A Long Awaited Encounter
by John R. Plunkett

Hey, someone's coming, Zarya commented, pausing with his arm cocked back to throw.

Who? Where? Strelka demanded, eagerly.

There. Star didn't physically point her finger; the language she spoke included semantics which allowed her to embed the bearing, range, and vector of the indicated object within the word itself.

Who is it? Strelka inquired.

Darkstar, Longstocking, Aurora, and... another Chakat I don't know, Star replied, with a touch of impatience in her tone. Strelka and Zarya weren't so adept at identifying individual Softies; Star privately believed it was due primarily to laziness, not any inherent lack of ability.

Cool! Zarya exclaimed.

Hold on there. Star moved her hand; Zarya was too far distant to grab- more than twenty kilometers, in fact- but well within range of the tractor mounts in Star's palm. Zarya felt the beams at minimum power, knowing full well that Star could crank them up enough to lift his skin right off. You know the rules. No messing with Softie ships unless it's walkies.

Zarya muttered something Star was meant to note but not hear and subsided with ill grace. Star let it pass but monitored him closely. She hated being eldest; her parents expected her to be responsible for her younger siblings, which she felt placed unfair constraints upon her own behavior. On the other hand, six months' extra growth made her almost double their individual masses; being large enough to thump them both even if they ganged up on her was a distinct advantage at times.

Are they coming to see us? Strelka asked.

Looks that way, Star responded. The shuttle was clearly shaping an orbit to rendezvous with Star Home.

Let's go meet 'em! Strelka took off.

Cool your jets. Star intercepted Strelka with a tractor beam and dragged her back. Zarya started moving when he thought Star wasn't looking; Star brought him to heel with a gesture. She'd heard that Softie parents could only look one way at a time; she couldn't imagine how they managed, if their kids were anything like her little brother and sister. They'll be along soon enough; they'll call us when they're ready.

Why can't we go see them? Strelka asked.

Star said nothing. In truth, she wondered the same thing herself. A selection of possible answers passed through her mind; when she imagined saying them, she couldn't help noticing how much she'd end up sounding like an adult. Form on me, she commanded briskly.

Zarya dropped the ball and was in motion before Star finished speaking. By virtue of staring out closer, however, Strelka gained the coveted right hand spot. Zarya, for once, didn't argue and took the left hand position. His excitement overcame his annoyance, and besides he knew Star would bash him but good if he got too uppity.

Three, two, one, jump, Star commanded. Her, Strelka, and Zarya side-stepped out, then back in, placing the shuttle on Star's right wing with Strelka moved one slot outward, on it's right, and Zarya in his original position on Star's left.

Star quivered with excitement. The maneuver, while not exactly difficult, wasn't trivial either, and they'd executed it perfectly. Which didn't change the fact that they'd broken the rules by entering the approach corridor without permission, but Star had a plan, and with Darkstar in the shuttle there was at least a slim chance she'd get away with it. On the pinky of her right manipulator hand she wore a ring, which was actually a radio transceiver secured to her finger by a loop of carbon fiber tape. She could beam analog radio signals to it, which would be encoded and re-broadcast in standard Softie communication formats. In short, it worked just like a personal communicator. Through it she could access the aerospace control communication network, the suit comm network, Star Home's internal comm network, and even place calls on the global public network. Though she understood clearly that its real purpose was to let aerospace control and the people at Star Home talk to her far more than the other way around. She spent a moment mentally composing herself- generating Softie speech required a certain amount of concentration- and started transmitting.

Darkstar became aware of situation when the shuttle's proximity detectors warned hir of conflicting traffic. A glance at the situation display showed three contacts in close formation, holding station as precisely as shi'd expect from a Starfleet demonstration team. The transceiver chirped, indicating an incoming transmission. "Break, break. Dancer flight requesting permission-"

"Dancer flight, this is Star Home control!" a new voice cut in. "Sheer off at once! You are in conflict with incoming traffic! Repeat, shear off at once!"

"-to escort Speedball 822 light to touchdown, over," the original voice continued, utterly unperturbed by the interruption. It sounded like a young male Terran, speaking with the languid pacing and accent common to the southeastern portions of North America, on Terra.

Darkstar smiled, keying the transmitter. "Speedball 822 light to Star Home control. They aren't hurting anyone. Why not let them have their fun?"

"It's against the rules!" Star Home control indignantly exclaimed.

"Slavish devotion to procedure speaks of a shallow mind," Aurora put in primly. Darkstar could have released the transmit key in time to prevent the comment from being broadcast, but shi didn't.

"Then be it on your heads to explain it to their parents," Star Home control responded darkly. "Star Home out." Aurora giggled.

Quickpaw unstrapped hirself and moved carefully into the cockpit, gripping the door frame to stabilize hirself. "What was all that about?" shi inquired.

In response Darkstar merely pointed to the left. Quickpaw turned hir head. Hir eyes widened, and if not for the lack of gravity hir jaw would have dropped. "Oh, my," shi breathed.

Through the view port on the left side of the cockpit Quickpaw saw an enormous shape, easily twice and possibly three times the shuttle's size. It didn't look at all like a typical spacecraft; it's smooth, organic lines seemed more as if they'd been blown from glass rather than formed of metal or composite.

