Thursday Tid-bit 3/12/15

[This is a chapter that I omitted from the new Cat Among Dragons novel, A Cat at Bay. It was written several years ago and no longer “feels” right, perhaps because Rada Ni Drako, well, you’ll see.]

Suffer the Children

“That hasn’t changed, at least,” Major Rahoul P. Khan observed with a smile. The hunter-green Marlow coup still held its own amidst the row of military transports and lorries, tucked into the same parking spot where he’d last seen it two years before.

“Yes, sir,” his guide informed him. “And it still balks at wet weather. Lucius prince of darkness and all that, sir.” She led him through the much-expanded motor pool, into what had once been the back door to the main building, and around two corners to the personnel officer’s office. Rahoul blinked. This had been the regimental sergeant major’s office when he’d left three years before. Things change, he reminded himself, except for paperwork, cheap floors, latrine duty, and which end points at the enemy. Then he opened the door and heard—

“Do not worry, you will not be reassigned to help Commander Na Gael.” Central African, French-speaker, Khan mentally catalogued the mild accent.

“Oh good. Thank you, sir.” Rahoul smiled as he glanced down to see if the relief dripping from the man’s voice had soaked the carpet yet. “No offense, sir, but I think she’s a bit, um . . .”

“Daft, touched, peculiar, a card short of a full deck, has kangaroos in the top paddock? She’s a xenologist, Martin. They’re all like that to a degree. Part of the job. Now do not forget to read everything and sign it, then return the top pages to me and the bottom two to Sergeant Andrews. Anything else?”

“No sir.”

“Dismissed.” Rahoul sidestepped as a relived-looking corporal rushed past, clutching his paperwork as if it were the Holy Grail. He waited, then tapped on the doorframe. “Yes?” Captain Kwame Ngobo looked up from his keyboard and got to his feet. “Your pardon, sir, how may I help you?”

“I need my quarters assignment.” Rahoul held out his transfer papers. The Ivorian took them, skimmed over the critical bits and nodded.

He turned and pulled what looked like a set of blueprints out of an open cabinet. He unrolled the page. “You’re in luck, sir. Since the Regiment is between rotations, we have four sets of quarters available.”

Rahoul considered his choices. “The one on the end.” He’d be exposed to fire on two sides, but wouldn’t have dueling distractions to listen to, either. He caught himself: if someone managed to attack the headquarters building, he’d have lots of other problems besides getting shot at while in his quarters. This wasn’t an outpost in Nuristan.

“Very good, sir.” Ngobo made the appropriate notations and handed Khan a key and a sheet of pass codes. “Ah, someone sent word ahead, apparently. You are scheduled to meet with General Whitehead at 1300.”

“1300 and has the commanding officer’s office moved? In the past few years, I mean,” Rahoul clarified.

“No, sir, just improved and new soundproofing.” Ngobo added, “and the lab is still at the end of the building.”

No one in their right mind would try and relocate that, he thought, nodding and taking his key and papers.

He’d gotten lunch on the way to the base, so Rahoul stowed his kit in his new quarters, triple checked the condition of everything down to the water stains in the sink before initialing the papers, and let himself relax for the fist time in months. He’d come straight to Lincolnshire, turning down an additional week of home leave. His relatives might live in Hendon, but the 58th Regiment of Foot was home.

 

Two hours later, Major General Andrew Whitehead leaned back in his chair, smiling. He studied his newly assigned executive officer and decided that he liked what he saw. Major Khan returned the gaze steadily and respectfully. There was a touch of humor in the major’s dark eyes and the South Asian officer had an air of calm competence about him. That he had started his service with the Regiment helped matters immensely, in Whitehead’s opinion, and would ease the transition. Khan’s last posting had been field command in Afghanistan and he had done very well. The general nodded, trying to recall if anything more needed to be discussed for the moment. “Do you have any further questions before assuming your duties?” he asked.

“One sir. When is the xenology specialist expected back from leave?”

“Monday morning. Glad you asked, because you’ll need this,” the general pulled a business card out of his desk drawer and handed it across the cluttered desk. “This is her ‘cell phone’ number and the pass codes to access her laptop. Haven’t a clue how they work, but we can now contact her at any time. I have the other code for her computer, in case we need to look at something and she’s unavailable.”

That’s different. She used to be paranoid about people touching her computer. I wonder what changed? “Very good, sir.” He pocketed the card. He’d memorize the numbers and codes and return it later.

Although he deeply wanted to talk to Rachel Na Gael, Rahoul made himself wait until Monday evening to visit the xenologist. He strolled down the hall, wrinkling his nose at the bad faux-wood floor tiles. Rachel had mentioned them in a letter a year ago, and he couldn’t argue with her accurate-but-pungent description. To his great surprise he’d discovered that he’d missed her council and coolness under fire, administrative as well as real.

Rahoul reached the end of the hall and glanced up, noting the green light above the laboratory door. Reassured that he wouldn’t be interrupting anything dangerous, he tapped on the doorframe. “Come in,” a well-remembered voice called and he pushed one of the steel doors open and slipped inside. Fading sunlight entered the lab through the large sweep of windows in the far wall and he saw her working with a piece of equipment, back to him. She wore the same grey jacket and skirt that he remembered, and he caught a glimpse of feline ears poking out of her braided brown-black hair. The table blocked any glimpse of her tail. “Good afternoon Commander Ni Drako,” he said. “Have a moment?”

She didn’t turn around. “Your books are on the shelf, sir.” Khan looked, and there among the official manuals and binders sat two first editions, one of Robert Browning and one of Kipling. He pulled the Kipling down from the shelf and thumbed through it, perching on the edge of the xenologist’s work desk. She finished her task, turned off the machine and walked over to him. He looked up from the book and gasped, “Dear God, Rachel!”

The Wanderer-hybrid flinched away, turning and concealing her face. “Sorry. I forgot you’d not seen that.”

Rahoul cursed himself for a fool and laid the book down. “No, I’m the one who should apologize.” He closed the distance between them and she gave him a wary look as he studied the scar running from her widow’s peak, over her blind eye and down to her jaw. “Jealous wife?” he asked.

That drew the grin he remembered from his days as a new lieutenant. Her strange silver-gray eye flashed with amusement. “Not quite. Jealous King-Emperor. It’s a rather long story, better saved for after duty hours, sir. Welcome back,” and she gave him her rare true smile, warm and welcoming, offering her hand. “You’ve done very well for yourself, from what I hear.”

Rahoul took the hand, checking his shields before giving it a firm shake. “Thank you. It’s good to be back. Some things don’t seem to have changed,” he gestured to the lab and adjoining rose-garden.

“Appearances are deceiving. Much of the equipment has been upgraded, as have the windows, which are now blaster-resistant.” She nodded at his appreciative whistle. “You should have seen Brigadier Yates’ expression when I demonstrated that!” Rachel shook her head, “And he was on the outside, with me. I don’t know why he ducked. And the roses seem to be doing well. There’s a new glasshouse since you left. Veggies and flower starts upstairs, and covers the thermal exhaust of the lower level very nicely.” She pointed out a few of the other subtle changes and Rahoul shook his head, impressed.

“Anything else I need to know about?”

She pursed her lips, rubbing the scars under her blind eye as if they pained her. “Not before tomorrow’s staff briefing, sir.”

“Still Tuesday at 0830?”

