Pakar looked up from her self-appraisal. The sensation of… of whatever strange energies Alecha invoked was nearly spiritual. She’d never held much stock in the idea of anything more than this existence, not even after meeting Jadyn those years ago. Sure, he could do things that defied rational thought and proven science… That didn’t mean there was something else out there.
But Alecha’s healing… The experience left a warmth she’d never felt before, as though the vixen acted as a mere conduit for something greater. And it lingered. She felt renewed, energized… The stress of the day was gone.
Unfortunately, it was coming back. Alecha, kneeling on the floor, stared at Tarioshi sleeping in the hoverchair — her gaze clearly transfixed on Tari’s second tail. Why that particular appendage was back, Pakar didn’t know. But the word, ‘kshorahii?’ She’d been around Jadyn long enough to know what that meant. And if the tapestry on his ship was any indication…
The drekiran tugged a sheet off the bed, gently tucking it in around Tari to conceal the moderate changes in her appearance. Should anyone else come in, at least, they wouldn’t see a difference. The damage was already done in here.
“Jadaro aeha-te Tarisali fana kuae-te du pa sydeah-ku,” Alecha burbled. “Jadyn aeha-te Tari aenah sydeah-ku —“
“Easy. Slow down.” Pakar crouched down in front of Alecha, purposefully positioning herself to block line-of-sight to Tari’s hoverchair. Out of sight, out of mind? One could only hope. A few words stood out within her ramblings — Jadaro and Tarisali, two of several ‘High Spirits’ that Jadyn described when Pakar asked about his own beliefs one afternoon. Jadyn and Tari’s names, as well, were in the jumble. ‘Sydeah-ku’ — wasn’t that one of the words he’d used to describe a mating bond?
She felt she was missing some other important detail, but without a working translator at hand… If it weren’t for having someone strange rifling through her personal effects, sending a page after it wouldn’t be a bad plan.
“Hey,” the drekiran whispered, lightly touching the vixen’s arm. Alecha jumped at the contact as if she’d forgotten someone else was present, looking first at Pakar’s hand, then to her face. “It might be a little rough to work through an answer for this, but can I get you anything? Something to eat, or drink?”
Alecha’s whiskers twitched as her eyes searched the room. After a short period of thought and a deep breath, she pointed at the ceiling.
“You want to go upstairs? A room here to rest?”
“Haoo,” she answered. Before Pakar could think through if that was a yes or a no, the val’traxan fem added, “Derah Jae-raoohan.”
“I’m sorry, but I just don’t understand — wait, did you say… The J’Ruhn?”
Alecha dipped her head in confirmation.
“I’m not exactly sure how I can get you there. I’m fairly certain I don’t have direct access. Bothering T’bia before she’s out of surgery is not a great plan… I suppose I could call J.T. and get him to clear the translocation in the ship’s stepdisk system.”
Alecha cocked her head at a slight slant. Uncertainty? “Jzey-Teah?”
“Sorry — I’ve always called him that. Jadyn. I’m sure if we tell him about Tari —”
“HAOO!” the vixen cried, grabbing Pakar’s arm and shaking her head briskly in the negative. “Haoode ohahde. Eay haat desa du derahg fueayn kude…”
“I’m not entirely sure, but I think that’s an emphatic ‘no.’ You do want to get out of here, though?”
“Fairly sure I remember part of that as ‘please.’” Pakar stood, gently helping Alecha to her feet. “Where to go… Okay. I have an idea. I do need to make one brief detour first.”
Toliya scratched his nose as Rothrr barked instructions at fifteen other vulden who’d volunteered to help with the vermin problem. The rapid pace of their discussion had completely overwhelmed his translator, making it impossible to determine who was saying what. While Vuldanni held its grammatical roots in the Velorian language, it took into account a vulden’s inability to reproduce the full range of syllables and sounds that a velorian could. The specialized hardware toolkits they wore as harnesses typically handled outbound translation to Velorian Standard.
Since the discussion was not entirely meant to include the feldaran engineer, they’d shut their vocal synthesizers off for efficiency’s sake. Hearing what one said on a half-second delay, even if it technically was a different language, made it very hard to speak quickly and clearly — hence why most translation devices worked at the receiving party’s ear rather than overlapping the speaker.
