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Cairis was not in the best of moods.

 

Her assignment had been a bust in that she’d gone all the way out to interview Commander Harrick – only to be denied just after she got there.  When she and Torvull had tried to finagle the interview anyway, they had been unceremoniously escorted back onto their shuttle and sent on their way.

 

Fortunately, getting back to Central Command wasn’t difficult – just time consuming, which added to her out-of-sorts mood.

 

She and Torvull had had to switch ships when they’d been dropped because the one they were on had been re-routed, but were finally on the last leg of their journey.  She secured permission to check in with Valoren and was directed to a side console.  There, she made contact via a semi-private channel.

 

“Val, we’re on our way back,” Cairis stated once the connection was established.  “Commander Harrick went back on his agreement to the interview and sent us packing.  Torvull and I are fine; just given the brush-off.”

 

“You might as well take your time,” Valoren said, her tone sour.  “The console mixer is out-of-action and it’s taken the servers and database out, too.”

 

Cairis gasped.  “What?  But what about the material?”

 

“…It isn’t looking good.”  Valoren sighed.  “I’ve put in a call to tech services, of course, but we’re not high on the priority list.  Come home, you and Torvull – but don’t expect to get much broadcasting done.”

 

“Understood,” Cairis answered.  “See you when we see you, Val.”

 

The communication was cut and Cairis left the Bridge, nodding thanks to the Commander on the way out.

 

She went to the galley; knowing Torvull would be mingling among whatever personnel were there and trying to swindle them for whatever he could get.  When she arrived, she was noticed, but no one said anything until she joined Torvull at the table he’d chosen.  Room was made for her without fuss and she settled down.

 

“What’d Val have to say?” Torvull asked, using one of his hands to swipe the extra cav mug off her tray.

 

“The console mixer is banjaxed and the servers are in jeopardy,” Cairis muttered, “so we could dilly-dally for a phoeb out here and be alright.”

 

Torvull groaned and folded two of his arms and thumped his head down onto them.  A third arm kept still because off the cav mug.  The fourth shot straight up in the air and fingers extended to make gestures that would start a fight in a bar.

 

The soldiers laughed.

 

Cairis grinned and sipped at her own cav.

 

Torvull sighed and sat up straight to rest his cheek against one fist.  “What the fuck did Lufir break now?

 

“You don’t know it’s Lufir.”

 

“I do know and so do you,” he shot back.  He grinned at her.  “But if you really wanna argue about it: bet you a batch of Bazurian ginger cookies it was him.”

 

“Sucker bet – no dice,” Cairis snipped.  She sighed.  “It probably was, but bloody fucking shitcakes of Worox do I not want to know what he did.  Val’s probably going to smite him out of existence.”

 

The soldiers laughed again and Torvull snorted.

 

“Your mouth to Uulla’s ears,” he intoned.  He sighed again.  “When’s it gonna get fixed?”

 

“Not anytime soon, according to Val.  She put in a call, but since we’re on our own grid, we’re not high on the priority list.”

 

“Probably because Commander Throk is currently off Central,” offered one soldier.  “A buddy of mine serving aboard a ship in Second Fleet was griping about him just yesterday – but my buddy is always griping, so that’s nothing on Commander Throk.  Anyway, with the commander off Central…”

 

Cairis and Torvull nodded.

 

“Yeah, we get it,” Torvull muttered.  “Not that we’re great favorites of his, but he at least understands efficiency.”

 

“I don’t think Throk has favorites,” Cairis added.  “Not that I’d know.”

 

Torvull grinned at her.  “Still hasn’t consented to an interview?”

 

She made a hissy sound of derision.  “It’s less that and more he isn’t giving a definitive answer one way or another.  He’s stringing me along like I’m a toy for his amusement.  I have work to do!”

 

“You can work on me,” offered the soldier closest to her with a leer.  “I’ll let you interview me any time.  I’ll give you plenty to talk about.”

 

The other soldiers began snickering.

 

Cairis smirked.  “So: a dobosh, tops?  What do I do with the other forty-one doboshes of my air time?”

