Cairis startled at the call of her name. Turning, she found Gato approaching her with a big smile on his face.
“Gato!” she greeted, smiling. “Do you need something?”
He gave her a wink to go with the grin. “If you’re offering… but, no, not that. Guess who’s going to Snilia to see about a new load of nutrient goop?”
It took her a moment to remember he worked in Acquisitions.
“Oh!” she said, laughing a little. “I guess you’re assigned to go to Snilia to get the product?”
“Right you are!” he replied. “And I thought: I happen to know somebody from Snilia! How about it? If you have time free, would you go with me? You can show me around, introduce me to various people… why are you shaking your head?”
Cairis winced and her ears flicked. “Gato… I was a base-brancher, remember?”
He frowned. “So you said, but what does that have to do with anything?”
“I hit the century mark, attained my adulthood, and then spent twenty-eight decaphoebs working the mulching yards before the Empire came calling for recruits. When they did, I took the offer and got off of Snilia. Prior to then, I did what kits do: grow and get education. But I didn’t go anywhere or do anything of importance. I can’t introduce you to anyone or anything.”
“Hmmm.” He tilted his head. “Well, then: how about you come with me and see more than just the low branches and the ground?”
Cairis frowned a little as she considered it.
He waited, waited… and, finally, Cairis nodded and looked up at him.
“Y’know…? I think I’d like that,” she agreed. “If you make me officially part of this mission, then they can’t remand me to the lower-branches.”
“They couldn’t do that anyway,” Gato scoffed. “You’re no longer a citizen of Snilia – officially.”
She flicked an ear. “You’re probably right. So, when do we ship out?”
He grinned. “Five vargas – if you’re free.”
“I’ll be free.”
Cairis had refused to look at her planet when she’d been leaving it.
Not that she’d seen much from the troop-hold on the transport ship up to the ship waiting in orbit, but she could have tried to do as some of the others did: finagle a way to shuttle forward to a window and have a ‘last look’.
But all she’d ever seen was the lower-branches of one tree – what was there for her to see? She’d been on her way to bigger and better things.
That sentiment still held true now. She had been a soldier for only a short while, but she’d made it off of Snilia. She’d bounced around, tried a few jobs, and then she’d found an occupation that suited her perfectly. She could travel the cosmos, see sights and talk to people, and earn a cozy living doing it (provided she was careful with her GAC).
Now, settled beside Gato in a shuttle, she got her first true view of Snilia.
First, as the shuttle dropped toward Snilia, she got a glimpse of the chain of five moons that orbited the large world. She saw some of the landmass; knew that nine continents made up her world, but she’d never been to any of the others. She’d never had reason to venture beyond her city-tree, Ialiv. The city-trees she’d seen in her educational holovids were even more enormous than she’d realized; akin to the things called ‘mountains’ she’d seen on other planets.
As she remembered, there was no grass to speak of. Given that the trees blocked out most of the single yellow sun’s light, there wouldn’t be much point to it. There were scrub brushes and wild noushin fungi growing up here and there, but those fungi were obviously too young to be interesting to the rats that populated Snilia.
Gato, peering past her, broke into her thoughts with a query:
“Is there anything to hunt on Snilia?”
“Lower-branchers,” she replied, sarcastic and resentful. “And the tree rats, I suppose; the vermin that invade like vermin do everywhere there are residents. They’re large, sneaky, and a terrible nuisance – but they make enough meat for a good stew and there are always plenty of them.”
She grinned, then, and added, “I was one of the best rat hunters for Branch Duthea by the time I turned twenty. Thanks to my skill: me and my parents were one of the better fed family units on our branch.”
Gato turned his head to look at her. “You ate… rats.”
Cairis nodded. “It’s what’s available to base-branchers. We make stew, steaks, and jerky from them. Sometimes, the lower-branchers above us will trade pickled avian eggs for rat meat. But if you’re looking for big game to hunt: sorry, no. The only thing available is the rats – but they’re roughly the size of three to five drones put together.”
Gato made a face. “We’ll see what time and interest allows for.”
She looked up at him. “Somehow, I forgot you’re an avid hunting enthusiast.”
He grinned at her. “I doubt you forgot at all, dear lady – but rather, it’s not often in your thoughts and so you don’t apply it to others.”
She laughed and nodded. “Point for you.”
He winked, making her laugh.
On Snilia, various city-trees produced different products. Ialiv was the main processor of the noushin fungi that provided the nutrient gel that was used as a nutrition boost to food rations aboard Empire ships to keep soldiers healthy. The four city-trees that surrounded hers held the noushin and jylax farms; the jylax being the avians that ate the parasites that would otherwise ruin the noushin fungi.
“A little bit goes a long way – especially when mixed with food, as is done,” she explained to Gato as he led her and the four other Galra he’d brought along off the shuttle. “So we’re really in no danger of running out of the nutrient gel anytime soon despite the billions of military personnel throughout the Empire.”
Gato nodded. “Unless, of course, someone targets our source. We heavily encode our nutrient sources. If rebels find our sources, they could severely weaken us just by destroying those resources or taking them for themselves.”
Cairis grimaced at the thought of rebels making that much of a mess.
The six of them arrived at the visitor’s center tucked between upper- and mid-branch levels where off-world guests were processed in. A Galra of near similar height to Gato was waiting for them, though dressed in a civilian uniform. He had short, dark gray fur; a neatly trimmed mane, and a simple and solid sagittal crest, and small, angled ears. The remarkable part of him were the violet markings adorning his face in a pattern similar to Commander Throk’s, though not as wide and the marks curved around his cheeks and met at the point of his chin.
“Greetings, Master Sergeant,” said the Galra. “I am Chief Administrator Sarak; assistant to City Manager Klossur.”
“Greetings, Sarak,” Gato replied. “This is the team I’ve brought with me to secure a new shipment of nutrient gel.”
Sarak nodded to them all, but then focused on Cairis. “You look as though you’re from here.”
“Heckin’ I am, so,” she replied – using the vernacular prevalent among lower-branchers on Ialiv.
Sarak’s eyes narrowed and the muscles in his face tightened, but he said only, “Well, then – as there’s a native among your group already, Master Sergeant, I’ve no need to assign anyone to you.”
Gato gave the city admin staffer a thoughtful look. “Cairis, do you know where to go from here?”
“Yes, sir,” she replied, still looking at Sarak. “Whether or not that’ll get you in the doors…”
Sarak scoffed. “Of course it will. It is Ialiv’s honor to see to your needs while you’re here.”
“’Needs’?” Gato prompted.
“Your mission, of course, but also… socializing of any sort, touring, shopping; things of that nature,” Sarak explained.
“My friend, here, said that vermin are plentiful for hunting.”
“Yes, but why would you want them? They’re low-class fare.”
Gato grinned. “The meat will not go to waste. As it happens, I enjoy hunting and make it a point to attempt it if such is available.”
“If you want a challenge, your best bet is to go ground-side. They’re more predatory on the ground and will swarm if they think they’ve the advantage.”
“Interesting,” Gato murmured.
He switched to a new subject, then; smiled at Sarak and said, “Cairis can escort me. The rest of my team needs to go to the other cities that produce the fungi and manage the avians. Dig them up some escorts, yes?”
Sarak returned the false smile and answered, “Of course, sir.”
He tapped on the tablet he carried with him and, in only a few moments, four more Galra arrived; also wearing civilian uniforms.
In short order, the four soldiers were escorted back onto the shuttle to go to other city-trees while Gato followed Cairis along a hallway while Sarak watched them go.
She led the way to a balcony, of sorts, where a platform led the way out to thin air… and a very thick moving vine.
To the Galra that stood waiting, Cairis said, “Two for Processing; shucking factory level.”
Without a word, the attendant selected two harnesses that clipped around their thighs and hips and waists. To each harness, a short length of cable was attached with another clip on the end.
Gato watched as the vine’s momentum was halted and a platform clamped around and then fastened to the vine; big enough for two people to stand on. Cairis then stepped aboard and clipped the cable of her harness to a loop grown from the vine, securing herself to it. He followed suit and found himself suspended over a tunnel cut through the branch they had been on.
