No Way Back – The Story Ch. 21-25 – Edited 08NOV2010


Chapter 21

I’ve been living among these aliens now for the past few days now. Not what I’d consider days, but ship-days. I’m still adjusting to ship-time, and it’s almost impossible without the benefit of the sun to track time for myself. The portals in my berth are set to simulate sunrise and sunset, day and night, but outside of that room all I have is the chronodisplays throughout the ship. I feel tired when it’s only barely half-way through the day. I wake up when the majority of the crew is setting up for their version of overnight watch. It’s going to take a while to adjust to that.

My eyes flash open as my body tells me it’s time to be awake. I slowly sit and look at the display portals to find that it’s now considered night for the majority of the crew. With a groan, I flop back into the slightly too-hard padding. My eyes now wide open in the barely-lit room, I can make out the polishing trace in the ceiling where the buffer must have waited an extra moment. I sit up again, swinging my legs around and off of the bed. “No use trying to sleep,” I tell myself as I stand. “Lights, morning.” The hidden lighting that wraps around the room warms to a reddish-yellow and slowly shifts more towards yellow. With Dharcia’s help, I’d programmed the lighting to emulate sunrise on the earth using the color-phasing option popular with the majority of the crew. Over the course of an hour, the lighting would become steadily more bright and eventually shift to an off-white that felt normal to me. The light is still somewhat dim at start-up, though, and I walk in that light to the closet. My left hand touches the black wall pad and the door slides open to reveal what few possessions I currently have: the clothes that I came in, my now-disabled cell phone, my wallet, and three deep-blue uniforms that are now hanging in the closet, perfectly pressed and ready to be worn. I quickly reach up and grab one of the garment hangers which pulls free of the slider with barely a tug. Clothing in hand, I turn and clip the door control with the heel of my right palm, causing the door to slide almost-silently back into place.

“Don’t roam the ship by yourself, Robert. There are a lot of things that you might do to upset one person or another.”

Nishka had told me that right after I was introduced to the crew. She also warned me to answer as straight-forward as I could until the communications nanites had adjusted for the nuances of my language. Her warnings run through my mind as I separate the full length pants and long sleeved shirt. Once they’re laid out, I turn around and begin trying to find the one pair of boxer shorts I had. They were cleaned daily because the majority of the crew only used underwear for support or enhancement, and none of what they had fit me right. The male Eil’phae who was my tailor had volunteered to pattern what I had to make some more, but I had yet to hear back from him about it. Unable to find them on the floor, I shake my head in irritation. They must have been picked up by one of the cleaning bots that ran the ship and dropped into the garment bay. They’ll be gone for at least another hour or so. “I guess I’ll have to make do,” I think out-loud to myself. I grab the pants and climb into them, securing the magnetic clasp around my waist once it’s in position. I grab the shirt and pull it open at the buttons. Half of the twelve buttons were on each section of the shirt, and I pull it one arm at a time. Once it’s on, I fasten the buttons one at a time and pull slightly at the mandarin collar. Once I’m satisfied with the position, I reach down to the bedside table and grab the communications link and my rank insignia, a single, hollowed circle. The circle goes on my right collar, the comm link on the left where it smooths itself onto the fabric. Once it’s completed, I pull out my sneakers and put them on, the one glaring oddity in the outfit. My shoes are something just not seen on the ship, and I’ll have to have them custom-made as well.

The mirror across the room offers a glimpse of my appearance and I can’t help but feel like I’m wearing a specially-designed chef’s uniform. I smile at the thought, then twist and bend to make sure I haven’t missed any of the closures. So far, I’d only ever missed the pants clasp. Once. I wasn’t about to make that same mistake.

I take a seat on the bed and reach my left hand to the comm link to contact Dharcia since she’d been the person assigned to escort me around the ship. I stop just short and think to myself, “She’s going to be asleep. Maybe I’ll be alright to get to the mess hall on my own. As long as I don’t stop to talk to people.” I nod confidently, then stand once more and briskly head to the door. I slap the control pad lightly, then step out into the quiet halls of the ship, turn right, and work my way down the halls and towards closest lift.

My walk had been rather uneventful as I came closer to the mess. It was technically late night on the ship, so the halls were rather devoid of life. Those that had been were too busy with their groups to notice or had their variously-shaped noses in a datapad and were only barely aware of their surroundings. I made the final turn into the Commons and began quickly moving through the vast chamber between myself and the cafeteria. The only sound I can hear is the soft padding of my rubber soles against the floor as I shoot across the dimly-lit expanse, one foot in front of the other at a near run. The entryway to the galley begins to widen and I’m almost there…

Nishka stumbles along the walkway that runs perpendicular to the galley and stops, leaning against the wall. Even at a run, I can see her trembling and breathing hard. Her usually neat fur is slicked with what looks like perspiration, and her bronze hair is horribly strewn about as if she’d lost a fight with a tornado. The gold, semi-sheer gown she’s wearing, however, doesn’t seem like it’d accommodate any kind of speed.

I break my stride and slow to a walk. I feel the heat of my exertion begin to build in the uniform and curse the fabric that’s tighter than I’d prefer and virtual lack of breathing. As I approach, the Hishaern female looked up, and I can see her panting. I bring myself almost to a stop as I come within arm’s reach of her and watch her hand-paws closely. “Nishka, is everything okay?” I ask as carefully as I can.

I reach out to touch her shoulder as she looks at me, her feline eyes dilated and wide, and grabs my shoulder to steady herself. “I’m okay….” Her words trail as she speaks, and the only thing I can think of is that she’s intoxicated with something. If I had to guess, I’d say she was drunk. I choose to keep my mouth shut. “I… I just need something to… To eat… You’re … Mmmm… Not supposed to be here, Robert…” She tries to push herself from the wall and towards the galley, using my body for support. “mmm-But since you’re here, won’t you…” Se laughs, and that’s when I realize that she wasn’t trembling. She begins purring louder as she continues. “… escort a lady?” Her tail flicks behind her and her smile widens as she tries her best to offer an arm to me.

I nod with a smile and help her keep her balance as her body vibrates against my arm. The sensation is strange but I try my best to ignore it. We make the last few yards to the doorway in silence. Well, we didn’t talk about anything. It was mostly “Whoa!” and “Careful,” but we made it without her slamming into the wall again.

The galley is the opposite of the Commons: bustling with night life and those enjoying their time off. No one seems to notice us working our way to an empty table, and I help the doctor into her chair. Once she’s seated, I cross the table and sit opposite of her and watch her as she runs her hand-paws through her hair and straightens the form-fitting dress. I can’t help but find myself looking at her body, though. If she wasn’t covered in fur, she’d have attracted the attention of every guy I knew! Her full bosom heaves with her hard breathing. Her waist narrowed slightly before shifting back out to finish the almost perfect hourglass that made her hips. I had to stop there because the table was in my way, but it was long enough for her to notice.

“No funny business, there, human.”

I look up at her eyes to find them staring my way, glittering with the wide, devilish smile that she was offering me.

“I’m already taken, Robert, so don’t even think about it.” She looks over her hand-claws, though the smile never leaves her lips, then begins stroking her cheek fur. “Besides, don’t take this wrong, but you’re not my type.”

“Nishka, I–”

She continues as if I hadn’t said anything. “I prefer the bigger, stronger type. With much more fur.”

“Nishka…”

“Mmmm… And a full, long–”
My eyes bulge as I raise my voice. “Doctor!”