 

The catcalls started up and the soldier was razzed by his fellows.  Torvull grinned and winked at Cairis.

 

She laughed and settled in for a round of bullshit and hoped the problem got fixed before they got back to Central.

 

 

*~*~*~*

 

 

Of course, the problem did not get fixed.

 

They arrived at Central only a few vargas after Cairis had made contact with Val.  The first thing she did was comm Koje.

 

“Still down,” Koje reported, his voice tense.  “We’re doing all we can to save the files, but…”

 

“Right, okay, got it,” Cairis muttered.  Her ears flicked nervously.  “I—“

 

Her train of thought de-railed as she spied a familiar figure walking through the docking bay, having arrived from a different hallway.  He had a pack hooked over his shoulder; his posture stooped as always.  His expression was neutral as he tapped at a datapad while he walked along, confident that others would either get out of the way or be walked over.

 

“I’ll get back to you in a few ticks,” Cairis declared, and closed the comm.

 

To Torvull, she said: “Wish me luck.”

 

He saluted her with a fist to his heart via one hand and a knife-edge hand to his brow with another.  “What do you want done with your remains – if there are any?”

 

“Ha!”

 

Cairis put herself on an intercept path with the exceptionally tall Galran.  When she got close enough, she called out, “Commander Throk!”

 

His ears laid back, though his expression didn’t change much.  “Well, well… if it isn’t Intrepid Reporter Cairis!  Hello, dear.  I’m afraid I don’t have time to tell you stories today.”

 

“That’s fine because I’m not begging for an interview,” Cairis declared.  “I’m begging for help.”

 

That got Throk’s attention.  He lowered his datapad to face her directly, one ear lifting.

 

“Do tell,” he invited.

 

“While I was gone, the console mixer shorted out and now the servers are crashing and every last bit of material The Voice has is in danger of being lost,” she told him.

 

“So put in a call to Tech HQ.”

 

“Val did.  Apparently, The Voice of The Empire is not considered a high priority.”

 

He curled his lip.  “It isn’t.  Really, now: what sort of show are you lot running that your files are so easily damaged or lost?”

 

“They’re not.  They’re usually safeguarded very well – but the servers and databases are hooked into the console mixer because they have to be.  With that banjaxed, they’re at risk, too, which is why we’re all very careful about that equipment!”

 

“Not careful enough, apparently.”

 

She clenched her jaw against the urge to snap at him.  Vitriol would only serve to get her murdered, if not utterly ignored for the rest of time.

 

“Commander, please,” she begged.  “The program is listened to by billions.”

 

“With speakers piped in all over every Empire-controlled gathering space, that’s unavoidable.”

 

Voluntarily,” she ground out.  “The program has to be accessed when not in a public area.  That’s not the point!  The point is: we’re in danger of losing everything.  Can you help us?”

 

Throk gave her a slick smile.  “Can, yes.  Will I…?”

 

He gave a languid shrug and looked away.

 

Her ears laid back a little as she glared up (and up, and up) at him.  After a few ticks, she asked bluntly: “What will it cost?”

 

That depends on you,” he replied.  “I’m in high command, if you’ll recall – my time is finite and assuredly more valuable than yours.”

 

Her ears laid back a bit more.  “What do you want?

 

“Such a loaded question!” Throk tsked.  “You can do better.  Words are your thing, aren’t they?  Come on, little lamb – unlock the correct combination of letters and vowels to win the prize!”

 

Her ears went back even more and a growl rattled low in her throat.

 

It nearly got out when he smirked at her.

 

They stared at each other for a few ticks longer.  Torvull moved closer, keeping them in sight, but remained away from them.

 

Finally, Cairis said, “Thanks to you not letting me interview you, I don’t know what I could offer directly that would convince you to help us – as I’m sure the goodness of your heart simply doesn’t exist.”

 

Both of his ears went up and his smirk widened to a wicked and delighted smile, but he said nothing.

 

She huffed.  “This is probably the dumbest damned idea of my life and will give my Unilu partner over there heart failure, but… a blank credit?”

