, now that you mention it. A Director of Operations should have agents to do leg-work for her."
"Even more amazing that she has time to follow you around, in addition to directing the station's operations," Kathryn continued. "Just as she apparently had time to personally supervise our debriefing. I assumed at first that she'd taken a special interest in us. I would have, after all." She smiled coldly. "As a way of finding out, I spent time participating in several online forums, asking those I met how their debriefings had gone. Quite a number of them said that facing Artania was the most frightening experience they'd ever had. Not every one mentioned Artania but not a single one mentioned someone else."
"But-" Natsumi frowned. "Are you saying she supervises everyone's debriefing?"
"Seventy-two point six percent, plus or minus fourteen point five, according to my sampling," Kathryn replied. "Which, when applied to a population of approximately fifty-four hundred, amounts to a staggering number of interviews. Three thousand, nine hundred and twenty plus or minus seven hundred and eighty-three, to be precise. All in a span of approximately a hundred and twenty days."
"That's over thirty interviews a day," Natsumi exclaimed, eyes widening. "Which means she couldn't spend more than- than-"
"Forty five minutes on a single interview," Kathryn supplied. "Which leaves no time for anything else, including eating or sleeping. She interviewed us for three days, with an average interview length- according to my sample- of two."
Natsumi stopped, planting her hands on her hips and glaring up at Kathryn. "All right then. How did she do it, since you so obviously know?"
"I don't know," Kathryn replied, utterly unruffled. "I suspect. I discovered that the comm code for Artania's private office is listed in the public directory. I called it, to see what would happen. Artania answered, in person, almost at once. However, the video and audio were computer generated. A very good simulacra, but a simulacra nonetheless."
"Oh." Natsumi relaxed. "So she has a 'droid screen her calls. Big deal."
"It would have to be a very sophisticated 'droid," Kathryn pointed out. "Which, even so, does not explain how she did all those interviews." She sat down. "Here, sit with me a moment." Natsumi sat, eyeing Kathryn suspiciously. "You can tell me where someone is, can you not?" Kathryn inquired.
"Within limits, yes," Natsumi replied.
"Tell me where Artania is right now."
"Gimmie a sec." Natsumi's eyes unfocused and her face went slack as she shifted her attention elsewhere. A moment later her right shoulder twitched. Her head cocked to the left, her right eyelid fluttering. Her tail twitched once, then the tip began lashing back and forth. All the feathers on her wings ruffled and stood up.
"Problems?" Kathryn inquired.
"I- I can't tell," Natsumi said, massaging her temples. "She isn't blocked, exactly, but- but-" She grimaced. "I can feel her. She's there. But when I try to see where there is, I- I see a hundred different images, all at once."
"As if she were in a hundred different places, all at the same time?" Kathryn ventured.
"Yes." Natsumi's head snapped up, her eyes locked on Kathryn's. "You think she really is all this different places, all at the same time?"
"It would explain the observed facts," Kathryn replied. "Consider this: we saw her reform her body. What if she can detach pieces as well? If so, why assume that what we saw was all of her? Perhaps it is itself only a part of a much larger whole."
Natsumi frowned in concentration. "Is that important?" she asked in a tone which suggested that she was thinking aloud rather than asking outright. "Maybe so," she mused, tapping her chin. "I wonder... if that's true, how much of the station's operations does she control directly?"
"A very interesting question, if you ask me," Kathryn put in.
"We need a way to discreetly test our hypothesis," Natsumi continued.
"What would you suggest?" Kathryn inquired.
"I need to know her a lot better before could do anything," Natsumi commented. "I need to hang out with her for a few days, or weeks, or however long it takes."
"How do you plan to do that?" Kathryn wanted to know.
"I don't," Natsumi replied grinning. Her teeth seemed to gleam against her black face. "You are. You'll get a job in the station's data processing center."
"What makes you so certain I'd have the opportunity to meet Artania by doing that?" Kathryn asked.
Natsumi snorted. "She only a bit more than half thinks you're innocent, Katti darling. With your background, taking a job in the processing center will be a very provocative act. Artania will be crawling right up your ass. I'll get to know her through you."
"I should think she wouldn't want me anywhere near the processing center, considering my background," Kathryn observed.
"Oh, she'll leap at the chance," Natsumi declared with a dismissive flick of the hand. "By taking you to her bosom she can keep an eye or three on you at all times and she doesn't even have to pretend to hide it. Otherwise she'd have to leave you loose, doing who knows what. While you're engaged with the enemy you don't have to wonder where she is or what she's doing."
"What makes you so sure she won't be following you?"
"She will be, I've no doubt," Natsumi responded. "But I'll know. And besides, what am I but a ditzy girl who can't think of anything but stuffing her pussy?" she giggled. "She'll get tired and give up before I've fucked my way through half of the Defense Force."
"Artania isn't stupid, and she won't be distracted by histrionics," Kathryn declared. "You make one mistake and you're dead. We're both dead."
"That just means I'll have to be extra careful," Natsumi replied quietly. She didn't look away or even so much as twitch under Kathryn's cold gaze.
Kathryn remained silent a moment, then allowed the corners of her mouth to turn up ever so slightly. Natsumi's observations closely paralleled Kathryn's own thoughts on the matter. "What makes you so sure I can get a job in the station's data processing center?"
"Now you're just teasing me, Katti," Natsumi admonished, shaking her finger. "You could get a job as a male stripper if you put your mind to it."
"That might be pushing it a bit, even for me," Kathryn commented, but allowed the corners of her mouth to turn up a little more. "Are those your orders, Commander?"
"You bet your sweet ass they are," Natsumi replied. "And one more thing." She reached into her pocket and fished out what at first glance appeared to be a few scraps of cloth. "Put this on."
Kathryn took the items in hand. They were, in fact, the top and bottom components of a Burgundy colored thong bikini. "What does this have to do with the mission?" she wanted to know.
"We can't have Artania think we're out here plotting, can we?" Natsumi replied, removing her halter and replacing it with a white bikini top. "Offering her an innocent, alternate explanation will soften her suspicions. There happens to be a lake nearby, so we visit the beach."
"To swim or troll for lovers?" Kathryn demanded.
Natsumi's eyes widened in clearly feigned amazement. "Why, Kathryn, those are both great ideas! Thank you ever so much for suggesting them!" She giggled.
Kathryn said nothing. By this point Natsumi had shed her clothing and finished donning her own outfit. The waistband of her bottom rode high on her hips but ducked under the base of her tail. The back panel vanished in the cleft between her buttocks, reappearing only where it joined the crotch panel. Which, in turn, didn't appear to touch her thighs anywhere along its length. The top consisted of two tiny, triangular panels- barely enough to cover Natsumi's aureolae- connected by a chest band and shoulder straps that weren't much more than strings. Shifting her attention to her own garment, Kathryn concluded that, while it was sized to fit her larger frame, it wouldn't cover any greater percentage of her flesh.
"Please, Katti?" Natsumi asked softly. "I couldn't bear thinking that all the time I spent making you beautiful again went for nothing."
Kathryn's eyes flicked to the kid gloves covering her hands. They went with her blouse and slacks... except that, on Dreamstar Station, at least, gloves weren't worn except for utilitarian purposes. The truth of the matter was that Kathryn hadn't publicly bared her flesh- and by extension, her cyberware- since she'd woken up to find it installed. Except the parts she couldn't reasonably conceal, such as the vanes and oculars. She'd tried wearing glasses to cover her eye but they degraded her vision. She only wore the gloves because the sensors in her hands worked through them. If they didn't-
If they didn't she'd go naked, if necessary. Choosing to conceal the hybrid circuitry in her skin was nothing but conceit. A conceit which told her enemies things about her psyche that she'd rather they not know. Without a word she removed the gloves and started undressing. A short time later she stood on the catwalk, wearing only the bikini, her bundled clothes tucked under her arm.
"Katti, you are gonna knock 'em dead," Natsumi pronounced, looking Kathryn up and down. "As you cross the beach you're gonna leave a swath in your wake as men keel over from heart failure. The rest'll be pawing at your feet, begging to sell you their souls."
Kathryn almost observed that such behavior wasn't uncommon around her. As a captain in the Imperial Security Bureau's Investigations Department, people fainted in her presence all the time. Those that didn't were indeed quite eager to please her, in whatever manner she desired. But not because of her beauty. Not at all. She didn't say so because- because-
Because, her analytical mind dispassionately reported, she didn't want to bring that to the warm, gentle space she shared with Natsumi here and now. Just as the real reason she wore the bikini is because Natsumi called her beautiful when she did.
Foolishness. Dangerous foolishness. Love is a weakness. The very worst weakness, because it leads to hope for things which can't be. Have I not watched hope and love wither and die under my touch, more times that I can count?
Natsumi grinned, putting her hand through Kathryn's arm, and turning her toward the lake.
Kathryn lifted her chin, put her shoulders back, and thrust her chest forward. Her analytical mind would have clucked in disappointment, were that its way. The sad truth was that love, and the hope for things that couldn't be, had already poisoned Kathryn's soul. The analytical mind could observe, process, and report, but that's all it could do. The all too human Kathryn remained in overall command, and she'd chosen warm love over cold reason. Even knowing full well that by embracing it she doomed not only herself but Natsumi to horrible destruction.
Water that had passed through the station's recycling plant flowed into a holding reservoir. From there most of it went directly to the hydroponics farm. The rest passed through a second purification process and became drinking water. The reservoir formed a pool around the foot of the light column running up the center of the farm deck; it was left uncovered because evaporation from it helped maintain an appropriate level of humidity in the station's atmosphere and because the open body of water provided an excellent recreational resource at no additional cost. Swimmers and small boats plied its surface; the addition of sand converted a section of the rim into a beach. The lights for the hydroponics farm provided a reasonable approximation of sunlight.
Mayfurr sat on a pipe that carrying water to or from the reservoir, he knew not which. He cared only that the location gave him a good view of the beach and separated him from the crowds coming and going or just wandering about. A lot of people came simply to ogle at the bathers. For that matter a lot of bathers came to be ogled at. May had to admit he came primarily for that reason- to look, that is, not to be seen. He wore his street clothes; he never came in a bathing suit. If he did someone would dare him to take it off, sure as atomic decay. He didn't care to discover what the public would think of his nakedness. Once- on a dare- he'd entered himself in a bachelor auction. In the entire evening no one had so much as bid on him.
