Chanda’s Legacy Part 4 by Dave Creek – FREE STORY

Chanda's Legacy Pt 4




Earth Unity Ambassador Chanda Kasmira must deal with the potential damage to a Sobrenian starcraft that could spread to the station.

Chanda’s lover, Ben Farrington, leads the medical response to the injured Sobrenians taken aboard the station.

Sobrenian Ambassador Veringashi survives the damage to his ship, and also a threat on his life by a fellow Sobrenian.

Later, both Ben Farrington and Chanda are injured in a physical confrontation with Veringashi.

Another Sobrenian ship, the Adurentok, arrives. Its captain, Drakim, wants to bring Veringashi home, accusing him of the genocide of a race subservient to the Sobrenians, called the Garotethans. Garotethans who have been hiding aboard the station, though, dispute Drakim’s assertion, saying Veringashi is actually working against the genocide, but is a political rival of Drakim.

The Garotethans disappear. Veringashi says he know where to find them and wants to lead Chanda, Ben, and others into unexplored depths of the Station of the Lost.




Drakim’s starcraft, the Adurentok, eased itself onto the deck of the hangar bay as Veringashi, Ben, and I watched from the viewing corridor. Ben carried a med-pack slung over one shoulder. Veringashi stood unmoving. As Human techs again went through the ritual of ensuring the craft wasn’t emitting anything dangerous, I looked all around for Akira. It wasn’t like her to be late. I’d asked her to gather material for a particular precaution I wanted her to take. Perhaps that had delayed her.

In the meantime, Ken Westbrook arrived, as I’d requested. “What can I do for you, Chanda?” he asked.

“First of all, I want to tell you how much I’ve appreciated everything you’ve done while we’ve been dealing with the shit-show we’ve been putting up with.”

A nearly timid grin from Ken. “It’s why I’m here.”

“All the same, you’ve come through on every task I’ve given you. And you’re about to have even more fall upon you.” I explained where Ben, Akira, Veringashi, Drakim, and I were headed and what our goal was.

Ken’s forehead furrowed. “Even Drakim?”

“Yeah. Maybe especially Drakim. Our hope is his own people won’t fire upon him if he’s with us. But it puts you in charge while we’re gone. I don’t know whether comms will work everywhere we go. Even if they do, I can’t go on this mission and run things from here, as well.”

“I . . . appreciate the trust you’re placing in me.”

“You deserve that trust. Now get outta here.”

As Ken left, Akira showed up just outside the corridor. Irene was with her. I couldn’t hear what they were saying (and wouldn’t have wanted to intrude, anyway) but Irene was visibly upset. Akira embraced her for a long moment, then finally pulled away. Irene left as Akira joined me and Ben. She had a holstered stunner and an equipment belt heavy with items that her role as security officer might require, including a portable sensorpac, wrist and ankle restraints, and her own medical items.

“Are you all right?” I asked her.

Akira said, “She wanted to go along. I had to tell her we were counting on her back here.”

Ben and I traded knowing looks.

When we received the all-clear, I led Ben, Veringashi, and Akira toward the Sobrenian craft.

As we waited for the embarkation ramp to extrude itself from the side of the teardrop-shaped craft, I considered everything that was at stake in our upcoming journey. I’d already admitted to myself that this was purely a delaying tactic, that I was only postponing the inevitable confrontation that would determine the future of Human-Sobrenian relations.

Which would mean deciding whether to surrender both Veringashi and the Garotethans to a certain death, or allowing the Station of the Lost to be destroyed.

On the surface, the decision would be easy. Saving the station had to be my highest priority.

It wouldn’t make turning over Veringashi and the Garotethans any easier.

The Adurentok’s embarkation ramp lowered itself to the hangar deck. Drakim strode down it, alone. Then he stood before us, not saying a word. His eyes, independently, took in the grouping of beings before him, but he didn’t react, not even at the sight of Veringashi.

Akira held an intense focus upon Drakim. Her fingers hovered over her holstered stunner.

I couldn’t take it any longer. I stepped forward and said, “Captain Drakim, it’s — “

Drakim raised a hand. “Do not try to tell me what a pleasure this is for you. I am here for a purpose. Let us undertake that purpose.”

“Very well,” I said. “Do you need anything from your ship before we go?”

“I believe I’m self-sufficient. I assumed you would not allow me to bring a weapon or a member of my security team.”

“That’s correct.” We both knew, however, that ambassadorial protocols would never allow me to order him to be searched.

Drakim indicated Akira. “I see, however, that you have brought along your own security.” Then he pointed toward Ben. “You’ve even brought your mate.”

My face grew warm. “Ben is a doctor. He’s here in case any of us needs medical attention. Including you.”

Drakim’s nostrils flared in amusement. “I’ve heard of his recent, let us say, education in treating Sobrenian patients. And of the, perhaps, spirited disagreement with one of our doctors.”

I couldn’t help noticing Ben rubbing his neck.

Enough of this, I thought. “Let’s head out. Veringashi, lead the way.”


# # #


Veringashi took point, leading us out of the hangar deck and down a corridor. Ben and I walked immediately behind him. Drakim came along right behind us, with Akira bringing up the rear, no doubt keeping a close eye on the Sobrenian captain.

We paused to wait for a lift tube. When it arrived and we all piled into the car, Veringashi entered the code for a destination several levels down, through what most of us referred to as the “southern” end of the station. The “northern” end contained mostly machinery that ran the entire facility, and some additional docking areas. I told Veringashi, “I’ve never been on that level, but I know Adele Andros, a Human who explores the station, has. She’s never reported anything unusual about it.”

Veringashi turned one eye on me even as the other kept its attention on the changing readout of the levels we were passing. “Then your explorer doesn’t have the same knowledge I possess.”

The car halted, its doors opened, and we found ourselves in a narrow corridor. Elements of our surroundings were familiar to me from other locations; floor and ceiling were mainly gray, but with a blue cast. The ceiling’s material directly above our heads was smooth, with the side across from us bearing rectangular beams that held in a number of pipes.

The air contained a hint of a flowery smell I couldn’t place.

As we started down the corridor, Drakim said, “There’s nothing special about this place. I demand to know where we’re going. Is this some kind of trap?”

I wished I could just turn around and tell the Sobrenian captain to shut the hell up. But part of being an ambassador is knowing when not to say anything.

“You must be patient,” Veringashi said.

Drakim said, “I must see results.”

“You must shut the hell up,” Ben said. I grinned at the thought of Ben inadvertently parroting my own thoughts.

Drakim’s next words were aimed at me: “You should control your attack animal.”

“Perhaps you need a thicker skin,” I said.

Drakim rubbed one shoulder. “Failure to translate. Sobrenian skin is much thicker than a Human’s.”

Veringashi stopped at a doorway about six meters across and ten meters high. He said, “I can assure you that no Humans, including your Adele Andros, have gotten into this section of the station.”

I asked, “How can you know that?”

“Because the Garotethans are the only beings who have been here in many centuries. Its original inhabitants are unknown.”

Ben asked, “And how did the Garotethans find this place? It must have been before the Sobrenians invaded their home planet.”

