No Way Back – The Story Ch. 16-20 – Edited 01OCT2010


Chapter 16

I woke up lying flat on my back. I didn’t so much wake up as I slowly regained my consciousness. All I wanted at that moment was to wake up and realize I was at home in bed. With my eyes closed, I slid my hands and feet slowly outward to discover that that wasn’t the case. I re-gathered my hands to my chest, then slowly lifted them, palms up, into the air. When I extended them to full length and felt nothing I released a breath that I didn’t realize I was holding. Once the breath had escaped me, though, is when I realize that my head was on something padded this time. I obviously wasn’t in the same place.

The padding wasn’t exactly a pillow, more a slightly raised section of the padding that was covering my resting place. I let my eyes slowly open into the darkness that surrounded me. No blacklights. No lights of any kind, I realize. If this was my room I’d at least be seeing the window. That’s when I also realize that I’m not hearing the soft whirr of the box fan that I usually have standing on the dresser to help airflow.

“Crap…”

Slowly, I lift my body up onto my elbows and discover that I had something across my person. It was very light and loose, but still very warm. A blanket, I decide as I flip it off of my body and the resting pad. I hear it collect on the floor in a very soft whump, and I start to lift myself to a fully seated position, bringing my hands to the pad to press upward. As I do, I feel the sudden sharp pain and burning sensation that is crisscrossing my hands and I fall back onto the padding. I think back to the last time I’d opened my eyes and remember the painful shock I’d received before.

“I guess it was all real.”

I elect to try again, sucking in air through my teeth and clenched jaws as I suppress a pained groan. Finally sitting upright, I lift my hands from the pads and shake the pain away as I attempt to scan the room for anything obvious. The only problem is that there really is absolutely no light in the room, not even an ambient source, so night-vision in the room is, for all intents and purposes, nonexistent. I swing my feet slowly out to the left side of the bed and find that nothing is blocking my exposed toes. Once I feel myself perpendicular to the pad I let my legs drop downward towards what I’m hoping is the floor. They quickly find the solid and cold surface beneath me, and I discover that the sleeping pad is only above it by roughly two feet. I pull them back and underneath of my body so I can stand without pressing myself off the pad, then gently lift myself upright and off of the makeshift bed. As I stand, my body strains and stretches muscles that make me feel as if I’d been sleeping much longer than usual. I raise my arms over my head and flex myself backwards to feel my abdominal muscles pull loose. I let out a quiet grunt once I hit the furthest back my body will allow, then bring myself back straight. That was when the lights around the room kicked on.

The sudden appearance of bright white light flashed my eyes in their most open condition, and I can’t help but to blurt out a loud curse at the lighting. My hands quickly fly over my eyes to block the extremely bright illumination and I almost fall back onto the pad from which I’d just lifted myself.

“If you were trying to scare me, ass-wipe, you could simply have just put me back under that thing!”

“I can do that.” The words come at me as if difficultly spoken.

I bring my hands up to try to see what is speaking at me. Still under the effects of a heavy sleep, I find focusing a difficult task. That said, after a few seconds of squinting and adjusting to the light I am able to make out the white apron and fur of whatever had been outside of the blacklight earlier. I take a few more seconds to survey the room. The walls were paneled and a very light gray, and the floor was a slightly darker tile. The only thing in the room was the dark-tanned pads of the bed that I was laying on, and there are no windows, just a door that had been sealed, and the thing addressing me was standing in that now.

My eyes finally in focus, I look more closely at the being who’d entered my cell, starting at her feet. No, they were like giant paws of white. She seemed as if she had been standing on tip-toe, but I see its design is more fitting to standing as she is, and that was simply on the bared pads of her foot-paw. Between them, he could see the movement of what could have been a slender white rope. I quickly realize that it is moving of its own accord and accept that it was the tail that I thought I’d seen before. She wore a pair of dark red, loose-fitting pants that betrayed the shape of her knees, which met with very shapely thighs beneath a white jacket. Her torso had a very human shape to it, as did her arms, but her hands were replaced with elongated paws that held a flat, darkly colored metal device. The fur at her hands and arms were also stunningly white. I finally let my gaze lift up past her chest to find locks of reddish-brown hair flowing over her shoulders and framing a white-furred face that would fit a house cat perfectly. She stands slightly taller than I do, and I can see that from across the room. Her golden eyes looked at me with a deep intelligence, and I somehow felt a look of concern and understanding within them.

She slowly spoke again after letting me inspect the room and her, the words sounding as if she were reading a script. “I am sure you have many questions, but I am afraid I do not have too much time to answer them.” She takes three steps into the room, and the door slides with a soft hiss into place, a brightly polished metal door. “I’m here to ensure that you do not have had any sickening effects from the med… medic…” She looks away briefly as if to gather the word again. “Medication.”

I nod at her silently as I watch the feline step closer to me and lift the flat device. She points it in my direction, then gestures with it in my direction.

“Here. You. Take this. Hold.”

I smile as I take the plate and look at her. “What, did you not have time to practice that one?”

She simply shook her head, then gestured with her extended claw in a circular motion, then pointed at the plate.

“Turn it around?”

She simply looks at me, and I can feel her patience. She knows that I honestly am terrified but is willing to wait.

I sigh loudly, then turn it around. The other side shows some a few pictures, and a button displayed next to them. I look them over, then at her in confusion. “What am I supposed to do with this thing?”

“Talk.”

“I am talking! What do you mean, talk? What do you call what I’m doing?”

She shakes her head, then points to the plate’s images. “Talk.”

“You aren’t making any sense! I’ve been talking since you walked in? What do you–”

Her feline ears flatten against her head, and I see the patience replaced with an angry glare. “TALK!”

Something in my head clicks, and I realize that she wants me to say the words that go along with the pictures. “Oh, okay. Just talk the words?”

Her ears lift back from her head as she begins to nod vigorously.

“Alright. Um…” I look at the pictures. “Star. Planet.”

“No!” The large cat sighs, then pantomimes holding the unit. She takes her other hand-paw and presses at the invisible plate. “Talk.” Then she releases the nonexistent plate. “Now, you.”

“Alright, alright.” I press the button next to the picture of a star, then say the name. I continue to do so for the next several pictures. When I reach the bottom, they all change and I do the same thing. After several screen changes the pictures stop showing up and the screen displays a series of characters that I don’t recognize. A soft beep emanates from the device, and the female cat reaches over and takes the pad.

“Sss… Sssth…” I hear her grumble in irritation. “S-Thank you much.” She turns to head out of the room, her tail twitching in irritation as she crosses the threshold and the door slides almost noiselessly shut behind her.

“Hmm…” I start thinking to myself. She didn’t touch anything, and the door opened. Is it location sensitive? Motion sensitive? Does she have a badge or something that the machine recognizes?

I start to walk towards the door, hopeful that it would open. I continue until I’m practically touching the polished metal door. Nothing. I turn around and slowly walk back to the bed. So, I guess I’m a prisoner now. I hop back up onto the pad and lay down on it, waiting for something to happen. Anything.

– –

“He’s not really dangerous, Nishka. He’s young. He’s scared. He doesn’t know where he is or what’s going on. I don’t care what your lover says. I’ve been studying what little documentation we have on his race, and I think it’s all very sensationalistically written. It’s meant to scare us away from them and from establishing preemptive contact.”

The young Daraani may be correct, but that doesn’t mean that she had to be ready for any possible dangers. Nishka looked over Dharcia as the girl looked at the monitoring screen for the medical quarantine unit. She was watching the human with an unusual amount of interest, as was obvious in the way her chin rested in the palms of her hand-paws. And why shouldn’t she be? It was a new species to her and she was eager to study his habits and categorize him among the UFO life forms that were already cataloged.

“Do you think they’d make good pets? I mean, he is able to hold things, right?” Dharcia’s tone was playful, and Nishka couldn’t help but laugh.

The feline dropped the pad into a slot, and the reader beeped loudly as it connected to the system’s networks. “I don’t think so. Even if they did, I doubt you’d call him a pet. Slave, captive, prisoner, what-have-you, but I doubt you could call him ‘pet.’” She turned away from the collective readers and headed behind the younger skunk to watch the human. “I can only hope that the translation matrix can handle his language. It would make talking with him much easier if I could understand what the hell he was saying.”

The Daraani looked over her shoulder. “Oh, he asked you what you thought you were doing, that he was talking.”

“You understood him?!”

Dharcia snickered as she turned back to her monitor. “No. That’s just what I would have been saying.”

