Chapter 1: Beware Monsters
It was a dark place. Cold. But, it was a place, she could feel that. It wasn't nothingness, or void. She couldn't see anything, or touch anything, but she knew things were there. Something about the air, and the way it flowed past her... hey, there was air! And there was ground, under her feet. She bent down, excited, and put her palm flat in front of her - yes, ground. Flat and smooth. Not outdoors then - a room somewhere.
And maybe, just maybe... she muttered under her breath, and clicked her fingers. A yellow glow sprang into being at her fingertips. She held her hand aloft, in unconscious imitation of the Statue of Liberty. Shadows fled in every direction. A floor under her feet, a little shiny but otherwise featureless, just the suggestion of a wall, frustratingly beyond the reach of her light. She stepped forward, and heard a faint click! The light in her hand extinguished before she even consciously thought about it, and she stood silent and still, ears almost quivering - newly blind eyes straining toward the sound. A chink of light showed some way in front of her, then a long diagonal beam, as a door was set ajar. Muffled grunting, and swearing, a confused bobble of heads, and bodies. They were carrying something, something heavy. She stepped backwards stealthily on bare feet. There was a thud - they'd hit the wall. More curses, then a heavy dull thump as they dropped their burden on the floor.
"Sod this for a game of soldiers! This freak's got to weigh 300 pounds." A figure straightened, limned in the shaft of light from the door, pressing the small of his back.
Freak? She moved back another step, felt a wall behind her. Stopped.
"My back's killing me," said the voice sulkily. His foot swung, and he connected with the shadowy mass on the floor. There was dull thud of boot meeting body.
"Fuck, fuck, fuck!" He was hopping about the room, foot in his hand.
"The freak's built like a rock, you moron." There was a little swell of unsympathetic laughter from the other men present. The speaker shook his head, looking at the shadowy parcel in front of them. "Free gift be damned. I knew that bastard back in the Jagellian wars, when he was Lieutenant Roscowinski, and he doesn't give free gifts. We're clearing up his mess for him, that's all."
He sniffed, "Well, let's hope it fetches something from someone. There's always a market for freaks."
How many men were there? She couldn't see. More than two, anyway.At that moment the question resolved itself - each of them slipped out again through the door, and she counted as their heads were outlined in the light. One, two - still limping - that was the whiner; three, four, five. Five guys to carry one 'freak'? Sounds like they caught a big one. The door pulled shut, and she was again in total darkness. Only this time she wasn't alone. This time there was a monster.
Chapter 1 - Beware Monsters
And she was willing to bet the door was locked.
She stood still, hand on the wall behind her, considering her options. Instinct had kept her silent while the men were there, and that still seemed like a smart move. Seems they have a secret. Doubt they wanted to share it with anyone. Including me. Well, maybe it would be smart now to find out just what kind of monster she was locked in with. Door first - shouldn't make assumptions... She summoned a light again, and glided silently forward on bare feet, skirting the huddled shape carefully. Huh - the door had no knob. She could see its oblong shape, but it was set entirely flush with the wall, and totally featureless. No knob, no keypad, no nothing. Well, that was plain enough. Wonder if I could burn it down? she thought brightly - before I burnt myself to death, or asphyxiated myself, that is. Probably not.
She turned to the shape behind her, reluctantly. I thought I'd left the monsters behind. It was huge, swathed in some kind of tarpaulin, although she could see boots sticking out at one end. She hunkered down beside it, regarding what must be the head end. And if I pull this tarp back, what are the odds it's going to grin at me, and say "Boo!"? She reached her hand out - looked at it for a moment. It seemed strange, and familiar all at once. Pale skin, long fingers, nails a bit chewed. Huh. Looks like I have bad habits. Her hand was trembling, so she must be scared; but she didn't feel scared exactly - more sort of... numb. Why is that? She shook it off impatiently. Action first, introspection later. Sounds like a plan. She peeled the tarp back gingerly - and stared, puzzled, at a neat braid of dark hair on the back of a head. A monster who goes to a hair salon?
Right at that moment the monster moved, a huge rippling of the tarp, as it groaned and twisted, and rolled onto its back. Whoah! Back to the monster alert! Its face was a mass of planes and angles - heavy jutting brows, swooping cheekbones - and then there was the... muzzle, and the fangs. The creature was groaning, a deep unearthly thrumming noise, and there was a wet sucking sound under that - like a massive pug dog trying to breathe through its squashed up nose. Ah, there was blood shining black in the light all around the creature's nostrils, and its nose had a skewed sideways look about it. Looks like someone hit you with something heavy, sweetheart. The groaning noise was getting deeper, more laboured. What's that about? The creature's mouth was open, inch long fangs glowing white above the black open maw. Suddenly understanding came. It's choking on its tongue - it's unconscious, and its tongue's choking it. I should do something. She looked at that huge open mouth again - at the teeth. Put my hand in there, it could bite if right off. And why am I trying to save it anyway? When it wakes up it'll probably eat me for breakfast. Um, I could roll it over again, hope the tongue will move by itself.
She looked at the ball of yellow light sitting at the tips of her fingers, then tossed it into the air. It bobbed for a moment, then settled into a hover, casting a buttery glow over the scene. She took hold of the creature's shoulder, and snatched it back - whoah! it was hot! Hand paused just a few inches above the body, Tara could still feel the heat radiating from it, as though the monster was lit by an internal fire. Maybe it has a fever? She put her hand back, rather gingerly, and pushed. Then pushed a bit harder. Then knelt down, placed both her hands together and pushed again, with all her strength. The shape beneath her barely stirred. Well, that was a waste of time... maybe I could pull on its arm, instead? That might work. Nah, It's not going to work, and you know it. She sighed and contemplated the cavernous, gaping mouth, listened to the choking groans. Why do I know I'm going to do this? Clearly I'm a sap. She reached a reluctant hand into the creature's mouth, trying to avoid the sharp, slicing teeth. The creature's tongue was huge, and hot, and unpleasantly muscular and floppy all at once. It was doubled nearly back on itself, obstructing the creature's throat. She wrapped her fingers around the tongue and pulled, and it flopped back into place, trapping her fingers against the beast's lower row of teeth for a heart stopping moment. She tremblingly withdrew her hand and turned it palm upward; it was covered in saliva and blood. Eeew, eeew, eeew! Please, tongue, don't fall back - I really, really don't want to do that twice.
There was an ominous wet gulping sound, followed by a rough rasping breath. The creature's body jerked, sending her scrambling backwards from her kneeling position, then it lay still again, breathing deep ragged breaths, with a little whistling sound at the end of them.
She settled back on to her knees. Hmm, that sounds better, anyway. It should soon be in good enough shape to take a bite out of me. In fact, finding a weapon right now would be good. She got to her feet, and made a quick, unoptimistic search of the room - nothing. Walls, floor, her, the monster. That was it. So, logically, the place to look was the monster. Maybe it was armed? She returned cautiously, to where her patient continued to drag deep noisy breaths, and took hold of the tarpaulin. It pulled away easily from the creature's shoulders - which were massive, bigger than those of the biggest linebacker in existence. But from there on down, the creature was lying on part of the tarp, and soon there was no more pulling away to be done. She peered doubtfully at the dark gap between tarpaulin and creature. Another dark, dangerous place to put my hand, huh? This is turning into some kind of scary Freudian nightmare. She contemplated the dark gap again. Perhaps not - perhaps I'll try the tarpaulin from the other end. She scooted down to the creature's feet - which were clad in the most enormous pair of combat boots she had ever seen. The tarpaulin proved a bit more amenable at this end, with less weight pinning it down. She pulled mightily, and unwrapped at least half of the creature's impossibly long legs. Now if I can just get it uncovered up to the waist... dang. The tarp was stuck again, and with a tchah of annoyance, she tugged mightily - and felt an answering tug.
Her eyes flew up - and met two tawny golden eyes suspiciously regarding her. One enormous hand - tipped with large claws, she noted nervously, was clutching the tarpaulin. The creature's mouth opened, and it spoke. "Who are you?"
"My name's Tara," she heard herself say, "Tara Maclay."
Chapter 2: Let There Be Light
The creature looked back at her. "Taura," it said. Its voice was deep, and strained, but perfectly clear.
"Ah, actually it's Tara, not Taura."
The creature's face rippled into a terrifying frown. Oh well done, dummy - you're worried about this thing eating you, but you just have to correct its pronunciation don't you? Well, it hadn't fallen on her and ripped her throat out for daring to contradict it - that was good. In fact it was tilting its head, as though it was thinking her words over.
"My name is Taura," it said slowly. "You're Tara." It sat up a little more, and the tarp fell away, revealing a long, long body, full of powerful slopes and curves...
Oh, hey, it's a girl monster. And it's - she's - called Taura. Suits her.
Taura looked around at the dark room. "Where is this place? And - what's that?"
She pointed suddenly at the glowing ball of light hovering just over their heads. Her arm was at least three foot long, her hand was massive, and her claws were very sharp. Tara fell back off her knees with a little squeak.
"Sorry!" said Taura. "I forgot you're not used to... well, to me."
"Not a problem," said Tara quickly, "you just kinda startled me there, that's all." She scrambled quickly to her knees again, and gave Taura what she hoped was a reassuring smile. She seems to be a nice friendly monster. "Sorry for the confusion, over the name - Tara and Taura, huh? Um, that's..."
"A totally meaningless coincidence?" said Taura, one heavy brow rising, and a little quirk appearing in her long upper lip.
Not dumb, thought Tara - not dumb at all. Don't fall into the error of acting as if she is. She smiled again, "Yeah, something like that. Anyway," she stuck her hand out, "N-nice to meet you, Taura."
Taura looked down at the outstretched hand in front of her, then abruptly clasped it in her own huge paw. Tara stifled another little squeak. Taura's hand enveloped hers, like a huge hot baseball mitt - and the claws... and she wasn't letting go. Tara took a big swallow of air; she could try and wrench her hand free of course, but somehow that seemed like a really bad idea.
"So, said Taura gravely, still grasping Tara's hand firmly, and flicking a glance towards the ball of light, which hovered above them, "what is it?"
Tara tried yet another smile - see, look how friendly and harmless I am? No point ripping my hand off, and possibly eating it - none at all. "It's just a handy light I carry around with me," she said airily. "Nice to be able to see where you're going." She looked around. Of course - they didn't seem to be going anywhere very fast. "Or where you are, anyway," she amended.
"Never seen anything like it before." said Taura, sitting up further. She gave it one last glance, then let Tara's hand go, and groaned, and put her own hand on her ribs. "Ugh, I'm all beat up." With a grunt she turned over onto her side, and spat blood on the floor. "Hope I didn't lose any teeth," she said glumly.
"I sure didn't notice any gaps," said Tara.
Taura turned suddenly, and grinned. Tara's heart flopped in her chest like a landed salmon, as the full set of fangs were uncovered again. "Nope, definitely no gaps," she said desperately, hoping Taura hadn't seen her flinch. "And I'm not sure where we are. It's just a room. In fact I'm not sure how I got here at all."
"Head injury?" said Taura, heaving herself painfully to a kneeling position, and looking around her.
"Ah, I don't think so. Drugs maybe, I'm feeling a bit numb." But much less numb than earlier, nothing like a bit of terror to clear the head. In fact I'm feeling remarkably alive right now - all tingly.
Taura nodded, "Yeah, I've taken a shot of something too. But my system will clear it a lot quicker than yours." She turned and looked at Tara critically, "Looks like you were sleeping when you got grabbed."
Tara looked down at herself. She was wearing a knee length white cotton shift, and nothing else. She tugged at the hem self-consciously. And it's proved a bit drafty so far, to be honest. "Pants would be good," she admitted.
"Okay, said Taura, "I'll keep an eye out for some." She rose up to her feet, way up, and Tara stared. Oh boy, she must be - eight feet tall, easy!
"Eight foot two," said Taura, looking down at her. "You were wondering."
"Tall is good," said Tara quickly.
Taura flashed her fangs again, then walked over to the door, and ran her claws along the faint crack between it and the wall. Tara got up and followed, the light bobbing along behind her.
Taura banged the door very lightly, and sighed. "Reinforced sealing," she said. "High security stuff. Pity, I kinda fancied ripping it out of the wall and bending it over someone's head."
"I wonder if I can do anything," said Tara thoughtfully. She spread out her hands in front of her and they both burst into a blaze of yellow light. "Oooh!" she said, entranced. "I never managed to make them do that before!" Taura turned, startled, then backed away two wary steps, staring at the blaze. Tara concentrated for a moment, and moved her hands towards each other, cupping her fingers slightly. The light coalesced into a glowing globe, encompassed within the space between her hands. She moved her hands gingerly away, and the globe dimmed a little, then burst into dazzling life again.
"It's all energy," she said, a little absently, "I should be able to transform light to heat." The globe darkened, became red.
Tara looked up. Taura had become very, very still. A hulking monolithic statue in bronze, her face bathed from below in the orange light cast by the globe, lit slightly from above by the little yellow light that still hovered there. The effect was interesting, but Tara's gaze moved to the wall behind Taura's left shoulder, where the door lay. Taura followed her gaze, then paled and moved sharply to one side. "Avaunt!" said Tara experimentally, and made a throwing gesture with both hands. The globe shot across the room - and straight through the door, leaving a neat circular hole behind it.
They both stared at the hole. "Cool!" said Tara. Then, "I wonder how far it will go before the energy is dispersed?"
Taura's face went abruptly white. "Stop it!" she shouted desperately, "now!"
"Disperse!" shouted Tara, her gaze turning abruptly inward. She turned to Taura, "You're right," she said shakily, "that could have drilled straight through any person in its path!"
"Never mind the people," said Taura, pacing up and down agitatedly, "what if it punctured the ship?"
Tara stared at her. "What ship?" she said.
Taura stared back. "This ship," she said. "We're on a space ship. Can't you feel it, moving under you? We're on a space ship. And I've no idea who owns it, or where it's going. We've been kidnapped."
Chapter 3: Through The Looking Glass
Tara reached out a hand to steady herself against the wall. It was vibrating very slightly against her hand, and she looked it nervously. "A spaceship? That's..." really, really, dumb! screamed a voice in her head. "...kinda hard to believe," she said finally.
"Why?" said Taura, then she made an impatient gesture. "Anyway, you'll soon see, if you can make this a bit bigger." She rested her hand on the wall. "We're in orbit somewhere at the minute," she said, "And we need to get off before this baby jumps." She stepped over to the door, where a shaft of yellow light fell through the hole the fire ball had made, knelt down, and peered through, making the room abruptly darken.
Tara stared at her back doubtfully. Meanwhile, she was still feeling the amazing magical energy suffusing her... why was it so strong? She summoned another red globe between her hands then moved it, slowly and carefully this time, towards the door. Taura turned round, saw the ball, and very nearly fell backwards, trying to dodge around it.
"Sorry," said Tara, "didn't mean to scare you."
Taura said nothing, just loomed to her feet again, and stood aside. Tara moved the globe forward. As it bobbed gently against the door, the metal melted, and hissed. Tara the amazing walking, talking blowtorch - I could join the X-Men. After a few false starts she was soon guiding it in a large untidy circle about three foot across. Her hands were beginning to shake by the time she had carved a ring half way around the door, and when finally the ring was closed, and the cut-out circle fell inward with a clang, she sank to her knees, exhausted, her eyes closing.
"Are you okay?" she heard a concerned voice.
She nodded. "Yeah, that just... takes it out of me, you know. Transformational magic takes a lot of energy."
"Do I need to carry you?"
A heavy, clawed hand descended on her shoulder. Her eyes snapped open.
Taura's face loomed close to her, golden eyes examining her intently. This close, Tara could again feel the heat radiating from her. It felt strange, but... vital somehow, as though Taura was more intensely alive than an ordinary person.
"I'm fine," said Tara. She closed her eyes briefly again, then got unsteadily to her feet.
"Huh, well, you went pretty green there," said Taura. She removed her hand. "Want an energy bar?" Taura held an anonymous foil-wrapped stick out towards her. "Enough calories in there to see a combat soldier through for twelve hours," she said, waving it invitingly. "Tastes like crap, of course."
