Actions

Work Header

Mission of Mercy

Work Text:

Outside, the shadows were lengthening. Pyanfar, curled up on a comfortable settee, sipped her drink and tapped her handheld to turn the page of her book. The view outside of the open terrace doors and the big windows showed a bit of garden and beyond it, peaceful grassy plains falling away to a river. From this side of the old house, you couldn't even see the town of Tsunandi on the river shore. Except for some oddness in the colors, something a little off in the yellows and greens of the grasses, it might have been Anuurn.

The Pride's crew were guests at this old house planetside at Maing Tol. Pyanfar had first seen the place a handful of years ago, just after the Peace was established. Back then, the establishment catered to wealthy Mahe, a handful of such historic homes on the original Mahen colony world. Since that time, it had been refurbished for Hani comfort, specifically for the Compact's Hani Personage, who was both embarrassed by the extravagance and grateful for the thoughtfulness.

"Captain?"

Her cousin Tirun stood in the doorway of the comfortable lounge space, her expression serious. Pyanfar's heart clenched: old habit. Most of the crew was on an expedition to a wildlife park, save for herself and her cousins Haral and Tirun, who had decided they'd had enough of playing tourist. There should be nothing to disturb the peace of this restful leave. "Is something the matter, cousin?" she said.

Tirun came and sat on the edge of the settee's matching mate, hands on knees. "Tully's not well."

Pyanfar clicked the reader screen off. "He went off with the rest of them," she said, frowning.

"Yeah, but he's not feeling right for all that. He just didn't want to disappoint the kids." That would be Tofary Araun and Juvran Chanur, the Pride's youngest crew members—although Juvran would deny mightily that she was a kid.

"What's wrong with him?"

"He's ... passing blood. When he takes a dump. And he's not been hungry, and his gut hurts. You know Tully, he didn't want to bother you. But he's not getting better." Tirun's face was a knot of worry.

"I thought we'd got his diet issues settled a long time ago." It was on their first visit here, in fact, that they'd thought of asking for Mahen help with what Tully ought to be eating, since he seemed to be more of an omnivore than Hani were. The Mahe had recommended various vegetables and fruits, which the Price now included in its regular food supplies. It had seemed to help.

"Me too. But maybe there's still something he shouldn't be eating, or should be eating. I don't know, he's just not the way he should be. He's losing weight, too. We just thought…you know, on that tour the other day, the guide was saying that two of the best hospitals in Mahen space are here at Maing Tol, one planetside and one on the station. So we thought maybe someone could figure out what's wrong with him."

"Sounds good. Guess we'll ask ker Sujenan when they get back."

Tirun grunted affirmative, looking relieved. "Thanks, Captain."

When Tirun was gone, Pyanfar looked down at the handheld, but the story had lost its appeal. She picked up her cup and took a large gulp of her drink, then stared out over the fields. Their old friend Tully. His life had been at risk so many times, and each time he'd evaded death. Now it seemed his own body was betraying him.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *  

It was night, peaceful with the sounds of wind and chirring insects outside. Tully stared at walls of his room, trying to lie still and not disturb his bedmate. Geran seemed to be asleep against him; Tully stroked her mane, and she hardly stirred. It had been a busy day and he was tired, but sleep wouldn't come.

The past several days had been good ones. Even in childhood, on Earth, he'd never had the chance to see a living world this way. Their hosts had taken them on river boat trips, on gentle mountain climbs, on hikes through forests, on drives through game preserves. The two young ones had been wild with excitement, and he had enjoyed watching them. Most important, the Captain was getting a chance to relax.

The only thing missing was Hilfy. But they'd explained it to him, that she was handling the family business now that Pyanfar was the Personage. And part of that business was getting married. That wasn't how things worked on Earth and the various Sol System bases, but things used to be that way, he guessed. He'd thought it was just old stories. Once upon a time ….

Once there was a boy named Matt who grew up planetside on Earth, in a big, gritty city that he desperately wanted to leave.

Once there was a jumpship engineer's mate called Tech/2 Matthew Tully, whose ship was hijacked and destroyed by Kif. Everyone but Matt was killed.

Once there was a man named Matt Tully who became a minor celebrity because he had been held prisoner by aliens. After he returned to Human space, he met a beautiful woman named Adwo Olguin, and they were married….

Adwo was dead. He'd given the ring he'd bought for her to Pyanfar, who valued it.

Matt was dead. Now there was only Tully, human crewman on The Pride of Chanur.

He rolled gently away from Geran, sprawling out on the generous, comfortable bed. His gut hurt again. He probed it, trying to locate the source of the pain. He knew he'd been very lucky so far: no one in the Compact knew anything much about human health.

A warm, strong hand grabbed his wrist. "Don't," said Geran. "You'll only make it worse. The doctors'll fix it."

Tully had friends. They might be fooling themselves and trying to fool him about his health, but they did it because they cared, even though he wasn't of their kind.

Geran was warm beside him. Finally, he slept.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *  

The Mahe doctor, one Masida Sutsundarpol, didn't speak the pidgin, so a translator had been brought in. Pyanfar reflected for a moment on the idea of a specialist in alien medicine who didn't speak the only language that most of those aliens had in common, but no good was going to come of that line of thought. Dr. Sutsundarpol gestured at the images on the display screens, showing virtual slices of Tully's gut, and expounded at length, his voice creaky and scratchy. He was far from young, but he seemed lively and clever. Finally he came to a halt.

Ker Tsinu Haijinsha, the translator, said "You crewman have lump that grow in low gut. Lump of ab-nor-mal cells." She pointed to one of the images as she spoke, indicating the uneven tube of Tully's gut and the growth, and now that Pyanfar knew what she was looking at, it became clear why this was a problem.

Tirun frowned. "Heard of that. Hani get it sometimes."

Tully stared at the images, his mouth tight, his skin a sickly color. Khym put a massive hand on his shoulder and squeezed gently, but Tully didn't react.

"What can you do for him?" said Pyanfar.

Translated, this brought a frown and shrug from Dr. Sutsundarpol. He spoke quietly, voice intense. Tsinu said, "If he Mahe, we op'rate, remove part of gut with blockage. Maybe use rad-i-ation or strong drug after, kill any bad cells left. But he human. Mahe doctors not know safe way make he sleep for cut him open."

"But we have his jump drugs," said Tirun.

Translation went back and forth. "Not same," said Tsinu. "Jump drugs make him calm, make memory less. Not enough for op'rate. And Mahe drugs maybe make he sleep for ever. He need human drug, human doctor."

"But there aren't any in the Compact," rumbled Khym.

"That be true. So you bring he to Humanity or go bring human doctor here."

Tirun looked at Pyanfar. "Against the Agreement, right?"

Pyanfar growled deep in her throat. "Right," she said.

The doctor looked grim and spoke again, briefly. "Pol-i-tic we not know," said Tsinu. "A-gree-ment we not know. You Chanur, you Personage; you make happen. For now, maybe slow growth with rad-i-ation. Can try little bit, then more, then more. By oath, we do all we can. Need you do same."

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *  

Tully had had a couple of handfuls of radiation treatments by the time the right Personage had arrived from Iji for the meeting about whether they could go into human space. On the fourth go-round, he got blisters, so they backed off the power level. After every radiation treatment, the doctors took new images, so they could see the mass of mutated cells was shrinking. "Wouldn't that be enough, after a while?" wondered Tirun.

"No, much sorry," translated Tsinu. "Have two bad choice: miss mutant bits, and they grow again, or burn up too much good stuff, and cause serious wound with bad edge. Need op'rate with much care, mi-cro-scope view, then give strong drug. Tully, he tell you crew medic, he know human doctor have."

"Well, so," Khym said at last; "How do you feel, Tully?"

Tully looked at him a moment, then broke into one of his painful-sounding human laughs. "I tell you, na Khym, after all so much rad-iation, pictures my inside, I glow!"

After that, Pyanfar felt optimistic enough for the moment to leave Tully in hospital with Tirun and the doctors. The youngsters stayed at the estate with Chur and Geran when she took the shuttle with Haral and Khym to the station.

Maing Tol Station's shuttle terminal was far less utilitarian than the equivalent at Gaohn, with artwork on the walls and large living plants in ornamental pots. A couple of low-level officials in pristine black kilts and badges of office met Pyanfar's party at the gate and escorted them up to the Stationmaster's section, through secure pressure doors into a reception room that was welcoming with wooden furniture and colorful rugs. They didn't have time to try out the comfortable-looking leather-clad chairs, however, for the elderly mahe woman guarding the space from behind her impressive desk rose instantly and guided them to a carved set of double doors to one side.

"My gods," breathed Pyanfar. "This is the most important-looking space I've ever seen on a station." Haral, eyes wide, gestured her agreement.

It had what seemed to be real wood paneling on the walls, dark brown with a golden sheen. Sections of it were draped in fabric striped orange and ochre, lighted from behind as though there might be windows back there, and at one end there was a live tree, almost as tall as Khym, pruned into luxuriously twisted whorls and curves, growing in a huge rectangular pot under special lights. It took a moment to even notice that the center of the room was filled with a beautiful conference table large enough to impress an entire crew of Immunes, made of wood almost the color of Tully's hair. An island of darker wood in the center supporting a raft of (one assumed) communications and recording gadgets, shiny metal and sleek plastic. The chairs around the table were creamy-looking brown leather and wood so dark that it was nearly black. On the wall beside the doors through which they had entered was a huge display screen.

"Wonder what would keep the dirt in the pot if the gravity went," muttered Haral.

"Special mem-brane almost no one notice, number one mahen bio-engineering." said a familiar voice behind them. And it was their old friend Jik, in a formal black kilt and deep gray cloak, wrists wearing only simple deep bronze bracelets with dark plaques of some somber stone. "How Tully do?"

"Jik! Glad you're here." Pyanfar reached out to touch his wrist, Hani style, which he answered with a wry Hani-style smile. "He's holding his own. But he needs …."

"I hear. Human doctor, human medicine."

Pyanfar's ears twitched and sank a bit. "But the Agreement. You know."

"Not be so sad. Maybe my Personage have better news."

Right on cue, the fierce gatekeeper came into the room and drew a deep breath before addressing them. "Most Esteemed Personage Pyanfar Chanur, honorable Keia Nomesteturjai, ship officer Haral Araun, I present to you party Esteemed Personage Shunna Hastejinoru-to."

Pyanfar recognized Hastejinoru-to from the Agreement meetings at Gaohn, an austere mahen male on the brink of age, clad all in soft, rich-looking black. His Voice was a compactly built woman with dark brown fur, wearing a kilt of deep grey with faint silver stripes that came and went as she moved. "Es-teemed Cha-nur, hono-ra-bles. Nomesteturjai, trans-late," she said, carefully.

That was more Trade than she had managed five years ago. Pyanfar bowed, and the Voice gestured to the table. Pyanfar and Hastejinoru-to took the two chairs co-equal to the end near the tree, with Haral next to Pyanfar and the Voice next to her Personage. Jik looked ready to take the seat at the far end, but the Personage murmured and the Voice indicated the seat next to Haral.

The Voice rapped gently on the tabletop. "Cha-nur, you speak."

Pyanfar cleared her throat. The gatekeeper, who had remained near the doors, hurried over with a tray of handsome pottery cups and a pitcher. She poured them each a cupful of cool, herb-scented liquid, and then Jik waved her away. She set the tray down on a side table and left, closing the doors behind her. Pyanfar sipped: the taste was faint and refreshing, some sort of cold tea, but seemingly not intoxicating.

"Honorables, Esteemed," she said. "No doubt you have heard that my human crewman Tully is ill and likely to die without proper treatment. The excellent doctors of the hospital at Hishtaisin have done what they can, but the medicines used to treat this condition could as easily poison Tully as cure him. We owe Tully a great deal, not least the small but valuable trickle of trade coming from Humanity, and we would gladly travel that distance to seek treatment. But there is the Agreement. The only contact authorized is the hand-off of canisters at K'ton'o'o Point."