A commotion drew May's attention. He twisted about, looking up at the wall behind him. It still felt strange to see the rows of plants clinging to an apparently vertical surface. It felt even stranger to see people walking on said surface. Of course when one walked into the farm that became the floor and the reservoir seemed to be on the wall, surely the strangest sight of all. Intellectually May understood that on board a station floating in space gravity grids could make any surface into a floor but his gut resolutely insisted that it wasn't natural. He forgot those concerns when he noticed the two people who had emerged from the hydroponics farm and were walking along a curved ramp that smoothed the ninety degree transition between surfaces. For one they were exceptionally good looking females in practically nonexistent bikinis... and for another they were the two ex-Imperials over whom the station had been abuzz recently. He found his eyes drawn to Kathryn, the cyborg. In his entire life May probably hadn't seen more than a few dozen humans and never one with such an exquisitely perfect body. Her hairless skin, flat face, and lack of a tail somehow both repulsed and intrigued him. The "rabbit ear" antennae were, he noted, only the beginning of her visible enhancements. Her fingernails were made of the same silver-gray material as the rest of her external cyberware; a fine network of lines ran along the back of each finger, connecting a series hex shaped caps over each joint. On the back of her hands and wrists a network of cross-connecting lines gave the whole affair a weblike look. On the front of her hands black pads covered the places between her finger joints and also the ball and heel of her palm. A narrow plate shaped like an elongated arrowhead reached about a quarter of the way up her forearms, covering her wrist tendons. The traceries on the other side of her forearms, meanwhile, joined into a single strand connecting to hex shaped plates on her elbows. Nothing covered her upper arms but normal skin; the circuitry surfaced again on the backs of her shoulder joints, fanning out into a pair of weblike patterns on her shoulder blades. From just below her knees on down the odd material completely replaced her skin, creating the impression that she wore a pair of tightly fitting jack boots... except that she nevertheless had a complete set of rather long, pointed toes. The total effect was more than a little odd; the back half of her feet looked like shoes- complete with heel- but the fronts were bare, though with textured soles attached to the ball.
May's attention shifted to the unmarked skin on Kathryn's thighs and torso. He decided then and there that whatever Kathryn might be, she was no Borg. No drone he'd ever seen had skin like that, as smooth and perfect as polished alabaster, but with a rosy tint that made it fair and vibrant instead of pale and pasty. He certainly couldn't imagine a drone with such exquisitely firm, round breasts, such artfully flaring hips, such wonderfully Calphygian buttocks...
So intent was May on enumerating Kathryn's sexual characteristics that he unconsciously leaned forward to get a better view. As she crossed his line of sight he leaned gradually farther and farther to one side... until he overbalanced and fell on his face on the sand.
Kathryn had to admit that things were going fairly well. Of the men significantly more chose to whistle or shout than curse or turn away in disgust. The women looked at her predominantly with jealousy rather than revulsion. (A few women whistled and a few men turned up their noses but despite what occasionally happened between her and Natsumi Kathryn considered herself to hold no more than a professional interest in such things.) She caught a motion in the corner of her eye and glanced toward it. Even through the crowd she noticed the vulpinoid man picking himself up out of the sand because he wore not even a pretense of beach clothing.
"That's one of the fellows I noticed when we first arrived," Natsumi whispered. "Go vamp him." She gave Kathryn a gentle push.
"Why?" Kathryn inquired.
"He looks like he could use a little excitement," Natsumi replied. "And I know you could. Besides... there's something important about him and his buddy."
"All right." Kathryn left Natsumi and headed toward the fallen non-bather. She trusted Natsumi's insights now... and she was right about the other things too.
A number of individuals sought Kathryn's attention, with varying degrees of directness, but none of them tried to touch her or block her way so she merely ignored them. She found her target of interest in the process of shaking sand out of his clothes. Sensing her presence he looked up- and froze, his face relaxing into an expression of mindless shock, like a Corenstian falga beast transfixed by the head lamps of an approaching ground car. Kathryn resisted the urge to sigh; considering how he reacted to the mere sight of her he'd probably drop dead on the spot if she came on too strong. "If you don't mind my saying so, you seem rather over dressed for the beach," she commented, shifting to a more friendly tone and demeanor.
May looked down and to the side. "I'm not much for swimming," he muttered.
"That is surely the most pathetic evasion I've ever heard," Kathryn replied. "And believe me, I've heard plenty." She lifted the fox man to his feet. "What's your name?"
"Pleased to meet you, Mayfurr. My name is Kathryn Nebulart, though I expect you know that already." When he did not take her hand she took his and shook it. His arm flapped loosely and fell back to his side the moment she released it. "Are you a pilot?" she asked. It seemed a safe bet, considering that he wore a flight jacket.
"Multi. Strike and reconnaissance."
May shrugged. "Not much happens around here. 'Sides, she's down for maintenance."
"Heads-up display," May replied. "We can't get the right imaging driver module out here, so we have to make do... but the alternate isn't working right and we've only got two more days to fix it or we'll be fined for breach of contract. Failing to meet readiness requirements."
"We?" Kathryn inquired.
"Me and my weapons officer."
"I see." Kathryn nodded. She also noticed that May brightened considerably when he talked about his ship... but closed down again when speaking of his weapons officer. He almost winced, in fact, as if merely speaking the name would call some misfortune down on his head. "I know something about star ship electronics," she continued. "Why don't we go have a look at it?"
May blinked. "What, now?"
Kathryn resisted, with an effort, the urge to roll her eyes. "I certainly don't intend to be seen on the beach with you looking like some sort of scruffy ragamuffin," she declared. "So either we take a look at your ship..." She extended her thumb toward him, fingers curled back. A small, triangular blade with serrated edges popped out from beneath her thumbnail. "Or we go swimming. Naked." She traced the point of the blade across his chest, pressing just hard enough that he'd feel it but not enough to cut. May whimpered, dropping his head and tucking his tail between his legs. "Lead," Kathryn commanded in her Imperial Military Academy voice. He scurried off.
Not too much later Kathryn and Mayfurr arrived on the hanger deck. He cringed every time someone looked in their direction, which given her build and mode of dress was quite often. He passed them through a security checkpoint; Kathryn noted that gaining entry seemed to require nothing more than typing a pass phrase on a sixteen key number pad. Then she felt hidden scanners examining her. The keypad, most likely, was only to make a person hold still long enough for the security scanners to make an assessment. She expected to be refused... and was quite surprised when she was allowed to pass without comment. They entered a large hangar filled with a quite eclectic array of vessels.
"There she is," May announced, pointing.
"Hmm." Kathryn stroked her chin. The ship in question looked more like an atmospheric craft than a starfighter, having a cylindrical, streamlined fuselage, a large, high-mounted wing, and a T-tail. It rested on wheels, like an aircraft, instead of struts: a small pair under the nose and four larger pairs under the center of the fuselage. A pair of thruster pods attached to either side of the tail cone, with induction ports on their forward faces for drawing air when it was available. Four weapon stations hung beneath the main wing, and a panel under the nose looked as if it might house a pop-up turret. A pair of long, slender pods mounted atop the main wing, close to the fuselage, were, she surmised, components of the spacewarp drive system. "Nice ship," Kathryn commented, her eye shifting to the next bay over. A much smaller vessel, obviously a single seat fighter, rested in a cradle obviously designed for it. The craft's cockpit occupied the round end of a teardrop shaped fuselage, with a circular, segmented view port that made it resemble nothing so much as an enormous eyeball. Just behind the cockpit three short sponsons projected out from the fuselage, spaced equally in a circle around the ship's longitudinal axis, with the first pointing straight up. Each sponson supported a large, textured panel that could have been a collector or a radiator; each one was octagonal, elongated in the forward-aft direction, with the long edges bent outward. On the leading edge of each panel what appeared to be a blaster cannon mounted to each fold, for a total of six, though Kathryn knew that the upper two were actually ion cannons. Stumpy projections just above the lower wing mounts housed missile launchers. "May," Kathryn asked, "What is an Imperial star fighter doing here?"
"That's not- I mean-" May took a deep breath. "It's an Imperial design, not actually an Imperial ship," he explained. "It belongs to Lindgold. He brought the plans with him and had it built here."
"Lindgold." Kathryn tapped her chin. "I don't suppose he'd be the same Lindgold Natsumi met in the arcade?"
"It would," May replied, wincing. "Ranthe scorched my ears up one side and down the other about it. Like it was my fault!" He threw up his hands in exasperation.
"Then I'll hazard a guess that the Ranthe whom Lindgold stood up would be your weapons officer?" Kathryn ventured. May said nothing, but the way he flinched- as if cowering from a blow- spoke volumes. "Small world, ain't it," Kathryn mused, turning back to Fiora's Fury. "Open her up," she directed. "Show me what you're trying to fix."
Mayfurr touched a control on the Fury's side. A boarding ramp folded down; May climbed up and Kathryn followed, finding herself in a cramped living deck just below the cockpit level. Judging from the available space she guessed the ship would house between one and six, though the six had better be close friends. A steep, narrow ladder led up to the flight deck; as expected Kathryn saw three stations- but one of them looked decidedly odd. It consisted of a couch set low to the floor as if the occupant were expected to lay down on it. What appeared to be a standard seat back hung about forty centimeters above it around a quarter of the way back from the front edge, supported by a bracket mounted beside the couch so the space directly below the seat back wasn't obstructed.
"That's for Sundown," May explained, following Kathryn's gaze.
"And Sundown is?" Kathryn prompted.
"A Chakat," May responded.
"Which is?" Kathryn continued.
"A species Ranthe and I first encountered a few years back," May explained. "We were in Beta Squadron then, on board the Nighthawk." He tapped the patch on his jacket's upper arm. "A Kilrath'i task force was patrolling the frontier and kept crossing onto our side of the boundary. Our task force went out to explain our government's view of that. They refused to take a hint so the commodore ordered an Alpha strike. All fighters, all attack ships, everything. We all went in at once. I pickled our torpedoes and pulled away. Just as I triggered our escape jump the Kilrath'i carrier blew up. The shock wave randomized our insertion." He stopped, his expression turned distant.
Kathryn waited. Very few would have returned to tell a story like that and she'd be willing to guess the events described hadn't happened too long ago. May had passed very close to Oblivion and he knew it just as well as Kathryn did.
"Well, to make a long story short, we came out near Sundown's home world," May continued suddenly in a brisk tone. "They helped us get back and shi decided to come with us." His face fell. "Now shi's part of her world's embassy..." his expression turned distant once more. "Anyway, shi's a Chakat. I've got a picture here." He dug his wallet out of his pocket.
