Star Dancer
by John R. Plunkett

Slowly, almost stealthily, Torgai left his assigned station and drifted closer to Parn. As he did the rest of the warriors bunched up. Whatever might be happening out in the depths of space wouldn't matter nearly so much as what happened in the Tribe over the next few minutes.

"My lord," Torgai said, "How much longer are we going to continue searching?"

With some effort Parn bit back an angry retort. Torgai was his staunchest supporter and at times the only thing keeping him in power. If Torgai spoke this bluntly it was meant as a warning. Others- Hesai, for instance- watched and waited for Parn to make a mistake that could be exploited in a bid for power. Given the Tribe's precarious position a succession battle could doom them all. "You heard the voice," Parn said, realizing as he said it that he wasn't really answering Torgai's question. "Even- even with all the women pregnant, we need all the children we can get."

"I shouldn't have to remind the Starlord that it could be a trap," Torgai pointed out. His tone didn't change but even a great deal of obsequiousness wouldn't have robbed the words of their sting. "Even if your daughter is alive- a hope for which I pray with all my soul- that doesn't mean that the Tribe is in a position to save her. This constant searching leaves us vulnerable to attack and saps morale. If you wish to remain Starlord, you must either call off the search or produce a tangible result."

Parn said nothing because he didn't trust himself to speak. Intellectually he knew and understood everything Torgai said; it was his heart that didn't want to listen. In a way, the loss of hope when he'd finally accepted that Vala was gone had been a relief. Even as a part of his soul died, pain died with it. Hearing that thin cry resurrected hope- and pain as well. If he turned back now he'd live through the loss all over again. That Torgai spoke quietly, almost apologetically, only made it worse. He was saying that while he understood completely how the Starlord felt, duty came first. Duty always had to come first.

Oh, Father, I'm so sorry, Parn thought. His speech to Hesai about damnation hadn't been only for show; right now he more than half believed he was dammed. For how he'd mismanaged the Tribe... and for being unable to overcome the weakness of his own heart. Now his folly was so ludicrous even Torgai questioned him. What must the Ancestors think?

Like an ancient oak battered by hurricane winds, Parn's will gave way. Only few splinters at first, then more and more as each successive failure weakened the structure even further, until the whole thing disintegrated. Parn almost laughed; in a way giving up was a relief. What happened wasn't his problem any more. "Form on me," he ordered crisply. He'd announce his resignation to the Tribe as a whole and name Torgai his successor.

The warriors complied instantly; Parn's tone reflected the calm certainty he felt and they responded to it. As Parn composed his thoughts, though, one of the warriors suddenly dropped out of formation. "My lord!" he exclaimed.

"What?" Parn demanded crossly, his train of thought disrupted. "What is it, Shenna?"

"I hear it, my lord!" Shenna darted this way and that, too excited to hold still. "I hear it!"

Parn said nothing because he couldn't bring himself to believe the evidence of his senses. Could Shenna mean-

"I hear it too, my lord," Hesai exclaimed. He sounded amazed- and not a little afraid. He looked at Parn with a mixture of awe and fear as if the Starlord had somehow conjured up the sound through sheer force of will.

The implications struck Parn like a bolt of lightening; it took all his self control to keep from whooping and capering like a madman. "Hesi, Kagan, flank out and get us a bearing," he ordered, as if he'd known all along that now would be the moment to act.

"At once, my lord!" Hesai practically sang out his reply as he peeled off. The whole formation quivered with excitement; in that moment Parn believed they would have gone into the Eternal Dark and spit in Death's eye if he so ordered.

Thank you, Father, Parn thought. No prayer could express his relief and gratitude; he only hoped the Ancestors could feel it. "Deploy in tactical formation," he said aloud. "Best speed pursuit as soon as we get a bearing." He adjusted his voice for range. "Krita, form your group on mine. We are in pursuit."

"At once, my lord!" Distance distorted Krita's voice but did not in any way diminish the joy and excitement therein.

Parn laughed out loud, startling the warriors nearby. "They need this as much as I do," he whispered, speaking to Torgai alone.

"They do, my lord," Torgai replied. "They need hope- and they're grateful to you for giving it to them."

Parn almost argued. He hadn't done anything- except risk his position and the safety of the Tribe on a mad gamble. But for whatever reason the gamble paid off- and the whole Tribe won. Parn laughed and kept laughing; on the most basic level his job was to give the tribe hope for the future and he'd done that, even if only by happening to be in the right place at the right time.

"My lord," Torgai commented, "These cries seem to be travelling a rather long way."

"They're remarkably consistent and easy to follow, too," Hesai added. "Children can scream, sure, but there are limits."

"I was just thinking that myself," Parn replied grimly. On top of all that the voice sounded... somehow unnatural. Even allowing for distortion due to distance and other factors it sounded wrong.

"It must be the Enemy leading us into a trap," Kronn said.

"No, they'd never try such an imperfect deception," Parn said. "Not to say I don't think it's a trick, I just don't think the Enemy are behind it." His pitched his voice for range. "Krita, form your wing with mine. I need their eyes."

"At once, my lord," Krita replied.

"My lord, if it is a trap-" Hesai began.

"-And Gava is pregnant, after all," Kronn cut in.

"Pregnant or not, she has the best eyes in the Tribe," Parn replied shortly. Men seemed better at searching but when it came to resolving details about a specific target the women were absolutely incredible. After using them in scouting operations he couldn't hardly imagine not having them. It shocked him all the more because he'd lived with these people all his life and yet it was as if he didn't know them at all. "We'll spread out and search in teams, two warriors with each woman," he continued. "Whoever makes contact, hold at range and dispatch the junior warrior to pass the word. No talking unless it's absolutely necessary; if whoever this is can duplicate a child crying they may be able to hear us."

When the women arrived Parn chose Gava and Kronn as his team. After giving orders to the rest of the groups they moved off, searching carefully not only for the source of the cries but for any sign of foul play. Despite his own orders Parn spent more than a little time studying Gava. She didn't look pregnant but it was still early. Nevertheless she held formation and maintained without complaint the pace Parn set. It occurred to him that if she'd been born a man she'd be a great warrior by now. Reviewing her performance in the last raid he quickly revised his assessment. Even as a woman she already was a great warrior.

"I see it, my lord," Kronn hissed, drawing Parn's attention back to the mission. "Muck dwellers." His tone fairly dripped with revulsion.

"Muck dwellers." Parn's comment came out utterly devoid of emotion because already he felt murderous calm freezing his soul. Without any possible doubt the cries originated from one of a cluster of six shells just visible at extreme range. From this far the voice sounded clearly artificial but to Parn that mattered not at all. He couldn't imagine a coincidence so fantastic that the muck dwellers managed to duplicate a child's voice without first having studied an actual child. Not even just any child; the voice belonged to his child. To Parn, who had for many long hours lay at Vala's side listening to her unborn baby mumble to herself there could be no doubt. Somehow these creatures had gotten ahold of Vala.

"My lord, I don't understand," Gava said. "If they can't see us, why are they doing this? They have to know we'll attack."

"They do," Parn replied. "They're waiting for it. They're broadcasting this signal to call us."

"So?" Kronn put in. "What's to stop us from blasting them to bits?"

Parn almost gave the order to attack right then and there. The analytical part of his mind stopped the impulse. "They wouldn't be doing this if they didn't think they could get away with it," he said. "We need to find out why they think that. Kronn, gather the Tribe. Instruct them hold at long range, widely scattered. We will assume they have an Overlord with them, or something equivalent, until we have reason to think otherwise. Go."

"At once, my lord!" Kronn darted away.

"Surely they can't have an Overlord," Gava said.

"I don't think they do," Parn replied. "But these muck dwellers... just because they think slowly in combat doesn't make them stupid. When they have time to prepare, they do... incredible things. They build gadgets to do things they can't do themselves. We've attacked them three times and they've had plenty of time, even by their standards, to study what happened. Now they've made something that cries like a child. It can't be a coincidence. They use it to draw us to them- where, I have no doubt, they plan to use some other device against us. Even if their gadgets aren't so great as they think, allowing them to choose the time and place of our meeting gives them the tactical advantage. Now, Gava, look at them and tell me what you see. Take as long as you need; time is on our side."

"There are six shells," Gava reported. "Two large, two medium, two small. The smallest ones are like the one we fought at the last raid. All of them are fighting shells- except-" she paused for some time. "One of the largest isn't- that is, it has weapons but much less than the other large one."

"So that's it." Parn mused.

"My lord?"

"Why did I bring you along, Gava?"

"Because- oh."

"Exactly," Parn agreed. "That shell is their woman. They have it for the same reason I have you: because it has a strategic value to them greater than straight firepower."

"Ah, I see," Gava replied. "So when the Tribe gathers we sneak up on them and examine that shell to see what is so special about it?"

"Yes," Parn said hastily after a short pause. He'd just said, in effect, that- at least in certain circumstances- a woman had greater combat value than a warrior. Realization of it stunned him so much he couldn't speak. Then he realized that Gava had grasped the strategic significance of the situation with only a minimum of prompting. If she'd been born a man he could easily imagine her being Starlord instead of him. And yet her value to the Tribe lay in being a woman, both as a child bearer and a military asset.

Parn felt his whole world shift. He remembered Torgai asking him if he realized where training the women would lead. Now he understood that Torgai had foreseen where Parn now found himself. Torgai was the Tribe's best warrior, but he got that way by only worrying about what worked in combat. After years- generations- of honing his skills any change must seem dangerous and risky. Hesai's problem, on the other hand, was much simpler: even with the Tribe's survival at stake he could not- would not- see women as anything but self-propelled baby machines. Because to admit the existence of anything outside ironclad tradition meant accepting that the Wisdom of the Ancients was not eternal, immutable, and absolute. Parn saw how he himself might have become that way- and would have had not the Tribe's defeat forced him- literally- to consider new ideas or face extinction. He chuckled.

"My lord?" Gava asked.

"I don't at all like the idea of my woman going out to fight," Parn replied. "I'd want her to say behind where I knew she'd be safe. And yet... if I were a woman I think I'd want the same thing. For my man to stay behind where I knew he'd be safe."

Gava struggled to remain impassive but Parn felt the emotion roiling within her. "Yes, my lord," she said at length. "If you were a woman, you'd think that."

Eventually Kronn returned. "My lord, Torgai sends his compliments and directs me to inform you that the tribe is gathered an in position as you directed."

"Good," Parn replied. "Tell Torgai to hold everyone as they are. Gava and I will approach and examine the muck dweller formation up close. You must impress on Torgai that the Tribe should be poised to assist should the need arise but must not betray itself to the muck dwellers." Parn knew that Torgai needed no such thing impressed upon him but Kronn almost certainly did. "Furthermore, no one is to attack- no one is to prepare to attack- without my express order. Is that clear?"

"As you say, my lord," Kronn replied.


"At once, my lord!" Kronn slipped away.

"Gava, stay with me and do exactly as I do," Parn directed. "I need you to focus your entire attention on the muck dwellers, to notice any and every thing about them. I will see to it that you arrive and get away safely. I need you to trust me in this."