Rothrr managed to catch another rodent before the meeting to use as a visual and scent aid, as well as offering it up for taste-testing. A brief scuffle broke out among them until one vulden took it upon herself to slice the pest into pieces with a plasma-based cutting tool designed to carve holes in structural supports and other dense alloys. The stink of partially-fried rat along with the cracking and crunching of bone nearly drove Toliya out of the room.
But, it had worked; they now seemed eager to start. With a final yap from Rothrr, the group broke apart. Two disappeared into the open wall behind the ARIA core; the others left via the door, presumably for other access points.
“My apologies for the lengthy extent of our planning session,” Rothrr apologized upon turning his vocal synthesizer back on. “There was some debate on what should be done with these rodents as they are located.”
“What did you decide?”
“Mostly, they will be terminated and brought to a central location in a cargo storage bay. From there they can be counted and disposed of in some manner.”
Toliya nodded. “Fair enough. But ‘mostly?’”
“Since they do appear to be a potential alternative to the nutritional pellets we typically consume, we are considering keeping several specimens in containment as breeding stock.”
“Of course you are.” The feldaran sucked air through his teeth. “Well. Are you joining the hunt?”
“No. As you might say, I am still ‘on the clock’ and we have much work ahead of us to repair these malfunctioning AIs. The interlinks here are beyond repair at this time. I suggest we travel to another AI chamber and begin diagnosis of the next ARIA core. If the interlinks are intact, we should test a variety of repellants to forestall further damage.”
“Excellent idea —“
“This room will also be a potential egress point for those within the crawlspaces as they return with specimens both alive and deceased,” Rothrr added. “And I suspect you would rather be elsewhere as that transpires?”
“Very much so.”
“Honey, I’m home,” T’bia singsonged, striding back into the J’Ruhn’s medical office. “And you’re even awake this time. Did you follow my advice?”
“Honestly, I don’t remember.” Jadyn leaned back in his chair, stretching and letting out a yawn. “Can I go sneak in a nap now?”
“Well, let’s see.” Gently placing her emergency kit back into storage, the AI stopped by the medical monitor focused on Kaler’s vitals and paged through the logs. “Remarkable.”
“He’s improved more than you expected?”
“No — Well, slightly. But it’s also remarkable you didn’t manage to kill him while I was gone. Looks good. If you’d thought to grab his bracelet out of the pod’s personal storage when we thawed him out, I could have kept tabs on him remotely and you could have slept.”
“It wasn’t in there. I checked. Besides, if the main computer was properly up and running, you could just watch through it. I know you’ve got a lot on your plate but have you figured out anything else on that front?”
“Sort of. I switched from trying to crack the data to trying to guess what it might be so I might have a shot at cracking it.” She stepped up behind his chair, gently clearing her throat. Jadyn gave her a tired glance before vacating the space behind the desk. “Started examining timestamps and the like. While a portion was in fact encrypted with standard keys before their departure, a tremendous amount was written out somewhat recently. After those recent writes filled all other available space, some of the existing data was overwritten at random — including areas that’d just been written out by the same process. I’m not entirely sure what’s been lost. I have however noticed one tiny detail missing.”
T’bia poked her finger against the middle of his abandoned datapad, loading data to it as she slid it across the desk. A quick assessment of the content revealed the list of biotech encryption keys for the Serin’s major systems. Except…
“Your core isn’t on this list,” he realized, flipping back through it a second time.
“I thought I just missed it in the first download. I did some more poking around and found where it should have been in the file structures. The recent activity overwrote it with what may as well be random garbage.”
“Any chance of recovery?”
T’bia shook her head. “Even if I had the time to do a complete forensic analysis on the storage medium, which I don’t —“
“I think we should make time.”
“It wouldn’t do any good. The storage controller is configured for maximum data security — not simply destroying deleted data, but ensuring the integrity of new writes. It randomly overwrote the space a couple dozen times before writing the new data on top. And then, it would appear another write repeated the process, wiping out whatever got put there the time before. It’s definitely gone.”
She gave a dismissive wave of her hand, but her disappointment was evident. “It doesn’t matter. There’s still a lot intact. I’m looking forward to rebuilding the neural linkages so we can get rid of those damn relays.”
“I’ve been thinking about that.” Jadyn laid the pad back on the desk. “You and Tari deserve most of the credit for declawing the armada that came after Terac Lun, but some of them got away.”
“Shouldn’t matter. The kill frequencies we kicked out took care of their add-ons.”