Kathryn leaned forward. The photo May presented was small and had obviously resided in his wallet for some time. It showed May- in much the same outfit he wore now- with his arm around a creature that could perhaps be best described as a feline centaur. It looked as if someone had removed the head from a regular cat, about the size of a full grown lion, and attached a humanoid torso in its place. The feline head then replaced the humanoid head. Fur on the humanoid torso matched the color, texture, and pattern as that on the rest of the body. This individual looked female and decidedly mammalian, with golden brown fur and a slightly darker mane. Dark stripes marked the back of the individual's legs but not the arms. The lower body angled to one side, revealing what appeared to be a semi-erect penis. "Chakats are hermaphrodites?" she inquired, glancing up.
"Yep." May nodded. "In fact, Sundown had a... friend, named Swiftsure. But... well... we couldn't bring hir along." He looked down.
"Where's Sundown now?"
"On Furry Prime." May put the picture away. "Travelling back and forth takes a lot of time, so... I don't see hir much."
"That's terrible," Kathryn said softly, laying a hand on May shoulder and squeezing gently.
"Typical, really," May sighed. A look of incredible bitterness flashed across his face, but only briefly. "Well, you wouldn't want to hear about it anyway." He dropped to his knees and opened a panel under the instrument cluster, by the pilot's chair. "The module's in here." He pointed up inside.
"Let me in," Kathryn directed. May scooted out of the way. Kathryn lay down on her back, using her hands and feet to slide herself into position. In so doing she deliberately let her knees drift apart, giving May a good look at her crotch if he chose to take it. After a quick scan of the bay Kathryn plucked out one of the cards. It looked markedly different from the others, and scratches on the mounting rails suggested that it had been removed and reinserted a number of times. From there, a simple visual inspection of the board suggested a likely problem: someone had removed the board's card-edge connector and replaced it with a different one. Simply removing the board from its slot had left the connector kinked at a strange angle. "I think I've discovered the problem." Kathryn slid out from underneath the console. With her free hand she nudged the board's card edge connector, which wiggled slightly. "These connectors are installed at the factory and you can't remove them without damaging the board, no matter how carefully you do it." She lay the card aside and took a seat at the Electronic Warfare Officer's station, behind the pilots' seats and opposite the Chakat couch. As she'd hoped, the ship's computer was patched into the station network. She opened an electronic supplies database and initiated a search.
May, peering over Kathryn's shoulder, blinked. Kathryn's fingers moved over the keyboard in a blur, as if she'd memorized every single keystroke and performed it a million times. She watched the view screen but the various windows and information displays flashed by so quickly he couldn't follow.
"Here." Kathryn tapped the screen, showing a catalog entry for a different video driver board. "You should use this board. Since, I assume, the original manufacturer's part isn't available?"
"No." May shook his head. "Anyway, I tried using that board. The connector's right but the board itself is too narrow. It won't fit in the bay."
Kathryn resisted the urge to sneer. Now wasn't the time. "So? You do this." She called up a 3D modelling program and imported the new board's dimensions, representing them as a featureless gray block. "You go to the machine shop and have them fabricate a set of shims, like this." Two narrow plates appeared, one on either side of the board. "Each shim has two perforated tabs sticking from its edge." She pointed them out with her finger. "You fasten them to these holes, where you'd normally install standoff mounting posts. Now the board is the same width as the original, and will slide into the slot. Make sure that the shims are the right width, so the connector on the board aligns with the one in the bay."
"Yes, but the card's too long," May pointed out. "I won't be able to close the cover."
"Remove it and take it to the shop as well." Another gray block appeared, approximating the shape of the avionics bay cover. "It's made of high-tensile plastic, I noticed. Have them cast a new cover, with a dimple in it." A bulge, like a sausage under a sheet, appeared on the image's surface. "A relief of two centimeters will be more than enough clearance."
"Wow," May breathed, rubbing the side of his face. "So, you're an electronics expert on top of everything else?"
"Computers, mainly," Kathryn replied, saving her presentation so May could review it later. "My skill is not so much in knowing things as knowing how to find things out."
"I imagine that's a useful ability in the ISB," May commented.
"Yes, it most certainly is," Kathryn responded.
May opened his mouth to speak but paused when he saw Kathryn look past him. He turned around.
Kathryn had felt the deck stir every so slightly beneath her, as if someone had mounted the boarding ladder. As such it came as no great surprise to her when Ranthe's head and shoulders appeared in the hatchway.
"Here you are," Ranthe exclaimed, her gaze settling on May. "What are you doing? I've been looking everywhere-" She fell abruptly silent, finally noticing Kathryn. For two point seven seconds- according to Kathryn's internal clock- Ranthe did nothing and said nothing, her expression frozen; then her face darkened like a hurricane bar coming over the horizon on a sunny day. "May!" she bellowed. "Will you explain to me what she is doing here?"
"She's, ah, helping me fix the HUD, and, um, a few other things," May replied nervously.
Ranthe growled. "Can I speak to you for a second?" Without waiting for an answer she grabbed May by the arm and dragged him off the flight deck.
"May, I assume you're aware that woman is a former analyst for the Imperial Security Bureau," Ranthe said. She probably thought she was keeping her voice down; anger drove it up enough that Kathryn's enhanced hearing might or might not have mattered. "And now you've got her in here working on the ship? Why don't you just e-mail the plans straight to the Emperor?"
"But-" May protested.
"Where did you meet her?" Ranthe demanded.
"At the beach-"
"What was she wearing?"
"A thong bikini."
Kathryn imagined Ranthe's lips drawing back from her teeth, her gums turning purple as her blood pressure skyrocketed. "So she flaps her udders in your face and you start running around on all fours, howling at the moon! My God, May!" She stormed out of the ship.
Kathryn watched from the cockpit as Ranthe stomped away. The hair on her tail stood straight out as if she'd been electrocuted. The fur on her back and shoulders tried to stand up but was defeated by her jump suit. She looked, Kathryn thought, rather like a wife who'd just caught her husband in bed with another woman. Very interesting, especially in light of the fact that, according to the library computer, she and May had no formal relationship other than serving on the same ship. That didn't rule out the possibility of a more personal relationship, but if so then why was Ranthe dating Lindgold? Or was she working both sides of the street, as it were? Kathryn smiled; if that were so Ranthe wasn't exactly in a position to get all indignant if one of her boy toys let his eyes wander. On the other hand, Ranthe had only recently suffered a nasty little dustup with Lindgold over Natsumi. Now she found Mayfurr drooling over a woman known to be Natsumi's friend. Topping it all off, the library computer said that Ranthe was May's maintenance chief as well as his weapons officer. Perhaps finding that May had brought in another woman to work on his ship wasn't so unlike cheating. In fact, it might have bothered Ranthe less if May and Kathryn had been in bed.
An image of herself and May twined in love's embrace flashed through Kathryn's mind. Her left hand came up to her chest and adjusted the hang of her top. Udders indeed, she thought disdainfully. Her breasts were at best only slightly larger than Ranthe's, and there only because of Kathryn's greater size. In any case, the analytical part of her mind concluded, it made no difference. Ranthe's personal problems had no bearing on Kathryn's goals.
And yet... the reasons that had brought Kathryn here in the first place were as valid now as they'd been then. More so, even; Lindgold had somehow obtained the plans for a TIE Defender, a type of ship that was, supposedly, still top secret. May, meanwhile... Kathryn would have to do some checking but the possibility existed that he'd discovered a settled region of which the Empire had not previously been aware. Meaning that once again Natsumi's intuition had led them to a valuable find. In fact, Kathryn would be willing to give odds that May and Lindgold would also be key to her and Natsumi's primary mission, though at the moment she couldn't say how. It was quite apparent that attempting to compromise the station's security through normal means while Artania stood guard over it was a fool's errand. Kathryn had only to imagine what she could do with a few dozen copies of herself, all sharing common thoughts. Against that, pursuing May looked as promising as any of the other alternatives currently available.
In due course May returned to the flight deck. He looked as glum as she'd yet seen him. "Well... thanks for the help," he muttered, facing Kathryn but looking down and to the side. "But... I think we oughta call it quits for now."
"You shouldn't let her run roughshod over you like that," Kathryn said.
"She is my weapons officer," May replied, taking he tip of his tail in hand and worrying it distractedly.
"Your weapons officer, not your wife," Kathryn pointed out. She rotated her chair to face him, placing her hands on her thighs. That had the effect of squeezing her breasts together, thus enhancing her cleavage.
May tried not to stare but couldn't help it. "Yeah, but even working together is a... pretty intimate relationship in this type of job. You can't just... pretend like what happens outside the cockpit doesn't matter."
"She's seeing Lindgold," Kathryn pointed out, crossing her legs and clasping her hands in her lap.
"Yeah," May admitted, folding out a jump seat and perching on the edge of it. "And I'm seeing Sundown, so it balances out."
"Except that Sundown isn't hardly ever here," Kathryn observed. "So she runs off to his arms whenever she wants, but you have nothing before you but a cold, empty bed."
May flinched as if Kathryn had struck him. "Yeah, well," he mumbled, shrugging and trying to make like of it, but his voice caught.
"I happen to think it stinks," Kathryn announced. "I..." She looked at May, then let her gaze slip away. "I hear what people whisper when they think I'm not listening. And often enough when they know I am." She sighed. "Belive me, May, I know what it's like to crave companionship and not find it." She rose and edged past him, headed for the hatch. "Anyway... I don't want to cause trouble for you. I'll see you again sometime."
"You will?" May asked, a touch fearfully.
"You'd better believe it." The corners of Kathryn's mouth quirked up. "You owe me for helping to fix your ship, and I intend to collect."
May only watched as Kathryn descended the ladder to the main deck and left the ship. "Oh dear," he muttered under his breath. "What have I got myself into this time?"
After completing his patrol and post-mission debriefing Lindgold took a shower, as he usually did. Instead of returning to his quarters- which would have been what he usually did- he went to the gym. His encounter with Natsumi had caused him to rethink how seriously he took his unarmed combat training. He couldn't really imagine a situation where it might matter but he felt the urge even so. While donning trunks and a tank top in the locker room he encountered a man about his own age who resembled a shaggy brown rat.
"Hey, Malthus," Lindgold called.
"Hey, Lind." Malthus finished toweling off. "You won't believe what I saw today."
"A three-headed Denoblian slime fish?" Lindgold suggested.
"Even better," Malthus replied. "May."
"How is seeing May such an unusual occurrence?" Lindgold wanted to know.
"How 'bout if he has the sweetest piece of arm candy you ever did see?"
Lindgold blinked. May did not exactly have a playboy reputation. Quite the opposite, in fact. Sundown was the only person Lindgold knew whom May had actually dated. "Who?" he asked.
"Robochick," Malthus said.
