Awakening, Part 14

Tarioshi massaged her temples as she made her way to the Serin’s medical bay. She’d managed to push herself to retake val’traxan form—barely—and the concentration to keep that fictional identity in place made her head throb. Holding the form would grow easier now that she was back aboard the living ship. She could feel the plant-based organics already offering their energy to her.

T’bia had noticed this and couldn’t resist a passing jab about several systems suddenly reporting inexplicable power drains, and at the strange coincidence that it began the very moment Tari arrived on the ship. The AI then recommended that Tari find something to clear her head for the upcoming meeting—she was still the officially recognized captain of the J’Ruhn, after all.

Jadyn had also reminded her of that particular fact, adding that he’d understand if she decided to stay behind in her then-current two-tailed state. She’d thought about it after he’d departed the Speaker’s guest suite. Ultimately, what drove her to attend was her hormone-induced fit of anger days beforehand, the morning she’d declared Jadyn a coward right to his face. Sure, the outburst wasn’t entirely her fault, but if she couldn’t muster up the courage to work beside Alecha and the others, especially during a crisis like this, who was the real coward?

Both Alecha and Kaler’s scents lingered in the air as Tari approached the medbay door, intertwined with two others she didn’t recognize. Rolling her shoulders to relieve the tension in her neck, she tried to psych herself up for the first cowardice test of the morning: facing the two val’traxans. Unfortunately, the door parted seconds before her arrival. Alecha paused in mid-step on her way out, hesitating only a heartbeat before moving clear of the door and allowing it to shut behind her.

“Are you all right?” Alecha questioned, cocking her head slightly sideways. “You really still should be in bed…”

“I’ll be fine,” Tari assured, deflecting the concern. “After the meeting I’m going to take some personal time to meditate and relax. You look like you need a nap, too.”

“I didn’t get much sleep,” Alecha admitted. “Too much going on to relax. Maybe I could join you for that meditation session, if you would care for the company? I’m a little more burnt out after my healing session yesterday than I realized.”

“Well… Sure, why not? You’re welcome to join me.” Tari originally intended to meditate in her normal kitsune form, just to take the load off her concentration. Alecha had already seen her like that, though—maybe she’d be okay with it.

Then again, it would probably be a better idea to keep that appearance as much under wraps as possible.

“Do you have any idea what’s going on?” Alecha asked.

“I know the housekeeping robotics were acting up and that ship was evacuated. Beyond that, I haven’t heard much.” Tari hesitated, looking at the medbay door. “Who else is in there?”

“Kaler’s resting and watching a couple of workers clean up a piece of very interesting hardware. If you’re going inside, give the workers some space. Keya, the… the taller one,” Alecha clarified with a smirk, “tells me his mate is nearly full-term with their firstborn and she will not be pleasant company if she smells another female on him. He already needs to cope with getting rid of my scent from helping me move Kaler here. It might be a small kindness on our part not to add a second layer.”

An ember of mischief flared in Tari’s mind. “Oh, but it could be fun.

“Fun… Okay. Consider the state of mind you entered into yesterday morning when I arrived for breakfast unexpectedly, and ponder what might have happened had you also been potentially only days away from giving birth.”

“Maybe ‘fun’ isn’t the right word.”

Alecha placed her hand on Tari’s shoulder, pulling her closer and speaking quietly. “I hope you’re not offended, but I took the liberty of telling Kaler a little about you so he wouldn’t be quite as floored the first time he sees you. He’ll probably still give you some looks, but you need to expect that kind of attention from everyone that wakes up. Just for a while, though. They’ll get used to you.”

“Didn’t he see me before?” Tari asked. She and Jadyn had been in the background while Alecha and Kaler had their post-thaw reunion, after all.

“He hadn’t recovered his distance vision. He could focus on me, just a few feet away. Maybe as far as the ceiling, but not much beyond that.” Alecha looked at a display projected over her palm, letting out an annoyed grunt as she walked away. “Right, I’d better take care of this. Meeting’s in sixteen minutes or so. See you there.”

“Where are you going?”

“Someone gently suggested I consider attending in more than just this,” Alecha replied, gesturing to her fur-clad body. “Going to find… I don’t know what, yet.”

“Check in our quarters,” Tari suggested. “There might be something in the closet.”

“I’ll do that. Thank you. I still think a requirement to wear coverings to meetings will be tedious…”

Holding back a snicker, Tari stepped to the medbay door and triggered the sensor. Kaler gave her an inquisitive squint as she entered. He’d been placed in the biobed that Tari once obscured from Jadyn; she briefly wondered where its prior occupant had gone. A clean seafoam-colored sheet covered his lower body, reaching halfway up his chest; the shrouding was likely meant more for the benefit of others in the room than his own. She smiled at him, receiving a friendly if not confused smile in return. His attention dropped back to the work taking place in the center of the room, only occasionally coming back to her. She pretended not to notice.

A young red-furred velorian male stood hunched over a dirty piece of hardware placed on a cart in the middle of the room. The device, consisting of a seemingly random amalgamation of different modules, armatures, and stray bits of wire all mounted on a segmented and slightly arched backplane, was inundated in layers of dirt that smelled strongly of the J’Ruhn.

