The sky sparkled as Foxtrot two zero six approached Chakona Gateway Station. Captain Nightshade, in the weapon officer's position, studied them thoughtfully. The glittering lights weren't stars but bits of debris ejected by ships and stations torn by Stariionae beams and missiles. F206's targeting display showed not only the clouds of debris but the wrecks shedding them. In all hir career- in all hir life- Nightshade hadn't ever seen so much wreckage. Inhabitants of Chakona's equatorial regions would be treated to nightly shows for months or years as it rained into the upper atmosphere. Some fragments couldn't be allowed to de-orbit, being large enough to possibly impact instead of burning up. Nightshade needed to identify them so they could be demolished or towed into deep space.
"Doesn't look too bad," Flight Officer Peregrine commented.
Nightshade grunted. From a distance Chakona Gateway looked almost normal, except for a slight... fuzziness around the edges. Up close the fuzziness could be seen for what it was: streamers of debris trailing from the station's torn, scorched hull. Despite appearances the Stariionae hadn't attacked it seriously; the station's basic structure wasn't seriously damaged. But they had shot out all its station keeping thrusters. Already tidal forces were pulling it out of orbit. Tugs clustered around it while crews affixed portable thruster packs. If they got the station re-boosted in time it could be rebuilt. It not there'd be no choice but to cut it up or demolish it. Fifty times more massive than the largest star ship ever built, Chakona Gateway would hit the ground like an asteroid impact.
Either way it wasn't Nightshade's problem. The Chakona Gateway salvage operation had its own command. Hir responsibility was the small stuff. Considerably less massive, yes, but there was so much more of it. She glanced at hir display; F206's sensors sorted contacts by mass. Shi touched the heaviest item with her index finger. "Let's check this one next," shi said.
"That's an affirm." Peregrine adjusted course slightly to intercept the indicated object. A few minutes later it loomed up on F206's view ports. Nightshade recognized it at once: part of a small craft repair station. Computer enhanced visuals picked out three enormous characters painted on its side: the Greek letter sigma followed by the numbers one and seven.
"Bugger," Peregrine breathed.
The cylindrical work room tumbled slowly through space. The strut holding the reactor and cooling fins was gone, sheared off right where it joined the living quarters. Hull plating had been peeled away and some of the machinery beneath trailed away into space like the insides of some grotesquely eviscerated creature.
Nightshade frowned. "There's still pressure in part of the living quarters. And... life signs." Shi keyed the transceiver. "Foxtrot two zero six to Rescue Control. Please dispatch a unit to coordinates-"
A shriek from Peregrine cut off the rest of Night's shade's request. A flash- first on the sensor display and then in the view ports- caused hir to look up. For an instant the visible sky seemed to burn with cold fire; then the light faded and there- almost close enough to touch- was a Stariionae.
"Requestpermissiontoopenfire!" Peregrine exclaimed, hauling F206's nose around. The targeting scanners weren't locked but at this range shi couldn't possibly miss.
"Wait!" Nightshade shouted. F206 didn't mount enough firepower to kill a Stariionae but the Stariionae mounted enough to destroy F206 several times over. Given also how fast shi'd seen them react, if this one wanted them dead they'd be dead by now. Also, this Stariionae wasn't alone. It held another, much smaller one against its belly, stroking in a fashion that could only be called tenderly. Nightshade experienced a sudden vision of hir granddaughter, a bright-eyed fuzzy ball of inexpressible cuteness. Shi realized suddenly how terribly sick shi was of all this killing and death. If it didn't want to kill hir shi saw no reason to kill it, even in he face of all the killing its folk had done in the immediate past. Another killing wouldn't bring back any of the dead; it would just add to the body count. Besides, if there were survivors trapped inside S17 then starting a battle on top of them wasn't the way to help.
The adult Stariionae hovered in place, moving not a muscle, the child clutched tightly against it. The child squirmed in its grip. That reminded Nightshade so strongly of hir granddaughter shi smiled.
"Rescue Control to Foxtrot two zero six, please say again," the transceiver said.
"Rescue Control, please dispatch a unit to coordinates-" Nightshade read them from the nav display. "Be advised there is a Stariionae on the scene. It is not hostile, repeat, not hostile."
"I-" a long silence followed. "Ah, that's an affirm, Foxtrot two zero six. Rescue unit... Romeo Alpha three six two inbound to your location now."
"Sir?" Peregrine looked as tense as a cocked pistol with a hair trigger.
"I'm going outside," Nightshade announced, closing hir suit's face plate. "Hold station here until the rescue unit arrives."
"But-" Peregrine exclaimed.
"Is there a problem, Flight Officer?" Nightshade demanded, allowing a hint of an edge into her voice.
Peregrine's face twisted as the requirements of discipline warred with hir hatred of the Stariionae. Discipline won; her body relaxed. "Hold station until rescue unit arrives, aye aye, sir." Shi closed hir face plate; Windstorm interceptors didn't have transfer locks so to egress in vacuum the cockpit had to be depressurized.
Nightshade unstrapped and moved carefully into the boarding area just behind the cockpit. Shi didn't think shi could do anything until the rescue unit arrived but hir presence outside would prevent Peregrine from doing anything shi might later regret. Maybe, too, shi wanted to know how serious this Stariionae really was about being friends. If it wasn't... well, Nightshade had sent a great many people to their deaths today. Shi wouldn't be any sort of a commander if she wasn't willing to take risks hirself. If the Stariionae did kill hir... that might actually be preferable to spending the rest of hir life thinking about all the people who'd died....
When the hatch opened Nightshade pushed off gently, not bothering with a safety line. Shi'd spend so much of hir life in suits that some people said shi'd been born in one. Shi almost had been when hir mother went into labor unexpectedly. Shi crossed the gap and landed gently on S17's torn hull without even touching hir jet controls. The Stariionae loomed over hir, clutching the wreckage with two hands while comforting the child with its other four. Nightshade hadn't ever visited S17 before but shi didn't doubt that the child was Star; shi'd seen plenty of pictures. The other... had to be one of the raiders. Its skin glowed softly with pearly radiance, marred by jagged lines of dirty brown. Nightshade didn't know enough about them to tell what sex it was. Shi moved on, picking hir way carefully over the torn hull plating, walking right up under it. When shi came in reach Star extended a hand; Nightshade shied away but Star didn't try to grab hir. She touched Nightshade with surprising gentleness for something so large and made a sequence of gestures with her other hands.
"I'm sorry, I don't speak sign," Nightshade apologized. "But I promise I'll try to find your folks. I-" Nightshade looked up suddenly. Could this individual actually be Star's mother or father? "I suppose in that case you really do have a good reason to stay," Nightshade added. Enough to leave behind your friends and loved ones, everything you've known, and put your fate in the hands of alien creatures you'd only just encountered. Nightshade thought about hir granddaughter... and realized shi might very well be tempted to do the very same thing, were their positions reversed.
"One moment," Nightshade added abruptly. "If you want her so much why didn't you just take her?" Even as shi voiced the question Nightshade realized a likely answer. If my granddaughter loved hir alien keepers, if shi thought of them as hir friends and family, would I have the heart to take hir away from them? On a more practical level, Star had already demonstrated an ability to flit through solid walls if the desire took her. Could the Stariionae force her to come away with them if she didn't want to go?
