hares-recovery

The Terran Report

“Well, I have to say, I’m terribly happy that the stay was uneventful.” Jadyn looked over the room, taking a mental inventory to be sure they had collected all the things they’d brought in.

“Uneventful?”

“Well, beyond the events we created ourselves.”

“I’d hope there were some memorable moments there.” Tari smiled, adjusting her bag’s shoulder strap. “You were expecting more?”

He gestured for her to step into the hall, following her outside. “Computer, room check-out.”

One moment.” There was a pause. “Our records indicate your balance has been paid in full. Thank you for your stay.

“I’m always expecting more,” he continued, as their pair made their way to the shuttle bay. “It just seems when I’m trying to be low-key and off the radar, everyone and their second cousin takes notice. That really didn’t happen this time. Maybe someone finally fell asleep at the ‘mess with Jadyn’s head’ button.”

“Maybe you’ve just gotten better at urban stealth.”

He raised an eyebrow, glancing at her sidelong as they boarded the lift. “‘Urban stealth?’”

“Well, maybe that’s not a good term.”

“You mean blending in? Subtlety, maybe.”

“Doesn’t sound as amazing and interesting at a dinner party. ‘What do you do?’ ‘I am an expert in urban stealth.’”

“Oh, the ‘my job has more letters than yours’ contest. Well, let’s go for a double-word-score and call it ‘xenogenic stealth,’ since we’re blending into the crowd of other races.”

Tari smirked. “Suppose so.”

“I suppose you’d be a practitioner of arborean stealth, hiding among the trees?”

“Dual major, I’d think. Arborean and xenogenic.”

“Ah, that you would be. More experienced than me, even.” Exiting on the docking bay floor, Jadyn glanced down toward where the pair of guards had formerly been posted. “They must have been relieved when the Tamar entered orbit.”

“Who?”

“The sentries,” he replied, walking to the door and tapping on the locking button. The portal parted with a muffled groan; Khris was waiting just inside, glancing over a pad.

“About time you got here,” he observed.

Jadyn smirked. “What’s the rush? You have a date? All dressed up and looking simply splendid in those robes… Who is he?”

The lotoran laughed. “Figured I’d at least see you off since I’ve been so antisocial these last couple of weeks. Have had a pile of work to finish that you wouldn’t believe.”

“That’s nothing. I’ve got fourteen months of junkmail waiting at home. How long until the fun starts?”

“The session should be starting in… Hm, twenty minutes.”

“Lovely that they time arrival so well. Catch you there.”

Khris nodded, dropping the pad into a pocket of the council robe as he left the bay. “Good luck.”

“Aerin: two for transport. Bring up the AI.”

I’m already awake, and you’re nearly late.” The bay vanished, leaving the transport room of the Serin in its place. “Guess that’s business as usual.”

“I know, I know.” He stepped off the pad, setting his things on the floor. “I’m going to get this dye rinsed out really fast. Keep us cloaked for now and take up a position near Terac Lun.

“All righty. I’ll get logged in for the visual aids, if slash when you come out of hiding during the session. Tari, you going with him?”

“No, I’ll stay behind. I’d rather not lower my intelligence by listening to politicians babble.”

Jadyn grinned. “At least you have that option.”


“All rise for the Speaker of the Council of the Aligned Worlds, the Honorable Nesoli Rodregez of Drekira. This meeting of the Aligned Council is now in session.”

The Speaker took his seat at the front center of the chamber, facing the rest of the room as the assemblage sat back down. A tall red drekiran with black orbs of eyes, Nesoli appeared almost demonic in his formal business suit. The position of Speaker was traditionally filled by a Council member, whether active or retired, nominated and elected by a vote of the Council’s general assembly. Nesoli had been chosen for the current term of office - ten years, or until he chose to step down, whichever came first - and had done an incredible job of making forward progress. He was one of the few in recent history who hadn’t let the position go to his head.

“Good morning, Councilors.” Nesoli announced. Jadyn smirked to himself as he watched. As far as he knew, Nesoli hadn’t ever used the PA system. His deep, booming voice carried through the chambers without need for amplification.

Jadyn stood behind Khris, cloaked in an invisibility manifestation, listening passively as the normal formalities and opening business were conducted. Time wore on slowly as the morning progressed. He repeatedly entertained the idea of simply turning in his reports and leaving. It wasn’t that observing the Council was dull, because it was. It wasn’t that he didn’t have anything better to do, because he did. It was mainly because he was tired of standing up and there was no room on the floor to sit with pages and messengers walking around almost randomly. He considered the problem for a time and finally reversed his own gravity, sitting on the ceiling just over Khris’s position.

