hares-recovery

Orientation

Air roared in Tarioshi’s ears as the world turned green.

It was the strangest sensation she’d ever had the displeasure to feel. A nauseating vertigo swept her as the hotel room vanished behind the wall of turquoise light. The uncomfortable awareness of being stretched like a rubber band cascaded her flesh and for a brief moment she sensed she was in more than one place at once. It lasted an eternity, while only lasting an instant.

And then it was over. Tarioshi rubbed her eyes as the green haze dissipated, unable to make out her surroundings. Someone had very neatly stacked a layer of sand under her eyelids and left a dead monkey to sleep fitfully in her throat. Breakfast made an unsuccessful attempt to return to the lighted world. Unfamiliar smells and sounds assaulted her senses as she battled nausea and blindness.

The air was fresh, mildly warm; currents tickled her ears and indicated the source as slightly above her head. Something rubber-like, perhaps silicone, covered the floor under her feet. The surface felt warm to the touch and gave way very slightly under her weight. The scents of a springtime forest were completely out of place… The fresh, moist earth, the awakening plants… Winter was in full force outside, wasn’t it?

She blinked several times, clearing the cloudiness from her vision. Black paneling sections covered the walls, their surfaces contrasted by dark bluish-green patterns. The pliable material under her feet looked like a white glass, despite the fact it didn’t feel like glass. Set in a large oval, five smaller and darker ovals inset the rubbery glass. One of the darker ovals was immediately under her toes. The entire surface glowed gently from within.

Dark gray carpet surrounded the lighted section of floor. In the center of the room stood a podium-like object, lights and displays attentively blinking away. A few quiet beeps emanated from its general direction as the light underfoot dimmed slightly.

Ceiling met the four walls ten feet above the floor. Also illuminated from within, the light was uniformly white and far brighter than the floor. She immediately thought of sunlight - the illumination held a warmth lacking in both florescent and incandescent lighting. The section of ceiling directly over her head was about two feet shorter than the rest, shaped in the same oval as the floor. Some sort of metallic grid crisscrossed through the illuminated plating -

And then she flinched, a hand grabbing her shoulder. “Yee!”

“Whoa, simmer. You all right?” Jadyn gave her shoulder a pat, stepping onto the carpeted floor as though nothing had changed around them. “Sometimes the first few trips through that thing can screw with your equilibrium. Take a few deep breaths.”

“Just disoriented… We’re on… We’re really on a spaceship?”

“I tend to think of the Serin as an extremely mobile home. But yes, this is a vehicle capable of interstellar travel.”

“Amazing…” Tarioshi stepped onto the carpet, advancing slowly to the wall. The surface was warm and resilient just like the glowing section of floor. She looked closer, seeing the green and blue shapes shift toward her touch. She held her hand just over the wall; a colored pattern resembling her hand took form.

“Why are the walls moving?”

“They’re alive,” Jadyn replied, poking at the blinking lights on the podium. The light within the floor shut off, followed by most of the lights on the podium.

“I really hope that’s figurative.”

“Yes and no.” Jadyn stepped to her side, taking her hand. “There’s a lot here that is going to be strange and unusual. We’ll have plenty of time for tours and explanations later - right now, I really need to see what her malfunction is… Walk with me.”

He led Tarioshi to a section of the wall slightly lighter in hue than the rest. It slid aside with a soft whisper, allowing them passage out of the room into a hallway. She glanced back as the door closed, noticing the lights inside flicker off just before it shut.

“Lots of automation?”

“Mm-hm.” Jadyn smirked. “She and I do some admittedly frivolous things with power at times, but any room that isn’t in use gets tuned down. Bee?”

Busy, flying.” Her voice came from everywhere at once as they walked; there was no echo along the corridor. A peculiar artifact accompanied the audio, vaguely reminiscent of a speakerphone. “Can it wait?

“Two minutes ago it couldn’t! Our status so horrible that you can’t talk, pilot, and play cards at the same time?”

Fine, fine. If we crash into a passenger airline, it’ll be your fault. All primary controls are dark. I’m stuck using alternate command pathways and manual control for everything short of… Well, no, everything. Cloak’s flaky at best. There’s other junk broken that regeneration can’t fix - oh, it’s broken too. Your idle hands will be much appreciated.

“I miss the days when things just worked.”

You have no idea.

Jadyn grunted, scratching his neck. “Well, we have to start somewhere… A power relay still screwed up?”

Three, actually. One is now acting odd, other two are dead to scans.

“Damn. How many spares do we have on hand?”

Only one. Field engineering isn’t a strong suit of yours, I know.

“I’ll deal with it. We’re going to order more spares from Toy when we get home, though. As soon as you can, meet me in medical. You have a patient.”

Then the patient can go wait there patiently.

Jadyn rolled his eyes, opening a door and gesturing Tari inside. “You said before that you wanted no doctors involved… I’m taking a leap by assuming you only meant human doctors. Think you’ll be all right with an alien physician who won’t care that you aren’t human?”

“I… I guess. I don’t know…” Tari peered around the sanitized room. Two beds of some sort lay along the wall to the right of the doorway; a third sat squarely in the middle of the room. They all appeared to have some sort of computer equipment built into the base. A shelf of equipment along with several drawers waited on the far side of the room from the door. What appeared to be monitors filled the last wall, to the left. All the screens were dark. “This is all so… surreal. I don’t know what to think. Why am I even here?”

“When I committed myself to helping you, I couldn’t leave you back there with this injury just because you suddenly weren’t what I thought you were last night.” He gestured to the bed in the center of the room. “Have a seat. T’bia will be along in a couple.”

“Teh-bye-yah?” Tarioshi pronounced slowly.

“Close enough. I’ve always called her ‘Bee’ since that’s what dad called her… Never did understand how that got started instead of ‘Tee’ or ‘Stinky’ or whatever else.”

“Known her a while, then?”

“All my life. She’s the one soul I’ve always been able to trust implicitly.”

“She really sounds a little… off-kilter.”

“A healthy level of insanity helps keeps you sane. It’s even more effective as a group effort.”

Tari sighed, her gaze settling back on the allegedly faux-human before her. “So… What’s next?”

“For you? Back to Terra, as soon as is prudent.”

“Aww, come on… I just got here.”

“Sorry. I don’t make the rules. I’m supposed to at least make some marginal effort at following them. In the last four hours I’ve broken… Hum. I don’t think I have enough fingers to count the regulations I’ve blatantly ignored.”

The medical room’s door snapped open. “I’d say at least twelve or thirteen, Jay. Not the least of which is the cardinal law, ‘don’t surprise your partner with post-last-minute changes in schedule or crew compliment.’”

Tari looked up at the newcomer, eyes wide in surprise. A skunk lady, similar in form to herself, walked across the room to the row of drawers and began rummaging through the contents. She hadn’t given the kitsune more than a second’s glance. Fur as black as a moonless night cascaded over her body, highlighted by a pair of white stripes stretching up the bridge of her muzzle and under her short white hair. They were briefly visible once more, cascading down the back of her neck, before vanishing into her dark green full-body jumpsuit. Presumably, they ran down her entire back. Emerging from the suit at the base of her erect and voluminous tail, they ran all the way to its tip before ending together. Her plantigrade feet were bare and covered in white fur, as were her hands. At the most she was five and a half feet tall, just slightly more than Tari herself.

Jadyn grinned widely. “Yes, but breaking that law is only punishable by a slap on the wrist and a severe scolding. Tari, this is T’bia Halio, the one sapient who really knows how to keep this ship running -“

“You always forget ‘mefiritan,’” T’bia interrupted, moving a tool from one drawer to another. “Especially around visitors that don’t know what I am.”

“Mmm… So I do. Bee, Tarioshi, a kitsune friend I’ve made. Hoped I’ve made. I think I’ve made.”

Tari stared at the skunk for several seconds longer, managing to blink when T’bia looked at her curiously. “Uh… Hello.”

“‘Yo.’ That is the right vernacular, isn’t it? Regardless, Miss Tarioshi… We’re slightly out of practice at hosting visitors from planets that aren’t supposed to know about us,” she spoke, shooting Jadyn a cold glare. He rolled his eyes as she went on. “Just yell if you require something we forgot. Need to find the deep tissue regenerator, by the look of your arm… Where the Void did I put that thing…? Goddess knows we never use it… A hypo of painkiller and back to work…”

The vixen looked between the two of them, finally focusing back on Jadyn. “You’re like her? When you’re not masquerading as a human?”