Jik translated, and Hastejinoru-to and his Voice conferred. Then Hastejinoru-to made a curiously gentle gesture toward Pyanfar, as though catching something coming from her and cradling it in his two hands. The Voice spoke to Jik, who grinned at her and then turned with a proper Hani smile to Pyanfar.

"Friend Pyanfar, Hastejinoru-to say, friendship is thing that melt many hard heart. Tully make us know human feel same. Humanity want us make more contact, long time ago at Gaohn, but sit-u-ation deli-cate in Compact that time. Now, Compact like new day, all beau-ti-ful thing there for one who wake early to catch. Hastejinoru-to say, he want to be early riser. He want to plant Mo-mentum and water so it grow. He think Tully sickness sad for Tully, but maybe let us take two prey with one net, bring them both back 'live for or-na-ment garden."

Pyanfar's ears twitched, sorting through that. "The Personage is a poet," she said, at last.

"So true," said Jik, and there was humor in his gaze. He spoke briefly to the Voice and Hastejinoru-to. The Voice said, plainly, "So!" and Hastejinoru-to smiled and sipped his chiled tea.

A faint chime sounded from the direction of the doors. "What happen?" asked Jik, turning.

The Voice frowned and barked a command. The door opened and the gatekeeper peered in, cautious. "Esteemed Personages, honorables, Chanur agents here, just off ship. Maybe have news for this meeting. They come in?"

Agents? Pyanfar exchanged glances with Haral, who looked as confused as Pyanfar felt. "Their names, mahe?" she said.

"Chanur Personage, it be Ana Ismehanin-men and Hilfy Chanur par Faha," the woman answered.

Haral took a deep breath and Pyanfar slammed a fist on the beautiful tabletop.

Goldtooth might well be an asset, but Hilfy! They'd picked up a message from Pyanfar's sister Rhean on the way to Maing Tol, explaining the mess with Hilfy's marriage attempt. Pyanfar's niece belonged back on Anuurn, picking up the pieces of the Chanur clan and making a better attempt at matrimony. "Let 'em in," growled Pyanfar.

Jik murmured softly to Hastejinoru-to as the gatekeeper opened the doors wide. Goldtooth came in, draped in a somber formal cloak, bowing his head to both Personages. Pyanfar also got a small flash of his gold-capped grin. Hilfy was behind him, black silk Immune breeches, three rings in her ear, and no other ornamentation that Pyanfar could see, The heir to Chanur made a courtesy to Hastejinoru-to and gave her aunt a defiant glance.

Pyanfar just looked at her, expression flat, and gestured to the far end of the table. "Sit. Listen. We're not going back through what's already been said." She turned back to the other Personage, "Esteemed, so you suggest we present this as a mission of mercy? Appeal to their sentiments?"

Jik translated. Hastejinoru-to made a gesture of affirmation and said something that pleased all of them. "Sushena tashena-to," repeated Jik. "Un-der-taking of com-passion. Old mahen religious practice. We do. Excuse, I talk logistic with Hastejinoru-to."

The conversation was in some dialect, shutting Pyanfar out, although Goldtooth and even Hilfy might be able to follow some of it. Hastejinoru-to and the Voice glanced over at Goldtooth and Hilfy at one point. Jik said "Hilfy Chanur, you ship ready when?"

Hilfy froze in shock and Goldtooth looked impressed. "N-not for half a year, Esteemed, ," said Hilfy, at last.

"No good," said Jik, and plunged back into conversation with the mahen Personage. "OK, Ok," Jik said at last. "So, we got three ship from here go to K'ton'o'o Point, then make jump to Humanity station."

"Through Knnn territory," said Pyanfar, blunt.

"You got other idea, friend?" asked Jik. "Agreement. Not Knnn who say no come through."

"Maing Tol to Kshshti," said Pyanfar. "Meetpoint, then …?"

"Tt'a'va'o. You know I got T'ca contact. Then Akkti. Then two Knnn point, call them Knnn 3 and Knnn 4. Then K'ton'o'o Point, then Ema'be'ree. That be Humanity station."

She couldn't have heard him correctly. "Akkti in Kif space? Two Knnn jump points? You're insane."

"How you think little Humanity trade work? We do fine. That be smallest number jumps, best for friend Tully. Akkti under Agreement, same you, me. Knn not challenge Compact ship on vector to K'ton'o'o. I do, go two time now, almost close enough Humanity patrol see."

"We're supposed to stay out of their space!"

Jik shrugged and translated for Hastejinoru-to and his Voice. "We say Nomesteturjai do," said the Voice, on her own. "Long time now. Maybe need."

"Con-tingencies," Jik elaborated. "I do my job, find out many thing 'bout Humanity, give my Personage many path to take. This time, con-tingency good for you, too, a?"

"Gods rot you."

"You do fine," said Jik. "We agree, a? Three ship go, maybe meet up with one or two friend on trip. Little Compact fleet go in peace to Ema'be'ree, work Humanity sentiment. You many year merchant, Pyanfar. You got human crewman for resource. I tell you pick two-three gift for au-thority Ema'be'ree, make them hungry Compact trade. Tully get human doctor, get well. You, Hastejinoru-to make position in Compact more strong, get more rich. Ev'ryone happy."

Pyanfar closed her eyes and grimaced. But it wasn't like she had any better idea. "Goldtooth, you good with this?" she asked.

Hastejinoru-to said something forceful. Jik said, "Personage say, 'You Personage! You tell him, do!"

Pyanfar flattened her ears for a moment. "He's my agent. I decide how it works, isn't that right, Esteemed?" She pursed her lips into a pleasant smile.

Jik's expression flickered for a moment,. She thought she saw some humor there. He turned back to his Personage and had a talk that ended with Hastejinoru-to making a gesture like a gambler tossing dice. Jik gestured agreement. "He say, no matter we take different path, important only we all meet at end of trip. We take this chance, God like, we earn the prize."

Hastejinoru-to rose, as did his Voice. They bowed. Pyanfar hurried to mirror the courtesies. "God watch all us," said the Voice, then added something to Jik as Hastejinoru-to started for the door. The Voice hurried after her patron.

"Personage say, we all got much work," said Jik. "I go talk many contact, start logistic. You do same."

Pyanfar drew breath, let it out. "Mahe, you're my only real contact here."

"Not so, hani. You got friend Ana, same got big doctor in hospital. You do fine. I know you got message code for me. Talk later." He left, eager and even happy. Pyanfar's gut untwisted just a bit: Jik certainly seemed confident about this whole crazy scheme.

Goldtooth had come over. "I tell you, I got thing in hand," he said. This close, Pyanfar could see he looked tired: Mahijiru must have come through a very short time ago.

"So what do you advise?" she asked him.

"I say, you go back down, talk to doctor at hospital where Tully. You know Mahijiru have number one shipboard medical. Now we need put same on Pride, but just for one human. Also, maybe young doctor want make trip, get fame. Know Dr. Sutsundarpol got too many year, but maybe have student. While you on planet, I talk shipyard. I know best ship engineer for medical, make you number one deal, she get re-pu-tation for work with Chanur Personage."

Great, now she was going to be an advertisement. But that was the least of her worries. "What am I going to do with you?" she said to her niece. "And what's this about a ship?"

Hilfy's chin was up and her back stiff, but she answered civilly enough. "Aunt Rhean arranged it. Since the Pride isn't involved with trade anymore, and since she's decided she'd rather make the choices for the estate planetside herself now, she said I could take the newest Chanur ship. I've got agreements from Chanur clan and affiliate crew members, and the ship is being fitted out at Ajir. Goldtooth was going to bring the news, but I saw him when he stopped at Ajir. He told me about Tully, and I insisted on coming. The new ship will take some time."

"So you said. So you just grabbed my agent and forced your way on his ship so you could interfere with my crew?"

"Aunt, he's my friend." For the first time, Hilfy's reserve cracked,

"Friend. Fine. Just keep it to that, shall we? And this mission is going to be hazardous enough for him. Why should I take you?"

"Aunt, you know I do well with communication with T'ca and Kif. Fluent in Main Kifish, probably one of the best in oxy-breather space with T;ca. And I've been studying Human."

"So has your cousin Tofary. We put her on it four years ago; she's damn near grown up with it at this point."

"But Aunt, she's still a kid, isn't she?"

"Only a year younger than you were when you shipped out with me."

"Aunt, I'll take orders. I know the crew is still pretty small. I'll double for whoever needs it."

"That's Juvran's job." And Juvran and Tofary were good kids, but Hilfy was the one who had grown up waiting for her, who had bled for her. "Gods rot it. Fine. You're protocol officer and deputy emissary. Grab whatever baggage you have and come with me and Haral to catch the shuttle planetside."

The fight went out of Hilfy; her eyes shone at Pyanfar like twenty years ago, like the wide-eyed little girl at home. "I'll meet you at the shuttle port," she said, and headed out at a near run.

"Good," said Goldtooth. "She be fine asset."

"We need crazy people on this crazy trip?" Pyanfar shook her ears, setting all the rings rattling. "Come on, Haral, we got a shuttle to catch."

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *  

Hilfy, duffel across shoulder, walked up the ramp into the Pride's accessway. She should have been seized with pangs of nostalgia, but in fact this simply didn't look like the old Pride of Chanur. Even after various stints in repair yards from Anuurn to Kshshti, the Pride she knew had always been a working merchant ship and looked like it. This was ... a space-going Personage's office. Clean. Attractive.

Alien.

"H'lo, cousin," said Tirun. Hilfy's cold gut warmed a fraction; Tirun still looked like Tirun, was still doing Tirun's traditional duty, directing traffic arriving on the ship, whether cargo or supplies or personnel. But for this trip, the only "cargo" was a couple of small crates of technology and luxury goods, gifts for the human station chiefs or lords or whatever they considered themselves.

"Where are we going to put you?" Tirun continued.

Hilfy stared at her. The question had not even occurred to her, but certainly, now that she thought about it, the Pride had a couple of more crew members than it did in the old days, not to mention the mahen doctor they were bringing to keep giving Tully his treatments and generally keep an eye on him during the voyage. "What's the situation?"

"Probably not what you're thinking," said Tirun. "We made a lot of changes when we figured that we really wouldn't be running cargo anymore." She activated the wall communicator. "Hal? Hilfy's here. Want to meet her at the top and figure out where to put her? No, still awaiting a couple of supply shipment. OK, thanks." SHe turned back to Hilfy, go on up, Haral's meeting you at the lift. She'll show you around."

"Got it." Hilfy hit the call button. That at least was where it always was. "Is Tully aboard yet?"

"Yeah, came on 'bout an hour ago, Dr. tgo-Kesurinan is tucking him in." Tirun did a competent job on the mahen name.

Aunt Pyanfar hadn't been best pleased to learn that the doctor was Jik's second-in-command's cousin, but if they were trusting Jik again, she figured they might as well trust him all the way. And this doctor had been working with Tully's specialist for years. "That's going to be a mouthful every time, isn't it?" said Hilfy. It was soothingly easy, talking to Tirun like this.

"She said to call her Dr. Kiso. Real pleasant, not much ego. Could have been much worse." The lift door chimed and opened. "Catch you later, cousin."

The lift looked to be the same old lift, but scrubbed and polished to an amazing shine. The door opened to reveal cousin Haral, looking as thoughtful as Tirun had. "Tirun tell you what's up? No? Typical. C'mon." She led Hilfy along a corridor that was both familiar and unfamiliar. It was longer, for one thing. "So," Haral continued; "The Mirendian Family shipyard worked us over 'bout three years ago, reduced the cargo set-up by a good 25%, gave us more crew and passenger space on this level, and more crew space and offices one up, on the bridge level. We got three passenger suites for high-ranking guests: a big double for stsho, 'cause they don't tend to travel alone, then two more modest ones that could be for hani, mahe, or even kif - haven't had anyone check that configuration out, yet. Then a surgery twice as big as we had before: just as well, what with Dr. Kiso's equipment. We put her in the suite nearest the surgery and Tully next door …."