“That’s presuming all their ships were here. They may not have brought their entire force. If they have any raiders left like the three that smacked us returning from Terra, they might still have the fun-gun that decided our shields didn’t exist. You said it yourself — whatever they hit us with was explicitly designed to shut the Serin down. Those relays saved us.”
“I’ve got a few ideas for that, too, but right now it doesn’t matter. We’re low on the priority list. This place comes first.”
“I agree.” Jadyn eased to the door. “Does make me wonder what else they’ve got out there. It’s too bad Khamai hasn’t come around. He might be able to give us some details.”
“Yes… It’s deeply unfortunate,” T’bia spoke. “He probably won’t hang on but another couple of days.”
Pausing in the threshold of the office’s door, he turned his head. “Is there anything I should know?”
“About what?” she queried, not looking up from the screen before her.
“Oh, maybe some detail about where you went with a medkit and why you left a message on that terminal using my own hand to key it in instead of waking me up.”
“I didn’t touch the terminal,” T’bia replied, accessing the logs. “Didn’t use your finger to touch it, either… Cute, here it is. You definitely did that yourself. You were sitting up and alert when I breezed through. Looked a little dazed and confused, maybe, but generally awake. Maybe you wrote it to yourself knowing you were going to fall asleep again?”
“I don’t know. Maybe I did. Everything has blurred together at the edges. I really don’t know where this day started or when it’s going to end.”
“Well, if it helps provide a mental bookmark, it’s now onward of sunset at the cabin. Your morning today started when Alecha greeted you shortly before Tari attempted to rearrange her countenance in a hormone-induced craze.”
“Ah, yes. Thanks.” He yawned, roughly shaking his head. “Well… Whatever you went to to do… Good job, et cetera. Give yourself a raise.”
T’bia smirked, changing to new screens of data. “If Tari were here, I’d make a witty reference to a Terran nursery rhyme… ‘All the kings horses and all the kings men, couldn’t put Nesoli together again.’”
“I don’t think I heard that one.”
“Mm. That’s too bad. I expect she’d be in stitches. Get it? Come on, nothing at all?” She sighed, shaking her head in disappointment. “I suppose you wouldn’t, since you haven’t heard. A tendon that Nesoli’s ‘properly-trained’ offworld surgeon repaired let loose at a bad time. I haven’t had time to piece together exactly how things went down but I think Alecha and Tari saved him from a fall into the volcano. Also, should someone inquire with you about a curiously large hole in the terrace tile pattern? Not my fault this time.”
Jadyn rubbed his eyes, a string of muted curses lodging deep in his throat. “I’ll call Sulenj tomorrow and have him put together an estimate… Remind me in the morning. Where are the girls now?”
“Pakar left me a message at the nurses’ station that she was taking them up to Terac Lun…” The mefiritan looked up from a biotech schematic, briefly examining the ceiling. “Yes, the computer over there confirms they’re all three aboard. Alecha and Tari’s bracelets indicate they’re on the topmost decks, in the official suite for the Speaker — Oh.” A deep frown set into her features. “I don’t think I like that. No, I’m quite sure I don’t.”
“What’s wrong with them being in the suite? It has to be one of the absolute best views of the planet over there.”
“That’s not the problem.” T’bia spun the chair around, retrieving the medical kit she’d just stowed and hanging it over her shoulder. A second one followed it out and landed on the desk. “Okay. Here’s what we’re going to do. If you want to go take a nap, that’s fine. You’re not going to be a huge asset in your current state. If you’d care to muddle through it anyway, I need you to help with Alecha while I check on Tari.”
“Bee, will you just tell me what’s —“
“Tari’s bracelet is not reporting val’traxan biometrics. Currently, her original kitsune baseline is a better match. Now, I’m making the bold assumption that Alecha may have seen her like that. If she hasn’t, there’s no problem and you’ll be able to go curl up in a corner. If she has… Well. You’re creative.”
Jadyn stared at the box on the desk, his head shaking slowly from side to side. “I’m never going to sleep again, am I?”
“I find it increasingly unlikely. If I might be so bold… Would you like something to keep you awake?”
“I hate doing that. I really, really do.” Hanging the kit over his shoulder, he met T’bia’s eyes. “But… Make the first replicator we pass spit out a mug of kree-leaf tea with a bit of whiskey. Just enough to keep me going for another hour.”
“Syrupy-sweet to hide the alcohol. That’s the spirits,” she quipped, slapping him on the back. “I think I’d better make it a double shot.”