"Sir, the rescue unit just called in," Peregrine announced. "Their ETA is five minutes."
"Roger that." Since shi was out here Nightshade might as well make hirself useful. Shi knew these stations well enough to find the transfer lock without too much effort. When shi touched the manual control the outer door opened; apparently there was still some power. The inner door opened too; there wasn't any pressure behind it to hold it shut. Vacuum made the emergency lighting seem even harsher and shaper than usual and a surprising amount of debris fluttered in it. When gravity failed suddenly and atmosphere roared out into space an awful lot of stuff got picked up and tossed around. Papers, clothes, furniture, workstations... bodies. This wasn't the first time Nightshade had boarded an evacuated habitat. Shi moved toward the Operations Center, brushing debris out of hir way and placing hir feet carefully so the molebind fields in hir soles wouldn't come loose unexpectedly. In a cluttered environment like this it wasn't hard to become disoriented. Shi encountered a pressure door; when shi touched the control it opened because there wasn't atmosphere on either side of it. At the third one shi encountered the control flashed red and the door didn't move; there was atmosphere behind it. Nightshade lay hir left hand flat against the surface and tapped with hir right. Obviously without air shi couldn't hear but shi'd feel vibrations if someone tapped in response.
Someone did. They seemed to be trying Morse code but Nightshade couldn't make it out. "Nightshade to Peregrine, tell the rescue unit there's atmosphere and survivors in Axial Corridor E, just behind Ops."
"Roger that," Peregrine replied. "The RU's arrived and there's an EVA party on their way to your location now."
"Roger that." Though shi couldn't make out the words Nightshade tapped every now and then to reassure the survivors that shi was still there. Shi knew well how terrifying it was to be trapped like that.
Flickering lights announced the arrival of the rescue party. "Titus to Nightshade, is that you?" A voice asked
"Nightshade to Titus, that's correct," Nightshade replied. In suits it was difficult to impossible to tell who was speaking, so people who worked in them extensively got in the habit of always addressing their comments. Nightshade resolved four figures, two humanoids and two 'taurs.
"Sinbad to Titus, this escape pods reads occupied," another voice announced. One of the 'taurs turned aside and faced the corridor wall.
"In that case we'll pressurize the corridor and take everyone out in the pod," Titus said. "Jennyannadots, close the pressure door at the intersection there and set a temporary seal over it."
"That's a rog." the other 'taur did as directed. Once the door shut shi placed a box in the center of it and pressed a button on it. A force field sprang into being, sealing the end of the corridor even if the door itself wouldn't hold air.
"Howarth to Titus, everything else looks tight." The other humanoid aimed a sensor pack at the corridor walls.
"That's a rog." The first humanoid unlimbered a bulky cylinder. "Stand by for pressurization." It braced the cylinder against its leg and pressed a switch; a plume of vapor jetted from the nozzle. Nightshade felt hir suit begin to contract as pressure built up outside it; a little later shi actually heard the nozzle hissing.
"Pressure check," Titus commanded, closing the gas cylinder.
The figure with the sensor started at it for about a minute and a half. "Howarth to Titus, seems to be holding steady."
"Right then." Titus lifted his face plate and took a deep breath; he was a coffee skinned Terran male. "Mmm mmm. Tastes great." His voice came out high and squeaky; the cylinder contained oxygen and helium instead of oxygen and nitrogen as a precaution against nitrogen narcosis. "Now let's see what we've got here." He touched a switch and the escape pod's hatch slid open. He recoiled in shock as a shrieking ball of claws and fur slammed into his chest, knocking him back and breaking his grip on the deck. It took Nightshade a second to realize that it was, in fact, a Chakat cub and not an actual wildcat.
"Where's my gramma?" the child demanded. The helium atmosphere made hir already piercing cries as sharp as broken glass.
Nightshade grabbed the child and gently but firmly pried hir loose from Titus' torso, relying on hir suit to protect hir from flailing claws. "There's some survivors in the next corridor," shi said in what shi hoped was a soothing voice.
The child stopped screaming and looked at Nightshade through hir face plate. Shi looked terrible; tears streaked hir face and welled up in hir puffy, bloodshot eyes. Hir fur looked jagged and spiky, as if shi'd plucked out clumps of it. Nightshade gathered hir in hir arms, gently stroking hir head and back. The child clutched at hir, wailing piteously. Nightshade didn't try to silence hir; shi'd been stuck in that pod for hours, wondering if hir Gramma was alive or dead.
"Right, then." Titus sorted himself out. "I'm opening the door now." He touched a control; the door slid open.
The child leapt from Nightshade's arms, kicking hir in the face and throat. Shi landed in the arms of the first person encountered behind the door: an elderly, lynx patterned Chakat.
"Good to see you're still with us, Darkstar," Nightshade said, lifting hir helmet's face plate.
"Likewise," Darkstar managed, though the child kept frantically licking hir face.
Behind Darkstar stood Longstocking, looking morose. Two foxtaurs- Nightshade didn't recall their names- floated in interlocking fetal positions like a living yin-yang symbol. Nova had hooked and arm and a leg through the ladder in the ceiling. A rabbit wearing only the trousers of a Starfleet uniform- Ensign Matheson, that's right- floated beside a long limbed Terran and a busty snow leopard Chakat. They had to be Mr. Carson and Shir Snowflake. Nightshade almost asked how everyone was when shi noticed Kit's face. He looked... like something risen from the dead.
"I imagine you're worried about your little girl," Nightshade said. Kit looked at hir, his eyes narrowing. "You needn't. Shi's waiting outside for you."
Kit made a sound as if he'd just inhaled a grape. His mouth gaped and his eyes bulged until Nightshade feared he really was choking. With a strangled noise he surged down the corridor.
"Whoa, there!" Nightshade caught Kit as he passed; reaction spun them both into the wall. "I understand you're eager to see her but you might want to pick up a suit first, what hey?"
"How are we getting out of here?" Longstocking asked. Shi didn't sound like shi much cared one way or another.
"In the escape pod," Titus replied. "You launch, we pick you up. Quick, easy, and safe."
"All right." Darkstar shifted Aurora to the crook of hir arm. "Can you give us a hand? We're not all used to micro-gravity."
"Not a problem." Titus, his crew, and Nightshade formed a bucket brigade of sorts, passing each person to the escape pod. With everyone packed safely inside Titus closed the hatch. The pod leapt free with a whoosh and a rumble. "Right, then." He shut his face plate. "Seal up and call out."
"Depressurizing now." Titus shut the pressure door and touched a control on the gas cylinder. It started hissing, sucking atmosphere back in. Nightshade's suit swelled and sound faded out, the emergency lighting becoming once again cold and sharp. When his instruments read sufficient vacuum he slung the cylinder on his equipment pack. "Titus to Jennyannadots, break down the portable seal and let's go."
