Night shifted to twilight, patches of fog drifting along the winding creek. A slight breeze wafted through the trees, the scent of early morning dew carried gently on its fingers. Here and there the fauna of the forests stirred, morning’s light lifting them from their slumber for the start of a new day.

The house in the woods stood serenely, delicately balanced in its symbiosis with the surrounding forest. Gentle puffs of woodsmoke rose from the stone chimney into the cool air. With nary a sound the front door opened; wearing her favorite light blue oriental robe, Tarioshi stepped out into the morning just as the sun broke the horizon. A smile lit her face, joy in her eyes as she took in the natural splendor around her.

“‘You never asked,’ he says… Sounds like something I’d say.” Tari grinned to herself, padding down the porch steps and taking her time walking through the grass. Cool drops of dew dampened her toes as she wandered around the clearing, absorbing the fresh scents of the morning and looking at the scenery in the light for the first time.

Jadyn’s cabin was larger than she would have expected for a single mel. The brunt of the structure was wood. He hadn’t needed to tell her; she’d felt every timber, every board, every single shim the moment she’d stepped through the door. Though normally she would have thought herself somewhat uncomfortable within a log cabin, the wood held nothing but positive energies. It didn’t seem upset to be a home, unlike a few other places she’d had the misfortune to stay in. It had been well handled and kept, both before and after its cutting.

His living room was huge, the largest room in the place. A large overhead fan hung from the rafters high above allowing for some air movement without opening windows and doors. Stretching from the door on the center of the south wall and around to the fireplace in the center of the west, one solid window curved around with a patio deck outside. Something in the glass acted as blinds by shifting between transparent and opaque. Windows and mirrors both seemed to be common through the house to make it feel even larger inside than it should be. There were even a few skylights in the roof.

Part of the living room had been tasked as the dining area, nearest the kitchen. And his kitchen…! Cooking was very obviously something he loved to do. A pair of industrial refrigerators, a big deep-freezer… A stove with heating elements she hadn’t quite figured out… Multiple ovens… He was equipped to cook for a small city.

Just off the east side of the living room lay his home office and personal library. He’d noted that most of the books were ones he’d rescued from his homeworld, but a few here and there had been picked up in his travels. It didn’t really matter - not one of the books was in anything remotely comprehensible. A beautiful marble desk held the center of the room; several crystals sat upon it, shedding soft blue-white light upon the small library.

Upstairs, taking the space above the kitchen and back from it, were four rooms. They’d originally been designed as bedrooms, a bathroom shared between each pair, but one room on each side of the hall had been retasked for storage. The smaller of the remaining was kept ready as a guest room. The other was his.

Stopping halfway between the edge of the clearing and the cabin, she glanced back at the place with a smile. The guest room would remain unused during her stay. He’d not even blinked when she commandeered part of his room for her few things. Sighing pleasantly, she took a step forward -

— and ran right into Jadyn. A startled yip escaped her throat as she stepped back and scowled. “How in the Hell did you do that?”

“Do what?” Jadyn asked innocently, standing in the grass in a pair of green-and-orange-plaid shorts.

“You know what,” Tari accused, poking him in the chest.

“Just practicing that stealth thing. Rather amazed I managed to sneak up on you.”

“Didn’t hear you walk up…”

“I didn’t exactly ‘walk’ -” A series of beeps interrupted him; he stabbed at his bracelet with a grimace. “Good morning to you, too… I suppose it can’t wait, can it?”

Not unless you want to make the leader of the free quadrant wait for you. Nesoli and Pakar will be ready in thirty minutes for a meeting. I’d have waited before interrupting, but Councilor T’zran would like to speak with you as soon as you deem possible.

“Oh, I bet he would… I suppose I’ll go and check what he wants before I talk to Ness. Thanks.”

Sure. Morning, Tari. I’ll put something together for breakfast if you’d like.

“Not just yet, but thank you.”

Jadyn touched Tari’s cheek, looking into her eyes. “I’m hesitant to just turn you loose to get lost on a new planet.”

“I’ll be okay here for a while. Going to wander around and take in the nearby scenery, maybe find that hot spring you mentioned.”

“Little path just behind the brush over there. You’ll be able to smell it when you’re close. I’ll probably be out until midafternoon at the earliest. I need to take a trip into town after I’m done on the station and let my local store’s manager know I’m back from ‘vacation.’” He made quote marks with his fingers.

“What kind of store?”

“Books. Tad more than just a bookstore, but mainly books. If you want, I can pick you up before I go in. Can do lunch and a tour.”

“I’d like that.” She smiled, giving him a lick on the cheek. “Don’t be too long.”

