hares-recovery

Impending Doom Syndrome

Late-night traffic and pedestrians filled the street outside the bookstore as Jadyn stared out the windows. With both diurnal and nocturnal species calling the city ‘home,’ Azainte almost always buzzed with some level of activity. Very few hours of the day saw the streets completely empty. Not every one of the planet’s stores kept open twenty-eight hours a day, though - the original outlet was one of the few.

The night staff had every part of their routine down to an absolute science. He’d tried to help out behind the food counter, but quickly discovered he was merely a hindrance in his current state of mind. After trying to do other menial tasks, he’d finally volunteered to just stay out of the way as they went about their work, an act that had in no small way relieved the entire crew. Parking himself in a corner of the cafe, he quickly found himself wondering why he’d bothered to come in. Even with the busy spurt that had rolled through not an hour before, they had kept everything perfectly covered.

A novella sat open on the table beside him beside a long-cold cup of tea; as hard as he’d tried to get interested in the book, he couldn’t focus on reading. Going for a walk would clear his mind but the problems at hand would still be there when he got back. Tarioshi’s whereabouts would not simply appear before him in a moment of perfect clarity.

She’d been missing for nearly a week. Khamai, as predicted, had demanded all the documentation about ‘Project Nemaqi.’ Jadyn promptly transmitted the files, well within the four hour window they’d been so graciously allotted. They’d not heard a word since. There was a little hope that due to the massive amount of information in the files surrounding the project, he simply hadn’t finished sifting through the data for whatever he was looking for.

That didn’t mean they weren’t still looking for alternative means to track his scaly butt. Toliya and T’bia both remained focused on tracing the recent direct communications to some sort of common point. Jadyn repeatedly had tried to sense Tari’s own life energy as a sort of beacon in the quiet calm of deep meditations, but so far he’d been unsuccessful in finding even a flicker. He was almost certain his failure was his own fault for not being able to concentrate. Concern for her well-being was forefront on his mind, a constant distraction away from any sort of focus.

The oddity of his situation was not lost on him. A fox calling from a highly advanced culture, working thousands of lightyears from his home in a society not quite as far on the technical scale as his own… And then, one day, a peculiar little vixen from an absolutely primitive blue and brown mudball of a planet suddenly becomes the most important fem in his life?

He couldn’t have made a better trap for someone if he’d tried.

But what if it was a trap? What if everything she’d said to him was a lie, a carefully planned ruse? Khamai was an innate shapedancer, as was Tari… And Tari had needed to hold his hands while taking on the racial traits of a Val’Traxan for the first time…

No, he reassured himself, sitting up straight. The wonder and awe as she looked out over the Laitu, seeing all the species mingling together… That wasn’t fake. She’d never seen anything like that before. I’ve really got to stop second guessing myself.

“Jadyn?”

“Hm?” The fox glanced up from his reverie. “Oh, Shadow… Good morning. What can I do for you?”

The young jet-black vixen sat down at his table, eyeing him curiously. Shadow was fairly new to the store’s family, hired just before he’d gone off to Terra. She’d taken on the vacant nighttime manager’s position when her predecessor moved to another planet. He’d talked with her on and off before his departure, but he couldn’t honestly say he knew her well as he liked to know his local managerial staff. Their paths rarely crossed as it was, what with her working nights and his typical daytime visits into the shop. She seemed like a solid manager, though; the night staff simply adored her, and their work ethic spoke for itself.

“Is everything okay?” she questioned. “You seem strangely reserved.”

“I haven’t been able to get a good night’s rest in days.”

“I suggest warm milk, flavored lightly with a touch of honey and vanilla.”

“Thanks, store-mom, but I already tried that. Even tossed in a sprig of mint.”

“Add a shot of brandy.”

“Alcohol keeps me awake.”

“Mmm…” Shadow squinted, a very slight smile appearing at the corners of her mouth. “Massage therapy?”

“I’ve never found anyone who can do it right since I left home. My standards are probably too high. And although I’m half-certain that was a flirt, I should tell you I’m involved with someone else right now.”

“I make it a personal rule to not date my boss,” she replied. “That said, making the boss less stressed out makes the staff less stressed out. As a formerly professional masseuse, my offer still stands. I’ve got a portable table - just let me know when and where.”