The grin returned. “Unless Jesus, the Mahdi, an avatar of Vishnu, or someone else arrives between now and then to herald the last days, yes, sir.” She sounded resigned, bringing an answering grin to Rahoul’s lips. That had not changed, either.

“Very good. Then I will leave you to your work.”

She drooped then winked. “Thank you, sir.”

The next morning’s staff briefing was fairly routine, except for one thing. Captain Mike Rolfe, an Australian currently serving as adjutant, brought up a news item. “I realize that this isn’t exactly inside our ‘sphere of operations,’ but you need to know that eight children have been reported missing in the past week. One of them belongs to Corporal Wellington and her husband, their son Dweezel. She’s on emergency leave for the rest of the week,” Rolfe explained. Rachel Na Gael made an interesting noise.

After the meeting, she caught Mike’s eye and waved him over. “Give Wellington this, please.” She handed him a business card. “It’s my cell. I’ve been in a similar situation, if she needs to talk to someone.”

Rahoul overheard the comment. Something about it made the hair on the back of his neck ruffle, and a faint sense of unease disturbed him for the rest of the morning.

Two days later, Rolfe found Rachel out in the garden, energetically turning compost in the bins with the help of a luckless corporal. “Commander, need you in the General’s office!” Rolfe called to her.

She impaled one last load of rotting plants on her fork and then left it to the corporal. “And Sergeant Young will come get you, Corporal von Grauberg, so don’t try and sneak off!” She cautioned, then walked as briskly as she could after the adjutant.

Mike stopped and turned around, looked her over, and sniffed discreetly. “Um, perhaps we could meet in a few minutes, if you want to get cleaned up first, Commander Na Gael.”

She glanced down at her muck-covered gardening shoes and split skirt. “Oh? Very well.” She turned left and let herself into the lab, then climbed the metal spiral steps to her quarters, after leaving the shoes by the storage cabinet. “It’s composted manure,” she complained to the air. “If I can’t smell it, how can a human?”

Even so, she tidied up before joining General Whitehead, Major Khan, Captains Rolfe and Marsh, and Regimental Sergeant Major Chan in the General’s office. It was a snug fit and she wondered why he wanted them all there, instead of in a conference room. He looked at them, expression as grim as she’d ever seen on his average-looking features. “We have a situation, gentlemen. And Commander,” he caught himself. She waved it off.

“Thirty four children have gone missing since Monday of this week. Ten of them belong to members of the Regiment, either those based here or in London,” Whitehead explained.

Rachel gasped and the men looked dumbfounded. The force of their anger, surprise, and dismay struck her hard, and she flashed her shields up, blocking the emotional overload. Whitehead continued, “Obviously, this can’t be a coincidence or dumb bad luck. We don’t know any more than that: no one has claimed responsibility and there seems to be no other pattern, so all we can do is watch and wait. The reason I called you in is because we are making a list of all personnel who don’t have children. You will have to take up the slack as much as possible and be prepared to act if we learn anything more or it turns out that this is directed against the regiment specifically.”

Major Khan raised his had a little, and Whitehead acknowledged him. “Have any other branches reported similar?”

“No, Major. We’re the lucky ones.” There was no humor in his voice. The officers and senior NCO discussed options and plans. Rachel listened intently but remained silent, occasionally taking notes on her small electronic datapad.

She spent the rest of the afternoon and evening looking at computer images, adding different filters and tweaks, trying to find irregularities. She had a feeling, but nothing she could pin down, that there was more to this mess than met the human eye. Most of the regimental personnel don’t have children, and we all keep our business life well away from our mates and offspring. No one lives near base, at last not in a group, so there’s no single target if someone wants to attack us that way, so what is going on?

Later that night, after she grabbed a bite of dried meat and took a stretch break, she thought she had found a possible anomaly. It came from a visible satellite image of one of the forests at the edge of the Lake District and looked superficially like a long barrow, except that no archaeologists had reported any long barrows in that area. The Wanderer enlarged the image and put on her loupe, studying the computer screen. “Hmm. I wonder,” and she typed some commands onto her laptop, sending the data to her datapad and to her ship’s processor.

The Dark Hart’s computer flashed a reply within seconds. Yes, the “barrow” matched the dimensions of three known space-capable vessels. No, not that one. She thought as she read the data tag. It’s from too far in Ter-3’s future and no one in their right mind would pack it into a time-ship to haul back. Even the Traders aren’t that greedy or desperate for cash. She paused, noting a tiny extra bit of data the Hart had added on. Trader yes, but scouts and something else small. And a Rowfow ship as well. Probably more tourists and the like. She shrugged the information away and considered the other options. Hmmm. They’re not warships per se, but it’d be easy to add weapons, or at least not too difficult to add weapons. “So, we have missing children, someone’s ship that shouldn’t be parked in a national forest preserve, and are the two related?” She thought aloud, bracing on the desk to push herself out of the chair and starting to pace a little to limber up her stiff joints.

“Given the communication that was just forwarded to us, I’d say they were,” Rahoul Khan said from the doorway. He came into the lab, piece of paper in hand. “What have you found?”

She showed him the pictures and where the thing was hiding. “Very good work, Commander! We got this a few minutes ago, via London,” and he handed her a transcript of the communication, adding, “A copy already went to Vienna.”

She frowned, puzzling out the stilted English. Ugh. They should have left it in their native language and sent an image file. It’d be easier to parse. Then her eyebrow shot up. “Dear Lord, Rahoul,” she whispered. She turned away and walked over to the windows, looking out at the autumn night and running one hand over her long, brown-black braid. “They certainly know how to hit a nerve,” she observed when Khan came to stand beside her.

“Don’t they? Almost makes you wonder, doesn’t it?” He said, assuming she’d get his unspoken meaning.

“Yes, it does,” and her tone shifted as her normally faint accent thickened. “Perhaps, once we get the hostages back, hunting season will open.” Rachel bared her teeth and tapped her claws on the surface of the worktable, giving Rahoul a glimpse of Rada Ni Drako’s true persona. Then she settled down. “However, that comes later. What do you need, Major?”

“Anything you have on a group called the Aadmoe, as fast as you can find it.” Khan followed her back to her desk, watching as her hands flew over the keyboard of her computer. A block of unrecognizable symbols appeared on the screen, along with a picture. “Not a new domestic terror or crime group, then,” he observed.

“No, sir.” They studied the avian creature and then exchanged a look. “When do we move out,” she asked as she typed a partial translation, then printed out what information they had.

“We don’t, at least not for the near future. Orders from Horseguards to sit quiet until they sort matters out and get a hostage negotiator in place, assuming that the Aadmoe are willing.” Khan doubted the efficacy of negotiating with the bird-like intruders and frowned, then straightened up and resumed his usual neutral expression. “However, you need to get this to General Whitehead,” and he gestured towards the information on the laptop.

“Wilco, Major. Just give me a moment to print everything, sir.” Khan watched the still-familiar bustle as she gathered and sorted the images and maps, put them into a file folder and collected a walking stick from the umbrella stand by the door. She walked briskly down the night-darkened corridor, her “step-tap-step” echoing slightly against wood, tile, and steel, then disappeared around the corner.

Khan, errand finished, retired to his quarters and tried to sleep. His thoughts drifted to Rachel Na Gael, hearing her odd gait in his mind’s ear. He tried to imagine what it must be like living with the injuries she’d collected over her lifetime: damaged leg, blind eye, the new scar on her face and probably other problems she kept to herself. How badly had she been hurt that her ship’s medical magic couldn’t fix her? He wasn’t sure he could have taken that sort of punishment and kept going; he hoped he’d never have to find out what it was like.