“Do my best.” Jadyn grinned, watching her tail glide gently through the air as she disappeared into the trees. She’d adapted well to the Val’Traxan body. Mastering walking on her new legs had taken mere days. Conquering her snake of a foxtail required more work, but by the end of the cruise she’d managed to wrangle it into submission.

Heading back to his room, the fox dug out his Fleet uniform and dressed. “Anything I should know before I talk to Ness?”

“He might appreciate knowing that the logs from last night have been… corrected.”

“Probably already knows. I’m ready.”

His room dissolved before his eyes as the world shifted. The gentle green aura of the Serin’s transporter array brightened to gold as the station’s system took over. Cold glass of an Alliance stepdisk chilled the pads of his feet as the cycle completed. Thousands of the simple, public transport points lay scattered across the station and on Veloria proper. Travel between two disks was quick and easy, so fast the translocation seemed instantaneous. Between a disk and a transporter array took noticeably more time and energy, but remained far more convenient than a shuttle.

The tower above him, however, was much more visible a creation than the stepdisk network. On the Council’s orbiting station of Terac Lun, five office towers accommodated the needs of the various representatives. Well over two hundred ringed floors of offices reached into the distance above his head, the ceiling no more than a speck in the distance. A balcony lay on the inner portion of each ring, the open center spanning fifty feet for air circulation; the outer section contained the office space, partitioned in whatever fashion the delegation wished.

“Computer, where is Councilor Ceth T’zran’s office located?”

Second Tower. Floor thirty-seven.

“Take me there.” Stepping back onto the disk, his surroundings instantly changed as he was moved to the office’s door. Gathering his composure, he thumbed the entry chime. “Captain Jadyn Elon Tzeki reporting as summoned.”

The door parted. T’zran sat at his desk, watching a monitor as the fox entered. “Please come in, Captain. Have a seat.”

Jadyn remained standing at attention just beside the chair. “So you are aware, Councilor, I have an appointment with the Speaker after we’re done here.”

“I don’t expect this will take long.” The feldaran turned off the display. “Computer: cease all logging on this room, authorization T’zran-alpha-delta-seven.”

All recording is now off.

“From your comments to the Council, I presume you believe I am leaking sensitive information?”

“I am not at liberty to disclose that.”

“I suppose you aren’t. I know we aren’t on the best of terms - I have been an ass, to put it bluntly -“

“Several thousand asses would be angered for you to be in their classification. Sir.”

Ceth smirked. “Regardless… I dislike you, Captain, but I would not take your life. I do hope you realize that.”

“That is your solemn word?”

“It is.”

“Then I cannot accept it.” There must be more than this… C’mon Ceth, what the void do you want that couldn’t wait?

“I understand your hesitation. May I comment?”

Comments are free, dinner is extra, he thought. “Yes, sir.”

“Firstly… Please, drop the damn formal tone… It’s infuriating to get grudgingly-at-best respect, especially from you.”

Jadyn smiled slightly, relaxing his posture. “As much as I’d enjoy knowing it was under your skin… I suppose I’ll at least try to be civil.”

“Thank you. Secondly. When I first played the recording, it quite thoroughly disturbed me. I do not think it wise for us to take these differences to the grave. What would the Judges do with that much darkness against our souls? It has been years since it happened.”

“The all mighty Ceth T’zran, afraid that he has darkness on his soul?”

“I am concerned, just as anyone else should be.”

Jadyn shrugged. “I wasn’t the one who escalated this into a ‘difference,’ as you call it. I entered a tournament. I won the final match. You lost.”

“You -” Ceth began, biting his tongue to silence the thought. “If I would have known you were that good at -“

“Irrelevant. You and I were only two of several in the highest skill rank. I have my off days, just like you and anyone else. I’m sorry if you weren’t up to par that afternoon.”

The feline’s hackles rose as his rage overflowed. “That was no off-day, fox! You humiliated me in front of EVERYONE! Toying with me for the whole round… Finally knocking away my blade and bringing me down - a sword against a quarterstaff, no less - and forcing concession on my KNEES!”

“It was either that or provide means for an unconscious state per the rules that, as I recall, you declared and I agreed to? However, if you want to forgive and forget, I can try to accommodate you.”

The cat’s hands gripped the edge of his desk, deeply scratching the wood with his claws as he let his fury boil down. “I’ll never forget how they cheered for you - I’d been undefeated for five years, did you know that? I never had that much applause… Not even when I took down the previous champion…”

“And how do you think he felt when you took his place?”

“At least he and I had a rematch the next year! You never came back to the tournament!”

“I didn’t need to. I still don’t think I do.”