 

Throk tilted his head.  “I’m listening.”

 

“That’s basically it: I agree to fulfill a favor for you at some later date if you’ll do me the favor now of helping fix the equipment and, if possible, save our files.  It’s either that or I make you a batch of Bazurian ginger cookies.”

 

Throk shifted his stance; turned his gaze away – clearly considering the offer.  Cairis kept silent.  She knew that if she nagged him or rushed him, the answer would most definitely be ‘no’.

 

After what seemed like an agony of forever, Throk met her gaze and nodded.

 

“Agreed,” he said, and gave her a charming smile that terrified her.  “I’ll help you now and you’ll help me later, at my choosing – and the cookies.”

 

Feeling like she’d just won her life but lost something precious, Cairis shook the hand Throk offered to her.

 

“Well, then!” Throk caroled.  “Lead on, Lamb – I believe there’s work to be done!”

 

Cairis spun on her heel and led the way down the docking bay, snapping off a quick comm to Koje that they were bringing help.  Torvull fell into step with her two ticks later.

 

“That was stupid!” he hissed.  “Unspecified time and favor?  Stupid!”

 

“You usually like it when that happens,” she pointed out.

 

“When the favor is in my favor!  Now: it ain’t!”

 

“It’s me that owes it, Torvull.”

 

“And who is usually sent with you when you need a partner?  Me!

 

“Who says he’ll need you?  But if you’d care to keep giving him ideas…”

 

Torvull winced and glanced over his shoulder at Commander Throk.  The tall noodle of a Galran gave him a pleasant smile in return.

 

Torvull shuddered at the chill that raced up his spine and faced forward again.

 

“Good luck for us we got sent back, I guess,” Torvull muttered as they all exited into a connecting terminal.

 

“Oh?  Were you on assignment?” Throk asked, moving to walk beside Cairis.

 

“Were you?” she challenged.

 

He made a tetchy noise.  “This is not story-hour, Lamb.  I’m doing you a favor.”

 

“And I owe you one because of it.  Would you like to use it now to keep me minding my own business?”

 

He glanced down at her and smirked.  “Well played, dear.  No – I’ll keep my favor for some other time.  I’ll simply deny you an interview, as I’ve been doing.”

 

“I really don’t understand why,” she replied, heading for the mag-lev.  “You’re high command and scuttlebutt has it that you’re extraordinarily intelligent and clever; able to find work-arounds most people don’t think of.”

 

“I thought reporters dealt in facts – not scuttlebutt.”

 

“We have to start somewhere.  Care to put rumor to rest?”

 

He grinned as the three of them boarded the mag-lev.  “Keep fishing, Lamb.  Ha!  Oh, there’s a mental image: a sea-faring sheep.”

 

Cairis huffed and punched in the code for the destination to Voice HQ.

 

 

*~*~*

 

 

When they arrived, Valoren was waiting.

 

She locked her gaze on Throk for a moment and seemed to tense.  Then, nodding, she said, “Thank you for agreeing to Cairis’ plea for help, Commander Throk.”

 

He gave her a pleasant enough smile – and it dropped away as he settled into work mode.  “Where is the console mixer?”

 

Voice HQ was its own small city block within Command Central on its own small power grid.   The inner-most room was the broadcast booth from where sound and video and typed articles emerged.  Around that were common areas of gathering spaces and a public kitchen.  Scattered around that were the team’s personal quarters.

 

It was, essentially, a rodent warren.

 

“Torvull, escort Commander Throk to the broadcast booth,” Valoren ordered.  “Cairis, stay put.”

 

Torvull gave them all a squinty, unhappy glower, but then gestured with one of his arms and took off towards the booth.

 

Throk gave the two women a languid finger-wave and followed the Unilu.

 

Valoren waited until they were out of earshot and then bent down to scowl at her minion.  “Fucking Throk?

 

“Not in this universe or any other,” Cairis muttered.

 

“Cairis!”

