by John R. Plunkett
Kit froze in the Operations Center doorway when he saw a leopard spotted Chakat in a Security Force tunic sitting up at the front of the room, apparently chatting with Star. Strangers were a rare sight; Kit couldn't imagine someone getting in without first having been introduced. "Excuse me," he called, hurrying forward.
"Hey, Kit." The leopard Chakat glanced back over hir shoulder and waved.
HI, KIT, Star signed. ARIEL'S TELLING ME ABOUT DORADO.
Kit's jaw dropped. "You- you're Ariel?"
Ariel smiled. "Didn't recognize me without my suit?"
"Frankly no," Kit admitted. "What's dorado?"
"Dorado Park," Ariel clarified. "On my last leave, me and my three sisters went hiking up there. We tramped all the way up to the rim of Cook Crater. Hell of a climb, but the view's awesome."
I'D LIKE TO GO THERE, Star signed. IT SOUNDS NEAT.
"Well-" Kit frowned, then cocked an eyebrow. "Why not?" I'LL LOOK INTO IT, he replied.
GOODY! Star clapped excitedly.
Ariel blinked. "Are you serious?"
"Absolutely," Kit declared. "Star's got as much right as anyone else to visit a national park, doesn't she?"
"Well, I guess," Ariel allowed, scratching hir head. "But-" Shi glanced self consciously at Star.
WE'RE GOING TO CHAT A BIT, Kit signed and switched off the translator.
OKAY. Star drifted away from the view ports.
"I was just wondering, is that... safe?" Ariel asked. "I mean, she is nuclear powered."
"She's also very efficient," Kit countered. "All the harmful radiation is trapped inside her body. Only time you'd have to worry is if she got cut and it'd take an awful lot for that to happen."
"What about- people?" Ariel continued. "She could kill someone just by accidentally stepping on them."
"I'd say that's all the more reason to get her started with them as early as possible," Kit said. "Nova's always saying how adaptable kids are. Star is that and she's bright, too. I figure if she's properly socialized at an early age she'll be fine. We've had no problems. Teaching her that she's dangerous to people, I think, would be a very bad idea."
"But Kit, she is dangerous," Ariel insisted.
"So am I," Kit shot back. "So are you. I could grab that fire extinguisher and crack your head open with it. You could rip me up with your claws. That doesn't stop us being civil to each other, does it? But what would it be like if we were always tiptoeing around, afraid the other might hurt us?"
"Urm." Ariel chewed distractedly at a fingernail. "That's a pretty good point, actually."
"Look, it's not that I don't see your point," Kit went on in a gentler tone. "I mean sure, Star could hurt someone. But I think that just means all the more reason to treat her like a person. Wouldn't you try harder not to hurt people you liked? Given how big and powerful she is, how else do we stop her from hurting people?"
Ariel pursed hir lips, then looked at Star. "You know," shi said. "Larissa and I discovered the Qantas Challenger."
"You did?" Kit gasped.
"Yes. When I saw what happened to that ship and its crew I wanted to kill the people who'd done it. I wanted them to die slowly and painfully, like their victims. Then I found out it was Star's people."
For a long time Kit didn't speak. "Is that why you're here now?"
"Yes," Ariel admitted. "I look at Star and find myself thinking of Qantas Challenger. And Silver City, and Comstock Station."
"Just because she's the same species doesn't make it her fault," Kit pointed out.
"I know," Ariel replied. "I came here to remind myself of that."
Behind them the comm station chirped. Kit walked over to it. "Hmm," he commented, pressing a control. "Darkstar to Ops," he said, his voice echoing over the 1MC. "You have an urgent personal message."
"I thought this place was under lockdown," Ariel said.
"It is," Kit concurred.
"Then how can you get a personal message?"
Kit shrugged. "It had a Starfleet header and came through military channels. Darkstar has friends in Starfleet."
Darkstar ambled in. "Howdy all." At the comm station shi touched a sequence of controls and applied hir thumb to unlock the message, then read it off the screen. At some point in the text hir eyes stopped moving. In fact all of hir stopped moving; shi stood like a statue in front of the console, not even blinking.
"Darkstar?" Kit asked, stepping up beside hir. "What's wrong?"
"They're dead," Darkstar replied in a tone utterly devoid of emotion.
"What?" Ariel's ears flipped back and forth.
"The Stariionae got past Chase and ambushed Captain Raskilov's squadron," Darkstar continued in the same voice. "Biscay, Hawke, and Isaac Asimov were lost with all hands. Lijang, Mactan and Cumberland were severely damaged, sustaining heavy casualties."
"G- gone?" Kit stammered. The magnitude of it hit him like a medicine ball. Captain Walker, Commander Dawnfire, Dr. Sathitet-
"Fyodor," Darkstar said, as if reading Kit's mind. "Fyodor was on board the Asimov." Hir fingertips traced slow circles on the console.
"Professor Moseivitch?" Ariel exclaimed.
"Skip's going to take this hard," Darkstar commented, activating the 1MC. "Longstocking to Ops, please. We have a situation."
Kit shifted uncomfortably from foot to foot. Watching Darkstar speak in such a profoundly emotionless voice disturbed him deeply.
Longstocking rushed in. "What is it?" shi demanded. Sherlock entered behind hir.
Darkstar caught Longstocking's eye and tapped the console top with hir finger. Longstocking moved over, following Darkstar's gesture. After reading a couple lines shi gasped sharply.
"We have to be careful telling Skip," Darkstar commented. "He really liked Captain Walker."
Longstocking looked up suddenly. "Frankly, Darkstar, at this precise moment I really don't give a damn about Skip. I- I-" Hir face contorted. "This- this letter says Fyodor's gone. You act like it's nothing."
"What difference does it make?" Darkstar demanded, an edge coming into hir voice. "Whatever I feel hasn't the slightest effect on the fact that- that-" Darkstar shuddered, swallowing hard.
"But it doesn't hurt any less, does it?" Longstocking asked. Shi reached out hir hand-
Darkstar halted the gesture, not with hir hand but with a hard look. Longstocking hesitated but held Darkstar's gaze. Hir hand continued forward, coming to rest on Darkstar's shoulder. "Darkstar, I've been thinking long and hard about my life lately," Longstocking said. "I realize I've ended up where I am largely by accident. By doing the day to day things I needed to do to get by. I signed with Security Force to get money for college. I stayed in Security Force because they offered me a job. I got promoted because I did my work conscientiously and well. I ended up here because this is as high as I could go just by doing my job. Rising further required something more, something I didn't have because I really didn't care about my career. Being around you has made me think about what I really wanted to do with my life. When the truth hit me it scared the bejeezus out of me because I realized I'd have to do something I'd never done before. I had to give myself to something. Not just do it from nine to five but be it, every instant of my life. Then, not only did you show me how you convinced me I could. I was working up the courage to tell you... then this came along. I'm still not sure if I'm ready... but I'm more afraid you'll slip away... and I won't get the chance."