“No, perhaps not. After living through an artificial supernova, I don’t suppose you need to prove anything, do you?”

Jadyn snorted. “Jealous.”

“What? Now that is the best atrocity I’ve heard all week. Me, jealous, of you…” He laughed quietly.

“Then why, if you were not - are not jealous of my excursions into uncharted and unchartered territory for this Council, why in the names of the Eight did you feel it necessary to look in on me before I left Terra? Other than to possibly find when I was leaving for your marauding mercenaries, of course.”

The Councilor fell silent. “I didn’t contact you.”

“Yes, you did.”

“No, Captain, I did not. Breaking communication silence with an embedded research team is done only in dire emergency.”

Jadyn gazed upon the cat carefully. “I can usually tell a liar by the eyes. That’s what makes me do well in tournaments like the one that spawned our animosity - most opponents always plan for the next move in the eyes, looking where they plan to be, watching their opponent for hints, tiny little things… They may lie with their body about what they are going to do, but the eyes are always honest… I’ve watched you lie before, to myself and to others. You are perfectly readable when one knows what to follow. Unless you’ve gotten very, very, very good at duplicity since I’ve been gone, we have a very large problem.”

Ceth nodded. “Someone exploited our mutual disfavor of one another. Who dislikes the both of us enough and has access to the secure database?”

“That is what we need to find out. Soon.” Jadyn held open his palm, checking the time. “I need to go. I’m already going to be late for my meeting with the Speaker.”

“I won’t keep you longer. Computer -“

“One moment, before you turn that back on.” Jadyn rubbed his thumb against his forefinger in thought, staring at the carpet. “I’m not certain you and I will ever be on amicable terms. We’ve let this fester for too long to be able to completely put it behind us. That said… I’m willing to try.”

Ceth eyed the fox, giving him a nod. “As am I.”

“About time you show up.” Pakar stood, giving Jadyn a smile as he entered Nesoli’s office.

“Sorry. T’zran and I had an enlightening little chat. Monitors?”

“Off,” Nesoli replied. “I do not allow my office to be logged. Far too much… heated debate occurs here.”

“Yeah, I suppose people bitching wouldn’t be good to have noted, just in case you ‘raise your voice.’” Jadyn took a seat in midair in the center of the room. “Pakar tell you anything yet?”

“Just barely beat you here.” She grunted, turning a chair around and sitting on it backward. “Best if you explain.”

“There was a bomb in my freezer last night. If anyone else had opened the door, there’d be a crater in my kitchen.”

Nesoli sighed, pinching the bridge of his snout. “I thought that meteor report was a little odd.”

“I didn’t need everyone and their uncle tramping around my woods. The unit was cylindrical, about a foot long. Red end caps, timer in the center. It was set for two seconds and started when I opened the door. It didn’t seem to have much range. Didn’t so much as blemish the house at … maybe a kilometer? I’m not sure how far up I got.”

“Hm.” The drekiran entered a query on his console, turning the display. “Any of these?”

“Close, but… Oh, more pages. Not there… no… Yes, that one.”

“That… is not good. Short range explosive, programmable blast radius, completely undetectable by most scans due to the exotic makeup of the shell. Past that, it is classified to such an extent that even knowing that it is classified is classified.”

“You have any detail on them at all?”

“A limited amount. They are the result of collaboration between the former Velorian and Donami colonies that are now pirating clans.”

“Really? That seems a little above their league.”

“Perhaps. Detonation method is unknown as we cannot scan inside the units and the disposal crew has not reached them on their disassembly schedule. Extremely rare, only ten were built that we know of. One has been used and nine of them were in our hazardous device armory.”

“I don’t like it when you say ‘they were in the armory.’”

“Two were stolen.” Nesoli glanced at Pakar. “Have you isolated the means?”

“Oh, so she’s your head security advisor now? Congratulations.”

“‘I’m sorry’ would be better.” She shook her head. “For no apparent reason, the shielding generators went offline. In the fraction of a second before the backup came on, they vanished. No sign of a transport. They just ceased to exist.”

“How long ago?” Jadyn asked.

“A month. They were logged into storage two months before that.”

“Hm… Tzeki to Serin,” he spoke, touching the interface on his palm. It immediately shifted into the appearance of a physical datapad.


“Resecure the link, our ludicrous key.” Jadyn bit the end of his index finger, pressing his blood into the center of the pad’s display. There was a moment of static as the linkup reconnected.

Done. Sup?

“You scanned the freezer?”

No transporter signature, no fingerprints but yours, nothing at all. Someone had to have placed it in there by hand but there’s no evidence of who. Or rather, proof.

