hares-recovery

Reconstructive Surgery

Tari had for some reason expected a spaceship to be tight on space, more so for living quarters. She wasn’t entirely sure about the logic for it - submarines were one of the closest analogs she could think of and they were a tight fit even for her. Nothing on the alien craft had stooped down to meet her expectations, preferring to exceed them. The sleeping quarters were simply the most current example. She had more room to herself than if she’d been paying for a good hotel.

The bed gave slightly under her weight as she sat down and undressed. Not quite a waterbed, and not quite a mattress… Some sort of semi-stiff gelatin, it seemed. She folded her clothing neatly, placing everything on a chair beside the bed. The ship still felt a touch on the warm side. She didn’t want to complain - perhaps the normal climate of the world that Jadyn and T’bia came from was like this? If they could put up with it with fur coats, she could adapt.

The bed turned out to be uniquely comfortable as she laid down on top of the sheets. She stared at the ceiling for a time, considering her hosts. An alleged fox of some sort, and an advanced computer AI… T’bia had been playfully crazy at times. At others, she had been deadly serious. Tari had found no small amount of difficulty in recognizing the two distinct states as she watched T’bia and Jadyn working. “Don’t touch that!” had meant “It will kill you” on one occasion, and “You’ll leave fingerprints and I’ll have to polish it again” on another.

Jadyn, on the other hand, seemed straightforward enough. Nothing in his body language indicated that he had anything immediate to hide - although T’bia’s secret hadn’t been wholly apparent, either. She wondered to herself what to expect when he changed back into his normal form. Most of the photos in the common room kept a dark-blue fox as a constant victim. Everyone else had been normal in coloring.

But what was normal? Perhaps where he came from, blue was as common as russet, gray, silver, or gold.


Fatigue soon caught up with her, whisking her mind into an all-too familiar dream. In the last many months she’d had a sort of recurring nightmare, but never could recall any of the jumbled assortments of images when she awoke. As she found herself lucidly walking the dreamscape once again, she finally recognized them for what they truly were - fragments of memories.

But whose? These aren’t my thoughts… Why am I seeing these?

The moment she experienced a memory, every detail was perfect. Seconds later they were gone, a fleeting thought, a wisp of emotion, a faint echo of the past. Over this way, a childhood memory, fuzzy at best… A sense of innocence, joy… Sounds of laughter… Another direction, another distorted remembrance, darkness… fear… a feeling of lost hope… Then another, aching with anguish, remorse, regrets…

Then, finally, one vision came crystal clear. She stepped off the Serin into some sort of private shuttle or cargo storage bay. Her surroundings all seemed perfectly familiar in the context of the vision; she knew where she was going, what she had been doing. At the same time, she knew she was only reliving the foreign memory, walking within the dreamscape. She was an observer, unable to change the flow of events around her.

Four assailants jumped out from behind alien shipping crates and other objects. She found herself defending against a surprise attack using a martial arts style she knew that she’d never seen before. A sword appeared in her hand out of nowhere, simply by making a mental summons; three of her attackers fell under quick, precise strikes of the blade. She hadn’t killed them, but they wouldn’t cause her further problems until they’d obtained medical attention to have critical tendons reattached.

Then she turned around, saw the fourth one move, wasn’t fast enough to block. She felt both nauseating pain and perverse warmth as something plunged between her ribs into the depths of her torso. Glancing down, she saw the hilt of a knife, crimson staining her clothes as her heart fell still.

And she laughed.


Tari woke with a start, sitting up in bed and panting heavily. Adrenaline coursed through her veins, her body shivering despite the heat of the room. No other memory she’d seen had been clear enough to remember after passing… Or perhaps, disturbing enough to wake her in the middle before she’d forgotten. But was the dream a memory, or a sign, or just a strange nightmare? The area she’d seen was unfamiliar, but the ship… The hallways within had been the same blue-green and black, T’bia had been there… The details of what she had been doing there were missing… The only thing still truly clear was the knife’s hilt protruding from her chest.

Standing and padding shakily to the replicator alcove in the wall, she stared at the interior for a full minute before remembering why she’d gotten up. “A glass of water, please,” she whispered, still distracted by the nightmare. The machine beeped quietly, generating her request. She drained the cup in one swallow.

“Another,” she asked, setting the empty back in the alcove. The replicator beeped once more, providing a larger glass of water.

“You all right?” T’bia’s disembodied voice asked quietly.

“I don’t know.” Tari stared at the tumbler in her hand for a time, finally drinking the contents down. “Just a bad dream, I’m sure…” I think I’m sure… maybe…

“Bad dreams are always a bad way to end a night.”