– –

Staring up at the too well-lit ceiling is the only thing to do in the room that I find myself in. So that’s just what I do. With my hands folded in behind my head and over the too-hard head-pad, I try to get comfortable, or as comfortable as I could, all considering. It had been quite a while since the cat-lady had stepped out of the room, but there was no real way for me to know exactly how long. With no time reference and nothing to do, the moments just dragged on. It could have been a few minutes or a few hours and there would be no real way to know for sure. I do know that I’ve had enough time to stretch myself completely, and that I’ve walked the room a dozen times. So far, I haven’t found any means of exit or entry beyond the door that is currently locked. Even the seams of the panels are tight enough where I can’t fit my fingernail into them. Wherever I was, it was meant to hold someone carefully and prevent injury. I hadn’t even been able to hit or kick the walls! Whenever I moved anything towards the walls beyond a gentle pace it would feel as if I were trying to force my hands through sand before I made contact. But, if I walked to the walls and brought up my hands slowly, I could feel the smooth plastic-like material that at least covered the walls. I could tap the walls, run my hands against them, but when I tried to trick whatever device was active, it would fail and I’d sense the sand-like feeling again. The light sources were around the upper part of the room, and were in no way in my reach. Eventually, I’d given up and just laid on the makeshift bed until someone, or something, showed up.

My boredom was interrupted by a trio of musical notes that emanated from the door. I look over without lifting my head to find that it hadn’t opened. With a frown, I bring my gaze back to the uninteresting ceiling. After a few seconds the sound comes again, and I sit up quickly in the bed. A door chime? I’m a prisoner, aren’t I?  I decide to respond since I’m still confused by the unusual thought. “Come in?”

The door slides open with the same gentle hiss and the feline, still dressed in her red pants and white jacket, walks in, this time accompanied by a purple animal of some sort that was wearing a white jumpsuit. The shorter female turns slightly, and I catch sight of her tail. It seemed very bushy, and had a pair of hot pink stripes than ran along it and met near its tip. A skunk!? What is this, an animal convention or something?

I bring myself back to my feet, causing both the humanoid aliens to take a quick step back. I notice the skunk sliding behind the feline and can’t help but laugh. I’m certain that someone is watching and if I were to attack these ladies it would end bad for me. I turn and walk around the bed, then face the animals with my fists pressed against the padding. “Is this better for you two?”

The initially timid skunk spoke first, a combination of fear and excitement lighting up the strange accent she uses to speak the language. “Yes. Thank you. You, new.”

“So, you can understand me now?”

This time it was the cat to speak as she moved closer to the pads. “Small.” Her ears droop and she shakes her head, then holds out her paws with a small gap between them.

“You can understand me a little?”

They both nod, and the skunk steps forward towards the bed. Her hands-paws hold the pad that the feline had been holding prior, and she extends them to me. “You talk pad. Help.” Her soft pink eyes seem so strange to me, but considering where I am and what she is, I suppose it’s normal.

The young creature attempts to cross the room, but the feline quickly grabs her arm and yanks her still, a loud hiss leaving her mouth. The skunk turns to look at the cat and says something in a language that is sweet and melodic, but makes absolutely no sense to me. The cat growls out in her sharper language, and the skunk nods slowly, her eyes wide, as she turns back to me. “Please. Lay. Bed.”

“Are all our conversations going to be terse like this?”

The skunk looks to the cat with confused eyes, her short pink hair matching the coloring of the stripes flipping over her shoulder with the gesture. She then turns back in my direction, pointing at the pads. “Please. Lay bed?” Her smile is wide in what I take is a comforting gesture, but with the sharper teeth that it exposes, it does little to help settle me.

I shake my head in frustration, then lay on the bed. Once I’ve taken up a laying position, they both enter the room and separate, each heading to one side of the bed. They stop just outside of arm’s reach, then the feline speaks, her voice far more gentle than it was a moment ago. “Please, calm. Not hurt.” When I nod, they both step up to where I lay. The skunk’s hand-paws are practically trembling as she tries to lift my shirt from where they met my pants.

“HEY!” I can’t help but yell at her as I start to raise my hand to block her.

In an instant I find the white-furred hand-paw at my nose, the black claws extended to their fullest length, nearly an inch outside of the fur. I hear the loud hiss of warning, and I slowly lower my hands back to the pad. I feel my heart thumping in my ears as I try to relax, but the sudden claw appearance has just thrown that attempt out the window.

“I can take off my own shirt…” I offer quietly, turning my head to the skunk.

“Shirt?”

“Yes, shirt. I…” I slowly point to myself with my finger, “will take it off if you need me to.”

The clawed hand slowly returns to the feline’s side, the claws themselves not quite fully retracting as she looks at me with hard eyes. She nods, them motions for her partner to move away, which she obliges, albeit unwillingly. I bring myself up and, with a quick motion, slip the shirt off of my body and toss it towards my feet. Once I’m shirtless, I lay back on the pads, finding their slightly cooler temperature to be soothing.

Both creatures had returned close to my sides, and the feline had taken a wand from the side of her belt and begins running it past my arms and chest. A pale blue light shines against my body but I remain perfectly still to avoid feeling just how sharp those claws are. I notice, though, that the skunk is studying my skin as if there were a test afterwords.

“Do you like?” I ask softly in her direction, forcing a smile to show on my lips.

Her response was a quiet chuckle, then an unintelligible word to the feline. The cat shakes her head and responds in kind.

“No M-medications. Safe.”

The cat then takes my hands and inspects the bright red skin, still sore from the burns. Her head still pointing at my palms, her eyes roll up and look to her partner. She nods across the table, and the skunk grabs something from her own belt. I find my other hand being lifted from the bed and places palm-up. She then looks into my eyes with her own unusually colored versions.

“You safe. I help.”

Then, a quick, stabbing pain slams into my right hand. I yelp but otherwise force myself to hold steady. My face contorts in pain, but that pain is gone after a second. Shortly after I notice that the burn and ache in my hand is dissipating quickly. I slowly lift it up and look at it, and find, to my amazement, that the opened splits have half-closed themselves. The red crisscrossed lines have all but faded away, and I can flex my fingers with virtually no pain. I catch a movement beyond my hand, finding it to be the handing over of a tube of some sort, then a sudden stab to my left hand, matching the pain that was my right. This time I can’t help but jerk my hand away from the pain, but there is no reaction from the feline except what sounds like a laugh. I look between them and smile, slowly sitting up. Once upright, I bring a hand to my chest. “Robert. My name is Robert.”

The feline tilts her head inquisitively, but it’s the skunk who responds. She places a hand-paw on my chest. “Robert?”

I nod.

She points to my leg, then looks at me expectantly.

I chuckle, shaking my head. “No,” I gesture towards myself, letting my hands point to all of me, “Robert.”

Her eyes widen in comprehension, then she points with one claw to her chin. “Dharcia.”

The feline growls at the mephit, then sighs, dropping her head and letting her ears droop. Finally she bounces back with a smile. “Nishka.” She points to the tablet in her friend’s hand-paws. “Talk.”

I smile, shaking my head and accept the pad. Two thoughts come to my mind. First, that I actually am safe, for now. And second, this is going to be a long night, if it actually is night.

Chapter 17

A long night was putting it lightly. At least with the alien beings in the room it felt more like a quicker flow, but time moving faster is still time moving on. In the end I’d gone through six different pads with each one having different images and qualities. The third pad was the most interesting in my opinion. That’s when we switched to numbers and counting. When I picked up the pad, the only thing that was displayed on it was a single red dot. Not so much a dot as it was supposed to be a ball, but the image was rendered in two dimensions instead of three. When I looked at the skunk girl, and then to the feline, and back to the pad with the only word I could think of, “dot,” the device did not shift. It acted as if I’d not done anything at all! I remembered in the last pad that it had shown a dot and a rotating ball, so this should have been correct. After the third or fourth try, the device emitted a high-pitched tone, to which the feline responded by taking the plate from my hands and flipping it so she could see the screen contents itself. I could tell that she was trying to decide how best to proceed by the slight furrowing of her brow. After a moment, she pressed the pad back into my open hands and looked at me with a determined smile.

“Shrah.” She lifted her hand-paw with the word and extended one digit and claw into the air, keeping her smile steady and reassuring. She’d learned quickly not to over-bare her teeth with the facial gesture, and it somehow seemed much more peaceful that way.

I raise my hand in a fist, the enclosed palm facing to her, and lift one finger. “Shrah?”

She shook her head but kept her smile. “No, I Shrah. You?” She jabs the claw into the air as she speaks to try and signify that it was her intention.

However, I was only listening to her words as she spoke and didn’t notice the movement. “I thought you said your name was Nishka?”