“Similar form, different species. I’m biped vulpine somewhat like your present incarnation. Oh, reminds me - Bee, any idea the time left on that shapedance manifestation?”

T’bia paused in her digging long enough for a glance at her palm. “Thirty-six hours and change.”

“Velorian?”

“Val’Traxan. Not that it matters much at that resolution.”

“True, but thanks for grabbing us when you did. Could have wound up very bad if I’d been much later.” Jadyn moved to take off the tape securing Tari’s bandage; the skunk appeared at the bedside, slapping his hands away.

“Shoo! I’ll get her fixed up, thank you kindly.” She pushed him toward the door, forcefully evicting him from the medical room. “Go get prepared for your own pending medical emergency or do something else constructive. Not like there’s a lack of things to accomplish elsewhere. Oh, hey. Brilliant idea. Go land the ship before we crash into their moon. Autopilot is offline and I can’t steer from here right now.”

“All right, all right! Give me a holler when you’re done.” Jadyn stepped out of the room, glancing back at Tari before the doors shut. T’bia snorted, turning and walking back to the bed.

“I swear, organics are going to be the death of me.”

“Sorry, what?”

“Nothing important.” T’bia’s fingers gingerly peeled off the bandages, delicately uncovering the layers of cloth and dressing surrounding the wound. She let out a slow whistle as the last of the bloodied compress fell away. “And what the Void happened to you?”

“Kind of a long story…” Tari stalled. How much did she want to tell this lady? That she was a spirit-fox and had been following her crewmate as a quadruped? That’ll go over like a lead balloon…

“No shortage of time. This is going to take a little while.” Lifting one of the several devices she’d brought from the drawers and countertop, T’bia passed the gadget a few inches over the deep wound. Shifting symbols appeared seemingly at random on the wall of monitors. “When he said there was someone else coming up, I expected a human to grace our transporter pad… He called you a kitsune just now, yes? From what I recall of my research, that would peg you as part of mythology and legends from… Japan, I think that’s the right region?”

The vixen blinked. “Er, yes, that’s right…”

“Mm. So, technically, you don’t exist. You’re kind of like us in a way, alien to the human race and trying to learn, but you’ve got a distinct advantage in growing up with humanity all around you. Speaking of, may I be the first to observe that you have very interesting biosigns? Wow. If only I had about a thousand more of you to make a full genome profile from… Hm. Be good to get Jadyn’s scans of the humans he was in proximity to, as well, see how you compare… Bet they’re just as wacky as you.” T’bia nodded to herself. “Okay! I’ve got enough info here to get to work. Let’s amputate.”

“A-a-amputate?!” Tarioshi stammered. “But - I thought - Can’t you just -“

“What? Just patch you up? I suppose, if you want to do this the easy way. Spoil sport. This is a really bad injury, but we’ll have you fixed up in no time. Almost no time. That’s a really odd saying, too… It’s wasting time to say ‘no time’ because it takes time to do it, unless you’re already done in which case, why bother?”

“Er…”

“Hint: Nod and smile at the pauses.” T’bia changed out devices, using one that shined a reddish light on the wounded area. Tarioshi felt a slight tingle, just like the pins and needles of a hand that had gone to sleep, before it went numb altogether. “Don’t you worry. No loss of limb in the itinerary, at any rate. Tell me, how did you happen to nearly sever your own arm? Some horrible toaster-oven accident? Dangerous things, those.”

Tari exhaled slowly. “I was… following him, in the form of a native fox…”

“Ah, a shapedancer, are we?”

“Shape… dancer? Jadyn used the same word…”

“Shapeshifter, changeling, chameleon, whatever lapel pin you care to wear. I used to know a very gifted shapedancer, he could do this thing where he… Er, I’d best throw the tangent flag on myself there before I get started. Is that the more common term on Terra? ‘Shapeshifter?’”

“Yeah.”

“Okay. How’d you run into him?”

Tari stared at the wall, slowly shaking her head. “Jadyn hopped off a truck near the hills I was passing through on my way north. I was curious as to what fool would be walking anywhere in that blizzard and started following him… When he set up camp I figured I could sneak in after he went to sleep and stay warm next to him for the night.”

“Caught the weather reports. Looked like a bad storm.” T’bia changed out devices once more and donned a pair of dark goggles. “Don’t look at the light off this if you can help it. About twice as bright as a welding arc on the setting I’m going to use. I’d rather not have to do eye regeneration too - your body’s under enough stress right now.”

“Er, okay…” Tari shut her eyes, bright flashes shining through her eyelids. There was absolutely no sensation of anything happening at all as the flashes went to a steady light. “What is that thing?”

“Primarily, it’s a distraction. I enjoy how you called him the fool for being out in that storm, although I feel obliged to point out that you were also out there.”

“I’m a little better prepared to deal with inclement weather.”

“If you say so. You were going to pirate some body heat…?”

“Er, right. So, I was scoping out the area. Stepped right into the middle of a steel trap and missed every single sign that someone had placed one there. Honestly, the damn thing shouldn’t have triggered under my weight. Not sure who was trying to catch what, but a trap like that shouldn’t have been in a picnicking area.”

“Ouch. Amputation wasn’t far off the menu after all. He must have heard the sound and got you out of the trap, not thinking you were anything but a wild fox.”

Tari nodded, her eyes still shut. “I didn’t think I could handle being on my own while I healed. He must have thought the same and took me on his walk to that hotel. With his first-aid and a bit of my magic, I’d gotten it moderately well healed for the time I could work with it. Then I went and shifted forms to this without thinking what it might do. Tore it up all over again and made it worse than it was to start with… I’m such an idiot…”

“Mm, I wouldn’t say that. What you are is extremely lucky to still have that arm. Had you gone to a doctor on the planet they probably couldn’t have saved it, what with their leeches and hoodoo and whatnot. You can open your eyes now - you’re done.”

“What?” Tari looked at her arm. The flesh and fur were wholly grown back. She felt through her pelt lightly, not finding any obvious scarring. Rotating the arm was painless and smooth, though still mostly numb. “How’s that possible…?”

“Our medical technology is several centuries ahead of Terra’s. Things that take weeks to months of unassisted healing time we can take care of in a few hours or less, depending on the severity.Most of that arm will be numb for a day or two while your nerves finish growing back. There are a couple of small scars I’ll be able to clear out once that settles but they’re invisible under your pelt. Honestly not sure how they’d translate to other forms, if they even follow you like that. Might want to keep them for the memories. Or get a tattoo.”

Tari gazed at her arm incredulously, running her fingers through the newly regrown fur. “Someone out there must hate me…”

T’bia sat down next to her on the medical bed. “Come again?”

“The greatest adventure to be waved in the face of anyone from Earth is here in front of my nose and I can’t snag more than a glimpse. Every fiber of my being is absolutely screaming to see what’s out here, but Jadyn’s already said I have to go back to Earth.”

“Ah, that. Yes, you’re scheduled for a lobotomy at six, after which we’ll leave you naked in a cornfield in Kansas.”

“Not funny.”

“No? Would a pasture in Nebraska be more to your liking…? I suppose not. Well, to be honest, we’re really not supposed to interfere with the natural progression of a world. That includes exposing any member of a pre-contact world to our technology or influence. If we were following the rules to the letter, you’d probably be without one arm at this moment.” The skunk smirked. “Jay dropped the ball, so to speak, though in his defense I suppose he thought he was helping a regular quadruped and not a fellow sapient. Not to say he’d have left you in the trap if he’d known - he’d probably have been more… selective, perhaps, in what he’d said and done within earshot. As long as we’re nitpicking, he also should have sedated you before bringing you aboard.”

“So if I’ve already been corrupted, why not finish the job?”

“We’d have to kill you, and I’m not about to let him do that after I went to the trouble of fixing up your arm.”

Tari blinked.

“Lighten up! You’ll figure out when I’m yanking your chain, sooner or later.” T’bia laughed, hopping back to her feet and gathering up the tools she’d used. “We’ll see what happens. He and I have a pile of repairs to complete before we can even consider going close enough to Terra to drop you off. He’s not going to be in any shape to do real work for at least a day after that manifestation tears him asunder tomorrow.”