She shakes her head and looks at me again, her eyes snapping wide open for a moment. “Hrmm? Oh… Sorry.”

“Don’t worry about it. What’s wrong with you anyway? You seem…” I search for the right word. “Different.”

“It’s the dress, isn’t it?”

I laugh at her sudden change in conversation. “Well, that’s one aspect, yes.”

Before I can continue, she cuts me off again, and I notice she’s still stroking her fur. “Hey, a girl’s got to look good now and again. It just so happens that I just finished… Um… Putting my mate to bed…” She seems to be drawn off into the distance again, a contented smile spreading across her maw.

“Well, I’m glad, but, have you been drinking or something?”

Her attention snaps back on me and I see her tail whip behind her again. “No! I just had some kainearia. I’ll be fine in a couple hours, I think.”

“What’s ‘kay-nary’?”

She reaches down the front of her dress, then drops a clear bag of dried greens onto the table. “Kainearia. You don’t have anything like this at home?”

I take the bag and open in, then sniff the air coming out. “Catnip? You’re high on catnip!?” I sniff the bag again and am absolutely sure it’s what it is. “My mom’s cat used to love this stuff. It made her crazy, she’d chase anything and wouldn’t stop rubbing herself on the floor!”

“Then yes, I guess I am high on cat nip. Don’t worry, I won’t try to rub myself all over you.”

I push the bag back to her and stand quickly. “I’m going to get you a drink. What should I get you?” She opens her mouth to answer and I cut her off. “Water. Right.” If she responded I wouldn’t have heard it. I’d already headed off towards the liquid dispensory.

Or, I would have, if I hadn’t run into what felt like a brick wall and stumbled to the ground. I look up to find another slender form in front of me, this one in long black pants and a black-backed short-sleeved short. But, this body had a light-pink fur and wavy red hair that ran down their back. Based on what I see, including the rabbit-like tail and pink ears beginning to turn, I respond quickly. “I’m sorry, ma’am.”

A deep, masculine voice comes from the person I’d run into. “Mind repeating that?” The slender body finishes their turn and I see the sharp, wider, more angular facial features that I’ve come to understand as a male Eil’phae. “I don’t think I heard you right the first time.”

I stand up slowly and try to apologize. “Oh, I’m–”

“An idiot human. Do I really look like a woman to you?”

I feel my fists ball up in a sudden burst of anger. “As a matter of fact, you do! At least–”

That’s the last word that I can say. A lightning fast kick from his large foot slams into my chest, throwing me back to the ground with enough force to slide a few feet. I jump back to my feet to find this Eil’phae had me in height by a few inches, and that was without the raised ears. The implication slips my mind for a moment as I push closer to the being who’d chosen to attack me. He shifts to bring his right side to bear on me and raises his fist in a fighting stance I don’t recognize. I quickly bring my fists up, ready to strike, and close the gap. His forward hand lashes out to strike my head. I block it and immediately wish I’d just dodged. The strike was like taking a brick to the arm! I step back as I see his left hand begin to swing…

“That’s enough, Ter’link!” The voice comes from Nishka, who’s risen from her seat and stepped beside me. That’s when I see her claws fully extended and her hand-paws brought to the level of her eyes. “It was an accident. Now, stand down before I have to shred you and then patch you up. Again.”

The pink-furred Eil’phae glares at me with his brown eyes, then lowers his fists. “Sorry, doc. But you need to teach your pet some manners.”

“I’m no one’s pet!”

He snorts at me, then brings his paw up to his ear. He runs it quickly along its inside, then flicks it at me before returning to his table and conversations.

Nishka, no longer shaking at all, takes my arm and pulls me towards the dispensery. “You’ll have to forgive Ter’link. He’s a brilliant mechanic. He’s a great hand-to-hand combatant. But he’s got no temper control, and he uses his strength and skill to prove how much of a man he is.”

I rub my chest to push down the dull ache that remains from his kick. “What, I’m not the only one?”

“No. He’s a member of a royal family on Eil’ph.” She stops me in front of the machine and punches in a code. A frothy white liquid pours into a cup resting at the bottom of the machine. She takes it, then begins drinking it slowly, her eyes closing as she enjoys every moment of its taste.

“That’s it?” I cross my arms and wait for her continuation.

Instead, she leans against the wall and points to the machine. Once I’ve gotten myself some water, she then continues. “Usually, the males of their kind takes the coloring of their father, while the females randomly take either one. On rare occasions…”

“So, he’s got his mother’s fur coloring, so what?”

The Hishaern smiles after taking another sip of her beverage. “He didn’t just get his mother’s fur. He got her body type and her hair color, too. He’s been getting teased and picked on his entire life for being a girly-boy. He’s definitely male, though.” She takes another sip, smacking her lips to take every drop. “So, he learned to fight. He’s quite strong and quick, too, but he can’t get rid of the body type. So, he’s sensitive to it.”

I look across the floor to the man I’d accidentally bumped. “Okay, I understand. But why didn’t he just let me apologize?”

“Not his way. If you apologize, how can he prove he’s a male?”

I roll my eyes, then begin to head in his direction.

“Where are you going?”

“To apologize.”

Nishka smiles as she shakes her head. Instead of stopping me, she leans against the wall and simply enjoys her drink.

I quickly make the distance to his table, then tap his shoulder. “Hey, I’m not finished with you yet.”

The rabbit spun quickly, a hint of surprise in his eyes, but he speaks loudly enough to be heard. “Oh yeah? And what are you–”

“Ter’link, I’m sorry for insulting you. If I’d known, it never would have happened.”

His brows arch in confusion and he offers no reply.

“The last thing I want to do is to start tense relationship with anyone on-board since I’m going to be here for a while.” I bring my right hand up level to his chest, palm to the sky in the proper Eil’phae greeting from a subordinate, then continue. “My name is Robert. I would be honored to have a chance to rectify any misunderstandings.”

Still stunned, the male rests his right hand-paw, pads down, into my hand, then flips them both. “Alright then. How about you buy me a drink, then, and I can introduce you to the mechanics day-crew.”

I smile and nod to the man, then we turn to the table for introductions.

– –

Mergrayne had taken the time to rouse Dharcia from her sleep, then grabbed a security detail when he heard of an altercation in the mess hall dealing with the human. He knew it was a mistake to release that dangerous animal into the population as it was, and now it seemed he was right. Assault blaster in hand, he and the ten-man security detail made their way through the Commons at a quick pace while keeping himself from breaking into a run as he felt it would look too panicked. As they neared the chamber, the detail split into two teams of five and made their way to the riot entrances that would allow them to surround the floor as needed. The commander would not have this behavior on his ship, and he was going to make his point.

Dharcia, however, seemed to think everything was alright. “I’m telling you, Commander, there’s nothing to worry about! The on-site crew called it all-clear a moment ago!”

He growled and didn’t look at her. “Shut up! He’s your responsibility! You should have been there!”

“He didn’t call me!”

They flew into the entrance with Mergrayne tapping his comms module, the signal to enter the chamber. As he entered, all ten soldiers in riot gear popped open the security gates to find nothing wrong. It was a usual night, with the mild intoxicants going and the crew in their more provocative outfits and embellishments. Some had even taken to dancing to the music that was being piped into the hall.