 

“I know!” Cairis shouted, stepping back.  She raked a hand through her hair and snarled when her claws got tangled in it.  She yanked her hand free and yelped.  “I know, Val, but he happened to show up in the docking bay at the same time we did!  He was out with Second Fleet, came back when we did… I took the opportunity!”

 

“Uh-huh.”  Valoren straightened up and crossed her arms over her chest.  “How much is this gonna cost us?”

 

“Won’t cost you anything,” Cairis grumbled.  “It’s gonna cost me. I had no choice: I had to sign a blank credit of favor-for-favor with him; this for an unspecified later.”

 

Damn it!” Val shouted.

 

I know!” Cairis shouted back.

 

The two women glared at each other.

 

Val heaved a sigh and then scrubbed at her face with her hands.  “Alright.  Alright.  As much as I hate this, it’s necessary.  The servers wouldn’t have lasted another varga.  Better Throk’s help than no help at all – even if it’s gonna come back to bite us in the rumea later.”

 

“With great big Throk-shaped chompers,” Cairis agreed.  “But why are you upset?  Don’t you have some kinda weird crush on him?”

 

Valoren stiffened.  She cast a squinty-eyed glare at the smaller woman.

 

“What I have is an appreciation for his talents and the understanding of his personality,” Valoren snapped.

 

“Uh-huh.  So I didn’t see you get flustered that time you both happened to be in the cafeteria at the same time and he spoke to you?  You dropped your cav on him.”

 

Valoren sucked in a sharp breath.  “Go.  Go do… something.  Just be away from me right now.”

 

Cairis winced and scurried away.

 

 

*~*~*

 

 

Since part of the deal was making cookies for Throk, Cairis took herself off to HQ’s communal kitchen.

 

While she was mixing ingredients together, Jostann arrived.  Cairis glanced up and then went back to stirring.

 

“Sal’s recipe, sweetheart?” Jostann asked, coming into the kitchen.  She walked up behind Cairis; took hold of her shoulders and nuzzled against her, cheek to cheek, before stepping away.

 

“Yes,” Cairis muttered.  “I owe Throk a batch and everyone else will want some, so…”

 

Jostann nodded.  “An easy bargain if all you owe is cookies.”

 

Cairis winced.  “’Tanna…”

 

Jostann waved a hand.  “I already know.  Torvull had plenty to say about it.”

 

“I bet he did,” Cairis muttered.  “I love being here.  I love working here.  I love all of you – even Orirn.  I don’t want to lose this and if we lose the broadcast booth, the servers, the material—“

 

“We’d simply set up shop somewhere else,” Jostann soothed.  “Or, Valoren would reestablish us in Central Command.  One way or another, we wouldn’t stay off the air.”

 

Cairis nodded.  “Good.  I like my job.  But I don’t want to lose any of you.”

 

“My child, wherever you go – I will go.”  Jostann smiled at the younger woman.  “I’ve all but adopted you.  Do you really think I’m simply going to say ‘oh, well’ and move on?”

 

Cairis huffed a laugh.  “You and Sal…”

 

“Sal is more like your honorary uncle.  I like to think I’m slightly more than that.”

 

“I’ve always wanted a mom,” Cairis joked.  “The one I was born to didn’t want to be one, after all.”

 

“As I understand it, she simply didn’t care she had you – for which I’d like to have words with her about,” Jostann said, her tone going cold.  “You’re a fine person, Cairis.  The loss is hers – and the gain mine.”

 

Cairis smiled.  “Yes, well, we’ll see how happy you are with your gain after Throk gets done with me.”

 

“With any luck, it won’t leave you terribly mangled,” Jostann joked.  “Hopefully: only a little bruised.”

 

Cairis had to laugh at that.

 

Still, Jostann went on her way after acquiring a drink and left Cairis to it.  She got the cookie dough slung onto baking sheets and those popped into the oven.  The kitchen was redolent with the scent of Bazurian ginger.  She had enough time before she had to switch out baking pans, so she made her way to the broadcast booth.

 

On the way, she passed Orirn.  He stumped by on his cane and gave her an ugly glare.

