BorderLines

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Section 1

"We haven't failed;

We just haven't succeeded yet."

Maeteya Merasi

The alarm screamed out in the middle of the Vieshaun's first-shift sleep cycle and joleted him awake, blinking into cabin lights that'd gone to full intensity. Loose fur scattered when he shook his sleep-befuddled head before scrambling to disentangle the restraint mesh over the bed. There were no drills scheduled for this shift. That meant. . .

"Commander report to control," the comm was flashing priority over and over again. "Emergency."

He spun snout over tail in the microgravity, giving a practiced flick of a hind foot to launch him across the tiny cubicle to the hatch. His claws slipped and fur adhered to the damp surface as he undogged it: the circulation system was still struggling, leaving condensation on metal and plastic surfaces. Curls of fur adhered to the moisture. Even with the paper body-covers the damn stuff got everywhere.

An acrid smell of nervousness mingled with the damp air and strands of loose fur drifting in the Vieshaun's core. A clutch of crew swarmed up the central trunk, clambering from branches and hatches as they scrambled to their stations. Several were already encumbered by the silver bulk of environment suits, turning them into bulbous six-limbed caricatures of Nedai as they launched from clawhold to clawhold up the shaft. He pushed himself inwards, latching onto the synthetic bark of the branches with foreclaws and swarming his sinewy body up the trunk, pushing off with mid and hind paws, his ears flat back against his skull.

The screech of the alarm changed to the electrifying shrill of boost warning. He dove for one of the scattered emergency braces and barely got it locked before the subliminal rumble of the engines vibrated the hull. Abruptly there was a sense of 'down', yanking on every organ in his body with an oppressive force. The entire vessel groaned, protesting the stress. A cry and crash rang from somewhere in an auxiliary module and for several gasping breaths he weighed twice normal.

A short attitude boost that had his hackles standing, despite the extra Gs. Whatever was going on, if it was bad enough to warrant expending mass on a course change then it had to be serious indeed. The instant the all clear sounded he slammed the braces aside and gripped the trunk with all six limbs: a lithe bronze-red streak swarming toward the control hatch.

The small lock took an interminably long time to cycle through. When the inner hatch opened it admitted a wave of air filled with anxiety stink and a babble of voices and machine readings. Control was a gloomy, cramped micro-g nest lit by the faint glows of screens, telltales and station lighting. The central arc of command was surrounded by a horseshoe of bulky armored cylinders of recessed duty stations nestled into the decking, the crew members just glimpses of organic form and color amongst the metal and ceramics. Central command station was already occupied by the captain and she had plenty on her hands: sending a steady stream of orders to various duty stations throughout the Vieshaun's multiple modules. He hastened for the spare duty station and struggled down into it, settling his hind limbs into the resistance of the gel-lined body-hugging acceleration suit. "Captain, status."

"Commander." Despite being encased in her station the captain cast a look his way and in the split second before she turned back to her consoles he saw she was shaken. Her ears were flat back against her skull and the fur of her muzzle was bristling. "There's something out there."

Something out there. That didn't tell him much, but as he cinched into the synthetic embrace of the suit at duty station the displays started flashing info from the other posts, feed routed from the C-com station. He could hear the muted but urgent chatter from the active duty stations as a low background noise: if need arose he could access the individual com channels, but for the moment he used the command freqs. "Scan got the ping a half hour ago, sir. There was an anomalous reading outbound from the debris field around Dreyal 2. Whatever it is, it's putting out a lot of noise and it's under power."

The Commander let his eyes flick across the station displays. The yellow icon representing the Vieshaun's Heart cluster was centralised, its vector a fixed and unblinking line. Arrayed around it the sparks representing the five Talons had shifting vector indicators representing the hard burns they were making to interpose themselves between the Heart, the Mind and the new icon on the monitor.

The icon representing the alien was a bright blue spot on the screen, off in the mid-scan region. At that range any rebound fixes were subject to the scan's return lag. During that time the target could change vectors so a definite fix was impossible. The unknown was emitting though, throwing out noise across broad bands so it stood out against the steady background radiation like a tree on tundra. The computer was plotting the best-estimated position as well as displaying the possible vectors it estimated the unknown could make during lag time with a blinking blue cone. He checked the attached available data.

Then checked it again.

"Has this been verified?" he snapped through com.

"Yessir," the captain returned. "The techs verify sensors. They say the output levels from the alien corroborate. There's only one, and it's big."

Understatement. Estimated mass exceeded eight hundred thousand tons. A leviathan that dwarfed the Vieshaun, Heart, Mind and Talons combined. The steady energy outputs were phenomenal, testifying to a drive capable of boosting that mass. And then the readings flickered wildly.

"Not possible!" he heard a tech yelp as the alien's vector changed, right out of the projected plot. That mass had bent a course change that should have torn it into shreds and redecorated the interior in shades of crew. Revised data showed the new course was moving closer toward paralleling their own and the thing was slowing. Gradually, but it was slowing. And that was a relief of sorts - a hostile would want to retain the tactical advantage of velocity - but no guarantee of docility.

"No chance it's Southern," he stated flatly.

"Our best intelligence put them months behind us as far as drive research goes."

"Intelligence has been wrong before," the Commander growled. "But with maneuvers like those, I don't think that thing is Nedai."

At those velocities one didn't fly a ship. One worked out where one wanted to go, how you wanted to get there, tell that to the computer and give it boost control and let physics take care of the rest. Things took time. The Vieshaun components had been traversing the system from the bridgepoint for the better part of two weeks and until that point everything had been smooth.

The project had been one of many conducted by both the North and the South, but this was the one that had worked. The North had led the way, launching probes months ahead of the Southern research. When those probes returned successfully the road was mapped for the next step.

On the outside the Vieshaun was a typical Long Prowler class vessel: The Heart with its long backbone of gantries, living and work modules, shuttle housings and the shielded unit at the tail housing the fusion plant. The Heart was the core of the Vieshuan, carrying the other components of the vessel. The Mind was a self contained unit unto itself: heavily shielded, with sensors studding the mottled, multi-wave absorbent hull. It housed control and tactical sections of the vessel. The five Talons were the claws and teeth and hide of the Vieshaun. They rode the Heart for major accel and decel, saving their limited fuel - breaking away as needed for reconnaissance or defense or attack.

A self-contained world capable of surviving for sojourns that might take years. The Long Prowler class was ideal for patrols to the far reaches of the system, ensuring the safety of Northern interests there.

The Vieshaun had left Cherimainsa Highdock under the guise of another routine supply run to the outer research colonies. Despite the security, the Southern Republic Coalition doubtless knew that was just a screen and they were certainly watching as the Vieshaun took the appointed window and boosted out of orbit.

A routine two weeks under acceleration were a time to conduct system tests and warmups. And then, at the projected bridgepoint, the Vieshaun gathered its modules, spread delicate superconducting wings and folded space around itself.

The first Nedai to journey beyond the secure environs of the home sun.

Supercomputers had spent weeks working out the maths to open the interstice, to chart the bridge between suns. The Vieshaun had ridden that space like a fallen leaf in an overflowing gutter: buffeted along with the flow until the gravity sink of the Dreyal system had drawn it down and through. The vessel had emerged inbound from system zenith at a significant fraction of a percent of lightspeed, headed toward the sullen little brown dwarf of the system Primary.

Dreyal system was a desert: dead, without habitable planets, the test probes had verified that. Of the five planetary-sized masses in the system, three were balls of frozen rock and dust on the fringes. The innermost worlds were a pair of gas giants, each with their own satellites and orbiting debris clouds. While the probes had returned with data on the existence of the planets they had never been designed for detailed exploration. That required a crewed mission.

The Vieshaun spent several weeks inbound under periodic hard deceleration. The long orbits of the outermost iceballs put them outside the vessel's immediate range but automated probes were launched on flybys. Meantime, the Vieshaun headed in toward the central worlds, specifically the pair of gas worlds and their own miniature systems of worldlets and planetesimals. On the plotted course they would do a flyby of Dreyal 2, the lesser of the giants, enroute toward Dreyal 3 and its abundant worldlets. The similar giant in their own system had proved to be a rich source of resources, as well as a hotly contested area as more and more motherlodes of ores and frozen water were discovered on moonlets and rocks. Resource nodes like that would be vital for the first isolated Northern stations in the Dreyal system.

Electronic senses had been straining hard ever since transition and on the long fall inwards. There was the normal background hiss from the cosmos and the sullen star at the center of the system. There was the hard and crackling interference cast from the gas giant twins and the waxing and waning noise of solar winds and magnetic fields. All natural emissions, nothing to show there might be others lurking in the system.

Nothing until this.

"Comms. They talking?" he asked.

"Nosir," comms came back. "EM radiation but no definable carrier wave. Search radar, seems like. Gigawatt range and XHF. We're sending, sir. Comp initialized the Greeting Package."

"Acknowledged." He scanned through the readouts: signals washing across their hull, course options, ship readiness. Two hundred and forty fragile lives in his hands. Two hundred and forty lives in a small metal can over a dozen light years away from the rest of civilization. It was a precarious enough situation at the best of times and wildcards were certainly not a welcome addition.

Outsiders. Aliens. It was a situation that'd been contemplated and deemed remote at best. The Greeting Package had been a token gesture toward such a contingency and there were procedures that were supposed to be follow, but nobody had taken them entirely seriously. Now that remote chance was an enigmatic certainty currently approaching them with unknown intent and capabilities while the computer spilled numbers and text, trying to establish a base for communications.

"Keep sending. Captain, maintain a standoff of fifty thousand klicks. If it breaches that, maneuver. Fuel cost irrelevant."

"Acknowledged."

"What's ship status?"

"All go. Everything secured, all stations report systems functional. Sir, Tactical requests permission to arm."

He eyed the approaching icon on the screen and weighed choices. "Give it to them. Comp Threat Discrimination only."

"Acknowledged," she said and gave orders over the com.

New icons flashed in a corner of his screen: Missiles, beam and countermeasures. Armed.

For the next four hours lifesupport struggled with the mounting anxiety stink that permeated the ship. On the screens the alien vessel moved closer. Twice there were course changes that brought some measure of reassurance: the outsider was maneuvering to take up a heading paralleling theirs at about seventy five thousand kilometers.

It was visible at highest magnification on optics by then: an enigmatic speck drifting in the void.

Section 2

The features of his officers hung in their windows around the periphery of his screen. They shared somber expressions, anxious creases on their muzzles and the signs of stress about the eyes. All save the stargazer. He looked as exhausted as the rest but was fairly bristling with exuberance.

Civilians. The Commander lashed his tail and tried to hide his exasperation.

Eight more hours of beaming messages and code at the unresponsive alien. Eight hours of general quarters with the form-hugging suit growing ripe and chaffing in places it'd been guaranteed not to. The outsider vessel just hung there, almost motionless in relation to them. Seventy five thousand kilometers: well within accurate missile range but far enough to give warning of launch. Was that accident or design? Tactical was running possible scenarios on comp, but with so little info they didn't have a lot to go on.

Scan was picking up details. Radar and lidar had pinged away continuously at the outsider. They knew it better now and what they knew had everyone's hackles up. The thing was bigger than the stations back home. A blunt cylinder just under two kilometers long with a trilateraly symetrical array of antennas arranged around the Z axis. That was the best detail they could pull.

There was a frustrating lack of information. Until the civilain tech contingent contacted Tactical with a question about a detail on an image they'd captured.

"How in the hearth did they get that?" the Commander had snarled when he saw the detailed picture of a massive, grey, scarred cylinder hanging against a starry background.

They'd utilized the specialized optics on the remote observatory satellite linked to the spine and intended for deployment around Dreyal 3. It was like using a telescope to read a keyboard on the desk right in front of you, but the civilian techs'd cobbled up filter algorithms to turn the blurred images into coherent pictures. And they'd run analysis routines on the alien drive spectra, albedo readings on the hull materials.

"Probably not hostile," the stargazer was saying. He was from the Northern Shintai peninsula. Even if the Commander hadn't known his origins from his bio, the speckled gray pelt and distinctive clipped accent would've given that away. "They're not talking, yes? Maybe they are. The emissions coming from them, the electromagnetic ones, they're just information probes. Radar and the like, yes? Just basic rangefinders, yes? There's an excellent chance they don't use EM for communications. They detected us before we saw them, yes? How? Not radar certainly."

"Feasible," the Comms chief offered. "How then?"

"These?. . . Ahh. . . how do you. . . yes. There." A schematic of the alien craft was available in the channel. "Here, these spines. Antennae? Too big? Drive like ours, also a possible gravity lens."

"That's possible?" the Commander asked.

"Theoretically. Yes. The Bridge utilizes a distortion in the reality level of existence. Creating a breach in the timestate. Quite possible to not break but ripple. Like a pondskipper sounding. Modulate and you send signals."

"So they're more advanced than us in that field as well. But you don't think they're hostile."

"Look." An enhanced picture of the hull panned across the windows: a dark metal cityscape of bumps and protrusions and things unguessable. "You see. No missiles or the like. Plenty of space for such, but none there. This does not have the feel of a warship. Too big, unwieldy. Too much mass for the drive."

"Unless there's something we don't know about," Tactical rumbled.

"Until we know for certain, we treat that as the most lethal device Nedai've ever encountered. We don't even know if it's manned. It might just be a machine."

"Not likely. Crewed. Yes. Quite. And I believe they should be quite similar to us."

"You have something to base that on?"

"Yes. Yes, quite." Segments of the alien vessel panned across the window. "Here and here. Colored hazard lights most probably, within the visible spectrum. Machines wouldn't need those. And this," an image of blurred white against the dark metal of the hull, "script we think, not machine-readable forms. But this is interesting."

His hands moved off-screen and the conference windows flashed another blurred image: blues and golds against the metal hull. "An icon," the tech explained. "Not enough detail, unfortunately, but art? Perhaps? Most probably not machine."

"But you can't be sure."

The tech glanced at something offscreen. "Not absolutely, no."

"What do you know for certain? Capabilities, weapons?"

"Maneuverable. More so than us. Superior to the talons even. Shai, and there is this. . ."

Imaging showed an image of the foremost end of the alien vessel. Tags indicated a time lapse pictures and false colors showed blooms across the prow.

"What on earth is that?"

"Debris. Particles. Dust. It doesn't use ablatives, not like we do. At first we thought they were normal impacts, but see. . . energy output too high. Estimate another application of the drive field. Return kinetic energy 180degrees perhaps."

"And that means?"

"An underspace inversion interface returning kinetic energy directly back. . ."

"Goodfellow," the commander interjected and the savant looked surprised, then his ears shrugged. "Shae. An energy barrier."

"A shield," Tactical said when that had sunk in. "How strong?"

"Can't say. It's permeable to most forms of radiation certainly, but solid matter is ionised. Perhaps only active in direction of travel. Not enough data at this time. We try to find out."

For a few seconds a worried silence filled the net. Then the Commander snorted. "If there're going to be any more surprises I hope they're pleasant ones. Keep me posted."

Section 3

More hours ground by. The enigmatic visitor continued paralleling their course just under a hundred thousand kilometers out. Instruments continued compiling data. The life support filters continued to struggle with the mounting tension-scent while crew stared at their displays and shed fur into their suits, waiting for a change. Something. Anything.

The Commander flexed and relaxed muscles in the restraint of the shock suit as he tried to work feeling back into tired limbs. The suit was rank. So was he. So was the air in the command deck. The crew was running ragged. The waiting and maintaining full alert for such an extended period was having an effect on all of them. He'd have to call a watch change soon and that would mean hot-switching crews as well as undogging secured hatches.

He eyed the hot pinpoints of the Talons on his screen. They had much smaller crew complements and weren't intended for long-duration

Priority from Comms screeched through intraship even as his screens flashed the message. "Sir!" Comms was reporting, "They're talking! They're talking! We're getting a response to the Greeting. They're handshaking. . . God's spittle, they're fast. They've run through the standard package already. Comp's feeding the advanced lexicon through now."

After the basic numbers and mathematical equations would go the more complicated concepts: geometry, physics, chemical formulae. From there they could send more complex communications protocols: for audio and video, language. . .

"Activity on the unknown!" came another Priority.

"We've got movement. . ."

"They. . . GODS!"

Alarms shrilled and the shock suit clamped tight around the commander as the maneuvering alarm screamed and simultaneously the vessel lurched violently and a giant hand was pressing every cell in his body into the padded lining as there was suddenly a 'down' and it was above him. Red flashed into his eyes as indicators burned across his screen: launch warnings. The upper racks had blown their casings and the missiles sprang away on compressed bolts before their primaries ignited, screaming away at sixty-Gs even as the Vieshaun rolled to bring the other racks to bear. The forward lasers were firing repeatedly, pecking away at the target with no determinable result. Something had happened. The computers had responded to something they deemed threatening.

"Laser scatter!" he heard from Tactical. A laser burst. They'd been fired at and the machines had responded to a situation that organic nervous systems couldn't hope to intercept. But damage reports were still clean. . . "Window! ECM launched."

"Acknowledged," the captain's voice sounded prenaturally calm. "Evasion patterns. All hands brace."

"Talons!" he spat, aware he'd bitten his tongue. On his screen the Talons were breaking away, more icons appearing as they dumped their missile loads and maneuvered in bursts of chaff and ECM decoys. Dodging frantically. Flares of nuclear fire were pinpricks in the vacuum as ordinance detonated in EM pulses.

Talon 3 vanished from track with an explosion of static.

"Energy scatter!" he heard again.

"Offal!" he cursed silently and watched the active captain and Tactial marshal their forces. Setting the Talons to evasive patterns and the Vieshaun to try and maneuver as best it could while bringing the remaining racks to bear. And on his screen the pinpoints of his accelerating missiles were winking out as they inched toward their target.

"Tactical! How the spit are they doing that?!"

"Not laser sir. Maser perhaps. High power. Very high power. And an excellent tracking system."

"Sunbeams launched on spread."

Bomb-pumped x-ray bundles launched on missiles directed on deceptive non-intercept courses. Automated defenses might mistake them for off-course conventional ordnance and dismiss them as no threat.

And Tracking screamed out, "Incoming! Kinetics!"

Acceleration hammered them, then a twist and lurch that made Vieshaun's hull groan in protest and for a few second there was nothing but the hiss of the blood through his system and then the world rang like a gong and flared white. . .

"Commander!"

"Burn. 3 seconds. Hold it. Release!"

'We can't scratch the bastard!"

"Tactical! Launch! Launch! Burn on secondaries. . ."

"It's maneuvering! Burn! The Sunbeams hurt it! Flush the racks!"

"Talon 5. Damage to primaries! We. . ."

"Hull damage. Maneuvering out. Racks damaged. Blowing all missile covers. Damn it! Get those Sunbeams primed!"

The gabble was on the comm channel, audible above the hum of fans through his now-sealed helmet. His screens were still up, most of them. The pinpoints of his missiles were out. Gone. Extinguished without coming close to their target. Talon 5 was blinking blue. Tumbling and out of action. Talon 2 was yellow and maneuvering and. . .

"Talon 5. Launching," came the static-ridden burst over com. Then a hesitation: "Tell our families. . .you know. Detonating. . ."

A scream that might have been the static burst through comm and Talon 5 vanished from track. Far out in the emptiness the tiny speck of the Talon flushed its racks, the big warheads tumbling from the bay, aligning their solid laser spines as they emerged and then detonating as one in a nuclear fireball that swallowed a crippled Talon in an eyeblink. And the scores of x-ray lasers pumped by those blasts crossed the remaining distance that was nothing to lightspeed. They tore through metals and things that weren't metals. Irradiating, burning, and melting. And they tore through compacted stores of hydrogen and dueterium slush. . .

"Gods," came over the net and from Talon1:

"It's hit. It's hit. It's going up. Shave me. . . it's going up."

And another light flashed through the bridge and his helmet even as the track on the bogey sputtered out and the flickering screen quietly switched to debris trajectories.

"Suck that," some anonymous source crowed over open comm.

"Damage control to Command. Damage control to module four. . ."

For several long seconds he just panted the tinned air of the suit. Then realized: that flash. . .

The exchange had lasted less than five minutes and for the first chance he had a chance to look around.

The command deck was open to the spinning stars. An outer deck had been torn open, outer ablative shielding vaporized and shattered, metal peeled aside in a jagged gash across the control center that exposed conduits and shimmering foptics and shorting electrics. And the auxiliary tracking station and the two crew at their stations. . . gone. One of the comp maintenance stations shredded by shrapnel, the torn suits in their pods motionless and laced with pink crystals. Other stations were still working though, their crews doing their duties.

And his operational screens showed damage elsewhere in the Vieshaun. And there were two Talons gone and another crippled.

"Tactical," he croaked into his pickup. "Status."

"Commander? We don't have visual. . ."

"We have damage here."

"Acknowledged. Sir, the alien has broken up. There was a thermonuclear detonation. We suspect the x-ray burst from the Sunbeams initiated a reaction in fuel stores. At the moment we're tracking several large pieces of debris and over five hundred smaller pieces." There was a moment of silence then Tactical added, "Sir. We've also just detected a modulated signal. EM band. Repeating it seems."

"Beacon?"

"Most likely. Possibly an escape capsule. Not maneuvering though. It's got plus vee but no acceleration. Skewed zero-five one-seventy from their original course. Hold on sir, the net's up again."

Data flashed through to his screen and he studied the vectors and available info. Then grinned viciously and wiped his tongue over incisors, tasting the tang of blood. "Tell Talon 1: go get them."

Section 4

The loudest sound in First Squad Trooper Railet's helmet was the hiss of his pulse; underlying that droned the unchanging hum of the circulation fans. His suit reeked of sealant, plastics and ozone and tension and every breath fogged on the scratched faceplate. He clenched his fangs to try and control the nervous panting while his forepaws gripped his weapon and his midpaws tapped the controls of his MMU. There was a slight wrenching feeling from the pack as it vented propellant and nudged him back into line with the rest of the squad. He licked his lips as the ponderously tumbling shape of the target drifted back into the center of his field of vision, the sullen light from the ancient sun reflecting sodium-orange from the battered white surface of the thing.

It was a flattened wedge, the white hull singed from intense heat and marked with angular logos and icons that were all right angles and geometric loops. LIDAR had mapped the dimensions before they debussed and the numbers approached those of Talon 1. The assault team knew these numbers, but it was only as they fired their braking bursts and slid into the shadow of the alien that the imposing size of the thing made itself felt. The half-dozen six-limbed space suited figures flickered into black silhouettes as the light of the alien sun was eclipsed and they drifted to a relative halt with the alien.

"And that's the small fish," crackled over Railet's comm. Trooper Trailan, by the telltale.

Squad Leader Chaim's bark crackled back: "Tie the chatter. Essential coms only."

That was fine with Railet. His mouth was dry and tasted like his suit smelt. The Talons were too small to carry a dedicate Marine presence so the crew performed multiple roles. The non-critical personnel doubled as a limited infantry body: a force that was very seldom needed. In Railet's entire career, this was the first time he'd had to stand down from his post as backup Ordinance and suit up for a real boarding.

It wasn't a sensation he was relishing. Drifting in the vastness, constricted by the bulky hug of a suit with only a small hydroxide maneuvering unit, it was too easy to remember how exposed one was.

Entry was easy to find. Strobes and a peculiar combination of yellow and black stripes outlined a hatch. The first team members gingerly struck the hull, braking with gentle counterthrusts from their MMUs and gently rebounded: the material wasn't ferrous, the grapples on the boots didn't adhere. But there were brackets where lines could be secured while they worked on the mechanism.

It proved to be remarkably simple. Whoever or whatever built the thing had obviously had quick entry in mind. The controls were basic, sequential and marked in pictoglyphs. As the outer hatch slid open, six Veriver Infantry 10.5mm Assault Weapons were trained on it, and then on a small metal chamber illuminated by lighting with a distinctly yellowish tinge.

Just a lock. And a pretty unimposing one at that. Railet had been prepared for something more spectacular than this small white chamber with alien text stenciled across the bulkheads.

"First team, in," Chaim crackled over the com. "Weapons live and keep your cameras sending. If they're alive, try and keep them that way."

"If they don't give us a choice?" Railet asked.

Squad Leader's helmet opaqued as the vessel slowly rotated to bring them into sunlight so Railet could only see his own figure reflected in the faceplate. "Defend yourselves, by whatever means necessary."

There was barely room for three in the lock and the controls were as simple as the exterior ones. The outer valve closed and Railet immediately noticed the telltales in his visor flicker as the bandwidth from the exterior team dropped dramatically. Still enough for a comms feed, so the hull wasn't shielded, but whatever it was made of it was good at blocking signals. He could also feel the fabric limbs of the semisoft suit constricting as the chamber was pressurized and a faint patina of ice crystals fogged his visor. The external audio came on, carrying the rustle of the other suits and a slight clink of equipment moving.

"Oxy/nitro," came the diagnosis over the headset. "Pressure slightly higher. Temp still climbing. Could probably breathe it."

He had no intention of trying, but at least he most likely wouldn't die in some poisonous atmosphere if something holed his suit. Not immediately, anyway. The suit-portable equipment couldn't test for biological contaminations.

"Got something on the external audio. Voice?"

"Shae. Check on that. Live or recording?"

"Comp I think. Audio clearance like we use. At least they have ears and use a similar frequency."

"Movement on the inner hatch."

"Shae," Railet spat as mechanisms in the bulkheads whined and the inner lock swung back.

The weapons pointed down an empty corridor.

"Clear," Railet said feeling his blood racing, sure the monitors back on the Talon would be reading it. "Looks like they had some trouble."

The corridor was hexagonal in cross-section. There was none of the synthetic bark that talons could normally grip in micro-gravity, instead there were loops set into the walls. The entire corridor was paneled with something like a glossy tan-colored cellulose extrusion. In several places something behind the walls had ruptured and burned, charring those panels black. Light came from small niches recessed into those panels and carried the same disturbing orangish hue as the lighting in the lock had. At the far end of the companionway another hatch hung open and light flickered through it.

Nothing moved as Railet took point and pushed gently with a hind foot, aware of how vulnerable he was drifting forward. The corridor was narrower than Nedai would have built so he filled a fair bulk of it, even with his forward torso down. If someone or something fired down there they'd have to work to miss him. Still, nothing moved and he reached the next hatch, sweeping the muzzle of his weapon in a circle and cursing the limits his helmet imposed on his field of vision.

There was a three-way junction at the end of the passage. An electrical conduit was shorting out, throwing a crackling light and making the rest of the lights pulse and dim erratically. But there was nothing else there.

"Clear," he croaked into the headset and worked his jaws, trying to relax as the rest of the team worked up behind him.

"Report," came from Chaim. "Team Two's cycling through now."

If that was what they were waiting for. . . get them all inside. . .

"Quiet," he reported and gave a quick description of what he was seeing.

Three ways. All at equidistant right-angles to the current access tube. Up and diagonally down in two directions relative to him. None of them looked to be very long and there were hatches at the end of each of those. Two closed, one ajar. Split up? That was what they did in the cheap entertainments. And invariably ended up in a way Railet had no intention of doing. He gestured to the passage with the open hatch and nudged off with hind feet, keeping his weapon trained.

Still not a sign of life. Not a sound save the crackle of arcing electricy from behind which still kept snaps of interference sounding through the com system. The hatch moved easily when he pushed it, swinging inwards. The room was dimly lit, this time with a dull red glow from small lights around the door. He snapped his image intensifier on and that limited viewscreen revealed a larger area with equipment in the walls: racks of hatches, small indicators flaring in the screen. There was also debris floating: bits of metal. He flinched as something larger floated by. It looked almost like an animal of some kind, with many segmented legs and manipulators but it glinted with a metal hue. A mechanical of some kind, apparently inactive.

As were the several other he saw floating quiescent in a corner. But he kept his weapon trained on them as he entered the room.

"Got a temperature difference in there," came over com. "Cooler. Considerably."

"Shae," he agreed, noticing his readouts and began panning his view around the room. "Wonder why. . ."

Then he yowled out loud as he whipped his weapon up, already firing.

Section 5

The vast mass of the alien vessel hung over him like a shattered moon. A broken landscape of torn metal, shorn away to reveal a heart honeycombed with rooms and corridors, access conduits, pipes and tubes. Twisted struts clawed at the slowly revolving starscape like frozen digits. A cloud of smaller debris orbited like drifting moonlets, glittering as torn metal struck starlight. Other lights flickered through the immense wreckage: steady glows moving through the maze marking where the motes of crews were working. Salvaging, recording, exploring. But the alien was so immense and so damaged they could only hope to take back a sampling of the secrets tucked away.

He flexed his midlegs, tapping the MMU controls to nudge the suit around. The starscape rolled and a little speck swam into view, colored with a sodium taint from the old sun. A speck of warmth so far from home, scarred and torn from the brief and savage struggle. Brief flares lit where other work crews were busy patching the damage. That fragile amalgamation of struts and habitat modules had brought down the immense outsider. He wanted to believe it was their skill and tactical ability that'd defeated the giant. Wanted to, but couldn't. There was too much fate involved.

They hadn't come through it unscathed. Twelve dead, five seriously wounded. Modules shredded, the bridge in disarray, most of the ordinance gone. If it weren't for the redundant systems the Vieshaun would've been dead in space. As it was the crews were stripping material from the alien vessel to replace components and hull material that'd been simply vaporized in the battle. The entire crew were working on the repairs, pulling exhausting rosters to get the Vieshaun functional again. That was their priority: to get out of there and back to Nedai. They were the only warning people were going to get that there were aliens and they were hostile.

At least they knew what they looked like.

Their. . . guest was stowed safely. The exobiologists - the remaining couple - were overwhelmed. They'd been hoping for algae or single-celled organisms at the best and what they had was beyond their wildest dreams. Their equipment and that of the medbay wasn't nearly adequate enough.

They'd just have to do their best.

The Commander nudged his MMU again, an experienced burst swinging him around to face his vector again. The mass of the alien vessel had grown gargantuan, filling his field of vision completely and now he could see the flares marking the temporary life-support bubbles the tech crews had set up. It was a while longer to decelerate into the shadow of that alien bulk and nudge his suit to a position where his suit talons could hook the netting set up around the brightly illuminated lock.

Tech chief Maetraize was waiting for him. Like many support crew who spent a lot of time EVA her suit was customized with a glaring paintjob to make recognition easy. The random orange and black stripes on her suit glared in the lights of the temporary habitat. She flashed a combination of forepaw digits: giving him a com channel.

"Commander," her voice came through when he switched over. She sounded as tired as he felt. "I thought you should see this yourself."

"It's that important?"

"Shae, sir. It's that section up there. Part of their engineering. It's pretty gutted but there's enough left to tell us a lot, even after a blast like that. They build tough."

"Hot?"

"Hardly anything, sir. Fusion bottles, there," Maetraize pointed toward a section that looked almost molten: solid masses of metal. "That's what blew when the fuel cooked off. Fusion reactors feeding magnetic bottles. The explosion blew plasma through the ship like a high-pressure hose through a varrick warren. But what we found sir. . ."

He'd seen the vid feeds from the Vieshaun, but seeing it with his own eyes was something else. Moving through the gutted remains of the alien wreckage. The huge panels and plates peeled away like fruit skin. Structural girders the width of a Nedai's torso bent like string. Vast structures melted and slagged. Other sections seemed unscathed: sections of the outer hull, skeletal remains of structures inside. The ultra-dense material plating so much of the hull that was like diamond: impervious to plasma cutters and multi-megatonne strikes.

"It's mostly hold space, sir," Maetraize said. "Filled with ore. Iron, nickel, copper. Tanks of water, nitrogen and hydrogen slush. There's refining and manufacturing equipment, mechanicals of all kinds. It's a prospector sir, not a warship."

"A miner."

"Shae, sir. That's my best guess. Mostly automated. The crew, what there was, I think we found it all. And sir, they didn't fire on us."

He felt his guts clench and twisted his suit to try and see her. In the shadows she was nothing but a bulky suit and faceplate. "What do you mean?"

"Over there sir," she gestured toward the rear of the vessel and a torn antennae array. "It's a communication array. There's stuff there we've never seen before, but there's a laser in there. Same freq as the one that set off the automatics."

"A communications system. A tightbeam."

"Shae, sir. Suppuratingly powerful too. Weapons-grade, by our standards. The emitters are toward the rear, where the drive was located. What we detected was probably backscatter reflected our way. Bounced by metal fragments, ice crystals, even vented gasses or somesuch. Comp picked up on that. Misread it."

"They don't have laser weapons? None?"

"The main weapons seem to have been advanced mass drivers. There were also a couple of what we think are particle beam systems of some kind. We found one laser mount, probably point-defense and it's a completely different freek. Not what the machine registered."

His guts churned again and he looked out to the infinite blackness; twenty years in space and this was the first time for a long while he'd ever felt like vomiting. The suit's ventilators hummed beneath the hiss of his blood, telltales reflecting faintly in the faceplate.

"Just a miner," he whispered.

"And we don't know who or what it was signaling," Maetraize noted.

Oh, gods.

Section 6

It'd taken eleven days to get the Vieshaun's systems back up to operational levels. For eleven days the Long Prowler had drifted with the alien derelict, describing a tumbling line through the fringes of the desolate system. Crews worked around the clock, repairing the Vieshaun and stripping everything they could carry out of the alien.

Eleven days of drifting defenselessly, of feverish effort before the fusion torch was finally lit and the Nedai vessel began course corrections to return to the Bridgepoint. There was still a long way to go and every hour they spent in that system was an hour closer to another outsider discovering them; an hour's less warning for their world. The Vieshaun's passive sensors - and occasionally the active ones - had been working overtime, but there hadn't been a sign of any other outsiders. Not a ship, not an occlusion of stars, not a signal or a stray electromagnetic whisper.

The subliminal thrum of the main drive permeated the hull. The atmosphere still reeked of ozone and coolants, burnt metal and plastics, condensation and the permeating tang of many Nedai living in close proximity. There were places through the ship where the patches on the inner hull were quite visible, places where the heating coils weren't fully functional and a chill nipped at pawpads, but the Vieshaun was living again.

The Commander stood in the cramped medical section, his claws hooked into the ragged synthetic bark of the matting as he looked through the port at the alien artifact sitting in the sterile white of the quarantine area. A Nedai could fit into the capsule if he curled up. The diamond-hard transparent lid reflected overhead lights, the glare obscuring the contents from his view. He shifted his weight as he regarded that mass of outsider technology and what it cradled. In some ways they'd been fortunate: the boarding party had been using fragmentation flechettes in their weapons - designed not to penetrate hulls and bulkheads - and it'd been easy to shift the entire module out of the escape vessel. Later analysis showed that transparent material'd probably have withstood an artillery barrage.