Tara blinked, and took the stick. "Actually, it will probably help," she said.
"Right," said Taura, "well, you can eat it as we go." And with that she bent down, and disappeared through the hole cut in the door.
Tara froze, ration stick lifted to her lips. Hey! She bolted the chewy bar hastily, then bent and looked through the cut-out hole. A spaceship, huh? Do I want to see what a spaceship looks like? But there was nothing to see, really. Just a corridor, painted off-white.
Suddenly a blue-clad body flew across her line of vision, landing head first against the wall with a massive thump. Tara pulled back hastily, then peered out again. Taura's head appeared around the corner, then her arm, beckoning emphatically. Heart thudding, Tara crouched, and stepped through the hole. As she passed the unfortunate man on the floor, she couldn't help a quick sideways glance. There was an ominous smear of blood on the wall above him, bright red against the whiteness. He was dressed in some kind of dark blue military fatigues, with a patch featuring a stylised cat's head on the shoulder - and he was lying very, very still. Tara swallowed hard and moved on, around the corner.
Taura knelt above another still figure, some kind of weapon that looked like a small water pistol almost swallowed in her right hand, and a little white plastic card in her left.
"This is one old ship," she said, waving the plastic - "door cards, instead of hand prints." She looked down at the motionless figure, "Lucky for him," she said.
Tara had an immediate gruesome picture of Taura ripping off the guy's hand, and pressing it to each door's keypad as they passed.
"Lucky for me too," said Taura. "Carrying some guy for miles down these corridors doesn't attract me much."
Ah, apparently she wasn't planning an amputation. That was sort of encouraging on the good guys/bad guys front. Nice to know she's a good guy. Although that man around the corner had looked awfully dead.
"Okay, we need the other guy's stunner," said Taura decisively. She jogged down the corridor, and neatly and swiftly worked through his pockets, then returned with her spoils.
Tara looked blankly at the objects she held out - something that looked like an electric shaver, another card pass, two bars of what was apparently candy, and some kind of little toolkit.
Taura looked at it and sniffed, "Yeah, it's not cutting edge stuff is it?" she said. She waved the shaver. "But this is charged. Better than nothing." She handed it to Tara, who took it nervously, by one end. When she looked up Taura was staring at her again, golden eyes glowing.
I do wish she wouldn't do that, thought Tara rather weakly. The effect of Taura's undivided attention was... somewhat overpowering. "What?" she said.
Taura tapped the shaver. "I'm guessing you've never used one of these?"
Tara nodded, "you're guessing right."
Taura sighed, "Not hard to tell." She took the shaver from Tara's hand and turned it around. "You were holding it by the business end. If you'd pressed the button, you'd have knocked yourself out."
"Ah," said Tara, "so this is the stunner, right?" Well, why not? she thought - spaceships, stunners. I'm going to run into Captain Jean Luc in a moment, or maybe Counsellor Troi. She brightened a little at the thought.
Oops! Taura had set off again down the corridor, making spookily little noise despite her huge size. Tara sprinted a little to catch up - and ran abruptly into Taura's back, as she stopped dead. After casting her a brief, irritated glance, Taura moved on, and Tara followed more cautiously, keeping to the walls in imitation of her guide, padding silently on bare feet, the only sound a faint gentle throbbing that seemed to come from the walls, the floor, the ceiling - all around her, in fact.
Finally, they came to a door. Taura held up a huge hand, and they both flattened against the wall. Taura waved the card over the keypad, and it swung slowly inward with a just discernible hiss. Two blue light bolts, each fired from a different angle, bisected the doorway, and splashed against the corridor wall. Taura ducked, and rolled, and fired, impossibly fast through the open door, flowed to her feet on the other side of the doorway, then before Tara could move or think, she rolled again, through the doorway into the room. Tara heard the sizzle and hiss of more of those lethal bolts of light, then silence. She gripped the stunner in a sweaty hand. What if Taura just got fried? Going to fight or surrender? Surrender sounds good... But the voice calling her on was Taura's. She stepped through the door. There was an ugly smell of burnt meat in the room, and two men, again in the dark blue military fatigues, lay sprawled on the ground, their bodies still smoking slightly. Tara tried not to lose her breakfast.
Taura now had another two weapons in her hands, presumably the things that spat blue light. The device Tara had whimsically called a water pistol - fire pistol, not water pistol, thought Tara sickly, was now tucked into a holster at her side.
She grinned a deeply scary grin. "Four down," she said. "And with any luck I'll get plenty more." And then she was on the move again, stalking along like a tiger on the prowl. Tara closed her mouth, and followed. How the hell did I get to be on a spaceship, with a .. psychopathic werewolf? Why is everything so weird, and why isn't it freaking me out more how weird it is? Nothing makes sense.
A klaxon sounded, high, piercing and urgent.
"They're on to us," said Tara nervously. But Taura shook her head. "Nah, that's a universal emergency alarm. They got a leak." She looked down at Tara. "Looks like your fireball did some damage after all. Okay, Plan B." She turned, and pointed down a smaller corridor to the right.
"Plan B?" said Tara.
"Let's find the lifeboats," said Taura.
Chapter 4: Peas In A Pod
The klaxon continued to sound, nerve janglingly loud and shrill. Tara was sprinting to keep up with her guide. How does she know which way to go? Oh, forget it - just don't lose her. Taura disappeared out of sight around a corner, and Tara suppressed a little scream and ran faster. Don't leave me here, please!
There was another sizzle of weaponry ahead, and she aimed her stunner rather wildly in front of her as she ran, sparing a brief downward glance to ensure that she was holding the right end this time. Why are you running into a gun battle? You really are mad, aren't you? Still she ran on, straight towards the sounds.
As it was, she and her stunner weren't needed. She rounded the corner, and ran through a door to find herself in a small claustrophobic room, with a low ceiling, painted the same dirty off-white as the rest of the place. More huddled bodies lay on the ground, with Taura looming above them.
Taura looked up and grunted, "Lock the door behind you." Tara looked around, at a loss. How? Taura gave another, annoyed, grunt, and stepped toward her, and waved the card in her hand over a little keypad. The door slid closed, then Taura aimed her laser and fired. The keypad blackened, and burned. Taura nodded once, then crossed the room again, stepping over the two bodies on the floor. Tara followed nervously, skirting round the human obstruction. Two men lay together in a tangle, one skinny, the other considerably beefier, their limbs tangled, their heads lolling, a large metal carrying case spilled open beside them.
There was a row of small hatches in the wall, each with a glowing green light beneath it. The first five hatches were closed, and the lights shone a brilliant red. But the last hatch stood open, and the keypad was green.
"One left," said Taura, "we were just in time." She moved over to the open hatch, and rapidly and expertly ran her hand over the keys.
The beefy fellow groaned, and Tara turned nervously, stunner in hand. Taura didn't seem to have shot these two - maybe she'd just cracked their heads together?
Taura looked up from the keypad, and took a single long stride across the room. She leant down, and lifted the man from the floor. He groaned again, and stirred, and Tara took two swift steps forward, swung, and banged his head neatly against the wall. There was an ominous crack, and he fell still. She pinned his limp form against the wall with one hand at his throat, stripped off his boots and socks, and trousers in quick succession with the other, and handed them to Tara.
"Uh, thanks," said Tara. She took the trousers, still warm from his body, and started to pull them on, shivering a little with repulsion.
Taura's grip on the man's throat released and he slid to the floor with a thump, bare hairy legs folded beneath him. "Right," she said, "Come on." And then she stopped, staring at the objects spilling from the carrying case on the floor. "Grenades and incendiaries," she said happily, "Well, well, well."
There was a massive clang on the door outside, and the muffled sound of cursing outside. A small dent appeared in the metal surface, and then another.
"What will they do next?" asked Tara nervously, trying to stamp her right foot into the first boot. It was still warm as well. Ugh, ugh, ugh.
Taura showed her fangs again. "If we're very lucky they'll try to burn their way through the door with their lasers. They're just about dirt-ignorant enough." She picked up the case, and piled all the grenades and incendiaries against the door, then she pulled out two ominous-looking metal pins from the two sticks at the top of the pile and stepped back to admire her work. "Nice."
Then she ran back to the little hatch, and swung herself through it, feet first. It seemed to be a tight fit. She paused, only her head and shoulders protruding.
"Come on!" she ordered, then she disappeared, like a rabbit down a rabbit hole. Tara hobbled across the room, one boot still in her hand and the socks bunched awkwardly under her elbow, and grabbed the handholds, swung her legs into the hole, and followed Taura into the darkness. The hatch sealed above her with a sibilant little hiss. Shit, when did I decide to trust a stranger this much?
She landed on her feet, after just a small drop, and found herself standing very, very close to Taura, virtually pressed against her chest. Taura reached up and past her, and pulled the little hatch door shut, than another, inner door. A reddish overhead light snapped on. They were in a long upright metal pod, shaped like a cigar case, maybe twelve feet long.
"Get in a bunk."
Tara looked around her. Two padded alcoves faced each other, and after a disorientated moment she realised they were the bunks - currently vertical bunks. Taura was already moving across to wedge herself into one alcove, and Tara did likewise. As she pressed her back against the cushions, a web of restraints shot out, and grabbed her, cocooning her into position. Somehow she managed not to scream.
As she watched, Taura jammed herself awkwardly into the other bunk, her head forced sideways at an uncomfortable angle. The restraints enveloped her, and the pod fired, like a bullet leaving a gun.
"I really hate those automatic launches."
Tara stirred groggily, and opened her eyes. Taura, smothered in webbing, regarded her from across the pod.
"They always take off too fast. The program's designed not to kill or injure you, but apparently a headache doesn't count."
Tara blinked, painfully. Her head felt like a big blossoming balloon of pain.
"No bang yet, said Taura wistfully, "Looks like maybe they remembered their spacers' code and didn't burn through the door." She tapped a little console of numbers beside her thoughtfully, a dissatisfied frown darkening her face. "It would be a real shame if they didn't blow up. Those guys are so scuzzy they're not even welcome at Jackson's Whole - which is really scuzzy."
Tara closed her eyes again. If she didn't move, at all, the headache was just about bearable.
The next time she came round things had changed. Taura had removed the webbing, How? and was floating half in, half out of the bunk, rubbing her neck. She saw Tara looking, and smiled - a terrifying ripple of lip over fang, and tapped the console. "Something went bang, just a few minutes ago. The radiation shields on this thing just went crazy." She flexed her head backward, exposing a powerful, tawny coloured throat. "These things are just a little too damn short for me, always." She pushed off from bunk, turned neatly in mid-air and reached into a locker just below her feet, and pulled out a silver pouch.
"Gah," croaked Tara, "Wa'er would be good." She tried to reach out her hand, but she was still strapped down, with the soldier's purloined left boot cutting uncomfortably into her ribs under her arm. "Um, how exactly do I get out of this?" she said.
Taura grinned, "There's a button, just by your right hand."
Tara looked down. Yep, there was the button all right. About three inches beyond where she could move her hand to. Taura saw the problem too, and another fangy smile rippled across her face. "Next time, you'll know to put your hand on the picture," she said. She stood, and reached across Tara, warm and large, and pressed the button. The webbing withdrew, and she grinned down, and tapped a large fluorescent green outline of a hand on the side of bunk by the button. "Every cadet ever enrolled gets caught by that. Usually the instructors leave 'em there for a few hours to make sure the lesson gets learned. Lucky for you, I'm kinder." She floated gently away, and settled down into a sit again.
"Now she tells me," grumbled Tara. With the webbing removed, she was beginning to float too. She made a startled grab for the bunk with one hand, and took the proffered water with the other. Her stomach was flipping over, and she was dizzy. Zero gravity was proving very uncomfortable. And it always looked like such fun when the guys on the space station did it.
But in a minute or so, Tara found herself breathing a little easier. She examined the water pouch carefully. There was a little foil seal at the end - if you tugged it, it should... oops! Well, she'd only spilled a few drops, or no more than a cupful. They were floating past her in little silvery bubbles. She looked up. Taura was grinning again. Nice to know I'm a source of such amusement for her.
"So," she said, taking a long, rather messy swallow of water"What happens next?"
"Well," said Taura, her gaze turning introspective, "One of two things. We're either going to get picked up by those guys in the ship again, or by Ground Control from whatever planet we're buzzing around. Of course, hopefully the bad guys are all too busy trying to save their ship." She grinned. "If there's anything left of it to save."
Several hours passed. Tara awkwardly took off her right boot, which floated upside down beside her, then donned her stolen socks, and the boots afterwards, while floating inches above her bed, her head bumping the ceiling. She still hadn't gained the courage to float out of the bunk and swing around like Taura had done, but the nausea was receding at least. They ate from time to time, ration stick after ration stick - all identically bland. They had a brief moment of excitement when Taura remembered the candy, from the guy she had thrown into the wall. Otherwise there was nothing to do. Except doze - and talk.
Only talk was proving difficult. Taura seemed to be the strong silent type, and Tara... She wasn't really sure just what type she herself was. Seems like I should know that. She looked across at Taura, who was sitting in her bunk again, huge hands resting on her knees, her face formidable and, in repose, quite unreadable.
Tara frowned. She had seen monsters before, she knew she had. When? She tried to concentrate. The headache was still there, but faded, and it wasn't causing the fogginess that came every time she tried to think about what she remembered, and who she was. Still, she was sure she hadn't met a creature like Taura before, or been in a space ship. That all felt new. It was reasonable to ask about that, surely? The whole eight-foot-tall-with-fangs thing really did cry out for an explanation.
"If you don't mind me asking," Tara said cautiously, "what kind of creature are you, exactly?" She looked across the five feet or so of space that separated them. Taura loomed, surely too large to be real. And yet, real she was. Very much so.
"I'm a Super Soldier," said Taura flatly, twisting uncomfortably in the too small bunk, and rubbing her neck self consciously.
"Oh!" said Tara, enlightened. "Yes, you do seem kinda good at the soldier thing. And you know, I've come across some super soldiers before. Not as... advanced as you. They tried just jazzing up some ordinary guys with hormones, and steroids and stuff." She jumped, startled by the vividness of her recollections. The Initiative, she thought, monsters with serial numbers... Adam. Where did that memory come from?
"Really?" Taura looked interested.
"Yeah," said Tara distractedly. "It didn't turn out so well. In the end they made a kind of Frankenstein's monster out of parts." She thought back a moment. "Assholes," she added.
Taura's brow wrinkled. "That sounds kinda primitive, but I suppose I'm pretty much the same. Only they did it all with genes - animal genes. Splice a bit here, splice a bit there. She regarded her own hands sadly. "I'm still mainly human, though," she said, with a touch of defiance in her voice - "99.99. It's just that pesky 0.01 that causes all the problems."
But Tara barely heard her. A whole sequence of memories was unlocking in her mind - monsters, spells, good and evil, the Hellmouth, Mr Giles, Buffy, Dawn, Xander, Willow. She gasped, pressing her hand to her ribs. Willow! And then it was like a wind rushing through her, full of knowing. Tara Maclay - student at UC Sunnydale, white witch, Slayer's sidekick, wielder of magic. Now she knew. She knew all of it. She trembled with the shock, with the sheer weight of it all. Then finally she drew a deep breath, and rubbed the back of her hand across her face.
She looked up. Taura was still staring at her own hands, no doubt expecting some reaction to the animal genes thing. She should say something. She opened her mouth, but at that moment Taura's gaze turned upward, meeting her own - that sudden overwhelming glow of her eyes catching Tara off guard again.
"So, Tara-not-Taura," she said, "what are you?"
"I've just now remembered," Tara said. She drew a deep breath. "I'm a witch."
Taura continued to stare at her, her face unchanged. "A white witch!" said Tara a bit desperately.
Taura sniffed, delicately, and looked away. "Some people," she said pointedly, "think I'm dumb, because I'm all big and stuff. I'm not dumb at all, and witches do not exist."
"And yet, here I am," said Tara, gesturing. "In a space ship, yet," she added. She began to tremble again. And this isn't my time, it isn't my place. Something has gone very wrong.
"In a pod," said Taura sternly. "That's way different." She looked Tara over critically, "Well, you're certainly not a soldier." She paused, then tilted her head. "So, you can do that light thing because you're a witch?"