In front the long, elegantly curved nose came to a sharp point in the vertical plane but a broad curve in the horizontal one, creating a shape reminiscent of a duck's bull but much sleeker. The wings attached to the fuselage by way of long, thick strakes, then swept sharply down and aft. Aft of the wings the strakes sloped inwards for a ways, then ran straight back, forming a flat, paddle-like tailplane supporting two sets of tail fins. The first pair slanted outwards and upwards; the second pair slanted outward and downward. The first pair attached just ahead of the second pair, with only a slight overlap caused by the fact that the leading edges of the second pair were a bit more steeply swept than those of the first. Seen from astern the result would be like an X tail split down the middle, with each half offset outwards to the edge of the tailplane.

The shape was elegant, organic, and beautiful, more like a work of art than a utilitarian object, but even so it was the color, not the form, which made Quickpaw stare unashamedly, gaping slightly. It glowed, emitting an opalescent radiance touched with soft tints of every color in the rainbow. The overall brightness held steady but the individual colors shifted constantly, like sunlight shining through rippling water. Quickpaw's eyes flicked back and forth, trying to follow them, but could discern no more pattern than in blowing leaves.

Of course Quickpaw had seen a Stariionae before. After the attack on Chakona Gateway they'd been all over the news, even on Terra. News programs and documentaries had shown video of them sitting on the ground, hovering in the air, flying in the atmosphere and in space, and engaged in all sorts of other activities, including very surprising ones like juggling. But not even the best video had ever adequately captured that captivating interplay of constantly shifting color. At that moment Quickpaw realized that shi'd never seen a Stariionae before, not really.

"Are they not beautiful, Quickpaw?" Darkstar asked, in exactly the tone a Mother Longtail would have used when showing off hir latest grandchildren.

"Oh yes," Quickpaw exclaimed, climbing over Darkstar's lower body so shi would press hir face right up against the window. "They're amazing."

Darkstar grinned, keying the transmitter. "Speedball 822 light to Dancer flight. Form on me, echelon left, if you please."

"Roger wilco, Speedball," the voice responded. Quickpaw blinked when a huge, glowing shape loomed into the bottom of her field of view. There'd been another to the right; shi hadn't even noticed. It translated smoothly sideways, moving under the shuttle, giving Quickpaw a close-up view of its upper fuselage. As it dropped smoothly into formation Quickpaw realized that there was a third, beyond the one immediately to the shuttle's left. Now all three of them were lined up perfectly, one after the other. Better yet, Darkstar had re-oriented the shuttle slightly so all three were perfectly framed in the cockpit window.

"Kiddies, this is my friend, Quickpaw, daughter of Desertsand and Longstripe," Darkstar said, keying the transmitter. "Give hir a friendly salute, won't you?"

As one, all three vessels deployed a long, skeletal arm, which had apparently been tucked up under the right hand strake. The limbs seemed impossibly long and skinny, with narrow, three-digited hands at their tips. Though in micro-gravity it probably didn't matter, Quickpaw mused. The hands waved a friendly greeting; Quickpaw found hirself waving back, though shi had absolutely no idea if they could see or not.

"Hello, Quickpaw," a new voice said, speaking from the transceiver. This one sounded like a young Chakat, of about Aurora's age. In fact, it sounded enough like Aurora that Quickpaw glanced to see if shi'd spoken. Immediately thereafter two other voices chimed in with their own greetings; they also sounded like Chakats but not so much like Aurora.

"That's Star," Darkstar explained. "She's the one who's closest. Beyond her is Strelka, her little sister, and on the end there is Zarya, Strelka's twin brother."

"Hi," Quickpaw hear hirself say. "You're beautiful," shi added, gushingly. "All three of you."

"Thank you," Star replies. "So are you."

Quickpaw blinked, turning to Darkstar. "They can see me?"

"Oh yes," Darkstar replied. "Their mass detectors are extremely powerful and very sensitive. They can see right through the hull of the shuttle, and just about anything else for that matter."

"I can read a book without opening it," Star declared, somewhat immodestly.

"Showoff," Zarya commented. Star responded with a raspberry while Strelka merely giggled.

Quickpaw found hirself giggling as well; despite what they looked like they acted so much like regular children that shi couldn't help it.

"Have you come to see us, Quickpaw?" Strelka inquired. Her tone suggested that she actually meant me, not us.

Quickpaw's face fell with an almost audible thunk. The question suddenly and forcefully reminded hir of the real reason for hir presence, as well as recalling all the ominous implications of it.

"I'm here for a checkup," Darkstar explained. If shi were even slightly concerned, not the faintest trace of it showed in hir voice. "The planetside docs would have made me wait, so we came here instead. And I thought it would be fun for Quickpaw to meet you all. Shi and hir family just moved out here from Terra."

"You never said you were pregnant, Gramma," Star accused. Compared to her previous speech, the statement was curiously atonal.

Quickpaw blinked in surprise. "How did you-" shi began, then caught hirself. The mass detector, of course. Star could see through the shuttle's hull and read a book without opening it. Alaula would be about the size of Quickpaw's clenched fist; easy enough for the unaided eye to see, if Darkstar's abdomen had happened to be transparent. Which brought up another question. "Star, if you could see inside Darkstar anytime you wanted, why didn't you realize shi was pregnant before now?"

"The baby doesn't have any Shine," Star replied. Her voice was even flatter than before; almost mechanical.

"What does that mean?" Quickpaw asked, frowning.

"Shine is a measure of Psionic potential," Longstocking put in. Shi looked worried, even more than shi had when the question of Darkstar's lack of empathic contact with Alaula had come up in the first place.

"Well, if that's all, there's nothing to worry about," Quickpaw exclaimed, giddy with relief. "I mean, shi's just a baby, shi isn't going to have any Talent-"

"It's not like that," Star interrupted. "Shine is the difference between people who think and people who don't. Even people you say don't have Talents still have Shine."