Grai’gahrd looked around and found his target. He stormed to the human and pulled him from the over-crowded table, turning the male to face him. “What is the meaning of this?” he growled, then took a moment to notice that he himself was the only one out of sorts. He was standing at a table full of the mechanics crew, including the ever-troublesome Ter’link. Even Nishka seemed surprised by his entry, as she’d joined them at the table.

“Commander! Such a surprise that you’d join us! I thought you were never off duty?” The feline playfully asked him across the table.

He glared at the doctor, then asked the table. “Who started it?”

The pink Eil’phae volunteered the response. “I did. It was all a misunderstanding, sir. It’s been dealt with.”

Mergrayne stared down the mechanic, who had the good sense to look guilty. “I should hold you for public disturbance. Again!”

“Sorry, sir. It won’t happen again with him. We’re straight.”

The Ru’therian turned on his heels and fixed Dharcia with a glare. “Don’t lose your human again. Got it?”

“Yes, sir.”

Mergrayne looked at Nishka once more, then relaxed. He tapped the comms device twice and saw the security team stand down and make their way back to their initial posts. “Alright, then. If everything’s fine here, then carry on.” He turned to leave, slowly making his way out of the galley with his tail behind him barely moving.

“That could have been a lot worse.” This came from Dharcia. “I’m glad no one got hurt.”

No one disagreed.

Chapter 22

Sleep gets easier when you start learning how time has changed. It’s been seven ship-days since my little mishap in the mess hall and I can finally sleep through a night. Granted, that’s with a midnight wake-up call so I can stretch my legs and keep myself from waking far too early or sleeping too late, but I can finally do the overnight thing without feeling too awkward about it. It’s different than at home, and not just for the obvious reasons. The ship, as long as we’re moving, is always vibrating. When you stand, you typically don’t feel it unless you focus on it. When you’re laying in bed, though, there isn’t much more to think about. The bed padding itself took the longest time to get used to. Or, more appropriately, adjust to me. When I first got my room, it was too soft. Then, the night of the incident, it was too hard. Now it’s about right so sleep is much easier. The lighting never feels quite right, but I’ve given up trying to fix it for now. The hardest thing to adjust to, though, is the thin and not-quite-soundproof walls. It was a shock when I had someone at my door because I was speaking too loudly. Or the complaints about when I fell out of the bed the first night. That took some getting used to.

Today, though, will be different. I’m not longer in Commander Grai’gahrd’s “crash-course” in the UFO officer’s school of conduct. He said it was for me to learn the proper way to behave, but I think he was just trying to keep me from wandering again. Eventually, though, I understood enough to not need his heavy indoctrination and, as of yesterday, he said I was now free to go as was needed but would need to pick up a classification for myself. And soon. As I pull on another clean uniform and fresh underthings, the conversation we had before I returned to my quarters the night before begins to run through my head.

“If you’re going to be on this ship, it isn’t going to be a pleasure cruise. Every officer has their task here and they all see to it. I’ll let you learn the ways of the ship and then you can get back to me with what you want to do.”

Standing at attention, I listen to his words and accept the fact that I’ve got to do something. “Sir, request permission to speak freely.”

Mergrayne gave one of his rare smiles. “Of course, Ensign.”

“Sir, I have no idea what I should consider. I don’t know much, if really anything, about your ship, but I know that I don’t want to be a custodian or something like that. I want to do something that proves that I… I mean, humans, really can do this. Uh, Sir.” I didn’t break my stance once during that little bit, and that fact made me secretly proud.

The lupine officer nods with a grunt, then turns and walks towards the computer screen with his hand-paws clasped behind his back and his tail wagging just enough to be noticed. It was one of his few tells about his mood, which seemed to be improving daily around me. After punching in a few commands, he turns to face me again. His voice is deep and rough yet strangely calm as he starts. “Robert, I’m not going to lie to you. I don’t like you. I don’t like your race. Your kind is far too aggressive internally to survive in the UFO. There is… Evidence of a lost transport on Earth that was destroyed by your kind, and even worse, the loss of several of our top negotiators.” He takes the time to step closer to me and continues. “You, however, have the privilege of knowing that we exist.” He finally stops, his extra few inches of height showing up as he looks impassively down his snout at my unwavering stance. “And you seem to have enough drive and quick-wit about you to learn whatever it is you choose and in a short period. I’m supposed to grant you full access to the ship.” He turns away and walks back to his desk, sitting at his chair and offering me a seat. Once I’ve accepted it, he continues. “However, I don’t trust you enough for that. You will be granted entry to all the major hangers, engineering spaces, and anywhere else you want, with the exception of our munitions holds, ship defensive shields, and anything used specifically to protect the ship. I will also require you to have an escort anywhere that is deemed ‘sensitive’ to ship operation. Once you’ve learned more about the ship, then we’ll get you trained on what you want to do. Any questions?”

I bite my lip for a second, more out of concern of misunderstanding than fear. “Yes, sir. One. How long do I have?”

His eyes narrow as he smiles darkly in my direction. “Just don’t take too long. Dismissed.”

The memory comes to an end and snaps me to the present. Having dressed myself during my thought-filled moments, I look in the mirror and straighten the collar to the uniform, then run my fingers through my longer than usual hair. “Time to get a haircut. I hope they have barber shops on-board.” Satisfied that the uniform is on correctly and all my additions are intact, I tap the comms device embedded into my collar. “Dharcia, please.” I’d become accustomed to asking the computer politely since the voice that returned, “Request accepted, contacting,” was rather pleasant, almost like a close friend who always was willing to help out.

A few moments pass before I get the response. “What took you so long? We have plans, you know!” The sound of her voice was coming from the communicator, and was amazingly clear for its size and design.

“I’m sorry, I just had to take care of something,” I lied. I didn’t want her to know that I was lost in thought as I dressed and it held me up a bit. “Where should I meet you?”

Her voice comes through again, light and playful. “What else do you have to do today?”

I laugh as I respond. “Eat and get a haircut. Know where I can get that?”

“You need to be groomed?”

“Uh…” I try to think about what exactly she meant. I don’t have fur to be brushed or anything like that, I just need a trim. “Well, basically, I guess.”

“Alright, then. Meet me in the Commons and I’ll take you to the best groomer on the ship. Out.” The device went silent.

I turn towards the door and start to head out. It opens with a whoosh and I step out to the walkway. Instead of turning, though, I walk to the railing and look down. The drop of four stories to the main entryway seems so far for a moment and I think of my college dorm’s landing. The grass at the bottom, the paved walkways, the chirping birds. It wasn’t there. Nothing was the same anymore. Instead, it was a constant, low roar of the engines that just sounded like blowing wind. It was the tapping of hooves and claws on the thinly-padded floor. It was the sound of alien voices with their animal undertones. It made me wonder if I would ever truly adjust to this life, and, for a moment, I felt alone again.

“I didn’t know you were on the fourth level!”

I snap my head towards the familiar voice. It was one in the few who weren’t still whispering around the “alien,” but his voice I knew very well. I smile at the pink Eil’phae, Ter’link, in his dark blue, grease-stained overalls and… Not much else as witnessed by the bright pink fur that was plainly visible from beyond the very short sleeves. “Hey! Yes, this is my home-floor. I guess I haven’t looked to see how many names I knew.”

“You look sad, little man.” It was his chosen nickname for me, one that I wasn’t about to try to argue with him about at the time being. “Something on your mind?”