 

“You just had to ask him, didn’t you?” he groused.

 

Cairis winced and her ears flicked.  “He was right there.”

 

Orirn growled and continued on his way.

 

Cairis winced again and then sighed as she continued on her way.

 

In the broadcast booth, she found the console mixer being taken apart panel by panel.  Torvull was helping Throk with this and Koje was lurking.  Valoren had made herself scarce.

 

“How’s it going?” Cairis asked, squatting down by Torvull as he knelt beside Throk, who was waist deep into the underside of the mixer.

 

“It’s going,” Torvull muttered.  He turned his head to the side and sniffed.  “You smell like Bazurian ginger.”

 

“Getting the cookies done up; I have to go back in a few doboshes.”

 

Torvull nodded.  “A good idea.”  He grinned.  “Crust me – I’m looking forward to them!”

 

Cairis glanced at him.  “That was crumby.  You knead to do breader.”

 

“If you think that’s the yeast I can do…”

 

A sharp sigh emerged from under the console panel.  The two punsters looked at Throk’s torso.  Off to the side, Koje was shaking his head and making gestures of stabbing himself.

 

The punsters looked at each other.

 

And grinned.

 

“You keep on like this,” said Cairis, “and one of us is gonna be toast.”

 

“I dunno, kid – you’re really making me want to rise to the occasion!”

 

“Can’t help it!  I have a knead for this sort of thing!”

 

Torvull snorted.  “Well, I doughn’t plan to hold it against you!”

 

“Because you loaf me?”

 

“Because I loaf you – especially when you’re on a roll.”

 

A low growl rattled out from under the console mixer.

 

“Seems he’s getting moldly annoyed,” Torvull commented.

 

“He needs to butter up – we’re just getting started!  I’ll mop the flour with you.”

 

“Here goes muffin!”

 

“Enough!” Koje snapped.  “Enough.  Stop.  No more.”

 

The punsters looked at each other.

 

“We should stop,” Cairis murmured.

 

“The bread puns are getting stale,” Torvull agreed.

 

They grinned.

 

“Butter safe than sorry,” they said.

 

Cairis stood up just as a tangle of wires was tossed out from under the console.  They landed on one of Torvull’s hands and he lurched back with a yelp of shock as he was zapped.

 

Oopsie!” Throk sang out.  “Clumsy me.”

 

Torvull rolled forward, his hands curling into fists, and Koje got between him and the commander.

 

Cairis decided to go deal with cookies.

 

She’d gotten the first batch done and the next batch swapped into the oven when, suddenly, a howl of furious voices bellowed: “LUFIR!!!!

 

She ran to the broadcast booth.  Her arrival caused Lufir to dodge aside, crashing up against the wall while she yelped and went the other way.  She looked at the frightened, ears-down Galra and then looked around to find the crew and Throk giving Lufir terrible glares.

 

Cairis sighed.  “What’d you do, Lufir?”

 

“I – I – I m-might have – uh – maybe—“

 

“He did bring food near the console mixer against my express orders!” Valoren spat.  “He specifically brought honey noodles near the mixer!”

 

“He dropped them,” Throk continued, rising to his feet, “and when he cleaned them up, the water he used thinned the honey and it slid down into the diodes and crystallized.  Three panels need replacing entirely and the rest of the system a thorough cleaning.  The good news is that I can partition your databanks and retrieve the material instead of just trapping it and hoping for the best.”

 

Koje shrugged at the look Throk sent his way.  “I did the best I could with what I had.”

 

Throk sighed and went to the databanks and servers to get to work there.

 

Cairis winced and made herself scarce as Valoren started toward Lufir.

 

 

*~*~*

 

 

Nearly thirty doboshes later, Throk’s work was finished.

 

He, Koje, Torvull, Orirn, and Jostann arrived in the kitchen just as Cairis was plating up the last of the cookies she’d made.

 

“If you’d be so kind as to bag those to go, Lamb,” Throk instructed.

 

Cairis snorted.  “Yours are right here.”