"Longstocking, you don't need me to fulfill your dreams," Darkstar said, making no attempt to break contact of either hand or eye.
"I know that." Longstocking eased forward, closing the physical gap. "That's what I realized, what made it possible for me to see the truth. I don't need you, Darkstar. I- I want you. I want... to be your family. To be Aurora's mother... to have your children. And raise them with you."
For a long time Darkstar said nothing. No one else spoke either. Kit gasped because he'd been holding his breath. "Do you understand what you're asking?" Darkstar spoke very softly, very gently.
"I understand that you carry scars from old wounds," Longstocking responded, placing hir other hand on Darkstar's chest, directly above hir heart. "I know that any kids I have with you are going to be like Aurora, or worse. I know that... I can't do it without you to guide me."
Darkstar's left ear and tail twitched. "What about your career?"
"What about it?" Longstocking countered. "With my experience I can get a job at the civilian space port that pays more and has better hours. Then... I could come home and be with you every night."
"Do you think you'd really enjoy that?" Darkstar asked. "Spending every day with me and Aurora?"
"It would be Heaven." Longstocking's voice cracked; tears leaked from hir eyes, soaking into the fur on hir cheeks.
Like an alpine avalanche breaking away Darkstar's facade of reserve crumbled, then collapsed. "Oh, God! shi sobbed, flinging hirself into Longstocking's arms. "I don't want to be alone!"
Longstocking looked up over Darkstar's shoulder. "Kit," shi said, "You'll have to break the news to Skip."
"M- m- me?" Kit stammered, backing suddenly. He ran into a console and almost fell.
"You're his closest friend here," Longstocking continued. "And-" shi glanced down- "Darkstar and I are going to be indisposed for a while." Shi turned, leading Darkstar out.
"I- I- I-" Kit turned in desperation to Sherlock.
"Sorry, bub, Chief gave you the job and I ain't touching it," Sherlock said. "Besides, don't you think Skip deserves to hear it from a friend? And... you know you can do it. You did it with Snowflake and Liska."
Ariel laid a hand on Kit's upper arm and squeezed gently. "I'll come along too, if you like. You and the others have made me and the squadron really feel like part of the family."
"Thanks." Kit put his hand over Ariel's, then moved to the comm station. After gritting his teeth and heaving a large sigh he activated the 1MC. "Valjean Javert, Snowflake, and Skip, please report to the wardroom. It's... an urgent personal matter. I'll be right along."
"I'll come too," Sherlock said, falling in behind Kit and Ariel as they departed.
None of them noticed that Star had ceased playing with her toys. In fact she wasn't doing anything at all, just hanging perfectly motionless. To Kit the shifting color patterns on her hull would have suggested intense concentration, as if- as if she were listening for something.
Gava wobbled out of formation, came back, then wobbled out again. Krita was about to hiss at her when Gava hissed first. "Krita, do you hear that?"
"Hear what?" Krita demanded, a little crossly. The pace Parn set was gruelling and her wounds, though largely superficial, ached.
"Voices," Gava said.
"Voices?" Delis exclaimed. "You hear them to?"
"What' this?" Parn demanded, quelling a babble of chatter that sprang up.
"My lord, I hear voices," Gava announced.
"I hear them too," Delis put in.
"Who hears them?" Parn asked. Eight hands went up; all the women except Krita and several of the youngest warriors, including Sarlen. "What do they sound like?" Parn added.
"Like-" Gava struggled for words.
"Like lots of people talking but you can't understand what they're saying," Sarlen jumped in. "Really quiet, too. They come through best when... you're not really thinking about anything."
"Fan out," Parn ordered. "See if you can get a fix on it."
"My lord?" Torgai asked as the Tribe scattered.
"I'm thinking, Torgai," Parn said. "We never found Vala, though we found... others." Parn had to stop a moment; even now it was painful to think about. "If she went off in an odd direction... she's badly wounded, probably delirious...."
"And she hears what sounds like voices?" Torgai finished.
"Exactly." Parn offered a silent prayer of thanks to the Ancestors. The fleeing shell had passed beyond their sensing range some time ago; he was leading the Tribe along its initial course as best he could estimate but if it turned aside- which seemed likely- he'd never know. Parn couldn't begin to guess how far the muck dweller territory extended; without definite clues they could spend ages searching every system they passed.
"It could be another trick," Torgai ventured.
"Yes," Parn allowed. "It could. But look at how things have gone. I get the feeling these muck dwellers don't understand us very well. Like-" Parn fell silent; a momentous realization had struck him. Could be that, from the muck dwellers' perspective, the Tribe were was strange and inscrutable as the muck dwellers themselves appeared from the other side?
Parn dismissed the thought. Interesting but not of any bearing on the immediate situation. "Anyway," he finished, "If I tried to break off the chase now they'd beat the crap out of me."
"That would seem so," Torgai allowed. He'd never expected Parn to actually pull this off; his successes had boosted the Tribe's morale- to a dangerous fever pitch. Now he felt very strongly things were getting out of hand but Parn was right: jumping off would be more dangerous that riding it out.
"My lord, we have a bearing!" Garan called triumphantly.
"Excellent!" Parn called back. "We'll run down it and see what we find!"
As Commander Jackson left the bridge and returned to her quarters she found herself threading her way through a great press of people. Lijang's damage control parties couldn't restore Mactan's warp drive so that vessel's entire compliment had to find space on board Lijang. Even with heavy casualties on both ships living space was getting tight.
"Excuse me, Commander?" Swiftsure darted out of the crowd.
"Yes?" Aletys didn't stop; Swiftsure fell in beside her.
"Are they going to know, back on Chakona, what happened to, to, the other ships?" Swiftsure asked, hir voice catching. It was still too soon to speak frankly about the tragedy.
"Probably," Aletys replied. "Dr. Chakra was tracking us. He'll know exactly what happened just by looking at the telemetry."
"Can we- is there any way to get a message through, to let them know- we're okay?"
You meant to let them know you're okay? Aletys thought. "I'm afraid not. The drive's patched together with duct tape and bailing wire. Technically the hyperwave's operational but we don't have enough power to punch a clear signal to Chakona. We've already tried. The captain's launched message torpedoes, which'll take at least four days to arrive. For us, at the best speed we can manage Chakona's about a month and a half away. Which is going to be tough with two hundred extra mouths to feed."
"What about the Stariionae?"
"Chase says they're hot on the trail of something," Aletys replied.
"But- what if they're headed for Chakona? What if they get there before us?" Swiftsure sounded hysterical.
"Pray," Aletys replied. She wasn't in the mood to explain the facts of military life to an emotionally disturbed college professor. She retreated into her quarters, letting the doors shut out Swiftsure's alarmed features.
Captain Vasher flew awake with a piercing scream. As she sat up in bed, shivering violently, she realized she'd wet herself. "Lights!" she commanded in a shaky voice. Her bedroom lit up.