The vine was set in motion and they descended into the tunnel that was set with bar lights every few feet or so to prevent total darkness. In only a dobosh or two, they emerged into open air, on their way down to the next branch.
Gato and Cairis both looked around the scenery of the countryside. The trees being as big as they were, several hundred klicks extended between each of them for safety reasons. Here and there were the rotted stumps of trees long ago removed to make room for the current city-trees.
“This is something else,” Gato remarked. “What a view! I’d be tempted to ride these vines all day – or get into a flying vehicle of some kind and go for a ride.”
Cairis nodded slowly. “I always thought about maybe going to the nearest ocean. The city-trees are smaller on the coasts. I wondered if I’d see more there. If we’re here long enough, I’d like to at least see what the night sky looks like.”
“You’ve never seen your own planet’s night sky?” he demanded, incredulous.
“Only in the teaching vids. When you’re a base-brancher, all you see is the ground, the fog, and the branches overhead.”
Gato made a disgusted sound as they slipped into the vineway tunnel of the next branch.
“All this room, all this space to move and grow and roam, and you’re contained to certain branches of trees?” he queried.
She shrugged. “Attempts to ‘rise above your station’ are severely curtailed. It’s… look; no low-brancher wants to be arrested on Snilia. Things happen, especially, to base-branchers. Most of us are very well trained to accept what we’re given, to keep our heads down, to not make a fuss. We do what we’re told without putting up much of a fight because the alternative is worse.”
Gato’s eyes narrowed a little. “That explains a lot about you.”
Cairis narrowed hers right back. “Probably. I mean: I’m a misfit wherever I go. Despite my attempts to get attention while I lived here… once I was out of familiar territory, all I wanted to do was stay quiet and not be noticed. It doesn’t help at all that I’m defective as far as Galra culture goes. I’m not really okay with inflicting grievous harm on people. A washout I am, so.”
Gato shook his head. “Not everyone is cut out for the military – that’s no bad way to be. Just remain loyal to our Emperor; do your duty as one of his citizens.”
She lowered her gaze. “It’s only that… I feel like I’m lacking, sometimes.”
He slipped a finger under her chin; urged her to look up. When she did, he gave her a small, warm smile.
“You aren’t lacking, dear lady,” he declared. “You’re wonderful the way you are.”
Cairis looked at him for several ticks and then smiled. She gently shifted her chin away from him – but then, caught his hand and held on.
“Thank you,” she said quietly.
Gato nodded and then looked around again as they emerged from the tunnel and headed down toward the next branch.
“Next one is our stop,” Cairis explained. “We’ll stop halfway through it.”
It took only a dobosh or two and then, they were pulling to a halt at a platform station like the one they’d left. The attendant hooked the vine closer and the two riders unclipped themselves and stepped off. While the attendant dealt with removing the platform from the vine, Cairis and Gato got out of their harnesses and handed them over.
“Thank you,” Gato said to the attendant, startling the Galra.
Cairis nodded at the attendant and then focused on her friend. “This way, Gato.”
The taller Galra followed after her, looking around, taking note of the architecture and configuration. They approached a set of enormous double-doors that hissed open when a scanner read their wristbands.
On the other side of the doors were rows of conveyor belts staffed by Galra and robots. Robots loaded crates of plant matter onto the conveyor belts and Galra claws and fingers deftly picked the plant matter apart. The produce was all tossed back onto the conveyor belt and robot arms and hands then picked through the items to select the aloe pocket and send them on to processing, while the husks were dumped back into their crates and sent down to the lower branches.
A tall, thick Galran came towards them with a scowl.
Before Gato could say anything, the larger woman reached out and cuffed Cairis hard against her head, staggering the shorter female slightly.
“Who do you think you are?” demanded the buff woman. “What do you mean by usin’ this Empire officer to get access to this place? I know your kind! You have that squat look of a lower-brancher! You get where you’re supposed to be!”
Her diatribe stopped when Gato stepped neatly between them and smiled.
“Excuse me,” he said, his tone extremely pleasant, “but the woman you just struck happens to be part of my team.”
The woman, a few inches taller than Gato, eased back with an anxious frown. “Sir…?”
“While it is true she comes from Ialiv, Cairis has been stationed aboard Central Hub for quite a while, working for The Voice of The Empire – and also happens to be my friend,” Gato continued, still smiling. “When I knew I was coming here to collect a shipment, I asked her to accompany me. So, you see: she is where she’s supposed to be.”
The woman’s downward-pointing thick and fuzzy ears flicked rapidly for a few moments. Then, she bowed and said, “I made a mistake. I apologize, sir.”
“I’m sure it’s quite alright – though, Cairis, I’d like you to go to the nearest medical center and get yourself checked out,” Gato ordered. “That was a rather hard smack to your head. I’m sure Plant Manager…?”
“Gainov,” the woman muttered.
“I’m sure Plant Manager Gainov won’t mind calling ahead to let them know you’re coming on my orders.”
“She didn’t hurt me,” Cairis asserted even as Gainov made a quick, quiet call over comms. “And this kind of thing is normal.”
“That is not as reassuring as you seem to think it is. I’d still like you to get examined, please – and, this way, there’s an official record,” Gato continued, his smile stretching a bit wider. “Something to follow in case there’s trouble later on, you understand.”
“Aye, sir,” Cairis replied. She gave a proper salute and then walked away.
The double doors closed to the sound of Gato prompting: “Now, then, Gainov – give me the tour, will you?”
Cairis sighed, shook her head, and headed off to the nearest medical center only a floor down from the factory. She got checked in, gave the details, and expressed that Master Sergeant Gato had ordered this done.
The exam proceeded and it was discovered that she was mildly bruised at the strike point, but there was no significant damage – which she’d already known. She was given a hypospray of painkillers and anti-bruise medication, and sent on her way.
She headed back up to rejoin Gato – only to be waylaid by the city’s chief administrator.
“The Master Sergeant is well in hand,” Sarak stated. “You are hereby ordered to remand yourself to Duthea where you belong. Your presence has been tolerated until your health has been ascertained. As you are in no need of further medical services, you may not remain here.”
“I’ve no intention of staying on Snilia,” Cairis snipped. “I intend to return to Central Hub, where I work as a reporter for The Voice of The Empire.”
That gave him pause for a moment. He tapped quickly at the datapad he held in his hand and then smirked.
“You write little puff pieces,” he sneered, laughing. “Interest stories on military personnel! Please – you think that qualifies you as worthy?”
“It isn’t only military personnel I write about,” Cairis shot back. “It’s anyone in the Empire.”
Sarak’s smirk increased. “What could you possibly say about your home planet that anyone would take seriously?”
“Plenty,” she growled. “Watch me.”
“Good luck getting that done from the lower branches.”
“I’m getting off this shit-hole planet – again.”
Sarak laughed. “Good luck to that, too. Duthea. You. Now.”
“I don’t actually have to do what you say. I don’t live here anymore.”
“You will go or you will go to jail for the duration of your stay.” He took a step closer; let his gaze drop to the swirls and points of her fur pattern on the exposed portion of her torso. “I will personally attend to your incarceration.”
Cairis went still. No one from the lower-branches was unaware of how their caste was treated by upper-branchers – especially when incarcerated. There was nothing that could be done about it unless full-scale revolution took place and the upper-branchers were vastly aware of that; had taken pains to keep the lower-branchers as helpless yet productive as possible.
A military Reject would not be able to stand against an administrator: one taller than her, stronger than her, and clearly used to keeping fit and with city authority on his side.
“Master Sergeant Gato is expecting me to rejoin him after this,” she warned.
“As I said: he’s well in hand and doesn’t require you right now.”
She went still. “He had better be alright, or—“
Sarak cut her off with a scoff. “We do not attack Galra officers!”
“You cannot remain up here. It simply isn’t done.”
“Maybe it’s time for a change.”
Sarak curled his lip at her.
“I’m expected by Master Sergeant Gato and The Voice to return to Central,” she argued.