"I do, my lord," Gava replied. "I trust you with my life."

The emotional loading in Gava's simple statement brought Parn up short for half an instant. Her tone suggested that she might trust him to lead her in other ways. That she might even want him to lead her in certain, specific other ways. No warrior- no male one- ever addressed him like that... and it dispelled the ice laying over his soul. He thought of other times with Gava... of Krita... and Vala.

He thought of his daughter in the hands of the muck dwellers, alone and afraid, subjected to analysis by their unimaginable, inhuman machines. In that instant something new seized him; not cold but hot, a rage as searingly intense as the heart of a star. It seemed like Gava would have to see it radiating from his skin.

"My lord?" Gava asked.

"If these muck dwellers have my daughter," Parn began in a voice that was quiet and terrible, "I will destroy them utterly. On my love and on my life, before my Ancestors and before the Creators, this I swear."

Chase sprawled in an overstuffed recliner facing one of the lounge's observation view ports. He stared sightlessly at the swirling colors of hyper-space, his eyes glassy and vacant. He twitched constantly, as if his whole body were mildly palsied. His jaw hung slack and spittle dribbled from the corner of his mouth. Occasionally he wiped it away with the back of his right hand. Never his left; that lay in his lap, gently massaging his erect penis. Suddenly he stiffened, arching his back as if in pain, and changed sex. With a sigh she settled back into the chair and everything continued as before. She hadn't even stopped masturbating.

With a visible effort Swiftsure tore hir eyes away from Chase and stared intently at hir plate. Shi cut hir sirloin steak into neat little cubes but made no attempt to eat them. Shi spent a few moments stirring them around. In hir mind's eye Swiftsure saw a briefing room on board Lijang; Shi, Fyodor, and Dr. Stannus sat facing Captain Walker of the Asimov, Captain Robards of the Biscay, Captain Gayle of the Hawke, Captain Vasher of the Cumberland, and Captain Venner of the Mactan. Captain Raskilov stood at the head of the table with Chase seated to his right.

"Due to the nature of their super-luminal drive we can't track the Stariionae," Captain Raskilov had begun. "In fact, only with the use of special equipment can we even detect them." Aleksandr smiled, a twinkle coming into his eye that Swiftsure found terribly disconcerting because it seemed so shockingly out of character. "Fortunately we have some very special equipment with us right now." He laid a hand on Chase's shoulder. "We will track them telepathically."

"Star fried a telepath who was considered among the best on Chakona, and she's just a child," Swiftsure pointed out. "How do you expect to deal with twenty to thirty adults?"

"As with many things, it's a matter of skill rather than strength," Chase replied. "That's not to say strength isn't a factor. Which is why Captain Raskilov procured for me no less than twelve Skunktaur telepaths directly from the Rhine Institute on Terra. Together we will form a gestalt, with my skill guiding their combined power."

"I thought telepaths had to train together for nearly their whole lives to form an effective gestalt," Swiftsure said.

"Actually, forming a gestalt is... not easy, exactly, but at the very least not so difficult as all that," Chase corrected. "It's how telepaths are trained that makes it hard."

"For what it's worth the Rhine institute didn't believe it either," Captain Raskilov put in. "To ally concerns all around I've arranged a demonstration." He touched a control on the table top. "Send in the Skunktaurs, if you please."

Twelve Skunktaurs filed into the room. They wore highly eclectic clothing- in some cases nothing at all- but around each and every head lay a cloth band of some sort or another. Some were exotic- decorated with sequins and jewelry- while others were hardly more than a cord. Chase leaned back in his chair, putting his feet up on the table, clasping his hands behind his head, and grinning like a cat confronted by a roomful of overweight mice.

"So glad you could come, Nostradamus," Captain Raskilov declared, stepping forward and offering his hand to who was clearly the oldest, and most conservatively dressed, of the Skunktaurs.

"I wouldn't have missed this for the world," Nostradamus replied, taking Aleksandr's hand. "For the record, I still think you're crazy."

"Anyone willing to put their beliefs to the test is worthy of respect in my book," Captain Raskilov replied. "I'm glad you were willing to come here and do it. Even if you go away making me look like a fool, you've done me a service."

"Then let's begin." Nostradamus sat on the floor. "Gather 'round, people." The others lined up to either side of hym in a loose semicircle. "Professor Swiftsure, you may want to leave the room. There could be... a great deal of spillover."

"I'll stay, if you don't mind," Swiftsure replied. The thought of picking up some part of whatever Chase and Nostradamus threw at each other scared hir silly but waiting outside- with no idea of what was happening- would be worse.

"As you wish." Nostradamus shrugged. "I assume you're ready, Chase?"

"Whenever you are." Chase nodded.

"Very well." Nostradamus laid hys fingertips against hys temples as if hy had a headache. Many of the group used similar gestures; others clasped their hands as if praying or set their hands under their chins as if thinking. One stuck hys fingers in hys ears. As one they lifted off their headbands.

Swiftsure blinked. Chase and the Skunktaurs appeared to be staring at one another but they weren't; their faces tensed in concentration but their eyes looked glassily at nothing. Swiftsure shifted uneasily; shi found hirself thinking of when hir maternal great-grandmother died. Though only eight years old at the time shi recalled the scene vividly. Shi sat at the kitchen table doing homework while Dad cooked dinner. Mom walked in, opened hir mouth- and shut it when hir gaze fell on Swiftsure. Swiftsure looked up; Mom's expression told hir that something dreadful had happened. Mom took Dad by the arm, whispered something in hir ear, and led hir into the library, shutting the door behind them. Swiftsure pricked up hir ears, trying to listen without leaving hir place. Shi heard murmured voices but couldn't make out words. With Chase and the Skunktaurs shi felt the same thing: a sense that momentous and terrible things were happening just beyond the threshold of hir perception. Things upon which hir fate hinged... but over which shi had no control and couldn't even begin to understand.

Chase looked at hir. Swiftsure didn't see him move- was pretty sure he hadn't moved- but somehow his gaze was upon hir. His eyes gleamed like the spark of an arc welder; they looked at hir and through hir, undressing hir body and hir soul. Shi blushed hotly and looked down, feeling guiltily naked like a child caught masturbating. Looking away didn't make any difference; shi still felt his gaze, caressing and enticing. Hir hands plucked at the hem of hir tunic; the sensation of it sliding against hir fur felt like a thousand loving hands gently stroking. The room seemed to dim and become indistinct as more and more of Swiftsure's mind focused on the sensation pouring into hir and less and less on hir usual senses. Shi felt hirself and the Skunktaurs moving together, drawn like dust motes to an electrostatic charge. As they came together they passed through one another; as they overlapped waves of pleasure reflected back and forth, enhancing the sensation still more. Every bit of Swiftsure's being seemed to be an erogenous zone and every point of interconnection an act of coupling. As shi moved toward perfect oneness shi knew shi'd die; everything uniquely hir would be obliterated in a chain reaction of pure joy. Even in that knowledge shi continued on; shi craved the sensation like nothing else. It felt like a hundred, a thousand, a million orgasms all rolled into one-

Swiftsure blinked. Shi lay on the floor, panting and... spent. Hir body seemed to be a hollow skin filled with warm water. Shi could move but shi didn't want to. Shi sighed and reached out but hir lover- lovers- weren't there. Shi frowned, looking around as much as shi could only by rolling hir head a little. A table loomed over hir; underneath it, across from hir, shi saw trousered legs and shoed feet. Suddenly shi recalled where shi was and struggled to hir feet. Hir bra and tunic were gone, hir fur shockingly disarrayed. One of hir hind feet stepped a warm, sticky puddle. Shi glanced down, confirming hir worst fears. A puddle of semen covered the deck where shi'd lay a moment earlier. It looked like far more than any one Chakat could possibly produce, least of all hir. Odd sounds drew hir attention; shi glanced around, leaning heavily on the table. Across from hir sat the assembled captains, looking shocked and not a little horrified. Dr. Stannus watched impassively; Fyodor looked sad.

On the floor lay the Skunktaurs, even Nostradamus, twitching and moaning as if in the throes of massive seizures. The penises of those in male phase swelled prominently, their heads purple from the blood filling them. Semen pumped from them, not for only a few seconds as with a normal orgasm but continually, pulse after pulse. Of those in female phase some of their vulvas opened so far Swiftsure could actually see into them, and in every case fluid dribbled out of them like spittle.

Chase chuckled. He sat as had at the beginning but with his eyes heavily lidded- almost shut- and his bottom pulled down so his penis could stand proudly erect without constraint. "See?" he purred in a voice that made Swiftsure shiver with recalled pleasure. "It's so easy even Swiftsure can do it."

"Is something troubling you, Swiftsure?" Fyodor asked, recalling hir to the present. His dinner consisted of a tuna fish sandwich and a bottle of Captain Raskilov's vodka.

Swiftsure hunched hir shoulders. "I know it's not Chase's fault for being the way he- she-"

"Say hy," Fyodor suggested. "I know Chase doesn't care for the term but it makes things easier on us."

"-Hy is," Swiftsure continued. "But- but-"

"Hy terrifies you?" Fyodor suggested, pouring himself another glass of vodka.

Swiftsure's hand shook so hard hir utensils rattled against the edge of hir plate. Shi dropped them and hugged hirself tightly. "Yes," shi admitted miserably. "On Sigma 17 hy seemed so- so ditzy. I couldn't take hym seriously. And then- and then-"

"You saw what hy did to those Skunktaurs." Fyodor poured vodka into Swiftsure's water glass and pushed it toward hir. Shi gulped it down and coughed as it scorched hir throat.

"Is this plan really going to work?" Swiftsure demanded suddenly. "Can Chase really do what hy promises?"

"I think if anyone can, it's Chase," Fyodor replied. "I looked up all the information on hym I could find. Hy's gone up against some of the best telepaths in the galaxy and defeated them every time."

"That doesn't reassure me," Swiftsure said. "Someone who's never failed... how can they know how to deal with failure when it does happen?"

"I remember hearing of a captain like that," Fyodor mused as he poured himself another drink. "He had a perfect safety record. Never been in a serious accident. Then, of his last voyage, he crashed his ship into an iceberg and it sank. Seventeen hundred people lost their lives."

"Is hy really the product of a genetic experiment?" Swiftsure asked.

"So far as I know," Fyodor replied.

"How- how could Starfleet allow something like that to happen?" Swiftsure demanded sharply, hir fear and anger at the general situation boiling out through an otherwise innocuous question.

Fyodor shrugged. "I can't say. Aleksandr and I are friends- after a fashion- but there are things he won't tell me."

Swiftsure ate a piece of steak without tasting it. "Why didn't you join him on the Lijang like Dr. Stannus instead of staying here on the Asimov?" Shi didn't really want to know but shi didn't want to talk about Chase.

"Aleksandr and I aren't really friends," Fyodor replied, pouring himself yet another glass. The bottle, full at the start of the meal, now stood more than half empty. "We shared adversity once but our life paths have taken us in different directions. He calls us friends so that he can do what he's doing... more gracefully."

