A Chance Encounter
by John R. Plunkett
After careful consideration Darkstar settled on the grass at the foot of the gnarled old oak instead of the park bench also under the shade of its overhanging boughs. Though without a doubt a beautifully crafted piece of ironwork it had been designed for humanoids; Darkstar, a Chakat, would be forced to lay sideways and the seat wasn't quite long enough to comfortably accommodate hir lower body. Besides, the grass was soft and pleasantly cool even under the bright summer sun. Shi leaned hir torso against the bole of the ancient tree and watched children romp in the open green across the path. A gentle smile spread across hir face. To be young, full of joy, hope, and boundless energy. Shi was glad Longstocking had convinced hir to come, though at first shi'd been against it. Watching the children play reminded hir that there were joys in life as well as sorrows.
Next thing Darkstar knew hir eyes snapped open in response to a strange sound. Shi stiffened, looking around quickly and groping for the pistol that hadn't been at hir side for many years. Something bumped against hir flank; it was a brightly colored toy ball about the size of a honeydew melon. A young Chakat, no more than five or six years old, came bounding across the path in pursuit of it. When Darkstar's gaze fell upon hir shi froze in hir tracks, eyes wide and mouth slightly agape, transfixed like a bird before a snake. Darkstar's brow furrowed slightly, in perplexity at the child's appearance, not anger at hir intrusion. In body shape shi resembled a cougar but with a red pelt, black stockings on hir forearms, calves, and forepaws, and white hands, feet, and tail tip. A pair of blue ribbons tied hir mane- slightly more orange than hir base color- into a pair of pigtails. A sky blue tank top somewhat stained by grass and dirt clothed hir torso.
The child saw an aged Chakat whose fur pattern resembled that of a Canadian lynx. The natural gray of hir pelt made it difficult to set hir age but moderate sagging in hir small breasts suggested something in the early hundreds. Overall shi looked slender, an impression accentuated by hir large feet. What held the child, though, were the eyes. The color of polished steel they were, and as cold and hard as the heart of glacier.
"It's all right, you just startled me." Darkstar spoke gently, retrieving the ball and holding it out. "Is this yours?"
The child shifted uneasily. "I- I'm sorry to disturb you, Mother Lo-" shi stammered to a halt, belatedly noticing Darkstar's tail. In lynx fashion it was short, with a black tip.
Darkstar chuckled. "It's all right," shi repeated. "I'm old enough to be a Longtail, though my tail isn't actually very long." Shi sighed. "What's your name, my dear?"
"E- Eudora," the child stammered. Shi'd taken the ball but couldn't tear hir eyes away from Darkstar's. "Daughter of Goldfur and Garrek."
"Then you must call me Darkstar," Darkstar announced, a friendly smile spreading across hir face. "Then you won't have to call me Mother Longtail even though my tail's short. Frankly I never know what to say myself."
Eudora smiled, albeit a little hesitantly. With the cold light gone from hir eyes Darkstar did seem very warm and friendly but the memory of hir icy stare was not easily banished.
"I have a granddaughter about your age," Darkstar continued. "Hir name's Aurora. Pity shi's not here; shi went off with my-" Darkstar's ears twitched. "My word," shi muttered aloud to hirself. "I almost said 'mate.'" Shi chuckled but Eudora shivered. Something flickered through Darkstar's eyes; not the cold, hard look but something akin to it.
"Is shi a Longtail too?" Eudora asked. Shi remember visiting Longstripe and Desertsand, hir mother's parents.
"No," Darkstar replied. "Shi's... rather quite young, actually." Darkstar chuckled. "Though it might not seem that way to you. Longstocking's probably about the same age as your mother. When you get to be as old as me everyone looks young."
"How old are you?" Eudora wondered.
"One hundred and six," Darkstar replied. "And yourself?"
"Six," Eudora said.
"An auspicious convergence," Darkstar declared. "I was born in exactly the same year as you, one century earlier."
"Really?" Eudora's eyes went wide. "What was it like?"
For a long time Darkstar didn't answer. Hir eyes unfocused, no longer looking at Eudora but past and through hir to another time and place. "It was an amazing time," shi said softly. "The year before I was born the very first colony ships landed on Chakona. When I was very, very young- about your age- I was there when the ceremonial First Stone was placed for the city that would become Berdoovia. I walked through the Skunktaur Archipelago when it was nothing but wilderness and New Bletchley a collection of prefab huts in a clearing. I was there when the first two components of Chakona Gateway Station were mated together. You might say-" shi smiled softly- "that as I grew up, the world of Chakona grew up with me."
"Wow!" Eudora's eyes were wide, hir mouth agape. "That's cool!"
Darkstar sighed. "The sad thing, Eudora, is that at the time I really didn't notice. It wasn't until... I got old and looked back on it that I really saw what an... exciting life I'd led. You live in an exciting world too, Eudora." Darkstar leaned forward, gently stroking Eudora's head. "Since you've been born we've had two First Contacts. New worlds are being discovered and colonized all the time. New observatories are looking farther away into the galaxy than we ever have before. When you get to be a Mother Longtail yourself, you'll tell your children about all the exciting things that happened when you were young."
"Wow," Eudora repeated, barely more than a whisper. Hir eyes shone with wonder.
Darkstar withdrew hir hand because it had begun to shake. Shi blinked rapidly against the tears welling up in hir eyes but it did no good. Shi looked away, wiping hir face and fighting back the sobs trying to burst out.
"Are you okay?" Eudora asked, stepping cautiously forward and laying a hand on Darkstar's flank.
"I just- I just-" Darkstar fished a tissue from hir belt pouch and blew hir nose. "I wish my sisters were here to see you."
"Where are they?"
Darkstar drew several deep breaths. "Gone away," shi replied.
"Where... we go after this life is over."
"Oh." Eudora's eyes dropped to the ground. "I'm sorry," shi mumbled.
Darkstar finished dabbing at hir face. "Did someone you know go away, Eudora?" shi asked gently.
Eudora nodded. "My half sister, Greypaw." Shi looked up, hir eyes wet with tears. "They... they weren't doing anything! Just- out shopping." Shi sniffed, wiping hir nose on the back of hir arm. Darkstar offered hir a tissue and shi blew hir nose. "Then- for no reason- these people came along. They started hitting them. Hir and Auntie Lupu. They hit and hit and hit-" Eudora gulped; Darkstar offered hir another tissue. "Auntie got better, but-" shi gulped. "Greypaw went away." Eudora looked up, hir eyes flashing with anger and keenly felt injustice. "Shi was just a baby! Why did they have to hit hir? Why?" Shi buried hir face against Darkstar's side and cried.
Darkstar said nothing, stroking Eudora gently. Shi understood the logic of hate all too well, but Eudora wouldn't find the answer comforting. Quite the opposite, in fact. For a moment the cold light blazed in Darkstar's eyes; fortunately Eudora didn't see it because it was a dozen times stronger that it had been at their first meeting.
"Eudora!" A voice called. Darkstar looked up and saw a young male foxtaur hurrying across the green. "Eudora!" he repeated, pausing and looking around. His gaze fell upon Darkstar and Eudora and he started briskly toward them. Darkstar blinked and shook hir head to clear away the cold light. Shi knew well the effect it had on people and if this man saw it on hir now it would create problems that might be very difficult to explain away.
"You must be Garrek," Darkstar said. The color and pattern of his pelt matched Eudora's exactly, except only that his extremities were solid black.
He fetched up short. "Why, yes," he admitted, sounding a bit confused.
"It's no mystery." Darkstar patted Eudora's head. "Your daughter told me the names of hir parents. I took a chance that you weren't Goldfur."
"Ah." Garrek nodded. "I'm sorry if shi bothered you."
"Not at all," Darkstar protested. "I've enjoyed being with hir."
"Come on, darling." Garrek scooped Eudora up. When he noticed the tears on hir face he started. "Darling, what's wrong?" he asked, glancing suspiciously at Darkstar.
"Shi told me about Greypaw," Darkstar explained.
Garrek's face fell. "Oh." He hugged Eudora to him. "It's all right, darling." Shi put hir arms around his neck. "Anyway, thanks for keeping hir out of trouble," he continued. "Shi was playing, I was doing some things... I looked up and shi was gone. I suppose I should know better by now, but..." he shrugged.
"I hate to say it, but it never gets any better," Darkstar sighed. "Even when they get to be presidents and admirals you lay awake at night wondering if they're going to be all right."
Garrek smiled warmly, hugging Eudora to his chest. "I can imagine."
"Daddy, this is Darkstar," Eudora said.
"Pleased to meet you, Shir Darkstar." Garrek juggled Eudora into the crook of his left arm so he could offer his right. Darkstar shook it. Then an odd expression flicked across his face and he glanced briefly at hir tail. "I don't suppose," he mused, "That you might be the Darkstar?"
"I guess that depends on which Darkstar happens to be the Darkstar," Darkstar responded.
"Were you once a lieutenant on board the F.S.S. Illustrious?" Garrek inquired.
"Why yes, I was," Darkstar replied after a brief hesitation. "But it was... a long time ago."
Garrek grinned broadly. "I thought so. You're the Stub Tailed Devil, aren't you?"
"Well-" Darkstar plucked at hir whiskers. "Yes, junior officers were known to call me that from time to time. But where did you hear it? You're much too young to have known me from Starfleet."
"Not me directly, no," Garrek replied, laying down on the path and setting Eudora between his forepaws. "Do you remember a Chakat named Silverbolt? Like a cougar but with a white stripe along hir right flank?"
Darkstar concentrated for a moment. "No, sorry."
"Silverbolt was an ensign," Garrek said. "One day, under your supervision, shi was in a jeffries tube chasing down a bug in the power distribution system-"
"Oh yes," Darkstar cut in. "For some reason the breakers serving the galley kept popping even though the power usage was well inside the programmed limits. I sent hir up there to take readings directly from the regulators."
"And at the same time the chief engineer was installing a new power management protocol in the main energizer-" Garrek continued.
"There was a bug in the code," Darkstar interrupted. "We didn't know it at the time. The upgrade wasn't going smoothly and he was righteously pissed off." Shi chuckled, but almost instantly hir expression turned somber. "I just happened to be looking at the reactor status panel. There was a sudden spike-" hir voice faltered, hir eyes unfocusing as shi relived that long-ago day.