It made the assembly seem more interesting.

Two hours later the Terran report finally came up. Jadyn almost missed it, having dozed off briefly. Nesoli adjusted his wings concernedly as he studied the console before himself. “It appears that Captain Tzeki has not checked in with any of the posts between here and Terra. His ship was detected by listening stations as entering Aligned space, followed by a sizable subspace disturbance after which he has not been located. His scheduled return was one week ago. If any Councilor has information on the location of Captain Tzeki, please stand and be recognized.”

Jadyn watched in silence as all the members of the Aligned Council spoke amongst themselves; it sounded like a hornet’s nest after being sprayed with water. He’d never been late to report before. If anything, he had always been early. His reliability was one of the reasons they continued to request ‘favors’ of him. It didn’t really matter that much to him… It was something to do to keep busy. He just enjoyed being able to complain about it.

Within a few seconds, a lone black feline stood on the opposite side of the room. Conversation died instantly as every head in the place turned to look at him.

I win, Jadyn thought to himself.

“The Council recognizes Councilor Ceth T’zran of Feldar.”

“Thank you, Speaker. It is with dismay that I convey this news to the Council. I have received transmissions from an unidentified source that point to what may be the loss of Captain Tzeki. It appears a band of pirate raiders made an attempt to destroy his ship. From the data I was given, they may have succeeded.”

A murmur echoed through the crowd at the announcement. Jadyn watched the feline’s face carefully, not seeing what he’d expected - no hidden satisfaction, no pleasure in what was thought to be the fox’s death. Not so much as a glimmer of glee tainted his features. Instead, the Feldaran Councilor looked almost… depressed?

Nesoli rapped the stone gavel two times; all was silent once again. “Do you have these transmissions with you, Councilor?”

“I do. If I may, I will replay them for the rest of the Council to witness.”

“Please proceed.”

T’zran took a data crystal out of a small case, inserting it into the console where he sat. After a few moments pause, the large projection screen overhead came to life. All other illumination faded to darkness as the video clip played back.

The picture took a moment to resolve to clarity; Jadyn looked on with curiosity as the skirmish between himself and the three pirate ships replayed before the Council. Everything was exactly the same as it had been. No part of the conflict had been cut or edited from the point the recording started. He was surprised to hear his own transmission ordering the vessels to break off.

His mind strayed from the scenes to how Ceth was acting. The feline seemed genuinely upset about what had happened, perhaps even so far as saddened… But, on the other hand, he had been so cold when Jadyn had encountered him previously that his current state might just have been an act. His acting skills had never been this good… And what of his peculiar contact while the Serin had been in Terran orbit?

Something wasn’t adding up, and the fox didn’t like it one bit.

The event horizon of the Flashpoint tunnel blossomed brightly on the clip, bringing his attention back to the activity. The Serin seemed to enter the wormhole, disappearing from view. The three pirate ships stopped just short of the opening; two pulled away. A mine was set at the entrance by the third ship before it drew back and detonated the explosive unit. As the unnatural rift collapsed upon itself, an immense shock wave decimated all three ships before reaching the recording’s vantage point a mere fraction of a second later.

The screen displayed some sort of logo over the static - likely that of the pirate clan that had been paid to do the work - before shutting off entirely. Discussion filled the room as the lights came back up. Nesoli left everyone to talk for several minutes as he stared at the blank screens. He looked disturbed by the footage. It took a lot to upset that red dragon. Having someone rip one of his hearts out of his chest, take a bite, and describe to him why the flavor reminded them of foot odor wouldn’t have produced as much concern as was on his face.

Khris tapped something into a pad. From Jadyn’s upside-down vantage point, it took him half a minute to focus on what was there. If you’re hovering nearby - How did they retain that footage? Was there another ship?

He paused to consider how the pirates had managed to send the recording out of ground zero. There had been no other ships detected and all three that had been attacking were on the recording. The camera had been stationary. Furthermore - it couldn’t have been a purely visual recording. The shockwave was visible before striking the camera, yet was supposedly traveling faster than light.