I hunch back down along the railing, my gaze drifting down into the open space beneath me. “Home…”

A hand-paw drops down on my left shoulder, a little more rough than I would have liked. I could tell it was meant to be friendly from him. When I look over, I see his deep brown eyes wide behind a teasing smile. “Look, everyone gets homesick on their first cruise. Some of us get homesick every cruise. But you’ll get over it.” When I don’t respond, he sighs and pulls me away from the protective barrier. “How about this? I’ll get you through your engine and hanger tours for the day, and then I’ll introduce you to some extra-friendly shipmates of the female persuasion. How’s that sound?”

I laugh as I feel his arm on my shoulders tugging me towards the lifts. I choose not to resist the pull and, instead, walk with him. “Is that all you think about?”

He chuckles and I feel his arm bounce slightly on my body. “Don’t you?”

I shake my head and sigh before I laugh some more. I guess men are generally the same in that regard, no matter what species you are.

– –

Ter’link and I push our way through the bustling crowd towards the central fountain. I call it a fountain, but it’s more like an artificial waterfall on-board the ship. The two-and-a-half story tall artificially assembled rock face allows a torrent of water to stream down into a pool of crystal-clear water that is surrounded by growing plants of all shapes, sizes, and colors. It was where we’d find a sizable number of crew and their on-board families swimming, usually naked, or enjoying the naturally sweet air that filled this place. It was also Dharcia’s favorite place on-board. While some of the crew preferred to stay rather solitary, and others enjoyed the wild nightlife that took over after-hours, she wanted the quiet, simple beauty that she never had in her home, the capital city of the planet Daran’nassi. She rarely spoke of it, and I never felt the need to pry.

True to her nature, we find her topless and laying along the stones that surround the pool, a datapad in her hand as she studied whatever was loaded on it and her thick tail wrapped around her hip and resting in her lap. Her free left hand-paw had pulled back her short hair as she absentmindedly twirled her claws through it and let it fall away from the water. While the uniforms she wore were properly fitted, and the regular nature of the crew was to be unashamed of their unclothed bodies, I find myself turning away as I find considerably more purple fur than I was ready for. Ter’link laughs too-loudly at my sudden awkwardness and calls out to Dharcia.

“Oh! I was waiting for you two!” If she stood up, got dressed, or anything else, I wouldn’t have known. I was simply trying to not think about her topless. Again. “Robert, are you… Wait…” I hear the rustling of the fabric as she pulls her uniform top back on, then a sigh as she continues. “You’re going to have to get used to it, Robert. The majority of the crew prefers less clothing to more. You can turn around now, by the way…”

I do to see her back in full uniform. I also scan the area to find her correct about the crew, as usual. “Thanks. I know, Dharcia, it’s something I’m just not used to. Humans usually don’t walk around naked.”

Ter’link snorts his laugh. “Sounds boring to me. Come on, let’s get food so we can move on to the tours.”

“Robert said he needed to be groomed, or something like that. We should take him to see Klef.”

As Ter’link smiles with his non-response, I look between both of them. “Cleft? What’s a Cleft?”

Ter’link lets out a roar of laughter and looks as if he’s going to fall to the grassy floor, with Dharcia fighting to hold in her amusement.

“What?!”

The Eil’ph finally regains his composure. “Not Cleft. Klef! Klefatina. She’s the best groomer on-board. She might be a little confused with you, though, without a lot of fur.”

“Ha, ha. I just need a trim.”

Dharcia takes my left arm with her right and begins to walk me away from the pool of water. “Just remember, don’t freak out. She’s a little… Intense to take in for the first time.”

Ter’link takes up position to my right as we walked, still chuckling. “Oh, Dharcia, if there was a way to be more understated, you’d find it.”

– –

It was somewhat of a short walk to where this Klefatina worked. We walked down the large corridor that leads towards the mess hall, but when we come to the same hallway where I’d come across Nishka, we hang a left and head towards the back of the Commons. The hallway narrows some as it nears its end, but my escorts keep moving me until we come across a room that looks entirely covered in what looks like clods of dirt. Ushered in by my companions, I look around while my eyes adjust to the low light that seems to glow from certain areas of the room.

Ter’link is the first to say something. “Hey, Klef! We brought you a new person! He needs a grooming. Stop hiding and come on out.”

“Yes, Klef, “Dharcia adds. “I thought we told you that this was a bit much for most of your new clients!”

A strange huffing sounds comes from above me, then a quiet skitter that seems to wrap around the room. Then a voice sounds from almost directly in front of me, almost as if three different throats spoke together to make the sound. “Ah, yes. You did. Very well. Lights, on.”

The glowing spots suddenly intensify and the room fills with light, albeit dulled because of the dirt clods that do, in fact, line the entirety of the walls. And the ceiling. Standing in front of me is something that I could not have imagined. A large, brown creature stands just slightly shorter than myself. Her four thin arms ended in what looked like hooked claws that are pulled up against what would be her chest. She stood on two legs very similar to her arms, but longer and more geared to hold her segmented ant-like abdomen from the floor. Her head was large and triangular, with two large, complex eyes that stood roundly on the upper corners of her head, while the tip sported a par of four inch long mandibles. She cocked her head, then spoke again.

“Welcome to my salon.”

I tried to turn and run but both arms were held fast by my friends.

“Robert, calm down! She’s not going to hurt you! I told you she was intense. You have to remember that there are over eighty different races on this ship and some of them are going to be very different than what you know!” Dharcia smiled as she tried to hold my struggling body still.

Ter’link brought his right hand-paw to bear and picked me up off the ground. “Seriously, little man, we wouldn’t bring you here to be hurt!”

The ant-like female’s triple voice returns. “I do not eat live prey. Especially not the fleshy kind. I prefer a good fungus salad.”

“R-Really?”

“Yes.” Klefatina’s abdomen gently pulses in a rhythmic pattern as she speaks. The nanites pick up the motion and the calming pheromone she’s releasing and informs me that she is laughing and amused. She shifts her head slightly to look past me at the purple mephit who’d brought me. “Your mate, perhaps?”

Dharcia’s voice is strangely high-pitched and sharp. “NO! He’s just a guy who I have to teach!”

“Ah. A friend, then.” The insectoid turns her head again and seems to be focusing on me, her abdomen still pulsing. “Are you looking for a mate?” Her question seems to be jokingly asked, and that thought is emphasized by Ter’link’s stifled snicker.

“No?” I shift in the seat as she walks around behind me, trying to keep her in my sight.

“Ah, a shame.” Even with the tri-toned voice, she sounds as though she’s teasing through the translator. “Now, you do not have much fur. Is there something you wish done for your long-fur?”

I take the question to be about my hair. “I really just wanted to have it trimmed down some. Is that possible?”

The nanites tell me that she is still basically laughing as she speaks. “Look ahead, please.” She waits for me to comply before continuing. “Of course it is possible. What is needed is to know how far you wish it trimmed?”

“Short, I guess. I don’t know how to explain it. Basically the same length the whole way around.” I lift my hand and show a gap between my fingers. “Maybe about this long after it’s been cut?”

I feel the hook at the tip of her upper arm touch the gap. “Ah. Simple.”

The next thing I know, I feel a flurry of activity along my scalp. It feels as if my hair is being combed up and then cut almost immediately and to exactly the length I’d asked for. The strange part was that it was happening on both sides simultaneously! Her four arms made very short work of the hair I’d grown, the upper legs combing my hair straight, the middle snipping it quickly, yet I hadn’t seen a single clump of hair land on my uniform.