“I’ll… consider it. Thank you.”

“Mm-hm. Any idea what’s causing your insomnia? It’s easier to fix if you know the reason.”

“Acute stress. There’s a bunch of stuff going on that I can’t really talk about -“

A hand fell on his shoulder as another voice interrupted him. “‹Perhaps I may be able to help alleviate some of your unspoken difficulties, Lopiakuen Tzeki.›”

Jadyn froze. Not only had the speaker used a title he hadn’t heard since he’d departed Val’Traxan space, the comment had been made in his native Kametian language. Slowly, the blue fox turned and faced the owner of the voice.

The stranger was a short fox, perhaps four feet tall; grayish-white fur covered his visible body. A black and white-trimmed steelsilk uniform hung loosely from his shoulders, hinting at how gaunt and sickly his frame truly was. More obvious signs of his illness were the missing and loose clumps of fur. Bloodshot reddish-brown eyes told volumes of just how many days he’d been without rest. A wooden cane supported his weight as he eased himself into a nearby chair. All told, he looked precariously near the end of his life.

“‹How do you know this language?›” Jadyn queried. “‹And how do you know that title?›”

“‹So it truly is you… I was born into it, much as you were.›”

“‹With all due respect, I’m not in the mood for surprises or games -›”

“‹And I am neither in the mood to provide them nor do I have the time left to do so.›” The fox coughed hard into his hand, pain visibly wracking his body. Velorian Standard was his language of choice when he continued speaking. “Damn this failing body… I apologize for the troubles you have been put through as of late, Lopiakuen. I am certain our progenitor never intended his attempt at propagation to cause all this discord in the quadrant.”

“Who are you?”

“You would very likely kill me on the spot were I to disclose that at this juncture.”

Jadyn narrowed his eyes. “You kidnapping son of a -“

“Please, Lopiakuen. There is no need for insults. I am not exactly who you think I am.”

“Then you’d best explain quickly.” Jadyn’s eyebrow twitched as he tried not to think about turning the figure before himself into a crispy husk. “My patience has worn very thin from dealing with your antics, nemaqi.

“A shapedancer?” Shadow wondered aloud. Jadyn had entirely forgotten she’d been sitting at the table. Blinking at his curious gaze, she shrugged. “Lucky guess.”

“Don’t you have work to do?”

“Its my break… Ah. Right. I’ll be… somewhere else.”

“No doubt -” Another fit of coughing overtook the faux-fox as Shadow walked away. He breathed heavily for almost a half a minute afterward while gathering his composure. “No doubt it has been a stressful time,” he finally rasped. “Lopiakuen… The memories are not originally my own, yet I distinctly remember a young fox, long in the past… He stood up for my progenitor’s right to exist, knowing very little about who he was defending and exactly how that entity came to be. He argued for the release of his captive, understanding full well he could not win. He did what he felt was right against insurmountable odds.”

Jadyn frowned, remembering the day of Chameleon’s capture. “And..?”

“And now… I am also doing what I feel is right,” the changeling continued softly. “I am not asking for blind faith, Lopiakuen. All I ask is that you consider what I have to say and judge it as you will. After I finish, I shall willingly turn my fate and the little left of my life over to your hands.”

Jadyn studied the eyes of the creature sitting before him, his anger ever so slightly defused. “I’m listening.”


Personal journal, Jadyn Tzeki. 47 Oram, 2418.

I’ve killed a fellow sapient today.

Anni tried to cheer me up by arguing that I didn’t kill him - we did what we were ordered to do. I just can’t help but feel that even if I didn’t condemn him to death, I certainly sent him along a path far worse than it.

The Guild’s spent weeks tracking this Nemaqi creature in four-person teams, ever since the order came down from the Haropikuen herself to assist in his capture. At the core of my being, I know what we’re doing is wrong. How am I supposed to resolve this divide between my conscience and my loyalty to the Guild? I’ve been doing exactly what I was supposed to do… But that doesn’t make it right.