More likely, he returned, dropping back down to write on the pad, they had a small sensor beacon transmitting data away from the place and reconstructed a visual log. I’ll recheck the logs, but we didn’t see any comm activity while it was happening. Did you happen to see how Ceth looks about it? He doesn’t seem to like what he’s sharing. No glee in killing me off?

Nesoli restored order before Khris could enter his answer. “Councilor T’zran, have you confirmed the validity of this recording?”

“I have not, Speaker. I do not know if I would be able to, at that. The data crystal was on my desk when I came into the office this morning minutes before the session, with no trace to how it arrived or who may have sent it.”

“Though it may be valid, we need more detail before we can make a judgement on the events within the recording. Do you have more you wish to speak?”

“No, Speaker. That is all.” T’zran retook his seat.

Nesoli hesitated before addressing the assemblage. “Should anyone have further input, please bring it forward now.”

Jadyn reached over to Khris’ console, entering a message into the queue for Nesoli. I’m here, Ness, ready to give the report. You aren’t going to like portions of what I’m going to present to the Council, though.

Silence reigned for several more seconds before the dragon took a deep sigh of relief. “Excellent… The Council recognizes Captain Jadyn Tzeki of the Aligned Fleet Special Forces. You have the floor.”

Jadyn conjured himself to the center of the speaking floor in a blink of light, stepping forward from the halo as it dissipated. Fire would have been more fun, but fire was Nesoli’s lever and really was overused in teleportation special effects. Someone screamed from Khris’ general area at his appearance; likely one of the newer Councilors or a page. Guards moved in as he stepped into the open but stopped short once they recognized him. The advantages of sticking out…

“Thank you, Speaker, Councilors… I wish to first apologize for my tardiness. As you witnessed on the recording, I had some… difficulties… on my way back to Aligned space. That said, I will make this short, as I am certain you have other, more pressing business to attend to. While it may be a difficult change of topic in light of the preceding video, I would prefer to begin with the report on my assignment of the last year: the survey of the Sol stellar system’s third celestial body, currently registered as Terra. Afterwards, I will address the video footage. Would this be acceptable?”

Nesoli arched an eyebrow, giving a slight nod. “Proceed.”

“Thank you, Speaker.” He turned slowly, speaking to the entire gathering. Related images appeared on the overhead screen as T’bia followed along with his summary. “One year is nowhere near enough time to make a complete and accurate survey of the societies as detailed and complex as those which thrive on Terra. Given, they are a primitive world by our perspective, but for their stage of advancement they are evolving rapidly. Much valuable information was gathered, both from harvesting data stored in their global computer networks, as well as more personable one-on-one interviews. With that said, I find the human race is filled with many confusing elements, some of which are still perplexing to even themselves. In very general terms, they do not trust what they do not understand. They seek to control it, to bring it under their control, or to eliminate it as a threat if it cannot be placed under their control.

“Planetary forces like this Council exist but the voices of reason are sometimes drowned out by their current pull toward violence. They have tried to create organizations to preserve peace, but these groups cannot always help in the worst locations. There is just too much of an undercurrent to keep the waters calm. In a way, they are suffering the same problems on a planetary scale which existed here on an interstellar scale before this Council was forged.”

Photos and video clips decorated the screens, showing scenes related to what Jadyn spoke on. Images from news and documentaries. The proceedings from and aftermath of various kinds of warfare - nuclear radiation, chemical burns and poisonings, massive gunfire, aerial bombardment. Following the terrible scenery was a sequence of frames demonstrating humanitarian aid.

“Among all this chaos, order still manages to survive. People risk their well-being to enter regions destroyed by either natural disaster or human hands to deliver food, medicine, and other merciful assistance.

“None the less. I cannot recommend the initiation of First Contact proceedings with Terra at this point in their evolution for two core reasons. First, they are simply too intolerant of the unknown and of anything different than they are. Many recent entertainment films seem aimed at inciting fear and paranoia of that which is from off-world.” Scenes from a movie - Independence Day - came on above him, showing entire cities being leveled by massive alien ships. Those faded to another scene where one of the ‘aliens’ was speaking through the body of a doctor. “Given, these are fictitious works, but I do think they reflect the current Terran mindset, if only on their subconscious level.

“Secondly, and far more important in the spirit of the First Contact directive. It would be ill-advised at best to alter their current path of technological advancement. They should be allowed to reach out and find us when they are ready and not a moment before. I do, however, recommend that a new survey be conducted after a quarter- or half-century has passed, to re-evaluate their progress. It is unlikely that they will have advanced far enough for contact at that time, but I believe it important to follow their evolution toward interstellar travel.”