The white and triangular ears that jut out through her hair twitch in mild irritation, but Nishka holds her composure otherwise. She leans in to me, and with the outstretched claw, she taps the dot on the screen. “Shrah.” Quickly straightening herself, she points to the ceiling with the singular claw and announces again, “Shrah! I ‘shrah’, you?”

All I can do is shake my head in confusion. It looks like a dot to me!

Nishka turns to the purple skunk and starts speaking in her own harsh language, and the younger looking female responds in a far more polite tone. Before the cat-like alien can speak again the skunk girl is on her feet and moving towards me quickly. She closes in quickly to my still seated person, then takes one of my hands and removes it from the pad. Her fur is amazingly soft and her pads are smooth as I feel her gently curling my fingers down into a fist. Once it’s shaped she then gently lets a dulled claw and digit slip into the opening around my index finger and lifts out free.

“Aona. I word ‘aona’. Nishka word ‘shrah.’ You word?” Her soft, sweet voice is almost hypnotic as she holds my attention. She finishes the question, looking into my eyes with her face leaned slightly downward. The angle caused her pink hair to flow down past her shoulders, and a slight smile still curled the edge of her lips.

Without realizing I had said anything, I manage a response. Her eyes are so deep! They sparkle in her exuberance and give me a feeling of warmth and willingness, a feeling so very lacking from the cat-woman’s cold glare. “Whuh-One?”

“Wawun?” She giggles at me as she repeats my stutter, and I feel a hot blush catching my cheeks.

“No. One.”

I feel my hand being placed on the pad and her warm, furred paw retreating. I shake my head quickly to clear out my thoughts and look at the white-furred feline who is shaking her head and is obviously less than pleased. She sighs, then makes a tapping motion with her paw, then glares at the girl who had returned to her spot silently. I notice, though, that she took those steps with a definite air of accomplishment, or at least that’s what I think I see.

I tap the screen and repeat the word. “One.” It chimes the acceptance tone that I’ve learned and moves on to two dots. “Two.” We proceed in that fashion for what feels like a half-hour, answering mathematical equations and counts. The whole time I feel Nishka’s uninterested gaze and the skunk’s excited and willing stare, which leaves me somewhere between anxious and perfectly at ease.

The rest of the pads went by with minimal interruption and confusion. Once I’d completed the last of the pads, the feline collected it and handed it to her assistant, which is what I’ve decided that Dharcia is. As they stand to leave, Nishka stretches and looks to me. She points to the bed and then to me. Then she brings her hand-paws together and puts them to the side of her head, then closes her eyes for a moment.

All I can do is roll my eyes and mutter, “Yes, ma’am. Not like I can go anywhere.”

Dharcia laughs as she walks out the door. Then they are both gone and I am left.

Alone.

– –

Dharcia places the stack of pads into their respective readers while taking in her superior’s angry words. She knew that she had violated a strict order for her protection, but she wanted to help.

“I warned you about keeping your distance! You’re not a fighter, Dharcia! You’re a medical officer! What would you have done if he attacked you!”

The mephit turns and looks directly at the chief medical officer and snaps her response off in defiance. “All due respect, but that boy was shaking! You come off too hard! He doesn’t understand that we’re trying to build a translation matrix so that we can understand him! And, really, was the claw necessary?” She pulls out a chair loudly and sits facing her boss who had taken her place at her own desk. “Simply put, the first time you pulled them on him, you threatened him with, I’m assuming, a lot of pain! He’s going to remember that!”

Nishka opened her mouth to respond but bit it off before she could start. Her golden eyes almost appeared to be inspecting the desk, but she was more thinking about the fact that the girl was right. What she was doing was important for the human male to integrate with the ship’s crew as a whole. They needed to be able to translate his words and he theirs, and since his language wasn’t in the ship’s databanks, this would take a long time. Time that they would need to hold his trust, which, she feared, she might have already lost.

Her feline eyes looked up from her desk and back to her irritated friend. His trust, she thought to herself. It seemed Dharcia had managed to, in one unthinking moment, captured the entirety of his trust. He was much more at ease because of her quick action, and that would make the whole task much easier to work through.

“You’re right.”

The purple-and-pink striped skunk cocked her head in surprise and confusion. Had she just heard the doctor correctly? She searched her superior for some kind of trick and found none. “What do you mean, I’m right? You aren’t going to argue this one with me?”

“No,” answered the white-furred alien, a smile returning to her face. “I was a bit aggressive, and that’s never a good way to start inter-species communications.” Her left paw fell to the desk and collected the next translation matrix pad, which she then slid across the desk towards Dharcia. “Your one act of patience may have saved us hours of work. So, you’re taking charge of this assignment.” Nishka made an exaggerated motion and spun her chair to the right, stopping with her gaze perpendicular to the girl’s. She smiled as she folded her hand-paws together just beneath her chin. “Is that acceptable?”

Dharcia brought her hand down on the pad with her mouth agape. She slid the pad closer and looked at it as she leaned back in her seat, the stunned expression still over her face. Her eyes shifted from the tablet to the doctor, and then back to the now blank display. “B-but this is first contact! I can’t do this! I’d need at least a bodyguard, and a witness, and a-”

“Dharcia, please.” Nishka looked back at the mephit without turning her chair. She chuckled as the girl’s eyes snapped up to look directly into her own, wide with excitement. “A bodyguard? Really? That human wouldn’t be a risk to you. Remember, he trusts you. And a witness? You mean someone to be there when you break more protocols?” That remark elicited a slight darkening of Dharcia’s cheek furs. “I’ll be in this office monitoring everything that happens in that room.” The feline finally brought her chair around, swinging her feet back under the desk, satisfied that she’d shocked her assistant out of her argument. “If he moves in a way that I find to be dangerous, I’ll be there in a heartbeat. You’ll be safe. You’ll be watched and recorded. And, you’ll get to enjoy the excitement that I know you’re trying so hard to control.”

The purple skunk sits, stunned and her jaw still slack. She really was being given this opportunity to do what she has wanted to do for years: to learn a new alien species. Granted, humans weren’t exactly a new species as much as they were undocumented. The only thing that was officially known was that they were a primitive and savage race that was not to be interacted with under penalty of law. But this human, this boy, seemed to be neither. He just seemed confused and lost, and she wanted to be the one who changed the history books forever! Imagine the discoveries that this human knows about! Dharica pushes her thoughts aside for a moment and realize that Nishka was looking at her across a large smile that had found a resting place on her folded hand-paws. “Alright! I’ll do it,” she burst out as she jumped from her chair. “I’ll give you a full progress report as to what I learn!”

Nishka tried to respond but found that she was already pretty much by herself. The mephit had already made a full sprint to the door and was half-way out before she could even begin to chuckle at the youth’s enthusiasm. She closed her eyes for a moment and remembered herself at that age, wanting to find the next cure, the next miracle healer, the next anything. As she re-opened her yellow eyes she sees a flashing icon on her desk. She taps a claw to it, causing a holodisplay to show directly above her hand.

“Doctor, this is communications.” She knew the deep, gravelly voice that belonged to one of the few lemurs onboard.

Her smile hadn’t dissipated at all, so she allowed herself to use it. “Go ahead, Mwa’atu.”

“Ma’am, I’ve an order for you to cease and desist.”
“From whom?!” She caught herself in the enraged outburst. She knew that he was just the messenger, and anything he said wasn’t something he’d wanted to. “And for what?”

“Universal Federation Fleet Command. They claim that you’ve activated an illegal translation matrix. I decoded it three times just to be sure. The commander told me that he–”

The door hissed open behind Nishka and the feline swung around quickly in her chair to see who was entering the room.

Commander Grai’Gahrd stood directly in front of her, having crossed the facility in a few quick paces. A pair of armed security soldiers, one raccoon-looking creature and the other an Eil’phae, stood just outside the doors as they hissed shut, and Nishka heard the entry of a security code to initiate the lock-down of the medical bay. “We need to have a little chat, Doctor.”

Nishka blinked up at the officer who stood sharply in attention before her. “Of course, Mer–,” he shook his head, “–Commander, anything you need, you know I am ready to hear it.”

The wolf leaned into her and whispers into her ear, his words sharp with rage “Why couldn’t you just have waited a few more hours?” He snapped back up to see his lover barely holding back her own emotion. He’d never spoken to her in an angered tone, and now she’d upset him without even trying. Mergrayne took in a deep breath to clear his mind, then continued louder. “Communications officer, please put through Secured Line 3.”

The display behind the feline shifted to the wrinkled lines of an age-worn yellow-furred tigress. Her long silver hair was unkempt and her uniform disheveled, making it was obvious that she had been pulled from her sleep to deal with a security breach in short order.

