“Are you okay?”

“Not really.” Jadyn stared across the park, his mind stolen away from the peace of the afternoon. He and Tari had spent the better part of midday browsing the local shops before finding their way into the park. It wasn’t a terribly large plot of grass and trees, but was a nice place to come to relax and just enjoy the day.

Except, after T’bia’s call, the enjoyment factor plummeted. The explosive device that nearly leveled his cabin had potentially been made with Val’Traxan technology. Not only had his people never geared their biotech to weaponry, the technology was showing up ninety-thousand lightyears from home territory. It couldn’t have been sourced from the Serin’s equipment, which only left one possibility -

“What’s wrong?” Tari asked quietly, snapping him back to reality.

“Best not to talk about it here.”

“All right. So… Where next, then?”

Jadyn leaned back on the park bench they had commandeered. The problems could wait until they got home. “Good question… We’ve really covered a moderate portion of downtown. What do you think of what you’ve seen so far?”

“There’s a lot of nice shops. People seem really friendly.”

“Always liked the smaller towns just for that reason. Nice, quiet places… And usually, nothing too weird goes on.”

“For example?”

“Oh, I don’t know.” He frowned, looking at the sky. “Just general out of the ordinary things, like finding large firecrackers in a freezer.”

Tari snickered, scooting over and cuddling with him on the bench. “It could have been worse.”

“Someone else could have opened the door first?”

“Or… They could have skipped the timer all together.”

She’s right… Why a motion sensor and a timer, instead of just one or the other? They didn’t want me dead. “Yeah, that would have been a little worse.” He glanced at her sidelong. “It might have marred the house.”

“Or its occupants.”

“What, civilized people were inside it? Do tell. Who would possibly be in a drafty old shack like that thing, especially at that hour?”

She laughed, shaking her head. “It’s a really nice place. Not drafty at all.”

“Thanks. It’s pretty close to the place I grew up in. My mother laid out the original plans.”

“Oh really? She was an architect?”

“Well, not really… Was an artist and an educator. Err… Not an Artisan, as in elemental manipulation… Creative arts.”

“A painter.”

“Yeah, exactly. She took one of her sketches of a log cabin off in the woods and expanded it into a floor plan when she and dad decided where they wanted to make a home. Pretty similar spot too, come to think of it.” Jadyn smiled, shaking his head. “Surprised I never burnt the place down, what with my early mishaps with the Art. Can’t imagine what my childhood was like from her view. At least dad had some idea of how to keep an eye on me… She couldn’t even feel it coming as forewarning.”

“That’s too bad.”

“Yeah, really was. She and Telara both missed out on a lot of things that they just weren’t welcome to go to because they wouldn’t have been able to see or even feel any of it.” He blinked. “How’d you do that?”

“Do what?”

“That’s the first time I’ve really been able to think about my family for the longest time without… Without the bad stuff overshadowing it.”

“Maybe talking about everything last night actually helped.”

“Maybe.” He smiled, giving her a hug. “I’d rather find a way to blame you, though.”

“Thanks. I think.”

Terannir, Tarioshi. Race, Val’Traxan. Gender, female. Height, sixty-six inches. Fur pattern, solid white. Eyes, teal. Age, forty-nine. Place of birth given as a ship registry number not from within Aligned space. It is not a style I have on record. I cannot prove it false, but I cannot verify if it is real.

“Anything else?”

Nothing extraordinary. The entry date of the record is yesterday. Timestamp indicates it was processed just after Captain Tzeki’s report to the Council. Aligned Customs and Immigration gave it initial approval almost immediately. I suspect more details will show once background checks are completed.

“I could have sworn the first time I met her she was not Val’Traxan. Perhaps I am mistaken… It will not be terribly hard to find out.”

You should not be -

“One must always make room for the woman of one’s enemy, even if it is just a genetic imprint. In any case, her true origins are not terribly important. Merely… helpful to know, should the need arise.” The cloaked shadow observed the foxes discreetly from afar, retreating into the shelter of the trees once the pair left the park. “She may yet be of some use. In the meantime. I will be returning to the ship tonight. The Council has two days left to dismiss him. The Captain may need further persuasion on the side, as well… Has the contagion spread as expected?”