“Before we liberated it,” Drakim said.

Ben turned abruptly toward the Sobrenian captain, but I told him, “Don’t bother.” I told Veringashi, “Are you ready to get us in here?”

Veringashi didn’t say anything, simply pressed a hand onto the wall next to the doorway. I couldn’t tell the difference between the place he picked and the rest of the wall.

The doorway emitted a low rumble all around, then a higher-pitched screeching sound. It did so long enough that I wondered whether anything was going to happen. Then the door parted in the middle, and slid aside in a series of lurching movements that reverberated across the walls and through the floor.

The opening revealed a large area about seventy meters wide and forty meters tall. First impression was of a facility packed with unknown technology and variable lighting. Before we could move forward, Veringashi said, “Be careful. Sometimes, gravity and atmosphere can change from what we’re accustomed to. Your lifesuits may switch on.”

Drakim said, “Such cowardly thoughts. Move forward while we may still have a chance of catching up to the Garotethans.”

I waved my hand in the direction of the doorway. “Be our guest,” I told Drakim. Though I have to hope the Unity powers-that-be won’t hold it against me if he’s injured.

Or worse, yet, killed. How would the Sobrenians on those other ships react?

Those second thoughts made me step forward to intercept Drakim. “Actually, let’s just wait a minute,” I told him.

I heard the faint sound of a hand scanner next to me. Akira was taking readings of the environment ahead of us. “It’s fine,” she said. “The air’s breathable for both Humans and Sobrenians, and the grav is just a little shy of one G.”

Drakim waved away such concerns and led the way into the facility before us. Akira rushed up to maintain her position right behind the Sobrenian captain.

A wide pathway about fifty meters wide stood in the middle of the floor. Various types of equipment, whose purpose I couldn’t make out, stood on raised areas to either side. The area nearest to us was only dimly lit, but a portion of the room that was about a hundred meters distant was immersed in bright, white light. I could just make out a faint odor reminiscent of wood pulp, of all things.

Ben and Veringashi walked to either side of me. The floor seemed to absorb the sound of our footsteps. I asked Veringashi, “What is this place?”

“I do not know,” he said. “I have never been here. The Garotethans never told me anything about the places we would be traveling through.”

Ben asked, “And yet you trusted them?”

“Perhaps too much. You see that they’ve abandoned me.”

I said, “But they gave you the knowledge of how to follow them.”

“All Galactic species are alien to one another. I have no idea what their thought process might be.”

“Do you know what our ultimate destination is?”

“I do not,” Veringashi said.

“This is an area of the station that’s never been explored sufficiently. But this isn’t how I expected to do it.”

I walked closer to the raised area to our right, which was still in the darkened area of the facility. What I could only describe as a series of equipment modules had been placed there. Next to them, a rectangular box was made of a material that seemed to be smooth and rigid steel. I risked touching it, though, and its texture was closer to a pliable form of plastic. Other items made of similar material but in different shapes stood all along this area. Overhead, what appeared to be massive readouts of some sort showed only faint symbols in an unknown language. They also provided the only illumination in this area.

Drakim walked ahead of the rest of us, Akira close behind. “Why are we here?” he demanded. “Are the Garotethans hiding in this place?”

Ben said, “Impatient fellow, isn’t he?”

Metallic arms towered over the far end of this section, reaching nearly to the domed ceiling. Each had four joints which I could tell, in motion, would give them considerable flexibility in performing their job.

Whatever that might have been.

Three such arms stood immobile around a raised stage, which supported various pieces of machinery. Some were rectangular, some spherical, others looking as if they’d been created in one of those forms but had since been melted down into random configurations.

Overhead, a single large light about ten meters wide hung from the ceiling, illuminating this entire end of the facility with a force too intense to look at directly.

The entire facility gave the impression of something long since abandoned, as if some device or means of transport had been under construction, never to be completed. It was utterly mysterious, and I could barely believe no one (or at least no Humans) had explored it before.

The far wall stood straight and solid before us. Somewhere beyond it, I knew, the usual air-speeders and shuttles would be zooming through the transit area that occupied the middle of the station. But I couldn’t hear or feel any evidence of their passage, which suggested a tight seal around the edges of that wall.

I had to wonder just how many different environments the station could hold in this “southern” half.

Drakim turned and rushed Veringashi. “Tell us what is happening! Tell us!”

Akira managed to place herself between the two Sobrenians, stopping Drakim’s rush. Veringashi looked on, seemingly aloof. He said, “We must keep going. Just past these structures is the next entryway.”

At the risk of sounding even a little like Drakim, I asked, “Is the next place we go to going to be just like this? Abandoned, with no indication of what went on here?”

Ben said, “Or of how long it’s been this way?”

Drakim took a couple steps back from Akira and Veringashi. “He is sending us the wrong way. He is protecting these Garotethan vermin.”

I asked him, “What else would you have us do? Where else would we go?”

Drakim emitted a loud “Humph!,” folded his arms, and turned his back on us.

I told Veringashi, “Wherever we’re going next, let’s head that way.”

The Sobrenian led the way past the stage, and into a corridor off the far wall. It quickly narrowed, and we had to walk single-file, Veringashi leading, Ben and I right behind, and Drakim and Akira brought up the rear.

I told Ben, “We’ll have to come up on another entryway soon. We’re should be getting close to the exterior wall of the station.”

Sure enough, within moments, Veringashi dead-ended at a circular hatch, the rest of us gathering around him. Veringashi placed his hand against the wall to one side of the hatch.

Nothing happened.

“So you have stranded us here,” Drakim said.

I really had to suppress the urge to tell him to shut the hell up. Instead, I asked Veringashi, “Is there anything I can do to help?”

“No,” he said. “This will only open to my touch, or that of the Garotethans.” He kept poking around the area he’d first touched.

That area was just over shoulder-high for Veringashi. I said, “That might be a bit of a reach for a Garotethan.”

As Veringashi kept his focus on finding just the right spot, he said, “They did not create these entrances. Possibly, they were made by a species closer to our height. And whose eyesight allowed them to see control panels we cannot.”

Ben said, “That’s something to keep in mind whenever we come back here. We should bring instruments that see beyond Human or Sobrenian abilities.”

“I will never return here,” Drakim said.

Ben gave me a nod that said that was fine with him.

“Me, too,” I told him. “All the same, this isn’t a very high level of security. It opens to the touch of a Galactic species that I would assume was unknown to whoever built this place? No added voice commands or numerical codes?”

Veringashi said, “The Garotethans are geniuses at cracking such codes.” Another press of Veringashi’s hand to the wall, and the door slid open. A new corridor curved immediately to the right, away from the station’s exterior wall.

Drakim forced his way past Veringashi, with Akira, as usual, right behind. Veringashi went next, Ben after that, leaving me bringing up the rear.

As I approached this new place, I had to wonder what new wonders or terrors might await us. The previous environment had turned out to be benign, but would every unexplored area of the Station of the Lost be that way?

And what was our ultimate destination? I most likely still had a wrenching decision ahead of me. Finding the Garotethans would mean having to decide whether or not to give them up to Drakim. Even if I decided not to, I had few options to enforce that decision. I knew Captain Santos aboard Nivara 2, along with the commander of the Admiral Susan Kojima, would defend the station, but the cost could be far too high, including the destruction of the station itself and the deaths of everyone on board.