"Uh huh." Tara nodded distractedly. Memories and scenes were flicking past her eyes at lightning speed. But there's more, there's something else, something very, very important. What?
"Huh," said Taura, folding her arms.
Tara bent forward, folded her arms. It was coming, she could feel it, more knowledge.
And she remembered. The garden, Buffy with Xander, Willow, Willow with blood, the cold, the dark rushing wind, blackness, blankness...
She looked up, "And also," she said, "I think I'm dead."
Taura frowned. "You don't look dead," she said suspiciously.
"I don't feel dead," said Tara tentatively. "But I remember..." She pulled the white shift away from her shoulder and looked down. Her skin was unflawed. "It doesn't make sense," she said, "but this isn't my time, and it isn't my place." She looked up, "I've been somewhere else, for a long time I think. I remember dying, and I remember my life, and my friends," she swallowed as their faces flicked by in her mind's eye. "But it feels... old. Like it happened long ago."
She looked down at her hands - pale, long fingers, slightly bitten nails. They didn't seem ghostly at all. "I died in the summer of 2002, she said firmly. "In Sunnydale, California, Earth." She looked at Taura. "What year is this?"
"1011 standard clock," said Taura, "but I'm guessing you're talking Earth years. I don't know the Earth year date, but it's been 1,000 Earth years since some guy stepped on the Earth's moon - there was a big hoopla on the news feeds a while back. Although measuring things in Earth years doesn't really make sense - except on Earth I suppose," she added belatedly.
Tara looked at her dumbly. 1,000 years?
Chapter 5: It Doesn't Make Sense
Bang! A dull metallic clanging sound reverberated through the pod. Tara jumped convulsively. I may be dead - but apparently I can still have the crap scared out of me. Oh good.
"Looks like we got picked up." Taura's voice was calm, a little distant. The Pod began to move at a sideways angle, pulled by an outside force.
"Tractor beam, said Taura, "they're being pretty careful. That's hopeful." The pod continued to move through space.
"Can't we tell who it is?" said Tara.
Taura shook her head. "Only one way we're going to find that out," she said calmly. The pod began to vibrate. "I take it back - we're being pulled through an atmosphere, so it must be Bathory. Things are going to get pretty hot in a moment."
Tara felt a strange tugging sensation, as though her stomach was moving sideways; after a moment her feet touched the floor, and she grabbed the wall beside her, startled.
"Time to strap ourselves in," said Taura, pressing herself back into her bunk.
Tara backed gingerly into the bunk space, remembering to place her hand over the plate this time. But before the webbing engaged, the pod changed direction abruptly, and the gravitational effect shifted 90 degrees. With a scream, Tara fell, face downward, and smacked into the immobilised form of Taura in the bunk that was now abruptly below her. In a moment, Taura disengaged the webbing, pressed a firm arm against Tara's back, and engaged it again, cocooning them together. The pod reversed direction a split second later, and Tara gasped as Taura's weight pressed against her from above, then swallowed bile as the pod shot forward, driving all the blood in her body abruptly downward. A moment later the pod moved abruptly sideways again, then back. The webbing creaked, a little, and Tara imagined for a panicked moment what would happen if it snapped, and the two of them were thrown about the inside of the pod like a pair of dice in a tumbler.
"Somebody's trying to soften us up," growled Taura. "Not so friendly after all."
The pod landed with a clang, then shuddered to an abrupt halt. The dizzying gravitational forces steadied, and it became apparent that the pod was lying horizontally, Tara and Taura dangling helplessly from what had now become the ceiling. Tara imagined them falling. It was only a distance of about seven feet, but she was going to be mashed between the wall, which was now the floor, and 300 pounds of Super Soldier. Not good.
But the pod hadn't finished moving. It rolled abruptly, 180 degrees, and then settled in a screech of metal.
"Seems we survived." Taura was lying on her back on the floor, Tara on top of her. She reached out a large hand, and released the webbing covering them both. Tara looked down at her, feeling the trembles of shock rolling through her. We made it, somehow! She scrabbled hurriedly to her feet. "Sorry I landed on you. Are you okay?"
A strangely fey grin rippled across Taura's face. "Yeah - yeah, I think I am." She felt the back of her head gingerly, then winced.
"You got quite a bump," said Tara anxiously.
"Oh, my head is all right," said Taura. "Solid bone." She twisted, and looked up at the pod hatch. "It would be really smart to get out of here before anyone shows up with a gun."
"I think you're right," said Tara.
Taura heaved herself painfully to her feet, bent almost in two, and staggering a little, and then stamping her legs on the ground, and slapping her arms against her chest. "First things first," she said, and reached into her pocket, drew out a handful of ration sticks, and offered one to Tara, who took it without comment. Tearing the foil from the first bar, Taura limped to the hatch, and released the seal. She put her hand on the underside, and heaved.
They were outside, in a field of tarmac that was covered in roiling smoke, and a rain of debris. Another pod lay beside them, also cracked open, the interior steaming slightly. Taura set off at a steady lope, and Tara stumbled after her, trying to readjust to gravity, and to the sudden, unexpected chill in the evening air. Within a few yards the smoke began to clear, and the view opened before them. A long empty stretch of gray, marked into bays, and runways, with hangars, and parked vehicles dotted across it in the distance. They stumbled to a halt.
There was a gentle whirring sound behind them, and Tara turned. A flat bedded cart loaded high with baggage was approaching them, puffing along unaffected by the chaotic scene only feet away.
"We have a ride!" said Taura, and took two quick strides, then swung herself up on the pile of baggage. Tara ran after her, panicky, and flung herself in a tangle of arms and legs, onto the pile. The bags began to slip underneath her, and a heavy arm fell across her back, and scooped her neatly into a safe position. A couple of cases, dislodged by her scrambling, bounced off the cart, and Tara regarded them guiltily. Lost luggage - I hate it when that happens to me. And now I'm causing it!
She shifted position, as Taura's arm released her, and looked back at the ship - rising huge and awkward above the billow of smoke and dust, grounded where it was never meant to land, among what looked like the remains of a warehouse, under a sky itself beginning to turn grey with the approach of dusk.
"Well, we missed the spaceport, but we hit the yard of the shuttleport," said Taura thoughtfully. "Someone in the space traffic control office with their hand on that tractor beam is a genius." She grinned down at Tara, the sunshine glinting off her burnished dark hair, and picking out the bruises, and dirt, all over her face, then hugged her suddenly. "This is crazy fun," she said.
Tara's face was crushed up uncomfortably against Taura's chest, making it hard to breathe. Fun? She just got kidnapped, and beaten up, and nearly killed - is she crazy?
Taura released her abruptly, and looked around, eyes glowing. "Now we just have to look for a chance to slip away. Soon as we get inside the baggage claim we hop off - okay?"
"Okay," said Tara nervously. And here was the baggage claim, most likely - large and boxy, with six shuttered doorways in its side. As she watched, the second left shutter began silently to lift, and the baggage truck veered gently to aim itself toward it. There was a faint glint of silver from something just inside.
"Taura," she said nervously. "Do you see someone just inside that door?" Taura's head swivelled abruptly to stare. The baggage train trundled serenely forward. Tara peered forward apprehensively. I thought I saw something, but... Taura reached out a huge paw, grabbed Tara by the shirt front, and rolled from the cart. Tara felt a stinging sensation in her cheek, and saw a bolt of blue fire from the corner of her eye. The suitcases they had been resting on burst into flame.
And then they were rolling across the tarmac. Sizzles and hisses sounded all around, and in a confused blur of motion Tara saw two men detach themselves from the cover of the doorway and run towards them, still firing. Blue uniforms and a patch with a stylised cat's head on it... oh great, now we know where the guys in that other pod got to.
She felt herself being jerked to her feet, and began to run, stumbling to regain her balance. She could hear shouts, and screams behind her, and the whirr of an engine - as the port security's attention was attracted by the fireshow. Taura pulled her into the lee of some kind of huge metal cylinder, and a second later a hover car shot past them, lights flashing. One of the two men went down on one knee, and fired directly at the car. There was a crackle of blue light, which splashed off the car's carapace like water.
"Armoured," said Taura, with satisfaction in her voice. "Now he's in trouble."
And as she spoke the car spat a bolt of fire, which enveloped the man in a ball of flames. His companion turned abruptly, and ran the way he had come, ducking into the cover of the doorway entrance, just as second bolt of fire shot in his direction, and hit him squarely in the back.
Someone somewhere must have hit an emergency switch because now all six shutters on the hangar were rolling upwards. The hover car swung through the nearest gaping entrance, closely followed by two more police vehicles, klaxons blaring.
Taura drew a deep breath, "Okay," she said, "now we run."
Tara wheezed to a halt. It seemed they had been running forever. As dusk fell they had run across the tarmac, past yards full of piles of mysterious freight and supplies, around anonymous buildings, and a huge fuel dump, up ladders, down steps. When they met with a fence Taura had simply ripped her way through it, and she had followed breathlessly behind. Eventually, as night closed in, they had left the shuttleport and begun to pick their way through scattered shops, and houses, until they were moving rapidly down a main street, and then a smaller one, and finally this dark alley full of looming shadows and pungently unpleasant smells.
And now, she could run no more. Her lungs were bursting, her vision was blurred, and as she doubled over sweat ran off her nose to plop onto the pavement beneath her.
"I'm done," she said. "No more."
"It's only another two blocks." Taura stepped up to loom anxiously over her. "We're so nearly there."
"So nearly where?" said Tara. "Seems like I've spent the last two days just running after you, never knowing why, or where, or what the hell I'm doing!" She ended on a shout, and a cough, and bent double again.
"Oh," said Taura. There was a pause. "I'm sorry. I forgot there's so much you don't know. We - that is the Dendarii - have a safe address just around here for covert ops. That's where we're going. There's a shower there," she said encouragingly, "and food."
"A shower?" Taras looked down at her filthy, blackened self. "For a shower I think I can do two more blocks." She stepped forward again, her legs trembling under her, and with Taura loping silently at her side like a giant shadow, she moved wearily forward into the darkness.
Chapter 6: Welcome to Bathory
"Here it is."
They had reached an apartment complex - an anonymous white box shining ghostly pale in the darkness. Taura indicated a short flight of stairs and jogged up them. Tara stood at the bottom, utterly drained. There was a click, then a small hiss as the door at the top of the stairs opened. After a moment Taura jogged down again, took one look at her, and swept her neatly off her feet, then jogged up the stairs again, and into the room. The door hissed closed behind her and the lights clicked instantly on. Tara felt herself being carefully placed down on a sofa.
"Right," said Taura. "Food first." She disappeared from Tara's line of sight. Food is good, thought Tara mistily, food is good.
She woke suddenly, and stared around her, disorientated for a moment. How long have I been asleep?
Taura sat opposite her, two empty trays and a knife and fork scattered at her feet. Her elation seemed to have seeped away. She slumped into her chair, her face grey with tiredness.
Tara looked at her, then down at herself. They were both filthy, and bruised, and stinking of smoke, and tired. But considering Taura had just escaped her kidnappers and survived not just one but two spaceship disasters, she seemed a bit... well, a bit depressed, really. What happened to crazy fun?
Tara straightened up on the sofa, and looked about her. They were in another off-white room. Seems white is in this year - whatever year it is. The furniture was minimal - a sofa, two chairs, what she thought must be a computer terminal sitting on a desk, with the second chair before it, and a blank plasma screen hanging on the wall like an empty picture frame. Three doors in three of the walls, and a window on the fourth side, currently shuttered against the dark. Cosy. Not. She looked across at Taura, "So, this is a safe house? As in, really actually safe?"
Taura nodded. "It should be - Dendarii covert ops are quality."
"Covert ops? Super soldier, super spy?" Tara tried a smile. "You're multi-talented, aren't you?"
Taura blushed slightly, "Well, I haven't actually done any covert ops, myself." She gestured at her eight foot frame, "I'm not the covert type. But I've done pick-up and mop-up. So I know the address here, and the code."
"Can you send a message to your buddies from here? The Dendar-whatsis? Tell them where you are, and what's going on?"
Taura ducked her head defensively. Hmm, something's going on there. After an awkward pause, Tara tried again. "Later maybe. And wow!" she tried to get some enthusiasm into her voice. "You sure can run fast!"
Taura sighed, and shifted uncomfortably in her chair, large clawed hands dangling between her knees. "Horse genes," she said glumly. "I'm very good at jumping fences too."
Tara looked at her doubtfully - was that a joke? She got off the sofa, and pulled up the apartment's solitary other chair to sit opposite Taura. She leaned forward, and placed a hand on Taura's knee. "I've always liked horses."
Taura's knee twitched under her hand. "My shrink said I should make jokes about it." She looked down, still avoiding Tara's gaze. This close Tara could see the pattern of bruises darkening on her face, under all the dirt, together with the angry red welts on her wrists from the razor ties, and a whole host of scratches on her big clawed hands. You've been in the wars, sweetheart. And she felt like they really, really should be worrying about other things right now, but still..."Your shrink said you should crack jokes? Who's he, Mr Chuckles the Clown?"
"She's the ship's counsellor," said Taura seriously, suddenly looking up to catch Tara's eye with her own glowing gaze. At this distance, the effect was overwhelming. "She said people were going to notice, and comment and stuff. You know, with the whole being eight foot tall, and having fangs, and claws. And the best solution was to joke about it yourself, first."
"Ah," Tara paused. I wonder if that might have helped me along? With the stutter, and the whole magical power thing. "Does it work?" she said cautiously.
Taura shrugged, massively. "Sometimes. Sometimes it falls flat and I just feel even more like a giant freaky dumbass." She looked away again.
"Yeah," said Tara, "I get that." She stared gloomily at her ill fitting boots. "So, do you know what kind of horse it was?"
Taura looked up, her attention dragged back from whatever unhappy place it had gone to. "It never occurred to me to wonder," she said, sounding surprised. "Are there lots of different kinds?"
"Oh, sure," said Tara. She smiled at Taura. "There's everything from Appaloosas to Arabs to Lipizzaners to Shires to Thoroughbreds. Then there's ponies - lots of kinds of ponies."
Taura leaned back in her chair and looked into the middle distance. "I didn't know that," she said. "But then I've never seen one. Not a real one, anyway. Not much room for horses in space."
"I can see how that might be true." said Tara solemnly, "but it's a pity you haven't had a chance. Horses are cool." She let a few beats pass. "Taura," she said gently, "are you going to tell me anytime what the hell is going on - why you were kidnapped, and why those other guys are trying to kill you - and why you won't contact your friends to try and get some help with it all?"
There was another long pause. Taura leant back further, her knee moving under Tara's hand again, and her arms crossing unconsciously. "I expect they spliced lots of different kinds of horse," she said. "A bit of this, a bit of that. I was designed by a Committee - I'm lucky I didn't wind up looking like a camel." She looked abruptly across at Tara. "That was another joke by the way."
"A camel is a horse designed by a Committee," said Tara automatically. And you're avoiding the question.
"That's right!" said Taura, "that's what Miles said! I didn't realise it was a quote." Just for a moment her face lit up, enthusiastically - then she sank back again, the moment past. "But I haven't seen a real camel either, so that one's kinda lost on me too. And at that point, her huge shoulders began to shake, and her body to rock, and she was bawling like a big - a very big - baby.
Tara stared, and then rather tentatively leaned forward and patted Taura on the shoulder. When that had no effect, she got up, perched on the chair arm, and hugged Taura as hard as she could.
"I don't understand how I got here, or why on earth I'm on a spaceship three hundred years in the future," She paused, "That doesn't make sense does it? I'm not on Earth. I'm on a different planet. Literally." She paused again, trying to get her head around the idea.
"You're not far from Earth," said Taura tentatively, "No more than two jumps away, with a little bit of shuttling in-between. And I've been thinking about the why." Taura wriggled, a little guiltily, "I think maybe, possibly, I might have summoned you." She looked over at Tara, and bit her lip.
"Summoned me?" said Tara, unconsciously taking her arm from Taura's shoulders. "Summoned me how?"