"Silverbolt was my mate's grandmother," Garrek said. "If you hadn't done what you did that day I wouldn't have a mate. I wouldn't have a beautiful daughter." He kissed Eudora gently on the top of the head. "Silverbolt still tells that story when we got to visit hir."
"Well, well," Darkstar commented, smiling wanly. "It's a small universe, isn't it?"
"I-" Garrek glanced down. "If you please, Darkstar, would you have dinner with us? I- I'd like to thank you for what you did that day. And I know Goldfur would too. You- you didn't just save a life, Darkstar. You saved the lives of, of all the generations to come. Oh, please say you'll come." Garrek took Darkstar's hand and squeezed it.
"Please?" Eudora added, laying hir own small hand atop hir father's.
Darkstar wiped hir eyes with hir other hand. "Okay," shi said. "With an invitation like that, how could I refuse?" Shi gently caressed Eudora's cheek. "But I have to wait here for Longstocking and Aurora to get back from the zoo."
"Here." Garrek fished a card from his belt pouch. "Give me a call. I have to go fetch Goldfur at the airport."
"Is Mommy gonna be staying this time?" Eudora wanted to know.
"Yep," Garrek agreed, rising to his feet. "Shi's got a three month furlough."
"'Ray!" Eudora exclaimed, hopping excitedly.
"Let's go, squirt." Garrek hoisted Eudora up onto his shoulders. "Shi'll wanna meet you. 'Bye, Darkstar." He waved.
"Bye." Darkstar waved, then watched them out of sight. Shi stared at the card for a while then slipped into hir own belt pouch. Shi leaned back against the tree once more but didn't sleep even though shi looked very tired. And very, very old.
Aurora's joyous shrieks alerted Darkstar before the couple hove into view. Aurora was, like Eudora, a cougar Chakat but with traditional markings and somewhat older, around nine. A sky blue tee shirt hung loosely on hir lean frame; on the right side of the chest a black bar exactly bisected a vertically elongated five pointed star. Flecks of hot dog, soda, ice cream, and less readily identifiable stains marred the elegance of the design somewhat. Shi capered wildly back and forth, occasionally stopping to look and flowers, trees, and shrubs and sometimes merely running and jumping for the sheer joy of motion.
Longstocking, an adult Chakat in hir middle to late thirties, proceeded in a considerably more sedate fashion. Hir pelt was solid black except for white patches on hir muzzle, throat, hands, and feet. Hir belly swelled visibly and shi looked terribly haggard.
"Hya, Gramma!" Aurora practically leapt into Darkstar's arms. Darkstar hugged hir tightly.
"Hello," Longstocking sighed, settling heavily onto the grass. "How was your day?"
"Incredibly relaxing," Darkstar replied. "I napped in the sun..." Shi rolled onto hir back, bouncing Aurora on hir forepaws. "I watched the kids play. I feel amazingly refreshed."
Longstocking flopped onto hir side. Hir belly twitched slightly as the child within kicked. "You cut that out," Longstocking ordered. "I have enough on my plate looking after your sister without trouble from you."
"Have I managed to convince you this whole mate thing is a bad idea?" Darkstar asked.
Longstocking snorted. "You aren't getting rid of me that easily. But I swear, it's bad enough getting abused by your offspring on the outside without having to endure it on the inside, too."
"You're the one who wanted to get pregnant," Darkstar pointed out.
"Don't remind me."
Aurora leapt from Darkstar's grasp and scampered away across the lawn, attempting to pounce on the pigeons. When that failed shi turned hir attention to the ducks but the geese proved too formidable a challenge. Shi retreated with a gaggle of angrily honking fowl hot on hir tail.
"How'd you like a home-cooked meal for dinner?" Darkstar suggested, rubbing Longstocking's belly in slow, circular motions.
"Uhh." Longstocking rolled onto hir back, staring straight up at the sky. "Where do we get one around here? Bed and breakfast?"
"While you were off I ran into the mate of the granddaughter of someone whose life I once saved," Darkstar replied. "He invited me to have dinner with him and his family as a way of saying thanks."
Longstocking studied Darkstar's face thoughtfully for a moment then broke out in a gentle smile. "You never cease to amaze me, Darkstar."
Darkstar looked away. "I didn't do anything," shi insisted. "I mean, I started looking around because I was bored. I just happened to be facing the reactor status panel when the power spiked so I noticed it before the alarm went off. And then- well, I knew that in about three seconds the safety interlocks would kick in and she'd start venting plasma. The dump chutes ran right next to the jeffries tube. Radiation would bake Silverbolt like a souffle. I took a long step up to the tube mouth, grabbed Silverbolt by the tail, and jerked hir out. When the containment field came up it just about took hir face off." Darkstar scrubbed hir face. "It was just pure, dumb luck."
"That you happened to be in the right place at the right time, sure," Longstocking agreed, cupping Darkstar's face in hir hands and caressing it gently. "But not that you saved Silverbolt's life. That was all you."
A shadow fell across them. Longstocking blinked; Darkstar twisted around. A burly police officer loomed over them, holding Aurora firmly by the arm. Blood matted the fur around hir muzzle and stained the front of hir tunic. "Excuse me," he said. "Is this your child?"
"But Gramma, it attacked me!" Aurora wailed. "It's self defense!"
"It's illegal to kill the geese, dear," Darkstar calmly pointed out.
"But I ate it, just like you said!"
"That doesn't change the fact that you killed it," Darkstar replied.
Aurora drooped hir head. Shi looked miserable and terrified; The blood washed out of hir fur without much difficulty but more diligent work would be needed to save the tunic.
"Still convinced this family thing is a good idea?" Darkstar inquired, glancing over hir shoulder at Longstocking.
Longstocking let hir gaze wander around the squad room. There seemed to be hundreds of officers about and quite a lot going on. "What, and miss out on this wonderful opportunity to spend quality time with the Melbourne police department?"
"Still time to back out," Darkstar offered.
"Not on your life."
Darkstar shrugged. "Don't say I didn't warn you."
A detective approached. "I've spoken to the public defender's office and they say they'll let it go with time served and a fine provided there's no repeat performance." He fixed Aurora with a hard stare; shi shriveled under it like dry brush in a blast furnace. "They were a little disturbed that shi tried to eat it, though."
"I'm afraid that's my fault," Darkstar said. "Shi started killing birds and leaving them all over the place. I told hir if shi was going to kill things shi had to eat them. So shi started eating them." Darkstar shrugged fatalistically.
The detective sighed. "When you put it that way, my son leaving his dirty clothes all over doesn't seem so bad." He returned his attention to Aurora. "I appreciate the sentiment, young lady, but while you're in Melbourne I expect you to confine your bird eating to restaurants and ones you get in supermarkets. Clear?"
"Yes, sir," Aurora mumbled.
"Is there anything else we need to do?" Darkstar inquired.
"A little paperwork, pay the fine, and you're out of here," the detective replied. "Right this way."
"You certainly couldn't say that wasn't an eventful afternoon," Longstocking commented as they emerged out onto the street sometime later. "Makes me understand why when the Chinese say 'may you have an interesting life' they mean it as a curse."
"Having kids'll make your life very interesting," Darkstar commented. Shi drew Aurora up beside hir and lifted hir face. "I'm not mad at you," shi said.
"You're not?" Aurora sounded as one who hardly dares hope.
"No, I'm not," Darkstar replied. "But if you do this again I'll tell the cops to leave you in jail overnight. Understand?"
"Yes Gramma." Aurora wrapped hir arms around Darkstar's waist and buried hir face against Darkstar's side. Shi made not a sound but hir body quivered and tears ran freely from hir tightly closed eyes. Darkstar gently stroked hir head.
"How do you do it?" Longstocking asked.
"Do what?" Darkstar responded.
"Do... this. So calmly, like- like you did this every day and it's no big deal."
"I do do this every day," Darkstar replied. "Every time I think I have Aurora on the straight and narrow shi comes up with some clever new variation that's somehow just outside what I told hir not to do. There are times shi tries my patience so severely I want to scream."
"But you never do," Longstocking replied. "I've never even heard you raise your voice to hir."
"Whenever I feel myself getting hot under the collar I remind myself that I chose this," Darkstar said. "Yes, hir mother was dead and shi needed a new one... but no one ever said it had to be me. I could have given hir away but I didn't. I wanted hir in my life. This is what it looks like. I don't get to pick and choose the parts I like any more than I could cut hir apart and only keep some of the pieces. Shi's either my granddaughter or shi isn't. If that doesn't work- and I admit sometimes it doesn't- I remind myself that the alternative to having hir is... having no one. And I know what that's like." Shi scooped Aurora up in hir arms and hugged hir fiercely.
Longstocking sniffed, dabbing at hir eyes. "Well," shi said after a long pause. "So... are we gonna have dinner with- with-"
"Garrek and Goldfur?" Darkstar put in.
Darkstar shrugged. "Why the heck not? You keep saying I need to be more social. Besides, it's about time for dinner anyway." Shi fished Garrek's card and hir personal communicator from hir belt pouch and punched in the listed address.
"Hello?" responded a voice that clearly wasn't Garrek's.
"Hi. Is this Goldfur?" Darkstar ventured.
"Yes. May I ask who's calling?"
"This is Darkstar."
"Oh, Darkstar! It's so incredible to meet you! You know, there were times when I wondered if that story Grandmother told was even true!"
"At the very least it's based on actual events," Darkstar replied. "Barring how much it may have been embellished in the telling."
"Then we'll have to hear your version, so we can compare," Goldfur replied. "You'll be joining us for dinner, then?"
"If you haven't reconsidered your invitation."
"Then the answer is yes. With the proviso that I'll be bringing my mate, Longstocking, and my granddaughter, Aurora."
"Yes, of course. Garrek mentioned them. He's helping Sis fix dinner so I'll send Lupu to pick you up. Where would you like to meet?"
Darkstar glanced around. "Central downtown police station. It's a long story," shi added into the lengthening silence from the other end.
"Well, then, Lupu'll be there in about half an hour," Goldfur replied as brightly as ever. "If there's any problems just call us here. Okay?"
"That's an affirm."
"Good, good! I can't wait to meet you! Bye!!"
