Beyond the Littoral Excerpt

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ISBN: 978-1466423787

The sixth book of this series, Beyond the Littoral, records the challenges, triumphs and ever-expanding influence of the ‘Valkyries,’ a dedicated group of individuals struggling to establish themselves and their families in a new land. As in each volume, transformations and challenges await… The Curious Voyages of the Anna Virginia Saga is an allegory of man’s inner worlds. This series spans the development of awakening—from a simple chance encounter to the intentional exploration of the cosmos, from our little bit of real estate in the solar system to the center of the galaxy. A parable of a small nucleus of individuals who band together and set out on the journey of a lifetime.

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Excerpt from Chapter One, Beyond the Littoral © J.L.Lawson 2011

Captain Becka was speechless for a moment, then she burst over Tia like broken dam. “If I hadn’t seen you with my own eyes I wouldn’t have believed it. Taking a risk that even the Masters wouldn’t notice you slipping aboard another people’s trading vessel, inventorying their assets, spying on their bridge crew and hoping to get off without being suspected… Tia?! what were you thinking?!”

Tia straightened her shoulders after the lashing and countered, “Master ChériA’na knew…”

Becka fumed, “Even supposing that is true, what possessed you to…” She was searching for words, this was just so off the pitch upper deck… “And just what did you learn from your little escapade, anyway?! Since when is it the policy of Roaming Wing Captains to steal aboard someone else’s ship?! I…” Her crossed arms heaved up on her chest as she tried to take a deep breath and regain some of her composure. “I am looking forward to your report,” and she turned on her heel, nearly shouted at the tangle-vator, “Yellowstone!” and the doors closed.

Trici and Kate, standing on either side of their sister, each swatted her across the back of her head at the same moment. “Ow! What was that for?! ChériA’na did to know!”

The comm pinged with Randi’s voice in a whisper, “She’s gone, right?”

Kate answered, “Yeah, we’re coming up… Tia didn’t do us any favors just now, though!”

Tia protested, “I didn’t give away anything! The Masters do to know what we’re doing! And you know it!”

Trici rolled her eyes, “We know it… the rest of the Roaming Wing isn’t supposed to know it!”

Kate repeated, “Honestly, Tia! And you will make the ‘report’ we now have to submit!” She thought a moment more, “No wait, bad idea, I’ll make the report!”

Isabou wheeled around in the Captain’s chair and asked as they came onto the Sheranara Bridge, “What?”

Tia spoke up quickly, “Randi, tell them what Master Tei told you and me just a month ago! Tell them I’m not a blabber-mouth!”

Randi glanced from one to another of the Valkyries, “Master Tei-tei intimated to us that it was ‘Better to know, than to guess…’ when they got back the last time. But Tia, I don’t think she was saying that we were authorized to start spying on anyone…”

Trici and Isha shook their heads, “It’s not even a clear statement about what we’re doing! They can pop in and out of places and find out all kinds of things…”

Isha insisted, “That doesn’t translate into giving us the nod to do the same…although we are pretty good at sneaking around…”

Kate put her hands flat on the monitors at the helm. “Look, let’s start over. One, we are going to monitor as best we can all the traffic that the Loreneran Alliance dispatches within the partner systems. Two, we are not going to arouse the suspicions of any of our folks or our Alliance partners in doing so,” she directed to Tia personally. “Three, whatever we find we tell one of the Masters at once…Not the other Captains! Four, when we have to make an emergency personal bounce, we do not bounce to any ship but Sheranara Triquetra…and definitely not to New Bag End or one of the other ships!”

Tia defended sullenly, “I had to borrow a unit from the Yellowstone…mine was shot up on Planris, remember? Maybe we need to start cranking out our own supply of personal tossers so we don’t have to raid any one else’s stocks…”

Ada and Randi sympathized, but pointed out, “…You used a Yellowstone tosser without reconfiguring it? Without even checking the RP log to see where it was already calibrated to transit?!”

Tia wasn’t saying another word. Isabou put her arm around her and whispered, “Still, you were very brave to have gotten as far as you did…” Tia tried to smile back to her, but her chagrin was whelming.

Kate relented. “Yes, you were very brave. Please let’s try and avoid this sort of notoriety in the future. They’re all going to be watching us like Hawks on a Drifter for a while…”

Randi agreed, “Until we can do something to erase the bad taste in their mouths, we have to be extraordinarily circumspect.”

Isabou grinned, “Uncle Santios and Uncle Chotapsai said this morning that the three sites on Buffalope we hoped would get approved for safe havens, are! We can get into gear and start building sailing cats and space racers at last!”

Kate beamed, “Which means we have a reason to be building more tossers…And…”

“Fast little ships of our own design—for our own designs!” Isabou finished.

Randi mused, “That a few of the racers happen to have cloaks and mega-tossers instead of the classic-tossers the rest of the Alliance are being offered doesn’t have to be common knowledge…”

Sheranara announced, “We are in New Bag End once more. I’m going to take a nap now…”

Randi smiled, “That’s a good girl Sheranara. We’ll wake you up if there is something to do later…”

Ada and Trici led the way from Sheranara’s hanger toward their own apartments. “We’ll go and fetch the ‘special’ plans and meet y’all at the shop…”

Isha sighed, “At least all those boring trips to the asteroids are finally going to pay off for something we want to do…”

Isabou nodded, “Just make sure Sashi, Kerrin, VJ and Sean don’t catch wind of this. It’d be just what we don’t need, to have those guys crowding the shop at all hours of the day…”

VJ strolled from out of the Kitchens in front of them just then. “Why would we want to be crowding the shop? At least we are serving on ships that actually go somewhere!” Kerrin chuckled behind him. Sashi and Sean followed them out almost at once.