“I’m sure you’ll get there eventually – if you go where you’re supposed to now,” Sarak warned. His eyes flicked over her again. “I admit I’m hoping you’ll put up a fight.”
Cairis backed away in a hurry. Fumbling, she zipped her jacket up to the neck and glared as she crossed her arms over her chest. Her ears were fully back and her eyes narrowed.
Sarak bared his teeth on a wicked grin. “Go home, little girl. The upper- and mid-branches are not for you.”
“Shouldn’t be for you, either,” she muttered, but she conceded defeat and headed off toward a trunk-length vineway.
The bored attendant on duty straightened up at her approach to the platform station. The mild appreciation and interest in his expression vanished when she said, “One for Duthea.”
He set the vine in motion without a word and selected a harness, leash, and board for her. The vine was slowed and the board clipped into place while Cairis got into the harness that would hold her if she either fell off or the board broke. She stepped onto the plank with practiced ease and clipped herself to the vine.
Then, she descended into the gathering dark and fog.
“Where is she going?”
“Sir! You – I thought—!”
“I’m sure you thought I would be distracted longer. However: it really doesn’t take that long to not only inspect the goods but arrange for their transport. So: where’s she going?”
I – that is – the woman is a base-brancher. She has been assigned to her regional locale until such time as she departs Snilia—“
“I will repeat myself once more: Where is she going?”
“…Branch Duthea. She’s – sir, she’s from the slums. Her kind are expected to remain there.”
“Her ‘kind’? Is she not Galra?”
“Well – yes, sir, of course she is, however—“
“The woman you have so callously delegated to the worst district happens to be rather noticeable and noteworthy.”
“She’s a puff piece reporter, sir.”
“I’m well aware of that. I rather enjoy reading her work. I’ve learned some interesting things about my fellow officers because of it. Still, if her deeds and her species are still not good enough that she is declared unfit to remain topside, then I shall have to go after her. She is under my protection as a civilian employee and resident of Central Hub.”
“Sir, you’re a ranked military officer—“
“I will remain with her. She is a member of this mission’s team as well as my friend; I won’t leave her unprotected. Like as not: simply because she got away from whatever you threatened her with does not mean she’s safe from it from others.”
“I do not want to hear any paltry attempts at an excuse. You are a disgrace to the Empire. If I have my way, you will be making reparations to her for the insult.”
“Sir, she’s just a Duthean! She’s a slummer!”
“She is a citizen of Central Hub and under my protection. Stand aside.”
Cairis had made it down to the lowest branch ring platform station by the time Gato caught up with her. He could hear voices coming from the right of his location. He jogged around the boardwalk ring until he got to the stairway leading down and out onto Branch Duthea.
As he moved, he noticed that down in the ‘slums,’ there was less of the bio-mechanical metal that twined with the organic wood of the tree. Most of the branch was exposed to open air, though whether that was on purpose or the work of time and decay was something he didn’t know.
The gathered fog hadn't fully thickened, yet, so he could easily see the five men who’d stopped Cairis from proceeding further along the boardwalk. Sensibly, she’d put her back to the railing; if they’d tried for her, she could have gone over the side and made her escape – though she’d have to be careful to not fall to the ground several hundred feet below.
Of course, now that he’d caught up, she wouldn’t have to go to such extreme measures but he could understand why she might want to. The tone of their voices and the theme of them got his hackles up and he hurried to join the small group.
“—be she’s one of us, so,” commented one man. “Comin’ home to stay, maybe?”
“She’ll stay,” declared another, moving forward. “Won’t you, girl?”
“No – she won’t.”
The men drew back as Gato came to stand beside her.
“Heckin’ who are you?” demanded one of the men.
“I am Master Sergeant Gato – Central Acquisitions,” Gato proclaimed. “And she is with me.”
One of the men snorted. “You’re elite. What the hudo are you doin’ in Duthea?”
“She wouldn’t be on this branch if she wasn’t one of us,” said the one who’d declared Cairis would stay. He grinned wickedly. “Is that how you got outta here, girl? Signed yourself up as a Fleet whore to the sergeant?”
“No,” she growled. “I work for The Voice of The Empire!”
The men gave various noises of derision and scoffing.
“Nobody gets out of here unless they go to Fleet or get taken as an Upper’s whore,” sneered the apparent leader.
“And then there’s me,” Cairis snapped.
“Aye – there’s you,” agreed the leering one, and he moved toward her.
Gato stepped neatly between them. He pulled a blaster from its holster – and then, handed it to Cairis. With a wide, brilliant smile, he then pulled a dagger from its sheath.
Everyone went still.
“She is with me,” Gato repeated, smiling at them. The metal of the dagger glittered as he twirled it through his fingers before palming the grip again. “She is under my protection. If you push this, I will kill you – and nothing will happen to me for it.”
The leader of the men bared his teeth and narrowed his eyes. “Aye – we heckin’ know it! We’re Galra – and given the dregs and kept in the dregs! All because our ancestors settled here and stayed here! There’s nothing wrong with us – but that’s how we’re seen!”
“There’s no advancement for the likes of us,” growled another.
“I wonder how it is you call yourself Galrans,” Gato murmured, “that you allow yourselves to be contained down here.”
“Uppers make sure we don’t have anything to fight with,” muttered another man, sullen. “We go up there, they’ll just shoot us down and we die.”
“Perish down here – or take your chances up there,” Gato dictated. “If you’re that easily intimidated, no Fleet would have you anyway – but there is an entire universe out there where you may forge your own path. I must, of course, recommend your path be in service to our glorious Emperor. It makes no difference to me where your path lies. My mission is completed and now my only concern is protecting this woman until we leave Snilia.”
The five men standing opposite them hesitated; thought over the costs of risking themselves against a battle-hardened officer.
Finally, the leader scoffed and said, “We were goin’ off to Branch Lecliothea. We’ll continue on our way now.”
Gato hesitated long enough to make it clear he was allowing such, and then he swept Cairis behind him and moved them both aside so the men could proceed.
They did so, but not without a few angry looks or mutters. Two men eyed them lasciviously – one eyeing Gato, the other man being the one intent on Cairis.
Gato was aware of her stiffened posture; the intense wariness with which she watched the men pass.
They waited until the men were very much gone and then Gato shifted to face her.
They looked at each other for a while. Finally, she gave a small huff and handed him the blaster as she asked, “Mission accomplished?”
Gato tilted his head slightly as he gave her an easy smile. “Mission accomplished. I’ve let the rest of the team know they can do as they like until we’re on our way back to Central.”
“We have a few vargas of downtime – about six of them, actually,” Gato interrupted, re-holstering the blaster and re-sheathing the dagger. “I’ve already put in a communiqué to the city manager, using an official code, so no one can intercept it. Hopefully, we’ll be topside soon. In the meantime: you’re down here, so I’m down here, and you can show me around.”
“Ah.” She sighed. “Don’t suppose saying ‘you don’t have to, I’ll be fine’ will work?”
“You know better – or, rather, by now you should.”
“Yeah, got that comm.”
Cairis sighed again and unzipped her jacket – an action that provided Gato with a very nice view of her lovely body. She reached into an inner pocket to produce a slim case and a lighter. She opened the case, took out a long, slender object, and put the case away. She put one end in her mouth and cupped her hands around the other end, flicking on the lighter.
“Pipes?” Gato prompted, raising a pointed brow.
She drew on the herbal cigarette known as a Pipe Dream and then put the lighter away. Taking the thing from between her lips, she exhaled the smoke.
“Yes,” she said, and her tone and the look in her eyes dared him to find fault.
He said nothing – merely waited until she had drawn on the Pipe Dream again. Then, he slipped it neatly from between her lips and, even as she opened her mouth to berate him, he put it between his own lips to draw on it. He kept his gaze on her as he drew on the herbal and watched her irritation fade to bewilderment and interest.
She took the Pipe Dream back from him when he offered it and said, “Come on, so.”
She led him off along the branch, into the fog.