“Yeah…” Tari sighed, then peered at the ceiling quizzically. “End a night?”

“I suppose you wouldn’t have a clue what time it is. You’ve been asleep for onwards of nine hours.”

“You’re kidding.”

“Don’t worry about it too much. Jadyn’s still mistakable as clinically dead to the better part of this galaxy. Probably have at least a couple more hours if you want to go back to sleep. That, or if you need to talk, let me know. I listen well.” The AI paused. “Good Light, how’d I forget to turn down the cabin temperature? I’m so sorry.”

“It’s not a big deal… I figured this was normal for you two.”

“A year ago Jay complained it was too cool on board after his foray in shapedancing, so I tweaked it up a little… Completely forgot. Fixed now in your room and the halls. Leaving his cabin a sauna until after his shapedance.”

Tari padded back to her bed, sitting down on the edge. The cooler air was already apparent, a refreshing and welcome change. “But you’re… How can you possibly forget things? Same as the other stuff?”

“Same category, yes.” T’bia snickered. “I was developed to be as ‘organic’ as was possible with the tools Kieran had at hand, the fact my core processors are literally organic notwithstanding. Now, I can toggle off the fluff that would impair my operation or endanger the ship in times when it’s necessary, but under normal day to day circumstances I leave them on. Wouldn’t be my cheerful self otherwise.”

“I’m sorry, Kieran is who?”

“Jadyn’s long-deceased father, my original programmer slash creator slash father figure.”

“Oh. Well, I suppose being able to turn parts of yourself on or off must be nice…” Tari sighed, flopping back on the bed. “I’d shut off these weird dreams I’ve been having…”

“Oh? Like what?”

“… I’d rather not talk about it right now.”

“‘Aight.”

Tari rubbed her muzzle, trying to make herself think about something other than her nightmare. “I really don’t think I’ll be able to go back to sleep, either… Mind showing me the gym?”


“Lights.”

Jadyn stared groggily at the floor as artificial sunlight bathed the room. He hadn’t slept entirely well; what felt like a only couple hours of napping had been the whole night. Dreams of his past had tortured him throughout his slumber. Unconsciously, his fingers traced the scar on his chest before he stood up and stretched. Everything ached, every muscle pleading for more rest. His body knew what was coming, and was dreading it.

Or… Perhaps, the explanation was far more simple.

“What’s gravity at?” he queried, twisting his torso lightly to and fro.

“I gradually stepped up to Velorian between your boarding and the powerdown. Why?”

“Just trying to figure out why I’m so worn down.” Glancing around the room, he shook his head. “I think I’m going to use the gym for the shapedance reversal.”

“Wherever. Could do it outside on their moon’s surface if you wanted some extra torment. I’d actually vote for that so I don’t have to clean the floor.”

“I’d rather not explain why I can survive that to our guest just yet. Tari awake?”

“Been up for an hour or so. She and I are sparring at the moment. She’s pretty good. Bet she’d kick your ass.”

Jadyn raised an eyebrow, padding to the center of his room. Picking up the denims from the previous day, he hesitated.

“Anything you put on is going to be shredded on the other side,” T’bia pointed out.

“Shredding myself will be enough for the day, I think.” Glancing through his closet he took out a light robe and wrapped it about himself. While the garment was several sizes too large for his human body, the problem was generally solved after cinching the cloth belt around his waist. He plodded out of his room, opening the door to the gym across the hall.

Shouts and hand-to-hand fighting echoed through the corridor as the door slid open. Jadyn stepped inside, watching the two with a slight smile. Tari clearly was no novice at hand to hand combat. Her form seemed no more than a blur as she moved between offensive and defensive in time with her opponent. T’bia’s expression remained utterly stoic as she countered the kitsune’s attacks with her own. Not once did the motion between the two cease.

Tari had donned what appeared to be a fairly standard workout uniform: entirely black, sleeveless, seamless, ending just above her knees. It fit her mostly well, perhaps a tad too tight in the chest - though Bee might have replicated it like that on purpose.

After fifteen minutes or so, Tari stepped back and dropped to her knees, panting heavily. “Enough… Have to catch my breath… That’s really not too shabby a workout…”

“She makes a great partner,” Jadyn agreed. Tari looked up at him in surprise.

“When did you come in? Didn’t notice…” she gasped.

“Not long ago.” He leaned back against the wall. “I’d offer a round, but I’d prefer to get this shapedance over with so I won’t be dreading the inevitable wearoff later today. It’s really not a comfortable thing either way.”

She nodded. “Would you mind if I stayed?”