"What is he doing?" Swiftsure asked.

"Holding me hostage," Fyodor replied. "When we return to Chakona Aleksandr will have the power to make my legal problems go away- or send me to a maximum security prison colony for the rest of my life. He will use my fate as leverage to force Darkstar to give up Star."

Swiftsure's ears twitched like the vanes of a semaphore. "But... Darkstar doesn't seem like the sort who'd give in to blackmail."

"Under other circumstances I'd agree," Fyodor replied. "I brought Darkstar in because shi is capable of... acting with great determination. In this case shi has... a severe vulnerability. Shi's madly in love with me."

Swiftsure blinked. "What? Why?"

"I saved hir life."

Swiftsure blinked rapidly. "What- I mean-"

Fyodor allowed himself the ghost of a smile. "I don't seem like the swashbuckling sort?"

"No," Swiftsure admitted.

"It wasn't like that," Fyodor explained. "You've no doubt heard that shi retired from Starfleet and came back to Chakona?"


"You've no doubt also heard that hir entire family was killed in the Quezon City disaster."

Swiftsure nodded. "Yes."

"Then why would shi go to Chakona? What could shi expect to find there?"

"Well-" Swiftsure frowned, shifting uneasily. "Surely shi had friends?"

Fyodor shook his head. "No. All hir friends were dead, retired, or in Starfleet. Sitting around with other has beens talking about the Good Old Days would have been more agony than shi could endure. Shi came back to Chakona because shi wanted to see it one last time before shi died."

"But- I mean, I know shi's had a hard life but shi's not that old," Swiftsure protested. "I hear about Chakats living to be a hundred and fifty all the time. Shi's, what, a hundred at most?"

"One hundred and five," Fyodor clarified. "And you are correct. Despite hir grey hairs and occasional complaining shi's in excellent health. Well enough, in fact, to keep up with hir exceptionally energetic granddaughter. The reason shi expected to die was because shi had resolved to kill hirself."

Swiftsure's jaw dropped. "I- But-" Fyodor's assertion was so incredible shi couldn't articulate a reply to it.

"You wonder how any Chakat could become so despondent as to seriously consider suicide," Fyodor said. "Belive me, when you look at what Darkstar's been through it's not hard. For most Chakats emotional support comes from the family, which Darkstar did not have. To fill that need shi turned to hir colleagues in Starfleet. Retiring took that away, too. I know that on Chakona there are even total strangers who'd take hir in. But during the course of hir career Darkstar went places and did things that... marked hir. A person who'd never been wouldn't understand. Couldn't understand. Might even be... shocked and horrified when they found out what shi'd done. Darkstar could have overcome that, sure, but shi'd spent hir whole life overcoming adversity. For once shi wanted to do something easy. And death is very easy. Once it's over it's over. No cares, no worries, no regrets." He glanced up, his eyes pinning Swiftsure like twin bolts of cold, gray steel. "Before you ask, it's choosing death- acknowledging it, embracing it- that most people find difficult. Darkstar was a soldier; death was hir job. For hir, deciding to die wasn't any more difficult than- than- any other decision."

"You mean no harder than deciding to kill someone else," Swiftsure put in.

Fyodor nodded. "Yes, I do. having made the decision Darkstar researched the execution-" he smiled grimly- "with hir usual care and thoroughness. To insure a quick, clean kill shi adapted a system used in slaughterhouses. Shi built a frame to clamp hir head and mounted a hunting rifle to it that would fire a bullet into the top of hir skull. Death would be instant and painless, with almost no chance of accidentally surviving. To make sure no one bothered hir shi rented a summer cottage on the coast. I entered the picture because a colleague told me about Darkstar retiring. I decided to recruit hir as an instructor; having a decorated Starfleet officer on the faculty would give the university added prestige. After a lot of searching I found the number of hir beach house. I called just as shi was strapping hirself down." He studied his glass for a moment then took a pull directly from the neck of the bottle. "Shi listened politely to my spiel, then told me straight out that while shi appreciated my offer shi couldn't take advantage of it because shi was about to die. You can't imagine it, Swiftsure. While explaining to me why shi was about take hir own life shi sounded calmer and more in control than a great many supposedly sane people I knew. Even though I'd never met hir before I knew that the moment I hung up the phone shi would die, as surely as if I'd pulled the trigger myself." Fyodor smiled softly, his eyes slightly unfocused, as if recalling gauzy scenes of youth. Swiftsure shivered; Fyodor's expression and offhand delivery somehow amplified the terrifying reality of his words. "I decided that I had to keep hir on the phone no matter what. I can't even begin to tell you what I said; for the life of me I can't remember except in momentary flashes. I was so focused that everything around me faded away. Nothing existed but me and Darkstar. Three and a half hours later I'd peed in a waste basket because I didn't dare leave to visit the bathroom and we were still talking. Suddenly shi breaks off, right in the middle of a word. I was beside myself; we were using an audio only link so I couldn't see what shi was doing. Shi starts crying and exclaims that shi doesn't want to die." Fyodor sniffed; tears streamed down his cheeks but he made no attempt to wipe them away. "I asked hir if I hung up and drove over would shi be alive when I got there. Shi said yes, so I went. When I arrived shi was pacing like a caged lion; as soon as I opened the door shi dragged me inside and ripped my clothes off. I didn't mind because the whole experience had left me so keyed up I felt like I was about to explode. Afterward we talked, all through the night and much of the next day."

"Then why aren't you mated?" Swiftsure wanted to know.

Fyodor sighed. He glanced at the bottle but let it be. "We weren't compatible."

"Because.... because of where shi'd been in Starfleet?"

Fyodor shook his head. "No, interestingly enough. Believe it or not I was in Starfleet myself once upon a time."

"Really?" Swiftsure blinked. Shi couldn't imagine Professor Moseivitch in a uniform.

"Oh yes. As a young man I was much taken by the glamour of service." Fyodor smiled wryly. "Basic training disabused me of my romantic notions but duty wasn't too bad. Until one day I was ordered to execute Sauron prisoners."

Swiftsure gasped. "What- what did you do?"

"I refused, on the basis that the order was immoral, if not illegal. A court martial found me guilty of refusing a lawful order. I spent nine months in prison and was dishonorably discharged. I couldn't bear to go back to my family in disgrace so I ran away. I signed on with a colonization company. They valued my experience and were willing to overlook my infelicities. I confess that at times I wished I was back in prison; building a colony is back breaking labor. I worked like a dog for three years. But I loved it. It was honest work. I was building a future." Fyodor planted his elbow on the table, opening his hand as if displaying something. "Then I met Ludmilla. She was an agricultural engineer, a fancy name for a farmer. She was the most beautiful woman I'd ever seen." He sighed. "It took me two months to work up the courage to talk to her. A year later we were married and she was expecting our first child. Then, one night, I happen to be sitting on the porch and I see a light in the sky. At first I thought it was a meteor but it came down much too slowly. Me and several of the lads went to check. It was a small starship; we rescued five survivors. They said they were asteroid miners and their ship had been damaged in a collision. We offered to send for help but they said don't worry, their friends would be along. We took care of them; a week and a half later their buddies showed up and took them away. Two weeks after that people started getting sick and the doctor couldn't handle it. Since I was one of only a few with deep space experience I and two other fellows took a shuttle to the nearest Starfleet patrol base to ask for help. We made it, barely, and I told my story to a handsome young lieutenant. His name was Aleksandr Raskilov."

"Waitasec," Swiftsure cut in. "How old were you? How old is he??"

"Captain Raskilov is four years younger than I am," Fyodor replied. "He doesn't look it because he's a Recomb. Specifically, a Sauron."

"A Sauron? how'd he end up in Starfleet?"

"I have no idea. He never told me." Fyodor shrugged. "He told us that it sounded like a gene plague. He ordered us quarantined and sent a team to investigate. Oh, Swiftsure, you can't imagine the names I called him."

"With your wife and child out there, I think I can," Swiftsure replied.

"A month later Aleksandr comes back," Fyodor continued. "He... he told me that the entire colony had been wiped out. Me any my two companions were the only survivors." He sighed. "I went crazy. I screamed, I raved. I swore I'd kill every Sauron there was. I swore I'd kill myself. Aleksandr... he talked me down. He convinced me... that in spite of the terrible things that happened to me it... wasn't worth throwing my life away over." Fyodor's face twitched; he rubbed his temples with the tips of all his fingers. "Because of what he said I... I took Ludmilla back to Terra and buried her on the Siberian steppes where she was born." His left eye seemed to have developed a tic. "After that... I went back to my family and confessed all. They forgave me and... helped me start over." He let his hands fall to the table and stared morosely at them. "So, as you can imagine, Darkstar and I had a lot to talk about. No, the problem was... was me." He picked at his cheek, either trying to massage the tic out or just a nervous gesture. "I found that when it wasn't life or death, I... I couldn't be with hir. I told myself that it was because shi was a hermaphrodite. I told Darkstar too, but shi didn't believe it." The tic in his cheek got worse. "Shi told me... that shi'd decided not to kill hirself because of the promises I made. And now, now I was reneging on them." He stared at the bottle of vodka them poured himself a drink- carefully, because his hands shook. "Shi said... that it didn't have anything to do with sex. That it was... because I was afraid." He polished off his drink and poured another. "When this whole Star Baby thing blew up in my face I was despondent. Then Aleksandr comes along... and suddenly I'm superfluous. Just like that-" he snapped his fingers- "everything I worked for is gone. Out of my hands." He twirled the bottle, staring at the fluid swirling in the bottom of it. "I went to Darkstar. I... we made love. I made promises." He laid his arm on the table and slowly lowered his forehead onto it. "I... I made hir love me, Swiftsure! I'm- I'm afraid shi'll give up Star to have me!" The bottle slipped from his fingers and fell to the deck; none of the vodka spilled because there wasn't enough left. His shoulders heaved as he started to sob.

Swiftsure rose and fed hir mostly uneaten meal into the recycler. Shi hadn't been particularly hungry to start with. Now shi felt sick.

"My lord!" Gava hissed urgently. "They're using mind magic!"

Parn came within a hair's breadth of scoffing out loud. He didn't sense anything and the notion of muck dwellers using mind magic was simply incredible. He reminded himself sternly that he'd brought Gava because of her sensitivity. In any case, was muck dwellers using mind magic any more incredible than the fact that they'd managed to capture his wife and daughter? "Can you counter it?" he whispered back. Mind magic could be a devastating weapon, spreading confusion and despair, or even inducing people to attack their friends. The Enemy used it extensively and ruthlessly. Aside from all that it could be used to foil an ambush; an attacker's own violent thoughts gave him away. In this particular case Parn realized that it could mean the difference between life and death, for both sides. Four of the six shells were larger than anything he'd yet encountered and all of them, even the female, purpose built for combat. Their Starlord kept them close where overlapping fields of fire could strike with devastating effect at an attacker coming from any direction. Muck dwellers might think slowly in combat but they weren't ineffective, not by a long shot. With time to prepare they'd make a good account of themselves. Parn still thought he'd win but the Tribe would suffer losses, more than it could afford.