“You are done, Ensign.” The triple-voices inform me with a hint of satisfaction. Another moment later, a mirror is thrust into my hands to inspect the work. “I hope it is what you wished for.”

I run my hands through my hair and look at it in the reflection. Not a single hair was missed, and it was exactly the correct length on every inch of my head. My eyes must have told her this because the nanites again inform me of her amusement. “That was incredible! Amazing!” I turn around and spy her arms moving the already-collected hair into a bin. “And you do this for your pay?”

“Yes. And, the fur collected usually makes a good base for my fungus garden.”

“Wow!” I look over to my friends with a huge smile. “I can’t wait to do that again!” I look towards Klefatina once more. “How much do I owe you, anyway?”

Her large eyes shift as she cocks her head at the question. “Do you not have an identity card?” I nod and absently pull it from my uniform shirt pocket. She takes it with a controlled hook, taps it on a silver box that protrudes from the wall, then hands it back. “There. You have paid.” She laughs again, then continues. “You will learn many things, I am sure. Now, move along. I do have other clients.”

I stand and thank her for a job well done, then Dharcia, Ter’link, and myself head out towards the mess hall for breakfast. The conversation during transit consists of an explanation of how she cuts hair, joking about my reaction, and general good fun. The perfect start to an interesting day, I’m hoping.

Chapter 23

After a long breakfast in which Dharcia went over, for a second time, the numerous different species and Ter’link commented about what made them each attractive, we begin taking a more job-oriented tour of the ship. Since we’re already in the mess hall, we start with basic maintenance of the replicators and the components that allow for an easy transition between the usual “day” configuration and a more active “night” setup. The replicators didn’t seem to be too much more than basic circuitry until Ter’l opened the actual generation chamber. Thousands of tiny adjusters and what amounted to atom cannons that would have required a microscope to build filled the unit and I quickly suggested that it wasn’t something I should be doing since I didn’t have the most stable hands. The machines for the room changes, though, were quite literally magnetic levitation tracks that the tables and other furnishings followed just under the floor. The maintenance would have involved a few years worth of study into the physics of the system. Knowing that I don’t have that much time to my name convinces me that I should look elsewhere.

The Commons was the next location. There, Dharcia makes a point of offering counseling as an option. I politely decline and explain that I wouldn’t have any idea where to start with that. Being the only member of my race on-board, my insights might not be what would be best for everyone. Afterwords, Ter’link and Dharcia begin pointing to different options. Landscaping. Water quality maintenance. Structural inspections. Custodial. Security. None of these are things mentioned make me feel important or overly-needed, but I do decide to consider doing security since it would aide in learning the other species as well as introduce myself more effectively and in a less fearful light. As we walk along the main pathway I start to take notice of the crew alternately staring or hiding their gazes, and being able to approach them would make it easier for me teach them about myself and my race. At least that’s how I see it.

After an hour of walking and speaking with different shop owners, we sit next to the pool that rests at the bottom of the waterfall. Dharcia catches up to Ter’link and I with a few liquid containers holding a dark blue liquid. She gives us each one and the two begin sipping out of their individual holders. Me, however, I’ve never seen it before. I bring it to my nose to take a whiff of what’s there. I am treated to a sweet scent that reminds me of a purple grape juice that had been mixed with extra sugar.

“What exactly are we drinking here?”

Ter’link drops his container from his lips with a satisfied ahhhh. “This is ni’enitbur juice. It even tastes like it was freshly-bottled, too! Try it!” The bottle returns to his face as he takes in another gulp.

“Don’t worry, Robert. It’s safe. Practically everyone on-board can drink it. It just appeals more to less carnivorous palates.”

My gaze drift to the right towards the mephit as she speaks to find that she’d gotten herself comfortable, laying on her side with her feet pointed towards Ter’l. Not for the first time, I notice her petite yet still rather attractive form. Barefoot like most of the crew, her purple-furred foot-paws jut out from the dark uniform and attach to a more digigraded ankle. But past that, her toned thighs match up to a nicely-curved hip where her free hand-paw rests. As my eyes continue the travel to her face, they drift past her not-as-obviously athletic arms and tight abs, then over her smaller but still full breasts before finding her purple furred neck and face, her pink eyes as bright as the smile she wore between sips of her juice. For a moment, I find myself thinking, “If she was a human…”

“Well, are you going to try it or not?” Dharcia’s words snap me out of my own thoughts she laughs as I shake myself back to the present. “You’ll be fine! I’m,” she pauses as she thinks about it, “almost sure.” With that, the paw that was resting on her hip comes forward and points at my bottle. “Why don’t you try it?”

I slowly lift the bottle to eye-level The liquid sloshes inside the container as I gently shake it. Then I bring it to my nose to take a sniff of what’s inside again. “It… It smells almost like grape juice.”

Ter’link lets his now empty bottle drop from his lips, then asks, “What’s a “grape?”

“It’s a fruit from home. Kinda like a big berry, but they grow in bunches on vines.”

Dharcia smiles and I see her tail lift behind her body, then drape down her hip. “These grow on a vine, too. Who knows, maybe they’re related. Now would you try it already?”

I take a quick sip of it to discover that it doesn’t just smell like grape juice, but almost tastes like it, too! I take a bigger drink to allow the flavor to fill my mouth. The sweet-tart taste is just like I remember from home, save for a slight bitter under-taste. “Wow! It tastes almost like grape juice, too! It does taste a little funny, though. Kinda bitter beneath the sweet juice. Is that normal?”

Ter’l chuckles as he replies. “Well, yes. Just don’t drink too much, or you’ll find yourself a little woozy.”

“Woozy?”

Dharcia smiles as she sits up and finishes the bottle in a few loud gulps. “Certainly. The heavier stuff is a favored sleep aide for some. Intoxicant for others.”

“It’s alcoholic?”

Ter’link and Dharcia look at each other for a moment, then back to me and answer almost simultaneously. “What’s that?”

I fidget slightly in the grass before I try to answer. “Well, on Earth, if you let a juice sit out with the right kinds of bacteria, it’ll digest the sugar. The waste product is toxic, but only in very large quantities. In small doses, it does what you say that this juice can be used for.”

They both stand, and I follow suite. Once we’re standing, Dharcia leans in and whispers into my ear, “Then, yes, it is. And don’t tell Nishka that we had some, because it’s not supposed to be consumed on-duty.”

– –

The jobs tour picks up speed as we make our way through the maintenance halls. Every so often, Ter’link stops and points out certain pieces of machinery that I could possibly work with. Each junction has its own separate uses. Some control water distribution. Others control power, while still others help with communications and control. The power boxes pique my interest as they look rather simple in design, with a configuration very similar to the fuse boxes that we use at home. We tour the data centers, the bridge, and the combat training facilities in what feels like a whirlwind of information and professions that are available. I’d decided to look up a few when Ter’link stops and presses a button on the lift and then ushers us in. “Well, now that I’ve bored you with the unnecessary options,” Dharcia interjects with a huff, but he continues, “I’m going to take you to where I know you’d rather work.”

The door hisses shut before Dharcia says anything. “And just where’s that, you pompous windbag? I think he’d do very well in the medical center!” Her arms are crossed across her chest as she glares as the Eil’phae. “He’d be a quick study!”

“Uhhh…”

Ter’link cuts me off. “Oh, please, he said he wants to help with something important. In med-bay, he’d only be important when someone decides to be sick.” He looks at me with a wide grin before he continues. “But the engine bay is where you’ll be constantly working to help us keep this ship running!”