I am detecting signs of a growing security hole in their systems, but I cannot yet take control without being detected.

“How soon?”

The end of the day, at best.

“Whoa, hold up, stop…” Jadyn panted as he caught up to the vixen, leaning on his knees and trying to catch his breath. “I’m not… not much of a runner…”

“Slowpoke,” Tari teased, breathing hard but otherwise not nearly as out of sorts. They had decided - Tari had, at least - that a walk back out to the cabin would be better than another flight. He’d accepted, then been challenged to a race…

“Bah… Just don’t do much in the sprinting category… Heck, even endurance running…”

“We covered at least ten miles at a pretty swift pace, and you’re saying you don’t do much running?”

“You have to consider the fact that I’m from a higher gravity than this.” He glanced at her, indicating her current form. “Technically, at this moment you are too… We’re going to have better endurance in this lighter pull, but still…” He sighed, rolling his shoulders. “I just don’t do a lot of running. Walks are great. I don’t touch the ground if I want speed.”

“Cheating, I’d say.”

“Making legitimate use of an available ability or skill is not cheating. Fudging a little, sure. Not cheating.”

“Well… If you manage to beat me back, you might get to make some legitimate use of other skills you have available, this evening…” she teased, jogging off along the road. “And no ‘fudging!’”

“Hey!” Groaning quietly, he pushed himself back into a run, trying to at least stay with her pace. “That’s not even fair, you temptress…”

“Down to thirteen likely signals.” Toliya frowned, watching the datastreams and making notes. “Sorry, twelve. What’s the plan, anyway?”

“Well, it’s not like I’ll be able to decrypt them. Really improbable at best. If we can at least find a pattern, or just watch for excess chatter… Maybe then we can find some legible clues elsewhere as a result.” T’bia had taken the pilot and copilot controls over, turning every display into a analyzed readout of a separate communications feed. “Does make me wonder what they’re hiding…”

“And how they got this.”

“Well, that goes without saying.”

“You try any of the DNA sequences of the ship against the streams?”

“Yeah. Still running different possibilities, but it’s pretty futile. These signals are definitely Val’Traxan but I’m certain at this point they didn’t get this from us in any way, shape, or form. Even if they had, I’d have a tough time peeking in, not knowing what portion of what strand they decided to use.”

“At any rate, you and Jadyn aren’t alone out here.”

“Definitely a possibility. It would have to be someone familiar enough with the tech to resequence the base pairs for a new application… That knowledge itself was closely guarded by the science ministries. They never kept all of the information necessary in one facility, just to be safe. No one just stumbling around could have managed it.”

“I’ve been wondering something for a long time. How did Jadyn’s dad get his hands on enough of all that data for what was basically a hobby project at the outset?”

“I wasn’t a ‘hobby project.’” T’bia smirked. “Two entire Galactic Fleet AI divisions were dedicated to developing a replacement for the aging ARIA AI core. It had a fair amount of biological components, but most of the interlinkage was still using more mundane mineral components that were prone to failures. No matter what they tried they couldn’t stabilize the full biotech in what would become my core. The lead researcher was a friend of Kieran’s. They’d worked together on other biotech projects before the Guild promotion came down and Kieran went full-time into his role as one of the eight Grand Masters. He volunteered to take a look in his free time, on the condition that he would get to keep one prototype for a shuttle he was rebuilding - if he fixed the problem.”

“Which he obviously did. What was wrong?”

“He discovered through my initial catastrophic failure that a TBIA core needs to be infused with Life energy at initial activation. Without it, the bioneural networking links internal to the core wither and die. After activation the infusion becomes self-sustaining and even grows as the core’s neural net develops.”

“Are you saying… he gave you a soul?”