"Wait, wait, wait," Quickpaw exclaimed, though no one had moved to speak other than hir. "Star, right now I'm not really concerned about what Shine is or isn't. I want to know why it's so important that Alaula doesn't have it."

"Because only things that don't think don't have Shine," Star responded. "Things like plants and fungus and stuff."

"What about animals?" Quickpaw ventured.

"Animals think," Star replied. "Not like us- or like you- but they do. They have Shine."

"So Alaula-" Quickpaw began.

"Doesn't have a brain," Star cut in.

"Star, at this stage in hir development-" Quickpaw began

"Shi should have a small but fully formed brain mass. Don't tell me I don't know what I'm talking about, Quickpaw. I've looked at Starshine and lots of other unborn babies that came through the station. I'm not a doctor but that doesn't mean I don't know what a baby looks like. If you saw a person without any legs you wouldn't have to be a doctor to know people aren't supposed to be that way. Alaula's head is all squashed and the back of it is split open. There's nothing inside but a tangle of membrane. The split runs all the way down hir spine to hir pelvis."

If shi hadn't been floating Quickpaw would have collapsed. And since shi was already falling shi couldn't say shi felt as if the ground had opened up under hir feet. Shi did feel as if shi'd swallowed a block of ice, and how hir stomach was trying to turn itself inside out. Of all the thing shi'd imagined going wrong, this was far and away the worst. If the baby were dead that would be tragic but at least it would be over; there wouldn't be anything to do but mourn. But this-

"Star, are- are- are-" Quickpaw stammered.

"Yes, she's sure," Darkstar cut in. "Her brain operates more than a hundred times faster than ours. She's had plenty of time to conduct a thorough examination."

"But Darkstar, we shouldn't jump to conclusions," Quickpaw said, gesturing placatingly. "It's probably not-"

"Quickpaw, before you insult me by calling my god-granddaughter a liar to her face, you need to convince me there's some reason to doubt her other than the fact that you don't want to believe what she has to say," Darkstar interjected.

Quickpaw opened hir mouth. "How can you be so calm about this? Don't you care?" shi exclaimed. That wasn't what shi'd meant to say, though shi couldn't now remember what shi had meant to say.

Darkstar's head swiveled like a turret, bringing hir eyes, like the muzzles of cannons, to bear on their target. Quickpaw swallowed; shi knew shi'd stepped over the line. Shi knew it the instant the words left hir mouth, which was of course far, far too late.

"Of course I care," Darkstar replied. "The reason I'm calm is because getting hysterical won't accomplish anything except making it harder to make the decisions that need to be made. Why don't you go strap down? We'll be docking with Star Home soon."

Quickpaw mumbled something and retreated to the main cabin. Shi huddled on hir couch, clutching hirself and shaking. Shi was ashamed of hir outburst. Shi was even more ashamed of the little voice in hir mind that kept saying I'm glad it wasn't me. If shi'd learned that hir baby was going to be born without a brain... shi wouldn't be able to handle it. Shi'd go mad.

Everyone who knew Theobald Aaron Carson even peripherally ended up eventually calling him by his nickname, Kit. It was, admittedly, easier than his full name, and it certainly sounded better than other possible nicknames, such as Theo. The usage was so common that sometimes when people used his real name he had to remind himself that they were talking to him.

A case in point was when he strode into the Star Home traffic control center. Suddenly, all conversation stopped. "Ah, hi Kit," one of the controllers said, looking up and smiling rather weakly. Kit couldn't recall the individual's name; he only knew a few of them personally but they all called him Kit.

Kit paused in the door. It was exactly like when everyone was talking about a particular person, and suddenly that individual entered the room. the same tense, unnatural silence, which everyone attempted to conceal with tense, unnaturally cheerful expressions. The controllers engaged in actual work spoke quietly, as if they didn't want to draw attention to themselves.

"All right, what happened?" Kit demanded. Most often, things like this happened when one of the kids had done something.

"Darkstar's coming," said the controller who'd greeted Kit initially.

Kit blinked. "Shi is? What for?"

"We don't know," the controller replied. "Shi didn't say."

That was a patent lie, Kit decided. It was obvious from hir expression, and the expressions of the other controllers. They knew, or at least suspected. They just didn't want to say it. "When is shi arriving?" Kit asked. He wasn't going to waste time questioning them; if they'd decided not to tell him he wouldn't get anything out of them short of using red hot pincers, and quite possibly not even then. Most of the controllers were Chakats, and Chakats were known to have strongly feminine social instincts. They gossiped like old ladies, but getting them to admit what they heard could be like pulling teeth.

"Her ETA's five minutes," the controller supplied.

"Thanks." Kit gave a nod, then backed out. Outside the door he took a few steps in place, softening his footfalls as if moving away. Apparently it was convincing enough; the babble of conversation gradually picked up again. He only managed to pick up two words, though: baby and anencephalic. The latter word didn't immediately mean anything to him, but he did know that cephaly referred to the head, while the prefix an- indicated negation. That in conjunction with the word baby suggested connotations he didn't care for one bit. He almost burst back into the control center and demanded an explanation, but decided against it. They'd resist; it'd be quicker and easier to head up to the shuttle deck and ask Darkstar himself. He started off- almost but not quite running- toward the lift shaft at the end of the corridor. Three levels up he arrived at the shuttle deck.