"That's a rog." Jennyannadots deactivated the temporary seal and hung it back on hir belt. Shi opened the door and the procession shuffled back to the transfer lock. Outside, Nightshade looked around and saw the large Stariionae exactly as it had been earlier. Star wasn't with it any more; Nightshade looked around again and saw her moving up between F206 and RA362, something clutched against her belly. It was the escape pod, Nightshade realized. It looked so... tiny in her hands. Nightshade returned to F206 and clambered inside, pulling the hatch shut behind hir.
Back in hir seat Nightshade keyed the transceiver. "Foxtrot two zero six to Security Force Control, this is Captain Nightshade. Scramble Tango and Delta squadrons. We have-" shi glanced at the new Stariionae- "A prisoner to deal with."
"I wonder what happened to her to make her so badly scarred," Snowflake wondered.
Bright lights in the Security Force hangar made the Stariionae woman- scans confirmed that if Star was female so was the new arrival- look even more dull and battered than ever. She perched on her fingertips in the exact center of the chamber; gold and orange blotches stained muddy by her scar tissue oozed across her skin.
"A lot of those look like a deliberate design," Skip commented. He wore a Security force tunic to replace his lost Starfleet one.
Valjean and Javert ignored the exchange, wolfing down sausage pizza and chocolate ice cream. They recovered from their ordeal with remarkable quickness, at least where food was concerned. Ah, to be young, Darkstar thought with a mental sigh. Shi felt like Hell.
"I read about a tribe on Terra where members decorated themselves by making little cuts in their skin and rubbing ash into them," Kit put in. He watched Star, who seemed to find the presence of gravity immensely entertaining. She drifted around the hangar, picking things up and dropping them.
"I wonder why she stayed," Nova said.
Longstocking walked up to the view port and looked out. Hir eyes narrowed, hir fingers curling into fists.
"There's nothing you could have done," Darkstar said softly, caressing Aurora's head. Shi absolutely refused to leave hir grandmother's side.
"Why did you stop me?" Longstocking blazed, rounding on Darkstar. All other conversations ceased abruptly.
"Because if you'd tried to save Sherlock you'd only have died too," Darkstar replied.
Longstocking clawed at hir face. "Every time I close my eyes I see hir face," Longstocking mumbled, hir voice quavering. "I- I hear hir begging me to help hir." Shi looked up; tears wet hir cheeks and stark horror shone in hir eyes. "What- what do I do?" Shi broke down into sobs.
Darkstar slipped hir arm around Longstocking's shoulders. "You remind yourself of all the people who didn't die. And... you let the people who love you comfort you, even when you don't feel you deserve it."
Longstocking slumped. "It never stops, does it?"
Darkstar shook hir head. "No, I'm afraid it doesn't."
Longstocking caressed Darkstar's throat and nuzzled hir cheek. "I'm glad," shi murmured. "Terrible as it is... I wouldn't want to be someone who... who could get used to it."
Darkstar pulled Longstocking close, hugging hir tightly. Tears oozed from Darkstar's tightly shut eyes.
"Longstocking?" Aurora asked, taking hir hand.
"Y- yes?" Longstocking wiped hir face with hir hand.
"I... um... would it be okay if I called you Mommy?"
Longstocking blinked, then smiled. "Of course," shi said in a quavering voice. "I... I'd be honored."
"You can call me daughter, too, if you want," Aurora added.
Longstocking scooped Aurora up with one arm, hugging hir fiercely. Aurora slipped hir arms around Longstocking's neck.
Snowflake sniffed. Nova offered hir a tissue. Kit slipped a hand into Snowflake's and squeezed; shi returned the pressure.
Star drifted up to the view port and tapped gently. Kit started, then turned around. HOW DO WE TALK TO HER? she asked, pointing at the other Stariionae.
"What's so funny?" Kit asked, frowning.
"For once that's an easy question," Skip replied. "Teach her sign language."
"Come on, dearest," Krita cajoled. "I know you can do it. Say 'mama.'"
Brina- that's what Parn and Vala were going to name her, at least- skittered sideways across the floor, her skin flashing in annoyance. She made a sequence of gestures, several of which Krita was certain were meant to be rude.
Krita clenched her hands, resisting the urge to smack the little brat. Frankly she felt the muck dwellers spoiled the kid terribly but if Krita attempted to mete out discipline they shot her. She wanted to ask how in the name of the Eternal Dark did they expect the kid to learn?
On the other hand... Krita couldn't exactly say Brina hadn't learned anything. She seemed quite facile with the finger stuff- which Krita presumed to be some form of communication- and the muck dwellers didn't seem to have undue difficulty getting her to do things. Krita reflected uneasily that she should expect the muck dwellers to do things differently. They were aliens, after all.
Brina exchanged gestures with a pair of disembodied hands. Watching it was acutely painful; a conversation took forever. Krita couldn't understand how Brina, impatient as she was, could have learned to talk like that. Suddenly Brina floated up above Krita and rapped sharply on her back, then pointed imperiously. Krita saw a tiny door open and two muck dwellers come out. They wore second skins to trap the atmosphere they needed to live. Brina seized Krita's right manipulator hand and tugged it down by the muck dwellers. "Ma," she announced, aiming Krita's index finger at one of the figures and making a sequence of gestures with another hand. "Da," she continued, aiming Krita's finger at the other figure and miming another set of gestures.
"Look, I'm an old woman," Krita protested, starting to brush Brina aside. "I can't-"
Beam projectors mounted in the room's walls discharged. The blasts splashed across Krita's skin instead of penetrating but they weren't meant to. The energy they released into Krita's body ran like fire along her nerves; she screamed, dropping to the floor. Memory of the pain lasted longer than the pain itself; Krita lay for a moment before slowly rising up again. "Okay, okay, I get the message," she said tiredly. The muck dwellers didn't care what Krita thought was possible; In that respect they seemed very like the Tribe. Anyway, Krita was running out of time. Already she felt the stirrings of new life inside her. She'd planned to teach Brina in her natural language but if she had to use muck dweller finger talk she would. "Ma," she said, pointing at the first muck dweller and imitating the gestures.
Kit laid his hand against the view port. Beyond it the structures and installations of Security Base stretched away for kilometers across Cha'turna's gray, lifeless landscape. He couldn't fault the team's new digs for being too small; twice already he'd gotten lost in the warren of corridors. The people he met seemed friendly enough and they treated him like a celebrity. But however well the soldiers treated him Kit just didn't feel like he belonged. It wouldn't bother him except that there wasn't anywhere else to go. And... he wanted to look out a window and see blue sky. Green hills. He longed to feel rain on his face and grass between his toes. To go outside without a space suit.
Kit turned. That voice-
"Hello, Kit." Liska stood nearby, dressed in a grey tunic and dark blue trousers.
"Ah, hello, Liska," Kit managed. Except when naked he'd never seen her in anything but coveralls.
"Can we talk somewhere?" Liska asked.
"Probably here's as good as anywhere." Kit glanced around; there wasn't anyone else around at the moment. Despite its size Security Base had very little spare capacity. Finding a private place to talk- or do other things- was nearly impossible. There was a suite of bedrooms allocated specifically for couples- or groups- who did not intend to sleep in them but a person had to sign up for one and Kit found it simply too embarrassing.
