by John R. Plunkett
As he marched into the wardroom Professor Moseivitch looked shockingly unkempt, as if he'd slept in his clothes. He did not smile; his expression was at once fierce and haggard, as if he had a bad hangover. "All right," he demanded, flopping down on the couch. "Tell me exactly what happened."
"Star Baby disappeared," Valjean said, his eye wide and his face slack as if he were in shock. Javert endlessly shuffled a deck of worn playing cards. Snowflake lay on the floor, sobbing piteously; occasionally shi'd look up but each time hir gaze fell on Kit and shi started again with renewed despair. Kit slumped bonelessly in a beanbag chair, rubbing his temples. He wasn't crying, though his eyes were red and his cheeks puffy and streaked. He stared blankly and hopelessly at nothing as if contemplating his own imminent death.
"The Hugos, Liska, Dr. Janek, and myself were in our respective quarters, sleeping," Longstocking reported. "Sherlock was doing a maintenance inspection. Kit and Dr. Stallis were in her quarters, conducting a language lesson. Snowflake was in Ops. At the time of the, the incident shi was studying a sign language learning program."
"Show me the record," Fyodor directed.
"Computer, play clip," Longstocking said.
The big screen lit up and there was Star Baby. Shi signed something- then the screen whited out with a brilliant flash. When it cleared nothing of hir remained.
"What did shi say?" Fyodor asked.
"'Star out,'" Kit replied through his hands. Crushing despair and loss reverberated in his voice though he spoke quietly.
"This is the same clip slowed down fifteen times," Longstocking said.
The slow-motion version began after Star Baby finished signing. The color patterns on hir skin turned bright and jagged, transforming rapidly. Blotches of white appeared and grew as if upwelling from within hir; they burst in brilliant flashes of sparkling light that seemed to eat away the skin around them until nothing remained but a shapeless blob of light. It imploded into a bright spark that faded slowly into nothingness.
"How was hir behavior beforehand?" Moseivitch wanted to know.
"Restless," Kit said.
"What do the sensors show?" Darkstar asked.
"At the moment of disappearing shi emitted a powerful tachyon pulse," Sherlock said. "I can't tell you any more than that because it baked all of our instruments. Our tachyon sensors are for calibrating drive coils; they couldn't handle the power level. No one else sensed anything; the station's shields successfully contained it."
"You should call the hyper-spatial observatory," Kit said. "Their tachyon sensors are designed for that sort of thing."
"Before you ask, Darkstar, no one saw anything," Longstocking put in. "I contacted Chakona Aerospace Control and Security Force command. Not so much as a glimmer."
Fyodor sighed. "Very well. Longstocking, please open an encrypted channel to Dr. Elu Chakra of the-" His coat beeped. After a moment he reached in, drew out his personal communicator, and flipped it open. "Moseivitch speaking," he said. His eyes widened and narrowed, his brows soaring and plunging. "Why, yes. Have you found something? Ah. I see. Thank you very much." He closed the communicator and put it away, his expression enigmatic. "Talk about coincidences. That was none other than Dr. Chakra himself."
"What did he want?" Darkstar asked.
"To tell me that he's found Star Baby."
"Sir, we have intercepted the Chakastra system outer marker," Commander Dawnfire reported.
Captain Keith Walker nodded. "Mr. L'Clerce, have we heard from Chakona Aerospace Control?"
"Yes, sir," Warrant Officer Marisa L'Clerce replied. "They just came on line."
"Very good. Any navigational updates?"
"No, sir. They say we're in the groove."
Captain Walker allowed himself a modest smile. Not a bad piece of navigation for a single-stage jump directly from Cait. The smile vanished. The F.S.S. Isaac Asimov had been pulled away from her routine duties- in this case resupplying a number of remote research stations- by an urgent order that had come directly from the Commander in Chief of Starfleet herself, requiring Captain Walker to make best possible speed to Chakona, where he would receive additional instructions from a Dr. Ygor Stannus of the Science Corps. The orders were maddeningly vague about what exactly the Asimov was supposed to do for Dr. Stannus or why he rated the services of one of Starfleet's most advanced and capable science vessels. It had better be something important, Captain Walker thought grimly. Admittedly acting as resupply ship wasn't exactly a high-profile assignment but at least Keith could see the scientific importance of it. Several of the research stations were sending back artifacts that required special care and handling... plus one body, that of the unfortunate security officer from a station on Nelhut Three, killed in a bizarre accident. Captain Walker had been forced to replace him with a member of the Asimov's own compliment. Ensign Boots may not have been a distinguished officer but he thought of hir as part of the family, as he did every member of the Asimov's crew.
"Mr. L'Clerce," Keith began, "Please compose a message from me to-"
"Dr. Stannus of the Science Corps?" Marisa ventured.
Captain Walker frowned, more in perplexity than annoyance, then swiveled his chair so he could look directly at the communications station.
"A message from Dr. Stannus just came in, sir," Marisa explained. "Encrypted, for your eyes only."
Keith sighed. "Very well. I'll take it in my ready room. Number One, you have the bridge."
"Sir." Commander Dawnfire moved to stand beside the command chair. Shi did not sit because shi was a Chakat and the chair had been designed for a humanoid. A Chakat captain with whom Keith had once served installed a special chair, basically just an elongated bench mounted on the existing pintle. It made things difficult for the humanoid bridge officers; without the weight of a lower body to stabilize it the bench tended to spin rather too easily. On more than one occasion- and much to the amusement of the bridge crew- then Lieutenant Walker ended up on his face after trying to jump to his feet too quickly.
A door at the back of the bridge led directly to the captain's ready room. Captain Walker sat at the desk and opened a workstation. Behind him view ports looked out into the swirling, hypnotic colors of hyper-space; when he'd first assumed command the desk faced the view ports. He ordered it turned because if he stared at the constantly shifting psychedelic patterns for more than a minute or so he'd become enthralled and end up wasting hours and hours of valuable time. Frankly he didn't understand why anyone would bother to install view ports in the first place. Rarely was there ever anything to see but hyper-space and that he'd just as soon not see. He applied his personal encryption key and opened the message.
"Attached to this message is a detailed briefing summary of the project with which I require your assistance," Dr. Stannus began. "I was going to present this to you in person but an emergency situation has developed. Whatever contact information was in your original orders I hereby cancel it. You must take the Asimov to the following coordinates." Dr. Stannus vanished, replaced by the data. "Review the briefing data en route," his voice continued. "When you arrive, contact me at the address specified in this message. Use only encryption five or higher. That is all."
Captain Walker opened the first page of the briefing summary and skimmed through it. He then re-read it carefully. Halfway through the third page he stopped, copied the navigational coordinates to a data chit, and returned to the bridge. "Give me a plot on this," he instructed, handing the chit to Lieutenant Ronald Legaspi, navigation officer.
Ronald took the chit and fed it into his console. "That's the Deep Space Hyper-Spatial Anomaly Detector of the Mileva Memorial Hyper-Spatial Observatory."
"Very good. Log and execute." Captain Walker turned to Marisa. "Notify Chakona Aerospace Control that we are aborting our approach."
Commander Dawnfire glanced questioningly toward hir captain. One corner of Keith's mouth twitched; an odd expression settled over his features. It looked like a mix of about equal parts excitement and trepidation.
"It would seem that our mission just became a Hell of a lot more interesting," he commented with a dry chuckle. "Number One, please summon Lt. Goldstrype. I need to see you and hir in my ready room right away."
Kit blinked as the tug Security Venture dropped out of warp. Whenever he rode a ship into or out of hyper-space he felt as if he'd just woke up after dozing off.
"Position check confirmed," Liska reported, glancing over hir instruments. "Range, thirty-six kilometers and closing."
"If the Array is sixteen kilometers long and we're thirty-six kilometers from it, why can't we see it?" Valjean wanted to know. Only blackness and distant stars filled the view ports.
"We're at the very edge of the system," Darkstar replied. "Well outside the orbit of the outermost planet. There isn't enough ambient light to illuminate it and because it's an open framework it doesn't block the stars behind it."
"On screen," Longstocking directed.
"That's an affirm." Sherlock touched a control and suddenly the Array was there. Not the actual one but a computer-generated image projected by the ship's heads-up display system. It resembled a fine rectangular screen about twice as long as it was wide. There wasn't anything nearby to give it scale; it might as well have been a screen door hanging in space just outside the tug's view ports. In that case someone had poked a broom handle through it; at the center of the rectangle was a small tear with frayed edges curled back like torn cloth.
"Incoming transmission from the construction vessel Rosie," Sherlock reported.
Longstocking nodded. "On screen."
A window opened on one of the view ports, showing a youngish Chakat with deep blue eyes set in a snow white face. About the rest of hir one could only speculate; a bright orange space suit covered every bit of it. "This is Lieutenant Fleetwood, captain of the Rosie," shi began. Hir voice sounded hollow and slightly muffled because the lower part of hir helmet still covered hir mouth and nose even with the faceplate raised. "Are you the university people?"
"We are," Fyodor declared, edging past Darkstar and stepping forward. Security Venture massed some twenty times what Rum Tum Tugger did but the tug's bridge comprised about half the volume of the shuttle's cabin. "I am Professor Fyodor Moseivitch, chair of the College of Xeno-Sciences. You have located our missing ship, Lieutenant?"
"Yes, we have," Fleetwood replied. "We'd just finished stringing new guy wires when it appeared, making a beeline for the power core. We tried to warn it off but it didn't answer. We tried to fend it off with a tractor beam and it shot out the projector. It landed right at the top of the core, where the power conduits connect to the mass detector. We hailed it several more times with no effect, so I took in a servo to cut it loose. It blasted the servo to bits as soon as I lit up the cutter. If you please, Professor, we've be grateful if you could persuade your drone or whatever to let go. We're already behind schedule and if those conduits get damaged it'll set us back months."
"Not to worry, Lieutenant, I'm sure we will have this resolved shortly. Would you give us a steer to the drone's location?"
"Right here, Professor." Fleetwood glanced down for a moment; hir arm moved somewhere out of camera range. A string of numbers appeared on the bottom of the window. Liska touched a control; a red X appeared in the middle of the Array right at one end of the tear. "Is there anything else we can do for you?" Fleetwood added.
"Not right now, thank you," Fyodor replied. "We will be in touch after we've assessed the situation."
"So... what is it, anyway?" Fleetwood asked. "Why did it come here?"
"Frankly, we do not know why," Fyodor replied. "As to what... I fear that I am not at liberty to discuss that." He smiled apologetically.
Fleetwood's eyes flicked back and forth, obviously taking note of Longstocking, Sherlock, and Liska in their Security Force uniforms. "That's an affirm," shi said. "Fleetwood out." The window closed.
"They better not have hurt hir with all that screwing around," Snowflake growled, hir eyes narrowing and hir ears laying back.
"Since when does Star Baby have weapons?" Valjean exclaimed.
"According to Dr. Stannus shi's had them all along," Kit supplied. "Four mounts, one on each wing tip and two on the belly. I read his report while we were waiting for Longstocking to get the tug."
"Shi wouldn't shoot at us, would shi?" Javert inquired somewhat nervously.
"I wouldn't bet money on it," Longstocking commented. "Shi's lost, probably scared out of hir wits, and strangers have been picking on hir. That's why I suggested using a Security Force tug instead of a civilian one. This one has tactical shields. Just in case."
"What if... shi doesn't want to come back?" Snowflake clutched hir hands to hir face, hir eyes brimming with tears and hir body quivering.
"I don't think we need worry," Darkstar said. "This is the first time shi's been alone for any extended period. If shi's as much like a regular child as shi appears shi'll be glad to get back among people shi knows."
The image of the Array grew until it filled, then overflowed, the forward view ports. Kit swallowed hard and shifted in his chair; as the edges of the Array receded into the distance his eyes tried to see it as a horizontal plain instead of a vertical wall. The illusion that Security Venture was diving straight down became so compelling his stomach churned. Up close the Array's surface rippled with enormous waves that formed hillocks and valleys on what looked more and more like a landscape. The tear grew into a yawning chasm; the frayed edges became immense tangles of carbon fiber girders and beryllium monocrystal wire.
Liska brought the tug around so it moved parallel to the surface. Up ahead a tower capped by a large ball dominated the artificial landscape; dozens of colossal spotlights arrayed around its base pointed upward, aimed at the point where the ball joined the tower. The red X lay there as well. Liska brought the ship to a relative halt about a hundred meters out.