It was understandable to see why the trooper had startled. To have that loom out of the darkness. . . his mane bristled in distaste.

"It's stable?" he asked a medical tech.

"Yes sir." They'd been analyzing the drugs the chamber was pumping into the alien, keeping it alive and sedated while its injuries healed. They thought they were some way to understanding how it worked, why it worked and what would kill it. At least they'd have bioweapons.

"How's that sedative coming?"

The exobiologist at the workstation looked up from the graphics of complex molecules. "Steadily sir. We've isolated the substance and should be able to synthesize it."

That'd keep it under control until they got back to home space. He moved up to the window and laid his forepaws against the thick material, looking down on the alien features in the chamber. "Two legs. Why didn't anyone think they'd look so odd?"

The biologist flicked a shrug. "We found the soundest model was based on our own biology. There were. . . difficulties with biped projections."

"Such as?"

"Well, they kept falling over."

The commander glanced at him. He didn't think these outsiders had that problem. Standing erect, the alien would be fractionally taller than an adult male Nedai with torso reared, although not nearly as massive. No hide, no fur save the ragged, burnt patch on the top of the head. No claws, no tail, four limbs, the lower two of which were used for locomotion. And male, they presumed.

"Get that tranquilizer sorted out, first priority. And learn everything we can about it. If it starts waking up, I want it knocked cold as soon as possible."

The xenotech flagged acknowledgement, but asked, "We can't try communicating with it? There might be something. . ."

"No. We don't know anything about it or its capabilities. Keep it sedated until someone more qualified can hook their claws into it. We don't need it running through the ventilation system."

"Shae, sir."

He regarded the alien features for a while longer. The burns and contusions were healing, slowly. It'd take them another week to reach the calculated Bridgepoint and then more days in the terrifying eddies of underspace before their own system was reached. They didn't have the facilities to restrain or feed an alien. And if it got free. . . it didn't look that fearsome but he didn't want to take chances.

That was his mission now. Warn people. Get it home in one piece. There were a lot of people who'd want to try to talk to it.

Section 7

The dreaming jewel of the world hung in the sun-speckled vastness, the arc of blues, whites, and greens filling a quarter of the tinted viewport. The void sparkled with motile dots: sunlight flaring as various vessels maneuvered in the orbital slots, propellants crystallizing and refracting sunlight.

Maeteya never tired of that sight. This rush trip from the moon station had been in one of the new courier packets - a windowless can. And ports on Cherimainsa Highdock's docking ring were shuttered against direct sunlight, so this smeared port on the way to the secure inner rings was the first chance she'd had to see the homeworld. She took a moment from her haste to drink the sight in: The living colors, the light turning entire oceans to shimmering metal, the sweeping clouds hiding the curl of the Meridian Peninsula and the scars created by megatonne strikes during the Meridian Crisis.

As the view swung a bit further she could see the distant shipyards gantries swim into view. She frowned slightly. There was a godsawful amount of activity out there. Local space swarmed with tenders and shuttles and even from here she could see the pinpoint flares of cutting torches in the yards.

"Milady," her escort prompted gingerly. "This is a matter of the utmost urgency."

"Shae," she sighed and turned away, headed on up the curve of the passageway into the depths of the station, into the secure areas.

There'd been no clue as to what this was about. She'd been pulled off her monitoring and paper-shuffling administration duties on the darkside station, put onto a packet with the highest priority clearance and a crazy pilot and twelve hours later docked with Cherimainsa Highdock. The reception team had intercepted while she was still shedding the damned vac suit and barely gave her a chance to wrap her uniform harness before hurrying her into the station. She was only a Logister Second Class attached to the farside science team. Her background suited her position with the team attached to the Darkside Array monitoring the skies for any outsider signals, but she didn't see how any of that could be so important to the powers that they'd haul her up here.

She wondered whether it might have something to do with the rumors she'd been hearing.

Troopers were stationed throughout the station. In the outer sections they were in standard security issue suits, but as she drew nearer the Core where the gravity was about ten percent Nedai norm they were in skirmisher garb: weapons and pressure armor. She passed through three checkpoints, all at armored pressure-doors where armed guards double-checked her documents with retinal and EM scanners. Finally the escort ushered her into a neatly appointed vestibule with expensive bark flooring, polished leather reclining saddles and two security cameras that she could see. Her escort told her to wait and left her alone.

Typical. They rush her across half the system and then keep her waiting. At least it gave her a chance to groom her travel-ruffled fur into a semblance of respectability.

It was the better part of a half-hour later before the other door opened and a male in a polished black harness without insignia stepped in. "Logister Maeteya Merasi?" he asked with a glance at a PDA. She looked around the empty room and bit back a smart retort but he didn't wait for her to reply. "This way."

She followed him to another short hall, through a door and found herself in a large chamber. After the utilitarian matting of the rest of the station the expensive bark flooring felt good under her paws and claws. Dim recessed lights shone out through twisted boughs and branches covering a couple of walls and the ceiling. Darkened viewscreens covered another wall. In the center of the room working surfaces and their saddles were arranged in a U, and the Nedai at each station wore harnesses with more silver markings than she'd ever seen in her entire career. Her jaw made an audible click as she snapped it shut, pulling herself to attention.

"Logister," a grizzled male with the silver braid of Liaison on his harness laid a stylus down on the papers before him. "Come in. Sit."

There was only one seat left - the saddle in the focus of the crescent. She settled herself and looked back at the watching faces. There were six of them. Ranking from the Liaison down as low as a Cluster Commander with her mane severely cropped and silver braid polished to a sheen. That would have to be the station Commander.

"Logister," the Liaison said, rolling a stylus in his fingers, "do you have any idea why you're here?"

"No, sir."

"What do you know?"

"Sir, I was pulled off my current assignment at Darkside without an explanation, bundled into a shuttle without time to pack and brought here on priority clearance. Nobody's told me anything."

"What have you heard?"

Maeteya looked around at the faces watching her. "Sir, there was an incident in the outer system. The Vieshaun was testing a new propulsion system and there was some sort of skirmish in the outer belt. The Southerners are tensing. So are we."

"I see." The Liaison glanced down at his pad and jotted a note, then looked back at her and his ears were back. "Logister, what I'm about to divulge is classified Most Secret. Tell anyone what happened here and I guarantee you will be sent back planetside without a shuttle. You understand?"

From that tone, they'd do it. "Understood, sir."

"Logister, the Vieshaun was indeed testing a new system and there was a skirmish. However, it wasn't in the outer system. It was in the Dreyal system. And it wasn't with Southern forces."

"The Dreyal system?" she blurted. "I mean, sir. That's fifteen light-years out. They were gone just over a month. You mean. . . we can. . ."

He looked faintly amused. "Yes. We can. The Vieshaun was testing the system and it works. While they were surveying the system there was an encounter with another vessel in which the other vessel was destroyed."

Not southern. . . "Outsiders, sir?"

He tapped a section of his console with his stylus and one of the screens lit up with a schematic of the Dreyal system, colored plots indicating the course of two vessels. "The Dreyal system is uninhabited. The Vieshaun encountered the other vessel two weeks after they entered the Dreyal system. It wasn't Southern. There was an incident and fire was exchanged. The Vieshaun was damaged and the outsider destroyed."

The screen showed a machine generated image of the alien craft. As the image rotated and zoomed in the scale of it became apparent. It would dwarf even Cherimainsa Highdock. Maeteya stared, the enormity of the news not quite sinking in.

"We know they weren't native to that system," the Liaison said. "We don't know exactly where they come from, what their capabilities and resources are, what their intentions are. That's why we brought you here."

"Sir?" she asked, puzzled.

"There was one survivor."

Her hackles rose. The Liaison was looking at the papers in front of him. "According to your file you have a interesting education. A history of medical training, biology, theoretical xenobiology, linguistics, ciphers and cryptography."

"Sir," she acknowledged. "So do a lot people at Darkside."

"Yes. But you also served in the Sheridin garrison. At a higher rank, I note."

Her head went back fractionally. The memories of that time came back with a flood of self-loathing. "Attached to the Counter Intelligence section," the Liaison was saying. "'Identifying and neutralizing terrorist activities'. You've also got interrogation experience."

"Yes, sir," she said stiffly.

"Logister," another high-ranker - a grizzled male with peppered gray muzzle and the metal braid of a High Marshal said, "You didn't approve of your duties, we know that. You weren't asked to. We aren't asking you to now."

"Sir," she could feel her fur standing on end. "What exactly do you want of me?"

The officers exchanged glances and it was the Liaison who fielded that. "We have one of the aliens. Over the past two months we've been learning to communicate with it. It can grasp our language and can speak surprisingly intelligibly. We're learning its language and the computers have quite a database which helps. It has answered questions readily enough. However, we don't know how much - if any - of what it's told us is the truth."

The Liaison watched her intently, his black eyes as hard as wet slate. "We don't know enough about it for lie detectors to read correctly and calibration would take years. I'm told there are differences that mean most of our pharmaceuticals would be toxic. That really leaves only one way to ask questions and make sure it's telling the truth. Physical persuasion."

She gaped. "You want me to. . . to torture an alien?"

"Strong word," another muttered, not meeting her eyes.

"Interrogate," the Liaison corrected and lowered his head, his nostrils flaring. "Logister, you're the best we can call on in the time available. You have interrogation training and experience, you are capable with language and you have learning that will be invaluable with dealing with a non-Nedai. We don't require you to approve of this. What we do require you to understand is that the entire Nedai race is at risk here. We have an unknown potential enemy out there. We need to know where they are, what their capabilities are, and what their intentions are. Every day that passes that we don't have that information our entire species is threatened. Billions of lives hinge on this. Billions of Nedai lives. This is one, just one. And what it's not telling could kill us all. We have to know. This is not a request; it's an order."

She looked around at the unflinching faces of the upper echelon of her military and swallowed. No matter how disagreeable. . . "Yes, sir," she said in a rasping whisper.

"You'll follow these orders."

"Shae, sir," she said, her blood roaring in her ears.

He slowly flagged approval. "Very good. All the facilities are based on the station. You'll be given provided with clearance and everything you need. Commander Notaké will brief you with what we know so far. Anything further you require, ask. This is classified Most Secret. Any breach of that security will be construed as an act of high treason and dealt with accordingly."

His stylus rapped down with an air of finality. "That will be all."

Section 8

The quarters were extravagant, considering the derth of space on the station. Spacious, with room to move around and decorated with natural woods and fibers. They provided foods that would have cost a fortune to lift. There was unlimited water and heated dust in the showers. Stewards and attendants when she required.

She was given access to files and archive, encrypted hardware discs and cards with dire warnings stenciled on them: data and photos and video footage of everything they said was available. She sprawled across the contoured branch at the workstation in the cabin she'd been allocated in the secure sectors. The lights were down and the hum of life-support was a constant background hum like the hiss of life blood. The screen on her terminal flickered with the footage taken from a troopers helmet camera.

. . . the scene colored with the artificial tints of the light amplification system. A gloved hand reaching out to swing a hatch open and the picture flickering as software compensated for lower light levels. A dark room, the viewpoint panning over walls, drifting equipment, occasionally flaring as a small light source flickered. Panning over floating debris, then around and up and the pale form seemed to leap out and there was a gun in view and a scream over audio. Gunfire. The muzzle kicking and rounds impacting in front of the form. . .

Confused gabbling over com. The figure wasn't moving. The transparent panel covering it not even scratched by the gunfire.

"Gods!" came over audio.

Hairless, like a cub. That was her first impression. No, not entirely hairless: there was a short, asymmetrical mat of growth on the head, more patches in the lower groin and under forearms. There were dark patches that had the look of bruises about them, more marks that were undoubtedly lacerations.

There was more video. Spinning, microgravity footage of equipment being transferred from the alien craft. Anything that could be moved, including the entire module containing the alien was transported to the Vieshaun. Further inspection revealed the capsule was a form of self-contained hospital tending to its inhabitant, keeping it sedated and in a form of hibernation. They'd managed to open parts of the machine and found medicines and raw materials: drugs, tranquilizers, inhibitors and psychotropics used in the suspension. Other drugs were unknown, but just the tech in that device alone would bring untold leaps to medical sciences.

There was footage of when they'd first removed the alien from its mechanical womb. The camera focused on the module in the center of the sterile chamber as techs went through what they believed to be a revival process. Armed guards watched. Doctors murmured in the background as readouts in outsider script flashed across the transparent cover. Some time passed before the cover quietly slid aside. More time went by before the creature stirred, small, uncoordinated movements like a cub waking. It opened its eyes and lay still, then vocalized a few small words before a remote mechanical swung over and stabbed a needle home. It flinched but the synthesized tranq worked quickly. Biosuited specialists entered the room, their hexaped bulk dwarfing the limp biped that they carefully loaded onto a gurney and wheeled away.

She studied the hi-res pictures of the creature along with the preliminary reports. Bipedal life form, that was a surprise. Bilaterally symmetrical, with two eyes, ears, nostrils but otherwise nothing extraordinary in the way of sensory apparatus. Male as well, or something analogous to that role: that was a sex organ between its lower limbs, an organ that looked nothing like a normal male's patch and that doubled as an organ for liquid waste disposal. Relatively thin epidermis of a light brownish hue overlaying a dense musculature: they theorized its homeworld was warmer and had a higher gravity. Its skeletal system was almost entirely composed of a rigid calcium-based framework with a mixture of fibrous, cartilaginous and synovial joints: the rigid skeleton comprised a far larger percentage of its bodymass than it did in the more flexible Nedai physiology.

Internal organs were still being studied but what was immediately peculiar was the centralized blood-pump. It didn't seem nearly as effective as a Nedai's peristaltic circulatory system.

"Hit it there," an analyst was saying, "and it's finished."

The other anomalies were more peculiar and alarming. Such as the artificial implants at the base of the skull and the forelimbs. Xrays revealed multiple small nodules of metals and other more exotic materials arrayed around the skull and at the top of the spinal nerve cluster extruding a network of microscopic filaments into the surrounding tissues and neural material. It was horribly complex, horribly advanced technology and nobody was sure exactly what it was for. Interface for ship control, the alien said. For onboard ship communication. Not capable of long-distance transmission. The prognosis on removal: probably lethal to the subject. It wasn't transmitting any detectable signal so they weren't willing to risk surgery.

Not until they'd gotten all they could through other means.

Hours and hours of reports and theories. The footage of the early interviews with the outsider. It looked terrified, even she could see that, as specialists and linguists continually pressed it: asking questions, demanding, learning its language and teaching it rudimentary Netain. The computers had acquired quite an extensive vocabulary of the alien tongue and they proved useful. The creature's vocal apparatus wasn't entirely up to task of handling a Nedai language and in most of the interviews a remote terminal was present, translating and supplementing the creature's rudimentary vocabulary. What Netain it could speak it pronounced with a North Petayin accent; incongruous in that form.

An alien. First contact. Intelligent outsiders. She slumped across the branch, hooking her claws into the textured bark and breathing the scent of natural wood. They hadn't spared any expense in these quarters. Luxury for her; payment for what she was about to do.

Torturing an alien.

One for five billion.

She clenched her claws, looking at the alien features on the screen. There were memories she didn't want to keep: those months in the Sheridin garrison, fighting a war against an enemy that vanished into the populace. When they caught one. . .

She'd had medical training, she could speak several variants of the local dialect. She'd been assigned to the garrison intelligence team and had endured a rapid and on-the-job indoctrination into the techniques of interrogation. For eight months she'd worked on the teams, working CI against an enemy who thought nothing of detonating gas bombs in residential areas. There'd been instances when time was of the essence and the conventional techniques hadn't been enough; instances when it'd been the few for the many

She'd seen, she'd been part of, things that'd haunt her for the rest of her life.

And now it was coming back to her.

She had to torture an alien. And this time the safety of her species was at stake. The safety of her friends and family and everyone else she'd ever known on that beautiful ball of dirt.

There was so much to do, so much to learn and plan. It was two days later before she got her first real look at their guest.

Section 9

"It can't see us," the med tech said. "One way glass."

Maeteya flagged acknowledgement. The observation room was dark, with batteries of equipment ranked against the bulkheads. Cooling fans hummed, the recycled air smelled of ozone and plastics, status monitors and lights glowed like pinpoints of cold fire. Techs and meds in their saddles were bathed in the cold light of displays but most of the light in the room came from the observation window in the floor, the huge sheet of armored and laminated plastic.

The window was the roof of a small room below them: Just a starkly-illuminated white cube with padded walls and floor. There was a sanitary unit in one corner while in the other huddled a small pale form. She cocked her head, studying it. Not that there was much to see: it was curled in on itself, forelimbs tucked around hindlimbs and head buried. There was no sign of movement.

"Extraordinary thing, isn't it," murmured a voice beside her. Meteya glanced at the speaker: a young male wearing a harness colored medical-white. He was on hindfours only, his forehands clasping a PDA board. Clearance passes like her own were clipped to the harness and showed him to be one Shetrim Fenial. She recognized the name from the briefings: one of the senior biologists monitoring the alien.

"What's wrong with it?" she asked, going to all sixes to touch the glass.

"Nothing we can see," he said. "It's been sleeping like that recently. We're not sure why."

She looked at the bright lights and just said, "Huhn."

He glanced at her ID. "You're Logister Merasi?"

"Shae."

"I was expecting. . . We were told to expect you, milady. And to give you access to the alien and anything you might need."

"Thank you."

He looked down at the creature, then back at her. "Ahh, they told me what you're to do."

"Huhn."

"You really think it's necessary?"

Maeteya felt her hackles raising again. "'Necessary'," she echoed. "I don't know. I wish I did. I suppose if we knew for sure that would make things a lot easier for everyone."

"But Milady, the first emissary of it's kind. . ."

"But nothing," she cut him off. "You'd place the safety of our entire species, of all life on Nedai, on the word of an alien who fired at us?"

He was staring at her with wide black eyes, his nostrils flaring, as if she'd transformed into a demon in front of his eyes. She looked away and tried not to shudder: trying to justify what she was going to do, trying to convince him - and herself - that it was necessary. Perhaps she had changed.

"'Damnation and disaster'," she quoted.

He must've studied the classics. Some of the tension went of his posture and he flagged understanding and resignation, then looked at the pale figure huddled in the cell. "Yes, Milady. Whatever you need."

"Good. I'm going to have to talk with it. How long as it been sleeping?"

"We can wake it."

"Is that part of the usual routine?"

"Not usually, milady."

"Then don't disturb it. Nothing out of the ordinary." She didn't want to unsettle it. She had to learn about it: how it worked, how it thought and felt, what it valued and feared. Reconnaissance. "Now, I have some other matters to attend to. I'll return later."

"Yes, milady."

Section 10

There were a lot of vessels out there. Even from the small port she could see a pair of glittering specks moving against the blackness. Considering the vastness beyond the spinning steel walls that was a lot to be visible in one place at once.

The desperate buildup. Now she'd seen the shipyard schedules, the ships being produced as fast as they could. Everything was being sacrificed in the name of haste; the ships being produced were little more than life-support and propulsion strapped to weapons launch systems. More resources were being poured into the automated missile platforms and the energy satellites that were all powerplant and beam systems.

It was all most secret, from the general populace as well as the Southern forces. Of course the Southern intelligence knew something was going on. There was no possible way they could have missed the sudden increase in weapons and ship production. And doubtless they'd scaled up their production accordingly. And doubtless there were frantic talks going on at some level above her head. They didn't concern her: she had other things to worry about.

Right then she was attending to that business in the small but elegantly appointed offices of the station Commander with its restful tangles of branches and vines.

"You really require all this?" Commander Notaké didn't look up from the digital pad and the scrolling list on it.

"Shae, sir," Maeteya said.

The Commander dropped the pad back to the work surface and sighed, relaxing in his saddle. "All right. It's going to take some time to get the crews in. But you'll have it as soon as possible."

"Thank you, sir," she said.

"This is necessary? There are faster ways."

Her ears went back. "They can cause more harm than good, sir. It can be more effective to threaten or promise than actually do. In order to do that I have to learn more about it."

"And that takes time."

"Unfortunately yes, sir."

He growled and slowly gouged a talon through the soft pad. "That's something we might not have a lot of."

"I'm aware of that sir. I also know a great deal rests on the accuracy of this information. Done properly, we can be reasonably sure as to the veracity. Rushed. . . that could be disastrous; ruining the source for any further attempts."

"Ruining?"

"Now I might be able to get it in a state of unpreparedness, with its guards down. If we try to force information out it will certainly be alerted. And force can provide an incentive to resist and reinforce its confidence in its ability to resist."

"That's assuming its anything like us."

"Yes, sir. And that's why we need this time: to find out if it is anything like us, or something so different we need new techniques."

He tipped his head and studied her, then glanced down at the data pad. His forehands rolled the stylus, then tapped it thoughtfully against the screen with a sound like insects on glass. "All right," he responded. "Understood. But understand this, time is of the utmost importance. Do this thing as fast as you deem possible."

"Yes, sir. Thank you, sir."

Section 11

The saddle in the dimly lit observation room wasn't comfortable. It was the usual inelegant conglomeration of plastics and metals that were a hallmark of military products, but it was all that was available. Maeteya settled herself on it and carefully arranged her notes on the worksurface. Shetrim Fenial had settled himself at another station, some of his medical team crewing the flickering monitors in the background.

In the cell below the alien was still in the corner, settled on its haunches with its hindlegs drawn up and forelimbs drawn around them. It looked disturbingly unresponsive.

"It's all right?" she asked.

"Nobody's spoken to it for a day or so, but it ate its meal and all the instruments are showing it's stable."

She growled thoughtfully, checked the readouts on the monitors in front of her and then tapped the microphone. "All right," she breathed and looked down on the pale figure in the bright room below; gathered her thoughts before touching the send stud. "Hello," she said, trying to keep her voice light. "Are you listening?"

The readings on the monitor flickered. Below, the figure stirred and the head raised a little. "Do I have a choice?"

The voice coming through the speakers was a mixture of terms provided by a computer translation database and Nedai words spoken the alien itself. Those few words were indescribably accented, but comprehensible.

"I just want to talk to you."

"Again?" There was an untranslatable sound.

"I'm afraid so," she said and looked at the notes in front of her. There was a word there, an alien sound that she'd practiced repeatedly until she got it as close to the recordings as she could. "Tiron, are you all right?"

The alien was still for a second, then the matted patch of fur moved as it raised its head. Strands of that hung across its face and eyes as it looked up in her direction. She knew it couldn't see her through the mirror that was its ceiling, but it still made her hackles twitch. "That was almost right," it said after a while.

"Your name? I got it wrong?"

"It's Tyrone." The computers sputtered over a sound pattern that had no literal translation. "You're not the usual one. You're new."

One? There was a team of specialists who'd come through and talked to the creature in its box. Of course it wouldn't know that: the computer translator was anonymous and used the same intonations no matter who was using it. But still - - it'd picked up that she wasn't a regular interviewer. "Why do you say that?"

There was that noise again, like a cough or a snort. "They never use my name."

Maeteya cut the mike and looked across at Fenial. He looked surprised: "It never seemed necessary."

She chewed on that for a second and toggled the mike again. "I see. Tirone. . . Is that better? I just want to talk for a while."

"That is like the other."

"I'm sorry. I'd just like to hear a little about you: where you're from, what you do. You have a home?"

"You destroyed it."

She blinked. "Your vessel? Didn't you have somewhere else? Where did you come from?"

"Come from?"

"Where were you born? Where did you grow?"

The head ducked and then leaned back against the padded wall in a way no Nedai could possibly duplicate. She could see the eyes were closed. There was a pale growth of fur across the lower half of the face: that wasn't in the earlier pictures. "Born? [something] station in the [something] system."

"A station? Born on a station?"

"Of course," like it was the most normal thing in the universe. "Weren't you?"

She debated not answering that; not letting the subject lead the questioning. But it was early, she was still playing it. . . and that bit of information seemed innocuous enough. "No. On World. You think that's unusual?"

The Outsider hesitated, cocking its head. Perhaps the translator was garbling its end of the message, but it said, "Unusual, yes."

"Why?"

The eyes blinked. "Planets, not common. Not with life on them."

"How many others do you know of?"

Another hesitation. "Two."

"We are the only other people you've encountered?"

Once again it hesitated and this time there were noticeable spikes in some of the upper frequency audio and imbedded sensor readings before the alien said, "Yes."

Maeteya noted that. "You say it's unusual. You've ever been on a planet?"

"Yes."

She frowned, then rephrased the question. "A life-bearing world. Without a suit. You've been on one of those?"

"No."

Interesting, it was being pedantic. "Why not?"

"Why? Worlds very expensive. Many other places." It shook its head and looked up again. "When can I go? Why are you keeping me in here?"

She couldn't let it take the initiative. "It's temporary, I assure you. How many other places. If you don't have worlds, then what?"

An exhalation of air. "I've said before: stations."

"You all live on stations?" That seemed rather implausible. "All of you?"

"Yes."

She looked at other figures she had, information gathered from other sessions with the creature. It'd claimed its people controlled about a thousand systems and that a lot of those were very heavily populated. They all lived on stations? It did seems a little implausible, but then she wasn't here to try and dig the truth out of it. Not this time.

"What about your family?"

Another pause. "Family?" the translator indicated that word wasn't in it's lexicon. "I don't know that word."

So, nobody had talked to it about that subject before. "Your family. Your kin. The ones who birthed you. Parents. Any siblings: brothers, sisters, cousins. Ones of similar genetic lineage. You do have one?"

"Family?" the alien looked up at the ceiling again. She almost thought it could see her and the expression on its features were unreadable. "Yes."

"Shae? Where are they? Where were you born? Your kin home?"

It seemed to study its long fingers and then its shoulders rose and fell in a quick gesture. "My family. Most are on Episedes Gates 15. The [something] station there. A lot run a transport company on innersystem routes. My brother's like me I guess. We went our own ways. He works on a [something] hauler from outer gas giants."

"Your own company? Your family owns a stellar transport association?"

"Yes. It's not one of the largest, but it has a good name."

"But you, you don't work for them?"

A brief plosive exhalation sound came through the speakers. "I had a ... falling out with them. I went to work on my own."

"A miner? That was your own ship?"

"Yes."

She exchanged looks with Shetrim Fenial again. Northern space travel was controlled by the government and a couple of the largest orbital companies. This creature's family ran a stellar transport association while it itself had owned that vessel.

"What was the problem you had with your family?"

It looked up sharply, it's mouth twisted slightly. "When can I get out of here?"

A sensitive spot? "I'm not sure," she said. "I'm doing everything I can."

"Can I.... I'm cold. Can I have clothing?"

"I'll see what can be done," she said. "I'm sorry, Tiron. I have to go."

"Wait..." it started to say but she cut the microphone and audio and watched the alien stand and soundlessly appeal to the ceiling before collapsing back into its corner. She sat for a while watching the creature, watching the lines on the medical machines slowly calming down.

"Well?"

Shetrim Fenial was waiting in the dimness with ears pricked up. "Milady? What was the purpose of that?" he asked. "You didn't get anything of value."

"It's a start," she sagged. "Only a start. Many miles to go."

'What?"

"Nothing." She tapped the logout on the terminal and shut down. "Save the session data off. I want to review it in private."

He looked down at the captive, then at her and seemed about to say something before apparently thinking better of it. "Yes, Milady," he said with ears drooping.

Section 12

Maeteya sat at her desk in her quarters with the lights low and three terminal windows up, throwing flickering blue light across the worksurface and keyboards. Video recordings of the interview murmured to themselves; audio breakdowns of the alien's vocal patterns jagged across the screens; respiration, pulse and neural activity were graphed.

She rewound the video, selected an overhead camera and froze the view on a shot of the creature looking up. A weary hiss escaped her as she sagged down onto the saddle, then crossed forearms on the desk and laid her head on them. Paradise and purgatory but she was tired.

Many miles to go and a complicated game to play. They only had the one toy and if they broke that, there'd be no more. Gently, gently. A step at a time.

The creature seemed superficially similar to them, mentally speaking. They'd learned a lot about it. They'd learned it had a family, it had a profit-oriented social structure and a sense of self-preservation. It knew fear and pain and hope. Similar enough that she was sure they could use its emotions against it and she was going to be the target of those emotions.

Two aspects for it to relate to. One it would cling to for support and another it would learn to hate and fear. One of those would be played off against the other. Hopefully lowering the creature's defenses or giving them a control so machines could better tell when it wasn't being entirely truthful.

She hoped.

It was going to be a balancing act that would require timing and subtlety and lies. The alien had to be kept off balance and convinced everything was real. Pushed too hard and it might break. If the act wasn't carried through with conviction it might find the reserves to withstand it, perhaps even realize what was going on.

It certainly wasn't a new technique, but the subject involved meant there'd have to be innovations, refinements and care taken. That required time and that was something they didn't have.

So she was sitting there in that generic little station cabin with its canned air and faint operational sounds transmitted through the metal and wood of the bulkheads, organizing something that left a foul taste in her mouth. But she'd accepted the duty and understood just what was at stake.

The facilities she'd requested had been completed and the staff were available. She'd started on the journey and there was no quitting now. The next step would begin in the next shift and she desperately needed sleep.

That didn't come easily. She lay in the web of the sleeping net and stared into the darkness listening to the hum of the life support and dreading what the coming hours would bring.

Section 13

Maeteya'd been in rooms like this one before: dark places hidden behind one-way windows. Back then they'd been dingy places with peeling paint and battered wooden furniture. This room was constructed of metals and plastics and filled with humming machinery and their attendant techs, but it had that same feel - the underlying tension, the traces of unspoken guilt. It didn't have the scents of stress and fear permeating the walls. Not yet.

The observation room was similar to the one overlooking the holding cell, the most obvious difference being the window covering most of one wall. Three saddles with their accompanying workstations were lined up in front of it, giving Maeteya a clear view of the chamber through the reinforced glass. It also bore similarities to the cell: a spartan white padded cube, glaringly lit by medical lights overhead. A pair of carts were laid out with implements of various types and the harsh light glittered on surgical steel cutting edges and needles.

Maeteya was settled in the saddle, pouring over her notes. A low grating sound made her glance over at Shetrim Fenial. He stopped grinding his teeth and looked embarrassed. "Sorry."

"Anxious?"

"Shae," he admitted and fiddled with the workslate, trying to look busy. "This .... Nobody ever told me I'd have to do this."

"Same," she said without much sympathy and double checked the recorders and screens in front of her. Everything was running properly and Fenial was staring at her.

"Milady," a tech spoke up. "They're ready."

"Shae," she acknowledged. "Bring it in."

On the other side of the window the hatch was opened and flanked by guards in vacuum armor, one carrying a flechett assault shotgun and the other a dart gun loaded with tranquilizer. Medics in white clean suits wheeled the gurney in, clamped it into place and tilted it forward.

The sedated alien was restrained by straps around its limbs, torso and head. It was conscious but lay limp and disoriented, its disturbingly mobile eyes having trouble focusing under the bright lights. She saw the eyes flicker from the lights to the mirror to the trays and their contents. The bulky black collar containing the monitoring sensors and transmitter was very visible, contrasting against its much paler hide. When the medical personnel started sticking the silvery mesh of neural induction nets onto the alien's limbs and torso the indicators on the medical monitors in front of her started rocketing.

Disoriented and afraid but aware, that was how she wanted it. The drugs they'd used were a diluted version of sedatives found in the alien's medical unit; they kept it confused and off balance

When the medics were done they stepped back out of the alien's field of view and Maeteya settled the microphone's mouthpiece more comfortably.

"We've got a few questions to ask you."

The alien flinched as the voice resounded in the small room. With its head restrained it could only move its eyes. "What?" It slurred. "What is this?"

"No. We are asking the questions. You will listen. You will answer. You will answer truthfully. Do you understand."

"Yes. Please, you can't..."

She touched the stud and the alien convulsed, went rigid with muscles and tendons standing out through its pale hide. And it vocalized, a ragged howl as the net on its arm stimulated its pain receptors. Its reaction startled her, especially the noise. The nets had been tuned to what they thought would stimulate its nervous system. The techs had said it wouldn't harm the creature, not permanently, and that pulse had been a very low setting. But it was an alien, how sure could they be?

Just a quick pulse and when she cut it the creature sagged against its bonds, its vitals surging wildly while it panted hoarsely.

"Yes, I can," she said quietly into the mike. "That was just a taste. It can get a lot worse. Answer. Truthfully. It will be easier. Do you understand?"

It made a choked noise that the computer couldn't translate. She didn't want to have to use the net again: after that jolt it shouldn't be necessary, but if they did it'd have to be turned down.

"Do you understand?"

"Yes," it rasped.

"Good. Why did you come here."

It told her. It was the same story it'd told before. The details were consistent, the instrument readings within comparable bounds to the other sessions. But when it was done she asked it again, and then again. And it answered, each time it repeated its story and the story remained the same.

It insisted that it was a simple prospector, a miner. It wasn't affiliated with its government, it didn't know their military disposition or anything about their potential.

"You expect us to believe that?" she hissed.

"Not lie," it gasped. "Please. Big. Space so big. I only see the police. Very small ships. Military ships not come to every system. Military only around when needed."

"They're as powerful as yours? Armed like yours?"

"My ship just a miner. No big weapons."

"Then why did you fire at us."

"I not!"

There was a surge in the rate of the creature's blood pump when it protested that, but there were none of the other spikes that'd accompanied what she'd been sure were half-truths. That confused her. Either the creature's reactions weren't what she'd supposed them to be or the equipment wasn't calibrated properly. After seeing how it'd reacted to what was supposed to be a low setting on the net, that was a distinct possibility and a concern.

"You lie and the pain will be much worse."

"I not lie!" And its vital signs were wild. She recognized terror when she saw it.

"You can't tell us what you were doing in Dreyal. You fire on our exploration vessel. You kill our people. Now you lie to us!"

"No!" Its pulse was racing wildly and moisture beaded on its hide, running in rivulets down its side and face, turning the pale skin slick. "I don't!"

"And how can we believe that? Your ship had weapons."

"No. Small ship. Small weapons. Only for defense."

"Then why did you fire?"

"I not," it protested frantically. "I sleep. Ship... automated. It defend itself if fired on. Machine."

"Sleep? Why?"

"Insystem... slow," the alien was struggling desperately for words that the translator would know, its pale hide covered in moisture. "Ship was on its way out. I sleep. Long sleep. Ship found you, woke me to talk to you. Has to. Rule."