"Bridge to Captain," the intercom said.
"Yes?" Sarah croaked. She cleared her throat.
"Sir, the warp drive just scrammed."
"Estimate for repair?" Sarah asked.
"Chief Bell says six months in the ship yards."
Sarah signed heavily. "I take it we're not moving until a tug comes for us."
"That's what the chief says, yes sir."
"What's our position?"
"Three light years from Chakastra."
Sarah scrubbed her face. Without warp drive three light years might as well be the opposite end of the universe. "I just hope to God some of our message torpedoes got through."
"What in the name of the Eternal Dark is that?" Garan exclaimed.
"Shh!" Torgai hissed. "It may hear us!"
Parn said nothing. This new machine, orbiting at the very fringes of a star system, disturbed him more than anything else the muck dwellers had done. There was it's sheer size, for one thing, but even that wouldn't bother him if not for the voices. Up close they came through loud and clear but just as unintelligible. Like voices of the dead, whispering in the dark.
"Let's destroy it," Delis said.
"No," Parn contradicted. "If we do that-" he fell silent, thinking. "Sarlen, come here. I have a mission for you."
"Yes, my lord?" Sarlen quivered with excitement.
"You see there, where the voices come from?"
"Yes, my lord."
"Sarlen, I want you to wait here. Stay hidden until I give the word. Then come out and fire all your missiles. Make sure they all hit at once but don't wait around. Remember what happened to Kronn."
"Yes, my lord," Sarlen replied, his tone grave.
"I can count on you for this, what is surely the most critical part of our mission?"
"Yes, my lord!" Sarlen glowed with pride.
"Good." Parn stroked him gently. "For the rest of us, we shall move in cautiously. There's a muck dweller world in this system; anything interesting is bound to be there."
"My lord," Gava said. "I hear her."
Parn didn't reply because he didn't trust himself to speak. Only by an effort of iron will did he stop himself from crying. After everything that had happened, to be so close-
"She's not saying anything, just... mumbling to herself," Gava went on. "But... it's a real child. Not a fake one, like before. I'd bet my soul on it."
"Then-" Parn stopped to prevent his voice from catching. "Let's go get her back."
An annoying sound dragged Dr. Chakra from slumber. He groped for his alarm clock but that wasn't it. It wasn't the video phone, either. He struggled out of bed, located his portable communicator, and flipped it open. "Dr. Chakra speaking."
"This is Juvata, at the observatory control center," A Chakat voice announced. "Sorry to wake you up, Doctor, but we've got a problem with the telemetry. There's a noise vector we can't isolate and it's starting to corrupt our data. I wouldn't bother you but it's coming right in the middle of our high resolution pass on that giant black hole."
"Yes, I see." Dr. Chakra pulled on his pants. That imaging pass was time critical and had been planned for months. Not to mention that people were still edgy about whether the Array had recovered from its damage. "Route it to my office here."
"Thanks, doctor. The uplink'll be ready when you go online. 'Bye."
"Goodbye." Dr. Chakra stretched, yawned, and strolled to his home office. He lived in a English Colonial bungalow two doors down from Professor Moseivitch. There was absolutely nothing anachronistic about his equipment, however; view screens covered one entire wall of the room and he had a super computer for his exclusive use. There were definite advantages to being one of the Federation's leading experts. The downside was that everyone had demands on his time. For example, work load had forced him to dump off on other observatories the tracking of Captain Raskilov's squadron. Come to think of it he hadn't heard anything about it for over a week; he'd have to look into it-
Columns of data and complex, multidimensional graphs filled the view screens as telemetry from the Array came to and was processed by his own system. He frowned; an odd feeling of déja vu came over him as he studied it. He'd seen this before but couldn't think where. Then, like the tumblers of a lock coming into alignment as a key is inserted, his thoughts snapped into focus. He was looking at exactly the same type of interference he'd seen before, presumably caused by Star and her mother. The patterns didn't look at all the same because they weren't; then there'd been only one vector. Now there were many, all jumbled together. His hands flew over the controls, entering filter parameters part by training and experience, part by sheer inspiration. That individual patterns did in fact begin to resolve was why Dr. Chakra was considered not only one of the Federation's leading scientists but a certified genius as well. "Computer," he said, his fingers missing not a single keystroke, "Open a channel to the observatory control center. Maximum priority."
Juvata's face, pure white with large, soft brown eyes, appeared in one screen. "Yes, doctor?"
"Juvata, as director of the observatory, I am hereby ordering you to dump the imaging program currently loaded and transfer full control to me," Dr. Chakra said in clipped, precise tones. "I'm slugging you a recorded copy of the order now."
"I-" Juvata glanced to one side. "Yes, Doctor, I have it. But-"
"Now, Juvata. I don' have time to explain."
"Yes, Doctor." Juvata's face vanished.
The new program was ready even as the control protocols came online. They flashed through fiber optic links to the sub-basement of the College of Astrophysics, where they were relayed by hyperwave to the Array itself. The machine controlling the instrument, itself a super computer of no mean ability, dumped its program and loaded the new one. The Deep Space Hyper-Spatial Anomaly Detector, the most powerful and capable instrument of its type in the known galaxy, withdrew its attention from the heart of a distant galaxy and focused it within its own star system.
Sarlen nearly jumped out of his skin when he heard the voices suddenly change. The Starlord had ordered him to say quiet and hidden but being stationed by this strange and terrible alien machine filled him with superstitious dread. Before he knew it he'd side-stepped out. To his credit he realized he was committed and did not hesitate. "For the Ancestors!" he shrilled in a voice that quavered only slightly as he rippled off every one of his warheads. He stepped away at once, not from minding Parn's warning but because he was scared half to death. The Array's defense systems activated but the attack originated too close. Sarlen's missiles bunched up just as Parn had directed and struck all at once against the conduits connecting the mass detector to the power core.
Venting plasma sprayed the mass detector like a colossal blowtorch, vaporizing part of it and sending the rest of it spinning away into space. Thermal stress cracked the power core's end cap and internal pressure blew it off. Fuel elements did not mix catastrophically but they vented, annihilating everything they touched. The core blasted free of the structure like a rocket, off-center thrust causing it to spin like a pinwheel. Carbon fiber girders flashed into glowing vapor as sun hot plasma bathed them. What remained- less than twenty percent of the structure- spun away into deep space like tatters of cloth. The core itself lasted a bit longer, until it melted down from the Hellish forces it could not longer contain.
"Hold station!" Parn snarled as the formation rippled in response to Sarlen's cry. The boy had jumped the gun but only by the time it had taken Parn to decide. He'd heard the change too; he didn't know what it meant but he was sure it wasn't good for the Tribe. "And don't side-step until the very last instant," he continued. "Remember, they can't see us!"