I parked on a bench just outside of the Guild Hall, watching the busy plaza stepdisk as people came and went. I had a good idea of what I was looking for, but I really wasn’t sure what I was going to do if I saw it. In the last couple of days I’ve toyed with the idea of helping this poor creature get off-world instead of turning him in. Let him take my form, and stay out of sight for a while until he books passage to some distant planet… All great in premise. But execution… I’ve no idea how I could have pulled it off.

“This bites,” I mumbled, frustrated with the situation. Dupiakuen Harlann Gutanni, my team’s leader, overheard my discontent. Why I had to get paired with one of the few Artisans who actively supported the plan to get Chameleon back in a cage, I’ll never understand. Maybe the Haropikuen thought it would be a good experience for me. I have a feeling I stepped on her tail about something, though.

“Are you saying you’d rather have a creature roaming out there with motives that no one can fathom?” he queried.

“I’m saying it isn’t right to hunt someone down for the reasons we’ve been ordered to do it.”

“Some thing,” he corrected.

“Some ONE. He has just as much right to live as any one of us.”

He just snorted, looking out at the people passing by and dropping the conversation altogether. He knew my viewpoint already. I’m sure he was content to not have to listen to my arguments yet again. As for me… There were any of hundreds of things I’d rather have been doing, and one of them wasn’t sitting on the bench staring at passers-by.

Melichanni came around the corner of a building, glancing around before walking past the bench. I shot her a smile; she smiled back and nodded in greeting, not stopping or saying a word as she padded onward. She’d looked at me as though she didn’t know me. Even stranger, she wasn’t in her Guild robes.

I could have ignored it. I could have just written it off as seeing things. But no. I had to look closer. I felt out for her aura, hoping I was wrong. The vixen walking away from me had no tie to the Art whatsoever. It looked like my Anni, but it wasn’t her.

Harlann happened to follow my gaze at the right moment - well, wrong moment, I suppose. Before I’d even realized he’d made the connection, I felt his focus upon her. The vixen that wasn’t Melichanni screamed in abject terror as coils of energy surrounded her, unceremoniously dragging her back to the bench. Her arms and legs had been restrained with taut cords of Air, leaving her struggling on the ground in front of us.

“Harlann, let her go!”

“It’s not her, Jadyn -“

“I know that! That’s why it’s wrong!

“I… I think I’ll forget that. Some things about you and Melichanni I’d rather not know.”

I didn’t realize until later what I’d said; it hadn’t sounded quite so kinky before it actually came out.

Harlann tapped on his bracelet. “Katiana - We have the Chameleon in custody. Page the Haropikuen. Team fourteen, convene at the Guild Hall plaza.”

The others on the team called in their confirmations. Melichanni, our third member, was just inside the Hall and was the first to arrive. Chameleon looked up, her eyes going wide. Her? His? Its? How in the void do you label a shapedancer who’s out of his normally chosen gender?

“Don’t you see? She’s Chameleon, not me!”

Melichanni shook her head at her mirror image. “Sorry. Points for effort.”

“We know which of you is which,” I spoke quietly, trying to spot a way to get her out of this. “I don’t agree with us chasing you down, Chameleon -“

“Then let me go!” Her eyes filled with tears. “You can’t imagine the kinds of things they did to me once they realized I was conscious… If I go back, I know they’ll kill me… Please! You’ve got to help me!”

“It’s all a ploy,” Harlann stated coolly. I’ve really grown to abhor this guy over the last week.

“Harlann… Damn it, don’t you get it? Chameleon isn’t any different than us! So she has an ability to change form, so what? The Light offers illusions, Nature can be used to shapedance -“

“We are born with our gifts -“

“And so was Chameleon!” Others were starting to gather, watching the scene as we argued. I really shouldn’t have gone against his authority in public like that, but… I don’t know. I needed to vent. He was visibly having difficulty keeping his composure. If we’d been elsewhere, I’m sure it would have come down to fisticuffs. I at least could have won that… Maybe. He’s not a Master for no reason.

“She was not born. She was created in a lab. She was an accident,” Harlann stated.

“Created, born, does it even matter? The AI personalities are built, they are ‘created.’ Why does she have less right to exist than they do? And unplanned children - they are ‘accidents’ but do they get hunted down? What about -“

“That’s enough, both of you.” The Haropikuen padded through the crowd, followed closely by two security officers. “It is not our purpose to decide Chameleon’s fate. We were ordered only to find him.”