"Bye." Darkstar put the phone and card away. "You know," shi commented, "I get the feeling that dinner with Goldfur, Garrek, and company is going to be very interesting."
"Unless I miss my guess, that's our ride," Darkstar said.
A boxy, plum colored vehicle pulled up to the curb. It resembled a van with only a single large door on either side. In the driver's position sat a gray wolftaur female in her late twenties.
"How you figure?" Longstocking inquired.
"Lupu is very close to lupus, which is Latin for wolf," Darkstar replied.
The wolftaur noticed Darkstar, Longstocking, and Aurora. She picked up a communicator and punched in an address. Darkstar's communicator promptly beeped. Shi fished it out of hir belt pouch and flipped it open. "Hello?"
"Is that you, Darkstar?" the wolftaur asked. Her voice came through the communicator but Darkstar saw her mouth moving.
"Last time I checked," Darkstar replied, waving.
"Great!" The wolftaur waved back. "Hop in. Dinner'll be ready by the time we get back."
"Roger. Over and out." Darkstar put away hir communicator and opened the van's curb side door. Low padded benches served in place of seats; torso supports folded out from the walls. "Lupu, allow me to present Aurora, my granddaughter, and Longstocking, my mate," Darkstar said as shi climbed in.
"Pleased t'meetcha!" Lupu said, twisting around to shake hands.
"What do you do with the kids?" Longstocking asked as shi settled hirself.
"We carry them in baskets," Lupu replied. "You can strap two down where one adult would sit." She pulled away from the curb and drove off briskly. "If you don't mind my asking, what were you doing at the police station?"
"Aurora killed a goose," Darkstar replied.
Lupu giggled. "They're mean buggers, aren't they?"
"Amen," Aurora agreed.
"What's for dinner?" Longstocking inquired.
"Barbecue," Lupu replied. "Beef, prawns, lobster, salmon, turkey, and pork ribs."
"Wow." Longstocking blinked. "I hope you didn't go to all that trouble on our account!"
Lupu laughed. "We already had the spread laid out for Goldie's homecoming. We just threw on a little extra for you all."
"What does shi do? Goldfur, I mean?" Longstocking inquired.
"Shi's an engineer with Star Corps," Lupu said.
"What a coincidence," Longstocking commented.
"You with Star Corps too?"
"No." Longstocking shook hir head. "I served with the Chakonan Security Force, but I was an engineer."
"I resigned to be a full time mom."
"It is easier that way." Lupu nodded thoughtfully. "What do you do, Darkstar?"
"After sixty years in Starfleet I retired to be a full-time grandmother." Darkstar smiled, stroking Aurora's head. "Both Longstocking and I have pensions and investments; we won't have any trouble in the short run."
"Once the darling's a bit older-" Longstocking patted hir belly- "I'll go back to work if things get tight."
"Do you live on Terra?"
"No, we're both from Chakona and plan to stay there," Darkstar said. "We're just-"
"We're on sort of an extended honeymoon," Longstocking cut in.
"There's some places here I haven't seen for a long time," Darkstar continued. "Longstocking persuaded me to come see them before... we settled down."
"That's sweet." Lupu smiled tenderly. "So how did you two meet, anyway?"
"That's... a long and rather complex story," Darkstar replied. "If you don't mind, I'll wait until everyone can hear and I don't have to repeat."
"Well then, I'll do my best to get you all back quickly!" Lupu exclaimed, grinning and applying greater pressure to the accelerator.
As the van sped away from the city center on an axial motorway Darkstar looked out the window. Melbourne seemed... old in a way no city on Chakona, settled only for about a century, could match. Then too Melbourne hadn't been incinerated by atomic fire during the Gene Wars and some structures still remained of that long vanished time. It was all the more remarkable given how many other cities on Terra had ceased to be.
And people, Darkstar thought to hirself. Why is it that so many of our great endeavors end in blood and fire?
"Excuse me?" Lupu asked.
Darkstar blinked. "Oh, nothing. Reminiscing about the past. You get to doing that a lot at my age."
"Something amusing?" Lupu continued.
"As a matter of fact, yes," Darkstar replied. "On my first weekend pass from Cape York me and a half dozen of my squad mates took a stratojet down here. We rented a hotel room but I don't think we actually used it. We spent the entire weekend drinking and partying. Just before we left Arnie Mountebank ate all four of the complimentary Continental breakfasts that had been sitting there since yesterday morning. I told him he shouldn't do it but Hell, we were all so drunk we could hardly walk. Caught the red-eye back just in time for reveille. The DI comes in and he knows we're smashed. He starts razzing Arnie about his uniform. Arnie opens his mouth to respond and wham, he chunders all those stale Continental breakfasts right in the DI's face. Went up his nose, into his mouth, down the front of his shirt, even into his trousers, I heard later." Darkstar sighed. "Ah, those were the days."
The van tracked straight because Lupu left it on auto-cruise, which was just as well since she, Longstocking, and Aurora were doubled up in fits of hysterical laughter. "Oh, Darkstar," Lupu gasped, "The family's gonna love you!"
"I hope so," Darkstar said. Because Lupu looked forward she didn't see the emptiness in Darkstar's eyes.
Lupu stopped the van in front of a rambling suburban ranch house. A number of other vehicles sat in the driveway or on the street. Garrek and Eudora romped on the front lawn in the company of several other Chakat children.
"How large a family does Goldfur have, exactly?" Darkstar asked as Lupu parked.
"Goldfur's mated to Garrek, Malena, and me," Lupu explained as she climbed out. "Hir sister, Forestwalker, is mated to Trina, Kris, and Midnight. We all have at least a couple kids, so..." Lupu shrugged.
"Quite a crowd," Longstocking commented.
"We're thinking of moving to a larger house so we can all live together again," Lupu said. "Forest's feeling lonely being apart all the time."
"With a menagerie like that I'd hardly call it lonely," Longstocking said.
"Lonely is a relative term," Darkstar said. Something in hir voice made Longstocking glance at hir; Lupu didn't notice.
Garrek hurried over, the flock of children close on his heels. "Hey, Darkstar, glad you could make it. Longstocking, I presume?" he offered his hand.
"Correct," Longstocking replied, taking Garrek's hand.
"Longstocking, this is Garrek Redfox," Lupu said. "That there is his and Goldfur's daughter, Eudora. These darlings are Snowcloud and Patchwork, Forests' kids. Ember there is Midnight's and Blaze is Malena's. This little darling-" she scooped up a gray furred child- "is Stonefur. Shi's mine." She hugged Stonefur tightly and nuzzled hir face.
"Ahem!" Aurora stamped hir forepaw.
"Oh, yeah," Longstocking added, turning to indicate Aurora. "This is some stray we found in a dumpster-"
"Hey!" Aurora shrilled.
"This is my granddaughter, Aurora." Darkstar scooped Aurora up and tickled hir belly.
"Are you Aurora's mom?" Eudora asked.
Longstocking shook hir head. "No. Darkstar and I, we just met recently."
"Are the rest of your family back on Chakona?" Lupu asked.
Darkstar shook hir head. "No. My entire family died in the Quezon City accident. Aurora- and now Longstocking- are my family."
Lupu and Garrek gaped in shock. Lupu's mouth worked-
"Well, well," a voice interjected. "When Garrek told me he'd met Darkstar it seemed like too much of a coincidence but here you are."
Darkstar blinked. "Admiral Kline?" Hir attention focused upon the tall, Terran man coming down from the house's front porch. He seemed to be in his middle thirties, his dark hair cut short and riding high on his forehead but not thinning. His body looked reasonably fit though a touch soft around the edges. His face, rectangular with a largish nose, managed to look both stern and friendly. "Sir, if you don't mind my asking, what are you doing here?"
"I happen to be... shall we say, very close friends with Forestwalker," the admiral replied.
"Close enough that shi's expecting his kid," Lupu put in with a giggle.
Garrek blinked. "I didn't realize that you and Darkstar knew each other, Boyce," he said to the admiral.
Boyce grinned. "Darkstar's career is legendary, at least as much for hir antics while on leave as for hir performance in the line of duty. More recently we worked together on the Star Home project."
Lupu's eyes bulged as she gaped at Darkstar. "You're in the Star Home project?" she exclaimed.
Darkstar shrugged. "I was involved."
"Shi's much too modest," Boyce put in. "Darkstar helped found the project. It wouldn't exist now without hir efforts on its behalf. Shi was offered the position of General Director but shi turned it down."
"I'm through being a commander," Darkstar said.
Boyce chuckled. "I rather doubt that. Anyway, I'm glad you and Longstocking decided to go on honeymoon. Since you happen to be here, come on in and meet the rest of the family." He turned and led the way; the children surged past, shouting excitedly.
"Stop running in the house, you mongrels!" a voice from inside demanded loudly.
"The Mongrel horde," Longstocking commented.
"Indeed," Darkstar replied.
In the front room Darkstar and Longstocking encountered a jaguar spotted Chakat with a long, black mane attempting to catch Patchwork. Shi led the jaguar on a merry chase, ducking under tables and behind chairs. Darkstar judged hir moment and pounced, pinning Patchwork under hir forepaw. The jaguar Chakat slid to a stop. "Hi!" shi said brightly. "You must be Darkstar." shi offered hir hand.
"Pleased to meet you." Darkstar shook, grabbing the loudly protesting Patchwork with hir other hand and lifting hir. "This belong to you?"
"Yes, thanks." The jaguar Chakat tucked Patchwork under hir arm. "I'm Forestwalker, by the way. Goldfur's sister. Did you really save Silverbolt's life?"
"Yes," Darkstar replied. "Where is Goldfur, by the way?"
"Out back with the barbecue," Forest replied. "C'mon, I'll introduce you."
Out in the back yard no less than four grills sizzled away, loaded with various foodstuffs. A full figured cougar Chakat with golden brown fur and a blonde mane tended them with the aid of two humanoid fox morphs: a young man with a red and black pelt, like Garrek, and a young woman with a smoked silver pelt. The Chakat wore hir mane in a ponytail, a blue tunic with a Star Corps logo on the left breast, and an apron that said "Kiss the Chef." A solid black Chakat and a red foxtaur vixen sat nearby, sipping beer and nibbling grilled prawns.
"Hey everyone, they're here!" Forestwalker called excitedly, waving hir arms.