Randi asked, “And what’s the matter with the food on the Yellowstone or Voyager, that you guys have to stop in here for breakfast?! The Captains have all already returned to their ships after the regular morning meeting of brass…”

Sean opened his mouth to say that they were sent to fetch groceries. Sashi interrupted, “We aren’t due for our shifts on the Bridges for another few minutes yet and we happen to like Camille’s bagels and croissants more than cold cereal and day-old cake for a change…” Sean grinned, glad he hadn’t admitted their errand.

VJ sighed, “Gotta bounce! Off to see new places. Take care of the home fires while we’re out!” and the four of them headed to the tangle-vators to get back before they got a scolding.

The girls just watched them until they were certain they were gone. Isabou rejoined as the doors shut on them, “Oh yeah?!”

On the Anna, Captain Danielle was having her own situation regarding unauthorized activity, by guest passengers of all people. Bethany met her at the tangle-vator as she returned from the morning Captain’s meeting and briefed her on the few events that had transpired during her morning absence. One of those happenstances was a little disturbing. Both ladies were going to be the last of the six New Bag Enders to deliver their bundles of joy, and both were due to start spending all their time back at New Bag End. As they stepped onto the Bridge what caught Dani’s eye immediately was the ‘subject of the disturbing happenstance’ about to sit in her seat…

“Ambassador Leerin, it is not the policy of this vessel to offer free access to our long range communications to passengers. And especially to passengers who have been asked before to avoid side-stepping the chain of command…” She was trying and succeeding in keeping her voice even, while she’d prefer to just show him to the airlock and cycle it.

“Captain, it was an urgent matter of Trade negotiations status, or I wouldn’t have dreamed of interfering with this ship’s protocols…” Leerin replied in mock humility. “Perhaps the Resran people were remiss in so quickly accepting the Roaming Wing’s offers of transport?”

Valeran chuckled to himself and whispered to Tuvi next to him, “And instead, what? Hitch a ride on a Westerin freighter? Maybe get to Donal by his eightieth birthday?”

Master HanaRin stepped on to the Bridge. She caught Danielle’s eye and winked. “Ambassador? Let’s take a stroll in the gardens. There is a particular variety of Julinissan flower I am most anxious for you to see…”

Ambassador Leerin lit up, “Oh! Master Hana! Thank you…I do so very much like the exotic flora the Alliance is gathering! Please let me explain the Resran plans for opening the first interplanetary arboretum of its kind…” and he followed Hana off the Bridge like a happy puppy.

HanaRin smiled to him and spoke to Danielle’s thoughts, ‘The Resran are really harmless…Intrusive as a nosy auntie, but really innocuous otherwise. I’ll arrange for his delegation to stay off your Bridge…Their ability to perfectly mimic anyone’s voice really wasn’t anticipated by our tangle-vator designers…’

Danielle turned to her officers when the doors closed behind her. “Val it’s not a proper precedent to set for our junior officers to poke fun at our guests—no matter how accurate you may be.”

He was undaunted. His wife was just frustrated at having to kick a passenger out of the Captain’s chair. “Sorry Captain. Won’t happen again…” he replied clearly for the benefit of Lenora and Tryda Paul.

“Report!” she called.

Kiji spoke first from the helm. “Captain, wrinkle is steady. Jolly and Kyril fine-tuned her harmonics over night. We won’t have a repeat of any sudden drops.”

Tuvi, at the Science station, spoke up, “Captain, we should be passing within a couple light years of a habitable planet in the Cheros system Anda mentioned at the staff meeting a few days ago. If our ‘guests’ aren’t too put out by a brief delay, it would be grand to drop a monitor buoy in the system…”

Chief of Ops, Steward Venra, her arms full of nursing three month old Hynisa, added, “The Resran delegation only contracted to be taken to Donal…they were not careful enough to stipulate a specific arrival time.” She cocked her head to the Captain and raised an eyebrow. Danielle understood implicitly what she was suggesting. She continued, “And if memory serves, Anda said the conditions of the system in question could give rise to some very unusual flora…”

That sealed it. “Kiji, make it so. Tuvi configure your buoy and also prepare a cloaked probe, I want pictures.” She turned to the Comm. “Bethany? How did Ambassador Leerin unlock your comm system?”

She didn’t look up at first; she was still running a diagnostic to determine that very thing. “I’m checking on that Captain. What I can say is that the Resran aren’t just the meek, trade-fussy, flower-lovers they pretend to be…” Her panel chirped. She looked up at Dani. “Captain…It seems as though there is a viral subroutine in my system. I’m deleting it now, but it appears that it was inserted from a terminal in the Galley!”

Venra rolled her eyes, “Where Leerin and his adjutant have a ‘nightcap’ every single late evening while everyone else is changing shift?”

Danielle demanded, “Everyone run station diagnostics. Venra begin a system-wide sweep…I know it’s ahead of schedule. Mind you it’s not necessarily sabotage…just really poor form for a guest to be so intrusive. And I won’t have it on my ship! Lenora, Tryda Paul dear, please go down to the gardens and stay with Master HanaRin and Ambassador Leerin. I want you to be his shadow for the rest of his stay with us.”

Her daughter grinned and opened her mouth to ask something; her mother saw it coming. “Yes that means you two can stay up passed lights out in the interim…” Tryda Paul skipped off the Bridge, Lenora sighed. At least baby-sitting was easier during a very welcome ‘mission.’