“High Commander Dionne Skrinesti, it’s a surprise to hear from you.” Commander Grai’Gahrd smiled cordially at the display.

The tigress’s ice blue eyes glared back at the man, and an unguarded grimace made the head of UFO security look much older than she actually was. “Skip the niceties, Commander! I want to see the person foolish enough to violate the orders that classified the humans as not to be communicated with! I want them charged with insubordination, violation of the Multi-Galactic Treaties, and marked as a traitor!”

“We can’t do that, Ma’am.”

Dionne’s voice went from the cold and measured tone that spoke of anger in depths to a snarling yell at the rebuke. “What do you mean, you CAN’T! I’m ordering you to do it!”

By then, Nishka had managed to turn her chair around and looked directly at the High Commander with a passive glance. “We can’t because we’re currently hosting a human on-board. As such, I submit that I am in violation of the Treaties, but only within the confines of the UFO acceptable actions clause. Therefore, I am neither a traitor, nor am I acting in an insubordinate manner.”

“How are you hosting a human,” the larger cat-woman growled her question, her eyes narrowed in an attempt to cow the medical officer. “Your only contact is supposed to be returning the “captives.”

“Which is exactly how we came into contact, High Commander. His sedation was underestimated, and he woke up in transport.” Commander Grai’Gahrd stood straighter than Nishka had ever seen her love, and that spoke volumes about how serious her error in judgment had been. She should have asked him before initiating the search and comparison. “In fact, as soon as the human was determined to fall under the subsection that declares forced detention and assimilation due to his detection of our technologies, I sent the report. You should be getting the filtered-up version shortly, if you haven’t already.”

The yellow-furred tigress reached over and lifted her personal datapad just out of view from the holodisplay. She thumbed it on and began sifting through her messages. Her eyes light up within seconds as she finds the message and begins reading the report. “He attacked you, Doctor? And you survived the experience? I’m impressed.” She turned to look at the slightly smaller feline, her features softening with understanding and concern. Her voice now carried the sweet yet thick tone of her species, “Why not simply euthanize such a dangerous animal?”

Nishka glared at Mergrayne about the blatant lie to the officers, but allowed herself to answer. “Of course that could have been considered, ma’am, but the young male was acting out of fear, not simply a display of aggression.” Her eyes met the now respect-fulled blues of Dionne’s. “We do have him secluded, but that can only hold so long. We need to explain to him what’s going on, and soon.”

“I’ve advised against it, ma’am. They are dangerous creatures. The doctor, however, seems to think they have some redeeming qualities and wants to treat them as sentients.”

The tigress looked over towards Grai’Gahrd with a scowl. “However primitive they are, they do posess sentience. If he can be communicated with, then we will begin with determining whether or not he is a risk to the rest of the crew. That is an order. And I want direct updates from now on.” She turns back to the doctor. “Until he is cleared as non-violent, this is to be top secret classified. Codename Castaway. If he turns out to be more than what the current intelligence reports say we have, then we may have a basis to finally include the Sol system in the UFO. I trust I can expect detailed reports?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Good.” Dionne tapped on the datapad a few times as she spoke. “I’ll be sending what language matrix we do have to you to aide in your endeavor. Good luck.” The display went dark, then the image shifted back to her desktop.

Nishka growled up to Mergrayne, her eyes filled with disgust at his intentional skewing of the facts. “Attacked? You lied!”

Mergrayne smiled at his lady, an unusually predatory grin. “We don’t actually know if he was attacking or not, now do we?”

Chapter 18

“How did she know what to say to me before?”

The mephit forced a smiled in my direction before she looked away. It was obvious that I had thrown her by asking her a question that wasn’t related to a datapad. It couldn’t be since she hadn’t handed me a new one yet. My eyes kept on her while she looked away, and I noticed a nervous grin taking the false-smile’s place. “She… Had…Words?” As she finished the last of the words, she looks at me with the same accomplished smile that she had when she helped me with the numbers.

I shift on the bed that I’m sitting on and look at her, expecting more than what I’d received. When a moment passes and she didn’t say anything, I spoke up. “She had the words? Where did she get them from?” I see her lift her left paw to towards her ear and press something in. “Do you know any other humans?”

Her eyes widen in comprehension of the last sentence. “No! You, Robert, I one.” She shakes her head, holding up a clawed digit. “No I one. I… First! No see human before today!” Her toothy grin is almost scary, but the glee in her eyes is so easy to read that it might as well have been written there. “I first! I happy you I first!” She gestures with the pad in my direction, pointing at my feet, then lifting it up towards my face and back down. “You happy?”

“No, I’m scared.”

“No scared. Happy! I no…” I see her gaze drift away for a moment, then back to me. “I scared, yes. Happy!”

At least I’m not alone in feeling this way. Maybe she’s a captive, too, I think to myself. I slide off the bed and let my feet touch the floor to stand, looking directly at her. “Okay, my turn.” She cocks her head as I speak. “I’m human. What are you?”

A blank stare is my only response, but I notice that she’s taken a half-step towards the wall and that her free hand has shifted towards the back of her loose-fitting suit.

I decide to try again. “I Human.” I tap my chest, then point to her. “You?”

I notice a shift in the coloring of the fur lining her cheeks as she looks at my hand and then away again. Her hand-paws come back around and clutch the pad to her chest, but she refuses to meet my gaze. “Uhh… I… I Daraani…” Her eyes manage to glance up at me, but her head stays lowered as she speaks. “You sit…” Her cheeks returned to their normal coloring as she lifts her head. The excited twinkle was gone from her eyes, replaced with a more business-like stability. When I’ve sat again, she continues her thought. “Nishka Hishaern. No scare.” She makes a clawing motion with her hand-paw.

“I noticed.” I can’t help but smile. I know she doesn’t understand what I’m saying, but the look on my face tells her that I thought it was funny. She smiles back with a soft grunt, then starts tapping at the datapad. “Well, I have to say, though, for a skunk, you’re kinda pretty,” I start offering random thoughts at her, taking full advantage of the language barrier to protect me from embarrassment. “I mean, I love your eyes, they’re just so big and expressive and pink! The anime groups at home would love it! And your tail is so fluffy and wild…” My jokes and teases stop when hear a plasticky clatter across the room. That’s I notice the darker coloring returning to her cheeks and and her eyes shifting to her tail. After another moment, she turns towards me with her mouth agape. “You understand me, don’t you…?”

“Yes…”

It’s my turn to be shocked. “How?! I thought you couldn’t! That’s what these are for, right?” My mind starts racing about the implications, but then the darker-purple fur slams into my mind. “Oh, shit! Wait, I was trying to be a smart-ass! I mean, your fur is nice, and I really do think your eyes are pretty, too! I just–”

The door slides open to let the dark wolf-person in, followed closely by Nishka. No sooner had they entered did Dharcia bolt from her spot and out the door, but not before I notice the drop of a tear forming in her eye. I begin to stand but notice Nishka shaking her head quickly from behind the wolf and think better of it. Instead, I look at the lupine alien in front of me and wait for something to happen.

The first thing I’m greeted with is a deep, angry growl. I look at the wolf’s dark eyes and notice that they are slits, nearly closed in what I think is quite a bit of rage. His snout is pulled back in a half-snarl, and his stance reminds me of a brawler getting ready to jump into a fight. The growl continues as he steps slightly closer to let Nishka around him.

I swallow hard, then decide to speak first. “Are you going to kill me now?” The sentiment catches the wolf off-guard and I see his eyes open wide as his snarl disappears. If I hadn’t known any better, I’d have thought that I knocked him back a step in surprise.

The feline finishes coming around the wolf, then looks at me with a smile. “No, Robert. You’re okay for now.”

The sudden ease with which she spoke the language that I was struggling to show her catches my attention, and I shift my gaze to her. “Wait a minute, how are you doing that? Just a half-hour ago, you couldn’t understand me.”

The lupine tosses something at me, and I reach to catch it. The item he tosses to me resembles a small, black marble that has some kind of wires extending from its surface.

“That is how I am speaking your language, Robert.” Nishka smiles as she walks to where I’m sitting, then gently takes the device from my hand. “Every UFO member has one installed. It allows for instant translation for the over five thousand forms of communication and even allows us to speak alien tongues that we might never have known otherwise.” She holds the machine between her claws, turning it as she inspects the unit for damage. “We can turn them off and on, and you will be able to as well, once you learn how to use it. It’ll make your transition to living on the ship easier. We got the translation matrix a moment go from a – – a classified source.”

“And if you don’t want to live on my ship, that’s fine. I’ll happily jettison your carcass out the cargo bay doors.” That came from the almost-black wolf standing at the door. His arms were crossed as he leaned against the wall. “Just figuring I’d offer before you got some kind of grand scheme to run away. You’re about forty-five light years from home, so don’t give us any garbage about going back.”