It closed its eyes against the glare of the lights. "You started firing. You killed my ship."

And all the sensors said it believed it was telling the truth. Terrified, but telling the truth.

The session continued for several more hours. She pushed the alien, doubling back on her tracks and returning to questions she already had answers for. The answers she received were always consistent, always matching with what the alien had said before. Finally she was beginning to feel weary and the alien was faltering badly, obviously exhausted.

"Take it back to holding," she said to the staffers. "Let it rest but don't let it sleep. Bright lights, noise, just keep it awake."

The alien was wheeled out again and she let herself lay limp on the saddle, all six limbs dangling. Fenial was watching, the matted fur across his sharp muzzle showing he was as tired as she was. "Was that it?" he asked.

She stretched, one leg at a time. "For now."

"That was just the same questions all over again, and the same answers. Did we get anything useful out of it?"

"I think so," she sighed. "We got something out of it anyway. Now, get some rest, we'll be starting again in five hours."

Section 14

"You've started." Commander Notaké tapped an extended claw against the workslate. "Can you give me a prognosis or is it too soon to tell?"

The arc of the port behind him was black as only nothing can be, the tiny specks visible dwarfed to insignificance. As she watched a tug drifted across the foreground: all battered panels and messy strutwork, propellant tanks and a rudimentary unpressurised cage for the crew.

Maeteya stood at ease before the station Commander, hindquarters sitting and forepaws hooked in her harness. "It's difficult to tell, sir. It's being cooperative, I think. Its story fits, mostly."

His ears went up. "Mostly?"

Maeteya's ears twitched backwards just a fraction. She wasn't entirely sure how to broach this subject. "Sir, it's just that... well, there's one particular item that doesn't match up."

"It's lying about something."

"That's what I'm not sure about. It claims... Sir, it claims that it didn't fire at us, that its ship wouldn't fire at us. And as far as I can tell... it believes that's true."

"But you know it's not."

She took a breath, feeling her pulse picking up. "Sir, I'm relying on these sessions to try and understand how it thinks, what its reactions are. If I'm not given the right information in the first place, this becomes extremely difficult. It could even lead to some disastrous misunderstandings."

"I see," he said levelly. Just watching her, as if evaluating.

"Sir, what really happened? Who fired first?"

He snorted and wrinkled his muzzle. "I thought you'd ask that eventually. They didn't give you enough credit. Well, Logister," he said in steady tones, "you can imagine how highly classified this information is, but the truth is that technically, we fired first. There was a misunderstanding. It looks like our computers fired at theirs."

Maeteya closed her eyes for a second and hissed softly. So this was why the upper echelons were so anxious and desperate to know all they could about their enemy and their capabilities. The things they knew for certain were that the aliens were warlike enough to go armed, and now they had a legitimate reason to go to war with Nedai. Oh, piss. Oh, gods! What had they blundered into?

"Exactly," the Commander seemed to wilt a little. He must've seen the look on her face and she didn't harbor much doubt that he felt the same way: the realization that they were balancing the future of their people on the tip of a pin. "So you see why this must be classified. Not a trace of it can leak. If we're fortunate, nobody will ever know what happened out there. Just an accident. They do have them, we know that."

If what the alien had told them contained a grain of truth, that was true. They had accidents. Ships were lost. And it would eventually be counted amongst them with no-one the wiser.

Except the crew of the Vieshaun, the upper ranks of Nedai military, herself and, oh yes, the alien. Who she now knew would certainly never be returning to his own kind.

Section 15

It knew that room now. The alien cried out when they brought it back in. The monitors showed its blood pump start hammering; it strained limbs against the restraints. They held.

Maeteya watched it through the one-way windows until it gave up and slumped against the straps. Its chest was heaving, moisture beading its hide and she could see its limbs trembling. As a child living in the outskirts of Lye and Cinder city she'd dreamed of stars and other lifeforms. As she'd grown she'd studied in fields that'd made her friends and associates look upon her as a bit eroded around the edges. A lifetime of dedication working toward reaching those shimmering specks in the night sky. Now those stars were here, strapped to a table, and terrified of her.

Oh, gods. How did it ever come to this? She clenched fists, her claws slipping from fingertips to prick at her palms, then took a deep breath and opened the comm.

"You claim you were mining in the Dreyal system."

The alien exhaled, a desperate sound. "I tell you. I tell you many times."

"Answer me or..."

"Yes. Yes I mining."

"And you were alone. So that was automated, like the rest of your vessel."

Its eyes rolled closed for a second. "Yes."

"Your machines were reliable? They didn't break?"

"No. No."

"Then why did they fire at us?"

"No!" It coughed something in its own language that the machines didn't translate. "Not shoot!"

"A laser - Light polarized at 105gigahertz - was fired at us. We defended ourselves."

"What? Not understand numbers."

That took a while: converting their system to a frequency the alien recognised. "No!" It protested. "Not weapon! Communication. For talking!"

"To whom? We found no-one! It was a weapon."

"No. I... " the medical readings lurched again as muscles twitched and its eyes searched, as if looking for a way out."

"Go on," she prodded.

It swallowed and sighed, a remarkably normal sound. "There are mines. Two."

"Two mines? How many of your kind there?"

"None. Machines only. Ship would signal mine. Regular update."

"Why didn't they answer our signals."

A sigh. "Still... small. Machines still building mines. Main computers and signal facilities not working yet."

She remembered the technical information the creature had already surrendered. The mines would be mechanical devices. Robotic packages were dropped on target areas and they'd automatically construct the necessary facilities. "They're fully automated," she said and the alien didn't respond. "They recorded the message, didn't they? Didn't they?!"

"Yes."

"Where are they? How long until your kind finds them?"

"I don't know. System... moves. This much time... I can't say."

"You must have schedules, routes, some idea. Where's your nearest colony? How long before Dreyal is visited again?"

"No. I don't know. I don't know!"

She took a deep breath and then touched the key again.

The neural nets had been adjusted, but the sounds through the speakers were still horrible. She asked the questions again and again, trying to get locations or schedules or maps, but either it was a superlative liar or it really didn't know. All she was able to get was that there were two automated mines in the Dreyal system. Tucked away on a pair of nickel-iron asteroids in the vastness of the debris belt. It didn't know the location, it claimed. Planetary drift and orbital mechanics were beyond its ability to calculate in its head, which she found somewhat relieving. But its professed ignorance... she was sure it was hiding something, but there was no proof. All she was able to get out of it was a frequency that those machines would respond to.

That session lasted over six hours. By that time she was tired but the alien was a shivering mess, its head limp against the restraints and the fur there matted and wet. It barely moved as the medics took it away.

Fenial was looking ill. "You all right?" she asked.

"Shae. Just... this is... I never thought it would be like this." He shrugged his forequarters, obviously uncomfortable under her level stare. "At least we got something."

She gestured assent. In the background techs were already trying to work out possible locations from maps of the Dreyal system. "Something," she sighed.

"Milady?"

Maeteya shook her head. "No, nothing. Now, we can let it rest for a while and get the rest of those drugs out of its system, then I'm going to need you up in the monitoring room."

"There's more?"

"Shae. But this should be... easier."

He didn't look entirely convinced, but he took his workslate and said, "Yes, milady."

Section 16

An entire squad with weapons ranging from tranquilizer guns to automatic shotguns guarded the hallway and hatch. The sergeant had received his orders to let her pass but still checked her pass and retina patterns.

"You're sure you want to be alone, Logister?" he asked carefully.

"Quite sure," Maeteya responded while he checked the access entries, looking from her face to the picture on the monitor.

"Shae," he acknowledged and handed her pass back. "If there're any difficulties, we'll be right outside."

"Thank you, sergeant." She picked up the small bundle again and set off down the narrow metal hallway.

The hatch was metal and ceramic, reinforced and locked and a lot heavier than it needed to be. Hydraulics hissed as the sergeant keyed the entry, then the metal panel slid aside and she stepped inside.

Bright lights shone down, glaring off the white padded walls. She couldn't resist an upward glance: the figures in the observation room were invisible behind the mirrored window. All she could see was a bird's view of the room, looking down on the whiteness and herself and the pale figure huddled in the far corner. A distinctly acrid scent permeated the room: a mixture of the alien biology's cooling system and fear.

Metal clanked behind her as the door closed and the alien didn't move. She could see the bumps of vertebrae under the light brown hide of its back, the muscle of its buttock and shoulders, strands of dark fur escaping from where its head was tucked down. She could see some lurid marks on its hide. Bruises. It looked like the medics hadn't been too gentle when moving it.

"Tirone?" she ventured and the hidden speakers mimicked the name.

Muscles under that skin flinched, then froze, then flexed as it moved and turned. Eyes that were white around brown regarded her from behind a tangled fringe. It was afraid, she could tell that. "Tirone?" she said again, quietly. "Hello."

It... he backed up as far as he could, trying to press back into the corner. "No more," the computer translated. "No more."

"No," she said. "I'm not... No, not that. Listen, I'm sorry. For what they've done to you, I'm sorry."

Just an alien stare.

"Please, here." She held out the bundle, then fumbled with it. "For you. It's just a blanket but I thought you might need it. I mean... you look cold..." She dropped the blanket and nudged it forward then sank to her haunches, lowering herself before the alien.

A hand reached out, faltered, and then snatched the blanket. She just watched and wondered if the drugs were still clouding its thinking. That could be advantageous.

He returned the stare, just clutching a corner of the blanket.

Finally: "You... you're the one? That new one?"

So. Observant enough. "Shae. I talked to you before. You said you were cold. I thought that might help."

He pulled the white blanket around his shoulders, wrapping it around like a shroud. He was moving stiffly, she saw. Slowly, as if in pain. He huddled in the corner, watching her warily.

"I'm sorry," she said at last. "I didn't want this to happen."

"Then stop it."

She cocked her head and let her ears droop. "I want to. They don't listen to me."

"Why're you doing this to me? I don't know anything!"

Maeteya sighed. "They don't know that. They don't know what you know. And hiding things from them... that can make it worse."

"I not!" he moaned.

"I heard... " she began. "I heard you didn't tell them about the mines. Not until now."

His head dropped down into his arms, hiding his face in folds of white. "Why?" she asked softly. "Tirone?"

"It was all I had left."

"I don't understand."

"No." His head tipped back against the white padding, eyes closed. There was moisture leaking from them. "I thought... I could use them to get new ship." He stirred and looked at her. "You're not going to let me go, are you."

Her hackles rose and muscles bunched as she tensed, getting ready to defend herself if the need arose. "I don't know," she lied. "I'd like to."

"But they don't listen to you," he closed his eyes again, sinking back, and she relaxed a little.

"I'm sorry. When your kind meet mine, maybe there can be an arrangement."

"How long?"

She let her ears droop in a shrug. "I think you have a better idea of that than we do."

A choked barking sound. "I don't know where I am. I don't even know how long I've been here."

"But your people, they must be nearby. There must be someone following you."

His head moved slightly and she could see the faint glimmer of an eye beneath an eyelid. Mentally she cursed herself. Exhausted or not, the alien was still wary and she hastened to find some way to smooth the wrinkle. "Don't they care about you? What about your family?"

Now his head lolled and he opened his eyes to stare at her, studying her from forequarters to haunches. "They will search. For a while. This is the frontier. Sometimes ships go out, they don't come back."

"Why didn't you tell someone where you were going?"

"Who?" the shoulders rose and fell and his face contorted for a second with a hiss of breath. "Refineries don't care. And I don't know where I go. Things always change. I go wherever looks best."

"Alone? You enjoy that?"

The eyes closed again. "Yes."

"How long are you out there? You don't feel... alone?"

The mouth twitched. "Not so long. Two months maybe." He cracked an eye and lolled his head to regard her again. "You have miners?"

"Yes. Like you. I think they have to be a little odd. All that time in small ships."

His mouth twitched again. "What's your name?" he asked.

"Mine?" For a split breath she was off balance and mentally scratched herself. It could be risky, to let the subject take the initiative. But this wasn't an aggressive interrogation. This was simply ingratiating herself to the subject, building a trust. And already it'd let slip a couple of interesting items. "Mine?" she blinked. "I'm Maeteya."

"Maeteya," he echoed. "Maeteya. Why're you here?"

"They want me to look after you. To make sure you're all right."

This she could see wrinkles creasing the skin across his face as he squeezed his eyes shut. "All right?" The translator didn't convey emotions very well, but there was obviously something there. "They... hurt me. It... that hurt... Why are they doing that?"

"They're trying to find the truth."

"I say truth!"

"I know," she assured him. "I know. But they don't."

He moaned something the computer didn't pick up. "Is it over?"

It was barely beginning. Her silence must've told him what he didn't want to hear. She could see the trembling in his limbs. "I can't go back there. Don't take me back there."

"I'm not," she hastened to assure him. "I'm not. Just rest now. Just rest."

He buried his head again and she felt a pang of concern. Were they being too intensive for the first sessions? They didn't want to drive it too hard too early. Pushing it into psychosis was the last thing she wanted, and looking at the shivering figure huddled in the corner that seemed disturbingly close.

"Tirone?" she ventured and carefully reached out a forehand. His hand flinched when she touched it, patted it. The textures under her finger pads were... quite unlike anything she'd felt before. "It's all right. Understand?"

"Maeteya," the speakers rumbled. Not the alien but the PA from the observation booth. It was the voice the alien would have heard whenever she addressed it from behind the anonymity of the one-way glass. "Your time's up. Out of there. Now."

"I..."

"Now!"

A final pat. "Just rest," she said and carefully back away to where the guards were unsealing the hatch. Before the metal panel slid shut behind her she glanced back to see a pair of pin-hard pale eyes watching her from folds of cloth. When the door was sealed she leaned against a bulkhead and took a deep, shuddering breath.

Section 17

The transcript of the last session scrolled quietly down the monitor. One video window was showing pictures of the spread-eagle alien, the sound muted. Another was displaying a series of flickering stills:

A landscape that curved upwards: a vast cylindrical world kilometres in diameter with an brillinat artificial sun running along the core. A multicolored patchwork of green land and the metallic sheen of water stretched up and away. The view panned, flickered, then looped.

An erratic view of a room, gangly bipedal aliens in a bewildering array of garb milling around.

A panorama of an asteroid surface, a brilliant red-banded gas giant rising above the horizon.

Narrow tunnels, the view ducking and weaving through and amongst pipes and cables.

They'd finally managed to access some of the alien archives that'd been salvaged. Sections of memory from machines and computers, other material stored in what might have been personal effects... they'd finally managed to crack the codes. It'd been difficult: some of the information was in formats that were completely alien. Some techs theorized that vast chunks of the data were actually three dimensional video footage that would require impossible amounts of computer power to process.

The material they were able to decipher were two-dimensional clips, and even those were complicated. The aliens used a trinary-based machine language and then compressed the data. If it'd been encrypted it would have been impossible, but the data seemed to be material the aliens deemed non-sensitive: everyday video footage, entertainment, active memory in the various robots and so forth. Even so, the compression was so sophisticated, the amount of data so large and in many cases so fragmented it took dozens of computer-hours to decode even a few seconds.

Maeteya scanned through the images yet again then sighed and looked at the other items on her desk. They'd been reluctant to let those out of their sight, but these trinkets were amongst the smallest of the salvage brought back. There was a container that was so finely machined that the lid sealed to an almost molecular level; an armature from a small robot with materials that weren't metal or plastics melded with molecular circuitry and non-mechanical actuators; a silver cube they thought was an optical storage device. It was heavy, about the size of her thumb and geometrically perfect down to the finest tolerances they could measure. They were still trying to calculate the capacity.

Just looking at those little pieces of alien technology made her mouth dry. The technological infrastructure necessary to produce material like that was beyond anything people could build now or in the foreseeable future. She sighed and flicked a claw against the metal armature, sending it clattering a couple of inches across the desk. If the aliens were hostile, what could they do against such a technological superiority? Their guest might be able to give enough information to help avoid them. For a while. Long enough to do what? Build the best defense they could? Run? That's what she would do. But where? How?

Far better to hope they could talk to them. The alien would be most useful there. Already they had a good grasp of its language - assuming that was the only dialect they had. They knew what they looked like, how they thought, acted, what sort of resources they had, and what would kill them. If they could get the outsiders to the negotiating stone they'd have a slight edge.

But what would happen if they ever found out about their 'guest'.

Maeteya sucked air through her teeth, then ruffled out the fur on her muzzle and smoothed it back again. She was a mess, she could feel the knots and tangles in her fur. It felt horrible, but that'd have to come later. Meantime she returned the artifacts to their security case and went back to work.

Hours of poring over the transcripts and video clips. Analyzing, collating, dissecting and hunting for any slips. There were a couple of tantalizing trails she'd have to pursue further, and then there was... there was... how had she missed that? A predatory grin wrinkled her muzzle as she added that to her notes and started a line of attack based on that information.

Minutes after the computer had chimed eveningshift the door rang. The attendant was waiting respectfully with her grooming kit slung across her torso. "Milady? You requested a groom?"

Maeteya closed the computer screens and cracked a jaw-creaking yawn. "Shae. I need a good brushing. This humidity... I think I'm getting mange."

There was a hint of a smile there. "I think we can fix that."

Thorough brushing got the worst of it. Then there were the finer combs and brushes, then the delicate oils and body rub, and after that the lazy tangle of sex in the small woven sleeping net.

Hours later Maeteya half woke in half-light to watch with satiated lids while the attendant packed her things and slipped out the door. She blinked, twisted around to curl in on herself and went back to sleep.

Section 18

Maeteya'd felt the shuttle docking. There'd been that almost indistinguishable subsonic vibration as the aerospace vehicle clamped to the station hub and the holding gantries swung into place. A commonplace event that took place a couple of times a day, but that time she looked up from the report she was finishing and checked the time: that would be the one they were arriving on. So she only had about an hour.

By the time the steward arrived with his polished black harness and brusque manner, she was waiting; primly groomed and with workslate loaded and ready.

He led her hubwards, in towards the lower-g sections further in the station wheel. The lift trip upwards/inwards did odd things to her balance sense as g shifted and made her lurch slightly when the car finally halted. The steward seemed quite accustomed to it.

They still kept her waiting of course. For another hour she sat in the vestibule and stared at the dull wall panels while the camera stared at her. After a while she was aware she was clicking her claws together and made an effort to sit motionless until they sent for her.

There were guards in the meeting room this time. A pair of armed marines in polished black vacuum armor flanking the door shifted when Maeteya came in. She looked at the officials waiting for her and hesitated. The station Commander was once more the lowest ranking officer in the room. A couple of High Marshals wore Orbital Command insignia. The Liaison she'd met those weeks before was also present, seated at the side of a female whose fur tips showed the white speckles of age but her uniform harness carried a council badge. An Advisor's Badge. An Advisor, there. On the station. They reported directly to the council. In fact, they doubtless influenced a lot of the council's policies.

"Logister," the Liaison nodded to her and gestured at the saddle in the hot-spot. "Please."

She settled herself, placing the workslate in front of her but she didn't relax.

"This is Security Advisor Mjesins," the Liaison indicated the elder female. "She's here as a council proxy. They want a full report of your progress to date. You will give her your complete cooperation."

"Yes, sir," Maeteya responded. "Ma'am."

The Advisor was solidly built. She'd been formidable in her time, still was. Whatever route had escalated her to the ranks of council initiates hadn't been an easy one and she obviously still kept herself in trim. Now her muzzle twitched as she regarded Maeteya. "Logister. More than a few council members weren't happy to hear that such a delicate matter was handed down to such a rank. There've been some doubts about your abilities. While your performance has been favorable, I've been sent to evaluate the situation directly."

She tapped the workslate. "You've had experience in interrogation situations before. There are plenty of ranking officers with that ability, but it was your other skills that set you apart. A great deal of our other specialists are just that: specialists. They can fathom the Nedai mind, but an outsider might pose severe problems. I would say that most of them would have difficulty in even dealing with the concept of outsiders. You were the best choice under the conditions.

"Now. I was sent to see just how you are doing. How our guest is doing. You're playing Punishment and Reward, aren't you."

Maeteya was a little surprised. "Yes Ma'am."

"Huhn. And how well do you think it's working?"

"It's working, Ma'am. I'm getting a response out of him, but it is becoming evident that he is hiding material."

"You're digging for it?"

"Carefully, Ma'am. It's... fragile. If we put too much strain on it, we're left with nothing."

"An exclusively Punishment program has been suggested by some."

Maeteya caught the overtones there. That was probably intentional. Such an extreme action would be typical of some council members who hadn't had experience of interrogation techniques before. Brute force would be far more likely to promote psychological defenses. "That would be very premature, Ma'am," Maeteya ventured, avoiding directly contradicting her superior.

"How so?"

"I am making progress. He's digging in during Punishment, but some of the information he's let slip in the Reward phase is extremely interesting. It will require more sessions, but I should be able to get a good idea of just where they are."

There were glances exchanged.

"That wasn't in the reports," the Advisor said coolly.

"It's in the latest," Maeteya replied. "I only just dispatched it. He said he was out for a couple of months. We know where he was found, we know how far out the surrounding star systems are. I think with a little more hunting we can pin down their frontier."

The Advisor leaned forward. "Can you accelerate that line?"

"I'm already concentrating on that. But as I said, I can't press too hard."

"'Fracturing the iron'," the elder female mused.

"Yes, Ma'am." That was a line her own mentor had quoted her. "I'm still trying to establish the rapport. He's loosening up, but he's wary. If I press for details too quickly I risk alerting him. If I try to force it out of him, he'll likely fight us. I think he already is, to some extent."

"Explain."

"Ma'am. He knows outright resistance will only bring him more pain, so he's leading us away from the nest. He's using professed ignorance and a blending of truth with untruths. Not so much lies, just not telling us everything."

"You're doing something about this?"

'Yes, Ma'am. It's tricky. If I challenge him outright, he's more likely to create some other fiction and we're back where we started. Verification is the main problem. Telling if he's lying is... difficult. We have nothing to use as a control. If he trusts us, then of course there is a higher probability he will provide accurate information."

Advisor Mjesins motioned agreement. "But not a guarantee."

"No, Ma'am. Never that."

She vented a rumbling snort, a sound of frustrated dissatisfaction. "How is the work with drugs and polygraph detectors coming?"

"As estimated, Ma'am. Chemicals are complicated, a long-term solution. We're using doses of its own sedative at the moment to keep it tranquilized and off-balance, but a truth serum is a long way off. Polygraph readings are more promising. We're mapping the signs it makes when it's under stress, but again it's not a foolproof lie detector."

"So you're relying on it responding to a punishment/praise situation as a normal person would."

"That seems to be working. But we are being careful."

"Very well." Mjesins tapped a short sequence out on her workslate. "Now, Intelligence has had time to sort their priorities. This," the wallscreens blinked on, "is a prioritized list of intelligence they deem vital. They want you to try and pursue these trails as far as possible."

Doing her own brand of mind-games, Maeteya noted. Using the pronoun 'they', trying to distance herself from high-rankers who had no real inkling of what they were dealing with. The list filled the screen, complete with links to subsections: locations of key worlds, population centers, supply lines, military disposition and deployment, exploration and reconnaissance patterns, policies... She scanned down the itinerary and frowned.

"More resolution is required on all these topics," Mjesisn said. "As much detail as possible."

"Ma'am," Maeteya started to say and took a deep breath. "Some of that... troop deployment for instance, I don't think he'll be able to provide much important information on that at all. I'm quite sure he is a miner, in the wrong place at the wrong time. I'm not sure he has that kind of information. If I drove for that it'd certainly raise his guard."

"That's why you're here," the Advisor returned. "Find out what he knows. Retrieve that information. You have authorization to use any means possible. You understand?"

"Yes, Ma'am."

Mjesisn dipped her muzzle - like a dreadnaught fine-tracking its turrets - and eyed her. Evaluating. Eventually she snapped her jaws, her fangs clicking. "We will be watching with interest. Now, I want to see this visitor of ours."

Section 19

It'd been a show. The Advisor's own guard had formed a screen for the party as they made their way through the station halls. The grounders obviously weren't accustomed to the unusual corriolis shifts in the lifts and emerged looking distinctly unstable on their feet. That might have been amusing if the Advisor's guard hadn't been carrying solid projectile sidearms that were more than capable of punching through a hull wall if a queasy and inexperienced guard got careless.

Mjesisn had stood in the observation chamber and gazed down while light shone up through the armored glass and lit her features from underneath. Harsh, drastic shadows across her features as she regarded the alien huddled in the corner.

"It's not moving," she'd observed.

Maeteya covered a grimace. What'd she want it to do? Dance for her? "It's resting, Ma'am. It needs to. The interrogations take a lot out of it."

"We don't have time for it to be laying around."

"If it dies or goes mad, we won't have anything at all."

A twitch of muscles. "You're using neuro induction coils?"

"Yes, Ma'am. It was deemed the safest course."

"A," Mjesisn clicked a couple of claws together. "I have seen some interesting theories pertaining to that method. It's been said that it's not as effective as it might be. The knowledge that it doesn't do any permanent damage helps the subject build resistance. It's been said that... cruder methods have their place. Physical damage has a severe psychological effect."

Maeteya's hackles had bristled. "On Nedai, Ma'am. On his kind we don't know."

The Advisor stared down at the alien and huffed. "It is only a theory."

"Yes, Ma'am."

When the Advisor and her entourage had left and things had returned to a semblance of normality Maeteya was able to return to her work. There'd been another session scheduled. Again she'd tortured the exhausted alien, pressing it hard about details of its drive system and trying to locate any inconsistencies in its story. Detailed information about the performance of its ship would help them narrow the location of its origins even further.

She didn't find any inconsistencies.

So late that shift she sat in her cabin and patched a call through to downside. The screen window popped up, the blinking words 'Monitoring' and 'Censor' overlaid across the top while the comm at the other end rang for a few seconds.

"Here," lisped a voice and the screen flickered to life, filled with the features of a precocious cub. Black and white and low frame rate - bandwidth was limited out there. "Seeya," he chittered.

"Michi," Maeteya smiled. "Is mater around?"

"A," he grinned after a seconds lag, and stuck a forepaw in his mouth then licked the camera and reared back and vanished. She heard the yelp and the scrabble of claws as he fell off the table. "Mater!"

"What?" Other voices called. "Hiya! There's a call. Michi, you shouldn't..." A familiar figure entered the screen. "Maeteya! Everyone! It's Maeteya. Michi, get Uncle Chetal."

"Seeya, Lycie," Maeteya smiled, a tired spirit uplifted by the scene of distant mundanity and family.

Her sister chittered and spun the screen, allowing glimpses of the old homestead main room and sunlight spilling in through the skylights. "What? Where're you calling from?"

"Still topside."

"Sie! This'll be costing you a fortune."

"Don't worry about that. I just wanted to call... to talk to you."

A glitch in the picture and her sister was frowning. "Something wrong?"

"No. No, nothing." She tipped her head. "I just needed to see some real faces. It feels very empty up here sometimes."

"You and your tin cans," Lycie retorted and other faces gathered behind her. "Maeteya!" the younger Trelesar called, his mane croped in that lopsided style. There was Chetal with his white-patched muzzle; Her cousin Uresil with her newborn cub cradled in her arms; Rren in the background trying to keep a gaggle of rowdy adolescents under control.

She spent an extravagant half-hour just talking and laughing and being with family and clan, catching up on news and events in their lives. Concerns about the weather and shopping and what was going to be for dinner. It was both horribly amusing and painful at the same time. Their lives: so important, yet in the vastness above the world it all became so... trivial.

Finally Chetal chased the others away to speak with her. "So, youngling," he said, his muzzle crinkling. "What's drowning you?"

"That obvious?"

He flagged affirmative. "Where're you calling from anyway? Farside base said you were shifted off. Didn't say where though."

"Classified," she said. "It all is. Usual thing. I just wanted... I just wanted to see how everyone was doing. See the younglings..."

A pause that was more than just the lightspeed lag. "Ah," he said eventually. "Just that?"

The reminders that this call was being monitored flashed accusingly. "Shae. Just that," she sighed. "Hai, father. It's been good to talk to you. To everyone. I needed it. "

'We're always here," he said and Maeteya ducked her head, then touched the camera before killing the link. She sat there for quite a while, remembering just who she was really doing this for.

Section 20

Maeteya did her job. Day after day she dug away at the alien's defenses. All the while trying not to think of 'it' as 'him'; keeping the business impersonal and distant. She was up for long shifts, sleeping for a few hours when she got the opportunity. The rest of the time she worked.

Studying the alien, learning its weaknesses and how to exploit them. The 'interviews' continued, as frequently as the subject's condition would allow. She spent most of her waking time in sessions with it, whether it was aware of her presence or not; sometimes behind the window of the interrogation chamber during the active sessions, other times actually in the cell with it during the passive ones.

She had mixed feelings about those moments. For one it was an opportunity to talk to it as if it were a real being and not a slab of meat on a table; on the other side she was alone in the room with a creature that was being tortured, that was exhausted and terrified and completely unpredictable. There were guards just outside and she could probably handle it, she just didn't have any desire to find out.

And she was the only one who could do it. The work being undertaken was a deceit - a construction as precise as any artwork. To work shifts with someone else would be to take her eye off the entire picture, to introduce nuances and variables that might give the game away to the subject. Just as any painting by multiple artists shows the distinctly different brush strokes of its creators.

The rest of her waking hours were taken up with the reports: the dissecting, collating, cross-referencing and filing of the information they pulled out. Dry and exacting work. When she finally collapsed onto the woven strips of her net at the end of shift, sleep came almost immediately.

Section 21

"It's throwing everything off," the doctor said to Maeteya as she entered the theater. "If the readings are going to be accurate it has to calm down. Who knows what these stress levels are doing to its chemical balance. It's fighting us, for goddsake. Any samples we take will be biased."

The alien was struggling against the gurney's restraints. Its hide was pale and slick under the lights, electrodes pasted across it like grotesque parasites. Medical staff were gathered around in their body-covering white paper suits and masks, eyeing the patient uncertainly. Their efforts at reassuring the subject weren't having much effect.

"It might listen to you," the doctor said.

"Probably thinks it's another session," she hissed. "Rot. All right."

Pale eyes flickered to watch her as she came up to the side of the table. His chest was heaving up and down and she could see ribs and muscles shifting under the hide. "Hai," she said. "Calm down. It's alright."

He flinched away, his muscles straining against the straps. Damnation, the surgical mask. She pulled it down. "Tirone? It's me. They won't hurt you."

"Maeteya?" he stared, panting. She could smell his fear-reek.

"Shae," she cautiously touched him, just laying a forehand on his arm. "They won't hurt you. They just want to look at you. It's not... it's not that. You hear me? You understand? They're doctors. They just want to make sure you're healthy."

His pale eyes flicked in a way no Nedai's could, the focus visibly shifting from her to the other masked medics around the gurney. "Truth?"

"Truth," she assured him. "No pain," she reiterated with a severed glance at the medics. They looked like they got the message.

The alien stared at her with those needle-like eyes, then they closed and it sighed; tension left the muscles. Maeteya patted it, feeling the smoothness of that hide. "You'll be fine."

The medics gave her odd looks as they wheeled the gurney away. Maeteya intercepted the doctor. "I told him no pain. You make a liar of me and you'll be treating wet rash in some mudhole on the Malri islands faster than you can believe. Understand?"

His ears went back. "Yes, milady."

Maeteya paused for a few seconds at the observation window outside. The white-suited forms of the meds surrounded the alien as they went about their arcane business. The sensors had been hooked up and the medics were moving it over to the scanning loop. They were handling it like precious goods. She flagged approval.

So. So. So.

He was starting to trust her. On a level where he would take her word regarding his personal wellbeing he trusted her. And that made her feel, for some unaccountable reason, like a traitor. She shook herself, telling herself that was just foolish. She was doing what she was supposed to, what'd been intended all along.

"Milady?"

"Huhn?" she snapped absently before she turned to see who'd addressed her. The guard was wearing a polished black harness, sidearm and a frown. Maeteya imagined a member of the officer security corp wasn't used to being addressed like that. The carte blanche she'd been given had its advantages.

"Milady," he said and offered a chip. "Priority message for you. For your eyes only."

"Thank you," she dismissed him and swung her workslate around. Not trusting it to the station network... sensitive indeed. The plastic seal snapped aside and she slotted it in, entered her key and read it. And read it again.

"Oh, gods," she breathed.

Section 22

"You received your orders," Commander Notaké rumbled.

"Yes, sir," Maeteya acknowledged as she draped herself over the saddle set before his desk. In the viewport beyond the world was in night. City lights were visible: filigree-fine networks of lights dotting the nightbound continents. "I got them."

"You understand them?"

"Shae, sir. It's just..." She felt her ears twist backwards. "Southerners, sir?"

"You have an issue with that?"

Maeteya sank back. "Nosir."

"Huhn," he rumbled and studied her for a few seconds. "Things," he said, "have changed. Our visitor threw a rock into the pool and the silt's still spreading. After the Vieshaun incident the Southerners have been asking a lot of questions and we've been busy fending them off.

"However, the decision was made - doubtless with no little influence from your efforts - to tell them what we encountered: a space-faring, highly advanced and potentially highly dangerous life form. Now of course they're demanding proof, examples, access to information.

"What has NOT been released has been an exact transcript of the events."

"The... incident?" Maeteya ventured, already seeing where this was heading.

He flagged affirmative. "What they know is that the alien initiated hostilities. That's all they know. Understand."

"Yes, sir."

"The higher branches have decided they'll would allow the Southern observers limited access to our guest. As a goodwill gesture. They will have their own guardians, but you'll be in charge of your section. The alien must be presentable."

"Yes, sir. The southerners, how much leeway will they have, sir? They'll have a lot of questions. What can they know?"

The Commander looked down to his desk and the workslate there. His orders, Maeteya guessed. How many more directives had he received? "Delicate situation," he said. "These outsiders... They're a threat to all Nedai. Our differences are something we're going to have to set aside."

"An alliance?" Maeteya voiced, stunned enough that she didn't immediately realize the voice was hers. The century of amalgamation and annexation as the principalities merged and absorbed one another, the two hemispheres growing and crowding. The decades of Notwar as the hemispheres faced and circled each other and squabbled over patches of dirt. The decades of commercial struggle over resources and territories, then the scramble for the resources and strategic points of the system.

And more personal than that was the knowledge that she'd fought for her beliefs. She'd killed and done worse in the name of what she felt was right. Now those beliefs seemed as solid and reliable as the surface of the ocean.

"A mutual agreement," Notaké amended.