“What exactly is happening to him?”

“Exactly? Well… how about abridged?” The skunk squinted. “The shapedancing manifestation - that is to say, the ‘magic’ he used to become human for the duration of his stay on Terra. It wears off in a most unpleasant manner, slowly reassembling his DNA and everything else from the ground up. Nearly killed him on the transition from fox to human. At least then he had a choice whether to go through with the process or not. This time, it’ll happen regardless of what he tries to do. The most he can control is how fast it happens.”

“Wow… Is there anything I can do to help?”

“With his shift or with the ship repairs he won’t be able to do while he’s in a comatose state?”

“Either, I guess.”

“Probably not. Mm… Well, let’s look here and see what we’ve got on the to-do list.” T’bia dumped all the equipment in her hands haphazardly into a drawer and bumped it shut with her hip. Holding out her hand, she tapped away at a series of glowing symbols that appeared to float just above the fleshy part of her palm. “Need him for that… and that… that… Maaaaybe that one you could do with some guidance, but I need to get this and that done first, which is a two day job… And all of this depends on getting the power conduits back up, which I need his experience to get replaced and repaired.”

“Sorry…”

“Not your fault. I’ve been fixing all sorts of stuff I’m able to fix for the year he’s been on your planet… Another day isn’t going to make all that much difference. Just knowing we’re close to a workable ‘done’ is frustrating in itself.” The skunk sighed wistfully. “It’s still not going to be ‘finished,’ though. Getting the Serin back to her full capabilities these days seems like such a pipe dream… Anyway, enough of dumping our problems on you - did you get breakfast before I abducted the two of you?”

“We’d just finished,” Tari confirmed.

“Okay then.” Walking to an alcove on the wall near the door, T’bia touched at a lighted panel just beside the opening. The alcove glowed briefly; she took out a tall glass of an opaque pinkish liquid. “Humor me and drink this.”

“What is it?”

“Electrolytes in liquid suspension. Water, salt, simple sugars, minerals. Our healing tech is advanced but it still relies on your own body to do a bunch of the work. Going to nag you to drink one of these a couple times a day for a day or two, just to replenish what the cellular regeneration took out.”

Tari sniffed at the drink; it smelled faintly of citrus. A tentative sip proved tasty although the flavor wasn’t any fruit she could place. “All at once?”

“Better if you take your time with it like a warm beverage. Need to make a note, make the next one hot… Yes, that’ll do.” T’bia poked at her palm and scribbled a few symbols. “Okay, now to bother the alleged captain of our fine vessel. Jay?”

Finally done?” Jadyn replied. Tari tried to spot the hidden speakers as she sipped the beverage. “Been over half an hour.

“These things take time, though you wouldn’t know anything about that. Nice job on the landing, by the way. Didn’t feel a thing down here. You… did land the ship, didn’t you?”

On the back side of their moon, within a few meters of the last parking spot. We are officially off their radar.

T’bia noticed the kitsune glancing about and smiled. “Excellent. I’ve been thinking about the repair work some…”

Oh, I bet you have. What’s first?

“There’s one power relay that should be swapped out as soon as possible. Should be trivial to do as you are. We can wait on your impending shapedance and the follow-up coma before trying to rebuild the other two relays with parts we don’t have.”

Sounds good. I’m thinking I should force the regression to fire all at once. The gradual way sucks.

“If that’s the case, I’ll make some earplugs. We’ll definitely need your normal dexterity et cetera for the other two relays if we want them to work after the repairs, though.”

He sighed. “All right. Which one are we swapping out?

“Cockpit power relay. It’s been offline for almost two months now. We sort of need it to plot the course back to Veloria, to initiate a desperately needed large scale shipwide regeneration, so on and so forth and et cetera and whatnot. A moderate plus is that there’s no crawling around in the bowels of the ship to get to the blasted thing. It’s under the floor in the hall outside the cockpit, beneath several inches of EMI shielding.”

Lucky me. I’m going to get some work clothes on. Actually, I’ll snag a shower first - if that crap shampoo I used last night is making my nose itch, it must be absolutely gruesome for you and Tari.

“I didn’t want to say anything,” the vixen confirmed.

“See you in a few, then.” T’bia nodded to herself. “Okay, now… I suppose I should find you a room or something, Miss Tarioshi.”

“Please, just ‘Tari’ is fine. Can he still hear us?”

“No. Need something?”

“Well… I was wondering if you two minded me watching the work.”

“It’s just your basic repair on an incredibly advanced alien spaceship… Oh, right. My bad. Sure, tag along if you like. You can watch us argue about how to remove parts we’ve pulled out a thousand times.”

“Are you… You and he… Er, anything special?” Tarioshi asked hesitantly.

“Special..?” T’bia blinked at her before bursting out in cackles of laughter. “Oh! No, not at all. Whatever gave you an idea like that?”

“You almost seem like a married couple.”

“Mm… More like siblings. Let’s just say he and I have an understanding that nothing like that would ever work. He’s all yours for the taking.”

“I didn’t mean -“

“I know entirely what you meant. That doesn’t mean I can’t willfully misinterpret it.” T’bia grinned as she donned a black bracelet from within the pile of medical equipment. “Okay, let’s go. I’ll show you to the common room - you can hang out there until he gets done with his shower. I’ll get a room cleaned for you in the meantime.”


“Oh, Light and Void, I needed that.” Jadyn toweled off his hair, walking slowly through his quarters. “I smelled worse than you.”

“Yes, you did. Especially since I technically have no scent glands of any sort.” T’bia leaned back against the door to his room, watching him put away the contents of his pack. “The air recycler was working double-time to keep up with your flowery funk.”

“Har. You told her yet?”

“About?”

“Your ability to walk through closed doors, hear every whisper, see every movement, and generally be omnipotent within these walls. When stuff’s properly online, of course.”

“Nah, didn’t bother with a proper intro to the glory that is Me.” T’bia peered at the ceiling. “Though if she’s not staying, it won’t much matter what we tell her, will it? I’m now the Grand High Overseer of Food Processing, in charge of culling the herds of humans.”

“I think not.” Jadyn reached for a pair of his favorite steelsilk pants, realizing as he held them up that they wouldn’t fit his legs for another day. “Huh. I’ve lost weight.”

“And several inches in height. Want me to get those in your current size?”

“Nah, don’t worry about it. Clean pair of denim shorts would be great, though.”

“Denim?” T’bia gasped in mock-horror. “I don’t know you anymore!”

“There’s nothing wrong with denim clothing!” Jadyn defended, folding the deceptively durable silken pants and tucking them away in a drawer. “I’ve actually found the material quite comfortable in the last year.”

“Sure, and I found I’ve a libido.” The skunk sighed, walking up to the replicator. “Denim… Next you’ll be singing the virtues of elastic polyurethane fabric.”

He grunted, snagging a sleeveless black steelsilk shirt and pulling it over his shoulders. “Erf… Would you consider this a very large vest, or a very short full-body robe?”

“Either or. Suggestion for field engineering, though… A plain fleet uniform.”

“I’ll change into something better suited for maintenance work after lunch.”

“Suit yourself.” The replicator hummed; T’bia snagged the shorts and lobbed them over her shoulder. “Dress yourself, too. Tari’s waiting.”

“Joining us?”

“No. Going to start prepping for powerdown.” She looked at her fingers as he gave himself a once-over in the mirror. “She’s cute, you know. Two tails are kind of sexy. One for each hand -“

“Don’t even start, Bee. She came here for medical help, and she’s going home as soon as we can put her there without further risk to her health.”


Tari paced around the ship’s common room, studying the various trinkets and possessions clinging to the walls and sitting on shelves. Paintings, tapestries, pictures, artifacts… A huge window across from the door presented a view she hadn’t been wholly prepared to see when T’bia had opened the iris-like shade for her. Timeless gray dirt pitted with meteorite impacts sprawled out in every direction, meeting a black, starry, airless sky at the horizon. She had gazed outside for a time, marveling at the fact she was indeed on the moon. The moon! Humans hadn’t been back in years and she was looking at the natural satellite in a way few others ever would see.

Eventually she’d started walking around the room, looking closer at the assortment of things while waiting for her hosts to return. Some trinkets could only have held personal or sentimental value - a few odd sculptures and the like - but others had a definite talent behind them, almost an enchantment in their craftsmanship.