Lamps glowed intermittently along the path as they walked, glittering off of glass baubles hung here and there. Occasionally, Galra eyes glowed out of the dark and fog, too, and the owners stopped to watch Gato and Cairis as they passed.
They walked in silence for some time, sharing the Pipe Dream, before Gato chose to speak.
“When you said you lived in city-trees, I admit I pictured something smaller,” he stated. “We’ve already been walking for nearly thirty doboshes and I know this branch alone extends for hundreds of kilometers.”
Cairis flicked her ears; pursed her mouth for a moment before smiling. “A lot of outsiders think ‘small and climbable’ when they hear ‘tree.’ And no branch on any tree is ever fully populated. The rule for stability is only half or less-than-half of a branch being settled. Past the halfway point, the branch becomes too unstable and flexible. As it happens, we’re getting nearer to a pub; one of dozens on this branch alone. If they don’t have a room available, we can just do what anyone does – find an empty dwelling and make use of it for the night. There used to be more permanently filled, but base-branch numbers have been declining even before the recruitment exodus.”
“You grew up like this?”
“Heckin’ yes, I did,” she replied. He heard the warning in her tone. “And I wanted more than just this, so I took the Empire’s ‘offer’ of employment without much argument.”
“That explains so much,” he muttered. He took the Pipe Dream from her again and glanced at her hair. “And this humidity explains that.”
She snorted. “You’re not wrong, so.”
Gato’s sharp-toothed smile was blunted by the fog.
They walked a bit more, disposing of the smoked-out Pipe Dream on the way, and finally came to more activity and local life. They made their way through the citizens to the pub.
Naturally, all conversation and activity stopped when they entered – and there were more people lurking behind them; curious.
A few ticks passed and then the person behind the bar gestured them closer.
“What’ll it be, so?” he prompted.
“A room until further notice, if you have one,” replied Gato.
“Five-thousand GAC,” the barman shot back; “per quintant.”
“Sounds like hyper-way robbery,” Gato murmured.
“That’s the rate: take it or leave it.”
Gato stared at the barman for long, quiet moment. Finally, moving slowly, he withdrew his credit marker and handed it over.
The barman took it with a rough grab, swiped it in the reader, and made ready to hand it back when he asked, “Anything else?”
“Drinks and food.”
“Drinks you can have,” the barman said. “Food ain’t a thing here. You want food: go grab a rat.”
Gato nodded. “Understood. Charge for three drinks each for me and my companion.”
The barman swiped the credit marker again and then tossed it back to Gato.
He put it away and turned to Cairis.
“Sorry about this,” she muttered. “I’ll see what I can do about paying you back.”
“You will not,” he countered. “That moron administrator insisted you be placed down here. He owes me for the unnecessary charges. I’ll have it back from him.”
The barman thunked glasses – thankfully clean – onto the bar top and poured green alcohol into them.
Gato turned away to collect the drinks.
A male Galran sauntered forward to Cairis; smirked as he looked her up and down. “Heckin’ we have here? Seems you have fancy tastes, lass. I’m considerably cheaper. Care to try your luck with me?”
Gato turned back to find Cairis gaping at the man for a few ticks. Then, with obvious disgust, she answered: “No, Da. I’m fairly certain incest is still illegal even in Duthea!”
That prompted a riot of noise – mostly laughter – from the other patrons while Gato slid past Cairis to claim a table to set their drinks on. He got settled in a chair and watched the showdown while he sipped his drink.
The Duthean who’d propositioned Cairis gaped at her, now. He was taller than she was by five inches; covered in a darker indigo fuzz than Cairis and three swooping stripes of paler blue-violet on his face from chin to ears. He had tattered, angled ears and a thick brush of upright fur that served as his sagittal crest.
“What did you call me?” he sputtered, shocked.
Cairis huffed. “It’s only been thirty decaphoebs since I left, Da. I know you didn’t have a care for me while I was still a resident, but surely you didn’t forget entirely that you had a daughter?”
That prompted an even louder chorus of laughter from the watching patrons and a few cat-calls as well.
Her father looked around, his ears flicking and folding back, and then he glared at her. Abruptly, he swung and backhanded her hard enough to spin her to the side.
“You mind your mouth when you talk to me, girlie!” he spat.
“Dilox!” snapped the barman even as Gato rose from his seat and started toward them.
Cairis straightened up and touched her hand to her mouth. She stared at the violet blood glistening on her fingertips.
Then, with a furious snarl, she moved.
Faster than anyone was counting on, she stepped into Dilox’s space and grabbed hold of his genital pouch through his trousers with one hand. Her other arm hooked up under his chin and across his throat as she forced him back-back-back into the wall by the door. The patrons scattered aside.
“I don’t know what the hudo is going through your head, old man,” she snarled, “but if you ever lay hands on me again – it’ll be the last time you have hands! Or anything else!”
She tightened her grip on his pouch – pushing in with her claws – to get her point across.
Dilox gaped down at her: astonished, distressed, and obviously frightened.
Nobody moved for a dobosh or two, and then Gato drawled, “I believe the lesson has been learned, Cairis.”
She growled and squeezed a bit harder – and then, released Dilox and backed off.
Dilox brushed at himself nervously, trying to get himself together. Then, he gave Cairis a poisonous glare.
“You’re just like your whore of a mother!” he spat, and then turned on his heel and shoved his way out of the pub.
“Whatever,” Cairis growled. She went to the table, grabbed up a glass, and knocked the liquid back. “I’ll be out back for a smoke.”
She slammed the glass down and then pushed her way through the pub to the door that led out to the back deck overlooking the scrubby, foggy terrain of Snilia.
Gato watched her go, frowning. He started after her, but another patron cleared his throat to catch his attention.
“I’d leave her be for a few doboshes,” the man suggested with a grin. “Girl’s got her father’s temper and you don’t want to catch the brunt of it when you’ve heckin’ done nothin’ wrong.”
Gato smirked. “Know the way of things, do you?”
The man nodded. “And then some. I’m not surprised at Dilox’s temper towards his get – not after how Skagalis did him.”
“Oh? Sounds like a tale to tell.”
“Sure – if you don’t mind loosening my lips with a drink or two.”
Gato snorted – but turned to the barman for one of those drinks he’d already paid for.
Once outside, Cairis put distance between herself and the door. She kicked at a post as she walked along the deck until she was in a darker patch of shadow. There, she threw a few punches at the air and raked her claws down the wall of the pub until she felt less destructive.
Sighing, she pulled out her cigarette case again and fired the Pipe Dream into action. She took a few quick, angry drags and then, as the herbal mix began soaking into her, she relaxed; slowed down the smoking.
She listened to the dull murmur of chatter in the pub; the call of avians and other creatures mixed in with the hoots and trills of Snilians communicating to each other through the fog. She closed her eyes and leaned back against the wall, letting the familiar sounds soak into her.
The Pipe Dream was pulled from her lips a few doboshes later. Her eyes flew open and she pressed back against the wall and down a little, anticipating an incoming strike.
Gato stood in front of her.
He raised an eyebrow even as he put the Pipe Dream between his own lips and took a drag on it.
“According to local gossip,” he said, “not long after you left, there was a bad fire that no one knows for sure how it got started. Your mother, apparently, took control of the citizens of Duthea and the surrounding branches; led them all in battling back the fire and saving the branches and, thus, the whole tree. For that, she was rewarded with mid-branch ascension and, while she was there, she caught the eye of an upper-brancher. She divided from your father and bonded to the new man, leaving Dilox and the lower-branchers behind.”
Cairis blinked as she stood up straight again. “Divi—? Hmph. No surprise, there.”
She took the Pipe Dream back from him; had a drag and handed it back.
“I can’t blame your mother for leaving if Dilox made a habit of striking his family,” remarked Gato.
Cairis shook her head. “He’s never done that before. Neither of them ever struck at me. They didn’t care I existed.”
At his surprised expression, she shrugged and accepted the Pipe Dream; smoked, and handed it back.