“Any objections if I leave this link open, Ness, Pakar?”

“None here.”

“Nor myself.”

Can I object? I’m trying to work with Toy down here.

“Doing what?” Jadyn asked.

You probably don’t want to know. I will tell you that it’s taking a rather large chunk of my processing time to decode.

“Bring him on the circuit, please,” Nesoli requested.

Hookay… Toy, you’re live.

Eh? To who?

“Good morning, Toliya.”

Oh, hello Ness. What can I do for you?

“Have you already found the ID of the explosive device?”

Ah. No, not yet, we’re still searching a number of databases that, er… don’t exist… I’ve got the visual details, just can’t get anything pulled up on the blasted thing.

“Jadyn, send this file.” Nesoli indicated the data on his screen regarding the explosive. “Perhaps they will be more fruitful in a search with this detail to assist.”

He’s there too? Anyone else I should be aware of before I step on something I shouldn’t?

“Just me,” Pakar replied. “So, you may step on your own tail all you like, Toy.”

Why, thanks Pakar. I’ll do that.

Jadyn held the holographic pad against the terminal, letting his bracelet download the information. “Getting it, Bee?”

Yeah… Okay, got it. Not that I like it.

Hoooooly sweet Mother… I’d heard rumors about this one… but… Wow. Okay, so it exists. We know how many there are?

Jadyn glanced at Nesoli, who simply nodded. “A little bird tells me there’s several locked up,” the fox offered. “Two disappeared recently out of that lockup. I’m guessing one of those was the one I came across.”

So, one’s still on the loose. I’m going to need to talk to some contacts and see what I can find out about how this one works…

“We stumped him?” Pakar asked. “First time for everything.”

I prefer… surprised. It’s either that, or I need to dissect one.

“I cannot authorize the release of one of these units.” Nesoli leaned back in his chair, looking at the ceiling. “There is not a way I could begin to get approval for anything in that armory to be released to anyone except via Stolen Property regulations, and as they were designed and built by pirate clans, that is unlikely.”

“It’d take a miracle to get that cleared,” Pakar mused.

Jadyn smirked. “Bee…?”

Oh, no. No. Absolutely not. There’s a lot of stuff I’ll help you do, but I am not even going to leave so much as a stray electron from my direction on that lock. I’ll gladly give you tools and a sticky-note of directions, but I’m going to be very far away with a very strong alibi.

“I don’t hear this… la la la…” Pakar recited, covering her ears.

Nesoli’s terminal hissed with static and went blank. Briefly, the symbol from the first data crystal - the one Ceth had shown to the Council - blinked across. As it faded, an image of the full Council in session filled the screen. A flash of light appeared at the center of the floor -

Jadyn frowned as he watched himself step from it. The image zoomed in on his face and became still. Name, ID number, age - the falsely-registered age of 73 - and his registered species of Velorian appeared. Above that appeared three lines of text, short and to the point:


“Bee, you getting this?”

Yep. I’m trying to trace… So far, it seems to be coming from on the station… Heh. You’ll love this, Pakar. Station mainframe has a virus. This is on every terminal in the place right now - hm. The way this code looks, it’s about to -

The monitor flashed and threw up a cloud of smoke as it burnt out.

- force a power surge to every terminal it can.

“I will not allow this Council to be ordered about by radicals who will not even show their faces.” Nesoli glowered, a wisp of smoke rising from his right nostril. “This has most definitely been a lovely day so far. Perhaps the station will fall out of orbit this afternoon.”

“Tubor to Security -“

Ma’am, we’re inundated with calls right now, we could really use some help here.

“I’ll be there soon. Get anyone you can who’s off duty to come in. Tubor out.” She snorted, heading to the door. “This is going to be a long morning.”

Jadyn peered at the smoldering terminal again, shaking his head. “Bee, how’s it look?”

Virus code deleted itself. There’s no trace of it. I mean, only Toy and I are this thorough… We’ve got some serious competition here. I’m unhooking from the mainframe, rather not be in when they start scans.

“You saw the video sequence, though? Can you figure out what section the camera was in?”

Already working on that. Give me a minute to narrow it down, I have a general idea.

Jay, Ness, I’m going to make some calls and see what I can find about this little gem.

“Okay, Toy. Take it easy.”

Nesoli stared at the dead terminal, not so much as a flicker of emotion remaining in his features. “Who was with you last night, Jadyn? Pakar, who else?”

“Khris Galan, briefly, and a guest of mine.”


“It’s… a long, drawn out story. I can guarantee one hundred and ten percent it wasn’t her.”

“You do realize we cannot rule out anyone at this time.”

“I know, but… I really can’t explain it in good faith.”