One tapestry in particular drew her attention. A white vixen, portrayed from waist up, held a golden orb in her left paw and a blue-green orb in her right - a planet and its sun? Coal black covered the vixen’s paws, eartips, her nose, and the tips of her tails.

Two tails, Tari remarked silently. Just like me.

The woven image gazed back at her with vibrant green eyes, the same lively teal as Tari’s own. No clothing covered the vixen, yet none felt required. A sense of immense power and wisdom radiated from her, perhaps godlike… It sent a chill down Tari’s back.

She moved along, glancing over other paintings and photographs. None drew her in as fully as the tapestry until she passed by a portrait of a planet. The world clearly wasn’t Earth, the continental shapes wholly wrong. There was something else that didn’t feel right, but she couldn’t quite place what was bothering her.

Nearly five minutes of study passed before the problem became noticeable - the painting was moving. The moon had shifted slightly and the shadow of night had drifted further along the surface. Even the positions of the stars in the background had slid very slightly as the position above the planet held fast.

Hesitantly, she reached out and ran her fingers over the surface of the artwork. The material felt like canvas. Areas colored other than black felt painted. Pushing lightly did not distort the image, throwing out the possibility of a projection on the canvas.

“What is this?” she asked herself, pulling the painting from the wall and looking at the back. No wires, no lights, absolutely nothing out of the ordinary.

Holographic rendering, planet of Val’Trax.” replied an asexual voice from the ceiling.

“Who said that?” she asked, looking up.

You are addressing the autonomous computer array of the VTC Serin. For your future reference, this system has been programmed to respond to inquiries addressed to ‘Aerin.’

Tari frowned. “You’re a computer? Like an AI or something?”

A separate computational array handles processing of AI code. This system provides responses built from any available datastore based upon logical examination of input keywords and sensor evaluation of the inquirer’s surrounding area.

“So… I can ask you a question and you’ll answer it?”

Affirmative.

“Why didn’t you just say that?”

Please restate your inquiry,” it replied flatly.

Tari sighed, looking at the picture in her hands. “Computers… All right. This picture… Why is it moving?”

The rendering is programmed with animation calculations.

“Come again?”

Accessing program comment, please wait.” There was a short pause. “Holographic database entry 611,984. Entry comment. ‘Holographic rendering of oil painting titled The World of Val’Trax by Aazi Lucen. Original non-holographic work destroyed in 2415 VT. Holographic vector rendering reconstructed by Jadyn Elon Tzeki, school project. Animation calculations added to personal copy, planetary positioning and shading based upon current time and date. Projection updated once every thousand hardware refresh cycles.’ End comment.

“This is a hologram? As in, a non-material object?”

Affirmative.

She touched it again, running her finger over the frame, then the canvas. “Feels pretty real to me. The… Ah… The rendering of that vixen over there, do you have any information on that?”

No holographic renderings in this room match your query. Please restate your query.

Tari stepped in front of the tapestry after placing the planet’s picture back on the wall. “This.”

Retrieving information from inventory datastore… ‘Tapestry of the Kshorahii,’ unknown artist or Artisan. Estimated age of work, nine hundred years VT. Comment as follows. ‘Tapestry depicting the Kshorahii Tarisali, Mother of the Val’Traxan people. Saved from the ruins of the Temple of the Kshorahii.’ End comment.

“Nine hundred years old… Wow. And Jadyn really is five hundred?”

Jadyn Tzeki is three hundred and sixty-four years of age, VT.

“But he said… Wait, what’s ‘vee-tea’ mean?”

‘VT’ is an identifier for the time scale used, indicating the Val’Traxan homeworld.

“Oh, the letters ‘V’ and ‘T’. What’s that convert to in Earth years?” she asked.

‘Earth’ is an ambiguous term. Seventy-three worlds’ names translate to ‘Earth.’ Please provide a planet registry identifier.

Tari thought for a moment. “Jadyn and T’bia called it Terra? Does that help? It’s the planet we’re close to…”

Terra of Sol. Time scale referenced internally as ‘TS’ and based upon the calendar year identified as ‘Gregorian’ by native inhabitants. Jadyn Tzeki is five hundred and ten years TS as of January sixth.

“Getting used to talking to the walls, I see.”

Tari spun around. Jadyn stood in the doorway, leaning on the frame with a smirk on his face. “How long have you been there?” she asked, ears flattened in embarrassment.

“Just a minute or two. I’m impressed… I wouldn’t have expected you to be developing a rapport with the computer on your first day. Aerin: until Tarioshi asks otherwise, please use a Terran frame of reference for answering her inquiries.”

Preference saved,” it replied.

“Should make it a little easier to work with. And don’t be shy about asking things, even if you’re just going rounds with Aerin.” He eyed her curiously. “It’s bad manners to ask a lady her age on your world, isn’t it?”

“Some people think so. I’m, ah… A hundred and fifty in another few months.”

“And yet you don’t look a day over twenty.”

She felt herself blushing, despite knowing she’d never look older. “Thank you.”

He grinned and nodded. “Care for lunch?”

“Not really very hungry yet… T’bia had me drink something after she finished working on my arm.”

“Aha. I suppose that’d be a good idea for me, too. Going to be needing some reserves for that shapedance…” Jadyn strolled up to an alcove in the wall, one much like T’bia had used in the medical lab. “Whatever Bee made last in medbay, Aerin. Oh - in case she didn’t tell you, these little holes in the walls are replicators. Among other things, they’ll provide you with generally whatever meal or snack you ask for. I’m going to assume we’ve a wide variety of Terran foods by now, though the recipes probably need adjustment.”

“Really?” Tari asked, looking over his shoulder as the drink appeared. “How hard is it to add something new?”

“Pretty easy… Can either put something in one and have it scan in the pattern or feed it a recipe of some sort. Recipes almost always need some amount of tweaking to come out right, in my experience.”

“What do you do with empty plates and glasses?”

“Put them back in and they’re deconstructed.”

“Handy way to do the dishes.”

“Don’t have to scrub off any dried up chunks of goo that way.” Jadyn squinted as he took a swallow of the liquid. “Oi, she made you drink this? Tastes like soap…”

“Mine tasted pretty good… Kind of fruity. Had a nice aroma, too.”

He raised an eyebrow and held out the glass. “Like this?”

Tari took a tentative sniff, wrinkling her nose at the medicinal scent. “Ick, no. That smells like a disinfectant.”

“I think I’ve been had,” Jadyn intoned, setting the glass back in the alcove. “I bet she -“

A chime interrupted him. “Jadyn, you’ve got a call that you aren’t going to be pleased with.

“Who from?”

Councilor T’zran,” T’bia’s voice replied.

“Damnit,” he cursed under his breath. “Tari, I’m really sorry, but I need to take that. One of my superiors.”

“Go ahead. I’ll be here, I guess.”

“Thanks. I’ll be back as soon as I can.” He stepped out of the common room, walking fast to the grav-lift and waiting impatiently for the fall to the next deck. “Bee? He transmitting visual?”

“Yup.” Her voice had dropped the artificial filtering of a comm channel, now that he was alone; had he not known better he could have mistakenly thought that she was walking behind him.

Jadyn stepped into his cabin, locking the door and setting a privacy field out of habit. He briefly wondered why he’d bothered. “Either blank mine or fake my image. I don’t want him to see my ‘disguise.’”

“I’m feeling lazy, so blank it is,” she replied. “Ready?”

“No, but open the channel anyway.”

A holographic screen snapped to life immediately before him, displaying a black feline sitting behind an official-looking wooden desk. A few potted plants flanked the wall behind him; a pleasant sunny day outside the office’s window contrasted the dark malice in the cat’s eyes as he jammed a knife he’d been playing with into his desk’s surface.

“Captain?” he queried.

“Councilor. My apologies, but I cannot transmit visual at this time. To what do I owe this blatant breech of protocol?”

A dark smile spread across Ceth’s face. “Just checking in. I have been trying to reach you for several weeks but your computer kept telling me you were… unavailable.”

“I’m sorry if that wasn’t clear enough. I’ll ensure the auto-response is adjusted to add descriptive pictographs.”

“Thank you. I am looking forward to your presentation. Your report should be quite… enlightening. When are you returning to Alligned space?”