"If I was alone, perhaps," Gava replied. "But- I can't shield you from them, my lord. Not by myself. My lord, you should use Krita. She, she has more experience with this sort of thing."

"I see." Parn considered. "Then we'll withdraw and talk to her." He'd brought Gava as an expert, after all; if he chose to ignore her advice more fool him. Slowly, carefully, they backed off. Parn gathered the Tribe himself rather than risk calling out and directed them to assemble at what he hoped was a safe distance.

"Mind magic?" Hesai exclaimed scoffingly.

"Why not?" Gava countered with a sharp edge in her voice. "They have minds, presumably."

"They're muck dwellers," Hesai replied in a patronizing tone.

"They are using mind magic and we must plan accordingly," Parn declared. He knew no such thing but his statement quashed any further argument on the matter. He found- rather to his surprise- that Hesai's attitude annoyed him immensely. It also struck him that if muck dweller mind magic were such a subtle thing that he couldn't feel it then he was depending on his women, not as auxiliaries but as the primary strike force. It was a strange feeling. "Krita," he said, "How do your recommend that we proceed?"

Total silence fell. Now Parn treated Krita not only as a warrior but an experienced one. Looking at the scarring on her hull Parn thought that she was experienced. He wondered suddenly if she or Torgai were older; women who didn't die in childbirth usually lived longer than men. Perhaps she really was the oldest and wisest.

"My lord, I'll need to examine the magic for myself," Krita replied. "I, I'd need to take Gava and Toki. And Janis; she's not old but her, she's very talented." She cut herself off abruptly, realizing that she'd started to ramble.

"Very well," Parn replied. "Anything else?"

"Yes, my lord." Krita spoke with assurance now. "We need to approach alone. You and, and the other warriors must stay well back. We can't screen you all and your thoughts would give you away to the muck dwellers."

"Very well," Parn said.

"My lord!" Kronn exclaimed in shock and horror.

Parn grabbed Kronn and shook him. "So long as I am Starlord you will obey," Parn hissed. "These muck dwellers are our enemy but they are not the Enemy. Assuming that an opponent must be the same as a previous one is a mistake unworthy of a warrior of your caliber, Kronn." Parn tossed him away as if ridding himself of garbage. "Krita, assemble your team and proceed with your mission. Everyone else, form on me."

"What are our orders, my lord?" Hesai pointedly inquired

"We will now recite verses eleven through twenty-nine of the Fourth Triad of Vanaclar," Parn replied. "It will calm our minds and make it easier for Krita to do her job."

Amazingly enough the poem did calm Parn's mind- but it did not weaken his resolve. Quite the opposite, in fact; recalling the Tribe's ancient glories tempered his will, hardening and strengthening it the way quenching strengthens steel. Whatever happened, these muck dwellers would remember the Tribe's coming for as long as their species existed.

Commander Jackson felt herself drifting off and blinked herself awake. She and Captain Raskilov had stood watch back to back ever since Asimov begun her broadcasts and that had been almost a month ago. Maintaining the ship at such a high level of readiness was tough on it, the crew, and especially the captain and executive officer. But he would hold up; she'd worked with him for many years and they knew each other more intimately than lovers. Never in her life had Aletys met someone with a stronger will than Aleksandr Raskilov. If a thing were physically possible he would do it- and she wouldn't have risked money on anything that supposedly wasn't physically possible. And if he could do it, she could. Aletys Jackson's will wasn't weak or she wouldn't have become Aleksandr Raskilov's executive officer. She would die in the command chair before failing her captain.

Suddenly Aletys twisted around, looking over her left shoulder. The hairs on the back of her neck stood up; she felt the press of unfriendly eyes, watching her over carefully aligned gun sights. Her distant ancestors had felt that same sensation while they played their deadly game of hide and seek with lions on the African veldt. What had once been one of the engineering status panels now displayed medical information relayed in real time from sensors implanted in Chase and each of the squadron's Skunktaurs. As a precaution against combat loss no more than two Skunktaurs rode on each ship, except for the Asimov were Chase also travelled. Aleksandr hadn't cared for that idea but he allowed it because Chase insisted; something to do with the focus of attention being there. If anything happened to them every ship in the squadron would know it instantly. Commander Jackson clearly understood the implications of this arrangement. Chase and the Skunktaurs served the function of canaries in a coal mine; most likely they would signal an impending attack by their death or incapacitation. That Captain Raskilov would risk his own son in such a position only increased her respect for him. Aleksandr had trained Chase to do what was necessary no matter what the risk... and Aleksandr had the strength to let Chase do it, no matter what the personal cost.

The readings looked normal, or at least as normal as they ever were. Chase's technique for maintaining the gestalt was... interesting, to say the least. Sometimes individuals had to be given intravenous fluids to prevent dehydration. Aletys returned her attention to the main screen, thinking of the combat records from Silver City. If the Stariionae were coming the squadron would be under attack by now. She shifted to ease soreness in her back and buttocks and relaxed, as much as was possible under the circumstances.

Halfway through the twenty-seventh verse Krita returned. "My lord," she announced, "I know how to defeat the muck dweller mind mage."

"Then are we going to attack now?" Kronn asked excitedly.

"My lord-" Krita interjected hurriedly.

Parn waved for silence. "Continue," he directed, pointing at Krita.

"My lord, I have a proposal," Krita said. "Even with all the women together I can't screen all of us. If we attack in formation at the very least their mind mage will see us coming. But this mage, she's powerful and skilled but I get the feeling that she lacks combat experience. I could mask a small strike force, us women and perhaps four men."

"What good will that do?" Hesai demanded.

"Let her finish," Torgai commanded a half second before Parn could.

"I've studied the shells and I think I know a way to disable them temporarily," Krita continued. "They travel by wrapping themselves in little bubbles of normal space. The way they do it takes a lot of energy; each shell has a heart in the middle of its body that generates the power. The, the organs that make the bubble are outside the shell, though. Big, um, blood vessels carry the energy from the heart to the organs. Obviously they're well protected but there's a way we can get at them. Sarlen found a muck dweller shell- a smaller one, of course- and when he side-stepped into its bubble the bubble popped. I didn't think about it at the time but when the bubble popped excess, ah, blood spilled out into space. While those orifices are open-"

"A good marksman could shoot them and damage the blood vessels," Torgai finished for her.

"Exactly," Krita agreed. "With the blood vessels damaged blood can't get from the heart to the organs and the shell's stuck in normal space."

"How big are these holes?" Parn asked.

"About so big, my lord." Krita held her thumb and forefinger about a meter apart.

"Even a good marksman would have to be sitting practically on top of them to make that shot," Kronn commented.

"Which is why Krita recommend a small strike force," Parn said. "Once the shells are stunned it won't matter that the muck dwellers know we're there. Their shells will be scattered and won't be able to support one another. We can attack and destroy them piecemeal. The men will be myself, Torgai, Hesai, and Kronn. Krita will assign flights."

"Flight Four will be Azaria, Janis, and Kronn," Krita said. "Flight Three will be Toki, Khalia, and Hesai. Flight Two will be Gava and Torgai. Flight One will be myself and the Starlord. We will attack as follows: Flights One and Two will attack the largest shell. Flight Three will attack the first of the medium sized shells and Flight Four the other. Once those three shells are disabled the rest of the Tribe will attack the others."

"There you have it," Parn concluded. "Delis, you have command until I return. Split your warriors into three groups. Assign two to attack the smallest shells and hold the third in reserve. The last shell, the one presumably with a child on board, we will save for the last." Parn's voice took on a melodic lilt; he felt blood surging in his veins like at the moment of sexual climax. The thought of slaying those who had taken his daughter filled him with a hot rush of pleasure more intense than any mere act of love could ever be.

On board a ship in deep space words like day and night meant nothing but millions of years of evolution would not be denied. Terrans- and their derivatives, like Chakats and other Recombinant species- were diurnal creatures. To remain healthy they needed cycles of light and dark, even ones arbitrarily specified by a ship's chronometer. According to the Isaac Asimov's master chronometer the time approached midnight. Swiftsure should be fast asleep but shi wasn't. Shi lay in a bed as comfortable as anything one might find in a planetside hotel but it might as well have been solid granite for the good it did. Since retiring shi'd done nothing but toss and turn.

Swiftsure threw off the covers and got up. Trying to sleep left hir exhausted. "What are you doing right now, my love?" Swiftsure murmured, sliding hir hands over the rumpled bedding. "Are you laying awake at night, thinking about me?"

The irony of hir situation was such that Swiftsure couldn't help chuckling grimly. Six years ago hir sometime lover Sundown left Chakona on this very same ship. The nature of the departure was sudden and unexpected, not even allowing for goodbyes. It was a First Contact situation... and Swiftsure's translator program was what propelled Sundown into the center of things. It wasn't at all unlikely that Sundown might have slept in this very bed. Swiftsure wondered but shi'd never worked up the courage to ask. Shi leaned against the bulkhead; hir shoulders shuddered with silent sobs and tears forced their way from hir tightly shut eyes. If only I'd known what was happening when Sundown called me and asked for access to the program. But the events set in motion that fateful day not only took Sundown away but gave hir an opportunity to do what shi'd always dreamed of doing. Was it fair to take that away from hir?

Swiftsure marched out of the room. Shi wasn't going anywhere; being in motion was just less unpleasant that doing nothing.

The first thing Swiftsure ever heard about anything being amiss was when a Commander Nightshade of the Security Force appeared in hir office. When Nightshade explained the situation Swiftsure almost fainted. Somehow an alien starship had managed to land on Chakona undetected. Sundown met the crew while hiking in Dorado Park. Shi took them back to hir home in Chases-My-Tail and talked to them using Swiftsure's translator. Then the aliens decided to return home. They evaded the Security Force- inflicting damage on property and personnel in the process- and fled into space. All of which would have been fine in Swiftsure's book if they hadn't taken Sundown with them.

Swiftsure smacked the corridor wall with hir fist. Ranthe and Mayfurr weren't bad people. They didn't even look like aliens; on the streets of Berdoovia anyone seeing them would take them for Voxxans. With a little help- which Sundown could probably have provided- they might have spent their lives on Chakona with none the wiser. But they wanted to go home... and Swiftsure couldn't bring hirself to blame them for that. Nor was it their fault that a spacewarp rift left them thousands of light years from home, beyond hope of returning in their small vessel. They came from a militaristic society and feared- not without reason- how they'd be treated by Chakonan authorities. They might have turned themselves in anyway had not the Asimov appeared on the scene, stopping by Chakona on her way to a mission in uncharted space. They saw their chance and took it. They didn't force Sundown to come, shi refused to leave when they took off. Without hir along to explain to Captain Walker things might have gone badly indeed. Instead there was a much publicized First Contact, for which Sundown received a generous share of the credit. But on top of that Sundown became an unofficial ambassador and hir duties kept hir away for long stretches.