“I’d like to think so, but in all truth I can’t answer that. Something about the biotech in my core design lacked enough innate Life energy to sustain itself long-term. That infusion kick-started the organics into generating their own in a proper fashion. The Fleet was so thrilled by the success that they granted him permission to take one of the reserved Flagship names for the shuttle, on top of keeping the prototype installed.”

“They must have built a lot of cores after that.”

“Only one set of production cores was finished and activated before the war. Jay actually helped bootstrap the array, come to think of it.” T’bia sighed. “It’s disappointing. All Kieran’s research notes and the access keys for the organic unlocks weren’t digitized. Every page, every hastily written note lost when the surface got torched. Void, he wouldn’t even give me access to any of it except what he needed my immediate help with. I had to figure the gaps out by trial and error.”

“Maybe someone else did the same.”

“They’d have needed a huge running start. Took me well over two hundred years to muck out the last bits just so I could rebuild parts of the ship with changes we needed and not have rejection problems or suiciding components. I still don’t have full access, either. Someone starting with nothing at all really doesn’t have a chance.” She sighed, prodding a button on the console; all the readouts she’d been studying snapped off. “This is worthless… I can’t begin to guess when this might have started. Even the diagnostics don’t go back far enough to check for spikes in signal-to-noise.”

“Can’t really blame them. It’s garbage data as far as they’re concerned. It doesn’t even look like communications data.”

“Yeah. That’s exactly why it’s the perfect place to hide it. Every sane access point will filter it out.” She glanced back at the door. “Look pretty. Or awake, anyway.”


The cockpit door opened; Jadyn stumbled into the room completely out of breath. Dropping himself into a chair he groaned softly, holding his arms over his chest.

“Oh, Light… I am… I’m just gonna fall over dead… Don’t mind me…”

“Oh, stuff it,” T’bia scolded, then smiled when Tari walked in. She didn’t look anywhere near as winded as the blue fox. “You trying to kill him on purpose?”

“Yeah. Not really that hard,” she added, leaning on the back of the fox’s chair. “But, he did manage to beat me back… So. He gets to use his skill at cooking to make us a lovely dinner.”

“Die,” Jadyn wheezed, looking up at the vixen. “Never thought… you were thinking of supper when you made that comment…”

“And here I thought a proper meal was only the way to a man’s heart,” Toliya observed, hammering out lines of code.

“A good plate of food will bring anyone around…” He swallowed, working some moisture into his throat. “Tari, this is Toliya… Toy, Tarioshi.”

“Nice to meet you,” Tari greeted.

“The pleasure’s mine, ma’am.” The feline shot her a brief smile before going back to work. “Forgive me for not getting up. I’d rather not loose track of what I’m doing.”

“Which he’s severely prone to do… What Bee called me about earlier, Tari. It seems that our homeworld’s technology is a part of the type of bomb that nearly redecorated the cabin.”

“That’s not a good thing, I take it.”

“Definitely not.” He looked at the skunk. “What more do you have on that?”

“Nothing. Toy and I have been looking over things that are only slightly less disturbing.” T’bia brought the displays back to life. “Pretty colors, don’t you think?”

“Yeah, nice artistic license with the highlighters. Break out some glitter next time, needs more sparkly stuff. What exactly are we looking… Oh, Light…” Jadyn stared at the highlighted display of communication traffic in stunned amazement. “No. You’ve got to be kidding. That’s… That’s not possible…

“We narrowed it from over a hundred potentials down to twelve positive hits. It’s there.”

“Our comm frequencies… How in the Light and Void…?”

“Four new channels are open,” Toliya noted. “Two of the existing are closed. Beautiful protocol, I have to admit.”

“Yeah. Too bad we can’t decrypt it before the End of Time.” Jadyn frowned. “Okay… Dissect the streams enough to verify if it’s for sure our stuff?”

“Already done. Static is ever so slightly too organized to actually be random garbage. Doesn’t match against anything remotely local.”