And here I am, I thought, following a traitor to his people and his nemesis, an overly militaristic starcraft captain.



Drakim halted in mid-stride, causing the rest of us to stop cold to keep from piling up against one another as if we were engaging in physical comedy. “What is this place?” he asked, his voice lower than I’d ever heard it.

The rest of us gathered around him. This area was about half the size of the place we’d just left. The gravity was slightly less than one gravity, and the air had a slight metallic tang to it. I told myself it had to be harmless, though, or my lifesuit would have snapped on. This area was better illuminated overall, but the overwhelming impression was of dark and dreary surroundings, even though I could make out few details yet.

My eyes adapted quickly, though, and I saw masses of long black tendrils covering the floor in all directions, as far into the room as we could see. They looked like thick wires or cables, detritus from shredded mechanical devices of some sort. But when I forced myself to take a few tentative steps closer to that terrible mass, I realized these tendrils were actually organic, as if they’d been torn from living beings and piled haphazardly around this entire facility. I’d been about to step into the middle of that mass, but halted just in time. I couldn’t tell how long they’d been there, and I was surprised I couldn’t smell any evidence of decay.

Drakim hadn’t moved, either. He stood stock still, both eyes staring straight ahead into the disgusting mass before us. “We must leave. I will go no further on this false journey.”

Veringashi said, “You insisted upon coming along. Aren’t you curious about what your hated Garotethans are doing?”

“You hate them as well.”

“But I don’t allow my personal hatred to turn to genocide.”

I had to step in. “We’re not going back, and that’s it.”

Drakim indicated Akira. “If you are afraid to allow me back into the known areas of the station on my own, your servant here can escort me.”

Akira’s mouth was set in a hard line. She didn’t take her gaze from the Sobrenian captain. Good job not responding to him, I thought.

“She’s staying with us,” I told Drakim. “And you’re coming along, too.”

Drakim made a sudden move, reaching into his robes. He pulled out a pulse pistol. “And I say I’m going back no matter what, with or without anyone else.”

I looked again at Akira, whose expression had turned into one of amusement.

“I don’t think so,” I told Drakim, and advanced toward him, holding out my hand for his weapon.

“Chanda!” Ben said.

Without turning toward Ben, I said, “Don’t worry about me.”

When I was only a step away from Drakim, he squeezed the trigger. Nothing happened. And again. Still nothing.

Drakim was so astonished that he let me take the pistol from him. I handed it to Akira, who pocketed it. “Thanks,” I told her. “I knew I could count on you.”

“What kind of trick is this?” Drakim demanded.

I said, “I knew I couldn’t have you searched for a weapon, so before Akira joined us, I had her bring along a dampening device.”

Akira proudly held up the small rectangular device and displayed it.

Drakim said, “This is a breach of diplomatic protocols.”

“So is pulling a weapon on an ambassador,” I said. “I think we’re more than even.”

Ben let out a long breath. “I wish you’d have said something ahead of time.”

“It was more fun seeing your expression.”

Veringashi said, “For anyone who is squeamish, I will take the lead through this area.”

“I’m not about to deny you the honor,” I told him.

Veringashi cautiously stepped forward. His first footfall onto the tendrils met a solid surface. As did his second. Whatever their origin, these tendrils were quite solid now. He stepped forward more confidently after that, and looked back to see if anyone was following him.

“Let’s go,” I told the others, and all of us, including Drakim, started making our way across these unsettling surroundings.

It was rough going. Some of the groupings of tendrils lay flat along the floor. Others piled up in masses that were tough to climb over, especially since they provided few flat surfaces. It would be all too easy to turn an ankle or even break a leg, I thought.

No sooner was that thought complete, that my left foot slipped off one of those tendrils and I was falling to one side.

Fortunately, Ben caught me. “Thanks for that,” I told him.

“Hell, Chanda, it was either catch you or have to carry you. I was only looking out for myself.”

We couldn’t help but look at one another and laugh.

I couldn’t help but realize how long it had been since Ben and I had shared a laugh. Had even spent the better part of a day together without bearing the weight of diplomatic crises, medical emergencies, or the fate of the station itself.

My next thought wasn’t as comforting, though. “What beings are these tendrils from? I can’t think of any known Galactic species that would match them. And there’s no leftover tech.”

Oddly enough, it was Drakim who spoke up: “There are too many mysteries in the galaxy.”

I was surprised when it was Akira who asked, “Like what?”

Drakim spared her the merest glance. “Why, for instance, are there so many pre-sentient species who act as if they have achieved full sentience?”

Akira shook her head.

Ben muttered, “Oh, just shut up.”

I had nothing else to add, so I just kept walking.

After walking several hundred meters, the nature of the remains beneath our feet began to change. I started to see rounded shapes, some of them resembling humanoid heads, others those of an octopus. Some had two empty eye sockets, others as many as five or six.

I told Ben, “I was disturbed enough walking over the tendrils. Seeing a collection of heads is a lot worse.”

Ben said, “I have too much imagination. I can visualize what these remains might have looked like when they were still alive. What they might have been looking for. What they might have feared.”

“I have to wonder how long they’ve been here. And look at how big this place is — nearly as large as the facility where we just saw all that abandoned equipment.”

I came up behind Veringashi, who was still leading the way. “Do you have any idea what this place’s function is, or was, or how long it’s been here?”

“None,” he said. “The Garotethans told me nothing about any of these environments we’re experiencing. Only that they are all mostly favorable to Garotethan — and Human — life.”

Ben came nearer and asked, “So you don’t know if the Garotethans discovered these places, or maybe created them.”

“I see no way they could have created the first area we visited. The scale of the machinery, and of the physical space itself, is too large. As for our current environment, I have no idea what kind of beings could have, apparently, killed so many beings.”

“Perhaps,” I said, “they simply found them, and stored them here.”

Ben said, “But I get the sense they’ve been here a long time. Why have they not decayed? Not that I’m disappointed, of course. Oops!”

This time, it was Ben who’d slipped. I caught him before he went down. “Thanks,” he said. “Guess we’re even, now.”

We trudged onward. Eventually, we approached a wall on the opposite side from where we came in. This time, when Veringashi touched the wall next to the doorway, the door opened right away. That movement revealed a narrow corridor with a steep ramp leading downward. The overhead lighting had a sickly, yellowish tint.

Drakim, despite his earlier eagerness to turn back, pushed past Veringashi and headed down the ramp. This time, it was his turn to slip, though he managed to catch himself. “What manner of beings would make access so difficult?” he said.

Veringashi started down the ramp next, and Ben and I followed. The gravity here was even lighter, probably about three-fifths that of Earth. “This ramp’s oddly steep,” I said. I’d managed to adopt a sort-of sliding, sort-of walking gait that kept me stable as I proceeded downward. “I wonder what kind of beings constructed it.”

Ben said, “Maybe they go barefoot and have suckers on the bottoms of their feet.”

“Hmm. Okay. That’s a theory.”