“Not at all. Can’t say it’ll be the most pleasant thing you’ll see while here.”

“I, however, can say with certainty that it will be one of the most unpleasant things on the tour.” T’bia’s clothing shifted back to her fleet uniform. An addition, however, was a very large umbrella in her right hand. “Ready here.”

Jadyn sighed, padding out to the center of the room. “You’re not helping, Bee.”

“You say that now, but just wait until I make you do the laundry. You’ll be yelling at me, wondering why I didn’t give you one. And I’ll laugh at you.”

Jadyn smirked and shed the robe, throwing it to the side of the room. Tari gaped at his nude form and quickly averted her eyes.

“Er…” she started.

“See you on the flip side,” T’bia noted, standing safely behind her umbrella.

Jadyn gradually drew in the familiar threads of the Art, letting the ancient energies seep through the core of his being. Weaving the delicate strands together into a crisscrossing pattern, he imagined himself within the center of the braid. Their warmth surrounded him, permeating his mind, flooding his veins. For a brief second, he felt utterly at peace with everything.

A single thought tightened the weave and set the manifestation’s teardown in irrevocable motion. Tremendous pulses of energy ripped though his nerves, locking every muscle in his body. The blazing pain only worsened as the energy fully descended upon his human form to enact the arduous rebuild.

Fighting to stay awake through the agony, he set his jaw and tried to suppress the sensory overload screaming through his brain. Millions of tiny pinpricks assaulted his flesh as his pelt regrew. Bones grated over, under, and past other bones as his skeleton forcefully rearranged itself. His skull jutted forward into a foxen muzzle with a sharp CRACK! that left stars floating in his vision. His ears rang for a time after that; had he not known better, he’d have sworn someone had slammed a baseball bat into the back of his head to get his nose back to its proper length.

Muscles pulled, tendons tore and stretched. Everything started healing; something else moved that forced it all to repeat. His suffering wore onward, his mind slowly slipping away under the torrents of pain. A strange euphoria swept him just before the darkness of unconsciousness finally covered his world, granting him peace at last.


“My Gods…” Tari whispered, watching helplessly as ancient magics the likes of which she’d never seen tore her host apart. Somehow, despite the torments raging throughout his body, he did not scream. Not so much as a whimper escaped his throat as his true form forcefully emerged from within his human guise. The very last sign that he’d ever inhabited a human body departed as his pupils lost their rounded shape. In the same heartbeat that they became vertical slits like her own, his irises faded from their bright and lively blue to a shining, silvery gray.

And then he collapsed in the middle of the floor.

Tari leapt to his side, looking to T’bia for help. The skunk merely shrugged.

“Come on! We have to do something to help him!”

“There’s nothing we can do.”

“But -“

“He’ll be fine, Tari. Trust me. More than that, trust him. He can take a lot of torment.”

Tari shook her head, rolling Jadyn onto his back. Confirming quickly that he did indeed still have a pulse and that he was still breathing, she shook him gently.

“Jadyn… Come on, wake up…”

“Won’t do you any good,” T’bia assured her.

“I’m not just going to stand around looking pretty while someone’s dying in front of me!” the vixen snapped; T’bia blinked at her outburst, but made no motion to help. With a growl, Tari turned back to the fox lying before her and shook him again. “Jadyn! Answer me, damn it!”

Jadyn groaned quietly, his eyes fluttering open ever so slightly. His mouth cracked open, no sound coming forth; he swallowed several times before trying again.

“Ow,” he croaked, squinting at the lights.

T’bia cracked up laughing and vanished.

“Ow? Ow?! That’s one Hell of an understatement!” Tari yelled, her voice softening as she continued. “You could have killed yourself…”

“I’d only have gotten better…” Jadyn attempted to sit upright, giving up halfway and lying back down on the floor mats. “Ugh… Whatever you do has to be a lot less strenuous than this…”

“Promise me you’ll never use that… that… whatever that particular spell was, ever again, and I’ll try to teach you our way… Okay?”

“Deal.”

The door opened; T’bia waltzed in, armed with a white box slung over her shoulder. Tari recognized the first device she grabbed from within the container as the medical scanner she’d used the day before. Using the skunk’s checkup as a cover, Tari took a better look at Jadyn’s restored body. He was indeed a foxen being like herself; the only immediately visible difference between their forms was his lack of flat-footed feet and his single tail. And, of course, the fact he was male. She did her best not to look like she was staring at him, quietly observing his curious colorings as T’bia did her checks. Dark blue fur, perhaps a shade of indigo, covered almost every inch of his body. Only his hair, his chest, one arm from below the elbow to his fingers, both legs from below the knees to his toes, and the end of his tail contrasted the blue with a silver gray matching his eyes. She guessed he was a touch over six feet tall, though lying on his back as he was made him hard to judge.

