“Connection to the VTC Serin has been reestablished through alternative communications infrastructure. The contagion has rendered the onboard AI inoperable. Shall I resume the data transfer?

“Have you finished processing the prior download?”

I have only completed approximately five percent of the scan. Translating data structures from organic quads to a trinary datastream such as my own processors require is taking far longer than expected. I am attempting to employ a portion of my successor’s subroutines to speed the conversion at this time, but she is resisting my commands.

“Employ whatever resources you require, but finish processing what you have obtained before you fetch more.”

As you wish. I have located a small portion of the Health Ministry’s database records on the original specimen within what has been converted so far.

“Excellent. Send the records to my research lab as you discover them.”

“How’s he doing?”

Pakar gave Jadyn a sideways glance, her eyes returning to the viewing window outside Nesoli’s sterile hospital environment. “Not good… But… There’s been no change. Did you find out anything more?”

“Nothing helpful as of yet. Toy couldn’t do much with the image log, but he took one of the rounds back to examine.” Jadyn sighed. “Someone sent a threatening message directly to me just before you called Toy about the shooting. I was cautioned to remove myself from Council service before T’bia was permanently removed from any service. Apparently, the Council’s hesitation in retiring me pressed some sort of issue.”

“Elders,” she cursed quietly. “Who the heck did you piss off?”

“Someone on my level. Those bombs? We’ve probable cause to believe there’s biotech helping power them.”

Pakar held her breath, staring at Nesoli’s unconscious form through the window for half a minute. “‘Probable cause’ meaning ‘don’t ask how we know, but we know?’”

“No - we really don’t know for sure. It’s extremely likely, based upon the evidence available, but we’re not absolutely sure.”

“Oh, and that’s where I come in, isn’t it? Ha! Right. There’s just no way, J.T. I can’t -“

“I’m not going to ask you to do anything questionable. Not in light of current affairs, at any rate.” Jadyn shook his head. “No, as much as it pains me to do so, we’re doing this one within the system. Bee’s assembling… Rather, before she came down with her flu, she was assembling a formal declaration of Val’Traxan technology and identification information, biometric fingerprints, the works. It should be enough data to identify it on scans as ours. All we need from there is a link between the biotech fingerprint on those shiny things and our filed fingerprint. After that, if there’s a probable match, we’ll be notified as the only authorized possessors of this technology in the quadrant and then we can lay claim to disassemble one to verify if our tech was stolen.”

“Not sure if it’ll fly, but I’ll see what I can do to convince the security subcommittee to allow that. You do realize you’ll have to permanently drop your cover of being Velorian if you want this to work.”

“I know. It really doesn’t matter that much anymore. I only registered as a Velorian because no one had heard of Val’Trax.”

“Most still wouldn’t know which way to point.” Pakar looked past Jadyn, nodding her head in greeting. “You’ve got company.”

“Hm?” The fox peered over his shoulder. “Tari? How’d you get here?”

“Not that hard when you’ve got an interactive map on your wrist,” she replied, lobbing him a black and blue-green hoop. “You lost this.”

“My bracelet…? What about the virus?”

“Not to interrupt,” Pakar cut in, “but I can understand every word you’re saying, Tari…”

Tari grinned and nodded. “Bee called it a ‘roaming universal translator override.’ I have no idea what that means but she said you’d both know.”

“I told them not to do that anymore,” Pakar muttered. “They seriously have no idea how many errors show up in the security logs at the end of the month…”

“So she’s okay?” Jadyn queried.

“Toy gave her a clean bill of health. She left a note on your bracelet.”

“Ah, so she did.” He hummed quietly to himself, reading the message on his palm. “Reconnected the transceiver, good… Tracing the connection to their little black hole… Oho. Lots of good news.”

“Something I should be aware of?” Pakar peered at the text and grunted. “Can’t read a word of that.”

“Wouldn’t be very private if anyone could look over my shoulder and glean the secrets of the universe, would it? Bee.”


“Tell Pakar the good news.”

Fleet Medical sent over Ness’ file. I’ve reviewed it and spoken with the other surgeon they called in. Since she’s still in transit, I’ll be starting without her in half an hour. As soon as she arrives I’ll fall back to assisting and she’ll take over for the major work. No, that does not mean I think she’s better than I am. She’s just… somewhat more experienced with this level of damage.

The drekiran nodded slightly to herself. “What can we expect?”

You can expect that I won’t make you any promises I can’t keep. I need to get prepared, guys. Halio out.

Tari pulled a datapad from a pocket and tossed it frisbee-style to Jadyn. “My courier mission is now complete.”

“And what do we have here… Ah, the tech briefs. Thanks.”

“Sure. Now, if you don’t mind, I need to wreak some havoc before I go absolutely loco.”

Jadyn tapped the side of the pad against his palm, considering. “Anything at all?”

“I haven’t had a good opportunity to do anything big in months. I’ve got a huge itch to scratch.”

“I might have an idea, but I want to go file this first.”

“J.T… Don’t do it,” Pakar warned. “I’m seriously not in the mood to deal with your shenanigans.”


“I know exactly what you’re thinking of doing. Don’t.”