“Aah!” Toliya yelped as a ceiling panel crashed to the floor beside him, narrowly missing his tail. Frantic scratching above his head gave him further reason to look up; Rothrr clung to the edge, hind legs desperately searching for anything to push himself back up.
“What are you doing up there?” Toy questioned, as though it was not clearly obvious from his predicament.
The vulden didn’t bother to formulate a reply, losing grip with his forelegs and plummeting toward the floor. Toliya let out a whoop! as he slid himself sideways, his strapped-on kneepads gliding smoothly across the decking as he caught the vulden in his arms.
“You okay, Rothrr?”
“I am not Rothrr,” a feminine synthetic voice replied. “I am Lesoya.”
“You are?” He realized his hands were supporting her belly and quickly placed her down on the floor. “Sorry! I, uh — Sorry. I have a heck of a time telling you apart. How do you do it?”
“To begin with, I am not male.”
The feldaran clamped his eyes shut. “Other than that! I wasn’t… I wasn’t looking at that end. Not really. I mean, it was hanging right there,” he explained, pointing at the gap in the ceiling tiles. “But I wasn’t—“
“Bipeds,” she muttered. “We do smell different, Mister PanLidaefel. We also in fact look different, should you pay a moderate amount of attention to the details in our markings.”
“I’ll take your word for it. Are you all right, though? That was some fall. I didn’t hurt… anything… when I caught you, did I?”
“I believe I am fine.” Lesoya stretched out, stopping afterward to allow her harness’ hardware to run through a series of self-tests. “Indeed. I will be somewhat sore from attempting to regain traction, but I am relatively undamaged. Thank you very much for the catch.”
“I don’t suppose you saw… Er, smelled Rothrr when you were wandering around in there? He was tracing back the interlinks from this AI core—“
“Yes. He asked that you meet him in the next core’s chamber. He is following the interlink bundle to ensure it is intact for the full run and applying your experimental repellant. I took an alternate turn retracing his steps.”
“His scent trail led you astray?”
“No. A rodent’s trail led me above the ceiling.” She sat down and scratched at her ear with a hind leg, peering at the hole far above her head. “I need to get back up there.”
“I wouldn’t worry about the ceiling panels right now.”
“I am not concerned about the panel. I left the rodent behind. Excuse me.” She dipped her head in farewell, disappearing into the open access alcove behind the ARIA core.
“Oi. Rothrr,” Toliya paged. “Why didn’t you just call up and tell me to head to the next room?”
“Because Lesoya was headed in your direction,” he replied. “Activating my kit’s communications hardware to send or receive disrupts anything else I may be doing. If that is all, I will return to coating this interlink and will meet you in the next core room shortly.”
“Uh.. Yes. See you there.”
“Yo,” T’bia greeted, waving her medical scanner in a generally friendly fashion as Pakar opened the large swinging door. Rather than the standard sensor-actuated panels, Nesoli had reworked the design of the Speaker’s Suite with a manual-controlled paradigm. Gone were many of the automated amenities short of the replicator. Lights were controlled on actual dimmer panels. Faucets depended upon real valves. Doors utilized proper handles. True, they still sealed magnetically, in order to comply with all the appropriate regulations — but they looked fancy.
“Come in, come in,” Pakar spoke, gesturing inside. “Security called down to tell me you were on your way. That caught me off guard, actually. Usually they’re calling to see if they need to send down a team when you’re involved.”
“Figured it might be a nice change to actually tell them before transporting into the antechamber. I have a feeling we’d better make it a new habit.” Jadyn followed T’bia in, glancing around at the foyer. Usually there was at least one page hanging nearby, just in case the Speaker — or, in this case, the Acting Speaker — needed something done. Noticing his appraisal, Pakar shook her head.
“I sent them home, told them to take the night off. We’ve got a little problem, but armed with those medical kits you must already know.”
“We’re vaguely aware of Tari’s current status, just not the details leading to it. She is in the guest suite?” T’bia queried, already headed for the door in question. “Jay —“
“I’ll talk to Alecha.”
“And I’ll be listening,” the AI added, tapping her bracelet in explanation.