Venra said aside to Dani, “They are going to get so cranky!”

Dani muttered, “Better them than me!” She turned to Kiji, “Time to this other system, Cheros, and ETA to Donal?”

“Three hours to buoy and probe drop, thirty-seven hours on to Donal. And I’m not getting any sleep lately either…” she looked over at the infant strapped to Tuvi’s chest, asleep. “Torval has decided he’d rather play and cry at bedtime and sleep all day. I can watch over y’all’s little ‘spies’ for you…”

Dani and Venra smiled, “Thanks Kiji…How do you maintain?”

She winked, “It’s a ‘cat’ thing…” Both she and Tuvis, coming as they did from worlds whose sapient life forms arose from feline rather than primate strains, had just discovered that their children—if Torval was any indicator—were going to be hyper-Homo-Panthera.

Bethany spoke up, “Captain, incoming message from Voyager…”

On the Yellowstone, Captain Becka was just returning from the daily Captain’s meeting at New Bag End and her encounter with Tia. “Report,” she called in a controlled tone.

“Captain, we are fourteen hours out from Estus…” Jesper answered from the helm.

Trisi replied, “All systems properly functioning… I do have some further information on the Estusians as you requested…”

Becka collected herself, smiled to her Chief Steward and waited. Trisi continued, “For a non-space-faring people they have a remarkably sophisticated prowess in technology. It seems that…” and she glanced over to Ivy who nodded for her to continue. “Well, they are capable of transporting themselves very much the way we transit with our tangle-tosser devices.”

Becka was stunned into silence for a moment. She also looked to her husband. Ivy added, “That’s what Commander Halius—the Westerin attached to Voyager as part of the new partner training program—admitted in his communique. Voyager’s away team just returned a few minutes ago. He gave Captain Jimmy the same news just now… in fact all of the fleet is being apprized of this development.”

At New Bag End Randi read the transmission aloud to the others. There was silence. At length, Ada asked, “But they’re not space-faring?”

Rudikin was beside them in an instant. “No they are not. Tei and ChériA’na are still visiting with them after the away team went back to the ship. It’s no real surprise that they haven’t translated tosser-technology into space-faring. Remember, it was only through the immaculate abilities of your grandparents,” he looked to the triplets, “…that your mother, and GingerKat, and Auntie Vera were able to set up Bag End on Selena…”

Master HanaRin appeared next to him, “And let’s not forget that without their intervention and far-sightedness, none of this,” she waved her hand at everything around them, “could be as it is. Great-uncle Oliver, and Great-aunties Lena and Mia, along with Auntie Portia—your mother’s sister—were the real catalysts for the New Renaissance in the Orion Spur. That is a most remarkable legacy…”

Rudikin continued, “The Estusians do not have anyone among them with that level of self-development. So, while they have a very advanced technology—just as we ourselves have—they are not yet venturing off-planet. That is about to change.”

HanaRin nodded, “And our own cautions over the tangle-technology is similarly about to change as well. What the Estusians haven’t done, which we have, is to translate the tangle-tossers into a wrinkle-drive…Not that they would have had much use for it while bound to their planet’s surface…but there you go.”

Aboard the Voyager, Captain Jimmy and Norah, along with the rest of the crew, had listened to Commander Halius’s report. Yensa added to it. “There is a little problem however. It seems that while they are admittedly sophisticated technologically, socially they are… hmm… I suppose the best way to put this is: awkward.” The puzzled looks that faced her prompted an explanation. “Think: absent-minded professor, or wall-flower, or… Oh! Remember how Jesper was when he first joined the Yellowstone—shy, more interested in science than chatting to anyone, let alone seeing girls… Gypsy used to call that sort a nerd or geek—Earther terms for the socially inept—crazy smart, but not at all a people person. Estus is a whole planet of them.”

“And Masters Tei and ChériA’na are doing what with them?” Norah asked.

Yensa admitted, “Beginning a dialog that will lead to introducing a path of self-development—not just intellectual dexterity and mastery.”

Back at New Bag End, after the dust settled a bit from the Voyager announcements, Rudikin went with the valkyries to their workshops. “It’s too bad that Tia was noticed; fortunately it was by one of our own Captains and not the suspect ship.” They were all ears for something as direct as this. “However, this should not dampen your spirits around continuing your searches. You have correctly ascertained that the ‘privateers’ who have been raiding this region of space only have a couple ships of their own—at most. What you may not have taken into consideration is that many of the Captains of the affected trading ships and freighters made the same remarks during their accounts: a suspicion of an insider…a spy or a bribed crew member. Now with the discovery of the Estusian technological edge, we have to consider that perhaps these pirates have been to Estus and are using that technology to further their own aims. It’s one more denying force we have to consider…”

Kate asked, “So is that one of the other reasons Masters Tei and ChériA’na are sticking around on Estus?”

He nodded, “Precisely. You seven and ourselves seemed to have begun simultaneous similar ‘inquiries.’ Here is what we propose…” He elaborated on their already established general plan, but added as he looked over their ‘racer’ plans, “…It will be better to make this into a pilot-copilot rig instead of a single seater. We suggest in fact that you build three of them—One of you should always be available for coordination activities aboard Sheranara.” He flipped to the perspective drafts. “I like the look of her lines…of course this and the moment after they are constructed will be the only times anyone should ever actually ‘see’ them. That brings up another denying force and topic of consideration: an improved cloaking system that cannot be detected by even our own vessels’ instruments. And while you’re at it, please give some thought to having your own personal cloaking systems. We’d really like to avoid any more instances like the Yellowstone debacle.”