Parn clenched and unclenched his hands to relieve tension that made his whole body vibrate. Dozens- hundreds- of shells moved around the muck dweller world; he couldn't guess how many might actually be able to fight but it hardly mattered. There were far too many for the Tribe to take in anything like a straight-up battle. Small as the Tribe was its only advantage lay in speed and surprise. Appear suddenly, land a devastating blow, then grab the child and withdraw while the muck dwellers were still reeling.
"By all that's holy, I will take back my daughter or die," Parn said, aloud but pitched so no one would hear. His hands clenched so tightly his knuckles hurt and his palms bled.
One by one, in quick succession, each of Dr. Chakra's displays blanked out. His hands froze; there wasn't anything more for them to do. "Computer," he said, "Open a channel to Security Force Operations Center, Cha'turna. Authorization one alpha niner foxtrot six four six eight two Charlie seven alpha."
"Accessing," the computer replied. "Incoming call from Observatory control center."
"Disregard." Dr. Chakra felt bad for abandoning Juvata in what was no doubt a terrifying situation but at the moment there simply wasn't time to deal with hir.
"Understood," the computer responded.
Captain Nightshade suppressed a yawn. Night shift sucked but somebody had to do it. After that incident a few years back when those alien vulpinoids managed to land the government insisted Security Force build a new Operation Center and keep it staffed around the clock. So here shi was, standing watch. The only thing of note the new Ops center had done in the last six years was respond to that alien ship smashing into the Array-
The DEW sensors and the SecureComm went off at almost exactly the same moment. Nightshade moved to the SecureComm; one of the techs would take care of the Distant Early Warning alarm.
"Sir, DEW sensors picked up a warp explosion in the vicinity of the Big Ass Array," one of the operators called as Nightshade activated the SecureComm. Shi nodded to indicate that shi'd heard.
"Good morning Captain, I am Dr. Elu Chakra, director of the Mileva Memorial Hyper-Spatial Observatory," began the thin, dark skinned Terran man whose face appeared on the screen. "By now you have no doubt heard of an explosion near the observatory's main sensor array. The Array was destroyed by an enemy warship. A force of between ten and twenty strike cruisers is even now penetrating the Chakastra system. You must scramble all available interceptors as soon as possible."
"Status!" Nightshade called, looking up from the screen.
"All clear except for registered civilian traffic," an operator replied.
"You won't see them until they emerge into normal space," Dr. Chakra continued. "I could show you how to reconfigure your systems but that would take too long. Captain, you must act now. I predict less than fifteen minutes before the enemy ships begin their attack."
"I see," Nightshade replied, acknowledging that shi'd heard, not that shi agreed. Still, hir hand drifted to the caged alert button. If shi pressed it and this turned out to be a false alarm it would mean the end of hir career. On the other hand, what was the point of having an Ops center if it didn't respond? Dr. Chakra wasn't exactly some nobody and he did have the security codes to get this far. Nightshade had been involved in recovering that alien artifact. Shi'd assigned Echo squadron to help take care of Professor Moseivitch's baby star ship. Captain Raskilov had visited hir in person, showing hir records of what had happened to Comstock Station, Silver City, and the Qantas Challenger. Shi'd watched the reconstructed Stariionae attack on F.S.S. Valaparaiso.
Nightshade felt hir life coming into sharp focus. Everything shi was, everything shi'd ever done, seemed to lead straight to this moment. From the instant of hir conception the purpose of hir existence had been to reach this time and place, to make this decision. As shi lifted the cover shi realized that in some strange way shi'd always known this would happen. Shi'd known, too, how shi'd react. Shi pressed the button. "Launch alert five interceptors," shi ordered. "Scramble alert thirty pilots. All other units, prepare for Alpha strike." That meant to launch every ship.
"Aye aye, sir." A operator issued commands with quick, deft keystrokes. "Where shall I muster them?"
Nightshade glanced at the big screen. It was still empty.
"The attack will center on Repair Station Sigma one seven," Dr. Chakra supplied.
"Rally point is Sigma one seven," Nightshade called. When shi looked down Dr. Chakra had signed off. Shi stepped away and stood facing the big screen, watching as the first of the alert five interceptors took off. Part of hir prayed that Dr. Chakra was right, that shi hadn't thrown away hir career for nothing. Another part prayed that he was wrong. In the second case what shi'd unleased would lead to embarrassment and recriminations that would go on for years. In the first it would lead to blood, pain, and death.
"Now!" Parn shouted. He side-stepped out with the whole Tribe behind him. Shells queued up in long lines, entering and leaving the planet's orbit. The Tribe's approach path led them closely parallel to one. "Keep formation, beams only, fire!" Parn shouted. Sixty power beams converged on the nearest shell, ripping it apart and scattering it across the sky in a spray of vaporized metal and twisted wreckage. En masse the Tribe's firepower was awesome but if the muck dwellers started shooting back they'd have to break. As they swept down the line of shells Parn fired on every one; it really didn't matter if he destroyed them or not, he just wanted to sow as much confusion as possible. They still didn't know exactly where the child was.
"My lord, I can sing to her," Krita offered.
"Not yet," Parn said. To do that Krita would have to drop out of formation and Parn would have to send warriors to protect her. "Wait until we're in close."
"How close is close?" Delis demanded. "I can practically touch them now!"
"Quiet!" Torgai snapped.
Parn ached to break formation. He felt the muck dweller's power beams drawing beads on him. "There," he said. "That great big nest with all the shells around it. If they want us out of there they'll have to hunt us down in detail for fear of hitting their own. Krita, as soon as we break, start singing!" Parn changed the formation's course slightly, taking it straight toward the largest nest in the area.
Ariel stretched as much as shi could wearing a bulky space suit and strapped to hir couch, yawning through hir open face plate.
"Ah, the joys of alert five," Larissa commented, wiggling hir shoulders. Shi had an itch in the small of hir back and couldn't reach it with hir suit on.
"Yeah, well," Ariel replied. "Gotta stay sharp." Shi stifled another yawn; it didn't help that shi'd been up late last night commiserating with Skip. Going on duty short of sleep was nothing new but it would help if shi had something to do. Alert five was terribly boring; four hours strapped into the cockpit waiting for the order to launch or stand down. Sure, you could go over the check lists one more time but how many times can you do that?
Only once in hir career had Ariel ever launched on a real alert five mission. Shi'd gone to check out a suspected smuggler that turned out to be a tramp freighter with a defective transponder. It didn't pay to slack off, though; the brass liked running alert five drills to see if the crews really were on the ball. Flubbing one was a good way to end up on the street with a dishonorable discharge. When shi felt hir eyelids drooping shi called up the takeoff checklist and started through it again.
On the second item the sound of the launch siren winding up shocked Ariel to full alertness. "Must be a drill," shi muttered, closing hir faceplate and checking hir suit seals. That done shi touched a switch to seal the main hatch. It closed and the indicators changed to green.
"It's not a drill," Larissa said. Shi'd brought the tactical and navigation systems online. "This is a full alert."