"Kit, I need you help," Liska began.
"What? Why?" Kit blinked in surprised. "Where have you been, anyway?"
"That's just it," Liska replied. "I've been... in prison. I'm... going to charged with desertion in the face of the enemy. That's... I'll get ten years, most likely."
"Uh." Kit turned back to the view port and leaned against it. He felt like he already was in prison and with no end in sight. The Security Force people were plenty nice but wouldn't let him leave. "I don't know what I can do," he said.
"Take me on your team," Liska pleaded. "I don't know if you realize it but you pack a lot of gees around here. You could- you could broker some kind of a deal." She drew a shuddering breath. "Please, Kit! I- I'll do anything, anything at all!"
For an instant Kit flashed back to Ops on S17. He saw the fear on Liska's face... and how she bolted from the room as soon as Longstocking turned hir back. "You promised the Security Force the same thing," he said.
Liska drew a sharp breath. For a long time she made not a sound. "I'm sorry I wasted your time." She walked briskly away.
Kit squeezed his eyes shut. Tears rolled off his cheeks and left long streaks on the transparisteel window.
"Here she comes," Longstocking said. Darkstar nodded. Captain Nightshade clasped hir hands behind hir back and lifted hir chin.
All conversation gradually ceased as Lijang hove into view. Ugly rents and sprays of redeposited metal marred the shiny finish of her starboard warp pod; of the portside one only the strut remained, terminating in a mess of fused, tangled support members.
"Will she be rebuilt?" Snowflake asked in a hushed voice.
"It's doable," Longstocking replied. "Costly, yes, but possible. Be a terrible pity to scrap such a fine ship."
Tugs and tractor beams nudged Lijang up to the docking port. In a way her appearance seemed strangely appropriate; even after months of work Chakona Gateway still bore the scars of battle.
Kit surreptitiously tapped Darkstar's shoulder. "Who are they?" he asked, pointing with his little finger.
"You mean those two foxes standing with the Chakat who looks like shi has to go to the bathroom real bad?" Nightshade inquired.
"Uh, yes," Kit said, somewhat self consciously. He hadn't meant Nightshade to hear. The pair in question looked like Voxxans; the male wore a battered leather aviator's jacket, brown trousers, and black boots. The female wore an orange jump suit with black trim. They didn't seem to fit either with the Starfleet and Security Force officers or the civilian dignitaries.
"That's Ranthe and Mayfurr," Nightshade replied.
"You mean-" Kit's eyes widened. "Those alien vulpines who landed here a few years ago?"
"The same," Nightshade replied. "They're here on some sort of diplomatic mission, apparently. The reason they're here is because that Chakat with them is Sundown, who happens to be Swiftsure's lover."
The docking bridge pressurized with a hissing roar. With a chorus of clanks and thumps the inner door slid ponderously aside. Captain Raskilov stood waiting, with Chase and Captain Venner to his right and Swiftsure to his left. As soon as shi caught sight of Sundown shi let out a shriek and leapt forward. Sundown did the same; they collided almost exactly midway between their original positions and fell in a heap, nuzzling and licking one another frantically, and wailing distressingly.
A Starfleet admiral stepped forward. He made no attempt to move Swiftsure and Sundown out of the way; he waited patently until they clambered to their feet and moved off, arm in arm. Captain Raskilov greeted him with a salute so sharply precise it made Kit's arm ache. The admiral returned it, then offered his hand and a warm smile. "Welcome back, Captain. We're glad you made it."
Captain Raskilov took the offered hand. "We're glad to be back, sir."
"That's Admiral Kline," Nightshade explained quietly. Kit nodded.
"If you please, sir, we have wounded to discharge," Captain Raskilov continued.
"By all means," Admiral Kline replied, stepping aside to clear the way.
A line of people shuffled forward through the docking bridge. Many of them wore only partial uniforms as the presence of casts, bandages, and/or medpacks prevented them from dressing completely. A great deal of the skin thus exposed shone with the plastic sheen of sprayseal. In not a few cases sprayseal took the place of skin, leaving muscle, ligaments, and sometimes bone exposed to view. Some hobbled along with the assistance of companions because they lacked limbs or the ones they had were too badly mangled. Gurneys carried people who couldn't, for one reason or another, move under their own power.
Finally the mournful procession petered out. "Now, Captains, we want to hear your reports," Admiral Kline announced.
"Sir, we still have casualties to discharge," Captain Raskilov said.
"We won't value their sacrifice any less if we let them wait a little while," Admiral Kline said quietly. "Nor do we doubt the valor of those who lived."
For an instant it seemed that Captain Raskilov would argue. "As you say, sir," he said. His left cheek jumped continuously.
"Gentlebeings, this way, if you please," Admiral Kline called, turning away and gesturing. Most of the officers and dignitaries followed.
"Do we have to go?" Javert asked.
"Only if you want," Darkstar replied. "But we all have to at least stay here in case someone wants us to report on something."
Chase separated from the crowd and approached. "I'm glad you all made it," he said quietly. "And-" his face quavered- "I'm sorry about- about Fyodor."
Darkstar stepped up and gently stroked his face. "Did you do the best you could?" shi asked.
"I- I-" Chase's face twisted; tears rolled down his cheeks. "I tried, but- but-"
Darkstar shook him gently. "I didn't ask if you did enough," shi said. "I asked if you did best you could."
Chase sniffed. He looked into Darkstar's eyes. "Yes," he said. "I did the best I could."
"That's all I ask." Darkstar stroked Chase's forehead. "I'm glad you survived, Chase. Your father loves you very much. He'd miss you terribly if you were... gone."
Chase flung himself into Darkstar's arms, hugging hir tightly and sobbing into hir shoulder. After a while he broke away. Nova offered him a tissue; he took it with a nod of thanks and blew his nose. "I have to go present a report," he said. "I... hope you find happiness, Darkstar."
"You too, Chase."
Chase kissed Darkstar gently on the nose. "Thanks to you, I think I already have."
Slate gray waves marched endlessly under a leaden sky to dash themselves against the dark, jagged rocks of Novaya Belarus' northern coastline. A bitter wind blew down from the depths of the polar ice pack, moaning forlornly among the dells and hollows cutting the steep cliffs.
A force field kept the single window of Liska's cell free of rain and frost. She stood before it, staring out across the gray sea. Lubyanka Prison rested on a spit of volcanic rock thrust out into the Arctic ocean; icy water foamed on three sides. Against the fourth rose the snow-capped peaks of the Sredinniy Mountains. A place like this doesn't need guards, she thought. Anyone braving the frigid water would freeze in minutes if they weren't dashed on the inhospitable shoreline. Overland, a person would have to brave four hundred kilometers of trackless tundra to reach the nearest settlement. During the eternal polar winter temperatures plunged to forty-five degrees below zero. In the all too brief summer scimitar cats patrolled diligently, seeking prey to feed their cubs. Liska had to say it was a great location for a prison. After ten years here a person could easily forget that warm sunshine, babbling brooks, and meadows full of wildflowers had ever existed.