“I should arrive at Veloria Orbital within three weeks, as scheduled. When is the next Council session beginning on Terac Lun?”

“In four weeks.” The feline nodded, satisfied. “I will pass on word that you will be reporting on time.”

“Kind of you. Is there anything else, Councilor?” Why the cordial facade, Ceth? What the Void are you looking for?

“No. Just making sure you were not having any… unexpected difficulties. There have been some rumors about -“

“No difficulties worth reporting at this time. Councilor, I have a great deal of work to attend to in preparation for departure. If you need anything further, please wait until I return to the station. Tzeki out.”

The screen disappeared; Jadyn dropped himself into a chair. “Thoughts?” he asked aloud.

“He’s finally gone insane?” T’bia appeared near the door, leaning back against the wall beside the entryway. “Something didn’t seem right about that, but I can’t put my finger on what quite yet.”

“You mean, besides that being a rather creepy courtesy call from someone who hates my guts?”

“Yeah, other than that.”

Jadyn nodded acceptingly. “Scan through it again when you have time. For now, let’s deal with the local problems. We can get the power relays up, and then we need to get Tari dirtside before we go -“

T’bia grimaced. “Slight problem. That power conduit that was acting odd? It’s now among the dead.”

“Damn, okay. What was that one for?”

“Transporters.”

Jadyn blinked. “The power supply for the toy that takes us apart and puts us back together acts funny and you use it to bring us on board?”

“It was okay until after the cycle finished and the buffers were purging. I wouldn’t have risked turning Tarioshi into a puddle of goo if the blasted thing had been wonky at the start. You, however, might be more socially acceptable in a gelatinous state.” The skunk sighed. “You wanted a summary at the time you asked, not chronological detail on when things broke.”

“All right, all right…” He rubbed his temples, thinking. “Cloak, land, drop her off?”

“Cloak is flaky as well, remember?”

“How flaky are we talking? Worse than when I left?”

“A little.”

“And just how much is a little, sparky?”

T’bia scratched her neck. “After picking you up and getting the ship underway to the so-called dark side of their moon, I haven’t been able to get it to come back on for a diagnostic.”

Jadyn groaned, squeezing the bridge of his nose. “The way things are going, we’re going to be lucky to still have flight critical systems ready in a week.”

“Yeah, about those…”

“Don’t start.”


Tari glanced up from studying the tapestry as the door opened. T’bia stepped inside, whistling a tune to herself.

“Yo,” the skunk greeted, strolling up beside her and glancing at the cloth artwork. “You like this?”

“It’s beautiful.”

“You two could be sisters.”

Tari looked at the vixen in the work again, nodding slightly. “I guess there is a little resemblance…”

“More than a little. Add some black highlights and you’re twins. Well, almost. She’s a little more top-heavy.”

“Hm? Oh. I suppose so. Do you know who she is?”

“A religious icon.” T’bia smirked slightly. “That is a depiction of the Goddess of Val’Trax. Supposed to be, anyway.”

“‘Supposed to be?’”

“I’m somewhat agnostic on religious matters as of late. See, I know who my creator was and I know what he believed in. It’s my choice to share or not share his beliefs. More often than not, I do, but that’s well beside the point.”

“You mean your father?”

“Mmm… I suppose you could call him that.” T’bia sighed. “I usually prefer to drag this out but there wouldn’t be any point with you… You don’t have enough experience out here yet to figure it out on your own. Here, hold this bracelet for me if you’d be so kind? I’ll need it back in a few minutes.”

“Er, okay. What is it?”

“A mobile holographic emitter and AI processor. Did Jay mention that the ship has an AI?”

“No, Aerin told me when I asked if he… if it was. From what it was doing, answering my questions and such, it seemed like something that computer scientists on Earth would love to fondle.”

T’bia shook her head. “Nah, Aerin’s pretty basic when you get down to its core. It processes most of the autonomous functions like the doors, climate, lights… So on. There’s a lot of things it monitors and adjusts with no interaction, but it’s all programmed in.”

“So, if Aerin isn’t the AI, what is?”

“Well, before we get to that… The AI has a female personality pattern, and she’s not really a ‘what’ but a ‘who.’ For the sake of my own curiosity, when you think of artificial intelligence, what comes to mind?”

The kitsune frowned in thought. “Before I knew about any of this, I’d have thought of it as something like the machine that beat the chess player, maybe something fictional from a book or from television… Not really sure anymore after seeing all this. Aerin would have been a good candidate in my book.”

“Aerin has no free will, no ability to think for itself. A full and proper AI, by Val’Traxan standards, should think, evolve, react, learn, and grow. Ideally, the resulting consciousness should be indistinguishable from an organic mind, like Jadyn’s and your own.”

“I see…” Tari thought about what T’bia had said. It didn’t click for nearly fifteen seconds. “Not like yours?”

“Bingo. I’m the AI.”

Tari stared at her, then started laughing. “You’re kidding again?”

“Dead serious. This time.” T’bia smiled cheerfully. “I’m advanced even for the local space-faring worlds.”

“It’s just… No, you… A computer?”

“When Jay said the walls were alive, he meant it in more ways than one.”

“You don’t seem like you’re any less than… than…”

“Organic?”

“Yeah. No. Yeah.” Tari shook her head. “I mean, I’ve got no reason to not believe you, but…”

“But yesterday, the concept of a computer was something you’d use to browse web sites with, not someone you’d have an intellectual conversation with as she reattaches your arm. No problem. Control: Optimize for mobile… No, belay that. Reboot the AI, diagnostic display in Terran English here, optimization pass. That should give you something to -” T’bia flickered like a television that had been abruptly unplugged, then vanished. A screen of sorts appeared ahead of Tari, spewing forth lines of text.

! Restarting AI subsystems by request of running AI.

! Core memory validated… garbage collection complete… optimizing… 20%… 53%… 97%… Complete. Core memory saved. Purging system processors.

! Diagnostic reset of shipwide holographic emitter arrays in five seconds.

Several things in the common room vanished in a haze - the animated picture on the wall, the tables and chairs, almost all of the photographs, several other things - but all popped back into reality mere seconds later. Tari peered at her surroundings, wondering just how much of the ship was made out of light. A line of text flashing angry red called her attention back to the display.

% Reset of Emitter Array 34287 Failed - Projection area in use by non-holographic organic object

% Location: Deck two, section four, area two.

% Waiting… … … … Space occupied. Flagging for inspection and skipping restore of object from chair database.

! AI startup in progress.

≠ Artificial Intelligence Engine, System Version Tz-48.09a2.7jqt Experimental Final

≠ Original modifications to ARIA API for use on TBIA hardware completed by Kieran Ireto Tzeki

≠ Modifications extensively modified by T’bia Halio and Jadyn Elon Tzeki

≠ Compile comment: Powered by lint. And kitten hearts.

≠ AI personality file load in progress.

– Halio_T’bia01 229.80 exaquads code + 837.92 zettaquads long-term memory (estimated)

– Deep scan result cached from full diagnostic (PASS, 497 days old)

– Checksum PASS, fingerprint 2379VTTBIA-954enmed902hx

– Checking neural processor array… Fractal Generator PASS Heuristics PASS Registers PASS Cache PASS

– Linking neural array to internal sensor network and holographic emitter arrays… Administrative overrides enabled… Link complete.

– Sensory subroutine check: Auditory PASS Ocular PASS Tactile PASS Olfactory PASS Gustatory PASS

– Preloading personality enhancement modules flagged ‘Required’ - complete. Other modules will be loaded on demand.

≠ Quick Diagnostic complete. PASS

≠ Core memory restored.

≠ Personality Halio_T’bia01 ready. Loading avatar.

≠ Neural network activation.

T’bia’s form reappeared in the center of the room. She stood motionless for several seconds before returning to life and taking a breath. “I hate it when I get interrupted by my own reboot order… Ah well. Further proof, perhaps?” Her form blurred then resolved transparent, a dark fog with light patches where her stripes ran. “Ooooooh…. OOooOOooOOooHHAAaaaAA!! I am the ghost of AI past… Never mind, forgot the chains I’d need to rattle.” She blurred once more, coming back solid but with neon orange fur that shifted in brightness with her breathing. Her hair took on a gloss that shimmered through the entire spectrum.