Nesoli nodded slightly. “So, it was you and three guests. I will go on a limb and surmise you were not trying to blow yourself up for some peculiar reason. Were all three still there when the incident occurred?”

“Khris left early… He got word he could return home to be with Karmen. She’s apparently nearly due.”

“I see. I wonder why he did not file before this.”

“Yeah. I know. And to be bluntly honest about it,” he continued quietly, sitting down in the chair Pakar had vacated, “Khris really seems most likely right now. What gets me, though, is who I thought was Ceth contacting me before I left Terran space. He says he never did such a thing. After our chat this morning I’m inclined to believe him.”

“He is acutely aware of protocol. I would go as far as saying he is one of the few who strictly adheres to it.”

“But that being the case… Who contacted me?”

“Do you have a recording? I’ve not yet reviewed your filings.” He glanced at his terminal. “That was next, actually…”

Routing it to his bracelet, Ness.

Jadyn held up the projected pad, letting Nesoli watch and listen to the conversation. The dekiran frowned mere seconds into it.

“It is obviously a fake.”

“How so?”

“The window shows trees and greenery outside. He has not been off Terac Lun in over four months.”

… How’d I miss that? His office in the tower looks into open space, Jay.

“Damn. I was just there too. Should have noticed.”

Well, you… … Er… Hm.

“Find something?”

Nothing good… Since you were just talking about Khris being a possibility, I compared his home office against that image. You know those above-city parks Donami has? His home office, not the Council branch office… He has one of those outside. It’s a pretty close match between the recording and my memory from the last time I was there. Oh, and that recording that blew out Ness’ terminal. It’s likely from Khris’ seat, or nearby.

“Rodriguez to Tubor.”

Yes, Speaker?

“Have Councilor Galan detained for questioning immediately.”

… Yes, Speaker… I’ll issue the order at once.” Pakar’s voice nearly broke. The three of them had been friends for a long time. It hurt to think he could have tried to kill them, but…

“People change,” Jadyn whispered, standing up. “Ness… I’m going home for a bit. I’ll be somewhere in Azainte after that.”

“Jadyn -“

“I’d like to observe the questioning.”

“No guarantee.”

“There never is.”

T’bia’s fingers danced over the transporter controls on board the Serin, Jadyn watching over her shoulder as pages of data flew past. “It sure seems like it was him. Genetic profile matches. You thinking he wasn’t himself?”

“I just… I can’t believe he’d really do anything like this.”

“You said it yourself. People change.”

“Yeah, but… I didn’t believe it.” He turned around, gazing upon the transporter alcove. “I don’t know. Something just doesn’t feel right. Maybe I’m just being sentimental… I was best mel at his wedding, for Goddess’ sake. Try and get in touch with Karmen. No doubt the Security Division already has tried, but see what you can find out.”

“I tried earlier, thought you’d ask… No one has seen her for several weeks. Apparently people just figured she was resting at home and keeping to herself. I logged into their home security system… No one’s been around for quite a while. Like, since they left for the vacation.”

Jadyn ran his hand over his muzzle, closing his eyes and muttering curses under his breath. “I really, really don’t like this.”

“Can’t say I do either… But… There’s not much to be done about it right now. I’ll keep an ear to the ground.”

He nodded, stepping for the door, then pausing. “When was the last time she was actually seen?”

“Three weeks ago. They were on vacation, came back… Hasn’t been seen since.” T’bia peered at him curiously. “What are you thinking?”

“Nothing. Just trying to make some sense of this mess. I’m going to find Tari and head into town.”

“Enjoying the bath?”

“Mm.” Tari didn’t even bother to sit up as Jadyn stepped into the small clearing surrounding the hotsprings. Salty-sweet scents of the mineral-laden water filled the air, fingers of steam drifting from the pool. Perhaps thirty feet across, the natural rock formation had been quite the project to carve into. One section of the edge had been turned into steps, with the rest of the circumference carved into spots to sit. The center of the pool was maybe five feet deep.

The stream trickled nearby as it wound around the spring and turned toward the cabin. A portion of the cold water came through the trees in a small trench, allowing the steaming water bubbling forth from underground to be chilled somewhat before filling the pool. The cold could be blocked off easily enough, even partially, with a rounded stone that sat in its way. Tari had gone for heat, moving the stone completely in the way of the inlet.

The fox smiled, leaning on one of the several posts surrounding the pool. Tari’s robes were hooked on another. Glancing at the orbs dotting the top of each post, he decided it wasn’t dark enough to warrant lighting them up. At night, they glowed with a soft, flickering light, reminiscent of fireflies in a jar. They could be coerced to do it in the daylight, but it wasn’t as impressive a show.