She made a non-committal sound. The commander looked amused.

"It is an odd development, I know. But it makes sense. These outsiders might not be discriminating. And you should know better than anyone... could we stand against them alone?"

She remembered the video glimpses she'd seen of an alien civilization: ships the size of station, stations the size of cities. "No sir," she said. "No."

No. Not alone. Probably not together either. That was a thought she kept to herself.

"Of course, the situation is spun glass. The shipyard increases have the Southerners baying. They're claiming they believe that the new manufacturing heralds a resurgence in hostilities and the alien is just a fabrication to cover it. We know that they don't believe that, but they're leery about the outsider story as well. Demanding access to the evidence is a prudent move on their part: if we can't produce then their suspicions are founded, if we do they get access to our guest.

"They're going to press it for everything they can. You're to control the situation. Let them see it's genuine, but don't give them too much time with it."

"Yes, sir," Maeteya said. "In fact, sir, that would be risky. It'd give Tirone more information about us. He might even be able to glean that we have divided factions. That might make future interrogations more difficult."

The station commander cocked his head. "That wasn't considered. It would be so much of an issue?"

"It's difficult to say for sure. It is a distinct possibility."

"I see." He scribbled a note on his workslate. "Shae. What would you recommend?"

"Sir, if they just need to see Tirone, they can do that from the observation window. I can answer any questions they might have. If they want to ask him a few questions, they can do so through me."

"Shae," the commander said again, then tipped his head. "Tirone? Huhn. Second time you've called him that. Not getting too familiar, are you?"

"It's his name, sir," Maeteya responded.

"Yes. Of course," he said and marked something else off on his workslate. "That will be all. Thank you, Logister."

Section 23

Bright light spilled out as the heavy metal door slid open. Over in the far corner, the bundle of blankets stirred, then there was a scramble of motion reflected in the mirrored ceiling above. The alien backed up into the corner, the sheet wrapped around him as if it might offer some protection. For a few seconds he crouched there, just staring, then slowly cocked his head. "Maeteya?"

"Shae," she smiled and cautiously dropped her foretorso down, one forehand clasping the tray to her chest. "Glad you remembered."

He subsided, sitting down in his corner and looking at her. He was breathing hard, she noticed. She'd scared him? "Thank you," he said and plucked at the sheet. "For this. Thank you."

"My pleasure," she returned and set the tray down, nudging it across to him. The contents were the usual protein bricks, water and trace element tablets - materials he could eat and that they knew wouldn't be toxic. This time there were also a couple of warm synari pastries.

"I thought they might be a change," she said as he lifted one, sniffed at it. She wondered if it smelt as good to him as it did to her: she could hear and see muscles in his naked neck pulse as he swallowed. The movement was fascinating. "It's safe for you."

He tasted: gingerly at first, then taking larger bites.

"Good, shae?" Maeteya smiled.

The alien crouched by the tray, clutching the pastry possessively in both hands and masticating far more thoroughly than any Nedai would. Never relaxing his guard. Slowly, carefully, she settled, folding her limbs up to lay on the padded floor and watch him in return as he ate.

He picked through the protein bricks with a great deal less relish. At least he was eating, she thought. If he tried starving himself there'd be problems. Intravenous feeding would require putting him in less secure environs, and a lot of people would have issues with that.

"Is the food all right?" Maeteya asked.

He flinched, then the mobile eyes flickered. "All right? Tastes... same. Always the same."

"I think they're afraid of poisoning you." That was true.

He placed the last mouthful of a brick back on the tray and then licked the residue from his fingers. She supposed that the lack of fur was an asset there and wondered again how a species could have evolved like that. The bipedal stance might have had something to do with it... if his kind evolved in a hot climate then there might be heat dissipation problems. The light dustings of fur on the forelimbs were odd...

When one of said forelimbs moved toward her she flinched. Severely. Yanking her hand back. The alien froze, one hand extended toward her. But she couldn't see anything beyond nervous surprise on its features. If she were reading it correctly, that was. Would it... he try to hurt her? What would that accomplish? There were guards outside the door who'd be in there in seconds. There was gas that'd knock the alien cold. If necessary... her claws were sharp and the alien's hide was thin and she knew where major blood vessels ran near the surface.

Slowly, Maeteya extended her hand again, laid it on the floor, palm down. The alien hesitated, then carefully reached out. Carefully, as if she might pounce on him. He touched. Those long fingers gingerly stroking the fur, then the leathery pads of a finger and palm, then running up to the tip of a digit. She tensed muscles and he flinched again as a single claw extruded, looked up at her face as if to convince himself it wasn't something he'd done. She just cocked her head slightly and saw his throat move again as he swallowed and touched the claw, carefully pressing the ball of his finger against it, then pulling back a little before touching her hide again. Prodding slightly, feeling skin and bone and muscle. And then the alien hand withdrew to the folds of the blanket and he returned to his corner.

"Different, shae?" she murmured.

"Like the... " he started, then blinked. "Shae," he echoed. "That is 'yes'?"

"Correct," she said, noting the little pause: Like he'd meant to say something else and corrected himself. "No one told you? It's informal. Not quite slang."

His head bobbed up and down and he pulled the sheets a little closer even though he couldn't possibly be cold: the temperature was kept a little above his body temperature. "Maeteya. Is he here? Is he watching?"

She blinked. "Who?"

"Him," the pronoun was enunciated with what almost sounded like desperation. "Him! The one who... who hurts me." They hadn't taught him the words for interrogate, debrief, torture... "Are you doing this for him?"

"No," she said with a finality that surprised her. "He's not here. This is for me. And me alone. Understand?"

For a second she thought he was going to reach for her again, but he sagged back and she could see droplets of moisture on his face, on the bare skin beneath his tangled and lank head fur. A stress-sign she'd seen often enough before. "Shae," he said. "Thank you."

As she left, an insidious little voice deep inside growled 'traitor' at her.

Section 24

Security paged to tell her their visitors were on their way.

Maeteya swung around to look over the monitoring room. 'All right, everyone. They're coming. Make sure all sensitive documents are locked away. Close down all systems that aren't immediately necessary."

There was a quick flurry of activity from the techs: monitors went over to standby, workslates turned off, standby indicators turning from amber to blue. In the brightly-lit cell below the alien sat huddled in his corner, oblivious to what was going on above. Maeteya spared him a glance, then turned to her own appearance. Quick strokes brushed her fur down and her harness required a touch of adjustment, then she was presentable and standing waiting when the hatch opened.

Guards in parade dress and perfectly functional sidearms entered and took stations on either side of the hatch. Advisor Mjesins and three of her staff entered in the company of a pair of Nedai with wiry fur and rather severely cropped manes. Their harnesses were dark green and bearing insignia of the Southern Diplomatic Corps. One wore a Representative's stripes clipped to his harness, the other the simple white square of Ambassador.

"Gentlemen," Mjesins said. "This is our current expert on our guest, Logister Maeteya Merasi. Logister, the distinguished Ambassador Lian né Kotres."

"Merasi," the Ambassador echoed thoughtfully. "A Logister?" His Netain had a strong Retunil Basin accent so he was obviously from the southern Capitol. A figure of some importance then.

"She has qualifications that are hard to come by."

"I'm sure," the Ambassador said. "And she's looking after your... evidence."

"Logister," Mjesins gestured toward the window over the cell, "if you would."

"Yes, Ma'am," Maeteya acknowledged and gestured to their visitors. "Né Kotres, if you would step this way."

She could see the Southerners' faces as they approached the window. Skepticism at first, then curiosity and wariness, then they were standing at the edge of the glass looking down and she heard the Representative's sharp intake of breath. Né Kotres' didn't say anything. For several minutes he stood silently, looking down at the figure below.

The alien was doing what it sometimes did when it'd been left alone for a period. Odd exercises, but then they were for an odd physiology. Other times Maeteya had stood where they were standing and watched, bemused as it repeated raised its foretorso on forearms, or bent double to touch its fingers to its feet. They'd let it continue: Maeteya felt he needed distractions of some kind.

It was dramatic proof that what was down there was no fancy costume or automaton. The Southern delegation stared. The Ambassador slowly circled the window once, as though trying to reassure himself it wasn't some sort of trick. On the far side he stopped. When he looked up his ears were back. "You really... what is it?"

Mjesins regarded the alien, stroked her cheek. "That is what we've been trying to find out. What they are; what sort of threat they might pose to us. Our entire species. The Logister here is probably our best expert on this particular individual."

The Ambassador looked from her, to the alien and back at Maeteya again. Light from below threw black shadow across his features. "Logister?"

"Sir," she took a breath. "His name is Tirone. His... people call themselves Uman. H'man. It's a difficult sound. Bipedal brachiators adapted for a peculiar mixture of plains and semi-aquatic scavenging. Bisexually dimorphic. He's not built like a normal male, but plays the same role, donating sperm carrying his genetic code. Their spacefaring culture is hundreds of years old and spans a vast area: Hundreds, probably thousands of star systems. Their borders are expanding continuously in all directions. This one," she nodded at the cell, "is their equivalent of a prospector... a miner... staking claims on their borders.

"They're oxygen-nitrogen breathers. Tolerate similar temperatures and gravity. They can eat some of our food but the heavy metals in others could prove problematical for them. Our natural light has a higher UV content than their own, but they seem to be able to... adapt to that with medical technology."

"In other words," the Ambassador said, staring at the alien, "they could live on Nedai."

"In other words: yes, sir. And from what we understand, this is only the third inhabitable world they've found."

"In hundreds of years?"

Maeteya could see the realization in the delegates' eyes. If inhabitable worlds were so rare, then that would make theirs' valuable indeed. Valuable enough that they might want to evict any inconvenient tenants?

"Yes, sir," she said. "He claims that they'd have no desire to do that. They live in artificial habitats, millions of them. Most of them are of a scale that could swallow the Highdock whole."

"They'd rather live in a floating piece of metal?"

'Sir, he says he was born on a station. He's never been on a planet. The same's true of most of their populance. I daresay their habitats are a sight more sophisticated than ours."

"So they have no real need for planets?"

"Huhn," Maeteya wondered how best to phrase a response to that. "In a way, sir. Their economy works on a supply and demand system, so if something is rare it is more valuable to them. Inhabitable planets are rare. They're valued for their biodiversity, exports of organics and natural materials considered luxury goods. And also as a.... place to visit. Sightseeing."

"Tourists?" the Representative looked surprised.

"Yes, sir," Maeteya tried not to smile.

The Ambassador snapped his jaws, clicking his incisors. "This creature, it wasn't able to report our existence?"

"No, sir."

"But you think they're likely to find us."

"At their current rate of expansion it's unavoidable."

"How long?"

"Best prognosis would be two years. Worst would be next week."

"Huhn," he rumbled and looked from her to Advisor Mjesins. "You've got my attention. Tell me what you can about them."

Section 25

"You enjoyed that, didn't you."

"You really didn't believe us?"

The Ambassador leaned forward in the ancient hand-tooled saddle, rolling the snifter in his fingers. The dark liquid swirled. "You have to admit, it was a fairly extravagant tale. We don't take things like that lightly."

The other individual in the room sipped her aged safri and shook her head. "You thought we were spinning tales."

"Would you have believed us?"

Mjesins grinned and stretched her own limbs, digging her claws into the leather of her own saddle. There was a rivalry there, as was expected with a Northerner and Southern in the same room. But it was a rivalry that'd matured over the years they'd been opposite numbers. They were both loyal to their people; they were both hardworking, dedicated and quite well-adjusted regarding matters of the world. In short, they had a lot in common with one another. So, the informal and very private detente they established - while it would have been earned reprimands had their superiors known of it - made their jobs a lot easier. And they both found comfortable environs and good drink far more conducive to conducting business than a sterile conference room.

"Our intelligence is better," she said.

Né Kotres snorted amusement. "You wish," he retorted and lapped at her own drink. "Excellent safri. Laeren province?"

"You're familiar with it?" Laeren was a Northern province, and the Trees that produced the rare Laeren variety of saps grew in isolated groves. Most distilleries deemed them too biter. Only a couple had techniques that produced a palatable result.

"There are some things worth importing," the Ambassador said, tapping his glass and then gazing across the darkened room at the port. "This thing, it's got you worried. A great deal worried, hasn't it."

"What do you think?"

"Don't be glib. It's not becoming."

Mjesins took a breath to vent an affronted reply, then slowly released it in a hiss. "It's got me worried. Yes. This thing... even if they aren't hostile, they can destroy us."

"The Savage Syndrome."

"Shae. And this time guess who're the savages. This thing... it had manufacturing capabilities the likes of which you wouldn't believe. Advanced molecular-level stereolithography. Anything from fusion plants to automated mines to clothing. Can you imagine what effect that would have on our economies?"

The Ambassador frowned. "Serious."

"Serious. Indeed. And then there are the repercussions of knowing there's a more advanced species dominating the universe just over the hill from us."

A nod. "That was something the experts on video have always been throwing around. You have an answer?"

"I was hoping you clever bastards might."

"Huhn," the Ambassador snorted. "That's a bit outside my field. These outsiders, how do they manage?"

"Organized anarchy, as best we can tell," Mjesins sighed. "A loosely structured capitalist society..."

Né Kotres growled softly.

"... for the most. They seem to place value on raw materials, organics, unique items and innovation."

"Innovation?"

"Machinery designs, equipment, artwork. Ideas. They seem to be valid trade items. That concerns me."

"How so?"

Mjesins gestured at the elaborately curled wooden tangle of a scent carving in its niche by the door. "Exquisite, isn't it. I can just see us being forced to trade off our greatest artwork to a species that might regard them as quaint. And simply to buy machinery already obsolete by their standards." She sighed and tapped a foreclaw against her glass, then turned back to the Ambassador:

"How do you think your people are going to handle this?"

"About as well as yours are," he responded. "Running in circles. Worried. Not sure what to do."

"You think they'll cooperate?"

He took another delicate lap of liquor while he considered that. "I'm convinced that you found something. They might require more persuasion. But there's also the fact you might've started something that will have serious repercussions for our entire race. Is it standard policy on your exploration vessels to shoot at unknown vessels?"

"Only when they fire at us," Mjesins responded. "We don't want to fight these outsiders. We want to do everything possible to meet peaceably with them. But the fact remains even their miners go armed. They fired at us. The Northern Commonwealth is stepping up military production, presence around homeworld and monitors in the outer system. We're asking the Southern Federation to do the same. We're willing to offer assistance wherever possible, including tying your long range networks into our Locus system."

"Generous," the Ambassador rumbled, surprised at that offer. The Locus was an impressive conglomeration of detection systems - optical and electromagnetic - networked to offer an unparalleled view of what was going where in the system. Southern intelligence was extremely interested in it. "My people will still be skeptical."

"We'll provide you with data and footage from the Dreyal encounter along with data on the known capabilities of that alien ship."

"They'll listen. They'll be going crazy trying to figure out what ulterior motives you might have, but they'll listen." The Ambassador grinned. "Now, have you figured out what your people are going to do?"

Section 26

"It's a liability."

"It's our only source of information. We throw it away, we're throwing away our only edge."

"It's too dangerous to keep it around."

Advisor Mjesins sat at her workstation and regarded the screens and the dozen opened virtuals displaying the faces of other Council Advisors. None of them were in the same room, all of them at different places throughout local homeworld space. The responses of the mot distant were lagged by a couple of seconds, causing some discontinuity in the conference, but it was nothing they weren't used to. Forests of familiar icons in the virtuals' corners declared the lines were top security, scrambled and logged.

"I disagree," she said. "Our interrogation people are sure that it has more to tell us. It's just a matter of getting it out."

Advisor Herika from the Nijel Corporation glared. "It's taking too long. Keeping that thing up there is asking for trouble. It's too vulnerable. And if its kind comes calling, that's the first place they're going to look."

"Agreed," the Orika Tech representative added. "They might not take kindly to their kind being 'interviewed'."

"We're still learning about them," Advisor Feil Est added. "It's far to valuable resource to dispose of."

Sounds of assent came from the rest of the conference.

"However, I do agree with Herika on one point," Mjesins added. "It is vulnerable here. I would prefer to move it to more secure location."

Herika scowled. "Planetside? An alien?"

"No transmittable diseases, viruses or microbes have been found and personel are in contact with it with no ill effects. Still, full quarantine will be enforced. But we need better facilities. And as you pointed out, vulnerability is an issue. Perhaps the Dell Hills compound."

"Shae," the elder from Hiside Corporation acting as group facilitator offered. "I agree. That tincan is a floating target now the Southerners know."

"Agreed," said another, then another and another. Unanimous.

"Mjesins," the Hiside Advisor said again. "You're the one scaling the tree there. You seem to have it planned out. Get things moving there. We'll smooth things downside."

Section 27

Far in the outer reaches of the system, out where the sun was just another star, a frozen rock of a planetoid drifted on an orbit measured in centuries.

Cherik was the outermost marker of the system. A ball of rock, dust and ice deposits only a couple of hundred klicks in diameter. Probes had done flybys. One had landed, but there was nothing there anyone wanted.

The lone Southern probe squatted on what passed for an equator. Day and night were almost indistinguishable, but the probe still registered the transition as the diffuse terminator crawled over it. Thermometers plummeted from godawful to improbable levels. A patina of frost glimmered on metal surfaces: the vapor kicked up by its landing that'd resettled and frozen. A glassy lens stared at the heavens filled with more stars than any dirtsider would ever behold.

When the faint flares of light fell across the probe's sensors it was barely strong enough to register. The machine - slightly less intelligent than an insect - dutifully stored the information to broadcast homeward the next time the snowball rotated far enough for the dish to align. That would be in two days.

Section 28

Medics and soldiery jammed the narrow corridor outside the cell. The Medics were checking their equipment and the gurney, the soldiers clutching weapons and looking wary. Better than complacent, Maeteya thought as she pushed through, the personnel pressing back against the walls.

Shetrim Fenial was waiting along with a xenotech and the guards at the hatch. The tech was adjusting a tranq gun. "Ma'am," Shetrim greeted her. "We're ready to move it. We just have to sedate it."

Maeteya looked at the gun and its barbed dart. Not a nice thing to get stuck with. "There might be an easier way," she said. "Open up."

"Ma'am?" the guard hesitated. "We weren't told you'd be going in."

"Ma'am," Shetrim started to say.

"I'm telling you now. Open."

The sergeant eyed the pass clipped to her harness, then typed in the entry code and armed soldiers tensed as the hatch opened.

Inside, the alien was seated in its favorite corner. Its legs were folded over themselves in a way that looked excruciatingly uncomfortable while the blanket was pulled around its shoulders. It was watching her as she entered: very awake, aware and apprehensive.

"Tiron," she said and saw rigid muscles relax ever so slightly. "How are you doing?"

A long-digited hand waved lazily. "Wonderful. Just enjoying the scenery."

She blinked and followed the gesture. Nothing but blank white padded walls. A joke? "It's not much, is it. Perhaps a change will be good?"

The head shifted, tipping back ever so slightly. She thought he looked worried.

"What? Move?"

"No. Not that," she assured him. "We're just moving you out of here."

He looked past her, at the hatch were the medics were waiting with the gurney. She saw his muscles clench, the eyes go a fraction wider. She knew the sensors would be picking up increased pulse, increased respiration. The medics had never heralded any good for him. "It's not that," she repeated. "My word."

He gave her a look of scared incomprehension.

"You won't be hurt," she rephrased, then cautiously stepped a bit closer, crouching and offering her hand.

There was a moment in which he could done anything: struck out, gone for her eyes, her throat, broken for the door. But that moment passed and he very slowly extended his own hand. Five slender digits, not three; smooth skin that felt hot against her palm pads; tense muscles grown under a higher gravity. It clasped hers in a brachiator's grip and she carefully hauled him to his feet, legs unfolding in improbable ways.

Standing, clutching his sheet, he was a little taller than her upright foretorso. Enough so she had to look up, but she still outmassed him considerably. Gently, she tugged his hand. "Come on."

Tirone balked, looked at her. She patted his hand. "Come on."

Slowly, he followed her back out of the cell, through the hatch, ducking under the overhead. The guards outside backed away, aiming their weapons. The alien froze, his hand clutching hers almost painfully tightly. "Nobody's going to hurt you," she told him and he looked at her, uncomprehending. Outside the cell, the machines couldn't translate.

"Come on," Maeteya said again in the most reassuring tones she could manage while soldiers with assault rifles kept bead on the alien. She patted the gurney and he stared at her, then the slick plastic-covered palette and straps. "Maeteya," he said, moving his head back and forth.

"Please," she said, patting the mat again and glancing at the personnel around them. Perhaps he was able to take the hint. His hands were trembling as he carefully swung up, sitting in a precarious-looking position with legs hanging and the blanket wrapped closely. "Good," she told him and patted a leg.

"Now, we just have to give you a shot...no, use a hypo," she said as the alien flinched wildly from the barbs of tranquilizer gun.

"Ma'am? It'll take a minute."

"Just do it."

They retreated to their equipment while the alien sagged, breathing hard. Maeteya stroked his arm, a little surprised to feel fine fur there, along with occasional spasms of trembling. When the hypo was ready she reassured him again. Those pale eyes stayed locked on hers while the needle pricked its forearm. Fought to stay focused on her as the drug took effect. When it finally collapsed Maeteya caught it and eased it back on the gurney. While the Medics strapped it down she folded the blanket and then carefully placed it under the alien's head.

Eyes drifted in and out of focus when she patted its face. "See you downside," she murmured.

Section 29

Lias Jekli pushed away from interior maintenance hatch five. His suit was well-worn and fit him like a second hide and reeked of months of long EVAs. He could hear the fans whirling, the faint glinkglink of the one with the slightly faulty brushing that smoothed out as it warmed up. His visor fogged briefly, then cleared and he blinked through the thick panes of scratched glass.

The exterior bay was crowded with the huge bulk of the shuttle nestled into its harness amidst the girders, support generators, power and fuel lines, like a predatory rator lurking amongst the vines. Occasional spotlights picked out flashes of hull: heat-resistant composites, stenciled markings, access panels... Further back, beyond the bulk of the engine pack, the white pinpricks of stars slowly scrolled past against the black nothingness of space. Lias punched up his local beacon kit that'd tell control exactly where he was, then the local channel comms:

"Jekli here. Hatch five. Exiting now. Regular on aft attitude gimbals."

"Shae, Jekli," cracked the response. "Got you on the clock. Two teams EVA running regular on fore. Seven in bay."

"Copy," he replied and gave a practiced kick toward the ladder lattice running around the shape of the shuttle. There were the flickering visual beacons of other techs further forward. They were eclipsed from sight as he moved back and below the field-sized plane of the wing, in and out of shadow as he passed from spotlight to spotlight. The expanse of woven titanium-ceramic composite passed over his head and he was below the underbelly of the shuttle.

It was a seconds work to pop the modified clasp on his beacon and give it a gentle push. It continued along slowly and steadily on his previous course while he dove in closer to the shuttle, toward one of the hydraulic access panels open for inspection. Another second to clasp the device around one of the lines, then push off back to the lattice in time to intercept the beacon.

Done. A few seconds and no hint that anyone had detected the deviation in his route. The personnel tracking system would show beacon on a straight line from hatch to stern. He went on to give the rear gimbals a thorough overhaul.

Nobody noticed a marking collar around one of the hydraulic feed lines was considerably thicker than it needed to be.

Section 30

Maeteya accompanied the capsule as they loaded it.

Highdock's docking ring was located at the station hub. That far in the artificial gravity imparted by station spin was infinitesimal. Walls were lined with utilitarian carpet and synthetic bark while lattices provided holds in the halls.

There were familiar faces in the weightless loading dock. The Advisor was watching dispassionately, claws anchored into a carpet. The Station commander just snagged a loop as the cargo and its guards were loaded, then turned back to his duties.

The alien lay sedated and restrained, packed and padded into the wood and composites canister. Maeteya looked through the faceplate at the semi-conscious features pale passing under the bright lights of the overhead; watched as it drifted in and out of awareness while it was guided through the loading gantry tube. She made sure the capsule was clamped into the secure bay at the back of the passenger module, checked the telltales on the monitors before kicking back to the passenger section.

While shuttle was configured for passengers, it was still military. The cabin was colored in utilitarian shades of green. Twin ranks of passenger acceleration saddles with their clamshell braces filled the cabin. Loops and bark provided hooks for talons. There were four guards nestled into the rear seats and a couple of medics off to the side. Shetrim Fenial looked up from his workslate settled on the seat tray.

"Secure, Ma'am?" he asked.

"He should stay under the whole trip," Maeteya said as she hooked talons into a loop and swung herself into a couch alongside, leaving the acceleration clamshell up for the time. "It's not that long."

"Yes, ma'am," he said. "The travel itinerary has been worked out and there haven't been any problems. Cherimainsa Highdock and Tireril field have given us priority. There's a full military escort along with several decoys and an air screen. Dell Hills say they facilities there will be completed on time, as per your specs."

"Not done yet?"

"No, Ma'am. Just cosmetic touches. It will be done on time."

Maeteya's ears flagged acknowledgement. Not for the first time she wished the shuttles had windows. But the cabin was a module fitted into the cargo bay of the military shuttle. Ports would just make things inefficient. The screens would have to do. Anyway, she had plenty of work to do before planetfall. She pulled her workslate from its carry pack and set it on the fold-out tray then set to wading through the mail received and to be sent.

Section 31

Departure was on schedule.

Tugs hauled the hundred and ten meter bulk of shuttle 6-112 Maritae out of the docking port. Chemical jets coughed clouds of ice crystals that sparkled momentarily in the glare of sunlight as the ungainly little one-man craft maneuvered the needle-nosed delta shape, slowly nudging it away from the ponderously rotating bulk of the station. The world drifted below them, a sphere of blues and greens that seemed to fill the universe as they helped the shuttle out to a safe distance and disengaged their grapples.

For a few minutes 6-112 drifted, clearing the inbound lanes and local traffic on chemical thrusters while final clearances were granted, course plots verified and final checks made. When the main engines were lit there was the barest flicker of blue fire, accelerating the vessel slowly at first but building to peak at a respectable 2.1gees. Cherimainsa Highdock and the clouds of attendant vessels fell away behind until all that was visible to the naked eye was the flare of sunlight off the Highdocks solar arrays.

Descent started half a world away from the final destination. The outer reaches of the stratosphere kissed the hull; molecules of atmospheric gasses striking the composite hull at hypersonic velocities; an aura of ionized atmosphere starting to flicker around the delta shape as its trajectory turned from an orbit to a glide. Plasma flared brighter as control surfaces on the shuttle warped and extended, slowing and steering the vehicle.

At eighty thousand meters the first aerobrakes were deployed, slowing the vessel down below mach 15.

At seventy-five thousand meters the bomb went off.

It wasn't a large charge, but it was sufficient to blow out a section of fuselage. A hole was ripped through the composite mesh protecting the hull and superheated air at hypersonic velocities tore at the opening. Metal panels peeled back like paper under a flame. The entire airframe shuddered and yawed as drag was suddenly applied where it was never supposed to exist.

It was a military shuttle. The pilots were professionals and extremely good at their jobs. Within milliseconds the computer was trying to compensate. Within seven hundred milliseconds the pilots knew something was wrong. Within two thousand milliseconds they knew something was seriously wrong. Systems were redlining, the airframe was shuddering as it was ripped by hypervelocity winds. The pilot reached for the red and green stripped emergency lever even as the slipstream tore open hydraulics, feedlines and then the loxy tanks.

Section 32

There was nothing but blackness.

She was awake. She was sure she was. She could feel herself blink; she could feel a weight pulling at every particle in her body; she could feel herself breathing and she could feel the ache that every breath brought. She couldn't feel her limbs, but then trying to move hurt too much anyway.

Last she remembered...

The lurch had slammed her against the inside the clamshell and she'd thought turbulence. Then there'd been a screaming of metal and a vibration that seemed about to vibrate her teeth from her skull and her stomach had lurched as the shuttle yawed wildly and then everything went black and an acceleration that made the earlier boost from orbit seem like a cub's love tap as she was forced down into the couch's padding, struggling for breath. She remembered more turbulence, and being shaken like a bean in a rattle. Then...

Blackness.

She thought she still had hands. She thought she could feel it when she flexed her claws. Then she thought she could hear sounds.

A crushing weight was lifted away and light flooded in accompanied by air and a tangled weaving of scents. She blinked into the glare and figures resolved: battered and bloodstained figures lifting aside the piece of cabin overhead that'd been crushing her. Beyond them... blue sky?

"She's alive...Logister?" one of the figures asked and she blinked again. A soldier. Covered with swathes of medical sealing strips, a midleg splinted. "Ma'am? Can you hear me?"

"Shae," she mumbled. "Can't move."

Another figure, a medic, looking almost as battered as the other, leaned over her. "The restraints are jammed. Hold on."

There was some undignified shoving and shaking before a metallic crack came from the mechanism. The clamshells squeaked aside and she withdrew her limbs, wincing as her left midleg moved.

"Sprained," the medic diagnosed as she surveyed the scene. "Ma'am, we couldn't find you. We thought you were..."

Devastation. The passenger module had ejected, as it had been designed to do. The chutes must've opened or they wouldn't be here, but the cabin was a wreck. It was tilted, the floor at a thirty degree angle. The left wall was above her and had been crumpled inward, crushing saddles and breaking panels loose to bare the wiring harnesses and metal behind. The panel containing overhead lockers had been shaken loose, the section that'd collapsed entirely had been the piece that pinned her.

Aftwards, the damage was worse. The damaged side of the cabin was entirely sheared away, leaving a tangle of metal bones framing blue sky. The scents that flooded in through the hole were of burnt metal and plastic and wood and electrical shorts. Underlying those, the subtle scents of a world she hadn't breathed for years: earth and rock and moisture and natural decay, a wind that'd roamed the planet and carried its scents with it. Another scent filled the air: the hot smell of blood.

The module had hit the ground hard. When the fuselage was torn open metal had twisted like straws. Two of the soldiers had been in the way. One was dead, gutted by a razor sheet of external paneling that bent into the cabin like a twisted tooth. The other was seriously injured. Two spars had impaled him through his abdomen and hindleg. His circulatory system had shut off blood flow to those areas, but he needed medical treatment.

And Shetrim Fenial was a limp bundle in his broken saddle. His head was twisted at an impossible angle, blood around his gaping mouth and covering the ground and seats around him.

"Oh," Maeteya said, faintly. Just the next row of seats over. Just that far away. She patted his head softly then looked away from the staring eyes. "What happened?"

"We're not sure, Ma'am."

Tirone. The alien. What about the alien?"

"Ma'am," one of the two soldiers panted. "It's gone, Ma'am."

"Gone? Dead?"

"No Ma'am."

The alien's transport capsule was shattered, broken open by the same destruction that'd taken the others. The frame it'd been secured to was bent, broken. The restraints hung loose.

"It was awake before I could get out of the harness," the soldier said, his ears back flat against his head. She didn't know whether that was from shame or revulsion at the memory. He was a sight though, with sealing patches covering great swathes of hide, a forearm slung and midleg splinted. "It got my sidearm. It'd come out of the holster... It... it knew how to use it, Ma'am. Safety and everything. I thought it was going to kill me. Then it just... went. Out there."

"You didn't try and stop it?"

"Ma'am?" the soldier looked down at its wounds. "When I got free, it was gone. It seemed unhurt."

No. There were a few smears of coagulated dark red in the capsule. It was injured, not too badly it would seem. Oh, and its blanket was gone.

"Ma'am," one of the medics spoke up. "None of us are in any shape to be running around the landscape looking for escaped aliens. Of all of us, you're the only one who can even walk properly. I suppose two legs might be an advantage: fewer to break. Smaller body mass also."

"Piss," Maeteya swore and limped to the breach in the hull.

The cool breeze chilled her nose as she looked out over hillsides. Fell land. Grey-green groundscrub hugging the feet of huge, rocky promontories weathered and rounded by weather. Ranks of tor and valley, wrinkles in the skin of the earth. In the distance she could see craggy peaks hazed by swirling mist while elsewhere spears of sunlight lanced down from achingly blue sky. Nearby rocks were scored white and pulverized where metal had impacted. Pieces of wreckage littered the landscape; the green and red expanse of the collapsed parasail stirred restlessly at the end of its tether like some form of beached ocean life. The wind that prodded it smelled of damp cloud and rock and plants.

Where was Tirone? Where were they?

"I'm not sure, Ma'am," a medic offered. "Possibly Ethithorne? That was near our flight path."

Not likely to be southern territory then. That was a relief. But there was still the alien running around out there. If he got to a settled area... there would be trouble. On all sides. And she remembered his thin hide. It was no protection against the elements. He'd freeze.

"The tranq," she told the medic. "You still have the tranq gun?"

"Yes, Ma'am," he said.

"Get it," she told him and while he scuttled off thought for a second then said to the other soldier. "And your sidearm. You haven't lost that?"

His ears went back. "No ma'am."

It was a 10mm standard issue. Seventeen rounds in the magazine and a well worn look to the finish. She racked the slide, making sure a round was chambered, then safetied it. The tranquilizer pistol she also checked and cocked, took a couple of extra darts, then set off after her charge.

Section 33

He wasn't making any effort to cover his trail. She could smell where he'd been: that acrid scent that'd become so familiar to her. There were obvious smears of blood on several stones, although these grew rarer as she progressed. He seemed to be heading in a straight line. She guessed he didn't have any particular destination in mind, he was just getting as far away from them as possible.

Her talons clattered across stone and more easily over the omnipresent groundscrub. The tough little groundhugger was a distant relative of the massive trees whose spread could be measured in acres. Her kind had evolved in the vast forests their intermingled tangles of trunks formed, forest spreading thousands of kilometers through temperate and sub temperate climates. Her talons were evolved for clinging to the almost-metal hard bark of their trunks, not running over flat rock.

Stabbing aches in her sprained midleg got worse as she crested the hill. Reluctantly, she holstered the weapons and went down on forelimbs as well, favoring the injured leg. She could travel faster that way, flowing over the terrain like the predator she was, but she'd prefer to have weapons in her hands.

How much of a start did he have? A couple of hours at most. How injured was he? How desperate? He had a weapon. Would he use it?

They were concerns that nagged at her. They were almost enough to make her give up and wait for the search and rescue that must be looking for them. But if Tirone found someone... if he hurt them. Or vice versa.

She was disturbed to find how much that worried her.

There was no sign of him in the next valley. The spoor tracked down to the valley floor where a trickle of water meandered through a boggy marsh that made her grimace in distaste as she slogged through it. She picked up the trail on the far side, climbing the far side of the valley.