“I just like the image. It amuses me.”

I said, “Goodness knows, we have to take our amusement where we can right now.”

The corridor widened as we drew closer to the bottom. It led us into a smaller environment than the previous ones. The floor immediately ahead of us held no tendrils or equipment, or even markings. It was gray with a silvery tint in some places. A circular construct about seventy meters ahead of us and fifty meters tall dominated the far wall. A large metal ring there about four meters across held a series of concentric rings within it. At the exact center stood a bright disk about twenty meters across, smooth, brightly lit, with a bluish tint.

Its illumination held steady as we approached it. Drakim addressed Veringashi: “Another one of your mysteries.”

“Not my mystery,” Veringashi said. “You forget this is my first time here, as well.”

Ben said, “I’m trying to figure out what the hell it is. It looks like some kind of — “

A dull, rhythmic thumping sound made Ben stop mid-sentence and made my heart skip a beat. The disk in the center of the construct before us began to form an image. Swirls of color circled around the edges of the disk. Finally, a more coherent image formed; it showed a barren planetary landscape dominated by piles of stone that I estimated rose a couple of hundred meters into the air. The one closest to our viewpoint rose straight up for about fifty meters, then arched to one side, far enough that it looked as if it would have quickly fallen over. Two silvery spheres protruded from the opposite side, positioned such that they eerily resembled eyes.

The image was a dynamic one; dust clouds blew languidly across the landscape. The ground, though, held little vegetation, with only a thin green ground cover visible.

“This could be a live feed from somewhere,” I said. “But where?”

Akira aimed her sensorpac at the image, setting it to library mode. “It doesn’t register as anything we have records of. But that doesn’t surprise me. Any planet’s a pretty big place.”

Ben said, “You don’t think it’s some kind of portal, do you?”

“Really?” I asked. “You’ve been viewing too much fantasy fiction.”

The image changed. Now we saw the surface of an icy world, its landscape marked with repeated fault lines. Without a sense of scale, it was difficult to tell how deep those striations went.

A large gas giant planet with red, yellow, and brown stripes dominated the sky. One of its satellites stood to one side, dwarfed by its primary. This was another moving image; an ice volcano suddenly erupted near our viewpoint.

As Akira pointed her sensor at the image, I said, “The planet looks a lot like Jupiter — maybe seen from Europa?”

“Nope,” Akira said. “At least not as far as I can tell just from examining these images. The colors of the planet’s stripes are different. So are their widths.”

Ben asked, “Any idea where this planet actually is?”

Akira looked at the sensor readout and shook her head. “No idea. Nothing in our database. But as far as the sensor’s computer can tell me, this is a real image. Not an artificially generated one.”

I asked, “Is it in real-time?”

“No way of telling.”

Drakim said, “This is a waste of time. We must find the Garotethans. Nothing else matters.”

I said, “Much as I hate to say it, he’s right. But this is one place we’ll definitely come back to.”

The image changed again, this time showing the swirl of stars that formed a galaxy. This image wasn’t dynamic as far as we could tell, since the ponderous movements of such a gigantic construct would only become visible across centuries or millennia.

Ben said, “I really wish we had time to just stand here and take in these images. And try to figure out where they’re from.”

Akira looked up from her sensor. “Uh, Doctor . . . Ambassador?”

“Yes?” Ben and I said simultaneously, then gave one another an amused look.

“It’s taken a moment, but I know which galaxy we’re seeing in that image.”

“Which one?” I asked.

“Our own.”

Ben asked, “Our own, as in the one we’re living in? The Milky Way?”

“That’s the one.”

A chill went through my body as I looked at the image before us with a new understanding. “And if this image is like the others — a real image . . . . “

Ben said, “We’re seeing something no Human has ever witnessed before.”

Drakim broke into our reveries: “We must go. Now.”

I sighed. “You’re the one who wanted to turn around just a few minutes ago.”

“I have resigned myself to this,” the Sobrenian captain said. “Let us move onward.”

I made a questioning gesture toward Veringashi. “Ready?” He didn’t say anything, simply led the way to a doorway to one side of the room. Another touch, and it opened for us.

The entrance was only about a meter tall, and even the two Sobrenians, about shoulder-height to most Humans, had to bend down to enter the next hallway. Akira raised a hand to run it across the ceiling as she, in turn, bent down to follow Drakim. Ben was right behind.

I paused for a moment to take a good long look at the image of the Milky Way Galaxy. The home we’d never seen in its entirety before. Then, reluctantly, I bent down to follow the others down the corridor.

The walls were gray and unadorned, but generated a dim light. About fifty meters ahead of us, it curved to the right. “I don’t like not being able to see very far ahead,” I told Ben.

“I’m with you. And my back doesn’t like having to walk all bent over like this.”

“One thing I just realized. Don’t you think any Garotethans walking along here would be perfectly comfortable?”

“Damn,” Ben said. “You’re right. You think this area was made specifically for them?”

“Could be. Certainly every other place we’ve been to here was made for taller beings.”

As we rounded the curve, the corridor straightened out and I could, dimly, see an end to it.

Drakim was first out, with Veringashi close behind. The area we were exiting into was much smaller than any of the previous environments, had the same low ceiling as the corridor we’d just left, had a grav of about one G, and was pretty brightly lit. It took a moment for me to register Drakim’s charge toward a silhouetted form ahead of us, with Akira right on his heels.

Drakim, the silhouetted form, and Akira came together in the same instant and tumbled to the floor. Akira managed to pull Drakim to his feet (he banged his head on the low ceiling), and pointed her stunner at him. “Stand down!” she said.

Drakim, every muscle tensed, finally stood still. He didn’t raise his hands, but at least he kept them at his sides. This was another mock-comic tableau, with all of us standing around nearly bent double.

I went to the third person in the pileup, who was short enough to stand upright without bumping his head.


“What the hell?” I said.

The Garotethan, all one-third of a meter of him, was wearing close-fitting garments over his slender body rather than the usual Sobrenian-style robes. He approached me and Ben, and raised both arms in greeting. He said, “We’ve been expecting you.”

Without lowering her stunner or taking her eyes off Drakim, Akira said to Senvar, “I’m sorry. I should’ve stunned Drakim when he took his first step toward you.”

Senvar looked over his shoulder at Akira. “Do not worry,” he told her. “I’m sure my presence was a surprise for all of you.”

I said, “A surprise you engineered, it seems.”

Senvar indicated Drakim. “If he had not insisted upon coming with you, we would have worked to encourage it.”

I motioned for Akira to lower her stunner. I asked Senvar, “Why did you want him here?”

“We reasoned that with him present, the Sobrenian starcraft that are present would not fire upon the station.”

“That was my reasoning, too.”

“We are glad you finally arrived,” Senvar said. He told Veringashi, “I am sorry we had to leave you behind. We were afraid we were about to be discovered.” He led us toward another doorway. Thankfully, the next room had a much higher ceiling, and was about sixty meters square.

And featured a silvery starcraft sitting at its center.



The vessel was about 45 meters long, sat on tripod legs, and featured tapered wings, which presumably made it capable of entering a planetary atmosphere. Its skin was utterly smooth, with no protrusions indicating weapons or sensors or even engines.