The taxi director waved hir wands. Ariel activated Echo two one nine's repulsorlift and moved forward onto the launch pad. Ten ships lined up side by side in perfect synchrony, Section Two of Echo Squadron. The atmosphere shield drew back; Ariel fed on power and E219 leapt into space in perfect formation.
"Echo leader to all units," the commander's voice cracked in Ariel's headphones. "Proceed to first way point. Over."
"What is the first way point?" Ariel asked on the intercom.
"Someplace familiar," Larissa replied. Steering carats appeared on the heads-up display but Ariel flew the wing of the ship to hir right, as did every pilot in line except the one on the end, the section leader. "Sigma one seven."
"What the-" Ariel frowned. A full alert, not a drill, staging at S17-
"It's the Stariionae," Larissa said as if reading Ariel's thoughts. "Somehow they've found their way here."
"Gahh!" Kit exclaimed as harsh noise stabbed into his skull like a diamond drill. He sat up, shaking his head to clear it. That proved a grievous mistake; it magnified the throbbing pain in his head and accelerated the wardroom's crazy tumbling. Hearing of the loss of his friends and colleagues on board the Asimov had affected Skip profoundly. He'd required a great deal of comforting, most of which ended up being in liquid form. Kit, who did not drink regularly, did so to be companionable. Thus when the station's alarms went off he was more than just a little hung over.
"Kit! Kit!" Hands tugged at him. It was Skip, looking haggard but still better than Kit felt. "Kit, get up! It's a red alert!"
"All hands report to Ops," Longstocking's voice commanded over the 1MC. "This is not a drill. All hands to Ops!"
"Come on!" Snowflake moved in, trying to help Skip. Chakats resisted the effects of alcohol better than Terrans, even accounting for their extra mass. Foxtaurs did not; Valjean and Javert clutched their hands over their ears, wailing as discordantly as the sirens themselves.
Nova caught Kit under the arms and hoisted him up, holding him until his own feet took over the job. She and Snowflake kept hands on his shoulders to prevent him from stumbling on the way to Ops. Kit entered just behind Liska and Sherlock; Longstocking, Darkstar, and Aurora stood by the communications console. Kit almost didn't recognize Longstocking because shi wore absolutely nothing. He'd never before seen hir out of uniform. Longstocking glanced around to make sure everyone was present and touched a control.
A Chakat with a face half white and half and half silver tabbey spoke from the console's view screen. "A squadron of enemy strike cruisers has penetrated the innermost system defense ring," shi announced. "There are fifteen vessels of configuration 8C42A, Stariionae raiders."
"Kit," Darkstar said, turning to face him, "They're coming for Star."
Snowflake made a strangled sound. Shi would have fallen except for being pinned between Sherlock and Javert. Liska's eyes bulged, her jaw dropped, and her hands shook. She turned-
"Steady!" Longstocking barked. Liska, Sherlock, and Skip all snapped to attention; if Kit hadn't heard the voice and seen Longstocking's lips move he would have sworn it was Darkstar.
"They're going to find us out soon enough," Darkstar said. "We need to get to the escape pods now before-"
"No," Kit said.
"What?" Longstocking demanded, eyeing Kit sharply.
"No," Kit repeated. "You all go, but I'm staying with Star. She's gonna be afraid. She's gonna need me."
"Me too." Snowflake pushed forward and stood beside Kit.
"He's right." Skip pushed past Sherlock.
"Now just a minute-" Sherlock began, reaching out to catch Skip's arm.
"Don't!" Snowflake hissed, crouching and unsheathing hir claws. "I may not be as big as you or trained in combat but I swear the only way you're getting past is over my dead body!"
"Liska!" Darkstar shouted, but it was too late. She bolted from the room. Valjean looked after her and turned as if to follow but Javert caught his arm.
"Valjean, Javert," Darkstar said, stepping away from the console and turning. "Where are you?"
The brothers looked at each other. Something flashed between them; between any two other people it might have been a long, drawn out discussion, but between the two brothers who'd been side by side since conception it passed by without a word being uttered. "We're with Kit," Valjean said.
Longstocking began to speak but Darkstar silenced hir with a gesture. "Aurora," shi said in a voice as calm and smooth as the surface of a reflecting pool, "Run to the nearest escape pod and prep it for launch."
"Yes, Gramma!" Aurora's voice quailed with fear but shi went, ducking under consoles to avoid the confrontation. As shi reached the door the deck shuddered minutely. Shi hesitated.
"That would be Liska," Darkstar said. "Aurora, if she took the closest pod go to the next one. If you hear the abandon ship alarm you are to launch at once, even if you're the only one in it."
"Yes, Gramma!" Aurora vanished down the corridor.
"Kit, you do understand what's happening, don't you?" Darkstar asked. "The Stariionae destroyed half of Captain Raskilov's squadron and disabled the rest. They tore the Isaac Asimov apart and executed her crew after they had abandoned ship. They did that because they were looking for Star. Now they are coming here. What do you think they're going to do to this station when they find her here?"
Skip swallowed convulsively. Kit actually felt calm, calmer than he could ever remember being in his entire life. "I'm not leaving Star," he said.
"Nor am I," Snowflake chimed in.
"What about you, Valjean and Javert? Are you sure you're ready to die with Kit and Snowflake here?"
"It won't come to that," Javert said, more hopefully than otherwise.
"Won't it?" Darkstar demanded. "I just hope you understand it won't be quick. The Stariionae aren't going to shoot you. They're gonna tear open the hull and let you blow out into space. You've all had pressure suit training so you know what it's like. You get to thrash around for quite some time. Your lungs are on fire, you feel like you're drowning. Your eyes pop out of their sockets. Your eardrums explode. Gasses inside your body try to force their way out. Capillaries in your skin burst; it feels like really bad sunburn. Nitrogen in your blood starts to outgas, forming bubbles that swell your blood vessels, sometimes until they pop. That hurts worse than anything you can imagine unless you've had gallstones. If you're lucky, one of the bubbles will lodge in your heart and you'll die a little faster. Dying from a heart attack ain't fun either; it feels like someone lit off a thermite charge in your chest. But don't count on it; I saw one poor bastard flop around like a landed fish for almost a minute and a half. You can't even begin to imagine how long that is until you experience it. Frankly, the thought of dying like that scares the shit out of me. I'd rather stick a gun in my mouth. At least it'd be over quickly. Nova, Sherlock, let's go. We need to get out of here while there's still time."
"But-" Sherlock protested, hopping nervously from foot to foot.
"We can't force them to come and I'm not going to risk my ass," Darkstar cut in. "I..." Shi looked at Longstocking, a strange light glowing in hir eyes. "I have a family that needs me. Alive." Shi marched forward, pushing between Kit and Snowflake without looking at either. Longstocking fell in beside hir without hesitation. Nova followed as well, her face and body utterly devoid of expression.