The cougar Chakat turned, hir face lighting up. "Darkstar, it's absolutely incredible to actually meet you," shi called. "Come over and try some of this turkey. It's to die for." Shi saluted with hir spatula.
"Don't mind if I do." Darkstar walked up. The cougar handed hir a plate and deposited a turkey leg upon it.
"This is Goldfur, my sister and Silverbolt's granddaughter," Forestwalker announced, slipping an arm around Goldfur's shoulders.
"I figured," Darkstar replied, taking a bite of the turkey leg. "You're the very image of Silverbolt as I remember hir, Goldfur. Except you don't have the blaze on your flank." Hir eyes widened. "You're right, this turkey is incredible!"
"Have some potato salad," Forestwalker offered, gesturing to a table on which rested several large bowls containing the aforementioned plus potato chips, ambrosia salad, and fruit salad. A large cooler filled with ice contained both alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages.
"These, by the way, are Trina, Kris, Midnight, and Malena," Goldfur said, indicating in order the morph fox woman, the morph fox man, the black Chakat, and the female foxtaur.
"Are you by any chance related to Garrek?" Longstocking inquired of Malena. Her color, build, and features matched his closely.
"As a matter of fact I'm his sister," Malena replied.
"This is Darkstar, about whom Silverbolt has spoken so often," Forestwalker announced. "With hir are Longstocking, hir mate, and Aurora, hir granddaughter."
Aurora looked up. Shi'd accepted a plate loaded with beef, turkey, and salmon and set to work on it with gusto. Already barbecue sauce stained hir muzzle and added its color to hir shirt.
Lupu came out of the house leading Garrek and Admiral Kline. "You said you'd tell us how you and Longstocking met when the whole family could hear," she pointed out.
"Yes, I suppose I did." Darkstar scooped some potato salad onto hir plate and selected several bottles of root beer from the cooler. Shi arranged hir food and drink on one of the tables and sat down beside it. "It all started about a year and a half ago when Fyodor- that's Professor Moseivitch, chair of Dewclaw University's College of Xeno-Sciences- arrives suddenly on my doorstep. The ungrateful wretch woke me up right in the middle of my afternoon nap. I live on the west coast of Flinders Continent; the house is on a ridge and it faces north. During the summer the afternoon sun comes in under the eaves and warms the porch. Heavenly." Shi sighed happily. "Anyway, he starts going on about how he's made the discovery of the century. Evidence of a hitherto unknown star faring civilization. He wanted me to join his team because I have contacts not only in the academic community but Starfleet as well." Shi chuckled. "He wanted me to be his spy master and hatchet man. He figured that if his discovery were half as important as he thought it was the infighting would be brutal, and he was right." Shi took a sip of root beer. "This potato salad is excellent, by the way. So I went with him to a Security Force small craft repair station to have a look at what he'd found. Longstocking here happened to be the station's administrator. Then, quite unexpectedly, Fyodor's artifact suddenly hatches. What he'd found turned out to be an infant of the species we now call the Stariionae. The Security Force put us all under lock down; since we were stuck there we got to know one another."
"Were you there when the Stariionae attacked?" Trina asked.
"Yes I was," Darkstar replied. "As a matter of fact I was trapped on board Sigma Seventeen while a raider tore it apart trying to get his daughter back."
"That must have been awful," Lupu exclaimed.
Darkstar said nothing. Hir ear twitched. Aurora stopped eating and clung tightly to hir grandmother's flank.
"It's... difficult to talk about," Longstocking explained quietly. "We both lost friends."
"Oh, I'm sorry," Trina said, her face falling.
"It's all right," Darkstar said. "Actually... I think that shared loss is what brought us together." Darkstar took Longstocking's hand and squeezed gently. "We helped each other through the difficult times."
"That's wonderful," Forestwalker said. Tears glistened in hir eyes.
"What are the Stariionae like?" Goldfur asked.
"When it comes right down to it, just like any other children," Darkstar replied. "Star has an incredibly sweet and gentle disposition. She's also extremely intelligent, curious to a fault-" shi smiled ruefully- "and conspicuously lacking in patience. She wants to know everything and she wants to know it now." Shi smacked a fist into hir palm. "She absolutely hates people who patronize her; she's mildly telepathic and knows instantly when people are lying to her, even if they're doing it unconsciously. That's made teaching her a real chore. She doesn't grasp that knowledge is a pyramid, that you have to lay the foundations before reaching the peak. She always wants to leap straight to the last stone. Another thing is that she can..." Darkstar frowned momentarily. "The Stariionae talk fast. About a hundred times faster than we do. Star can read a hundred times faster than we do. She has a link to the Dewclaw University library. She can even read, at high speed, while at the same time conducting a conversation at low speed. She can conduct several low speed conversations at once. So, by the time a professor has given hir introductory lecture Star's read the entire text book and half a dozen others on the subject." Darkstar shrugged. "We have a permanent staff of twenty professors, and a rotating staff of about forty more, whose sole purpose is to try and keep up with her."
"She really likes to learn," Longstocking put in.
"Yes, and right now our hardest job is not inadvertently breaking her of that by boring her to tears," Darkstar added. "If she gets frustrated or angry she'll pound on the walls or throw things at the view port. When you're talking about something the size of an airliner that's no small matter."
"She likes to claw things, too," Longstocking added. "She can tear up hardened Tritanium the way Aurora there can tear up a couch."
Goldfur chuckled. "Did Aurora claw things?"
"Did and still does," Darkstar replied. Shi glanced down but Aurora had wandered away. "I discourage hir with a bit of pepper spray."
Goldfur frowned. "Don't you think that's a little extreme?"
"Children are animals," Darkstar replied. "Worse, they're especially cunning animals. They have to be taught civilized behavior."
"But how they're treated when they're young, that defines how their whole lives can go," Goldfur pointed out.
Darkstar glanced around. Everyone had stopped eating and was looking at hir. Except Admiral Kline, who sipped a beer with a wry and slightly sad expression on his face. "I was a particularly intractable child," Darkstar said. "My father was forced to be rather severe with me. Aurora's inherited that from me, I'm afraid. Fortunately shi's nowhere near as bad as I was. Nevertheless, sometimes it takes more than firm love to teach hir a lesson."
"Tell us about Silverbolt," the admiral said, munching a prawn.
Goldfur opened hir mouth as if to protest. The admiral lay a hand on hir arm. Shi grimaced, but subsided.
"It all started with the bouillabaisse," Darkstar began after a sip of root beer and a mouthful of beef. "Captain C'habali loved fish. Appropriate, I suppose, him being a Caitian and all. His dream was to create Ultimate Bouillabaisse, made from fresh fish of no less than four different planets. He'd collected fish from three of the worlds when we arrived at Chakona, the fourth. To keep the fish fresh he preserved them with cold sleep drugs instead of freezing. It was the weirdest thing, seeing that cold sleep tank in his quarters full of fish." Darkstar shrugged and took a sip of root beer. "After a trip to the markets in New Bletchley he finally located his final ingredients. With them in hand he turned the whole lot over to the galley crew and told them to do their thing. He personally oversaw the preparing and seasoning of every individual fish. Finally the big moment came. He switched on the cooker... and pow, the entire galley goes dark. He called up the chief engineer to reset the breakers. He can just feel all that fish losing its freshness while the technicians dither. The power comes back on. He activated the cooker. Pow. Once again he finds himself in the dark. This time the chief engineer sends me up because he's loading a software upgrade into the main energizer. I went through the galley and reluctantly had to declare that the problem appeared to be in the distribution nodes. The captain took me aside and explained that I had better find the problem quickly or all that beautiful fish, so lovingly collected and stored, would go to waste." Shi grimaced. "Or words to that effect. I took myself down to the engine room and attacked the power distribution panel. It looked fine. So I sent Ensign Silverbolt into the jeffries tube to run a diagnostic on the regulators while I watched the panel. Some time during that I heard the chief curse. By leaning to my right I could look past the power panel to where the chief stood by the reactor control board. I couldn't make out details but I could see that the telltales weren't quite right. He turned away to look at the energizer board, which I couldn't see, and wipe his face. When he did that I saw no less than four of the reactor status telltales peg red." Darkstar picked up a forkful of brisket and munched it thoughtfully. No one else spoke or even moved. Goldfur, who understood the implications better than anyone except perhaps the admiral, looked pale and drawn. "I thought I was dead," Darkstar said quietly. "I thought the reactor had run away and was about to go super-critical. I turned around; I'd meant to order an evacuation of the engine room when I saw the tip of Silverbolt's tail sticking out of the jeffries tube. About that time the alarms went off. Everyone panicked; reactor emergencies aren't supposed to come on you suddenly like that. Silverbolt started and wedged herself in the tube." Darkstar picked up hir root beer but did not drink. "On that class ship the dump chutes for the reactor core run right by the jeffries tubes and to save weight they weren't shielded. I figured I had maybe three seconds before the reactor started venting. When that happened the containment field would trap Silverbolt in the tube and the radiation would cook hir alive. I also knew that shi'd never sort hirself out in time, so off I went. Four long bounds bought me to the tube mouth. That took two seconds. I reached in as far as I could, grabbed hir tail with both hands, and hauled with all my strength. Shi came flying out of there like cork out of a champagne bottle, yowling like a banshee. The emergency containment force field took off hir whiskers and burned hir nose. The reactor vented and shut down; we didn't die after all. Silverbolt picked hirself up and looked around; shi didn't, at that point, understand what had happened. I saw it in hir face as it came to hir. It took about five seconds. At the end of it shi passed out in a dead faint. I ended up having to drag hir to sick bay."
"Silverbolt says you flew to save hir like a guardian angel," Goldfur said quietly into the heavy silence.
Darkstar rolled the root beer bottle between hir hands. "I'd like to say I selflessly saved your grandmother's life, Goldfur, but the truth is I never thought about it. The only thing in my mind was the certainty of my own death if I didn't do something. I don't even know why I saved Silverbolt instead of, say, running for one of the escape hatches."
"Darkstar, you did it because you were there and you could," Longstocking said, gently but firmly. "Because that's the sort of person you are."
"You saved a life," Goldfur said.