Back on the ground floor, halfway between Khan’s quarters and the lab, Rachel tapped her claws on Whitehead’s inner office door. “Come in,” he growled, and she pushed the unlatched door open using her stick, then poked her head around the frame, staying out of the line of fire from his desk.

“Sir, I may have found the Aadmoe ship and I have information on the species,” she announced.

“Shit, Rachel, that was fast,” he blurted. “What do you have?” She handed him the file folder, then backed away and waited as he read. He picked up the image of he concealed ship. “But you don’t have a firm connection between the possible ship and the hostage takers?”

She made an odd swirling motion with her right hand. “No, sir. I can tell you absolutely that that is not a long barrow, and the two possible ships match what a group like the Aadmoe would use, but that’s all I have for certain. At this moment,” she added.

Whitehead ran a hand through thinning brown hair. “It’s more than we had earlier. I take it Khan has shown you the message?” She snarled, her ears tipping back, and he caught the flick of her claws starting to extend. “I’ll take that as a yes, then. Close the door and come over here.” He pointed beside his desk.

She did as ordered. “Commander Na Gael, what is your professional assessment of the situation?” he asked quietly. The woman’s eye went cold and Whitehead wondered who was going to answer: his smart-aleck advisor or the semi-retired mercenary.

“Given the reproductive ability of humans, initial assessment would be to call their bluff, track them down and eliminate the aggressors. If they terminate the hostages, it will be unfortunate but planetary security needs come first.” Her blunt words and emotionless tone contrasted with her earlier body language.

God, but she’s hard sometimes, the general thought, wondering again, is that really her, or did something she did or saw make her that way?

“And Rachel’s personal assessment?”

“Find some way to rescue the children, whatever it takes, sir. Not giving in to their demands that we stand down or surrender to the Aadmoe, of course, but find some way to get around them to the hostages and get them out.” She became thoughtful, head tipped to the side, suggesting, “Perhaps even see if we can at least get someone neutral to check on them, see if any have been hurt and need medical care, because from what I found the Aadmoe don’t have the knowledge needed for anything beyond basic mammalian first aid.”

Whitehead looked at her, his eyes narrowing. “And where do we find a neutral party?”

She caught his expression and shook her head, right hand up as if fending off the idea. “Not me! If they know enough to target the families of your soldiers, they probably know that there’s a non-human allied with the Regiment and will be looking for a trap. Even in my most human shape a bioscan will tip them off.” She thought hard. “There is one neutral party that comes to mind, but it would take too long to persuade him to get involved.” Assuming anything short of, hell, I don’t know what it would take to stir Himself. I don’t think I want to know. Rachel shrugged, “Sorry, sir.”

“No apology needed. Go get some rest and we’ll see what tomorrow brings,” Whitehead smiled, then grew serious again. “One question, and you don’t have to answer. Why are you so concerned about the hostages?”

She stared into the distance, face shifting into a grim mask. “Because many years ago I lost my child in a situation not unlike this one appears to be. Good night, sir,” and she left before he could say anything.

 

Commander Na Gael’s suspicion about the thing in the woods proved correct. The Aadmoe refused to negotiate anything, although as a gesture of “good will” they released a number of the hostages. None of the freed children had been injured, and none of them were related to Regimental personnel. After far too long for Rachel’s taste, orders came down from Horseguards Barracks in London and Whitehead called a limited staff meeting. “Those of us who do not have children are to move out and take positions around the Aadmoe ship. Captain Marsh triangulated their position through their transmissions and it matches the anomaly Cdr. Na Gael located in the national preserve. So at least we don’t have to worry about more civilians in harm’s way.”

He paused as someone muttered, “At least until some journo stumbles in,” under their breath. Whitehead ignored the comment.

A hand came up. “What about our dependents?”

The general didn’t look happy as he replied, “London is leaving that up to us. If we tried to get them all together in a secure location, I’m afraid it would make too tempting of a target. My thought would be to have your families relocate individually, if you want.” He hesitated, trying to make up his mind about something, then continued, “This goes no farther, is that clear? If you don’t think you can keep your mouth shut and your temper in check, you are dismissed.” Captain Rolfe excused himself, as did Dr. McGregor.

“There’s been a security breach. That’s how the Aadmoe acquired the personal information on us. We don’t know how yet, if they hacked the computers or what, but assume that they know where your dependents are.” A nasty growl cut through the mutters and Whitehead wasn’t surprised to see Rachel snarling, ears flat, claws fully extended and death in her eye.

“Disengage, Commander,” Major Khan said, quiet but firm. “Disengage.” The Wanderer took a deep breath and sat back, ears coming up but expression still hard.

“We’re moving out in three hours. Get your people ready. Any further questions? Dismissed.”

That afternoon the Regiment’s soldiers surrounded the Aadmoe ship, establishing a perimeter almost a kilometer away from the cylindrical vehicle. Rachel joined Whitehead and Marsh in the mobile command post as the scouts and other soldiers took up their positions. The three studied more detailed images of the alien ship. An ultimatum, issued half an hour before, added urgency to Rachel’s speculations.

“I wonder,” she mused, looking at the pictures. “They claim that they can detect human presence within half a kilometer. What about animals?” They should be able to do better than that, but maybe they bought their sensors on clearance from the lowest bidder.

Whitehead and Marsh frowned. “Don’t know, Cat One,” Whitehead said. “Doesn’t matter though, does it?”

“Yes, it does, Command One. If animals can get close, then Khan and I can use them as eyes and ears.”

“Try it,” Whitehead ordered, not blinking at the strange declaration.

“Wilco.” She slipped out of the boxy vehicle and looked around, trying to recall where Command Two would be. Near the communications van, she decided, and limped through the dappled shade to find the squat, antennae-furred lorry.

She saw him outside, his expression unhappy, and approached carefully. “Command Two, would you have a moment to help with an experiment?”

“Not really but what do you want?” He sounded testy.

She cut directly to her target. “If at all possible, I’d like you to try and get a bird or squirrel up to the Aadmoe ship. I can boost and monitor for you.”

“No, report to Hunter One, not me,” Rahoul ordered a lost-looking lieutenant, and then turned back to her. “What are you going to do, slip a message in with a squirrel?”

She didn’t snarl but it took a lot of effort. “No. I want to see if the Aadmoe react to animals. If they do not, then there’s a chance I can get close enough to do some serious recon.”

Khan’s expression of disbelief irritated her further and she did snarl, but quietly, as he asked, “How, Cat One?”

She looked around for cover and pointed to a bramble tangle. “I’ll show you, but not out here. I don’t want to upset anyone more than I have to.”

Rahoul rolled his eyes but followed her into the woods, humoring her before he told her no. She stopped, turned to face him as she shed her jacket, and said, “I hope you had a light breakfast.”

He would never be able to describe what she did next, except to say that she twisted inside of her skin. It was horrible to watch, as a small humanoid warped into a muscular black feline with the same mass as Rachel and the same eyes. Khan almost did lose his breakfast before the transformation finished. “What, how, what are you?” he gasped. She’s shed her belt and boots during the change and still wore the shirt, but slipped out of the split skirt as he stared, her body language daring him to laugh. He didn’t dare.