 

She plucked up a large, sealed bag of cookies from the counter and handed them to him.  She then grinned.

 

“I gave you a double-batch,” she explained.  “It’s the least I could do for what you saved.”

 

“The very least,” Throk agreed, smirking at her.  He accepted the bag.  “Thank you, Lamb.  Any chance I could have one of those on the plate?”

 

“Greedy,” Orirn snapped.  “You have a bagful!”

 

“Yes, but they’re sealed up and I was interrupted from getting a meal,” Throk retorted.  He focused on Cairis again.  “Not even one?”

 

She sighed, but offered up the plate.  Throk’s long, spindly fingers plucked up a cookie with his customary grace.

 

“They smell… spicy,” he said, passing the treat beneath his pointy nose.

 

“They’re ginger cookies,” Torvull drawled, taking one for himself – with all four hands.

 

“Yes, I understand that,” Throk replied.  “I’m simply used to most cookies being more sugar than spice.”

 

“Sal’s recipe,” Cairis explained: “spicy with a hint of sweetness.”

 

“’Sal’?”

 

“You know…. Vrepit Sal’s?  At the Space Mall?  He’s taught me a lot of his recipes.  Once he got the hang of baking, this was—“

 

“Thank you; I don’t need his life story.”

 

Throk bit into the cookie and went still.  A smile graced his thin face even as his ears went loose; relaxed down into a bounce to either side.

 

Then, abruptly, he whirled around and made his way out of the kitchen – unsealing his bag of cookies as he went.

 

The Voice crew watched him go and then looked at each other with varying expressions of resignation and annoyance.

 

“So, what’s happening?” Cairis prompted while the others got settled with their snacks.

 

Koje sighed.  “Throk put in the order for the new panels—“

 

“He made Valoren do it, using her code, so it’s her credits spent rather than using his—“ Orirn began griping.

 

Jostann put a calming hand on his shoulder.  “There was no reason for Commander Throk to use his code.  It’s Val’s business – our business – and he didn’t break the mixer.”

 

Orirn snorted.  “Yeah.  Val’s having a ‘talk’ with Lufir right now.”

 

Cairis winced.  “I bet.”

 

“Whatever comes of him: he deserves,” Orirn snapped.  “He was told to not bring food near the mixer.  He was told why to not bring food near the mixer.  He did it anyway.  Now, he’s caused several thousand credits’ worth of damage and repairs, and very nearly cost us our material!  I’ll be surprised if Val doesn’t have him taken out and shot.”

 

Torvull snorted.  “The way Lufir’s been going about things, I would be surprised if he isn’t some sort of Rebel saboteur.”

 

“Sabotage what?” Jostann laughed.  “We’re spin doctors.  We’re propaganda artists!  All we do is hype the Empire – and without us, it would still continue on anyway.  We simply give the people the shiny ideal they want.”

 

That started off a round of discussion between the lot of them, but Cairis was tired.  She left the kitchen clean up for the others and made her way through the warren to her quarters.

 

She yawned and stretched as she entered; relaxed out of it as the door slid shut behind her.  She locked it, which would signal to the others that she was done with company for the night.

 

She glanced at her Travels Wall; where she kept the postcards she bought from the places she’d been (if any were available) or from friends (three, tops).  She was annoyed at having been dismissed by Commander Harrick, because she’d been looking forward to getting a postcard of the tree-covered mountains of Prexxilk.

 

Still, it was good they’d gotten sent back, as Torvull had said.  If they hadn't, then, they wouldn’t have been in the right place and time to waylay Commander Throk—

 

She froze as she turned and found a piece of paper on the pillow settled on her bunk.

 

It was a simple slip of paper, given a loose fold.  At the top of one edge, words were written in an unfamiliar scrawl:

 

The SHEEP of Things to Come

 

Her heart pounding, Cairis heard Throk’s voice in her head calling her “Lamb” even as she reached out and carefully picked up the paper.

 

She unfolded it.

 

Her eyes widened.

 

“Oh, shit.”

 

 

 

 

(the end)