Jenniver Aristeides woke quickly, as she alway had. Above her was an unfamiliar green sky; below, gray rock.
Jenniver had never taken much interest in rock, except as a thing that had to be broken to let plants grow. But it was comfortingly solid. Unlike the shuttle she last remembered being in.
What had happened to the shuttle? She remembered the pilot’s alarm, when it ceased to fly true; remembered its plates shivering apart from one another, and an odd sound—and nothing after that.
Perhaps some ancient defense had struck it; this planet had been inhabited once, in the era of the Inshai Compact.
Here and now, it was inhabited again—by somewhere between one and four sentients. She hoped fervently it was four.
She had hit the ground; she could feel that. But she had not done so with enough force to cause serious injury, which was heartening: the others were all less durable than her. Even Fashtall.
Worrying about Snnanagfashtalli was a new experience; it had generally been the other way around. Ever since they had met—ever since she’d learned to call her Fashtall and not Snarl, as the others did—she had protected Jenniver. But this was neither a quarrel nor a firefight—not kind of trouble Fashtall was friendly with, as she would say.
Jenniver’s gods had never been helpful to her; they were the sort of gods who helped them who helped themselves—as the Changed had, by making themselves something so far from human that they hardly even counted as genetically engineered to the Federation. They valued strength and self-sufficiency—qualities Jenniver’s people had made it clear she lacked. She was surely as inadequate to reach them as she was to live on her homeworld.
All the same, as Jenniver levered herself to her feet, she found herself praying.
Her gods would probably approve of Snnanagfashtalli, she reasoned. Far more than they ever had of her.
Jenniver’s communicator failed to link to either the others’ or the ship itself. Jenniver chose to be encouraged. If she had made it through and got no answer, that would have been a worse sign. As it was—well, they’d already known that something in this planet or its atmosphere inhibited the transporter; perhaps it also affected their other technology.
After searching the area for fellow Starfleet personnel—none to be found—and for supplies and useful debris—one surprisingly intact ration pack—Jenniver headed towards high ground.
According to the most recent Federation survey—done in haste over a decade ago—the peculiar atmospheric effect that made transporters unreliable on this world seemed limited to the low valleys. The tops of the hills, such as they’d been headed to in the first place, might be exempt: rescue would come there if it came at all. Her fellows knew that: they would be headed, as she was, to the most easily scaled section of the valley wall.
(Fashtall, of course, had her heightened sense of smell; she might be able to find the others by it, if they were close enough. None of the others had such a gift, though; certainly Jenniver could not sniff out her friend or the others.)
She started out through the purple grass, and hoped that the others were doing the same.
Jenniver walked alone as her shadow shrank under her and vanished under her feet. She walked faster than a true human would, but not by much: she had been made for endurance more than speed.
At this rate, she would reach the cliffs by dusk.
Her shadow was inching forward from her boots when she heard a rustle in the grass and turned to meet it, hand near the phaser that she’d somehow managed to keep on her person in the crash, just in case.
And there was Fashtall: dirty but unbloodied, eyes clear and moving with her usual grace, her harness cluttered with tricorder and what had to be the shuttle’s medkit as well as her usual communicator and weaponry.
Thank you, Jenniver thought, and neither knew nor cared if she were addressing her uncaring gods or her resourceful friend.
They embraced, Jenniver standing rooted in the earth, Fashtall surrounding her. She rubbed her cheek to Jenniver’s temple, as she had many times before, and then down along Jenniver’s own cheek, past it, neck to neck, in a variant of her usual greeting that Jenniver didn’t recognize.
They didn’t say I’m glad you’re alive; it was too obvious to bother saying.
When they pulled apart, Fashtall said, “You are injured.”
Jenniver had hardly noticed, though she had felt the impact. But now that she looked down at herself she knew that Fashtall was right.
Jenniver’s kind were so resistant to infection that she would not have been worried even by a gut wound. Her people would have ignored it; had she been among them she would have too, to avoid their scorn. But the process by which the debris were expelled from a healing wound could be—unpleasant, she knew, for those around her. And Fashtall seemed worried. So she nodded, and sat on a boulder as Fashtall detached the tricorder and rudimentary medkit from her harness.
It was an odd kind of pleasure, letting her friend tend the wounds she could hardly feel.
It occurred to her that her people were lightyears distant. Years distant, too: she had not spoken to another Changed since she graduated from Starfleet Academy, and neither had she felt the lack.
Perhaps, at this great remove, she could stop caring about their opinions.
They slept that night in a hollow—not deep enough to be called a cave—in the rock face. It provided a little shelter from the wind, and more to the point it was defensible; if any trouble found them, they could fight it off in the knowledge that nothing could come at them from behind.
They lay curled around each other, as they had more than once before, Fashtall’s long furry body sprawled over Jenniver’s, shielding her from the cold.
As usual, Fashtall fell asleep at once; Jenniver lingered.
She was aware of her friend’s closeness, of every line of her body: her strong legs and arms, subtle spine and tail, hard jaw and soft fur, scarlet and maroon turned gray as Jenniver’s own skin by the dark. (She had never managed to paint Fashtall to her satisfaction, though she had tried: all her efforts fell short. Perhaps she would try again, when they returned to the Enterprise.)
All of which she had done before, thought before. Still, Fashtall occupied the front of her mind, despite their long familiarity.