“That,” Ben said, “is one helluva ship.”

I looked over at Drakim. I told Senvar, “He seems strangely calm about this discovery.”

Senvar said, “That is because he knew about our ship all along. We call it the Rahnsul.

A ramp extended itself from one side of the ship and about two dozen Garotethans came down. They gathered just behind Senvar. I recognized Isamu, Iradi, Rallor, Aughol, and Dynor among them. I asked Senvar, “Has this ship always been here?”

“For centuries,” Senvar said. He indicated the other Garotethans. “You see before you the few Garotethans who made their way here in recent months after our uprising began and the Sobrenians decided to exterminate us.”

Drakim came to us. “That is a lie. We are placing you on reservations. You will perform manual labor.”

Veringashi said, “He may actually believe that. The propaganda efforts on our homeworld are quite effective.”

“Either way,” I said to Drakim, “you knew about this ship all along. “Why did you never tell us about it?”

Drakim said, “Tell the Unity? So it can negotiate?” Even through the commlink translation, I could make out the sarcasm. “I knew I must put more faith in a military confrontation. We were simply waiting for the proper time.”

“The proper time might have been three years ago when you helped save the station from an insurrection.”

“Cooperation with other species,” Drakim said, “is always fleeting. “We weren’t saving Humans or any of the other — “

Here it comes, I thought.

“ — pre-sentients — “

Knew it.

“ — on this station. We were preserving this Garotethan starcraft. We considered it bait to attract Garotethans we might otherwise never find.”

I looked toward Senvar. He stared impassively toward Drakim, as if unmoved by that assertion. He said, “The Sobrenians, of course, never realized that we knew this all along.”

Drakim started toward Senvar, but Akira grabbed his arm and halted him. Drakim wrested his arm from Akira, but didn’t try to approach any closer.

I asked, “Was the Station of the Lost originally a Garotethan station?”

“No,” Senvar said. “Its origin is unknown to us. When we were still a spacefaring species long ago, it was already a gathering place for several Galactic species. At least one of them is now extinct. Others have moved on from this part of the galaxy. This ship is all that remains of the society we Garotethans once had here.”

Veringashi told Drakim, “You must face the truth. Our homeworld failed in trying to keep the Garotethans from this station. Just as it has failed in its efforts to commit genocide.”

I asked, “Where did this starship come from? Are you and the others going to leave in it?”

“We are among the few of our species who have thrown off our programming — “

Drakim said, “You mean your mental disciplines. The ones that allowed you to have satisfactory lives serving us.”

“I doubt if Sobrenians had such mental disciplines that you would be content to serve another species.”

Drakim raised his fists and exclaimed, “We are Sobrenians!”

Ben said, “I suppose that’s explanation enough for him.”

Senvar said, “This starcraft once served those of us who lived here long ago. We intend to return to our homeworld. The Sobrenians ravaged it so badly when they captured and enslaved so many of us, that they never saw a reason to check on it again. They therefore had no way of knowing that there were a few thousand of us who managed to remain. They have been working to rebuild our society. We will help them.”

Drakim said, “You forget about the starcraft I command, the Adurentok. And the others who are waiting out there, the Mendassa and Myresarr.

I hadn’t known the names of the other Sobrenian ships, but recognized one of them now. I said, “The Mendassa, and its captain, Remkina, escorted me to your homeworld on a diplomatic mission three years ago. It helped defend this station later that same year. And now it could end up firing upon us?”

“The Mendassa,” Drakim said, “was defending our own interests. That included natives of our homeworld that, for some reason, insist upon living and running businesses here.” He indicated the Garotethan ship. “It also included this starcraft, though we kept our knowledge of it a secret.”

I asked Senvar, “How do you plan to get past those Sobrenian ships?”

Senvar said, “We have outsmarted the other Sobrenians we’ve encountered so far on this station.” She nodded toward Drakim. “Including our captain, here.”

Drakim took a step toward Senvar, but Akira stepped in front of him. “Nope,” she said.

I asked, “Even if you get past the Sobrenian ships, won’t they eventually follow you to your homeworld?”

Senvar said, “We expect that. We have planned for any actions they might take.” He motioned toward the Rahnsul and the other Garotethans began to board it. He told Veringashi, “I thank you for your help. I still find it hard to believe you have taken such a chance with your own life, given that you feel such an aversion to us.”

Veringashi said, “That aversion does not make me want to see you killed. I have a similar aversion to Drakim, for instance, but I do not want him killed, either.”

Drakim said, “I cannot return that sentiment. I will see you brought back to our homeworld to face justice.”

This was the moment I knew the decision I must make. “You won’t do any such thing.” I turned to Senvar. “You really expect to take this ship out of here without being fired upon by the Sobrenian ships out there.”

Senvar said, “We have technology we believe to be superior to the Sobrenians’.”

“That is a lie,” Drakim said.

I ignored him, and kept speaking to Senvar. “How certain are you of that?”

“We have a high probability of escaping unharmed.”

I braced myself to make my decision known. “I can give you a higher probability. Will you consider taking on some passengers?”

“Reluctantly, if they are the passengers I suspect you want to go along with us.”

“I think you’ve guessed it. I’d like you to take Drakim with you.” I told the Sobrenian captain, “Tell your other commanders not to fire upon the Garotethan ship as it leaves.”

“They will not obey such a command,” Drakim said.

“Give it anyway,” I told him.

Drakim stood passively for a long moment.

Here’s the pivot point, I thought. He could easily order those Sobrenian ships to fire upon us. It all comes down to how well I’ve read him. Whether he’s willing to die for his cause.

Drakim activated his comms: “This is Captain Drakim. A Garotethan starcraft is about to leave this station. Give it safe passage.”

I couldn’t hear the response his people were giving him, but judging from Drakim’s expression it wasn’t a positive one. “Yes, that is correct,” he said. “Safe passage.”

I hope that’s not a code phrase for “destroy immediately,” I thought.

I told Drakim, “Now, get in that ship.”

“I will not,” the Sobrenian captain said.

I told Akira, “I’m about to tell him again to get into that ship. If he fails to comply, stun him, and we’ll carry him in ourselves.”

“Will do,” Akira said, and placed her hand on her holstered stunner as she told Drakim, “I don’t want to have to do this.”

Drakim started toward the Rahnsul.

I looked toward Veringashi, but continued speaking to Senvar: “You’ll have to take Veringashi, too.”

The Sobrenian ambassador said, “I cannot go there. To be among these creatures I abhor — to live among them? And among Drakim, as well? Impossible.”

“It’s that or continue to be an enticement for the Sobrenians to raid this station.”

“I suppose if I do not comply, you will order me stunned and carried aboard, as well.”

“I don’t want to. But I will.”

Veringashi turned to Ben and said, “I apologize for assaulting you earlier.”

Ben waved that concern away. “Don’t worry about it,” he said.

Veringashi headed toward the Rahnsul.

I faced Ben, taking in his features. His forehead appeared more lined than I’d seen before. He had new wrinkles around his eyes and mouth. His eyes appeared haunted. These past few days have taken a toll upon him, I realized.