“I’ve no idea what you could possibly be talking about.”

“Yes, you do, and I’ll have you both thrown in a holding cell overnight if I get so much as a single call. Are we clear?”

Sitting on the lone bench in a small cell, Jadyn grinned at Tarioshi. “That was so worth spending a night in lockup.”

“Totally… How’d she know you were thinking of creating a thunderstorm in the station?”

“I did it once before to water the plants when the gardening crew was on strike. And, technically, you made this one.”

“You made the suggestion.”

“Ah, but you took it so much further to make it your own. The hail, the wind… Those are the signatures of a skilled artist.”

“Thank you.” Tari peered at the walls of the cell. One side stood tantalizingly open; an invisible field of energy served as both wall and door. Beyond, at the center of the detention center, was the control console; a guard had not been posted. Theirs was the only occupied cell.

“I’m really glad Pakar doesn’t stay mad for long…” Jadyn relaxed against the back wall, shutting his eyes. “At least she was amused enough to put us in the same cell.”

“Don’t you get diplomatic immunity or something?”

“Unfortunately not. I’m neither a diplomat nor an ambassador.”

“Mmm… I suppose if I manage to keep myself distracted, I might be able to forget about the claustrophobia…”

“Seriously?” He abruptly sat up, turning to face her. “You going to be okay in here?”

“It’s… Well, it’s not precisely the fear of small spaces…” She glanced around the box. “Can we… y’know, talk here?”

“She took both our bracelets. Your public translation service has been indefinitely suspended.”

“Ah, okay… I still haven’t quite made sense of how T’bia explained that.”

“Toy was a little buzzed one evening and decided to fix a flaw in the Alliance translation networks. There’s no quick and easy way to get a new language added to the indexes - contracted work and all - so he wrote a little virus that can infect the local translation nodes and patch in a new one. The virus purges itself once you leave the translator’s zone. Does some other housecleaning of the translator network at the same time - genius, really. Annoys the piss out of Security, though. The infection raises an error on installation and removal. They aren’t severe enough to raise an alarm since it’s just a translation system, but they pile up for the end-of-month reviews.”

“I’ll take your word for it.” Tari flopped down on the bench, her head in his lap as she gazed at the ceiling. “Trying to remember what I’ve told you so far…”

“Pretend you haven’t told me anything.”

“Erf. Suppose that’d be pretty close to the status quo, huh? I’m just not used to being open about myself after almost a hundred and forty years of living among humans. Had it easy for the first ten, twelve… thought I was one.”

“I’ve garnered a bit here and there when you’ve slipped. What do I need to know to help you right now?”

“Since I had a human father and a kitsune mother, I’m a mortal kitsune.”

“Versus… what?”

“Spiritual,” Tari clarified. “The first kitsune were purely creatures of spirit. As time went on, crossbreedings between humans and those pureblooded kitsune produced offspring that are… mortal spirits, I suppose. We’re hybrids. We have qualities of both our human and kitsune lineage. We share the long life, physical agelessness, and otherworldly abilities of our spiritual bloodline, while gaining a permanent presence in the mortal realm. See, as pure spirits, they can’t simply exist in this plane without a great expenditure of energy to manifest themselves. They get around that by feeding on the energy of things in their element, or by drawing on the souls of mortals. Hybrid kitsune like myself don’t have that limitation. We still require a small amount of energy from our element to keep our spirit side healthy, but nowhere near as much as a pureblood.”

“Makes sense. But… wouldn’t the bloodline eventually become diluted toward the mortal side? Like, if you had kids with a human.”

She shook her head. “The propaganda we’ve circulated in the lore and mythology says that a child born of a kitsune and a human will be human with some unique abilities… The truth is that the offspring of a kitsune and a mortal will always be a hybrid kitsune, even if they appear human at birth. It doesn’t matter if the kitsune parent was mortal or spiritual. As long as one parent has mortal blood it balances out halfway against the kitsune blood. Some of the scholars believe it’s due to the vampiric nature of the kitsune spirit, but there’s nothing really concrete. I’ve heard some other ideas but there’s no reasonable way to test them.”

“I see.” Jadyn tapped his finger on the bench, thinking. “How’s this related to the claustrophobia?”

“Part of having the strengths of the kitsune bloodline is also having the weaknesses. Among other things, kitsune need their freedom. There’s the exceptions here and there - some are into the kinky bondage stuff. Generally speaking, though, being unwillingly bound or trapped in captivity severely weakens us. It shouldn’t affect me as badly as it would a pureblood, but I’m sure I’ll be feeling it by morning.”

“Remind me not to tie you to the bedposts again.”

“I did qualify that with ‘unwillingly.’”

“So you did.”

Tari touched the wall, looking briefly at the ceiling. “Just so I’m clear - you could bust us out of here at any time, right?”

“There’s a gaping flaw in using an energy field as a door to hold in someone who’s spent his life adjusting energy flows with force of will. Pakar’s acutely aware that I could walk right out of here with nothing more than a little singed fur. She trusts that we’ll stay put until we’re released, and I trust she’ll do that right on schedule - with the possibility of several extra hours tacked on to make us worry a little.”