"You mean Ms. Nebulart, the Borg?" Lindgold inquired.
"The same," Malthus agreed. "And I must say, Borg or not, she looks Incredibly hot in a bikini."
"I can imagine," Lindgold agreed, thinking back to the day in the saloon when he and May had seen Kathryn and Natsumi arrive. Though at that time Ms. Nebulart had worn relatively sober clothing it fit well, speaking very clearly of what it covered. Lindgold didn't much care for humans as prospective sexual partners- he found their lack of fur somewhat off-putting- but a nicely formed body wasn't a thing to be dismissed out of hand. "Perhaps there's more to May that meets the eye."
Malthus shook his head. "If this keeps up, we may see him on the beach in a speedo. Later."
"Later." Lindgold nodded and headed out into the gym. He found himself thinking of the circuitry on Kathryn's hands and wondering exactly how much of her body it covered. Thus, because of the context, it came as a double shock when he saw Natsumi, in black spandex trunks and halter trimmed with pink stripes, exercising with a staff. Once the surprise wore off he found himself admiring her style; though she confined herself to utilitarian maneuvers she executed them with such grace and precision they became art. He also found himself admiring her body for its own sake; Natsumi lacked Kathryn's fulsome curves but possessed in their place a lithe, toned hardness that was somehow just as sexy. Lindgold noticed also that a lot of people near her- men, mostly- seemed to be paying more attention to her than their own exercise programs. One canid paid for it when he set a stack of weights down on his tail.
"Hey, Lind!" Natsumi called, bouncing on her toes and waving. The spandex halter constrained her bosom but even so a feline dropped a free weight, narrowly missing his toe.
"You know," Lindgold commented as he approached, "I'm not sure having you work out here is safe."
"Oh, I can handle this lot," Natsumi replied breezily, spinning the staff like an oversized baton.
"Actually, I was thinking more in terms of it not being safe for them," Lindgold clarified.
Natsumi giggled, then turned serious. "I'm glad I met you, Lind. I wanted to apologize for getting you in trouble with Ranthe."
"Don't worry about it," Lind replied, rather more brusquely than he intended. After all, Natsumi was trying to make amends. But Ranthe still hadn't forgiven him, despite his best efforts.
"I'm sorry, but I do worry," Natsumi declared. "I didn't know you were Ranthe's boyfriend... but I shouldn't have tried to come between you. That was hitting below the belt." She looked down. "Because you're right. Games are games... and friends are friends. It's not a good thing to mix them up. I have in the past... and it's cost me."
"Yes, you do hit people below the belt," Lindgold observed, but couldn't help cracking a smile. She'd certainly had a profound effect on his nether regions, to be sure. Still did, as a matter of fact.
"Anyway, I wanted to talk to you," Natsumi said. "I mean- for real. Kathryn told me about your ship."
Lindgold couldn't help tensing. "What about it?" he asked flatly. People accepted him now, but it hadn't always been that way, not by a long shot.
"You're an Imperial deserter, aren't you?" Natsumi said. "I could see it in how you flew. You went through pilot training at the Imperial Military Academy."
"Yes," Lindgold said after a long pause, realizing that not answering was an admission in itself. "Why's it interest you?"
"I'm a deserter too," Natsumi replied, her expression suddenly turning doleful. "I mean... you meet people and they say they understand, but they really don't. Not unless they've actually been there. It... it would be really nice to have someone I could... just talk to. Who does understand."
"How do I know you aren't a spy?" Lindgold asked, only half jokingly.
Natsumi laughed bitterly. "A spy? I wish. It would mean that the Empire at least cared enough about me to use me. Do you know what I am, Lindgold? I'm an experiment. The Bureau's always looking for new personnel, but they're hard to come by. Being an agent takes a particular mind set, as you well know. You take in a class full of promising candidates and work on them, but only a handful ever come out ready to serve. The rest can't be used but know too much for you to return them to the general population. So they have to be disposed of. Not the Bureau cares about them or anything, but the time and money wasted on their training hurts, even to an agency as big as the Bureau."
"What's the alternative?" Lindgold wanted to know.
"Simple," Natsumi replied. "You make an agent. That already has all the qualities you've seen in the successful candidates."
"Clones?" Lindgold asked, frowning.
Natsumi snorted. "Get real. Like no one would ever suspect a crowd of people wandering around who all looked the same. But something very close to it. Genetic engineering, so all the agents look different and can blend in with the crowd, and even have custom enhancements to suit their particular specialties. But grown just like clones, and trained using the same hyno-induction techniques. But there too, as with the genes, instead of copying one mind you assemble a brain-tape by taking bits and pieces from a bunch of people. A few months later you have yet another candidate, needing only some finishing school to polish off the rough edges. Since you control all the variables, you end up with a much higher success rate, and even if one fails the lost investment isn't nearly so much."
"Is... is that what happened to you?" Lindgold asked hesitantly. "You... you washed out?"
"I should think not," Natsumi sniffed. "I was their demonstrator model, so to speak, so the engineers loaded me up with every enhancement they could think of. I'm told I scored the second highest marks in training that anyone's ever got."
"Oh? Who beat you?"
Natsumi grinned. "Kathryn, of course. Which is why she was assigned as my finishing instructor."
"But... then why are you here?" Lindgold asked.
Natsumi's bright expression suddenly turned dark, like storm clouds rolling in front of the sun. "I'll tell you why. I did everything they asked. I became everything they asked. I was ready to become a gallant defender of the New Order, delivering the galaxy from chaos and rebellion. I believed, Lindgold. With all my heart and all my soul." She let go of her staff, grasping at something invisible hanging in the air before her. "And do you know how they repaid my loyalty?"
"How?" Lindgold asked. From his own experiences with the Empire he suspected that he already knew.
"They gave me to a Moff as a sex slave," Natsumi whispered, staring morosely at her feet. "Apparently he'd lobbied for the project and they had to pay him back." She looked up, her eyes hard. "You know what the worst part it was? They never meant to make me a real agent. They made me for the sole and express purpose of showing what the technology could do... and then they didn't even care enough about me to have me liquidated." Tears welled up in her eyes.
"That's..." Lindgold began. He didn't finish because he couldn't think of an appropriate sentiment. That Natsumi had wanted to serve the Empire felt distinctly uncomfortable. And yet... when he thought about it, he could remember feeling much the same way. How proud he'd been upon hearing that he'd been accepted into the Academy. Until he learned what the Empire was really like. And he understood Natsumi's feelings of betrayal, without a doubt. "How'd you get away?" he asked quietly, laying a hand on her shoulder and squeezing gently.
Natsumi lay a hand over Lindgold's. "Kathryn saved me," she whispered. "I... she trained me. She cared for me. She raised me. She... she's the only mother I've ever had. And... I think she started thinking of me as a daughter. She left a very promising career in the Bureau just- just to have me back." She sniffed, wiping her face with one hand and hugging herself with the other.
Lindgold bit his lip. He could feel himself teetering. He liked Ranthe; she was attractive and quite passionate when in the proper mood... but she had the most frightful temper he'd ever seen. She kept it bottled up most of the time but every so often something would set her off. When that happened she never got a little angry; it was all or nothing. Dealing with her under those circumstances was very much like defusing unexploded bombs: one proceeded very carefully, with the threat of violent destruction hanging over every move. Even then, what calmed her last time might just as easily set her off the next time. The only reason they were still together is because it didn't happen that often... and she made up as tumultuously and she blew up. He actually smiled a little, thinking of it. She'd get over this latest funk eventually, and then-
The almost-smile vanished from Lindgold's face. It might take days or weeks for Ranthe to come around. Meanwhile, here was Natsumi, someone who really understood, in ways that even Ranthe didn't. With whom he could talk about things he couldn't with Ranthe. And... Natsumi was damn cute, he had to admit. And yet-
Lindgold's expression hardened. Ranthe wasn't just a lover. She was a friend, in a place where- at least for Lindgold- true friendship didn't come easily. Sure, dealing with her could be difficult... but it might be said that he owed her. He opened his mouth-
"Now, Lindgold, you owe me," Natsumi point out, fixing him with a stern gaze.
"I- what?" Lindgold blinked in surprise.
"Dinner and dancing for every frag," Natsumi said, dropping the staff and snaking an arm around Lindgold's shoulders while tapping him playfully on the nose. "You are going to pay your debt." She waved her finger... not like shaking it at him, but an odd, sinusoidal motion. "Aren't you?"
"Well..." Lindgold grimaced. Natsumi had a point. "Oh, I guess so," he admitted with a sigh.
"Goody!" Natsumi threw both arms around Lindgold and gave him a kiss on the mouth. "I'll let you know when and where. We'll have such fun." She hugged him tightly.
"Yeah, I suppose," Lindgold replied, somewhat hesitantly returning Natsumi's embrace. Because of it he didn't see the gleam of triumph in her eyes. If so he would have been very alarmed indeed.
As Kathryn walked through the station's corridors she wore a pair of khaki sorts with rolled cuffs, a short sleeve button-up blouse, and a bra designed to show her bosom in the best possible light. Which it did; it gave her a cleavage that seemed to go on forever. Which she exhibited by leaving open the top three buttons of her blouse. Needless to say Natsumi had suggested the outfit. And indeed quite a number of people stared as Kathryn passed by. She wondered whether it was her sexual characteristics or her cybernetics that drew attention, but since no one attacked she didn't suppose it mattered much.
The door to May's quarters was simply one of many along a plain, utilitarian corridor. Kathryn came up and pressed the attention signal.
"Yes?" May's voice inquired.
"It's me, Kathryn. Ready to go?"
There was a moment of silence. "What... already?"
"You got my message?" Kathryn asked, frowning slightly.
"Well- yes," May admitted. "But- ah-"
"Surprised to see a woman showing up exactly when she says she will?"
You mean you're surprised to see a woman showing up at all, Kathryn thought. "Well?" she asked.
"Well what?" May asked pensively.
"Are you going to open the door?"
For several seconds Kathryn thought May might actually lock her out, but in time the panel withdrew. She stepped in and looked around.
The room May had all to himself was in fact significantly larger than the one Kathryn and Natsumi had to share. Though a complete lack of decoration made it seem bigger than it was; many a monk's cell wasn't so austerely functional. At least May kept the space tidy and clean, which often as not was more than Kathryn could get from Natsumi. She stepped inside and the panel swished shut behind her. May sat on a chair, knees together, hands clasped in his lap, looking decidedly pensive. He wore a plain shirt, aviator pants, and loafers. It wasn't in her nature to reveal what she learned by observing people... but in this case she decided to make an exception. After all, the purpose of her visit was to develop a relationship. "Do you know why women stay away from you?" she asked.