"Prisoner Sharpears, you have a visitor," a guard announced.
"Okay," Liska said tonelessly, turning and exiting her cell. Lubyanka had no bars, no force fields. If Liska tried to go somewhere she wasn't supposed to an implant in the base of her skull would stun her unconscious. Walking in front of the guard Liska crossed the sky bridge, the only connection between the cell block and the administration complex. The visiting room consisted of a row of double-sided cubicles bisected by a thick transparisteel window. Prisoners sat on one side, their visitors on the other, separated by the window. When Liska sat at the indicated station she found herself facing Chase in female form. As usual she wore only a bikini bottom.
"I came here to ask you a question," Chase said.
"Okay." Liska replied in exactly the same tone she'd used on the guard. At another time in her life she might have made a sarcastic remark. Now she no longer had the emotional energy.
"Would you like to become my apprentice?" Chase asked.
Liska blinked. Of all the questions she could imagine Chase asking that was, if not the last, then way down the list. "I'm sorry?"
"Do you want to become my apprentice?" Chase repeated.
"I'm not a telepath," Liska said.
"Everyone's a telepath," Chase said. "The only difference is how well you can use your power."
"What happens if I say no?" Liska asked.
"I go away," Chase replied.
"If I say yes?"
"I still go away," Chase said. "But you come with me. You help me do what I do and you endeavor to learn as much as you can about it."
Liska blinked. "Just- just like that?"
"Not just like that," Chase contradicted. "Becoming my apprentice doesn't constitute a waiver of your sentence. It's just a change in how you serve it. If you choose to come with me you stay with me for ten years, no matter what."
"What if I change my mind?"
Chase shook her head. "You know what I can do, Liska. Believe me, you won't change your mind."
"I... see." Liska twiddled her fingers. "Why? Why are you offering me this?"
"Because when I look at you I see a spark of something good and noble," Chase replied. "But all your life it's been buried under lies you erected to protect yourself from the world. I'm doing this to give you the chance to experience another way of being, one that isn't about surviving." Chase smiled ruefully. "I picked you because I felt I owed you a favor. I'm doing it because-" tears welled up in her eyes- "because I've hurt so many people. Either deliberately or because I just didn't care. I... I need to show myself that I can help people."
Liska stared at her hands. "Can... can you really do that?"
"I don't know," Chase admitted. "But I aim to do the best I can. No matter what."
"But... how can you convince the government to let me out? Aside from the obvious?"
Chase smiled. "At the moment I'm the only telepath who knows how to deal with the Stariionae. The Federation will give me whatever I want."
Liska blinked. Tears welled up in her eyes and dripped down her cheeks. "You could have all that... and you chose me?"
"That's correct," Chase replied. "I could have money, fame, mansions, endless sex partners..." she laid her hand against the window. "But I found I didn't care about all that. I wanted... something valuable. Something precious. You."
Liska hunched forward, biting her knuckles until they bled. Her shoulders heaved with silent sobs. "No- no one's ever- called me- precious!" she gasped.
"One person has," Chase corrected. "Though he didn't use those exact words."
"But- who" Liska looked up, scrubbing her eyes.
"Mr. Carson," Chase replied. "Just after stopping you from spacing yourself. He told you about me and him. At the end of the story he told you something."
"He said... that if I was going to die, do it for something better than a pack of lies," Liska replied, wiping her nose on the back of her hand.
"What happened next?" Chase prompted.
"I... I asked him how he knew there was anything to be but lies."
"And he said what?"
"He said- he said-" Liska's voice caught; tears streamed anew down her face. "-that if there wasn't anything good in me I wouldn't care that anybody knew my secret!" She buried her face in her hands, sobbing.
"In that moment you loved him," Chase said. "You loved him like you'd never loved anyone in your life, even- especially- yourself. In that moment you understood what it meant to be selfless rather than selfish."
Liska leapt to her feet, sending her chair toppling over backwards and plastering herself against the window. The guards tensed but didn't start forward just yet. "Chase, can- can you help me find that again?"
"No," Chase replied. "Because you don't find it. It doesn't exist out here." She waved her hand through the air. "You create it. I can't tell you how to create it, either. But, if you want, I can show you how to become a person to whom such an act of creation is... natural and effortless."
Liska sank slowly back down. "If I become your apprentice, will you teach me that?"
"Absolutely," Chase replied. "The only way you're any use to me is if you become such a person."
Liska picked up her chair and sat down. "Then I accept."
"All right." Chase rose. "I'll go speak to the warden. You will be out of here by the end of the day, that I promise."
Nightshade's intercom chimed. "Yes?" shi asked without looking up from hir workstation.
"Sir, I'm sorry to disturb you but Captain Raskilov is here," the adjutant in the outer office said. "I've told him you're busy but he's very insistent. He claims his business will only take a moment."
Nightshade frowned. Shi'd deliberately not scheduled any meetings so as to have time for paperwork. After a brief internal debate curiosity got the better of hir. "Send him in."
Captain Raskilov entered, snapped to attention, and saluted smartly. Nightshade merely waved him to a chair. "What is it, Captain?"
Aleksandr sat, though his back did not touch that of the chair. "We need to revise how we're dealing with the Stariionae in custody," he said. "I understand that the Security Force has an abiding interest in this matter but I do not believe that continuing to treat this as a military matter will be advantageous in the long run."
"I don't see what the alternative is," Nightshade responded.
"Form a civilian Ministry of Stariionae Relations," Aleksandr replied. "Hire the two Stariionae, and the individuals caring for them, as expert consultants. Then invite the various scientific organizations to participate in the research being conducted."
Nightshade stroked hir chin. "For us to employ them they have to have documentation. Are you proposing we grant them visas?"
"It would be more efficacious to grant them full citizenship."
Nightshade's eyes narrowed slightly. "One of them committed acts of war against the government and people of Chakona."
"For which she has been effectively imprisoned without due process or legal representation," Aleksandr pointed out. "Furthermore, the child Star has been similarly incarcerated without even the allegation that she committed acts against Chakona. As things stand it appears that the Chakonan government has deliberately refused to acknowledge the basic rights of a demonstratably sentient child while making said child a subject of medical research."
Nightshade's ears lay back and hir claws scraped the deck as shi tried to dig into it. Chakats came in as many different shapes and sizes and other people but one thing pretty much guaranteed to raise hackles across the board was any discussion of the abuse of children. "The Federation, and Starfleet in particular, has attempted the same and worse," shi growled.
"Which is why a concerted effort is required," Aleksandr continued, apparently unfazed by Nightshade's reaction. "If I exert pressure against the political agents of the Federation and you against those of Chakona, I believe that a favorable resolution will be handily achieved."
"The matter of war crimes is bound to come up," Nightshade pointed out.
"Will the Chakonan government proffer charges against an old woman who surrendered willingly, is teaching us her language and culture, and is not expected to survive the birth of her child?"
Nightshade ground hir teeth. The way Aleksandr presented things made the Chakonan government look like a pack of inhuman monsters. Then, in a flash, shi suddenly understood: he was telling hir how to influence the political decision makers. Hir eyes narrowed once more but this time in calculation. "Why are you so interested in this?" shi asked. "I would have thought that you, of all people, would want to keep this in the military."