Perhaps it was only relief, that her best and only friend had survived to find her. Perhaps it was more than that.
Is this gratitude or love?, she had thought before. She was no closer to understanding.
They both woke early the next day.
Fashtall made a face at the berries Jenniver had collected the other day, and now meant to make her breakfast of. Carnivore that she was, they must look unpleasant to her.
“This food will not poison me,” Jenniver said. Almost a joke: practically nothing could poison her. (And every bit they scavenged or hunted for her would make the rations stretch further for Fashtall.)
Everything about her was built for practicality, for survival; and in all too many ways she fell short of that design.
But this world was not her home, and she felt herself adequate to survive here, if only for a time.
Both of them had already tried to raise the others by communicator, of course, as well as the Enterprise; they made another few attempts together, and then gave up. There was some jamming element—perhaps in the air, or the rocks. It seemed less severe here than it had been at Jenniver’s crash site—but it was still too much to overcome.
They started on their way. Periodically, Jenniver would make another attempt, sometimes tinkering at it with the communicator first; sometimes Fashtall had a suggestion. Nothing worked.
Halfway up a barren, rocky stretch, Jenniver got the clearest signal she’d had all day.
“It’s not the rocks,” Jenniver said. “It’s the vegetation.” It took her a moment to recognize the triumph in her own voice.
Now that she knew what the problem was, she had an idea of how to get around it.
Late on the second day, while Fashtall was off in the vegetated area looking for food for Jenniver, the communicator finally caught a signal. No words—whoever it was must have fallen silent—but the connection was open.
“This is Ensign Aristeides,” Jenniver said, calm and clear, keeping the words sharp in case static distorted them. “Do you read?”
“Ensign Aristeides? This is Yeoman Jaramillo. I’m so glad you’re all right.” There was such fervent emotion there that Jenniver, used to being held at arm’s length by most of her colleagues, was taken aback. “Is Snarl—” The yeoman caught herself, remembering how little Snnanagfashtalli liked that nickname.
“Snnanagfashtalli is with me.” Gravely, Jenniver added, “She is not in earshot.”
Yeoman Jaramillo was a member of the Enterprise’s Science division who had up until now always worked shipside. This had been her first time on an away team, a last-minute substitute for a geologist who had been unexpectedly confined to sickbay.
“I’m sorry, anyway,” the yeoman said awkwardly. She sounded very young, as she was.
Jenniver had little experience with other people’s apologies. She had no idea what to say to this one, not even truly aimed at her, and so as the silence became awkward she said, “Is Lieutenant Nova with you?” That was the pilot—the last member of the team unaccounted for.
“Yes! She has a broken arm, and a concussion, we think; she’s doing better now but I’m still worried…” Jaramillo’s voice trailed off.
“Then we will come to you,” Jenniver said at once, and they set about figuring out where they were in relation to one another, and how, once she and Fashtall reached the other camp, they might go about contacting the ship.
As the sun set, Fashtall returned. Jenniver greeted her with the news that she had made contact, and both of the away team’s other members had survived.
Fashtall agreed that they should go to them, and said, “If we cannot reach Enterprise from their location, I will carry her up the wall.” Her harness could be modified easily enough for that purpose.
Jenniver nodded assent. And then, wistfully, she said, “Jaramillo was worried about me. I had not thought…”
Fashtall knew her well enough to understand. “That she would care about you? Friend Jenniver, if others begin to see your worth, that should not be a surprise! It is a shame to the ship that they did not do so earlier.” Fashtall’s tone was fierce.
And, impulsively, she lay her neck against Jenniver’s again. Jenniver leaned into the touch.
“What does that mean? Neck and neck…”
“It is more intimate.” In her relief and happiness the other day, it had seemed natural. And now, faced with Jenniver’s surprise at another’s kindness, her old wounds—it had been natural again. But they had not spoken of such things.
“I would be happy to be—intimate.” And Jenniver leaned forward, her neck against Snnanagfashtalli’s. Her body made the gesture stiff and awkward, but she made it slowly, deliberately, and closed her eyes as she did: trust and fondness. “Please,” she added, very soft.
Snnanagfashtalli reached out a hand, claws retracted, to stroke Jenniver’s head, against the grain of her coarse hair. It was as if she had grown only guard hairs, with no soft fur underneath. (Jenniver’s softness was nothing one could touch with hand or tear with claw.) But she shivered, a little, and her eyes slipped closed.
Jenniver could not feel piercing pain, but she could feel warmth and movement against her skin; she could feel a caress. The Changed had not denied themselves pleasure, when they chose to become something other than human.
It was true that neither of them had been made for this. But Snnannagfashtalli was happy to prove to her friend-and-more that that did not matter.
Once again, Jenniver lay awake, Fashtall’s sleeping form curled around and over her. This time she was smiling into the darkness
Friend Jenniver, Fashtall had called her just the other day. She did not think she would call her that tomorrow—and Jenniver, too, thought that it was time for a new word.
Friendship was no small thing, to Jenniver. Before she had met Fashtall she had never had a true friend, and their friendship had been her lifeline. But now she did not think that friendship entirely described what they were to one another.
Nor was it simple gratitude; she was sure of that now. Gratitude was what she felt for Spock for his consideration in her new assignment, to Yeoman Jaramillo for worrying about her safety. What she felt for Fashtall was different.
She thought that she could call that feeling love.
Jenniver kept that warm thought close as she drifted off to sleep.