"Not just a life," Garrek added. He took Goldfur's hand in one of his and Forestwalker's in his other and kissed them tenderly. "You saved the life of my mate, hir mother, hir children... and the children yet to come."
Tears streamed down Darkstar's cheeks. As shi looked at Goldfur something came into hir eyes: a terrible, aching emptiness... and a longing. Longstocking threw hir arms around Darkstar and hugged hir fiercely. Darkstar closed hir eyes and lay hir head against Longstocking's shoulder.
A piercing shriek cut through the air. Everyone jumped. "Snowcloud!" Forestwalker shouted, bolting into the house. A general stampede ensued. Darkstar restrained Longstocking until the rush had passed, then followed. They found everyone in the living room. As Darkstar approached the crowd parted, giving hir enigmatic looks. At the front shi saw Forestwalker cradling Snowcloud in hir arms. Snowcloud wailed piteously, no doubt because of a nasty gash torn in hir flank just above hir right fore-shoulder. Eudora, Patchwork, and Blaze cowered fearfully behind Forestwalker's lower body. Darkstar traced the line of the children's gazes and found Aurora, huddled in a corner, shivering violently. A few flecks of blood stained the fur around hir muzzle.
"Aurora," Darkstar said in a flat, toneless voice, "Come here."
"Gramma, I'm sorry!" Aurora stuttered. Shi pressed hirself into the corner, looking up at Darkstar with an expression that could only be called terrified.
"I know you are," Darkstar replied. "But you know there's a price to be paid for our actions, regardless of why we did them or how we felt about them afterward."
"Darkstar," Goldfur said in a dangerously quiet voice, "Exactly what is the price you're thinking of in this particular case?"
Darkstar turned hir head to look Goldfur straight in the eye. No one else moved or spoke. Palpable tension crackled in the air.
"Goldfur, we're really sorry about what happened to Snowcloud and we'll be more than happy to pay for-" Longstocking began hurriedly.
"Kids get into fights," Goldfur interrupted. "I admit I'm shocked at what Aurora did but I'm also worried about what'll happen to hir because of it. I wonder how shi developed such violent tendencies in the first place." Hir eyes never left Darkstar's.
Boyce gnawed his lip. "There's more going on here than you realize, Goldie," he said.
Goldfur's tail lashed, hir eyes narrowing. "Are you saying you knew about this?"
"I'm saying things aren't necessarily what they look like," Boyce replied.
"Then explain it to me," Goldfur replied hotly. "All I know is that first Darkstar is talking about how children are animals and have to be trained. Now shi says there's a price to be paid for what Aurora did. I look at Aurora and shi's absolutely terrified. I know kids are always afraid of being punished but shi's practically wetting hirself. I also remember violent tendencies being mentioned. I wonder how that fits into all this."
"You think I'm abusing Aurora?" Darkstar inquired.
"Are you?" Goldfur countered.
"Gramma's not-" Aurora blurted, but cut hirself off.
"Gramma's not what, darling?" Goldfur asked gently. Finally shi looked away from Darkstar and turned a warm, friendly countenance to Aurora.
Aurora's face closed with an almost audible snap. Shi said nothing, regarding Goldfur with a wary, suspicious expression.
"You don't have to be afraid," Goldfur said gently, sinking to hir belly and reaching out to stroke Aurora's cheek. "Maybe it would be better if Gramma waited in the other room," shi added over hir shoulder.
"No!" Aurora leapt to hir feet, tail lashing and teeth bared. "You think I don't know how this works? I have a talk with the nice doctor, get shunted into Social Service Hell, and never see Gramma again!" Quick as a wink shi lunged, sinking hir teeth to the gums in Goldfur's outstretched hand. Goldfur reared back, bellowing in pain, flailing hir arm. Aurora let go as Goldfur flung hir into the air, landed on hir feet, and vanished out the front door like a furry missile.
"Stop hir!" Longstocking shouted, horrified. Kris moved first but Malena faster; he ended up running right into her path as she bounded for the door. She tripped over him and they both went down in a heap, blocking the doorway. Then Malena sat up just as Midnight prepared to leap over them. By the time the obstacle was cleared- only a handful of seconds- and everyone dashed out into the front yard Aurora was nowhere in sight.
"You won't find hir," Darkstar said as Garrek, Malena, Kris, Trina, and Midnight set to searching the shrubbery. "Shi's an expert hunter and stalker." Shi smiled ruefully. "That's why Lupu picked us up at the police station. Shi killed one of the geese in a park downtown."
"You don't seem very alarmed," Goldfur pointed out icily.
Darkstar's head snapped around. The terrible light glowed full force in hir steel colored eyes. "Would you rather I did?" shi asked in a soft, lilting tone that sent chills down the spine of everyone who heard it. "Would it make you feel better if I gave in to my violent, brutish impulses?" Shi stepped up face to face with Goldfur. "The reason I don't is because it- won't- do- any- good." Shi punctuated each word by jabbing Goldfur in the chest with hir index finger. "Since you wonder about so many things let me tell you a little something about Aurora's mother. Hir parents were just like you: loving, dedicated people who believed that you shouldn't ever raise a hand to a child. And they never did, even when Marla tore a hunk out of one of hir classmates that took two hundred and twenty grams of donor tissue to patch. They consulted all the experts, they sent Marla to all the special schools. Marla repaid them, on hir twenty-fourth birthday, by taking a length of pipe and beating both hir parents until shi'd broken nearly every bone in their bodies. Elendil, Marla's adoptive father, required eight pins to stick hir legs back together and still never walked right. Years later Marla broke down and had a child. I never knew why; shi died before I found hir. Shi was working on the hull crew for a space station and went on duty stoned. Shi got caught between two moving pieces and was crushed to death. Shi left behind a three year old daughter shi disciplined by whipping with a piece of Beryllium wire."
"Where were you while all this was happening?" Goldfur demanded.
"Out in space, serving with Starfleet," Darkstar replied. "I didn't know. Iris never told me shi'd conceived. I was a dumb teenager and more than a little drunk when I slept with hir."
"What's Aurora going to do now?" Lupu asked.
"Lay low until shi figures it's safe to contact me," Darkstar replied. "Shi has money and shi knows how to use a public comm."
"I'd still like to know what you planned to do to Aurora for biting Snowcloud," Goldfur said. As if reminded, Goldfur glanced around. "Where's Forest?"
"Shi and Midnight took Snowcloud to the hospital," Kris replied. "It was a pretty nasty bite."
"Look, Goldfur, Darkstar's not-" Longstocking began, stepping forward.
Darkstar halted Longstocking with a gesture. "If Forestwalker tells the emergency room doctors how Snowcloud got bitten we'll be explaining it all to the police in any case." Shi shifted hir gaze to Goldfur. "Aurora and I have an arrangement. If shi inflicts a wound that draws blood under any circumstance other than defense of hir life I give hir a shot with a pain stick."
Goldfur's ears lay back. "You use a pain stick on a child?" shi almost shouted.
"Aurora's pain tolerance is more than double that of an average Chakat," Darkstar explained. "A spat on the rump just doesn't do it."
"A convenient excuse," Goldfur snapped.
"Medical fact," Longstocking interjected sharply. "Aurora's been tested by doctors several times. Goldfur, don't think I wasn't shocked when I found out what was happening. But this isn't the first time. The reason Darkstar came up with this thing of the pain stick is because this happens a lot. Aurora... has a violent streak. But shi's not a bad kid. Shi just... doesn't know how to control it. And.. incidents have happened less often as shi gets older. What Darkstar's doing... is helping." Longstocking's eyes narrowed. "Iris and Elendil tried it your way with Marla, Goldfur. Your heard what it got them."
Goldfur's expression was inscrutable. Shi rubbed hir chin. Shi glanced over hir shoulder at Garrek, who cradled Eudora and Patchwork in his arms. "What did your father do to you, Darkstar?" shi asked.
"My father used a steel rod sheathed in cord reinforced rubber tubing," Darkstar replied. "On at least ten different occasions during my youth shi beat me so badly I required medical treatment."
"Why didn't that ever come to the attention of the authorities?" Goldfur wanted to know.
"My mother did the treating, most of the time."
Goldfur rubbed hir chin again. "Why did shi do it? Your father, I mean? And why did your mother put up with it?"
"My father did it because it was the only way shi could think of to deal with me," Darkstar replied. "My mother put up with it because shi knew something had to be done. I have the same violent streak Aurora does. Shi and Marla got it from me. Except... mine is a dozen times worse. Goldfur, I use the pain stick because I had to do something. I couldn't take the chance that Aurora would turn out like Marla. Shi would have; the violence is strong in hir. But I couldn't bring myself to- to risk injuring hir. What my father did to me worked in the end... but it caused a lot of pain, not just to me but my mother and sisters, too. I... swore to myself I wouldn't do what shi did, no matter what. But the genetic factor I inherited from hir, and passed on to Marla and Aurora, won't let me. My choice is either to inflict pain or let Aurora destroy hirself. The only way out is to adopt... and that doesn't help Aurora any." Shi looked sadly at Longstocking, hir face filled with pain and sorrow. "This one you have is probably going to be worse than Aurora."
Longstocking blinked back tears. Shi seized Darkstar's face with hir hands. "Darkstar, the reason I fell in love with you is because you're a good person," shi said in a quaking voice. "I know I hated you because of things you'd done... but that was because I didn't understand. You're a good person because of the things you've done- good and bad- and all the things you are. Good and bad. I... I can't cut you apart and keep only the bits I like. I accept all of you... because the alternative is to not have you at all." Shi hugged Darkstar fiercely, hir eyes tightly shut, tears streaming down hir cheeks.
Goldfur stood, hir tail lashing, clenching and unclenching hir hands. Boyce walked up beside hir. "Telling you the story of Darkstar's life would take hours," he said quietly. "Days, even. But I'll summarize it like this: after hir family died shi lived alone. Not because shi couldn't find a new family... but because shi was afraid shi might hurt them."
Goldfur swallowed. Shi grimaced, shifting and twitching as if hir skin itched. Then shi exhaled a tremendous sigh and slumped. "We should go looking for Aurora," shi said resignedly. "If shi wanders too far..." Goldfur lifted hir head and glanced at the sun, which hung quite low on the horizon. Long shadows reached across the yard; dusk would be falling very soon. "Shi shouldn't be out alone at night."