Now Swiftsure was the one going away. Bundled off without so much as a by-your-leave on a mission that would separate hir from hir lover for... forever, if things went particularly badly. "I'm so sorry, Sundown," Swiftsure mumbled, wiping tears from hir eyes. "I blamed you for going. I even... hated you. I never... I never understood how much it hurt. To go off into the unknown, leaving everything- and everyone- behind, not knowing when you'll return-"

Swiftsure froze. Shi stood in the lounge, which at this time of day was empty except for Chase in, in his recliner. He stared blankly into space, quivering like always-

Chase wasn't masturbating. The fingers of both hands clutched the arms of his chair in a white knuckle grip. Instead of hanging slack his face twisted into a rictus of terror that turned Swiftsure's blood to ice. Shi opened hir mouth-

In a lightning quick motion Chase vaulted out of his chair and landed on Swiftsure's back. Shi let out a yelp of surprise that exploded into a horrific screech as white-hot panic exploded in hir mind. Shi took off like a bullet, pelting through corridors at a dead run, faster than shi would have imagined possible even on an open track. Chase rode hir with superlative skill, keeping his seat on hir bare back even as shi bounced almost horizontally from walls and bulkheads. Shi dove headlong through a narrow hatchway, straight into a mass of netting. The door slammed behind hir and the floor dropped out from under hir like an elevator with its cable cut. Swiftsure screamed and screamed as reality rent itself apart around hir.

Captain Raskilov slept soundly. He felt keenly a temptation to stay awake all the time but he resisted it. He couldn't possibly stay awake for the all of the weeks and months this expedition would demand and at the same time remain in competent command. Success depended on him being at the top of his form and that demanded proper rest so he slept. Commander Jackson was perfectly capable of overseeing things in his absence; he'd hand raised her from a junior lieutenant just for that reason. One day she'd get a ship of her own; Raskilov hoped it would be a Changi class. He'd miss her sorely and have to devote himself to the arduous task of training her replacement but she was a capable officer and deserved to advance.

Something burst into Aleksandr's unconscious mind, blasting away his formless dreams. His conscious mind would call it a scream but it didn't come to him through any of his regular senses. It was a jumble of emotion injected directly into his mind: fear, loss, hopelessness, and desperate longing all rolled together.

"Chase!" The words exploded from Aleksandr's mouth even before his mind was fully awake. He'd felt almost exactly the same thing when Chase called out from the Psi Corps lab. This time it was far more powerful; Chase's abilities had grown. "Computer, red alert!" Aleksandr screamed as he tumbled out of bed. "We're under attack!" To himself he added a fervent prayer. Please, God, let Chase be all right!

Captain Walker rubbed his face and stifled a yawn. He knew he should sleep but when he went to bed he just tossed and turned. Dawnfire's presence would have eased his discomfit but when he was in bed shi was on duty. To keep the ship at maximum readiness they'd stood watch on watch ever since leaving Chakona.

Keith blinked rapidly to hide the tears he felt welling up. Having Dawnfire as his XO was very much a mixed blessing. He enjoyed having hir near... but shi remained inaccessible, separated from him by the requirements of discipline. In some ways that hurt worse than having hir off somewhere on the other side of a galaxy. He saw hir every day- but he couldn't touch. He couldn't hold hir hand, stroke hir cheek, or give hir a tender kiss goodnight. Not for the first time Keith wished that he and shi were just and ordinary couple with ordinary lives. A mortgage, an office job, kids... they'd be together all the time and no one would give a damn if they decided to kiss in public.

Maybe it's time to retire. Keith had given twenty years to Starfleet and regretted not a moment- except that for many of them he and Dawnfire had to consummate their love by hyper-wave. He wanted to spend the years remaining to him with Dawnfire. Then the doubts came. Retiring early would severely reduce his pension; he'd probably have to make up the lack with a regular job, at least for a while. Especially if they had kids. Genetic incompatibilities weren't an obstacle in that regard; they could always adopt if nothing else. Would Dawnfire be willing to give up hir career? Shi had an excellent chance of getting a command of hir own, which shi richly deserved. But it would take hir away yet again. He clenched his jaw to keep from cursing. Not at fate or an uncaring universe but his own weakness. He loved Dawnfire dearly- but he couldn't bear giving up command of the Asimov to be with hir. So far he'd managed to hold the two in uneasy balance; he couldn't shake the conviction that one day he'd be forced to choose. And however he tried he just couldn't decide which he'd take-

"Sir, Escape Pod #19A just launched," Lieutenant Nagai announced.

Keith turned to ask a question when the shrill of alarms diverted his attention. Chase's medical readouts had flatlined and all the Skunktaurs seemed to be experiencing violent physical upheaval. "Red alert!" Keith shouted, slamming a button on the arm of his chair so hard the plastic bezel cracked. He wasn't tired, not even slightly. The moment he'd waited for all these weeks- all his life- was at hand.

"Let it go!" Krita hissed as the mini-shell leapt away. The strike formation was almost in position; at this range if anyone so much as hiccuped the game was up and they'd all die, blasted into radioactive dust by the muck dwellers. Parn stuck to Krita's wing like his life depended on it because he knew full well it did.

"Now!" Krita shouted. She, Parn, Gava, and Torgai side-stepped into the bubble surrounding the largest shell.

Lijang wasn't a sixteen year old container ship with a poorly maintained drive. Her systems were the best Federation science could produce and maintained by the most capable people Captain Raskilov could find. Her six warp reactors produced twenty percent more power than the ship could possibly use and had red-line overload levels eight percent higher than that. Even the sudden addition of nearly sixteen hundred tons of mass almost wasn't enough. The reactors ramped up to meet the demand but the main energizer couldn't transfer the power quite fast enough. With the main conduits on the verge of rupturing from overpressure it switched into emergency shutdown mode, scramming the reactors and opening the waste gates to let excess plasma bleed off. Lijang exploded into normal space, tumbling majestically end over end and spewing plumes of sun-hot plasma from all three nacelles.

Parn screamed as the collapsing warp field caught him in a riptide of forces almost too much even for his immensely strong body to endure. Krita spun away, her body covered with hairline fractures spurting plumes of blood. Torgai wobbled and fell out of formation, wreathed in flickering trails of re-materializing matter as he tried repeatedly to purge his already empty feeding pouches. By sheer force of will Parn shook off the brutal nausea. Gava wavered drunkenly but stayed with him; they still had a chance. Parn fired at the open gate on the starboard nacelle. Only one of his four beams hit; the others cut furrows in Lijang's armor, which was twice as hard and four times as thick as that protecting the hapless Valaparaiso. In the end Lijang's own engines did Parn's work for him; his one hit scored the conduit, weakening it. Plasma burst the weak spot, fusing drive coils and splitting the conduit all the way back to the energizer. The hands of the Ancestors must have guided Gava's aim, though; all four of her beams hit dead on. Lijang's port nacelle glowed as plasma blasted through it, vaporizing everything in its path. Suddenly the entire nacelle tore away as its supports melted through; plasma spewed from the shattered strut like arterial blood gushing from the stump of a severed limb.

"Torgai, come on!" Parn shouted, grabbing Krita and side-stepping away. Nothing remained of Lijang's main energizer but a fused mass of virulently radioactive wreckage. Nearly a hundred of her compliment lay dead or dying, cut down by flying debris, incinerated by venting plasma, or cooked by Hellish radiation. Even so she was only wounded, not dead; already backup systems were coming on line and alternate watch personnel rushing to their stations. Gava grabbed Torgai and side-stepped away only an instant before Lijang's targeting scanners locked on.

Toki, Khalia, and Hesai's attack fell apart before it ever started. Toki dropped out of formation, retching uncontrollably, as Biscay's warp field collapsed around her. Khalia followed Toki; only Hesai arrived on target but he never got a chance to fire. Biscay was the oldest ship in her class; Though lovingly maintained the years had taken their toll on her machinery. The stress of emergency shutdown shattered her port conduit right where it joined the main energizer. Plasma vented into the engine casing, vaporizing the containment bulkhead. Thermal stress ruptured the Unit Two warp reactor. Spilled fuel elements reacted; Hesai and Biscay's crew went to their Ancestors together, instantaneously incinerated as Biscay went up like a miniature super nova.

Hawke's drive survived the catastrophic shutdown. Azaria, Janis, and Kronn arrived exactly in position. Azaria's power beams struck near but not on the portside waste gate; only one of Janis' beams even hit the ship, nowhere near its intended target. Kronn, laughing maniacally, launched a missile. The females side-stepped away; Kronn watched as his warhead tracked in and by some miracle breasted the stream of outflowing plasma to detonate inside the starboard nacelle. A shock wave raced up the conduit straight into the main energizer; overpressure ruptured it and both warp reactors. Kronn side-stepped away only barely in time, screaming horribly as plasma stripped away most of his skin.

"For the Ancestors, attack!" Parn screamed. His blood boiled with white-hot lust. He was a warrior of the Tribe; he existed to fight. At no other time did he feel so truly alive.

"Shields up," Lt. Kingsley announced. "All weapons on line."

"All sections report at b- b- battle stations," Lt. Commander K'ress stammered. She saw Lijang, Biscay, and Hawke disappear from the tactical display in less time than it took to finish her announcement. Half the squadron's number and three quarters of its firepower, gone in the blink of an eye.

"Steady there," Captain Walker admonished, his tone firm but quiet, calm but unquestionably in command. The crew didn't see the sweat beading his brow or that his mouth was suddenly dry as paper. "Stand by all weapons," he added, noting that Lt. Kingsley's hands quivered over the controls. "Open a channel to Mactan and Cumberland."

Dawnfire burst in from the captain's ready room, still pulling on hir tunic. Shi froze halfway across the floor, eyes searching the tactical board. Keith felt hir consternation; shi was trying to figure out where the other three ships were. Shi looked at him-

"Number one." Captain Walker didn't actually look at hir and kept his voice cooly dispassionate. It had the desired effect, reminding Dawnfire where- and who- shi was. Without a word shi straightened hir tunic and moved to stand at hir captain's right, hir face calm and composed. Hir tail continued to twitch, as with a life of its own.

Two windows opened on the main view screen, Captain Vasher on the right, Captain Venner on the left. "With Lijang out of action and as senior captain I am assuming operational command of this squadron," Walker began without preamble. "You are hereby ordered to break formation and-"

"Enemy warships!" someone screamed from behind Captain Venner. He turned to respond, his words lost as his image hashed, broke up, and vanished. Mactan dropped from the tactical.

"-proceed at best possible speed to the nearest Federation outpost and report," Captain Walker continued as it nothing had happened.

The tactical lit up. Two warships appeared in close proximity to Asimov, one above and one below. Even as Captain Walker drew breath to speak the bridge wobbled around him, colors softening and streaming from the room's angles and edges like Aurora Australis. Suddenly he remembered the first time he'd ever seen it, during a camping trip with his parents on Stewart Island. One night he got up to go to the bathroom and the whole southern sky danced with swaying streamers of pale light. He stood and stared at it for hours and hours....

Keith blinked, shaking his head. He felt like he's just woke up. The bridge sprang back into sharp focus; alarms shrilled but the tactical was empty. "Report!" he snapped.