The worker shot Tari a curious look while she retrieved the analgesic she’d come for. After giving herself only half the recommended dosing for her headache, she moved closer to the repair work. Keeping in mind Alecha’s warning—she’d indicated a ‘tall’ one, but there was only one worker; still, better safe than sorry—she knelt down beside his pet fox and gave its ears a scratch while she observed.

“Can I help you with something?” the worker asked.

“Just watching. I’m sorry if I’m distracting you. Are you Keya?”

“Yes, ma’am,” the velorian replied, giving her a mildly uncomfortable glance. “And my dust-covered friend here is Orrthra.”

“Orrthra,” she repeated. “I’m Tari.”

The sandy-colored fox looked at her with golden amber eyes, his tail wagging slightly as she gave him another scratch between the ears. The animal was half again larger than she otherwise would expect of a wild quadruped fox. A domestic environment likely provided better nutrition than trying to survive in the wild. A curious series of dimpled golden metallic dots flanked either side of his spine from the base of his skull to over halfway down his back; between them, a shiny metal grooved pin protruded from his spine through his dusty pelt every few inches.

Probing at the fox’s aura confirmed the creature was not some sort of secret robot. But his aura… It wasn’t quite right. Something about the inorganic hardware perforating his flesh was contorting his energy in ways that couldn’t be healthy. Any kitsune that thought it might be worth consuming would probably get sick. Just examining it made her own stomach turn, nearly breaking her concentration.

Orrthra snuffled at her hands, letting out a series of warbling barks and growls. Keya shook his head, an amused smile displacing a little of his discomfort. “I imagine that’s not much of a compliment.”

“What isn’t?”

“That you…” He paused. “You didn’t get a translation on that?”

Tari frowned at Keya. “I’m not sure what you’re talking about.”

“He said you smell like dead leaves and wet dirt.” Orrthra barked at Keya; the velorian rolled his eyes. “Well, it’s not my fault her translator isn’t working.”

“Yes, it’s quite strange,” Tari grumbled at the ceiling. In the distance, she thought she heard a faint snicker. Turning her attention back to the quadruped, she took a long look at him. “You’re intelligent?” A gentle yip and a wag confirmed her question. There were other signs, too; had she mentally written them off because she thought he was a mere pet? She scolded herself for leaping to the conclusion—she of all people should have known better. “But you can’t actually talk?”

“He can,” Keya replied, pulling a module off the device he’d been examining. “Vulden can’t make the same sort of sounds we do. They’ve created a substitute for Standard that we’ve come to call Vuldanni. All the Velorian phonemes have been replaced with vocalizations they can make. Aside from that, it’s grammatically identical.”

“So you’re one of the mysterious vulden I’ve heard about.” Tari laid down on the floor, propping her head up on her arms to meet Orrthra at eye level. He backed up a step, uncertain of what was going on. She gave a sniff in his general direction; he sniffed back. “Dead leaves and wet dirt, you say? So you meant that I smell like the forest in autumn. You just smell dusty. Take a bath.”

The fox’s tongue lolled to the side of his muzzle in a sort of lopsided grin.

“Any idea why someone might have decided to keep you a surprise?” Tari questioned. She listened to the sounds he made, trying to pick out anything that might have construed pieces of words. Regardless of his upcoming answer, she had a very good idea on the ‘why.’ Back on Terra, when she’d been running around as a quadruped, Jadyn very quickly worked out that she was intelligent. Now she had a clue as to how he’d come to that conclusion.

Keya volunteered a translation once Orrthra finished. “I’m going to truncate most of what he said to ‘he’s not sure.’ Most everyone around here knows they exist. I have to agree with him—it’s strange to find someone who doesn’t. This is two in one day.”

“There’s an entire shipfull nearby that won’t have a clue.”

“I suppose so.” Keya slapped the module back on the side of the machine. “It doesn’t make sense…There’s nothing wrong with this thing. Wherever the messages came from, they didn’t originate from your harness. Let me clean the contacts and you can put it back on. We’ll be late if I take the time to clean the whole thing right now.”

After a couple of minutes cleaning and greasing contacts—an electrode gel meant to keep everything lubricated, he explained, and block some dirt out—Keya picked up the device and settled it over Orrthra’s back, covering the pins and gold contacts along his spine. A series of clicks sounded as locks set around the upright pins. The vulden stretched, flexing muscles in his back while the machine chirped and whirred through some sort of test.

“Thank you for the assistance,” Orrthra vocalized, the voice coming from one of the modules on his harness. “You did not purge the buffer?”

“No. Since they didn’t come from the comm unit itself, I didn’t want to accidentally delete any valid messages tied up in that mess. You can clear them yourself.”

“That will take some time,” the vulden complained. “I suppose I should use them to configure new filters…”

“Hey.” Tari poked Orrthra in the side; he turned his head. “Did you really say I smell like dead leaves and wet dirt?”

“Er…” The vulden’s ears tipped back. “Yes?”

“That’s very nice of you. Thank you.” Tari pushed herself to her feet, giving a look toward Kaler. “Call if you need anything.”

Kaler dipped his head in acknowledgement. Once Tari had left the room, Orrthra settled back down on his haunches. “I do not believe I will ever understand females.”

“You’re not the only one,” Keya agreed.