<<i’m a=”” hybrid,=”” major=”” khan,=”” and=”” i’m=”” <span=”” class=”hiddenSpellError” pre=”a ” data-mce-bogus=”1″>werecat, for lack of a better term. You can see why I don’t do this very often. As you would think, it hurts like hellfire.>> The large animal approached closer, then butted its head under his slack hand. <<Scratch please, there’s a good human.>>

Her fur felt thick and soft as he obliged, part of him still gibbering in shock.

<<Well, at least you’re still trainable>> she sent to his mind. She leaned against him, shoulder reaching almost to his hip as he scratched her back and neck. <<Now will you help me?>>

The threat simmering in her mind voice sped his decision. I think cooperation is the better part of valour, Rahoul gulped, especially with those huge claws and longer fangs. “Yes. Just give me a few minutes to get things arranged. And, um, does Command One know about this little trick of yours?”

Her negative didn’t surprise him. <<No, and even General Johnny never knew. You are the first in the Regiment, although I have a feeling that the RSM suspects something. The fewer people that know, the better Rahoul. For a number of reasons.>> He could think of eight or ten reasons just off the top of his head and went back to work hoping he’d never have to watch that process ever again.

She’d resumed her customary form by the time he got free. Rachel lowered her shields, her mouth twitching down at the corner. She didn’t like the new wariness she sensed from Rahoul but there was nothing she could do about it.

“I’m going to try with a bird first,” he said, sitting back against the trunk of a tree and closing his eyes. Rachel established a light contact with him, just enough to ground for him and to sense what he learned. The South Asian officer frowned, then relaxed, and she caught a hint of soaring flight and a view from above of the woods and humans. Khan didn’t try to control the hawk, just watched through its eyes as it passed around, then over the alien ship. There was no response from below, encouraging both warriors.

Rahoul came back to himself and looked over at his ground. “Here goes nothing, as the Americans say,” and closed his eyes again. She followed him as he found a deer and nudged it closer and closer to the ship as it browsed. The approach seemed to take forever and Rachel struggled to curb her impatience. The deer walked up to the side of the ship, nibbled and sniffed the part-crushed plants, then drifted away over the course of ten minutes. Once it was out of sight of the vessel, Rahoul released the doe and came back to himself again. Rachel severed her ground and sat back, watching him closely to make certain he wasn’t having problems.

“Rachel, is there anything you can’t do?” he asked, still not opening his eyes just yet.

“Swim, fish, sail, do electronics, embroider, knit, and work on cars. I make a very poor diplomat and my baked goods are banned under your Geneva protocols against chemical and biological weapons,” she replied, drawing a weary laugh.

He finally looked looked over at her. “You don’t care for water, in other words.” He stood up, shaking his head and blinking.

“Correct. I like to drink it and bathe in it in captivity, but water and I don’t get along well otherwise.” She accepted his hand to get to her feet. “And now to persuade Command One to let me do a recon, provided you’re willing to help.”

“I am. Let me know what he says.”

Rachel made her way back through the gathered vehicles. “Command One, a moment please?” she requested. Whitehead recognized the tone and dismissed the others, leaving them alone for a moment in the command vehicle.

“I can get into the ship,” she said.

His eyes bulged. “How? Not that I doubt you, but . . .”

She gave him one of those totally inhuman looks that made him wonder about her sanity. “I can make their sensors read me as being an animal. And I fit into that exhaust port Command Two’s bird found.” Whitehead noticed that his advisor didn’t appear happy about the prospect, which reassured him.

He thought hard, running a finger under the loosened chinstrap on his helmet. “You do realize what may happen if you get stuck, or caught? We cannot jeopardize the hostages. I’m not saying no, but are you aware of all the implications?” He watched her nod, then start ticking points off on her fingers.

“If I get stuck, then I get unstuck, leave a little fur behind and run back into the woods like a scalded cat,” and she flashed a quick grin. “I get caught, the Aadmoe keep me as a pet, or they kill me, or they toss me out on my tail.” She omitted what might happen if she needed to shift back into a form with thumbs and a speaking mouth. “Since they are threatening, no, promising to kill a child within the next four hours unless we surrender to them, I don’t see much of a loss. But they’re not my children, so I can say that.”

“Let me think about this, Cat One,” he said, a worried look in his pale green eyes.

“Yes sir.”

Whitehead considered her offer as Capt. marsh returned to the command vehicle. It could give them critical information about where the hostages were, how many enemy soldiers they faced, and other things. But could he risk the danger to the hostages and to his xenologist? She wasn’t completely irreplaceable, but he didn’t want to put her in danger if he could avoid it.

She was chewing some of her omnipresent dried beef and listening to the paramedics as they briefed pediatric trauma procedures when his messenger found her. “Cat One, Command One wants you,” Corporal Garcia informed her.

Whitehead had made up his mind. “All right Cat One, you have my permission to try and gain access to the Aadmoe ship. If you can get in, locate the hostages, and if possible, get an estimate on how many Aadmoe there are in the ship. I assume you have communications sorted out?”

“Yes, sir. I will be working with Command Two, since I can’t carry anything with me on this little jaunt.” Whitehead caught the increasingly feral look in her eye and didn’t like it.

“Be careful. Do not, I repeat do not, put yourself in any more danger than is absolutely necessary, and don’t do anything that might provoke the Aadmoe. Is that understood?”

She nodded, throttling herself back. “Yes. I understand.”

He studied her, then sighed. “I don’t want to know how you are doing this, do I?”

“Not really. You’ll figure it out in time but right now you don’t want to know.”

“Very well. You are dismissed.” She disappeared into early evening sunlight.

Fifteen minutes later one of the scouts, Corporal Lee, looked at the brush near the ship, blinked, and looked again. He nudged his partner and pointed. Garcia followed the cue, then adjusted his helmet’s monocular.

Garcia’s lips pursed in a silent whistle. “That’s the biggest damn cat I ever saw outside a zoo! Has anyone reported a missing jaguar?” The object of their interest acted perfectly cat like, skulking around the bushes, darting after a late-season butterfly, looking at birds, except that it stood nearly a meter tall at the shoulder. It had a jet-black pelt and one grey eye and seemed to be moving toward the Aadmoe vessel. “You ever see a cat with a grey eye before?”

Lee shook his head. “Negative, but I’m a dog man.”

As the puzzled humans watched, the cat eased up beside the spaceship, rubbing on the hull and scratching its back against part of the heat shield. Then the animal looked over its shoulder at them, slowly closed and reopened its eye, and leapt up, grabbing the edge of what looked like an air vent and scrambling itself into the opening.

Rahoul Khan decided that he never wanted to do anything like this again if he could at all avoid it. Once she shifted form completely, the mind-link with Rachel came effortlessly. He could see through her eye and feel the smooth metal under her paws, and the sensations bothered him a great deal. She was keeping a light shield so he didn’t sense her thoughts or emotions, but he still did not enjoy being so deep in Rachel’s mind. And he got the feeling she didn’t care for it much, either.

Once she crawled into the air ducts and wiring passages, Khan narrated her route to General Whitehead and an engineer, who made a map of the cat’s path and observations as she went. “Looking through a grill at three o’clock, seems to be a ready-room, five Aadmoe. Continuing along air duct,” he paused as she did, “turning right, towards interior of ship. Passage narrows, pulling back, continuing along air duct.” After perhaps ten minutes, the narration stopped, and Whitehead could see Khan frowning. The major opened his eyes, annoyed. “She’s stopping to go into the room. I told her not to, but she says it could be very important.”