"Warp system offline, Main energizer offline, B reactor scrammed," Lt. Commander K'ress reported. "Shields and weapons online with reserve power. Chief Kannain predicts two hours to restore warp."

"Well, then, this is it," Captain Walker said, his face splitting in a demonic grin. "First Contact." He glanced at Dawnfire; hir face remained calm but hir eyes told him that shi understood the situation. Somehow the Stariionae had defeated Captain Raskilov's telepaths and launched a sneak attack. Without warp power Asimov was not only dead in space but deaf, dumb, and blind. They couldn't even negotiate; without the drive they couldn't generate signals the Stariionae could hear. If the Stariionae chose to attack, for the F.S.S. Isaac Asimov and her crew two hours would be longer than the rest of their lives.

"Sir?" Captain Vasher exclaimed as Captain Walker's face hashed up and vanished. Asimov disappeared from the tactical. Cumberland was all alone in the night.

Sarah Vasher had never commanded a ship in an actual fleet action.The Balmoral class was meant to interdict pirates and smugglers. Sarah's training centered around that assumption. She'd fought, yes, but mostly against small, comparatively weak vessels that relied mainly on stealth for protection and preyed on victims weaker than themselves. The Stariionae looked like star fighters but because of their speed and power Captain Raskilov rated them as strike cruisers. Five of them had the same combat rating as Cumberland. Somewhere out there, invisible until the instant they struck, were between twenty and twenty-five of them. Both of Cumberland's Skunktaurs were dead from massive brain hemorrhages, eliminating any further possibility of telepathic tracking.

All this flashed through Sarah's mind in the blink of an eye. She wasn't a coward; no one unwilling to risk their ship- or their life- in the line of duty rose to command even a small warship. But one critical aspect of her command training had never been developed by real world experience. What does a person do when any action can only end in death? Never before- except for a few exercises in training- had she faced a situation where even if she did everything exactly right it wouldn't be enough to save her ship, her crew, or herself. Her instructors at the Academy had taken Draconian steps to make sure she understood the effects of fear on a chain of command but it had been far too long since she'd felt the icy claws of terror ripping at her guts. Her expression remained calm but all color drained from her face. Still, she wasn't a person not to act in the face of fear. "Chief-" she began. Arm the self destruct sequence, she'd meant to say.

"I'm on it!" Chief Bell growled. He couldn't sleep so he'd decided to stand watch; luck of the draw placed him on the bridge. He assumed Captain Vasher was ordering him to do something to prevent the Stariionae from scramming Cumberland's warp drive. After all, that's the order he'd have given if he'd been in the hot seat. And though it had been no more than a dozen or so seconds since Lijang went off the scope he thought he knew how. His hands flew over the controls in a blur, reconfiguring Cumberland's power system. After watching Asimov disappear he'd realized that the Stariionae attack hinged on destabilizing a ship's warp field by suddenly adding a huge amount of mass. There wasn't any way to stop that; physical limits restricted how fast the energizer could transfer power. But there was a way around it: bringing the secondary energizer and conduits on line before the mains overloaded, in fact using the overload to fast start the whole system.

Captain Vasher would have called the scheme utterly insane. One mistake, during setup or execution, and Cumberland would end up like Biscay and Hawke. And so much of the setup depended on factors impossible to anticipate, such as how exactly the warp field collapsed and when the mains actually shut down. Howard Bell wasn't insane and he wasn't the sort to take chances; he'd passed up several promotions to keep a "hands on" engineering position and Cumberland was his third ship. He knew her as intimately as any lover; he'd personally overseen delivery and installation of her machinery at Utopia Planitia shipyards on Mars. He'd spent endless hours tuning, tweaking, and fussing until the whole power system felt like an extension of his own body. He knew, in a way that transcended science and moved into religious fervor, that the systems into which he had poured so much of his heart and soul would not fail in this moment of direst need. As he a stabbed a control, executing his modifications and placing the lives of three hundred and seventy-five people, as well as his own, in the hands of Fate, his face lit up in an expression of transcendent joy.

"Blood!" Parn exclaimed, more in surprise than anything else. The remaining shell's bubble popped so easily he barely noticed it. He fired as the waste gates opened, hitting dead on target. Though not quite the largest this shell had four pods. Not a problem, though; two pods on each side joined a single strut and the waste gates were located there. Parn took one side, Torgai the other, and that was that.

Shenna and Kagan streaked in to take out the last shell, the other small one. They side-stepped in dead on target but even as they fired the shell took off again. Shenna and Kagan didn't even get time to scream; the shell's re-forming bubble did what its weapons couldn't, rending them apart and scattering them through space in a spray of gore.

"Blood," Parn repeated, more seriously this time. There wasn't anyone in position to intercept and the shell retreated too fast to catch. These thrice-cursed muck dwellers are far too clever by half, he thought darkly. "Let it go!" he shouted when several warriors gave chase. Three shells remained at his mercy, the two largest and the other small one. Of those only one really mattered- and it could wait until other, more immediate concerns were dealt with.

Kronn moaned continually. Gava and Khalia tried to help but there wasn't anything to do; plasma had stripped him right down to the muscle. He couldn't possibly live much longer and every second excruciating agony.

"M- My lord!" Kronn gasped as Parn drifted close. He couldn't move his arms; ossified blood glued them to his body. "P- P- Please-"

"Yes, I know," Parn said quietly. "You've earned your place with the Ancestors. Go to them with my blessing. Sing to them of your Tribe's great deeds, as we will sing of yours."

"Th- thank you-"

"Don't try to talk," Parn said, laying his hand on Kronn's quivering, horribly seared flesh. Oozing blood cemented his fingers; he had to peel them loose. "Torgai, Garan-" Parn glanced around. "Krita, are you all right?"

"Yes, my lord," Krita replied. "It's just- just a surface wound."

"Right. You and Gava, too," Parn added.

"My lord?" Gava exclaimed, startled.

"Today you are warriors," Torgai growled. "Warriors don't leave their own."

Without a word Gava and Krita formed on Parn's left, opposite Torgai and Garan. Parn sighted carefully on the center of Kronn's belly, directly over his heart. "Fire," Parn commanded. The combined beams of five warriors- even if two were actually women- blasted through Kronn's body and out the other side, killing him instantly.

"Now you can do the women's work," Parn said. "Cut and dress the body. We'll eat what we can now and carry only what we absolutely have to." He looked again at the three stranded shells. No doubt their muck dweller occupants were working frantically to repair them but he figured that would take some time. "Form on me," he commanded, waiting until everyone took their place. "My friends, one of our brave warriors has left us to be with the Ancestors," he began. "Kronn was brave, giving his life so that the Seed of his Ancestors may continue."

"Kronn is brave," the Tribe chorused.

"We add Kronn to the roster of our great Ancestors," Parn continued. "Though he is no longer with us in flesh he stays with us forever in our hearts."

"We remember Kronn," came the reply.

"When I leave my flesh and go to the Core I will sing of Kronn to the Ancestors."

"We give our beloved Kronn to the Core, where the sky is forever filled with light," the others responded.

For a moment Parn said nothing. He would give the eulogy three more times, once each for Hesai, Kagan, and Shenna. Then it would be time to deal with the muck dwellers as they deserved.

"What are they waiting for?" Dawnfire muttered, frowning at the tactical.

"Sir, should I ask Swiftsure to start up the translator?" Goldstrype asked.

Keith shook his head. "No. We'll be extraordinarily lucky if Chief Kannain gets the drive working at all." Let Swiftsure spend in peace what will probably be the last few minutes of hir life.

Dawnfire slipped hir hand into Keith's. He knew he should discourage hir but he couldn't bring himself to do it.

"Incoming!" Lt. Kingsley called as the tactical lit up. Twenty ships, in perfect formation as if passing for review.

"Steady," Captain Walker said. Dawnfire's hand almost crushed his. Maybe they wouldn't attack-

"Missiles away!" Lt. Kingsley shouted. The tactical blossomed with contacts; the Stariionae seemed to be unloading every warhead they had.

"Open fire, all weapons!" Keith ordered. Even as he spoke the Stariionae formation broke apart. Suddenly space around the Asimov lit up with ravening beams of energy; no less that four found their mark- but instead of rending and slashing they seemed to splash across their targets like spray from a hose. Except in one case, where a glancing hit sheared a collop from the front of a wing. Each of the four Stariionae vanished- only to reappear a second later. The deck shuddered as a sleet of bolts tore into Asimov's side. With only backup power her shields and weapons operated at only about fifty percent efficiency. A brace of torpedoes leapt from Asimov's launchers. In an incredible display of marksmanship the Stariionae shot down each and every one.

"Aft shields failing!" Lt. Commander K'ress shouted. Asimov couldn't turn fast enough to keep the Stariionae from focusing their firepower.

Asimov scored another hit. A Stariionae spun away, sheared almost in half, blood and viscera fountaining into space.

"Emergency power to aft shields!" Captain Walker ordered.

Only fourteen attackers remained. The others- except for one- hadn't been destroyed, they'd simply retreated and not returned.

The deck shuddered under Captain Walker's feet. Red warnings flashed on the engineering status panel.

"Backup energizer out of action," Goldstrype reported. "Shields offline."

"Weapons offline," Lt. Kingsley reported.

"Maneuver system offline," Lt. Legaspi reported.

"Life support on emergency power," Lt. Commander K'ress reported. "Hull breach, C and D decks aft."

Captain Walker got stiffly to his feet. The Stariionae drew off, reforming at leisure. They knew Asimov couldn't attack them. They'd be back to finish what they started, Keith had no doubt. Dozens of hits to Asimov's stern had opened her engine casing to space; plasma vented from B Reactor, her primary and secondary energizers were piles of slag, and she'd lost so many drive coils Keith didn't think that even Kannain's magic touch could ever bring the system back to life. Of six secondary reactors only one still produced power and gaps in the distribution grid meant it only supplied a few midship decks. So many casualties had arrived in sick bay that Dr. Sathitet was stacking them in the halls. Keith closed his eyes; everyone on the bridge saw the tears rolling down his cheeks, his hand clasped tightly in Dawnfire's. "Jettison the log," he said. "Signal all hands to abandon ship."

"Dear, dear, dear," Fyodor muttered as he scurried along in his night shirt. He'd awoken deathly ill and retching; at first he'd thought it was a reaction to the vodka. Then he noticed the red alert sirens and realized the ship had crashed out of warp. He went to the bathroom and cleaned up. While in the 'fresher he felt the deck shudder and saw the lights flicker. He felt a spurt of icy fear; the ship was taking damage. But wait; nothing to worry about. The rest of the squadron would surely come to their aid.

"Abandon ship, abandon ship, abandon ship," the computer said. "All hands to lifeboat stations. This is not a drill. Abandon ship, abandon ship-"

Fyodor smiled grimly. It seemed Captain Raskilov's brilliant plan wasn't so brilliant after all.

A closed door caught Fyodor's eye. "Swiftsure!" he exclaimed, jumping out of line and hammering on the door until it opened. "Swiftsure-" he shouted, freezing in his tracks. The room was empty.