"I did a ceremony," Taura said, shifting in her chair, "to seek a Guardian Spirit. A guy called Duvitiski told me about it," she went on hurriedly. "I was, I was upset about not having a mom and dad, or grandparents, you know, or great-grandparents. No family. No one to burn an offering for me. But Duv, he said I do have ancestors, lots of them." She grinned briefly, "He said where he came from I'd be counted mighty lucky, because I had more ancestors than anyone else. Hundreds of thousands, maybe."
"Because of the gene splicing." said Tara, interested despite herself. "Yes - every gene, and bit of gene had to come from someone."
"Or something," said Taura quietly, "but yes - I've got more ancestors than almost anyone, ever." She shifted uncomfortably, "Anyway, Duv said when his people had something hard to face, they did this ceremony to invoke a guardian spirit from among the spirits of their ancestors. Someone to help them through it all." She looked hopefully at Tara.
"You think that's me?" said Tara slowly. "You think I'm your great-great grandma or something?"
"Lots more greats," said Taura, "if you're from the Earth's twentieth century."
"But I never had any children," said Tara doubtfully, "so I'm not sure how I can be your ancestor - not directly anyway." She frowned. "Maybe my brother had kids."
"Or maybe somebody got a DNA sample of you sometime, said Taura, "Looking for a witchy gene or something. It could have been in the Jackson's Whole databanks a whole long time. They had some pretty amazing stuff."
Tara looked at Taura's hopeful face. They told me I was a monster too. And maybe somewhere along the line someone in Sunnydale had believed that, and thought they could grow their own pet monsters to order. She shied away from the thought.
She looked at Taura sitting uncomfortably in the chair. "So, what's the hard thing you have to face, that I'm here to help you with?"
Chapter 7: Misunderstandings
"It has to do with a ceremony," said Taura evasively. "But, but maybe we should, you know, shower, and eat first. I can tell you about it later. I mean you've had kinda a lot to take in, all at once."
Tara stared at her - rather a lot to take in? Well, yes you could put it that way. Gene manipulation, time travel, spaceships, guardian spirits, and most especially, Life After Death. It's quite a lot to get the mind around - maybe a shower would be a good start.
Taura gestured towards a closed door, and Tara stepped over to it, and waved her hand doubtfully over the keypad. The door slid open and she stepped inside to find herself in a tiny cubicle. There was a silver box on the wall, another on the floor facing it. Sink, toilet, maybe? If so, where was the shower? Could be embarrassing if I pick the wrong one. She turned back to Taura. "Sorry," she said, "you're going to have to show me what goes where."
Taura quirked an eyebrow, then heaved herself to her feet with a sigh, and ambled over.
Tara stood alone in the bathroom. Taura had conducted a brief tour, seeming to fill every inch of the tiny space, and then withdrawn. Turned out the silver box on the wall opened to reveal a sink, with a mirror above it. The silver box on the floor had a lid, which flipped back to reveal what was recognisably a seat. She'd used that first - all the fleeing, and the persistent terror had made that a priority. And now for a shower... for a shower, you closed the two boxes, and the bathroom door, and stood in the middle of the space, said "begin" - and a fine spray of water hit you from every direction. Of course that meant it was smart idea to put your clothesoutside first.
She slipped off the purloined boots, and pants, and then the white cotton shift, and regarded it for a moment. It was the first time she'd really looked at it. It was off-white, with white stitching, completely plain, no collar, no cuffs. Well, at least it's not a shroud. It hung loosely from her hands - utterly baffling. One more mystery in a sea of mysteries. She slid it to the floor, revealing bright red bands around both of her wrists, left by the Minoan mercenaries' razor ties. She rubbed her left wrist thoughtfully. Seems a bit hard I can still get hurt, when I'm a ghost. And dirty, and tired...
She opened the cubicle door, and tossed her clothes out in a heap, closed the door, and then spoke firmly, "Begin". Hot water laced with some kind of soap sprayed her vigorously, in a constantly moving stream from head to foot. Aaaah! It was like standing in the fine spray from a waterfall. Wonderful. Until the force of the water made her aware of a whole catalogue of aches and bruises - on her shoulders, her hips, her shins. And there were blisters on her feet, worn there by the stolen boots, and now stinging from the soap. Taura must be in much worse shape. I should let her get a shower, and then I should take a look at her. As the thought took shape she felt her eyes closing, her body sagging. She was shocky, and exhausted - and if she didn't get out of here soon she was going to fall asleep on her feet. "End!" she said sharply, and grabbed the door and stepped out.
Taura was seated at the terminal keyboard, typing efficiently, her back turned.
Tara looked down self consciously - she was stark naked and dripping wet. She grabbed up her filthy clothes from the floor, and held them against across her chest. Across the room another meal tray sat on the table, steaming gently. Her mouth watered.
Taura turned round. "Ah," she said. "I forgot to tell you about the dry cycle." She pressed a last couple of keys, and then levered herself stiffly to her feet, went to a closet, and pulled out two fluffy white robes. She stepped over to Tara and held the first robe open, and Tara ducked gratefully into it. "Thanks."
To her newly sensitive nostrils, Taura stank. Of smoke, and sweat, and other things. Every visible part of her was streaked with soot, or dirt, and her bruises blossomed through the dirt like purple stains. On an impulse, Tara stretched up on tiptoe - and discovered that she couldn't even reach Taura's chin, let alone her cheek. She pressed a kiss against her collarbone instead, and Taura shied backward like a startled horse. Tara pulled away, disconcerted. What the hell did I do that for? Maybe it was the shock; shock makes people behave strangely, doesn't it?
Taura's hand rose doubtfully to her neck, and she stared down. Tara gave a weak smile. "Your turn in the shower," she said, "Oh - and where's the bed?" A long silence stretched between them. "That is," said Tara, "I didn't mean... there could be two beds." Idiot, idiot!
Taura pointed silently, then stepped very cautiously around her, as though she was dangerous wild animal that might bite at any minute, and headed for the shower. Tara picked up the meal tray, and headed for the bedroom. She heard a faint rustle behind her and turned.
Taura stood by the shower door. She had slipped her jacket off, and now she slowly unbuttoned her shirt, and slid it carefully off her no doubt still sore shoulders. Her skin was tan, with a glossy sheen to it, her muscles long and smoothly defined. Her hands went to the waistband of her trousers, and Tara's breath caught in her throat with a little gasp. Taura turned suspiciously towards her, catching her squarely in the act in staring.
Tara looked away, blushing bright red, and headed swiftly for the bedroom with her tray. So now she thinks I'm some kind of voyeuristic pervert - great going. She slammed the bedroom door shut, and rested her back against it, her heart pounding. There was a large bed, nearly the size of the room. Maybe things will all feel better in the morning. Or, or more stable - or less weird anyway. I'm too tired to put it right now; if I try I'll just screw it all up even more. She pulled back the coverlet, and tried to make herself comfortable in the bed, the tray on her knees. The food went down in moments, the sheets were soft and comforting. Just for a moment she was reminded of home... she closed her eyes, and fell instantly into a deep well of sleep.
Chapter 8: Deeper and Deeper
Mmmm, she was comfy. She lay with her eyes closed, buried deeply under the covers, snuggled up to something wonderfully warm. She snuggled closer to the warm bulk beside her - which moved abruptly, sliding downward and away. She opened her eyes a crack- oh, it was okay, Taura was just shifting on to her back. Taura lifted her arm as she turned, and Tara tucked her head under it, rested her cheek on the softness of bosom, grasped a handful of fluffy robe, and pressed it against her cheek. "Mmm," she said.
Taura's arm pressed against her back, and her hand moved lower to splay across Tara's ass and press her more tightly against her side. Tara rolled obediently, and her knee touched Taura's leg. The hand continued to press, and she moved her leg to drape it across Taura's thigh. She felt her robe open, and her body press against smooth firmly-muscled flesh. "Mmm," she said again.
The hand was moving now, it spread across her buttocks as big as a baseball glove, very gently squeezing and pressing. She felt her legs splay open more. A second huge hand appeared on her waist, pushed her robe away, and then slid up her body, to her breast. A large thumb ran across her nipple and she gasped, then she felt her whole breast swallowed in a firm grip, and her nipple caught between finger and thumb, which began to rub gently together. The sensation was incredible. The hand on her ass grasped and lifted her, and she was riding Taura's thigh, which rose up to meet her. She felt a long clawed finger running down the cleft between her buttocks, sliding deeper, running swiftly downward, and then burrowing down to where she was splayed against the long length of Taura's thigh. Every drop of blood in her body seemed to have settled in her pussy; she could hear her herself distantly, groaning, and rocking, her face buried in the softness of Taura's robed shoulder, her body suspended on Taura's strong limbs. The waves of feeling were so intense she was having trouble thinking, until the hand holding her breast relaxed its grip, and slid down her belly towards her legs, and the hand already there lifted her up to meet it, long, long fingers slid inside her and there was no thought left.
Tara lay sweating, breathing ragged, body trembling. Taura's right arm rested loosely across her back. As she caught her breath, she nuzzled against Taura's robe, found an opening to her skin, and planted a kiss. She could feel Taura's heart pounding, not quite as wild as her own, but faster, deeper.
"Ungh," she said. "That was... unexpected. But very, very nice."
There was no answer. Taura still lay beneath her. Has she fallen asleep? I must be giving her pins and needles at least. She slid very gently off Taura's recumbent form, and out from under her right arm, and wriggled up the bed to poke her head out from under the covers. Taura lay on her back, her head pressed firmly against the pillow, her eyes hidden in the shadow cast by her brows. Tara pulled herself further up the bed and rested her head on the pillow beside Taura. Her profile was formidable - jutting planes and angles, an outline of an upper fang. Tara reached out a hand to gently brush away the tangles of hair from Taura's forehead. Her braid was undone, and dark hair frizzed in every direction. After a couple of vain attempts to smooth it down, Tara desisted, and ran her fingers instead over the heavy brow ridge, across Taura's eyebrow. She turned and kissed Taura lightly on the cheek, "Sleep well, sweetheart."
"I'm not asleep." Taura's head turned to face her, eyes glowing, face unreadable as a Easter Island statue.
"Oh," squeaked Tara, "I thought..." With the silence, and the not-hugging and the not-kissing. "I thought you must be asleep."
She leant over and kissed Taura on the lips, a little awkwardly - the fangs tended to get in the way.
Taura didn't respond.
"Taura," said Tara gently, trying not to feel hurt, "Is something wrong?"
"No." Taura shifted in the bed. "You wanted to have sex, didn't you?"
There was something accusing about her tone. Tara felt a humiliating blush creep up her cheeks. She pulled away, and sat up in the bed, pulling her robe around her. "I - yes, I did." There were a hundred things she wanted to say, all angry. She bit them down, tried to understand what had gone wrong, started again. "Didn't you want to? I mean, I just woke up, and, and you started it." Oh God - I said 'you started it' - I can't believe I said that.
Taura rolled onto her back again, breaking eye contact. "Yes, and so, we had sex. And nothing's wrong."
Tara drew a deep breath. Yet again, something was going on here that she didn't understand. And I'm tired - I'm tired of always being somewhere, doing something I don't understand. I don't understand why we just did that, and now she's angry at me. And it's not fair. She felt tears prick under her eyelids, and squeezed her eyes shut to stop them. She opened her mouth, "Well, we didn't really have sex, as such, did we? You just, you know..." She stopped, angry at herself for not being able to be more explicit. She drew a deep breath. I can say this, "You just gave me a hand job, basically."
Taura drew a deep, ragged breath. "Not good enough for you?" Her face turned cold and angry, "I can go down on you if you want - it you're not afraid I'll bite something off." She threw back the covers and got abruptly to her feet, sliding off her bathrobe, magnificently naked, seeming to fill all the space in the tiny room. "I'm having another shower," she said.
"No, you're not!"
Taura turned, her hand on the doorknob, her brows drawn formidably together.
Tara trembled slightly. Wow, that came out louder than I intended. "You are not leaving until we can sort this out a bit more," she said firmly.
"Stop me," said Taura, and she marched out of the door, and slammed it behind her.
Tara sat in the bed, robe clutched at her throat, her stomach churning. She wanted to leave, now, and be as far away from Taura as possible. Only if I did run, where would I go? I'm trapped here, chained to Taura by her summoning. And if I lose her, will I disappear? The terror of that thought caught in her throat. She beat it down. So, I can stay here, take whatever Taura dishes out, or run off down the street like an idiot, or... she drew a deep breath... or, I can make her talk to me, explain what the hell is going on - with her, and, and with everything. God, I really, really don't want to do this.
But she got up, pulled the front of her robe together and belted it firmly, then walked out into the main room and over to the bathroom door. She hesitated, listening to the hiss of water the other side of the door, then hit the keypad firmly. The door drew back, and the shower turned itself abruptly off. Taura looked around, startled, and then ostentatiously turned her back again. "Go away," she said, the muscles in her back tensed, "I'm showering."
"No you aren't," said Tara. "The water won't come on unless I shut the door again."
Taura swung back to her, her fangs showing in a ferocious snarl. "I can make you shut the door."
Tara stood her ground, despite an almost overwhelming desire to run. "And I can burn a hole in it if it you do. I don't know what this morning was about," she said, hoping her voice didn't tremble, "but I think you owe me an explanation about a lot of things. That included."
Taura took two angry steps towards her, soapy water running in streaks down her breasts and belly. Her shoulders were rigid with tension, and her hands were clenching and unclenching unconsciously. This close, her height, and sheer bulk was overwhelmingly intimidating. The ancient part of Tara's brain was screaming at her to run, run now! But I'm dead already, she thought stubbornly, she can't kill me. And I need to know stuff. Taura's huge hands closed around her shoulders, and she jumped.
Taura's head tilted on one side, "You're in my shower. Uninvited. I think I'm entitled to move you." Her hands tightened, and lifted Tara slightly off her feet.
Tara shook her head stubbornly - it felt like a bag of sand, bobbing on her shoulders. Her teeth were beginning to chatter. "You summoned me," she said, "now you deal with it. In your shower, and out of it."
Taura stared down at her, the muscles in her arms bunching and trembling. Tara felt nails digging into her. Taura growled - a deep terrifying noise from deep in her throat, then she abruptly released Tara's shoulders, turned away, and slumped to the ground, her back against the bathroom wall, her head in her hands. "What do you want me to do?" she said.
Tara was gasping, adrenaline pumping through her. "I want you to finish your shower, she said. "And then I want you to talk to me. Because you really, really need to tell me exactly what is going on. I can't help you otherwise." She bent forward, and tilted Taura's huge chin very gently upward, and looked into her eyes - she was slowly getting accustomed to that hypnotic glow, it only made her jump a fraction this time.
Taura straightened up, and wiped her arm over her eyes and mouth, avoiding her still sore nose - looking just for a moment like a cute little kid. Then the hand moved away, and her dramatic features sprung back into prominence again.
"Nobody can help," she said miserably. "They've done real good already. But they've hit a full stop now. I thought for a long time I was probably going to die around thirty, thirty five, of old age. But Super Soldiers just aren't built to last." She took a deep breath, "The soft tissue in my body is breaking down. The walls of all the vessels and organs are getting weaker, and my metabolism is crazy, even with all the drugs. It's going to go critical very soon." She sniffed a little more. "I've been riding my luck for more than a decade, anyway - none of my clones lasted past sixteen. But Miles got me medical therapy and stuff, and I made it all the way to twenty-six." She looked away again. "He thinks he can fix it again, but he can't. So I did the ceremony with Duvitiski and asked for guidance."
Tara stared at her in shock, Twenty-six? No one should have to die when they were twenty-six. She sat down beside Taura, regardless of the wet floor. "This is why you did the ceremony to call on your spirit ancestor," she said suddenly, "because you knew you were dying?" She put her arm around Taura's shoulders, "Oh sweetheart, I think you really ran out of luck. I'm not being any use to you. I'm just running around, clutching at your coat tails." And every step I take it seems I get more lost.
"No!" said Taura, "It's my fault, dragging you into the middle of this stupid dogfight I've gotten myself into. You shouldn't drag a civilian into a war. I just didn't really think about what a Guardian Spirit would be like - except," she burst out, "I didn't expect a real person!"