"Hold on." Kris caught Goldfur's arm. "I agree we should look for Aurora but you need to have that hand looked at." He tugged hir toward the bathroom. Goldfur hesitated a moment, then grimaced and allowed hirself to be led.
"Everyone grab your communicators," Boyce said briskly. "We'll do a sweep of the neighborhood. No more than two people to a car if possible."
"Admiral, I'll stay here for now," Darkstar said. "I don't have a car and in any case Goldfur and I need to talk."
Boyce's face worked. "All right," he said. "Let's get rolling, people."
"Well I'll be God damned," Boris muttered, pausing with his beer halfway to his mouth. "Look what just wandered in."
Rudy turned. He saw the head and shoulders of a young Chakat bobbing along behind the pool table. "Huh," he commented. "Wonder what shi's doing here."
"Cruising for a bruising, since shi decided to come in while the Black Flags are playing pool," Boris replied.
The child headed for the public terminals, which happened to be near the table in use by the nine gang members. They paused in their game to look at hir; shi looked back, warily but not fearfully. Shi nodded, continuing on without either speeding up or slowing down.
"What're they gonna do?" Rudy asked quietly.
"We'll see," Boris replied, turning on his stool so he could watch the show. This sure beat watching television.
As if they'd rehearsed it a hundred times one of the Black Flags stepped back and bent forward, as if preparing to take a shot. Coincidentally he stepped into the Chakat's path. Shi hesitated a moment then moved to skirt around him, but a second gang member scooped up a beer and came up behind her. While shi hesitated he stumbled, dropping or perhaps flinging the glass at hir. Shi yelped as beer splashed across hir back and the glass smacked into hir shoulder.
"That little shit made me drop my beer!" the second gang member bellowed. As one all the others moved quickly to box hir in, trapping hir against the pool table. One of them moved quickly to the front door and closed it.
The Chakat still didn't look particularly frightened, though considerably more wary. "Look, I'm sorry," shi said. "I'll pay for-"
"Damn right you'll pay," the first gang member snarled, brandishing his cue.
Quick as a flash the Chakat bounded onto the pool table and flung hirself into the face of one of the gang members standing on the other side of it. He reeled back, bellowing in pain as hir claws and teeth tore into his flesh.
Boris took a sip of beer. This was definitely better than TV.
Goldfur came out of the bathroom, distractedly rubbing hir bandaged hand. Darkstar rose to hir feet and came forward to meet hir halfway across the kitchen. "Has shi called yet?" Goldfur asked.
"No." Darkstar shook hir head. "Frankly, I'm getting worried." Hir eyes narrowed slightly. "What are you afraid of hir running into, Goldfur?"
"There's..." Goldfur looked out into the backyard. "Not too far from here are places where Earth Firster types hang out. It didn't used to be like this but recently..." shi trailed off.
"Greypaw?" Darkstar asked.
Goldfur's mouth worked, then shi nodded. "For example. We've... even thought of emigrating to Chakona. I don't like how things are going. Melbourne used to be such a nice place."
"Where should we search?" Longstocking asked.
"Go with the Admiral," Darkstar replied. "Goldfur and I will search on foot."
"But-" Longstocking protested.
"Longstocking, I taught Aurora how to hunt," Darkstar cut in. "If I can't track hir no one can. Besides, the Admiral will need you to watch while he drives. Go on. I'll be all right."
Longstocking grimaced, but allowed Boyce to lead hir out.
"You think something's happened, that Aurora hasn't called?" Goldfur asked.
"I'm sure of it," Darkstar replied. "Aurora..." shi trailed off.
"Doesn't appreciate how vicious people can be?" Goldfur ventured.
"Oh, shi knows, all right," Darkstar replied. "Shi just doesn't believe shi'll meet anymore more vicious than shi is." Darkstar flexed hir fingers. "Speaking of which-" Darkstar grinned as if shi's just delivered the punch line of a joke- "do you happen to have... say... a cricket bat?"
"Yes," Goldfur replied, automatically, then caught hirself. "Why?"
"I'd rather have it and not need it than need it and not have it," Darkstar replied.
"It won't come to that," Goldfur declared. "And if it does-"
When Goldfur burst through the foliage shi found Ketta at the lip of the precipice, looking over the edge, holding Eudora by the scruff of the neck in one hand. All it would take was a gentle underhand toss, like lobbing a softball.
Goldfur looked away quickly. What would have happened if shi'd waited for the authorities instead of going after Ketta hirself? "I'll go get it," shi mumbled, hurrying out. Darkstar couldn't possibly have known. But Goldfur couldn't shake the conviction that Darkstar did know, as if shi'd looked through Goldfur's eyes and read the truth off the back of hir skull. And that, of all the things that had happened on this strange day, was the most disturbing of all.
Darkstar stepped out of the bushes with the cricket bat slanted back across hir shoulder. Goldfur pushed out behind hir. "You really think shi came this far?" Goldfur asked.
"Absolutely," Darkstar replied, jogging down the grassy slope. The trees faded into landscaped park; a major thoroughfare bordered the opposite side, upon which heavy traffic ran though the sun had set. "Aurora's very cagey. Shi knows you'll search the neighborhood so shi'll try to get beyond it. Furthermore, shi'll hide out in a place you won't think to look for hir. Would you think to look here?"
Goldfur looked up and down the street. Small shops lined the opposite side, a great many of them pubs or taverns. "No," shi said. "I wouldn't. I'd never believe that any kid in hir right mind would want to go here." Shi gave Darkstar a measuring look.
"Which is exactly why Aurora will come here," Darkstar replied. Shi either did not notice or ignored the look. "In fact, I suspect shi'd call me from one of those taverns."
"Those taverns are ugly places," Goldfur said. "Lots of unfriendly people hang out in them."
"I figured as much." Darkstar turned the bat in hir hand, running hir fingers along the varnished wood. Shi looked both ways then dashed across the street against the light.
"Darkstar!" Goldfur shouted, taking a step off the curb but pulling back when a large goods van roared by. Shi cursed under hir breath and hurried to the nearest intersection.
"Boris, I wonder if we shouldn't do something," Rudy commented, distractedly picking at his lip.
"What do you mean we, white boy?" Boris shot back, though both of them shared fair, Anglo complexions. "If you wanna tell them to lay off go right ahead."
The Black Flags had trapped the Chakat in a leather jacket and bound hir with an electric cord torn from the jukebox. Now shi hung from one of the light fixtures while the gang stood in a circle, batting at hir with their pool cues as if shi were a piņata. A number of patrons had chosen to depart but others remained, drinking, watching, and occasionally shouting encouragement to the gang members.
"Someone's gonna call the cops, and when they get here we're all gonna be in deep shit," Rudy pointed out.
Boris shrugged. "So what? We tell 'em we didn't dare interfere for fear of our lives. Those guys are murderous lunatics. I mean, just look at them."
"They'll ask why no one called sooner," Rudy pointed out.
Boris gnawed his lip. Rudy had a point, there. "Yeah, and the Flags'll find out who ratted 'em, too and pay 'em back, you bet on it," he said. But he didn't feel quite as comfortable any more. He didn't at all mind watching a genejoke getting its comeuppance but only so long as he couldn't be held in any way responsible. Unfortunately the Black Flags were only the tip of the iceberg, as it were. Others would be watching this incident. They'd remember who walked out and they'd listen carefully to rumors. If they suspected someone of squealing, well, there were a lot of things that could happen to a bloke in a big city like Melbourne. Boris actually fingered his personal communicator but deliberately took his hand away. Let someone else call the cops. Getting involved was simply too dangerous.
The Chakat had stopped making noise. The gang members poked and prodded it for a while then took it down. Dark wet splotches stained the leather jacket; Boris' heart leapt into his mouth. The idiots hadn't killed hir, had they? The cops wouldn't listen to any half-assed excuses if this turned out to be a homicide. He reached for his communicator-
The front door opened. Another Chakat entered, much older than the first, carrying a cricket bat slanted back across hir shoulder. Shi resembled a lynx and wore nothing but a belt pouch. As one the Black Flags turned to face hir, fanning out into a skirmish line. Shi slipped the bat off hir shoulder and set the tip on the floor while looking over the pub's other occupants with a quick glance. When those cold, gray eyes briefly met his own Boris remained perfectly still, as if the newcomer had brandished a raythrower. A raythrower's discharge port couldn't possibly have looked any more deadly.
"What'cha got in the jacket, there, mac?" the Chakat called, side-stepping into the room to keep the Black Flags in front of hir.
"This?" One of the gang members held up the bundle. A tail and two legs dangled out of it. "Nuttin'. Just some trash we was gonna throw out." The other gang members brandished their cues.
"I think that would be a spectacularly bad idea," the Chakat replied in a lilting, almost musical voice that turned Boris' blood to ice. "I think you'd better give it to me instead."
"You want it?" The gang member shook the bundle; it stirred a little.
Boris almost fainted with relief; the kid wasn't dead. But the game become much too rich for him. Better to fold and take his lumps than ride out a losing hand. "Come on," he said brusquely, grabbing Rudy by the arm and dragging him off his stool.
The new Chakat half turned, blocking Boris' advance. "Just where do you think you're going, blob butt?"
"This ain't none of my affair," Boris replied, attempting to bull past.
The cricket bat came around in a whistling arc, its narrow edge striking the side of Boris' left knee. A shriek of pain exploded from him as bones shattered and ligaments tore under the impact. He went down on his side, writhing in agony. The Black Flags charged; the Chakat shot to one side, crouching so low both hir chests nearly touched the floor. As a cue came down at hir shi swung high to deflect it then chopped viciously at hir attacker's kneecaps as shi passed. He went down, bellowing in pain. After that Boris wasn't particularly cognizant of what happened except that involved a lot of yowling, shrieking, the breaking of wood and glass, and the repeated impact of wood against flesh. Through it all Boris lay on his back, the pain from his knee a white hot fire in his brain.