After about five minutes of recording data and mm-hmming to herself, T’bia put the scanner away. “Okay then.”

“Diagnosis good or bad?” Jadyn asked quietly.

“You’ll survive. I know your opinion on this, but since you’re in no position to fight me off, you’re getting drugged up a little.” She pushed a different unit against his neck and pressed a light on the side, twice. “Your head should start clearing in a few seconds. Can you stand?”

“Stand what?” he queried weakly. “Your horrible bedside manner?”

“Up, furball.”

“Maybe.” He pushed himself to a sitting position, accepting their help to make his way onto his feet. His legs wobbled as he tried to find his balance. “Room’s spinning…”

“It’ll pass. Hmm…” T’bia peered at him curiously. “You… Nah.”

“What?” he prompted.

“I could be wrong…”

“What?”

“I haven’t gone over all the details…”

Jadyn frowned. “What’s wrong?”

“I should double-check first, mind you, to eliminate any chance of error…”

“Bee…”

She held up her hand and set her fingers about an inch apart. “You seem about yay much shorter.”

“That isn’t funny.”

“You’re as normal as you normally are when you’re normal. I figured that you’d be out for an hour or two, at least.”

“Oh? How long was I down?”

“Maybe two minutes.”

Jadyn’s eyebrows coasted upward in surprise. “Only a couple of minutes…? Feel like I’ve been run over about a dozen times… I need to lie down for a little while, let everything settle… I think things are still moving… Uhg!” he grunted, one arm clutching his chest as he squinted through the pain. “Yeah, still moving…”

“We’ll make you run laps around the ship for six hours at double-gravity, you’ll be fine.” T’bia sighed, picking up the medical kit. “Tari, can you help him stumble back over to his room? I’m going to go and put this junk away yet again. Maybe I’ll organize it too.”

“All right.” Tari helped balance Jadyn as they walked out of the gym and covered the short distance to his bedroom. After easing him onto his bed, he noticed she seemed uncertain of if she should be doing anything else, or vacating the room, or doing something constructive to avoid looking at him.

“Tari?”

“Hm?” She met his eyes, then glanced away as the insides of her ears took on a slight reddish tint and flattened back.

“Pull up a chair. Let’s talk.”

“You sure? I mean, if you want to get some rest or something -“

“Tari.”

Her eyes came to meet his after a few seconds’ hesitation.

“Pull up a chair,” he repeated.

“…All righty.” Tari pulled one of the chairs over, sitting down. She’d positioned herself so she wasn’t really looking in his direction. With a quiet chuckle he laid back on the bed.

“You and the rest of the quad.”

“Huh?”

“Quadrant. This area of… Never mind. So, you’ve been on your world’s moon for a little better than a day, not that it’s easy to tell time or place up here.” A groan escaped his throat as he pulled his unwilling muscles into a deep stretch. “Oh, Light… Good to be myself again… Tell me, what’s on your mind after day one?”

“Well… ” Tari stared at the carpet, her tails twitching nervously. “I can’t say it’s exactly what I expected… Then again, I didn’t expect to find out that you were an alien or that T’bia wasn’t just an alien but an alien computer better at jujitsu and karate than I am.”

“She’s only better because her reaction time is several orders of magnitude faster than ours. Ask her to go with organic reaction times on your next match and you’ll probably stomp her into the ground.”

The kitsune fidgeted for a time. He didn’t prod her further, but instead simply worked on his stretching while she decided what she wanted to bring up. Masquerading as a human had been convenient for his research but the bodyform truly left something to be desired. They lived with it full-time and were surviving just fine, so it couldn’t be all bad…

“How long were you on Earth?” Tari finally asked.

“Standing on the planet, about a year. Been doing on-and-off surveys of planetwide radio transmissions for the past ten years or so.”

“In your time here - there,” she corrected herself, then stopped and shook her head. “Sorry. What did you actually do?”

“Started off in… Florida, I believe. Hitchhiked my way from there all over the place, stopping here and there. Posed as a writer to gather input on how aliens might be received. That area of the world - the United States of America. It’s such a diverse gathering of cultures… Our remote research figured it the best place to run our first bit of direct study. Difficult to say if that was a good choice or not.” He shrugged, rolling onto his stomach and pulling his legs over his back, forming a large ‘O’. “Things seemed calm, moderately peaceful… Viewing their news coverage of the rest world paints a bloody picture of so many places… That dark side of human nature wasn’t always apparent from the immediate areas I moved through.”