“Okay. Knowing that, I can cope for a night.”

“That’s good. I’d hate to have to find new ways to distract you from the predicament you’ve gotten yourself into.”

“That I got myself into?” she queried.

“I’m a Captain. I’m delegating blame.” Jadyn poked Tari’s arm lightly. “I keep meaning to pick your brain about stuff like what you just shared there, but every time I go to ask about your heritage, something conveniently happens to distract me. Be it a doorbell, or you…”

“I’ve no idea what you’re talking about,” Tari cooed innocently. “Besides! A girl’s gotta keep a few secrets.”

“How goes the collation of stolen data?” T’bia queried, looking over Toliya’s shoulder as she took off her bracelet.

“Just about finished. How’d it go up there?”

“Ness will make a full recovery. There’s going to be several weeks of physical therapy involved in getting him airborne again, but he’ll get there. I’ve got to say, Doctor Jahr is an impressive surgeon.”

“For an organic.”

“Pff. She’s the best Drekiran-trained surgeon in the quadrant and she doesn’t mind working beside an AI on a critical case like Ness. I learned a couple of new tricks, too. Earns her a gold star for the week.”

“You were thinking of saying it.”

“Am I that much of a downer on natural organics? I really need to watch out for that.”

“Other than the obvious fact that you are superior in terms of… everything, why are you so negative about it?”

“I’m really not. I wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for you guys. I suppose the bad attitude started when I was constantly ragging on Jay to keep him off balance and thereby sane… Guess it’s become a bad habit.” The AI shook her head. “Where is Jay, anyway?”

“Not sure.”

“And Tari?”

“Also not sure. Haven’t heard from either one in hours - Oh, here we go. The main sort is done. Let’s see the keyword listing by popularity… Hm.”

“That a good grunt or a bad grunt?”

Toliya tapped his screen. “One of the search keywords your secret admirer used the most is ‘Nemaqi,’ whatever that means…”

“It’s a Val’Traxan word. Roughly, ‘chameleon.’ What else?”

“Mostly that term paired with tags to search all research databases, medical records, archival documents… Looks pretty broad. Oh, here. They snagged portions of a huge document titled ‘Project Nemaqi.’”

“Sounds familiar…” T’bia turned to an open console; the document’s content immediately spilled out across the display. “Oh, this. Why would they be interested in a five-century old biotech project that went wacko?”

“What happened?”

“A sample from this project became intelligent and broke out of the lab.” T’bia frowned, scrolling the text rapidly. “It proceeded to hide amongst the populace by taking on the forms of different Val’Traxans.”

Toliya smirked. “That a ‘minor problem’ in your playbook?”

“Eh. They caught it, not that it mattered much. The war started not a few days later.” T’bia inhaled slowly. “Unless they’re looking for a way to make a lost limb, I can’t see why they’d want this data…”

“This… thing, when it escaped. It could take on any form?”

“Any living organism, as far as the record says. Known impersonations were limited to sapient organics.”

“Say… Like a certain Lotoran Councilor currently MIA?”

T’bia stopped breathing for fifteen seconds. “The probability of that being true was so low, I never considered it viable until you mentioned it outloud… That said… We are against some of our own tech… It’s possible someone found the original gene blueprints for the Nemaqi project and built a second one. How it wound up here…”

“And they’d need your records… why?”

“I was privy to a lot of confidential information back home. It’s quite likely that whoever snagged the data didn’t have a complete copy to work with before now.”

“They still don’t. The download was interrupted.” Toliya pulled up a graph showing the transfer progress of the file. “The compression routines were taking chunks of the file to pair with other data in the stream for efficiency. They only got about half done.”

“So they’ll try to resume and get our special greeting… Still no attempts?”

“Nope. The connection is still live. Since it’s a direct routed link with some minor spoofing, I’ve managed to trace it as far as a subspace relay on the edge of the Velorian system. Still working the next hop past the heliopause.”

“What are they waiting for…?” T’bia queried absently. “A hundred and fifty exaquads… They’re still trying to find out what they got out of the first download.”

“Lucky for us, I’ve now got an index. But…” Toliya shrugged and shook his head. “I still don’t see how they knew you’d have this data.”

“I intend to ask them that myself, as soon as we find them.”

The black lizard peered toward the ceiling of a research lab, tapping the surface of a datapad. “This is all you obtained of this file?”

The connection was terminated before the download was completed. I can resume the transfer at this time if you so require.

“I so require. Ignore all other files - I want this.”

As you command. The file is inbound. I am writing it to your pad as the stream arrives.

“Excellent… Wait. What is this?” The lizard narrowed his eyes, peering at the new text. “This reads like a… A romance novel…? What is the meaning of this, Sanusin? Are you attempting to be witty?”

I must apologize. This is exactly what was contained within the datastream. I now suspect that the viral backdoor I have been connected to since the original interruption is a fake.

“You idiot!” The lizard flung the pad across the lab and stormed into the hall. “No one plays me for a fool… Prepare a shuttle at once. As usual, if I want anything done correctly, I must do it myself…”

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