“Damn. Can you actually narrow it down far enough to see a source and destination? If they’re riding existing signals for ambiguity -“

T’bia shook her head. “The way the channels were set up the destination is going to be tough. They’re multicasting on top of other multicast signals.”

“Anyone could listen in with the right equipment and decrypt codes.”

Tari sighed, patting Jadyn’s shoulder. “This is way out of my league. I’m going to go catch a shower. You need one too.”

“Yeah, I know. I’ll be up in a little while and make us something to eat.”

The cat’s eyes followed the vixen as she left the cockpit; he smiled at Jadyn as the door shut. “Lucky bastard, getting to wake up with that beautiful face… Not to neglect to mention the tail.”

“It’s a welcome change from my usual alarm clock,” he replied, thumbing at the skunk. “Anyway. We need to at least try to log the sources of the traffic.”

“Duh.” T’bia brought up a list of access points. “Here’s the problem I’m seeing. Of the total of sixteen connections we’ve now seen, none of them have originated from the same node.”

Toliya glanced at the list before going back to his screens again. “Those are all public nodes, too.”

“Yup,” T’bia confirmed.

“Anyone could have been logged into them to start the link. Most of those accept anonymous connections, as well.”

“Double yup.”

“Could be delayed, too,” he added. Jadyn wondered if the cat was talking to hear himself talk. “Something set on the access point to transmit the layer on top of an existing signal when someone else started a connection.”

“Triple yup.”

“We don’t have anything in our favor to figure out who’s actually doing this,” Jadyn mused aloud, cutting off Toy’s monologue. “I suppose our best bet is to just watch and look for patterns, keep mapping the sources… All of which you two are already doing, I expect.”

“Would you keep us around otherwise?” Toy replied. “Might want to get Ness on the horn.”

“No, I don’t think so.” Jadyn shook his head. “He’s got more than enough on his plate right now with the virus that… Wait.”

T’bia groaned. “Aw, crap. That’d explain why the code was so clean, too.”

“Mmm. Hacking professionals with style and good fashion sense,” Toliya muttered. “I should hire them when we find them. If neither of you object I’ll borrow the guest cabin for the night so I can get back to this in the morning. I’ve got scripts set up to watch for possible channels and run your test against them.”

“That’ll be a start. Thanks.”

“Of course. Bee, thanks for dinner.” He grinned at Jadyn, getting up and heading out the door. “Don’t keep your lady waiting too long, now.”

“Perish the thought.”

“So. We just sit for now?” T’bia asked once they were alone. “I hate just sitting, twiddling my thumbs. Do you have any idea how many thumbs I have to simulate to saturate even one processor?”

“I know. We don’t have much choice until we have more information. How’d you stumble across this stuff, anyway? I can’t imagine you just happened to see it out of the corner of your eye. Your filters should have been purging it off as noise.”

“Thought of it after he and I discussed the possible components in the explosive. And regarding that… There’s nothing more I’ll be able to see with their sensors. They’re just not fine enough a grain in that lockdown area to get the close-up I’d need.”

“Ness seemed pretty sure he wouldn’t be able to get one for us. There’s got to be a way, though.” Jadyn studied the floor, his tailtip flicking as he thought. “This stuff is based around our technology, we think… Therefore… As the only known representatives of that society in this quadrant, if we can somehow prove it was stolen from us… or just provide a solid argument that it might be stolen…?”

“They’d have to set up a full trace.” T’bia smirked, turning to a terminal and bringing up the required forms. “I like you when you’re devious. It’s so rare anymore.”

“Just don’t have that many chances. You think they might go for it?”

“It’s the best shot we’ve got. I’ll put together some samples - they’ll require something to compare against. I’ll probably need an excuse for how we found out about classified bombs… No, no. We’re just going to make a proper tech brief filing at long last. If the main echo matches and we have a stolen property report on the books, they’ll call us first.” She turned around, hesitating as she looked at him. His eyes were focused on some point out the front viewport, his expression blank. “Jay? You okay?”