Isabou grinned, “Actually, we kinda have been giving a bit of thought to that…the alternate cloak idea, I mean…”

Isha reached up to a shelf and set a little box on the table before them. “Tada!” she tittered.

Rudikin opened the lid and peered inside; he lifted the device out and looked it over. “This design is radically different from the system Paulie put together with Roger and Gypsy…”

Trici smiled, “That’s because it functions differently from the ones our ships carry…” She picked up the little one-button remote from inside the box and pressed it. The device disappeared. Tia reached over and touched her hand to where its top should be and followed along its contours.

She said, “It’s like the design Anda dreamed up for the Anna, but never got around to building…”

Trici pressed the button again and there it was under Tia’s hand.

Randi said quietly, “When this is attached to a field-generator or tangle-tosser, it makes whatever is inside the field invisible—that’s its beauty…”

Kate added in the same voice, “The hitch is that we haven’t tried it on a wrinkle drive to see if it also masks the wrinkle signature…”

Rudikin grinned, “And how small can you build these?”

They looked at each other for a while. Isabou replied, “Perhaps as small as the personal tossers. But we’re gonna have to do some interesting fiddling around with the units to get them to remain active for longer than a bounce…”

Rudikin opened another topic as they put away their little treasure. “And yet another denying factor in our quest: If our privateer nuisances are using an Estus-tosser to accomplish some of their thefts, we are going to have an awfully hard time detecting tainted shipments. Unless… do y’all think you can cobble together an add-on for our sensors and scanners? Something that will detect the presence and location of one of their units?”

Ada giggled, “Does an unsnagged drifter hit the deck?! Just get one to us!”

Rudikin was just preparing to leave them to their new projects, when he turned back to them from the door, “I’ll have a word with Becka and smooth over the ‘report’ thing. As you may have noticed at the last several of our fleet meetings, the Captains are handling the strain of the ‘ferry service’ well enough. But they thought after all the relocation work around Antares and Shaula they’d put all of that behind them. Now here they are doing it all over again. The Julinissans and Westerins are nearing completion of their own ‘classic-wrinkle’ ships and will be in service within the next couple months. Until then tensions will still be higher than usual…” His parting words were, “See if you can get a couple of these ‘racers’ operational in a few weeks. We can’t just be sending out more sheep to be sheared without adequate surveillance and protection…”

Randi’s eyes grew large, but she answered for them all, “It is our duty to serve…” The valkyries heaved a sigh as a chorus and jumped into construction mode. He transited to the Yellowstone.

Captain Becka mulled over the significance of the Voyager report from Estus. Helga and Ivy were having a little debate about the impact even a basic Estus-tosser technology was going to have on Alliance trade. Rudikin appeared next to the Captain’s chair. He smiled to her when she looked up and she relaxed a bit in the presence of the Master. He intimated to her thoughts, ‘A word to the wise Captain: We shall maintain our vigilance over the Roaming Wing fleet, of that you may be certain. However that does not preclude our employing other more aggressive operations…’

Her mind went instantly to her bumping into Tia in her own ready room after tracing her bounce from that Westerin long range freighter. ‘You’re using the valkyries? They are so sloppy!’

He replied gently, ‘I have personally seen to it that their sloppiness is a thing of the past. We have watched their first three clandestine missions—taken under their own initiative. In the first one they were in and out without incident, and gathered some valuable information on current behind the scenes activities of our Alliance partners’ shipping practices—lax to say the least. The second instance we observed without their knowledge, they were bold enough to begin recon of some of the presumably non-spacing worlds…just to verify that they weren’t harboring some covert outposts. On Planris, Isabou and Tia found four very suspicious small mountain enclaves; it was in the last one—occupied just then—that they took weapons fire. Isabou and Tia’s personal tossers were burned out, and the other five had to physically evacuate their sisters to keep them safe. Intel from that Planris outpost led them next to Resran, where the proto-type wrinkle-configured Westerin freighter was taking on cargo bound back to this area of the spur…’

Becka resolved, ‘And that’s when I traced Tia from their cargo hold to my ready room and escorted her back to Sheranara on my way to this morning’s meeting…’

‘Precisely. They will no longer function autonomously. My partners and I have been effectively pursuing the same aims; I have co-opted the valkyries and given them some rather tall marching orders. They will not interfere with your ship or any of our fleet again.’

Aloud Becka replied, “Master Rudikin, what of the Estus-tossers? Are they as great a concern as we seem to think they are?” Ivy and Helga stopped their debate to hear his response.

“They do seem to use quantum entanglement to function, but like our own in the early days, they are only capable of bouncing very short distances. At present no father than around their own planet. However, within those distances, they are very efficient, require little in the way of maintenance, although their reconfiguring is intense to say the least. Estusians don’t have any trouble with that, but as Santios found out first hand, anyone else might find their technological approach to design more than a bit daunting.”

Helga asked the Captain if she could voice a follow-up question, Becka nodded. “Master, although it seems we may be confident that the Estusian tossers aren’t the concern we anticipated at first hearing of them this morning, there still remains the open-ended question: Have their tossers already been commandeered by a nefarious group bent upon personal gain?”

Master Rudikin answered directly, “It is possible, but unknown. Within the week we should have our fleet’s sensors and scanners augmented to detect Estus tosser field signatures. They will also be deployed at every authorized docking and shipping port, as well as on all freighters and trading ships. The unknown should become known rather quickly.”