"My duty is to protect the Federation," Aleksandr replied. "I firmly believe that not receiving the Stariionae will, in the long run, be detrimental to the Federation's interests. And..." Something flickered briefly in his eyes. "The Stariionae came here to take their daughter back. Instead, they left one of their own to care for her. I suspect that at some point they may return to see how we received the gift they entrusted to us. If they are not pleased with the results the damage they could inflict on our shipping, space habitats, and even home worlds would be catastrophic. Even if we found a way to track them they don't require permanent bases like our own ships. They could pursue a guerilla war against us that might go on for decades."
"Are you thinking about your son?" Nightshade asked quietly.
"Yes," Aleksandr replied. "I don't want to see him die in a war I don't think we can win. Over the years I've killed a great many people, most often for no other reason than that they stood between me and an objective. I've sent people to their deaths, in some cases when I knew they didn't have a chance, deliberately spending their lives to purchase victory. In the face of all that death and sorrow only one thing made it possible for me to continue: the knowledge that by my sacrifice I built a world where sons and daughters wouldn't have to fight. I have absolutely no intention of stopping now."
Nightshade reached across hir desk. After a moment Aleksandr took hir hand. "I have daughters too," Nightshade said. "And a granddaughter, now. In spite of everything I can't say I'm sorry I became a soldier. I'd be proud beyond words if my granddaughter became one as well. But I'd just as soon it was hir choice, not because the survival of hir world depended on it. And... if shi died I would, I would cry. You can count on my support, Aleksandr."
"Excellent. And thank you, Nightshade." He squeezed hir hand- and devilish smile spread across his face. "I happen to know a couple reporters who I'm sure would help you make your case in the media."
Nakala Redpaw looked up. Other than being in female phase hy resembled nothing more than an older copy of the Skunktaur laying in the bed before hym. And not so much older as all that; both individuals looked disturbingly gaunt, with streaks of white marking the black fur on their faces and muzzles. "How'd you get past the guards?" Nakala asked. He held the younger Skunktaur's hand in his own, stroking it gently.
"I can be very persuasive when I want to," the stranger said, lifting back the hood of her shapeless gray cloak. "My name is Chase."
"Ah." Nakala's gaze returned to the younger Skunktaur's slack, unresponsive face. "I've heard of you. Why are you here?"
"I want to help your son."
"What can you do that all the doctors and telepaths on Chakona can't?" Nakala spoke with the calm of one whom sorrow and loss had crushed so completely that every trace of emotion had been wrung out of hym.
"I once lost my powers because of, of brain damage," Chase replied. "My brain repaired itself. I've spoken to some experts and they believe that if I transplant neural stem cells from myself to your son, it may induce his brain to regenerate."
"Isolating the stem cells would require that a portion of your brain be surgically removed," Nakala pointed out. "The procedure might adversely affect your own powers."
"I know." Chase knelt on the opposite side of the bed. "I'm willing to take that chance."
"Why?" Nakala wanted to know.
"People have... suffered and died," Chase said, taking Kei's other hand and stroking it. "Because I acted or I failed to act. I... I don't want to be like that. I want to be a good person. And... a good person would help your son, if she could. No matter what the personal cost."
"What do you want in return for your service?"
"I don't want money, fame, or things," Chase replied. "I... I've had them and they don't ease the pain in my heart. All I want... is a chance to give. When I know I've made a real difference in someone's life... I don't feel like a monster." Tears rolled down her cheeks and dripped on the bedding.
"Kei's been in a coma for months," Nakala said, hys tone unchanged. "The doctors find that strange because the damage to hys brain isn't that extensive. But it's no surprise to me. If hy woke up now... hy'd be a numbskull. The reason hy hasn't come back is because hy doesn't want to. The reason-" Nakala's voice caught- "the reason hy still lives is because I haven't the strength to let go." Hy caressed Kei's cheek. "I've spent all these months waiting... hoping... for something. Anything. A miracle. I'd give- everything I owned. My future. My life. To have my son back... if only long enough to hold hym in my arms and whisper I love you one last time." Hy clasped hys hands beneath hys chin as if praying. "I know what it's like to feel responsible for the suffering of others. Kei asked to go with Professor Moseivitch because I trained hym to be bold. Because- because of what I made hym, my son is here." Hy spread hys hands, indicating the bed. "Chase, before I give my consent I require a service of you. I want to- to touch my son one last time. To see if there's... anything of hym left inside this ruin of flesh." Hy gently stroked Kei's flank. "If there is... I want to ask hym. If hy wants to come back... or go on."
Chase slipped her robe off her shoulders and let it fall to the floor. "I can give you that." She came around the bed and straddled Nakala's lower body, gently massaging Nakala's temples. Hy stiffened momentarily then slowly relaxed, letting hys eyes close. Chase slipped her fingers under his headband and lifted it off.
"Ahh!" Nakala exclaimed, arching hys back until it seemed hy'd snap hys own spine from the effort. Chase wrapped her arms and legs around hys torso and held on. All at once Nakala collapsed in a heap, gasping for breath... and sobbing. Tears poured down hys face and pooled on the floor. Hys limbs quivered and twitched without coordination. Finally hy dragged hymself up by hys arms on the side of the bed. Hy staggered to the rack of machines blinking and beeping to themselves as they kept Kei's body alive. With a convulsive shove Nakala pushed it over; it hit the floor with a crash as displays shattered and power supplies shorted out.
Shrilling alarms brought three Chakats with a crash cart. "No!" Nakala roared as they readied their equipment; in a fit of hysterical strength hy leapt over the bed and took all three of them down in a flying tackle.
Chase picked herself up off the floor and, ignoring the melee, returned to Kei's bedside. One instrument, hardier than the others or just lucky, continued to function. It showed Kei's heart rhythm become erratic... then cease. Chase lay her hand over Kei's face and closed his eyes.
GOOD MORNING AUNTIE, Kit signed. HOW ARE YOU TODAY?
WAY COOL! Star exclaimed, doing a snap roll.
HI KIT, the old woman replied. I'M OKAY.
When slowed down about a hundred times and played through a speaker Stariionae speech sounded like a chorus of twittering birds. Leaving aside the timing issue no organic sentient in the Federation could even duplicate the sounds without a computer-controlled synthesizer. The old woman had a name, obviously, but since it couldn't even be approximated in regular speech everyone called her Auntie. It suited her role in Star's upbringing.
WILL YOU BE JOINING US OUTSIDE TODAY? Kit inquired.
Auntie lay a hand on her belly. NO.
Kit had been no less surprised than anyone else to learn that Auntie was pregnant. Delighted as he was at the prospect of another child entering the family it bothered him also. Auntie seemed far too... brittle. Kit didn't at all care for how her skin crazed like broken glass as the baby pushed it out.
WE'LL MISS YOU, Kit said.