“Wow.” Tari clicked her tongue. “… Wow. I don’t understand half of what went by on that screen.”

“Didn’t expect you to, but it was a good excuse to scale down my girlish figure. After a year without a reboot I had a lot of extraneous crap floating around up here to unload.” She tapped her head. “More importantly, I’ve purged off enough now to run entirely off the emitter you’re holding. To deal with power relays we have to shut down main power. The AI core draws too much current to use while we’re on the backup. Another thing on the eventual ‘to-do’ list…”

“It’s incredible… I never thought anything like… like you could really exist… I mean, you seem perfectly real.”

“While I’m standing here, I am perfectly… err, well I’m real, at any rate. I’m as perfect in form as you or Jay or anyone else, which is to say I’m not perfect. I won’t openly admit that often. Put it on the calendar.”

T’bia held out her hands, palms up and open. Tari looked at them, resting her own on the skunk’s after a moment of hesitation. She could feel the fleshy pads of T’bia’s palms, slightly warm as any real creature would be. Her fur felt soft and completely fur-like - regardless of the fact it was neon orange. A pulse beat gently through her flesh, and somewhere beyond was the gentle glow of something far more intangible. T’bia felt alive.

“Must be handy to be made of light… I’ve been trying to understand how this works, though. Solid light?”

“Our holographic technology uses the interaction of molecular-level force fields to create… Okay, let me back up a touch, since your eyes just glazed over. Let’s see… Non-technical. Okay. Magnets. You’ve played with them, I’m sure? Picture now, a wall of small metal blocks, all held in place via electromagnets. Now, save for the fact there are no actual metal blocks involved, that’s an extremely over-simplified idea of a forcefield. The actual particles the fields generate are somewhere around the molecular level… They can then refract and reflect ambient light or emit their own to generate the image of something - or, in my case, some one. Altering myself based upon that, I can as easily be invisible and tangible as I can be visible and intangible. But… It’s really not as handy as you might think.”

“No?”

“With this avatar, I can’t ‘feel.’ My senses, while potentially far more accurate than that of an organic, are a far cry from your own. I have sensations of taste insofar as I can estimate how the combinations of sweet, salty, sour, and bitter chemical keys will combine on your tongue and potentially send ‘yum’ or ‘eww’ to your brain. I register tactile input - temperature, pressure, all sorts of things. There are thresholds set in place so I know what would be uncomfortable, painful, harmful, potentially deadly, and can react accordingly. I don’t think I’ll ever really know your versions - the organic versions, that is to say - of simple touch, hot, cold, pain, pleasure. I’m infinitely jealous, and I cover that by acting all smug and aloof about how organics are slow and dull.” The skunk smirked. “Now, on the other hand, all these senses combined do add up to a picture I can interpret as you do your own senses, and I get along just fine with that.”

Tari nodded. “So… When you aren’t actually standing here… Can you still see what’s going on?”

“So long as I’m online and running from the ship’s AI core, I know about everything that happens on this vessel regardless of if my avatar is present at that location. I filter off a lot of stuff and don’t necessarily remember everything, and I don’t share details about what goes on in private, but I’m always aware of things that are currently happening. Might seem big-brotherish, but it’s really not as bad as you might think. A topical example is that Jadyn is waiting impatiently for us, having had a chair vanish out from under his butt. Totally worth the restart.” T’bia pointed at the bracelet. “Can I get that back?”

“What? Oh, right.”

“Thankya. AI Control: transfer execution to mobile emitter and shut down main processors.” T’bia’s image flickered briefly; she stuck out her tongue in distaste and adjusted her bracelet. “My Achillies’ wrist… Hate this thing as much as I love it.”

“Why’s that?”

“I feel numb when I can’t sense the rest of the ship. At the same time, this lets me exist when power is down or where there aren’t built-in emitters. Anyway, let’s go before he calls up wondering what’s taking so long.”


Standing over an open section of deck plating, Jadyn peered at the mass of wiring in disgust. The biotechnology that carried power and other electronic signals had proven impossible to regenerate without certain organic materials. Those materials and the secrets to grow them were buried over ninety-thousand light years away. Organic components had been replaced with mineral substitutes - polymer fibers and room-temperature superconductors. They worked well enough, though having cables strewn throughout the walls and conduits of the ship felt like a hack.

Footsteps sounded in the adjacent hall. Jadyn stood, dusting off the one-piece jumpsuit he’d donned to stay clean during the maintenance. T’bia and Tarioshi came around the corner seconds later, conversing quietly in a language he hadn’t learned. He briefly wondered why Aerin wasn’t translating. Then, he realized T’bia was day-glow orange.

T’bia finally shrugged and turned to Jadyn. “Sorry. Discovered I speak Japanese better than I thought.”

“Looks like you critically failed an attempt at degaussing, too.”

“Eh? Oh. Forgot about that.” Her fur faded to her typical black and white; her hair, however, stayed a shimmering rainbow. “We set?”

“All good here, presuming you know where the working relay is hidden.”

“Right, that would be good to have in hand before powerdown. Back in a minute.”

Tari watched the skunk leave, shaking her head slightly. “Just incredible… I would have never guessed if she hadn’t said anything…”

“It’s been a long road getting her where she is. When we started out she was pretty limited, more for safety regulations and the like. She was an experimental AI running on experimental hardware. The potential for catastrophic failure was huge.”

“I’d call her a resounding success.”

“For sure. Out here we’ve taken quite a few liberties with her code that we wouldn’t have been able to in our home space.”

“Where are you two from, anyway?”

“The world I was born on, ‘Val’Trax,’ is like ninety-five thousand lightyears away. The council of worlds that I’m currently working for is centered about forty light-years away on a planet called ‘Veloria.’”

“Putting that into a perspective of travel time…?”

“Let’s see… Here to Veloria is normally a two week trip for us. Here to Val’Trax is… hmm.”

“Depends on how hard we push the engine core,” T’bia noted, coming back around the corner. She carefully set a metallic device beside the gaping hole in the deck. “At our best miles-per-gallon ratio, a cruising velocity of a little over one thousand times lightspeed, it’d take us about eighty-six years. Could drop it to twenty years and chance burning out the core every two hours. Whenever you care to push the button, Jay.”

“It’s not even a real button.”

“I’ll correct that later. Just do it already. I’ve only got another hundred hours of runtime on this thing before I have to replace the blinker fluid.”

“Like you’d even find the reservoir without the manual. Aerin: Move life support and main computer to backup power. Shut down all other systems. Bring down main power.”

Transitioning computer to backup power, one moment… Complete. Life support transition… Complete. Bringing down all other systems and running final powerdown scripts. Please wait.

The lights overhead faded off, leaving them in total darkness. “Seems I forgot to bring my flashlight. Bee?”

“I’d rather not waste the energy making myself a nightlight,” T’bia replied. “Just make an orb.”

“Are we calling our wager? I haven’t so much as touched an elemental thread since the moment you kicked me off the ship.”

“Doesn’t matter. The bet was that you couldn’t go without hitting it at least once before you were back in your own body. Since the Art powers the shapedance, you automatically lose when that happens since it can’t be after itself. May as well throw in the towel, you stinking loser.”

“Some days, Bee, I really hate you.”

“You’d miss me if I was gone.”

Drawing in a thread of Light, Jadyn channeled the energy into the space above his palm. A brightly glowing orb rapidly took shape, bobbing lightly in the air as it rose to the ceiling. “Why didn’t the backlighting come on?”

“Don’t ask,” T’bia muttered. “It’s on the ‘to-do’ list.”

“How… How’d you do that?” Tari whispered, transfixed by the glowing ball.

Jadyn smirked. “Yours isn’t the only race possessing talents referred to by the uninformed as ‘magic.’ Aerin: main power status?”

Powerdown command executing. Current state: discharging all conduits and venting Displacement core. One minute remaining.

“But…” Tari visibly forced herself to look away from the orb of energy. Jadyn thought he’d seen a brief flash of an almost feral hunger. “It can’t be common…?”

“No. In this area of the galaxy I’d say uncommon to extraordinarily rare. There aren’t a lot of people who have this sort of ability, but so-called magic in various forms occurs just enough so that it’s generally accepted as a natural phenomenon.” He eyed her curiously. “You all right?”

“I’m fine.”