Dharcia’s voice raises in irritation as her ears fold back against her hair. “Only if someone decides to be sick? You’ve got to be kidding me! There are a huge number of things that he can do with the medical office, and I don’t mean standing around and pushing the occasional button to have the repair bots do the work for you!”

At this point I tune out the argument as I look through the transparent sides of the lift. The lights flash past in quick succession as we plunge several levels down into the engineering level. As the lift stops I feel a slight fluttering in my stomach that I’ve learned is the gravity generator on the ship compensating for the sudden shift of weight from the lift’s movements. The doors hiss open and I step out quickly, then turn around to face the two arguing parties. “Ahem!”

It was a bit louder than I meant, but it worked. They both turn to me with unpleasantness in their eyes and respond with the same shouted, “What?!”

“Look, I’m the one who needs to find a job that suits me. And, yes, the med-bay is one area that I am considering. So is communications officer, electrical technician, and,” I stress the next part to make sure the argument stops, “underwear salesman!” Both aliens lower their head in embarrassment. “But, that doesn’t mean that I don’t want to see what’s down here. Now, quit arguing and let’s go! I don’t know how long the Commander’s giving me to choose a job!”

Dharcia nods and steps from the lift. “You’re right. I’m sorry I lost my head.” She looks over to Ter’link, who’d also stepped from the elevator. “And I’m sorry to you, too. I know your work is more than just button-pushing.”

“I’m sorry, too…” Ter’link’s long, pink ears are uncharacteristically flat against his long red hair. “Med-bay is useful for many things, not just sick patients. I should know, I visit often enough.”

“Alright, we’re all sorry. Now come on!” I start to walk in the direction that the wall sign indicates is engineering, leaving my escorts to hurry and catch me.

The next hour was spent touring different aspects of the engine rooms. First was the energy containment room. The room held the ship’s fuel, a series of glowing orange rocks that emanated a regular amount of energy that was harvested by receivers that line the room. They ran on tracks that cross-crossed the walls and ceiling. When I asked why not just use a tighter containment, Ter’link explained that a tighter arrangement of the fuel tended to cause instability. That worked for me!

Next was the conversion chamber. Its job, as was explained to me, was to facilitate the change between the randomized collections into usable energy. That meant changing it to electrical energy, thermal energy, and even nuclear particles. The nuclear particles, Ter’l explains, is to drive the ship. The only jobs there are the collection of the nuclear particles and the replacement of the discharged nuclear waste to be re-converted, and I decide then that I wouldn’t be interested.

Last on his specialization tour was the actual drive units that moved the ship. They were huge, and that were only the visible parts that were in the room! Each one of the four drive units were easily the size of a trailer doubled-up. They connected to the power nacelles through a series of glowing pipes and wiring, and they led out of the walls of the room. Ter’link was very vague about the aspects of its functionality, no doubt by Grai’gahrd’s orders, but what he said made it seem worth learning. I added Drive Engineer and Nacelle Tech to my growing list of options as we pressed on through the room.

Finally, after having granted a long and extensive work-tour of the ship, Ter’link, Dharcia, and I sat in the engineering break room. Dharcia looked unusually disheveled, her uniform unusually wrinkled and her normally perfect hair dampened in sweat. Ter’link, on the other hand, looked perfectly content and, in fact, ready to do more. As we sit, Dharcia drinks the water that she’d poured herself a moment before. Ter’link decides to ask the obvious question. “So, have you found anything like what you wanted to do?”

I look between the both of them slowly before I react. “To be honest, there’s a lot of things for me to consider. Technology is very different between what I know and what you have here.” I take a drink from my own water cup before I continue. “But, there’s plenty that I can do, so long as someone’s willing to teach me.”

Dharcia seems exhausted as she lifts her head to look in my direction. “Good. The fewer times we have to do this, the better.”

“Well, it’s almost shift change so we can’t stay here. But there are a few more places I’d like to show you.” Ter’link stands, then gestures out the door. “Come on, you two. We’ll be out of here in a few minutes. Then I can treat you do a drink, Dharcia, for putting up with this.”

“It’s fine, Ter’l. Let’s just be quick, please?” The mephit stands slowly, brushing her hair with her paws and then tossing her water cup into the waste bin.

He leads us down into the corridor, then cuts right before the lift towards a sign that says “Ready Room.” Once inside, he greets the officer on duty, then pushes past and into the ship’s starfighter hangar. “Look around!”
“Ter’l!” Dharcia’s voice was full of anger. “The commander specifically said that we’re not to take him to ship-specific defenses!”

“These aren’t ship-specific! Let him look! What’s he gonna do?”

By the time they realize it, I’m already looking between the myriad of different spacecraft. So many shapes and designs that I couldn’t find anything that reminded me of an aircraft from home. Some had similar designs, but that usually just meant that they had two main wings and stabilizers. There were three-winged, four-winged, some didn’t have any! I pick my way through the berths and the different design schemes, noting different aspects that seemed to come with the individual race markers. There were more than a hundred craft throughout the room, and I picked my way quickly through it in a self-guided tour.

As I reach the end of the hangar, I find another door. I peer through the window and let out a loud gasp. “It can’t be!” I exclaim before turning around and yelling across the hanger. “Ter’link! I want in here!”

A few moments later Ter’link and Dharcia, still arguing about the finer points of the order, make their way across the hangar and to the entryway that I’m standing at. When they finally look at me, Dharcia’s eyes widen. “No! No, I draw the line!”

“Dharcia, please. I know you don’t want to get in trouble, but I’m serious! Let me in there!”

Ter’link nods before he turns to Dharcia again. “I wasn’t going to show him this but he seems adamant about it. We’ll just stay close and make sure nothing happens, alright?”

She looks around for a few moments, obviously deliberating the possible consequences. Finally her ears fall flat again to her head as she nods. “Alright. In reality, these aren’t ship defenses, but I don’t think Mergrayne would be happy with us showing him these.”

Ter’link lifts his left hand-paw to a scanner next to the door. A moment later, the machine beeps and the door slides open, obviously heavy on its tracks. As the door becomes wide enough to pass through I practically push Ter’l out of the way and run into the wide and tall hangar. I slide to a stop roughly half-way through its width and look around in amazement. Finally, I look back to my escorts who’d finally entered the room and were moving quickly to catch up. I point across the room and ask, “What are you doing with a DarkWolf on-board?!”

The look on Ter’link’s face would have been appropriate had a driven a truck into him. He tried to respond, but most of his words came out as sputters. He closes his eyes, then opens them again before he can finally respond. “A DarkWolf?”

“Yes! That’s a DarkWolf! I’d recognize it anywhere! And it’s still in its stock configuration, a heavy and medium laser on each arm pod and a center-mounted medium cannon!” I point each of the items out as I speak. “And the shoulder units look like they’re carrying a five short-range missile launcher each.” I point to the Bot to its left. “And you have a pair of Black Widows, both set to stock configuration B.” I took the time to point to each of the machines, identifying them each by name before I looked at Ter’link expectantly.

Dharcia stepped in for the speechless mechanic. “Robert,” she starts as she steps up closer to me with an air of confusion about her, “I am going to ask you something and you need to tell me the truth.”

“Okay…”

“How did you know about these war machines?”