And I’m about to add to his burdens.

I’d avoided facing him before I was about to speak of my intention, knowing I might not carry it out if I did. “Ben — I have something difficult to tell you.”

Those eyes narrowed. “What? What could be so . . . . “

“I’m also going on board the Rahnsul.”

Ben said, “No, Chanda! You can’t.”

“Don’t you see — I have to. It was the other decision that had me torn — whether or not to send away the Garotethans and Veringashi. Now the Garotethans are able to make their own decisions. And they’ve allowed me to make the right one about Veringashi.”

Ben’s voice was choked with emotion. “That’s a decision — an obligation — that’s been lifted from you.”

“No, it’s just different. After all this, we have to protect the Garotethans. Even if they want to disobey Drakim, I’m gambling that Sobrenian starcraft commanders won’t destroy a ship knowing a Unity ambassador is on board.”

“That’s a helluva chance. They might actually find you a tempting target.”

“You could be right. But here’s something else to consider. Captain Bram only had a couple seconds to react before he destroyed the Hinoki — even though it meant killing Nick Bowling. Don’t you think he’d have risked his own life instead?”

“Of course he would. But what does that — “

“I have the opportunity he didn’t — to save lives by risking myself instead of someone else.”

“I don’t think of that as much of an opportunity,” Ben said. Then added, “I should go, too.”

“No, you shouldn’t,” I said. “You have your own responsibilities here.”

“How will you get back?”

“I can’t think about that now. Either how I’ll get back . . . or whether I’ll get back.” I touched behind my left ear to activate my commlink. “This is Ambassador Kasmira to Captain Santos.”

“Santos here.”

I explained about the Rahnsul and that it was about to take me, Veringashi, and Drakim away from the station.

Santos came back, “Do you think you have the authority to let someone accused of Sobrenian crimes just leave like that?”

“Do you think you have a way to stop me?”

I expected an angry outburst, but Santos’ voice was unexpectedly reserved: “You’re taking an unacceptable risk. We’ve had our differences, but you shouldn’t risk yourself this way.”

“You don’t have that authority over me,” I told her. “Stand by. We’ll be leaving shortly.”

I hugged Ben as tightly as I ever have. “Love you,” I whispered into his ear.

“Love you,” he said.

I let Ben go and told Senvar, “Let’s go.”

“You are certain of this?” the Garotethan asked.

“I am so far. Let’s go before I change my mind.” I followed Senvar to the ramp leading into Rahnsul. I paused halfway up to look back at Ben. He and Akira stood together. Both waved and I waved back. I thought I could see tears glistening in Ben’s eyes.

As I reached the top of the ramp, I adopted the same bent-over gait I’d used in the corridor leading to the final room before we discovered the Rahnsul. But in my first step from the ramp to the interior of the Rahnsul, I fell to my knees. Goddam — the interior grav must be about twice that of Earth’s.

Senvar came back to me. “I’m sorry, Ambassador. I should’ve warned you. My people adapt more easily than Humans to variable gravity. We didn’t establish a higher pull in our areas on the Station of the Lost. We felt it was easier than going back and forth between differing gravities.”

That higher grav accounted for Garotethans’ shorter stature than Humans or Sobrenians. I managed to get my feet under me and raise my body, at least as much as I could beneath the low ceiling. The air within this ship was a little thicker than a Human was accustomed to, but perfectly breathable.

Senvar led me down a dark passageway. For me, every step was a potential accident. If I turn an ankle or break a knee, I wondered, does this ship even have the facilities to help an injured Human?

Besides dealing with the grav, the corridor was narrow enough that I had to press myself against the wall when someone approached from the opposite direction. A sharp turn, and we entered the ship’s bridge. Thankfully, the ceiling was a little taller here, though I still had to keep my head ducked down. That, and the increased grav, made it more difficult to stand still and maintain my balance.

I tried to distract myself by taking in the view. The bridge was shaped like a half-circle, with about a dozen Garotethan technicians manning their posts. A wide viewport extended the entire length of the half-circle. Through it, I could see Ben and Akira still standing there looking toward the Rahnsul.

I had to look away, otherwise I’d have been too tempted to run back down that ramp and forget the whole thing.

Senvar came to me and said, “You are welcome to watch as we depart.”

“Where are Veringashi and Drakim?”

“I assigned them quarters that will be converted to make them more comfortable. We will do the same for you, as much as possible.”

“I’d like to watch our departure. I hope you don’t mind if I sit down. Although, well, it’ll have to be on the floor.”

“Feel free. And I apologize. I am about to take us out. We’ve notified the Sobrenian ships that we have a Unity ambassador aboard.”

“Wait a minute — you’re Rahnsul’s captain, too?”

“I am at this moment. Many others can fill that position, though.”

“You’re full of many wonders, my friend.” I sat on the floor next to Senvar’s position, which gave me a little relief from the higher grav. I watched as he gave various commands to the bridge crew. They appeared to operate the starcraft’s systems merely by waving their hands over blank screens. The Rahnsul lifted off the floor and slowly turned itself around. Its inertial dampers worked effectively, and I couldn’t feel any movement at all, which gave me some hope that they could arrange the grav in my quarters, as well.

As the ship moved slowly forward, large doors opened before us, revealing an infinity of stars. Selvar gave a series of commands, and Rahnsul moved forward more quickly, clearing the edge of the Station of the Lost.

The ship accelerated, and would pass to one side of the three Sobrenian starcraft patrolling around the Station of the Lost: the Mendassa, Myresarr, and Drakim’s ship, the Adurentok.

I suppose I should be glad he’s not up here to catch the view of his ship, I thought. A starcraft bridge is not the place to have to subdue an angry Sobrenian.

Though he might be as impaired under this gravity as I am.

More readouts came up. There stood the Earth Unity ships, Nivara 2 and the Susan Kojima. Captain Santos and Captain Lee have to be waiting with as much anticipation as I am, I thought. Here’s hoping none of us end up taking fire.

I held my breath as the Rahnsul neared the Sobrenian craft.

Senvar ordered the ship’s stardrive activated.

I thought, This is the moment we might all be taking our last breath. We’ll be atomized so quickly none of our senses will have the chance to react.

But in those final moments before the jump came a more reassuring thought: The Station of the Lost has become my home. Almost as much as the Earth or New Lancaster Habitat. Certainly everyone still alive that I’m closest to, everyone I love, exists there now. And any sacrifice I make is intended to save it — to save them.

Ben — I love —



I squinted against a bright white light that filled the Rahnsul’s bridge. An explosion? was my first thought. But no, my surroundings were intact, and no one on the starcraft’s crew was taking particular note of this development.

Senvar gave a command, and the intensity of the light from the main viewscreen dimmed. I could make out gradations of light within the overall image. This must be what stardrive looks like aboard a Garotethan ship, I realized. This wave of light is the equivalent of the swirling colors that we see on a Human ship traveling through this kind of space.

Senvar came to where I was sitting. “Our trip should take about two and a half days. I’ll assign Isamu to help you with quarters as appropriate to your, uh, size and physiology as we can manage. She’ll also adjust our food replicators appropriately.”