"But-" Sherlock looked about ready to explode with tension.
"Sherlock, you've been through space training and know what decompression's like," Darkstar said over hir shoulder. "Either come with us now or you're on your own."
Sherlock looked at Kit, Snowflake, Skip, Valjean, and Javert in turn, then at Darkstar, Longstocking, and Nova. Hir feet moved but shi didn't displace significantly toward either group.
Skip swallowed. Some time last night he'd lost his tunic; his face and the whole upper part of his body took on a sickly pallor visible even through his fur. "Kit-" he began.
"I'm staying," Kit said flatly. Skip took a deep breath and straightened up. Javert retched; there wasn't anything in his stomach to come up but his body kept trying to rid itself of a poison that existed only on his mind.
"Sir?" Sherlock called, a despairing wail.
"I have a family," Longstocking replied. "If they bounce me out of the Security Force, frankly I don't give a damn. Not any more." Shi resisted the urge to look back, at least until shi was out in the corridor.
The sight of hir commander abandoning hir was too much. With a cry Sherlock bolted for the door. As the burst through Darkstar caught hir by the muzzle and shoulders, slinging hir against the corridor wall despite hir greater mass and strength. "Listen to me," Darkstar hissed, hir mouth right against Sherlock's ear, hir hand tight around Sherlock's muzzle. "I'm not leaving those idiots to die. But everyone with me has to be with me. Understand?" Sherlock nodded. "Good. Now we go to the armory to pick up some gear and we'll come right back."
Passengers in the galleries and concourses of Chakona Gateway Station stopped and stared in wonder as civil defense sirens wound and heavy metal shutters slid over the view ports. In seventy-two years of operation the station had never experienced a real alert. Skycaps herded people toward the civil defense shelters in the station core. All that changed quite suddenly when pale beams flickered silently through space, tearing open corridors and rooms with the scream of tortured metal and the roar of escaping atmosphere. Panicked crowds jammed exits and stairwells, crushing themselves to death against unyielding metal, were mercilessly chopped apart as pressure doors slammed shut, or blown out into space as containment fields failed or didn't activate quickly enough. Some actually saw the attackers, great arrows of fire streaking across the firmament, their pale beams slashing through the station and the ships maneuvering around it.
To Ariel, looking through E219's view ports, the spectacle was a flicker of distant light like Founder's Day fireworks seen from across town.
"They're attacking the station!" someone shouted.
"Cut the chatter!" Echo Leader snapped. "All units will hold at first way point until Tango and Golf squadrons form!"
Ariel ran hir tongue along hir teeth, caressing the flight controls. Fifteen or twenty minutes would have to pass before even the first elements of the next squadron could launch and even longer before the whole force could form up. At the rate things were going the battle would be long over by then. On the other hand, ten Windstorm class interceptors against fourteen Stariionae was a laughably one sided contest. A full grown Stariionae out-massed a Windstorm by a factor of ten. And yet Ariel found hirself itching to take a stab at it. That intellectually shi knew it to be a suicide mission did nothing to damp the hot lust boiling hir blood.
In the Operations Center Captain Nightshade had similar thoughts, though much less tainted by bloodlust. The stark reality was that all the systems meant to warn of impending attack had failed; with over a hundred ships at hir command only ten of them were in position to attack the enemy in time to make any difference. If shi held the alert five ships until the rest could launch shi needn't have bothered launching them in the first place. If shi sent them into combat they'd die, surely as the sun rose.
Nightshade drew a deep breath through hir nose and exhaled it through tightly clenched teeth. Ever since calling the alert shi'd felt destiny sweeping hir along like an avalanche. Turning aside wasn't merely difficult, it was impossible. To do so would be to deny hirself. To cease to exist. "Signal Echo Squadron to engage," shi commanded. May the Odd Gods of the Galaxy have mercy on your souls. And mine.
"What do those idiots think they're doing?" Garan demanded when he noticed the group of tiny fighting shells coming up in loose tactical formation.
"Their duty," Parn growled as he swung to intercept, signaling Torgai and Delis to form on him. "When this is over we'll sing of them to the Ancestors. Would that I could die so bravely." Focusing his beams was a waste of firepower; he spread them, one to each enemy.
"Amen," Torgai said, then laughed.
"On my mark," Parn continued. He knew he should strike quickly but seeing those muck dwellers come on when they had to know they hadn't a chance moved him deeply. In that instant he felt a profound kinship with them; he could imagine him and them speaking together, understanding one another perfectly, though he couldn't imagine how such a thing might come about. In addition to being clever with their hands and minds the muck dwellers knew honor. It pained him beyond words to destroy them.
Not even for one instant did Parn consider not killing them. How could he, a fellow warrior, deny them their chance at glory in the halls of their Ancestors? "Fire," he commanded.
"F-" Ariel began. That's all shi managed before a beam from Parn's left belly mount center punched E219 from stem to stern. Warheads stored amidships cooked off, blowing the entire front half of the ship into a cloud of debris. By some miracle the warp reactor didn't fail; Parn rolled slightly, allowing the shattered stern to spin past on his left. That piece, twisted and fused by the energies which destroyed it, was the only wreckage ever recovered from Echo Squadron. Ten ships and twenty crew members ceased to exist in the blink of an eye.
"My lord, I've found her!" Krita shouted. "A nest, near where those shells came from!"
Parn surveyed the battle. By any possible standard it went overwhelmingly in the Tribe's favor... but it made no difference. A hundred warriors couldn't have destroyed all the shells and nests. "Torgai, keep up the attack," he shouted. "Krita, with me!" He peeled off and streaked toward the nest she'd indicated.
Kit sat at the first servo control station, Snowflake at the next. It took them both to hold Star; she was terribly distraught and nothing they did seemed to comfort her. Skip talked while Kit and Snowflake cuddled; it mattered not. Valjean and Javert stood by the communications console, watching the battle unfold.
Darkstar stepped into the doorway, phaser in hand. The beam passed between Kit and Snowflake, destroying the console. Kit yelped and tumbled back, the gauntlets still attached to his arms. Snowflake leapt to hir feet and froze when shi saw Darkstar.
"Turn this way," Darkstar ordered. "Hands up."
Kit struggled to his feet, shaking off the gauntlets. Seeing Darkstar his eyes narrowed. "You won't," he said.
Darkstar changed the phaser's setting with hir thumb and fired again. the bean struck just above Kit's right nipple; he folded with a scream that trailed off into a gurgle. The stun setting wouldn't injure him- at least not seriously- but it hurt like a sonofabitch.
Star slammed against the bulkhead. Lights flickered; two of the view ports cracked alarmingly. The wall flexed enough to throw Skip to his knees. He looked up at Darkstar's face, then laced his fingers on the top of his head.