"Deploy the virtual hands projectors," Longstocking commanded.
"Aye aye." Liska touched a control. Sponsons along the tug's sides unfolded, reaching out into space like the spars of an umbrella. The force field projectors creating the virtual hands had to surround, on at least three sides, the volume in which the hands were meant to operate.
"Who does the deed?" Longstocking wanted to know, glancing around the bridge.
"I will," Snowflake volunteered instantly.
"It should be Kit," Nova said, putting a hand on Kit's shoulder and gently, but firmly, pushing him forward.
"But-" Snowflake protested.
"I agree with Nova," Darkstar cut in. "Snowflake, I realize you want to help. In your place I would, too. But Kit does have the best record of dealing with Star Baby. Now's not the time to take chances."
Kit stepped forward, licking his lips. His brow glistened with sweat and his hands trembled.
"Kit, listen." Darkstar caught his shoulder before he could sit down at the servo control station. "I know this has got you on the rack. I know how I'd feel if Aurora got lost. Hell, I'd be in hysterical convulsions. But you need to be calm. If you're upset, no matter how carefully you control yourself, shi's gonna pick it up. At best it'll make hir upset, at worst shi won't respond because shi won't recognize you. Forget about everything that's happened. Forget where we are. Forget how you feel. Think about what it's like when you're cuddling Star Baby and shi's rubbing against your hands. Don't think about tomorrow, yesterday, or anything but now. Star Baby loves you because of your heart, not your head." Shi jabbed him in the chest. "Let the love shine out of you, Kit. Let it be the beacon that guides Star Baby out of the darkness and back into the arms of the people who love hir."
Snowflake blinked. The change in Kit was subtle yet shockingly profound. He stood straight, his chin up, his expression calm and composed but set with a quiet determination almost frightening to behold. He seemed- not older exactly but somehow infinitely more mature. He sat down, inserted his hands into the gauntlets-
The sky seemed to rip open in a blaze of eerie, silent color. Something shot out of the light like an arrow then stopped suddenly and contracted from behind like a stretched rubber band snapping back into shape. The strange glow faded and the object could be seen for what it truly was: a star ship. In general form it resembled a dumbbell, with blocky accommodation and propulsion sections joined by a thick strut. It had four warp nacelles, arranged in an X configuration, and tall cooling fins jutting from the top and bottom of the stern. Four rectangular pods were fitted around the central spine; between them and the engine module was a thin, circular shield.
"What in the name of the Holy Hand Grenade is that?" Valjean exclaimed. He, and every one else, stared straight up through the view ports in the roof of the tug's bridge.
"That is a Verne class science vessel," Darkstar replied. "Five hundred and three point four eight meters overall length, one hundred forty-two thousand two hundred and sixty four gross registered tons, standard configuration compliment of three hundred ratings and one hundred officers, maximum speed warp seven point nine, maximum cruise range four years. In ultra-endurance configuration the crew compliment is one hundred and seventy-five ratings and twenty-five officers, maximum cruise range fifteen years."
"Why is it here?" Kit demanded.
"To collect Star Baby," Fyodor replied.
"Orbits matched, sir," Lt. Legaspi reported.
"Very good." Captain Walker nodded. "Give us a visual, if you please." The main view screen at the front of the bridge changed from a navigational display to a computer-enhanced image of the Deep Space Hyper-Spatial Anomaly Detector, which hung vertically in front of the Asimov's bow.
"Enlarge," Walker directed. The honeycomb grid seemed to leap forward in steps until the ball of the mass detector became clearly visible, centered in the screen. Also clearly visible was a small vessel floating beside it and another, somewhat larger one, anchored near where the power core passed through the Array's surface.
"Bustler class military tug," Dawnfire began, anticipating hir captain's next question. "Modified Blackwell class space construction support ship."
"Where is the..." Walker began. He'd read the entirety of Dr. Stannus' briefing no less than three times and he still couldn't decide what to call it.
"Sir, incoming live link from Dr. Stannus," Marisa said.
"On screen," Walker commanded.
An inset window opened on the main screen, showing Dr. Stannus' hard features. "Have you arrived on station, Captain?" he inquired.
"Just now," Walker replied.
"Then it is absolutely imperative that you take custody of the alien construct at once," Dr. Stannus insisted.
"There are already two other vessels on the scene," Walker replied.
"Sir, we're being hailed by the tug, C.M.V. Security Venture, and the construction vessel, C.C.V. Rosie," Marisa announced.
Two more windows appeared next to the first, showing Lt. Fleetwood and Professor Moseivitch.
"Federation vessel, this is controlled space, can you explain what is your purpose in being here?" Fleetwood demanded.
"Captain, we appreciate your timely arrival, but we do not require any assistance at this time," Professor Moseivitch said.
"Captain, Professor Moseivitch is acting in direct contravention of Starfleet regulations," Dr. Stannus declared. "I instruct you to take him into custody pending a formal hearing!"
Walker's eyes flicked rapidly from one image to the next as all three persons spoke nearly at the same time. "Lt. Fleetwood-" he picked the name from the sidebar next to the image- "The Mileva Memorial Hyper-Spatial Observatory is a Federation installation. I do not have to explain my presence here." He pointed with his right hand and drew his left index finger across his throat. Marisa touched a control; Fleetwood's image vanished. "Professor Moseivitch, may I inquire what calls you to this location?"
"I am consulting with the Chakonan Security Force on a delicate salvage operation," Fyodor replied.
"The artifact Professor Moseivitch is trying to salvage is the legal property of Starfleet," Dr. Stannus insisted. "The professor is attempting to abscond with it. You must stop him, Captain!"
"Captain, Dr. Stannus is mistaken," a second voice insisted. a Chakat in a Security Force tunic with a lieutenant's collar tabs replaced Professor Moseivitch. "The item we are here to salvage is clearly the property of the Chakonan government. Further, I must advise you that you are in violation of Chakonan territoriality-"
"As I pointed out to the other lieutenant," Walker cut in, gently but implacably, "According to the Janus Consortium charter, this location is legally a Federation installation. It is entirely possible that you are in violation of Federation territoriality. I will consult my legal experts." He made a pinching motion with his left hand. The border of the window turned red, indicating that the channel was still open but that audio and video from the Asimov had been muted. "Where is the construct?" he asked.
"Just under the mass detector," Goldstrype replied.
"Lock onto it and beam it into the cargo hold."
"We can't beam through the mass detector, it's too heavily shielded," Lt. Nagai- a Chakat- reported. "We need line of sight."
"Mr. Legaspi, maneuver the ship as required by Mr. Nagai."
"What are they doing?" Kit asked as the Asimov began to drift sideways, closer to the plane of the Array.
"Maneuvering for a transporter lock on Star Baby," Darkstar replied.
"We have to stop them!" Snowflake exclaimed, leaping to hir feet.
"We're in a rather precarious situation," Longstocking pointed out. "Their captain is right. This is, technically, a Federation installation. And-" shi grimaced- "we're operating at the ragged edge of our authority here. Just because no one's said Star Baby isn't ours doesn't mean shi is. With all the arguing going on back on Chakona calling for help is just as likely to cause trouble as cure it."
"But we got here first," Javert insisted. "Doesn't that count for anything?"
"Not really," Sherlock replied. "If we consider Star Baby salvage then we have to take hir in tow or put a marker on hir before shi's considered ours. Until then anyone who comes along can snatch hir up."
"But shi's not salvage!" Snowflake insisted. "Shi's- shi's a person!"
"Not legally shi isn't," Darkstar said. "Shi has no ID, no birth certificate, no naturalization status. The only documentation shi does have is a claim of salvage filed by Professor Moseivitch on behalf the Security Force. Which establishes the precedent that shi is not a person and is of questionable legality to boot."
Kit's head whipped around. "What do you mean?" he demanded sharply.
"I signed an agreement promising that I would turn artifacts and discoveries made by the observatory over to Starfleet," Fyodor replied. "I violated it by giving Star Baby to the Security Force."
Kit jerked his hand out of the gauntlets and wiped his brow, which dripped with sweat. "Sherlock, you said we have to take hir in tow. Is that all we have to do?"
"Pretty much," Sherlock replied. "At the very least, once we have hir in hand they'd have to fire on us if we refuse to give hir up."
"They won't do that," Longstocking declared. "That would be a violation of Chakonan territoriality, not to mention an act of war."
"Then we need to hurry," Snowflake insisted, hopping from foot to foot as if shi needed to go to the bathroom. "Before they get a lock on Star Baby!"
"I'm on it." Kit jammed his hands into the gauntlets.
"Kit-" Darkstar began, raising a cautioning hand.
A brilliant flash lit the Security Venture's bridge. The deck shuddered; Fyodor stumbled against Darkstar.
"What the Hell?" Valjean exclaimed, shaking his head.
"Report!" Longstocking snapped.
"Star Baby fired on us," Sherlock replied. "We lost..." hir voice trailed off. The outermost four meters of one of the projector arms spun slowly past the view ports, sheared off as cleanly as a yard worker could have done.
"What do we do now?" Javert demanded in a shrill voice tinged with hysteria.
"Can you fix the projector array?" Darkstar asked.
"I'm working on it," Sherlock replied, hir fingers flying over the controls. "There!" Shi stabbed one last button with a dramatic flourish. "Virtual hands on line, sir!"
"Do your thing, Kit," Valjean said, giving Kit a slap on the shoulder.
Kit made no move to put his hands into the gauntlets. He stared at them blankly, clenching and un-clenching his fists "I... I don't understand. Why... did shi shoot at me?" He looked up at Darkstar, his expression dazed and frightened.
Fleetwood's face appeared on the view port. "Professor, I hate to be pushy, but your drone is starting to damage the power conduits-"
"Cut that noise!" Darkstar thundered. Sherlock stabbed a control almost reflexively; Fleetwood vanished. "Mr. Sherlock, if the ship is about to explode then let me know. Otherwise I don't want to hear it."
"Yes, sir!" Sherlock sat ramrod-straight in hir couch, hir eyes gleaming with a frightening intensity.
Darkstar glanced out the side view ports. A red line appeared on one toward which the Asimov descended. According to a counter next to it a minute and nineteen seconds remained. Shi laid hir hand on Kit's shoulder; he started and looked up, his expression fearful.
"Kit, Star Baby attacked you because shi's frightened," Darkstar began in a calm, quiet voice. Otherwise the bridge was so utterly silent that even the sound of the ventilating system seemed loud. "You were distracted and upset. Shi didn't recognize you. That's not your fault, Kit. This is a stinky situation all around." Shi dropped to one knee so their faces were even. "Remember what I said. Forget about the Asimov and all the rest of it. I'll worry about that. You, you let your love shine out. Bring Star Baby home."
"Yes, sir!" Kit thrust his hands into the gauntlets.
"Mr. Sharpears," Darkstar continued, "Maneuver the ship so that we're blocking the Asimov's line of sight."
"S- s- sir?" Liska stuttered. Hir hands hovered above the pilotry controls, quivering unsteadily.
"Do it!" Longstocking barked.
"Sir!" Liska grabbed the controls with less than her usual delicacy. The deck lurched slightly as Security Venture shifted position.
"The, ah, alien construction just fired on the Security Venture," Goldstrype reported.
Captain Walker blinked. "Damage?"
"Minor. They lost a bit of their tractor array."
"It's refusing their assistance," Dr. Stannus said. "Captain, you are entirely within your rights to intervene on it's behalf."
"How, exactly, would you suggest that I do that?" Walker inquired, a slight edge in his voice. "Firing on them would seem rather impolitic, under the circumstances."
"Use a tractor beam," Dr. Stannus said.
"That could still be considered a provocative action," Walker pointed out. In truth he wouldn't hesitate to use a tractor beam- or the ship's main weaponry, for that matter- if it would stop a criminal act. He argued to buy time; something about Dr. Stannus' choice of words didn't feel right. The briefing presented the alien artifact as some kind of AI drone. Very sophisticated, yes, but fundamentally just a mechanism. How does a machine "refuse assistance?" Then there were broader questions. The artifact had been recovered from the wreckage of a ship that had collided with the Array. Well, he could see that the Array was damaged. How had this ship managed to penetrate so deeply into Federation territory without being detected? Why hadn't Starfleet been called in at once? Why had Professor Moseivitch chosen to give the artifact to the Chakonan Security Force, which was unequipped to handle this sort of investigation? What could have led him to believe that he could keep Starfleet out of the loop?