May quivered, his head drooping to his chest. "I'm... not very attractive," he mumbled.
"That's true," Kathryn replied, "But not for the reason you think. Physically I'd say you're average or slightly above. It's your own fear and self-loathing that keeps people away. It surrounds you like a poisonous fog."
May hunched his shoulders and drew his legs up, curling into a ball. "Yeah," he mumbled, his eyes staring bleakly at nothing.
"Did the repairs work?" Kathryn asked.
It took moment for the penetrate May's funk. When it did he looked up slowly, blinking as if coming out of a dark place into the light. "Yes, they did," he said. "I had the parts made up just like you said, and it all worked perfectly." He brightened considerably at the thought of it.
"Then it's time to discuss my consulting fee," Kathryn announced.
"Oh?" May looked pensive again.
"You are going to take me on a date. Dinner and dancing at the Starlight Lounge."
Judging from the expression of abject terror that suffused May's entire being, Kathryn might have just announced that he was to be flayed alive. "But-" he stammered. "I- I can't-"
"Cop," Kathryn interrupted sharply. "You can. You are. Because I will not take no for an answer." She leaned forward, looming over him and fixing him with a menacing glare. "You owe me, Mayfurr. And you will pay, one way or another. That I promise you, as sure as atomic decay." She gave him a few seconds for that to sink in. "Besides, what's so bad about it?" she asked, switching to a reasonable, gently cajoling tone and sinking to a crouch that put her eye level a bit below his. "It's only one night and I'll pay. What I want from you is the pleasure of your company."
"I... don't know how to dance," May admitted in a tiny voice.
Kathryn snorted, rising smoothly to her feet. "So? Then you'll learn, won't you?" She activated May's personal workstation. "Well, just look at this. The station library has a whole section of dance instruction material." Kathryn looked over her shoulder, grinning wickedly. "Now now, don't look at me like that. It'll be fun."
"Well?" Natsumi asked brightly. "Isn't it absolutely scrumptious?"
"Um," Lindgold replied. He stood before a full-length holographic mirror, which showed a slowly rotating image of himself. It wore a suit made of a lustrous, midnight blue material with a matching tie, a white shirt with a wing collar and pleats, a plum colored cummerbund, and diamond cuff links.
"Lind, darling, you look good enough to eat," Natsumi murmured, bussing his cheeks. She wore a black leather halter and miniskirt decorated with silver studs. "'Sides, you can't go to the Starlight Lounge in this." She gestured contemptuously at his current outfit, consisting of a tee shirt and comfortable, well worn jeans. "We'll take it," she called to the proprietor, a more than middle aged skunk in a suit of more conservative gray that was, nevertheless, impeccably tailored. He nodded and stepped forward, ushering Lindgold into a dressing room to take final measurements.
"That'll be ready in two days," the tailor announced as he an Lindgold emerged once more.
"Groovy." Natsumi presented her credit card. Lindgold peered over her shoulder while the tailor rang up the sale. The complete suit- which included socks, suspenders, underwear, undershirts, and garters- plus jewelry and custom tailoring added up to a bit less than his gross salary for a month. Natsumi paid without so much as batting an eyelash. "Have it delivered to Lindgold's quarters," she instructed, slipping his arm through Lindgold's. "All this shopping's made me hungry. Let's do lunch."
"What did you have in mind?" Lindgold inquired as Natsumi steered him out onto the concourse. By station time it was late afternoon.
"A little place I found," Natsumi replied breezily. "Come on."
Several turbolift rides brought Lindgold and Natsumi to their destination. "What is this place?" Lindgold asked, looking around. It was obviously a restaurant, laid out in a ring. Kitchen and bar occupied the inner face of the ring, customer tables the outer.
"The Crow's Nest Grill," Natsumi replied, leading Lindgold to the edge of the deck. The restaurant sat at the very top of the column running up the center of the hydroponics farm. Nothing but a railing separated it from the empty air beyond; Lindgold found himself leaning over and peering down. He could see all the way to the lake. Little flecks of white on the surface perplexed him until he realized that they were boats.
"If you look closely you can see people sunbathing in the nude," Natsumi commented.
"You can?" Lind leaned forward a little more, scanning the beaches. He had reasonably good eyes but he couldn't see anything. "I think you'd need field glasses," he commented.
"Maybe so," Natsumi allowed. "But anyway, why look there when you can see naked people right here?" She flung something over the edge, which fluttered away into the distance. With a shock Lindgold realized suddenly that it was her top. He looked up and there she was, her pert breasts bare for all to see, the black nipples proudly erect.
Lindgold stared, his mouth hanging slightly open. "W... what..." he gasped, straightening up suddenly.
Natsumi grinned. She stepped forward, grabbed the front of Lindgold's shirt with one hand, his belt with the other, turned, and heaved. It was a very basic throw, one he could have evaded easily if he hadn't been staring so intently at Natsumi's tits. Even so he reflexively tucked into a roll... except that he didn't hit the floor. She'd pitched him over the railing. He saw the restaurant recede rapidly as he fell away from it, tumbling slowly end over end.
Lindgold screamed, shouting vile curses. Natsumi mounted the railing with a single bound and dove after him, keeping her wings tight against her body to achieve maximum acceleration. "Natsumi!" he shouted, windmilling his arms to stabilize himself. "What the Hell are you doing?"
Natsumi fell at Lindgold's side. She tucked into a roll and came out with her skirt in one hand, her panties in the other. "Strip," she commanded, flicking the garments at Lindgold's face. Slipstream sent them fluttering away like bats.
"What!" Lindgold shrieked.
"The gravity grids don't reach here," Natsumi replied. "You have about twelve minutes to make mad, passionate love to me. If you do a good job I'll let you down gently."
"Son of a bitch!" Lindgold screamed, but his hands were already in motion. He shed his clothes in seconds; slipstream whirled them away as soon as he let go. Natsumi spread her wings a bit, just enough to let her maneuver, and slammed herself against him. Lindgold hissed and snarled, clawing and pummeling her. She did the same, and bit as well. It felt more like combat than loveplay but somehow his penis ended up in her vagina. He pounded at her with desperate strength; with so much adrenaline boiling his blood he couldn't do any less. His cock was so hard it ached. Orgasm hit him just as hard and twice as fast; his scream lasted only a second or two but it left his throat stripped raw. Then Natsumi wrapped herself around him and spread her wings. She didn't catch them so much as adjust their trajectory so they skipped across the water instead of slamming headfirst into it. He couldn't maintain his grip; a combination of post-coital lassitude and adrenaline crash left him feeling like a sack of skin full of jelly. He went under; he struggled for the surface but didn't seem to have the strength to make it. Natsumi grabbed him under the arms and pulled him up. After that he just lay there, floating on his back, reveling in the sensation of the water and Natsumi against him. It occurred to him that he should be madder than Hell but he wasn't. It would have required more energy than he could muster.
"Now wasn't that the most incredible erotic experience of your whole life?" Natsumi purred, nuzzling Lindgold's ear. He grunted; as if he could say anything but yes. She giggled. "Tell me, do you patrol outside the Frontier?" Natsumi asked, waving her hand over his face.
The conscious part of Lindgold's mind wondered why Natsumi did that. Suddenly he remembered seeing something like it before, when he agreed to go on a date with her. Even as the though formed, though, it evaporated, and he forgot having seen either gesture. "Yes," he said.
"How do you get there?" Natsumi asked, gesturing again.
If his mind hadn't been awhirl with everything that had happened Lindgold might have said that he felt... a pressure, or sorts. He'd felt it when Natsumi asked him out, but that time it only encouraged him to do something he'd already about half decided to do anyway. But this time it encouraged him to do something that didn't only involve him. The Frontier guarded not only Dreamstar Station but the whole of the Furderation. The knowledge of how to open and close it wasn't exactly a secret; all the pilots knew. A person couldn't fly patrol for any length of time without finding out eventually. But it most empathetically wasn't something one talked about casually with strangers. Admittedly Natsumi wasn't that, given what they'd done together. Nor did he seriously think she might be a spy... but he had only just met her. Life in the Imperial military didn't encourage confidence; too many people- either spies for the Bureau or just individuals angling for advancement- were willing to take an innocent remark out of context and use it maliciously against the speaker. And talking about penetrating the Frontier wasn't innocent by any possible stretch of the imagination.
After only a brief hesitation Lindgold opened his mouth and started talking. There wasn't much to say in any case... and his conscious mind, which would have objected, was too exhausted from the emotional roller coaster it had just ridden to do much more than bask in the warm presence of Natsumi's body pressed against his own. Things like national security and military secrets remained with him but they'd receded in importance. Besides, even if his conscious mind didn't deign to notice, his subconscious sensed a great and terrible power behind what manifested now as gentle encouragement. If it chose to that power could press harder and harder, until Lindgold's mind shattered under it like a rock ground to dust by a glacier. Far better to give in now and avoid all that unpleasantness...
When Lindgold finished Natsumi grinned. "That was wonderful, darling," she purred, drawing his face to hers and kissing him deeply, her tongue wrestling playfully with his. As she pulled away, though, she felt him tense ever so slightly. His conscious mind had sensed that something was wrong, that something had happened that shouldn't have. She could see it in his eyes. "Forget I asked," she commanded, speaking quietly but with unshakable authority, gesturing right in front of his face.
Lindgold's face relaxed as the tension left him. Then it went completely slack as Natsumi took his penis in her hand, squeezing and stroking until it responded. Her other hand took Lindgold's and placed it between her legs. For a moment nothing happened, then he caressed her vulva, probing her vagina with his fingers. Natsumi smiled, but it wasn't Lindgold's touch that brought the warm rush of pleasure to her. Kathryn's going to be so proud of me, Natsumi thought happily. After all, she'd just unlocked the secret which would lay not only Dreamstar Station but the whole Furderation at Daddy's feet. And then Lindgold, deserter and traitor that he was, would get his just deserts. "Oh, Lindgold," she purred, kissing his face and eyelids, "You can't imagine how happy you've made me." Then she giggled, for it was nothing but the plain and simple truth.
"Are you crazy, Artania?" Snortenheimer demanded, for the fifth time, as he paced angrily back and forth in front of his desk. "You gave that Nebulart woman a job in the station's data processing center? In the administration block?"
"That's correct," Artania replied, watching calmly as Snortenheimer stomped back and forth.
Snortenheimer stopped and scrubbed his face. "All right. Why?"