“They only got together because they were the only available single adults of Duthea with good enough genetics to be allowed to mingle those genetics. The rules and restrictions are that we’re not allowed to ‘shop around’ to the other branches if we’re in the base-branch section. Anyway: they got together because they were the only Dutheans available for our district and produced me: anywhere from half to nearly an entire century younger than any of the other kits around. And that was… that. They didn’t care about each other and they didn’t care about me. They did their duty in keeping me alive, but beyond that… I just didn’t matter to them.”
Cairis looked at Gato again and gave him a rueful, bitter smile.
“As you can guess: I have issues about feeling ignored. It’s why…” She sighed and shook her head a little. “It’s why I was so mad at Dilox – not for the hit, but that my father apparently forgot what I looked like entirely. That whole mess proved utterly that I didn’t matter.”
Her rueful smile fell away.
“I wanted to matter to them,” she said quietly.
She sighed again; took the Pipe Dream, finished it, and then crushed it beneath her heel.
“So, that’s that,” she said. “They’ve written me out of their lives and so I’ll do the same in return. I made it off Snilia; I’ve accomplished more and better than this. I’ve no heckin’ need to keep any sort of attachments to this place.”
Gato stepped closer into her space.
Cairis stood straighter and looked up at him.
“You matter to me,” he declared.
His statement surprised her for a moment – and then, she had to smile. That was very like Gato: to get to the heart of a problem and alleviate it. “Thank you.”
And then, he surprised her: he got his arms around her and pulled her to him for a hug.
Cairis went rigid for a few moments at being touched unexpectedly. Then, she relaxed with a sigh and wound her arms around him in return because this was Gato and Gato meant comfort. She nestled her cheek against the breastplate of his armor. The metal was cold and hard, but the hug was soft and warm; perfect. A large hand settled atop her head and stroked, roving over her loose sagittal crest and then down along the thick, wavy locks of her head fur. Her ears flicked in response to the glancing touch of Gato’s claws and wrist as they passed.
“Thank you,” she said again. “Gato… thank you.”
Gato smiled and continued to hold her. “You’re welcome, Cairis.”
“This makes up for all the stupid I’ve endured since we landed.”
His smile widened. “Good to know. I realize I’m late asking this, as it’s obvious enough, but you are alright – aren’t you? That smack to your head didn’t do any damage?”
“I’m perfectly fine – just bruised. Was given painkillers and bruise treatment and sent on my way, where Sarak was lying in wait for me.”
Gato lost the smile. “Mmmm, yes. I eluded the obvious stalling and caught up just as you disappeared on the vine. I saw you step back from him and close your jacket. What did he do?”
“He was being sleazy. He didn’t touch me.”
“No – but he threatened to, though, didn’t he?”
“I know what ‘cornered prey’ looks like, Cairis.”
She huffed. “That’s the most galling thing.”
“You know I don’t mean anything bad by it.”
“I do know that. It’s only… I’m very tired of being someone others feel they can push around. I just don’t particularly care for violence, so beating someone into submission is out.”
“There are other means of proving your dominance.”
He knew of quite a few that were pleasurable in more ways than one.
She sighed and snuggled against him for a few moments more and then shifted so she could look up at him with a small smile.
“I’m glad you’re here,” she admitted. “I’d have hated coming back here alone.”
“Would you have come back at all if I hadn't asked you to go on this mission?”
She made a face. “I’m not sure. Part of me still thought it was home. Now, I know better.”
“Yes, you do. You know where home is. You know who home is.”
She looked up at him and nodded agreement.
Gato curled his fingers and brushed the back of them over her cheek, watching her eyes close briefly. When they opened again, he bent down to her; angled his head and hesitated with his lips just shy of hers.
Cairis made a throaty little sound and gave a tiny nod of assent. Her eyes closed when his lips pressed to hers. She groaned – the smallest of sounds – as she opened to his kiss.
In only a few ticks, the kiss intensified. A flash of heat and urgency took them. Her hands came up to clasp his face while his hands took hold of her hips. She pulled him closer and her hands slid to his shoulders, and then one slid around to cup the back of his head. His hands gripped her hips hard and pulled her against him – her soft, civilian body pressing against his cold, hard armor – and then his arms slid around her again to press his hands against her back.
They kissed, hot and hungry, and Cairis shuddered when Gato broke the kiss so he could get his mouth against her jaw and then her neck.
She groaned and clung to him, arching up against him, and cried out when he nipped at her with his sharp teeth; licked to soothe the sting.
When she yanked him up again to get her mouth against his, Gato laughed into the kiss. The sound of his laughter was rich and dark and spurred her to cling to him with greater fervor.
He kissed her eagerly, pulling her closer and closer against him. He dropped a hand to her left thigh; hooked under and lifted, urging her knee up to hook against his hip. She moaned into his mouth and then again when he fit his hips against hers and rolled into the open space between her thighs.
Cairis growled a little as her lust heightened; clutched at him and bit at his mouth with desperate teeth. He laughed again and flattened her against the wall, jerking his hips into her, and she dug in with her fingers as her own hips answered his.
The sound of a clearing throat startled them apart and they found a Galra female wearing the city administration uniform standing a few feet away, smirking at them.
“Master Sergeant, Miss…” Her smirk deepened a little. “The error in insisting the lady be remanded to the base-branches has been corrected. You are both cleared to ascend to the upper branches.”
“You could have commed me sooner,” Gato chided, “before I dropped eight-thousand GAC down here.”
The smirk fell from the pale lavender woman’s face.
“Still, I suppose you were just following orders,” he murmured, watching relief express itself on the admin’s face. “Your name, please?”
“Thank you, Mahazti. I’ll want to know who to speak to about being reimbursed for the unnecessary expenditure.”
“That… would be Chief Administrator Sarak, sir.”
A wide, wicked grin spread across Gato’s face. “Excellent. And should he prove to be recalcitrant…?”
“You would speak to City Manager Klossur.”
“Marvelous.” He turned to his companion. “Cairis – are you ready to quit this place?”
“And then some,” she grumbled, zipping her jacket up again.
He nodded and offered her his arm. “Come along, then.”
Cairis tucked her arm through his and they followed Mahazti as she led the way back into the pub. All three of them ignored the stares from the other patrons and, soon, were back outside on the boardwalk where more city staff as obvious guardsmen waited. They fell in around Mahazti, Gato, and Cairis; all of them headed back towards the vineway station.
As they walked through the fog (Gato bristling a little at the cool moisture clinging to him), he took note of glass baubles hung here and there that glittered in the lamplight.
“What are those?” he asked of Cairis. “They’re quite lovely. Are they a cultural thing? A religious or spiritual thing?”
“Sort of,” she replied. “They’re our dead.”
His stride checked for a moment. “Beg pardon?”
“Back when it was discovered that the nutrient gel on Snilia was a super-packed vitamin and could keep Fleet personnel healthy, it was decided that burying the dead was a bad idea,” Cairis explained. “But, we live in trees, so pyres are not a good idea, either. Caught between the two options, the Snilians of old decided to make specially reinforced crematorium trees. But then, they had to figure out what to do with the ashes. Since no one wanted to keep space-taking jars of ash or to have the ashes in the air, the ashes of the dead become ornaments, crafted by our Glassmasters. Lower-branchers generally get the basic sculpt available – a bauble to be hung somewhere – but if you have the money and/or the status, you can have the dead’s ashes sculpted into something else.”
“I… see,” he murmured, and eyed a cluster of clear glass spheres as they passed. Algae had gathered on them and the cord tying them up was old, but he could see the signs that they were tended to occasionally. There were metal tokens affixed to the cord; unreadable due to age and moss. “So, those are not metaphorical mementos of the dead – they actually are the dead.”
“Yeah. Family or friends will tend to them; visit them; speak with them… whatever someone needs from the memory of the departed. It’s a comfort; that they lived at all and here’s the proof. They weren’t thrown away or forgotten – they’re remembered and maybe even missed.”
“That is actually rather touching,” he remarked. “Is that what you want done with you when you die?”
“Turned into glass, yes, but… not here,” she answered, her tone resentful. “I don’t want to come back to Snilia if I can avoid it.”