“They do have a good thing going there,” she agreed. “It was an amazing experience for me, the first time I set foot on their soil. The country seemed so alien at first… erm… That is…”

“There’s no problem using that term,” he assured her. “Technically, from my point of view, you’re the aliens.” Tari opened her mouth, then shut it again as she considered what he’d said. “But tell me, as a relative outsider among them - what do you think of their country now that you’ve spent time there?”

“I find their style of life… comfortable. Japan’s changed over the years too, adopted many western influences. There’s just something about the American lifestyle that attracts me. I’ve been traveling in various parts of the country for the last hundred years or so.”

At least she’s talking again… Did I make her that uncomfortable? “Anything memorable?”

“Watching their society evolve over the last century is a memory in and of itself. There’s been a lot of amazing things to happen here. There. Wherever.” She scratched her neck lightly. “Riddle me this, Batman…”

“Come again?” he questioned.

“Sorry. Comic book reference. Question for you about… clothing styles. You seem rather…” Her eyes shot to him for a heartbeat before focusing on the wall. “Um.. indifferent?”

Jadyn smirked. “Val’Traxans as a generalized whole were ‘indifferent,’ as you so delicately put it. There were several worlds that refused direct trade with us because of our apparently unique social morals. They thought we were too risque. We, on the other hand, generally thought they were anal. Clothing is for comfort and utility, if worn at all, but above all garments should accent the body. They shouldn’t be to mask its beauty or hide it altogether. Most Terrans seem to have forgotten that, presuming they ever knew.”

“Most people do scurry off to find something to cover themselves with if they find themselves nude with an audience. Even with fur covering everything, that level of modesty kind of rubs off on you after while.”

“Out here in the Alliance, there’s a degree of modesty… Not quite as severe as some of what I saw on Terra, but some. Openly expressing any degree of sexuality really seemed to be a taboo down there… Well, sort of. I don’t think they know what they want to do about it. Seems like there’s one push to bury it and a counterpush to drag it into the open. Lots of jokes and innuendoes flying about… Not much apparently done about them.” He laughed. “It’s so strange… There wasn’t really any differentiation to male and female in the overall social eye back home… It’s kind of hard to describe. I think part of the difference is that the huge divide between the sexes that Terra’s dealt with in the last several centuries never was an issue on Val’Trax.”

“Things were more open?”

“Far more,” he confirmed. “And females were never seen as less able than males. There was the occasional undercurrent trying to drive a wedge in and get things separated, but the masses openly laughed at them and went about their business.”

“Separated how? Private schooling or something?”

“Public facilities for changing, restrooms, showering.”

Tari gaped at him in surprise. “Everything was co-ed?”

“Different social morals.” Jadyn shrugged. “We believed in educating the young about themselves and the opposite sex at an early age, before they could make mistakes due to not knowing better. Unplanned pregnancies were damn near zero across the board, something other worlds couldn’t say about their own populations. Also, it wasn’t unusual to see individuals wandering the streets in only their fur - thereby technically nude in Terran standards. Most wore at least pants, though.”

“Why?”

“Pockets. Handy things for carrying stuff.” Jadyn sighed. “I’m sorry that I made you uncomfortable. Not ‘if,’ since it was pretty clear you were. “

“I’m just too used to the mindset of the people I was around. Don’t be uncomfortable on my account. I’ll adapt… Not that I’m going to be here that long, anyway.”

“Oh, about that. What are your plans?”

Tari frowned. “Not sure yet. I suppose… I was heading into Canada to visit some friends… Maybe you could drop me off near Brandon? Would save me some walking.”

“Sort of a conflict in the flight plans…”

“How so?”

“We were thinking of continuing your abduction for a while,” he answered, a smile creeping over his face. The shocked surprise in her eyes was beyond priceless. “But since you’re going to be otherwise occupied, we’ll have to manage without you -“

“Nonononono, hang on there, back the chicken truck up…” Tari hopped off the chair, kneeling next to the bed and looking straight into his eyes. “Run over that again?”

“I’ve thought it over, heard Bee’s opinion, did some more thinking when she threatened to club me like a baby seal -“

“I did no such thing,” T’bia suddenly defended, her voice drifting from everywhere. Now that Tari knew about her, she’d dropped the comm artifacts from her voice. “There were no aquatic mammals involved in the threat.”

“Right, anyway. I doubt it would hurt things too much if we let you stay with us for a year to see what things are like out here. That’s one of the two conditions - no matter what, in one year you’re coming back to Terra.”