“A while ago I finally resigned myself to the fact that we’re really the last of what Val’Trax was… I know there are bound to be other survivors’ descendants out there, but… They honestly aren’t a part of the society we lived in. Everything that we were is gone. And now, to see this surfacing so far from home… I just can’t quite get my mind around that.”

T’bia nodded. “I know. We’ll figure this out yet. Don’t worry about it too much.”

“Not worried, per se.” Jadyn stood up, padding to the door. Who else might have come this way? How many could there be?

“Concerned, stressed, whatever. Don’t sweat it. I’ll get in touch with Nesoli and give him some advance warning so he at least has some footing before we come in with this.” She gave him a grin. “Get out of here, Tari’s probably wondering where you got off to.”

“All right. Oh, if you happen to - Err, Bee?”


Jadyn peered at the skunk. “You doing that on purpose?”

“Doing what?”

“Your eyes are a little bloodshot.”

“What?” She summoned forth a holographic mirror, peering at her reflection. “What the Void…? My avatar’s body temperature is up a little, too… If I were organic, I’d say that I’m having an immune response to something… But this doesn’t make any sense.”

“Kill your fluff for now.”

T’bia nodded, squinting. “Er… Slight problem.”


“AI Control isn’t responding to my commands.”

Jadyn growled, looking up. “AI Control. Status.”

Silence met his command.

“Aerin, respond.”

“No good,” T’bia whispered. “Aerin’s running, only basic autonomy… I can still see status across the ship but secure command and control paths are gone.”

“Taint mode, Bee.”

“Already tried.” She inhaled deeply. “If I had to guess, I’d say that the station infection was a bluff, and the real target was us all along. I really hate to admit this - especially to you, but… I’m scared… For the first time since the war, I’m honestly scared…”

Stars shone against the inky blackness of space as a lone craft made its way through the darkness. No guidance lights dotted its exterior; the only sign of life was the glow of the engines.

Briefly, thrusters on the forward portion of the ship fired, slowing it down. And there, in the inky vast nothingness, a door opened. Lights within flickered just brightly enough to guide the craft to a landing. As the door of the shuttlebay closed, proper illumination in the bay returned, chasing every shadow away.

Except for one.

Welcome home, sir.

The shadow tossed back the hood of its dark cloak; a black-scaled lizard, four feet tall at best, peered at the shuttle with iridescent red eyes before walking to the door. “Any changes in status I should be aware of?”

The Council has not yet dismissed Captain Tzeki. We now have partial access to the datastores of the V.T.C. Serin. Nothing else of note.

“How sad. The news these days is just so dreary. No excitement. Nothing even spiritually uplifting, if you believe in that sort of thing. Find us a new place to wait.”

I have already located a suitable position in the heliopause. It will be approximately four hours under cloak.

“Excellent. Get underway as soon -“

The lizard stopped just inside of the access door as it opened, greeted by another, taller cloaked figure who promptly punched him in the face. Yellow blood leaked from his lip as he fell to the floor with a snarl.

“How dare you -“

“No.” The figure threw back his hood; a sickly indigo-furred fox snarled back at him. “How dare you. What good name did you lay waste to this time? Might it be this face?”

The lizard sneered. “You are in no condition to imitate the captain, let alone anyone else. And assaulting your own host…? Even after I have granted you every possible luxury I -“

“Luxuries are nothing next to one’s freedom. And since you will not return me that particular luxury nor allow me to continue my research, I am taking the issue into my own hands.” The fox coughed, limping toward the shuttle. “I do not know what you are planning, brother, but I will have no further part of it. Shoot me down if you desire. At least I will die quickly, instead of… this…”

Torpedo bank three is at standby.

“No,” the lizard replied, wiping the blood from his mouth and standing. The lights faded once more as the bay door opened. A force field kept the atmosphere in the bay even as the shuttle lifted off into open space. “No. Let him go. He will not be a threat. Just get underway as soon as possible, and be sure that he has left no unpleasant surprises to allow tracking our position. If our other guests inquire as to his location… tell them he is dead. It will be true in short order.”

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