"Tully by himself?" Hilfy asked.

Haral flicked her ears and stopped walking. "He's a grown man, he can talk. We're not making that decision for him. And don't you press him, ker Chanur. This is Immune territory, not Chanur clan."

"Hal! I'm wouldn't!"

"He's dealing with enough right now," said Haral, crossing her arms and making herself into an obstacle. No matter the grey spreading back from her nose, she was still Haral Araun, a fighter known from Anuurn into kif space, and Pyanfar's second: her Voice, in a lot of ways. "You reading me, ker Chanur?"

"Don't call me that," muttered Hilfy.

"You don't make me do it, then. We got an agreement, Hilfy?"

"Yeah. Sorry." She dropped her ears and then raised them again, slow and respectful. "Hal, you don't know what it was like for me, seeing him in hospital after years without him."

"I can guess," said Haral. "Of course, it came up so gradual, we didn't notice for a while. OK, back to business: space for you. So anyway, there's a barracks-style quarters past the surgery, other side of that section lock. Got its own double washroom and a little galley space. Kind of a long ways from the rest of us, and real lonely. Hasn't ever been used, but Goldtooth thought we might want it sometime. Or over this way, tucked against the lift: a four-bed crew quarters where the kids are now, So, space there? It's next to the crew lounge and mess. That's more comfortable than the little galley up by the bridge: homey but with room to stretch."

"Where do you and the other seniors bed down?"

"Tirun and I have a double, same as Chur and Geran, next level up, near the captain's suite. No questions about na Khym being in with her, at this point. But that's it, up there. The rest is office space, except for a little convenience washroom."

"Sounds like I'm in with the juniors," said Hilfy.

"Well, we could clear out some of the whiter-than-whiteness in the stsho quarters."

"No, don't do that. It's just for one voyage, after all."

Haral looked at her for a moment, giving Hilfy the same feeling she'd always had with Haral, that the older woman could read the inside of Hilfy's head as easy as breathing. "C'mon, then," said Haral, and walked Hilfy back the other way. They stopped so Hilfy could admire the crew lounge, with its proper little kitchen with a multi-mode stove and oven, comfortable settees, and two tables with six chairs each. Then Haral pressed the speaker on the next door. "Cousins? Are you in there?"`

"Hi, yeah!" The door opened to reveal Tofary Araun, not yet at her adult height and breadth, and with a beard still brief and wispy. "Cousin Haral! Do we have duties now?"

She was joined a moment later by Juvran Chanur, as tall as Hilfy but with a darker-toned pelt, and otherwise looking quite a lot like her mother Anfy. "Hello, ker Hilfy," she said, politely.

"Hilfy's going to bunk with you two, this trip," said Haral. "Behave yourselves."

Tofary's ears flagged, and she grabbed the doorframe as though she were having trouble standing. Juvran held her ears valiantly aloft, but when she opened her mouth, no words came out.

Haral growled softly in her throat. "Come on, you two. You can do better than that!"

"Sorry, Aunt Haral!" whimpered Tofary.

Juvran dipped her ears and gave a little bob. "A warm welcome, ker Hilfy," she said, taking care with her tone. "Please come in. We're sorry about the mess."

Haral gave Hilfy an apologetic glance. "These two!" she said.

"It's fine," said Hilfy. "I'll get it all sorted. Thanks, Haral."

She went inside and shut the door. The youngsters unfroze and launched into a storm of tidying. They'd quite clearly taken advantage of all four bunks to sort out their baggage. They cleared two of the beds and then stopped, looking uneasily at each other. Juvran said, at last, "Ker Hilfy, is there any particular bed you prefer?"

Hilfy indicated the cleared bed closest to the door. "That one is fine."

They both looked relieved. Hilfy started stowing her gear, and after a moment, they followed her example.

She could understand their problem. With a room to themselves, they could be as foolish as they liked, away from senior crew. Normally, in a planet-bound clan, a young woman of Juvran's age wouldn't spend much time with a youth like Tofary, but they were so much younger than the rest of the crew, it was natural they'd turn to each other for companionship. "Where's the washroom?" she asked.

"Right through there, ker Hilfy," said Tofary. "And there's a convenience down the hall, just past the lounge, too."

"We'll take your orders, about who showers first and like that, ker Hilfy" said Juvran, her face earnest. "Or anything, really."

"You know that I'm not in your chain of command, right?" said Hilfy. "You're part of a special Immune organization under Pyanfar. You don't have to take my orders. I'm not your clan head, on this ship. And you don't have to call me ker Hilfy. 'Cousin' is fine."

They considered that. "But you're still our senior," said Juvran.

"Yes. You might want to think of me like the mahen doctor: a specialist on loan from an ally. So politeness is a good idea."

Tofary looked over at Juvran, who said "Yes, cousin." Tofary echoed that, still very subdued.

"So," said Hilfy. "What have you two got for entertainment? na Ismehanan-min was in such a hurry to get here, I don't have anything with me but my reader."

Tofary brightened. "I have this great immersive game system!" she said, and started rummaging in one of the lockers under her bed, "It's mahen-based, with a Nehras-clan-made skin! I got two great quest games for it … ."

Juvran sighed and gave Hilfy a mock glower. "She won't stop for hours, you know. It's on your head, cousin."

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *  

Loren looked down at her desk and pretended to be editing the notes she was taking on her handheld. In reality, like everyone in Biomedics 1, she was listening to the news bulletin that had interrupted class. Everyone else was watching as well.

"The Earth Company transport Opportunity is in approach, expected to make dock at 14:20 mainday." said Amina Kalu, the station communications chief. "Embree officials, including Station Administrator Koji Goda, will be on hand to greet Company Representative Gyo Kurosa and her party. Citizens are asked to cooperate by staying clear of Green Dock and its approach corridors."

"Loren!" hissed Oz Erdem. "Is that your mum?"

He didn't ask "Is that your brother?" Everyone knew Loren was the Station Admin's sister, and most of them took every chance to bizz her about it. Loren glanced up at the screen. Sure enough, there was an image of Mum on display. "Yes," she whispered, dropping her eyes again.

Murmurs spread throughout the room. Dr. Jin clicked off the news display. "Minds on business," he said, his voice stern. "We were discussing bedside monitoring practices. Ms. Simon, your patient has a sudden drop in blood pressure. Give me three common causes."

"Um, what's my patient in hospital for?" hedged Dina.

'"Orthopedic surgery. Stabilization of a serious fracture of the non-dominant wrist."

"Well, first …."

Loren was glad when it was lunch time. She didn't go to the sector cafeteria with the others, even though Kenta Erkens gave her a sympathetic smile and waved her to come along. Instead, she hurried to the Admin offices. She might be late to afternoon lab, but at the moment, she didn't care. "Is the Administrator available?" she asked the secretary.

"Yes, Ms. Kurosa." His fingers danced over his keyboard. "Administrator? Your sister is here to see you … yes, I'll send her in."

The door to Koji's office hissed open to let her through, then shut behind her. Koji was sitting at his desk, looking at the image of the approaching transport. He looked up and smiled. "What a nice surprise."

To her horror, she burst into big, infantile sobs. Koji got up and pulled her over to the visitor chair. He got her some tissues and then brought his chair around the desk so he could sit next to her. With his arm around her shoulders, she managed to quiet her sobbing. "Is this about your mother's visit?" he asked.

Mum was not Koji's mum; they had had the same father, but he was dead. In fact, Koji and Mum really didn't like each other. Loren knew he wouldn't think she was awful for worrying about having to see her mother. "What–what if she wants to t-take me away with her, Koji?"

His arm tightened. "She can't. She agreed to give you up. I am your guardian, and I am the administrator of this station."

"But, but Earth Company is your employer."

"She isn't allowed to use her company position to interfere in your private life, or mine. She signed away her rights to any decisions about your future. It's unfortunate that she was chosen for this year's inspection, though, and a little odd. Perhaps Serge Kimball is ill."

"Do I have to see her, Koji?"

"She may want to see you, but you don't have to do it alone. If she asks you to come to her, call me. Or call Deke. I'll let him know. OK?"

Deacon Gregory was the Security commander. He was nice. He'd been especially welcoming when Koji and Loren had first come to Embree Station. Loren felt a lot better, knowing that he'd be looking out for her too. "OK, Koji."

"Alright now?"

She nodded.

He checked the time. "Looks like we can grab lunch at Sefako's. How does that sound?"

Sefako's was the cafe where most of the Admin people had lunch. They had real coffee and delicious desserts. Suddenly, she was hungry. "Trez brill, Koji!" she said.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *  

Coming out of jump to find a near-empty space. Buoys, yes: they were receiving telemetry, numeric code that their computer had been primed to handle. The flat system voice said: K'ton'o'o Point to incoming ships, caution: no interactive navigation … .

Migods, really? But no, Jik had briefed them, back on the other side, as they left Knnn 4. "Stand by for velocity dump," she said and shoved the lever.

And down again.

Pyanfar, that was the name. Pyanfar Chanur, mekt-hakkikt, Personage, President of the Compact… the mind could go mad remembering so many identities.

On the speakers, a wailing drone: their traveling companion, a knnn.

How did this happen? Why did we agree to it?

"Got visual." That was Juvran. "No sign of other traffic, 'cept our escort."

Said escort: two mahen hunter-ships, Jik's buddy the t'ca, and a knnn. "Mannerly son, that knnn." said Tirun. "Giving us plenty of room. How'd Jik and his friend get that through to them?"

The visual came up on the main screens: a sullen little brown dwarf star, with a faint halo of dust. The automated spit-stop of a station where human trading offerings could be picked up and Compact goods dropped off was not even visible at this range. Pyanfar fumbled after the nutrients packet in its clip on the chair, bit it, managed to swallow. Latest and greatest formula, and it still tasted of copper and salt and something faintly off.

"How's Tully?" said Pyanfar.

"Asking, Captain," said Tofary. "Dr. Kiso? Dr. Kiso? Status for Tully?"

Just had to wait it out, that was all. Kiso spent the jumps in the big ergonomic chair in Tully's quarters, ready to check him out as soon as she could. The abnormal growth in his gut seemed stymied by jump: "Who know? Maybe new treatment," Kiso had said, and she did not seem to be joking. "Try with some mahen patient when we return."

"Got that. Thank you, Doctor. One more velocity dump." Tofary looked over at Pyanfar. "She says he's OK, but real tired. Wants to know how many days we'll take on this transit, before next jump. Two or three would be good, she said."

"I'll get back to her after we get status from our partners," said Pyanfar. "Final dump in three, two, now."

One last lurch and drop, and the Pride was on her normal engines again, roaring softly through the darkness. Forward camera showed the strange conglomeration of shapes that was a knnn ship; aft, the t'ca ship and the two sleek mahen hunters, The larger, that was Goldtooth's Mahijiru, and the smaller, Jiks Aja Jin. "Hail our mahen partners, cousin," said Pyanfar. "Three-way conference." Then, at Tofary's confirmation: "How are we running? OK with a three-day system transit?"

"We good, run fine," said Goldtooth. "Three day, a? Nice, like va-cation. But you pick lousy port: make Kshshti look lively!" The Pride's bridge crew murmured rueful agreement.

"Same good, friend," said Jik. "Tully he OK? Make jump good?"

"He's good, but tired, doctor says. She suggested the timing."

"Good news. Tell him take rest, we fine. Knnn escort leave now, go back own space. We only got one more jump, easy trip. Tell Kiso, Soje say hi."