"Sir, the tug is moving to block our sight line," Goldstrype said.
"Captain, they are taking overt action!" Dr. Stannus exclaimed. "You cannot fail to respond!"
The briefing was carefully and meticulously constructed. Which meant, to Captain Walker, that any information not included was deliberately omitted. Now Dr. Stannus pushed him to act on insufficient information in a situation that could have far-reaching consequences. It seemed very likely that Dr. Stannus was playing his own game.
"Captain!" Dr. Stannus shouted.
On the other hand, orders were orders. Walker had been instructed, in no uncertain terms, to place himself and his ship at Dr. Stannus' disposal. The whole purpose of military discipline was to insure that orders, when given, were promptly obeyed. There simply wasn't time to explain to everyone why the orders should be obeyed. Frankly he didn't particularly like Dr. Stannus- but Dr. Stannus was his superior, by order of the Commandant herself. Walker had sworn an oath; regardless of how he felt about Dr. Stannus, if he refused to obey the orders of a superior, what right did he have to expect his orders to be obeyed? The discipline ran both ways.
"Mr. Kingsley, lock the tug. Tractors on line."
"Sir!" Lieutenant Aaron Kingsley, at the Weapons and Security console, had anticipated the order. With a single sharp stab of the finger he committed the firing solution already loaded.
The Electronic Warfare console beeped loudly. "Sir, the Asimov has weapons lock on us and is charging tractor beams!" Sherlock announced.
Kit gulped and looked up. He'd been waving his hands back and forth, twiddling his fingers. "My problem, remember," Darkstar said, squeezing his shoulder. He nodded and got back to work. "Hail them," shi said, shoving Fyodor forward and stepping back out of pickup range.
A window opened, showing the Asimov's bridge, a roughly circular room with stations at the front, sides, and back. At the center of it all the captain sat, comfortable but alert. Darkstar found hirself thinking of how Kit might look in another twenty or so years; Captain Walker had neither Kit's height nor mass but he was trim and well proportioned, with just a touch of fleshiness around the edges that gave him, in Darkstar's opinion, a pleasingly cuddly look. Age and the rigors of command had weathered his strongly Anglo-Saxon features, hardening and sharpening them. Not so much as to make him fierce or frightening but enough to properly accent his air of quiet command. A small scar on his left cheek broke the symmetry of his face but added character. His severely cut hair showed traces of the silky black it had been in his youth but was now shot through with intrusions of iron gray and thinning some above the forehead.
To the captain's right stood a Chakat who looked to be about the same age. Random patches of white decorated hir fundamentally ruddy orange pelt, except for hir jet black mane- fairly long but tied back in a bun- a chocolate colored boot on hir left hind foot, and a black tag on the end of hir tail. Shi wore the top half of a Starfleet uniform: a black tunic with a horizontal red stripe across the chest- for Command section- and collar tabs indicating hir rank as Commander. Affixed to hir right breast was a comm badge, to the left a row of decorations.
"Captain, I demand an explanation!" Fyodor shouted, drawing himself to full height and glowering fiercely.
"I'm the one who should be demanding an explanation, Professor," Captain Walker replied, as calm and unruffled as ever. "I have it on good authority that this artifact you are attempting to salvage is Starfleet property. Do you intend to turn it over to Starfleet after you've recovered it?"
"Star Baby is not a thing!" Snowflake screamed, shoving Fyodor roughly out of the way. Longstocking's mouth opened and Darkstar took a step but Nova moved faster than any of them. She flung herself on Snowflake's back, knocking hir down and pinning hir arms. That gave Sherlock enough time to leap to hir feet and join the fray. A moment later Nova and Sherlock carried Snowflake, still kicking and screaming, from the bridge. Longstocking took Sherlock's place at the controls.
Kit gritted his teeth and shook his head to dislodge the sweat dripping down his face. His hands continued their weaving uninterrupted. Come on, Star Baby. Come to Daddy. A section of trusswork shimmered and suddenly he saw hir, limned by a pale, white glow almost lost in the glare of the spotlights. Hir skin imitated the color and pattern of the girders but inexactly, as if hir body were made of thick glass. His jaw dropped; shi looked so- so tiny. His eyes stung with tears. Tiny, lost, and alone. He opened his hands-
Dr. Stannus was speaking but Captain Walker didn't register it. His mind dwelled on that young Chakat's startling outburst. It seemed a rather emotional response to the treatment of a piece of hardware. Not to mention that shi was clearly a civilian. And where was the tug's captain? He'd assumed it was the Chakat lieutenant but shi'd taken over the Operations console and now seemed to be waiting for orders like everyone else. Professor Moseivitch was obviously a great orator but he didn't have the aura of a commander. There were more people on the tug's bridge but with the video sensor set on narrow field he couldn't see them. At least one was a foxtaur; Walker had briefly seen his tail and hindquarters. Then there was the lioness, who dressed like a civilian but fought like a master of unarmed combat. There could be two, possibly thee, more. Just what in the blue blazes is going on here?
"We have transport lock," Lt. Nagai reported
Captain Walker's hesitation was so brief that only Dawnfire or someone else equally close to him would have noticed it. "Energize," he commanded. Better to err on the side of caution. If this is a legitimate salvage operation I'll just blame it all on Dr. Stannus.
Kit's palms tingled with a strange pins-and-needles sensation. He blinked rapidly to clear his vision; Star Baby let go of the trusswork and drifted almost within his grasp. The glow around hir brightened suddenly and began to sparkle with rainbow colors. "No!" he screamed, throwing himself against the console. His hysterical strength sprung the gauntlets from their mountings; the glowing orange hands shot forward but shimmered out of existence when they passed beyond the range of their projectors.
A tremendously bright flash lit Security Venture's bridge. The view ports polarized automatically but enough got through to momentarily dazzle everyone's eyes. When Kit's vision cleared Star Baby was gone. He ripped his arms out of the gauntlets; bits of metal and plastic clattered to the floor. The muscles in his arms knotted; his breath came in ragged gasps between tightly clenched teeth. He looked directly at the distant bulk of the Isaac Asimov- and there was something in his eyes that caused even Darkstar to pause as shi reached for him. Then he looked directly ahead, at the trusswork attaching the mass detector to the top of the power core. Something had torn a ragged gash in the structure. To everyone's consternation he began to laugh.
"Transport failed," Lt. Nagai reported.
"What happened?" Dr. Stannus demanded a fraction of a second before Captain Walker could ask the same question.
"As the dematerialization sequence began there was a huge power spike," Nagai replied. "It blew out the entire integrator array."
"What happened to the drone?" Dr. Stannus looked alarmed.
"I don't know, sir. It wasn't dematerialized, though."
"Mr. Goldstrype?" Walker called.
"Scanning," Goldstrype replied.
"Shi's where?" Fyodor frowned, cocking his head.
"There," Kit replied, pointing. "Wedged between the mass detector and the power core."
Fyodor drew a breath then clamped his mouth shut and stabbed a control. The channel to the Asimov closed. "Very well. How do we get hir out?"
"We won't be using the virtual hands or any part of the tractor beam system," Longstocking said. "Star Baby shot out the power conduits. The whole array is out of action."
"I wonder what's so fascinating about that particular spot," Valjean said. "Hir mom homed in on almost the exact same one."
"Someone has to go in there and talk to hir," Kit said.
"Kit, what are you talking about?" Javert sounded perplexed and just a tiny bit frightened.
"Someone has to put on a space suit, go over there, and talk to Star Baby face to face," Kit replied. "It has to be a person because shi's already had bad experiences with servos. It has to be someone shi knows, someone shi trusts, someone who understands hir." He swallowed. "It has to be me."
Valjean opened his mouth. Darkstar silenced him with a curt gesture. "Do you understand what you're suggesting, Mr. Carson?" shi asked, hir eyes searching his face. His skin looked sallow and pasty, his eyes hollow and slightly glassy, and he shivered as if freezing.
"Yes, sir," he replied, his voice calm and perfectly controlled. "Star Baby is only here because shi wants to be here. If we keep screwing around shi'll decide shi doesn't want to be here. Then shi'll disappear, just like on Sigma 17. We won't be able to track hir and shi'll be gone for good. I know it sounds crazy, but- but-" he scrubbed his face. "I, I'd rather take the chance than risk not ever seeing hir again."
"Do you have a pressure suit rating?" Darkstar asked.
"Yes, sir. Last term I took a course in suit operation as an Astronautics elective."
"And you do understand that if Star Baby decides to get rough there won't be enough left of you to mail home in an envelope?"
Kit's cheeks took on a decidedly greenish cast. He nodded convulsively.
"Is it really worth that much risk, Kit?" Darkstar asked. "What we've learned already is of incalculable value."
Kit licked his lips. "If it were your granddaughter out there, would you go?"
Darkstar's eyes narrowed, locking gazes with Kit. He did not look away. "All right then." Hir mouth smiled but hir eyes looked sad. "I admire your courage, Kit. You remind me of me, when I was young and stupid. Come on, I'll help you suit up."
"Darkstar-" Fyodor began.
Darkstar's head snapped around. "Are you going to deny him the chance to lay it on the line for someone he loves? Are you?"
Fyodor swallowed. He withered under Darkstar's merciless eyes.
"I thought not." Darkstar took Kit's hand in hir own and led him out.
"It's stuck between the mass detector and the power core," Goldstrype said. "There's no way we could get at it with the transporter even it was functional. There's too much shielding in that area."
"Captain, you must recover that drone!" Dr. Stannus exclaimed.
"So you've said," Captain Walker replied, rather more sharply than he'd intended- but not much. "Relax, Doctor. We're not defeated yet. Mr. Goldstrype, what's the tug doing?"
"Nothing, sir. Holding station. Their tractor system is completely disabled but they're making no effort to repair it."
Walker drummed his fingers on the arm of the command chair. An AI drone is just a type of robot. We keep our robots relatively dumb because we had enough trouble with "artificial" people during the Gene Wars. But this drone was made by- someone else. Someone out there. His eyes flicked to the star field visible above and behind the mass detector. Its body is far more complex than anything we could build. His left hand unconsciously found and traced the scar on his cheek. The Professor's own people gave it a pet name and they call it shi instead of it. Not to mention that it- shi?- is behaving very irrationally. But not irrationally in the way one would expect a damaged or improperly programmed computer to behave. It shot out the tug's tractor system with precision, inflicting only enough damage to achieve the desired effect. It didn't attack at all until people directly disturbed it. Now, by accident or design, it's taken refuge in the one place where neither the Asimov nor the tug could get at it.
"Captain, what course of action do you intend to take?" Dr. Stannus wanted to know.
Walker frowned, annoyed at the doctor for breaking in on his reflection. But he wasn't the sort of person to stand by and do nothing. "Mr. Dawnfire," he said. "Put together a salvage team and get over there."
"Sir." Dawnfire saluted smartly and left the bridge.
Captain Walker's hand twitched. He wanted to catch hir hand, to look into hir eyes and tell hir to be careful. But that wouldn't be an appropriate way for a captain to speak to his executive officer. Especially with Dr. Stannus watching.
Face up against the wall, Snowflake wheeled about and took one step. Now shi stood against the other wall. Security Venture's brig wasn't very large. Shi wheeled about and repeated the process; there wasn't anything else to do.
The door latch clicked and withdrew. Snowflake crouched, ready to spring-
"Kit!" Snowflake skidded to a halt nearly chest-to-chest with him then backpedaled quickly. He looked like he'd stopped by on the way to his own funeral.
"Hi," Kit replied. His smile looked ghastly, the rictus of a man being garroted. "I'm really sorry about everything but I need your help."
"What for?" Snowflake's hindquarters pressed against the wall.
"To go get Star Baby. I'm going to suit up and go talk to hir, face to face as it were. Try to get hir calmed down so we can work things out. But, you see, I've had maybe ten hours of suit time in my entire life. Valjean and Javert don't have suit ratings. Darkstar's rating expired years ago. Longstocking or Sherlock could do it but they haven't worked with Star Baby. Right now I don't think it would be a good idea for anyone shi doesn't know to try and get close. Which leaves you."
Snowflake licked hir lips, then looked down. Shi couldn't meet Kit's eyes; they reminded hir too much of those of a dead fish. "Kit... I don't know if I'm the best person for the job. Shi... Star Baby's never liked me much. Not like... not like shi likes you. And... we didn't exactly part on the best of terms."