“Thanks,” I said, hoping I was hiding the low-level dread I was feeling. I’d been in such situations before, and they didn’t always turn out for the best. Isamu led me down the main corridor leading from the bridge. As usual, I had to walk hunched over, fighting against the gravity trying to pull me to the floor, while Isamu strolled casually along standing straight and tall (for a Garotethan).

At least the room she led me to had relatively tall ceilings; I could walk along without braining myself on them. The main room featured two chairs, both of them close to Human-sized, and a bed that I knew would have my feet hanging off one end. “I apologize,” Isamu said. “This is as close to Human dimensions as we could achieve. When we’re done here, I’ll work on adjusting the gravity for this room as well as for the Sobrenians.”

“Don’t worry about it,” I told her. “Do I need to be scanned so the replicator will generate food appropriate for me?”

“Yes,” Isamu said. She led me to an indented area of the room where I stood, hunched over again, beneath a full-body scanner. Such a scan of someone’s body makeup can make sure the food a replicator generates doesn’t kill you, but an appealing taste, texture, and smell sometimes aren’t included in the algorithm.

Isamu said, “I’ll bring you samples of replicated dishes for you to try later.”

Then, she led me one room over for another detailed mapping of my body and the fabrication of more devices. The less said about the existential crisis of creating proper bathroom facilities for a visiting Galactic species, the better.

Once that immediate ordeal was over, I was left to my own devices. I sat in one of my not-so-small chairs, hoping the aching in my legs would subside soon, and that my breathing wouldn’t remain so labored. Guess I’ve settled in, I thought. I have food. Shelter. Not much in the way of companionship. No music or cubes or books to amuse myself.

Now what?

Nothing to do. No responsibilities. I’m so used to focusing on others, getting people to talk instead of fight, coming up with practical solutions that cut across ideologies, anticipating challenges before they happen . . . .

God, how I miss Ben.

That’s it. Enough sitting. Gravity be damned, I decided to make a little tour of the ship to familiarize myself with it. I’d also check on how Veringashi and Drakim were doing.

I decided I’d visit Veringashi first. I assumed he’d be civil to me.

At least I hoped he would.


# # #


I buzzed at Veringashi’s door, hunched over in the corridor, and thank goodness he opened it right away. “Yes, Ambassador,” he said, “how may I help you?”

“I’m just here to check on you. After all, I’m the one who made you come along on this journey.”

Both of Veringashi’s eyes stared at me. “Yes, you are.” He stood aside and waved me into his quarters. Thankfully, the grav here was slightly lighter. Evidence of Isamu at work? Other than that, the rooms were similar to mine. I smelled a slightly musty odor that I couldn’t identify. We sat across from one another. The Garotethan chairs were tight on me, but Veringashi fit into his relatively well.

An uncomfortable pause ensued. Finally, I said, “I suppose you’re being treated well.”

Veringashi folded his hands. “As well as I might imagine. I am wondering what you expect to happen once we reach Garoteth.”

“We’ll wait,” I said. “I’m hoping that everything will calm down at the Station of the Lost. I’d hope your people wouldn’t have any more problems with the Unity.”

“Because you and I were the problem.”

“Yes. And Drakim was the instigator.”

Veringashi asked, “Do you expect ‘my people,’ as you put it, to sit idly by at the station? Or do you believe they will travel here? Where their problems and the instigator will be waiting?”

“I have to believe — or at least hope — that our coming here was more than just a delaying tactic.”

“That is my hope as well.” A pause. “Have you spoken to Drakim?”

“He’s my next stop.”

“This is painful for me, you realize. The only Sobrenian near me is my enemy. Though we know each other well.”

I told him, “I have to admit that I expected being the only Human on board would be stressful. Certainly, your situation is worse.”

“Perhaps we can speak together during this journey, and especially after arriving at Garoteth. We are both ambassadors. We know how to have reasonable conversations despite our differences in origin and outlook.”

“Let’s hope for that.” I stood.” For now, I won’t take up any more of your time. I should speak to Drakim next.”

Veringashi showed me to the door. “Visit anytime,” he said.

Well, I thought. At least I have one decent neighbor.


# # #


The overwhelming pull of Garotethan grav burdened me again as I hunched over and headed toward Drakim’s quarters. I steeled myself for anything as I buzzed at his door. A good thing, too. His greeting at his door was less than civil. “Why are you coming here, Ambassador?” he asked. “Do you have more insulting actions to perpetuate upon me?”

It’s tough to be forceful while standing in a hunkered down position in a low-ceilinged corridor, but I tried. “I came here as a courtesy. I just spoke with Veringashi and thought it only appropriate I speak with you, as well.”

“As an ambassador, you are to be commended. You obviously take your duties seriously. But you are currently riding within a starcraft of a different Galactic species. You have none of your accustomed resources to back you up. We may yet find ourselves in the middle of a conflict involving my world’s highly trained and well-equipped starcraft crews. I have nothing to say to you.”

Drakim shut the door in my face.

I thought, I guess I’ll have to be satisfied with that one decent neighbor.


# # #


Sometimes, I’m too stubborn for my own good. Despite the physical effort, I attempted a tour of the rest of the ship. Head bowed, legs starting to get shaky, I started down a corridor. Made a right turn at the first intersection, a left at the second. I passed several doorways, a couple of them much wider than the first ones I’d encountered, but I was reluctant to buzz my presence or just try to walk in.

I saw a Garotethan crewmember headed toward me, and said “Hello.”

The crewmember stopped cold, regarding me with an expression I assumed exhibited curiosity. He said a couple words, which went untranslated. Of course. None of the Garotethans on this ship would have translator implants, other than Senvar and his associates we’d given them to back on the station.

The Garotethan looked away from me and spoke some more. I hope he’s not calling for security to descend upon me. Is it too much to hope that he’s calling for Senvar?

Only a couple minutes later, I saw that it wasn’t. Senvar came down the corridor, dismissed his crewmember, and said, “If you wanted to tour this starcraft, you only had to ask.”

“I didn’t know how,” I said. I felt as if I were a small child who should be looking at the floor and shuffling her foot around.

“I wanted to speak with you anyway,” Senvar said. “Let’s go to your quarters, where you’ll be more comfortable.”

I led the way. As Senvar and I entered the main room, I saw samples of four dishes that I assumed Isamu had left for me. I motioned Senvar over to the table that held them and asked, “Do any of these look familiar to you?”

Senvar’s eyes narrowed and his nose, though flatter than a Human’s managed to wrinkle itself effectively. “Nothing I’ve seen before,” he said as he took a quick step away. “But I’m sure Isamu came up with something pleasing to your palate.”

“You had something you wanted to discuss?”

“I did. But feel free to sample these items as we talk. And know that Isamu is working on adjusting the gravity in here.”

“Thanks for that,” I said. I sat at the table, relieving my legs of some of my burden. The first dish was vaguely meat-like, and warm to the touch. The only utensil available was a very ordinary-looking spoon. As I picked it up, I asked, “So, Senvar, what did you need to talk about?”

“I have received a transmission from our homeworld.”