"Because she's good," Artania replied. "I could fire half the staff and still get more work done than I ever did before. Which is the crux of the matter, really. If I didn't hire her- because of her background, for instance- one of the syndicates would. Then she'd be my opponent instead of my ally, and that would make my job a hundred times harder instead of a hundred times easier. This way I get to keep an eye on her and profit from her presence at the same time. I also get to see up close how an ISB trained computer specialist works, so I'll know better what to expect when they try sneaking one past me."
"If she is a spy you've just handed her the keys to the station," Snortenheimer snapped.
"If she is a spy, and if I gave her free reign, she could search the system from top to bottom and still never find what she really wants, because it isn't in there," Artania stated. "As an Imperial agent, only one thing matters: she has to learn how to open the Frontier. Anything- everything- else she digs up doesn't amount to a hill of corba seeds without that."
Snortenheimer stopped pacing and perched on the edge of his desk. "What about Natsumi? Is it possible that Kathryn is meant to draw your attention, while Natsumi works unmolested?"
"That's quite possible," Artania allowed. "If so, Miss Tenko has a most unusual technique. Her outrageous behavior insures that she's always at the center of attention, so she can't go anywhere or do anything without it being remarked. I don't even have to tail her. Every morning the office gossips are bending my ears with stories of Natsumi's latest shenanigans. Even if she's interrogating Lindgold while they're making love he can't tell her anything useful."
Snortenheimer's eyes narrowed. "He knows how the Frontier opens."
"You mean he's seen it open," Artania corrected. "Which isn't the same as knowing how to do it."
"It's still useful information," Snortenheimer pointed out. "It tells them where to look."
"Then they have to persuade me to help them."
"That's isn't inconceivable," Snortenheimer pointed out. "What about those- those- what did they call them-"
"Jedi?" Artania suggested.
"Yes. Jedi. It's said they can twiddle your mind and you never even know it."
"What the Jedi do, stripped of is mystical and philosophical connotations, is nothing but a form of psionics," Artania said. "We have our own experts to counter it. Besides, the Jedi don't exist any more. The Empire exterminated them because they obstructed its formation."
"Which implies that the Empire does poses the ability to defeat strong psis," Snortenheimer observed.
"As do we," Artania said. "Snorty, will you listen to yourself? Yes, they have weapons. So do we. They have weapons to counter our weapons. Just as we have weapons to counter their weapons. And so on and so on. Which is all beside the point in any case. You go on and on about how nothing proves their innocence. Where, then, is the evidence that proves their guilt? More to the point, am I to devote so much time and effort looking for it that I don't mind anything else that's happening?"
Snortenheimer's eyes narrowed in calculation. "Artania," he said after a pause, "If it comes to that, you have no more concrete evidence than I do. What makes you so sure they're innocent?"
Artania sighed, crossing her arms and looking down at her feet. "For one, the fact that there isn't evidence. For another-" she looked up. "I have a feeling."
"I haven't dealt directly with the Imperial Security Bureau very much," Artania admitted slowly. "But I see it reflected in the experiences of the refugees I interview. That experience has led me to one conclusion: the Bureau is arrogant."
"The whole Empire is arrogant," Snortenheimer pointed out.
"Exactly so. And the Bureau is the Empire's primary tool for imposing not only its will but also its culture upon its subject peoples. Naturally the Bureau exhibits all the qualities valued by the Empire, in a highly distilled form. So the Bureau is arrogant, callous, and hateful. It rules by terror. And those it gathers under its banner are the most arrogant, the most callous, the most hateful of all."
"Reasonable," Snortenheimer allowed.
"As for arrogance, both Kathryn and Natsumi have it in spades. Kathryn tones it down in social settings, but she's only being polite to the lesser beings. Natsumi shoves her boobs in your face, and makes sure you're so busy staring at them that you don't notice. But, at the same time, they are in love. They love one another as deeply and intently as a mother and daughter properly should."
"I... see." Snortenheimer rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "You're saying the Bureau would never had admitted people like that. Their more hateful and callous compatriots would have cut them to pieces."
"Exactly so." Artania nodded. "Even if they did get in, and somehow survived, the Bureau would never trust them. But it fits their cover perfectly. Slaves of the ISB would still be the very best at what they did, and know it. There aren't so few openings at the Kessel spice mines that the Bureau has to retain sullen or mediocre servants."
"It could still be an act."
"Yes, it could," Artania admitted. "I could even believe that Kathryn might be able to pull it off. But Natsumi couldn't. She may have an adult body, and extensive training, but beneath it all she's still a little girl. She lacks conviction. Kathryn's inhuman precision isn't due to her cyberware, and it would be foolishly dangerous to think so. It's because she's spent her entire life forging and honing her will into a tool with only one purpose: to break the will of any who oppose her. Her cyberware only makes the tool more effective. All of Natsumi's ability and training can't make up for that experience. In thirty years, with Kathryn riding her every second, she might come close to it, but until then, not a chance."
"If Kathryn is that good, couldn't she fool Natsumi as well?"
"That's why I'm keeping Kathryn very close to me, Snorty."
Snortenheimer sighed heavily. "Oh, all right. You know, it seems like every time we talk I'm giving in to you about something."
Artania grinned, reaching out and tweaking Snortenheimer's nose. "It's 'cause I'm just so damn good."
After completing his report, Mr. Atoz donned a hand-sewn leather hood with holes cut in it for his eyes and beak. It was not known why he did this, and most questioners eventually gave up after getting what struck them as convoluted non-answers. Still, he was a telepath, and they were expected to be a bit... odd.
"How was it?" Cristobal inquired. She was a small, delicately built vulpinoid, with golden yellow fur and very large ears. Together, they looked almost as big as her head.
"The usual," Mr. Atoz replied. "Lost souls, looking for comfort in an uncaring universe. Let's take a walk."
"No spies today?" Cristobal asked, flashing a grin, as she fell in at Mr. Atoz's side. He frequently took walks. It kept him in touch with the pulse of things, he said.
"Now, Cristobal, if ever you came under my professional eye, you wouldn't want me gossiping about what I found, would you?" Mr. Atoz admonished gently.
"Can't you just give me a little hint?" Cristobal begged, not the least bit abashed.
"Oh, why not." Mr. Atoz glanced around. "There's spies everywhere," he whispered conspiratorially into Cristobal's ear. "In fact, I have it on good authority that I myself may be acting as an agent for an intelligence service."
"Oh, you're such a card," Cristobal chucked, giving Mr. Atoz a hug. "Where shall we walk today?"
"This way," Mr. Atoz replied, and set off down the concourse.
After going a ways on the concourse Mr. Atoz turned off into the residential decks. They wandered through several parks and stopped to chat with a group of school children doing a class project. A typical walk, in other words. Cristobal did worry a bit when Mr. Atoz suddenly turned down a utility corridor. But even that wasn't especially remarkable. Once he'd insisted that they don suits and visit the station's main communications array. At least he didn't feel like touring the sewage treatment plant.
"Oh, don't worry," Mr. Atoz commented. "What the people down here value most if privacy. They know I'm not here to pry."
Cristobal said nothing. She didn't like the down levels. If Dreamstar Station could be likened to a city in space, then the down levels were the streets fronted by buildings with boarded up windows and facades covered with graffiti. The people who went down there either had no place else to go or sought to keep their activities hidden from the public eye. The way some of them looked at her brought home the fact that she was small and not very imposing physically.
"Ah, this should do nicely," Mr. Atoz decided, pausing at the mouth of a side corridor.
"But-" Cristobal began, looking around fearfully.
"Don't worry." Mr. Atoz had removed his hood. He looked directly into Cristobal's eyes. "Just wait here. I shan't be a moment."
Cristobal's face went slack. She sat on a box, staring at nothing.
Mr. Atoz nodded, and moved down the side passage. He'd never been told in so many words that Cristobal had been assigned to keep an eye on him. Nor had Cristobal herself. Nevertheless, Artania had personally given Cristobal the assignment and chatted with her about it from time to time. If Mr. Atoz did the scrupulous thing and refrained from prying into Cristobal's thoughts then the whole thing remained as innocent as it appeared, nothing more than Artania trying to make Mr. Atoz's job as easy and comfortable as possible. If, on the other hand, he did pry, he'd discover that Artania's eye was upon him, however indirectly. He couldn't help admiring the devious subtlety of it. Of course it also meant that for what he planned to do now he had to be very, very careful. Artania would surely notice any change in his routine, any sudden shift in Cristobal's behavior. So he gradually stretched the boundaries of his walks. Which did indeed help him stay in touch with the thoughts and feelings of his environment... but also established the precedent for him being in odd places at odd times.
No one who knew him would suspect Mr. Atoz of being a double agent. Which he was not; he barely tolerated being a singe agent. The fact was that he valued freedom, and freedom of thought above all others. He hated what Artania had him doing, for all that he appreciated its utility. Still, if someone had to do the job, better that it be one who didn't enjoy the power.
The dichotomy between necessity and principle made Mr. Atoz more than usually sensitive about having his own activities monitored. His walks were as much an expression of that as anything else; they made it more difficult for his whereabouts to be tracked and masked any suspicious thing he might want to do. That he didn't want to do suspicious things made no difference; it was the freedom that mattered.
At the corridor's far end Mr. Atoz came upon half a dozen people playing a game. Large quantities of untraceable currency were involved, and as such several of the participants were armed. One of them drew a blaster and leveled it at Mr. Atoz's face.
"Ah, thank you very much, that's just what I was looking for," Mr. Atoz said brightly, producing an unsigned credit chit. "Here, I think you'll find this an equitable price." His eyes remained locked on those of the gunman as he pried quivering fingers from the weapon's grip. When it finally came loose Mr. Atoz hid the weapon beneath his wing and poked the credit chit into the outstretched hand. "Been a pleasure doing business." He turned and sauntered away.
Cristobal rose to her feet and fell in at Mr. Atoz's side as he passed by. When he put on his hood she seemed to wake up. She didn't say a word but unease surrounded her like a miasmic cloud.
"Don't worry, it'll be over soon," Mr. Atoz assured. He didn't glance at the shadows lurking in the corners of his vision because he knew they wouldn't be there if he looked straight at them. But whatever cast them was getting closer and closer. It haunted his dreams but he knew, with a certainty he couldn't have explained even to himself, that it existed in the waking world too. He knew that his present course of action would eventually bring them face to face. When that happened- he caressed the pistol lovingly- he intended to be ready.
"But- but- I don't know how to dance!" May exclaimed. He was shaking, practically gibbering with terror. "I can't!"