Tari stared at him, clearly trying to figure out his change of heart. “What’s the catch? Am I on Candid Camera?”

“No catch, no secret deal, no magazine subscriptions. T’bia is holding us to the timeframe - one Val’Traxan year, no more.”

“I can accept that,” she whispered, stunned. “Why a Val’Traxan year?”

“It’s longer. You’ll be with us for a little better than sixteen months by Terran figuring.”

“And the second condition?”

“You cannot tell anyone on Terra that we’re out here until we make ourselves known. Not that they’d believe you, anyway…” Jadyn sat up, lightly taking hold of her hands. “There are a couple of ground rules out here, too. Most importantly, unless you’re prepared to present yourself as a human for the next sixteen months - presuming you can do that?”

“I can, but I’d rather not.”

“Then we keep your planet of origin under our collective hats. Bee is working on a plausible background for when someone asks where you’re from. Secondly… Most worlds of the Aligned charter are on some level aware of what they deem ‘supernatural abilities,’ but still… Try not to use your gifts in public. At least, nothing immediately obvious. It won’t cause any lasting harm if you do something, but the less attention we draw to you, the better. Past that, there’s nothing I really think I’d have to lay out in advance. Just be mindful.”

“I can accept that, too.” Tari stood and put her arms around his neck. “Thanks, Jadyn. I really appreciate this.”

“You’re welcome,” he replied, hugging her in return. “And welcome aboard, again.”


“Can’t believe you convinced me to work this afternoon.”

“It’s my prescription for your recovery. Physical therapy.”

“Bah.” Jadyn grunted, pulling himself out of a crawlspace on the maintenance deck. Holding up a small, clear crystal in the light of the corridor, he turned it slowly between his fingers. “Hum… Have a look.”

T’bia took the stone from him, holding it before her eyes and gazing through it. “Not so much as a chip. Refraction index is still high… Lattices look good.”

“Apply a bit of your avatar’s field power.”

She nodded. The crystal gave a faint red glow before fading from view altogether, taking a large section of T’bia’s arm along with it. “I could be wrong, but this one seems to be working just fine.”

Tari, sitting on the floor nearby, watched on with avid interest. “That’s the cloaking device?”

“A small but critical part of the array.” T’bia’s arm returned, the crystal melting into existence between her fingers. “There are several of these crystals tucked away in an assembly hidden behind this wall. Bombard them with a specific energy frequency and they emit a kind of ‘negative’ energy, for lack of a better non-technical explanation. The assembly captures their emissions and routes that energy to the ship’s hull, rendering us effectively invisible to most sensors and to the naked eye.”

Jadyn crawled back into the wall, fumbling inside for half a minute. “Damnit… Who put these bolts in?”

“You did,” T’bia replied.

“I did a good job. Should fasten the power connectors with these blasted things… No room to get leverage with the impact drivers… Void with it. Suppose this is the same reason they’re so tight, anyway.” A groan of wrenching metal echoed from the crawl space’s maw; several dozen bolts rained down onto the floor inside.

“What’d you do?”

“‘Air’ wrenches.”

“Har, har.”

“Didn’t have the room for anything else. Toy’s a small guy, didn’t build this chamber large enough for anyone but him to work inside.” Jadyn slid back into the corridor, dragging a three-foot-wide metal sphere with him. T’bia’s avatar immediately flooded with static. She grimaced, glancing down at her hands.

“Icky.”

“You don’t look so good.” Reaching through the door of the cloaking unit, Jadyn pulled the rest of the crystals.

“I’m thinking this isn’t a good sign. Let’s have a look at those.” Jadyn offered her one; her avatar passed through his hand as she tried to take it. “Nope, this isn’t a good sign.”

“Tari, hold up each of these for her to look at? I need to run the extensions down.” Passing the quartz-like crystals off to the kitsune vixen, he crawled back under the shielding. A mishmash of electrical and fiber-optic connections dangled down from the ceiling of the chamber. Carefully matching strips of colored tape someone had conveniently labeled each connector with, he connected up an armful of extension cables and pulled the free ends back into the hall. T’bia and Tari seemed finished as he emerged from the crawlspace once again. “Verdict?”

“They’re all flawless.” T’bia snorted. “So much for a simple fix.”

“Told you it’d be a good idea to take it out.”

“I was hoping you’d be wrong.”

“So was I.”

Tari handed back the crystals one at a time; Jadyn seated them within the assembly before relatching the access door. “Really glad these are color coded,” he mumbled, picking up the extension cables and plugging them into the sides of the sphere.

“Glad you’re not colorblind.”