The shuttle deck itself was a square landing pad erected on the top of the station. To either side of the pad was a high power tractor / pressor mount, complimented by a third on the bottom the station. All three were heavily braced; they had to absorb the momentum of an arriving shuttle or ballistic cargo transfer. Needless to say the actual landing cycle was fully automated; a shuttle pilot flew hir craft down a narrow approach corridor, and so long as shi maintained an appropriate speed and attitude the pressors would capture it, bring it to a halt relative to the station, and guide it into the hangar bay. If the pilot missed the approach, the pressors would deflect the shuttle with as much force as necessary to keep it from hitting the station. That rarely happened, though; the approach corridor was designed so that if a pilot missed by only a small amount the ship would simply pass by without the need for intervention. Departure was the same thing in reverse; tractors lifted the shuttle out of the bay and pressors gave it a nudge to send it away from the station. Once a suitable separation had been achieved the shuttle would use its own thrusters to get where it needed to go.

Kit arrived in the observation gallery just as the automatic landing system captured Darkstar's shuttle. According to the landing signal display the approach had been perfect, which was no less than Kit would have expected; Darkstar was a very good pilot. Through the view ports, but mainly in the view screens, Kit watched as hir ship was vectored into the arrival bay. Just in front of the pad was a large airlock where shuttles entered the station's hangar bay; behind was a second, where they emerged. Force fields contained the atmosphere when the outer doors opened, so the locks didn't have to depressurize, but even so for safety reasons the inner door wouldn't open until the outer one locked closed. In the event of a shuttle too big to go through the locks, it could land directly on the pad.

Dual locks increased the complexity of the system, it was true, but also increased the rate at which ships could be launched and recovered. Star Home received most of its supplies by ballistic transfer; the origin station- Chakona Gateway, for the most part- would simply launch containers into an orbit that would send them near Star Home. Star Home then used its own tractors to capture them and bring them on board, then send the empties back the same way. Two locks meant containers could be brought on board twice as fast, so the headway between them could be less. A desirable quality, since a bunch of unpowered containers strung out across the sky posed difficulties for regular navigation. Moreover, two locks reduced the chances of having to let a container go by because there wasn't anywhere to put it.

Ordinarily Kit would have lingered and watched the whole capture and docking process, but now he had more pressing concerns. He ducked back down the stairway, headed for the floor of the hangar deck. He arrived in the lounge only to find a whole bunch of people who, properly speaking, didn't have any business being there. Kit could tell from their faces, however, that they were there for the same reason as him: they'd heard disturbing rumors. Star Home had an amazingly efficient grape vine; enough that Kit had started to believe the old adage that gossip was the only thing that could travel faster than the speed of light.

Above, the arrival lock opened. Tractors lowered the shuttle, then set it down in one of the parking slips. The door to the lounge remained locked until a chime sounded, indicating that spotting operations were complete. The chime might as well have been the bell at the start of a horse race, given the way everyone pelted out into the hangar the instant the door opened. At another time Kit might have rolled his eyes; right then he was leading the pack.

"You heard?" someone inquired as the crowd coasted to a stop.

Kit turned, though he didn't need to; he recognized the voice. It was Snowflake, his mate. His wife, a voice in the back of his mind insisted. Except that Snowflake wasn't a wife, strictly speaking. Oh, they were married all right. But 'wife' implied a female spouse. And Snow, being a Chakat, was also male. Of course, shi looked more female than not; shi had breasts- quite substantial ones, at that- and a soft, feminine body. The male bit only became apparent if one looked at the belly of hir lower body, where shi had a sheath and a fully functional penis. Shi also had a fully functional vagina. The corners of Kit's mouth quriked up; he should know, having had intimate personal experience with both organs.

None of which had the least effect on the strong emotional urge Kit felt to call Snowflake his wife instead of his mate. Intellectually, he understood that words like wife and husband conflated social and biological roles in such a fashion that, with regards to Chakats, was not merely inapplicable but actively misleading. But though Kit had no trouble accepting Chakats as fellow human beings, he hadn't grown up with them. Where conflicts arose he found himself defaulting to the fundamental cultural assumptions of his upbringing. Which wouldn't have been a problem on Ocali, the Voxxan colony world where he'd spent much of his life before coming to Chakona to go to school, and where there hadn't been any Chakats to speak of. Now that he'd come to Rome, as it were, he felt it behooved him to do his very best to get with the program.

"I heard," Kit said. He didn't bother asking Snowflake how shi'd heard. It didn't matter anyway.

"Did you know Darkstar was pregnant?" Snowflake asked.

Kit shook his head. "I surely didn't. I may not be the gabbiest person there is, but I wouldn't sit on something like that."

"Why didn't she tell us?" Snow demanded, hir tone partially distressed and partially accusing. "Aren't we hir friends?"

Kit chewed distractedly at his lip. There were friends and there were friends. Darkstar was old enough to be their grandmother, if not their great-grandmother. Shi'd spent hir whole life in the military until retiring when denied promotion to flag rank. Shi was also a Chakamil, a strain of Chakat with enhanced aggression and pain tolerance, which officially did not, and never had, existed. As one of the original Star Crib people shi, Kit, Snow, and others had gone through quite a bit together, but that didn't give Kit the conceit to believe that he really knew hir. If anything, it showed him how much a lack of shared experience could separate one from one's nominal peers. It bothered Kit that Darkstar had kept this secret from him, but he couldn't honestly say he blamed hir. The way everyone was carrying on now suggested that shi'd been right to keep it quiet.