“I understand that, ma’am. I just…”

“I know, Jadyn.” She looked at me, a deep regret in her eyes. “Trust me, I know all too well.”

One of the officers put a collar around Chameleon’s neck; the creature’s form shimmered a metallic silver before reverting to that of a short, white-scaled lizard with yellow-green eyes. They pulled him to his feet, placing electronic cuffs on him in place of the restraints of the Art.

“I will not fight you, officers. Please, just give me a moment… Lopiakuen… Tzeki, was it?”

I nodded solemnly.

“May I ask how you picked me out?”

I couldn’t think of a good way to vocalize that answer. On an impulse, I waved Melichanni over through the crowd, her body being the last he’d worn. We embraced each other, sharing a quiet moment before turning back to him. Chameleon closed his eyes, nodding a single time. Without another word he allowed himself to be led away.

Truth be told… I believe him. I’m sure the Ministry of Health is going to terminate his existence and then figure out what they did ‘wrong’ to cause their little pet project to rise up and flee. Chameleon was a fluke. His creation - dare I say it, his birth - was an amazing accident of our sciences.

And now, entirely thanks to me, I’m certain he’s going to die at the hands of those same sciences.

I think I’m going to be sick.


Jadyn cleared the old journal from his bracelet’s display, resting against the wall of the Serin’s medical bay. “I still say I was right about him, despite how one of his kids turned out.”

“I’d agree.” T’bia gave his shoulder a squeeze. “The sad part about that whole thing was that the AI Network pegged him about a minute and a half before your team did. Our plan was to wait until his next stepdisk jump and quietly reroute him someplace he could lay low for a while. After the heat was off, we could help him off the planet. Shaytelli and your father both had offered passage if we could manage to isolate him.”

“If he’d picked any other body to copy, I wouldn’t have seen him. How’s Iguano holding up?”

“He’s dying.” T’bia tapped at a medical datapad. “As of right now… Not more than two hours.”

“Guess he was right about not seeing another sunrise. The pressing question is why.

“That’s the simple bit. He’s a clone.”

“Clones don’t just fall over dead, Bee.”

“Illegal copies of Val’Traxan technology do.”

“…You can’t be serious.”

“Chameleon, sapient or not, was a work of Val’Traxan biotech research. He made two unauthorized derivatives of that research in an attempt to grow the species’ population.”

“Spirits…” Jadyn peered across the medical bay, gazing at the unconscious gray lizard. “The copy protection…?”

“Iguano was doomed the instant his first cell divided. Did he happen to mention his age? I can’t figure it out. There’s been too much cellular damage.”

“I didn’t ask. He said he’s the younger brother.”

“Hm. I’m surprised they both survived quickening and decanting. Chameleon must have figured out something that worked around the blocks… Just didn’t hold up long-term. At least we know there’s not some whack-job out there fiddling with our tech. It’s our own tech fiddling with itself. Sounds dirty.”

“It’s not quite so cut and dry. Is Ness still in rehab?”

“Yes… It’ll be at least another week before they let him pick the Speaker’s gavel back up. I strongly doubt he’ll be released that soon, though.”

“He still deserves to know what we’re up against. Call Pakar and let her know I need to speak with her immediately. Use the words ‘emergency’ and ‘impending attack.’”

“Cute.” T’bia raised an eyebrow. “Wait… You’re serious?


Focus. You can do this. Just… Concentrate, Tarioshi.

Sitting on the floor in her cabin, the kitsune gazed upon the flickering candle before her eyes. Throughout the week she’d felt her mental state steadily deteriorating, despite her best efforts to calm the rising chaos of her maternal bloodline. What started as a mere annoyance in the back of her mind had grown into a constant struggle in simply maintaining her composure - so much so that she’d turned down the Galans’ kind offer of using an extra room in the suite they’d been provided.

The company would have been greatly welcome. She just didn’t know how delusional or desperate she might become if she lost control over her fox spirit. The only certainty was that she’d be far worse before she was better. If she hurt them or their pups over her struggle with her own inner demon, she’d never be able to forgive herself. It was best if she kept her distance.