"Snowflake." Kit stepped into the room and caught Snowflake's hands. "I... please come with me." His hands shook, the palms and fingers slick with sweat. "I'm... scared, Snowflake. If I tried to go out there by myself, I'd, I'd, I don't know. I'd fail. I can't do that, because, because Star Baby needs me. Us. And-" Kit swallowed, his Adam's apple bobbing jerkily. "Snowflake, I, I need you. I can't do this by myself." His grip upon hir hands was crushing. "I can't."
Snowflake looked up into Kit's eyes. A light a hope and joy replaced the deadness, as if he gazed upon his only hope of Salvation.
"Okay," Snowflake said.
"Sir, the tug is..." Goldstrype inspected hir instruments closely. "Opening an airlock. Two persons going EVA, a Terran and a Chakat."
"Captain, you must prevent them from reaching the drone!" Dr. Stannus exhorted.
Captain Walker gritted his teeth. I'm getting tired of that refrain. "Shall I have Commander Dawnfire break out boarding pikes and cutlasses?"
Dr. Stannus' brows drew together until they met over his nose. "Your levity is not appropriate, Captain!"
From somewhere at the back of the bridge came a muffled snicker. Captain Walker struggled to keep his face composed. Marisa, probably. She's the youngest member of the bridge crew. "What is the status of Commander Dawnfire's expedition?"
Marisa cleared her throat. "Requesting permission to cast off, sir."
So it was Marisa. "Bid them Godspeed."
"May the Creators smile on you," Darkstar said. Hir voice sounded tinny coming through speakers in Kit's helmet.
"Thanks," Kit managed to gasp.
"Gravity off," Sherlock said. "Outer door opening."
Kit gritted his teeth as the floor seemed to drop out from under him. But what really bothered him was the utter blackness that greeted him as the door slid open. He'd gotten used to the computer-enhanced images displayed on the view ports and subconsciously forgotten that they weren't real. If the gravity wasn't off he'd have swooned. "This is a bad idea," he muttered.
"Now you tell me," Snowflake replied.
"You're facing directly toward where you want to go," Darkstar said. "Watch out for loose wires, though. If you get one wrapped around you you'll be in a world of hurt."
"Roger," Snowflake replied. "All right, Kit. Let's go." Shi stepped forward into the doorway, looking all around. Shi placed one forepaw on the hull outside the hatch and shuffled forward, gradually completing the ninety degree change in orientation. Kit swallowed hard and shuffled after hir. At the edge he looked down- which proved to be a mistake. He faced along the shaft of the power core toward the surface of the Array and the distant spotlights mounted to the Array's girders. His inner ear told him he was perched on the verge of a very long drop even though he, the tug, and the Array itself all fell free together. He swallowed hard.
"Kit, I'm upping your carbon dioxide," Darkstar said. "You're starting to hyperventilate."
"Kit." Snowflake crouched on hir forepaws, bending hir torso forward. "Take my hands."
"Okay." Kit forced his arms up and grabbed Snowflake's forearms. Shi pulled him gently forward, holding him firmly while he set one foot, then the other, on the outer hull. Now he stared straight "down."
"Kit, get on my back." Snowflake turned sideways and crouched.
"But..." Actually Kit was more worried about letting go of Snowflake's arms.
"It'll be easier that way, Kit."
"Okay." He lifted his right leg and put it carefully over Snowflake's lower back. He swung himself up as if mounting a horse, then clutched frantically with his legs as he started to rebound. Molebind fields in the soles of his boots kept him stuck to the hull but there weren't any in the seat of his pants.
"Put your arms around my torso," Snowflake continued, guiding his arms under hirs. Kit realized, in a detached sort of way, that he was grabbing hir breasts. Even through the bulky material of the suit the front of hir torso bulged significantly. At the moment that fact was way down the list of important considerations.
"Here we go." Snowflake crouched, steadied hirself, and jumped. Actually, "jumped" was too strong a word. "Pushed off gently" was more like it. Kit twisted his head around but found his view blocked by the side of his helmet so he relaxed and looked straight ahead.
The power core was the size of a small office building. The open framework of girders surrounding it made it look like a building, one still under construction. The girders themselves weren't silvery gray as they appeared from the bridge but glossy black. The carbon fibers from which they were woven gave them their color and a coating of diamond gave them their amazingly bright finish. Because of that the spotlights didn't really illuminate them; they became collections of constantly shifting glare spots cross-braced by wires that glowed like the filaments of incandescent light bulbs. All the spotlights really did was emphasize how incredibly dark everything was. They washed out the pale glow of distant stars and without atmosphere to scatter the light anything not directly illuminated was utterly pitch black.
Snowflake tumbled slowly end over end. Near the end of the trip Kit found himself looking back at Security Venture. The tug was a squat, ugly thing, its design dictated by utilitarian rather than aesthetic considerations. Its flattened hull looked vaguely crab-like, an impression only heightened by the enormous manipulator arms folded against its belly. The bridge occupied a raised blister along the back. Kit could actually make out faces lining the view ports. He recognized the Hugo brothers primarily by their color. Kit smiled and considered waving but couldn't bring himself to let go of Snowflake.
"We're almost there," Snowflake said. Kit wondered how shi knew. They landed with a slight jar; Snowflake bent forward until hir forepaws contacted the girder.
"My word," Kit exclaimed. The darkness actually helped him; technically Snowflake stood on the side of the power core but in the absence of hard data from his inner ear his eyes arbitrarily made the surface below him a floor.
"You kids okay?" Darkstar asked.
"Yeah," Snowflake replied.
"That's an affirm." Kit let go long enough to give a thumb's up, though most likely only Snowflake could see it. "Where do we go now?"
"Straight in," Darkstar replied. "Watch out for the power conduits. They're heavily shielded but the flux is awfully dense."
"Wilco." Snowflake switched on hir helmet lights and stepped forward. Kit squeezed his eyes shut as shi seemed to dive off the side of the girder; when he opened them his eyes once again enforced conventional perception and the girder below them was "down" even though they'd just rotated their orientation by ninety degrees. Thinking about it made him dizzy so he looked around. The girders, which looked so thin and spindly from a distance, formed pathways upon which three Chakats could walk abreast- in suits, no less- without crowding. They glittered like cut gemstones, surrounding Kit and Snowflake in an impossibly dense cluster of rainbow colored stars.
"My God," Kit breathed. "It's beautiful."
"Yeah," Snowflake grunted. Shi kept hir attention focused on the power conduits, which looked about the size of elevator shafts. The energy flowing through them amounted to ten times the maximum output of Asimov's warp drive- and Star Baby had damaged them. If they failed... well, then Kit, Snowflake, Star Baby, and in all probability everyone on the tug as well, would be blasted into plasma before they even had time to feel it. It wasn't a very comforting thought. Snowflake had sometimes wondered what happened when this life was over but shi was in no particular hurry to find out.
"There shi is!" Kit shouted, sitting up suddenly.
Snowflake let out a yelp and pulled hirself down into a crouch. "Kit-" shi growled.
"I see Star Baby," Kit interrupted. "Shi's almost directly ahead, stern toward us.... it looks like shi clawed hir way through the girders."
Snowflake gasped. Now that Kit pointed it out shi saw, too. A cold, pale light surrounded Star Baby's body even as hir skin duplicated the diamond glitter of the girders around hir. To make room for hirself shi'd cut the girders and pushed them aside. Shi'd tucked hir wings under hir body and hir rudders lay flat against hir tail. Hir strength limbs gripped the girders to hold hir in place.
"Kit, Snowflake, this is Commander Dawnfire of the F.S.S. Isaac Asimov," a strange voice said. "I must order you to desist at once. The item you are attempting to salvage is the property of Starfleet."
Kit laughed. "Star Baby doesn't belong to Starfleet." Snowflake halted in surprise; Kit nudged hir in the ribs with his heels as if shi were a horse and shi started moving again.
"Professor Moseivitch illegally took possession of-" Dawnfire began.
"Shi doesn't belong to Professor Moseivitch either," Kit cut in. "Shi doesn't belong to the University or the Security Force."
"Then who?" Dawnfire wanted to know. "You?"
Kit laughed again. "No. I'm just hir friend."
"Kit, Snowflake, don't worry about these jokers," Darkstar said. "We'll keep 'em off your back. Just do what you gotta do."
"That's an affirm," Kit replied.
"Um," Snowflake said in a voice that quavered slightly. "Y'know, Kit... those virtual hands can really screw you up. I, I kept thinking of hir as, as, y'know, small. A handful." shi cupped hir hands in front of hir.
"Shi's not, is shi," Kit said, licking his suddenly dry lips. The swell of Star Baby's upper hull rose above him like the back of a beached whale.
"Well... what do we do now?" Snowflake asked.
"Ah..." Kit's mind went blank.
"Touch hir, Kit," Darkstar said. "Stroke hir. Like you do back at the station."
Kit shifted sideways until his boot touched the girder and swung himself off of Snowflake's back. He completed the operation successfully only because shi grabbed his arm and there was no gravity. He moved cautiously along a cross brace until he stood right next to Star Baby. The soft glow and the way shi mirrored everything distorted his depth perception; his outstretched hand actually bumped into hir before he realized how close he was. Up close shi looked somehow translucent, like the surface of a still, deep pool. Glow concentrated around his fingertips like rays on a Kirlian photograph. He giggled, sweeping his hand in wide arcs. Flickers of light and dark raced across the surface like ripples on a pond. He pressed his hand against hir; he didn't seem to be actually touching anything but even through his gauntlet he felt hir, thrumming gently. "Oh, Star," he breathed, prostrating himself against hir. "You're so... beautiful." He swept his arms back and forth, reveling in the odd, frictionless sensation of it. It must have been an illusion but shi even felt warm.
"Kit?" Snowflake called. "Are you all right?" Hir voice sounded oddly distorted.
"Yes, I'm fine," Kit called back, then yelped as Star Baby pushed hirself up and out of the nest of girders. Kit kicked his feet, trying to get a grip on the girder before he slid off but his boots flailed in nothingness. The whole front of his body stuck to Star Baby's skin as if there were molebind fields in every part of his suit. He made a strangled sound as Star Baby brought up hir front right strength limb; he didn't scream only because terror closed his throat. Shi didn't try to pick him off; shi held hir hand palm up near him and suddenly he slid off into it, landing rather heavily but not dangerously so.
"Kit!" Snowflake screamed, hir voice distorted to the point of being barely recognizable.
"I'm okay...." Kit called back, his voice trailing off. Star Baby's body wasn't merely glowing but shining. Bright, shimmering bands of color raced and blended, swirling and exploding.
"Kit... getting... bad... -tion," Darkstar said. The rest of hir words were unintelligible.
Kit got to his feet. Whatever part of him touched Star Baby's hand adhered but not so strongly he couldn't pull away. With hir lower pair of strength limbs Star Baby made a series of gestures. Even with Nova's intensive training Kit had trouble recognizing them because he saw them from a strange angle. "Yes, it's me," Kit replied, signing his name. K-I-T. "No, wait-" he shouted as shi clasped him against hir belly with both hands. He wanted to say don't squeeze too hard but he couldn't breathe. The world dissolved in light so intense it seemed to burn through to his very soul.
Globules of light shimmer, blend, and separate like blobs of warm honey. Time and space swirl and tangle like strands of spaghetti.
"Where am I?" Kit asks. He speaks but has no mouth. He sees but has no eyes.
"Where... where are you?"
Kit is one of the globules of light. He feels himself flowing through the strands of time and space like oil up the wick of a lamp. He sees the Universe, laid out before him in all its glory. He is filled with awe at the majesty and splendor of Creation. All he has to do is reach out his hand and embrace it-
Take me home.
"Huh?" Kit is confused. "What's the matter, Star?"
I want to go home.
"But-" Kit looks out across the multifaceted vistas of What Is.
Don't leave me. Please?
Kit dithers. Knowledge of Everything is literally within his grasp.
"No," He says, mostly to himself. Not if the price of it is to give up Star. "Come on, Star. Let's go home."
"Uhhh..." A sharp pain in Kit's mouth jerked him toward consciousness. He tried to ignore it but couldn't. Worse yet, it brought to his attention the pain his chest. He groaned.
"Kit, please wake up!"
Desperate fear in the voice punched through the fog around Kit's mind. With a Herculean effort he forced his eyes open; something gray and fuzzy filled his vision. It took him a moment to realize that the fuzziness was due to the thing being covered with fur, not a defect in his sight. "Snow?" he croaked.