Jadyn sighed, adjusting the kit’s strap over his shoulder and followed Pakar down a long, arching, ornately decorated hallway. The overall suite took up better than three decks in the highest point of Terac Lun. The lowermost of the three, ‘downstairs’ from their current level, was also the most public area. It housed the Speaker’s official office as well as space for personal staff. Nesoli barely used any of it, preferring his old Councilor’s office for day-to-day work. For official broadcasts and certain high-profile legislative signings, however, it was expected that they take place within the ‘proper’ Speaker’s Office.
The middle deck was actually comprised of a space that once had been two individual decks. Two independent sets of living quarters, separated by the hall, took up the bulk of the area. The larger half, just beyond the wall to their left, was the Speaker’s private living suite; the smaller guest suite lay to the right. Just ahead and down three rather exaggerated and stretched-out steps, the curiously tall hallway opened into an even taller reception area shared by the two suites. The room ate away a quarter of the deck all by itself, but the view was worth every square foot. The entire outer wall of the chamber was effectively invisible, lending the impression that nothing at all stood between the occupants and the spectacular view of the stars. As close to the station’s apex as they were, the curvature of the hull couldn’t entirely be disguised and contributed a steep slope to the transparent materials of the window.
“So,” Jadyn posed, stopping before the window and gazing up at Veloria. The angle of the station made the planet appear slightly above the ‘horizon.’ Night spread over the bulk of the facing side, artificial lights spiderwebbing across the surface. The last sliver of the sun was only just slipping away behind the disk of the world. “What happened at Piroranan?”
“I’m not completely sure,” admitted Pakar. “Ness, the perpetual fool he is, tried to prove to me that he is in perfect health and demonstrated exactly the opposite. The next thing I know, there’s this huge column of plants in the middle of the terrace helping bounce him back over solid ground. I tried to catch him so he wouldn’t break his neck on the landing… Not exactly sure why I thought that was a good idea. Cracked three ribs.”
“T’bia already take care of you?”
“Alecha did. Don’t ask me how — I don’t understand that stuff you do. All I know is that she put her hands over those breaks and now I feel fine. Better than fine. When I looked around afterward, Tari was passed out in a hoverchair and wearing the appearance back from when she and I first met on the spaceliner.”
“Alecha saw her like that,” he spoke, less question than a statement. He could sense Alecha’s presence, slightly overhead and behind; she likely also knew he was nearby, but her aura hadn’t moved since he’d picked it out. Waiting for him to come to her? Or just delaying as long as she could?
“She hasn’t said much since I brought them here, which is a little sad since I finally managed to drop by my place and grab the translator. My own quarters aren’t really in a condition to host guests. Since I’m technically in charge of the gavel right now I have access to this place. I’m sure Ness won’t mind if you three use the guest suite.”
“Alecha probably will want to go back to the J’Ruhn to sleep. Do you have a pad on you?”
Pakar reached into her back pocket, producing the requested datapad. Jadyn keyed in a quick meal order — mostly, a variety of fruits — and handed it back. “Can you have someone bring that up here? If she took care of your injuries the way I think she did, she’s going to need something to eat by now.”
“I’ll have it brought up right away.”
“Pakar,” he called, as she started to walk back up the steps. “Thank you.”
The emerald drekiran gave him a nod. “Of course.”
Taking a deep breath, Jadyn stepped to an elaborately embellished tile circle on the floor and paused. Alecha was definitely upstairs. Her aura was a mix of uncertainty and doubt, but more than anything else, it was weak from her exertions.
“How’s Tari?” he whispered at the air.
“Out cold,” T’bia answered, equally quiet.* “And unmistakably in her kitsune form. I added a little extra to that meal order as you handed back the pad. Her blood glucose is a shade low and I’d prefer to raise it with actual food instead of an injection. Still running other tests. Tentatively, I think she’s all right. Just exhausted.*”
“Catch Pakar if you can and do a quick check on her ribs.”
“I did that when I waved ‘hello’ at the door. She’s fine, like it never even happened.”
“Which means Alecha went way overboard to make it work on a drekiran at all. Thank you.” Jadyn made a slight upward gesture, the simple movement triggering one other piece of automation that couldn’t be removed without adding a very obtrusive staircase. An antigrav field caught him, gently pushing him toward the ceiling. As he neared, a hidden door slid open to allow passage to the final deck above.
The star gallery, the highest point on Terac Lun, almost was considered the Speaker’s living room. Nesoli didn’t like it up here, even though there was more area to stretch out in than even the spacious room Jadyn had just vacated. A perfect sphere surrounded the deck, transparent as with the window in the deck below. Where the reception area below felt like a proper room with an extravagant window, the gallery gave the illusion of a tableau sitting in open space. A carefully applied dimming effect could reduce any light slipping in from Veloria’s sun — and, were it not night, any reflected from the planet itself — ensuring that the stars could be seen.