Fortunately, Kit was saved from having to respond when the shuttle's hatch opened. The crowd surged forward, then fell back like running surf when Darkstar appeared. Shi didn't say a word, shi just glared. Hir eyes were gray, the color of polished steel, and when shi wanted them to be they were just as hard. Hir gaze swept over the crowd as if shi were covering them with a loaded weapon, and they shank back as if shi were in fact. Shi marched down the ramp, headed straight for the lounge, looking perfectly ready to trample right over the top of anyone who got in hir way. The crowd parted, driven by the force of hir presence.

Three others followed, all Chakats. First came Longstocking; shi didn't have anything like Darkstar's force of personality and the crowd would have mobbed hir except that shi came on a half length behind Darkstar, too close to cut out. After hir came a strange Chakat, a calico, that Kit didn't recognize. Shi looked like shi was walking to hir own funeral. Shi too would have been a target except that Aurora came immediately after. There wasn't anything the least bit veiled about Aurora's expression; it very clearly said if any of you scuts mess with my momma or gramma, I'm gonna rip your guts out and feed them to you. No one doubted hir; shi was Darkstar's little girl, after all, and the apple definitely hadn't fallen far from the tree. (Some would say crabapple instead, but not where Longstocking or particularly Aurora would hear it, nor of it. Darkstar hirself didn't care a whit what people said about hir. If anything. shi'd probably think it was funny.)

"Ah, Doctor Ash," Darkstar said, pausing at the edge of the crowd. "I'd like to make an appointment to have some imaging done, if you don't mind."

"Come right up," Ash replied, wheeling around and gesturing for Darkstar to accompany hym. Hy was a Blackpaw Skunktaur, about Longstocking's age, which put hym near the low end of hys middle years. Hy was also somewhat overweight, a condition not uncommon among Skunktaurs. And, though currently male, hy'd shown up wearing a frilly pink nightgown that was- at least in Kit's eyes- rather shockingly translucent.

As Darkstar and the rest of hir family fell in line behind Dr. Ash, the rest of the crowd started after them. Not all at once, but also without gaps, sort of like polymer strands being drawn from a solution. Kit was inclined to wait but Snowflake grabbed his hand and jerked him along.

The sight of such a crowd, ambling through the corridors as if they just happened to be going this particular direction, should have been comical. The notion never occurred to Kit because he was too worried. Darkstar wouldn't be here if it wasn't serious. Shi was supposed to be on vacation, greeting hir friends from Terra. Kit's hand dipped to his waist; he detached a communicator from his belt and brought it up to his face. "Darling?" he inquired. "Did you talk to Gramma on hir way in?"

"Yes, Daddy." Star's voice sounded tinny through the small speaker but was nonetheless easily recognizable.

"What did you talk about?" Snow demanded, pressing close to Kit's side. Shi tried to make the question sound casual but a great deal of urgency crept into hir tone.

"I don't think I should say," Star replied. "You're not in a secure location."

Kit and Snow both glanced around. The crowd had drawn away, leaving Kit and Snow at the middle of an empty bubble. But crowd density at the surface of the bubble had increased markedly as people strained to discreetly overhear. Some glanced away guiltily as Kit's gaze slid across them, some returned the gaze hopefully, and others merely looked worried. Try as he might Kit couldn't blame them; he was worried. And Star's non-answer had actually said quite a bit, under the circumstances. If there wasn't a serious problem Star wouldn't have hesitated to talk about it.

It did flash through Kit's mind that he could force Star to answer. If nothing else, it was obvious that Star had met with Darkstar during hir approach to the station, which wasn't allowed. That would be a flagrant abuse of his parental authority, however; doing so merely to assuage his own personal worries made him feel particularly dirty. "That's okay, we'll reach the med bay shortly," he said, then returned the communicator to his belt.

"Kit-" Snowflake began. But as hir and Kit's eyes met shi looked away. Shi'd had the same thought at the same instant and ultimately come to the same decision. Kit could see it in hir face. He slipped an arm around Snow's shoulders and hugged hir.

Kit and Snow stopped because the crowd had stopped ahead of them. Darkstar and Dr. Ash had reached the entrance to the med bay. Dr. Ash had turned back, confronting the followers. "Stop," he commanded sharply. The authority ringing in hys tone brought the whole column to a straggling halt.

Snow stopped, then imperiously thrust hir way forward. "Come now, we can't have you all cluttering up the med bay," she said briskly.

"You too, Snowflake," Dr. Ash said.

Snow froze, an expression of shock on hir face. Shi stared incredulously at Dr. Ash, then turned to Darkstar. "Darkstar-" shi began.

"Family only," Dr. Ash declared in a tone that brooked no disagreement. To hear a fellow in a frilly pink nightgown talk like that should have been funny, but Kit certainly wasn't laughing. "That means Darkstar, Longstocking, and Aurora only. The rest of you can wait in Wardroom Three. Move. Now." Each word struck like a hammer blow; with each one the crowd- Snowflake included- retreated a step.

"What about hir?" Snow demanded, desperately, indicating Quickpaw.

"Shi's my midwife," Darkstar put in calmly. Shi opened the med bay door, ushered the rest of hir party inside, then followed them. Dr. Ash remained where hy was, glaring at the crowd. Hy backed into the med bay, then closed the door with an imperious gesture. The call panel turned red, indicating that hy'd locked the door.

With the click of the latch the paralysis broke. And Kit realized that he should have taken the opportunity to slip away, because everyone- including Snowflake- turned to him.