"Kit!" Snowflake crushed his face against hir bosom. Kit moaned because that's all he could manage with his mouth full of fur. His ribs felt as if someone had worked on them with a meat tenderizing hammer. "I was so scared," Snowflake continued, stroking hir face against Kit's. Hir tears left streaks of salty wetness on his skin. "I was afraid you- you-" shi couldn't continue; shi squeezed him even tighter, sobbing into his shoulder.
"He's all right, just a little bruised," a masculine voice said, not anyone Kit recognized. Firm but gentle hands disengaged him from Snowflake's grip, laying him down and pressing a hypospray against his neck. The coolness of it felt good and it felt even better as it washed through him, gently blanking out the pain. He smiled dreamily, letting himself settle back into blissful unconsciousness-
A second hypospray shocked him awake. Kit didn't particularly want to be awake but even though it wasn't hurting his whole body seemed to buzz mildly, rendering sleep impossible.
"Sorry about that," the voice apologized. "It's a stimulant to speed healing. Better than being sore for a week, though, isn't it?" The speaker chuckled. "We need to move him to the sick bay. Is there a stretcher-"
"I'll carry him," Snowflake volunteered.
"All right, then. Crouch down here. Darkstar, if you'll give me a hand...."
Hands gripped Kit under the arms, lifting him and dragging him across Snowflake's lower back. The stimulant woke him up but didn't restore his strength; his head flopped forward because he couldn't hold it up. He still wore his space suit with the face plate open. The flooring looked suspiciously like that on board Sigma 17. A pair of large, gray-furred paws on his left were obviously Darkstar's; a pair of feet and legs on his right in black shoes and slacks might belong to a Terran but the voice didn't sound quite right. With Darkstar supporting Kit's torso Snowflake rose to hir feet and started walking. Because he sat sideways, and Darkstar held his head, Kit finally saw the other member of the party. He was, like Liska, a vulpinoid. Sandy brown fur with black highlights covered his face, hands, and tail. About the rest of him one could only speculate; his black Starfleet uniform with a blue Science Section color stripe covered it completely. He wore his golden brown mane cut comfortably, but not excessively, short.
"Sathitet ne Tongawar, chief medical officer for the F.S.S. Isaac Asimov," he said with a friendly nod when he noticed Kit looking at him. Otherwise his attention remained focused on the medical scanner in his left hand.
"You... you're from Nisavar," Kit managed to croak.
Sathitet blinked. "Why, yes," he replied. "How did you know?"
"Accent," Kit replied. "I... grew up there."
"You grew up on a Voxxan colony world?" Darkstar asked.
"Yeah," Kit said. "Near... West Nuremor."
"How's that for coincidence," Sathitet exclaimed. "I grew up in East Nuremor, just across the river. I don't remember there being a Terran enclave, though."
"Wasn't," Kit replied. "Just us. Me, Mom, and Dad."
"That explains a few things," Darkstar commented.
"What do you mean?" Snowflake demanded, more than a little defensively.
"Such as why his two closest friends are foxtaurs," Darkstar replied.
In the sick bay Darkstar and Snowflake hoisted Kit onto one of the examination bunks. Despite his size and the added bulk of his suit they handled him easily; they were stronger than they looked.
"Get the suit off," Sathitet directed, switching on one of the diagnostic modules. Darkstar unlatched his helmet and pulled it off; Snowflake started on his boots.
"Um...." Kit said.
"'S'matter?" Darkstar asked as shi released the waist articulation and started disconnecting the support pack.
"There... wasn't a liner in my size," Kit said.
"You mean he's naked under that?" Sathitet demanded.
"Yep." Darkstar set the support pack aside and disconnected Kit's gauntlets. Snowflake lifted his legs so shi could slide the lower half of the waist articulation under his buttocks.
Sathitet shook his head. "Bad for the skin," he muttered.
Snowflake licked hir lips and watched avidly as shi pulled down the front of Kit's suit pants. He struggled, but no avail; his legs were trapped in the pants and Darkstar had shoved his arms halfway out of the sleeves so they were trapped inside the torso unit. Anyway, he hadn't the strength.
"Oh, for Heaven's sake, get him a sheet, at least," Sathitet exclaimed as a brilliant flush spread across Kit's face and neck.
Darkstar fetched one and spread it across his midsection. "Aw," Snowflake exclaimed, screwing up hir face in a comical pout.
As the last of his suit came away the sheet stuck to Kit's bare skin. Copious quantities of sweat had dried there, making it tacky. In some spots- under his arms and between his legs- there were still wet patches.
"Nothing a little rest won't cure, thank goodness," Sathitet pronounced once he had finished with the diagnostic unit. "You seem to be a very lucky man, Mr. Carson."
"Where... am I?" Kit asked.
"On board Sigma 17," Snowflake replied.
"What am I doing here?" the last thing kit remembered was- was- something about Star Baby.
"We were hoping you could tell us," Darkstar said. "After you and Star Baby disappeared, you had us all in a state."
"We thought- you were gone for good." Snowflake's voice- and hands- trembled.
"I asked Longstocking to check the station and see if you were there," Darkstar said. "Star Baby was in the work room, happy as can be. You were sprawled in the floor, just inside the personnel lock. We flew back as quick as we could because the remote sensors couldn't tell if your were alive or not. Apparently you are."
"How... did I get there?" Kit demanded, blinking in surprise.
"That's what we'd like to know," Darkstar replied. "According to the logs, none of the station's airlocks were cycled. Apparently you just popped out of thin space."
"He needs to be washed," Snowflake said.
"He needs to rest," Sathitet corrected, gently but firmly.
"Actually, I think a bath wouldn't be a bad idea." Darkstar wrinkled hir nose. "You'll take care of that, Snowflake?"
"Yes." Snowflake's reply was barely a whisper. Shi had laid hir hands on Kit's belly and was stroking gently.
"But-" Sathitet began. Darkstar caught his eye and shook hir head fractionally. He frowned, but fell silent. Darkstar took his arm and led him out, closing the door behind them.
"What you did for Star Baby," Snowflake began. "It was incredibly brave."
"It was incredibly stupid," Kit muttered.
"It was brave," Snowflake insisted. "And selfless." Shi stroked the hair back from his face. Hir eyes shone. "Let's get you to the 'fresher." Shi slipped hir arms around his torso and lifted him up. As their chests touched Kit became cognizant of the fact that Snowflake was also naked. Hir breasts pressed against his pectorals; he felt hir nipples poking him. Suddenly the sheet wasn't adequate separation, not in the slightest.
"Parts of you are certainly recovering," Snowflake commented with a dry chuckle as shi slid him off the cot. At the last instant he remembered to put his feet down. Clutching the sheet with one hand and leaning on Snowflake with the other he managed to stagger to the refresher. He sank to the floor of the stall, slumped against the wall. Snowflake took the removable shower head in hand and switched on the water. "You're going to have to give up the sheet," shi commented.
"Um..." Kit's hands moved vaguely. The sheet protected his modesty but only because his knees were bent. He yelped as Snowflake turned the spray on him, playing it across his chest, belly, and legs. The sheet slicked down against his skin. With hir thumb Snowflake popped open the shampoo bottle and sprayed some onto the vicinity of Kit's navel.
"It doesn't do much good with the sheet there, does it?" Snowflake asked, lathering the shampoo with hir hand.
"But..." Kit swallowed. The stall had a lip so it could double as a tub. Snowflake lay on the floor, leaning against it from the outside. Hir breasts flopped over the edge.
"What you did for Star Baby was noble and compassionate," Snowflake said. "And... so was what you did for me. The logical thing would have been to go with Sherlock. But you did the right thing. For Star Baby... and for me. I'd about convinced myself that the best thing I could do for the project was quit and leave Star Baby's care in competent hands. Can you imagine how it felt, suspecting that even the Hugo brothers were better parents than I was?" Shi slipped hir hand under the edge of the sheet, across the front of his thigh, and around the shaft of his penis. "I want- I need- to thank you. For helping Star Baby. For giving me a chance to help. For needing me. For making me believe in myself." Shi rose, stepping over the lip of the tub and hanging up the spray head. Hir hand, lubricated by shampoo, squeezed and caressed Kit's tumescent member. "I just... want to give you back some of the joy you've given me." Without interrupting hir ministrations shi caught the edge of the sheet and pulled it away. "If... if you don't want it, just, just say so." Hir voice quavered; fresh tears ran over the partially dried stains on hir cheeks. "I just... what you've given me is so wonderful. I... I don't know how else I can repay you." Using hir elbows shi gently pushed his knees apart, lowering hir torso until shi could squeeze his penis between hir breasts.
Kit's breath came in ragged gasps. His head flopped to one side, his eyes glazed. His arms lay at his sides, fingers twitching. He didn't say no so Snowflake continued.
"How is your young man?" Captain Walker inquired. He stood before the wardroom view ports, gazing out into space. A person might have thought he was looking at Chakona except that Asimov's angular bulk now obstructed the view.
"Dr. Sathitet thinks he'll be okay," Darkstar replied. "Thanks for loaning us your doctor."
Keith turned away from the ports. "I figured it was the least I could do under the circumstances. I'm afraid, though, that all we've done is buy a little time. Dr. Stannus is going to be looking for an arse to boot when he finds out what's happened."
Longstocking followed the conversation, glancing from one person to the next. "Um... I don't mean to be rude," shi interjected, "But I get the impression you two know one another?"
"Many years ago," Keith began, "More now than I care to remember, my very first deep space assignment after graduating from Cape York was on board the F.S.S. Hudson- under the command of a Captain Darkstar, whom all us junior officers referred to as the Stub-Tailed Devil. Whatever shi may seem like now, back then shi was a monster, a demon in flesh, who turned the first five years of my active duty into a living Hell. Even ratings got better treatment than us junior officers because, as shi liked to put it, at least they had some useful skills."
Darkstar smiled. "I considered it my duty to whip you young gentlemen into shape."
"I'd like to think that you succeeded, at least in this case." Keith's heels clacked together as he came to attention, saluting smartly.
"Oh, stop that," Darkstar protested. "I'm not your superior and haven't been for a long time. And sit down, already. Just looking at you like that is making my joints hurt." Still, shi had to dab at hir eyes.
"Oh, I bet you could still put the fear of God into a gaggle of ensigns," Keith commented, grabbing a folding chair and turning it backwards before sitting.
"Oh, shi can, I assure you," Longstocking put in.
Darkstar shook hir head. "Longstocking, I'm really sorry about-"
"Don't be." Longstocking forestalled any further protestation with a dismissive flick of the wrist. "I can fix star ships and keep this madhouse running more or less smoothly, but I'm not a star ship captain. You were right to assume command and frankly I'm glad you were along to do it."
Darkstar sighed. "Thanks, Longstocking. I know what it's like to be... displaced."
Longstocking frowned. "Frankly, Darkstar, I can't imagine anyone bumping you."
"Not overtly no," Darkstar replied. "But... when the Changi was commissioned, my name was at the top of the list of OIC candidates. Promotion to commodore, command of the pride of the Federation fleet... I was pulling for that one, believe me. But I didn't get it."
"Why ever not?" Dawnfire demanded. Shi took a seat next to Keith and handed him a drink.
"The promotion board found some... irregularities in my file."
"That doesn't make any sense," Longstocking protested. "If those 'irregularities' didn't stop you from becoming a captain how could they stop you from moving to flag rank?"
"You forget how old I am," Darkstar replied. Shi settled hir torso against the back of the couch, which shi had to hirself. "The 'irregularity' in question took place before any of you were born. In fact, for some of you, before your parents were born. I was Executive Officer of the Illustrious, under Captain C'habali. We were told that raiders were operating from Hadris Two, a planet that had been slated for colonization. We did find an unlisted settlement, but weren't sure if it was raiders or just colonists who'd jumped the gun. I get put down with a strike force and told to check it out. We hump in on speeders. The terrain was awful. Jungle, bayous, and swamp. Up close there's no doubt but that it's a raider camp. They've got all sorts of star ship repair equipment hidden under null-screens. Then comes the kick in the pants. My medical officer tells me they're Sauron."
"What are Sauron, exactly?" Longstocking asked, frowning. "I mean, I've heard of them, naturally, but..." shi let hir voice trail off.