Tara stood up again and began to pace in the tiny space. "No, you were expecting your spirit ancestor to be smart, weren't you? You know, all kinda Tao and Karmic - there to help you prepare for death and all? But I'm no smarter than the next person." She paused, "And when, when I died, I certainly wasn't ready for it - and I don't seem to remember anything at all about being dead - no getting all enlightened, and at one with the universe or whatever." She stopped and looked at Taura again, "I don't know how I got here," she said, "or what's going to happen to me, or even how I can help you with what you have to face. But I'll try, if you'd like that." She drew a deep breath, "and now, you need to rinse off, and get dressed, and then you can tell me about the dogfight, and we'll take it from there."
"You're right, about all of it..." said Taura. Her arms dangled loosely in her lap, her hair clung about her face
"Thanks," said Tara.
"...except for what you said before, about me being out of luck - that's wrong, I think I am lucky. "When I asked for an ancestor spirit, I was lucky to get you." Then a tentative little smile lit her face, "Just think, I could have ended up sharing a room with a ghost pony or something!"
Tara laughed despite herself, "Cimarron, Spirit of the Wind!" she said. "That would have been way more dramatic." Taura was grinning back at her, although she couldn't possibly know what that meant. Maybe that therapist chick had a point, thought Tara. Maybe joking about stuff is the only way to get through it sometimes. "I'm flattered you think you're lucky," she went on, as cheerfully as she could, "but so far I think it's you doing all the helping. And," she said gently, "I seem to have screwed up on the... personal front. I was looking at you because you're so beautiful, but I didn't think I was entitled or anything."
Taura's eyes flickered sideways, and away. "I'm sorry," she said, "I shouldn't have... but most often people act like I should be grateful if they want me. And then they're scared I'll hurt them - bite them or crush them to death or something. Not Miles," her face became distant, "but he's gone, and anyway, he was a kind of freak himself." She rose to her feet, arms clutched about her, and shivered a little.
"You're not a freak, and you're not a monster," said Tara firmly. "Let's be very clear on that." She smiled, "And now, I'm going to try and figure out how to make coffee in this place. If I haven't figured it out by the time you finish your shower, you get to make breakfast."
Chapter 9: Rescue
They sat facing one another over cereal and drinks, still dressed in their bathrobes. Taura had taken their filthy clothes and put them in some kind of futuristic washing machine, which was now whumping softly in the background.
Tara had finished eating some time ago, and now sat watching in silent fascination as Taura shovelled down plateful after plateful of cereal, until she swallowed her last spoonful, lifted her mug, and sat back with a sigh.
"So, can you tell me about the mess you've got yourself into?" said Tara.
Taura straightened and nodded, her expression becoming serious. "Okay, I have to go back a bit," she said, "to when the Fleet doctor found out about, about how I was dying. He contacted Miles, who got me a place at some experimental gene therapy clinic on Beta that's really cutting edge and famous." She fell silent, and looked at her plate.
"That sounds good," said Tara, encouragingly.
But Taura shook her head. "No, I didn't want it." Her face was stern, and distant. "Spending the last of my time in hospital, on a drip - seemed like a waste. But my captain didn't see it that way - he's scared of Miles of course. So he made it an order for me to go. So, so I deserted. And then of course I couldn't use my credit chip because they'd trace me." Her eyes flickered up for a moment. "I got currency chits out, she said defensively, "before I went. But everything is so expensive. I didn't realise. And the Dendarii - and the Barrayarans probably - have been chasing me all the way to Bathory."
Tara held up a hand. This was the second time Taura had mentioned Miles, who apparently made all things happen. Who was this man, who seemed to be pulling all the strings that were dragging her and Taura left and right? "Miles is the guy who isn't scared of you crushing him, or biting him, right?" she said. "I'm guessing from that you were... close at one time."
Taura bit her lip. "He's married now," she said, "to someone else." Her impressive jaw jutted. "And I don't want to see him," she said firmly. "He'll only persuade me to do whatever he wants me to do, which is go to Beta, and I won't."
Tara blinked. That didn't exactly make sense. Okay, back a step. "And what have the Barrayarans got to do with things?"
"Barrayar is this planet in the middle of nowhere." Taura shrugged, "They wouldn't matter much, but they've got control of a wormhole. That's where Miles is from - and he was our - I mean the Dendarii's - Admiral. Now he's retired back to Barrayar. I went there once. It's nice. Green."
"But he still kind of runs things? If your captain is still taking his orders?"
Taura sighed. "Everyone does what he says. He's just that sort of man. So, I wound up on Chrysoprase with no money, just ahead of the Triumph - and first this man wants me to whore for him, then the next man, he wanted me to kill his wife - for a thousand Betan dollars would you believe? And then I met Gul Sanford, who said he was a merchant looking for a bodyguard as far as Bathory, which was the right direction for me, so I said yes - but then it turned out he was a smuggler, which I should have thought of, since this was Chrysoprase after all." She was silent for a minute. "I don't do very well out on my own," she said sadly.
Tara wondered what had happened to the first two men. Maybe Taura just cracked their heads on a convenient nearby wall? "So, there you were working for the smuggler..."
Taura nodded, "And we arrived on Bathory, and met up with his business contacts, and I was just thinking they seemed awfully familiar, when all four of them turned around and hit me with their stunners, turned on high, while Royston just stood there and watched, grinning. When I came round we were in orbit, and I was in their filthy so-called medlab getting shot full of something else, and some grinning sadist pretending to be a doctor told me the next time I was going to wake up was at an illegal auction on some asteroid in the outer quadrant." She shook her head. "The Pelete are very bad people, Tara. Space scum. Pirates, slavers, gene traders. I'm glad we blew up their ship."
Tara shifted uncomfortably. She wasn't at all sure she was glad. But she was glad that Taura hadn't been killed, or sold somewhere. "Well, I'm glad we got out of there, and made it here safely."
Taura's long lips quirked "It's a good thing they didn't know how fast my metabolism is running right now. Or that I was going to meet a witch who can cut through reinforced doors by thinking about it. We gave them quite a surprise."
Tara shivered, remembering, "The door thing surprised me too. But you were awake within five minutes of them dumping you in that cell with me. "
"Yeah," Taura looked at her claws for a moment. "A silver lining for every cloud, I suppose."
Tara took a large hot hand in hers.
The door of the apartment hissed open. Taura rose to her feet impossibly fast, dragging Tara with her, and then stopped. Five soldiers in grey and white uniforms came through the door, stunners in hand. Two of them stepped forward and aimed their stunners, the second two closed the door neatly and stood either side of it. The fifth figure, smaller and lighter than the rest, walked into the room.
"Hi, Sergeant Taura!" she said cheerfully. "You've been having a lively time, I hear. Hands on the table, where I can see them, please." She gestured with her stunner, and Taura sank back down into her chair again, and placed her hands on the table's flat surface. Tara mimicked her, heart racing in her throat. Welcome to your new life, Tara - never a dull moment. Just like the last one...
The soldier stepped forward, pushing back her hood. Her hair was dark, her face beautiful. Taura's hand twitched towards an abortive salute. "Admiral Quinn!"
"In person," said Quinn affably. "You're being detained for going absent without leave. Any questions?"
Taura's face, after its first expression of shock, had now settled to a quiet wariness. "I'm not going to Beta, Sir."
"No," agreed Quinn, her affability unaffected. "You are coming back to the Triumph, under military escort. Which may prevent you getting your big dumb head shot off. Possibly. There seem to be a bunch of guys running around here, real keen to poach them some werewolf."
Taura's jaw stuck out. "I'm not scared of them."
Quinn tilted her head, "Fancy going out in a blaze of glory, huh? Butch and Sundance stuff? Speaking of which..." She gestured with her gun towards Tara, "...where did you pick up Sundance here? And is she up for this glorious suicide idea?"
Tara cleared her throat, "It's complicated..."
A beep sounded, and the soldier on Quinn's left put a hand to his ear, listening to a message. He looked up. "Time to leave, sir," he said urgently.
Quinn turned back to Taura. "Going to disobey a direct order, sergeant? Because if so I'm going to stun you right now."
Tara looked across at the four soldiers by the door. Their faces were expressionless. Four of them - they might just be able to carry an unconscious Taura out of here and down a flight of stairs, but she bet they weren't looking forward to the idea. Apparently it wasn't going to be an issue, though. Taura had hunched defensively over her cereal bowl, staring down at her huge clawed hands.
"No, sir," she said in a small voice.
"Then let's go." Quinn gestured with her stunner.
Tara looked across at Quinn, who stood at a kind of easy attention, bouncing a little on her toes. "Our clothes are in the washing thing," she said, feeling like an idiot even as she said it.
"Well," said Quinn, "I suppose if you're lucky they might be dry before the police arrive to take you for a ride."
Taura looked up sharply, "Tara comes with me."
Quinn frowned, "You are not in a position to dict..."
Taura surged to her feet, hands clenched - even the fluffy bathrobe failing to make her less than terrifying. Five stunners trained on her nervously. "Tara comes with me," she said again, emphasising each word.
There was a long tense silence, then suddenly Quinn grinned, "Shouldn't that be, Tara comes with me, Sir?" She looked at Tara, frozen in her seat, and Taura looming in front of her, and shrugged. "Okay, we'll bring along a passenger - but we have to move now!"
Tara sat squashed uncomfortably in what seemed to be the luggage section at the back of a shuttle as it powered away from the city centre towards the shuttleport. The soldiers sat ahead of them in two rows of seats, while Quinn regarded them from the gangway. Tara was pressed up against Taura's side from knee to shoulder. At some point Taura had taken her hand again, and now it lay swallowed in a huge hot paw. She adjusted the skirt of her bathrobe nervously with the other hand. One of these days I am actually going to get some underwear. Quinn came down the aisle of the shuttle, and sat opposite them, a headset dangling on her shoulders.
"Time for a little talk," she said pleasantly.
Taura shifted, and Tara could feel her whole body quivering with tension. For herself, being found by the friendliest of all the players in this game seemed like a big relief. But it couldn't be that way for Taura. These were the people she had run away from originally.
Quinn pointed a stern finger at Taura. "You," she said, "have caused a whole heap of trouble."
"You didn't have to come after me," said Taura quietly.
"Ahem," said Quinn, "I beg to differ there. Had we not come after you, we - I - would have had to explain that to Miles. Which would have been... difficult, to say the least."
"I don't want to go to Beta," said Taura again. Her hand tightened on Tara's.
"No, I've got the message, there," said Quinn. She leaned back, her arms folded. "I must admit I assumed you were just going off somewhere to open a vein or something, but instead you apparently went off looking for a job minding a gun runner."
Taura stiffened, offended. "I had a plan," she said. "I just didn't realise how expensive everything is, so I needed a job for a week or two. And I didn't know what he was doing. He said it was medical equipment. And I still would have got there," she said broodingly, "if those crims hadn't got in the way."
"Where would you have gone?" said Quinn gently.
Taura sent a little glance Tara's way. "I was going to Margulis Station," she said defensively, "to meditate, and commune with my spirit guide, and make offerings to my ancestors."
Quinn looked concerned, "Well, that's... kind of appropriate - but surely you didn't want to die in some pisshole of a space station, all by yourself - without your friends?"
"I didn't want to go to Beta," said Taura. "Miles would have made me. I know he would. Because he thought it was best."
Some sort of understanding passed between the two women. "Maybe," said Quinn with a sigh, "he is very inclined to think he knows best, it's true. And very often he's right, of course. But I think you could have fought your corner."
Taura banged her fist on knee in frustration, "Don't you see? I'm dying, I'm sick. He'd have persuaded me, or you'd have persuaded me, or someone... because in the end I'd have been too tired to keep saying no. And I wanted to go to Margulis Station - and, and meet my ancestors. And that's what I'm going to do, unless you lock me up or hand me over to the Bathorians. I'm going to Margulis station with Tara."
There was pause. Tara looked doubtfully at Quinn, trying to gauge her response to Taura's words. The Admiral's face was a miracle of harmonious planes and angles, her skin flawless, her eyes dark and liquid, and everything little thing in perfect proportion. The effect was stunning, but in repose her beauty was a mask that made her face largely unreadable.
"Well now," said Quinn, "you haven't yet explained who Tara is." Tara felt Quinn's gaze settle on her, coolly assessing. She shuffled back in her seat. You knew this was coming, eventually.
"She seems be your girlfriend," said Quinn, as the silence continued.
"No!" said Taura and Tara together.
Quinn raised an eyebrow, and looked at their clasped hands. "No?"
Tara dropped Taura's hand and cleared her throat, self consciously. She drew a deep breath, "Like, I said, it's rather difficult to explain," she began.
"You don't have to explain anything," interrupted Taura, scowling at Quinn.
Quinn shook her head. "Actually, "you do have to explain - everything. The local authorities here have got an exploded ship in their local space, cluttering up the space lanes and bumping into their satellites, and scans indicate it was carrying a cargo of explosive ordnance, which presents them with a nasty little contamination problem; plus they've got two dead Pelete crew in their station, and another six live ones kicking up a fuss in their jail. And they know you've got something to do with it."
"You need to tell them about Sanford," Tara said urgently, "He betrayed Taura."
"Yeah," Taura's lips curved back into a snarl. "He needs catching, and then he needs to have his head twisted right off his shoulders. And I'm volunteering."
"Oh, I will." Quinn nodded. "But what I do with you two is still a very open question." She looked at Taura. "Especially you."
Tara looked at her doubtfully. That didn't sound good. She squeezed Taura's hand convulsively and felt an answering squeeze. Something inside was closing down. Too many shocks, too many new things, too little sleep and food. She knew she had to try and deal with this new thing too, but right now she really didn't want to. She shifted in the cramped space, and leaned into Taura's neck, closing her eyes. There, that feels nice.
She heard Quinn sigh. "I am going to need answers from you, and soon, blondie. Closing your eyes and snuggling up to your not-girlfriend isn't going to cut it."
There was a low rumbling growl from Taura, sounding amazingly loud against Tara's ear. She opened an eye and saw Quinn twitch back slightly. Really, thought Tara blearily, Quinn looked like a cover girl, not a soldier. But the way Quinn held herself, the authority in her voice, and above all, her rank, told a different story.
"Okay - I'll wait," said Quinn levelly, "but not for long. And sergeant? Growling at a superior officer is insubordination. Don't do it again." She gave a big sigh, and leant her head back, cricking her neck from side to side. "I am going to need a lot more answers, and soon. For now we have to get off this dirtball without getting a laser cannon up our tailpipe, and when we get to the ship you need med care, and I need a nap. After that, it's question time."
Chapter 10: Triumph
"After you." Sergeant Kimura stood by the opened door of the medlab, and gestured them inside. A trooper followed them, and stood stolidly by the door, weapon drawn.
"Yes, sir," said Taura, sounding subdued. She stepped through the door, enormous in a one-piece suit of pale grey, flicked a glance at the man sitting with his back to them at the console, then looked away.
The man turned. "Ah, sergeant. Still in one piece, I see."
"Yes sir, sorry sir."
"Sorry you're in one piece?" He came across the room, and took hold of Taura's wrist, feeling her pulse. He frowned, and reached up high to press a thermometer against her ear.
Taura shifted her feet. "Sorry I messed up the treatment, sir. I know you worked very hard on it."
The doctor rolled his eyes. "The only person damaged by you not taking your meds is you, sergeant. Anyway, come and sit down. I always get a crick in my neck trying to treat you." He turned to Tara and gave her a brief, thorough look up and down. "Anything major I can't see, young woman? Apart from the burn on your cheek and the bruises?"
Tara's hand went up to her face, remembered the blue flash, and the faint sizzle in the air. She'd forgotten that somehow, with everything else going on. "No, that's it." Nothing else apart from being dead, anyway.
"Fine." The doctor waved for a medic, who had come into the room behind them, towing a tray of instruments that floated behind her. "Norwood, you fix this young lady up, if you will." He pointed to the couch. "And the sergeant here will lie down and let me take some tests, and put her drip in, and not twitch around and bitch about how bored she is for once."