Pele thrust hir way forward. Shi was a Mountain Clan Stellar Foxtaur; shi had a dark gray topcoat and a white undercoat, with a pale orange border between them. The dark patch confined itself to the top half of hir head and the backs of hir torso and lower body, with small incursions onto hir shoulders, fore-shoulders, and hips, so most of hir body was actually white. Shi also had dark gray stockings on hir arms and legs and a matching tag at the end of hir tail. All this was quite apparent because at present shi wore nothing but a pale blue top that looked like it might have come from a bikini and a belt pouch around hir waist. "Kit, Star talked to them on the way in," shi said. "Ask her what's going on."

"Um-" Kit began, glancing around nervously. The crowd had drawn in around him, closing off any possible route of escape.

Suddenly, as if by magic, the crowd parted, revealing a female Morph resembling a mink in winter pelage. She had a short, bluntly pointed muzzle, small, round ears, and a long, sinuous tail; her pelt was pure white except for a silky black mane that tumbled all the way down to her waist and a matching tag at the end of her tail. Her eyes were large, expressive, and colored a deep, aquamarine blue. Her figure somehow contrived to be lithe and voluptuous at the same time; her breasts were quite large but round and firm, her belly trim and flat though her hips were broad and her buttocks pronounced. Beyond that everything about her, from her appearance to how she walked, was absolutely perfect. Too perfect to be real, Kit would have said, if she hadn't been standing right there. Kit stared; he couldn't help it. The woman's unearthly beauty seemed to loom larger than she was, surrounding her like a halo. Everyone else was staring too. Even individuals who wouldn't otherwise have any interest in humanoid females as sexual partners. It didn't help that the woman wore nothing but a sky blue bikini bottom with a comm badge clipped to the strap over the right hip.

"Come along, Kit. Snow." The woman took Kit's and Snowflake's hands and led them off. Her voice was as perfect and beautiful as her body; it seemed to promise unimaginable sensual pleasures with every sibilant breath.

"Chase, do you know what's happening?" Snow asked, but only after taking several deep breaths and tearing hir eyes from the woman's bosom.

"Yes," Chase replied. "I could hardly miss it. The midwife- Quickpaw- is radiating dismay like a poisonous fog."

"Will you tell us?" Pele asked, falling in beside and slightly behind Kit, Snow, and Chase.

"No," Chase responded.

"Why not?" Pele wanted to know.

"It's not my place."

"Now you're going to get all coy after going on and on about how privacy doesn't really exist?" Pele demanded. Shi sounded more amused than censorious, though.

"You're the one who keeps demanding that I respect privacy," Chase replies with the hint of a smile. "Now you want me to pry?" She led the way into Wardroom Three.

"Is it really that bad?" Snowflake asked.

"Yes," Chase replied. "It is. And because of it we're going to sit here quietly and wait for Dr. Ash to do hys thing. And we're not going to pester Star, because she's not going to tell and forcing her to would be harmful."

Kit blew out a large sigh and sank into a chair. "How long will it take, do you think?"

"Fifteen, twenty minutes," Chase replied. "Dr. Ash will want to be thorough, but there's really nothing complicated about the situation."

Kit pursed his lips. "Pele, would you get us some drinks? I think we're gonna need 'em."

"Ditto that," Snow put in.

Pele nodded grimly. "Yeah, I was thinking that myself." Shi hurried off.

"All right, what's the problem?" Longstocking demanded. Shi couldn't sit still; shi paced back and forth like a caged animal. Darkstar lay on the examining table; the imaging head of the medical scanner was making a slow pass along the abdomen of hir lower body.

"Patience," Dr. Ash admonished. Hy sat at the control console, which was turned so that patients and visitors couldn't see the screen.

Quickpaw sat but hir whole body was shaking. Why did I get myself into this? shi asked hirself, again and again. Dr. Ash had said it would take about ten minutes for scanning and processing of the data. The wait was worse than anything Quickpaw could ever remember experiencing.

Aurora had reared up and draped hir forepaws over the barrier surrounding the examining area. "Are you okay, Gramma?" shi asked. Shi didn't sound at all like hirself. Shi sounded like a very young and very frightened little girl.

"Yes, I'm okay, baby," Darkstar replied, soothingly.

Longstocking grabbed Aurora up and hugged hir tightly. Aurora returned it.

Dr. Ash looked up. Though he didn't speak or make give any other indication all eyes locked upon him. "Well?" Longstocking demanded, rather sharply.

Dr. Ash hesitated, but only for a second or less. "Star was right," hy said. "There's fancy medical terms for it, but the essence is that Alaula doesn't have a central nervous system."

Longstocking grunted as if shi'd been shot. "What do we do about it?"

Dr. Ash hesitated, longer this time. Hy looked down, then up. "I don't know of anything that can be done. The malformation is extensive and not confined to the nervous system. There's various ways all that could be fixed, but the nervous system is something else entirely. Growing replacement nerves is tricky but doable. But here it's not replacement, it's building wholesale."

"There must be something," Quickpaw blurted. Hir voice shook and tears streamed down hir face.

"There is," Dr. Ash agreed. "You can take a genetic sample and clone it."

"But what happens to Alaula?" Aurora demanded, hir ears laying back.

"Shi gets aborted," Darkstar said. "And we pray that whatever caused hir malformation was congenital rather than genetic."

"Which is very likely the case," Dr. Ash put in.

"Except that my medical history doesn't bode well in that regard," Darkstar added. "During the rescue of the Quezon City I sucked up an awful lot of radiation. After that I was frequently exposed to gene plagues. I couldn't catch them but Starfleet wasn't disposed to take chances; they inoculated everybody. The antigens we had then weren't as refined as the ones we have now. The doctors warned me I'd have trouble if I ever tried to get pregnant."

"Darkstar, this isn't your fault!" Longstocking shouted, coming up hard against the barrier.