“But I never said I wanted to live here! It’s kinda cool to think about, living with aliens, but this has to be some kind of joke! Why do you want me here? Why did you make Ch–”

The wolf cuts me off. “I DON’T want you on my ship. This is an insult to the orderly operation I run! If it weren’t for…” Nishka glares across the room at the commander as she takes a seat next to me on the bed, and he cuts himself short and with a loud sigh. “Alright, here’s the answers to most of your questions. First, I’m the commander of this ship My name is Commander Grai’gahrd. You are on a flagship for the Universal Federation Organization, the Conquest’s Dawn. Second, you’re here because you were…” He pauses for only a moment, but continues. “Abducted would be the correct word. You were abducted by the Au’Sharh for something, although we’re not sure what exactly.” His tone seemed to say that he was hiding something, but I simply sat and listened. “We were attempting to rescue you when you woke up. Because you woke up, you’re stuck here.”

I look at Nishka who is nodding. “I’m sorry, Robert,” she starts sincerely. “You can’t go back now. While the commander is accurate, albeit harsh, we are bound by law to not let you go back. Your planet has not been approved to join the Federation, and you’ve witnessed us.” She watches my face as I go through my bevy of emotions. Confused. Then disbelief. Then scared and angry. “Please, don’t do anything foolish, Robert. I don’t want to have to confine you to this room.” The commander snorts his disapproval of her statement. “Some people will consider you a threat. I don’t. I think you’re young and confused, and that this is a lot to take in. It was when the UFO announced themselves to our race, too.”

The room is quiet for a moment, save for the small creaks and beeps of the device in Nishka’s hand. I look between the two of them, then finally speak. “Will I ever be able to go home?”

Grai’gahrd speaks first. “If you can convince the High Commanders that your race is not a threat to the stability of the UFO, and your world government accepts our laws regarding space-flight, then yes, once they achieve faster-than-light travel speed.” He laughs darkly. “Not that that will happen.”

Nishka hisses at the commander who only smiles and winks at her. I look over to the only other semi-friendly face that I’ve known. “What happened with Dharcia? Why did she run?”

The feline smiled wide, but her voice had the kind and soothing tone from when she first spoke to me. “Her kind isn’t used to open compliments or flirting. They are both frowned upon in her culture unless you’re partnered. In a way, you paid her the highest compliment and the darkest insult at the same time.”

“Oh. I didn’t mean to.”

“I’m sure you didn’t, young one. It can be confusing trying to understand the multitudes of cultures on this ship.” Nishka grins wider in my direction as she brings her paws together around the device. “You’re under a special permissions order from the top officers to learn from us as we learn from you.” She lifts her paw where the machine was. In its place is a device that looks like an injector which she is aiming at the side of my neck. “Now, you need to hold very still, or this will hurt.”

It hurt anyway.

– –

Dharcia didn’t stop running until she was in the medical office. She let the door slide behind her and then punched her lock code into the access panel. She had been silently sobbing the whole way here. But why? He was a human. That makes him an animal! It was absurd for her to feel insulted by an animal. He was just acting like animals do, without really thinking and by instinct.

She finally brought herself to walk towards Nishka’s chair and flopped into it, letting her head fall towards the desk and land in her arms which were piled and waiting. Her sobs continued as she tried to tell herself that it wasn’t an insult to her but was, instead, him simply speaking. He didn’t know that her tail isn’t supposed to be bushy, but well-brushed and groomed like hers was. But to speak of her tail in such disarray was to insist that she didn’t care about herself or anyone else! He might as well have outright called her gutter trash!

But he had also complimented her eyes. None of her own race had ever told her that her unusual eye color was beautiful. Ever! She was raised with others of her kind who had the normal dark reds, browns, blues, greens, even a few yellows, but pink? She’d never met anyone else with them, and she had always looked at it as a curse. No one would ever ask their fathers to arrange a partnering with her being such a freak of nature. But this human had noticed them and even liked them. Maybe another Daraani had thought so, too. Perhaps it was time to ask her mother if there had been word from any other families looking to partner off their sons.

She wiped her eyes of the tears that had been running down her cheeks. Neither of these arguments made sense. He was an animal! If he was insulting or complimenting, it was strictly an instinctual response, nothing more. After all, the little information that they have publicly available about these humans makes them out to be pack-based hunter-gatherers. They’ve barely pulled together enough to verbally communicate amongst themselves.

She sat up in the chair, her brow furrowed in startling realization: How could he be so easy to understand and so quickly learn from her if he was some simple animal? He was well-articulated, reasonably well groomed, and wore clothes that weren’t the tatters and rags of animal skins that they were shown to wear in what little information is available. How could their information be so incorrect? She decided at that moment that she was going to find out why it seemed to be so.

Dharcia reached down under the desk and removed a soft paper-like wadding from its container. She brought it to her snout and blew hard into it, clearing out her nasal passages from her unusual reaction. This was more important than whether or not he had insulted her or not. There was a scientific reason to accept his flawed behavior, and her personal feelings had nothing to do with that. She nodded at herself, then stood from the chair and straightened her clothes. The last thing she does before unlocking the door and returning to his cell is to toss the mucus-coated tissue into the waste bin.

– –

The door hisses open again as I stand from the bed. It’d been a few minutes since Dharcia left, but I’d been told a lot. I’d learned that their translation matrices were originally top-secret secured in case someone tried contacting the planet before we were ready. I learned that there had been an apparent first-contact between the UFO and Earth, but not much came of it. Most importantly, at least for me at the moment, was that I learned how I had insulted her by simply speaking about her tail. It was taken as an insult because it would have been understood that I felt she lacked in proper etiquette, grace, and grooming, and that was about as bad as calling her a worthless whore. I didn’t want that and had been hoping to see her before I left the room.

Nishka, however, wasn’t expecting her quick return. She jumped as she finished explaining how the injection was the machine, but a nanite breakdown of the device. They would re-assemble correctly in the appropriate areas of my brain and would have no damaging affects to the surrounding tissue, although I might have a headache as I got used to its translations. The Hishaern quickly regained her composure and began to speak to her subordinate. “Dharcia! Good, I’m glad you’ve come back. I want–”

The Daraani broke in with her statement as if she was about to burst. “I know you don’t think of me that poorly, and I don’t care if you do. I’m here to learn and get our information right. Your race is practically unknown to us and I don’t think that’s right. So, here I am. I’m ready. Just don’t talk about that again. Please.”

Mergrayne looked at the the purple skunk with a smirk that slowly turned into a chuckle. A moment later, it was a full laugh, the first I’d seen him loosen up the entire time he was present in the room. After a moment, he calmed himself enough to speak through chuckles. “I’m glad to hear that, Ensign. I was about to assign you to be his liaison until he knows the ship well enough. And I’m sure you have a million questions to ask him about his life and race. Just make sure to take good notes because everything you write will be updating both the public knowledge files as well as the newly unclassified military info. It’ll make you the first to do any real documentation of them in years.” He motions to Nishka. “Come on. Let’s let her get her feet wet. If you say he’s not a danger, then I’ll believe you.”

“You didn’t a second ago.”

He looks at me, then the mephit, and finally back at Nishka. “I think they’ve embarrassed each other enough to keep from doing anything stupid.” He turns to head out, stepping through the door with Nishka following behind, her tail shifting and twitching.

The doctor stops and turns around at the entrance to punch in the code on the plate to keep the door from closing. Before she leaves to return to her office, the feline pokes her head into the doorway. “Dharcia, keep that pad with you, and keep him close. We’ll send you his room assignment to your datapad.”

“Yes, ma’am,” she quietly implies, and I notice the darker coloring returning to her cheeks as she clutches the pad to her chest again. She slowly turns towards me, her maw showing a nervous smile. “So, shall we?” She gestures at the door, and we both head out into the gray-walled hallway.

Chapter 19

For what Dharcia lacked in social skills during the tour of the ship, she made up for it in knowledge of the workings of the vessel and the interconnected activities of the races on-board. There was absolutely no small talk. There was no questions or banter like I’d have liked. Instead, it was purely educational, much to my chagrin.

The first thing I learned was to not be too close to her tail. She let slide the first time I stepped on it but threatened me with severe pain if I did it again. I took to walking just off to one side to prevent the mishap and it wasn’t an issue again. The second thing I learned was that she hadn’t quite forgiven me for my accidental faux pas but was more interested in learning how I reacted to things and what I knew to let it stop her. I think the fact that she outright told me so was the easiest way to learn that. From there, it was on to actually walking the ship. For all the size that the ship had, the corridors were barely wide enough to handle three people walking along them, and that depended on the race of the occupants. For myself and those about my size it was comfortable enough, but the larger aliens obviously would have needed more room.