Something crashed to the floor right beside Boris, practically falling over him. It was Rudy; the right side of his face looked oddly distorted around an enormous purple contusion on his cheek. Blood drained from his mouth and pressure cuts in his skin. Boris lifted his eyes and saw the Chakat standing over him, one hand resting on the bat's pommel. The formerly smooth wood was now extensively scratched, badly nicked in several places... and stained with blood. "You sat on your big fat ass while those Neanderthals beat my granddaughter," shi said. Hir voice sounded approximately normal in pitch but the tone of it- and the blazing, venomous hatred in those icy, gray eyes- made him want to mess his trousers. He moaned and tried to crawl; shi stomped hir forepaw down on his wounded knee. He shrieked in pain. "Now you think you can just walk away like nothing happened?" Shi continued. He saw the bat come up off the floor. He didn't see it come down but he heard it in the instant before an explosion of agony consigned him to darkness.
Goldfur jogged along, trying to look every way at once. Getting safely across the street had taken some time. Darkstar had gone into one of the taverns but Goldfur didn't know which one, forcing hir to glance into each one as shi passed- and this was most emphatically not a place for a lone Chakat to be wandering around in after dark. A lot of Earth Firsters and similarly bloody minded folk hung out here. A few years ago shi wouldn't have thought that would matter... but there was Greypaw. Just a few weeks ago a Caitian tourist had been mugged and raped. What was the world coming to?
As shi peeked into yet another tavern Goldfur kept a white-knuckled grip on hir personal communicator. Hir thumb was on the panic button, which would summon the police without hir having to actively call them. Of course shi'd already called Boyce; he and Longstocking were on their way but driving around the woodlot would take a while. So far no one had actively responded except to glance at hir but shi felt the unfriendly eyes upon hir. These people didn't like hir. To them shi was a distrusted- hated- outsider. For Goldfur it was a decidedly unpleasant sensation; shi wasn't accustomed to being afraid of Terrans. After all they were smaller, weaker, and lacking natural weapons. But there were a lot of them.
Goldfur gritted hir teeth. Shi wanted to scream why. What did I ever do to you people? What did Chakats ever do? The Gene Wars weren't my fault! I wasn't even alive back then!
Shi'd arrived at the next tavern. Hir hand quivered as shi reached for the door; shi'd decided that shi really didn't want to be doing this. But there was a child who needed hir help... and possibly Darkstar too. Shi took a deep breath and pushed the door open.
This place looked as if a tornado had gone through it. Broken glass and upset furniture littered the floor, along with... bodies. Nine or ten, maybe a dozen. All Terran, Goldfur noted. They'd been violently contused: broken arms, broken legs, broken faces and jaws. Some of them had been... torn. Blood drained from horrific wounds inflicted by something that had slashed right through their leather clothing. A dozen, maybe eighteen more cowered against the far wall. The look of abject terror in their eyes when they saw hir enter turned Goldfur's stomachs.
In the middle of it all stood Darkstar. Shi'd lost hir belt pouch but shi still carried the bat. Ragged cuts, probably inflicted by broken glass, crisscrossed hir torso and flanks. The left side of hir face was badly swollen. Blood matted the fur around hir muzzle and on hir forepaws. On the floor in front of hir lay one last Terran, a particularly large specimen but now reduced to a bloody, ragged mess. One of his legs had been severely damaged; he used the other and his arms to inch away from Darkstar but shi paced slowly after him to maintain hir position.
"I never said how much I appreciate what you've done here," Darkstar was saying in a breathy, sibilant voice. "Finally I get to... be myself. Let go. I don't have to worry about what people think. Who I might hurt." Shi bent forward, hir lips drawing back from hir teeth. "I don't have to pretend that I don't fantasize about taking all of you, your bitches and your brats too, and slitting their throats just to watch them flop around like landed fish while they bleed out." Shi chuckled. "I want to thank you in advance for the pleasure I'll feel listening to your skull crack like an egg. Watching your brains splash all over the floor like the guts of a squashed bug." The bat came up, ever so slowly.
"Darkstar," Goldfur said.
Calmly as ever Darkstar backed and turned, swiftly but precisely, keeping the bat close to hir body. "Hello Goldfur," shi said. Hir voice sounded entirely normal but the icy, terrible light blazed in hir eyes. "Glad you could make it. I'm just... finishing up."
Goldfur swallowed and firmly resisted the urge to step back. Shi estimated that it hadn't taken more than five, maybe eight minutes for hir to cross the street and search all the taverns. "Darkstar," shi said, struggling to keep hir voice calm, "Where's Aurora?"
"There." Darkstar pointed with hir face. The bat never moved from its ready position, not so much as a millimeter.
Goldfur followed the glance and, for the first time, noticed the bloody jacket from which protruded a few random limbs. It lay on the pool table; blood had left dark stains on the felt. Shi moved up and opened it cautiously. Aurora lay within, curled up into a ball. Goldfur's heart leapt into hir mouth but Aurora quivered and made a tiny sound. "Darkstar, shi's alive," Goldfur said urgently. "We need to get hir to a hospital."
Darkstar flinched as if struck. Shi grimaced... and the terrible light left hir eyes. With a forepaw shi grabbed the fellow at hir feet by the collar and struck him unconscious with a sharp but not brutal blow. Then shi lowered the bat, holding it by hir side as shi rushed to the table. With hir other hand shi gently touched Aurora, who again stirred and made a small sound. Darkstar gulped, dropping heavily to the floor with tears welling up in hir eyes. The bat slipped from hir fingers and clattered to the floor. Shi groped at hir waist for hir missing belt pouch. "Goldfur-" shi began, then broke down in wracking sobs.
Goldfur fished out hir personal communicator. Hir fingered hovered over the button that would summon the police. Then shi pressed the one to summon paramedics instead.
When Goldfur entered shi found Forestwalker and Midnight laying on the floor by Snowcloud's bed. Snowcloud looked fine except for a patch on hir flank where the fur had been shaved off and replaced by the ruddy, plastic sheen of syntheskin. "Hiya, Auntie," shi called, rising to hir feet.
"Hiya darling." Goldfur gathered Snowcloud- gently- in hir arms and gave hir a hug. "You okay?"
"Yeah." Snowcloud looked up, worry etching hir face. "Is Aurora gonna be okay?"
Goldfur found hirself gripped by a pang of emotion so intense that for a moment shi couldn't speak. Even after shi tore a hunk out of you you're still more worried about hir. Goldfur blinked back tears. And how else would I have it? "Yes," shi managed. "The doctors say... shi'll be all right."
"How 'bout you?" Forest asked, rising to hir feet and resting a hand on Goldfur's shoulder.
"I'm okay," Goldfur insisted, though in truth shi wasn't. In hir mind shi saw the mess Darkstar had made of the tavern, and in particular its occupants. Goldfur wanted to be horrified. Shi was horrified. But shi also remembered Ketta. Ketta had felt that Garrek, a Foxtaur male, shouldn't be wasting himself by mating with a Chakat. She'd chosen to express her displeasure by throwing Eudora off a cliff. Goldfur managed to reach Ketta before that happened... and shi did things shi never talked about. "You get better, squirt, you hear me?" Goldfur commanded gently, stroking Snowcloud's head.
"Okay." Snowcloud smiled. That did wonders to lift the shadows on Goldfur's mind.
"You too," Forest added, squeezing Goldfur's shoulder.
"Yes Mommy," Goldfur retorted, but shi smiled and pressed hir head against Forest's cheek. Then, reluctantly, shi broke away. "I'm going to check on Aurora," shi said as shi turned and exited. Forestwalker frowned but did not pursue.
Aurora did not look fine, nor anything even remotely like it. The fur had been stripped from most of hir body; that and the patches of syntheskin made hir look diseased. Pock marks covered hir where bone welders had been inserted. Tubes fed fluids into hir and carried them away. A bank of instruments monitored hir closely. In spite of all this shi seemed reasonably alert; Goldfur saw Aurora's eyes open and track hir as shi entered the room.
"Hi," Goldfur said.
"Hi." Aurora spoke without inflection.
Goldfur licked hir lips. Shi wanted to ask a thousand questions but the look in Aurora's eyes stopped hir. It was disturbingly similar to what shi'd seen in the taverns. To Aurora Goldfur was a distrusted outsider. "Aurora, I- I want to assure you I won't repeat anything you say," Goldfur began.
"Bull," Aurora replied. "If I told you something really shocking you'd spill it eventually. Your conscience wouldn't let you sit on it."
Goldfur swallowed. To hear someone Aurora's age say that was both shocking and sobering, not the least because it was true. "This isn't the first time, is it?" shi asked.
"Gramma fixed it up," Aurora replied.
Goldfur gritted hir teeth. This wasn't helping. "Aurora, I- I just want to know why. Why do you stay with Darkstar in spite of- of everything?"
"You wouldn't believe me if I told you."
Aurora gave Goldfur a measuring look. Goldfur fidgeted. To see that coming from one hir age-
"I don't wanna hurt people," Aurora said. A gap opened in the armor of mistrust. "Gramma helps me not to. Because- because shi understands." The chink closed with an almost audible snap. "You don't. When things happened... you wouldn't know what to do."
"It's all right, Aurora." Goldfur let hir head sink forward onto hir chest. Shi lowered hirself to the floor, hir arms propped on the edge of the bed. "You've convinced me." Shi gently stroked Aurora's head. After a moment Aurora closed hir eyes.
"Then can we talk a bit?"
Goldfur turned. Boyce stood in the doorway. "All right," shi said, rising and falling in beside him. He lay a hand on hir shoulder, then slipped it around hir torso.
"As you might imagine, there are... legal issues," Boyce commented as they walked.
"I can," Goldfur replied.
"I've spoken to some people," Boyce continued. "They think things can be worked out. But it depends on what you say."
Goldfur stopped, turning to face the admiral squarely. "You're pulling strings to get hir off," shi said.
"Starfleet demanded terrible sacrifices of Darkstar and shi made them," Boyce said. "Starfleet thanked hir by bouncing hir out on hir ear because what shi'd done was... embarrassing. Shi paid an awful price for the peace and freedom we enjoy today, Goldfur, and hir reward was a boot in the ass." His brow furrowed. "Or you might say hir reward is being permitted to raise hir granddaughter in a place where shi no longer has to do terrible things to survive. Which, come to think of it, is the reward we all share."
"These sacrifices," Goldfur said. "They're... like what happened in the pub, aren't they?"
"Like it, yes," Boyce replied after a short pause.
"But worse," Goldfur added.