Like a dam breaking, Darkstar's reserve failed. Just a tiny bit at first, but the force behind it quickly expanded the breach. Shi opened hir mouth, which quivered; shi looked away suddenly, wiping her face. "Isn't it?" Hir vice was raw with anguish. "I- I- karma isn't in my favor. I... I've killed too many people. Too many children." Shi slumped, clutching hir face, sobbing.

Longstocking cleared the barrier in one prodigious bound, slapping aside the imaging head with no regard for the fact that it was a very delicate, and very expensive, piece of hardware. Shi grabbed Longstocking by the shoulders and crushed Darkstar's face against hir bosom. Aurora ended up pinned between them, but no one seemed to care, least of all Aurora hirself.

A terrible paralysis of horror had settled over Quickpaw. Shi shook it off by sheer willpower and moved quickly to Dr. Ash's side. "There must be something," shi hissed.

"Don't think for a second I'm not racking my own brains," Dr. Ash hissed back. "But the simple fact is that Alaula has a lot of problems. Individually they're mostly fixable, but taken all together the chances of a satisfactory outcome are vanishingly small. If shi lives- which is itself not very likely- shi'll be hideously deformed. Choosing our approach only means choosing how shi's deformed."

"There must be a solution," Quickpaw insisted. Shi couldn't tear hir eyes away from Darkstar sobbing, while Longstocking and Aurora attempted to comfort hir.

"There is."

"What?" Quickpaw whipped hir head around to look Straight at Dr. Ash.


Quickpaw sat. Shi didn't mean to; hir hind legs collapsed. That was the word shi'd been dreading, the one shi hadn't been able to say, even to hirself. Saying it meant that everything shi's tried to avoid, everything shi'd feared, had come to be. Shi was trapped in a nightmare, but shi was awake. "But Doctor, what are the chances they can conceive again?" shi demanded.

"That's beyond the scope of the discussion," Dr. Ash replied with a shrug.


"Listen," Dr. Ash interrupted. "Quickpaw, you're a midwife. That makes you a medical professional. When you asked my opinion I gave you the courtesy of treating you as a medical professional by answering as one. Do you really think this is the first time I've ever had to tell a patient there wasn't anything I could do? Being a professional means serving your patients the best way you possibly can. Which includes facing up to the facts when you can't help." Hys expression softened. "Look, I know how you feel. How do you think I felt when I had to tell a first-time mother than shi was sick because hir baby had died in utero? Shi'd done everything right, there wasn't anything wrong, with hir or the baby, but it died. After that I had to go outside and throw up."

"But..." Quickpaw licked hir lips. Shi wanted to say it's not fair. And it wasn't, to be sure. But it made no difference, none at all. Shi threw hir arms around Dr. Ash and hugged hym tightly, sobbing silently into his chest. Hy returned the hug, gently stroking Quickpaw's back.

"This is taking way too long," Pele commented. Shi lay on a cushion, between Valjean and Javert Hugo. The three of them were batting wads of colored paper back and forth with their forepaws.

"Yes, it is," Snowflake agreed, glancing in the general direction of the med bay.

Kit looked at Valjean and Javert, who looked back at him hopefully. You think I have any answers? Kit wanted to say. Instead he looked the other way, at Snowflake, who'd started pacing, clearly deep in hir own thoughts. Kit allowed his gaze to settle straight ahead, which left him looking at Chase, seated across from him. She wasn't sitting in the normal sense, though; she'd drawn her legs up under her so she was actually squatting on the chair seat.

"Chase, you said it would only take fifteen minutes," Kit said. He couldn't help sounding accusatory. "What's the holdup?"

Chase had been sitting quietly, gazing off at nothing. When Kit's attention settled on her she returned it, coming back from wherever she'd been. "The examination did take fifteen minutes. The problem now is that Darkstar isn't ready to face what it's revealed."

"I can't believe you don't know what's going on!" Snowflake demanded hotly, rounding suddenly on Chase.

"I never said I didn't," Chase replied.

A cold feeling appeared in Kit's gut. "How long have you known?"

"Ever since the beginning."

"And you didn't say anything?" Pele demanded, jumping to hir feet.

"Darkstar didn't want me to."

"Shi told you not to say anything?" Kit asked, frowning.

"We never spoke about it," Chase contradicted. "But I knew shi didn't want me to talk about it. With hir, I couldn't not know. Shi... radiates very strongly."

"Then what is it?" Pele demanded. "We have a right to know!"

Chase opened her mouth to speak. From her expression it would have been something mildly cutting, or perhaps not so mild. An attention signal from Kit's communicator cut her off, though. "Yes?" Kit demanded brusquely, grabbing the communicator from his belt and bringing it up to his face.

"Daddy, please hold out the communicator so everyone can hear." It was Star.

"I- ah- darling-" Kit stammered, dreadfully embarrassed for having snapped. Before he got any further Snowflake snatched the communicator away. Shi activated Speakerphone mode and held it out in hir palm. Everyone crowded close, listening intently. Except for Chase; she remained in her seat, once again staring at nothing.

"What's wrong is that Darkstar's baby doesn't have a brain," Star said.

Several interminably long seconds ticked by. "But Star, that's- I mean how- how could this have happened? Are you sure?" Pele expostulated in fits and starts.

"I don't know how it happened," Star replied. "But I am sure. As Gramma and the others came in, we stopped by to chat with them, and I took a look. Alaula doesn't have any brain. The top of hir skull is open like a bowl, and there's nothing inside but a little blob down in the bottom."