He held out a datapad as the screens shut off. A page stepped up and took it from him quickly. The Speaker looked over the contents as it was delivered to him, then set it down on his podium. “The Council accepts your report, Captain. We will schedule a Contact Committee interview after everyone has had time to review the filing. Are you open for preliminary questioning?”

“I am.”

“Councilors, please limit your questions to the Terran report. We will investigate the other issue after the question period. Captain, also defer any questions of the same.” Several Councilors immediately entered the queue. Nesoli began at the top of the list on his console. “Councilor Haraif Qeu of Antal.”

A large ursine in the south side of the chamber stood to address him; Jadyn recognized him as one of the members of the First Contact committee. “Captain, welcome back.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“What is the possibility of Terrans reaching or breeching the light barrier within the next century?”

“Under their own power, I find that unlikely at best. Current manned space missions have not reached as far as even their moon in several decades. Solid and liquid fuels for propulsion by combustion are still prevalent. Nuclear fission is used in some areas for electrical power. Other sources are being developed or researched. Fusion power is still out of their reach. They are experimenting with a variety of particle accelerators and deep-space telescopes and are determining the nature of the universe. I expect they will discover how to access the subspace and hyperspace layers in the next fifty, perhaps seventy-five years, but implementing a vessel using these technologies is quite some time away.”

The Speaker called off another name; someone on the west side stood. “Explain your mention of interviews, if you would.”

“Certainly. In the guise of a human male I posed myself as a writer and inquired with various people across a continent about their opinions of their own society. They were to regard me as an alien in making their responses. I justified the interviews to those questioned by claiming the book was about a race of aliens studying Terra.”

A brief wave of laughter rippled through the gathered members; Jadyn nodded slightly in acknowledgement. “There was definite uncertainty as to the acceptance of non-Terrans. When presented with hypothetical questions regarding aliens that are similar to non-sapient races that live on Terra, rather than the current craze of short green or gray fleshy creatures with large pupil-less eyes, answers ranged greatly. Several children report that it would be ‘really cool.’ Adults seemed to find it more acceptable than the idea of the aforementioned gray-skinned aliens. Also, I would like to note that someone is harassing the planet’s inhabitants by crashing abandoned vehicles into the surface with mark-eleven crash testing simuloids on board. If anyone is missing any equipment or is aware of anyone who is, please let Security know.”

Nesoli allowed others to question before finally asking his own. “Finally, Captain… There is the issue of what we all witnessed in Councilor T’zran’s submitted recording. Would you care to elaborate upon what was seen?”

“On the transit to the Sol system fourteen months ago we were assaulted by pirates. This footage you observed was of the second attack on my vessel. I am uncertain of who captured the video feed and how. We were attacked with no warning and no provocation mere seconds after our scheduled decloak upon entry into the borders of Aligned territory. We received no response to our communication attempts. My pilot and I agreed we needed to cause a… distraction. However, rather than following our projected path into the wormhole, they instead tried to make the tunnel collapse upon my ship and trap us between dimensions. The tunnel indeed collapsed, but the massive release of energy from its uncontrolled implosion took their lives as a result. The V.T.C. Serin, her crew, and a civilian all very nearly became victims as well.”

Another look of relief passed over the dragon’s face. So that’s what was bothering him… He thought the mine was responsible for all the destruction… Why would he have thought that? Maybe it wasn’t as quiet as Pakar led me to think.

“However,” Jadyn continued slowly, “I believe that this entire issue is due to a security breech or a leak within the Council itself.” He paused, finding all eyes focused on him and complete silence in the chamber. “My flight plan was purposefully erratic, due to the fact that there is known to be a problem with pirates in the area between Alliance space and Terra’s no-fly zone. I did as per protocol and filed a secured copy of our planned route in only the Council database. The only way the same three ships could have attacked us in two distant locations, fourteen months apart, is that they knew precisely when we would be at those coordinates. Someone gave them those flight plans from the database, and someone contacted me using secure Council frequencies to verify my departure schedule mere hours before I departed the Sol system.”