Whitehead sighed, then looked at the diagram. “While she’s poking around, Khan, take a break and get something to drink,” and the general waved at the table where water and tea were waiting. Khan stepped outside for a moment, then returned, got some water and reestablished contact with their wayward spy.

“Oh dear. Cat One seems to have found their main weapons magazine, General.” Khan fell silent, then snorted in amusement.

“What’s she doing, Khan?” Whitehead sounded testy.

Rahoul opened his eyes and smiled. “She’s, well, playing. Tinkering, clawing things, biting the corners off other items, and ruining equipment. Bad cat, used something with electronics on it as a sandbox.” He closed his eyes again. “Back in the vent system. Returning towards original path, moving forward through the ship.”

Now she moved on a straight line, accelerating. “She’s locked onto something, can’t tell what it is though. She won’t tell me. Still straight ahead, stopping, looking out a grill at three o’clock and sees four Aadmoe, resumes motion.” Khan cut off abruptly, freezing in place. “She’s found them. She’s looking through a grill and sees the children. She’s trying to count them, but it’s dark. Oy!” His eyes flew open. “She threw me out. But the children are here,” and he pointed to the map.

A few minutes later, Khan went still again, listening to a voice only he could hear. He shook his head in exasperation. “General, she’s in with the children.”

“What?! How did she? How are they?” Whitehead’s eyes were wide as he jumped to his feet.

Khan’s face went blank as he listened for a few more seconds. “She got the grill loose and dropped it onto some bedding, then jumped onto a bunk-bed of some sort, and down to the floor. She says there are sixteen children being held captive.”

“That matches our number of missing.”

 

Rachel dropped the link with Khan, instead focusing on projecting friend coming, don’t be afraid, it’s alright, don’t be afraid as she flowed down from the air vent, onto the bed and thence in among the children. By rights they should have been cowering or screaming in terror as a one-eyed black cat appeared in the room, and the quiet set off her internal alarms. She looked around at the wide-eyed children, then dropped any pretense of dignity, flopped onto her side and rolled over on her back, paws outstretched. After a few tense moments one of the braver boys approached and scratched her belly. She purred. “It’s just like my moggy!” he exclaimed, and several other children swarmed over her, petting and hugging the large, soft creature. Rachel rolled back onto her side and let them clamber on her, reducing the projected emotions down to a whisper.

She studied them as they played over her. None of the children looked older than ten, most between eight and six. Many had scratches and bruises and she could sense a few that were curled up in the bunks, not feeling well or hurting. Before she could investigate farther, a scratching noise came from near the door and Rachel scooted under one of the bunks as the children scattered, pushing themselves back, against the bulkheads. What’s that mean, I wonder? The door slid open and from her hiding place she got a good view of a bipedal avian Aadmoe with yellow eyes and a hooked beak like raptor. It looked around the room, clicked its beak once or twice, then waved more of the birdlike creatures in. These carried food and drinks, which they set on the floor, then left. The guard, as Rachel named it, scanned the cell again, then shut the solid door. Quiet returned to the cell.

She decided to take a chance and shifted back into her true form, then eased out from under the bed. “Shhhh,” she cautioned. Two of the girls squealed, and Rachel caught one, clamping a hand over the girl’s mouth before more than a squeak emerged. “No. Be very quiet, please. OK?” The little one nodded and Rachel removed her hand. As she’d stilled the child, most of the children had dived into the food. Satisfied that she’d be ignored, Rachel checked on the four children that had felt odd to her mental scan. One was a little black girl whose leg rested at an abnormal angle as she lay on the bed. Her eyes looked white in the shadows and Rachel smiled gently. “It’s alright. Your parents asked me to come check on you.” As she spoke, she very carefully touched the girl’s leg, easing the pain of a wrenched knee and ankle and the deformed hip.

Another girl was sick at her stomach and a boy had an ear infection, both of which Rachel took care of right there. The last child stared up at her with fearful eyes, shaking. “What’s the matter?” she asked, her voice as quiet and warm as she could manage. Don’t want to project again. Need the energy.

He shook his head, “Spreche kein Englisch.”

She knelt beside the padded shelf he lay on. “Spreche Deutsch. Was ist los?”

“They took my medicine away and I hurt,” he explained in German.

She reached out to him, muting some of the pain of arthritic joints. Then she crawled under the low bed platform, changing back into her full cat shape. <<Command Two, are you still there?>>

She twitched at the flash of anger. <<Yes you idiot! What is going on?>>

<Aadmoe are feeding them sedatives with their food. Which gives me an idea.>>

His negative blasted through the link and would have knocked her off her feet. <<No! I don’t care what it is, no.>>

She raised her shields and jumped onto the crippled girl’s bunk, sniffing and nudging the child as she eased more of the pain. Around her, the other fourteen prisoners staggered to their bunks, or fell asleep on the floor beside the food and water pans. Rachel flowed back onto the floor, studied the children, the ventilation duct, and thought hard. She lowered her shields and tested to see if Khan was listening.

<<Cat One, Command One wants you out. That’s an order.>> There was a strong undertone of worry in Khan’s mind, both for the children and for her.

She sighed. <<Very well. I’m coming.>> Shields back up, she added, but not alone and not without making a quick side-trip first. Let’s see just low the lowest bidder was, shall we?

The soldiers on watch outside the ship startled when their night-vision equipment showed something dropping out of the open air-vent. Then another bundle fell the meter to the ground. After a pause of a few minutes, something pushed a third limp form out of the hole in the ship, and a fourth.

Khan heard a faint, tired voice in his mind. <Aadmoe are dealing with a wiring short in their scanner systems. Now’s your chance—grab the kitlings!>> He relayed the message and the scouts darted forward, picking up a pair of sleeping children and hurrying back. On the next trip two seconded SAS men joined the scouts, rushing four more children to safety in the darkness. Khan didn’t try to send, he just prayed as another pair of limp bodies emerged from the ship to be snatched up by eager hands. After a nerve-wracking pause the watchers at last saw a black shape lower one more child by the scruff of his shirt collar, followed by a fourteenth. Then the cat vanished and failed to reappear.

“Ask her what’s going on,” Whitehead ordered his tired executive officer.

<on line soon. Last children too weak and hurt to move. Aadmoe starting to hear things in the vents and I’m trapped. Sorry.>>

Khan relayed her words and the gathered men and women groaned. “Damn, she almost did it,” one of the sergeants sighed. One of the lieutenants handed Whitehead a message. Whitehead read the orders from Horseguards, read them again, and dismissed the NCOs and junior officers.

“London says they can’t wait anymore. Since we have a partial lay-out of the ship, we are to attack and try to liberate the hostages.” The general looked at his staff officers, seeing disbelief, anger and irritation. “Fortunately, we only have three to worry about and one of those is Cat One, who can take care of herself if anyone can. So,” he pulled out the map the engineer and Khan had created, with additions for known doors and other external details.

Rachel, still in full cat shape, had chivied the German boy, Alexander von Grauberg, onto the same bottom bunk as the little girl, Tanja Washington. She lay down between them and was not surprised when they cuddled up to her flanks and dozed off. As much pain as the boy had been in, he’d probably not been able to sleep much at all and she stifled the urge to start washing him. Rachel sighed and wondered what the hell to do next and how the Aadmoe would react when they discovered that all but two of their hostages had vanished. Nothing good came to mind. Ah well, might as well nap. That’s what Earth cats do, after all. Nap or wash. She gave her forepaw a meditative lick, then drifted into a light sleep.