A faint smile twitched at Taura's lip. The first since they'd been found by the Dendarii, thought Tara. "I don't bitch, sir. We in the Dendarii never bitch. Against company policy."
The doctor snorted. "As far as I can tell, no-one here ever stops."
Tara let herself be led to one side, noticing out of the corner of her eye that the trooper at the door was following her with his stunner. I suppose it's kind of flattering to be considered more of a threat than Taura, if I want to look at it that way. Norwood pointed her to a chair, and once she had sat down, tilted her head to one side.
"You guys found me real fast," Taura said, from behind her. " I suppose I didn't hide my trail very well."
Kimura laughed, "Sarge, you couldn't have been more traceable with a flashing light strapped to your head." Norwood give a little amused snort of agreement, as she ran what seemed to be a small light over the burn on Tara's cheek. "You're eight feet tall with fangs," continued Kimura cheerfully, "and anyone who pisses you off winds up in hospital. Plus, when you got to Bathory there were so many crims with guns charging around in your wake, it's a miracle there hasn't been a traffic jam." He leaned back against the wall and grinned, "Except that the bad guys' ship seem to have been wrecked."
Tara opened her mouth to explain about the pirate ship, then thought better of it. "Hold still," said Norwood. The burn on her cheek grew warm.
Kimura looked at Taura and shook her head. "We were late to the party, ladies, even though the Admiral ran us at max speed all the way across six wormholes. The only reason we got to you first is we didn't stop to try and shoot up anyone else. Even when we spotted the Pelete."
"And then it went 'boom!'" anyway, said Norwood, grinning. "Made our day."
"No loss," agreed Taura, her lips rippling into a terrifying snarl. "Slavers. And gene traders."
"With a bit of pirating on the side," agreed Kimura. "Bad boys all round. If we could think of a way to mark that as a kill for the Dendarii, without getting into any complicated explanations with the Bathorian authorities, we could claim a very nice little bounty."
"I don't see why you can't claim it," Tara spoke, surprising herself. She'd planned to keep her mouth firmly shut. "Taura's your sergeant." Norwood gave her an amused look, and applied a gel to the burn.
Taura shook her head, "I deserted. So I'm not technically a Dendarii officer right now."
"Hmm," Kimura steepled her fingertips together. "The Admiral hasn't actually cashiered you, yet, Sergeant. You're still officially AWOL."
Tara brightened. "And being kidnapped by a bunch of pirates is a very good reason for her not to have made it back to base.."
"Apart from the whole part where Sergeant Taura was travelling away from her base when this kidnap took place." Kimura pointed a finger. "I don't think the Admiral can be bribed into letting that one drop."
"No," Taura hung her head.
"We're all looking forward to hearing exactly how you crashed an entire ship from your prison cell, though." Kimura's grin took in the other three Dendarii in the room, "Sergeant Taura here gave the Admiral the short version when we were coming up from planetside - what was it... oh yeah, 'We broke out of our cell, and there was a hull breech. We ejected in a lifeboat pod.'"
Everyone in the room grinned, and looked expectant.
"Let's just say they didn't count on Tara," said Taura, her lips curving again, this time into something distinctively wolfish. "She fixed them."
Four sets of coolly assessing eyes swivelled to look at her. Tara blushed.
"And in an hour or so you get to explain all about that to Admiral Quinn." said Kimura, "I'm sure she'll be interested." Then her head came up, "Hey, we're stopping. What's happening?" She strode to some kind of communicator on the wall, and started an urgent conversation, then looked up, "Well, shit. We're being blockaded. Who knew the Bathorians could be that damn speedy?"
Quinn sat at the comconsole, hesitated a moment, and then flicked the button. She had a very brief, very expensive window of opportunity for a face to face talk with her ex-Admiral. A long shot of Miles appeared briefly on screen, and then he disappeared to one side. She gazed at the picture of an empty seat being beamed to her console, and thought briefly about the past. A little thing like being blockaded by a pissed-off local administration wouldn't have stopped Admiral Naismith. But Miles wasn't Naismith anymore, and never could be. She was the Admiral and he'd been swallowed up by the demands of Barrayar, where he was a very big Barrayar cheese, with an Imperial Auditor's pips to prove it. Though that hadn't stopped him chewing his nails, she noticed, or put a stop to his habit of pacing manically around the room when he was tense about something.
She heard a tactful cough on the other end of the broadcast. Some crewman, letting his Lord know that the connection had finally been made. Miles scrambled into the shot, dumping himself heavily into the chair.
"Quinn? What's the latest?"
"We've found her, sir."
"Great!" Miles beamed, and then he hesitated. "That is to say, I hope it's great. How is she?"
"She's surprisingly good. I'll have Doctor Depalma's report for you soon, but from a non-expert point of view, I can say that she's still extremely active. Vigorous, even. She's been out on her own less three weeks, and she's already smashed a smuggling ring; she's uncovered a corrupt official in the Bathorian space authority; and she's destroyed the Pelete, which is crewed by some of the nastiest people this side of Jackson's Whole. All before we even managed to catch up with her."
"Ah, said Miles, "well, good. I'm glad. Sounds like she's got some, er restlessness out of her system." He cocked his head, one eyebrow raised, "And is she ready to come back to Beta now? It's really becoming quite difficult to persuade the doctors here at the clinic to keep a place open on their schedules. They're used to patients clamouring at their doors, rather than running to the other side of the galaxy to get away from them. The Director seem to be taking it rather personally."
"Ah we have a bit of a problem there, sir. Well two, actually. For one thing, Taura is still determined not to go to Beta - she wants to go to that wacky place on Margulis Station that's built in a crater. And for another, the Bathorian authorities are determined that we shouldn't leave their local space. At least without delivering Taura - and her new friend - to them first. We have two battleships in front of us, and several warheads pointing our way from the surface. "
"Tricky," said Miles, mildly.
"Just a little," admitted Quinn, "but hopefully I'll think of something."
"I could send out a few feelers ... actually, no - I don't have any favours to call in on Bathory. No one in their right mind goes there. The Embassy may be able to help, though."
Quinn sighed. "As a last resort, sir. I don't really want anyone wondering why Barrayar is so keen to help a Dendarii ship."
Miles nodded, and he doodled on the pad in front of him. "So," he said casually, "Tell me more about Taura's new friend."
Quinn leaned back in her seat. "Tara - one letter different to Taura, which they both seem to think is cute." She made a face, and Miles grinned for a moment. "Second name, Maclay. I've no real idea who she is, despite sending a ret scan and a swab of her blood to the ImpSec office while we were still on the surface. So far all they've told me is that she appears to be a healthy human female, genetically unimproved, id not registered." She flicked a switch, and Tara's picture came up on screen. Miles gazed at her, interested.
"Which means," Quinn continued, "that she comes from some backward dirtball somewhere - such as Barrayar, for example - which has not yet fully embraced the galactic wide web. Apparently she was a fellow prisoner on the pirate ship. Which inconveniently is now in tiny pieces, sir, with no records remaining or crew available to us to interrogate."
"I expect Taura got annoyed," said Miles absently. "She's very opposed to the whole slavery concept, especially when applied to herself." He gazed critically at the picture of Tara, who had been snapped with a blanket wrapped round her and a gel bandage on one cheek, looking very pale and shocky. It was look he recognised. But then, a spaceship crash would do that to you - assuming it didn't just blow you into little pieces, that is. "She doesn't look anything out of the ordinary."
"Apparently, she's absolutely amazing." Quinn grinned, and leaned back in her seat. She was starting to enjoy this. "From what Sergeant Taura tells me, at least. According to her, Tara is a witch, and her spirit guide. Apparently she can make light, and she can also burn holes through reinforced security doors, all with the power of her mind. That's how they got out of their cell."
Miles' eyebrows were climbing up toward his hairline. "Elli..."
"And when I asked the young lady in question just how she could make light and burn through doors, she blushed and looked modest, and said she was only a very minor witch, but she had a few powers - and they seemed to have become more powerful since she died."
Miles' brows had drawn together. "Is she delusional, or is she playing some game we don't know the rules of yet?"
Quinn held up her hands. "No penta, so no guarantees, but from my experience I'd say she was entirely earnest. And Taura believes it too - they've bonded big time. Of course it seems they were both drugged with something very nasty from the Pelete's pharmacoepia at the time - Taura certainly was. I've ordered medical tests on both of them to try and find out what."
Miles stared at Tara's picture again. "How convenient that Taura should meet a spirit guide just when she was looking for one."
Quinn nodded. "And of course she thinks meeting this Tara woman is a sign that she's on the right path."
Miles rubbed his forehead. "I can see it would be rather hard to argue her out of that idea. Especially if this Maclay woman is reinforcing it every which way she can."
"And anyway, questioning others' religious beliefs is contrary to the Dendarii Fleet Equality and Diversity Policy," said Quinn, smiling blandly.
"Introduced by me in my idealistic stage. You needn't remind me, Ellie, damn you." Miles tapped his fingers on the console, "Well, you need to sort out this little local impasse with the Bathorians, and I need to find out more about this Miss Tara Maclay, and what's she running from. Where does she say she's from?"
"She's from Earth," said Quinn, "Old Earth, that is. Due to the whole 'being a ghost from another time' thing."
Miles raised an eyebrow. "Couldn't you do better than that, Quinn?"
Quinn shrugged. "She's chosen her story and she's sticking to it. And besides, every time I so much as raise my voice to her, the sergeant starts growling at me. It's very off-putting. And before you ask - no, I can't separate them, They're attached at the hip. But not girlfriends, apparently." Quinn shrugged, leaning back in her chair. "Despite the fact that blondie there was sitting on Taura's lap at this point, and I'd bet good money they're screwing like bunnies right now in their cabin."
Miles blinked, and shifted uncomfortably. "Ah, I see. Or rather I don't see. But fast penta is sounding more attractive by the second." He waved his hand irritably as Quinn's mouth opened. "I know, I know - we have no grounds, and besides Taura would kill someone." He wrote a few notes on the page in front of him. "Send me a recording. I'll find a lingual expert here. And light a fire under Imp Sec." He stared at Tara's picture again. "She has something to hide, and we're going to find out what it is."
Chapter 11: Leaving Bathory
Tara looked around the cabin. Taura's treatment had taken a long time, and involved a lot of scary needles, but she at least looked better for it. Less strung out, and she no longer felt quite so feverish. And they'd eaten, actual hot food that tasted of something - and though she knew that Quinn would be questioning them again tomorrow, and probably the next day - she put that gloomy thought aside - for now everything was peaceful again, and they were safe. Though not if Quinn had to hand them over to the authorities on Bathory - but Taura and Kimura had said she'd work her way out of that. They seemed to think Quinn could do most anything. Worry about it tomorrow, Tara.
She turned back to Taura, "So basically, we're stuck here for the next twelve hours?"
"Confined to quarters," said Taura, not sounding too sorry about it.
"We should really get some more sleep," said Tara tentatively.
Taura nodded. "We'll crash soon, once all the adrenaline wears off."
"Um, maybe we should try and do some meditating and stuff, meanwhile," said Tara, "I am your spirit guide after all."
"We could do that," said Taura.
"Or we could make out," said Tara.
"That would be good," said Taura, ducking her head.
Tara took Taura's hand, and met the sudden glow in her eyes without jumping. She continued her look all the way down to Taura's toes, and then up again. She could see a blush starting Taura's face, and feel an answering blush on her own. "But we do it properly," she said, her voice getting hoarse. "You know, fifty-fifty stuff."
"Yes," said Taura, her voice nearly a growl.
Tara stepped over to her and put her hands on Taura's arms. Her heart was beating crazily. But there was a basic problem here. Even if Taura bent as far as she could there wasn't going to be any lip contact.
"You could sit in my lap," said Taura hopefully.
"How tall are you kneeling down?"
Taura promptly fell to her knees. "This tall."
Tara grinned and stepped forward. "Hey, short stuff," she said, although Taura still topped her by several inches. She laid her hands on Taura's huge muscular shoulders, and rubbed them gently, feeling the slopes and curves beneath her fingers. Taura had gone very still, her face slightly downturned to look into Tara's eyes. This close she seemed both more and less human. Intelligent, and yet Other. Werewolf, Bear man, Centaur, thought Tara. She moved her hands to Taura's face, stroked her fingers over her brow, her cheeks, her jaw, ran a finger tip along Taura's long, long lips. Taura's mouth opened, and Tara leaned up to kiss her, gently at first, and careful of her sore nose, then more insistently, tongue meeting tongue. Taura's great canines pressed against the outside of her mouth, sharp and adamant. As their mouths melded, the pressure grew more insistent. When she pulled back Taura's expression was withdrawn again.
"It doesn't work right, does it?"
Tara didn't pretend not to understand. "your fangs do get in the way a little," she said, "but we can find a way round that." She ran her hands down the sides of Taura's neck, trailed them over her collar bone, and down to Taura's breasts. She could hear Taura's breathing quicken, feel her rise towards her hands.
"I want to take your shirt off."
Heat was rising from Taura in waves. Tara fumbled at the fastenings, her eagerness making her clumsy. Everything was on such a massive scale - a wonderful flesh and blood bounty of femaleness.
She eased the shirt off Taura's shoulders, and slid it down her arms. "You are the most beautiful thing I've ever seen," she breathed.
"Too big," said Taura, her head turned slightly away, her jaw clenched.
"Hey," Tara touched her gently. "Bullshit. You're just right." She let her hands stray across Taura's skin.
"Too tall," said Taura, her eyes closed.
"Tall is good," said Tara. She let her lips follow her hands, and then moved up again to kiss Taura's throat.
"Monster," breathed Taura, her breasts heavy in Tara's hands, her fangs pressed against Tara's neck.
"Lover, said Tara, "if you want to be."
"Yes-s," said Taura, "please."
Quinn looked at the doctor's report in her hand. It didn't actually have the words 'Death Sentence' written across the front in black, but it might just as well have. Taura's metabolism had cranked up to dizzy levels, and everything down to her individual blood vessels was wearing thin and breaking down. All of which, the doctor's report suggested in careful medical terminology, was no more than he had expected to happen and had been telling them would happen for the last few months. All the king's horses and all the king's men are not going to put Sergeant Taura together again.
She clicked the little data disk into her console, dialled a code and pressed 'send'. Miles would get it in the morning, Beta time. Meanwhile, Doctor Depalma would have the job of telling Taura. But later, she thought, no point waking her up just to give her bad news. Assuming that she was sleeping, that is. Because if two people had ever looked like they needed to get a room, it was Taura and her mystery friend. Or maybe they were reciting mystic verses and chanting 'Om', and she was just being shallow.
She swore, and pulled the data disk out of her console, pushing it into her top pocket. What was happening to Taura was inevitable, yes, once she'd declined a drink at the last change saloon offered to her by the Clinic on Beta. But maybe, she thought, it had come a little sooner than it might have done if Taura hadn't been on the run from her friends, out alone in a big bad world she'd never really experienced at first hand before, and where she'd been exploited, tricked, stunned, kidnapped, shot full of drugs, blown up, and perpetually under stress.
We've screwed up. And Tara Maclay, whoever she is, is the only person who's helped Taura ever since she left. I need to think about that. I need to think about a lot of things. But first things first. She had an interview with the Bathorian Head of Security to deal with next. And I have no idea what to say to get us out of this mess. None at all.
Tara lay on her back in the cabin, waiting for Taura to come back from her visit to the doctor. A large glowing globe the size of a beachball was floating above her chest. If she lay back, and closed her eyes, and felt outwards up and beyond the confines of the ship, she could feel the strange flickering forces that she knew was wild magic, buzzing and crackling out in the vacuum, much stronger than she had ever felt them on earth. They'd been tapping at the door of her consciousness all along, ever since she'd summoned them when she first awoke - but after that she'd been busy being chased and shot at, or being with Taura, who tended to blot out all Tara's thoughts of anything else whenever she was in the room.
Tara moved her eyes from side to side, and globe bobbed obediently from side to side in a perfectly synchronised mirror movement. A satisfied smile curved her mouth. Now that was a globe that would have impressed even Willow.