He sighed heavily. “An hour ago, I thought I knew for certain who the leak was -” His eyes lingered on Ceth for a fraction of a second as he scanned the chamber; to his credit, the feline made no motion to confirm or deny the idea, but was aware he was being looked at. “- but now I find that my certainty is no longer complete.” He held out a small crystal; the page stepped back up to take it. “Speaker, there is a name in the text on this record. Disregard it, and please remove it before filing it into the database. The key I have supplied the Council previously will decrypt the entire report.”

The dragon nodded as the crystal was delivered to him. “Is there anything else you wish to add at this time, Captain?”

“Yes, briefly. As may be expected, I am not at all pleased with this situation. I am friends with some of you, acquaintances with others. Many of you do not know me well or at all beyond the details of my service record. Why any of you would put my ship and the lives of those aboard in danger is beyond my comprehension. I honestly do not recall that I have done anything to warrant such a method of my extinction… I would appreciate being told in words rather than force if I have done something to offend, so that I may attempt to make amends for the transgression. If a message cannot be brought about personally, there are other, fully anonymous methods to convey such displeasure without resorting to these extreme measures.”

Nesoli waited, then nodded slowly when no one spoke. “I will personally review this data, Captain. Thank you for your report. And, welcome back.”

“Thank you, Speaker. It’s good to be home.”

“You are dismissed.”

Jadyn dipped his head in respect. The power of the Light engulfed him and obscured him from view; he willed himself back to his previous place behind Khristofer, his head reeling from the effort. A year of disuse had left his abilities out of shape, and self-teleportation between two unbound points was incredibly stressful on a good day.

Talk filled the room once more as he vanished from the floor. Nesoli calmed things down enough to call a five minute recess. Jadyn followed the raccoon out to where he met up with Pakar in the hall.

“Is he with you?” she asked over the growing crowd.

“I’m here.” Jadyn stepped on her tail to prove it. She somehow scored a hit on his shin in the process.

“Don’t do that! My tail is a precision instrument.”

“So why did you hit me with it?” he asked, backing into an alcove and fading in just enough to let them both see where he was.

Khris smirked. “Should we go somewhere else?”

Jadyn shook his head. “No, you two don’t have time. I’m planning on just going home and attending to my guest. If you want to stop by after the session for dinner, I’ll create something edible. Can’t say it’ll be as good as that roast, Pakar, but I’ll do what I can.”

Pakar nodded with a sly grin on her muzzle. “I’ll probably come by just to look for a new reason to be jealous of that vixen.”

“I’m not one to pass up a free meal,” Khris agreed. “What’s on the menu?”

“My wonderful home cooking, as usual. I’d better go so I can pick up fresh meats and get things ready. Cabin hasn’t been open in a year at the least, probably needs dusting.”

Pakar nodded. “Looking forward to it.”

Jadyn dropped back to full invisibility as the chime for the end of the recess played and licked the drekiran’s cheek lightly. “I’ll see you both later. Have fun.”

“Oh, sure… Have fun in a political meeting… Maybe if we set the place on fire or shoot someone…” Khris wandered back into his section’s entrance grudgingly. Pakar hugged the invisible fox discreetly before going her own way. Jadyn waited for the hallway to clear before moving to the nearby stepdisk pad, selecting the market region of the station. A simulated sunny sky presented itself after the flash of the transport, a number of people milling about and buying things in the open market. He smiled, making himself visible again, and wandered into the crowd to gather the makings of dinner for four.


Tari was waiting for him by the Serin’s transporter pad when he came back with groceries. As soon as the bags were on the deckplates, her arms were around him.

“Thought you’d never be back.”

“I wasn’t sure if I’d make it, either. I don’t know how they can stand the drudgery.”

She smiled knowingly. “Politics are boring. Do we need some excitement, now?”

“Not so fast. I’ve got dinner to prepare. We have a raccoon and a dragon joining us.”

“Ah, that’s too bad… Dinner and a movie another night, then.” Tari let him go to study the content of the various sacks. “What are we having?”

“I figured I’d make some steaks on the grill tonight, with a salad and a local variety of potatoes smothered in a cheese sauce. I hope you don’t like mushrooms?”

She looked up, holding a loaf of bread in one hand as she put things back. “I do enjoy them… Why?”

“Don’t eat any while you’re here. Most food is compatible, but one world’s benign fungi may cause rather non-benign effects from someone off-world. I can’t eat any Velorian mushrooms without having hallucinations, and that’s the mild end.”

T’bia appeared to the side of the room. “He had a perfectly reasonable conversation with a rock one day because of a bad shroom.”