Kathryn looked around. She'd engaged a small practice room in the station's athletic center. There was even a sound system so she could pipe in music. She'd queued up a few selections but they were for later. Right now she had to quell the incipient failure of her unit's morale. "I am not the least bit interested in what you think, soldier!" she barked, planting her hands on her hips and shifting her feet apart. "It is not your job to think. You will not think. You will follow orders or I will make your life a living Hell. Do I make myself clear?"
May stiffened reflexively to attention, eyes straight ahead. "Sir, yes sir!"
Kathryn placed herself before May, offset slightly to her left. "Right hand here," she began, taking his and placing it on her upper left arm. "Left hand here." She clasped it in her own right hand, extending it out to the side. "Look down. Notice the position of the feet." With the partially offset position, her right foot pointed between his, and likewise his right pointed between hers. "This position is to keep us from stepping on one another's toes, which will happen if we fall out of position. Consider also that my toes are armor plated. You stepping on them won't bother me in the least. If I step on yours, you will regret it, I promise. Now: we will begin with a left box turn. I will call the time in three beat sets: one two three, one two three, like that. On the beat you take your step. I will direct you with my right hand." It troubled her slightly that she was actually teaching him the female role, while assuming the male for herself, but teaching May to lead on top of everything else seemed like too big a step. Once he had the basics down she'd teach him to switch roles. "Beat one: I move my left foot forward and out, toe out, like this." The motion rotated her body to the right. "You move your right foot back and out, toe in, so we stay parallel. Farther... back... good. Beat two: I place my right foot parallel to my left, separated. You place your left. Farther apart. Good. Beat three: I shift my weight, bringing my left up to my right. You do the same, bringing your right up to your left. Yes, just like that. Notice that we have resumed our start position, rotated ninety degrees to the left." More or less, but close enough for instructional purposes. "That is the basic left box turn. Four complete turns will return us to our original heading. Now we begin the second turn. One-"
It pleased Kathryn to note that May was a quick learner and reasonably graceful once he overcame his self doubt. In only a few minutes she had him stepping precisely through the turn sequence. His movements were stiff and mechanical but she didn't have to keep telling him where to put his feet. After twenty minutes he followed without the need for her to call the beat, though he mouthed it silently to himself. Thereafter she varied the beat length, to see how well he adapted. At first he rushed ahead of fell behind, but in time he learned to take he cue from her body. For the first time during the session she let her stern expression relax, and her face split into a grin. "Don't look now, May, but you're dancing."
May lurched to a stop. He blinked in shock and surprise. Then a look of wonder suffused his features. "I am, aren't I?" he breathed. Then he let out a whoop. "I'm dancing! I'm dancing, I'm dancing!" He broke loose and capered wildly, leaping and shouting.
Kathryn watched with a tolerantly bemused expression. It was the appropriate thing to do for the effect she desired to create. Still, the warm glow she felt in her heart at seeing May emerge from his shell was entirely real. Yes, she understood that she was taking much too personal an interest in all this. Nor could she see any relevance to the mission in it. The fact was that she didn't care. Natsumi was right; joy was not a thing that could be deferred to the future. It had to be used in the present, when it came along. If not it vanished into the past, forever out of reach. In that case one could only wait for a new opportunity to come along.
But, as Kathryn knew all too well, such opportunities might never come. Things could change in a moment, and opportunities passed up would be bitterly missed. For Kathryn, the end of joy wasn't merely a possibility but a certainty. She understood now why it was that the Emperor had summoned her an Natsumi to Coruscant, then packed them off to the ass end of space. In a supreme irony, it was the flourishing of love in Kathryn's heart which allowed her to see what intellect alone could not discern. The Emperor had known all along; he'd foreseen that Kathryn and Natsumi would form a bond. It was an essential part of the training, as a matter of fact. Then, when Kathryn died at the hands of Rebel agents on Chiwa High Port, the light of love in Natsumi's heart would gutter out, and the weight of sorrow for all the years of future happiness, now lost forever, would crush her spirit. Like a red giant collapsing into a neutron star, Natsumi's heart would become hard and cold, a place where only hatred and revenge could dwell. In other words, Natsumi would become exactly what Kathryn had once been. And yet something infinitely more terrible, having the power of the Force at the command of that implacable hate.
It was all so obvious when Kathryn stopped to think about it. The Emperor had called her and Natsumi to him so he could assess the results of his handiwork. But the spark of goodness in Natsumi was even stronger than before, and its warmth had even begun to melt Kathryn's hard, icy heart, one that had closed itself to love many, many years before. So he decided to try again: he sent them off to Dreamstar, far from the Empire's oppression, where the love would grow freely. Then Lord Vera Sul would come.
Lord Sul would be the end of love. The end of life, too, if he could manage it. The Emperor would have ordered him to kill Kathryn and Natsumi, but left him to do it in whatever manner he chose. Kathryn disliked Lord Sul because he took such obvious delight in torture and depravity; if one enjoyed suffering for its own sake it became correspondingly more difficult to extract useful information. But for this job, Lord Sul was perfect: he was destroy love in the most horrific and excruciating way possible. He would torture, tease, and taunt until death became a blessed relief... and he would deny it, simply so that the suffering might continue.
Only two possibilities existed to escape this gruesome fate. One was to defeat Lord Sul at his own game, which wouldn't be a victory at all because it could only achieved if Kathryn and Natsumi were willing to be even more ruthless and cruel than Lord Sul himself. Then they'd find themselves trapped in a world where love could not exist. Any expression of it would be a sign of weakness, for which thousands of greedy competitors would be alert and ready instantly to exploit. Love, deprived of any place to exist, would wither and die, and the Emperor's goals achieved. The other possibility was to flee, now, while the long arm of the Empire was still distant. But for that to work, Kathryn would have to convince Natsumi that her beloved Daddy meant to betray her. Which would itself precipitate the very emotional collapse he so fervently desired. It left Kathryn in a paradox that Lord Sul would no doubt have found delightfully ironic: to save love, she had to destroy it. To preserve the thing that had come to give her life meaning, she had to give it up.
"What's next?" May asked breathlessly, hurrying up. He set himself in position without hardly glancing at his feet. His face glowed with triumph and anticipation.
"Progressive moment," Kathryn replied. "That's moving in a straight line, but in a dancing step. It begins like so-"
Needless to say, none of Kathryn's feelings registered in her expression or demeanor. It wouldn't be appropriate, and it didn't matter anyway. Since turning aside was not possible, that left only moving straight ahead. Therefore she would experience as much joy as possible in the time available, with Natsumi and May both. Besides, it wouldn't do May any good to know that, at some point in the not too distant future, Kathryn would betray and murder him, casting aside the intimacy they'd forged without so much as batting an eyelash.
"Will you look at this?" Ranthe threw the modified video board onto Artania's desk with the air of one ridding herself of something unpleasant.
Out of deference to Ranthe, Artania glanced at the board, though she already knew intimately about its origin and use. But only a glance; the board wasn't the point of this meeting. "It looks like a video driver module," she said, in a carefully neutral tone.
"Don't you get it?" Ranthe demanded. "She installed it!"
"Technically, May installed it," Artania pointed out.
"She told him how!"
Artania struggled to keep her expression politely composed. As such things often were, the problem was blindingly obvious to everyone but those most intimately involved. Ranthe didn't care about the driver board. She didn't care that Kathryn had saved her from being fined for violating the readiness agreement. She was upset because a competing female had invaded her territory. Needless to say she failed utterly to grasp what that implied about the relationship between her and Mayfurr, which they both insisted was business only. "So?" Artania said. She preferred to be gentle, but at times injecting sense into a person's skull required a certain amount of force.
"Don't you see it?" Ranthe exclaimed, throwing up her hands. "She has free reign of the ship while May's sitting there making goo-goo eyes at her! Next thing you know she'll be pawing through the security files!"
Artania pursed her lips. Since pointed hints failed to get through, it was time to get out the sledgehammer. "Ranthe, stop carrying on like a jilted lover. It isn't dignified."
Ranthe recoiled as if struck. Then shock gave way to rage. Her ears lay down, her lips drew back from her teeth. He hackles rose, and her tail fluffed up like a bottle brush. A growl formed deep in her throat.
For an instant Artania really thought Ranthe would attack. Which would be unfortunate; Artania really didn't want to make the situation any worse. Fortunately, Ranthe got herself under control. Her outward signs of anger vanished, replaced by an appearance of calm. But only an appearance, as Artania could see by monitoring Ranthe's heart rate and overall muscle tension. "Yes, I see," she said. "It really is rather silly, isn't it?" She even managed a self deprecating chuckle. "Thank you for your time, Artania." She rose and turned to go.
Ranthe whirled. Rage burned in her eyes, instantly suppressed but not before Artania noted is presence. Still, Artania let it pass. She held the video board between the thumb and forefinger of her right hand.
"Ah yes. Thank you." Ranthe snatched the board. As she marched out the shims bent under her fingers.
Artania sighed. Ranthe wanted to taste Kathryn's blood and wouldn't hear a single thing that might sway her from that course. Never mind that Kathryn would cut her to ribbons. Never mind that Ranthe saw no inconsistency in the fact that when Natsumi intercepted Lindgold Ranthe got mad at him, but when Kathryn intercepted Mayfurr Ranthe got mad at her. Love was indeed blind, and because of it people spent a lot of time falling down and blundering into things. And worst by far were those who refused to see how far into love they'd fallen.
Ranthe fumed all the way back to the hangar. When she tried to re-insert the driver board it wouldn't fit; she almost dashed it on the deck but restrained herself in the nick of time. Breaking contract would be a very bad thing, seeing as how working for the Frontier Defense Force was now her and May's prime source of income. With a pair of pliers she straightened the shims; the board slid into place, though not as easily as before. That done she locked up the ship and proceeded onto the concourse. After walking a ways she stopped at a public terminal and logged in using a visitor account. If she was going to slice the personal account of someone who'd once been an expert analyst for the ISB and was now a member of the station's systems administration team, she at least had the sense not to try it from her own personal workstation.
With some trepidation May emerged from the locker room, dressed in his flight suit and carrying his helmet bag in one hand, knee board in the other. With the HUD fixed Fiora's Fury had been returned to the duty roster. Ranthe must have acknowledged the duty order or the Fury wouldn't have been scheduled for launch, but she hadn't said two words to May since finding him and Kathryn fixing the video system. Seeing her emerge from the women's locker room made him feel relieved, then even more tense. She was here, yes. Now he'd have to spend several hours cooped up with her.