Tari shifted slightly on her feet. “You hook it up backwards and the ship is twice as easy to see on radar, that how it works?”

“Something like that.” Jadyn grinned at her, connecting the last power input and backing away from the sphere. “Do it.”

“Quick diagnostic first, for all the good that will do… Bah, failed it. Forcing a power-up for a full test run.” T’bia’s avatar flickered, filling completely with static before vanishing altogether. Intense white light blazed through the heavily tinted window on the door of the cloaking unit as power ripped through the gems within. Jadyn squinted, walking around to the far side.

“Power full on?” he queried the air.

Yup. Starting to get responses in… Were any of those connections loose?

“Two seemed wiggly. The red-green tape and the orange-black-white, I think.”

Diagnostic output and secondary power input. I’m going to replicate some superglue at our next mass maintenance session.

“Wouldn’t hurt. How’s it read?”

Well… Nominal, in a manner of speaking. Input is nominal, in that it checks out normally. Output is nominal, in that it’s so insignificant that it took two sweeps to detect anything.

Jadyn frowned, looking over the gleaming orb cautiously. “Any abnormal thermal patterns?”

Not a one out of place.

“Try kicking it?” Tari offered. “Works with the television.”

“Did that twice on the way out of the wall.” Jadyn grinned at her. “The big rubber mallet is next.”

“Okay. Was just a thought.” She smiled back cheerfully.

The EMI field is larger than normal,” T’bia noted. “Holographic emitters are still trying to generate my avatar. I’m making a rather rude gesture involving a trout.

“Was really hoping it wouldn’t be that… Shut it down.”

The illumination streaming from the door faded away. The nearby wall that’d taken most of the light exposure from the tinted door shifted from a bright leafy green back to the normal black and blue-green. A faint bit of colored static filled the air where T’bia had stood minutes before; nothing else happened.

I think I’ve finally found the problem,” she mumbled. “We cooked our cloak.

“The assembly’s contaminated.”

Big time… The diagnostic sealed its fate, but the damn thing would have been toast if I’d forced it fully online to conceal the ship.

Tari looked at the device curiously. “So if the assembly itself is the problem, how do you fix it?”

“We don’t. This material is different than the stuff the power relays are made from, it’s a dense alloy… It’s supposed to be pretty impervious to any form of radiation, magnetic field, electric field… If it gets hit hard enough with a surge to be contaminated - especially enough to screw up Bee this much - there’s really little hope for it.”

The kitsune frowned. “Can’t you demagnetize it? Or do whatever would bleed off that field?”

“Not with anything we’ve got on board. Guess we’ll run without for a while.”

That’s so not a good idea, but I don’t have any alternatives to offer.

Tari fidgeted with her tails. “I know I’m the new face around here, so I hate to suggest things that seem obvious to me…”

Do it anyway,” T’bia instructed.

“By all means,” Jadyn agreed. “If you’ve got a suggestion, please, share it.”

“Well…” She frowned. “Can’t you use your magic to drain the field? Like, do a spell that taps that sort of energy or converts it to something else?”

“Mmm… Nice thought. I don’t know of anything I have that will work. At least, nothing that will handle something this large on more than a temporary basis.”

“Men,” she mock-scolded. “Always getting someone else to do the work.”

T’bia snickered. “That’s how I feel most days. Did you know he doesn’t even -

“Would you two like me to leave so you can bash me behind my back?” Jadyn interrupted.

“More fun to have a visible target.” Tari knelt beside the cloaking unit. “Well… I can try my fingers at it, but I don’t know how much I can bleed off. Magnetism and assorted stuff isn’t in my field of studies.”

“If you have something that works I might be able to adapt it after I see it in practice.”

She nodded, closing her eyes and reaching toward the device, stopping short of touching it by a couple of inches. A yellow glow surrounded the sphere as she concentrated. As the energy flowed towards her hands an ear-piercing whine screeched from deep within the metal orb. Three seconds worth of ultra-high-frequency pain ripped through the hall before it stopped.

Bad noise, no biscuit,” T’bia scolded, her avatar showing initial signs of clarity. “Yow. Was all over the place… took an extra second to lock the antinoise processor on.”

The energy passing between the assembly and the kitsune’s hands was quickly slowing. Her small frame trembled with the effort; she’d clearly not been ready for what she was dealing with, and there was a tremendous amount of energy left to drain. He knelt down behind her carefully, trying not to disturb her concentration, and slowly meshed himself into her channeling. A raw surge of unchecked energy flooded through his body, rattling his mind before exiting through his tap to the Art. It left a horrible metallic flavor in his mouth - almost like the taste of blood after biting his tongue, but far stronger and unnatural.