“Hey now! That rock was friendly! All it wanted in life was a little world piece.

“And then it tried to bite you.”

“Only because it hadn’t eaten in years. Enough of that. Can we please make a landing? I’d like to go home.”

The skunk shook her head, fading away. “I say if you liked that rock so much you should have brought it home instead of that other, green, fuzzy little… thing. Descent to Veloria’s surface underway. Do you have any idea how hard it was to get the stains out of the carpet?”

“You’re just mad because you had to put out the fire, too.” Jadyn looked back at Tari, who was struggling not to laugh. He mock-glared at her, then laughed at himself. “Go ahead, let it out.”

She fell over, landing on the rubbery surface of the pad in a fit of laughter. It didn’t last long but it was just enough to make up his mind. He leapt onto her belly, pinning her down and tickling her mercilessly. She screamed with giggles, struggling against him but not really trying to get away. He knew she could slip out of it if she wanted. She apparently didn’t care to.

By the time he finished he was panting as hard as she was. Her face and ears were glowing under her snow-white pelt of fur; her pink pad of a nose had darkened several shades, and her tongue was lolling out of her mouth as she let the exertion fade. Jadyn fell down next to her, knowing he was nearly in the same condition, and stared up at their distorted reflection in the ceiling.

“I’d ask… why… but I’m not sure I’d… like the answer,” she panted, still giggling, rolling onto one arm to look at him.

“Because…” He grinned, poking her with his tail. “You were there, and Bee’s not ticklish.”

“Well… I’ll keep that in mind… and not try to tickle her…” The ship jolted briefly; small tremors ran through the deckplates. Tari’s ears perked up curiously. “I expect this is another normal event?”

“Yeah. Say, Bee-“

“Shaddup, I’m trying to drive. You kids are just so loud… I’ll stop this ship right here! You can WALK the rest of the way to the surface!”

“How far is that?”

“Ten feet.” Another bump signaled that they had touched down. He moved to his feet before helping the kitsune up. A quiet chime rang through the room. “The pilot has now turned off the seat belt sign by activating the customary eight-bit eleven-kilohertz tone. Thanks for flying with De-Reg Spacelines. Psst. Get out.” The next he knew, they’d been transported onto the lawn.

Outside, night had fallen. Fog drifted along the stream to one side of the clearing. Birds and other creatures made their night songs in the depths of the forest around them. The soft strobing glow of a swarm of fireflies blinked on and off in the center of the clearing, a swirling pattern of natural light amidst the darkness. A gentle breeze wafted along, rustling leaves and carrying fresh scents past them. Jadyn inhaled the familiar smells deeply, a smile warming his face.

“Welcome to the little piece of the galaxy I call home, Tarioshi.”

“It… It’s beautiful…” She whispered, walking through the grass. “You never said you lived in a forest…”

“You didn’t ask.” He picked up the groceries, conveniently left on the ground beside his feet, and glanced around. “Bee? You want to join us?”

Not tonight. I’ve got things to catch up on. The Net calleth… and, I need to park downstairs yet so I can start some work on the ship. I can hardly wait until they get some cool AI’s…

“Alright. Goodnight.”

Tari took one of the bags from him, still gazing around. “Was it like this naturally?”

“No, the cabin had to be built.”

“Har, har.”

“The stream and clearing were here.” He gestured towards one direction with his tail, indicating a dirt path leading off into the trees. “There’s a natural hot spring up that way a bit. I took some time to make it into something of a spa, sans the jets. I’ll be happy to show it to you later on. For now, I think we should go get supper done in case our company arrives early.”


“Well, it’s too bad Khris had to leave.” Jadyn grinned, setting slices of pie before Tari and Pakar. “He’s missing dessert.”

“More for us,” Pakar joked, taking a long sample of the warm smells rising from the fresh pastry. “I wonder if we could get you promoted from Captain to Chef…?”

Tari nodded agreement, enjoying the scents of apples and berries among the warm vapors rising from the pie before taking silverware to it. “This is some of the best home cooking I’ve had in a while.”

“Ditto.” He grinned, setting down a plate for himself. “Just can’t do much with replicated stuff, or reconstituted prepackaged meals… Sorry about that terrible jerked meat on our first night together in the woods.”

“It was… edible. I wasn’t in much position to complain. You certainly do a good job at the other end of the spectrum.”