Ivy was visibly relieved, as were Helga and Becka. The latter because she also had the additional knowledge that the Roaming Wing was not merely setting up passive measures. Her only hope was that the valkyries would shape up quickly…

As promised, Ada and Trici made the rounds of the fleet and all the docking and shipping ports of the young Alliance worlds installing the augmented sensor-scanners. What no one realized was that the valkyries had also made an unnoticed tertiary adjustment to each of those units—a ‘sending’ routine that routed the scanner data from every single unit back to the Sheranara for analysis. There the data was reconstructed into a realtime, Alliance-wide ‘sensor-web.’ The valkyries were very pleased with themselves. One glance at the sensor-web monitor gave them a most comprehensive map of all transport activity in this region of the Spur…including: who was shipping what cargo and where, who were the haulers, their short and long range destinations, the routes taken, stops, speeds, deviations…in short, everything.

Several days later the Lioness, Sheranara’s lower section, received some interior redecorating. By the time Trici and Ada made the final connections and activated the Alliance sensor-web on the Archangel Bridge, the others had finished setting up permanent berths for their three tandem racers: Flopsy, Mopsy and Cotton-tail… a unanimous choice of names. Tia was tentatively chosen by her sisters and cousins to take on the role of coordinator, leaving the others to deploy the ‘jackrabbits.’

Masters HanaRin and Tei-tei gave them their first assignment. “Rudikin and ChériA’na are watching over Anna and Voyager, HanaRin is tasked primarily to Yellowstone at present. Our company residing primarily here at New Bag End are content to have me at their beck and call. I can and will assist you in your endeavors should you require it, although I suspect that will be unnecessary.” She paused to allow for questions. She pulled up the latest holo-star maps for the regions in which they currently traveled and toward which they were voyaging.

From Buffalope to Westerin, a distance of nearly fifty light years there were two intermediate systems devoid of peopled worlds. Beyond Westerin were Resra, at eighteen light years, Planris at another twelve, Hutsia the next closest neighbor only five light years distant, and finally fifteen more to Donal which had just recently been visited by the Anna.

In the other direction, there was the unoccupied system fifteen light years away on the way to Julinissa, at another eleven. Out passed Julinissa, within twenty light years, Voyager had encountered an open star cluster perhaps forty light years across. And though it encompassed perhaps over a hundred stars, only a dozen or so were old enough to sponsor habitable and inhabited planets. Of those, they had encountered the Dron, the Numis, the Slera and the Destrin. All technologically capable peoples and only recently space-faring—not unlike the Westerin. Estus was the last of those systems on the far side of the cluster. And as had been revealed, were not already space-faring themselves and claimed they hadn’t been visited before Voyager’s arrival.

“The Anna is en route to another rather packed region of the Spur, but not at all like the Gatin cluster. From all long-range scans, as late as this morning, there appear to be fifty to sixty main sequence stars and a relative host of them harbor planets. Radio transmissions from that region are dense. We may be looking at the originating region of our nuisances.” she finished.

HanaRin began, “Because the stars are relatively close to each other, as they are in the Gatin cluster, Rudikin is attempting system to system hops without having to be aboard the Anna to reach them. That is possible. Chéri and I did something very similar to that when Voyager found that first open cluster—although we did a ‘tag-team’ approach…”

Tei added, “I am available for Rudikin should he require hopping assistance…”

HanaRin got to the point, “As you have begun to notice from your sensor-web, there is no evidence of Estus-tossers on the Westerin side of this region. Yet, there are still incidents of plundering reported. You were clever enough to RP-tag every ship, dock and station when you made the scanner upgrades. So, coupled with the libraries constantly building from our other ships, the Sheranara, or her three ‘bunnies,’ are the only vessels capable of being instantly anywhere within over a two hundred light year swath of this Spur. Rudikin and Tei-tei cannot add to your own library as they make their sweep…But, what they can do is observe and direct…”

Tei finished, “What he has found so far is this: Two systems within three light years of each other, populated it seems by the same people and so: space-faring… How fast are their ships? How far have they traveled? Are they explorers? If so, do they onlyexplore?Before the Anna reaches them in fourteen days, you need to have some of those answers. Captain Danielle is taking the long way around the cluster; you have time to take a direct route and learn as much as you can as quickly as you can. If their drive-signatures match the ones we have faintly detected around Westerin, Resra, Planris, Hutsia and Donal…”

Kate interjected, “Perhaps we’ll have found our wolves in sheep’s clothing…”

The Masters nodded and left them to their preparations. “We are going to make the rounds here before returning to our ships. Vivian’s little girl, Kisa, and Anya’s boy, Mika, are just the cutest little things!” Tei-tei chirped as they walked away.

The valkyries got down to mission-planning. Randi pointed out, “Our first non-invasive task is to determine if any of our previously tagged cargo shipments are on either of those planets.”

Isha added, “While that might just mean that they have been secretly ‘trading’ with Donal or Planris, for example, that none of those peoples acknowledged any trade with each other until our arrival would suggest that someone isn’t being very forthright.”

Kate nodded, “Official trade and black market trading are two different critters…”

Isabou agreed, “There may very well be a dark syndicate operating outside of ‘official’ channels…and may have been doing so for a long time…”

Ada asked, “If their ships are equal in operational velocity to the classic-wrinkle drives, wouldn’t their network have had to be in place for at least a couple decades?”