I took a tentative bite of the meat, reassuring myself that at least it had to be a replicated dish and not the real thing. Once I’d left New Lancaster habitat, like most spacers, I’d never eaten real meat.

Not bad, I thought. A little stringy. Could use some seasoning. “And what did that transmission say?” The next sample was a brown square about six centimeters across and three tall. It felt cool to the touch, and springy, a texture somewhere between cake or a thick pudding.

Senvar said, as I took a tentative spoonful of the second sample, “We have been refused permission to land.”

The taste of this second dish didn’t make me gag, but the shock of Senvar’s comment made swallowing it an effort. “What’s the problem?”

“Authorities are concerned about the presence of two Sobrenians and a Human.”

“Hmm. The Sobrenians I can see — at least in Drakim’s case. But do they know Veringashi has actually been opposing the genocide of your people? And what the hell is wrong with Humans, anyway?” The next sample was a tough jerky-like strip of . . . something.

Senvar said, “You must understand, Ambassador, that the Garotethans remaining on our homeworld have had no contact with other Galactic species other than Sobrenians. They know only hatred for them. And they have no experience with Humanity.”

This latest dish was impossible to bite through. And had a metallic taste. I set it aside. “I guess I’ll have to be on my best behavior, then,” I said.

“I’d like to set up communications between you and my superiors once we arrive. This starcraft needs to be accepted onto the surface for our own safety.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means that we must be prepared for all possibilities. We do not know whether the Sobrenians will come here to bring back — or kill — our Sobrenian ‘guests.’”

“I get it,” I said. “Veringashi for working against the genocide attempts, Drakim for failing and being taken captive.”

“Precisely.” Senvar stood. “I’ll let you know when to expect that communication. I hope you enjoy your meals.”

“Thanks,” I said as Senvar left. My final choice was a mixture of several types of greens or vegetables. The leafy parts tasted like beans and the bean-looking parts tasted and smelled like — well, nothing. Other than having a satisfying crunch, they were a null, a void.

I suppose I won’t starve.

I still would never try any Cetronen meat offerings.


# # #


Sobrenian energy bolts ripped through . . .

It was the same dream I’d had before, but, thankfully, I awoke before more than a few seconds played out. I never even had the chance to see the intended target of those bolts, if they were the Station of the Lost again, or the planet Garoteth still ahead of us.

I rose from the bed, only then realizing that Isamu had done his work properly, and the pull of the room’s gravity was pretty close to 1G. If anything, it was a little light, which was a relief.

I figured out how to use the replicator and called up some of the stringy meat and bean-and-nothing-tasting greens for my — breakfast? Lunch? I had no way of knowing.

Soon after I’d finished my meal and made myself as presentable as I could in the bathroom facilities, the door buzzed. I opened it, revealing Senvar.

“We are in orbit around Garoteth,” he said. I ushered him in and he worked some controls next to the replicator. A holo image of the planet came up in the middle of the room.

I probably knew about as much about the planet’s statistics as any other Human, which wasn’t much. Garoteth is about sixty percent larger than the Earth, and much more massive, which explained the higher grav I hadn’t taken into account as I’d boarded Rahnsul. Its atmosphere, though denser than Earth’s, was breathable by Humans and many other Galactic species, the same as the air aboard this starcraft.

A wide band of vegetation, mostly greens and yellows, formed a continent-wide strip around the middle of the planet, at least on the side facing us. Broad oceans, a deep cerulean, stood to the north and south of the continental strip. Ice caps covered both poles, casting bright reflections toward us as if signaling some unknown intent.

The higher gravity had molded a planet different from the Earth, with mountains that never reached as high and rivers that remained shallower and flowed faster. It also featured lots of geological activity that propagated from its molten interior.

“It’s a beautiful world,” I said.

Senvar said, “And I am eager to preserve it. I want you to speak to the head of our planetary council, Yelia. We reverse-engineered your translator tech and sent the details down to the planet.” Senvar pressed a control, and the image of a Garotethan woman appeared in the holo. She did not wear Sobrenian-style robes, as I was accustomed to seeing on Garotethans. Instead, she wore closer-fitting clothing festooned with various symbols or decorations that I wasn’t familiar with.

And she was a . . . centaur?

I fought to hide my astonishment that Yelia had four legs and two arms. Her neck, having to extend from the horizontal stance of her body, was longer and thicker than that of any other Garotethan I’d seen.

Behind her, other Garotethans kept busy operating devices that resembled nothing so much as the bridge of a starcraft. Instead of a large viewscreen before them, though, several small monitors showed what looked like everything from wide vistas of a ravaged planetary surface to what I thought were both interiors and exteriors of orbiting space stations.

All of those working had the same body shape as the head of the planetary council.

Yelia said, “You are the Earth Unity Ambassador, Chanda Kasmira?”

“I am. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

“I cannot say the same. Not yet. I fear you and your Sobrenian friends may bring great violence to our world.”

“They’re not exactly my friends. We all left the Station of the Lost hoping that having two Sobrenians, especially Drakim, with us, would keep the Sobrenian ships there from firing upon us. They held their fire. We also had the hope, with both Drakim and Veringashi being gone, of preventing an attack there.”

“And possibly bringing one here.”

I caught my breath. Did I make too abrupt a decision? If I’ve saved a space station only to place an entire world in danger —

Senvar spoke up. “This was my decision, Yelia. The ambassador asked to come along, and bring the Sobrenians, and I agreed. I owed her a debt for protecting me and those with me when we were on the station.”

“Then I must wonder about your judgement, as well,” Yelia said.

I said, “They will not want to risk killing one of their own commanders.”

“You cannot be certain of that.”

Senvar said, “I told the ambassador that we have planned for any possible Sobrenian actions.”

Yelia said, “That much is true. The Sobrenians will learn that Garoteth is a very different place from when they originally came here to enslave our people.”

“That is our hope.”

“Go ahead and land, then. We will probably need your skills and the capabilities of the Rahnsul in any oncoming conflict.” Yelia’s image vanished.

I let out a long breath as I stared at Senvar. “I want to make sure I ask this without giving offense.”

Senvar said, “You want to know why Yelia has six limbs.”

“Uh . . . yes.”

“That is the natural form of a Garotethan. The Sobrenians altered those of us who worked beside them. They either performed the necessary surgery, or altered the genetics of our parents so we would be born this way.”

My face flushed with anger. “That’s disgusting.”

“They wanted us to conform to their body shape, supposedly so we could use their tools the same as they do and live in their surroundings. We have lived with that for generations. But now I should leave for the bridge, to supervise our landing.”

“What about our two Sobrenians?” I asked. “What’s going to happen to them once we land?”

“At first, they will remain here on the Rahnsul. As will you.”

“Why? I’d be more than willing to help them settle in somewhere.”

“The problem is that we have nowhere to place you that has variable gravity installed.”

“Of course. I should’ve thought of that. I appreciate that, actually. I wouldn’t want to spend my time on your world plastered to the floor.”

“Failure to translate.”

“Never mind,” I said. “I’ll be very happy to stay right here for now. But I would like to watch the landing from the bridge.”

“Feel free to,” Senvar said, and I followed him out the door.


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