“I understand your reasoning.”
Another twenty doboshes of walking got them back to the vineway station. In twos, they all clipped themselves into harness and then to the vine as they stepped aboard platforms that whisked them up from Branch Duthea.
Up and up and up… For the first time in her life, Cairis saw the night sky of Snilia.
The view was prettier than she wanted it to be.
Upon arriving at the Upper Branch Debarkation Station, they found Sarak and a few other people there – including City Manager Klossur.
“Ah, excellent,” said Klossur; beaming from his pudgy face. “I’m pleased that you’re both in good shape.”
Gato raised an eyebrow at Klossur and then hovered his hand by Cairis’ mouth. “The lady sustained a strike from an amorous male who did not care for the way she spoke to him when she denied him.”
At that, everyone around them stiffened. Klossur’s and Sarak’s expressions were full of dread.
“That is… most unfortunate,” Klossur declared.
“It most certainly is,” agreed Gato. He gave the city manager a cold stare. “Is this the norm here on Snilia? Galrans committing heinous acts against fellow Galra?”
“No!” Klossur blurted out.
They all looked to Cairis, who’d spoken. She gave a shrug.
“There’s nowhere to go and nothing to do down there,” she explained. “Lower-branchers do the mulching and the return shipping of the noushin husks; the hard labor, the grunt work. We’re the ‘lowest class’, so we’re expendable.”
“You are Galra,” Gato retorted. “We are not meant to subjugate our own. We belong to Emperor Zarkon first, and then to ourselves.” He glanced at the other Snilians. “Perhaps an Auditor Squad should pay this place a visit. As long as we’re cleaning up rebel filth, we might as well clean up our own.”
“No!” Klossur blurted again. He cringed at Gato’s hard stare. “That is: Master Sergeant, I promise you: such is not tolerated here.”
“I would beg to differ,” Gato denied, shifting his stare towards Sarak. “As, I’m certain, does Cairis – who grew up here.”
Klossur glanced between them and shot a quick glare at Sarak, who lowered his gaze.
“I’m surprised you haven’t written an article about your home planet by now,” Gato said to Cairis.
“I wasn’t assigned to – and I only write interest stories,” she murmured.
“I find the goings-on here very interesting,” Gato asserted. “As I said: Galra are meant to conquer and subjugate other races – not each other.”
The city staff said nothing, but they bowed their heads.
“I’ll be making a few outgoing calls,” Gato decided. “Klossur, see about writing up a reimbursement to me for eight-thousand GAC. I was forced to spend money I wouldn’t have had to – had Sarak not argued so long with me.”
“Of course, sir,” Klossur mumbled. “Sarak…?”
Sarak didn’t so much as blink; simply bowed with a fist to his heart. “The reimbursement will be done within the varga.”
“Try for sooner than that,” Gato suggested. “My friend has had a rather cruddy day and I intend to wine and dine her before the cruiser parked upstairs departs.”
“Yes! Absolutely!” Klossur agreed with all due haste. “Ah… we can find something suitable for the lady to wear…?”
“She’s perfectly suitable as is,” Gato replied, a toothy smile and a sharp tone his only warning.
“Ah… yes, sir; agreed. Ah, entertainments are the next two branches up, and past that, it’s business and then residential.”
“My business is satisfactorily concluded and I’ve no intention of taking up residency here,” Gato declared. “Cairis…?”
She nodded and turned back to the vineway station.
“Two for entertainment district,” Mahazti said to the attendant on duty.
Quickly, harnesses and leashes were produced and a platform clipped on. Gato and Cairis stepped aboard, clipped themselves in safely, and then they were rising upwards while Gato tossed a jaunty salute from his brow to the Snilian administrators.
“I won’t be surprised if they don’t arrange for an ‘accident’ for us,” Cairis muttered, her tone bitter. “I wonder who he’s going to take the money from to pay you back…?”
“If he knows what’s good for him: his own funds,” said Gato. “Let’s worry about such later. Come on; let’s see what’s on offer up here in the forbidden zone.”
They toured the two entertainment branches and found many of the same things they’d find in the Space Mall, but with more Snilian-made works. Gato enjoyed much of the art on offer and looked over the various things for sale.
Cairis wandered into a jewelry store with Gato. He obviously had definite ideas in mind and began perusing wares. She wandered away from him to examine pretty things – and made certain to keep her hands where the shopkeeper could see them, given he was staring at her with haughty disapproval.
She found herself admiring a shining silver necklace set with a simple pearl at the center. A matching pair of silver and pearl earrings that would arc from lobe to mid-rim to point rested beside the necklace. They were lovely; simple and elegant.
“Those would look good on you.”
Startled, Cairis squeaked as she stepped away, only to be caught and halted by Gato. He gave her a fondly amused look and then peered down into the display case. He nodded.
“With your indigo coloring, those will show up well on you,” he approved. “They’d be a nice addition to your current pieces.”
“Your other jewelry, Cairis.”
“Oh!” She shook her head. “I don’t have any jewelry.”
He stared at her. “Beg pardon?”
She shrugged. “I don’t have any jewelry. It’s not something lower-branchers get hold of often, if at all.”
“But, surely, once you got settled on Central and then began your duties as a reporter…?”
She shook her head again. “I haven’t gone anywhere that I’ve needed any such thing. I mean: I could probably afford to get some shiny things, it’s just… I don’t need them.”
“With ears like those…? Please. You should decorate them. Good sir…?”
The shopkeeper came over to them with a polite ‘yes, let me sell you something’ expression on his face. “Master Sergeant…?”
“My lovely friend here is devoid of any jewelry of her own. Surely you agree that a creative, talented, attractive Galra should wear pretty baubles to enhance her natural beauty?”
“Certainly, sir!” the shopkeeper replied. “A most excellent choice, too – these pearls come from Snilia’s very own western coastal region and are difficult to get to. You have quite the eye for jewelry, sir.”
“Oh, I didn’t choose them – Cairis did. I saw her admiring them and I would like to gift my friend something she’s never had before as a thank-you for taking time to squire me around her home city. Tree. City-tree. So, really, it’s her own good taste.”
Cairis shook her head. “Gato… this isn’t necessary. Of course I’d help you! I don’t need to be paid for it.”
Gato lifted a hand and delicately stroked the backs of his fingers along her cheek until he could cup his hand behind her neck. He bent and touched his forehead to hers.
“This isn’t paying you, sweeting – it’s celebrating your existence in my life.” He straightened up and grinned at her. “I enjoy spoiling my friends… especially the pretty ones.”
He gave her a flirtatious grin and a wink, and then let go of her so he could do business with the shopkeeper.
In only a few doboshes, Cairis was the owner of a very lovely set of pearls. The boxed and bagged set was handed over to her with a supercilious smile from the shopkeeper. She carefully avoided touching him as she took the bag, thanking him.
As soon as they were out of the store, Cairis handed him the bag and said, “It’s easier if you carry them.”
Gato looked at her for a long moment. Then, without a word, he accepted the bag and smiled at her.
She relaxed and beamed up at him. “Thank you.”
He nodded. “Is there anywhere we might grab a snack? I’m famished.”
“Oh. There are a few high-end restaurants around…”
He shook his head. “Thank you, no. In my experience, such fare is merely something pretending to be food. I need hearty and flavorful, please.”
“In that case… come on.”
She led him back toward the trunk and then around the boardwalk. Two branches over, they could smell food cooking.
“This is the… hmmm.” She frowned. “It isn’t a food court, like at the Space Mall, with fixed food shops and seats. Here, the food is all in carts that move about and you carry your selection with you to wherever you happen to go.”
“Interesting,” Gato murmured. He inhaled and grinned. “Smells good. Lead me to your favorite.”
She nodded, but said, “I don’t know what all is up here. All residents of Ialiv are required to learn the layout of the entire city-tree, but not ambulatory businesses – like the food carts.”
“Well, then – let’s walk the branch and see what’s on offer.”