I'M NOT A CHILD, Auntie replied. Kit guessed she meant "I'm not young." She'd taken much longer than Star to learn sign and still didn't speak it nearly as well. Kit wished he could just talk to her instead of signing but in spite of Swiftsure's best efforts the translator still wasn't working. To hir credit the problem didn't appear to be with the translator itself but in the transceiver hardware. It received reasonably well but the transmitter lacked the resolution to generate intelligible speech.
YOU SURE YOU'RE ALL RIGHT? Kit ventured.
QUIT FUSSING, Auntie replied sharply. I'LL TELL STORIES WHILE YOU'RE OUT.
YES, AUNTIE. Kit grinned. She reminded him of Darkstar: old and battered, yes, but not about to let a bunch of young whippersnappers get the better of her. ME AND SKIP WILL BE OUT IN A BIT.
OKAY. Star waved.
As Kit rose and turned from the view ports in the hangar's observation gallery the translator screen flickered with activity. Rather that wait for it to become fully operational it was set to record all conversations between Auntie and Star. Thus it was hoped that the wisdom and history Auntie passed on to Star would be preserved directly, then translated at leisure. Given the amount of it- Auntie had been lecturing for weeks at one hundred speed- it might take years to translate it all but at least it would be there after- after-
Kit froze in the doorway, resisting the urge to look back. Obviously no one in the Federation understood Stariionae physiology particularly well, a condition exacerbated by the force fields preventing detailed scans of their interiors. Everyone agreed that Auntie was very, very old, though in years no one could say. Moreover, everyone agreed that, regardless of the species, giving birth was a violent, traumatic experience. It didn't take a genius to put those two datum together; the experts didn't think Auntie would survive giving birth. Kit wanted desperately to ask Auntie straight out but he'd never worked up the courage. If she didn't know he didn't want to upset her. If she did know-
If she did know Kit wasn't sure he wanted to know. Just thinking about it terrified him in ways he couldn't easily articulate but affected him deeply. Perhaps because it forced him to consider the unpleasant implications of his own mortality.
A tremendous crash jolted the observation room's floor. Kit nearly jumped right out of his skin. He whirled with a yelp just as Star smacked the hangar wall with her open hand. Structural integrity force fields lit the view ports with snapping coruscations. "Star, stop it!" he shouted, remembering only belatedly to repeat the command in sign.
Star drifted away from the wall, pointing frantically. Auntie lay on her side, quivering. Jagged blotches of clashing color flicked across her skin like lightning.
"Omigod!" Kit squeaked, dashing to the servo control station. It sat in the middle of the floor because it wasn't part of the observation gallery's normal equipment; it had been added when Star and Auntie moved in.
SHE SAYS ITS THE BABY, Star reported.
Kit wore a Security Force comm badge. "All Star Crib personnel to the observation gallery," he said, tapping it live. "This is an emergency! Auntie's giving birth!"
Skip arrived first, wearing the bottom half of a space suit and trailing the rest behind him. "I'm here," he announced breathlessly. "What do we do?"
"Get on the sensors," Kit directed, putting his hands into the gauntlets. "The boffins say she'll deliver by transporter. Keep an eye on her energy states!"
"Right." Skip took a seat at the sensor console.
Star darted nervously back and forth until Kit caught her and stroked her. "I know it's hard," he whispered. "But we gotta wait. There's nothing we can do right now."
Darkstar and Longstocking appeared together. "Report!" Longstocking demanded.
"Auntie's in labor," Skip replied. "Kit, the arrays in her belly are charging but unevenly."
Nova arrived, followed by a team of specialists assigned by Captain Nightshade. They took their stations, one of them displacing Skip from sensors. Kit noticed them only peripherally; he kept his eyes on Auntie and his hands around Star. He felt her quivering; she gripped the back of his hand tightly.
"Here it comes!" someone shouted. A corona of eerie, blue-green flame wreathed Auntie's body. Slowly it gathered on her belly then detached like drop falling from a leaf, forming a bright, flickering ball of light. Kit dropped Star and cupped his hands under it; the ball exerted no weight but it pricked and ticked at the same time. Suddenly it exploded in a brilliant flash, spewing streamers of incandescent matter in every direction. Several people in the observation gallery ducked with a large fragment rebounded from one of the view ports.
Something dropped into Kit's palm. It felt hot and slimy and tried to wriggle out of his grip. Kit closed his hands to trap it.
"Wait, she's charging again!" one of the experts called.
"But-" Someone else protested.
Kit saw the glow building again on Auntie's body. Neither the color nor the coverage were so even this time; fist-sized chunks of her hull blasted outward in gouts of blood as matter re-materialized inside her body. "Do something, she's losing power!" he screamed.
Star darted forward, cupping her hands around the ball of light as it formed. A glow wreathed her body as well; it flowed out along her limbs and mingled with that coming from Krita-
The explosion, when it came, rocked the floor of the observation gallery. Star flew backward and crashed into the wall; amber colored streamers of ossified blood splashed the underside of her body plus the walls and ceiling of the hangar. A glistening, purple-black infant lay clutched in her hands.
Longstocking gasped sharply. Kit looked up- and almost fainted. Auntie lay on her back; the second baby hadn't materialized quite far enough away. Plumes of vapor and streamers of ossified blood and tissue erupted from a gaping wound in her belly. Her hands shuddered for a moment then froze in place. Like a candle guttering out the glow left her skin. Without it her hull looked dingy, gray, and ugly.
"No!" Kit tried to stand; the control gauntlets caught him and forced him back down.
"Kit!" Darkstar appeared at his side, grabbing his face. "Kit, listen to me! She knew this was coming! There's nothing we could do and she didn't expect any different!"
"Bu-" Tears blinded Kit's eyes; his throat closed so tight he couldn't form coherent words. A convulsive sound erupted from his mouth somewhere between a scream and a sob.
"Kit, look." Darkstar turned his head. "Look at your hands, Kit! Look at them!"
Kit blinked away his tears and slowly opened his hands. An infant lay there, questing with its blunt nose. Kit gulped.
"She gave her life so her children would live," Darkstar said, massaging Kit's shoulders. "She told us all those stories so her children would know her after she was gone. She knew she was dying. So she made her death a gift. To her posterity. To us."
Kit slumped forward, his head falling onto his arms. Tears dripped into his lap and his shoulders heaved as he broke down in uncontrollable sobs. As if a floodgate had opened in his soul emotion surged up within him. Professor Moseivitch, Captain Walker, Commander Dawnfire, Dr. Sathitet. Ariel, Larissa, Sherlock... and now Auntie.
"My God, Darkstar, it's not fair!" Kit shrieked, slamming his forehead repeatedly against the console. "You make friends- and then- they die!"
"I know." Darkstar gripped Kit's chin and forehead, gently restraining him. Tears welled up in hir own eyes, rolling down hir cheeks and falling on Kit's shoulders. "They leave you alone and... all you can do is remember how much you loved them."
"Where does it end?" Kit wailed.
"It doesn't," Darkstar replied. "But... watching your children grow... seeing them flourish... has a way of making it... all right. Remember how you felt when... when Star said her first word. When you first took her outside. The first time she called you 'Daddy.' Now... now you get to do that again. Twice."