“Care to join me?” she murmured.

“I’d love to. Sadly, I need to go into town. You still want to go with?”

“Well, I did… Then I found this…” A slight smile crossed her face. “There any other tiny wonders you care to tell me about?”

“Can’t think of any off the top of my head. Well, except the store.”

“Mm… Well, I suppose this will be here later, too…”

“So will the store.”

Tari smirked, pulling herself to her feet and wading to the steps. “You’re not helping the decision process, bucko.”

“Neither are you,” he noted, giving her a smile as his eyes traveled her fur-clad form once in explanation.

“Tsk. Would you mind doing that dry-off trick -“

Tari eeeped in surprise as the warm gale came from nowhere; within seconds it was gone and her pelt was groomed and dry. She gave herself a once over, shaking her head. “I need to learn that.”

“Said that last time.” He grinned, helping her with her robe. “You want something more than this?”

“This works fine for public.”

“I meant for the ride there.” Scooping her into his arms, he glanced toward the blue sky. “Do you trust me?”

“Er… What are you planning?”

“I don’t drive into town, don’t have a car. The ship is most certainly excessive to go a few dozen miles. Stepdisks and transporters are boring. So. Do you trust me?”

“Well, yeaaaiieeeeee - !” Tari squealed, the ground falling out from under them. “Oh, bloody hell, you could have told me you were going to try to kill us -“

Jadyn snorted, holding her firmly in his arms as he came to a stop several hundred meters above the ground. “Simmer, ‘kay? Take a couple deep breaths…”

“I really don’t like heights,” she squeaked, glancing down. “Really, really don’t…”

“Then don’t look down. Look forward.” He indicated the city, distant on the horizon. “Okay?”

“No, but I suppose I can humor you once…”

Smiling, Jadyn quickly set up the other two threads of Air he needed with practiced ease - one for forward motion, one for deflecting the wind and anything else that happened to be airborne and in their way - and they were off like a shot. The ground far below zipped by in a blur of greens, yellows, and browns as they passed over fields and trees. Tari relaxed slightly after a couple minutes, once it was clear they really weren’t going to plummet to the ground in a horrible death, but maintained a firm grip around his neck.

The nearby city, Azainte, presented itself before long. It was a small city, as cities went; a population of eighty-thousand at best called it home. Sprawled out over a river valley, the few buildings taller than three or four stories didn’t stand out badly, being at the base of the valley. The stream that wound around near his home joined up with several others, becoming a small river that flowed through the heart of the city.

Jadyn slowed his travel and descended somewhat as they reached the city limits, taking his time as he made a once-over of the area. “There it is,” he commented, nodding forward. “That large glass storefront facing south.”

That’s a bookstore? Good Gods, that’s huge.”

Landing deftly in front of the door, Jadyn eased Tari to the ground and led her inside. The entire storefront was crafted entirely of glass, stretching from the ground to the ceiling three floors above. Marble tile alternating between grey and blue covered the front third of the floor. Tables and chairs of varying shape and size sat on the tile, slight reflections of their silhouettes visible in the polished surface. To their right, on the far east wall, was the cafe counter; on their left was a service desk. The rear two-thirds of the store held the rows upon rows of books, flights of steps leading to the upper floors on the left-hand side of the store. Above their heads the air was open all the way to the roof, giving a great view of the sky and the city outside.

“I’ve… I’ve been in a bookstore like this, back home…” The vixen looked around, a smile on her face. “It was a little different, only one floor, and all they served was coffee and some sandwiches. Looks like you’re set up for a lot more than that.”

“We do a lot of breakfasts. People come in the morning to study before and between classes. It’s an uncommon concept around here, pairing food and books in one building… Well, it was. Other stores have set up similar layouts to compete, but it really hasn’t detracted from business. With the university across the street, we get a lot of -“

“Jadyn!” A lynx, slightly taller than Tari and heavier in build, jogged up to the fox and gave him a hug. “T’bia called and said you were coming in. Welcome back!”

“Thanks. Good to see the place didn’t burn down in my absence.”

“Like I’d let that happen.”

“Even if it did, it’d have been quietly rebuilt, I wager. Tari, this is Lyna, daytime manager of this store and the final authority on everything when I’m not around.”

“And even when you are,” the lynx chided.

“Fair enough. Lyna, my friend Tari.”

“A pleasure to meet you,” the feline greeted, clasping her hand briefly. “I’ve got someone’s lunch on the grill, so pardon me for running off again. I’d put you to work, Jay, but I take it you’re a tad busy just yet?” She winked, heading back to the cafe counter.