"Will do, Jik. Thanks. Just call if you need us. Otherwise, we'll talk to you in 3 standard days, 09:00, to sequence the jump."

They acknowledged, and Tofary shut down the link. "Tofary and Juvran, galley, main lounge. We'll join you soon as well can." She thumbed the intraship comm link from her seat. "Chur, Geran, report to control as soon as you're able. I'm heading downside."

She unclasped her safety and headed for the lift, to check on Tully and give the doctor her cousin's greeting.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *  

Embree Station patrol cutter Active was following its usual route around the station. Gordy regarded the view screens with bored, jaded eyes as he piloted the patrol boat. Same old Embree, glittering with lights. Same old Sefako's Star, dull orange and glowing. Same old teeny-weeny asteroid belt between them. Tiny pinpoints of light in among the asteroids marked station's ice pusher Florence N. and whichever of the skimmers were out there. He tapped in a query into his terminal: US2 Jo and US4 Amy today.

He could do this in his sleep.

"Stop fidgeting, Shoals, " growled Commander Sandrin.

"Yes sir, Commander Mom sir," said Gordy, without looking around. Hachi Chu gave him a warning glance that nevertheless managed to be sympathetic and turned back to his display console.

"It's tough!" chirped Soni, their newest crew member,

Sandrin sighed. "What's tough, ensign?"

"Being out here like always, with nothing happening, when there's VIPs back on the station."

"Not as though the company rep is going to talk to any of us, Soni," Sandrin said.

"Yeah, she's not interested in what your latest Starhammer score is, Gotam boy," added Gordy.

"What in—?" Hachi was flicking through views on his scan station.

Sandrin frowned and stopped giving Gordy the stink eye. "Chu, report."

"Something's out there, sir." Hachi passed the image to the secondary display in front of them all.

Something was coming around the edge of the Belt, something that wasn't the same-old same-old.

Soni's breath made an eager, interested sound. "Is it an alien? Should I uncap the guns?"

"Don't!" barked Sandrin. "Dammit, Soni, I know you had that briefing just last month."

Gordy glanced at the magnified view. He pulled up Library on his aux display and got the reference display of alien ships from the EC Tenjin mission. "Not those creepy things we're not supposed to shoot under any circumstances," he muttered. "Hachi, this one, maybe?"

Hachi looked. "Yes, that seems most likely. Oxygen breather ship, Ma … Mahen'dosat type. Commander, reference to your 1."

Sandrin glared at his display as though intimidation would make things make sense. "Shoals, open a communications channel to 872.5," he said, at last. "That's where the agreement says they're supposed to hail any EC ship or station."

Gordy's fingers danced over his keyboard. Suddenly the speaker came live, a bunch of hissing, yowling nonsense. Then a burst of almost musical gibberish. Gordy was considering saying something smart when the noise broke off and was replaced by an almost normal male voice, slightly hoarse and with a strange accent, but easily understood.

"This is crewman Tully on the ship Pride of Chanur, under command of the Compact President Pyanfar Chanur. We seek medical advice and treatment for a human. Any listener, please acknowledge."

"Tully?" asked Hachi. "Wasn't he the one who …?"

"Yeah," said Sandrin. "And that Chanur character is the head honcho of the entire space, says here. Chu, you got that in buffer? Bounce it to station command, now!"

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *  

"The patient is me," said the man in the display on Koji's desk, looking somewhat embarrassed and uneasy. Several hani and a Mahen'dosat person sat behind and to each side of him: amazing sight.

Koji had the file up on his other display: Matthew Tully, former Tech/2 Earth Company, last ship assignment ECE Evelyn Cheesman. The ship was lost exploring past Embree Station … Tully was later found to have survived … .. Pictures accompanied the article: Tully in a regulation buzzcut, face young and unlined; an older Tully, hair to his shoulders, as recovered by the ECE Ulysses; older still, a stealthy shot with a reader camera on the Hani station Gawone, when the treaty was negotiated: hair well past his shoulders, bare-chested This certainly looked like the same man, given a few more years. His face was haggard now, though, even for his actual age.

"Let me consult with our chief medical officer, Mr. Tully." Koji tapped the link. The image from the alien ship froze on the screen. "What do you think, Dr. Sandon?"

"The data that they sent seems to show colon cancer," she said. "Not all that uncommon, although he's a bit young for it. But goodness knows what's in his diet at this point. Carcinogens in the environment don't have to be as obvious or as virulent as the asbestos fibers that fill the air on Cyteen. I'd love to be able to do an analysis on what he's been eating." Her face was alight with interest. "I'm already floored by the fact that I'm reviewing medical imaging files recorded by aliens!"

Koji had to smile. "I take it that you're in favor of bringing him on station for treatment. No concerns about, say, hazards to the health of the station population?"

She sobered, assuming her usual serious expression. "I've read the reports from the two encounters, on the multi-species station called 'Meeting Point' and on the hani's Gawone station. Nothing of significant hazard was found in air samples or from follow-up on personnel, and it's been more than five years in both cases. They're offering to send Mr. Tully with a minimal escort: his doctor, who's one of the Mahen'dosat, a senior hani crew member who knows him well and who has been trained as a medic, and a young hani person who has been learning our language. It seems they also recognize, as we do, that early exposure to a language makes for more fluency."

He nodded. "Both of the hani are kin to President Chanur. This means they also have value as hostages. Not that we intend to make anything of that, but they don't know that, so I think it shows a high level of trust. What do you think, Deke?"

The security chief's handsome face was thoughtful. "I think we can treat them according to the rules for neutrals during a hostile situation. I'll set up a small security force in one of the unused housing blocks nearest the hospital, and establish a secure quarters for them in the largest apartment there, or maybe even two apartments. Dr. Sandon should get the spec on what they eat; maybe they can supply some of their own food, at least to start. They can be escorted to and from the hospital. You have precautions for treating patients who might be contagious, right doctor?"

"I don't think it needs to go that far, but yes, we can give over one of the operating theaters to extra precautions, including a couple of people from your area watching the doors," said the doctor. "I'm more than 95% certain he'll need surgery. We can fit a regular room as a recovery room, and then shift him to an isolated private room. Once he's mostly recovered and ready for adjuvant treatment, he can move in with his doctor and escorts."

"What kind of treatment, now?" asked Koji.

"Adjuvant treatment: treatment with drugs or radiation after surgery."

"They'll be here for a while, then."

"I'd prefer to follow him for about eight weeks. That's a big improvement over such things in the past. At the start of the 21st century, patients were often in adjuvant treatment regimen for as long as 180 days."

Deke raised his eyebrows. "Harsh!"

Sandon nodded. "The Mahen'dosat seem fairly sophisticated in their medical technology. Their doctor has been giving him radiation treatments during the voyage to slow the growth of the tumor. That's impressive. If they didn't want to stay that long, and Tully seems to be responding to treatment, I would be willing to give them enough of the medications that they could continue his treatment themselves. That means I'd want to have the doctor and the medic spend some time learning the protocol."

"Plus the translator," Deke reminded her.

"In fact, Tully himself is probably still the best translator they have," said Koji. "You'll notice they have him talking to us."

"Point taken" said Deke. "But also, I think they're savvy enough to realize that we'd have more sympathy for him."

"Be that as it may," said Koji; "I think we're in agreement. We have a lot of work to do, folks."

"Are you going to tell Ms. Kurosa about this?" asked Deke.

Koji gave him a sardonic smile. "The Company always says that we should carry on as usual while an inspector is here. She can find out when the rest of the population does."

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *  

Pyanfar was not surprised to hear that Hilfy wanted to talk to her about the make-up of the team that would accompany Tully onto the station. She was profoundly grateful that she now had a sound-proofed office with an impressive desk, perfect for just such a confrontation.

"What do you mean I'm not going with him?" Hilfy's voice was barely under control. She had declined the offer of a seat.

"What I said, niece." Pyanfar tapped a claw on the desk. "Tofary has been in training for this. You've been practicing with her during the voyage. Are you better at real-time translation than she is?"

"Maybe not, but how can you even consider sending a teenaged kid on a mission like this?"

"Think about it, Hilfy We're not intending to have a fight here. These aren't kif. We aren't trying to threaten them. Tirun looks like a fighter, but she's calm and good at thinking on her feet. We need to send Dr. Kiso for medical reasons, and we can hope the humans find her as charming and earnest as we do. That leaves someone to do translation and some outreach. This is a station full of civilians, Tully says: parents, kids. A youngster will be disarming and approachable."

Hilfy sank into the chair opposite her aunt. "Then why did I come?"

"You'll have to find your own answer to that. You've been able to spend time with Tully. You'll know what happens to him almost as soon as it happens, instead of waiting for us to come back. Whether that's worth it, only you can decide. But don't make me regret bringing you, niece."

Hilfy gave her an angry, confused look. The fight was draining out of her again. Pyanfar had hoped that time would give her niece some sort of balance in her feelings for Tully and her memories of what she had suffered with him. Maybe that sort of equilibrium was still a possibility] for her, but it hadn't happened yet. "So what am I supposed to do with you?" said Pyanfar.

Hilfy closed her eyes, drew a breath, and then looked at her levelly, even calmly. "What do you need me to do?"

"Set up some sort of system of code words that the station-bound team can use to signal problems of different kinds. We hope they won't need 'em, but we haven't survived this long by pretending troubles can't happen. Talk to Jik and Kesurinan, find out whether there's any gear they'd recommend that will look innocent but be useful. Set up that information in files in Trade, make sure each of the team except Tully has the files on her handheld. Then get some sleep. We all need it. They're going out on our lighter in the morning."

Hilfy went, tension still evident in the line of her back. As she opened the door to the corridor, Pyanfar saw Khym beyond. Niece and uncle exchanged brief courtesies, and then Khym came into the office. "Haral says our partners are maneuvering under low power to take up positions in the asteroid belt, beyond where the station skimmers usually go. What's got Hilfy's ears?"

"Had to talk her down from the fight she wanted to have about her not going to station with Tully."

He shut the door behind him and came over to her side. "It's hard to let go of someone you've fight for," he said, and reached out to rub her shoulders.

She turned her chair to make it easier for him. "That's the spot … oh." For a moment, she drifted, letting her eyes fall shut. Then: "Khym, we've all bled for him, our outsider friend. This—isn't the same."

"I know that," said Khym. "There are a lot of reasons why she can't find a man she can tolerate, aren't there? But she doesn't need our help. She just needs a reminder of that every so often."

She was surprised that Khym had figured that out, Tully and Hilfy. But she knew her Khym was as clever as any woman. "Let me up. I'm done here. To quarters, husband."

"No supper?"

"Food's not what I need." she said.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *  

Deke rubbed his eyes and focused on Lieutenant Rhee's worried face. He needed to get back to the personnel plans for the alien visitors, but Rhee was really concerned, and that wasn't like her: "bomb proof," her officers called her. "Mr. Campo said what, now?"

"That company rep, Ms. Kurosa, has been asking some weird questions while she's inspecting things. Not stuff about whatever she's visiting, other stuff. When she was looking through the atmospherics control facility, she was quizzing people about how they feel about Administrator Goda, whether he's listening to their concerns. And Campo isn't the only one who reported it. When she met with the shop owners, Oskar Radkov, who owns Sharp Looks, was a little surprised that she wanted to know whether customers have been complaining about the current administration's policies."

Sharp Looks was the priciest boutique on station. If you shopped there, you were probably high up on the ladder. What the hell is Kurosa paying at? "Thanks, lieutenant," he said. "Let's keep our ears open. Things are going to be tense enough with our, um, unusual visitors. I'll send all the teams a little briefing with tomorrow's orders."

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *  

The Pride's lighter had been upgraded at Maing Tol. It had six comfortable seats, a decent cargo capacity, and a docking apparatus capable of adapting to a variety of connections. Juvran and Haral had been loading it for some time, including temperature-locked crates of food as well as the personal effects of the four who were going to the station. They were all uneasy with the news that the team might have to stay as long as 60 days for Tully's treatments after surgery.