Couches and chairs designed with different species’ needs in mind surrounded the edge where the flat plane of the floor met the sphere; on the far side from his ingress point, Alecha had adopted a couch, lying on her back while staring at the constellations above. She didn’t move as he approached, but the shift in her aura indicated she’d thought about it.
“It’s a nice view,” she whispered, after he set the medkit aside and crouched down beside the couch. “I watched the last bit of sunset, all the night lighting spreading out over the planet… I spent an evening just before we departed home, watching the same thing with my sister… The twilight star set with the sun that day. All the lights sparkling across the continents in the night… It was beautiful. I thought I’d never see anything like it again… But here it is, a sight just as beautiful, but an age and a galaxy apart.”
Alecha let out a long sigh as she sat up, pointing at the chair next to her couch rather than the open spot beside her. Jadyn took the hint, settling into the seat and turning to face her directly. She didn’t want emotional support — she wanted answers.
“I’ve seen a lot of things today that I didn’t expect.” Her eyes scanned across the gallery’s ‘sky.’ “I saw a beautiful piece of Val’Traxan architecture housing an impressive alien library in the middle of a city of thousands that felt more like a city of hundreds. I saw a commercial venture acting as close to our principles as possible in a society that I expect will never fully appreciate those principles. I saw my mate wake from cryosleep in far better health than I ever could have imagined. And what I briefly thought would nicely end the day, I stood upon a medical complex built on a rock floating over a volcano.” She swallowed, turning her gaze to him. “What I can’t figure out is who I saw in that room, sitting on that chair. It was Tari… But it wasn’t the Tari I thought I knew.”
“What you saw — that is Tarioshi’s true form when she’s not wearing another one. It’s also not her final appearance, nor was it her original one. At one point in her life she only had one tail. At some point in the future, as I understand her species, she’ll have a third tail, eventually several more… The fact that she resembles the Kshorahii right now is just a fluke.”
“A fluke?” Alecha snorted a strained laugh. “Jadyn, if you paint black markings on all her extremities, she’s the spitting image of the Kshoraii. You have to realize that.”
“They look very similar, yes — I briefly thought the same thing. But Tarioshi isn’t Tarisali.“
“And you’re not Jadaro. But think about the two of you! Tarisali and Jadaro have always been thought of in the legends as mated to one another… And now here you are, named after the Kshorah of Time for your own colorings, and you’re mated to a vixen who not only looks like the Kshorahii but her name shares a similar root!”
Squinting, he rolled the thought over. The parallel of Jadaro and Tarisali’s bond and his own with Tarioshi hadn’t occurred to him.
“And it can’t be simple coincidence that Kaler and I came out of cryo with basically no ill effects,” she continued. “The numbers and simulations say it’s simply not possible. The only thing I can come up with to explain it… And it sounds absolutely inane to me… Divine intervention.”
Jadyn sighed, shaking his head. “Alecha…”
“I’m not accusing you of anything,“ she quickly added. “Tari either. I just… I can’t figure any of this out. It seems like far too much coincidence for this all to be happening right here in front of me.”
“I don’t know what to tell you. As far as I know, Tari had nothing to do with your revival. It’s really an accident she’s here at all. If she’d taken two steps to the right or left, I’d never have met her.”
“I don’t think it was an accident,” Alecha whispered. “I think you met her because you were supposed to. I’ve been thinking about it since Pakar brought us here. It’s just… I don’t know. Nothing’s made much sense in the last couple of days. At this point I’m willing to go with your assertion that Tari is not the Kshorahii. I kind of decided that already, but it helps to hear it from you. Tari is aligned to Nature, not Earth. Her colorings are that slight bit off. If I were to ask her outright and she were to plainly tell me she’s not… I think I’d take her at her word.”
“Out of unhealthy curiosity… What if you asked and she confirmed that she was? Or she avoided the question?”
She hesitated, apparently uncertain if she should say the rest of her thoughts aloud. “I don’t know. That alone will keep me from asking. What I think… What I feel, looking at her… She may not be the Kshorahii, but she might be Her messenger. I know, I know, you’ll tell me I’m reading too much into it…”
“No. On that… You might be right, in a way. Tari may not be bringing us a message in the traditional sense of unfurling a piece of parchment and making a proclamation… I think she’s delivering something else that you and I both desperately needed.”