The first place she showed me was the medical facility. She said it was in case something happened and I got hurt, but I felt it was more because she expected plenty of trouble for me, not that I’d given her reason to think otherwise so far. While we were there I recognized the gurney that I had started started my new life on: black metal with a hovering box positioned not quite over it and the three others in each of the facility’s corners. I had walked over to the unit before Dharcia had realized it and was promptly confronted by Nishka, who had been watching from the security cameras. She promised to explain the function of the devices in the room to me later but now was not the time. She shooed us from the room to continue the tour, but not before pulling Dharcia aside and whispering something into her ear. Whatever it was the feline said, it made my tour-guide even less happy. The mephit grabbed my arm rather forcefully as she swung me around and all but threw me head-first out the door.

The next hour or so was a blur of facts, directions, and information that I forget as of now. She started me at the best place to be for any person: where the food was kept. The mess hall was as long as a football field and doubly as wide, with the occasional support beam from top to bottom. The floors and ceiling sported the same coloring as the hallway’s black flooring and white-metal tiled overhead but the walls were painted with random shades of reds and greens. All over the floor were tables holding many different food options, or what I guessed was food. It could have fed entire armies at a moments notice. Dharcia made a remark about how most of the food itself was generated and not necessarily cooked, but I really wasn’t paying attention as I took in the mixed scents and odors pouring from the trays below the observation deck. I’d asked if we could try some and was promptly turned down. Apparently I hadn’t been announced to the crew as of yet and a human on the ship could be taken as a bad sign. With a sigh, I followed her back into the main halls.

The next area we stopped in was what she called the Commons. It was connected to the mess hall by way of a double-wide hallway that was a rather short walk. If we were to have been Earth, we’d probably have called it a really big mall. There were shops and stores carrying everything you could imagine, and some things you wouldn’t want to imagine. And the people! So many colors and types of creatures that I couldn’t even begin to try and name them! Bi-pedals, four-legged walkers, taurs, even some insectoids were all mingling together peacefully. There were some that stood barely half my height while others towered overhead. Or they would have if my guide would have allowed me past the viewing dome situated above the center of the water fountain and surrounding plants of various types. I found myself eager to jump down and begin mingling. After all, how often do you get to meet literally thousands of aliens! Again, I was cut short on my enthusiasm by my current lack of security clearance.

We continued this way for quite a while. Finally, we began walking towards what she called the living decks when I finally decide to stop her. Trying to be gentle, I grab her arm and bring her to a stop in mid-stride. The motion cuts short an explanation of the way the living decks were divided by home planet’s conditions and earned me a glaring sneer as she snapped herself around to face me. I look into her eyes and try to maintain an apologetic stance. “Look, I really want to talk to you. Can we please stop for a moment and just talk?”

Her response? An immediate and loud huff, followed by a curt nod. “Fine. Say what you want. I don’t care.”

“Hey, that’s what I want to talk to you about. I’m really sorry that I upset you. I didn’t mean it that way. Where I come from, being bushy-tailed means awake and happy. It’s actually a compliment on… “ I notice a slightly-yellowed tear coming to her eyes. “Dharcia, are you okay?”

She verbally lashes out at me and makes it clear what I said wasn’t heard, or at least wasn’t registering yet. “You don’t understand! I’ve lived my entire life being the outcast, and for you to sit there and tell me that there’s something wrong with me! Well, you can just eat my dirt for all I care, because… Because…” Her tone drops and her facial expression softens to that of a surprise and confusion. “Wait, you’re telling me that you actually were complimenting me? That whole time? You… You like my tail?”

“Uhhhh…”

“Do you think I’m pretty?”

“Dharcia, I’m no judge of what’s attractive in your species. I think you look nice, yes. But, where I’m from, skunks are usually black and white! Compared to that, yes, you’re pretty, but I can’t say that and know how that would be taken by you or anyone else you know. I was being an ass when I said that, Dharcia. I mean, an ass in that I didn’t think you’d understand me. But I meant it when I said that you looked nice. You do, for an alien, I mean.”

She watches me with those pink eyes that seem strangely piercing for a few moments, as if she was looking for something that would betray false intentions. When she decides that she’s found none, she nods slowly. “Alright. I guess I understand. I’ll forgive you if you really mean what you’re saying.” She smiles and visibly relaxes, her tail bobbing slightly as she straightens herself some. “I’m sorry, too. I know you don’t know the subtleties of all the species here and we expect to see you make a fool of yourself a few times as you adjust. I just have a history of getting picked on because of how different I am from everyone.”

I wait a moment for her to continue the explanation. When it doesn’t come, I decide to chance even more. I extend my right hand to her slowly in the hopes that she’d recognize the gesture. Instead, I’m met with her lifting it to her nose and softly sniffing its palm. I laugh quietly, then step closer to her and take her right hand-paw with my left and gently place it in my again waiting right hand. “I guess I can teach you something now. On Earth, we call this a handshake.” I gently grasp the paw and shake it slowly. “It’s a combination of a greeting and a peaceful gesture.” With that I let go of her paw which falls to her side briefly. She raises her hand-paw to her eyes to inspect it, then extends her paw towards me. With a smile I take her paw and let her shake it again. “It really has a ton of meanings, but the main ones are of welcome.”

The darker shade returns to her cheek for a moment and quickly vanishes. “Well then! Welcome to you, too!” She smiles wide, a gesture that bares her sharp teeth slightly. Then she lets go and pulls me alongside her as she pushes us along the tour. The rest of the day her paw remained on my shoulder as she explained in a much happier tone the remaining parts of the ship. It was very, very nice to have a new friend who I didn’t have to worry about snapping at me for an accidental misstep.

– –

She sat in her cell and simply stared at the wall. The light-brown coloring of that wall had nothing to stare at, but she stared anyway. Her legs were pulled up to her chest and her chin rested on the bent knees. Around them were her arms and hand-paws, each clutching other as they held her knees in place. All of these were indistinguishable from the other in the orange jumpsuit she’d been forced into. The only identifying marks came from the black and white fur on her long ears that fell down her shoulders just outside of her shoulder-length black hair, and the matching fur on her face. Her neon-blue eyes rarely blinked, and she hadn’t moved from that position in the hours since she’d been remanded to the five-by-five room.

Behind her and to the right, Chi’bi knew the walls would be identical, but to her left it seemed that there was no wall or door, just what appeared to be an empty frame. In truth there were infrared sensor beams that were linked to the ship’s security network. If one of the innumerable beams broke, the ward would be sealed and a sleeping gas would fill the hall and would be sealed until motion sensors showed clear across the board. Then, and only then, would security personnel enter the room. That’s when they’d be moved to the high security ward. She didn’t want to be in the high security block.

The time drifted past with little in the way of entertainment. She could keep track of how many times an asteroid or other space flotsam bumped the hull. She could have begun counting the strands of fur on her paws. But no, her mind was occupied. The past twenty four hours kept running through her mind, and every time it did she felt her heart sink deeper. As Chi’bi knew it, she’d traded one prison for another, and there was nothing she could do about it. Instead, she simply waited for whatever was going to happen to happen. The captain could decide to send her to maximum security simply for being on that ship. By being on the Au’sharh craft she was in violation of several orders from High Command, and it didn’t matter why. She’d made her choice, though, and she was going to stick with it.

A soft hiss sounded down the hallway, followed by the sound of a dispatch of guards. Four, maybe five different sounds from the varying weights of the soldiers. The footsteps came closer, but she didn’t care. She simply looked at the wall and waited. As the sounds came from her immediate left they stopped. Chi’bi continued to stare at the wall and waited for her sentence to be issued. There was a silence and she could tell that, whoever was there, they were waiting for her to look at them. She wasn’t going to give the bastard the satisfaction.

The voice that greeted her was gruff, almost a throaty growl. But it was a growl she knew all too well. “Chi’bi. I’m only going to ask you this one time. For your sake, you’d better not lie to me.”

The Eil’phae turned and raised her ears at Commander Grai’gahrd. Her jaw lay slack for a moment in surprise before she stood and brought herself to attention before the superior officer. Was she really on his ship? “I’ve never lied to you before, Commander.”

“Good. Now, tell me. Where is my brother?”

Chi’bi tilts her head in complete confusion but answers the question anyway. “You don’t know? He got captured like I was. The whole battlegroup was. On a recon mission in Au’Sharh space, we ran into a series of EMP encampments.” The woman shifted on her feet and paused her testament for a moment. “It knocked out the entire group. We didn’t have a chance.”