A part of Kit's mind determined that Star must have entered the approach corridor; she couldn't have seen with any degree of accuracy from outside it. That must have been what got the controllers all stirred up; for Star, Strelka, and Zarya to enter the approach or departure corridors without express permission was a number one no-no. And yet, though the thoughts took place right there in Kit's mind, he felt as if they were someone else's, like a voice briefly overheard at a cocktail party. He should be mad at Star for breaking the rules but just then he simply couldn't bring himself to care. All he could think about was how very, very glad he was that Star was a healthy, happy, vibrant, and alert young person. It seemed terribly ghoulish, given what Darkstar and Longstocking had to be going through, but he couldn't help it.

"Nova?" Snowflake looked around. "How serious is this?"

Dr. Nova Stallis scratched the side of her head. She fit in well with the locals, being a lioness, though she was short on legs, being only a biped. Appropriately enough she had a very imposing physique: she stood as tall as Kit, and he was distinctly, if not significantly, above average height for a male Terran. She equaled his mass, too, having a solid, powerfully built body and also a voluptuous, generously curvy figure. Moreover, she liked a minimum of clothing: a halter and shorts, as now, was most typical for her. Unlike a regular lioness she had a mane, which she wore in cornrows.

"It's just as bad as you think it is," Nova pronounced after a short pause. Her tail twitched restively. "Anencephalic babies rarely survive birth and even if they do, they die within hours. There's no protection for the brain, so infection sets in quickly."

"Is there any way to fix it?" Pele asked.

"Not really," Nova responded. "It's a neural tube defect. Early in embryo development, the back forms a crease, the edges of which grow outward, then curve together, forming a tube. This forms the basis for the brain and the spinal column. Sometimes the edges of the tube don't close; if that happens at the tip- the head end- you get what Star described. If it happens lower down, you get spina bifida. The spinal column doesn't form completely, it's not enclosed by the spinal vertebra, and in some cases it's actually protruding through the skin of the back."

"Alaula has that, too," Star put in, through Kit's communicator.

"Can it be prevented?" Snow asked. Hir lips had tightened to a thin line and hir tail lashed back and forth.

"To an extent," Nova replied, slowly. "Folic acid helps a lot, but doesn't stop it entirely. If it's caught in time- by the 30th day of pregnancy or thereabouts- there's genetic therapies that can be applied. If not..." she shrugged helplessly.

"How's it detected?" Snow wanted to know.

"Routine pre-natal scans," Nova said. "And they have to be done pretty frequently, since the window of opportunity to take action is fairly narrow."

Snowflake's expression tightened still further. "I'll bet shi didn't do that," shi muttered grimly.

"And if so, what of it?" Chase inquired. "Are you actually going to tell Darkstar that it really is hir fault this happened?"

Snowflake winced as if struck. Shi tried to speak, but while hir mouth worked nothing came out.

"Look, there's no reason to start fretting about what-ifs," Kit said quickly, moving to Snow and hugging hir firmly. "We need to focus on what we can do now."

"Kit, there isn't anything," Nova said, pinching the bridge of her nose.

"Wait!" Snowflake looked up suddenly. "Chase! When Kei had hys accident, you offered to try and fix him with your brain cells! Wouldn't that work here?"

"Hmm." Chase rubbed her chin thoughtfully. "You know... that might actually work. But..." her face fell. "I can't do it."

"Why not?" Kit demanded. He knew he sounded accusatory, a lot more than he meant to, but he couldn't help it.

"It's illegal."

"That doesn't make any sense!" Snow burst out. "If it was okay to do it for Kei, why isn't it okay to do it for Alaula?"

Chase looked up, at Nova. "General Order Twelve."

Nova's eyes widened. "Fuck!" she exclaimed, turning away suddenly and clawing at her face. "Fuck, fuck, fuck!"

"What the blazes is General Order twelve?" Kit demanded, in what was almost, but not quite, a shout.

"It's illegal to manufacture war beasts," Chase explained.

"What the cop has that got to do with you and Alaula?" Kit demanded. He was shouting now.

Chase tapped her forehead. "I have psi powers. Chakats don't. Okay, yes, we know they really do, but they don't measure on the scale which is the legal definition of psionic ability. If I donated my brain cells to Alaula, shi'd have psi powers too. Which is illegal, because it's adding a weaponizable ability to a species that doesn't already have it. I could donate to Kei because hy already had psi powers, so I wouldn't be adding anything."

"That has got to be the stupidest damn thing I ever heard!" Kit bellowed, throwing his arms up in exasperation. "Can you tell me who's bloody idea was that?"

"The people who had to try and put Terra back together after the Gene Wars had almost irrevocably torn it apart," Chase calmly replied.

"That's bullshit!" Kit retorted. "Chakats and Skunktaurs interbreed all the time! Why isn't that illegal?"

"Natural breeding is exempt," Chase explained. "After the Three Firms scandal the Chakats insisted, and with public opinion in their favor they got their way."

Kit stood, clenching and un-clenching his fists, for several seconds. Then, with a savage snarl, he whirled, lashing out viciously with his foot at the table Snowflake had initially tried to hit. The table went flying, and crashed against a wall.

"Kit-" Snowflake entreated, laying a hand on Kit's shoulder.

"Please!" Kit snapped. "I can't- I'm not in the mood for it! If I hear one more word about how some moronic legal technicality makes it so we can't help Alaula, I swear to God I'm gonna smash somebody's face in!" He whirled and stormed out.

"Kit, wait!" Snowflake dashed after him. Shi'd completely forgotten that his communicator was still in hir hand, and the channel was still open.

Chapter 3