Halfway up the hillside she found a few scraps of white cloth in the lee of a stone. The rags were caked with drying alien circulatory fluid. So, it was serious. He'd made bandages from the blanket. The area smelled of alien blood and distress.

"Piss!" she growled, panting from the exertion. Two years in lower gravity environments had taken their toll. She gulped air, shook excess mud and muck from her feet and started off again.

The spoor continued to the top of the next tor where it suddenly veered off. She had to go a bit further before she saw what had caused that, what her prey was aiming at: a windmill perched on the next ridge.

Maeteya was panting hard, her legs trembling from exhaustion as she approached the mill. It was a modern eggbeater model: a vertical axis with three bowed sailwings anchored top and bottom around the central shaft. A small transformer station with a satellite dish nestled below the ridgeline. Beyond that, the rocky hills turned to rolling moorland, but what caught her attention were the buildings. A family homestead, she reckoned. There was the main structure and a couple of smaller adjoining dwellings. All the low buildings were constructed of stone and wood but with enough whitewash to make them stand out glaringly. A metal road led off over the moors and she could see a couple of civilian vehicles parked in the forecourt in front of the main lodge. A careful sniff at the trail confirmed her fears: he was heading down there.

A low rumble reverberated off the hills. In the sky behind her a handful of dark specks were curving over the hilltops, fanning out. They rapidly grew in size and a few seconds later a Flinger FRA171 with Northern markings ripped over the next valley with the scream of turbocharged engines ricocheting off the hillsides. Close enough she could see the sunlight glittering off the canopy.

She winced. Now Tirone would know they were looking for him. She'd have to hurry.

Section 34

There was no sign of life.

Maeteya reached an outlying building and hugged close to the wall. The houses were built in a traditional manner. Twisted lengths of timber formed an irregular lattice-like frame. The leaf-shaped spaces between were filled with mortared stones and whitewashed plaster. She noticed that the steep roof, however, was made of black lightweight prefabricated tiles. And there was still no sign of anyone around.

A freehold like this would be home to several families. Mated males and females, cousins, aunts and uncles, elders and offspring. They provided mutual support, helped raise children and look after the elderly. It also meant there'd be a town or something not too far off. The vehicles in the courtyard were expensive-looking civilian models, so it was probably a half-hour dive or so away.

She moved as quickly and as quietly as her injured leg would allow. Hugging the wall and peeking in the modern windows. A meal on the hearth, scattered cushions... and abandoned children's toys. She felt her ears flatten. Piss. There were children involved, as well as protective kin and that made things unpredictable. How would Tirone act toward cubs? Would he harm them?

She dropped to all sixes to dash toward the main lodge. The back door to the kitchen was hanging open and as soon as she poked her muzzle around the door she could smell him: acrid, blood, fear filling the room, along with the burnt cordite smell of propellant. An expensive looking range filled one wall and in the pale green plaster above it was what could only be a bullet hole. A cooking pot lay on the floor near the back door.

Maeteya felt her muzzle bare in a snarl. A gun had been fired here. There was a reek of Nedai fear and smears of glistening reddish brown on the floor. She carefully stepped into the kitchen with eyes and ears trying to cover every direction at one. Then her ears pricked up when she heard the sound of voices coming from one of the other two doors. More of those smears led off in that direction.

There was a hallway leading down to the front door and reception hall. Sunlight poured in through strained glass windows, gleaming off polished wood and ancient-looking handwoven rugs. A curving spiral of rough-barked wood - imitating the curling branches of a tree - led up to the second floor. The sounds were coming from the ground floor, from an archway further down the hall on her left.

"What do you want?!" a voice was snarling. "Let them go!"

She crouched low and peeked.

The room was large, with big bay windows and an enormous hearth with stone chimney. An entertainment center clustered into a corner, with the video feed burbling quietly to itself. And everyone in the freehold must've been there. She could see men and women gathered, holding children and cubs. Grey-furred elders were in front of the youngers. She counted twenty eight in total. All around teeth were bared, ears laid back and the stink of anxiety filled the room.

And she saw Tirone. He was backed against a wall with the soldier's gun clutched in a hand. The ridiculous blanket hung around his shoulders and she could see where he'd torn strips off it and wrapped them around his abdomen. She could also see spots of red against the white. She could also see the young cub he was holding with his other hand, and another adolescent crouched at his feet with her eyes wide in terror.

Piss.

An elder female with grizzled fur was snarling at Tirone, her ears back and talons and teeth bared as she told him to release the cubs. Others were urging, cajoling, pleading. Tirone just stood, the one gun trying to cover the whole room. Maeteya could see it was shaking wildly and that his face was as pale as if all the blood was gone.

If he harmed a cub, they would kill him. Rot, if he lowered the weapon they would probably kill him. Had anyone called authorities?

"Let them go!" the matriarch was repeating.

"Go," Tirone's abominable accent wavered. It was the first time she'd heard him without the buffering of a machine. "Got go."

"You even understand?"

"Got go!" he repeated and the gun wavered.

Maeteya withdrew and took a deep breath. Hostages. Why did he have to try and take hostages?!

A few seconds later she stepped into the archway, the pistol held loosely at her side. "Tirone."

His head and the gun snapped around. She'd seen that expression before. Under harsh lights in a white room. "Tirone, let them go."

The household was staring incredulously at her. "What... who are..." the matriarch started to say, then hissed, "You'll get them killed!"

Maeteya just quietly gestured at her to calm down. "Tirone. No. No hurt."

"Who?" he gasped and looked from her to the others. "Who?!"

"It's me," she said, "Maeteya."

"Maeteya?"

"Shae. Now, let them go, Tirone. No hurt, shae? No hurt. They're children. Understand? Children."

He stared at her, trembling and uncomprehending. Outside, there was another dopplering roar as military jets overflew the property and his gaze flicked to the window, then back to her.

Slowly, she laid the gun down on the floor, then kicked it away with a midpaw. A couple of civilians hissed. "Tirone, please."

He shuddered and the gun wobbled and she kept talking. Just keeping her voice calm and quiet, as she'd done when she'd talked with him in his cell. "No hurt," she promised him in words he knew. "No hurt."

And he sagged back, loosing his grip on the cub who bolted back to the adults, to his mother. Maeteya nodded her head at the adolescent who carefully moved away, glanced at the alien, then scampered the rest of the distance. Adults closed around her and moved toward Tirone.

The gun came up again and Maeteya barked, "No! Don't touch him. Move back. All of you move back. He's not going to hurt anyone, are you, Tirone?"

"Maeteya?" Tirone wavered, staring at the would-be lynch mob over the dark metal of the gun.

"Just what is it?" someone demanded.

She moved a step closer and the gun wavered, the alien looking as if he couldn't decide whether to aim at her or the threatening crowd.

"Come on," Maeteya said. "Please."

His eyes flickered aside, then he stiffened and turned, the gun lowering momentarily and he hissed something in his own tongue.

Maeteya whipped the tranquilizer gun from where it'd been tucked into the back of her harness and fired. The dart struck the alien in the shoulder and he yelped, spun and the gun in his hand went off and the bullet knocked plaster from a wall and then Maeteya was staring down the muzzle.

For long seconds things were very quiet, the alien glanced from her to the bright dart in his arm and his face wrinkled. Then, slowly, the muzzle drooped and slowly the alien sagged back against the wall and slowly folded down to the floor. The gun slipped from limp fingers to clatter to his side.

Maeteya pushed it out of the way as she knelt beside him. His eyes were fluttering as the drug took hold. His breath rasped. Maeteya stroked his arm, then gently touched his face. He was cold, she could feel that. "Just relax. It's all right. No hurt."

He murmured something, then tried again. "No," he mumbled.

"It's all right," she said, aware of the family moving closer behind her.

His hand moved: just a limp gesture. "No," he said again.

Maeteya blinked and then looked in that direction, toward what had distracted him. The video newsfeed was muted, but she could see the picture clearly enough. There were multiple streaks of light against a dark background, long-range, hi-res images from some sort of space-based platform. She'd seen pictures like those before, the same type of vessel. But there'd been only that one then.

"No," Tirone mumbled again before the drug rolled over him completely.

Piss, she swore to herself again as he went limp. Complications. Big ones, and earlier than expected. But what did he mean by that utterance?

The shadow of the elderly female fell over them. "You're military, I suppose," she said to Maeteya, eyeing her battered hide and uniform harness.

"Shae, Ma'am. Anyone hurt?"

"I don't think so. What is that thing? Anything to do with what's going on there?" she twitched a thumb toward the video.

"In a way. Ma'am, this is all most secret. It would be better for all of us if you didn't ask too many questions."

The matriarch bristled. "Better for... That thing bursts in here, takes my grandchild hostage and threatens us at gunpoint and you have the temerity to... "

"He was frightened half to death," Maeteya said. "He was in an accident and scared to death. He wouldn't have hurt them."

"You knew that for sure?"

"Yes, Ma'am," she said simply, checking the alien's respiration. "Otherwise I would have just killed him. Now, I need some blankets before he freezes."

There was a stony silence. Maeteya looked up at the glare of the grizzled old female at the stares of the extended family behind her. "Please, Ma'am," she added.

An exasperated snort, then the female turned to her clan and hustled them into action with short commands. Maeteya was impressed: she'd seen troops less well drilled.

"All right, youngling," the matriarch growled. "Now perhaps you can tell me just what is going on."

Maeteya sagged down and closed her eyes. Just resting while the matriarch leaned over in concern and images flickered through her memory: alien face, flames and flying debris, Shetrim's body...

Outside, the roar of aircraft grew louder again.

Section 35

The three military VTOL transports landed amidst howls of turbines and flying clouds of dirt kicked up by the rotors. Stubby aerodynes orbited the homestead, their engines screaming in hover mode as they escorted the slower transports. High overhead, interceptors flew CAP, their contrails sketched across blue patches of sky. And although she couldn't see them, Maeteya imagined that higher still there would be orbital vehicles nosing into covering positions.

Maeteya turned her head from bits of debris kicked up as the nearest transport settled into the field. At her side Kehesia Lorosai looked concerned as the cargo ramps lowered and armed personnel swarmed out, carrying everything from squad support weapons to anti aircraft tubes. Another VTOL bearing Search And Rescue markings offloaded a team of red-harnessed medics, two of them carrying a customized isolation stretcher.

Soldiers were fanning out, officers barking orders as troops scrambled to secure the area. Maeteya scowled as a trio hurried her way, one of them dressed in conventional battle gear but his black plastic pips were those of a Garrison Leader. A striking young man, she thought, but his troops were about to run roughshod over the Lorosai household and Kehesia looked rightly apprehensive.

"Garrison Leader," Maeteya growled. "It would be appreciated if you could control your men."

His ears flicked back, then pricked upright. He outranked her, but she had authority over the cargo they were supposed to recover. "Logister Merasi?" he asked.

"Shae."

"Your people at the transport pointed us in this direction. You found the cargo."

"Yes, sir. Goodlady Kehesia was inconvenienced enough by it, we don't need to compound those problems by wrecking her home."

"Ma'am," the Garrison leader nodded to the matriarch. "Your cooperation is appreciated. The Five-Talon here will arrange recompense."

"Again, apologies," Maeteya said to the elder as the Five-Talon leader drew her aside. Then, "This way."

The alien was still sedated. It was lying in a patch of sunlight in front of the bay windows, bundled in blankets and pillows. Several adolescents lurked in the distance, watching as the medics lifted the limp body onto the stretcher. Maeteya stayed close as they carried it back out to the transports.

"Shave me, ugly son isn't it." The Garrison Leader fell in beside her. "You doing all right?"

"Yes, sir."

"We'll get someone to look at that leg. You chased after that thing all this way on that?"

"I had to. As things were he caused enough trouble for these people."

He looked back at the group of buildings. "How much were they told?"

"Nothing they don't need to know," she said. "Sir, what's going to be done about them?"

He pondered that, then snorted. "They'll cooperate. They can be well compensated. If they don't... things can get nasty."

Sitting on one of the horrible canvas slings in the back of the transport and watching through the small plastic port as the homestead fell away, Maeteya hoped they'd be sensible.

Section 36

The transport's engines howled as it swung into the airfield, the nacelles swinging up and back to lower the aircraft with a jolt. The ramp dropped even as the turbines were spooling down and the passengers hustled across rain-slicked tarmac toward a nearby sheet-iron hanger.

Cars waited in the cavernous building along with a cluster of medical transports, armed outriders and troop carriers. Just inside the two-story high doors a small group of somber-looking officials dressed in dark civilian ponchos stood, their breath puffing in the shadows. They looked her up and down as she approached and she knew what they saw: a tattered, blood-spattered, exhausted and soaked female with a splinted leg and scorched fur.

"Logister Merasi," one of them stepped forward. A young male with an immaculately groomed dark pelt.

"Shae," she said wearily.

"Well met," he ducked his head. "I'm Shile Herainer, personal assistant to Secretary Jeliner. I'm here to debrief you." Medics hurried past with the stretcher slung between them and the officials' heads turned to follow. "That's the cargo?"

She blinked wearily. "Yes, sir. If you'll excuse me, sir, I have to see he's secured."

They waited while Maeteya made sure her ward was properly loaded into one of the medical carriers, that his vital signs were steady. The medics had tranked him down again and dressed the shrapnel wounds. A lurid bruise was forming where the dart had struck, creating a dark red and blue patch against the lighter hide of his arm. She touched the pale chest and felt the ribs rising and falling, a steady pulse from the circulatory organ. He seemed calm, as best she could tell from those outlandish features. A biohazard bag strapped to the side of the stretcher contained the bloody and tattered blanket.

It had started raining again when the cavalcade pulled out. Maeteya sank down in the elegantly upholstered saddle in the back of the limousine and watched fat raindrops spatter against the glass. Just in front of them the ambulance turned out the gate onto the main road. Behind them, more vehicles and ambulances left the airfield in various directions in a ploy to confound any orbiting eyes that might be watching.

PA Herainer sat opposite her, scribbling something in his workslate. Maeteya realized hers - containing her schedule and entire itinerary - was still lying out on the moors somewhere. Along with poor Shetrim and the guards. Rot. What had gone wrong?

Herainer was watching her.

"You look tired," he said.

She was. Too tired to worry about protocols and diplomacy, "What's going on? Up there, they are outsider ships? They have something to do with what happened to us?"

He shrugged. "They're still an unknown. An old southern probe picked them up way out on system edge and sent the news in in an ancient encryption format. Of course that was picked up by corporates all over the system. No messages from them and we're still trying to get other observers into position. I haven't had the latest updates."

"And the shuttle?"

"A bomb."

"Southern?"

His muzzle dipped away. "There are... factions involved. Not everyone is of the opinion that this cargo should have been brought planetside. There are some who feel we should've got rid of it. With these... visitors up there, these feelings..."

"You're saying it was Northern?!" Maeteya interjected. "Our own people tried to kill us?!"

His ruff bristled. "We're trying to ascertain who was responsible."

Maeteya hissed. A shuddering sound as she let a tired breath escape. "So, now we're fighting ourselves."

He froze, staring motionless at her. Then a twitch that might have been amusement flicked across his face. "Logister, when have we ever done anything else?

Section 37

Rain drove down from the darkness, slanting into the orange pools of sodium glare cast by the lights around the gatehouse as the cavalcade drew up. Soldiers moved from their sheltered posts out into the stark light and sheets of driving rain that plastered their fur, turning it slick and black. One by one the guards carefully checked each vehicle and individual before allowing them through the gate.

Headlights swept across the curving tangles of massive tree branches and trunks as the vehicles drove up a narrow, winding road. Ahead, the ambulance's taillights glowed through the gusting rain. When the hammering of water on the roof abruptly cut off it was enough to jolt Maeteya from her exhausted doze.

"We're here," Herainer said.

She couldn't see anything out the windows but through the windshield the headlights were illuminating reinforced concrete curving up and overhead: a tunnel spiraling down into the earth. She counted three sets of recessed heavy doors set back into the walls as they descended. There was lighting as well as they got further down. At first it was just periodic red lights, but it got brighter until they emerged into a spacious and well-lit loading area.

"Welcome to Dell Hills, Logister," Herainer said.

A lot of money had gone into the installation. The bay was huge, with garage facilities for trucks and heavy vehicles. Massive wooden supports curved up to the roof where lighting arrays and circulation ducts nestled behind protective grilles. Bunkers and guard stations contained armed soldiers with crew weapons, enough hardware to fend off a large army. More guards and a team of medics were already bustling around the ambulance and offloading the stretcher. Maeteya knew this moment would come and she knew how important it was.

The car pulled into a park and guards held the doors open for them. Maeteya sighed as she smelled the air: combustibles, plastics and metals, recycled air. After the breath of the world she'd had before it seemed horribly stuffy.

"You must be tired," Assistant Herainer was saying. "We have rooms ready for you and that leg can be seen to."

"Not yet," she said, setting off across the yard toward the medics. "I'm going with him."

"You don't need to. The medics can handle it. He'll be well looked after, and we have to get your security clear..."

"I've come this far. I chased that son down and I'm not letting him out of my sight. Sir."

An important moment indeed. She was all too aware that now she was planetside the outsider was far more accessible to various factions and their operatives. A pawn like that... a status token like that... would be valued by many. There would certainly be efforts to wedge agents in between her and her control of the outsider, to try and manipulate events for to their own ends. That could be disastrous. All the work she'd done, everything she was working toward, would become meaningless.

There was some argument from the guards but she ignored them and let Herainer clean up the pieces. She stayed close by the stretcher as the medics and guards hurried it through more heavy doors and corridors and into a lift. Herainer barely got through the doors before they closed. The medics were busy taking tissue biopsies and blood samples, but they spared them a few worried looks on the way down.

The holding rooms were similar to the ones on the station. There was a single room with white padded walls and overhead observation areas. Medical facilities, laboratories, and the interrogation chambers were located close by, all within their own high-security area of the base. Metal doors sealed the area off from the rest of the base and there were guards everywhere.

One of the most heavily-guarded items on the planet Maeteya thought as the alien was lifted off the stretcher and onto the table. There were more tests to perform, things that couldn't be done in orbit: MRIs, TMs, High resolution cross-sections... the equipment was bulky and hideously expensive, but it was all there.

"The facilities meet with your approval?" Herainer inquired. He seemed annoyed, she thought. That actually pleased her a little.

"They'll suffice," she said.

A frown wrinkled his muzzle as he studied the pale form lying motionless while medics did their tests. "The translation computers are up. The techs've integrated the data from Highdock. You can talk to it."

"He needs to rest," she said. "He almost snapped today. He needs some time to recover."

"We don't have that. His friends are on their way. They're still a couple of weeks or so out, but they aren't talking and we don't know their capabilities or intentions."

"Yes, sir," she sighed. "But something happened out there. He said something that I think is relevant."

"What?"

"'No'," she remembered the expression on the alien face as he saw that screen. She'd been looking at that face for months but she couldn't say just what those emotions had been at that second. "He saw the media shots of those outsiders and that's all he said, 'No'. I think it's important."

He snorted and his head swung to watch the figure on the table. "The thing'd taken hostages, you had a gun to its head and it saw its last hope of escape vanishing. I don't think its choice of words are very surprising or puzzling."

"Shae," Maeteya absently said, not necessarily agreeing but just too tired to argue.

"Is it going to be waking up soon?"

"Sir?" The question took her by surprise. "Huhn... no. A few hours."

"Then I think you should have that leg seen to and after that take a look at your own quarters, especially the bed. You look like you're going to fall over. And don't worry, no-one's going to touch your pet there."

Section 38

Laitan strapped himself into the complex tangle of his flightsuit as quickly as the procedure allowed. Assisting techs tightened cinches and fittings even as he was grabbing his helmet and hurrying for the launch deck.

It wasn't a vast, bustling cavern as the entertainments were so fond of portraying. It was just another cramped corridor packed with machinery and damp metal. Access ladders dropped down through the floor at regular intervals. Laitan passed other pilots hurrying to their assignments as he counted access tubes until he came to number six. Another tech handed him a sealed slate containing latest intel updates and wished him luck before Laitan swarmed down the narrow tube to his Parry-class singleship.

Parry6's tiny lock sealed behind him and he clambered into the cramped chamber that would be his world for the duration. However long that would prove to be. The cabin was a sphere no larger than it needed to be. No concession had been made to aesthetics. Cables and wiring were exposed, bulkheads just bare metals, plastics and woods showing the haste with which the fighter had been built. A bulky acceleration saddle and lifesupport system occupied most of the meager cabin space. . Consoles and keypads were arrayed around it along with the screens that would be his eyes and ears. There were no ports.

Embraced in the tight folds of the saddle, with sanitation lines clipped in place, Laitan slotted the update slate into place and fluently ran through powerup and diagnostics. Control came through on com to give 3rd Strike clearance and allocate flight paths. Data scrolled across the monitors, providing system status and the drop count for Parry6. In one monitor an indicator Laitan'd never seen before was flickering. He glanced at it, then did a double-take. It was reading 'Not a Drill'.

Oh, rot.

The singleships dropped two at a time, from opposite sides of the slowly rotating Monitor wheel they'd been constructed on. Laitan could see the struts of the support frame in his screens, all looking as hastily-constructed as the rest of the station. It was just steel and wood gantries, exposed piping and conduits and the flimsy quarters under their shell of foamed industrial slag.

Light flared in the adjacent slot. Particles of propellant sparkled briefly as the silhouette of Parry5 dropped from the wheel then laitan's countdown ran out. Clamps disengaged, power feeds locked back and Parry6's attitude jets nudged it away from the Monitor wheel.

Parry6 was the same the rest of the singleships in the squadron: a throwtogether. The main hull was a roughly ellipsoid lump of nickel-iron slag forged under solar reflectors, spun into shape and roughly coated with Radar Absorbent Material and ablative plates. Ancillary equipment was anchored to booms around the hull: comm pods, sensor equipment, a basic powerplant and the weaponry. There was a single five megawatt laser, but the Parry class singleship was essentially a cheap and dirty launching platform for the six Sunbeam missiles in the launchtubes strapped to the hull. Each of the missiles was nearly as long as the ship carrying it.

A pervasive pressure pushed Laitan down into the webbing as Parry6 boosted away from the launch platform. The computers nudged the attitude jets, indicators showing the tightbeam net with the rest of the squadron was initializing, bringing each vessel into comms with the others. One after another the rest of the squadron fell into formation. Twenty small ships spread seventy-five kilometres apart across the backdrop of a blue-green planet.

There were plenty of other fusion torches out there. The monitors highlighted tiny suns maneuvering around their planet, spreading outwards into the dark. Vessels of all size and description under power.

Laitan read through the updated transcripts with growing trepidation. There were unknowns inbound from system edge. They were coming in fast. Very fast. Several percent of light speed. Projectiles launched from something travelling at that velocity could strike a planet with multi-megatonne force.

The nearest ship capable of intercept was a Wide-River class corvette that'd already altered course, but its estimated ETA was still two weeks away. The outsiders would be most of the way into the system by then. 3rd Strike was to intercept a week out, the point where the outsiders would either be decelerating or launching a strike.

He watched the computer syncing itself up with the flight leader, prepping for a burn. There was some chatter on the tightbeam band, some bravado between the pilots as they traded slogans and jokes. But Laitan kept his voice to himself and listened to his own breathing as the drive ignited and weight started pressing him back in the saddle. For the time he was just a passenger watching over the machines with no need for his intervention. And in that tiny, complex piece of Nedai technology outbound on a spear of fusion fire, he was the only part feeling scared.

Section 39

Maeteya's quarters were comfortable and far larger than anything she'd had offworld. A suite of rooms, including a separate wash chamber complete with a UV heated dust bath that she made good use of. The sleeping web was of authentic leather and suspended high in an expensive, hand-carved tree. She clambered up and sprawled out across the mesh, letting her limbs dangle through the broad slats as she sighed and relaxed completely. Sleep came quickly and heavily.

The alarm woke her five hours later. Maeteya raised the lights and blinked at the screen on the com. The clock said it was just before dawn. It didn't feel like that. Her internal clock was telling her it was late evening and she was still tired and she ached. And there was already a stack of messages in mail: everything from a requirement of elaboration on their Guest's dietary habits to the base Overseer requesting her presence. She took just enough time to brush the worst of the night out of her fur and straightened her harness and made sure the ID tags were in place.

The Overseer's offices were several levels up. On the way Maeteya had a glimpse of other sections of the base, of halls and security checkpoints and ranks of laboratories and technical shops. And those were just corners, just fragments of the entire base. It wasn't one of the largest - taking their Guest to one of those would have been too obvious - but Dell Hills was highly advanced, amply equipped to meet any needs.

Yet there was still that tang of recycled air.

She had to wait for a while. When she was summoned to the inner office she found herself facing green plants, blue sky and bright sun. The illusion lasted for a second before she realized it was artificial: an atrium with sunlamps and blue paint behind a glass wall.

"Logister," Assitant Herainer greeted her from a saddle at a table. "You're looking rested. Please, be seated. May I introduce you to Overseer Tichaethy."

A diminutive male with the dun fur of someone from the mid-temperate belt. It was hardly the appearance expected of someone who ran one of the most sophisticated installations on Nedai. Maeteya did note some of the pips on his harness though: he'd seen action on the equator, the Erishan campaign. Her stint in the Sheridin garrison had been part of the tail-end of that episode. He'd apparently been involved in it in a more in-depth capacity. "Sir," she ducked her foretorso to him, not sure how much courtesy to bestow.

"Logister," the Overseer returned from his desk. "You found the accommodations to your liking?"

The way he said that... She had the feeling he was implying she was in some way weak for having to sleep. "They were most welcome," she returned.

He eyed her, then turned to the slate in front of him. "You're the expert on our new guest. Interesting. Your record is a great deal shorter than I would have expected."

"She was the best choice," Herainer put in. Maeteya keep her expression to herself, but she wondered if they were playing their own version of Reward and Punishment with her.

"So I see. Hai. At the time."

"True. But she has had time to establish a rapport with the subject. It is coming to trust her."

"Which is why it tried to escape and held a family at gunpoint."

"Sir," Maeteya said. "That was unpleasant, but he was injured and under the influence of the sedatives we'd given him. There was also the fact he'd never been groundside before."

"Agrophobia," Herainer elaborated.

"Quite," Maeteya said.

"So, it was mentally unstable," the Overseer sighed. "Wonderful. Now we have an alien armada bearing down on us and what has this mentally unstable outsider told you?"

"That concerns me," Maeteya said. "He saw one of those segments leaked to the media. It seemed to upset him."

"Why?"

"I don't know, yet," she said. "I haven't been able to talk to him about it. Assistant Herainer conjectured that it was simply because he saw his chance of escape slipping away. I think it was something more than that."

"You think it will tell you what."

"Yes, sir."

"And if it doesn't?"

"I will have to work it out of him."

"You think your methods can do that."

"Sir," she made an effort to stay absolutely calm. "I'd have liked more time, but I stand by this method. The personality is difficult to define as it doesn't seem to fall into Nedai norms, but he seems to dig in during the Punishment phases. I know he hasn't told me everything, but if I press too hard he could break."

The Overseer gestured dismissively. "I've heard that. But if we don't get information that we can use - tactical intelligence - then we could be the ones to break. Sometimes you have to drive an engine to breaking point."

"Sir," she felt her ears lay back as she looked at Herainer. "With all respect, that is taking a very short-sighted view of the problem. I think the alien could be a very valuable asset, not just in the military sense. He can tell us how they think, what they want, what they need and what they're willing to pay for."

"That's assuming we survive to require that information. You saw the transcripts. That one vessel would have been a threat to our world. There are six of them out there now. Six of them. We need every scrap of information we can wring out of that thing downstairs, and we need it as soon as possible. Your methods, quite frankly, don't drive the stake deeply enough."

"Sir, it's quite possible to pull more information out of him, but how can you verify the veracity of what we get? I have already caught a few lies, and that wasn't easy. If he decides to make things difficult for us it could become nearly impossible to sort usable information from the dross."

"Perhaps your Punishment isn't effective enough."

"Sir," she turned to Herainer again. "My interrogation is working. I know we don't have time, but we have to have patience. Changing the schedule now could be disastrous. He isn't Nedai. He doesn't think or respond like us and we can't expect him to. While he is responding to the Reward/Punishment cycle, I can't tell how he would respond to other programs."

Both the seniors regarded her silently. Then Herainer said, "I have to agree with her. The system is working so we don't break it. This stands until the aliens' intentions are discovered. And that is the highest priority. So, Logister, you'll have your way for now. We want to find out what they are, what their intentions are, in any way you can. Understand?"

The Overseer frowned slightly.

"Yes, sir," Maeteya said.

Section 40

He looked up as the armored door to the padded cell slid open. Maeteya could see he was slow focusing; the round pupils were dilated and his head wobbled. The effects of the tranquilizer the medics had given him for the examinations couldn't have worn off. Carefully, she stepped inside and lowered herself, crouching in front of him. "I brought you this," she said as she laid the blanket down in front of him. "It's new. The old one... I think it was tired."

Tirone faltered, then reached to take the blanket and pull it around his shoulders. She noticed he was moving slowly, stiffly, as if he were aching as much as she was. What had they done...

"Maeteya," he said, once again speaking through the computer. "Maeteya. You're here."

"Shae. They thought you should have someone to look after you."

Wrinkles appeared on his smooth forehead. "You shot me," he said, looking down at the bandages on his forearm. It sounded like an accusation.

Meateya hung her head. "I'm sorry. I had to. They would have killed you. If you had hurt anyone, they would have killed you. Many people aren't happy. They want to punish you for that."

"Punish?"

"They won't. They won't hurt you. Understand?"

He closed his eyes and made some obscure gesture. "That... that was your world?"

Changing the subject. She didn't have any objections. "Yes."

"All that open." He waved a hand toward the ceiling. "No roof."

She thought she understood. He'd been in the endless nothing of space; he'd stood on airless planetoids spinning beneath naked stars; he'd had experiences ground huggers couldn't comprehend, but he'd never before stood on a mountaintop utterly exposed to the elemental wind and endless sky. She'd felt it herself sometimes, after extended sojourns up there.

"You get used to it," she said. "Where were you going?"

His shoulders rose and fell. "Away. Just... away. There was fire... smoke... the other you had a gun. I just went away and there was that house. I thought... there might be help. Didn't want to hurt but there were so many... I didn't know... I couldn't say anything and they didn't understand. Then you were there..." the babble of alien and Nedai words faded and Tyrone leaned back to rub his long hands over his face. "They are coming, aren't they."

"They?"

"Me. My kind."

"Shae," she said.

There was a long silence. She just waited, watching him while he studied the ceiling, the mirrored window there that reflected another world where an alien faced an alien.

"Bad," he finally said.

"Bad?"

"Shae," the corners of his mouth twitched and he looked at her. "Ships coming? How many?"

"Six," she said. When swimming, it was best to dive in.

"Bad," he said again and she heard the air hiss out of him. "I see some of your ships. My kind, our ships are better. Shae?"

"Much better," she confirmed.

Another pause. "My kind, ships don't travel in groups. Not out here. Maybe single prospector, explorer, probe. First contact group would be one ship. Not to fear you. That many ships... [untranslatable] pack."

"What?"

"Find prospectors, mines, small settlements, ore and goods transports. Take what they want. Dangerous. Very dangerous."

He tried to explain. An incredulous Maeteya listened and wondered how the observers up in the booth were taking the news.

Section 41

The jet dropped through the clouds and emerged from the low, grey ceiling into drizzle. Maeteya hugged the cramped passenger saddle and sucked metallic-smelling oxygen through the mask, clenching her teeth against the lurching in her stomach as the motion played havoc with her balance sense. Moisture droplets suicided and streaked across the canopy as the jet banked steeply to the right. Turning her head, Maeteya was able to catch smeared glimpses of buildings and greenery through wisps of cloud below. Hydraulics whined as the undercarriage lowered, flaps extended and a gust of wind bobbled them as the pilot lined the aircraft up on the rain-slicked length of runway.

An hour of supersonic flight had taken her halfway across the continent. There were more unmarked cars waiting to spirit her away from the airfield before she even had a chance to strip off the flightsuit. The cavalcade left the flatlands and climbed into low-lying hills worn and sculpted by weather and ancient glacial activity rather than tectonics. From the high, winding roads she could see the streets of a town spread out below and she wondered how those people could prepare. The motorcade passed through multiple gates and checkpoints before diving underground. This time there were no issues with security and passes. She was led through blast doors and into lifts that went down a long way into the depths of an installation that dwarfed the one at Dell Hills, down far enough that her ears felt the pressure. Throughout the halls an air conditioning system hummed almost subliminally, not effectively scrubbing the anxiety stink from the air.

Minutes later she was ushered into a dimly lit, expensively appointed conference room. A few indirect lights glowed down from niches among the carved branches and vines covering the ceiling, illuminating the semicircle of sleek leather saddles and workdesks. There were twenty places, over a dozen of them occupied and nine of those were by some of the most powerful people in the world.

She recognised some of those councilors: Sherias Teribal of Orika Tech; Endelis Reskir from Hiside Corporation; Aterio Heirka of Wheriey Industries; Councilor Jeriak Neils of the Nijel Corporation with Advisor Mjesins at his side. Councilors from the Corporations and Associates that ran the Northern Commonwealth, that were the Northern Commonwealth.

The remaining Nedai were an assortment of the Advisors and high-ranking military. Advisor Mjesins she'd met before topside, but the others were strangers. All gathered there to hear what she had to say.

"Logister," a male gestured to Maeteya as she stepped through the door. " I'm Advisor Chireset, chairing this assembly. Please, be seated."

"Thank you, Sir."

With the utilitarian flight suit rattling and chafing Maeteya settled into the offered saddle. Chireset continued: "We don't have much time so we want to keep this as sharp as possible. We've received your reports and have found them understandably disturbing. We have them here. You will clarify some details afterwards."

"Yes, Sir."

So it began. There were recordings of the fractured interview with the alien on a wall screen. There was a wall-sized screen filled with her features reading the report she'd filed not a day before. She'd never realized she looked so... so remote while dictating that. When the presentation was complete the lights came up again.

"Dramatic news," one of the Councilors said. "Raiders. Pirates. Privateers. What are the chances this is a fabrication? A way of biting back at us?"

"No," Maeteya said. "Sir, he was telling the truth. All the readings and the way he reacted, it all smelled genuine."

"You're sure."

"Sir, I've seen him lie. This was nothing like that."

"So it said they're outlaws."