The door of the cabin shushed open, and then shut, and she heard footsteps. She closed her eyes, and the globe faded, then disappeared. She opened her eyes again, to find Taura staring down at her, shoulders hunched.
Taura tossed a little data disk on the bed, and sat down, wrapping her arms around herself. "Looks like we might not get to Margulis station in time, after all."
"Oh, sweetheart," said Tara, helplessly, and she pulled Taura down onto the bed beside her.
Taura traced an idle little figure of eight pattern on Tara's hip with the tip of one claw. Tara gave a little shiver, and sat up. Taura stayed laying on her side, her hair fanned out in a dark cloud against the pillows, her skin tawny gold against the white sheets.
"You're so beautiful, said Tara, wonderingly. "How can anybody not see it?"
Taura's eyes flickered shyly back to Tara. "You think I'm beautiful?" Really?"
Tara nodded. "Really." She traced a gentle hand over Taura's face. The bruises from yesterday had darkened and spread, despite the doctor's treatment, and her nose was still swollen. But her beauty was breathtaking, once you managed to see past the parts that made up the whole, and see Taura entire, for what she was.
Taura looked away again. "It's a stupid thing to be worrying about, when I'm going to be dead soon anyway. It won't matter what I look like then, right?" She frowned, "I sort of expected the little things to stop being important, once I knew it was all coming to an end. But I'm just not very philosophically-minded, or something. I still want my hair to be clean, and my socks not to go into holes - and for you to like the way I look, and to want to sleep with me, and to not make a single dumb werewolf joke while we do it."
Tara stroked her hair, "You've been hanging out with wrong people." But Taura was still not looking at her, and her muscles were tense. Distraction, that was the thing. She leant down, and took hold of Taura's very large left foot, and looked at the wickedly curved claws on the points of her toes. "These are ones that don't retract, yes? So you must be pretty hard on socks."
"Tell me about it," said Taura morosely. "I mainly just don't bother." She flexed the foot demonstratively, and the claws splayed out in a wicked five point radius, making Tara jump. "Good for climbing trees. Not that I've ever climbed a tree. Though I did see one once. A little one, on Barrayar."
Tara shifted the foot carefully in her hand, and tried the point of a claw. It was sharp, very sharp. "Cool." She rubbed the foot for a moment. "Are you ticklish?" She bent down and very delicately licked the instep. Taura's leg jerked in her hand. "Oh ho," Tara said wickedly, "you are ticklish - on your feet anyway. I think we should find out where else." She bent again, and placed a kiss on Taura's ankle, then her calf, her shin, her knee. Before she could get any further, Taura had slipped down the bed to meet her, her whole body arched hungrily upwards and her legs wide open and her pussy was pressed against Tara's belly, hot and wet.
"Hey, I was planning to drive you crazy slowly," said Tara, teasing, beginning to move, "You know, build up the anticipation, make you wait a bit ..."
"I can't wait," said Taura, moving with her, taking her hand and pushing it between them. "I can't wait for anything anymore."
Quinn sat at her console, waiting for a stroke of inspiration. None so far. She looked across the room to where Taura and her blonde friend were sitting, carefully out of shot. She'd been right about what they'd been up to all night; they couldn't stop touching each other, even with Sergeant Kimura and a trooper standing silent guard over them.
She smiled encouragingly their way, "Okay, remember, this little chat is just to sound them out. No one's going to give any concessions this time round. I just want you to listen very carefully to what the Colonel has to say, and then tell me if you think you know any more about what happened than he does, or if he's got anything wrong." She tilted her head a little to one side, and laced her fingers in front of her. She hoped it made her look earnestly concerned. She flicked a switch, and Colonel Igor Roskovensky, Head of Bathorian Internal Security appeared at the other end of the Comm. She smiled. "Good morning, and how can I help you, Colonel?"
"Very easily, Admiral," he said. "You will pass over to our custody the individuals known as Sergeant Taura and Tara Maclay, both of whom we know are on your vessel. To help you make your decision, I point that you are blockaded, both by our ships and by our planetary defence network. If you do not comply with our request, we will blow out the engine of your ship, and wait to see how long it takes for your life support systems to fail."
Quinn winced. "That would be... most unpleasant. And probably illegal. We're not at war with you, Colonel."
The Colonel shook his head. "In Bathorian local space military law applies. As you know."
"But I still can't see on what grounds you could possibly justify such a draconian action, sir. After all, my sergeant has done you a favour. You could have had a ship of unregistered buccaneers in your local space, buying materials suitable for assassinations and sabotage, patently with the connivance of a number of your spaceport officials, since they could not have got there otherwise - and have known nothing whatsoever about it." She paused, "Until the bombs started going off ..." Give them a conspiracy theory to worry about, that would distract them.
The Colonel shook his head. "There is no terrorist movement here on Bathory, nor any large scale criminality."
"Not that you know about," said Quinn smoothly.
Colonel Roskovensky was unmoved, "We have no evidence to suppose that those materials were being anything but moved through our space to elsewhere. That is what our prisoners have told us was happening, and I see no reason to doubt it, since they were also admitting to murder, rape, kidnap and a whole host of other disgusting crimes at the time." Colonel Roskovensky wrinkled his nose, as though he smelled something bad.
"Well, I'm sure the best place for them is your prison. But I do wonder if all the Bathorians involved in this affair are in prison likewise." Quinn shook her head. "I am most reluctant to pass over my crew member, who is in need of constant medical care, or my passenger.."
Taura gave Tara's hand a little squeeze. She hadn't been completely sure that Admiral Quinn wouldn't give up Tara, even now.
".. to a system where I cannot be sure either of their care or their safety. It would be all too easy for them to disappear."
"Not that easy in Sergeant Taura's case," said the Colonel, drily. "I've seen the surveillance footage." He leaned back in his chair. "You know, I can understand why you're reluctant to surrender a member of your crew. It's even commendable in its way, although I assure you that we could fully meet her medical requirements, and that we would not be seeking to lock her away if her actions were innocent. But I do wonder why you will not send back the other young woman, since so far as I know you had never met her before yesterday afternoon. Would you like to explain that to me?"
Quinn nodded, "Certainly. Miss Maclay saved my sergeant's life. We regard her as a friend."
The Colonel smiled. "Commendable again. You're a quixotic crew it seems, Admiral Quinn." His expression hardened, "But still, if those two women are not on a shuttle down to the surface within the next hour then I will blow a hole in your ship. The Bathorian military is not quixotic at all."
Quinn made a gesture of protest, "Colonel Roskovensky... "
"One hour," said the Colonel, and he flicked his comm off.
Quinn leaned back in her chair, letting out a long breath. "Well, that went well ..."
Taura was looking at her hands. "I'll give myself up, sir. I don't want to endanger the ship. Or any of you."
"Nor do I, sergeant, believe me. But I still hope we can find a way to keep you away from a Bathory jail. They're famously hard to get out of." Quinn looked at Tara. "How about you, Miss Maclay? Got any special reason why you're really, really reluctant to land on Bathory?"
"Oh, I go wherever Taura goes," said Tara, a little absently. "That's given." She had a puzzled frown on her face.
Quinn's smile was a little wry, "A given is it? Seems it's not only the Dendarii who are quixotic." She rubbed her forehead, "Well, don't worry. We'll think of something - and I suppose I could always send you down there and see what cunning plan Miles came up with to get you out. It's always entertaining seeing him at work."
"No!" said Taura. "No Miles."
"That name - that Colonel's name." Tara was holding her head in her hands now, barely hearing them. "I've heard it before, on the Pelete. Or at least I think I have. Roscowinski? It's Polish, isn't it?
Quinn shrugged. "Everybody on Bathory has Polish names, or 90 of them do anyway. And of the 90, probably half of them start 'Rosco'. They got settled by a very small ship. Which explains a lot of the jokes about Bathorians. And the Colonel is called Rosko-vensky, not -winski." She paused, "Wait, you heard a Bathorian name on the Pelete?"
Tara nodded, "Yes, the men who brought Taura in were talking about him, said Taura was a free gift from Roscowinski. It was almost the first thing I heard anyone say in this world. And when you said, Roskovensky..." She turned to Taura, "I assumed Roscowinski was your smuggler guy."
"He was called Sanford," said Taura, puzzled.
"Oh was he?" said Quinn, leaning back in her chair, a smile starting on her face, "Oh was he?"
The Comm flicked back on. Colonel Roscowinski was sitting in his chair, a cup of coffee beside him. He smiled, "Made up your mind, Admiral?"
I have a question for you," said Quinn, "if you'll bear with me."
The Colonel looked at his watch, "You have 30 minutes left, so certainly."
"The smuggler, Sanford - you haven't found him yet, have you?"
The Colonel frowned. "No, but it's really only a matter of time. There were a great many flights out of Bathory in the twenty four hours before the Pelete exploded, but we're tracking all of them."
Quinn tilted her head. "What if he never left Bathory?"
The Colonel looked up at her sharply. "If your people know something..."
"What if he is actually a Bathorian citizen, who took on a false identity to move those arms to your local space, and then, when he couldn't transport them any further by commercial route, hired the Pelete to take them on to the next point in their journey? What if you really do have a traitor?"
The Colonel sighed. "I have already told you that there is no anti-government movement here on Bathory. You are simply wasting my time, Admiral Quinn."
"And I said 'not that you know about', " added Quinn, "Yes, I remember. But Tara just discovered something, which we all knew, but she didn't, about Bathorian names. I'll give you a name, Colonel, in exchange for your word that you won't fire on us until you've found out if it turns out to be as valuable as I think it will - and if it does, you give me what I want. Safe passage out of your local space for my crew and my passengers."
Chapter 12: Consequences
The first half hour had ticked by, minute by minute, while the crew of the Triumph stood at red alert. After an hour, with no shots being fired, Quinn had downgraded code red to code amber, and sent Taura and Tara back to their cabin. Now, the lights were out, and the room was shrouded in darkness. They were lying side by side, looking up at the bobbing light globe Tara had summoned, small and yellow and comforting. She'd got it nicely under control now, it hardly took any concentration at all.
Tara looked at the patterns the globe was throwing on the ceiling. "Think they're going to let us go?"
Taura shrugged. "They just might. If Sanford really is some big guy in the government, they won't want anyone watching when the knives come out." She shifted uncomfortably, "I just hope it's soon."
Tara rested a hand on Taura's wrist. Her pulse was racing, but then it was always racing. Maybe not this fast, though?
"So," said Taura, "What's it like being dead?"
Tara shook her head. "I don't remember being dead at all. I sort of remember being shot, but I can't feel it you know? And I can remember Willow, and my friends, and my life before. But I can't feelthat, either. It just seems really long ago, and a bit like a dream." She shrugged, helplessly.
"Willow?" Taura had turned to look at her.
Tara turned too, and smiled, and the globe bounced a little, into her line of sight again. "My girlfriend, when I was alive. She was a witch too, and a really amazing one. I'm just a kind of okay witch, but she was so full of power..." Tara shook her head. "I wonder what happened to her, what she did with her life. It would have been amazing, whatever it was."
"Seems to me like you've got plenty of power. You can make light," Taura gestured to the globe, "and cut through metal just by thinking about it - and there's probably a whole lot of other stuff you haven't mentioned yet."
Tara nodded, "My access to magic is easier here, for some reason. But still, it's small stuff. Willow could have cracked a planet in two if she really tried, and if she didn't care about the consequences."
There was an odd note in Taura's voice. Tara looked across at her, at her heavy features softly outlined in the glow of the light ball. Was that the faintest suggestion of a frown wrinkling Taura's brow? She'd been getting better and better at reading Taura's features. She reviewed the conversation so far. Ah yes, going on to your new girlfriend about how super-special your old girlfriend was - not recommended. Of course, she'd only ever had the one girlfriend so the matter hadn't arisen before... until Taura anyway. If she could call Taura her girlfriend - surely she was here to be a spirit guide? Could she call Taura her girlfriend? Taura was pretty clear to Admiral Quinn that they weren't... But that was before they did it the second time - and the third time, and then there was ... could she call that a fourth time? She blinked, her thoughts were getting tangled.
"Anyway," she said, "the point is, I'm not much use to you, since I can't remember anything about the afterlife, assuming I ever got there. And I haven't got any really clear religious beliefs or anything."
"Me either," said Taura, "Though I've been trying really hard."
"I know there is an afterlife, though." Tara sighed, remembering, "Buffy - that's another of my friends - she died and came back to life. But she never really said much about it. Maybe she didn't remember either. And then, there were Angel and Spike and all their buddies ... they were dead, but still walking."
"Coming back from the dead seems to be a big thing in your part of the universe." Taura frowned - properly this time. "Here people pretty much just stay dead, as far as I know. Unless you can get them into cryo them really quickly, and they have a lot of money."
"I don't think it was actually that much of a good thing," offered Tara, rather weakly, moving to rest her head against Taura's shoulder. "And even Buffy never said what death was like. Sorry."
"Ah." Taura placed an arm over her and pulled her close. Tara could hear her heart racing, and the heat was rising off her in waves, "Well, I guess I'll have to find out the hard way, then." She huffed out a long breath, "But first I have to talk to Miles."
Tara sat nervously at the console, Taura's knee pressed against hers. The comm channel was about to open, and they'd be talking to Miles on the other end. The Miles everyone seemed to be so scared of. The Miles Taura had said was a bit of a freak himself. I wonder if he's got two heads or something?
The channel opened, out of her line of sight, and Quinn lifted her chin. She looked as immaculate as ever, but there were dark rings under her eyes. It had been six hours now since they'd passed the name to Roscovensky, but the Colonel had not come back to them, and the warships off their bow still had their weapons primed. Tara chewed her lip.
Quinn was nodding to the person on the other end of the comm. "Evening, sir."
"Evening, Elli. And congratulations. I have some news for you from the surface, from a source who shall remain anonymous. Your Colonel came storming down to the Military Prison after your conversation with him, and stuck all six of the Pelete crewmen under fast penta again - which is rather ruthless of him, because two of them died immediately. He then showed the survivors some action shots from the latest Military Council meeting. Didn't take them long to point out Gul Sanford." He paused, "Nice to know you still have the knack."
His voice didn't sound that scary, at least. And he had a rather pretty accent, different to everyone else on the ship. That must be Barrayaran. He sounded tense, though.
"But have you read this thing?" There was a faint tapping noise. "You need to get Taura back to Beta now. No more delays. This has gone too far already."
"I'm afraid Taura still refuses, sir."
"I still think we should try and make her look at the options," the voice said doggedly, "Make her another offer, now that she's seen this report - she has seen this report, hasn't she?"
Quinn nodded, "She has, and she's busy plotting the fastest course to Margulis station on her own console, and pestering Nav Division with questions. They're being very patient with her." She glanced at Taura, who gave a little disgruntled huff. Quinn turned back to him, "You can speak to her yourself, Miles." She shifted her chair back. "Sergeant Taura?"
Taura swallowed, then she shifted her chair into the line of the camera, dragging Tara with her. And there was Miles. NOT what Tara had expected, not at all. He couldn't be more than five feet tall, and his body was twisted, beneath a head that was too big for him. Plenty of personality though - she could feel the force of it from here. It was unnerving. She drew a big, shaky breath. How had Taura managed to stand up to him?
He was looking at her, and not with a friendly expression.
She looked across at Taura, who was sitting frozen in her seat; seeing her with Miles' eyes for a moment. This evening Taura was finally looking sick. There were bruises and splotches marking her face, and the way her clothes hung on her suggested a lot of weight lost. And now Tara noticed, she was holding herself gingerly, as though something hurt.
"Taura," Miles was groping for words. "I'm very glad to see you, and to talk to you about Beta. I know you have a plan, regarding Margulis station - and certainly, prayers and, um, spiritual guidance are very important. I wouldn't want you to think that I didn't realise they were important... but you really, really do need to come back to Beta. The doctors here could save you."
Taura unfroze, and her long lips quirked into a half smile. "Could they, Miles? Really?"
"They might." It sounded threadbare, even to Tara. And Taura was shaking her head.
"Miles, I know you're trying to help. You've always helped me. But I'm going to Margulis station. I'm doing what is right for me, with Tara's help." Taura looked at her, and she gave her a little encouraging smile.