Randi calculated quickly, “At twenty times light speed, a round trip from inside that cluster out to the uninhabited ‘visited system’ nearest us would take just over nine and a half years…So yeah, at least the last decade, twenty years more likely…It could have been for far longer of course…”

Trici nodded, “If they are coming from that cluster and not one of the many systems we haven’t investigated a lot nearer. The Roaming Wing is still maintaining pretty direct exploratory courses for the outer extremes of the Spur. There are many systems not on that path at all.”

Randi agreed, “Perhaps after this recon is complete we’ll need to remedy that oversight…especially if this mission doesn’t yield the results we’re looking for.” She continued, “We have evaluated the denying forces of this task. We have the necessary tools, and vessels. We are each clear about our responsibilities. We have our timeline, protocols for exigencies, cover stories and masquerade tasks to keep our family from any suspicion about our little extra duties…”

Isha nodded, “I’m monitoring Flopsy, carrying Kate and Randi, and keeping in touch with Tia while helping with the construction of Safe Haven One on Buffalope…”

Isabou added, “I’m monitoring Cotton-tail, carrying Ada and Trici, keeping in touch with Tia while making the maintenance rounds here at New Bag End… Oh! And I may get to babysit later!”

Tia explained, “I am wearing the wrist console with me at all times to monitor the sensor-web, coordinate the movements of Flopsy and Cotton-tail, and alert Ada and Isabou if they need to ‘be their twin’ for some reason…just as I am doing for Kate and Trici. I will mostly be in the Kitchens with Camille and her struggling apprentices, Emilia and Numa. This first little scouting mission begins when you four bounce to the Anna’s last marker buoy and launch our wrinkle probes. They will take no more than eighty-four hours to reach their destination. You four will then bounce to them, get close-up and personal with the systems Rudikin has noted, leave a final marker set, then bounce home. End of Phase One.”

Isha, Randi, Kate and Trici elaborated on their parts in the mission: to reach the suspect systems in as short a time as their ‘new and improved’ wrinkle-drive would carry their ships or their probes—twenty-four percent faster than even Sheranara, one thousand, twenty-four C—make the initial detail scans of the subject planets in preparation for Phase Two. “That will still leave us almost ten days at the outside, before Anna arrives in the neighborhood, to effectuate Phase Two—to assess, take any necessary counter-measures and only apprize the rest of Roaming Wing if the situation absolutely warrants it.”

Tia nodded, “What else?” The girls looked thoughtful as they re-reviewed the enneagramatical plan laid out before them.

The jackrabbits’ masked wrinkle-drives, as well as their probes’, were all synchronized as perfectly as Sheranara Triquetra’s, so no ISM damage or trace. Their ships’ sub-light drives were built up from the groundwork the fleet’s physicists had made in improving the Julinissan anti-matter drives—that is to say totally started from scratch but with the Julinissan technology for gathering the anti-matter in the first place. So now when the jackrabbits weren’t wrinkling, they could travel with barely detectable signatures at all velocities of sub-light…and even in atmospheric settings.

It was the last bit that captured the most of their attention—the ‘take appropriate counter-measures’ part. Kate repeated aloud for their benefit. “…Preserve rather than destroy. Avoid rather than check. Check rather than hurt. Hurt rather than maim. Maim rather than kill. For all life is precious nor can any be replaced. We are not the judges, the jury or the executioners. We are scouts, the vanguard of our family, of the Alliance. If there is a reckoning to be levied on a people, that is for the Alliance and others to mete out. But we will not roll over and be stepped on when we can avoid it or defend ourselves…”

Randi repeated, “We just serve up our findings, it is for the Council or others to decide how to digest them…”

That late afternoon, the Flopsy and Cotton-tail bounced to launch their wrinkle probes to deep within the open cluster around which the Anna was at that moment journeying. The hour’s endeavor was a success and they were all back in time for dinner with the enclave’s permanent residents. Besides the Valkyries, Resti and Jolly, Vivian and Kisa, Michael, Anya and Mica—Danielle and Lenora, Venra with Hynisa and Tryda Paul, Kiji and Torval were visiting for the evening. Danielle and Bethany were as round as they were going to get; they would not be transiting back to the Anna until after delivery. Val and Frank were still aboard the Anna with Anda and Tuvi monitoring her systems and progress until they got the call to attend the births. Also at the dinner table were New Bag End’s other permanent family-staff: Camille, Emilia and Numa. Camille had let her proteges handle the entire repast and was careful to not make any expression of approval or disappointment as the diners ate.

Vivian asked, “And what progress has been made today planet-side?”

Isha and Ada spoke up, “The power fields are in place so that even our foundational constructions won’t be trampled by any errant herds and such. Chotapsai and Santios really selected the most beautiful site for our inaugural Safe Haven…”

Kiji asked, “How is the boat-building going? Will we be able to get out on the seas anytime soon? Becka has promised Tuvi, Torval and me a training trip with herself and Ivy once the Yellowstone is back from Estus.”

Isabou and Randi grinned, “Actually, we may have finally found something VJ and ‘Misa, Kerrin, Sean and Sashi like even more than swaggering on starship Bridges! They are making very good headway on first two yachts—Once they finished and sailed the little cats, they were hooked…”

Tryda Paul was anxious to go and see. Venra, Lenora and Danielle looked to the valkyries. Randi smiled, “We’d be delighted to have his expert advice for the next few days!” she winked. Tryda was tickled; Lenora was relieved. Being stuck at New Bag End until her little brother was born—with the continuing and unending task of watching over Tryda Paul hadn’t thrilled her too much…

Isabou added, “And maybe Tryda Paul will assist me with maintenance rounds as well?” He grinned even broader if that were possible. Venra and Lenora both mouthed a ‘Thank you,’ to her.