The simple things that normally worked as distractions had proven ineffectual as the days passed. Simple conversations with Karmen and Khris, reading, listening to music, mediations… Even the so-called holoarena, a giant blank slate of a room that could produce any vista at her whim, had ceased to stave off the inevitable.

Worse were the hunger pains. Never had she been so completely cut off from her own element. There had always been plant life around to appease her forest alignment - something that, as a hybrid, didn’t take much greenery to do. The Serin, with its biological roots, filled that requirement nicely. The empty behemoth of the J’Ruhn, huge as it was, had proven devoid of any identifiable flora whatsoever. The architecture may have matched, but it was not a living ship.

Sensei Toshiyuki had cautioned her of such things during her training but it seemed like such an empty warning. On Terra, even in the most crowded and congested of cities, parks and trees and even simple flowerbeds could be found without much trouble. The only places potentially barren of flora were the polar regions and deserts, and even in those distant places there were lichens, mosses, algae, and other small plants to be found if one knew where to look. Without any plant spirits to calm its hunger, her inner fox had determined she was tasty and turned entirely onto the life energy of her mortal body.

Dealing with only the stress of captivity or the hunger would have been doable. Taxing, but doable. With both working together against her, constantly draining her stamina and affecting her concentration, she hadn’t been able to focus enough to draw on other sources of energy outside her element or to even get a good night’s rest and keep her own strength up.

The candlelight danced across the walls of her room as she once more tried relaxing her thoughts. Flickers of the flame from the gentle circulation of air, normally a soothing vision, proved only a nuisance. A quick puff served to extinguish the candle, leaving her in complete darkness. The circulation itself then became the distraction, the very sensation of moving air jarring her repeatedly from her focus. Life support wasn’t a good idea to shut off to solve that problem.

At least, not yet.

“Lights,” she ordered. Standing as the small crew cabin came back into view, she crossed her arms over her chest and paced the room. Whether it was her sanity or her health that would fail first, she knew her only hope was to get off the ship. Some semblance of freedom - genuine freedom, not the temporary escape the holoarena provided - could be enough to help her regain control. But how?

“Gotta do something…” she mumbled aloud. “Need to get out of here…”

“Miss Tarioshi?” Sanusin queried. “Are you are all right?”

“No!” she yelled. “I am most certainly not all right! If I don’t get out of here soon… I… No, can’t think like that, I’ll just make it worse… Come on, Tari, keep it together… Think! There has to be something I can do… I can’t keep fighting myself on two fronts. If there’s no way to solve the captivity, there has to be a way to minimally satisfy its hunger… Sanusin? You told me there are no plants to be found now.

“That is correct. With no horticultural staff to maintain them, the flora in the arboretums, hydroponics bays, and aeroponics bays died out long ago. All air recycling is now electrochemical -“

“So there definitely used to be some?” she interrupted. “Are there still seeds somewhere? Some sort of catalog of what’s available? And, maybe, just maybe, somewhere to plant them?”

“Yes. There are a wide variety of seeds in cold storage. Hydroponics bay three will require the least amount of cleanup to be usable, should you wish to begin seedlings.”

“I do wish.” Tari gave a quiet sigh of relief. “Can you give me instructions on how to use the equipment?”

“Indeed. Proceed to deck twelve. I will provide you further navigational aid once you arrive. I must point out that you will, of course, not be allowed access to any seeds of potentially hazardous flora.”

They’re all hazardous in my hands, bucko…


Pakar just stared across her desk. Tendrils of smoke rose from her nostrils as she digested the report.

“They wouldn’t dare.

“Maybe not, but the possibility can’t be ignored. With Ness out of commission the decision will fall on you. Nursing staff wouldn’t even let me in to talk to him - they don’t want him burdened with work affairs while he’s recovering.” Jadyn’s bracelet chirped. “Go ahead, Bee.”

Iguano just passed. Apparently, they lose all cellular cohesion upon death. He made one Void of a mess on the carpet. On the bright side, a vacuum disposal canister makes a lovely urn.

“That’s… pleasant.”