"Of all the genetically engineered super-soldiers produced on Terra during the Gene Wars, Sauron are the very worst," Darkstar explained. "They aren't exceptionally strong, fast, or healthy. In fact, except to a genetic analysis, they're indistinguishable from regular Terrans. What makes them deadly is that their bodies are constantly manufacturing and releasing plague viri- with a random factor built in, so that vaccines developed today won't work tomorrow. Just being in contact with them makes enemy soldiers- and civilians- get sick and die. Even their corpses are dangerous; they have to be incinerated. To make them harder to detect- and provide some control over their ability- they only become virulent after intimate contact with another Sauron of the opposite sex. No other form of contact will do, so you're safe as long as the men and women are kept separate. You can even let them interact with regular Terrans. But if only two escape- and they find one another, by chance or design- you're in serious trouble. Worse still, they can interbreed with regular Terrans- and though hybrid Sauron lose the ability to produce disease, they can have pure breed offspring. When people speak of how over ninety-nine percent of the Terran species was exterminated by genetically engineered diseases, they are speaking mostly of Sauron plagues."
"Now, we jump ahead to the present- or, what was the present in the final quarter of the last century," Darkstar continued. "By then a treatment has been developed, whereby Sauron could be rendered harmless without otherwise affecting them. But it has to be individually administered- to people who have learned, the hard way, that to reveal their ancestry was to earn themselves a life sentence in a prison colony or, often as not, a shot in the back of the head and a trip to the nearest incinerator. General Order 418 excepted Sauron from the guarantee of basic human rights, thus they could be killed by any one, at any time, for any reason. The result being that Sauron go underground- where they can't be tracked or treated- and into enclaves, where their natural tendency to reproduce results in new outbreaks. At stake are the populations of not one but dozens of worlds. On Hadris Two it means that all the Terrans in my command have to stay behind because we didn't have the supplies to treat them if they got sick. No great loss, fortunately, because most of the crew was Caitian. But it meant that we had to take this camp and make sure that no one escaped. I decided that the only feasible course of action was to storm the camp by surprise. So, in the dark of night, we surrounded the camp on two sides with autoguns and antipersonnel mines and attacked from the other two. It worked perfectly; they tried to escape into the jungle and were cut down like wheat. Those that stood didn't put up much of a fight- and after it was over I found out why. All the men were off, probably on the raider ships. We'd caught the women, children, aged, and infirm. They sent the kids out first; we found them in the woods, some two hundred of them, stacked like cordwood in front of autoguns. We took about fifty prisoners. I asked Captain C'habali what to do. We didn't have facilities for fifty Sauron prisoners on board the Illustrious so he called Sector Command for orders. Commodore Hanson's reply came back within the hour. He said no prisoners."
"But- you already had prisoners," Longstocking protested. "I- don't understand."
"What Darkstar means," Captain Walker said, his tone and expression grim, "Is that shi was ordered to kill them."
"But-" Longstocking blinked. "Starfleet would never do something like that!"
"That is what they'd rather have us believe," Darkstar replied. "Which is why my promotion was denied."
"What did you do?" Dawnfire asked quietly.
"We had the prisoners in a mess hall," Darkstar continued. "I ordered it rigged with demo charges. When the work was done I took the detonator in my hand and pressed the button." Shi pantomimed the action. "As commander of the expedition I was responsible. I would not allow any of my people to carry this... atrocity on their conscience. When it was over we planted a nuke, pulled back to a safe distance, and blew the whole site to em cee squared."
"And... that was it?" Longstocking asked after a long, pregnant pause.
"Yes," Darkstar replied. "In the last century, that sort of thing happened all the time. Sauron plague outbreaks were common enough that many felt it was... justice."
Longstocking's eyes narrowed. "Did those children deserve to die just because of how they'd been born?"
"Certainly not," Darkstar replied. Hir tone changed not even slightly.
"Then for God's sake why did you do it? That order was immoral. You could have- should have- refused it!"
Darkstar shook hir head sadly. "No, Longstocking, I couldn't. At that time if I'd refused I'd have been brought up before a Court Martial and, at least, discharged from Starfleet. My family had been wiped out just a few years earlier. Starfleet was my family. Without it... I couldn't have lived." Hir voice remained steady but hir hands shook. "Besides... if I'd refused, Captain C'habali would have had to do it. I... couldn't put that on him."
"What about now?" Longstocking demanded, jumping to hir feet.
"If I tell my story now, Starfleet will deny it," Darkstar replied. "There's no evidence. Even if there were, I'd be the one charged with war crimes. Then who'd take care of my granddaughter?"
Longstocking paced in a circle, growling and tossing hir head. Darkstar watched hir with an expression that grew more pained by the second. Finally shi got off the couch.
"No!" Longstocking shouted, leaping sideways as Darkstar approached. "I- I-" Longstocking clawed at hir mane. "Darkstar- I'm sorry. I- I just need to get the Hell out of here." Shi spun and marched out without looking back.
Darkstar stared for about a minute. Hir whole body trembled, hir cheeks wet with tears. A drop rolled off hir muzzle and landed with a splat on the deck. Dawnfire opened hir mouth but Keith silenced hir with a hand on the shoulder. Darkstar started forward, leaving the room as Longstocking had: without looking back. Dawnfire looked at Keith, who looked sad but not the least bit shocked or surprised.
"You knew," Dawnfire pronounced quietly.
"I suspected," Keith replied. "I knew shi had a... checkered past. And I knew what Starfleet had done, though I wasn't supposed to. Before you say anything, please remember this." He caught Dawnfire's face with his hand, lifting it to his. "Everything that I am, shi made me. Shi was my commander, my mentor... and, in an odd way, my friend. I owe hir a debt- not that I'd betray my oath for hir, but enough to forgive. If I thought that publicizing hir story would do some good I'd do it. But what difference would it make? At best it would embarrass Starfleet and create a scandal. At worst it would destroy a fine officer who has given more to Starfleet than either of us can ever imagine. Tell me this: would you want to be the one who has to explain to Aurora why hir grandmother's being taken away? What greater price can we expect Darkstar to pay above and beyond having had to carry this burden on hir soul?"
Dawnfire didn't speak. Shi rose, stepped forward, and nuzzled Keith's cheek. "You believe in duty, but you're strong enough to forgive," shi murmured. "That's why I love you so much."
Keith said nothing. He pulled Dawnfire close, hugging hir tightly. Tears ran down his cheeks and, one by one, disappeared into hir mane.
Kit returned to consciousness like a bubble rising in a deep, dark pool. The waking world gradually took shape and definition; then he was awake, without really noticing the transition. The stimulant must have worked because he felt only moderate stiffness as he flexed his arms and shoulders. When he tried to stretch his legs they wouldn't move. After an instant of panic he identified the problem. something soft, warm, furry, and rather heavy pinned the lower half of his body. "Oy gevalt," he muttered. This wasn't the first time something of this nature this had occurred. Valjean and Javert sometimes thought it funny to climb on top of him during the night. He'd wake up with a mouthful of fox fur and his body half asleep. The brothers would end up rolling on the floor in fits of hysterical laughter while Kit lurched around like Frankenstein trying to restore his circulation. Kit finally put a stop to that by sneaking a taser to bed with him. This time it wasn't a fox, though; the fur was softer and finer. Anyway, Kit didn't have the taser with him.
"Good morning," Snowflake purred.
For a subjective eternity Kit could only stare in mute shock. Slowly, the jumble in his mind sorted itself out. He'd spent last night having wild sex with Snowflake and now he was in bed with hir, naked. He must have tensed or something because shi lifted hir torso and hir expression became concerned. "Are you all right?" shi asked.
"Uh..." Kit's mind was reasonably alert but his body felt bruised and battered. Last night's activities had undone much of Dr. Sathitet's work.
"I'm sorry." Snowflake covered hir face and started to get up. "I... I don't know what came over me. I, I couldn't help myself. I needed-"
"Don't apologize." Kit caught hir arm. "I, well, I can't say I didn't enjoy it." He smiled crookedly. "And maybe... maybe I needed it too." He stroked hir hand, then squeezed it. "Anyway..." His expression firmed. "You're a beautiful person, Snowflake. I appreciate everything you did for me. All of it. I couldn't have done what I did without you."
"Oh, Kit." Shi lay own across him, hir torso on his, and nuzzled his cheek.
"Ah, Snowflake, I don't mean to be a party pooper but I've gotta piss like a fire hose and if I don't eat something my gut's gonna cave in."
"Well." Snowflake gave Kit a playful lick, then stood up and stretched until shi was bent almost double. Hir penis was more than half unsheathed; when shi noticed Kit looking at it shi turned to give him a better view. "If you're gonna go, hurry up already," shi said. "You're not the only one who's gotta pee."
"Right." Kit struggled out of bed and lurched stiffly into the bathroom; at the door he couldn't repress the urge to glance back. Snowflake lay on hir side, watching him intently, casually stroking hir fully erect penis with one hand. He turned away quickly and staggered to the humanoid style toilet, pulled down the privacy screen, and flopped down. Only part of his relief came from releasing the pressure in his bladder; watching Snowflake flaunt hir masculine properties so openly was... unsettling.
What exactly do you think of it? Kit wondered. Not only does shi have a cock that's three times as big as yours but shi's part- about two thirds, by mass- animal. It's homosexuality and zoophilia all rolled into one package.
There came a loud knock on the outer door and the person entered without waiting for a reply. "Good morning," Darkstar's voice called. "Where's Kit?"
"In the bathroom," Snowflake replied- somewhat tensely, it seemed.
"Good. Run along and get cleaned up."
"Now, Snowflake." It was the voice that would not be disobeyed. The outer door opened and shut. A fuzzy shadow moved up to the privacy screen and lifted it. It was Darkstar; as usual shi wore nothing but a belt pouch but shi carried a folded shirt and a pair of sweats tucked under one arm. "Good morning." Shi looked Kit up and down. "Though judging from the evidence I'd say last night was better."
Kit could only stare. He couldn't escape and covering himself with his hands just seemed like an acknowledgement of how helpless he felt.
"Once you're done there come over here and clean up." Darkstar moved away, leaving the privacy screen up. "I'm sorry to break in on you like this-" shi didn't sound sorry- "but I've given you as much time as I can. Professor Moseivitch, Dr. Stannus, and Captain Walker all want to speak with you and they aren't people who like to be kept waiting."
Kit blinked. Captain Walker reminded him of-
"Star!" Kit lurched to his feet and ran for the door.
"Hold on, there." Darkstar caught him as he ran by. "I don't particularly mind if you go out naked but at least take a shower first, okay?" Shi guided him to the 'fresher and helped him in. He sat there while shi adjusted the water and sprayed him down and even when shi started lathering him up but flinched when shi grabbed his buttocks. "You're wondering why I'm doing this," shi asked, laying down and leaning against the side of the tub in almost exactly the same position Snowflake had occupied last night. Darkstar's breasts were too small to fall over the lip, though.
"Why are you doing it?" Kit demanded, frowning. Shock gave way to indignation.
"I want to see how you respond to being manhandled by a Chakat," Darkstar replied.
"Why should that matter?" Kit snapped.
"Are you planning on continuing your relationship with Snowflake?"
Kit opened his mouth but immediately shut it, shifting uncomfortably. The question caught him off guard.
"Kit, I know that the only time in your life you've ever been around Chakats is while you're going to school at Dewclaw University," Darkstar said. "I also know that in that time you only dated humanoid females."
Kit blinked in surprise. "I- how did you know that?"
Darkstar smiled fractionally. "You just told me. Have you ever dated a hermaphrodite?"
Kit licked his lips, then shook his head. "No."
"How 'bout a centauroid?"
"Kit, I understand perfectly well that there are single sexed people who never can adjust to the notion of doing it with a hermaphrodite," Darkstar continued in a gentler tone. "I don't mean to say that it's right or wrong. It just is, like the color of your skin." Shi gently pinched Kit's upper arm. "There is, though, one thing I do think is wrong. That is deliberately misleading someone about who and what you really are. So... what I'm getting at is that Snowflake is only half female. If you continue having sex with hir, sooner or later shi's going to want to do guy things with you. If you aren't prepared for that then it's far kinder- for hir and for you- to tell hir straight out. Before either one of you make unwarranted assumptions that will lead to sorrow later on."