Bethany grabbed at her tummy, “Ooh…” and she winced. Emilia and Numa looked pained thinking it was something she ate. She quickly amended, “Vivian, dear, perhaps we should…” and her water broke.

Vivian stood calmly, handed Kisa to Kiji, turned to Michael and said, “Contact Frank, now. The Anna will just have to do without her Medical officer for a little while.” He rose and went to the Communications office.

Dani commented, “I think he’s been pacing the floors of our empty ship clinic for the last several hours anyway…”

Bethany gasped again. Kate and Randi were at her elbows as if they’d transited like a Master. “Not too quickly now… One step at a time…” Trici and Isha fetched a mop and rags for the floor while the others began putting away what was left of the meal.

Frank came bursting out of the tangle-vator just as Bethany and her attendants made it to the clinic door. “I thought I should have at least come along for dinner!” he chided himself aloud.

Vivian nodded to him as he scrubbed, gloved and set up the birthing room. Kate and Randi delivered their charge into his capable hands and then turned to directing the traffic of children and other visitors that started pouring into New Bag End from the other ships.

Kiji turned to Resti, “You’d think there wasn’t a single person left on any of our ships when someone goes into labor around here!”

Becka had just come out of the tangle-vator at that moment and caught the remark. “So long as someone is on board to keep our passengers out of trouble…the ships sorta fly themselves…” She glanced over her shoulder as her son, VJ, and ‘Misa came out of another tangle-vator…hand in hand as usual. Right behind them came Aniva. She shrugged when she caught Becka’s eye.

Resti whispered to her, “They really are a cute couple…”

Becka sighed in surrender the same time Aniva did as they walked together to the clinic.

The next two days went smoothly enough. The Valkyries monitored the passage of their probes, while being everywhere at once tending to the needs of all the family home for the big occasion. Little Noel Regina Dupre was a handsome girl and wasn’t without her share of admirers. VJ and ‘Emisa convinced Santios, Chotapsai, Tuvi and Jolly to help with the yacht building project one of those days. And it seemed that everyone pitched in some volunteer time on the new Buffalope Haven Lodge itself.

The morning of the fourth day from probe launch, Tia marked their reaching destination alpha. She gave the nod to the jackrabbit crews to prepare for completing phase one. No one took any special notice that some of the twins and triplets were absent most of that day—Their sisters were everywhere, and answering to whichever name they were called.

The Flopsy and Cotton-tail bounced to the probes, mounted them in saddles on the little ships, built for that purpose, and wrinkled the rest of the way to the two suspect systems. Kate and Randi took one in Flopsy. Ada and Trici took the other in Cotton-tail. Back home, Tia noted their progress as she was gathering the lunches to take down to Haven Lodge as ‘Trici,’ leaving ‘Kate and herself’ taking care of security and life support maintenance for the afternoon.

Kate spoke into her comlink, “We are inserting the RP marker set on the dark side of the moon nearest this planet…We will begin detail scans in half an hour…”

A couple light years away, Trici received the communique and sent their own, “Ditto. There is an awful lot of traffic in this system. These folks have colonized most every habitable space available here…”

Aboard the Flopsy, Randi commented, “This system seems dull by comparison then…” she paused as her sensor monitors sprang to life of a sudden. “Oops, someone around here shouldn’t have some of these toys in their backyard!”

Kate asked, “How bad is it?”

Randi observed, “Curious. There seems to be a little bit of everything we’ve tagged in the last several months… But when I scan their ships, not a one of them seem to have anything more powerful than a classic-wrinkle drive…”

From the Cotton-tail in the other system, Ada was making a similar observation. “I’m recording the individual signatures of every ship, one by one…but none of them are a match to the unknown signatures we came to find. Trici is taking us into a closer orbit of what appears to be their main world…” Her narration meandered as she simply gave voice to what she was seeing. “…A half dozen Space stations, a plethora of small ships and a few freighters…Surface scans show a well-developed and surprisingly ecologically responsible disperse civilization…”

Randi rattled off what they were seeing also, “…One substantial colony on the second moon, a couple Space stations…a dozen or so freight ships and practically no smaller vessels…Only this planet, a seemingly uninhabited one further out and an asteroid belt another couple AU distant…All the radiation tag signals are coming from that moon settlement. The planetary facilities don’t seem to house anything extraordinary in the least. I’m scanning and recording signatures. We’re going in for a surface survey now…”

Ada began a litany of scanned findings. Then she stopped and asked, “Which trace signals are you picking up? I mean which shipment parts in particular ended up here?”

Randi replied, “Odd, they’re all from the Westerin freighters, and I’m not getting a single sensor reading for any of the goods or materials themselves! The trace is coming from the people…”

Ada announced, “That’s precisely what we show in this system: Loads of signal, no material goods…” She scanned an isolated station on the far side. “Hey! I’ve got a wrinkle signature extremely similar to the two we’re… Here’s another…and… Hey! we’ve picked up one more than we came looking for, at least these are extraordinarily close facsimiles of them. Only one of the ships is currently docked…so I can scan its engine room…” There was a pause and a gasp. “Ladies, we need to bounce and regroup. This ship isn’t like any others in this system—this tangle-drive is very familiar…though the ship’s design isn’t at all. If I didn’t know better I’d say it is Estus made!”

Randi and Kate joined Trici in responding, “Estus drives?!”