When the cell door opened some time later, the cat had maneuvered so she lay between the children and the Aadmoe. The guard looked in, then looked further in, and shone a light into the night-dark cell. The creature turned on the lights and peered around. It clicked and cried out with a harsh, piercing call. Two more of the bipedal birds entered the cell, searching frantically for their captives, followed by a pair that took up posts beside the door. To her amazement, the Aadmoe ignored her! She took the risk of trying to “read” one of them when it brushed past her and could barely believe what she found. And I thought Azdhagi were parochial, she thought behind heavy shields. She yawned and studied the invaders, then started washing as if there was nothing at all of interest going on in the world. And no curiosity as to how I got in, either. Very strange. I’m surprised the species has survived to reproduce. A dreadful thought struck her unless they have been controlled and programmed, in which case by what and who got them here? The groups that can do that . . . If they are under external control, I don’t think I will try to find out. Too dangerous. She raised her shields as high as she could.

The trio of birds ran from the cell, locking the door behind them and leaving two more guards with the two remaining children and the “insignificant creature.” One guard turned the lights off again, and Rachel yawned. If it’s not a human, they ignore it. Amazing. Thank you God for stupid invaders. However, that didn’t mean they wouldn’t make good on their threat to kill the hostages, and they might just go on and terminate her as well. She ignored the guards and they did the same.

Khan’s “knock” distracted her. <<Go ahead Command Two,>> she replied.

<<we’ve been=”” ordered=”” to=”” attack=”” the=”” <span=”” class=”hiddenSpellError” pre=”the ” data-mce-bogus=”1″>Aadmoe ship and rescue the hostages. What’s your situation and position, over?>>

She started washing a hind leg. <<i’m in=”” with=”” the=”” children=”” and=”” two=”” guards.=”” <span=”” class=”hiddenSpellError” pre=”The ” data-mce-bogus=”1″>Aadmoe have completely disregarded me and have not threatened the children yet.>>

Khan grimaced as he passed on the message. “What’s wrong, Command Two?” Captain Marsh asked.

“Think what cats do when they bathe.”

Marsh thought, then wrinkled his nose. “That’s bloody rude of her.”

<<Stand by,>> Khan heard before the link faded for a moment. <<ah, <span=”” class=”hiddenSpellError” pre=”” data-mce-bogus=”1″>Rahoul, we’d better drop the link unless it’s an emergency. One of the guards seems to be a bit sensitive.>>

Khan relayed the message and Whitehead gave his reluctant consent. <<Right then. See you in a few hours.>>

He had to smile at her response. <<don’t be=”” late!=”” i’m=”” hungry=”” enough=”” to=”” <span=”” class=”hiddenGrammarError” pre=”to ” data-mce-bogus=”1″>try and find out if Aadmoe taste like chicken.>>

General Whitehead called his squad leaders in for the pre-attack briefing. “Here’s a partial map of the Aadmoe ship, courtesy of Command Two, Cat One, and Bridge Three from the engineers. There’s going to be a diversion here,” he pointed off to the side of the Aadmoe ship, near the holding cell’s location. “As if we were trying to break in. The main attack comes here, with a small group coming in here,” he indicated the vent “as a third distraction group to link up with the main attack.” Whitehead detailed and assigned positions. “Questions?”

Captain Rolfe asked “What about the threat to kill the hostages if we attack?”

“London has decided that the larger security risks are such that we’d better chance it. And Cat One is in with the remaining hostages, which should give them some protection,” Whitehead pointed out. He did not try to conceal his dislike of the situation.

“Are we in communication with Cat One?” Lt. Swoboda inquired. “And if so, can she help guide us?”

Whitehead shook his head. “At her recommendation we terminated communications for safety reasons. And she’s being observed, so for her to try and leave would give her route away.”

There were no other questions and Whitehead dismissed the men and women to finish their preparations. He caught Rahoul on the way out. “No. I want you to stay here and get some rest. I’ll send an orderly for you in half an hour.”

“Yes sir.”

Rachel’s first hint of the action came when one of the guards vanished. Her eye narrowed and she thought about the new situation. The children slept soundly and the avian on watch still ignored the large feline. It’s armed, probably has orders to shoot them if something starts happening. I wager it also has hollow bones. She stretched and moved around, working closer to the guard with each slow step. When she got just over a meter away, Rachel snarled and leaped. The bird swung its rifle around too late. The shot went over her head, punching a hole in the interior bulkhead as sixty kilos of muscle slammed into the guard. Rachel heard a satisfying “snap” as the bird’s neck broke. She dragged, then half stuffed the deceased under one of the bunks, out of sight of the young ones.

The commotion woke them up but not before she hid the body. Rachel eased back to the door and checked the rifle over, familiarizing herself with the weapon, then shifted form again so she could activate the safety. She leaned the rifle against the end of the bunk where the children were. “How are you feeling, “ she asked Alex in German.

“I don’t hurt as bad,” he said, “and I’m hungry!”

Tanja chimed in, echoing, “I’m hungry.” Rachel looked over the food remaining from earlier and sniffed out some that had a minimal amount of whatever drugs the Aadmoe had been using, and gave that and water to the pair. As they ate, they watched the strange grown-up. “Do you have a name?” Tanja wanted to know after she finished and had wrapped the blanket around herself.

“I have several. What do you think my name is?” Rachel teased before she translated for Alex.

“Rumplestilskin?” He suggested and she laughed.

“No, I can’t spin straw into gold. Try again.”

The little girl thought hard, frowning. “I bet it’s Miss Kitty!” she declared, and the Rachel hugged her.

“You win. How’d you know?”

“Because you are a girl and you look like a cat.” The eight year old sounded highly pleased with her logic.

Something exploded outside the ship’s fuselage, making the children jump and cling to her. Rachel shifted into battlefield mode, locating the source of the sound and estimating its force. Now it starts getting interesting. Rachel lowered her shields enough to sense the agitation and anger of the Aadmoe and the eagerness of the human attackers. She balanced Alex and Tanja on her lap, eye closed and trying to project as much calm and quiet as possible.

Alex looked up at her when he heard the first shots. “Was ist das?” What’s that?

“The soldiers are coming to get us,” she explained in German and English.

“What about the bad birds?”

She hugged the children close. “Don’t worry about them. I’ll keep you safe. I’m a kind of soldier too.”

They waited, Rachel on alert for anyone trying to enter the holding cell and the children scared but calm. She heard an echoing “whump-bang” like a grenade and frowned, wondering who tossed that into where, and if it was human or the Aadmoe. The sounds grew louder and another, closer “whump-bang” echoed through their part of the Aadmoe ship. A mental shout interrupted her speculations.

Khan pounded on her shields. <<Something went wrong!>> He sent a flash image of flames and smoke in what she’d identified as a weapons storage area. <<We’re pulling back.>>

Oh no. She made some quick calculations and picked up the children, carrying them one at a time to the far corner of their cell before trying unsuccessfully to pull one of the mattresses off the beds. Shit. Now what do I use? Tanja and Alex clung to her as the woman wedged them into the small space. “Miss Kitty, what’s happening?”