"He said there's a high chance they are," she replied. "Their... I suppose 'governments' is a loose translation... have set procedures in place for first contact. They would send a single ship. They would come in slowly, broadcasting on every wavelength available. They would ask to enter our system in a civilized manner. Their miners and explorers don't usually travel in groups. He says when that many ships are travelling together they usually mean trouble.

"These, on the other hand, don't fit that description. But their formation does match what he told us about their raiders: They travel in groups and a favorite trick is feigning difficulties and malfunctions to get as close to their quarry as possible. Communications difficulties."

" Tirone got only a single glimpse of those ships, but what he's said about raiders techniques matches everything that these ships have done."

"Does it say what they want?" Councilman Heirka spoke up, absently stroking his talons against a softstone stick.

"He doesn't know, Sir," Maeteya replied. "He can't know for certain. If these are outlaws, then they hunt singleships and isolated colonies on their frontiers. They claimjump and hijack the automated mining installations. They practice murder and piracy and have a reputation for ruthlessness."

"You don't think this might have been planned? The alien might have been planted? This entire episode might be bait?"

"If they've thought so far ahead and led us so easily, then I'd be concerned that they're terrifyingly more intelligent than we are. However, I think Tirone is telling the truth. He seems to be afraid of these."

"Then why did it just come out and tell us? After what's been done to it, it seems impossible."

"Sir, I don't think he told us. I think he told me."

Officials exchanged glances and Maeteya elaborated. "From what I've been able to determine, the aliens' society is dictated by hierarchical systems in everything from family life to politics. There is generally an alpha figure - predominantly male - in a position of power with descending tiers below. Individuals lower in the hierarchy can form their own power structures and look upon outsiders - including their superiors - as outsiders. 'Us' and 'them'.

"He has identified the ones who hurt him as 'them' and myself - one who helps him - as 'us'."

A council member snorted. "So, this alien is trying to bring you into its herd."

Maeteya felt her ears flick back at the amusement that ran around the table. "In a way, yes," she responded dryly. "It means that as long as he identifies me with help and succor, then he will be far more deposed to provide information. I don't think he was thinking of our wellbeing when he warned about these outsiders. I think he considers them a threat to himself."

"Huhn," a Councilmember mused. "Could this be political on their side? They might be from opposing factions? Of course he would be reluctant to have them contact us."

"Yes, sir. That is a possibility; not nearly as likely though. They do have a lot of factions, but none actively at war with Tirone's. And as I said, these ships don't fit the profile of a peaceful contact party.

"He might still have some hope of profiting from his encounter with us; to claim first contact rights with his own kind. It is feasible that he would attempt to sabotage another party's attempt to contact us, but creating a state of war would certainly negate any chance of gain on his part."

Looks were exchanged around the table. Several people jotted notes and Chireset glanced at his workslate. "You think he'd be willing to actively assist us?"

Maeteya considered. "I believe I can persuade him to assist us. At the moment I can't say to what extent, but if he trusts me I think I can play on his fears and uncertainties. I should be able to draw quite a good deal from that well."

"Can it tell us how to kill them?" another Councilman spoke up.

"That," Maeteya said after a pause, "is a subject I haven't broached with him yet. I'm afraid there hasn't been an opportunity."

Chireset's ears twitched. "Understood, Logister, but it is a matter that's going to become very pressing if they do turn out to be hostile."

"Yes sir, but it's something that's going to have to be delicately. Asking him about weapons... that will have to be done delicately. I know we don't have time, but a wrong step and we get nothing."

A couple of high-ranking exchanged mummers. One of them frowned, tapped at her worktop, then said. "Is that such a problem? This creature we have, it's a serious risk. Keeping it may outweigh the risk posed by these outsiders."

"Thank you, Ulisi," Chireset acknowledged. "We've been through this before."

"You know I'm right. These outsiders, even if they are raiders, might feel sure enough that we have no idea who they are that they try dealing with us. If that's the case, we can ply them for information, technology. If they find that one or any of its equipment, that could upset everything."

"That thing is useful," another spoke up. "And even if we disposed of it, we'd still have that salvage which we can't just throw away."

Chireset looked at Maeteya and asked, "How badly do we need that information?"

"Sir, we need everything we can get out of him. Just his language would be a code we would have to break, but he can give that to us. Even if he can't tell us how to build weapons, just studying him can tell us how his kinds thinks, acts. How we can deal with them, and if need be, how to kill them.

"We're going to need every edge we can get. That alien was in a single, lightly armed vessel and that was almost a match for one of our best ships of the line. These are well armed, expecting trouble. We can't run or hide or fight. We can't just buy them off. We can't just drop a virus into their systems - we can't even read their systems. We need whatever he can tell us."

Councilor Jeriak Neils clicked a talon on his worktop. "And you're sure you can persuade him to help."

Maeteya raised her muzzle to meet his gaze. "One way or another. Yes."

He stared levelly. Weighing, appraising. "What will you need?"

"Resources. Whatever I ask for when I need them. Personnel, equipment and information and total jurisdiction over the alien. No delays or beaurocracy or questioning of my methods. If I need a gun, I get it. If I need a shuttle, I get it."

"Unlimited resources," Chireset murmured.

She flagged quiet acknowledgement and for a few heartbeats she could the air conditioning ticking over as the Councilors stared at her. There didn't seem to be any surprise, she noted.

"You realize," the spokesman said. "There would have to be validation for your actions."

Eventually. "Of course."

His muzzle wrinkled and he looked around at the rest of the assembly. One by one they lifted their hands, tipping palm up or palm down. Only two tipped palms down.

Such a large margin, Maeteya saw. They were scared. Of something that for once they had no control over. If she'd asked for their cubs as sacrifice and kin as sex toys, they'd probably do it.

"Very well," Chireset said. "You've got it. The papers will be prepared for you, but we're going to want results. You'll also receive a list of those."

"Yes, Sir. I'm going to need access to some very sensitive areas, including accurate reports on the outsider ships and the status of any projects using alien technology."

"Your reason?"

Maeteya felt a surge of annoyance. That was what she'd meant when she requested immediate repsonses. If everyone asked why, she'd never have time to get anything done. "Sir, I need to know what to dig for. I don't want to waste time on redundant issues."

He licked his fangs and scratched a note on his workslate. "All right. The relevant data will be made available to you. Now, there are some more details we have to clarify."

There were. The meeting continued for another couple of hours but for the most part they asked questions, set timelines and schedules. She would do her best to meet them, but what she was doing was something that couldn't be locked to a schedule. Move too fast and the subject would break up, or fight back, or even suicide. Building a teetering tower of delicate lies and half-truths. Eventually it would be done, but rush it and the whole thing could come down.

Maeteya left the bunker complex with mixed feelings. On the one side she'd gained more control over the situation. The permits and documents she carried gave her total jurisdiction over her work. On the other, an entire day's work had been stolen away from her.

The car pulled up alongside the jet waiting on the rain swept airfield. Maeteya scrambled into the rumble seat, cursing at the chafing flight suit she'd never had a chance to change. By the time she'd got the safety restraints properly buckled the pilot was already taxiing onto the runway and the rain was sweeping in again.

Section 42

It was a dull, uneventful flight back west. The aircraft climbed high above the cloud cover to where the world was brilliant, the sun glaring from the horizon to horizon carpet of white below, the blue above almost painful in its purity. The jet seemed to hang in the sky, motionless, while the world moved below it.

Maeteya ignored the view, shut off the distraction of the intercom and spent the time scrolling through the hundreds of new files in her slate, repeatedly keying codes to get past confidentiality warnings. It was material she'd never normally have clearance for: equipment and troop deployment, movements, inventories and research and development updates.

There were desperate attempts to integrate newly-acquired innovations into the current defense structure. So much of the alien technology required machines, materials and manufacturing equipment that just weren't available on Nedai, but there were ideas and some innovations they could make use of.

Communications based on the manipulation of gravity and underspace fields. The outsiders used them in preference to the electromagnetic spectrum. It was an offspring of the drive technology that could ripple space to send modulated signals across a system nearly instantaneously; across light years in minutes. Out in the debris of the Keist Belt there were arrays under hasty construction: kilometer-long webs of girders and struts and esoteric particles to sift the space, normal and otherwise, for the alien signals. And even if they could receive anything, they would need Tirone to decypher them.

There were composite armors being developed that were lighter and stronger than anything previously available. Superconductors for circuitry; molecular etching and fluidics that would make current microcircuitry obsolete. Smart metals that were flexible one second, rigid the next; powerpacks for portable lasers... she scrolled through pages of material and so much of it had theoretical holes and areas that just weren't understood. She was to try and get her alien to help fill them in. That was chasing wind, she knew. They'd been through a lot of that before and he just didn't have the specialist knowledge for so much of that.

But other information: operating procedures, generic codes and systems, tactics, capabilities, weaknesses and vulnerabilities... that was something else. She could do something about that. It was just a matter of working through his defenses and he wasn't aware of it, but they were already crumbling.

She was so engrossed in the material that the plane's descent came as a surprise. Outside, the rain and clouds had been left far behind and dusk was claiming the world, planting long and dark shadows across the land below. The jet banked, letting the last touches of golden sunlight flare off the canopy as the craft dropped into purple twilight, toward the glittering rows of runway lights.

Once again there were cars and people waiting as the jet taxied right into the hanger. Ground crew hurried out with ladders before the wheels had even stopped rolling. The canopy was popped and Maeteya waved away the hands of the ground crew who reached to help her with the harness. Her limbs were stiff after the flight, but she was quite able to clamber out of the cockpit on her own.

Herainer was waiting for her again, standing at the door of the car. "A good trip, milady?"

She must've looked surprised at the honorific from someone who outranked her. He smiled, "I was briefed. From the clearance levels you've been accorded, you've got a provisional authority that outranks most people on the planet."

In the car he handed her updated clearance Ids and a sealed packet. "I advise you to open that in private. It contains passes, codes and access files. You have full access to anything you need right up to a level 12 classification."

"That is going to help," she said.

He cocked his head. "Ma'am, if you don't mind me asking: why such a high level?"

She tapped the packet against a palm. "To get things done. We're in a hurry. I don't need every request to be validated, approved and double-checked before being acted upon."

"I see," he said in a neutral tone.

Perhaps he did. More likely he suspected she'd grabbed for the chance of more power, of raising her family status. Inwardly she snarled in annoyance. Let him think that. If they wanted to play their petty little domination games, let them. There was more at stake here.

The rest of the trip was completed in silence. She didn't have a problem with that: it let her rest. And at least she was out of that damned flight suit.

Section 43

Guards at the lift station stood to attention but kept weapons ready as they scrutinized Maeteya's pass. She left the soldiers behind as she limped down the hall toward the section where the alien was being held. She'd check on him and then return to her quarters to sort out the packet and get a few hours of much-needed sleep. Perhaps grooming: her pelt was a tangled nightmare, her leg ached and she was itching from that rotting flightsuit. And sex would be nice. But at the very least, sleep.

Which obviously wasn't to be she realized as a young medic hurried towards her with his ears flat and teeth bared in concern. "Ma'am... there's a problem... The alien..."

"How bad?"

"Bad, Ma'am," the orderly cringed.

She stared for a second, then broke into a full sprint, ignoring the pain in her leg as her talons scrabbled on the flooring. She heard the dismayed yelp from the orderly behind her but didn't pause.

The guards at the holding cell almost shot her as she caromed around the corner. "Open it," she panted.

"Ma'am," the commanding officer spoke out, "The Overseer gave orders..."

She brandished her new ID under his nose and he physically staggered, his ears flattening. "Yes, Milady," he said.

The first thing that hit her when she entered the cell was the stink: the coppery tang of alien blood almost overpowering acrid fearstink and sweat. Circulatory fluid left a dark reddish brown smeared trail from a point inside the door across the padded floor to the huddle of blankets in the corner.

Maeteya's fur prickled in horror. "Get a medical team here," she snarled to the Nedai outside. "NOW!"

The blanket was soaked with coagulating dark red blood and the figure beneath it wasn't moving. Maeteya carefully touched and there was a flinch. So, he was still alive. When she lifted the edge of the blanket aside she hissed. His eyes were closed; he was pale, almost white, breathing shallowly and shivering violently. There were bruises on the pale hide. Livid bruises and tacky blood welling from a multitude of cuts and nicks. He was curled around on himself, clutching a forelimb crudely wrapped in bandages sopping and nearly black with blood.

He was alive. But... Maeteya glanced back: the orderly was at the hatch. "What happened here?" Maeteya said quietly. The alien flinched at her voice. The eyes didn't seem to focus on her.

"Ma'am," the younger ventured. "After you were gone, they came. They said they had orders... The Overseer..." she trailed off.

The Overseer. Indeed. Maeteya touched the alien and his hide was cold and clammy and trembling like illness. He tried to pull away. "Hai," Maeteya murmured. "You hear me? No hurt? You hear me? No hurt."

The eyes flickered and a small sound escaped him. He tried to burrow back into the corner.

"It wouldn't stop bleeding," the orderly chattered and took a deep breath. "He was... he was interrogating it. He used the induction mesh. Then he beat it... he used knives. It wouldn't stop bleeding."

And he would've got nothing. It would've scared him enough to just dump the alien back in here. Of course it hadn't stopped bleeding: it couldn't. Nedai could loose entire limbs and their bodies would staunch bloodloss, but the aliens couldn't, not from injuries that serious. The reports had made that quite obvious. And what settings had he used on the net? The fool.

"Tirone," she said again and he struggled, cowering away from her. He was terrified and she felt a sinking in her guts. Those months of work, all that time and effort, gone because of some....

"Tirone! It's Maeteya, you hear me? Maeteya?"

He twisted as she caught his arm and then he cried, went rigid and then limp within a heartbeat. Semi-conscious. Gradually she extricated the wounded limb: it was crudely wrapped, but the swathings were absolutely soaked with blood still seeping from multiple deep lacerations, like an aborted attempt at skinning. "Oh, that idiot," she hissed and touched his forehead, stroking the fur there out of his face. Grey eyes stared past her and lurid bruises showed against a shockingly pale hide. A sign of blood loss? Defense mechanism? He felt cold, clammy. Blood circulation was being restricted in some horribly generalized way that might staunch blood loss but would end up killing him. She pulled the blanket closer around him and then wrapped her own six limbs around him. The alien sagged against the warmth of her belly: quiescent or unconscious, she wasn't sure.

At the door the orderly was watching in undisguised shock. "Where's that med team!" Maeteya snapped. "Tell them it needs skin sealant and thermal blankets."

"I'll... Yes, Ma'am," the youngling reared and twisted and was gone.

It seemed like hours before the specialist medical team arrived but couldn't have been more than a minute. Why hadn't they been there before? Why hadn't they been tending to the alien even before she got there? She disentangled herself and let them go to work sealing the wounds with gel and sutures, cocooning it in electric blankets.

She gave orders. Then, covered in alien blood, she stalked off; hackles raised and talons clattering against the floor.

Section 44

Overseer Tichaethy smiled as Maeteya entered his office. It was a self-secure smile; a smug smile coming from the lofty heights of rank. He looked her up and down, pointedly staring at the gore caking her hide. "Logister, is there something you need?"

"Explanations," she hissed. "Why you ignored all instructions and common sense and went ahead with your sadistic little games. Do you have any inkling what you've done?!"

His lips fleered up to show teeth. "You seem to be swimming out of your depth, Logister," he returned and she could see a tinge of satisfaction in that. "Insubordination is a..." He cut off when she slapped the papers on the desk in front of him. He glanced at them and his features drooped in shock.

"A punishable offence," she snarled in trembling fury seeking a way to explode. "A punishable offence! You... you insufferable self-pursuing moron! You're going to spend your days shoveling shit in an equatorial mud-hole. What you've done..."

His ears went back and his jaws gaped to show teeth. "You threaten me? You waste months codling that thing..."

"And in a few hours you nearly kill him!"

"It's leading you in circles. There's only one way to get directly to the heart."

"To the heart..." she snarled and slammed her hands down on the Overseer's worktop, all to aware of how the muscles around her muzzle were as tight as hawsers as her lips fleered back from her fangs. "That's what I've been doing. And it was working. Those months of work... you may have single-handedly destroyed out greatest asset! What was it? Just simple greed? Grubbing for power? Perhaps someone offered you something? Position?"

There was a hit there. She saw the flicker around the wet black opals of his eyes and the rage inside her surged anew. "That was it, wasn't it!" she hissed as her talons came out and blood surged, howling in her hearing for long seconds.

Slash. Tear at his face. That was what her instincts were telling her. And that would be the end. She had rank when it came to dealing with the Outsider, but she was still a Logister. So striking this scavenger... that would technically be assaulting a superior officer. She snarled rage and frustration, whirled and stalked away from him.

Herainer was waiting outside the office door with armed guards lurking in the background. He watched with infuriating serenity as she bristled.

"Games," she spat. "Our species' survival at stake, and they play their games. Someone's clan grubbing for a toehold!" She glared at Herainer. "You know who it was?"

He shrugged. "We have an idea. Logister, that situation could have been handled with a little more... tact."

"That could have been handled with a bullet," she hissed back. "First that bomb and now this. Killing off what may be our best hope. Maybe we're too rotted stupid to survive."

He blinked at her and she tried to get control of her rage, taking deep breaths. "Can you get rid of him?"

"After what happened, that shouldn't be a problem. The doctors say that the alien has stopped bleeding and is stable."

"Ah," she sighed as she headed for the lift. The surge of emotion was ebbing, taking the last of her energy reserves along with it.

'What damage has been done?" Herainer inquired.

"Damage?" she stared at the lift doors, the plastic molded into the generic bark textures so beloved by institutions. "I'm going to have to get transcripts of that session."

"I'll see if they're available."

The lift arrived and Herainer stepped in with her. "Damage," Maeteya hissed wearily. "For one, the severity of the injuries means another serious session could kill him. For another, I promised he wouldn't be hurt. Than entire episode made a liar out of me and has probably changed his mindset toward the environment, and us. During the punishment phase I was using a definite style of interrogation to create a character in his mind: a 'them'. The reward phase created a haven from that: a friend who was on his side. Another type of punishment might very well fracture that 'them' opponent. If he's not sure who the enemy is, he might start to have doubts as to who his friends are."

"Might."

"Might," she agreed. "He's alien. Not one of those ridiculous creatures on the entertainments; they're simply actors in costumes and they act like it. This being doesn't look the least like us. And the way his mind works... I think that psychologists could spend decades studying him. He's superficially like us - the things he does are halfway sane. But there are areas where when you might expect normal behavior , he does something completely different. Not necessarily wrong, just another way of doing things."

He cocked his head, obviously puzzled, and she sighed. "Example: it's a time of famine. Your family is starving. Your children are starving. You find a little food, not enough for all of you. What do you do?"

"I go hungry to feed the cubs."

Maeteya signed agreement, then asked. "Why? If you starve to death then the cubs will die. Why not kill them and eat them? Then you will survive and can have more cubs."

She was expecting the look of distaste. "That's sick. That's the way they think?"

"No. I don't believe it is. But that's a gross example of another way of thinking. From our morality it doesn't work, but in the long term it would actually save more lives and is therefore more moral. Tirone could have killed that family, but he didn't. On the other side, he went out of his way to jump over running water he could have waded through; he sought out habitation when logically he should have avoided it; he didn't kill anyone when he could have..."

She trailed off, staring at the doors. The lift arrived at the lower levels and the doors opened and she just stood there.

"Logister?" Herainer prodded.

"Huhn," she jolted out of deep thought. "I think... There's a way to salvage this situation. It's going to sound drastic though. I'm going to have to move him."

"Where?" He caught the doors as they started to close and held them open.

"No. Not now," she said. "I have to work this through. I'll have a list of requirements to you in a few hours. Now, I was given jurisdiction over this thing, and that's what I'm going to need. No questions, paperwork or bureaucracy. Clear?"

"Yes, Ma'am."

Rot. It didn't look as though she'd be getting any sleep.

Section 45

"This is preposterous!" Herainer brandished the forms over Maeteya's workstation. He looked as rumbled and disheveled as she felt. She had no doubt he'd been receiving exactly that sort of reaction all day. "Ma'am, I mean.... the security implications..."

"You've done what I've required?" Maeteya interrupted, scribbling at her workslate.

"Yes, Ma'am. But..."

"The security would be worse than what happened here? I want the alien in an environment where I have a little control. Where I can at least trust the people around me. Here... it seems that everyone has their own agenda."

"But the chances of a leak..."

"To whom?' Maeteya grinned mirthlessly. "The Southerners? We're allied with them now. They've got Locus feed, tech data and they're producing munitions and hardware for us. The general populace... the area will be closed to general access and things will be kept as quiet as possible. As for the outsiders: if they can see him from out there, we might as well give up now." She dropped her tablet and fixed the aide with a tire stare. "You want a fix to this problem. This is it. He won't trust anything to do with our institutions now. So we take him away from this and appeal to other emotions."

"If he has them."

"Oh, I think he does. Maybe not exactly the same, but analogous. Now, these requests have been actioned upon? Everything requested is ready?"

He signed and dropped the forms on her worktop. "Yes, Milady. Everything's ready."

She ran an eye over the paperwork, just making sure that all the approvals were in the correct places; that there wouldn't be any last-second hitches, 'supply shortages', or withdrawls. "Thank you. That's all."

Herainer ducked his head and left. Alone in the underground office, Maeteya sighed and opened an outside line. The last step would be the most difficult. There weren't any formal chains of command to go through, no official ranks. Her documents of council support would mean very little. Her pre-composed spiel suddenly felt very superficial as she dialed a familiar number and watched the dial tones flicker.

"Seeya ," a familiar voice said as the picture synced. Then: "Maeteya!"

"Seeya," Maeteya greeted her sister.

"Gods! We haven't heard from you since... piss, you look terrible." There was laughter in the background. "Mater's swearing..."

"Things have been... hectic," Maeteya said.

"Shae. Look, what's going on? It's all over the news. These aliens..."

"Lycie," Maeteya interrupted and had to say it several time before her sister quieted. "Lycie, I'm glad to see you, but I have something very important to ask. I need to speak to you and Uncle Chetal." She glanced at the curious faces milling in the background. "Privately."

'What..."

"Please."

Lycie glanced at someone out of shot and there was a hesitation before the screen flickered and the view was of Elder Chetal's study. His white-furred visage reared before the screen. "Youngling. You do look terrible. What's all this about?"

"Uncle," she took a breath and plunged in. "I have a request."

Section 46

The car's motors whined. Shingle ground under the wheels and pinged off the undercarriage as the vehicle climbed the narrow road into the rolling hills of the Skyle Bay area, heading for the western bluffs and the setting sun. The troop transport just in front threw up a fine cloud of yellow dust that adhered to the tinted windshield and shone gold in the sunlight filtering between the hills. Following on their tail came a small convoy of another troop transport, an EW control unit and a couple of cargo haulers. The troops in the back of the transports held their weapons and watched the surrounding landscape.

So did Maeteya, but for different reasons. Sitting in the back of the car she watched through the tinted windows as she came back to land she'd known all her life. She knew the hills, the gullies and bays and the trees. The air even smelled cleaner, carrying the faint tang of sea breeze from the bay.

It was land she knew. It was hearth and home. Now she was bringing the outside in.

Once again she looked at the other passenger in the back of the car. The alien was huddled in a jerry-rigged canvass seat, its blanket pulled around its shoulders. It was watching the scenery, its eyelids drooping. The combination of convalescence, the journey and the mild sedative she'd slipped into his food were obviously taking their toll, but he was fighting the exhaustion to watch the world passing by outside. The marks of the ordeal he'd been through were graphic against his pale hide: the bandages around its limb, the lurid bruises and angry welts where the more serious scratches might still leave scars.

"Where go?" he'd slurred as he was taken to the car and she could smell the fear in him. "Where go?"

"Safe," she'd tried to assure him as the cavalcade pulled out. Without the translator his ability to speak was limited. "No hurt, shae?"

He'd stared at her, his limbs visibly trembling. The blood loss had taken a lot out of him so she only felt slight concern about riding with him, but she could see he was apprehensive to say the least. What was he wondering? Where were they taking him? More torture? Disposal?

He'd stared at the scenery, at the small towns they passed through and she'd seen his eyes flicking towards her and there was always that smell of fear. He'd tried to ask questions. This time it was Maeteya who used the holes provided by the lack of the translator to her advantage as she dodged his stumbling pidgin. She just tried to reassure him.

But she could still smell the nervousness.

They passed the worn hill with the ancient, twisted taproot of a long-dead Tree standing sentinel atop. Then around the hillside grading and through the weather-tested gateposts with their rusting iron windchimes clattering as the vehicles passed. When they crested the hill she could see the foliage and canopy of the Veshaeda Tree spreading away across hills and valley. There were new sections where it'd been cleared for the ultrahard Wood and rich sap, other places where trestles were up to encourage growth. Otherwise, it hadn't changed. But it still seemed somehow... smaller than she remembered.

The homestead still nestled on the bluff overlooking the bay. The walls looked a little more worn, there were patches on the roof and new windows and skylights. An extra wing had been added to one of the lodges. An old tree she remembered was gone and a new sapling was in its place. Maeteya felt a surge of pride, then a stab of sorrow. It was home and she was bringing the outside in. But the outside was already coming, invited or not.

Gravel scrunched as the vehicles drew up to the loop at the end of the drive and the car drew to a halt at the front steps where a familiar figure was standing. Soldiers climbed out of the transports but they kept their weapons at port. Maeteya had made sure they understood that. The EW trailer was being shunted off to one side of the drive, just past the old wall with its creeping growth. The techs were already lowering the jacks and working to get it set up.

"What is?" Tirone slurred, looking up at the house through the car window. She could see his breath fogging on the glass.

"Home," she smiled and he blinked, not comprehending the word. "Safe," she elaborated before popping the door and climbing out.

Elder Chetal was standing on the steps, watching the line of vehicles and armed soldiers in front of his home with a guarded expression. His ears came up when he saw Maeteya. "Youngling! Welcome home."

"Thank you. It's been a long time Uncle. I have to thank you for your offer and apologize for all," she gestured at the commotion, "this."

"Huhn," he snorted. "It's quite all right. You know you're always welcome here. I thought everyone should stay inside for a while."

Maeteya glanced up at the house: there were faces in the windows. She wasn't going to contradict him there and then, but unidentified movement in a window was a bigger threat to an armed soldier than an individual in plain view.

"Better than remorse," Chetal said. "Now, you have a guest?"

She turned back to the car, aware of the warm alien reek blowing out into the cool evening air. Tirone hesitated for several seconds, then awkwardly clambered out and stood uneasily on the rough gravel, clutching his blanket tightly around his shoulders. He was visibly swaying from side to side.

"Rot me," Chetal breathed, staring at the alien. "Your description didn't do it justice. This is what's got the world chasing its tail?"

"His name's Tirone."

"Can he understand us?"

"A few words. Maybe better than he lets on. But he really needs the computer to talk properly."

Chetal chuffed air and took a step toward the outsider who lurched and caught at the fur on Maeteya's haunches for purchase. The elder cocked his head, watching the way Maeteya took the alien's hand. "Is it all right?"

"Tired and sedated," she said. "I think I should get him bedded down and then we can talk."

"Ah," Chetal eyed the guards, some of whom were watching him while others watched the surrounding environs. "All right. The guest room's ready. Your military friends were here earlier and made those changes you wanted. It's the Leyal Lodge, the green room."

Tirone walked gingerly over the gravel as Maeteya led him, letting him lean on her arm. His grip was almost painfully tight and she could feel periodic tremors wrack his body. These eased a little when she took him inside and he paused on the polished wooden floor, looking around at the late sun catching the skylights and recessed lights setting polished pots hanging on the walls to glowing, the woven mats and bundles of seshin filling the air with their scent. "Come on," she murmured. "No hurt."

And he trusted her. God's ingrown claws, he trusted her.

The stairs were an unforseen problem. Nedai were born to climb and grip. The woozy alien had trouble with the twisting spiral of Tree leading up to the first floor. Maeteya again suffered him clutching handfuls of her fur to steady himself as he clambered up. Again Maeteya had to wonder what sort of evolutionary path had led to their kind becoming dominant on their planet?

The green room wasn't green. It had been, once, but now the enamel paint had been replaced with more tasteful bark paneling. The angle of the roof cut into the far side of the room and was broken by the two large windows looking out over the wind-tossed waves of the bay. There were handwoven rugs and plants and a couple of paintings by a more artistically inclined family member. Slung high from a wonderfully twisted and grained branch stand was the well-worn leather mesh of the bed. An old wooden saddle sat at the desk where a brand-new terminal sat.

Maeteya flicked on the lights and showed Tirone the curtain to the facilites with the toilet and the shower and IR heated sand bath. He looked quite bewildered.

"Safe, a?" she told him while Chetal watched from the door. "No hurt. Rot it, just rest now. Understand? Sleep? The translator will be up in the morning. We talk then."

"Sleep?" he looked around again.

"Shae," she gestured at the bed. "Just rest."

She left him staring at the bed.

"I've got misgivings about this," Chetal said as they headed downstairs. "There are children here."

"I know. I don't think he'll hurt anyone," she signed. "And this is important. They way things are developing, these visitors out there may have far fewer compunctions about hurting everyone on this planet."

"We're not a target out here."

She had to sigh again. So many groudlings had no clue as to just how fragile the balls of rock they lived on really were. "I just think he's important and what was happening before wasn't helping matters."

His ears twitched back. "Those wounds... aren't there treaties against things like that."

Chetal. Uncle Chetal. He knew everything there was to know about managing Trees, but he was till so naive in some ways. "The world isn't always cut into two neat halves."

"So you've said."

Maeteya found the ranking officer of their guard waiting with a coms tech. "All stable, ma'am?"

"Shae," Maeteya said. "All set. You can move out now. I'll remain in contact."

"Yes, Ma'am," the Garrison leader ducked her head. "There is this Ma'am," she said and handed over the pistol and pouch of ammunition. Chetal looked pained but didn't say anything as Maeteya accepted the weapon. "You need anything, ma'am. Call. I'd prefer to be closer."

"I know. Stick to the assigned points."

"Yes, Ma'am," the Garrison leader said and barked an order to her troops. In well-drilled order they piled back into the transports. Gravel crunched and rattled against metal as the trucks rumbled off back down the drive. There was going to be a perimeter, but it was going to be as inconspicuous as possible.

She'd let Chetal think the troops were on station as protection in case their guest got out of hand. However, it wasn't him Maeteya was worried about. The soldiers didn't need AA tubes against Tirone.

Section 47

There was a lot of catching up to do; and a lot of questions to answer.

It was family, she knew that. They were people she'd known all her life. They welcomed her back into the fold and made her at home. Chetal had questions, so did her sister Lycie and her aunts and cousins and nephews and nieces gathered there in the lodge room with the hissing fire keeping the twilight outside the windows at bay. Cubs squalled and rolled around and tangled around people's legs and played their video games too loud and were a delight to sensibilities that'd been saturated in adult dourness for so long.

Indentations and scratches had been worn in patches of floor that saw heavy traffic. There was a half-completed rug on the loom in the corner and the smell of damp clay and fresh-carved wood wafted down from the studio tucked away in the loft. Her mouth wasn't entirely prepared for the eveningmeal: Military rations had a way of numbing the taste sense so the roast and raw meats and grains and gravies and sauces piled in front of her came as somewhat of a surprise to the palate. Some was taken out to the techs on shift in the EW van just because it was proper to treat guests well.

There was just the nagging little voice deriding it all as so... insular.

"Can we see the alien?" the children kept asking.

"He's asleep now," she told them. "Maybe in the morning."

Sounds of protest.

"Is it bad? Like on the entertainments?"

Gods alone knew what sewage that industry was pumping out. She hadn't had a lot of time to watch. "No. He's not bad. He's just very scared at the moment."

'What's it like being in space?" Michi had demanded. "Can you fly there?"

There was a lot of that. And later on, when the dishes were squared away, the cubs were sprawled out asleep, the elders talked.

"Is this so important that you had to bring it here?" Lycie asked.

"Shae," Maeteya sank in her saddle and looked at the eyes watching her. "There were situations... I had to get him out of there."

"But why here?"

"I needed somewhere I could trust. Look, I'm not asking you to make any special concessions to him. Just act normally. Be yourselves."

"What're you trying to do?" her cousin Laris spoke up.

"I'm to get him to empathise," she sighed. "He has family. From what he says I think he feels affection - or something like it - for them. I'm trying to get him to associate them with this family."

"Why?"

"So he will help us. Actively help us. We've asked him things and he's answered, but we need him to tell us things. Things we might not think of asking. It seems to be the way his mind works: he tends to break things into groups he associates with and other things that become outsiders."

"They let you bring him here?" Lycie asked. Maeteya recognised that thoughtful look.

"Things are complicated, sister," she responded and prayed that Lycie would take the message and not push it. "He's not going to hurt anyone. We've got claws and teeth. He doesn't."

"The cubs..."

"He won't hurt them, but if it makes you feel better I'll be looking after him all the time."

There was more of that, for a long time into the evening. They trusted her, but they wanted to be placated and reassured that everything was all right. It wasn't. Maeteya was all too aware of that. But she wasn't going to concern then, and none of those problems were under their roof that night.

As the moon climbed high into the night she found the time to wander out the back. Back down the little track leading to the top of the bluffs where the wind blew and the old rock nestled amidst bushes on the top of the bluffs. She remembered sunny days sprawled out here, watching the fishing boats setting out to fade into the horizon glare.

There was a rustle of fur beside her as a figure eased up on the rock and sat down on her haunches. "Sister, what the hells is going on?" Lycie murmured.

"A lot," Maeteya replied.

"Don't be like that. You, a Logister and they put you in charge of their only alien and special forces troops are taking orders from you. I know you've got the biology interests, but there must be a thousand experts in that. Why'd they choose you?"

"I was the closest."

"Come on..."

Maeteya turned her head, just enough to see her sisters' face. "Sheridan garrison."

"What about it."

"I was closest. I have exobiology training and I've got interrogation training." She'd never broken that news before. She'd wondered how other interrogators handled it. Did they go home to their families and break the news over dinner? Tell them how their latest subjects were doing?

"Interrogation..." she heard the word being masticated as though there might be a better side to it.

"Torture might be a better word."

"Maeteya!"

"You asked," she retorted and felt immediately ashamed.

"Those injuries..." Lysie ventured after a while.

"Not me. That's why I brought him here. There's politics involved. Some of those politics didn't like my tactics. Some would prefer to see him dead."