“You don’t look fine. What’s wrong?”

“It’s… It’s nothing. Just… I’m a little tired, is all.”

“That’s not unexpected,” T’bia cut in. “You’ll need plenty of rest to help you recover.”

Main power is now offline,” Aerin droned. “Notice: Electrochemical backup will deplete in eight months, three days, seven hours, twenty-three minutes, nine seconds at present usage.

“Thank you, Aerin. Let’s break something.” Jadyn picked up a repair tool, tapping a configuration to unlock bolts into the side. Reaching down through the mass of wiring, he paused and laughed. “Bee?”

“What?”

“Look at this.”

“Hmm?” She walked around the gap in the floor, peering over his shoulder inside the mess of cabling. “What’s… I’ll be damned.”

“What?” Tari asked.

“One connector is totally unplugged… Looks like those others are loose…”

“Really wish the diagnostics you ran could have seen the difference between faulty and unplugged.” Jadyn plugged the cabling harness back in, checking nearby connections. “Lots of others ready to fall out here… They hit us harder than I thought.”

“T’bia?” Tarioshi scratched at her neck, watching Jadyn dig through the wiring. “Can I ask a stupid question?”

“Oh, please… No questions are stupid. Except Jay’s, of course. My answers, on the other hand, may be idiotic or mind-bogglingly cryptic.”

“Why couldn’t you work on this stuff?”

“It’s… complex.” The skunk stood up smoothly, padding around the open hole in the floor. “See, all this cabling used to be a sort of nerve-like organic fiber. Over time they stopped regenerating properly.”

“Regenerating?”

“Self-repair. Healing. The ship is entirely organic. At least, it used to be, before we replaced all the damaged fibers…” She sighed, pulling down a wall panel. “Data streams are now routed over multiply redundant fiber-optic connections between processing nodes. Energy is carried on superconductive cabling and routed through relays like the one in the floor there to the components that can’t use raw engine plasma.”

“Which is most everything outside of the engine core,” Jadyn added.

“No, there’s a few systems that can deal with it without power conversion. Defenses, Flashpoint… Even so, the converted power for everything else is far different than what these relays were designed to handle. They’re the only ones we could install that didn’t immediately explode when we fed them the current. Instead, they wind up burning off a portion in an electromagnetic field. We’ve discovered I’ve an… allergy.”

Jadyn smirked. “That’s putting it lightly.”

“It’s a really bad allergy,” the skunk tried. “The EM field screws up my avatar and other holographic fields around here something fierce. I wind up passing through the blasted thing. Can’t stay cohesive enough to work in the space immediately around it.”

Tari nodded acceptingly. “This magnetic field… It’s still there when the power is off?”

“Only some stuff. Cabling doesn’t hang onto the EM field. Larger conduits and relays are tainted after they’ve been running a while. Takes a long time to self-decay and we haven’t been able to find a reliable way to clean it. Worst part is, the EM taint causes more interference, which causes more tainting. If we keep using the same part extensively, eventually it’ll just burn off all the power moving through it into EMI and not pass enough along to do anything worthwhile.”

Jadyn looked at the open wall panel. “That where number two is hidden?”

“No.” T’bia peered through the jumbles of colored wires, tracing a bundle. “This set should be connected somewhere… around… Here. Damn! I bet half the system troubles we’re seeing are because of these broken connections.”

“What’s that one?” he questioned.

“Computer communication bridge for lighting controls. Specifically, the backlighting. Scratch that problem off the list.” An audible click sounded within the wall as she reconnected the plug. “Aerin, quick diagnostic of biolight network.”

Please wait.” Soft humming sounds drifted from the wall paneling for several seconds. A similar noise floated from the white panels overhead before silence returned. “Main lighting passes. Backlight injector programming missing. Reprogramming… Completed. Backlighting passes.

T’bia frowned, putting the wall panel back in place and heading around the corner. “I’m going to go check a few other connections I can actually get my own hands on.”

“Backlighting good to fire up?”

“Should be fine,” T’bia called over her shoulder.

“Why backlighting over regular lights?” Tari questioned.

“The main overhead lights take a lot of energy,” Jadyn replied, putting the flooring panel back down. “The backlights are less power intensive… Adding a different chemical in the ship’s ‘bloodstream’ coaxes the walls into doing it. We usually use them when we’re cloaked so that we’re harder to detect, less energy streaming through the ship. Sort of a bluish-green bioluminescent glow. We can tweak it a little with other chemicals to change the hue but for the most part we leave it alone.”

“I see… Sorry if I’m asking too many things.”

“I’d be more concerned if you weren’t.” He smiled over his shoulder, fastening the floor back into place. “Aerin: Can the cockpit power relay be tested without main power online?”

Affirmative.

“Give it a quickie.”

Working.” A series of clicks and hums wafted up from under the floor. “Complete. Relay passes.

“Great. Bring up the backlighting to full.” Jadyn reached overhead, sinking his fingers into the Light orb and breaking the manifestation apart. As the white light faded, a faint blue-green glow filled the hall. The lighting barely allowed him to see Tari, kneeling not three feet away. “Thought they were working now…”

“I can see you just fine,” Tari noted.

“Oh. Must be the poor vision of this body, then… Wonder if I can fix that temporarily.”

“How so?”

“Can tweak my senses to a point using the Art…” Jadyn squinted as he brought the familiar threads together into a braid. The hall immediately seemed far better lit, although color definition was lacking. “There we go.”

“The Art is what you call your… gifts?”

“Mm-hm,” he confirmed. “About two percent of my world’s native population had the ability at some level. A very small fraction of those became adept in the skill.”

“Only the native populace?”

“The ability to reach the Art was passed from parent to children, though no one ever found a genetic marker for the talent. Our entire genome had been mapped out long before I was born. They knew what every molecule of DNA in every chromosome was responsible for.”

“And I thought humans were doing well knowing if an unborn was male or female… Knowing everything… I can’t imagine that.”

“Mom and dad didn’t want to know anything, so they didn’t allow the normal suite of tests to be administered. They wanted to be surprised… They certainly got their wish.”

They sat in silence for a time, waiting for T’bia to return from her check. Jadyn stared at his fingers, looking at the last one on each hand.

“What’s on your mind?” Tari asked, interrupting his reverie.

“When I first took on this form, I had a heck of a time getting used to five fingers.”

“You only have four or something?”

“Yeah. Four fingers, four toes… Digitigrade skeletal structure in the legs… Going to just love learning to walk all over again. Lack of a tail for balance took more than a little getting used to. And pink, of all colors… Give me russet, black, gray, or even blue… but pink?”

Tari smiled. “Not all things pink are bad.”

Jadyn opened his mouth, then shut it again with a smirk. “Now who’s flirting?”

“Shouldn’t be hard to swap walking style,” she went on, ignoring him. “I’ve never done the digitigrade form other than when I’m running around native, but some of my people alternate depending on what they want that week. There’s a fair number who swear by it -“

T’bia stormed around the far corner, muttering obscenities in three different languages. “When we get back, we rip all these connectors and invest in something that locks in place. Never time to do things right, but always can do them over…”

“How many did you do?”

“I just reconnected about a hundred and forty on this deck. Let’s go check the other two relays and see what we get.”


“Three for three.” Jadyn hung a wall panel back into place; Tarioshi passed him the tool to secure the plate. “Thanks. Bee? Why did we use these connectors, anyway?”

“As I recall,” T’bia stated, leaning on the wall and watching them work, “Toy had several crates stockpiled. Insisted they’d work just fine. We were in need and they were free.”

“The second best price.”

“I’m not sure I want to know what the first is. Aerin: shipwide diagnostic, if you please.”

Working.” A wave of white noise swept the hall as the tests all ran at once. “Failure: cloaking array.

T’bia sighed. “Knew I should have made you pull that wall apart… Failure details?”

Cloaking array cannot be tested without main power online.

“Well, that’s simple enough,” Jadyn mused. “What time is it, anyway?”

T’bia peered at her palm. “2420. We can deal with the cloak later - no one is going to see us here on the dark side of Luna. Aerin: fire up the Displacement core, but don’t route power anywhere just yet.”

Running Displacement startup scripts.” A slight vibration ran through the deckplates as the engine core came online deep in the ship. It was faint, but noticeable. “Displacement core is online. Main power ready.