Kit took the soap and started cleaning himself because it gave him time to think. Last night he'd done some things that, when he thought about them in the cold light of day, made him shiver. And yet-
"I don't know, Darkstar." Kit put the soap away and started rinsing off. "Last night I... did some things I never would have thought I'd ever do. The thought of doing them with- say, Valjean or Javert-" he shuddered. "Well... let's just say it's not something I'd care to pursue." He scrubbed his head. "But the only reason Snowflake did them... was because shi was trying to make me happy. And I, I didn't say no. It just... doesn't seem right to say no now, after I've done it and, well, enjoyed myself." He smiled hesitantly.
"You know, Kit, us Chakats are a very sensual people," Darkstar commented. "If we're feeling happy and want to share it, well, there's an obvious way to do it, isn't there? And, since we're hermaphrodites, any other Chakat is a potential sex partner. If you stay with Snowflake shi's going to want to have sex again. And shi's going to want to do it both ways because, well, that's what's natural for us."
"That's what I was afraid of," Kit muttered, picking at his toes. "You see... I'm not a hermaphrodite, Darkstar. How could I give Snowflake what shi really needs?"
Darkstar considered for a moment. "I think," shi began slowly, "That the fact that you're even willing to consider the possibility is a good sign." Shi rested a hand on his shoulder. "There are Chakats who have successful, long-term relationships with non-Chakats. What do you want, Kit?"
Kit's eyes unfocused. "I... Snowflake think shi's a bad mother. Shi thinks that's why Star ran away. But that's not true. She ran away because I left her." He dabbed at his eyes. "Sometimes Snowflake tries too hard... but that's only because shi's so full of love. I... I'd like for hir to be able to see that. Then... maybe... that would be enough to pay back what shi did for me."
"How do you plan to do that?"
"Well..." Kit shrugged helplessly. "I don't know, Darkstar."
"If I were you'd I'd start by doing the same things you do for Star Baby," Darkstar suggested. "As corny as it may seem, it works. Snowflake needs to be encouraged, taught, played with, and cuddled. Let your love for hir shine out, just like you did for Star Baby. Do that and you'll pay back what you owe, I guarantee it."
Kit sniffed, them wiped his nose. "Now I owe you, Darkstar."
Darkstar chuckled. "Well, don't worry. You don't have to sleep with me to pay it off." Hir expression hardened. "My price is this, Kit. Promise me that you will always treat Snowflake with affection and respect, whether or not you decide to stay together."
Kit nodded. "I will."
"Good man." Darkstar clapped him on the shoulder. "Now let's get you dressed. The boffins want to ask you about a zillion questions and frankly so do I."
When the big view screen came on Kit saw a faintly glowing yellow-green blob surrounded by a network of rainbow colored lines. "What's that?" he asked, blinking.
"That's video taken from your suit's helmet camera," the strange Chakat said. Hir base fur color consisted of light brown with orange stripes and a solid black mane. Shi wore a Starfleet tunic with a blue Science Section color stripe.
"I'm sorry," Kit apologized. "What's your name again?"
"Lieutenant Goldstrype," shi replied.
"Right." Kit nodded. Science officer from the Asimov. Shi sat on the floor to the left of Captain Walker, who occupied a folding chair. To his right sat Commander Dawnfire and beyond hir Dr. Sathitet. Ito and Nova sat on the couch, an interesting combination given their relative sizes. Snowflake, Javert, and Valjean clustered together but separate from Longstocking, Sherlock, and Liska, who occupied a beanbag chair. Darkstar sat by hirself, not associated with any of the other groups. "Um... where's Professor Moseivitch and Dr. Stannus?"
"They are, at this very moment, speaking before a special meeting of the Ministry of Science and Education," Darkstar replied. "Lieutenant Fleetwood apparently filed a very detailed report concerning yesterday's events. In short, the professor and the doctor are having to explain to the panel what's been going on here for the last few days and how that led to what happened at the Array."
Captain Walker cleared his throat. Dawnfire glanced at him; his eyes twinkled though face remained composed. His raised fist might have covered a smile. Shi twitched an ear but otherwise forbore to comment.
"Mr. Carson, could you tell us what you're doing here?" Goldstrype asked, drawing attention back to the big screen.
Kit stared at the image. It wasn't until an orange gauntlet appeared, coming into the frame from the bottom, that he realized he was looking at Star, nestled in the girders, his hand reaching out to touch her side. "Um-" the point of view wheeled crazily as he stepped off the girder. He had to look away; just watching it on a view screen made his stomach lurch. How the Hell had he managed to do that maneuver without spinning off into space or puking his guts out? "Actually..." Kit's memories of the encounter seemed to have no connection with what he saw on the view screen. "I wasn't really doing anything. Just... looking at the colors." As Star swelled to fill the field of vision the video quality degraded.
"Something is interfering with the suit electronics," Goldstrype commented. As Kit prostrated himself against Star Baby's side the image broke up in a flood of static. After only a short pause it came back, snapping instantly into crystal clarity. Briefly it showed a corridor on board Sigma 17 from about head level, then dropped precipitously to he floor and did not move.
"I don't remember that part," Kit muttered.
"According to your suit electronics, no time passed between when you and Star Baby disappeared from the Array and when you reappeared at Sigma 17," Captain Walker said. "However, according to sensor logs from various ships and the station itself, you and Star Baby were... out of normal space for about twenty minutes. What happened during that time?"
"I..." Kit frowned. "I... I really don't know." He remembered being with Star Baby but the memories were like something glimpsed from the corner of the eye that disappeared when one tried to look directly at it.
"There was a large tachyon burst," Goldstrype put in. "There could have been... a temporal discontinuity of some sort."
"How did you and Star Baby find your way back to Sigma 17?" Longstocking wanted to know.
Kit shook his head. "I don't know. We just... went."
"Did you tell Star Baby to take you back to Sigma 17?" Dawnfire asked.
"I don't think so."
"Doctor, did you notice anything about Kit's condition that might have affected his perceptions?" Nova inquired.
"No," Sathitet replied. "Physically he was bruised, most likely from Star Baby grabbing him. Neurologically, I detected nothing to suggest that his perceptions were anything but normal."
"I wonder how shi managed to find hir way to the Array in the first place," Sherlock commented.
"She," Kit corrected.
"Excuse me?" Darkstar asked.
"She," Kit repeated. "Star isn't a hermaphrodite."
"How do you know?" Longstocking inquired.
"I..." Kit frowned. "After spending time with Snowflake, I... knew."
Nova's eyes narrowed; with one index finger she tapped her chin thoughtfully. "We need another telepath."
"What for?" Darkstar asked.
"I'd like to have Kit here tested for telepathic ability."
"What makes you think he has one?" Captain Walker inquired.
"Ever since I got here I've been watching Kit and Snowflake in particular," Nova explained. "Kit, with no prior child-rearing experience, enjoys stunning success. Snowflake, whose father is a doctor of pediatrics, watches Kit and imitates his techniques almost exactly- and enjoys only lukewarm success. I never could figure out why that was. Now, Kit suddenly knows things about Star Baby and can't explain where the knowledge came from. And something came to me just now. Way back when Kei first tried to scan Star Baby, Kit scratched his ear. Why did you do that?"
"Ah-" Kit blinked several times. With everything that had happened Kei's examination felt like it had been about a hundred years ago. "My ear itched."
"How so?" Sathitet wanted to know.
"Kind of... a deep itch, straight inside," Kit replied, pointing at the side of his head. "It was really annoying because I couldn't get at it."
"When did it stop?" Dawnfire asked.
"Ah-" Kit swallowed. "Actually... right when Kei had his attack, or thereabouts."
"I believe that Kit has established some sort of telepathic link with Star Baby," Nova pronounced.
"But- that's absurd!" Ito exclaimed. "How is such a thing possible?"
Nova shrugged. "Right now, what we don't know about Star Baby is far more than what we do."
"He was the first person to actually touch hir," Snowflake commented.
"But with the virtual hands," Valjean pointed out.
"If Kit's a telepath, how come it was never detected?" Longstocking asked.
"Lots of people have latent abilities," Darkstar pointed out. "Even in this day and age most Espers are discovered by accident."
"Why not Snowflake, then?" Dawnfire ventured. "Chakats have more of a predilection toward telepathy than Terrans."
"Insufficient data," Nova replied.
"But after what happened to Kei, we don't dare bring another telepath here," Sherlock said. "We'll have to send Kit down to the surface-"
"Ah- I hate to butt in, but I don't think that would be a good idea," Kit put in.
"Why?" Darkstar asked.
"Well- We have proof positive that we can't keep Star locked up," Kit explained. "The only thing keeping her here is- is-"
"Her love for you," Darkstar put in. Kit flushed and looked down.
"Good point," Keith commented. "If she runs off again it may not be so easy to bring her back."
"If you could call it easy," Valjean muttered, rolling his eyes. Javert nodded.
"Then I guess that will have to wait," Darkstar said, eyeing Kit. He stared at the floor, avoiding hir eyes. "At any rate, we're going to be without Professor Moseivitch for a while but I see no reason to stop working while we wait. Dr. Janek has brought a matter of some importance to my attention. To wit, foodstuffs. We've been feeding Star Baby bits of hir shell, which at present rates of consumption will last another week, possibly two. I doubt very much that she will oblige us by ceasing to eat, so we must focus our attention on developing an alternative. Captain Walker, I should be very grateful if you could assist Dr. Janek in this matter."
Keith nodded. "Of course. It would be our pleasure, Darkstar."
Darkstar nodded. "Very good. Other than that..." Shi gazed thoughtfully at Kit. "Why don't you continue her language lessons? Things would go much more smoothly if we could talk to her. And that, I think, is all we need to discuss at the present. I know you all have your individual projects well in hand so let's get to it, shall we?" Shi got to hir feet.
As the meeting broke up Keith jogged to catch Darkstar. "I have to admit, I've been wondering," he said. "It seems rather a remarkable coincidence that we should meet, doesn't it? After all, if Dr. Stannus had known that we were acquainted...."
"Then he surely would not have sent for you," Darkstar finished.
Keith raised an eyebrow. "He asked for the Asimov specifically?"
"He did." Darkstar nodded.
"And how, may I ask, did you happen to know that?"
Darkstar's ears twitched. "I... have a mole."
Keith stopped, staring in shock. "You mean to tell me that you have a spy in Dr. Stannus' office?"
"Not in so many words no," Darkstar replied. "But an acquaintance of mine, a Chakat named Tefty, works as an administrative secretary in the local office of the Science Corps. When I heard that Starfleet was sending a science vessel, I asked hir to try and find out which one. Shi told me that Dr. Stannus had compiled a list of choices, one of which was the Asimov. I remembered that you were captain of the Asimov, so I asked hir to move it to the top of the list."
For a long moment Keith just stared, absently rubbing the scar on his cheek. "And what," he finally asked, "Do you have on Tefty that shi's willing to risk so much on your behalf?"
Darkstar resumed walking. "That's an epic in itself."
"I have time. In fact, I wouldn't miss it for the world."
"Well..." Darkstar stroked hir chin, gazing up at the ceiling as shi walked. "First of all, you have to understand that where I live now is a very small town, in the foothills outside Berdoovia."
"What I remember of small town life," Keith put in, "Is that everyone had their noses in everyone else's back pockets."
"Exactly my point," Darkstar continued. "But it suited me. After retiring from Starfleet Fyodor- Professor Moseivitch- persuaded me to take a teaching job at the university. I didn't care for it, though. The politics were awful and what was important to them seemed so...."
"Trivial?" Keith ventured.
Darkstar shrugged. "I suppose you could put it that way, yes. One time an administrator told me that the upcoming budget meeting was a life or death situation. I told him that a life or death situation is where you send a squad into battle when you know they're going to die so that you can safely withdraw the rest of the company." Shi smiled bleakly. "But that's another story. I settled in Marpletown because it was small and the pressing concerns of its citizens all very... immediate. Personal. I did get pressed into serving as the chair for the township council... which is yet another epic. I didn't mind, though, because the demands of the job were modest and it gave me something to do. Then, a few years ago, Maleki, who ran the community center, decides to retire. Out of the blue, it seems, a youngish- that's thirty-five or so- Chakat named Tefty shows up and applies for the postilion. Hir credentials seems to be in order, and though there are some concerns about hir appearance, shi gets the job."
"Tefty is easily one the most, ah, robustly built Chakats I've ever seen," Darkstar explained. "And hir breasts are... well, they must be seen to be believed. But the children liked hir, which is what really matters, isn't it? In fact, the kids adored hir. I found that interesting since Tefty struck me as a shy, rather introverted person. One day my curiosity got the better of me and I asked Aurora why Tefty was so popular. Shi didn't want to say- and that really got my curiosity up. After working on hir for a while Aurora finally tells me. Tefty is nursing them."