"Come on!" a nameless Caitian ensign spun Fyodor around and gave him a brusque shove. Fyodor stumbled, almost fell, caught himself, and continued on.

"Professor!" a frightened, high-pitched voice shrilled. "What's happening?"

Fyodor glanced, saw Ito's face twisted in a rictus of terror. What the Hell do you think is happening, you smarmy little git? Fyodor wanted to say, but bit it back. Dr. Janek probably hadn't ever abandoned ship in combat before. Come to think of it, rather a long time had passed since Fyodor had done this sort of thing-

An explosion seemed to tip the corridor on its side. In a cacophony of screams everyone landed in a pile on the wall. Fyodor managed to cushion his fall by ending up on top but Ito wasn't so lucky; he vanished under a pile of struggling bodies. Sharp pain in his ears warned Fyodor; he yawned hard to pop them before pressure ruptured his eardrums. He needn't have bothered; another explosion tipped the corridor again and tore away a section of wall. Beyond it was open space. As he spun out into endless night, propelled by air blowing from the breach, he actually saw the Stariionae who'd just attacked, an arrow of fire streaking across the firmament. Then he passed out from lack of oxygen and knew nothing more.

"Via!" Torgai exclaimed as the first of the mini-shells jumped free. He dodged away from them. Garan shot one, blasting it to bits.

"Wait!" Parn shouted. The mini-shells didn't have weapons or drives, they were just- just pods. He caught one, turning it over in his hand. "Forget them. They're not important now." He tossed it away. "You three, here." he pointed. The indicated warriors swooped in, firing. Another section of the shell's structure floated free.

Krita caught a mini-shell and examined it. "So that's a muck dweller," she marvelled.

"Let me see!" Janis exclaimed, shoving in close.

"Get your own," Krita snapped.

"Keep firing!" Parn shouted, grabbing a chunk of the shell's hull and tearing it away with his bare hands. "If there's a child in here, by the Ancestors I'm gonna find it even if I have to rip this thrice-cursed machine into bite-sized chunks!" He didn't really believe there was but by now he really didn't care.

"My lord!" Delis called. He'd peeled open one of the shell's cargo pods. "Look what I found!"

"Blood and martyrs!" Torgai hissed.

Parn lifted out a chunk of what could only be part of the ossified corpse of a person. His hand shook. By all that's holy, they killed her to keep us from taking her back-

"By the Ancestors," Torgai breathed. "It's Roso!"

Parn shook himself. Now that he looked the corpse was obviously male and too big for the child they'd heard. "Poor bastard," he whispered. "Keep cutting!" he shouted. "I want to see what else of ours they have!"

With great enthusiasm the warriors cut and tore until nothing remained of the shell but a skeleton. Other than Roso's corpse it contained nothing of interest.

"I'd bet my chance at salvation that one of you thrice-damned muck dwellers knows where my daughter is," Parn said, catching one of the mini-shells. "And thrice-damn me if I don't wish I could actually talk to you." He tossed the mini-shell from hand to hand. "Then I could ask you. And you would tell me. Oh, yes you would." He closed his hand; the mini-shell collapsed, its atmosphere- and soft contents- spurting out between his fingers.

Keith had his arms wrapped tightly around Dawnfire and hirs around him. Even if anyone were disposed to complain he had an excuse; the escape pods weren't especially large and with the entire bridge crew- and more- crammed into one space was tight. Through the tiny view port Keith watched as the Stariionae stripped Asimov like butchers dressing a carcass.

"They seem to be leaving the escape pods alone," Keith commented for the benefit of all who couldn't see.

"But... why are they doing it?" Lt. L'Clerce asked in a quavering voice. She sat hunched in a ball, shivering.

"Looking for their baby, I'd guess," Goldstrype commented, gently stroking Marisa's head and shoulders.

Dawnfire murmured something, hir face buried against Keith's shoulder. "I'm sorry?" he asked.

Dawnfire looked up, hir eyes brimming with tears. "I'm sorry," shi whispered. "I... thought we'd have time. I- should have been with you more when- when there was time."

"I know." Keith cradled Dawnfire's head against his neck, gently nuzzling hir face. "I... felt the same way."

"What's... going to happen, sir?" Lt. Kingsley asked. He fought to control his voice; he was terrified.

"If they don't find what they want I expect they'll go away," Keith replied.

"Probably chase after Cumberland," Goldstrype put in.

"Then one of the other ships'll pick us up," Keith continued. If any of them are in any better shape than us.

The pod lurched violently; with a chorus of yells everyone went piling over on one side. Keith dragged himself back to the view port and looked. One of the Stariionae had picked them up. It was a big one, easily the size of a jumbo jet. Its hull glimmered with rainbow light, hauntingly beautiful except where ugly brown scarring disrupted the pattern.

"Is that a boy or a girl?" Lt. Legaspi asked.

"A boy, I think," Keith responded. The Stariionae's lines were sharper and more angular than what he recalled of Star. What convinced him was the way it passed the pod from hand to hand; that seemed like a masculine affectation.

When the pod began to distort with a groan of stressed metal everyone screamed except Keith and Dawnfire. "I love you!" Dawnfire called, kissing Keith full on the mouth. Keith closed his eyes; he couldn't see anyway through the tears.

Parn opened his hand, flipping away a mangled glob of twisted metal and crushed organic material. The warriors took that as a sign and shot or crushed the mini-shells until not a one remained.

"Obviously they have my daughter stashed elsewhere," Parn said briskly. "Now, that shell that got away... if it were me I'd be running for help. Perhaps we can't catch it but we can follow. Form on me."

The Tribe formed and side-stepped away, leaving only the impersonal stars as witness to the carnage and destruction they'd wrought.

Captain Vasher groaned. Vomit caked her mouth and the front of her tunic though she didn't remember throwing up. Only half the bridge lights worked and the main screen showed only jagged swatches of apparently random color. An unpleasant, acrid smell filled the air; apparently she wasn't the only one who'd thrown up. "Report," she croaked. Stomach acid stripped hir throat.

"We're under way," Lt. Sands reported in a barely recognizable voice. "Warp... seven point six three."

"Chief?" Vasher swiveled her chair because at the moment she felt like she'd throw up again if she twisted her head.

"Uh..." Chief Bell pushed himself upright. "I... I jimmied the drive to, to counter what the Stariionae were doing. I... I guess it worked."

"Good," Vasher replied, turning back to face forward. If she looked half as bad as Bell did she was glad she couldn't see herself. The chief engineer looked about two days late for his own funeral. She was also pretty sure her last order hadn't been to do what Bell had done... but sometimes it's better to be lucky than good. "What's our course?"

"Sir, we are..." Lt. Jenner seemed to be having difficulty reading her instruments. She blinked rapidly, moving her face in and out, then wiped spattered vomit from the console. "We're on return course to Chakona."

Sarah scrubbed her face. Her body ached, her throat burned, her head throbbed. She felt like she'd just woke up after a week long bender. She really hadn't expected to still be alive but since she was there were duties. "Damage report."

"Weapons, shields, maneuver system, hyperwave, and sensors are offline," Lt. Sands reported. "Primary, secondary, and tertiary power grids read zero. Life support is on emergency power. All power is out on B, D, and E decks. Casualties reported on all decks."

"Scramble the emergency medical teams and damage control parties," Vasher ordered. "Chief?"

"Reactor A is scrammed and can't be safely restarted," Bell replied. "Main energizer damaged beyond repair. Secondary energizer at sixty-five percent. Primary plasma conduits ruptured on both sides-"

"Then how are we under way?" Vasher couldn't help but exclaim.

Bell smiled apologetically. "By routing all power through the secondary conduits and disabling the safety interlocks to prevent shutdown."

"I see." Captain Vasher settled back in her chair. "Can you restore the transceiver or sensors?"

"Not without shutting down," Bell replied. "And... if I did that I don't think it would start up again. It's a miracle it- started up in the first place."

You mean its a miracle it didn't go super-critical and blow us all to kingdom come, Vasher thought. "I see," she said aloud. Right now they were leading the Stariionae straight back to Chakona but changing course meant tweaking an already precariously balanced system. Cumberland could end up dead in space, waiting helplessly until the Stariionae came for her. Without communications she couldn't warn Starfleet or communicate with approach control. "Ready all message torpedoes for launch," she said. "Target one on every Starfleet base within range. Send the log... and a message I'll record on my ready room." Sarah stood- or tried to; halfway up her knees buckled and she fell heavily. When Lt. Sands got up to help his captain he ended up doubled over his chair, retching. "Back to your stations!" Sarah croaked, clutching her head until the room stopped spinning. She dragged herself upright, clinging to the command chair for support, clenching her teeth against waves of nausea. "We... oughta sell tickets," she gasped. "People'd... pay money for a ride like this."

From around the bridge came a rustle of sound that, very charitably, might be called chuckles. As she looked around Sarah saw glimmers of life returning to the haggard, desperately ill faces. She smiled weakly. Maybe her pathetic attempt at humor hadn't been a total waste. Remaining upright during the handful of steps to the ready room door took all her concentration. She paused a moment to recover and suddenly noticed that all eyes were on her. With an effort she straightened up, composing her features. "The next few days are going to be... terribly hard," she began, then coughed to clear her throat. "There are... going to be questions about what happened. But I want you all to remember one thing." Unconsciously her expression hardened; even through the sickly pallor of her skin and the vomit coating her tunic a certain air of command showed through. "The Stariionae slipped one past our guard, yes. They sucker-punched us but good. And we are still here." By the last two words Captain Vasher stood on her own, not leaning against the door frame.

Lt. Sands lifted his face, sitting up his chair, fierce pride glowing in his eyes. "Starfleet," he said.

"Starfleet." Lt. Jenner picked up the chant. "Starfleet. Starfleet."

In a second they were all doing it. Captain Vasher accepted the accolade with regal dignity. Whatever she felt, they needed to see her calm, composed, and in command. And as the chanting continued, damned if she didn't start believing it herself.

Captain Raskilov sat in his chair, staring forward, saying nothing. He didn't need to shout orders; Lijang's crew knew their jobs and were doing them to the best of their ability. He served them best by standing back and letting them work.

"Sir." A figure moved up by Captain Raskilov's chair and saluted. "Warp power is restored." Lieutenant Gina Hardley was a small, delicately built person with soft, Mandarin features. She'd become Lijang's chief engineer because her three superiors were dead or incapacitated.

"Excellent work, Chief," Captain Raskilov said, glancing at his acting chief engineer, then at the master chronometer. This young woman had marshaled the tattered remains of her department and tamed the seething Hell Lijang's engineering spaces had become in slightly less that two hours. "As Task Force commander I hereby issue you field promotion to Lieutenant Commander."

"Thank you, sir!" Gina glowed with pride.

"Sound maneuvering stations," Captain Raskilov ordered briskly. "Sensors, report."

"The board is clear except for two kiloton masses, both sub-luminal," Lt. Falara nal Hendass, Lijang's electronic warfare specialist, reported. "We're also picking up a life pod beacon."

"One life pod?" Captain Raskilov asked.