They did so until Cairis gave a gasp of recognition and towed him over to a cart. She handed over her credit chip to the bemused vendor after asking for an order of food which was delivered swiftly enough. They wandered away with their gains.
“Here,” she said, handing over a packet of food to him and keeping one for herself. “These are my favorite mid-branch foods: pickled avian eggs and noushin jerky. It’s the soft inner-lining of the husk that resides between the aloe pack and the tough outer skin. Properly treated, it turns into plant matter jerky; flavorful, chewy, and of course nutrient rich.”
Gato ignored the plant matter as he eyed the pale purple and green spotted egg in his hand with a curious expression.
“The colors are odd,” he remarked, but bit into the egg anyway.
His amber eyes widened.
“Oh! Oh, this is… good,” he marveled, and ate the rest in a couple of bites. There was a savory spice mixed in with a tangy tartness that turned the otherwise bland flavor of the egg into something exciting.
“I need all of these,” he declared. “Or, at the very least, I need the recipe.”
“The recipe you can have,” Cairis replied, laughing. “I’ve made them before; I know how it goes. You have to be careful, though: the recipe doesn’t always work depending on what egg you’re using. It works for Snilian eggs. It works for a few others I’ve tried so far. But never, ever, ever try it on the eggs from Zesholla Three. Bad things happen when you try pickling Zesholla eggs. At least: with a Snilian recipe.”
Gato grinned. “Did something come crawling out?”
He blinked, surprised.
“The vinegar and spice caused some sort of reaction. The egg turned black and then began… extending tendrils in a wild expansion. It stopped after a few ticks because there was no more egg to expand, but still.”
She shuddered at the memory and ate an egg.
Gato winced. “I’ll probably avoid pickling Zesholla eggs, then. Thanks for the warning. But hopefully, the recipe will work on eggs from Tabera Beta. This is… really good. Thanks, Cairis.”
She nodded with a smile, her ears perking up. “Try the aloe jerky! It’s also really good.”
He gave the teal plant matter in his hand a dubious look. “Taberans are not plant eaters, Cairis. I’ll try it, but don’t be surprised if I can’t accept it.”
She winced and started to speak, but Gato quickly bit off an end of the jerky.
It had a unique mouthfeel – not unpleasant, but not something he actually liked. He chewed and, strangely enough, moisture was released, which was contrary to how jerky was made. The flavor wasn’t bad, but the plant matter was difficult to deal with, no matter how much he chewed.
Finally, he took a disposable napkin from the pile she offered and discreetly removed the aloe jerky from his mouth. He handed her the uneaten portion.
“I’m sorry, sweeting,” he murmured. “It tasted alright, but I simply can’t…”
“You explained,” she said with a small smile. “No hard feelings.”
She ate the jerky and the rest of her meal while he went back to the vendor to acquire two dozen more of the pickled avian eggs; boxed for long-distance travel. She then led him to another vendor who sold avian meat on skewers with different sauces.
“Ah, now… this is more like it,” Gato approved, eating tender morsels one by one from a skewer. “And I taste that same tart flavor in the glaze on the meat!”
“It’s a by-product of the nutrient fungi,” she explained. “We make fermented liquid from it and, depending on what’s added to it, can be used either as a cleaning agent or as food flavoring. A variant of this by-product is hosed onto the husk mulch to help feed back into the noushin beds its scattered around.”
“Aha! That is what this is reminding me of: I’ve been smelling it occasionally since we arrived!”
She grinned and he reached out to ruffle her hair. She sputtered and batted him away from her.
Gato smiled, caught her hand, and kissed her palm before releasing her. His smile went a little wicked at the blush that darkened her cheeks further, but he didn’t push it.
They wandered some more, browsed the wares, and then Gato’s attention was caught by a weaponry store that held hunting weapons in it.
“I’ll be over there,” she said with a smile, pointing to a sitting area a few dozen yards away.
Gato grinned. “I won’t be too terribly long, but I really want to get a look at a particular rifle that’s caught my eye.”
“Have fun,” Cairis invited, laughing, and walked away.
She got settled on a comfortable bench seat and flicked open the holo-reader on her left forearm. There were a few new articles in the news section; reports of further casualties as inflicted by various rebel uprisings. Those seemed to be becoming more prevalent by the movement. She could understand objectively. Being averse to brutality herself, she could see how other races would not care for Galra culture. But the Empire offered so much in the way of economic stability and other sources of security that she really couldn’t understand why anyone would want to reject being part of it.
Cairis occupied herself with typing replies to the personal messages sent to her that would be sent out once they were again aboard their cruiser. Halfway through that task, someone entered her personal space and halted.
Sighing, Cairis closed out her screen as she said, “Yes, I’m a lower-brancher, but I have permission to be here—“
Her words broke off as she beheld a familiar face.
Skagalis smiled down at her. “Hello, Daughter!”
Skagalis made a face and then swooped down to catch hold of Cairis’ wrists. She pulled the younger Galra to her feet and took hold of her shoulders, giving her a little squeeze.
Cairis quivered with surprise at the unusually affectionate greeting. She fumbled pats against her mother’s arms and then took a few steps back, putting distance between the two of them.
“I couldn’t believe it when I saw you!” Skagalis declared. “I’d recognize your fur pattern anywhere, though. But… shouldn’t it be covered in Fleet armor?”
“I’m a Reject,” Cairis replied, blunt and without hesitation. “I couldn’t handle the violence; washed right out.”
Skagalis sighed. “Right. So… you’re home to do… what?”
“I’m not home. I reside aboard Central Hub’s tertiary ring. I work for The Voice of The Empire.”
Skagalis blinked. “You’re… a reporter?”
“Heckin’ yes I am.”
“You shouldn’t speak like that up here.”
Cairis scoffed. “What do you want, Ma?”
Skagalis grimaced. “Please call me ‘Mother’.”
“What do you want?”
Skagalis huffed and looked away. “I suppose you know I’ve divided from your father.”
“Yes, I found that out a few vargas ago.”
Cairis shrugged. “What do you want me to say?”
“Well… I thought you’d be upset,” Skagalis admitted. “The way you kept nagging after us when you were a kit…”
“I was nagging for attention from you,” Cairis replied. “I wanted to matter to you.”
“Don’t be stupid – of course you did! I kept you alive, didn’t I?”
“You did the bare minimum out of duty. I left Snilia thirty decaphoebs ago. In all that time, I haven’t heard a word from you or Dilox. Once I left, the both of you stopped even pretending to put forth any effort into thinking about me. He apparently forgot I ever existed or what I looked like to the point he tried to ask me for sex in front of Master Sergeant Gato. I’m here with him on business.”
Skagalis frowned. “Dilox has always been a stupid, randy thing. Unfortunately, he was the best option I had at the time.”
“And then, you took a better one once it became available to you,” Cairis agreed. “Can’t blame you. I took the Empire’s offer to get off of Snilia and ran with it.”
Skagalis grimaced. “But you’re not Fleet.”
“Nope. As I said: couldn’t stand the horror of violence.”
Skagalis snorted, but said: “So, now you experience violence anyway as a reporter.”
“Yep. I write the society columns, the puff pieces, the interest stories – but, Galra being Galra and a war on, it’s impossible to not get caught up in fights occasionally. Do I have any siblings?”
The abrupt switch threw Skagalis for a few moments. Then: “No, not yet. Because I was base-branch, there’s usually a waiting period of forty to fifty decaphoebs and vigorous health screenings before I’m allowed to mingle my genetics with my new mate’s. I was in decent health, though, so my waiting period has been shortened to thirty-five.”
Cairis shrugged. “Good luck and all. Should I even ask you to send me notice if you sprog something new?”
Skagalis glared; her gold eyes narrowing. “You act as if you didn’t even have parents! I kept you fed, clothed, and educated!”
“Yes – good for you: you managed the very basics of being a parent,” Cairis replied, disdain dripping from her tone. “You didn’t cuddle me, hold me, bond with me at all! Cute and all that you’re trying to bond now, but you’re roughly one-hundred-and-fifty-six decaphoebs too late – and, in case you’ve forgotten, I’m one-fifty-seven, now. I grew up a reluctant guest: one you never wanted, but couldn’t tell to leave. I finally took myself out and now you’re free. Don’t pretend otherwise.”