"Nursing?" Keith arched an eyebrow.
"Yes. As in every day, between classes, Tefty let the kids breast feed."
"What, all of them?" Keith frowned.
"Every one, from pre-schoolers to adolescents. Remember what I said about the size of Tefty's breasts? Nursing regularly stimulates milk production. Besides, since Marpletown is small, there weren't ever that many kids at the center at any one time."
"What did you do?"
Darkstar shrugged. "Nothing. The only harmful side effect I could imagine is that Tefty's boobs would keep getting bigger but obviously shi didn't mind. It kept the kids happy so I let it slide."
"I gather that wasn't the end of it."
Darkstar sighed. "I should be so lucky. A few weeks later I notice that Aurora's developing one Hell of a rack." Shi lifted hir own breasts. "Shi's only eight years old, for God's sake. I rushed hir to a doctor in Berdoovia and demanded to know why shi's growing tits. The doc does a blood test, then takes me aside and very politely explains that while shi understands how a Chakat of my age might have some trouble expressing I really should lay off the lactation-inducing drugs because they can have side effects. At that very instant I knew that the whole Tefty thing was going to bite me in the ass. No sooner do we get back home than I get a frantic call. The whole town is in an uproar. An emergency council meeting is convened. Rusty- the township comptroller- had done some research on Tefty and found that shi'd been through a whole string of child care type jobs and ended up leaving every one because of some sort of lactation related issue. Now the monster has its hooks in our kids. The council wanted to press criminal charges."
"What did you do about that?"
"First and foremost I wanted to smack Rusty up side the head. Why the Hell hadn't any of this come out during the interview process? I told them to draft a resolution and I'd serve it. I went to Tefty, with the resolution in my hand, and told hir to come clean with me or my next call would be to the Peace Force. Shi cried a lot and tried to run away. I had to restrain and eventually comfort hir. Shi told me about hir child, born premature after a very difficult pregnancy. Tefty couldn't seem to start lactating so shi took drugs. Shi was already a hefty individual and the drugs made hir blow up like a balloon. Then the kid dies. Due to congenital problems, nothing that could be considered Tefty's fault. Hir mate leaves hir because shi can't stand the fact that Tefty's so fat." Darkstar stopped, sighed heavily, folded hir arms, and leaned against the corridor wall. "So shi's sitting in a public park, horribly depressed and contemplating suicide. Shi notices a kid staring at hir boobs and asks hir if shi'd like a drink since otherwise the milk'll just go to waste... and the rest, as they say, is history. Nursing eases the pain of hir loss but shi can't bring hirself to stop taking the drugs because that means directly confronting what happened. So shi has to keep finding kids to drink up all the milk."
Keith leaned against the opposite wall. "You comforted hir?"
"Yes. I felt like I was making love to a water bed. Shi wanted me to nurse, too- and that gave me an idea. Tefty led a relatively sheltered life. I knew there were plenty of people who'd appreciate not only hir fulsome construction but hir milk as well. We got on the Net and I put hir in a discussion group where people indulged their... abundant fantasies. Next thing I know it's dawn; shi got along famously. I tell Tefty that if shi agrees to resign from the community center- and look into some counseling at a later date- I'll broker a meeting with the fat lovers and take care of the council. Shi agreed. I told the council my plan; they didn't much like it but they went along with it. It solved the problem expeditiously and quietly, without creating a gory public scandal." Shi grinned wickedly. "For those... difficult individuals, I'd been chair long enough to know the dirty secrets of just about everyone in town. The resolution was quietly forgotten, Tefty resigned and I helped hir interview prospective partners. Eventually shi moved to Berdoovia, got a job with the Science Corps, and now has a whole passel of lovers who think shi's beautiful and will drink all the milk shi can produce, even without drugs."
"So," Keith concluded, "When you had questions about what Dr. Stannus was doing Tefty was more than happy to help."
"Shi was that, yes."
"That was definitely above and beyond the call of duty," Keith commented. "The easiest thing would have been to hand it over to the Peace Force and be done with it."
"Yes." Darkstar rubbed hir face. "And... it would have been wrong." Shi looked up; hir face remained composed but hir eyes burned. "I've done... far too many overtly evil things to let a sin of omission slip by. In my old age I've started thinking quite a bit about what happens after you die. If there is a Hell... I'm going there. I know what it'll be like, too. The faces of those dead children on Hadris Two, my family, Spaceman Benson... all the people who've died because of me. For all eternity I'll have to endure their cold stares while they silently accuse me of taking away everything they were or ever would be." Shi covered hir eyes, hir hands shaking.
Keith stepped forward, dropping to one knee and catching Darkstar's hands, pulling them gently away from hir face. Tears matted the fur on hir cheeks. "Sir," he said quietly, "If you weren't a good person you wouldn't care. If Longstocking didn't really care about you, hearing the truth wouldn't have upset hir so much. Don't look at me like that, Darkstar. You're the one who taught me that a commander has to be more than just a leader, an administrator, or even a teacher. You have to be... a parent. Going into combat isn't a sane or sensible thing to do. Getting people to do it takes a much deeper relationship. You have to know your people. You learn to watch them carefully, to learn everything you can about them- most especially the things that don't get into recommendations and fitness reports. Longstocking is upset because shi loves you. Tefty loves you. Young Mr. Carson has enshrined you just below the throne of God. Everyone you touch loves you, Darkstar, because they see how much you care."
"But it's not enough!" Darkstar shrieked in a rising wail that would shatter glass. "I- I've poured everything I have into it and still Fyodor doesn't love me! Now Longstocking-" Shi slumped to the floor, sobbing.
"Longstocking what?" that person inquired.
Keith looked up. Longstocking was standing in the middle of the next corridor intersection. "How much did you hear?"
"Only what you just said," Longstocking replied. "About knowing people."
"Come here." Keith beckoned with his finger. "Darkstar just told me an interesting story about a Chakat named Tefty. I think you'll find it... interesting." He lifted Darkstar's chin. "Darkstar, tell Longstocking the story, just like you told it to me. Especially the part at the end, about why you did it." He returned his attention to Longstocking. "Listen to what shi says, Longstocking. When shi's finished, then you may judge. All right?" Longstocking nodded, then helped Keith lift Darkstar to hir feet. They walked off together, arm in arm.
"If there is a Heaven," Dawnfire said, "I'd say you just got yourself in."
Keith turned. Dawnfire came up the corridor from the opposite end. "How long have you been listening?" he asked.
"Pretty much the whole time," Dawnfire replied. "Getting Dr. Janek set up was easy. All I had to do was give the order; Goldstrype handled all the details. I'd noticed you go after Darkstar and I followed."
Keith got slowly to his feet, rubbing his thighs. "I don't know about the Heaven part. I... haven't exactly been a saint myself. But... I owe Darkstar. Without hir help I'd never have made it this far... and being captain of a star ship is what I've always dreamed of. For as long as I can remember. I just... it seemed that if I could help patch things up between hir and Longstocking, it was the least I could do."
"It was much more." Dawnfire took Keith's hand and licked it gently. "I heard from Liska that this station has a number of empty cabins. Let's find one."
"Did she hit on you?" Keith asked.
"Yes." Dawnfire nuzzled Keith's neck and licked his chin. "I said thanks for offering but I already had a lover."
Keith frowned, but with concern and regret, not disapproval.
"This isn't the Asimov," Dawnfire pointed out. "No one here is going to complain if the captain and first officer comport themselves in a shockingly unprofessional manner." Shi caressed the crotch of his pants.
"Well..." Keith smiled, stroking Dawnfire's cheek. "If you insist."
"Toxic waste," Dr. Janek declared.
"Toxic waste?" Valjean's face twisted into a grimace of disgust, mirrored perfectly by Javert's.
"Toxic waste." Darkstar spoke slowly, with exaggerated movements of the mouth, as if tasting the words.
Captain Walker cleared his throat. "How, may I ask, did you reach that conclusion?"
Ito and Goldstrype glanced at one another. "It's your show," shi conceded.
"In the fashion of many great scientific breakthroughs," Ito began. "That is, pure, dumb luck. Even with the facilities of the Asimov at my disposal and the able assistance of Lt. Goldstrype I was getting nowhere." He shrugged helplessly. "One evening, as I sat racking my brain, Lt. Goldstrype found me. I'd skipped dinner- again- and shi presented me with a nutrient bar." He drew one from his pocket and held it up for all to see. "I begged off but shi wouldn't leave me alone until I opened it and took a couple bites. In the process I happened to glance at the list of ingredients on the back of the wrapper." He turned the bar over. "Then it hit me." His face lit up with a positively maniacal grin. "We'd been approaching the problem from entirely the wrong direction. I was trying to create food for Star Baby by duplicating the alien nanites. In effect, trying to make a hamburger by first genetically engineering a cow. A difficult enough task on its own and utterly impossible if you don't know genetic engineering- which, as far as Star Baby is concerned, we don't. And, quite simply, it's not necessary. To create a nutrient bar for Star Baby all I needed was to find out what shi'd normally eat and package it." He shook the bar for emphasis. "Resolving that question proved exceedingly simple. I presented it to Goldstrype and shi said that whatever Star Baby eats it logically has to be something readily available in hir natural environment. If it wasn't shi wouldn't be able to survive. Since star Baby lives in space, what can shi find there? Quite a lot, actually. The atmosphere of a gas giant can be skimmed for hydrocarbons. Asteroids can be mined for heavy metals and trans-uranics. Comets or ice moons could be a source of light volatiles like water and ammonia. Ingesting them is a simple matter of beaming them up; while they're discorporate in the matter stream shi rearranges them into whatever form shi needs. All that's required is enough energy- which shi has, since hir cells are fusion powered. The problem was solved; all I needed was a source of the appropriate materials. Again my nutrient bar showed me the way. Nutrient bars are made from what's left over from the processing of other foodstuffs. An industrial by-product, if you will."
"Oog." Javert clasped his hands over the abdomen of his humanoid torso. "I swear, I'm never going to touch another nutrient bar for as long as I live."
"I looked through my industrial database and the answer was right there," Ito concluded. "Around Chakona are dozens of orbital factories that manufacture everything from microcircuits to warp reactors. In all those processes there are catalysts, nanites, and solvents that get used. What is all this stuff? A slurry of hydrocarbons, heavy metals, radioactives, strong acids and bases, and a thousand other things, all jumbled together. In other words, almost exactly what we're feeding Star Baby right now. Since it's generally toxic it has to be recycled or disposed of- which means the producers will pay us to take it off their hands."
Kit tapped his chin thoughtfully. "You know," he commented to Javert, "Compared to that the nutrient bar doesn't sound half bad."
"What about nutrition?" Snowflake wanted to know.
Ito shrugged. "If anyone can diagram the nutritional implications of what we're feeding hir right now I'm all ears."
Valjean opened his mouth. Kit elbowed him in the ribs, hard.
"You have a full work-up on all this, I presume?" Darkstar inquired.
"Of course." Ito fished a data chit from his pocket and lofted it. Darkstar caught it one-handed.
"We've spoken to a number of suppliers," Goldstrype put in. "This facility's already rated to handle the material. All we need is the go-ahead."
"Well..." Darkstar passed the chit from hand to hand. "Professor Moseivitch is still testifying and probably will be for some time. Therefore, as his proxy, I hereby grant you permission to proceed. I'm sure Longstocking can help you work out all the technicalities." Longstocking nodded. "Excellent. Before we break up, is there any other business that needs discussing?"
"Yes," Kit said. "We need to make arrangements to exercise Star. Out in space."
"I see." Darkstar stroked hir chin, eyes narrowing thoughtfully. "Well. I'm sure that Lt. Longstocking and Captain Walker will be more than happy to assist you in making the necessary arrangements."
Kit's eyes widened until they almost popped from his head, his jaw dropped, and his face turned pasty. When he started wavering Valjean jabbed him in the arm.
As the meeting broke up Dawnfire fell in beside Darkstar. "That was diabolical," Dawnfire commented.
"He can take it," Darkstar replied. "He's strong. Stronger than he knows."
Liska fell in beside Ito. "You seem chipper," she observed.
"Of course," Ito replied. "This project is going to make me rich and famous." His smile spread into a wicked grin. And quite soon at that, he added to himself.