Some last-minute long-distance transmissions had come in from Aja Jin in response to Hilfy's query, taking the risk of getting past the chaff and noise of the Belt and possibly being discovered. Pyanfar was unsurprised to hear that Dr. Kiso's smaller handheld had emergency communications capability. "Captain Nomesteturjai say, find somewhere on station rim. We station visitor, maybe we get tour, a?" said Kiso, showing Pyanfar her medical scanner/handheld.

"Sounds right," said Haral, and slapped Tirun on the shoulder. "Keep your eyes open, sister."

Tirun pursed her mouth with humor that was a little forced. "My eyes are going to be as wide open as a mahen drink den when the Personage is in town," she quipped. "That's mine, Juvran: put it right behind my seat. Got that stowed, doctor? Hop on in, then. I'm right behind you."

"Wish I were going with them." said Hilfy, ears flagging, as she watched them climbing through the hatch.

Pyanfar cuffed her gently on the back of the head. "We need a translator here as well, niece," she said.

"Feels better knowing Jik and Goldtooth are out there," muttered Haral. She swung the hatch shut and locked it.

Geran's voice came over the speakers. "Lighter, status?"

"Tirun says, strapping in," responded Tofary. "There. We're good."

"Thank you, Lighter. Stand by for separation and launch. Chur, start sequence: go, go, go."

The Pride shuddered as her grapples released, sending their hopes off toward the human station.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *  

Tirun leaned her chin on her fist and tried not to look around like a country boy during his first day on station. The meeting with the human surgeon was in another white-and-steel room. She wondered whether this was how humans lived on-planet, or even in other spaces on station. Perhaps this was special medical decor. The pictures on the wall were random shapes in grass and water and flower colors. Maybe they meant something, if you were human. She'd have to ask Tully, if she got a moment.

Of course, even if he had an answer, she might not really understand what he meant. It was a little discouraging, sometimes.

Tully had about run his maximum, especially given that they were talking about cutting him up, so Tofary was doing her best to translate both directions. The kid was pretty good: you could tell because the human doctor, a woman called Robic, was starting to look at Dr. Kiso instead of Tofary. "Robic says, the gut heals up real fast with those…those medical threads they use, The gut takes it in—absorbs, I bet that's the word. Absorbs the threads."

"She talk about sutures. Stitch, hold wound edge together. So, no need special food after few day?" asked Dr. Kiso.

Tofary talked, then Robic talked. Tofary said, "Maybe thirty days of watching what he eats. First three days, liquid. Then tender foods?"

"Soft food," murmured Tully.

"Soft foods," Tofary repeated. "No…hard-chew foods, plants not heated? And only small amounts of fats."

Tully rubbed his eyes. "Not eat veg-etable or fruit raw. Not food with hard parts, part that need much chewing. All food chopped tiny like almost li-quid."

"Got," said Kiso. "Tofary, smart child, we got learn read human cooking instruction."

"Recipes," Tirun said.

That took several attempts at translation, and by the end of it, everyone was laughing, even Tully. Then he went white and held his gut.

Damn, Tirun hated that she couldn't help him. She put an arm around his shoulder anyway, and caught the human surgeon looking at her. It was like the look Tully had when he finally understood something.

Tirun looked at Dr. Robic and nodded her head. Tully had showed her that human gesture.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *  

Loren came off shift at the hospital to find a strange gathering in Gupta Park. Usually the space, which was filled with all sorts of plants under growth lighting, was a quiet spot for patients to visit with friends or hospital personnel to have lunch. But now some twenty or thirty people were walking around in an organized line, carrying ugly home-made signs that said things like "Goda Is a Traitor to Humanity," "Kurosa = Truth," and "No Aliens on Embree!"

"Oh wow," said Oz, who had come off-shift at the same time. "You're the truth, huh?"

Loren's face burned. "My mom," she said, her voice tight. Oh, Koji, what has she been doing?"

One of the special security guards who had been added to the hospital's entrances when the alien party had arrived was muttering into his communications button. He pivoted around to face Loren and Oz. "You kids better stay here. Go back into the lobby."

"But we have classes this afternoon!" said Loren, indignant and frightened.

"Yeah," said Oz. "We need to grab lunch."

"Tell you what," said the guard, watching the protesters from the corners of his eyes. "They're sending up some more security personnel to keep the lid on here. Run get lunch in the hospital caff, and I'll make sure there's someone here with me to escort you out when you're done."

Oz made a face; the hospital cafeteria was dull, at best. Loren grabbed his wrist and pulled. "Let's go. This is just excessively wrong."

They hurried down the coreward corridor toward the lifts by the cafeteria. Someone was coming toward them, someone in a white lab coat and hunched over a reader. Loren stopped, shouldered the stairway door open, and dragged Oz with her.

He stumbled and grabbed the railing. "Damn, you're strong! What the hell was that?"

"Ssh!" she said, listening for footsteps. "Let's use the stairs," she whispered.

Oz followed her, grumbling. At the bottom, he stopped. "Spill, Loren! That was just Dr. Jancey from Biochem. He comes up here sometimes to work with the lab techs."

"He's a creep! I feel disgusting when he looks at me. He came out from Sol with us, and I spent like half the trip trying to hide from him."

Oz stared at her. "He never makes me feel like that."

"Probably because you don't have anything on your chest for him to stare at!"

He had dark skin, so a blush didn't show up much, but he was blushing. She shook her head and huffed out an exasperated breath. "Let's go eat. We don't have much time before class."

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *  

The crew of the Pride was crowded around Pyanfar's chair on the bridge, where Dr. Kiso was visible. The display blipped and flickered every once in a while: the human video stream and the hani program on the receiving end didn't always handle each other's error corrections well.

"Tully come through operation number one good. He waking, some pain, but human pain control pro-tocol work pretty damn good."

Tofary could be heard faintly in the background: "Doctor, 'damn,' isn't polite."

"But Pyanfar Captain say that word many time!" protested Kiso.

Chur sneezed, holding in a laugh, and Geran cuffed her on the ear.

"OK, OK. They say lab still pro-cess end of gut piece surgeon cut out, but look good to they eye. More tomorrow, after run careful examin-ation. You want talk Tofary? Tirun sit with Tully now."

"Sure," said Pyanfar. "Let's talk to the imp." Hilfy twitched at that, but Pyanfar let the reaction go. That's past, niece. You're full grown now. Not much fun, is it?

Tofary came on, a little pale and wide-eyed: you could see it even in the less-than-perfect video "I watched the whole thing!" she said. "They have a vid set-up for medical students. I can't figure how they know what to cut where, captain. Kiso says humans must have better color vision even than mahe: most mahe would wear contrast-enhancing goggles to do that kind of work. But now Tully's just going to rest. They're feeding him sugars and such intravenously, and tomorrow he should be having liquids to drink like normal. We're going to take turns for the first couple of days so he's not alone at all."

Pyanfar looked hard into the youngster's eyes, willing her to think of what Pyanfar didn't want to say aloud: You think you need to do that, do you?

Tofary looked confused for a moment. Then her gaze sharpened, and she shrugged. So they were just being a little careful, in case.

"Make sure all of you get some rest," Pyanfar said.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *  

Loren's class had all been given a severe lecture about not intruding in the secure corridor that had been set up to isolate the human patient and his alien doctor and escorts. But everyone had been allowed to watch in the main lobby when Mr. Tully was brought in, to get a glimpse of the aliens. And then when Mr. Tully had his operation, the mahe doctor and the hani translator had been in the viewing room, watching the surgery along with the students.

It was terribly exciting, the most exciting thing that had happened to Loren since the trip out to Embree three years ago. The three aliens had been taking turns sitting with Mr. Tully for the first three days after the operation. But today, they were taking a break. Loren wondered whether he was lonely.

And that was part of her job, wasn't it: keeping patients distracted and calm while they were resting. Loren loitered near the corridor intersection for a few minutes after lunch, with one of the little entertainment readers in her hand. Dr. Robic came out of the secure corridor with Ms. Kiraly, who was one of the senior medics, and they both said hi to Loren. Ms. Kiraly gave Loren a Look, so Loren turned right and went down that corridor, which was Orthopedics. But after a few minutes she came back. No one else seemed to be around, so she took a breath, put on her Cheerful Face, and went down toward Mr. Tully's room.

There was a guard, of course. She was a tall woman with impressive shoulders and the most blandly neutral expression Loren had ever seen in a conscious person. Her badge said Danko. She looked at Loren's medical uniform and badge, then shrugged. "Dr. Robic and a nurse just checked him."

"Of course," Loren said, with her best smile. "But I'm here to sit with him and help his emotional state."

Danko raised her eyebrows but then went all neutral again. "Yeah, his friends haven't been in since breakfast. Go on."

In the room, Mr. Tully was hooked up to the usual kinds of monitors and drips. His eyes were closed, and his long blond hair was combed but look like it could use a wash. She came over to his bedside and looked up at the monitor displays; all the readings were normal, she thought. His chart was up there too.

"Who're you?" he said. His eyes were open now, and he was looking at her like he wasn't sure he should trust her.

"I'm Loren Kurosa, a medic in training," she said. "I help look after patients' welfare. Look, I have a reader you can use. It has games, stories, the station news feed, entertainment vids—all kinds of things to keep you from getting bored."

He looked away from her. "Don't know whether I'm with it enough for any of that. Head's pretty fuzzed." But then he looked back and held out his hand. "Show me, please."

She showed him the menu system and the controls. When she got to the games, he smiled very fast, just for a second, so that she wasn't even sure he'd done it. "Nomster. I played that when I was a kid."

She let him have the reader and said "Let me put your bed up a little, so you don't strain." His chart had said they'd sat him most of the way up for breakfast. She worked the bed controls until he looked comfortable and then sat down in the visitor chair and watched him play.

He was getting the hand of the controls pretty fast. "D'you like this game, Ms. Loren?" he asked, as the points went up and up.

"Not so much. Like you said, it's old and for kids."

That made him laugh a little, and then he closed his lips real fast like he was doing something wrong. Maybe laughing hurt his incision. "How old are you, anyway?" he asked.

"I'm sixteen." She knew why he asked; every day, her. mirror showed her a little girl's dimpled, round face.

"That's about how old Tofary is. We should get you kids together."

"Is Tofary one of the aliens who came with you?"

"Yeah, but you know, to them, you and me are the aliens. She's the younger hani, the smaller one. The one who speaks human language. Sort of."

"Why isn't she in school? "

"Why aren't you, Ms. Loren?"

"I am, part of the day But I'm old enough to learn a real job."

"Tofary does school work on the computer part of the day, and she learns languages with Dr. Kiso and with me. That's her job, like being medic is yours. You girls would be good for each other."

He was slowing down on the game. "You're getting tired, aren't you?"

"Been a long time since I talked to a human this much. Last time was the negotiations for the agreement." He stopped the game and, leaning back, shut his eyes.

"Why didn't you come back with the company team after that?" she asked, and then clapped one hand over her mouth. That was a nosy thing to ask.

He didn't answer but held out the reader to her, eyes still closed. She saved his score and put it on the bedside table. It would shut itself down. She lowered his bed so he could sleep easier. "Goodbye, Mr. Tully. Have a good rest."

"You got to see," he said, all the sudden, eyes still shut; "Captain Pyanfar and her crew were the only people who didn't want to use me for something."

He worked his shoulders slightly, trying to get comfortable, she guessed. She went out and closed the door softly behind her.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *  

"They say he vanished from his room," said Hilfy, voice flat and ears well back. "He was fine, they were going to have him try getting out of bed tomorrow morning, maybe have a wash. And then he disappeared!"