“She seems nice,” Tari noted.

“Great person, excellent cook, even better with our bookkeeping. Haven’t had any accounting errors here since she started.”

“Question… How do people pay for stuff? You don’t seem to have a checkout.”

“Sensors in the door frame. The sensors note the tags in each book, deactivate them, and deduct from the person’s credits. People are ID’d by retinal scan and biometric analysis, can’t even notice it happening.”

“And say, some virtual no-name that doesn’t exist for some reason, or someone can’t afford the title, or whatever? What if they walk out with something?”

“The sidewalk right in front of the door outside is a stepdisk. They get ‘ported back inside, right in front of the service desk. Only has happened… twice, maybe three times that I’m aware of. People are pretty honest for the most part. In the case that they don’t exist, we ask them for another method of payment.”

“And if they just can’t pay?”

“They can read the book here, if they like. Just can’t take it out. People can come here, read whatever they want, and leave. The only way they get charged is if they want a copy of it for themselves. A lot do. Couple of other stores handle music and video as well.”

Tari nodded appreciatively. “Nice system.”

“Pays the bills. Lot of the income goes for royalties, utilities, leases - except here, we own the property and building. There’s still been enough left over to make sure all these folks make a decent wage.” He padded to the steps, leading Tari to the second floor. “I’m honestly not in it for the cash, but having the funds available is a nice bonus in this quadrant. Books are meant to be read, knowledge to be shared… With the exceptions of a very few titles, everything is downloadable to a datapad for a minimal fee. If they want a hardcopy, it’s just a little bit more to cover printing costs.”

“I’m going to have to learn this language.” She looked at a shelf of books, shaking her head. “You didn’t speak it originally?”

“Had to learn it. Hate relying on the translators, just in case they happen to break for one reason or another. I’m fluent in about… hm. Seven languages? Maybe eight, but that’s iffy.”

“Three, myself. Well, four, but one doesn’t really count. How hard is the common language to learn?”

“It’s referred to as ‘Standard.’ I’d say that comprehension won’t be hard, but speaking it will take a bit.” He stopped at the railing, looking over the store. There were already quite a few people making use of the various tables. Most appeared to be students doing research or other homework. “Care to get something to eat? After that I’ll take you around the city some. On foot, even.”

“Sounds good to me.”

“Okay, so! I pulled in some ancient favors to sniff this out.” Toliya sat down at a console in the cockpit of the Serin, loading up a data crystal. “Weird stuff started happening as contacts started sending out their own feelers.”

“As in?” T’bia asked, pulling up a chair.

“As in, some of their contact people never got back to them, just disappeared. Heck, even a couple of mine up and vanished.” The snow leopard’s fingers flew across the keypad as he worked. “Which, of course, isn’t unusual… People stumble on something they shouldn’t and make themselves scarce for a while. It was just suspicious that so many left without a trace after being asked about this lovely toy. But. I did manage to find some minor tidbits here and there.”

T’bia watched the information zip by. “Your talent for understatement has now exceeded Jay’s. I’m guessing you have it set on ‘fast’ because you’ve already read it?”

“Yeah. Figured educating you on it would be more efficient this way.”

“I could have just imported the whole thing. Would be a lot more efficient than this, even.”

“I like watching you speed read.”

“Voyeur. You - whoa! Go back.”

He stopped the stream, backing the frames up. “Here?”

“No, few more… yeah, there.” Her eyes studied the screen for several seconds before they focused back on him. “You see anything strange about this lovely tidbit?”

“Well, not really… Just the reaction notes. Matter and antimatter contained in the unit with a metaphase failsafe. I’ve seen explosives like this before.”

Just like this?”

“Well, yeah. Kinda. Same concept anyway. We had these on more than one SF mission. Program the detonator with a range, it calculates the needed antimatter, dumps the excess into metaphase - pretty similar to popping a ship into hyperspace, though not as deep - and then lets the remaining antimatter hit the matter and kerblooey. Only real difference is those are never this small - oh.” The light came on. “I see your point.”

“Yeah. Those things are huge. This… With the technology of this region, there’s just no way this would be feasible, unless someone has made leaps and bounds that we don’t know about. I really doubt that’s the case, otherwise we would have heard something about it. It takes a huge amount of energy for those bombs to open a metaphase tear. Most of their mass is for power conversion… There’s no power cell both powerful enough and small enough to fit into this trinket.”

“Hm.” Toy drummed his fingers on the arm of his chair, tail flicking as his mind worked. “Experimental power cells?”

“None with enough energy potential that I’ve caught wind of.”

“Me either. Something to power the tear by using the antimatter reaction?”