Snowflake moved up opposite Darkstar and slipped hir arm around Kit's shoulders. Longstocking moved up beside Darkstar and nuzzled her neck. Valjean and Javert settled to either side of the console, reaching around it to rub Kit's thighs.
"Darkstar, it hurts," Kit moaned.
"I know." Darkstar caressed Kit's cheeks. "Just... let your tears wash away your pain. That's... what they're there for." Darkstar closed hir eyes, laying hir head on Kit's shoulders. Hir tears fell on his cheek, mingling with his own.
"Afternoon all," Nightshade said as shi entered the observation gallery. "I trust everything-"
A battered cargo container rebounded from one of the view ports, leaving a mark on the transparisteel in spite of the protective force field.
"I told you not to do that, you little scamp!" Valjean exclaimed as Nightshade picked hirself up off the floor. "I think we need a larger playroom," he said apologetically over his shoulder.
Nightshade walked over to Darkstar, who stood by while Aurora used virtual hands to feed one of the babies. The other had grabbed the container Valjean had just recovered and was trying to pull it out of his grip. Star hovered nearby, gesticulating. "Same to you, buddy!" Valjean said, pulling a hand out of the control gauntlets to thumb his nose.
"That's what I came to see you about," Nightshade said, moving over by Darkstar. "Which one is which?"
"This one-" Darkstar indicated the child being fed- "is Strelka, the female. That one is Zarya, the male."
"Quite the handful," Nightshade observed.
"Quite," Valjean agreed, making a face. He'd persuaded Zarya to let go by tickling him but now he'd latched onto Valjean's fingers.
"I was going to say that your dog and pony show here is not only inflicting grievous wear and tear on the base's equipment but also discipline," Nightshade said. "Half the time if anyone's not on duty when they're supposed to be they're in here fawning over your kids. Thus it is with great relief I announce that I shall finally be quit of you."
"Oh?" Darkstar asked.
"Yes," Nightshade continued. "The Ministry for Stariionae Relations has announced that it will begin construction of a space habitat designed specifically for the housing and study of our little darlings here."
"About time," Valjean grumbled.
"Don't hold your breath," Nightshade said. "Construction's scheduled to take another six months."
"I don't suppose they actually paid any attention to the recommendations we made about design?" Valjean hazarded.
"Actually, they did," Nightshade replied. "But, as I understand it, only because your pal Captain Raskilov stood over their heads with crowbar threatening to beat them senseless if they didn't."
"Hey, you hear that?" Valjean asked, bouncing Zarya in his hands. "You're gonna get your own space station!"
Zarya gave him the finger.
Black and yellow safety striping marked the end of the deck. Kit approached carefully, shuffling his feet; beyond the edge lay nothing but the infinite reaches of space, broken only by the pinprick light of distant stars. A shadow fell across him from behind; not an inky, hard-edged one typical of vacuum but a soft, pale one lit with whorls of barely visible color. Kit looked to his right and saw an enormous hand settle to the deck beside him. With his eyes he traced a massive limb up to where it joined an enormous body, its skit lit with shimmering color that reminded him of the Northern Lights. He smiled warmly; despite her chitinous hull Kit found Star not only sleek and graceful but somehow... sexy. She was big, too; apparently Stariionae had to grow quickly because she'd put on weight as fast as she could suck down the food. Now, only a bit more than a year old, she massed just shy of seventy tons. Kit smiled up at her, crouching slightly to lay his hand atop hers.
A great crowd of space suited figures moved up from the back of the hangar, nearly a hundred meters away. The room had been designed with a full-grown Stariionae in mind. Star held still as they walked beneath her and even between her hands. In the lead came people Kit knew well: Snowflake, Valjean, Javert, Skip, Darkstar, Longstocking, Aurora, Nova, Swiftsure, and Sundown. Longstocking looked a little uncomfortable; hir swollen belly didn't fit well inside hir suit. By the look of things Aurora would have a sister before too long.
Others joined the initial group. Captain Raskilov, Commander Jackson, Captain Vasher, Captain Venner, Captain Nightshade, Admiral Kline, Dr. Stannus, and others from Starfleet and the Security Force. Dr. Chakra led a delegation from Dewclaw University.
Kit turned. He couldn't tell who spoke; his suit headphones distorted the voice-
A small figure threaded its way through the crowd. "Chase!" Kit exclaimed; even a bulky suit couldn't completely mask Chase's fluid grace. "Glad you could make it!"
"I wouldn't miss it for the world." Chase gave Kit a quick hug. "Here's a few people I wanted you to meet."
Two figures moved forward, one humanoid and one centauroid. "Kit, this is Nakala Redpaw," Chase said. "Hy's Kei's father."
"I-" Kit swallowed. "I... I'm sorry about your son."
"It's all right." Nakala gave Kit a hug. "All I ask, Kit, is that you honor hys memory by doing the best you can with, with all this." Hy made a sweeping gesture that took in the hangar and the whole station.
"I will, sir," Kit replied. "I promise.
"And, of course..." Chase continued.
Kit blinked at the other figure. Female, quite clearly, with a tail and a pointed face-
"What's the matter? Forgotten me already?"
Kit started. "Liska? What- I mean-"
"Chase got me out," Liska replied. "It's... well, a long story."
Kit took Liska in his arms and hugged her tightly. "I'm glad," he said.
"Thanks. Coming from you that means a lot."
"Shall we get on with it?" Darkstar asked, proffering a large pair of gold plated scissors.
"Yes, let's." Kit took the scissors. A ribbon stretched across the open mouth of the hangar. Valjean and Javert stepped up to either side of Kit and held it tight. "I now declare Star Home officially open," Kit announced, snipping the ribbon. Applause couldn't be heard in vacuum but lusty cheers from the crowd more than made up for it.
Captain Raskilov stepped forward carrying a roughly rectangular sheet about a meter wide and half again as high. It seemed to be made of lustrous mother of pearl; carved into its surface, front and back, were row after row of names. Kit passed the scissors back to Darkstar and took it.
"Even as we look to the future, we can't forget those who... gave their lives so that what we now have could come to be," Kit said somberly. "Today we honor our friend Auntie, who left us to join her revered Ancestors." He spoke the words taught to Star by Auntie and taught to him by Star. "Auntie was brave, giving her life so that the seed of her Ancestors may continue."
"Auntie is brave," the crowd chorused.
"When... when I leave my flesh I'll sing of Auntie to the Ancestors."
"We remember Auntie," the crowd responded.
Kit blinked; tears blurred his vision. He couldn't read the names carved on the plaque but he knew them well. Professor Moseivitch, Dr. Janek, Sherlock, Ariel, Larissa, Captain Walker, Commander Dawnfire, the pilots and crews of Echo squadron, the crews of the Asimov, the Biscay, the Hawke, and many others. "We give our beloved Auntie to the Core, where the sky is forever filled with light. And with her... we send our prayers for all those who lost their lives, who can be with us only in- in spirit." his voice caught. "Goodbye," he whispered, running his fingers one last time over the plaque formed from a piece of Krita's hull. Then he gave it a gentle shove, sending tumbling slowly away. Not into eternal night but eternal light, where the glow of a billion suns would shine upon it until the universe was no more.
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