"It's a station, niece. Not even a large one," said Pyanfar, disbelieving, in the doorway of the bridge. "How many places could they hide an invalid recently out of surgery?"

"I don't know! The rest of what they said was just diplomacy: they're doing all they can, they're going to make sure we know whatever they find out, and all that."

Pyanfar flung herself into her chair. "Open channels again. Patch the call through to our personnel."

Hilfy took a breath and swung back to her board. Juvran was frozen at the observer post, eyes wide, ears flagging, but she picked them up and twitched them toward Hilfy to listen.

"I've got Tirun," said Hilfy; "To your one."

"Captain!" said Tirun, image choppily enlarged and full of interference from the communications set in the guest apartment on station. "You talked to station security?"

"Hilfy did, cousin. What do you make of it?"

Tirun dragged her hands through her mane. "I got nothing, captain. The surgeon was really upset, if I've learned anything from humans all these years. You think so too, doc, right?"

"You got right, she very up-set, so up-set, mood all distress. She care 'bout her patients."

"You think this is politics, Tirun? A power play by station security?"

"Captain, I think we can tie ourselves in knots trying to guess about what drives human politics. But the security chief's a serious, careful person, to my mind. Made me think of Tully, a little, or even Hal."

Haral, who had come in silent as a ghost, grinned for a second, and then settled into her chair, serious as her sister had described her.

Pyanfar rubbed her mouth. "Where's Tofary?"

"Here, captain!" The girl appeared behind Tirun, who grabbed her shoulder and pushed her toward the camera.

"Kid, have you been overhearing anything that strikes you as just wrong?"

Tofary scowled for a second and then got her face and ears under control. "I mean, we get comments wherever we go. Most of it's 'Hey, look, it's the aliens' and 'I wish they'd wear clothes.' Some of it's kind of worse, like 'What's the stationmaster thinking, letting them check out our technology?' or "That company woman is right, this is going too far.'"

"'Company woman'? What's that mean?"

Tirun said, "Guess they mean the company inspector. A person named Kurosa. She arrived a few days before we did."

Tofary's eyes widened. "Yes, I bet that's it! Some of them were saying she's told them she's making a file of any irregularities about how the station is being run. I wasn't sure who they meant when I heard it."

Pyanfar wrinkled her nose in disgust. "Oh, it's politics alright. Gods be feathered if I can see how this ties in with Tully's disappearance, but it wouldn't shock me if it did."

"A hostage?" suggested Haral. "If this woman leads a change in administration, she can claim she's got us shackled because we won't dare make a move while they have him?"

"Yeah, but that's so heavy handed," objected Chur. "All they need to do was say he has to stay in hospital longer than they thought at first, and they'd have him on just as tight a leash."

"Maybe they aren't that subtle," said Hilfy, her voice flat.

Pyanfar looked over at her and flicked one ear. "Maybe they're not. Cousins, keep thinking about what angles malcontents on station might have that could involve our crewman. I don't think I can give the stationmaster—station administrator, I think they'd say—advice about what his own people might be doing, given that we're half-naked furry aliens. Tirun, keep us in the loop."

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *  

Her reader pinged, a personal call. Loren opened it and heard her mother's voice, so familiar and yet so out of place.

"I'm so sorry we haven't been able to get together, pet! How about Tuesday? I hear there's a lovely little restaurant in Blue 1, Starshine. We could have lunch."

Her mouth was dry. "Yes, Mum."

"That's a good girl! Are you working hard in school?"

"Yes, Mum. I sent you my last report."

Her mother laughed, a pretty little laugh. Loren knew it didn't mean anything. "Of course you did! I did glance at it, but I wanted to hear it from you. Baby, I need you to do something for me. You remember Dr. Jancey? He came out on the transport with you and dear Koji."

That creep. It figured that Mum knew him. "Yes, Mum."

"Could you please go down to his lab in White B-006 at 20:00? He's coming to talk to me and has some important experiments that he needs you to monitor. He told me you're a very smart little girl and will know how to follow his instructions."

I'm sixteen, Mum. I'm not stupid and I'm not a little girl.. "Yes, Mum."

"Good! I knew i could count on you." Mum closed the connection.

It was useless trying to get any more homework done. Koji was out with Deke. She was so glad he had someone else to love, as well as her. She sent Koji a message about the lunch appointment, marking in "non-urgent." He'd get to it well before Tuesday. Maybe she should tell him about her "job" for Jancey, too, but she didn't want to disturb their date. She rattled around the apartment, wondering what had happened to the mysterious Mr. Tully. He was nice, even if he had been a little weird, and he needed to be in hospital.

She wasn't hungry, but she knew she had to eat. She put together some salad, a plate of leftover chicken pie from last night, and ate the last of the chocolate cookies. She was relieved when her reader pinged to let her know it was 15 minutes to her appointment. She was wearing a casual outfit, pants and a loose sweater with a bright pattern, and didn't see any point in changing. If Dr. Jancey really had lab work for her to do, he'd have overalls.

She went down the hallways to White, and then took the lift down to level 000. A lot of the biochemical labs for keeping the station's air, water, and food supply in good shape were down here, and it smelled like it. She went down the B corridor to lab 006, where the plate next to the door read Dr. Ulo Jancey, and pressed the buzzer.

"Come in! Come in!" The door opened. Jancey's hair was longish and greasy. His lab coat looked like he'd slept in it. "Ah, the lovely Loren!" He looked her over, his eyes lingering too long on her chest, but of course she had on a loose sweater. He made a sad face, like she'd disappointed him. "How are you this evening, pet?"

Ugh, he was disgusting. And he had no right to use that nickname. "I'm fine," she said, trying to act pleasant.

"Well, come on. You know how to give hypo shots, right?"

Did he have lab animals in here? The station had chickens and fish for food, but she didn't know of any other creatures "Yes, I do."

"Excellent!" He led her past dark, quiet cubicles and doorways to different kinds of labs, and then into a big supply room. There was a light at the far end. He stopped and looked at her, with a face that would have been serious on a normal person, but on him. it looked like her was just pretending to be serious, like this was some kind of game. "You know what you're going to do is important, right? You promised your mother? Because she can make life very, very difficult for your dear brother, you know. Aliens on the station: what a thing to do! I don't think Earth will understand, do you? "

She felt cold in her stomach and her face went blank.

"Loren? Are you all right? You look kind of stupid like that."

Stupid.. What Mum always said, when she wasn't dropping sugary fake compliments. And something was really wrong here. He wanted to force her to do something she'd know was wrong. She remembered the things that Mum had tried to get her to do with "friends," which was why Koji was now her guardian. She wanted to throw up, but instead, she focused on looking stupid and also cute. "But you wouldn't let her do that," she said in a breathy whisper, like Chelzy Thomas making up to her favorite cute doctor. "Because I'm going to help you."

He blinked, raised his eyebrows, and smiled. Creepy. "There's a good little girl. So I won't even need to mention your little visit with that special patient the other day. That wasn't wise, girlie. Your mother doesn't know about it—yet."

She wanted to throw up. Keeping her face pleasantly stupid was one of the hardest things she'd ever done. Jancey leered at her and then led her past rows of shelves, and there, at the end, was a wheeled hospital stretcher. And she was horrified but not shocked, after all that, to see that on it was Mr. Tully,

"I know, I know," said Dr. Jancey, humorous and cheerful. "What am I doing with him, right? But we have some good reasons for it, your mother and I. He'll be fine; Jana's a great surgeon. Look. just give him this injection at 23:45. I'll be back by 1:00. I know it's a late night, but you're almost grown up, aren't you? Here's a nice, comfy chair, You have your reader, right?"

"Yes, Dr. Jancey."

"There you go. And I left some snacks over there, on the shelf above the supply cart, fresh off the Opportunity, Enjoy yourself, sweetie."

He went out. Maybe he would sneak back to see what she was doing? She went to check out the snacks, because that was the obvious thing, and also take a look at tiny bottle he wanted her to use for the injection, which was on a steel tray with several other bottles, some of them already empty, and a bunch of hypos, all on top of the medical supply cart.

The snacks were cheese puffs, made of 100% real cheddar cheese, and a metal box of very fancy cookies. She'd already had cookies tonight, but these were so pretty, and smelled so good, that she thought she might have one later. The bottle of injectable medication …she frowned her way through the label, and then looked it up on her reader. Maybe he hadn't thought that she had access to the medical reference library. His mistake.

And he was stupid, she realized. Stupid in that way that only really smart people get sometimes. Stupid to think this plan would ever really work and that she would think her brother was really in trouble, even if Mum was stirring people up.

Or that she'd put a patient's life on the line to avoid trouble with her program advisors and the hospital director, for disobeying that order about not poking around the suite where they'd put the special visitor.

The reader came up with an article. The little vial was a sedative. A sedative that was also a drug sometimes misused for questioning prisoners, said a footnote.

She looked over the rest of the tray. Two of the three empty bottles seemed to be the same meds he had been on in hospital. The other was a powerful sedative that he had been on right after the operation. He should be off it by now. Today, they would have had him stand up and sit in a chair for 30 minutes. And if that went well, have a blanket bath later.

There was a drip stand on the stretcher cart, with an injection port. The bag was half full of saline. There were a couple of more bottles on the lower shelf of the supply cart.

"Lo…ren."

It was Tully. She turned around and saw him watching her from under his eyelids. She came over close. "Yes, it's me," she whispered.

"He's gone?" His voice was hardly a breath.

"Yes. He won't be back for hours."

"You working for him, Loren?"

"No! He's a friend of my mother, but my mother is not my friend. That's why I live out here with my brother. But my mother is here now! She was sent out as a company inspector She told me to come do what Jancey asked me to. I didn't know it would be this!"

"Is station behind this?"

"No! Everyone is upset and trying to find you, including my brother. And he's the station administrator."

"Why…why does Jancey think you won't turn on him?"

Her face was hot. She looked down at her hands on the edge of the stretcher. "He threatened my brother. My mother…she's a terrible person. She used to try to get me to go with men she wanted to control. You know. And also he knows I visited you, and none of us students were supposed to be in your suite."

Tully closed his eyes. He was trembling. "Are you cold?" Loren whispered.

"Pain. Doesn't matter. Jancey wants me to talk. Tell secrets. He doesn't know…this won't be the first time someone has tortured me for information."

His pain medication wasn't among those on the tray. Jancey was even worse than she'd thought, and so was Mum. Now she understood what they wanted to do. They'd have information that no one else had about the Compact, if Tully could be made to talk. She came to a decision all at once. "I'm going to call my brother. He said I could, anytime, if my mother was bothering me."

She switched her reader to communications. There was no signal. Maybe the lab repeater was down. Maybe Jancey was smarter than she thought and had arranged it. "Oh crudbuns! Mr.Tully, there's no signal! I need to find a spot where I can call."

"How much time 'til he's back?"

She checked. "Maybe 4.5 hours."

"Go. Tell your brother."

"I'm going. You'll be OK, I promise!"

She grabbed the vial that Jancey had wanted her to inject and ran out of the store room. She would have dashed right out of the lab's main door, but she checked, and it was set to lock from inside. She over-rode the lock and set it to open. A routine security check might turn that up as an alert, but that would be good too, as long as it happened before Jancey got back.

She retraced her path to the lift, checking the signal at intervals. She didn't get a working signal until she was two floors up. She stopped the lift and got out. It was an office corridor, with only a couple of people walking around. As she expected, there was a comm-call privacy booth near the lift lobby. She ducked into it, and after thinking for a moment, called Deke Gregory's apartment.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *  

"The door is locked from outside," growled Haral.

"No!" said Tofary, "That's ridiculous! Aren't we honored guests? Isn't that what they said?" She bounced in place, too much energy confined in one place too long.

"Calm down, kid," said Tirun. "We know we're in trouble. Nobody's telling us anything when we call Central, and we can't call the ship from here."