In the briefing room May dutifully noted down relevant codes and information on his knee board. Ranthe did the same. They rode on opposite sides of the scramble cart, so there wasn't even a chance to look at one another on the way out to the ship. May, as pilot, performed the external pre-fight check while Ranthe handled the internals, so that kept them apart even longer. When May finally boarded and took his seat she was doing her job briskly and competently, as always. She called the pre-flight cockpit checklist and May verified or set each item. That done May powered up and followed the spotters out to the launch bay, and took off when he received the word. Then they were away, on patrol, with nothing to look forward to but several hours in the cockpit. May ground his teeth; it was going to be worse than he ever could have possibly imagined.
"I understand that you and Ms. Nebulart are hitting it off," Ranthe commented, turning in her chair so she could look at May.
May said nothing. He let go of the flight controls so he wouldn't be tempted to clutch them. The automatic pilot was doing all the serious work anyway; he'd just cock it up. His sense of unease grew by an order or magnitude; not only was Ranthe speaking quietly and calmly, she actually seemed to be making an effort to sound friendly. "I guess," he allowed.
"Got any big plans?"
May considered the question the way an ordinance disposal expert considered an unidentified package that may, or may not, be an explosive device. "I don't know what you mean," he hedged.
"Have you been on a date? Have you plans to go on one?"
May considered. Date wasn't a word he liked to use in the context of himself and a member of the opposite sex engaged in a (possibly intimate) social activity. Too many occasions he'd thought of as dates ended badly. "She wants me to go dancing with her at the Starlight Ballroom."
Ranthe's jaw dropped. She rallied quickly, though. "She does? I didn't know you danced."
"I don't," May admitted. "I didn't, I mean. She's taught me. I can waltz now, foxtrot at least passably, and we're working on swing."
Ranthe stared at May with something akin to horror. In her experience, May approached the prospect of dancing with about as much delight as he'd show at the prospect of dental surgery without anaesthetic. Now he was not only speaking of the prospect with real enthusiasm and pride, but of doing so in a venue that would require him to dress in a type of clothing she didn't think he owned and had never seen him wear, parading himself in front of the station's most beautiful and stylish, asserting by his mere presence to be one of them. Ranthe simply could not equate that image to the Mayfurr she'd come to know. She'd almost believe he'd been replaced by a simulacra. A very poor one, at that, if it acted so shockingly out of character. "I can't believe this!" she blurted, before her mind could censor the words. "What would Sundown say about this?"
May's expression hardened. Not a lot, but enough to make his resolve crystal clear. "Shi'd say go for it. Shi told me hirself that shi doesn't like the idea of me sleeping alone when shi's not here. I bet shi'd like to dance, too."
Ranthe cursed under her breath. In freefall she couldn't slam back in her seat, so she satisfied herself with a sharp huff, crossing her arms and glaring at her instruments, refusing to further acknowledge May's presence.
May heaved a silent sigh and relaxed. At least this part of his world was back to normal.
"Ready for your date?" Natsumi asked, laying face down on her bunk, eyes shining.
"But of course." Kathryn finished packing her outfit. She'd change elsewhere; with his big coming out incipient upon him, Mayfurr had come down with a serious case of the jitters. She didn't want him to see her in her own outfit until after she'd safely installed him in his own. That would also leave Natsumi the whole room in which to make hir own preparations.
"Go for launch!" Natsumi gave an enthusiastic thumbs up.
"Go for launch." Kathryn returned the thumbs up, then tucked the two cases under her arms. One contained her outfit, the other May's. She hadn't left it with him for fear that he'd do something rash.
A brisk walk brought Kathryn to Mayfurr's quarters. She pressed the attention signal and waited. And waited.
"I know you're in there, May," Kathryn announced.
"Look, I know we worked on it and all, but I'm not sure this is a good idea," May blurted.
"Open this door, May," Kathryn commanded in the voice of implacable doom. "Open it right now, or I'll slice it. If I have to do that there won't be time to visit the tailor, and I'll have to dress you myself."
The door unlocked. May waited just inside, wearing pants and a tank top and clutching his jacket. Kathryn shifted both her packages to one arm, grabbed May by the front of his top, and hauled him out. After securing the door she marched him to the tailor's shop as if he were a prisoner going to interrogation. His demeanor suggested that he felt the same way.
The skunk and two assistants waited as Kathryn and May approached; Kathryn had called ahead. She handed over the package containing May's clothes, then impelled him forward with a firm shove. "I give you the raw materials," she pronounced. "I expect you to return me a diamond."
"But of course, ma'am." The skunk bowed. "I have my best men on the job. This way, if you please, sir." He took May by the hand and led him off.
Kathryn used one of the changing rooms. She'd rehearsed, and donned her gown, styled her hair, applied her makeup, and arranged her accessories perfectly, on the first try, without the need for a mirror. Then she sat and waited. Despite the comparative simplicity of his outfit, May would take longer. Simply to work through the jitters, if nothing else.
"Ma'am?" One of the assistants knocked. "Your gentleman is ready."
"Thank you." Kathryn rose, opened the door, and stepped out.
May's outfit was a formal dress white uniform. A generous but appropriate amount of gold braid decorated his long sleeved coat, though the closed collar made him look a bit like he was being strangled. The creases in his trousers looked sharp enough to cut, and his shoes gleamed. A corset smoothed his belly; she'd considered adding shoulder pads, but decided against it. There wasn't anything wrong with his shoulders so long as he didn't slouch. The cluster of ribbons and medals on his breast hadn't required any embellishment either; Lieutenant Mayfurr had managed to acquire an impressive list of decorations. Real ones, not merely what were often called good attendance medals. Awards for distinguished flying, wounds received in the line of duty, heroism, and service above and beyond the call. A most impressive collection, viewed all at once. Nor did the man himself seem at all out of place in such fancy garb; his fur and mane had been trimmed, washed, brushed, and styled until it practically gleamed. A more flattering haircut had done wonders. He was every millimeter the stern, dignified, and handsome flying officer.
Kathryn had worried that May's self consciousness might have undone her work, but thankfully it didn't, at least not at the moment. He was too busy staring at her to worry about himself. He looked at her face, whose alabaster perfection had been heightened by a touch of powder and rouge. Lipstick made her mouth a dark, liquid red; carefully applied mascara accented her lashes and eyes, even the artificial one. Her hair had been drawn back into a braid; conditioner brought out the red highlights and made it as shiny as silk. For added emphasis, a silver tiara encrusted with diamonds rested lightly on her crown, and matching earrings depended from her lobes. Below all that, her peach colored gown left her shoulders, back, and much of her bosom bare; pleated sleeves partially covered her upper arms. A bodice trimmed with lace framed her breasts and emphasized her cleavage, as well as providing a place to display an enormous diamond pendant and the necklace which supported it. A matching ring adorned her right hand, and polish matching the color on her lips decorated her fingernails. Around her middle the gown clung like a second skin; her belly button could be seen if one looked closely. A voluminous, pleated skirt covered her hips and her legs, all the way down to the ankle. High heel shoes large enough to fit over her armored feet would look funny, so instead she'd strapped extensions onto her heels.
"Oh my," May finally managed to say. "Kathryn... you look like a fairy tale princess."
Kathryn smiled. It was the right thing to do... and a natural reaction to the warm glow the compliment sparked in her heart. "Thank you, May," she said, taking his hands. "And I even have a handsome prince with whom to go to the ball."
May blinked in surprise, then grinned. "Shall we, your highness?" He turned toward the door and offered his arm.
"It would be my pleasure." Kathryn responded with a smile of her own, and put her hand on May's arm.
A liveried driver waited outside. The "limo" was actually just a small, open topped speeder, but May handed Kathryn in with full ceremony nonetheless. The driver got in and dove off down the concourse.
"I feel like I'm in a dream," May whispered.
"It's as real as you choose to make it," Kathryn replied. "All that's stopping you is yourself."
The Starlight Ballroom's concourse frontage was quite modest, just a single doorway. But a live, organic doorman stood by it, not the 'droid which would have served in most such establishments in the Empire, even the swank ones. He handed May and Kathryn out of the speeder with friendly smile, and held the door for them as they entered. The hallway beyond spoke of what was to come: the floor was polished hardwood, overlaid by a red carpet. Carved wooden paneling decorated the walls, topped with intricately painted plaster molding. Light came from glittering, crystal chandeliers hanging from the vaulted ceiling.
May tried not to stare but couldn't help it. As much or more amazing than the opulence of the decoration was knowing how much it must have cost to have it all shipped in and installed. Needless to say the club's prices reflected that; he never could have come on his own salary. "Kathryn?" he asked.
"What did you do for a living? Before coming here?"
"I presume you mean After I left the Bureau. I was a freelance security consultant."
"It paid well, I presume."
"Once I got my foot in the door, yes," Kathryn replied.
"When I first arrived, no one would hire me," Kathryn explained. "I picked a company, sliced their secure systems, then wrote a letter to the CEO, explaining that if she hired me I'd show her how to close the vulnerabilities I exploited."
Just then May and Kathryn arrived at the maitre 'd's station. That worthy, a middle aged human whose face and moustache looked as polished as his shiny black swallowtail jacket, greeted the pair obsequiously and summoned a waiter to direct them to their table.
"That's blackmail," May commented. His tone held no censure; it was simply an observation.
"Yes," Kathryn agreed. "I had Natsumi as well as myself to support, and I knew the Empire would come for us sooner or later."
just behind the maitre 'd's desk was a high portal with bronze doors decorated with intricately cast relief designs. They opened onto a balcony, and a staircase leading down to the main floor. A nomenclator- another human, in a brilliant red uniform- stood to one side. "Lieutenant Mayfurr of the Colonial Defense force and Ms. Kathryn Nebulart," he declared in a deep, stentorian voice. The acoustics of the room were such that no electronic enhancement was required for his booming voice to fill it effectively.
May flinched. Kathryn squeezed his arm gently. A spotlight came on, tracking them as they walked down the stairs. Those already present turned to watch.
"They're staring," May whispered, out of the corner of his mouth.
"Of course they are," Kathryn replied, her mouth barely moving. "That's the whole point."
The Starlight Ballroom got its name because the walls, floor, ceiling appeared to be transparent, showing a brilliant star field. The one above was actual, a view through an enormous, domed port on the station's outer hull. The one on the floor was a holographic projection, but it was generated from pickups on the hull, which were arranged so that the two views blended seamlessly. The tables, dancers, and orchestra pit appeared to float in space. Illumination came from towering crystal light fountains, illuminated from within by muted, pastel colors.
Kathryn saw the walls and floor; though transparent to visible light they reflected infra-red and millimeter radar broadcast by her large antennae. She also detected the security scanners which were otherwise artfully hidden inside the light fountains.
To Be Continued