Almost an hour and a half later, Tari fell limp in his arms as the last of the energy contamination was drawn from the cloaking unit. Beyond her labored breathing and her sweat-soaked fur and uniform, she seemed all right. He ran his fingers through her hair lightly, giving her a light scratch between the ears. “You good?”

“Just… exhausted…” She flexed her fingers a few times, making sure they were all still there. Jadyn laced his four with her five, feeling a small spark as static charges evened out.

“I don’t know how, but I’ll try and make it up to you.”

“Better… keep that promise.” She smiled peacefully, her eyes still closed.

Jadyn glanced up at T’bia, raising an eyebrow questioningly. She was sitting on top of the assembly, no visible distortions to her avatar. “You seem rather cohesive.”

“It’s got less of a charge than when we got the damn thing. Nothing to fall apart over.” She shook her head in amazement, switching to their native tongue. “‹Incredible. Can we keep her on with a maintenance contract?›”

“‹You know we can’t.›” He stroked the kitsune’s head gently to try and comfort her; she murmured pleasantly at his touch.

“I don’t mean to be rude,” she whispered, “but would you two mind speaking English when you’re talking about me right in front of me? Or at least something I can make out?”

“How do you know we weren’t talking about something else?”

“My nose always tickles when people talk about me.”

“Well… She started it. Anyway, Bee - I think I’m going to go tuck this one in for a nap. We can test the cloak again afterwards.”

“Take your time. I can get this ball rolling on my own. It’s topical humor! It’s a sphere. Ha-ha. Ha. Yeah?”

Jadyn shook his head and picked Tari up into his arms. The g-lift at the end of the corridor eased them up to the lower deck without so much as a bump. Her cabin’s door was a short walk away; the blue-green glow of the backlighting was the only illumination present in the room as they entered.

Tari groaned as he eased her down on her bed. She rolled over onto her belly, burying her head under a small pillow. He knelt on the mattress beside her, gently rubbing her shoulders. Every muscle his fingers found felt like it had tied itself in a knot.

“You’re wound up tight… Was it that bad?” he asked quietly.

“Nuh-uh… Uh… Not really, just got a lot… on my mind…” She sighed, relaxing under his ministrations. He thought he heard her purring.

“Any idea how you did what you did?”

“It had some sort of magnetic field or something, you said… I tried to change it to an electric one, I think… A little bit at a time, bled it off… Totally not my element, I don’t know for sure if I was working it right… Couldn’t even convert it to something I could use…”

“Electric, though… That would explain the shock I got. I thought it was some sort of subliminal warning.” He smiled to himself, kneading his fingers along her back. “What is your element of choice?”

“Forest… Trees, plants, stuff like that… You really helped me out… I didn’t realize how adept you are… ‘till you actually let me use your reserves like that… I wish I could - Nhhh, ow…” She whined softly as he passed over a tight muscle along her spine. He eased back, circling the area lightly with his fingers.

“Sore spot?”

“Yeah. Pulled a couple of muscles when I thrashed in the trap…”

Jadyn worked the point he’d discovered, channeling a small thread of Fire, and pressed gentle heat through her flesh. An appreciative groan rose from her throat as she shifted to a more comfortable position on the quilt.

“Mmmh, this is incredible… Where’d you learn to give massage like this…?”

“When you grow up in a society that doesn’t hide from itself with silly things like modesty, sensual touch becomes second nature. I don’t have as much training in massage as some did but I like to think I have the important things down pretty well.”

“I’d say so. I’ll have to keep you around… Need a masseuse on staff…”

“Someone else made a similar comment earlier about your talents.”

“I knew you guys were talking about me.”

“She started it.” The muscles in her lower back flexed and relaxed as she swished her tails lazily. Shifting his own tail about, he held both of hers down with it. “I’ll try not to do anything that would be considered unbecoming of a professional.”

“The only thing I’d consider unbecoming right now would be stopping… It would make me very, very unhappy…” Her ears flicked rhythmically instead of her tails: left, right, left, right… “And you do not want an unhappy kitsune in your midst… We tend to find ways to make ourselves happy again… Usually at someone else’s expense…”

“So what should I do if my arms get tired? I haven’t done this in a while, you know. Out of practice.”

“Then you can sit here… mmmh… and wait… until you can continue.”

He chuckled quietly. “Better finish the first time through, then?”

“I’m still not going to let you leave until I think you’re done…”

“I can’t stay forever.”

“We’ll see about that… Ooooh… Yeah, right there… Nhmm…”


 

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