"Why are we in trouble? We're not the ones who lost Tully!"

Dr. Kiso was tidying up from dinner, which had been pretty bad. No one had eaten much, even Tofary. They were still figuring out how the cooking devices worked. Finally, the doctor said, "Youngster, you need see what they see. To they eyes, we animal, maybe savage. Tully crazy person, because want stay with us. All same add up to danger. So we lock in 'til they cer-tain what happen."

"I'm not going to leave it like this," stated Tofary. She looked around the main room of the apartment, then up, around the ceiling. "Heh!"

"What, 'heh'?" said Dr. Kiso.

"Ventilation," said Tofary. "That means a duct."

Tirun rumbled deep in her throat. "Yes, it has to be bigger there, over the kitchen, for exhaust from cooking fumes. You could reach it standing on my shoulders, kid."

"Well, come on!"

"Wait. So you go through duct if big enough. Next what?" said the doctor.

"I take your reader that has the call capability. I come out somewhere else. I go closer to the station edge, like na Jik told you, and call the ship."

"So, furry animal youngster in station cor-ridor of human. That not sus-pi-cious at all, a?"

"I'm fast! And my hearing is better than humans. I'll get out of sight. It's station main night, and most of them have work tomorrow. I was looking at the schedule. They'll be in their apartments."

"So how you know which way edge?"

"That little handheld they gave me. Look!" She showed them how the station map program indicated current position, to allow a visitor to navigate the public areas.

"OK, kid, but it probably allows them to track you, too," Tirun pointed out.

"Why would they look? They know we're in here."

Dr. Kiso gestured agreement. "If someone ask, we make story. 'She tired, go sleep.'"

"Yes," Torfary said. "Come on, cousin, please?"

"Well, if they find you, maybe they'll do something about keeping us in the loop about Tully." Tirun stalked over to the section of wall near the kitchen. "OK, let's give it a shot."

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *  

Koji sank into the comfortable cushions of Deke's sofa and closed his eyes. They'd had supper and were listening to jazz, which Koji enjoyed and Deke didn't, particularly. But Deke was being patient with him. Neither of them felt like they could depend on even thirty minutes without an interruption, so they'd decided bed was not on the agenda tonight. Even having a meal together, away from their respective offices, felt like a dangerous luxury, given a missing convalescent VIP, another VIP inciting discontent and possibly worse among the population, and an armed shipload of likely very irritated aliens less than half an hour away from the station.

Deke slipped a hand behind Koji's neck and started rubbing, gently and firmly. He was good at this, his touch surprisingly gentle for such a big man trained in so many ways to disable and even kill people. Koji sighed and let his head fall forward. And that was, of course, when Deke's comm link went off.

They sighed, and Deke leaned forward, elbows on knees, and tapped his ear. "Gregory here, Oh, Kary." He listened for a moment, and then: "You're kidding! That's great!"

"What?" Koji had to ask. He could use some good news.

Deke gestured at him: Hold on. "Oh come on, now, really? Have you got a fix on…Wow, OK then! Send Rhee with a full squad and pick them up. I'm coming in. Be there in 15. Out."

Deke rocked up to his feet and said "Come with me while I change…we have our missing patient."

"He's alright, then?"

In the bedroom, Deke pulled off his soft white sweater and replaced it with a dark blue uniform turtleneck. He reached for his uniform pants. "Probably, but we have a team from the hospital on their way there too. Kary's such a gem, she had it all underway before she even called me. Seems this crazy scientist, with hospital access permissions, everything he needed, took our man. Had him down in the back of one of the biochem labs. Apparently the perpetrator is under Ms. Kurosa's spell."

Koji stared. "So all our problems are basically one big bag of garbage?"

"Seems that way. And get this: they're both in her suite now. So I have my best on-shift squad heading up there now. You might want to come with: your sister broke the case, and she's down in Security Main now."

"Loren?"

Deke grinned at him and finished buckling his utility belt. "None other. Come on, big bro, let's go."

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *  

Security Patrol Officer Nole Cardoso listened incredulously to the report coming through his earpiece. His partner nudged him with her bony elbow. "What's up?"

"Someone saw an alien in the Galaxy View Lounge, topside, by Big Mami's Cafe."

"Not the missing guy? Oh, right, he's human. An ape woman or a lion woman? Comms office said they're all female, right?"

"They don't know. They just said it was furry. Let's go."

"I bet it was just too many drinks," said Heike, skeptically, but she went.

They jogged over to the lift through the quiet corridor that was full of doctors' and dentists' patients in the daytime and rose up to the top floor, faster than a civ would usually go because they had a security override. The lift opened onto a stubby corridor that ended in the breathtaking viewing lounge, where carefully staked and tethered trees and shrubs wore necklaces of tiny glowing lights and large windows of reinforced plex showed views of space itself. People who knew where to look swore they'd spotted the alien ship. Nole supposed it was possible.

As they both knew, there were two cafes and a bar in here, as well as lots of benches and tables. Little seating pavilions allowed their visitors to select music; the patrol heard half a dozen different tunes as they walked to the popular cafe. A couple of patrons were standing with the manager near the entrance to the kitchen. "I'm Officer Cardoso, this is my partner, Officer Tomov. You folks the witnesses?" asked Nole.

"Yes, yes! It was right over there! " The woman gestured to the pavilion adjacent to the nearest large window. "We were at that next table, and Kirsi heard this noise behind the bench and the plants."

Kirsi nodded, eyes wide. "It was this hissing, yowling noise, like an animal in a vid from Earth," she said. "And I went over there to look, figuring something weird was going on with the music system. I'm a media tech, so I figured I could get it to stop. And this…thing darted out from behind the bench and ran over to the next seating spot. I haven't seen it come out again."

"How big was it, this thing?" asked Heike.

The witness considered. "Maybe as tall as I am."

She was pretty short, thought Nole. So if it was one of the visiting aliens, that meant it wasn't the big, scarred cat person. That was good. "Tomov, let's bracket that pavilion. Stunners out."

They went over toward the pavilion, which was emitting a lively tune with lots of percussion. As they got close, each approaching form the opposite side, something moved, suddenly, making the branches wave on the screening shrubs. "Come out with your hands up!" barked Heike.

Everything was quiet for a moment, except the music. Nole's back itched, as though he could feel the weight of the civs' eyes on them. Then a smalllish humanoid figure stood up, a large reader in one hand, the other empty. "Only me," said the alien.

"Walk toward me, slow. Keep your hands in sight," Nole said. The alien looked at her hands, apparently confused. Oh, that's right, they don't speak much of our langage.. "Hands up, I said!" It had worked last time.

The alien made a little huffing sound. "I already do that!" it said, louder, with a whine in its voice, and once again put its hands up before walking out slowly.

It—or she, he guessed it was—was wearing black pants of some sleek, shiny cloth, cut off about mid-shin. There was a bracelet on each wrist, a fancy-looking belt, and a single gold earring in one of the large, furry ears. The eyes were big, coppery, and had slit vertical pupils. Cat person. She looked like a large, cuddly plush toy.

"What is your name?" he asked, making each word very separate.

"Tofary Araun. Pride of Chanur my ship."

He hadn't asked for all that, but it was good to know. "Araun your surname? Family name?"

"Correct, name family. You security?"

"We are, Ms. Araun. My partner there is going to take that device from you."

"What means 'device'?"

Heike made her way into Araun's field of vision and pointed at the reader.

"Ah," said Araun. "Liaison say that 'reader.'" She held it out, her other hand still in the air. "You take. Please careful."

Heike took the alien reader cautiously and gave it a curious glance. Nole continued to cover Araun with his stunner as he pulled out a set of binders. "Tomov, show her how to hold her hands," he said quietly.

Heike held out both hands, palms up, fingers loosely curled, wrists close. Araun cocked her head and then mimicked her.

Nole holstered the stunner and wrapped the furry wrists in the binders, pulled them to. Araun howled. The noise hurt his ears, and heads all over the lounge snapped around to look in their direction.

"Why? What you did?" the cat alien shrieked. "I coop'rate!"

"Maybe I made a mistake, but the watch officer will make it right if I did," he said.

Heike shook her head. "Come with us, Ms. Araun. You are not supposed to be wandering around station."

The alien walked along as they indicated, but her face was a snarl. Now she didn't look at all cuddly. "One, you lock us in apartment; two, you chain me! I call ship," she hissed.

"I guess they'll let you call," Nole said. It was standard procedure for an arrestee to get a call, after all, although space communications wasn't usually involved.

"No, Na Security, I already did that!"

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *  

Hilfy burst out of the lift on the bridge level and threw herself into her station. On-screen was nothing but darkness, and there were only muffled sounds coming through the speakers. "What happened?" she asked Geran.

"Got a call from Tofary about ten minutes ago. She said they found the door to their apartment locked, and no one was answering them on station link, so she took Kiso's handheld with the comms program, got Tirun to boost her into a ventilation conduit in the apartment kitchen, and wriggled her way to an access. Then she got out and went to a big open space on the rim. Sounds like there's some kind of market there with food service and viewing ports. Anyway, she hid herself there somehow and called, but she wasn't as well hidden as she thought. Someone heard the noise and called security. And she's been arrested,"

"Oh gods." Behind her, Hilfy heard more crew emerging from the lift.

"Report, cousins," said Pyanfar, dropping heavily into her seat.

Geran ran through it again. "Here, listen," she said, and ran the recording back a few minutes.

Of course Hilfy was going to need to translate, She spoke quickly in what pauses there were. The human seemed to be trying to speak clearly. That helped, at first. "He says, 'We are, ker Araun,. I guess Tofary asked whether they were police, He says, 'My colleague will take that machine from you.' Tofary asks what he means…I guess he pointed to Kiso's handheld. She says she thought it was called a 'reader' and that they should be careful. Then I can't really hear…."

The sound from the speakers was muted and muffled now. Tofary's howl startled them all. Hilfy winced. "Then she asks them what they're doing and protests that she's cooperating. And then I can't understand anything else. Seems like no one turned off the comms device but they dropped into a bag or pocket."

"So we could still listen in?" asked Khym.

"Probably not," said Haral. "Willing to bet that the security facility and offices is near station core. Orders, captain?"

Pyanfar was staring at the cloudy darkness on the screen. Abruptly she switched the view to the schematic of their current position. "Take us in to within striking distance, cousin. Hilfy, maintain comm silence until we're holding station at that range."

"Those little patrol ships we saw when we came…," said Khym.

"What about them?" Pyanfar answered, as Haral and Geran got them ready to move.

"Didn't they have armament?" he asked.

"I'm betting they won't use them," said Pyanfar.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *  

Lieutenant Rhee was feeling righteous as she pressed the door buzzer for what was no doubt the most luxurious suite in Ambani's, the only real hotel on the station. They'd found the kidnapping victim alive (thanks due to the young lady who'd reported in, of course), the suspects were right here, and Rhee was about to face them with eight of Embree's best security staff at her back. A security officer lived for moments like this.

"Yes?" said a bossy female voice with a Luna accent.

"Station security, ma'am. Please open the door." This was just a courtesy. A couple of taps on Rhee's wrist-mounted comm, and the door would open in any case.

There was a pause. "What's this about?"

Rude. "I'll be glad to tell you face to face, ma'am. Check your comm unit for our authorization."

A longer pause. Then a click, and the door opened.

A woman that Rhee recognized as Company Representative Gyo Kurosa stood there, arms crossed, tapping one foot on thick carpet. The hotel sitting room was very fancy, gleaming furniture made of (likely) actual wood and woven fabrics, with two doors that seemed to go to a bath and a bedroom. Kurosa was wearing something costume-y, a long shapeless robe-thing of heavy, shiny gleaming material in white, with a pattern woven through it and dark red designs stitched around the neck and down the front. Her feet were in gleaming golden slip-ons with appalling tall heels, something Rhee had only seen in vids. Rhee was not short, but Kurosa had a good handspan on her in those bizarre shoes.