The Ru’therian stepped up to the beams as if to charge her directly. “I meant NOW! Where is he? I know you’ve seen him!”

The Eil’phae involuntarily backed into the wall from the charge. Her head hung heavy on her chest as a tear drifted down her fur. “I don’t know. I was told he’d be waiting for me.” Chi’bi looked up and faced the commander again, allowing her to see the tears rolling down her face. “If I knew where he was, Mergrayne, I’d tell you. I swear. I just…” She slid down the walls and let herself fall into a ball on the floor, her ears falling back to her shoulders in an honest display of her despair. “I don’t know where he is…”

Commander Grai’gahrd glared at the woman through the invisible sensor stream for a moment and gauged her response. After a moment of watching the young lady sob uncontrollably into her paws, he finally turned to the guard to his left. “Let her out. And give her back her clothes.”

The black-and-white-furred skunk in the bright blue uniform of ship security looked at him inquisitively before asking, “Sir?”

The Ru’therian turned towards the exit before he spoke again. “She is an officer of the UFO, Ensign. As of this moment, she is designated as crew to this ship. And if I hear of any mistreatment, you’ll answer to me.” With that, he shouldered his way through the detail and returned to the bridge.

The guard obeyed and disabled the restraint sensors, then stepped in to help the distraught female off of the floor.

She remained where she was and would not be moved.

Chapter 20

The ship’s tour has been over now for the past hour or so. It’s much easier to register time when there are chronodisplays all over the ship. Granted, the time is translated into a form that I can understand, however the Organization’s day lasts an additional ten and a half hours from what I’m used to, but only in space. Once the ship lands all times would become relevant to the planet we were on and are simply be coordinated to times on the ship. So far, though, there was no immediate correlation to Earth time, so there was no way for me to know just how long I’ve been in space.

We find ourselves sitting in Dharcia’s quarters while we wait for the message to her datapad with my own billet. It had taken nearly a half-hour to enter her room as it was since there was no back-door for security entrances and I could not yet be seen by the general populous. Now that we were in the room, the skunk-like girl across from me in her bed had become an insatiable question box. She wanted to know everything that she could and was recording our conversation for her own notes and documentation. She started with the basics: my age, my “rank in social standards,” even what my name meant. I answered every question as honestly as I could, but there are just some questions that I can’t answer. One such question was “What exactly is the make-up of your planet’s atmosphere?” I know that our air has hydrogen and oxygen and other things, but she seemed discouraged that I couldn’t list off everything.

After answering the ninth or tenth question, I finally raise my hand to stop her. She didn’t notice at first. “Okay, so you know a little about your planet, but what kind of plant and animal relation… “ She looks up and sees me trying to get her attention without vocally interrupting. “Uh… Is something wrong?” She smiles again and I notice a bright gleam in her eyes. She was so excited to be talking to me now that she understood me a little more.

I clear my throat and ignore her enthusiasm for a moment. “Hey, Dharcia. I understand that I’m a new creature and you want to dissect me and all, but why–”

Her eyes grow in surprise as she cuts me off. “I don’t want to cut you, Robert!”

I shake my head, hoping she’ll understand the gesture. “I don’t mean actually dissect me, more ask me everything you possibly can.”

“Oh.”

“Anyway, why are you asking me? I’m barely an adult, and not exactly a scientist brainiac kind of guy. Why don’t you just send an exploration team to Earth?”

I see the excitement in her eyes diminish quickly as her eyes dart away from me for a few moments. Her head and ears droop slightly and her tail, which had been wrapped around her and sitting in her lap, drifts back behind her. Finally, she looks at me with the impassive features of a stone wall. “That’s something that I am not authorized to discuss with you.” Her voice was sharp and final as the words left her mouth.

My brow furrows and my head tilts slightly to the left as I look at her in confusion. This was the first time she’d held something from me. Whatever her reasons, she felt it strong enough about it to try convincing me that it wasn’t important with her voice. “Why not? Dharcia, is something wrong?”

“No, no. I just can’t talk to you about that. Not yet. You’ve got clearance to be on-board, but not that kind of clearance.”

I let myself laugh openly, which is only made worse when I notice the mephit’s jump from my initial laugh. “Clearance? Security? Dharcia, you’re the only person that I’m really comfortable talking to here! It’s not like I’m going to spill some kind of secrets!” I stand and walk past her and around the softly-padded bunk. I come to a stop in front of what passes for a sink on the ship. “Hey, fine, then can you at least show me how to get water?”

In a moment, I feel the air behind me move as she steps in close to me. She takes the back of my hand in her paw and guides it to what looks like a gloss-black bar. As my fingers brush it, the control mechanism lights up in a flurry of symbols that I don’t immediately recognize. I blink, and they change to a more understandable format. “You… There you go… You touch that bar, then you control it by moving your finger along the slider.”

I feel her moist breath bounce off the hair of my neck, sending a shiver down my back. That’s the very moment that I become self-conscious and realize just how close the girl is to me. The image in my head plays along with what I feel, her left hand-paw on my hip, her chin lifted and resting on my shoulder, her stomach close to my side, all while her right paw still held my hand to the control device. I whip almost completely around in an attempt to slide away from her but am stopped short against the wall facing her. She looks into my wide eyes as if she had done nothing unusual and, in fact, was confused by my reaction.

“Is something wrong?”

“I…” My mind is racing with things to say. Why did you touch me like that? You shouldn’t be that close to me!

Maybe she doesn’t understand that humans are used to personal space.

 “It was nothing, Dharcia. I… Humans just tend to give each other a bit more personal space. When you came close… I guess I just got nervous.”

I watch the girl’s eyes bulge as she tries to bite her lips shut to clamp in a snicker. It fails, as does the attempt to hold in more chuckles, then an outright laugh. “You thought I was trying to be close to you? Oh, Robert, you really don’t understand my kind yet. If I was trying to be affectionate with you, I would be.” Dharcia smiles yet again as she straightens her white jacket and dark purple pants. “After all, I’m sure it wouldn’t be too very different. Most of the species on the ship interact physically in very similar ways!”

I gather myself enough to turn the water on and get myself a glass to drink. I use the moment to force my body to relax as I feel my heart pounding in my throat and my heavy breathing slowly subside. I take down the liquid, which is strangely salty and sweet in a good way, then turn to face her again. By the time I did, she’d returned to her bed and was holding her tail in her lap again. The smile hadn’t left and I felt unusually watched as I returned to my seat slowly.

“It’s okay, Robert. A lot of first contacts in history were a little rocky.” She sounded calm and sincere, but I could hear a hint of tease in her words. “I’m sure that this isn’t easy for you. I’m also sure that you talking with a female is making you uncomfortable, too.” She lowered her eyes for a moment to take a breath, continuing from that position. “I volunteered to be a first contact member. That means that it’s my job to learn about new species that come on-board for any reason.” Dharcia quickly looks up at me, the smile not waning in the slightest, but the motion causing her to jump slightly on the bed. Even through her clothes, her gently curved form followed suit. “I just happen to be the only member on this ship, besides the commander and Doctor Nishka, who’s allowed to introduce cultures both ways.” She stopped there, satisfied with her explanation.

I sat and waited for a few moments for more from the girl. When it never came, I spoke up. “Alright, then. I get it, you’re part of the welcoming committee. What I don’t understand is, why is it that there’s only three of you?”

“I…” She started with a happy tone but came to an abrupt stop. Her face scrunched in what I took as a thoughtful appearance as she considered my point. “I don’t know,” she began again. “I guess there’s not much expectancy for contact in this region.”

That answer suited my thoughts. Why would you supply a ship with first contact crew when you didn’t anticipate it. “So, then, now what?”

Before she could respond, the datapad that remained in her paws as long as she was seated began toning. She flipped it up to look at, then tapped the device several times. “It looks like our conversation is over. The Commander is requesting us on the Conference Deck B.” She looked confused by the order but began to slowly rise anyway.

“What’s wrong with B?” I ask her politely.

“It’s the one used to address the entire ship…”

– –

Mergrayne Grai’gahrd, Commanding Officer of the Conquest’s Dawn, looked over the crew that had gathered. There were several thousand of them in the center already with more gathering. He knew that there would be roughly seven hundred members that would not be in the hall as they were actively running the ship, but he had ordered the crew to skeleton operations and ordered everyone else to gather in the hall. The last thing Mergrayne wanted to do was what he was about to but he had little choice. It was either this or go against the High Command’s orders. That would cost him his ship, and he’d die before surrendering the Organization’s largest flagship. He’d worked too hard to earn this privilege and was not going to simply lose it.

Especially not over some overgrown ape.