I look back at the DarkWolf ChromeBot as I respond. “That’s my favorite combat unit in the game, but it’s in need of a serious load-out change.” My gaze drops to the floor for a moment before I spin to face Dharcia again. “These are only supposed to be a game. Why do you have them for real?”

Ter’link brings his right hand-paw to what appears to be a stain on his overalls and taps it. “Commander Grai’gahrd, I really think you need to hear this.”

Chapter 25

The chime sounds throughout the room as I lay in my bed. I open my eyes and slowly sit up, bringing my hands down to the cushions to prop myself up. I had known it was only a matter of time before one of them came to check on me. It wasn’t like I could hide on this ship with my communications device attached since it acted as a tracking device as well. I look around the sparsely decorated room and ask myself, Am I really ready to talk to anyone? As if to reply, the chime rang again, followed by a muted pounding on the door.

Dharcia, outside the door, yells directly into the metal, knowing its design was to silence chatter. “I know you’re in there, Robert! You need to let me in!”

I tap my communications device and request that it open a channel to Dharcia. When it complies, I ask before she can speak, “Why?”

This time her voice comes more through the comms than the wall. “Because you only have a few hours before you’re slated to undertake that combat run and I think that you could really use a counselor right now.”

“Fine.” I turn off the device, wincing in self-aggravation because of my bitter tone with her. She had nothing to do with what was upsetting me and I wasn’t going to take it out on her if I could help it. “Door, unlock.”

The sound of a whisper emanates from the door rails as it slides open. A moment later Dharcia crosses the threshold, then snaps around to face whoever else is with her. “I think you should stay out here for a minute.” The response I hear is the sound of Ter’link’s attempt to argue, which is silenced when Dharcia strikes the door control and it slides back shut. She then taps in a series of commands into the unit.

The machine sounds with each claw-fall, then announces in its own voice, “Door locked. Containment protocol C-6 activated.”

My eyes widen in surprise as I turn to face her. “Containment? You’re trapping me here?! And what’s C-6 anyways?!”

“Calm down, human.” The mephit begins walking towards me with a slow, purposeful gait, her tail drifting in the air behind her. “C-6 is a secured containment for counseling and for high level detainees. It runs a signal through your walls to ensure that any listening devices are blocked and can’t transmit.” Her smile becomes obvious as she stops next to the bed. “It also can’t be opened unless I unlock it, so I’d suggest not hurting me.” For a moment, she stands as if deciding what to say before finally continuing. “Mind if I sit down?” I shake my head and slide closer to the wall, pulling my knees up to my chest and freeing up a large area of the bed for her to sit. She turns around and lifts her tail above the padding, then lets it fall as she sits. The movement reminds me of a little girl making sure that she didn’t sit on her dress. I chuckle at the image and she looks at me with a confused smile. “What?”

“Nothing.” I look back down at my knees. “Why are you here?”

“I told you why, Robert. You’re not in the right state of mind to be–”

A flare of annoyance hits me and I loudly cut her off. “Of course I’m not in the right state of mind!” I take in a deep breath and let it go so I don’t yell at her again. “Dharcia, you don’t get it. I was in love with Allessa. I mean, her. That… That…”

“Alien?”

I finally look at her again and give my honest thoughts, this time not allowing myself to be calmed. “Horrible bitch! This was all a game to her! All of it! We lived together! We did everything together! She was… I was going to ask her to marry me, and it turns out that she’s the part of some intergalactic slavery organization? She knocks me out to become an alien’s automaton, then shows up and expects me to be fine?”

“I don’t think—”

“Well it’s not fine!” I grab a section of padding from between Dharcia and I and throw it at the false window. “I want to go home! I want this to all be a dream, Dharcia. But then I live my daily life and I know it’s not!” I slam my face down into my folded arms that now rest on my knees and try not to cry from the combination of emotions running through me. Despite my best efforts, the tears come and I sob loudly into the echo-chamber that I’ve made for myself. After a few moments, I feel a gentle touch on my arm, warm and with the slight tickle of moving fur.

Dharcia audibly licks her lips and speaks slowly and quietly. “Robert, I can’t change what happened. I’m sorry that you had to come to us this way.” I hear her inhale and feel her move as her hand-paw shifts slightly on my exposed wrist. “But I am glad that you are here. We are so wrong about your kind, Robert. I don’t know of any reason why you shouldn’t be a part of the UFO.”

I look up at her with a vicious glare. “Is that what you think this is? I don’t give a damn about the Organization! My life was ruined, Dharcia! And it all was because of her!”

She looks me in the eye before she starts, her voice hardening just enough to be easily heard. “I know. I only said that because this never would have happened if humans were in the UFO.” Her smile and her tone softens as she tries to calm me. “And I know that you’re going to be upset about it for a long time. But, you have a chance to make something of yourself here, Robert. You can change the future of your species. But you need to let her go, especially if you’ll be working with her regardless of if you win or lose.” I start to respond but her free hand-paw comes to my lips to stop me. “I know that it’s not the planned thing, but it’s happening. And I’ll always be here to talk to, Robert.” Her grin widens again as she lets go of my lips.

I sigh and nod. “Alright. I’m not saying that I’m going to be easy about this, but I’ll try.”

“Good.” She leans forward and wraps her furred arms around my still balled-up body. “Now, we have to make it where you’re not some mediocre fool on Grai’gahrd’s payroll.” Dharcia slides off of the bed as her paws fall to her side. She quickly crosses the room and enters a shorter series of keys to which the computer responds with a security disabled response and the door quickly slides open. As it does, I hear Ter’link and Allessa arguing outside, which comes to an end as the portal opens. “Alright, you two. That’s enough. Ter’link, go in and wait. Chiantalle’Biress, I think we need to have a word.” She steps out and Ter’link takes her place in the doorway. Once inside, he hits the door control panel and it slides shut.

“You okay, little man?” When I nod, Ter’l briskly crosses the room and leans on the wall facing me. “I can’t imagine what you’re going through. I mean, damn, this sucks for you.”

I look at him and say nothing.

– –

The door closes behind Dharcia and she looks at the ChromeBot pilot with general disdain. The usually calm and collected officer’s voice disappeared, replaced with an aggressive growl as she addresses the dark-furred Eil’ph. “I don’t care who you are. I don’t care who you think you are. But if you think you’re going to hurt him again,” she steps closer and jabs a clawed finger into Chi’bi’s chest as she speaks to emphasize her point, “you are sadly mistaken. I won’t let it happen. And if I have to turn you into space debris myself, don’t think for a moment that I won’t make it happen.” Before the slack-jawed and drop-eared Eil’phae can respond, Dharcia has turned back to the door and reaches for the door panel, the normal sweet feel of her voice instantly returning. “Now, come along, Lieutenant. We have a very short time to get this right, and we’ve only got one shot at it.”

– –

Both the Eil’phae and the Daranni entered the room, Dharcia’s stride giving the feel of accomplishment and control while Allessa’s, no, Chi’bi’s head hung low in submission and shame. Ter’link, having taken a spot on the wall across from the door and in front of me, looks over with a smile, greeting them as they enter, which is informally returned by both females across the room. I, however, don’t move or acknowledge their entry. Instead, I keep myself huddled together against the wall on my bed. I do watch them between the folds of my uniform, but other than the small peephole, I have no visible access to what’s going on. I don’t want to see it, much less speak to this particular person. But I was going to have to. She would be my superior officer once this was all said and done, a punishment from Commander Grai’gahrd, no doubt, for being human. I wait and say nothing.