“I love to cook when I’m able. Wish I could have sent some pie with him. I know Karmen loves when this fruit is in season.”

“I’m really surprised Khris had to come to the session at all, though,” Tari noted. “He should have been at home if she’s that close to her due date. Don’t they make exceptions?”

“He didn’t file a leave of absence. He’s a workaholic. Hopefully fatherhood will slow him down a little, make him sane again.” Pakar glanced at Jadyn curiously. “Didn’t he mention it to you before tonight? You looked surprised.”

“No, this was the first I’ve heard. My year-plus abroad didn’t help my ‘current events’ knowledge. He’s probably told so many people that he’s made them sick of it, and forgot I hadn’t been notified.” Jadyn stuck a fork in his slice, sampling it. “Hm… It’s missing something.”

“You’ve created a masterpiece and don’t think it’s good enough?”

“Any good artist knows that their work is always a work in progress, Pakar. And it’s not an ingredient within, but… beside. Ice cream, would be a bonus here… Let me check and see if we have any in either freezer.”

“What, you didn’t take the time to turn your own this evening?” the dragon teased.

Tari watched Jadyn pad back into the kitchen, then looked back to her dessert. Pakar sighed, drawing her attention. “Something the matter?”

“No, not really,” Pakar replied. “I’m just burnt out from today. A nice, quiet night is just what I needed.”

“That bad?”

“There’ve been some touchy issues as of late - one of them, you experienced on the way here. There’s been an increase in pirate activity and no one can figure out why, let alone what to do to solve it. It’s a huge debate every time the Council meets, how to handle this… The Fleet’s done what can be done, but the attacks are just getting worse. We need to get to the root of things. Just dealing with the raiding ships won’t stop whatever is making them go all out.”

“Mm. That -” A pang of terror reached Tari - a fleeting thought, barely enough to even register on her senses. A breeze suddenly blew through the room, the front door banging open loudly as napkins flapped on the table. Right on its heels was an explosion she hadn’t felt the likes of in decades. The roar of sound was deafening as night turned to day. The ground tremored as though some ancient beast was trying to climb out from deep within the planet.

And then all was silent as night descended once more.

“What in the name of the Elders…” Pakar hopped up, jogging to the door and scanning the sky. “No burning ashes… Not even a plasma trail… Couldn’t have been a ship.” She paused, glancing at Tari. “Jadyn… should have beat us to the door, I think…”

Tari looked toward the kitchen. The deep-freezer door was open, a light cloud of water vapor forming around the falling cold air. No one was near it.

An abrupt thud out in the grass recaptured their attention - a smoldering, blackened heap of fur and blood had fallen out of the sky. Tari nearly beat Pakar to the fox’s side; T’bia appeared in front of them, holding her arms out to her sides and blocking their advance.

“Hold it.”

“But -“

“No, Tari, no buts. I humored you on his shapedance, only because the damage wasn’t this bad.” T’bia glanced over her shoulder at the crumpled body behind her. “This is most definitely not how he wanted you to learn, but there’s nothing to be done about it.”

“T’bia, aren’t you going to do anything?” The vixen looked at Jadyn, feeling his last life energy slipping. “He’s dying!”

“Tari -” The heap coughed, very slightly dragging itself upright. “I already died… well before I hit the ground…”

Tari blinked. The fading of his energy had taken a complete one-eighty as he moved. “Wha..?”

“Explosion… broke my neck…” He coughed, spitting out blood. “Almost had two in a row there… couldn’t cushion my fall… Came to just before I hit… Would be nice if I hadn’t…” A groan escaped his throat as he collapsed back on the ground. “Yeah, didn’t need this tonight…”

“Let’s get you inside so I can set some of the breaks before I have to rebreak them.”

Pakar touched Tari’s shoulder as the fox and skunk vanished in the shimmer of transport. “I’d try to explain but it’s really not my place. There’s no way I could do it justice, anyway. I’m sure he’ll go into it.”

“I’d hope so, because what I just saw… Shouldn’t be possible…” Tari looked at the bloodied indentation in the ground. “He didn’t use any curative energies… At least, none I could sense…”

“As I understand, he can’t use his gifts to heal anything anymore. This is something completely different.” Pakar turned, heading toward the cabin and rubbing her temples. “So much for a quiet night… Let’s head down to the basement.”

“Basement?”

“They have a huge underground cavern they use for parking the ship.”


 

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