If it’s any comfort, he didn’t wake up from the coma before he died.

“Anything else to note?”

Not yet. Toy’s got every contact that will still speak to him scouring the sector for a mark nine Displacement signature. I’d like to forward the graviton echo we’re looking for to the Fleet ships in the area so we can expand the search. You’d think we’d be able to spot the trail of a pair of artificial black holes, but noooo…

“Do it,” Pakar ordered. “Use anything you need to find that damn ship. No one is to make a move on it alone - not even you two. You can be the first aboard to secure it since it’s your tech and you know it best, but you are not going to approach it without backup. Clear?”

Understood.

Jadyn nodded. “Yes, ma’am. I also suggest you position the Tavyeed and the Aglaceum in defensive proximity to Terac Lun and Veloria Orbital, respectively.”

“Are you absolutely certain about this intel?”

“Iguano had no reason to lie,” Jadyn replied. “And every reason to tell us everything he knew.”

Pakar drummed her fingers against the desktop. “But you say he was also the brother of the one holding Khris, Karmen, and Tari.”

His brother is dying too. Iguano knew it was too late for himself when he approached Jay in the store, but he suspects I might be able to stop Khamai’s degeneration if we can just get to him in time.

“Something we don’t have much of. Allegedly, Khamai’s standing order with his AI is that the ship is to begin autodestruct upon his death.” Jadyn slid a pad across her desk. “This is a partial list of what Val’Traxan hardware was provided to the pirate clans. It can’t be reproduced by the pirates, but every piece is fully working as-is.”

“How complete is this list?”

“He was struggling to hold onto his memory before he fell into a coma. I doubt it’s a hundred percent.”

“Phase cannons… adaptive shielding… Genome resequencers? Cloning tanks?! What in the Elders…?”

“Iguano said he never knew the grand plan, but Khamai did have him help distribute copy-protected biotech hardware up until they had a falling out from Khamai’s mental deterioration. My only possible guess based on the list of materials and the archival data he demanded from us is that he was helping them build an army based on the Nemaqi template. Soldiers they can program to do their bidding that can blend into their enemies as those very same enemies.”

“And take them over from within… How many could they have grown by now?”

None,” T’bia answered. “He only just got the entire genome file a week ago. To recreate something as complex as a nemaqi with the changes they’d require would be upwards of three months, per clone.

“If we can take the J’Ruhn, we cut off the potential for future supplies. We also remove their only source of technical support on hardware that’s well over their heads.”

“We have to find it first. And, apparently, we also need to stay alert for an organized pirate raid on the heart of the Aligned Worlds.”

Good luck with that,” T’bia quipped.


“So, while I keep working on finding a new way to detect cloaked ships, what are you going to do?”

“I’m going to find Tari.”

T’bia sighed. “Jay… If you’re looking for a way to waste time, I’ve got a thousand better ways. You’ve been trying for a week and haven’t felt a thing -“

“I’ve been looking in the wrong place.” Jadyn peered at the bookshelves in his library, tracing his finger across the books’ spines as he searched for the tome he needed. “I’ve been trying to find her life energy, treating it like a lighthouse in a dark, stormy sea of background energy - something I should be able to do in my sleep. She’s either dead -“

“Don’t say that.”

”- or she’s so off-kilter from the kitsune version of claustrophobia that her aura is warped and looks like ambient noise. Here we go.” Drawing the book from the shelf, he dropped it on his desk and flipped through the pages. “Okay, miss expert-on-everything. Tell me this. If you’re trying to navigate an old ship on the ocean and you can’t see the stars, what do you do?”

“Satnav.”

“Way, way older.”

“…Compass and sextant?”

“Exactly.” His finger traced down the page; flipping to the next, he tapped the ancient text and smiled. “And how do you build a compass that points at someone’s life energy, no matter how disrupted it may be? You use a tiny piece of their body as the compass needle. Solid… or liquid.”

T’bia’s eyes went wide. “No. No! Absolutely not! You are not going to use blood magic on my watch, and that is final!

“I can find her, Bee.”

“Not with that, you won’t! I’m not going to help you with a fool’s errand of this caliber!”

“Then I’ll do it without your help.”


 

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