“You ungrateful kuvalaa!” Skagalis hissed. “You’re right: I never wanted you! I never wanted that life! But I did my duty! The least you can do is be grateful that I even bothered to do it!”
Cairis saw Gato emerge from the store and immediately focus on her. She had no idea what she was expressing in that moment, but it caused him to make his way towards her in a hurry.
Smiling slightly, Cairis flicked a glance at Skagalis and said, “Eat shit, Mother.”
Skagalis sucked in a sharp breath and bared her teeth, ready to unleash a diatribe, but was halted with Gato’s arrival.
“Is everything alright?” he asked, eyeing Skagalis with barely concealed disdain as he gathered Cairis to him.
“Oh, fine. I was just playing ‘catch up’ with the woman who gave birth to me. Skagalis, this is Master Sergeant Gato – Central’s Acquisitions Officer. Gato, this is Skagalis: former base-brancher and now mate to an upper-brancher.”
“Well, I was wondering if you got your loveliness from one of your parents,” Gato remarked.
Skagalis simpered at his gallant statement.
Gato glanced at Cairis. “If you can be grateful for anything from Dilox, it’s that your father gave you similar coloring and fur patterns.”
Skagalis gaped, but the truth was obvious: she had thick blue-violet fur, large and upright pointing fuzzy ears, a short tail, and no fur patterns whatsoever, as well as small yellow eyes.
Gato turned his attention back to Skagalis. He gave her a disdainful look as he said: “I wonder what your problem is. Have you always been defective or did it grow over time?”
“Defective?” she hissed.
“Defective,” he repeated, his tone ice cold. “Your daughter is in a respected position of employment, does well at her work, and has picked up a few useful skills here and there that have served her well. She also has close friends who care about her and are pleased to see her. It is a terrible shame – upon you, that is – that her own parents cannot say the same.”
Skagalis gaped at him, utterly insulted.
Gato ignored her as he turned to face Cairis and said, “Clearly, dear girl, you need a family that respects you. I hereby offer you mine. I name you Narosh’Aron’onar. You are now an honorary member of my clan.”
It was Cairis’ turn to gape. After a few ticks, she said, “Uh… thanks? I mean: thank you! Only… that wasn’t a marriage proposal, was it?”
She relaxed and nodded.
He laughed at her startled expression. Then, he tucked her arm through his and led her away from Skagalis without another word to that woman.
“Come along,” he said. “We’ve spent enough time meeting social obligations. We have roughly thirty doboshes of free time before we must get back to the cruiser.”
“Oh. Well… you said you wanted to try hunting the tree-rats? We use bows-and-arrows to avoid causing any sort of potential fire damage to the tree.”
He hummed thoughtfully, but then sighed and shook his head.
“I’ll try some other time – if I ever come back to this reprehensible place,” he muttered. “And, truthfully, there isn’t much challenge in hunting tree-rats.”
“Which sounds exciting in theory, but I know better.” He smiled at her. “I know where to find better prey. Maybe I’ll take you along with me again.”
Cairis blushed. She recalled that trip quite well.
Gato grinned. “Come on, then. Let’s promenade the district and then we can head back to the debarkation area.”
They walked, arm-in-arm, until it grew close to departure time. Gato issued a quiet order over comms for the rest of the team to gather at Ialiv while he and Cairis headed back to a vineway station. They descended to the debarkation lobby and found Klossur waiting there.
Sarak was noticeably absent.
Klossur was all political glad-handing as he bowed to Gato and Cairis with obsequious smarm.
“Master Sergeant!” he beamed. “And Miss Cairis! Did you enjoy your tour of the upper-branches?”
“The shopping district proved to be beneficial to us,” Gato replied with cool condescension. “My lady friend has new jewelry and I, myself, have a new hunting rifle.” He fixed Klossur with a steady gaze. “I might come back to test it out.”
Klossur’s ears lowered even as he tensed.
“Well!” Gato’s demeanor did an abrupt about-face; suddenly sunny smiles and charming gaiety. “My team and I have fully conducted our business – mission accomplished, and all of that. We’ll be on our way now.”
“Ah! Yes, of course. But, Master Sergeant—“
“Farewell, City Manager Klossur. I’m certain I’ll remember you and your chief administrator in my report.”
“I – that is—“
“Troop: board the shuttle!” Gato ordered, and led Cairis aboard the waiting shuttle after the other four Galra had gone aboard.
Gato got settled on one of the bench seats and tugged on Cairis to encourage her to sit beside him. She needed no such encouragement; sat eagerly and easily beside him and relaxed as they finally left Snilia.
The trip up to the waiting cruiser took only a few doboshes. Once they were again aboard, Gato led the way off the shuttle and then turned to Cairis.
“I need to check that the shipment going back with us made it on board safe and sound – and my new rifle, too,” he explained, and grinned when she laughed. “Then I’ll meet with Commander Luparvis. You’re free to do what you want, though I will need an official report from you since you were officially part of this mission.”
She nodded. “Understood. I’ll go get that taken care of now and then rack out. I’m exhausted.”
“Small wonder, but we have roughly two quintants of travel for you to get your energy back.” He patted her shoulder. “Go get rested up, Cairis. I’ll see you later.”
Cairis nodded and left the vehicle bay. She went to her assigned small cabin and got settled in to write up her report. She kept all personal bias out of it; noted the conditions of the tree, the caste set up, the attitude of the various people, and her experiences from an objective perspective. She sent the file to Gato and then stretched out on the bunk and closed her eyes.
She was left like that for a couple of vargas and then a knock sounded at the door. Snorting awake, as she’d dozed off, Cairis rolled out of the bunk and went to answer the door.
Gato was on the other side and he smiled down at her.
“Hello,” she greeted, smiling back at him. “Did you need something?”
“Oh, that is a terrible invitation to give the likes of me,” he teased. He grinned at her laugh and then held up a familiar bag. “You forgot these.”
Cairis blinked. “Oh! So I did.” She gave him a sheepish smile. “Sorry; I’m not accustomed to the idea that I own jewelry, now.”
“Mmmm.” He handed her the bag. “So, do you remember that I pretty much abducted you into my clan?”
She laughed. “Yes.” She gave him a warm look. “It’s alright if you didn’t mean it. I enjoyed the look on her face.”
“I very much meant it,” he said, and all playfulness was gone. “Such things are not given on a whim – no matter how much it might seem so at the time. What I said to you there in front of your dam was merely a place holder. In order to become fully Narosh’Aron’onar, you must come to Tabera Beta and meet my father – the clan leader. He must officially welcome you among us.”
Cairis nodded. “Alright. I’ll let Valoren know so she won’t be caught off-guard when the invite comes.”
Gato smiled. “Good. I’ll do my best to work it so this won’t inconvenience you or her.”
Cairis nodded again and then asked: “Why did you do it?”
“I said it already: you need a family that respects you.”
“Done alright without one so far.”
“I’ve never seen someone so bereft and lonely in my life.”
That surprised her.
Gato smiled and gently cupped her cheek in one hand. “I’ll send word when we’re ready for you to come to Tabera Beta and will escort you myself. In the meantime… would you do me the honor of having dinner with me some night soon? We can eat, go somewhere for some entertainment or… make our own.”
Cairis blushed, but nodded. “I’d like that.”
He grinned and tilted her face up so he could bend down and kiss her mouth lightly.
She made a soft sound of pleasure and kissed back.
Gato smiled against her mouth. “The pearls…”
“Wear them for me,” he instructed.
With that, he kissed her one more time and then stepped back from the door. He gave her an elegant bow, a flirty wink, and walked off to go do something other than her.
Cairis watched him go and then stepped back into her cabin and closed the door again. She looked down at the bag in her hand with a smile.
“Now,” she muttered to herself, “I just have to find something to wear them with.”
That was a chore for a later time, however.
For now, she got settled on the bunk again and let herself relax.