"You!" Snowflake shrieked, rearing up and charging, claws unsheathed. Darkstar shot hir in the belly of hir humanoid torso, a hand's breadth to the left of where hir belly button would be. Shi went over backward with a crash,
"Longstocking, Sherlock, get Snowflake," Darkstar ordered, stepping aside to keep a clear line of fire. "Nova, get Kit. Skip, Valjean, Javert, come over here and keep your hands where I can see them."
The Hugo brothers reeled back when Star hit the bulkhead again. One of the panels sprung partially from its frame; air whistled through the crack. Darkstar changed the phaser's settings and fired twice; each shot left a small burn mark on the brothers' buttocks but no other damage. They yelped and leapt forward. Longstocking and Sherlock didn't hesitate; they grabbed Snowflake by the forepaws and dragged hir to the door. Skip came stumbling forward, hands still on his head. Kit moaned as Nova threw him across her shoulders like a sack of grain.
A tremendous explosion threw everyone to the deck. All the lights went out; for a terrifying instant the Operations Center plunged into inky darkness, lit only by Star's pale glowing form. Emergency lights came on, then the deck dropped out from under everyone's feet as the gravity grids failed. Skip grimaced as his feet left the deck; he'd been through basic astronaut training so loss of gravity was nothing new. The Hugo brothers hadn't; they screamed and struggled in desperate terror as they felt themselves plunging to their deaths. Darkstar shot them, stunning them unconscious. Shi didn't float away because shi'd dug hir claws into the traction matting on the deck. Sherlock launched hirself with hir hind legs, streaking like a furry missile straight at Valjean. Shi caught him in hir outstretched arms, letting the spin carry hir around so shi landed feet first on the bulkhead. After throwing him toward Longstocking shi flung hirself at Javert; instead of grabbing him shi checked him with hir shoulder, impelling him toward the door like a bank shot into a corner pocket.
"Skip, quit screwing around and help Nova!" Darkstar shouted, lowering the phaser. Free fall didn't seem to bother Nova unduly but clearly she wasn't facile getting around in it, especially having to manage with Kit's limp form getting in her way. Skip shook off his paralysis and leapt; he smacked into Nova's back and hung on, impelling her, himself, and Kit toward the doorway.
Longstocking slung Snowflake like a sack of grain, whirling back just in time to catch Valjean. With him in hir arms shi launched hirself at the doorway. Darkstar grabbed Snowflake as shi passed, giving a push to correct their trajectory. They made it through just ahead of Longstocking and Valjean.
"Sherlock, hurry up!" Longstocking shouted, clinging to the ladder on the roof of the corridor.
"I'm coming!" Sherlock replied. Shi had to go all the way to the end of the room then push off carefully to avoid overshooting the door.
Star pressed herself against the bulkhead. Without power the structural integrity fields shut off; without them the pierced metal wasn't strong enough. Driven by her clutching fingers four of the transparisteel panels burst from their frames. Air roared out into the workroom, tugging Sherlock away from hir course.
"Sherlock!" Longstocking screamed, flinging hirself at the doorway. With a curse Darkstar shot hir and slammed hir into the wall. Shi rebounded insensible.
"Darkstar, help!" Sherlock screamed in gut-wrenching terror as a river of air swept hir out into the workroom. Darkstar watched until the pressure door slammed shut with the finality of doom.
"S- sir?" Skip stammered. His whole body quivered; in gravity he probably would have collapsed. His eyes bulged with terror threatening to overwhelm what remained of his reason.
Nova released Kit and put an arm around Skip's shoulders, massaging them gently. "What do we do now, Darkstar?" she asked quietly.
Darkstar stared at the pressure door. In hir mind shi still saw Sherlock reaching out in desperation, calling out in terror. But it didn't matter what shi thought or felt, not while lives- other than hir own- were at stake. "Seal that pressure door-" shi pointed toward the next intersection- "and the one at the other end of the corridor. Then bring the medical kit. There should be one in here somewhere." A 'taur and two humanoids, only two of whom were facile in micro-gravity, couldn't possibly move four unconscious 'taurs and a humanoid to the escape pods in anything like a timely fashion. Shi'd planned to be away before the Stariionae arrived, especially given how they treated the Asimov's escape pods. On the other hand, against the possibility of an accident in the work room heavy armor plated Sigma 17's living quarters. The Stariionae couldn't chop through it without a lot of work.
"Yes sir!" Skip leapt off. Knowing that someone was in charge held back his fear.
Darkstar watched him go, taking Longstocking's head in hir arms and stroking it gently. Once again shi was alone. That was the terrible price of command; even surrounded by people you're still alone.
Parn circled the nest, looking at it from all sides. It resembled a jug with a broom handle stuck in its mouth; long vanes lined the handle, which had a knob at the far end. Parn could see at once that the jug part was hollow and the child held within. The cone at the top of the jug was where the muck dwellers lived. What vexed him was how thick the walls were; thicker than any shell or nest he'd yet seen, certainly on something so relatively small. The knob was its power source and force fields enhanced its strength. Cutting it open would be difficult- but there was a way to help that. "Here," he said, indicating where the rod joined the cone. "Fire!" He and Krita blasted; vaporized metal erupted in a glowing spray. Two more shots severed the strut completely; the separated parts of the nest tumbled slowly away from each other. Cutting off the power shut off the force fields but the walls were still awfully thick. "Here and here," he directed, firing to cut away the clamps and hinges holding the space doors. After several carefully placed shots he grabbed and tugged with all his might; one of the doors came loose in his hands. He flung it away and grabbed the other; some more shooting was required but eventually it came off, too.
"Darling!" Parn called, clinging to the edge of the nest and looking inside. Shock at actually seeing her alive gave way to shock of another sort. She was big, bigger even that Sarlen who was older. Obviously she'd been eating well. Parn reached in, picking a fleck of material from the wall.
"Looks like they recycled Vala and used her to feed the baby," Krita observed.
"Yes," Parn agreed, rubbing the fragment between his fingers. Part of his mind wondered how the muck dwellers had managed to feed her when she couldn't feed herself. He began to shake. He'd found Vala at last.
"My lord, we need to hurry," Krita prompted.
"Yes, yes." Parn ate the fragment. "Come on, dear," he said. The size and shape of the nest was such that he couldn't reach all the way in with his strength limbs and the child clung to the far end, just out of reach. "Look, we're here to save you," he continued, somewhat exasperated, reaching in with one of his manipulator limbs. She yowled piercingly as he tried to work her loose, then shot him. Parn jerked his hand back more in shock than pain. "Krita, what's wrong with her? Why won't she come?"
"Let me try." Krita moved up. "Come on, dearest." She cooed, clucked, and otherwise enticed, but the child wouldn't let go.
"Curse it!" Parn growled, shouldering Krita aside and activating his tractor beams. The child's cries rose to an ear-splitting shriek.
"Parn, you're hurting her!" Krita wailed, grabbing his arm.