"Yes, sir. Only one."

"Launch a shuttle to recover it," Raskilov said. "Plot a course to intercept the nearest sub-luminal mass. All stations will remain at red alert."

One of Lijang's three warp pods hadn't sustained any damage at all. Patching the power system so it would produce a stable, sustainable warp field was problematical. If Lijang could reliably operate on one nacelle she'd only have had one to start with.

"Course laid in," Commander Jackson reported. "All stations report ready."

"Execute," Captain Raskilov directed.

The bridge blurred for a second as the field built up but otherwise Lijang jumped to warp without a hitch. Only a few minutes passed before they dropped out again, with even less disruption.

"It's the Mactan, sir," Lt. Falara reported. "She's intact but without main power. I read emergency life support on almost all decks."

"Open a channel."

A window opened into Mactan's bridge. Technicians worked at every station; Captain Venner stood beside his command chair. His face lit with relief in a rather undignified fashion but he controlled it. "Sir, we can't say how glad we are to see you," he began.

"What's your status?" Captain Raskilov asked.

"The Stariionae spiked our warp field then shot out our plasma conduits while they were venting," Captain Venner replied. "Both reactors shut down, both energizers out of action."

"Are you in immediate danger?"

"No, sir. Emergency power is holding up. What damage we can fix is under control."


"Twelve dead, fifty-two wounded. None of the survivors are in immediate danger."

"Any sign of the Stariionae?"

"No, sir. Both our Skunktaurs are out of action; one's dead and the other went nuts. Hy's in the sick bay under sedation."

"Very good." Captain Raskilov nodded. "There's another ship nearby; we are going to check it out. When we return I'll dispatch damage control parties."

"Thank you, sir." The relief in Captain Venner's voice was almost embarrassing. But hardly surprising; being stranded in deep space was not an appealing way to die.

"Lijang out," Raskilov concluded. "Lay course to next target."

"No power," Lt. Falara reported as Lijang dropped out a second time. "No... no emergency power. No life signs."

"On screen," Raskilov ordered.

Only a person intimately familiar with them would have even recognized the twisted mass of wreckage as having once been a star ship. A cloud of floating debris masked what little remained.

"The... it was cut apart with energy beams," Lt. Falara continued, her voice catching slightly. "It looks like... the crew abandoned ship beforehand. But- the pods were all destroyed."

Captain Raskilov leaned forward. He was a person who knew ships intimately; he recognized the outline of a Verne class science vessel. It could only be the Asimov. The Stariionae had stopped her, ripped her apart, then executed her crew. "All the pods?" he asked.

"Yes, sir. All."

Captain Raskilov nodded thoughtfully. "Very well. Take us back to Mactan. Have damage control parties stand by to transfer." Absolutely nothing about his appearance or demeanor gave the slightest indication of how he felt about the outcome of his grand design... and the loss of his only son. Except perhaps Commander Jackson, closest to him both physically and emotionally. She noticed that the lines around his eyes had deepened and a portion of his left cheek occasionally twitched. She understood how much he must be hurting to reveal even that.

Swiftsure came awake with a start. In a dream shi'd been falling- and awake shi was still falling. Shi flailed frantically, trying instinctively to get hir feet pointed downward but couldn't seem to manage it. Only after becoming thoroughly entangled in netting did shi realize it wasn't just hir. Everything around hir fell with hir... which even so didn't quite convince hir hind brain that shi wasn't about to be dashed to death. As time passed and it didn't happen shi relaxed fractionally. Then another datum impinged upon hir consciousness. Someone was crying.

Given that shi occupied a box no more than four and a half meters long and maybe half that wide it took Swiftsure a remarkably long time to locate the source of the noise. Netting made of wide straps broke up the volume and moving around in freefall was a lot harder than it looked. By dragging hirself along Swiftsure finally located Chase, curled up in a ball against a view port at the far end of the box.

"Chase?" Swiftsure anchored hir forepaws in the netting and reached out to touch him.

"I failed," Chase sobbed. "I- I thought I could do it. I never met a telepath I couldn't beat. I- I tried, Swiftsure, I really did! But- but-" he blubbered incoherently. "They're all dead! And it's my fault!"

Swiftsure shifted uneasily. Chase's distress didn't do hir own peace of mind any good. "Where are we?" shi demanded.

"Don't know," Chase sniffed, wiping his nose with the palm of his hand.

"What's this box?" Swiftsure tried.

"Escape pod."

"What are we doing here?" Swiftsure remembered thinking about Sundown and waking up in a box. Everything in between was a blur.

"Dying," Chase replied.

Inexperience with micro-gravity prevented Sundown from flinging hirself at Chase in frustrated rage. "What the Hell are you talking about?"

"After the Stariionae destroy the squadron, who's gonna come pick us up?" Chase asked.

"But- But-" Swiftsure stammered.

"They hate us," Chase cut in. "You can't even imagine how much. They wrapped their cruel hate around my mind and threatened to crush me if I made a sound." He shivered violently. "There wasn't anything I could do. Their minds are hard like steel and sharp as broken glass. I- I tore myself against them until I bled and it didn't do any good!" He stared at his hands in horror as if he could see blood gushing out of them but to Swiftsure he seemed entirely uninjured, at least physically.

"What about the Skunktaurs?" Swiftsure asked.

"I kept them quiet," Chase mumbled. "So the cruel minds would let me live. I was so scared. I failed. I let everyone down!"

"How long are the supplies in this pod going to last?" Swiftsure asked, dreading the answer.

"For just us, months," Chase replied. "It's built for twenty. Humanoids, that is."

"Is there a radio?"

"There's a hyperwave beacon," Chase said. "It comes on automatically. But it's range is short."

"Well then-" Swiftsure swallowed hard to force down the icy fear rising in hir gut. "You... could call for help, right? Use your-"

"No!" Chase wailed. "I- I can't, Swiftsure! If the cruel minds find me, they- they-" he lapsed into inarticulate wailing.

Swiftsure shivered as icy terror slowly flooded hir mind. Shi felt like shi was drowning and couldn't do a thing about it. "Listen to me you smarmy little git!" shi shouted, slithering forward, grabbing Chase, and shaking him violently. "Quite frankly I don't give a rat damn about your stupid cruel minds! I am not going to spend the rest of my life in a box, waiting to run out of food and air! You are going to call for help or I am going to slap your silly ass until you do! And don't for even one second think there's a single thing you can make me feel that'd overcome me wanting to kick your hairy buttocks!"

For the first time Chase actually looked at Swiftsure. An apprehensive expression settled on his face- then he giggled, quickly breaking into all-out laughter.

"What's the matter with you?" Swiftsure demanded crossly. His reaction unnerved hir.

"I have to say I'm glad I won't have to find out if you really mean that," Chase said.

"Chengchou to life pod," a tinny voice called, seeming to come from the air. "Anybody in there? Over."

Swiftsure gobbled incoherently. "Oh by God yes!" shi shrieked. "Now get over here and get us the Hell out!"

"What the blazes?" Swiftsure exclaimed as shi stepped out onto Lijang's hangar deck. Crew members in bulky radiation suits filed in and out, carrying stretchers bearing long bundles wrapped in metallic gray cloth.

"We ran out of room in sick bay," Captain Raskilov said. "Besides, most of the corpses are so intensely radioactive they can't be safely stored there." He spoke with a detached calm that made Swiftsure's skin crawl.

"C- c-" Swiftsure stammered. Shi saw at least a hundred and more came all the time. "W- what happened?"

"The Stariionae defeated our telepaths and were thus able to take us by surprise," Captain Raskilov continued.

"But-" Swiftsure glanced back. Chase froze in the shuttle's hatchway, quivering like a leaf. Tears spilled down his cheeks; his mouth worked but only inarticulate croaks came out. His knees buckled and he slid to the deck, sobbing.

"Listen to me." Aleksandr knelt before him, taking his chin and gently forcing him to look up. "You tried something and it didn't work. There were consequences but there's always consequences, no matter what. Yes, you failed to do what you promised but you did the best you could. The people who went with you knew the risk and accepted it. If anyone is at fault it is me because the commander is always responsible." His expression altered in such a subtle way Swiftsure couldn't identify it but somehow it completely changed his demeanor. "You feel things. Fear, hate, sadness, regret... self loathing. They don't mean a thing because all the feelings in the universe won't change a thing. You have a choice. You can let your feelings destroy you or you can draw some good from what happened by resolving to learn from it and go on. What matters in the end isn't that you failed. It's that you didn't let your failure- or anything else- stop you from doing what needed to be done. Whatever you decide-" Aleksandr gently stroked Chase's cheek- "You are still my son. I love you. Nothing you do, nothing that happens, will ever change that."

Chase tried to wipe his face but couldn't because his hand shook too hard. He looked at the ranked corpses; the naked terror in his eyes made Swiftsure's stomach churn. He looked back at Aleksandr and made an effort to straighten up. "What- what do you need me to do?"

"Can you tell me where the Stariionae went?" Aleksandr asked.

"They, they went off in pursuit of another ship," Chase replied.

"If they attack us again, can you tell me they're coming?"

Chase swallowed hard. He looked dreadfully ill; for a moment Swiftsure thought he'd throw up. "Yes," he finally said. "But- only if there's some way you can... turn off my power if, if I can't- can't- resist them."

"That can be arranged." Aleksandr rose to his feet, drawing Chase with him. "We can implant you with an auto-hypo that'll release a localized neuro-inhibitor. Go see Dr. DeGraf; tell him it's top priority. Get it resolved as quickly as possible."

"I'll take care of it." Chase slipped his arms around Aleksandr, hugging him tightly. "Thanks."

"I'm glad you lived, Chase," Aleksandr replied. "Even if... all this was the price, I'm still glad."

Chase released his grip, smiled, and jogged away.

"Captain-" Swiftsure began as Caption Raskilov turned away.

"Yes?" Aleksandr turned back.

"I- you-" Swiftsure looked at Aleksandr, then after Chase. "I mean-" Hir thoughts swirled so chaotically shi couldn't form coherent sentences.

Aleksandr smiled, a grimly humorous expression. "You wonder if I really mean all that with Chase," he said. "Do I really love him, or is it that he's more useful to me well than broken? The answer, Swiftsure, is both. If left unwell not only do I lose an irreplaceable tool but he's a danger to everyone around him. And it tears at my heart. Perhaps he's shaped my feelings with gentle pressure. Perhaps I've had to say it with conviction so many times I've started to believe it. It no longer matters. As I keep telling Chase our emotions are very real, regardless of their source. I beg your leave, Shir Swiftsure. Other duties require my attention."

"Wait, please!" Swiftsure called as Aleksandr turned away again. "Is- is there a chance I could get back to Asimov and pick up my things?"

"I'm afraid not," Aleksandr replied. "Asimov, Biscay and Hawke are gone, lost with all hands. Mactan is disabled and Cumberland missing. What you see-" he gestured around the hangar- "is all that remains of the squadron."

Swiftsure's mouth worked. Hir eyes rolled up and shi collapsed in a dead faint.

Chapter 8