“Shhh. We’ll be alright,” Rachel lied as she settled down between them and the rest of the room. “I’m going to take care of you. You’re going to hear a loud sound and see a bright flash, like thunder and lightning. That’s how we are getting out of here.” The Wanderer-hybrid gently stroked their heads, holding them as tightly as she dared and projecting calm that she didn’t feel. I wish I had pockets for jam, because we are about to be toast.

 

The last of the human troopers fled out the original entry point as flames ripped through the ship. A series of explosions tore out the side of the Aadmoe’s vessel, scattering metal and shreds of bush and greenery across the clearing and several meters into the forest. The concussion rocked the closest observers and sent birds and animals fleeing. Fortunately, the blasts vented in roughly the same direction, through the original hole and the main corridor. The humans watched in awe that shifted to dread.

“Oh shit, “ Khan whispered. No human can survive that.

Fifteen minutes after what seemed to be the final eruption Andrew Whitehead and RSM Richard Chan stood silent, watching the flames curl then die in the autumn rain. “Damn it!” the general swore under his breath, “We were so bloody close!” Smoke and steam trickled up from the debris. At least all the troopers got out, Whitehead said to himself, and only two civilians and Rachel died. “Command Two, see to securing the remains of the ship,” he ordered, “and watch out for unexploded ordinance. Hunter Two, organize a patrol to sweep for any remaining Aadmoe.”

“Yes sir.” Whitehead returned to the command trailer, dreading the phone calls he was going to have to make to London and to the children’s families. Rachel had no next-of-kin to notify, he remembered, feeling first relieved then guilty at his relief. Damn, but she’s going to be hard to replace.

 

RSM Chan heard it first. “Quiet!” he ordered the troopers with him. He turned and listened, then took off his helmet and listened harder. “Over there.” He started picking his way through the wreckage. Khan also heard the faint cry, like an animal or a young child in pain. Once the men found the spot, they set to work moving pieces of debris away from the source of the sound one bit at a time, trying to keep from shifting any of the heavy debris too much. Two of the corporals lifted a large sheet of metal and found, “Thank God!”

“Holy shit!”

“Medic!”

As soon as he saw her, Rahoul knew what Rachel had done. RSM Chan rolled the woman’s body off the children and picked up a small boy who clung to him, sobbing in German. The Sergeant Major handed the boy to Khan, who checked him over but found no obvious injuries. The little girl acted dazed and had some cuts on her legs, one of which seemed twisted, but also appeared otherwise unharmed. Three of the soldiers took the children to the paramedics waiting at the edge of the debris field.

Khan and the stocky, bald RSM crouched down beside Rachel Na Gael’s body. Oh, what have you done Khan thought, touching her scarlet-covered hand.

“I don’t believe it,” the RSM said, feeling the alien’s neck. “I’ve got a pulse. She’s still alive!”

Blood covered her fur, more oozed from her head, and Khan though he could see white bone where shrapnel had torn away pert of her shoulder muscle. “Not for much longer,” Khan said. “Help carry her, Sar-Major. I know it could cause worse spinal trauma, but it’s still unstable here.”

The RSM substituted actions for words, easily lifting the small woman. Khan steadied Chan as they worked their way back through the remains of the ship and woods around it. Medics waited for them, eyes wide at the damage the xenology specialist had taken. As soon as Chan laid his burden down, the medics swarmed her, forcing the two soldiers back out of the way. One looked up at Khan and said, “Don’t worry sir, she’s in experienced hands.”

Khan wasn’t reassured and pointed out, “She’s not human. Our drugs and procedures probably won’t work on her, not like they’re supposed to.”

As he watched them work, Rahoul wracked his brain trying to remember something she had mentioned back when they made that trip to the information Mart, something medical.

Suddenly it came to him. “There’s a protocol. Ah, the sangre protocol, that’s it!”

The lead medic gave him a strange look. “The what?”

“If she’s critically injured, take her to headquarters. The medical officer knows about it.”

Still looking at Rahoul as if he’d lost his mind, the sergeant made a quick call. “Yes, Doc. Cat One’s code red. Yes. Stable but not for much longer. No. Oh. Wilco.” The American, shaking his head, flipped a switch on his wireless before ordering, “Get her ready to transport. Doc says Command Two knows what to do once we get her back to headquarters.”

Rahoul trotted off to explain to Command One that he needed to escort the xenologist back to headquarters.

“How can you do anything the medics can’t?” Whitehead pointed out.

Rahoul agreed. “I can’t, sir, but her ship’s medical equipment might be able to repair some of the damage.”

The general officer looked dubious and Rahoul pushed his point. “Sir, she’s dying either way. If she dies in her ship or out here, she’s still dead. So why not take a chance? And unless security protocols have changed, we have to dispose of her body as soon as possible, so having it at headquarters will speed things up.”

“How do you know that bit of information, Major?” Whitehead’s eyes narrowed.

“Because I was one of the three witnesses who signed the protocol, sir.”

Whitehead sighed and then agreed. Troopers loaded Rachel into one of the medical helicopters and took her back to headquarters. Once on the ground, Rahoul led the way into the lab, opening the panel that granted access to Rachel’s ship by the simple expedient of holding her hand against it. He and Richard Chan stretched her out on the cushioned surface of the medical tank and Khan tried to remember what she had told him, eight years before. Chan frowned, then pointed to something. “Sir, what if we just close the lid and push the green button? If it’s that smart, it should figure out what she needs.”

Rahoul did as suggested and the two men watched Rachel as the machine hummed and a thin fog oozed into the compartment. After a few minutes, her breathing deepened and slowed, and a series of lights that seemed to indicate heartbeat grew brighter. They turned to each other and shrugged. “Now we wait,” Rahoul said.

“Yes sir, but if anyone can recover, she will. She’s tougher than a boot.”

“That she is, Sar Major. We’d best leave it to it, than,” Rahoul agreed. They left the ship, shutting the wall panel behind them.

A few hours later General Whitehead called the RSM and Major Khan aside, brandishing some papers. “This is from the initial examination of the two children and the wreckage. The children said that Cat One told them that she’d keep them safe, no matter what happened. As best as anyone can tell, she gambled that they were far enough from the blast that the wee ones would survive with a little protection and Rachel made herself that protection. The children remember a loud noise and flash, and then it was dark and she was there but didn’t answer. That’s when the boy started crying and you heard him,” he tipped his head towards the senior NCO. Whitehead’s eyes were bright with something and Rahoul had to look away to keep his composure.

After a quiet minute, “Come on, gentlemen,” Whitehead said. “We have work to do.” The three men returned to their duties in the bright early-afternoon light.

 

Just after midnight a panel in the laboratory wall swung open Rachel slowly and carefully slipped into the lab and crept up the stairs to her quarters. She hadn’t expected to wake up, at least not in this world. She ached down to her bones and could barely move, but she was alive. She put on her “uniform,” ate and drank a little, then scribbled a note and left it on the desk before returning to her ship and the haven of the medical equipment there. The Wanderer programmed a three-hour process, lay down and closed the lid, letting the machines send her back into blessedly pain-free oblivion.

Captain Marsh found the note early that morning and brought it to General Whitehead. “I recognize her signature, but none of the rest of this mess,” the general admitted. “It looks like words, though. I wonder if Khan or one of the others can make anything out of it?”