The tension in the room is thick enough to cut with a knife as no one starts the obvious conversation that is going to happen. After a few moments, Dharcia opens her mouth to speak. Her words, however, never come to fruition as Chi’bi chooses that moment to finally say anything. “I… I want to speak to Robert…”

Ter’link looks at Chi’bi, then me, then back to her with a response of, “Go ahead, we’re all right here.”

“I need to talk to him alone… Please, just for a moment.” Allessa’s still beautiful voice rang from the alien’s throat, and I raise my head from it’s hiding spot to look at her to remind myself that this alien wasn’t who I thought she was. When I do, Dharcia glares at the female rabbit and begins to loudly decline the request. Chi’bi’s voice becomes frantic as she looks to the counselor. “I promised I wouldn’t hurt him! I just… There’s something… I have to tell him something, please!”

Ter’link growls loudly as he begins to walk across the room in a straight line towards the black-and-white-furred woman. Dharcia’s voice explodes in a tirade of angry remarks, starting with something about how she had no right. I really couldn’t understand her because all I could hear was Chi’bi’s voice and the blood rushing through my ears.

“Wait…” I whisper, the sound being suddenly caught up by the surrounding argument. When I realize that I wasn’t heard, I try again, louder. “Dharcia?” Still, the argument continues, but now Ter’l has started to push Chi’bi towards the door with Dharcia reaching for her comms button and insisting that she was going to call security. I allow the anger for the woman who duped me to swell and reach into it to make myself heard. “STOP!” All three of the aliens stop their arguing and look at me. I uncurl myself from the ball I’d been hiding in and begin to stand, facing the still-entangled shipmates. “I want to hear what she has to say.”

The tension suddenly refills the room. Dharcia takes a few steps towards me, her head cocked in what I’ve come to recognize as confusion. “Are you sure? Robert, you don’t have to do this.”

My voice gains strength as I breathe. “But I do, Dharcia.” I look over at Chi’bi, still being held in place by Ter’link, then back to the purple-and-pink mephit. “I appreciate your concern, I really do. But, she and I had a past. A history, even if it was a false one.”

“It wasn’t false!” Chi’bi’s voice cuts in as an interruption, one that she bites off to let me finish so that I don’t change my mind.

I look back to her. “If that’s true, Less…” I close my eyes, then shake my head and look down to the floor before continuing, “I’m sorry, Chi’bi. If that’s true,” I look once more into the neon blues that I know, barely noticing Ter’l’s arms no longer holding her, “then why did you let them take me?”

Her gaze falls to the flooring tiles, a tear glistening in her eye as it forms. “I had to… I didn’t have a choice, Robert.” Chi’bi raises her eyes from the floor and finds my gaze waiting. “There were so many lives at stake. I’m sorry, Robert, but I tried to stop this. I wanted to…” Again she drops her eyes to the floor, but this time she doesn’t raise them, her body shaking hard as she tries not to let herself cry.

After a moment of silence, I look to Dharcia, then to Ter’link. “It’s going to hurt, but I think whatever she has to say, I need to hear. You’ll be able to hear everything one way or another, I’m sure, but I need to do this.”

Dharcia nods as she glares at Chi’bi. “Alright, Robert. If you think everything will be alright.”

Ter’link turns to walk out the door. “But we’ll be right outside! Don’t think we won’t be in here in a heartbeat!” Ter’link leads Dharcia out of the room, the latter’s tail flicking and flashing in an angry display, and the door slides silently shut.

For several long moments there was nothing said. I find myself looking over the rabbit-like alien, her black and white fur matching what I remember from the naked girl who would have been Allessa that night. She still had her mate-attracting curves, the sweet, melodious voice, and her electric eyes, but she wasn’t Allessa. Finally, I step closer to her and carefully lift her chin. She doesn’t resist as I bring her face up towards me. I take a deep breath and then say the one thing that I wanted to before I let her speak: “Allessa? Are you really in there?”

My hand trembles at her chin as I watch her open her eyes and find mine. “Robert, I am Chiantalle’Biress. You knew me as Allessa, and, as such, yes, she really is in front of you. I’m… I’m not Allessa. Not anymore. I can’t be. I am a lieutenant of the UFO. But the part of me that is… Was… Allessa wants you to know that she’s sorry, and that she really does love you…”

“You talk to me as if she is another person.” I feel my voice wavering with the strong emotions I struggle to keep in check. “Is that how it is?”

Before she responds, Chi’bi slides forward and wraps her arms around me in a strong embrace. She lets me go when I don’t return it in the few seconds she’d given me. The lone Eil’phae continues quietly, the tone of sadness unmistakable in her voice. “It has to be. Please, sit down and I’ll explain everything, and maybe one day you’ll forgive me.” She takes my hand and leads me back to the bed, letting me sit before taking her own seat across from me, keeping as much distance as the bed would allow between us.

During the next half-hour, she explains what had happened. Every detail about the operation, starting at her team’s capture, a botched reconnaissance mission. I listen intently as she tells me of her mild torturing at the hands of the creatures she was going to turn me in to eventually, followed by the offer they made to her. She then tells me of Djarn, her fiance and her battlegroup commander and how they were going to execute him if she didn’t train an appropriate ChromeBot pilot from the “back-water” beings of Earth. As she speaks of him, I can feel the combination of pride, pain, and betrayal from the years’ worth of action she had taken with me. She then continued on with her landing on Earth, finding a suitable candidate by hacking the local systems and finding someone who had the right kinds of aptitudes for training. Then, the sudden job offer to the real Allessa’s parents and subsequent quick move on a weekend my parents and I had spent away. The “game,” she explains, was actually a piece of training software that had been modified by Au’sharh military command for use in the mission, and she had taken to teaching me to play. The rest I already knew, she says definitively. When I think that she has finished, I notice that her gaze had fallen to the bed and her ears were still flat against her head. Before I could say anything, her attention snaps her gaze up again and she begins to sobbingly apologize to me for what she did. She lets me know that she had changed her mind when it was time to turn me in and that she was going to tell them no, so long as I told her I could still love her as an alien. When I had denied her and, in fact, had become angry about who she was, she had realized that there was no chance of reconciling it and carried out the plan.

Chi’bi’s sobbing continues as she tries to choke out a few words. “It’s why you’re here, and I’m sorry that it’s my fault!”

Without thinking, I slide closer and pull her tear-covered, blubbering body close to me and let her cry on a shoulder. “Chi’bi, please stop.” I pat her back as she continues crying into my uniform. I can’t think of anything to say to the woman who feels, sounds, and smells like the woman I loved but is just not.

The door slides open and the ship’s counselor pokes her head in, her skunk snout unmistakable in its purple trim. “Is everything alright, Robert?” The sound of concern is genuine in her voice as she starts to slide in, and I notice the fur on her cheek begin to bristle as she notices Chi’bi’s crying body against mine.

I nod at the woman with a forced half-smile. “Yeah. Why don’t you two come back in. Just, take it easy on her. I’m not saying that I forgive her. I don’t know that I will be able to anytime soon.” I look down at the writhing mass of flesh that is the bawling Chi’bi, then continue on with my though. “But I do understand why she did it.” I look over to see Dharcia closing slowly, her fur still ruffled, and Ter’l standing close behind her. “Regardless, it doesn’t matter. We have to get through this together, whether we’re ready or not.

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