Goldfur looked down at the floor. In hir mind shi saw two Darkstars: the one who saved Silverbolt, the one Longstocking and Aurora so obviously and fiercely loved... and another, standing in a pub, wielding a cricket bat. How could they be the same person?
"Would you like to speak to Longstocking?" Boyce asked.
"Yes," Goldfur replied.
Longstocking lay in a waiting area next to a bank of seats, hir torso propped against the wall, apparently asleep. Hir eyes opened as Boyce and Goldfur approached.
"Goldfur would like to talk to you," Boyce said.
"I expect so," Longstocking replied, hir attention shifting to Goldfur. "What would you like to talk about?"
Goldfur licked hir lips. Shi saw that same guarded look in Longstocking's eyes as shi'd seen in Aurora's. "Why do you love Darkstar?" shi asked.
"Because when I needed, shi gave," Longstocking replied. "Not just once but again and again." Shi reached back, stroking hir flank. "Do you want me to list in detail all the ways shi's touched my life? If so I hope you have a lot of time."
"Pick one," Goldfur suggested.
Longstocking's expression turned distant as shi reminisced. "During the Stariionae attack I watched my best friend die horribly. I would have killed myself trying to save hir if Darkstar hadn't stopped me." Hir eyes narrowed. "I hated hir for that. I cursed hir and reviled hir. I called hir names... but through it all shi never once let hirself get angry or impatient with me. Shi reminded me that my life wasn't only my own to keep or cast away. Kit, Snowflake, Skip, Nova, the Hugos... they all loved me. They all needed me. Darkstar made me see that it would be selfish of me to take myself away from them." Tears welled up in hir eyes. "And... when I wake up screaming because Sherlock is there, in my mind, begging me to save hir life, Darkstar is there too. And because shi's suffered, because shi's been there, I know I'm not alone." Hir voice caught; shi sniffed, swallowed, and wiped hir face with the back of a hand. "And- and then-" Spasms shook Longstocking's body. Shi clutched hir face until they passed, then drew a shuddering breath. "Then Aurora asked me to be hir mommy. Because- all the things Darkstar did for me, I did for hir... and shi didn't want hir Gramma to be alone." Longstocking looked down, closing hir eyes. Tears ran freely down hir face.
Boyce offered a box of tissues he'd picked up somewhere. Longstocking wiped hir face, then blew hir nose. Goldfur took one of the tissues and dabbed at hir own face. "Is there anything else you'd like to ask, Goldfur?" Boyce inquired.
Goldfur picked at the tissue shi held. You saved the life of my mate, hir mother, hir children, and the children yet to come, Garrek had said. I can't cut you apart and keep only the bits I like, Longstocking had said. Once again Goldfur found hirself thinking of Ketta. She'd mated with Stargrey, a Chakat of all things. She even had a child now, a Chakat-foxtaur hybrid just like Eudora. Images of the scene in the pub flashed through Goldfur's mind but shi found hirself seeing them in a different light. I would have done exactly the same if it had been Eudora been laying in that jacket, bleeding, beaten, and more than half dead. I did do it. I wanted Ketta to die. I wanted to hear her scream. I wanted to taste her blood. "What Darkstar did shocked me but I really don't feel comfortable judging hir." Goldfur shuffled hir feet self-consciously. "So I won't. Besides... I'd lay awake at night wondering what would become of Aurora." Shi swallowed. "Boyce, I'll say... whatever you think is appropriate."
"Thank you," Longstocking said, wiping hir face.
"Don't thank me," Goldfur replied. "Thank Aurora. And yourself. It was... your love that convinced me."
Longstocking took Goldfur's hand. "If you're on Chakona and want a tour of Star Home, just call. I know Star would love to meet you and your kids. So would everyone else, too."
"Thanks." Goldfur laid hir hand over Longstocking's. "I'll do that. I'd love to see it all, and so would the family." Shi squeezed, then reluctantly let go. "But... right now I'm guessing we need to talk about what I'm gong to say."
Boyce nodded. "I have some legal experts waiting. Will you be all right, Longstocking?"
"Yeah." Longstocking nodded. "Now I will."
Goldfur frowned, a sudden thought coming to hir. "Why aren't you with Aurora?"
"To avoid the impression of impropriety," Longstocking replied, getting to hir feet. "If you thought Darkstar was abusing Aurora and found me with hir you might think I was trying to influence hir testimony."
Goldfur winced. "Go," shi said. "Boyce and I'll take care of everything."
"Okay." Longstocking flashed a smile over hir shoulder. Goldfur wondered fleetingly if shi'd been deliberately set up but decided to let it pass. Boyce took hir arm and led hir to where the experts waited.
Darkstar had left hir bed and stood by the window, gazing out across the city. Shi wore a hospital gown and didn't look bad at all except for a few patches of syntheskin. Shi turned when Boyce entered the room and closed the door behind him. "Enjoying the view?" he asked.
"I figured I should while I still could," Darkstar replied.
"Prudent," Boyce replied. "The Melbourne police have agreed not to press charges against you but only if you agree to cut short your vacation and return to Chakona immediately."
Darkstar's eyes narrowed. "You shouldn't have done that."
Boyce's brow furrowed. "You do not presume to tell me what I can or cannot do, Captain Darkstar," he stated.
Darkstar stiffened to attention. "Sorry, sir."
"I didn't do it for you," Boyce continued. "Longstocking came to me. Shi begged, pleaded, cried, groveled, and otherwise carried on in a very distressing manner until I agreed to help. I did it for hir. And Aurora. And-" his mouth worked. "Captain Walker wasn't exactly a close personal friend of mine but I knew him. He loved you, at least as much as Longstocking does. I respect you immensely. Your career is the model to which I aspire. Because you never turned away from something that needed doing, no matter how onerous. When I get tired of the squabbling and infighting and just want to chuck it all and go fishing your commitment shames me. Every day I get up and pray that I'd have the strength to do what you did if I found myself in a similar place. So perhaps I'm doing it for myself, too. And I'm doing it because the Federation needs people like you, people who not only know how to fight but understand what it takes to win. Right now it's fashionable to say that we don't need warriors but I think the arrival of the Stariionae clearly demonstrates otherwise. Conflict has a way of popping up at the precise moment you stop looking out for it. Your skill, experience, and commitment are a resource the Federation may find itself desperately needing. All I'm doing is taking appropriate steps to safeguard it."
Darkstar sighed and turned back to the window. "You made a liar out of me, Admiral. How can I tell Aurora that there's consequences to what we do after this?"
"Come now, Darkstar, you know better than that," Boyce chided. "Being punished is a luxury. It salves your conscience by letting you believe that everything's square, all debts paid in full. The real consequences of our actions are that we have to live with them for the rest of our lives. It's why you started using the pain stick on Aurora in the first place. Better that shi live with the trauma of being punished than knowing that shi maimed or killed someone in a fit of rage."
For a long time Darkstar said nothing. Tears welled up in hir eyes. "Thanks." shi said. "For... looking out for my family."
Boyce laid a hand on Darkstar's shoulder and squeezed. "I'm making an investment. One of these days Aurora and that one Longstocking is carrying are going to be Starfleet officers and decorated heroes, just like you. For that to happen they need their Gramma." The ghost of a smile flicked across his face. "Besides, I've no doubt that Goldfur would put you away in a heartbeat if shi thought it would help Aurora. But if it didn't shi'd be consumed with remorse and I'd never hear the end of it."
Darkstar slipped hir arms around Boyce and hugged him tightly. "You really are a bastard, you know," shi commented.
Boyce laughed. "Coming from you that's high praise. Thanks."
"Hey you two, come back!" Garrek shouted as Blaze dashed by with Ember hot on hir heels. He rolled his eyes and sighed in exasperation. "Talk about herding cats," he muttered. Midnight chuckled, then moved out to help him corral the youngsters.
"You really didn't have to come see us off," Longstocking insisted.
"We know," Forest replied with a giggle. "We did it because we wanted to."
"Thank you. For everything." Longstocking hugged Forestwalker tightly then moved on down the line, hugging each person in turn.
"I'm sorry things didn't turn out better," Darkstar said, taking Goldfur's hand and shaking it.
Goldfur sighed. "It's all right, Darkstar. If anything... I'm glad things happened like they did. Sometimes... it takes a little sadness to remind us how good we've got it."
"That's for sure." Darkstar pulled Goldfur into an embrace and hugged hir tightly.
"Better watch that, or you'll end up living with us," Lupu called.
"Hey!" Goldfur protested. "I'm not that bad!"
"Besides, you wouldn't want Aurora clawing up the furniture," Longstocking put in.
"Hey!" Aurora protested. Shi rode in a padded trailer Darkstar pulled behind hir.
"Are you doing okay, darling?" Goldfur asked, crouching down and stroking Aurora's head.
"Yeah." Aurora smiled. "Thanks."
"Just... take care of yourself," Goldfur said. "And... get better."
"Good." Goldfur rose, dabbing surreptitiously at hir face.
"The OneWorld Aerospace liner Woomera, bound for Chakona and Voxxa, is now boarding passengers at Gates A, B, and C," the PA announced.
"Well, that's us," Longstocking sighed.
"We'll see you on Chakona," Garrek said.
"I hope we do," Darkstar replied, backing and filling to turn the trailer. Shi carried more luggage in saddle packs across hir lower back. Longstocking carried similar packs and pulled a trailer with more bags on it. Shi waved over hir shoulder and Goldfur's clan waved back excitedly.
"You were right," Longstocking commented.
"About what?" Darkstar inquired.
"Dinner with Goldfur and family was indeed very interesting."
Darkstar frowned, then burst out laughing. "That it was." Shi slipped an arm around Longstocking and hugged hir tightly. "That it was."
Garrek came up beside Goldfur as shi watched Darkstar, Longstocking, and Aurora join the crowd waiting to board. "You all right there?" Garrek asked, laying a hand on Goldfur's shoulder. An odd expression had settled upon hir face.
"I was just thinking," Goldfur replied. "You work, you plan, you have this great vision about how your life is going to be, but then the things that affect you most come from- from- things like this." Shi fluttered hir hand. "And it all started with- with a happenstance."
"A chance encounter?" Garrek suggested.
Goldfur nodded. "Yep. A chance encounter." Shi slipped an arm around his shoulders and pulled him tight against hir.