Another pause while that was absorbed. Then: "And you brought him here? What were you thinking? You put everyone here in danger..."

"Everyone here is already in danger," Maeteya said in a dull voice. "Tirone is quite sure the ships out there are hostile and quite ruthless. A planet is a fat target for them. People who should be listening don't want to hear that."

"There's only six of them. Aren't we safe here? What could they do to a planet?"

The groundling attitude that the bubble of air they lived in was the entire universe; that it was actually big in the scheme of things. "You don't want to know. I told you why I brought Tirone here. That was the truth. He's been hurt badly, and yes, it was sometimes by me." She sighed. "He doesn't know that. He can't know that. I want him to associate me with help and reassurance."

"That old game?" Lysie gaped her jaws.

"Sometimes it's not so obvious when you're looking at it from the other side," Maeteya said. "He sees what he wants to see."

The sound of the surf below filled the ensuing silence. Lights glimmered away on the horizon. Not all from fishing boats.

"How has everyone been taking this?" Maeteya asked eventually.

"As well as can be expected." Lysie rumbled. "Chetal is damping the flames. Letrial and Masurati are worried for the children, having that thing around. Kechrin and Nie and Nesk and Triskendil are willing to trust in your reassurances. Seil... well, she doesn't seem worried at all."

"The children are all right?"

"They seem fine. Excited by having a real 'monster' in the house. You know how they are."

Maeteya smiled. She remembered.

"There is Lieskith," Lysie ventured after a moment. "That age... you know. And you said he's a he?"

Now Maeteya chuckled. "I haven't tried to see if he's sexually compatible. I suppose it's physically possible, but it'd be odd."

"He wouldn't hurt her?"

"He's odd, but not that odd."

"You know what I mean."

Maeteya sighed. "Lysie, I'm more worried for him. She probably masses as much as he does. Plus he's sick; she's got teeth and fangs and hide. He doesn't."

"You're so sure."

"I've seen him when he was armed and cornered and terrified. He didn't hurt anyone, even when he had the chance."

Lyise's expression said she wanted to ask more about that, but she closed her jaws and gazed out to sea again. "You're walking strange paths, sister."

"Shae."

"But if he hurts anyone, you know they'll never forgive you."

"Shae," Maeteya murmured again and watched the waves marching in, the moonlight turning foaming crests to burnished metal. In many respects, that was exactly what the council had told her. She wanted her family to be natural with the outsider, but when it came down to it, he was still a captive. He had to have the illusion of freedom but he was still under interrogation. And if he learned the truth he might get desperate. And desperation could lead to desperate measures.

Section 48

Laitan's little world smelled strongly of biologicals. He squirmed and stretched briefly in the suit, trying to relieve an itch back on his hindtorso. The singleship carried water, quite a lot of it in fact, but most of that was reaction mass and the amount rationed to the pilot was miniscule. There was no scrubbing sand and of course the artificial sex was nothing like the real kind. Loose fur tended to float through the microgravity, tangle in the airfilters and stick across monitors.

The screens tried to display the multidimensional space the fighter moved through on a flat plane of glass and crystal matrixes. Small icons with stalks and vector cones moved almost imperceptibly toward the sextuple of blue icons representing the outsiders. Every so often there would be a brief voice over the local network or a icon representing a friendly would flicker with a change of some kind. It was peculiar hearing Southern accents on the comms channels and seeing their vessels listed as friendly, but that palled pretty quickly.

It was exhaustingly boring.

So when the alarm screeched he jumped violently. The voices on the net picked up, asking verification from other members of the squadron. Laitan checked his sensors and ran inquiries of his own, but everything came back positive.

The alien vessels were manuevering.

They were splitting up. Four of the six ships maintained their heading but were starting deceleration. The remaining two were breaking away on different vectors, angling for different areas on the system equator. The plot put their courses further out into the system but was unable to pinpoint a destination.

Commands squalled across the comms and screens. Elsewhere in the system crews clawed to action as vessels laboured to alter course and intercept the suddenly outbound intruders. Laitan's squadron maintained their position, waiting for the intruders to come to them.

Section 49

Dawn streaked the morning sky with an enthusiastic palette. For as far as the eye could see the air was crisp and clear, heralding a fine day to come. Puddles wore thin crusts of ice, reflecting light and sky. Dew glittered on the grey-green groundscrub as the rising sun touched it, raising an almost imperceptible mist that crawled into hollows and shadows.

Maeteya churred softly to herself as she carried the covered tray from the lodge's small kitchen upstairs. The night and their guest had been quiet. There'd been no disturbances from the room next to hers and none of the security measures had been triggered. She scratched at the door before opening it.

The bed was empty.

She nearly dropped the tray and her hackles shot up. He couldn't be... No, she huffed a relieved breath when she saw the bundle in the far corner of the room. There was a sort of nest there, the pale gray of the blanket and some rugs from the floor. She could see an alien foot poking out from a corner of the blanket. Maeteya mentally cuffed herself. Of course he couldn't use the damn bed: he'd fall through the damn slats. In fact, she didn't even know what his kind used for beds. Did they use them?

Carefully she set the tray aside on the desk then crouched on her haunches beside the sleeping alien and just as carefully touched a covered shoulder. There was a pause, then a violent flinch and he recoiled away from her and up against the wall, blinking and panting violently as he looked from her to the room to the ceiling and back to her.

"Morning," Maeteya greeted him, blinking placidly.

The frantic panting eased and he swallowed, then ventured: "Maeteya?" in his abominable North Petayin accent.

"Shae," she smiled. "Sorry about the bed. I didn't consider that. We should be able to work something out. Now, this should be better than that offal the military considers food."

The alien watched her in incomprehension as she just talked, but he understood when she took the top off the tray.

"It should be safe for you," Maeteya told him. "No meat I'm afraid, but the grains and pastry products are safe enough for you."

He was still wobby on his feet she noticed. It was a marvel that anything could actually manage bipedal locomotion, especially when ill. She knew his balance organs were quite complex, but liable to be upset by conflicting information from other senses. Another point for her kind, she decided as she watched him balance precariously on the saddle, sample the breakfast, then eat ravenously.

While he ate she showed him the translator unit. It was a military slate with a wireless link to the computers in the EW unit. Tirone's torso was similar enough to a Nedai's foretorso that he could use the same straps, wearing it slung over a shoulder and secured across his chest. It had serious limitations, but it supplemented his limited vocabulary immensely.

"That's better?" she asked when he had it on.

"Yes," the box echoed him. "Maeteya?" the translator crackled at her name.

"Shae."

"What is happening? Where is this?"

"This is my home. What is happening is that I got you out of there before those idiots killed you."

"Home?" His pale eyes flickered up at the windows in the slope of the roof, the ornaments on their shelves and hanging from their hooks, carvings of scented wood. "Your... home?"

"Shae. You're a guest. That food is all right?"

"All right? Yes. Good." He raised another morsel to his lips, eating as hastily as if he thought she was going to snatch it away again. She could see his hand trembling.

"Tirone," she leaned closer and laid a hand on his leg. "You're safe here. No-one's going to hurt you. You're a guest here. You understand? No more... that," she gestured at the bandages and wounds on the pale hide.

He stared at her.

"Promise," she said and heard the translator stutter on an unfamiliar word. "I say it will happen, shae? I promise."

He looked uncertain and she couldn't blame him. "You believe what I say?" she prodded.

The shoulders slumped. "I don't know. I want to."

"I know," she smiled at him. "Not easy to do after what you went through. But Tirone, nothing's going to happen to you. That's my job. Now eat up. I want you to meet my family."

Section 50

It was a comedy. Or it would have been if Maeteya's nerves hadn't been wound tighter than a steel hawser.

The alien looked utterly bewildered as Maeteya ushered him out of the room. He stared around as though he'd never seen the place before. Maeteya wondered if they'd overdone the sedative the night before. He handled the stairs a lot better though. She was surprised at just how much traction his clawless footpads provided.

At the pool of sunlight spilling in through the door he hesitated and pulled his blanket a little closer around his shoulders. He stepped through and looked up and froze. Maeteya heard a little noise escape him and he staggered against her as he pushed back inside. "What?" she asked, alarmed.

He closed his eyes for a moment and shook his head, then looked out again. Up, at the bottomless blue sky. "Not grey," he said. "Last time, grey."

"Clouds," she smiled. "Those were clouds."

He said something the translator scrawled up and blinked into the sunlight and the dark azure vault. "Too... big," he said, shaking. "Bigger than space."

She actually understood what he meant by that. Space was space. It was vast, but there was no real reference for the mind to grasp it. Worldside... she'd done this herself: just lain back on the ground and fallen into a clear sky.

"It feels like that sometimes," she told him. "It's quite safe. Really. Come on."

She stepped out and ball of claws and teeth dropped off the roof and landed on her hindquarters, snarling viciously as it tore at her

Maeteya cast an exasperated look back at Tirone's startled face. "Except for vicious predators," she sighed, then reached out and plucked the fury up by the scruff of the neck. It was recluctant to release the mouthful of hide it had. "Michi!" she warned.

The cub released her and tucked his tail as he hung by his scruff. He coughed a cloud of fur, then chittered. "Gotcha! Funny person going to play now?"

"Not just now," she put the cub down. "He's new here. He wants to see things..."

"I can show," the cub piped, eeling around to look at their guest. "Cheee, funny." Michi tried to imitate the bipedal stance and promptly fell over. That didn't stop him trying again, rolling in the dust.

Tirone stared with a bemused expression.

"My cousin's nephew," Maeteya explained and then laid her ears back in mock shock. "Ai, here's trouble."

The rest of the children were scampering toward them in a small riot of limbs and hides and yelping voices. Maeteya intercepted them and managed to calm things down a little. She kept Tirone close by her side as they headed for the house. Children clustered around, piping questions. Several copied Michi in trying to mimic the alien's walk. Some of them actually managed a few steps before toppling and rolling and trying again.

"Children," Maetey laughed at Tirone. He looked around uncertainly. She made a note to make sure the children were careful around him: he wasn't as robust as a Nedai. At least he wasn't responding aggressively toward them.

Reinforcements stepped in at the house. A posse of her cousins herded the cubs away amidst clouds of protests and laughs and Maeteya was able to get Tirone into the relative peace and quiet of the front hall. "Sorry," she said. "They get a little rambunctious around strangers."

"Children?" he ventured. "Yours?"

"Oh, no," she said. "Nieces, nephews... relatives, family. You understand that?"

He gave her a wide-eyed look.

"You'll get it," she said as she took him through into the main room. Sunlight was pouring in through the big windows hanging open to catch the sea breeze and distant sounds of the cubs. The remnant smells of breakfast drifted through from the hall. From the loft came the sound of humming and the rhythmic thump of the potter's wheel. Which abruptly seemed very loud as conversation in the room petered out. The group lounging on the cushions around the living area turned to face her, the figure at her side.

Maeteya stopped, touched Tirone's shoulder. "Everyone, this is Tirone. Tirone this is my family."

A hesitation, then Chetal rose to his feet and approached. He was bulkier than Maeteya and she heard the faint rustle of cloth as Tirone shifted slightly and his hand on her flank tensed, tugging her fur lightly. "So, our guest is up and about," Chetal rumbled. "Greetings and welcome. Our hearth is yours."

Maeteya smiled. "I don't think all of that translated, uncle. Tirone, this is my uncle, Chetal. He says hello."

Tirone just stared, looking from Nedai to Nedai to the bright sunlight with twitching movements, the expression of a trapped animal. There was a visible trembling in the muscles under the smooth hide. His hand was clenched in her fur, clutching at her. "Tirone," Maeteya gently chided. "I told you nothing is going to happen to you. You're safe."

Chetal cocked his head as he looked down on Tirone. "Cha! Is he alright?"

"I think this is a bit much for him," Maeteya said. "Too many people."

"Huhn," Chetal regarded the alien, then turned back to the rest of the clan. "Alright. You heard her. Out. Everybody out! There'll be time later."

"But grandser..." Seil piped up.

"Out! I said," Chetal rumbled and family grumbled but moved, the small crowd filing out the doors into the sunlight of the yard. Chetal shut the doors and returned, walking slowly and carefully.

Tirone sagged, panting audibly. The painful grip on her hide released but his own hide was nearly white and moisture was beading on his forehead. She'd seen that look before.

"Oh, piss," she breathed and took his arm, feeling the muscles fighting each other in a violent trembling. Fight or flight reflexes similar to her kinds, but he wasn't able to do either. "Come on," she urged him, "Sit. Right here. Sit. Before you collapse."

The alien caught a shaky breath as she helped him down to the cushion and settled to her haunches beside him. His pale hands covered his face and the angry bruises there and she heard a sound the translator didn't catch.

"He all right?" Chetal inquired.

"Tirone?" she ventured.

"Sorry," he murmured in terribly garbled Netain, causing the translator to hiccough. "Sorry."

"Hai," she stroked the back of his neck. "All right. What was that?"

"Just... many watching. Like..." another shudder wracked his body. "I'm sorry."

"What happened?" Chetal asked.

"A bad memory," she said. "He's sorry about it. I should have given him more time."

"Hai, young fellow," Chetal huffed. "You're feeling better?"

The pale head with its matted and tangled mane raised and looked from him to Maeteya. "Yes. Better."

"Excellent. Not so good to have guests collapsing on you, you know. Tirone, isn't it?"

"Tirone. Yes."

"Ah, fine young man for Maeteya here."

"Uncle!"

Chetal chittered a laugh and settled to his own old cushion, the tooled leather so polished by his hide that the patterns were almost worn smooth. "You will be careful with her, a? She's a good girl, if a little impulsive."

"He's joking, Tirone," Maeteya said. "Uncle, a lot of that didn't get through the translator."

"Come on, youngster," he smiled at her and tipped his head as he regarded Tirone. "You understood that?"

"Maeteya... good female child?" Tirone looked confused. "She's a friend."

"Of course. And a blessed good one at that. And you're her guest so you're our guest. You're welcome here. You might want to watch out for the cubs though: they can be a bit excitable."

"Your children?" Tirone asked.

"Shae. Some of them."

Tirone rubbed at his face again, then looked around. "Where is this? Who are you?"

"Tirone," Maeteya sighed.

"No, it's all right," Chetal said. "Maeteya told me about what happened to you. I can also imagine what might happen to someone in your position and I'm sure there's a lot she didn't tell me. You are our guest. To do anything like that to a guest is barbaric beyond description.

"In answer to your questions, this is the Merasi homestead on the eastern side of the Skyle Bay. I'm Chetal Merasi and this has been my family home for generations. I'm a farmer, not a complicated person. I grow the trees and I tend my family and their families and I'm content. I'm sure you have the secrets of the universe in that peculiar skull of yours and as far as I'm concerned, they can stay there. Maeteya brought you here and asked us to help you, so we will."

Maeteya saw Tirone's eyes flickered from Chetal to her and knew he only understood a fraction of that. So she simply patted his arm and said, "You're safe."

Chetal shifted and raised a forehand, showing his empty palm. "If there's anything we can do for you, just ask."

There was a hesitation, then he ventured: "Can I have... [translator breakup]. Cloth? Covering?"

Chetal looked confused. Maeteya remembered images she'd seen. "Those garments? To wear? You need them?"

"Cold," Tirone said.

She hadn't considered that. "I'll have to see what we can find," she said. Easier said than done: something would have to be custom-made. "His kind drapes themselves in cloth," she explained to Chetal. "Like spacesuits or protective garb."

"Ah. There are rain ponchos. They might fit," he mused, then called past them, "Liri! I know you're there. Make yourself useful and fetch one. Not too big."

Tirone and Maeteya both looked around. A guilty little face poked around the hall door. "I was just..."

"Fetching a poncho?"

"Yes, Uncle," Liri looked embarrassed and scurried off with a clattering of claws. "And mind the varnish!" Chetal yowled after her. "That goes for the rest of you out there."

The muffled sounds of a mass exodus were audible and then distant yelps as parents caught up with them. "So, Tirone," Chetal continued, "Where are you from? Your planet."

"From?" He glanced from Nedai to Nedai again. "Not from a planet. Mercedes Line station in the Jacobson Helios system."

"Station? You were born on a station?"

"There aren't many habitable planets," Tirone said.

"So you live in those floating bubbles?" Chetal snorted. "What a dreary existence."

"Dreary?" Tirone echoed, obviously not recognising the word.

"Dull. Empty," Chetal laughed. "I'm a man of the ground. Without the ocean, the forests, I think I'd go mad. I can't see how anyone can live in those little bits of metal."

"Can be beautiful," Tirone said.

"Uncle," Maeteya interrupted as Chetal took a deep breath. "Tirone, don't get him started. He can go on for hours."

"You insult me, youngling," the elder huffed affectionately. "Your worlds are like this though?"

"I never been to them," Tirone said and his eyes flickered toward Maeteya. "I think Earth might be."

Chetal stared. "Your entire life in space?! Youngling, you never mentioned that. Shave me bald! Well, your first time on solid ground. What do you think of it?"

He looked decidedly uncertain and Chetal laid his ears back. "That could have been worded better, a?"

"No," Tirone raised a hand and made a strange little gesture. "No. I understand. It is strange... so much wasted space. So open. Cold. Uncontrolled. Feels dangerous and...miscellaneous? Random. And wet. Very wet."

Chetal was silent for a second, then laughed out loud and Tirone went rigid, looking startled. "Miscellaneous?! Wet! I've never heard a poet describe the place like that. Ah, Liri, bring that over here and let's see if it suits our guest."

The youngster hesitantly approached, stared at Tirone and then quickly passed the poncho to Maeteya and retreated. Maeteya studied the tartan-patterned waterproofed woven Chieal fibre it, then looked Tirone over. "Let's see how this goes."

Tirone let the blanket fall away and Maeteya heard the faint, "Oh, gods" from Chetal as the angry red welts and ugly bruises mapping the pale body were revealed. She couldn't look at him and just concentrated on helping the alien into the brightly colored poncho, tying up the excess intended to cover hindquarters and closing the ties at the side. The alien looked patently ridiculous.

"Just for now," Maeteya told him. "It will do?"

His head bobbed as he looked down at himself and the long fingers pinched a fold of cloth. "It will do. This material... not made? Natural?"

"Yes."

"Expensive."

"No. We make it ourselves," she said and was sure that the expression he greeted that statement with was surprise.

"Nice," he said.

"You like it?" Chetal's ears slowly came up and he ducked his head. "It's yours. You don't have anything like that?"

"No. Machines can make anything, but original is expensive."

"Hai? Original? You don't do handmade?"

"Yes, but few do. Machines work from templates. Many available, but all the same. [translator garble]... people-who-make-original, designers, produce new or limited and those are expensive."

Chetal looked to Maeteya and she smiled. "They have advanced manufacturing techniques. His ship could literally build anything, but it works off templates... patterns for the items. You buy the templates?"

"Yes. Computer software. Pay to use the template."

"Why not just copy it?"

The alien hesitated, seeming uncertain. "Illegal. There's protection on most templates. Modifications get around [garble] right, illegal..." His shoulders rose and fell. "Lot of people do it."

Chetal closed his black eyes and hissed. "Too many machines. Always said everything will go technobore. Not in this household. Not while I'm still around."

"Uncle. You've got a state-of-the-art entertainment system and offroader."

"An old man's allowed his toys. But to have everything made by machines... You like your machine's art?"

Tirone opened his mouth slightly even as his eyes darted between the Nedai, then seemed to realise it was a rhetorical statement. "Maeteya," he asked, touching her arm. "Am I a prisoner here?"

A change of subject, to a touchy one too. But why then? Why there?

"Prisoner?" Chetal snorted. "I've never had my home called a prison before. Hai, Liri, you're a prisoner?"

The cub bared her needle teeth in a mock-grin. "You never let me go out."

"Hah! Rapscallion! Bad example."

Maeteya ducked her head down to the level of the alien face. She could see those steel-grey eyes flickering across her features. "You're our guest here. You're free to wander around. Just be careful of the cliff edge out there and... Michi!"

The cub slinking across the floor crouched lower on all sixes. "I want to see the funny person. Liri did!"

"Shae!" Nirtin piped up from the door and was joined by a chorus from other cubs.

Maeteya chittered in exasperation. "Tirone," she said. "This is Michi, you met him earlier."

There was a tan streak as Michi skittered across the room and was in front of Tirone, his foretorso reared and his nose cents from the alien's face. "Why don't you fall over?" he demanded. "I fell over."

"Tirone," Maeteya murmured, "Child."

"Hai," Michi took umbrage to that. "I'm almost..." a painstaking count of feet, then a triumphant, "four!"

"Shae?" Tirone said. "You haven't got two feet?"

"No. Six."

"Then how can you stand on two?"

Michi opened his mouth, then closed it again with confusion plastered across his features. "Aunt!"

But then the rest of the children were swarming in to stare at the guest. Maeteya felt Tirone shift a little closer and watched closely for any sign of that panic that'd gripped him earlier. There was wariness there; eyes darting from the curious children to the watching adults and his movements were hesitant. When a cub touched his shoulder he flinched wildly.

"Carefully," Maeteya told them. "Carefully. He's been hurt. He's still sore."

"That's a sore?" Nirtin asked, his finger moving near the bandage around the alien's forearm. "How did that happen?"

"Bad man," Tirone said and the cubs chirred laughter at the mishmash of machine translation and the alien voice. "This?" Nirtin asked, tracing a greenish-blue bruise around the wrist. "Bad man?"

"Shae," the alien said.

"You're from up there? Aunt Maeteya was up there. Did she find you there?'

Alien eyes twitched. "Found me. Yes."

"Are you like those others coming."

Another glance at the adults. "Similar, yes. What's your name?"

"Nirtin!"

"lanistil!"

"Michi!"

The chorus of voices piped up as the cubs pushed close, twining around one another. Michi snuck in close and prodded at the matted tangle on the alien's head. "Funny fur," he proclaimed it, then sniffed and snorted violently. "Hai, stink!"

Maeteya heard the translator stutter on that and decided it didn't need an immediate clarification. "That's enough," she chided and caught the cub by the scruff, hauling him away from their beleaguered guest. "Be good. He's a guest, not a toy."

"Kai!" Nirtin laughed and the younger wriggled free and dove at his sibling. Tirone regarded the rolling, hissing struggle with uncertainty as reinforcements in the form of family members arrived to reign in their progeny. As the combatants were separated, Chetal leaned toward Tirone. "A normal day," he rumbled.

"Normal?" the alien's head went back a little blinked.

"Shae. Hai, youngling, have you offered our guest a drink?'Chetal asked Maeteya. "I'm sure he'd appreciate something. There're a few good labels on the rack."

Tirone had looked apprehensive as she left the room but Chetal had drawn him back into conversation. Indeed, there were some good names on the wine rack, but Maeteya wasn't entirely certain how fermented sap might affect the alien. She took distilled water along with the alcohol.

There were more of the family in the main room when she returned. A pang of apprehension was assuaged when she saw Tirone looking a great deal more relaxed as he talked with Chetal. Others sat and watched quietly, occasionally venturing questions. They were keeping their distance, she saw, and moving as carefully as one might around a half-wild animal.

Better, she noted with approval as she balanced the tray and bottles. There was acclimatizing to be done on both sides. There just wasn't a lot of time to do it in.

Section 51

The conference room was buried beneath over a kilometer of granite mountain and meters of steel and composite shielding. The air conditioning hummed softly, keeping the air inside the dim room cool and dry. Indirect spots directed at the ceiling cast drastic shadows across the textured bark panels coating the walls. Big screens on one wall showed montages of images: stark constructs against a bottomless black background, colorless and airless dustscapes, diagrams of colored lines and icons. The polished wood table in the center of the room was large enough to seat over twenty, but at that moment only five of the saddles were occupied. Four of the highest ranking people in the Northern Commonwealth watched the Southern Ambassador reading the report.

Né Kotres finished reading the document and looked up, his fur bristling. "This course of action," he said, brandishing the document, then tossing it clattering across the conference table, "is ludicrous! It's mad! A logister?! You let her take it home like a goddamned pet?! You give her this kind of authority? What were you thinking?!"

Advisor Chireset gave Mjesins a casual glance. She leaned forward in her saddle. "It was deemed the best course of action. We have to get information out of it quickly and the best way to do that is to enlist its sympathies to work on our side."

"Assuming it has them."

"The logister seems to think so. And she has been correct about its mannerisms on many occasions. The conventional methods could cause more problems than they solve. One faction used resources to attempt a more hasty extraction and almost deleted the source. This was regrettable, but it did swing favour in our direction."

"But letting it run around the countryside?"

"Which is why we've contacted you. We need your help and your cooperation."

"You expect me to sanction this?"

"We simply need non-interference. All relevant parties on our side have been made absolutely aware that any tampering with this program will result in extreme measures. We would like similar measures taken on your side."

"Is that all?" the Southern Ambassador hissed incredulously.

"Sir, we agree that the chances of this venture bearing fruit are slim, but at this time we're hooking our claws into every and any crack we can find. Any chance this has of succeeding is enhanced if nobody attempts to remove the subject at an inopportune moment."

Né Kotres wrinkled his muzzle and his black eyes narrowed thoughfully. "You could always hand it over to our care."

Advisor Mjesins smiled. "We know what you've got, you know what we've got.. Unless you've come up with a way of reading alien minds, you would have less success than we have. The Logister has built a rapport of sorts; you would be starting from the bottom of the tree. And since more direct methods yielded... bitter fruit, we feel this path should be followed to its conclusion."

"And you think you might be able to lure it across to our side."

"The Logister's original recommendation was a more subtle pharmaceutical approach, with drugs interspaced with various inundation sessions. However, the time required to develop the medications needed just isn't available. This was her next option and after her time with it, she feels there is a chance of success."

"High?"

"Moderate."

"Ah," the Southern Ambassador mulled over that, careful not to let a relaxing of muscles betray a relaxing of opinions. "The suggestion will be tendered," he finally said.

"All we can ask," Chireset acknowledged.

"There might be... ah, assurances required."

"And they would be?"

"Access to your underspace bridgepoint algorithms would be a starting point."

The advisor read something off her workslate and flagged agreement, "That's agreeable. The information will be transferred. You realise there are serious limitations: our best systems take days to calculate a bridgepoint."

"We were aware. You don't think we have time." That wasn't a question.

"We're also providing you with as much intelligence about the enemy's weapons as we can. In essence, they seem to favour energy weapons and are quite capable of hitting maneuvering targets several light seconds out. When they get within our moon orbit, they'll be capable of striking at our orbital industrial base as well as ground-based targets. That will be in approximately seven days. The two outbounds are most like headed for the belts and the holdings there.

"We know the Reliance and the Heldspar are still undergoing refurbishment. You'll have to finish construction, alpha-test, plot the bridgepoint and boost out in seven days. We doubt this is possible."

"Our engineers have worked wonders in the past," Né Kotres said, unperturbed.

"I sincerely hope they can do it again."

"We note that you've finished retrofitting another Long-Prowler class... the Nihilistic? And that's it's currently boosting outbound toward the Vieshaun. Away from us. Is there a reason for this?"

Mjesins sighed and touched another marker on her workslate. The document that came up featured a lot of security glyphs. "That is classified at the top levels."

"It would have something to do with project Venture?"

That codename was beyond classification. It wasn't even mentioned in online documents. Someone had leaked.

"There was supposed to be a House Treaty between the Commonwealth and the Federation," Né Kotres rumbled, hinting not-so subtly at the agreements between the powers.

Mjesins glanced at her colleagues, weighing and evaluating. There were slow, subtle acknowledgements and she took a deep breath. "Very well. Project Venture. We have charted another bridgepoint. The Vieshaun and the Nihilistic have orders to rendezvous and boost to this point. From there, their orders are to survive. Both ships are crewed by the best available. Both are carrying extensive databases and cellular libraries. Frozen banks of fertilized cells. Gestation equipment."

Né Kotres froze and her nostrils flared, shattering her diplomatic facade. "Lifeboats? You're evacuating?"

"Prudence. We have no real idea of what we're facing."

There was another long pause. Then the Southern Ambassador gave a twitch of his ears. "I think you do. I think that's why you're sending them out there. But where can you hope to go?"

"Anywhere," Mjesins said. "Anywhere they can."

Section 52

The alien ventured outside.

He'd been remarkably civil with her entire family. He talked with them and answered their questions. He was still wary, Maeteya could see that. He didn't know what was going on or why he was there. She'd reassured him, but there was still that uncertainty.

They'd asked him questions about himself, where he came from, if he had a family, what it was like up there. He'd answered and his responses had matched up with the questions Maeteya had asked him under drugs and duress. He was consistent. They'd offered food they thought was safe for him and the children had urged him to try this and that. Lieskith was being uncommonly civil with him as she plied pastry treats on the alien. Maeteya made a note to keep an eye on that.

In the afternoon Tirone had ventured over to the wide glass doors opening onto the back porch. He'd hesitated there, glancing at the Nedai and at Maeteya in particular as if hunting for a reaction, then he'd stepped out. She could see him standing with his back towards them: an outlandish figure wrapped in the old poncho, bathed in the bright afternoon light as he looked around, peering up at the sky. Family members cast inquiring looks her way. She waved a low-key 'no' and unfolded herself from her cushion.

The flagstones on the verandah were warm under her feet as she padded out after him. "You all right?"

He flinched around, looking nervous. He thought he was doing something wrong? "You all right?" Maeteya asked again. "Earlier, you were nervous about the openness."

There was a change of expression on the alien features; a relaxing of muscles. "I'm alright," he said and looked back down the yard, at the tanglebrush, the swordsward rasping in the breeze, the curling and blooming branches of treelets in their trellises, the old stone wall way down at the bottom of the garden covered with growth and color.

"Just the garden," Maeteya said. "You haven't seen one before?"

"Yes. The habitats have them. They're just more [breakup].... made looking?"

"Cultivated," Maeteya offered and looked down at the garden herself. After the barren and filtered worlds of spacecraft and underground installations it was a riot of colors and living things. "Hai, come along. There's something I think you're going to like to see."

There was some hesitation and Maeteya caught one of his long-fingered hands to gently urge him along. He followed in that peculiar toppling bipedal walk as she led him down the garden path to the stile across the wall, then across the weather-gnarled scrub up to the bluff.

As they crested the rise he stopped and stared, the wind ruffling the overgrown fur atop his head as he squinted into the glare. Sunlight glittered off the waves, the sea breeze ruffling whitecaps that hissed into the shore, the sounds of surf blending to a muted shushing.

"That's... water?" the alien asked after a long pause.

"Shae," she said and let the alien drink in the sight.

After a while his head shook from side to side. "I've heard of oceans. There are old stories from seas on Terra and... I've seen planets made out of ice, but this... is it dangerous?"

"It can be," Maeteya said, settling on her haunches on the old flat rock and gazing out over the bay. "It's big and deep and unpredictable. It's not inherently dangerous; it just doesn't care."

She wasn't sure if that made it through the language barrier. Abstract concepts were like that. For a while longer the alien stood and stared out at the world, then he folded his limbs under himself and sat beside her on the sun-warmed rock. "Who are you?" He said.

Her head went back a little. "I've told you..."

"No," he rounded to face her and she tensed a little as those alien eyes fixed on her. "No. Who are you?" he said again. "How can you do this? You say you are nobody and you can't change anything, but you took me from... from there. You say I'm a guest. How? They just let me go? Why should they listen to you? Who are you?"

She stretched, her talons scraping on stone. "Tirone, I told you who I was. They're listening to me because they're scared. I told them things they didn't want to hear and they went and handled matters their way. Their way nearly killed you. So they're letting me try my way. I don't have the rank, but I think I know you better than they do."

Those eyes never wavered. "What do you want?"

"Help," she said.

"You need help? My help?" He barked a harsh plosive of air and those eyes went wider as muscles almost visible under the skin drew taught. "Help? After what you did to me?"

"Yes," she said.

"You suddenly need my help. That's why you brought me here. To try and make me <translator garble> you. You think I'm <garble>?"

"I don't think you're a fool. I think you have a family. I think you can feel something like what we feel for family. I brought you here because those fools back there were killing you and they never thought to simply ask you for help. They finally realised that and gave me the chance. But Tirone, understand that if I fail here they will take you back and this time they will do anything they can to break you. What happened to you before was nothing. Understand?"

He didn't look at her but his lips turned to a tight, pale line.

"The people who live here had nothing to do with what happened to you, but they will have to live with the repercussions of any decision you make. This whole world will."

He didn't look at her but she could see his hide was pale, eyes wide and flickering.

"Tirone?" she ventured. Had she pushed too far?

"They are coming?" he finally whispered.

"Yes. They are coming. And they will be here very soon and we still don't know what we're facing."

"You talk to them?"

"We've tried. We're still trying. They don't answer."

'What are you going to do?" he asked and she thought she could read two questions into that.

"We do what we have to," she said. "If they talk: good. If they fight... we will defend ourselves."

"You think you can beat them?"

"We don't know," she sighed. "Your ship was powerful. And you claim you were just a miner. If these are warships... you can't tell us what to expect so we really don't know."

"You sent out warnings? Call for help?"

"From whom?"

"Others. Other systems. Colonies."

"Other systems..." She stared at the alien and realised it'd never occurred to her... it'd never occurred to him... "Tirone. This is our system. This is our homeworld. We don't have any colonies. This is all there is."

She could see him freeze and some unfathomable expression clicked behind those eyes. "That ship..."

"Was experimental. The first. The only. There are no more systems."

She saw the expression on the alien face. It was quite obvious, even to her: the loss of color as the hide paled again, the muscles slack in shock. There was a small sound that the translator didn't pick up and then he was quiet.

"You didn't know that," Maeteya rumbled.

His mouth opened and closed without making a sound and his eyes didn't seem to be focused on anything. She could hear his breathing pattern falter. "All there is?" he finally choked. The translator's tones were as clear and mechanical as ever, but the alien voice was indisputably stressed.

"Shae," she sagged down onto her haunches and took a deep breath, the salt tang of ocean spray rich in her lungs. "Shae. Tirone, your ship... there are things there we have no idea...."

She shook her head and told him, fully aware that the translator was transmitting to the computers in the EW van which dutifully recorded everything. Everything she said, which could easily be construed as high treason. She told him just how far ahead of Nedai she thought his species was; she told him about their ships and their industry and their weapons. And when she was done he wasn't looking at her but out at the sun hanging over the water.

"Maeteya, pirates... they don't like to leave..."

The translator garbled the unfamiliar word but Maeteya felt sure she knew what it was: Witnesses. Survivors.

"They can't," she hissed. "There're billions."