“Nothing exists that would be that small.” She grimaced. “I take that back. Val’Trax had technology small enough to do it. We never applied it to anything remotely close to this, though.”

“Conceptually, then. If your technology were at work… Would something like this be possible? Perhaps we’ll go so far as to narrow it down to the range of feasible?”

T’bia looked at the screen, quiet for several seconds. “Yeah. With very little difficulty, at that.”

“Okay. Now. Branching from that. You’ve said before that it isn’t possible for the tech from the ship to be taken and reused.”

“Right. There’s a number of factors, but basically, the biocomponents such a thing would need would die if removed from the ship. Even just prepared from its DNA strain, they wouldn’t work. There’s a lot of little tie-ins. The people who laid down the groundwork for this stuff really put a lot of thought into it.”

“So. Someone would have to engineer parts specifically for this application. They couldn’t reuse stuff.”


“And therefore, if that’s what this is, and you and Jay didn’t give the vitals on creating it, and didn’t make it yourselves…”

“Someone else must have done it…” T’bia glanced at the next screen over, moving in front of it and pulling up a terminal. Then she hesitated, looking at the communications panel. “I just had a really bad thought.”

“What’s that?”

“I need one piece of evidence from one of those explosives before I look into my bad thought. I’d rather not admit to overlooking what I’m thinking of, though. Jay will flog me with a trout.” A blur of color covered the face of the console as she moved through screens of information.

“You really think this might be something of yours?”

“Ours in terms of Jay and I, no. In terms of Val’Traxan technology, though… a tepid maybe.” She prodded the console, stopping the flow of text, then highlighted a portion with her finger. “Sweet.”


“This sensor echo sucks for us. Jadyn,” she called.

What’s up?” A fountain cascaded in the background, slightly muffling his reply.

“‹I’m logged into Terac Lun’s sensor grid,›” she replied in their native Kametian. “‹Looking in the armory.›”

‹I thought you said -›

“‹Not done yet, let me finish. Besides, I said my electrons. I’m abusing theirs. Now then. I’ve made a scan of the toys we’re having issues with, on a hunch that maybe - just maybe - part of that piece of lovely technology might be Val’Traxan in origin.›”

There was dead silence on the line. She continued browsing through screens of information in the meantime, saving the data stream to a file.

‹That would be really, really bad,›” Jadyn finally replied.

“‹Toy set up the theory, so you can blame him for having me look. It’s nearly impossible to read an echo through the shell with their sensor array, but the basic stuff I can see indicates there’s some sort of biotech like ours in them. We really, really need to get clearance to dissect one of those. Even if it’s under their security to do it - I’d even settle for a deep scan of one with our sensor grid.›”

‹I honestly doubt I can get one.›

“‹I know. But if you get a chance, I’d say we should let Ness know. In the meantime, I’ve got another problem I need to do some research on.›”

‹Anything you can give me on that?›

“‹I don’t want to until I’m sure. Sorry.›”

‹No problem. Thanks for the heads up on this.›

“Yeah. Halio out.” She glanced at Toliya. “Sorry about that…”

“I’ve still got the implant. Didn’t miss a word. You have this mess downloaded?”


The leopard took the data crystal out of the reader and crushed it in his hands. “Okay. What’s this other problem you’re worried about?”

“Well… There’s been a lot of noise recently.”


“Yeah. Normal comm chatter has noise, of course. The systems filter it out. I’ve even filtered it for the most part, didn’t think anything of it. Blamed it on crappy and inferior communication infrastructure.”

“A valid gripe. But?”

“But now, I’m wondering if it’s really noise…” She pulled up another monitor, bringing up a display of comm traffic. “Let’s take a look. Since we’re suspecting our own tech here… Aerin: passive scan of currently active comm traffic. Pattern match against Val’Traxan comm encryption, check for anything that could reasonably be encrypted traffic on top of standard comm channels.”


Toliya was quiet for a moment. “Er… You guys didn’t offer any of that…?”

“No, we haven’t let this out either. We supplied an extremely limited subset since they were having a pile of trouble with people sniffing around and seeing stuff they shouldn’t, but it’s nothing compared to our own stuff. Ours uses part of a DNA strand as an encryption key. It’s unique from device to device. Jay and I have an insane cypher strength available between his bracelet and this ship. Best part is, to normal scans and sniffing, even just tuning in and listening… it looks and sounds just like white noise. But if you know what you’re looking for -“

Possible matches found.” Dozens of comm channels highlighted orange on the display.

”- you might just manage to pick it out of the noise.” T’bia scratched her neck, leaning back in the chair. “I’m treating you to dinner. We’re going to be here a while.”

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