An hour later, Rahoul studied the note and frowned. “Sir, I think it’s Rachel’s working language. I know her sigil,” and he pointed to the characters at the end of the message, “the thing she uses for a signature, but I only speak a little of what she calls Trader Talk. She never taught me to read it.”

Whitehead looked intrigued. “How many languages does she speak, Rahoul? Do you know?”

“Haven’t a clue, sir. Trader Talk, her native language, Azdhagi, English, German, and that’s all I can think of.”

“Her résumé says some French and Czech as well,” Captain Rolfe added as the officers shook their heads in amazement. “But if she’s as old as she claims, she’s had plenty of time to learn!”

“And I have a hard enough time keeping English, Punjabi, German, and Russian straight,” Rahoul muttered under his breath.

Whitehead settled onto the edge of the conference table and pointed at Rahoul. “Go keep an eye on her and see if you can get her back to speaking English. And make sure she’s alright,” he added as an afterthought. As Khan rose to go, his commander caught his eye. “Be careful Rahoul,” he cautioned.

Rahoul was sitting at the desk in the lab catching up on his paperwork when he heard footsteps behind him. He turned slowly and smoothly, not making any abrupt or rapid movement. He’d learned early on that startling the xenologist could be bad for his health. She looked dazed and seemed to be having trouble with her vision, blinking and peering at him. He got up and gestured for her to sit, which she did. She cleared her throat and asked something in that strange half-guttural, half-musical language he remembered from the Mart. He cobbled together an answer and she looked relieved.

It took an hour and most of a pot of black tea, but Rahoul managed to get her started back speaking English. “How are you feeling?” he asked, handing her another mug of tea. Fortunately, the electric kettle and tea things remained in the same place as they’d been three years before.

“Like I got run over by one of your Challenger tanks that then reversed and parked on me for a few hours,” she admitted. “I’m at about eighty percent. Give me a few days and I’ll be back to normal.”

“Good. Because General Whitehead wants you to get your reports filed so London and Vienna won’t pester him,” Rahoul informed her with a mean smile.

She groaned and covered her good eye.

“In fact,” he continued, “If you can manage it, he wants to see you now.”

She glowered up at him, then levered herself out of the chair. “Might as well get it over with.” She picked up one of her walking sticks and they made their slow way down the halls from the lab to the area with the offices. “I don’t suppose you would care to tell me how much trouble I’m in, would you?” she asked, fluttering her eyelashes at him.

He snorted, shaking his head a little as they rounded the corner.

“Oh well. That trick never has worked for me.”

The moment they entered the office door, Gen. Whitehead took one look at his xenologist and pointed at the closest chair. “Sit.”

She grinned, “Shall I stay, play dead, and roll over as well?”

“Wiseass,” Whitehead growled, the spoiled it by smiling broadly. “How are you?”

“As I told Major Khan, I’m at about eighty percent. I need a few more days to get back to full speed. By the by,” she added, “To whom do I owe my not waking up dead?”

Whitehead nodded towards his executive officer. “That would be Major Khan and RSM Chan, plus the medics on scene. Khan, you’re excused for the moment,” Whitehead said. “But don’t go too far.”

“Yes sir,” Khan shut the door behind him.

“Commander, you did not quite disobey a direct order, but came within centimeters of it. You put yourself in jeopardy and damn near died; would have if Khan hadn’t been so insistent that we get you back to your ship. You put the hostages in danger, should the Aadmoe have retaliated. And your report is overdue. What do you have to say for yourself?”

Whitehead’s anger felt genuine and Rachel cringed a bit inside. I’ll just deflect him and see if that works. “I did what seemed like the right thing to do on the spot, sir. And it worked. Would I do it again? I don’t know. I do know that I won’t go into a link that tight with anyone again if I can help it. The risks to both of us are too great.” She shook her head, then winced, “and I won’t do that again soon, either. Ow. If you want an apology sir, I’m sorry for worrying you and the others and I’m sorry but I won’t be doing anything in my full-feline shape again. I can’t apologize for the rest.”

He folded his arms. “Somehow I didn’t think you would. And I can’t order you not to do anything like that in the future, because God forbid but I may have to ask you to.” He looked resigned, and then leaned forward and peered at her. She seemed to be having difficulty focusing on him. “What’s wrong?”

“Sorry sir. The head injury scrambled my vision a bit and it’ll be another day before it gets back to normal.”

“One last thing before I call Khan back in. What are your intentions towards my new executive officer?”

The Wanderer gave him a puzzled look, then realized what he was asking. “Completely honorable, sir. I intend to work with him, to teach him if he wants to learn, just as I do with everyone else in the unit. If we stay friends, then we stay friends, but absolutely nothing more: I don’t date outside my species.” She chuckled, “This won’t be the first time a former subordinate has come to outrank me and I hope it won’t be the last.”

Whitehead didn’t try to hide his relief. “Good. I detest romantic messes. It’s pleasant to deal with a grown-up for a change,” he said, getting up and opening the door. “Khan, come back in.”

Rahoul took the seat beside Cdr. Na Gael and the general leaned on the edge of his desk, looking down at the pair. Quite a contrast: a short, almost slender alien with one pale eye and more secrets than the Masonic Order, and a taller, South-Asian officer who looked and sounded like an army recruiting poster until you worked with him for a while. Whitehead nodded to himself. They’d do.

“First, congratulations to both of you on the fine work you did. I take it that neither of you care to repeat the experience any time soon?” Khan shook his head and Rachel responded with an enthusiastic “No sir.”

“Too bad, because you could make a magnificent recon team. Second, Commander, you are going to teach both Khan and I enough of your language that we can communicate with you if you get injured again.” It would also make a very good form of secure communication, Whitehead had decided.

“Yes sir. I’ll come up with a list of basic terms and phrases that would fit our situation. Do you also want the major curse words, or shall I reserve those for private use?” A gleam of wicked humor glinted in that strange silver-grey eye and Khan gave her a wary, sideways glance.

“I leave that to your discretion, Commander Na Gael,” the general stated. “Now, you are off duty for the next thirty-six hours. It’s time for dinner, so go get something to eat, then get some rest. But I want your report as soon as you can get it to me.” She left and Whitehead asked Rahoul, “Khan, what are your intentions toward the Commander?”

The officer seemed nonplussed. “I stood as her godfather during my first posting here, and I admired her courage and sense of honor, even when General Eastman wanted to strangle her.”

“I can sympathize,” Whitehead muttered as Rahoul continued, “I want to learn from her. And I’d like to stay friends with her, sir. Nothing else.”

Whitehead could have cheered. “That makes two adults in this command, which is a blessed relief! Go get yourself some food and see what you can do about Captain Marsh’s latest equipment requisition.”

That night Rachel did not go off duty, or rather, Commander Rada Ni Drako set to work pulling everything she could find out of her ship’s logs, tracking any timeship that had passed through the Sol-3 system. By dawn she’d compiled a list that left her shaking her head. What is going on? I do not like this at all. This is supposed to be a low traffic area. Maybe I should tell Joschka about this, see what he can come up with.

The Dark Hart seemed disinclined to agree with her. “You can’t do that,” she reminded the creature in the translucent tank. “You’re not sapient.” She felt a rude impression, as if the psycho-symbiote were flashing a single extended digit. “Right, my head hurts, my ship is telling me off, and paperwork is indulging in asexual reproduction on my desk. I’m going to bed.”

(C) 2015 Alma T.C. Boykin  All Rights Reserved.

Advertisements