The lupine turned away from the small stage and stepped closer to Doctor Nishka. She stood in her freshly-pressed midnight blue dress uniform, a stark contrast to her pure white fur. She was excited, and he could tell by the nearly upright tail. The energy she gave off, the quiet purr that filled the air, and the appearance of her in the unusual garment for her made him want to call off the meeting and take her to his quarters for the night and pray he woke up with this nightmare being over. He ignored the thought as he addressed her directly. “Nishka, are you sure we are ready for this? This could rock a few more berths than we need right now.”

The doctor admired him for a moment before speaking, her feline voice still laden with her purr and excitement. “Commander, we both know this is absolutely necessary. He will be turned in by the security detail that doesn’t recognize him as a stowaway if we don’t.” She took a step closer and dropped a perfectly-manicured hand-paw on his shoulder to gain his entire attention. “Besides, the sooner we do this, the sooner we can…” Her feline lips lifted in a wicked smile as she paused, “Enjoy ‘dinner’ tonight.”

Grai’gahrd nods, loosing a sharp sigh as he does so. His gaze heads behind Nishka at the doctor’s subordinate, Dharcia, who looked amazingly sharp in her dress blues, and him. He stood there with his hair straightened out but he still remained in his human attire, the thick faded blue fabric that made up his pants and the thin, single layer shirt of bright red. He looked more out of place by the minute, which only served to anger him further. Couldn’t he have at least been fitted with a proper uniform? He shoved the thought past himself and looked back at his lover. Her twinkling eyes lifted his spirits and he actually smiled openly from it.

“I guess we can start now.”

Grai’gahrd spun on his heals and began to make his way onto the stage and, more specifically, the podium centered on it. As he came into view, the room fell into a hushed silence. But when the medical officers followed him onto the stage, the voices picked back up. There were already rumors of an alien virus sweeping the ship and killing off shipmates in a flash. The appearance of the medical personnel with the Commander served only to make the rumors worse.

A-Hem!

The room silenced almost immediately.

Mergrayne looked back past the stage to see the human still standing where he was told. Good. At least he follows orders.

“I’m sure you’re all wondering why I’ve called this emergency attendance.” He took a sip of water from a glass resting on the podium. “I’ve heard that some of you believe there to be a medical emergency. This is far from the truth. There is no medical concerns on-board this ship at the present.” At least not ones you’re expecting. “There is, however, reason for a meeting.”

“As some of you know, there was a mission outside of system Sol, the local terminology for their system. Our mission was technically successful in that we rescued an attempted abductee from the system.” He paused as some applause quietly rolled into the chamber. Once it subsided, the dark wolf continued. “There was, however, a complication. That abductee had an accidental resuscitation before we could return him to his location of origin.” The room suddenly became alive with murmured discussion. He raised his hand-paw to gain their attention once again, and the room returned to silence. “To make it clear, he is alive and well. So well, in fact, that, due to the ordinance of UFO regulation, he is being inducted into the ship’s crew effective immediately.” Grai’gahrd turned to Nishka as he spoke the the remaining piece of this part of the briefing. “Medical Officer Nishka will be explaining the race of this special case. Doctor?” He offered her the podium as he stepped back and took a seat behind her.

The white-furred feline woman walked up to the podium with her raised tail flicking slightly at its tip. As she took the spot where the hidden microphone would pick her up the best, Nishka cleared her throat and nodded towards her lover and started. “Thank you, Commander.” She looked back at the crew to continue. “As Commander Grai’gahrd has stated, there is no cause for alarm. We have on-board…” She paused as she gauged the crew assembled here for signs of too much anxiety. When she was confident that the news would not cause unneeded panic, she continued. “A human.”

The crowd began confused rumblings amongst themselves, but there were a few yelled comments in regards to “Barbarians,” “Primitives,” and “Animals,” but she allowed them to speak for a moment. Forcing a silence would not be the best way to quell the concerns and she knew it.

After a few moments, the noise died down on its own, and the Hishaern woman pushed through the remaining rumblings. “There was an error in handling his rescue, and, as such, is now a member of the Dawn‘s crew at the rank of Ensign Third Class. He has been closely monitored and is neither a medical nor physical threat to anyone on-board. He is also not the lower-intelligence concept that is the generally-accepted understanding of their race. He is of at least average intelligence for Organization purposes, although his full intellectual capacity has not yet been tested.” She stops to drink from her own glass of water, then looks over the crew. She could sense a myriad of emotions from them, but the overwhelming feeling was of confusion and uncertainty. “I know that this is a shock and a surprise. There isn’t much more I can tell you other than he is fit, healthy, and seems to be house-trained.” That got a few laughs and she could sense the looming tension drift away, even if only slightly. “With that, though, I would like to turn over the floor to Dharcia Adali’ayna, junior medical officer and UFO inter-species liaison for the Conquest’s Dawn. She will be responsible for his cultural integration and adaptation to ship life.” Nishka then lifted her left hand-paw towards the younger mephit, then stepped back and to her own seat next to Mergrayne.

Dharcia stood at the podium, then closed her eyes and released a heavy breath to calm her nerves. The sound of that breath broadcast over the crowd, drawing a few laughs from those who were closest to the loudspeakers. Her pink eyes opened, as did a completely unforced smile. “Good evening.” It’s afternoon! Keep going… “As you are aware, my name is Dharcia. You’ve all had the chance to meet me as a part of ship indoctrination. As most of you are aware, I also act as a ship’s counselor as well as a medical officer. As it was stated, my job in this is to introduce Robert,” she stressed the name as she looked over at the officers, clearly unimpressed by their lack of information, “to the ship as a whole. First contact scenarios were followed, and a language matrix was put into place. He will be understandable to you as a whole, so long as you keep your matrices active. There will be the occasional cultural clashes between members, but these can be easily worked around.” She feels a warm return to her cheeks and swallows hard to try to mask it, although no one really would be able to see it at that range. “He is reasonably friendly, and I feel many of you will warm up to him if you give him a chance.”

A member of the crowd yelled loud enough to be heard by everyone in the hall. “Have you warmed up to him?”

The Daranni woman smiled in the direction of the sound. “Yes, I have. He’s been nothing but friendly, thank you very much. I’ve spent the past few hours with Robert, and I feel that he will blend in reasonably well, so long as he is given the chance.” She looks over her shoulder at Commander Grai’gahrd, who nods, then looks back to the crowd. “Now, I would like to ask that there are no questions at the moment, but I am going to bring him on-stage now…”

– –

What do they mean on-stage? I look over at Mergrayne to see him not quite glaring at me, but definitely motioning me to come into the visible area of the stage. I comply and walk slowly out onto the platform, squinting as I adjust to the light from the darkness. The crew becomes noisy as the discussion about this “alien creature” picks up. Commander Grai’gahrd stands and glares at the crew to silence them, and I stop a few feet from the podium in time to hear Dharcia continue addressing the crew.

“As you can see, while we had generally accurate physical descriptions, the details were skewed in regards to dress, intellect, and abilities. He is very capable of interacting with the crew, our technologies, and the ship as a whole. I would like you to, if nothing else, treat him as you would any other member of the crew. Feel free to speak to him if you like.” She smiles as she watches me shift uncomfortably, then looks over to Nishka. “Is there anything else?”

Grai’gahrd stands up and walks to the podium, but instead of walking in front of it, he presses a button on his shirt, connecting his voice to the audio broadcaster. “As of this moment, you are all under orders in this regard. The hu– Robert is classified as Level Five Top Secret. There is to be no discussion of him outside of members of this crew or members of High Command, should they ask you, under codeword secrecy. The codeword has been transmitted to your personal tablet for security reasons. As a Class Five, violation of this codeword secrecy is considered a treasonable act, punishable by the most severe options available. Understood?” When no one responded, he continued. “Good. Now, I will open the floor to ask questions that are directly applicable to this classification.” No one stood or spoke. “Alright, then, for the officers?” Still no one. He sighed loudly as he shook his head. “Anyone?” When no one spoke, he glared at me as I stood silently next to the podium. “And, for Robert?”

Several hands shot up and Dharcia brought me to the podium’s audio receiver. She then pointed to a slightly heavier rabbit-like member of the crew about half-way up. He stood and a light shown directly on him. His tan fur was covered with darker brown spots that I could barely make out between the distance and the uniform he wore. His paw touches a button on his seat and his question broadcast over the loudspeaker system for all to hear. “So, your name is Robert, right?”

I clear my throat and speak at him, not sure of where to look to be heard. “Yes, sir.” It rang clear and true.

“Robert, did you remove your own tail?” The majority of the crowd snickered audibly.

This was going to be a long night…

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