"I've heard of settlements," he said, "where they take what they want and leave machines to finish off. Settlements, not whole planets. But they can send warnings; they have machines that can fight the other machines. If they land fighters here... I don't know if you can stop them."

"Machines?"

"Shae. They.... stop the make-safe devices. Very dangerous." He bowed his head into his forehands and the translator missed the muffled phrases he moaned.

"What was that?" she ventured.

He lifted his head. "Maeteya, they easily kill humans. You're not human... I don't know what they'll do."

She flagged understanding. "If they talk: good. If they fight?"

"Surrender," the human said.

Section 53

"...is not an option, sir," the military Advisor said. "If this... data is to be believed and they are raiders and they don't like to leave witnesses, then what's to stop them simply assaulting us while we roll over?"

"I have to agree," the High Marshal for orbitals sighed. "At the present time it's looking less and less likely that their intentions are honorable so it's only prudent that we maintain highest possible alert. If they turn out to be friendly: fine. They will understand caution. However, if they initiate hostilities, we will be as prepared as possible."

The representative council members in the center murmured. "And you can give us an update on that."

"Yes, milady," the Advisor gestured to a screen at the front of the meeting room. "At the moment all of our offworld assets are mobilised. Military stations have been cleared of nonessential personnel. Both Northern and Southern stations have been reinforced with extra ordanance and infantry support. We have had reports that the Southern Neswin station has had several old battleship main guns and nuclear shells brought up."

There were some laughs. "Could they be effective?"

"Perhaps if they surprise someone. It's an unusual weapon," the High Marshal said. "This is NOT planet-side combat, as too many people forget. Targets are maneuvering at up to 200 metres per second - faster than a rifle bullet - in three dimensions. Nuclear or not, big, slow, solid projectiles are not good antiship weapons."

'We have something more effective?"

The Marshal touched a pad and the screens switched to listings and schematics. "Our proven weapon is the Sunbeam Type IV missile. Orbital racks carry them, as do the stations, the larger ships of the line and fighters. Anything that is capable of launching high-capacity missiles. The drawback is that we have limited numbers available. They're immensely complicated and expensive pieces of ordnance. We don't have nearly as many as we'd like.

"We've got larger inventories of conventional missiles. The Scar and Maim nuclear series, fission and fusion devices. In the Dreyal engagement they were found to be less than satisfactory: the alien anti-missile systems are terribly effective. But Scars and Maims, both with active warheads and just dummies, can be used to draw fire from more effective platforms.

"We don't have data about the effectiveness of projectile devices. The ship in the Dreyal system utilized a distortion of the drive field around its hull as a shield against space debris. The outsider's shield was a disk at the nose designed to absorb the impact of debris. We don't know if this can be altered to cover the rest of the hull or how effective it would be against projectiles. However, if it can absorb the impact of large pieces of debris at high v, then it would have no trouble against direct hits from the largest projectiles we can throw

"Finally, energy weapons. The Vieshaun's lasers were of dubious effectiveness due to the sheer mass of the Outsider. These vessels are of similar mass, but the primary batteries of platforms and warships are a lot more powerful than those the Vieshaun carried. They should be more effective."

"'Should be'," one of the Council members noted. "You don't have any definites."

"Sir, we're as certain as we can be. The data we have is mangy. It... lacks resolution in some crucial areas."

"We understood you have a source."

"Yes sir, but it doesn't have knowledge of everything we need."

"Perhaps if you dug deeper?"

Heads turned amongst the council representatives. The original decision hadn't been unanimous. Councilor Heirka had been particularly vociferous about that, and it seemed as if he'd been able to sway a few other opinions his way. He'd never openly challenged the Council decision, but... well, he had a way of working around obstacles. The Marshal hadn't arrived at his position by being foolish, nor by being ignorant of how the Council operated. In situations like this he never offered opinions, just facts. It provided deniablity.

"Sir. The specialists in charge of that field have deemed severe measure to be inadvisable for the meantime. They have proven themselves correct several times, so we're respecting their judgement."

"Despite the disadvantages?"

"There is a good chance the answers we need aren't there, but there's still a wealth of other material."

"How can you be so sure they aren't there?"

"Because there are good reasons to believe the source is exactly what it claims to be. Its access to the required information would be limited at best. However it is still providing other information which while of limited tactical use, is of immense strategic value.

"We have some useful information, so we have some idea what we're up against. We have some idea of their speed and maneuvering capabilities. That has let us calibrate targeting systems to take that into account. There are weak spots on the vessels, especially the engine vents. Their armament is predominantly energy weapons: missiles are too expensive to maintain. Personnel numbers are extremely limited, but their mechanicals technology is far in advance of ours."

"Then we just shoot at the engines," a councilor said.

The Marshal sighed mentally. "Milady, in combat vessels will be moving at relative velocities of tens of kilometres per second, at ranges of tens of thousands of kilometers. It takes seconds for light, or radar, to travel from a ship, to a target and back again. Then more seconds for a weapon to respond. By that time the target isn't where you see it.

"Just hitting the target is a big enough achievement, let alone a specific part of it. Our weapons do their best but they have their limitations. Even against southern vessels we had to rely on sheer numbers to hit the target. These Outsiders have another advantage there. They don't use radar. Their detection systems work on gravitational sinks. They can detect the distortion that vessels make in space. It's similar to radar, but real time. Instantaneous. That, combined with their mechanicals, gives them a serious advantage with targeting. They can track and fire at a target literally before we see them. We're combating that by having ships do as little maneuvering as possible: they can detect mass, but not determine exactly what it is. If the object is inert then it might not be targeted."

"Might not," a councilor noted.

"Might," the Marshal acknowledged. "We have no guarantees."

"All right," another spoke up. Councilor Aterio Heirka, the Marshal noted. "Our source claims these are raiders. They attack outlying settlements to loot them. Six ships. Six ships against an entire world? How many of them can there be in those things? A few hundred? Thousands? There are billions of us. Their ships are strong, but how in the hearth can they hope to actually achieve anything besides destroying us. We were told they are profit motivated, where is the profit in that?"

The High Marshal kept his ears up. "That we're still learning. We understand they use mechanicals as well. Like their miners, they can use machines to loot. They override safeties so they... harm personnel. They can land them, they can replicate themselves, build more machines. Normally, the colonies have their own machines for defense."

"And we don't."

"No, milady. Every station has a contingent of heavily armed Marines, but we really have little data on what sort of opposition they will be up again. The machines salvaged were highly advanced, but hardly indicative of what we could be facing. Troops are being equipped with shaped charges, armor piercing ammunition... basically anti-tank warfare."

"And defending the planet? If they decide to strike against the planet?"

"We think we can defend against landing craft and certainly have ample ground troops. They certainly don't have the personnel to mount an invasion."

"But if they decide to just bombard the planet? What can be done to safeguard against that?"

A huge, immobile target at the bottom of a gravity well, against attackers moving at a percentage of C. Nukes weren't necessary. A hundred kilo projectile, a rock striking at those velocities would convert gigajoules of kinetic energy into radiation, into heat and magma and super-hurricane winds. A scattershot of oversized ball bearings slamming into the atmosphere over a city would create a superheated shockwave striking like a hammerblow. Tailored bioweapons could kill, sterilize...

He hung his head for a second, uncomfortably aware of how that made him look. "That was why we initiated Project Venture."

Section 54

The civilian newscasts were full of nothing. There were contradictory reports, assurances and promises made simply for the sake of something to say.

Maeteya eyed the babbling set with exasperation. Mostly because the military channels couldn't tell her much more. The alien ships were still enroute, but there hadn't been any communications, no sign of hostility or otherwise. She'd submitted her reports and they'd vanished into a vacuum that told her as much as the news. Herainer said they were mobilizing everything they could, but couldn't give her specifics: there were strict information quarantines in place and broadcasting tactical information over open radio waves was prohibited. The aliens didn't use the EM spectrum for widespread communication, but they had used it once and they could certainly quickly tool up to monitor it again.

And according to Tyrone, they probably already had.

He was outside. She could see him when she looked out the windows, past the blooming Alezeia at the alien figure in that gaudy poncho, crouching as he touched the almost phosphorescent flowers of a Trisi shrub. Cubs clustered around him, trying to point out this and that. He'd told her a lot, about their ships and their capabilities.

It wasn't that she'd been unable to pry that information out of him in the interrogation room, it was just that she hadn't asked all the right questions. The aliens strength didn't lie in the armament of their vessels, but rather in their manufacturing and adapting capability. Tyrone hadn't known what the armament of the incoming ships would be because they could change it at need. The ships could build what they needed on the spot. Each one had output abilities that dwarfed the best Nedai manufacturing plants.

In the interrogation room he'd given what she'd demanded of him, but now he was volunteering information. And it was stuff she'd never have thought to ask for. Tidbits and useful snippets she'd never known to ask for: they didn't carry nuclear devices, but they could make them, along with antimatter warheads. While a deuterium-tritium slush was preferred for engine mass, they could use just about anything. There would be an immense market for anything of alien origin, from plants to toys... anything.

Maeteya glanced at one of the children's chew sticks and her nape prickled. Anything. And they were letting these ships wander right into their hearth.

But they couldn't just fire on them. If they were harmless, however slight that possibility seemed now, then initiating hostilities could be disastrous. And after the Dreyal fiasco it could cause more damage than they could dream of.

As she stepped out onto the verandah she could hear their voices; the chittering of the cubs and the tangle of electronic synthesis and alien vocal chords. The computer was having trouble sorting through the multiple cubs' chattering and the alien was looking from one to another. She could recognize that expression now: the widened eyes flickering from under a fringe of that head fur, which incidentally was growing longer and quite unruly. Did they usually groom it?

"Enough," she said as she waded into the rambunctious bundle of cubs, separating a wrestling tangle with tactically placed cuffs around the ears. "Give him some peace now. Michi! That means you too. Leave her tail alone! I've told you, no biting!"

"Aiich!" the cub moaned and there was other protesting, but she snarled and they skittered off, sleek little bodies swarming over the wall into the field. Long groundscrub rustled as they raced off down the hill on all sixes toward the Trees, their shouts ringing over the hills. Tyrone watched them go, his hand clenching in her fur again

"They can get overexcited." Maeteya settled down on her haunches beside him.

The older ones massed as much as Tyrone. She could see how that might make him a little touchy. "They're only playing."

"Not so different," Tyrone touched his forehand to the bandages on his other arm and his face distorted. "Bigger though."

"Rot. I told them to be careful. They didn't scratch you again?"

"No," he said and that unruly head-tuft shifted as he shook his head. "No."

"Ah," she wondered how long that wound would take to heal. A week at least, the meds thought. And that wasn't fully. Slow healers. "If you want some medication..."

"No," he said again, abruptly. "It's... all right. Just sore."

And he didn't like the tranquilizers. She couldn't blame him.

"What are those?" he asked. He was looking toward the sprawling greenness of the Tree. A change of subject, or was he genuinely curious? Hadn't he seen them before. She weighed the situation for a breath.

"Trees," she said. "You've seen them before?"

"Trees? I know trees. Stations have some. You... grow them? Why?"

"For wood. My family sells it."

"Sells wood?" he asked in Netain, using the inflection meaning soft woods and his face wrinkled in another way. It certainly was flexible. All those muscles under the skin denoted confusion. He looked down at the translator as if he suspected it of distorting the message and then looked across at a small shade-tree. "Wood? Like that?"

"No," she corrected the pronunciation and he still looked puzzled. "Look." She picked a couple of scratch sticks from the old pot on the verandah, one normal the other real wood, neither thicker than her thumb. The regular wood halved easily; the other... her tendons bunched under her fur but the stick didn't so much as flex. She handed both to the alien. "Wood and wood," she told him.

He quartered the broken stick. Effortlessly, she noted. But when he tried the other stick he certainly looked surprised. "This is... wood? It grows?"

"Shae," she smiled and debated how much to tell him. But the stuff was hardly a military secret. "It's strong. It bonds a mixture of metals and a woven polymer... Sorry, it's very light, very strong. Much stronger than steel for its weight. Very good for construction, but very hard to work. Takes very expensive tools to cut it."

He muttered something and looked at the vast green sprawl of the Tree.

"You don't have anything like that?"

"Growing? No. Factories make, not grow." He turned the stick over in his hands and tried bending it again.

Huhn, she sighed. Just wood, and he'd never seen its likes before. That would be an interesting trade potential. Or might be, in normal times.

"They grow this?" Tyrone asked

"That grows this," Maeteya corrected. "Just one."

The alien stared.

"You would like to see it?" she asked.

He turned to look at her. It was that same look he'd given here when she offered kindness before: apprehension, wariness, looking for a trap. He trusted her, but not blindly. "We can go there?"

"Of course," she said and almost laughed at the uncertain expression. "You're a guest here."

The garden gate was a far more civilized egress than climbing over the wall. Besides, she wasn't sure Tyrone was up to such gymnastics. He stayed closed by her side as they headed out into the fields. Indeed, his walk was fascinating she thought as she watched him pick his way across and through the groundscrub. A continuous controlled fall, deliberately throwing away balance and one foot forestalling a tumble. So precarious. She had to wonder if they ever miscalculated and actually fell, but he made it look so easy. All the time he was looking around, craning his neck back to look at the sky, at the hillside sloping off to the see, at the drab camouflage of the EW van. Neither commented on that.

Midway across he made a noise, a small yelp, and stopped. She also halted and he put a hand on her haunches to steady himself as he lifted one foot, balancing incredibly on one leg while examined the underside of his foot. There was a small cut in the soft flesh near a toe, and the marks of a lot of older cuts. Legacies from his bolt from the crash, she supposed. Minor; they'd never been brought to her attention. "Need [garble]," he said. "Covering on feet."

Protective suits like spacesuits covered the feet, but it always felt unnatural. "Need feet like these," Maeteya laughed and showed him her pads. "Bit different from yours?"

"Like the..." he started and then his eyes flicked. "Shae, different. Not need in ship though. This is... new."

She promised him they'd find something and asked if he wanted to go back. He shook his head and resolutely set off again.

She stared after him and cocked her head. Trying to prove something to her? To himself? Or just testing his leash? For a breath she watched the bipedal alien in that ridiculous old cloak teetering across the heath, then chuffed amusement and scurried after him.

The outer reaches of the tree were being trained. Rows and lattices of multi-story trellises coaxed the slender young vinelike limbs into regular growths that nature normally abhorred. At that young stage they were softer than the more mature branches, with clusters of small, spicy-smelling and bitter-tasting leaves. Further in, the branches were larger, the leaves thicker and taking on their characteristic five-pointed star shapes. They'd grown following their trellises so walking those paths was like walking through corridors with living walls and ceilings, carpeted with tangles of roots and the mulch of fallen leaves. From somewhere deeper toward the heart of the tree came the distant yelps of children playing.

Maeteya led the limping alien through the maze of growth to the workface, the area where the cropping was going on. It was a wound in the body of the Tree, a space where the four stories of foliage and canopy was open to the sky, but it was still only a speck in the vast body of the organism. There was nobody there at that moment; the expensive equipment was tucked away under polythene sheets and massive logs as large around as her torso were stacked ready to be hauled out.

The branches those were being taken from were mature. The boles they'd been cut from showed the stumps with a cross section of their internal network of water and nutrient carrying tubes on the inside and the thick, gnarled back outside.

"They draw minerals from the ground," Maeteya told Tyrone. "All sorts. The bark is a composite: iron and copper, titanium, nickel, cadmium... odd composites woven together. Just about nothing can eat them. These trees used to be everywhere, but climate changes have reduced their range. There're still places in the interior to the south where they cover vast ranges; continent sized areas. They have their own ecosystems, animals evolving in them. We evolved in them. You know that word?"

"Evolved?" the translator didn't have that one in its vocabulary. She explained.

He looked at her, one hand touching the bark of a massive trunk reaching across and up, five times wider than he was. "Evolved? In these?"

"Shae," she said and hooked her limbs around the trunk, her claws grasping and snugging into the deep wrinkles in the bark. An embrace that kept flashing absurd sexual connotations as she hugged the wood, then swarmed along and around the limb. Hooking her talons and hanging upside-down, she twisted her torso and neck to regard the alien the right way up. "Made for this."

Tyrone blinked, then the corners of his mouth flickered upwards. "Like the stairs. Like the bed."

"Shae," she said again.

He went over to look at the cutting equipment, picked up a piece of bark, weighed it and tapped it against metal. It rang.

"Difficult to cut," Maeteya said and dropped down off the branch, landing with a 'whuf' of expelled air. "Very difficult. Need a lot of very good blades, or acids. Laser is best, but very expensive."

"You can't just build one?"

"No. We don't have that technology," she reminded him.

"Ah," he said, looking up at the shut-down cutter crouching on its plastic treads, its orange paint chipped, its manipulating arms and huge new saw blades covered by weathered plastic sheets. "Not good," he eventually said.

Maeteya thought about the exorbitant markups on some of the hardware, about subcontractors and monopolies and the squabbling for funding and resources. "No," she agreed. "It's not."

He hefted the shard of bark in his hand again and seemed about to say something, then his eyes flickered up and past her. She also heard it and whirled. A trooper in camouflage scrim had rounded the trunk and was looking down on them. Another in a crook a short distance away was watching the surroundings. Both were carrying assault rifles in forearms, mid and hindlimbs clutching the bark. "Pardons, Milady," the trooper said. "You're near the perimeter. Control just thought we should remind you."

"Thank you, squad leader," Maeteya said. "I was aware."

"Pardons, Milady."

"That will be all," she said restraining a hiss. He was just doing his job, like she was trying to do hers. "Thank you, but will you and your men get out of here now."

The solider cocked his head, glanced at Tyrone, then twisted around and climbed back into the canopy. There were rustlings all around, which would be the two other squad members she hadn't seen falling back.

Tyrone was staring at her, his hide pale and the expression on his face unreadable. "You said... not prisoner."

"Not to keep you in," she said. "To keep others out."

He stared again, muscles across his face twitched with tension.

"Listen," Maeteya told him. "There are those who think it might be safer if you were disposed of. Killed. There are people who think that they can force you to say things you don't know. The ones who did that," she indicated at his arm, "to you weren't authorized. That shuttle crash wasn't an accident. It killed people I knew. It was a stupid move by fools and they're still out there. These guards are there for your own protection. Can you understand that?

"There are alien ships coming in, possibly hostile. People are scared, and when they're scared they can bite. You're a handy target. If I were you, I'd be a fool not to want guards."

She could see his eyes flickering and for once knew what was going on there. Indecision. Whether to believe her or not.

Section 55

'He believed me,' Maeteya put in her report. 'Of that I'm sure. He was subdued for a while following that incident, but he didn't create any problems. I'm requiring that all guards keep their distance unless the situation urgently demands otherwise.

'The fact that he chose to believe me does indicate that he is learning to trust me. Certainly, some of the information he revealed is interesting. I believe that Nedai are better suited to work and maneuvering in a microgravity environment: he found our brachiating abilities to be exceptional, indicating that his kind would have difficulty maneuvering in environs natural to us. There are also indications that their predominantly rigid endoskeleton suffers deterioration under micro and zero gravity conditions.

'Their manufacturing capabilities are also of great interest, and something that could prove capable of twisting around to bite us if not carefully handled. While of great use, they would certainly prove to be massively disruptive to our economy. Steps would have to be taken to ensure gradually assimilation into our society.

'The interest he showed in True Wood was of note. He claims they manufacture similar materials, but have nothing natural like it. This, combined with the former interest he has shown in natural and handcrafted goods, opens trade possibilities. Don't underestimate the value they might place on items we consider worthless, and vice versa.'

She reread the report, then saved the file and all relevant attachments and sent the archive on its way. Other windows on her workslate and on the worktop machine were displaying other logs, recordings from the translators, from the interrogation room and notes she'd jotted down. There was something there had had been gnawing at her attention for some time, but she'd been unable to pin down exactly what it was. She scrolled back and forth through the recordings, listening to Nedai and alien jabber.

Outside the sun was long gone and the night was clear. Stars and other points of light hung in the skies; the stars still, the other points drifting around the heavens. In her father's day the sky had been clean, pristine, the satellites too small to really be seen and now... she watched the glaring point that was Cherimainsa Highdock and all its attendant motes rising in the east. Perhaps those cracks who advocate a clean sky had something going.

And if the species thought that way they would still be huddling in the darkness eating parasites from each others pelts.

Maeteya slid off the saddle, stretched one limb after another then went to stand at the window, staring out and fidgeting with the longer fur of her chest. Whatever was gnawing at her subconscious, it was still eluding her. She shook her head and turned away. She was hungry. It'd been hours since she'd last eaten.

She heard the noise when she stepped outside onto the landing. A quiet, muffled sound that was gone as soon as she noticed it. For a few breaths she waited, then heard it again. At the same time her comm sounded.

"Milady," the tech at the other end said. "We're getting a disturbance of some kind from the Guest's room. Just noise."

"I hear it," she said.

She'd seen him to bed a couple of hours ago. He'd been tired, especially after the light sedative she'd slipped into his food. Carefully Maeteya cracked the door and peered through the crack. The sounds were clearer. She sighed and toggled the comm: "It's all right," she reported. "I can handle it."

She slunk into the room, easing the door shut behind her. There was starlight through the window, throwing shadows around the room, a mesh of light and dark through the bed. Sounds she could only describe as whimpering drifted through the darkness.

They'd cobbled together a bed of sorts out of odds and ends, a palette on the floor that the alien could use. He was curled up in it in a manner reminiscent of the first time she'd seen him. His eyes were closed but he wasn't lying quietly: moisture glistened on his naked hide, his limbs twitched spasmodically, fighting the blankets, and he was vocalizing. Disjointed fragments of alien language escaping into the night.

Quietly she crouched over him, not sure what to do. She'd seen an expression like that before: when she'd looked at him pinned like a specimen under bright lights. Cautiously she reached out, drew her hand back and laid her ears flat when he cried out, then tried once again. He seemed to calm somewhat when she touched his head fur and stroked it.

"Easy," she murmured. "It's over. It's finished."

And at the sound of her voice he twisted in his sleep, forearm covering his face and muscles trembling as he desperately babbled sounds she understood. She'd heard them often enough:

"I don't know I don't know I don't..."

Shocked, she reared back and didn't say anything else, just stroked his long, soft, tangled fur until he quietened once more.

Section 56

The Broad-Claw class cruiser Tehamin and its squadron were accelerating on a vector that would intersect the outsiders' path from below ecliptic, passing within five hundred thousand kilometers of them and swinging away again. Then another wing would be inbound, passing the alien ships on a similar maneuver. These support classes were too light to stand up in a tearing match with the alien behemoths, that was left to the heavies, but they could sweep past gathering intelligence, or engaging in stinging attack runs with ordinance and Talons. If required.

Tehamin's Commander lay in the embrace of the acceleration module, the shock foam moulded to the shape of his body. Telemetry from various stations were displayed on his screens and on the main displays; the primary source of lighting under battle stations. Hatches were sealed, spin was cancelled and living modules sealed off.

Tactical was standing by. Helm, Comms and Tracking were active. A tremble ran through the spine of the ship as thrusters flickered and burned, pushing hard to make a slight course change at those velocities. Comms were repeatedly broadcasting on loop. Tracking was pinging the Outsiders with everything they had and relaying the information to the rest of the squadron through tightbeam. From them the information would be disseminated to other squadrons, to Talon and Fighter groups, to homeworld defences. It kept the rest of the wing stealthy, but it meant the Tehamin was lit up like an electromagnetic pyre.

Every instinct the Commander had was screaming to open fire on the intruders. But they hadn't actually shown any signs of hostility. For all he knew, this was an alien idea of courtesy. They couldn't afford to bare teeth first. And those things were BIG.

So they kept watching. Kept making passes and accumulating data on the outsiders as they drew nearer to homeworld.

"Sir?" Comms ventured. "Got something."

"Report," the Commander reached to open the channel.

"Shae. I... rot!" comms yelped and the Commander flinched in alarm. "Report!" he snapped again, looking across at the communications section.

The tech there laid ears back and worked at his desk where telltales had lit up across the board. "Sir. Apologies. I've got transmission. From the outsiders! Increibly powerful. They're sending. On frequency... on frequencies... low spectrum right on through! Patching through to your channel. Gods, it's broadband. Not encoded..."

Section 57

Seen from space the world was a blue and green jewel. From three million kilometers it was nothing but a speck amongst trillions of others. From low orbit it seemed to fill the universe. As it turned, the terminator, the line of light and shadow crawled across the face of the planet, flowing across and swallowing oceans and continents. On the light side sunlight reflected from water, from rivers and seas as if they were intricate filigree of brushed metal. On the night side the darkness was broken by the golden webs of city lights, by the flickering strobes of thunderclouds and atmospheric specters, rare glow of volcanoes.

After the night came the morning, sure as water flowed downhill. Shadows receded from the land and light caressed the peaks, draped itself over the hilltops and treetops, then into the valleys. Seen from the cliffs on the shores of a bay on the westen shores of the northern continent, the dawn was a glow on the horizon that grew almost imperceptibly until the blacks were azures and then reds and golds and blues. It touched the roof of the house on the bluffs and flowed down to light the old stone walls with their clinging vines, to peek in the windows and doors as they were opened. Voices and kitchen smoke rose into the still air, the sound of hungry cubs carrying out to the lodge.

Maeteya blinked into the sun streaming in through the window. She'd fallen asleep at the keyboard, sprawled out over the saddle. On the screen the draft she'd started early, early that morning glowed:

'...some level he is associating me with the active interrogation sessions, even thought he does not seem to be consciously aware of it. Possibilities are that he does know I was responsible and, for some reason, is hiding the fact; or his subconscious, or something analogous to that, has made the connection. Either way, this could cause..."

She snarled softly and rubbed at her muzzle, then stared at the screen again, a claw tapping near the 'save' button. She knew what sending this would do.

The frantic scrabbling of talons on the stairs and in the hall outside interrupted her. A soldier appeared in the doorway, breathing hard as he hissed, "Milady!"

"This is important?"

"Yes, milady. Your com was off."

It was.

"They're transmitting. In the van, they said to tell you... The outsiders are transmitting."

That took a second to percolate. Maeteya hesitated, then was off the saddle in a cloud of fur and frantic limbs. Halfway across the room she skidded on the carpet and backpedaled to hit the 'delete' key and was gone again. Out on the landing she jerked a claw at the other closed door. "You," she said to the trooper, "watch him."

"Milady, I..."

"Just keep him there. Make sure he's comfortable. Do it," she snapped and left him. Nearly tangled her legs scraping down the stairs and gouged claw holes in the floor as she raced for the door. Outside air hit her with the chill nip of a fresh morning, ghosting her breath. Frost still lurked in the shadows, hiding from the sunlight. Where that touched, moisture beaded and glistened and soaked her pawpads as she loped over grass and driveway to the squat green box of the EW trailer.

It was crowded inside. The narrow workspace smelled of electronics and quick foods and the techs who were packed in. Screens were split into windows, some showing local air traffic, several with views of the alien's room. The largest was reserved for the signal coming in, fluctuating in strength but quite powerful. There was an audio signal and a video signal in a format their system could parse.

"You've recorded," she said, quite unnecessarily. Shave her, the image on the video, it was Tyrone's kind. The translator was chewing over the audio and mangling it. But the fact that they had a video feed... "How is this coming in?"

"Like this," a tech said, his ears back. "Just as it is. They have our carrier down perfectly and they're punching it in from beyond lunar orbit. And they've started braking. Their engines are visible with simple telescopes now."

So it was an open, unencrypted broadcast on public frequencies using standard protocols. They must've intercepted civilian transmissions and used those standards. That meant half the world would be able to see this on domestic sets. Still more would be seeing it on echoed feeds and rebroadcasts. So much for trying to keep a lid on things. For a second she stared at the alien figure, then she started listening to what it was saying.

Section 58

The guard was sitting on his haunches outside the door to the alien's room, alert and in a position where he could watch both the door and the landing. As Maeteya climbed upstairs he stiffened to attention, shifting his stubby autogun across his foretorso.

"It's awake," he told her. "It's quiet though. It hasn't tried to leave."

Maeteya flagged acknowledgement. She'd seen as much on the monitors before she left the van. When she cracked the door open the first thing she heard was water running. Tendrils of steam wafted out of the bathroom.

More steam filled the bathroom. It curled around on itself in the light from the window and fogged the mirror. The shower was running. In one corner of the stall the alien sagged against the tiles, eyes closed and face up to the stream of water pouring from one of the shower heads. Steaming water plastered his headfur around his face and sluiced down over his pale hide, now flushed a ruddier tint that did little to conceal the weals and scabs, especially the lurid gash on the forearm. The dressings were gone, cast aside on the floor, and he was keeping the limb tucked across his chest.

He just stood there under the running water. Eyes closed. Maeteya in turn watched him, an alien figure wreathed in alien-smelling steam. The questions, the demands, were clawing at her gut. But she couldn't just grab him and shake the answers out. She lashed her tail, the forced herself to calm down and take it slowly. "All right?" she asked.

He twitched upright and turned, wide eyes opened and focused on her despite the water trickling down his face. He wasn't wearing the translator and her own would have trouble with the water-noise. "Maeteya," she offered, identifying herself.

He visibly relaxed. "Maeteya," he echoed, and said something else that the translator missed.

"You're all right?" she asked again, speaking slowly and distinctly.

He could understand that. "Shae," he bobbed his head and responded in his distorted Netain.

"Your arm?" she nodded her muzzle toward the limb.

Tirone blinked looked from her down to his wounded arm. "Arm?" he said. "Hurts."

"Shae," she said. "It looks like it. I'll get some new antiseptic and dressings for you."

His pale eyes flickered uncertainly; he obviously didn't understand that. Maeteya hissed softly and crouched to pick up the soiled dressings from the floor. "Get new ones. Clean. All right?"

That seemed to get through. He bobbed his head and sagged back against the wall, once again letting the steaming water wash over pale flesh.

The medical cabinet in the guest room was empty of pharmaceuticals; there was no telling how they'd affect the alien metabolism. Maeteya collected the materials from her own kit in her room, just simple sterile dressings and antibiotic powder that'd already been used and proved safe. Back in the guest room she helped Tirone out of the shower and then helped him dry off, practically losing him in a towel sized for Nedai.

He smelled different. She noticed that right away as she applied the dressing. Better, a lot better. That acrid reek that'd clung to him was gone. His head fur didn't hang as lankly. She tried to remember if he'd ever been bathed before and drew a blank.

"That's good?" she asked through the translator.

"Shae," he responded, still wrapped in the white fluff of the towel and touched the white plastic of the dressing.

"You needed that," she said, packing the used wrap away.

"Shae," he said again, then mimicked the sound of a cub's voice, "Stink."

She remembered that and chittered slightly. But time was wasting, and he looked suitably off guard, so she deemed it as good as time as any to look at the human and say, "Something I wanted to ask you: what do you know about the Terran Federation Navy?"

Pale eyes blinked. "The what?"

The name was something that'd come through in the broadcasts. An exact translation was impossible, but the concepts were comprehensible. Tirone's reaction, however, was not what she'd been expecting.

"Do you know it?"

"I haven't heard of it."

"That doesn't surprise you?"

"There are thousands of systems. It is possible someone is using that name."

Again, that wasn't what she'd been expecting. Maeteya flicked her ears, then said, "There's something you should see."

Through in the bedroom she flicked the desktop over to the feed from the van outside. "The ships inbound are transmitting this," she told the alien as she let him see the screen.

Still wrapped in the folds of the towel he watched. And as he watched she studied his face as various odd contortions flittered across the peculiarly mobile features. On the screen the bipedal alien was seated in a most uncomfortable looking piece of furniture in the center of what had to be a bridge. The layout was along the same lines as ships of the line, with a central command point, but the appearance was... bizarre. With no sign of restraints. She knew the outsiders' gravity manipulation capabilities far exceeded their own nearly-nonexistent technology, but she didn't realize it was that advanced. The rest of the bridge was bright colors and sharp panels with peculiar displays, not a screen in sight. Science-types would be tearing into that broadcast, but she had been more interested in how Tirone reacted to the transmission.

Shock, she'd been expecting something like that. Perhaps nervousness or apprehension or perhaps even relief or joy. So she didn't understand why he bared teeth in that sort of grimace, nor had she ever heard those barking exhalations of air before. She was the one who was shocked, alarmed as the alien's face flushed red and he bared teeth, convulsing with the noises. For a second her own muscles twitched, pumping blood furiously before she realized the violent convulsions weren't threatening.

Tirone sank back against the saddle, still grimacing but in a pained way. He was clutching at the wound on his side: the convulsions can't have been so pleasant then. "What was that?" Maeteya asked.

His head shook, the damp strands of long fur swaying to and fro. "They are translator garble you over," he said. "Make fool of you."

"What?"

"That," Tirone waved a forehand toward the screen. "They garble you. They lie." That was a word he knew.

Now she said, "I don't understand. They're talking. You said privateers don't do that."

"Shae," he said. "But this is not them. It is... machine made. It is old..." now he was grasping for words. "A lie? A lie for fun? Not real?"

Lie for fun? Maeteya's ears twitched in perplexion. And then came up again, "You mean entertainment?"

He didn't know that word.

"Is old," he said. "Old old. Joke now. They hide behind machine pictures. The words are... nothing."

"Why?" she asked. "If they're hostile, as you claimed, then why talk at all? You're saying they're hostile; you're saying this," she tapped the screen, "is a lie. Who do we believe?"

Pale eyes darted like a trapped animal, from the screen to her, back again. His face was pale again and his lips moved, but without making any sound. Then he abruptly turned to the window. "They're *translator garble*."

"What? That didn't translate."

"They... they want time. This..." a hairless digit moved toward the terminal, "is a... a lie."

"For what?" she asked calmly, just the twitching of muscles under her fur belying her tension.

"I don't know," he said and she saw his own rising anxiety.

"You don't? You know them better than we do. They want time, you say. For what? What does time give them? They can get closer."

Tirone's head bobbed and hunched down into the folds of the towel. "Time... distance. They get closer. They have more time to build more... " The translation cut off and for a second Maeteya thought something was wrong, then saw he'd just stopped in mid sentence. His head came up, staring at the screen.

"A thought?" she ventured.

"They are slowing, aren't they."

She hadn't mentioned that. "They are braking, shae."

Now he looked at her again. "They make noise. They make you look in the wrong place."

She listened to what he had to say, her hackles flattening. That information, if it was true, would justify both her efforts and Tirone. If he was lying or if he was actually helping them.