“Hope. A future. Lots of things. I honestly don’t think you’d be sitting here if she hadn’t come with me from her homeworld. I don’t know what you’ve heard or figured out so far, but she out-maneuvered Sanusin and convinced him to transfer the command codes of the J’Ruhn away from a somewhat deranged clone. If she hadn’t been there, I’m almost certain autodestruct would have been ordered.”
Alecha twitched. “We wouldn’t have felt a thing… You’d never have even known we were here…”
“Exactly. Now, myself, I’m not entirely sure what I’d be doing if she wasn’t around… Probably just the same thing I’ve done for the last too many years, surviving day to day, wondering if I’d made the right choices since leaving home… This last week has finally given me some signs that I have picked the right path a few times along the way.”
“Speaking of choices,” she spoke, hesitating again. “Sorry, this is a little bit of a non-sequitur after you mentioning we were all nearly reduced to our constituent atoms…”
“It’s all right.”
“Tari offered me something over lunch this afternoon. Just as you called down to tell us Kaler was all right, in fact. She said if things didn’t go well… I’d be welcome in your home.”
Jadyn smiled. “Proactive of her… I warned her this morning that I might make that offer, just so she wouldn’t be surprised. She may walk around looking like us but she doesn’t have the mindset. Not yet. Void, I’ve even lost a lot of it over the years. I thought that I was just repressing it to fit in out here… I think I’ve accidentally learned my way out of it.”
“Bah,” she grunted, giving him a dismissive wave. “It’ll come back to you. I’ll make certain of that myself. But… You were really going to open your home to me?”
“I can’t offer that to everyone who wakes up, but you’re always welcome. You and your entire family.”
“You and Tari could be part of that family,” she offered. “Hey now, I see that little bit of weirdness in your eyes. Don’t get me wrong, it’d be fairly odd for me, too. Your dad was a good friend and I see a lot of him in you. I’m not exactly looking for another mate, either. Kaler’s quite capable.”
“He seems a little young for a project like this. He can’t be much older than I am — was.” Jadyn stuck out his tongue. “Ugh. Okay. Are you four-hundred and thirteen, or are you sixty-six?”
“When it’s convenient to pull rank, I’m older than you are. Otherwise, we all go off our age from when we went into cryo. But, yes, he was basically fresh out of the Galactic Fleet Academy. Maybe twenty-three or so when he was assigned to our particular family group for the project. Before he enrolled in the Academy, he was training as a woodcarver — and I know for a fact he’s very skilled with those hands.”
Alecha grinned at Jadyn’s laughter. “But seriously — I’m sure I’ll have at least one child with an affinity toward the Art. The support of the Guild isn’t here and the other Artisans will have their hands full with their own children. I’ll need all the help I can get. Quite frankly, you also need some lessons.”
“What do you mean?”
“We’ll talk details later. Let’s just say… Even sitting here, doing nothing? You’re carrying it more like a club than a paintbrush.”
“You should see what I can paint with this ‘club.’ I think I’ve done fairly well for not having access to formal training or any of the advanced Concatenations.”
“Oh, I’m not contesting that at all. There’s a great deal of strength within you, and a great deal of control over it. I just think you have a lot of room to refine it — and I haven’t even seen you use it yet.”
“Sorry to interrupt,” T’bia butted in over the comm. “Good news and bad news.”
“Do tell,” Jadyn replied.
“The good news is that the food is here.”
“Excellent!” Alecha praised. “I’m starving. Healing Pakar’s ribs took way more out of me than I expected.”
“There’s a reason for that.” Smirking, Jadyn eased to his feet. “Drekirans, as a race, are… What’s a good term… They’re divinely ungifted.”
“They have a natural resistance to all things ethereal, both positive and negative. You can’t set one on fire using only the Art, but you also can’t heal them either. Not well.”
“Spirits, I’ve never heard of anything like that… You should have told me!”
“When, exactly? It’s not like you mentioned you were going to go out and try to mend one up on your first day out and about —“
“Ah, yes, you’re already arguing like a mated couple. However, I have a compelling desire to insert my bad news at this time.”
“What is it?” Jadyn laughed, as Alecha swatted his arm.
“I can’t seem to wake Tari up.”