"Oh yes, and what does the mysterious Miss Maclay have to say about spiritual matters?"
She felt a pair of dark eyes boring into her. She squeezed Taura's big hand, and looked back at him, trying not to be stared down. "I say that Taura should do what she wants to do - not what you want her to do. And I'm going to help her. I hear you're a bad enemy to make, Mr Vorkosigan, though it also seems like you're mainly a good person." Quinn gave an exasperated snort, but Tara pushed on. "But right now you're wrong, and I'm right. Taura prayed for a Guardian Spirit to help her passage into the next world. That's me, and I'm doing what she asked me to do." He was listening at least. She took a breath, "I knew someone else who had a lot of power and thought she could use it to fix everything and everyone around her. But some problems can't be fixed. They just have to be faced. I'm sorry, really I am."
"And I'm not going anywhere but Margulis station." That was Taura, the heavy frown back on her face.
Miles stared at them both blankly, then turned to Quinn, a faint sheen of sweat on his face. "Admiral Quinn, I order you to bring Sergeant Taura to Beta."
Quinn rubbed her forehead, tired. "I hear you. But Miles, I'm not taking her to Beta."
"You're not taking her to Beta? I'm ordering you to take her to Beta."
Quinn was looking at Miles now with something that looked suspiciously like pity in her eye. "Then I must respectfully refuse. Sir. I'm going to take the pair of them to Margulis station. Let Taura do her ceremony and then see what she wants to do next." Miles closed his eyes for a second, and Quinn pressed on, "It's what Taura wants. It's what she wanted all along. It's what I should have done all along. I was wrong, you were wrong."
"But if you go there she's going to die." Tara blinked, just then he'd sounded like a little boy. He really did care for Taura, then. It wasn't all ego.
Quinn seemed to feel it too. Her tone was gentle as she replied, "Yes. My responsibility, Miles."
"No, mine." That was Taura. Quinn gave her a quick glance and dipped her head, acknowledging the point.
Miles looked at them all, a small figure made even smaller by the Com, and Tara could almost see his mind racing. Then he put his head in his hands, "Gods, I hate being this helpless. Okay, Elli, Taura, what can I do?"
Tara saw Quinn relax. "Well, you could fix Imp Sec for me. I'm meant to be somewhere else right now. And, assuming they actually let us go, it would be nice if you can stop Bathory from impounding our ship again on the way back. They're bound to have thought of it by then."
"Done." Miles looked at the time glowing on the console, and Tara looked down too. Two minutes left. "I'd like to talk to Taura. Alone." He looked at Taura's face, still expressionless. "No persuading," he said quietly. "I promise."
"Okay, then," said Taura. And, after a gentle squeeze of her hand, Tara got up and followed Quinn from the room.
Quinn and Tara stood outside the bridge, waiting.
Quinn was reading the little data disc Miles had just sent her. "Ministry of the Interior, eh?" she said absently, "Tsk, tsk. Ser Roscowinski is a bad boy." She read on, and blinked, "This next bit is about you," she said, gesturing at the screen. Tara leaned forward to read, startled. "Not a single trace of you or your DNA, or of anyone else sharing some of your DNA, anywhere. And the linguist Miles sent the tape of your interview to is baffled, though that's not a word he used - not scientific enough. He says earth is more likely than anywhere else, but as far as I can tell that's only because there are more accents on earth than anywhere else. And your blood work is bizarre. You have antibodies they don't recognise, for diseases I didn't know existed." She read the report again, frowning. "Chickenpox. Do you catch it from chickens? From touching them or something? Or from eating them?" Her lip curled a little in distaste.
"Um, I'm not sure about chickens," said Tara, doubtfully, "most people get it from other people. Or they did. I got it from a little girl called Cathy Saenz, in third grade."
Quinn looked at her. "On Old Earth? Three hundred years ago?"
Tara nodded, "Yes. I know it's hard to believe."
Quinn raised an eyebrow. "Just a bit ..." But she was interrupted. The Comm in front of her beeped, and she flicked the switch. "Quinn." She listened for a moment, then nodded. "Standby, Mr Nevin." She turned back to Tara, a smile on her lips. "Both our guard dogs have gone. I expect a call from the Colonel any minute."
There was a heavy thud next door in the communications room. Quinn sprang to open the door. The comm had gone dark, and Taura was lying on the floor. She looked up at them, a grimace on her face, "Umm, I think maybe I need the doctor." Tara fell to her knees beside her, and touched Tara's face, Quinn beside her, already speaking urgently on her communicator.
The comm screen above them flickered to life. Captain Nevin appeared in the place of Miles, standing on the bridge. "We have a incoming call from Colonel Roscowinski, Admiral."
Quinn nodded, "Patch the Colonel through to the Comm next door. And in two minutes time be ready to fly, Mr Nevin. Top speed for Margulis, no stopping to admire the scenery on the way."
Quinn looked at Taura, lying on floor, Tara bent over her, whispering something, her fair hair brushing Taura's face. "Let's just hope we get there in time," she muttered to herself, "we've screwed up enough already."................
"Welcome to Margulis station." Quinn waved a demonstrative hand.
Tara looked around. They were in a large, dark metal hangar, smelling of tinned air and motor oil. There were crates stacked at one side, some rusted and oil spattered signs which seemed to be about the dangers of radiation, and one battered counter labelled 'Arrivals', with a bored clerk sitting behind it. Kimura was making her way towards the desk, dataclip in hand. A couple of motorised trolleys clattered past, piled high with freight, making Tara step back abruptly to save her toes. She looked in vain for some sign "Um, is this all of it?"
Quinn nodded. "Pretty much. Not living up to your expectations?"
"I'm not sure I had any expectations. Only, I suppose I did - because this is disappointing them." She looked behind her, "I really hope Taura wasn't expecting some... you know... some kind of ..."
"Some kind of civilised spot with a decent restaurant?"
Tara frowned at Quinn. "Some kind of manifestation of the spiritual. Because it isn't here. At least not yet." She felt outwards with her newly discovered witchy sense, seeking a spark. Nothing. What was with Quinn, anyway? she thought absently. But her attention was distracted almost at once. Taura's float bed appeared out of the shuttle's freight entrance, tiny in the huge hangar. After that first heart attack, it had taken another three days for the next to come, but there had been more since, and a minor stroke, and now, tiny blood vessels were rupturing almost everywhere as she moved, and the bed was the only way to transport her.
The drip bag was twisting on its hook, shining in the harsh overhead light, and casting a dramatic black shadow across Taura's face. No, it was another bruise. "Oh, sweetheart," said Tara helplessly, a bolt of pain running through her.
Tara barely heard an indrawn breath from Quinn beside her, as she ran to the float bed, and took Taura's hand. "How're you doing?" Taura's yellow eyes opened, no longer glowing, but sunken in the shadow of her heavy brow. As Tara leant over her, yellow light fell on her face, picking up the sheen of sweat.
"We're nearly there." Tara turned to Quinn. "We need to go now." But Quinn was staring at her as though she'd grown an extra head, and she had her hand resting on her gun. "Now," said Tara impatiently. She looked around. Everyone was standing still, staring at her. Quinn, the doctor, the guards, the station staff. She looked down self-consciously, and then startled. Oops. A faint, clear nimbus of golden light surrounded her. She was glowing. "Oh," she said, clearing her throat self-consciously. "Um, it's nothing to worry about, really. I'm just a bit tense."
She looked down at Taura, who was grinning up at her, fangs gleaming. "Now that's my golden girl," she said, her hand tightening momentarily on Tara's, her voice only slightly slurred. "So beautiful she glows." Her eyes closed again, and the doctor moved forward, frowning, to adjust the level of the drip.
Tara closed her eyes and concentrated. She found the strands of magic she'd gathered up without even noticing, unknotted and released them. "See?" she said, trying to sound as harmless as possible, "No more glow."
Quinn moved towards her, and took her arm gingerly, pushing her sleeve up her arm, and turning her wrist upwards. Tara tried her best, most friendly smile.
"How the hell... Later," she said, her tone angry, "You are going to explain to me just how the hell you did that."
Tara shrugged. "I already told you I'm a witch, days ago. You just didn't listen." Quinn stared at her, hard - and she could hear a rising chorus of whispers behind her back. Her ears were getting hot.
But hopefully there aren't any actual flames. That would freak them all out again.
Kimura came back from the arrivals desk, oblivious to all the drama that had taken place behind her back. "Uh, sir, we have a problem. The Lovelock Hub is closed - they've got a big magnetic storm due, so everyone's here hunkered down in the station."
Quinn frowned. "Damn. Okay, we need to get everyone back on the shuttle. We'll ride the storm out in space, and Taura can have her meds."
Tara drew a deep breath; her sense of urgency was growing, the tingling of prescience becoming stronger until it was almost painful. "It'll be too late. Taura's going now, soon. Very soon."
Quinn stared at her. "We can't get to the Hub, Tara. Unless you want to magic us there. No arguing with a magnetic storm. And we don't want to be stuck here when it arrives. Getting back to the shuttle is the smartest thing."
It was Kimura again. "The Director of Lovelock Hub is here, sir. Says he'd be happy to help." She lowered her voice, "He seems to be pretty much royalty around here, or head priest anyway. I think it would be smart to talk to him."
Quinn drew a deep breath and turned around on her heel. Advancing towards them across the hangar was a large man in a flowing white robe, matched by a flowing white beard. His hands gleamed with silver rings, and his eyes were a piercing blue. "Greetings, Admiral. I hear you have returned a Gaian daughter to us."
Quinn's back stiffened. "Actually, sir," she said stiffly, "Taura is a Dendarii ..."
Tara drifted quietly back towards Taura's float bed, leaving them to argue it out. Taura's eyes were still closed, and the dark blotch on her face had grown.
Tara looked at the doctor, "She's getting worse."
He nodded grimly. "I'd insist she goes back to the medlab, but I couldn't do anything for her there either."
Tara looked around, at the drab grey plascrete walls, the crates, the fuel and feeder tanks, the puddle-stained oily floor. It didn't look much like heaven.
But, as Taura had earnestly explained, the Lovelock Hub was meant to be a confluence, a place where invisible swirls of spiritual energy mixed and converged, with the crater catching and concentrating that energy like a giant satellite receiving dish. And Margulis Station itself couldn't be far from the Hub, since it served nothing else.
She reached out with her newly powerful witch's senses, seeking some hypothetical great swirl of energy, trying not to have any preconceptions about what it would be like, lest she overlook it in all the confusing noise and sparkle that she saw now whenever she closed her eyes. And there was something, scratching away at her, tapping at the door, trying to engage her attention. But there was too much interference here - metal, plastics, the dull roar of the engines underneath them, and the hiss and sigh of all the artificial systems keeping the little station running.
She shook her head impatiently. "Is there a window anywhere on this station?"
One of the station crew coughed, and bobbed his head nervously. "Uh, yes, ma'am. At the top - there's a little viewing bubble. You won't see much today though - there's a real big storm out there."
"Oh, I don't think I need to see much," said Tara absently. She looked back at Quinn and the Director. They seemed to have reached a rather strained accord.
She walked over to them, and they turned, identical frowns on their handsome faces. "We're going to the viewing bubble," she said, trying to sound as decisive as possible.
"You are not in command of this expedition, Tara," said Quinn marching over. "We are going back to the shuttle."
"All of us would be delighted to pray with your friend, said the Director quickly, "and the bubble sounds like an excellent choice, since the Hub is closed to us." He had reached the float bed now, behind Quinn. As he reached the bed, he saw Taura for the first time. His face paled. "What is that?"
"She is Sergeant Taura of the Dendarii Mercenary Corps, and your 'daughter of Gaia'." Quinn folded her arms. "Got a problem with that?"
His face became stone. "That is no one's daughter. It is not a natural creature. It's an abomination. And it should not be here. You suggest that leave in your shuttle at once, Admiral Quinn, as you intended. But do not return."
"And I suggest you shove it up your ass."
Quinn gestured to the six troops behind her, who formed up around the float bed. "Let's go and find this viewing bubble, guys," she said pleasantly. "Looks like we all have some praying to do, since the folks here aren't willing."
Tara stood in the lift, crammed uncomfortably against the wall by the floatbed, its paraphernalia, the doctor, Quinn and six troopers.
"That asshole," Quinn was vibrating with anger. Tara could feel it radiating from her. And grief, that was radiating from her too. Tara placed a hand on her arm, and Quinn blinked.
"He's not important, or his prayers," she said quietly. "I've spent the last few weeks not knowing where I was, or what I was doing, or why I was here, but this is it. I'm sure."
The lift thumped to halt, and the doors opened. Facing them was a grey door, with the words 'Viewing Point' stencilled upon it. The nearest trooper touched the keypad. It remained red. He touched it again.
Quinn pushed him aside and tried herself. The door remained stubbornly at red. "That holier than thou, hypocritical son of a bitch has sealed it," she said, furious. "Right." She drew her gun, and turned back to the lift.
Tara coughed, "I think I can sort it out." And let's not just burn a hole in it this time. Try for a bit more delicacy. And then if delicate doesn't work, blow it to hell. She placed her hand on the lock and concentrated, drawing the energy towards her. "Be open." The light clicked to green, and the door drew back. She walked through it, the troopers in the way backing away from her nervously. The room was circular, and domed, the clear plasteel walls scuffed and whitened by the dust, which she could see being thrown continuously against it, in patterns and waves of force. There was no sound, only the continual ominous ebb and flow of the dust particles down and across the transparent walls.
"Gods," one of troopers shivered. Quinn flicked him a reproving glance and he fell silent, shifting his feet anxiously.
"It's perfectly safe, said Kimura, tapping the window, "this stuff will withstand a vacuum."
"Still creepy as hell," murmured another trooper.
Tara listened, to the storm, and to the swirling patterns beyond and outside it, and the great solar wind beyond. It didn't seem conscious to her, but she could feel the threads of magic, even closer and stronger than they had been when she was in space. Perhaps the Gaians felt it here too, and called it spiritual energy. Whatever it was, she thought it was what they'd come to seek.
"This is it," she said, her voice grown hoarse. She barely heard Quinn herding the troopers out, ordering them to hold the lift. Taura stirred a little, and Tara bent over her. "Journey's end, sweetheart." She took her little bag out of her pocket and began to mark the circle, lips moving as she spoke the words. As she came to the last mark, she bent over and kissed Taura, then moved back and completed the pattern, and bent over Taura again. Broken blood vessels had bloomed in Taura's lips where she had touched her, and Tara felt tears starting in her eyes. But she closed the circle, nonetheless, and ended the ritual.
Taura made a huge, painful effort, her body creaking, and raised herself on one elbow. The doctor moved forward to the drip, his foot in the circle, and then stopped, as a large claw pricked the skin on the back of his hand. "No more drugs," Taura said, faintly but clearly. She turned, one eye now red. "Bye Elli, and say goodbye to Miles for me. Bye, Tara, though maybe I'll see you again soon. I hope so." There was pause. "This really hurts like crap," said Taura, sounding annoyed. And then her eyes closed, and she slid back into her pillows. Tara closed her eyes to pray, and Quinn knelt down beside her, awkwardly. In a few minutes, she knew that Taura was dead.
She opened her eyes and looked across at Quinn, who was crying silently, and the doctor, who looked more angry than anything. Then she looked down again at Taura. "Peace, sweetheart. And safe passage."
The storm was continuing, beating the sand against the walls, creating abstract patterns that formed and faded and ran. The doctor had filled out a death certificate, and was now using a desk outside, filling in forms in triplicate for the Margulis authorities. Quinn was outside too, engaged in a viciously polite exchange with the Director. But in the viewing bubble the silence was absolute.
Tara got up stiffly from her kneeling posture by the bed, and brushed back a lock of Taura's hair, then stopped; the hand in front of her was growing transparent. She looked at her fingertips, which rested on Taura's heavy ridged forehead. They grew paler, more nebulous. Pale skin, long fingers, chewed nails - all fading away.
"I wonder where I'm going?" thought Tara, "I wonder if Taura will be there, and all her thousands of ancestors. And Willow, and everyone. Or if it doesn't work that way at all."
And then she faded entirely and was gone.