"Well?" said the company rep, looking down at Rhee like she was Stage 1 sanitation sludge.

"If Dr. Jancey would come out, I can cover this for both of you," said Rhee, calm.

Kurosa's eyes widened, A sarcastic-sounding chuckle came from the presumed bedroom, and Jancey came and propped himself on the side of the doorway there. He was wearing a loosely tied white toweling bathrobe with the hotel's logo stitched on it, plastic shower shoes, and apparently nothing else. "I told you this was a stupid idea, Gyo," he said. "Bet your little baby girl squealed on you."

"Keep your mouth shut, you!" Kurosa snapped at him. In return, he gave her a lazy, dirty stare from head to foot that told Rhee all she needed to know about their relationship.

What a pair of wasters. She said, "Representative Gyo Kurosa, Dr. Ulo Jancey, I am Embree Security Lieutenant Sada Rhee. You are both under arrest in connection with the kidnapping of Matthew Tully, a foreign citizen of an Earth-allied jurisdiction, the Compact, who is a guest on this Earth Company station. You will come with us to Security Main." She ran down the rest of the litany, with their rights and so on. Kurosa's eyes kept shifting around as though searching for a way out. Jancey looked like he was falling asleep right there on his feet.

When she was finished, Jancey woke up and applauded. "Can I put on some briefs before you haul us off?" he asked, apparently amused by the whole process.

He must be on something, thought Rhee. She called two strapping young officers to supervise him while he changed. When he came out again in a baggy sweater and rumpled pants but wearing the same shower shoes, Rhee had them both cuffed.

"The company will hear about this," spat Kurosa.

"Tell it to the commander, Ms. Kurosa," said Rhee, her voice as bored as she could make it.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *  

Loren was finishing telling the story to Koji in a security meeting room when she heard her mother's furious voice down the hall, coming from the entry foyer, although Loren couldn't make out the exact words. Koji gave her a hug and had her sit in a chair to the side of the door, which had a window in it. "They shouldn't bring her this way anyway, and they wouldn't let her stop to look in this room even if they did," he assured her. "Sit here for a minute and I'll got find out exactly what's happening."

Loren sat and waited. And something must be going on, because Koji didn't come back, although she couldn't hear Mum yelling anymore. Finally, her curiosity got the best of her, and she slipped out of the room and headed back to the entry room.

A hani was sitting in a chair there. Commander Gregory and Koji were talking to her. She was the youngest one, the one that Tully had said she ought to meet. Deke was running his hand through his short hair like he couldn't think of what to do. The hani's eyes slipped from Koji to Loren, and when she did that, Deke looked around too and saw her. "Loren," he said, sounding cross and worried and like he wished she weren't there. Which wasn't fair, because she was the one who'd made it possible for them to rescue Tully.

Koji looked up and saw her too, and for a moment, he looked worried too. Then he shrugged and smiled. "Ms. Araun, this is my sister Loren. She's about your age, and she's the one who found where Mr, Tully was and told us about it. Loren, why don't you take Ms. Araun back to that room you were supposed to stay in and talk to her while we figure out what to do next."

Ms. Araun—Tofary, Tully had called her got up out of the chair, and Koji and Deke let her through. "My name is Tofary," she said. Her voice was a little weird, whiny and growly, but she was easy to understand.

"I know," said Loren. "Mr. Tully told me."

"Tully is good?"

"Tully will be fine. The doctors went to get him. Come on, let's go back like they said."

"You administrator's sister. Same parents?"

"Same father."

Suddenly there was a shout. "Commander, Administrator! The alien ship is moving toward the station!"

Everyone except the officer behind the front desk ran past the little hallway with the conference rooms. Tofary's eyes went wide suddenly, and her weird vertical pupils narrowed into slits. "Oh. No."

"What?"

"They lock the door to our apartment and not answer us on comm. I get out and call my ship. But I tell the guards I did that, I did tell them."

Loren grabbed her furry wrist. "Come on. Let's find out what's happening!"

Tofary looked at her and then nodded twice, very exaggerated. "Yes, we go see!"

They walked quietly the way they'd seen everyone running. It was easy to find where everyone was. There was a big room with glass walls, and in there were huge wall displays and desks with control boards. There was a set-up almost like a little stage in the middle of the room, with a podium, and Koji and Deke were standing there. One of the displays showed a schematic, with the station and the alien ship flagged in orange, moving little by little, and two other dots in green, moving in from the sides.

And another screen showed the hani leader and her crew. They all looked fierce and angry, except one smaller one tucked in a corner who mostly looked worried.

"Hey," said one of the officers near the door. "What are you kids doing here?"

Koji looked around and saw them, and he started to get mad. But Deke grabbed his shoulder and whispered to him, very serious. And Koji looked back at the display with the hani and said, "President Chanur, please wait a moment. I think someone is here you'll want to see."

Deke stepped off the little stage and came to get them. He took Loren by the hand, but when he tried to do that to Tofary, she said "No, sir, look what happen," and showed him how pressing her hand made her claws come out.

So he said, "How would an older person hold you to lead you somewhere?" And she patted her own shoulder. So he took them both by the shoulder, and led them into the room and onto the little stage.

On the screen, all the hani looked a little less ferocious. The president said "Tofary" and a bunch more in their own kind of speech. Tofary answered, and then the president said something short.

Tofary said, "I translate for you, and cousin Hilfy translate for the Pride. Cousin Pyanfar say, are you good, Tofary? Are you a prisoner? And I say, yes I am good and no, no prisoner. And then I ask about translate."

President Chanur said something about Tully; Loren could hear his name in the middle of the talk. A smaller, younger-looking hani said "Where Tully? Tully good?"

Tofary spoke hani back to her, and Loren thought she heard her own name. Then Tofary said, "I say I hear Tully is good—is 'fine' better word?—and that Loren, the administrator's sister, right here, find him and security send doctors to him."

"Why you lock door of our cousins and our doctor?" asked Hilfy, for the President.

"I think it all a bad mistake. Maybe Administrator Goda tell story? I not know the remaining story," Tofary answered.

So Koji told the story, in short sentences so Tofary could translate: how the company representative had been trying to arouse bad feelings towards him, and how she had plotted with a scientist who had access to the hospital to kidnap Tully so he could be questioned under drugs and they could gain information about the Compact that no humans knew, and how the two criminals assumed that Loren, who was the representative's estranged daughter, would listen to her mother and help them, but instead she had reported the whole thing to security, and Tully had been rescued, But meanwhile, somehow the door to the guest apartment had been locked and its communications cut off, so Tofary had sneaked out and called the ship with her emergency comm unit. And some security guards had arrested her because all they knew was that hani were not supposed to be wandering around the station.

"Very bad story. Politics. We know politics. Where is Tully now?" said Hilfy.

Deke had been listening to his comm link, and he answered. "In hospital, with the rest of your personnel. Hold on, I'm putting them through."

On another screen, suddenly, was the hospital administrator, Dr. Sandon, and Dr. Kiso "Hello, hello!" said the mahe doctor. "Much crazy happen, but we good now. Tirun with Tully. He rest."

The hani were now all looking much more calm. Some talk went back and forth among them, and finally the president spoke again to the screen. Hilfy said "We hold position here. President Chanur want send two more our crew over to watch Tully better. She say Tirun Araun take our lighter and get tomorrow." She paused. A couple of the other hani crew were muttering together and looking at their controls. Hilfy looked at the president, who spoke, and then back at the camera. "Embree Station, a ship just arrive in system. Say again, a ship just arrive."

There was a flurry of activity all around their own control room, and then questions rang back and forth, from desk to desk and sometimes even to the hani. Finally, someone said, "Ship ID positive: ECT Discovery. I repeat, ship is ECT Discovery.

"What? Why?" asked Koji. "The Opportunity is still here!

It seemed to Loren to take forever, It had to be past station midnight, and she was tired. She didn't want to lean against Koji, who was being Administrator, or Deke, who was being Security Commander. She gripped the edge of the podium, and a warm arm settled on her shoulder. Tofary.

Finally, voice contact was made with the incoming ship. "This is Captain Moshe Caro. I need to speak with the administrator."

"This is Administrator Koji Goda, sir. Welcome to Embree Station. What brings you here so soon after the Opportunity?"

"I regret to say it's a criminal justice matter. Opportunity was sent out here under false pretenses. Do you know the whereabouts of former Company Representative Gyo Kurosa?"

There was a sudden silence in the room. As they all took a breath, video contact was established, and Captain Caro and his officers appeared on another section of screen. His eyes widened as the station sent him all the connections already established. Koji leaned against the podium and said, "Captain, meet Pyanfar Chanur, President of the Compact, who is here on a mission of mercy. Kurosa is under arrest for crimes against this station and against the president's personnel, and I hope you are ready for a long story."

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *  

The Active was maintaining position on one side of Embree Station this morning. On the other, they could see their opposite number, Agile. Communications from Security Command on station were relaxed and chatty. On station, it was likely that everyone's eyes were on the news displays, from huge screens on the shopping concourses to individual readers.

"If they don't pull out soon, they're gonna be late," said Soni.

"Patience is a virtue, ensign," said Sandrin, eyes closed.

He was lounging in his seat, looking more relaxed than Gordy would have ever dared on duty. "You're going to miss their undock if you keep that up, Blondie," he said.

"And if you keep that up, you're going to get a citation for insubordination, Shoals."

"So mean," muttered Gordy. Their position showed them ECC Chambeshi, which had arrived three days ago with supplies, and then almost out of sight on the other edge of the main ring, The Pride of Chanur.

"Ah!" Hachi had noticed what Gordy hadn't: the Pride's maneuvering jets, tiny with distance, had engaged. Slowly, the Compact ship pulled away from the grapples that had held her to Embree Station these past several weeks. She did a graceful roll to bring her nose away from station and then, picking up speed, glided between the two patrol ships. As she passed, all her running lights winked out, then came back on again, nose to tail, twice.

"Can I flash back at them?" Soni was damn near bouncing in his chair, despite the restraints.

"Why not?" Sandrin was now watching as avidly as any of them.

Soni flicked controls. A moment later, they could see Agile saluting the voyagers as well. The communications board flashed with an incoming message on the Compact band. Hachi toggled it on.

"Farewell, Embree Station, and thank you. Please do not be alarmed at our escorts, now coming around your star. They will follow us out."

"What?" Sandrin rocked forward, glaring at his screen. Similar exclamations were coming from SecCom.

Two more Mahen'dosat ships were pulling into view, one from each side of the star, tracing wide arcs around the station, the Belt, and the Embree patrols. The Pride of Chanur was accelerating away, and they fell in behind it. In less than a minute, all three were lost to the Active's cameras, although Hachi was clearly following them on longscan.

"Agile, Active, you see that?" said SecCom, incredulous.

"Yes, sir," said Sandrin. "Seems they weren't as naïve and trusting as we thought."

There was a moment of silence. "No, I guess not."

"But, sir, if they'd been hostile, they could've taken out both Opportunity and Discovery at dock, just for starters."

"Guess you're right," said SecCom. "Hope they have enough supplies to get back home. The Pride re-supplied from our stores."

"Seems to me that they're the kind to cover those sorts of contingencies, sir."

"You're probably right. No sign of them, at this point?"

"Cho?" Sandrin looked up, at the back of Hachi's head.

"They're outbound still," said Hachi. "Oh…I think the leader just made jump."

They all waited for him to confirm the other two departures. Then: "That's a wrap," said SecCom. "Resume normal operations."

Sandrin passed the normal route over the link; Gordy engaged the engines and headed back into it. No more exciting aliens and off-world conspiracies, he thought.

"Wish I were going with them," said Soni, unexpectedly.

"Silly kid," muttered Gordy.

But he'd been thinking the same thing.