“Good boy,” T’bia praised. “You get a biscuit.”

“What are we starting with?” Jadyn stood up, glancing around. “Main lighting might be in order.”

“Going to do myself.”

“Kinky.”

T’bia bopped him hard on the arm, snickering quietly. “That way I can keep an eye on things and make sure it’s all stable, furball.”

“You’re also selfish.”

“Goes without saying. Aerin: power up AI control and its dependencies. Do not process the autorun script.”

Routing power. Complete. AI Control active. TBIA AI core ready for initialization.

“AI Control: Transfer my program execution to the ship’s systems.” Her avatar vanished, snapping back into reality a fraction of a second later. She snagged her bracelet out of the air before it ever touched the floor. “There we go. Let there be light!”

The overhead lights faded on, coming up to half their normal intensity. “You’ve always wanted to say that, haven’t you?”

“You’ve no idea. Let’s see here… Looking good, looking good…” T’bia nodded, looking around herself as though she were peering through the ship’s walls. “Cockpit is up and ready, transporters are back online, we’re completely up and running if you ignore the lack of functional stealth hardware. And it only took…” She looked at her palm. “All day. Go us -“

“Uh… stupid question…” Tari scratched the side of her muzzle absently. “Why do you keep glancing at your palm like the secrets of life, the universe, and everything are scrawled there?”

“Because they are. See?” T’bia held up her hand; the word ‘PANIC’ stood out just in front of her palm in bold red letters. “Don’t tell anyone.”

“Portable data terminals, these bracelets she and I wear?” Jadyn clarified. “They produce their interface as a holographic display just above your hand.”

“But… I mean, T’bia shouldn’t have to look, right?”

Jadyn grinned. “Perceptive of you. She doesn’t have to, no.”

“But I do it anyway. There’s a bunch of complex reasoning and research behind it, but it all comes down to the fact that organics are more comfortable around an avatar that acts like they do. I could go around all day, not breathing or blinking or glancing at displays for information… But not doing any of that really creeps a lot of people out.”

“Weird… Now that you mention it, I think it would start to bug me.”

“Worst part? You probably wouldn’t know what it was at first about me that was so disturbing. Anyway, Jay. Learn to work faster. I mean, really. All day? Slowpoke.”

“Pfff,” he hissed. “Would only have been two hours if the relay near the engine room wasn’t buried behind ten feet of cable bundles that use those connectors every foot. Think I plugged a thousand of them back in after you shoved me through them.”

“That’s what you get for wanting to skip the cloak for the afternoon.”

“Still hate you more.” Jadyn yawned again, stretching his arms above his head. “Mm… Force the shift in the morning, work on the cloak when I come to.”

“Sounds like a plan. I’m going to go put the emitter on regeneration. See you two later.” The skunk padded to the grav-lift, heading to the upper deck of the ship.

“I’m way too used to Terran days,” Jadyn commented, yawning again. “We normally run on a twenty-eight hour day out here.”

“Must be nice to have four extra hours.” Tari stifled a yawn. “Stop that. You’re making me do it.”

“Homeworld was thirty-two. Minutes and hours are structured a little different, either way… Anywho, there’s one cabin we usually keep clean just in case we do have a guest. I’ll show you to it, then I’m going to crash. If it’s really bad I’ll just give you my room for the night.”

“I cleaned it up during your shower,” T’bia’s disembodied voice volunteered.

“Great, thanks.” He led the vixen down the hall, indicating one door in passing. “My room is here, if you need me for whatever reason. And this here is the gym. You remember where the lift to get upstairs was?”

Tari nodded. “How big is your ship, anyway?”

“Three story house.”

“Oh, right. You mentioned that before I actually believed you.”

“At least you remembered. Dad took down a few walls on this deck when he was working on things… Bee and I changed it a tad more here and there. If we clean out some of the junk we keep with us there’d be four livable cabins. Don’t really need that many with just myself and Bee, especially since she doesn’t want a room to keep anything.” He stopped in front of a door, gesturing her inside as it parted for them.

“This is for me?” Tari asked.

“Hope it doesn’t seem too small.”

“This is… This is bigger than I expected, really.” She padded around the cabin, shaking her head. “A lot bigger…”

“A pleasant surprise, then. Replicator is on the wall there, bathroom through the door next to it. Lights are voice controlled. If you need anything else, just ask the walls.”

“Thanks.”

“Pleasant dreams.” He smiled, leaving the room and heading back to his own cabin. The lights came on as he entered; he walked to his bed, falling unceremoniously onto the sheets with a groan.

“A tad tired?” T’bia queried.

“Exhausted. You haven’t worked me that hard in… ever.”

“You’re just weak.”

Jadyn rubbed his eyes. “Lights off, please. Dark is going to be welcome…”

The room faded to black. He laid on the bed, looking at nothing in particular, waiting for slumber to take him. Though he felt close to drifting off, something never quite let him get to sleep.

“Bee?”

“Shoosh, you’re trying to sleep.” her voice returned.

“Everything is working except the cloak, right?”

“Generally speaking, yes… I’ve tried to peek into the cloak housing but I can’t get past the triple-thick EMI shielding we installed around the damn thing.”

He nodded. “When do you suggest we leave?”

“After we get the cloak running or six days, whatever comes first. I really need to schedule a mass regeneration sequence now that we’ve got primary controls back, but it’ll take up to a day and a half to finish. Might end up as less. Hard to say until the process starts. I’ll need the ship in direct sunlight for the duration - lunar sunrise at our position should be in another day.”

“So probably three more days here… Start regeneration whenever you’re ready. What should we do about Tari?”

The AI fell silent. “I want to talk to you about her, but it can wait.”

“Now’s as good as later. Can’t get to sleep.”

He was vaguely aware of a sound near the door - the room’s emitters coming online as she took form. The backlighting came up as she sat down near his bed.

“You seem anxious to put her back on Terra,” she observed. “More so than just following protocol. Why?”

“Something is telling me that she needs to stay here.” Jadyn sighed, examining the mental flags that surrounded the kitsune fem. “It’s that same warning feeling again. Went absolutely crazy after you yanked us up, but I’ve been ignoring it as much as I’ve been able.”

“Ah. Guesses as to why she shouldn’t be here?”

“No idea. Hasn’t happened in a long time, though. Must be important.”

T’bia sighed. “Still… Consider her stance like this… You’re going about your business. Someone walks by with a book. Suddenly you notice it’s one of the lost Concatenations of the Art. They let you look at the cover, maybe a page or two near the front, but the book snaps closed before you can get to the real meat of things and have an understanding of what’s actually there.”

“Is there a rule somewhere saying that I shouldn’t have access to the book in the first place? Or, in the perspective of the book’s holder, is there a sensation that the book or the one holding it will burst into flame if they let someone else read it? That’d more line it up with what you’re getting at.”

“Well, it was worth a shot.”

“You really want to let her stay on, don’t you?”

“I’m surprised you don’t. I mean, we studied humanity for a year, no trace of any other intelligence on the planet. Then, during the very last day of your dirtside stint you find a member of another sapient race, another entire non-human subculture living secretly among humans. This kind of discovery doesn’t happen by chance. Well… I suppose it could, but there’s a better chance that it isn’t by chance. Does that feeling have any sort of timeframe about it?”

“Not really.”

“Okay then, what if we let her stay on for… I don’t know… a year? It’s not like it’s really that far to get back here. She already knows of our presence, so there’s not much more damage we can really do. Besides, she’s part of a society that keeps their own existence secret from ninety-nine point many more nines percent of the world. I really don’t think we’ll have anything to worry about.”

Jadyn considered, mulling the idea over and letting his mind work. “One year, not a second longer?”

“One year. I’ll time it myself from the moment we depart the system. She’d really appreciate the gesture. It’d show that we trust her. Maybe she’ll give us some more insights into the cesspool that is the human culture.” T’bia grinned, a glint of mischief in her eyes. “Plus, she contrasts your colors incredibly well…”

“Oh, stop it already. What year are we talking about? Terran, Velorian, what?”

“Eh… Let’s go with Val’Traxan. Longest of the available and reasonably sane choices.”

Jadyn sat quietly for five minutes, thinking and studying his feelings surrounding the matter.

“Bee?” he finally whispered.

“What?”

“The warning is gone.”


 

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