Parn let go. His tractors left ugly welts across the girl's back; he'd just about lifted her skin off. "But- but-" he protested, horrified at what he'd done. "Krita, I don't understand! Why- doesn't she realize we're here to save her?"
"I-" Some containers spilled from sprung hatches on the nest's exterior. Krita impatiently brushed one aside, then caught it and examined it. Realization hit her like a lightning bolt to the mind. It was so staggering she couldn't speak.
"Krita?" Parn prompted. He considered sawing through the nest walls but that would take too long and there was the danger he might hit the girl by accident-
"Parn, look at this." Krita thrust the container at him.
"What?" Parn started to slap it aside but stopped. He took it, examining it carefully. "Via," he muttered, taking a taste. It held food even richer and better tasting than anything he'd ever had in his life.
"Parn, look at how big she is," Krita said. "They're taking good care of her."
The magnitude of Krita's words stunned Parn into silence. "Krita-" he couldn't think of anything to say.
"The reason she isn't coming is because she doesn't want to," Krita said. She... she's impressed on the muck dwellers."
Parn shook all over. His claws dug into the nest walls, tearing great furrows. "By all that's holy, Krita-"
"Parn, don't." The force in her voice stopped him cold. No woman had spoken to him like that since he was a child.
"Surely you're not suggesting I leave her here," Parn said in a dangerously quiet voice.
"That's exactly what I'm suggesting," Krita replied. "She'll be well looked after."
"And how do you know?" Parn demanded.
"I'll stay with her," Krita replied.
Parn's fingers worked the metal into ragged tatters. "My lord!" Torgai shouted. "Inbound fighting shells!"
"Parn, we don't have time to argue," Krita said. "You have to take the Tribe and go now."
"Krita, what's to keep them from killing you out of hand?" Parn asked.
"They didn't kill her," Krita pointed out.
"Parn, I'm old, I'm weak, and I can't have kids," Krita pointed out. "I don't have much time left and you know it. Let me spend it doing something that might make a difference. Please!"
"If I were a warrior would you let me stay?"
"If you were a warrior you wouldn't be spouting this nonsense!" Parn thundered.
"Well, I'm not!" Krita shouted back. "Taking care of children is women's work!"
"Yes!" Parn shouted, then realized the trap he'd stepped into.
"Do I tell you how to fight?" Krita demanded.
"Krita, she's my daughter," Parn said in a suddenly gentle voice. "I... I can't leave her!"
"Do you love her?" Krita asked.
"You want her to have the best life she can?"
"Then let me do my job and take care of her!"
If Parn had possessed teeth he would have ground them in frustration. He felt he was being pulled apart by two equally irresistible but diametrically opposed forces. Nothing in life had prepared him for this.
"My lord!" Torgai bellowed.
Parn looked around. Swarms of small fighting shells were on their way and he could see a number of large ones in the distance. The muck dwellers were getting organized; he was out of time. The child was his daughter; already he saw in her Vala's captivating beauty. He looked at Krita: old, scarred, and shriveled but with a fierce pride as strong as any warrior's. He remembered his oath, to take his daughter or die trying. He almost laughed because he was dying. Vala was gone; of that he could no longer doubt. His daughter-
-was alive but she wasn't his any more. Some muck dweller was her daddy now.
All Parn's thoughts about muck dwellers came back to him in a rush. They had the power of Mind; they built clever machines and they communicated somehow. They knew honor, fighting and dying as bravely as any warrior of the Tribe.
Could they know love as well? Could a muck dweller father love Parn's daughter as dearly as the product of his own flesh?
"Parn, if she didn't like it here how could the muck dwellers make her stay?" Krita asked. "She'd just- run away. They'd never be able to catch her."
Parn had to admit the truth of that. If the muck dwellers knew a way to stop people from side-stepping, surely they would have used it. He let go of the nest, drifting over to Krita and stroking her as tenderly as he'd ever touched Vala. "I'll sing of you to the Ancestors," he whispered. "What you're doing is worthy of our them. And... you saved my life. When Vala died I died with her. You brought my soul back to life. For that... I owe you this. At least this." He drifted away. "I pray we'll meet again. If not in this life... then in the Core, when I join the Ancestors myself. Form on me!" he shouted, side-stepping away. One by one and in small groups the Tribe followed.
Krita laughed as she clung to the nest, awaiting whatever fate the muck dwellers had for her. Not calmly by any stretch; she was terrified. More rode on this than Parn realized. She was pregnant. How it had come about she couldn't imagine. Parn's virile strength... or perhaps his need for her as a woman, a lover. Perhaps it was a true miracle, the Ancestors hearing Krita's prayers and responding. A mixed blessing to be sure; Krita very much doubted she'd survive giving birth but that hardly mattered. She'd have time to teach this child how to care for her half sibling, and of the glory that was her ancestry.
Inexpressible joy welled up inside Krita. Once again she had a purpose. A great and noble purpose, continuing the seed of her Ancestors. She laughed, and laughed, and laughed.
"My lord?" Gava eased gently up on Parn's left, opposite Torgai. "What... where's Krita?"
"She didn't make it," Parn replied.
"But- your daughter?"
"She didn't make it either."
"Then- then we have to revenge them!" Garan shouted. Growls of agreement met his words.
"No, we do not!" Parn thundered, cutting off the noise. "Look around you. There's fewer of us that ever now. Krita and my daughter-" his voice caught. "They... they're in a better place now. As for revenge..." He turned Gava on her back and gently stroked her belly. "There's better ways to get revenge on our enemies. By raising up our sons- and daughters- to be great and noble warriors. Until our offspring are so numerous no enemy can overcome them. Because everyone of us who lives, every one of us who brings new life into the world, scores a victory in the name of our glorious Ancestors. Let us have our revenge... and our final victory... by making love, not war. And to make sure the muck dwellers don't bother us we'll go far away from here."
There, Krita, Parn thought to himself. I've given you all I can. Leading the Tribe away would minimize the chance that they'd find out about her and his daughter. It also minimized the chance that they'd lead the Enemy to this part of space.
Torgai gently gripped Parn's wing tip. "You've become a wise man, my boy," he said.
Parn said nothing; he didn't trust himself to speak. Torgai's approval mean more to him than he could say. Torgai had been like a father- had been his father since the death of his biological one. He moved close to Torgai, gripping his hands tightly. "Thank you," he whispered. "You..." Suddenly Parn realized what he wanted from Torgai more than anything else. "I... I'd be honored if you... allowed me to call you father."
Torgai quivered. For a long time he said nothing. "I... I'd be honored. Would you allow me to call you son?" His voice sounded strange until Parn realized that he was struggling not to cry.
"Of course," Parn agreed, squeezing Torgai's hands gratefully.
"We're lucky to have you as our Starlord," Gava said.
"Yes, we are," Garan agreed.
Parn laughed. For the first time in what felt like a very long time he saw the future leading to hope instead of despair. He laughed and laughed, for other reason than his friends were around him and it felt good to be alive.