Kate protested, “We scanned similar signatures in the other system before bouncing back, some large some small, but there were no wrinkle signatures anywhere in the Gatin star cluster until the Voyager arrived. Yensa was most thorough in her daily sweeps of the ISM. This must just be a remarkable coincidence…They can’t be Estus manufactured! They would have shown up as such on our new monitors!”

Ada was now even more certain, “I just made an elemental scan and also imaged the devices themselves… Trici is bouncing us back to Sheranara. Out.”

Kate declared, “Right behind you…”

The four girls stood up out of the jackrabbits, now nestled back in their berths in Sheranara’s little hidden internal hanger bay. Ada commented as they waited for Tia to give them the ‘all clear’ signal and tell them just where they should first ‘show up.’ “I am having Sheranara download all our scans into her own databanks. She’ll make the analysis and…”

Before Tia’s voice came over the ship’s comm, Sheranara’s voice spoke softly, “Ada, I’ve analyzed these scans of the suspect devices. They are not Estus manufacture…” The valkyries sighed in relief, but too soon. The computer continued, “It is a certainty to an extraordinarily high degree of accuracy that they are based on the Estus design and are even composed of alloys currently manufactured on Estus…but there are also metals and composites in their construction that are one hundred per cent consistent with previous entries in my databanks and with elements from these systems in particular. They were built there, by those people…”

The girls weren’t at all sure they liked this any better. Sheranara added, “According to all our records of their locally detected signatures and the radiation fingerprints you detected and recorded…the shipments from which they came had to have been transferred onto the suspect individuals bearing those tags…also which you have just recorded… The inescapable conclusion is that those drives are as capable as the ones constructed in the early years of the Sargassian Alliance in the Orion Spur; that is to say more powerful than classic wrinkle drives but less than my own. But most assuredly the most efficient we’ve encountered locally thus far in this Spur…”

Tia’s voice came through on the heels of that jaw-dropping announcement. “Before I tell you where you each need to pop up, what did you find?!”

Kate answered, “More questions than answers… This is going to take some real detective work…”

Ada added, “And what’s worse is we couldn’t find a single snippet of shipments plundered in the last year—-loads of trace…just not the goods themselves!”

Randi muttered, “I’m starting to wonder if we’re actually looking for pirates… or are we looking for a black market… or this Spur’s version of Robin Hood?!”

Tia’s voice answered, “So Phase Two needs some rethinking…” She then rattled off where each girl should make themselves noticed before reconvening in their apartments before dinner.

Rudikin, HanaRin, Tei-tei and ChériA’na were waiting for them when they stepped into their own den that evening. ChériA’na smiled, “I had an illuminating talk with Sheranara just now…”

Randi sighed, “You heard then.”

Rudikin commented, “Judging by the manifests of the plundered shipments reported by Westerin freighters, we are going to need to expand our search criteria. If not a single item of those shipments was detectable in either of those two systems, then they were taken somewhere else and for purposes known only to the Captains of those unusual ships…”

Tei remarked, “We will arrange interviews with those individuals as soon as possible…”

HanaRin added, “Randi may be correct in her off-hand observations about their motives—robbing from the rich to give to the poor, or a straight-forward black market. But if the former, why not just provide from their own resources if they found some poor folks in need…”

ChériA’na postulated, “Either it’s a matter of social justice or an interesting case of plausible deniability.”

The Valkyries responded with a unanimous, “Huh?!”

HanaRin giggled and explained, “Just so. What did your scans of the people themselves and their worlds show?”

Ada and Randi repeated from memory, “Pretty normal stuff. Neither main world was very much different from any other we’ve encountered. The people are actually rather handsome in a tall, light Malekaiai-ish kind a way…very much like the Malekiai actually…”

Rudikin probed, “And the Bridge officers of the one ship in question?”

Ada shrugged, “I didn’t monitor anyone on those Bridges…”

Isabou asked, “Are you suggesting that they aren’t native to that system?”

Tia held up her hands, “None of this explains why we received unfriendly fire at that enclave on Planris… Who are those people and what’s the connection to our newly found Merry Men?”

Rudikin mused aloud, “The Seranim and the Galoran…”

ChériA’na continued, “One real possibility is that we may be looking for more than a single group responsible for all of the incidents. In fact it may be that they are, as Rudikin suggests, two sides of one coin. Two factions of the same non-native people…but who very possibly, however improbably, can trace their origins to the far side of the Gatin Cluster near Estus…if not from Estus itself. And the only situation which could account for there being no ISM trace of wrinkle activity would be…”

Randi slapped her own head, “A nova or supernova…something that both spit them out of their space and tossed them a hundred light years that way…” she pointed, “…leaving no trace of their space travel in their own original neighborhood…”

Trici countered, “But the Estus aren’t space-faring…”

Tei added, “…at present.”

HanaRin admitted, “While we were visiting with them and generally evaluating their care of their home world, we noticed something which none of the population could answer satisfactorily. Namely that there were no primate species of any type whatsoever on the entire planet…

Tei elaborated, “And it is perfectly clear from just a glance, the Estusains are closer to Human than any other folk outside of the Nourii and the Westerin that we’ve yet encountered…”

Isabou whispered, “They aren’t from that planet? And they don’t even know it?”

HanaRin added, “It’s worse than that. They don’t seem to have any cultural memory…no legends, no myths, not even a great depth of history…”

Tei offered, “And that doesn’t bother them in the least. They are thriving and that’s sufficient for them.”

Rudikin nodded, “So neither our mystery guests in the cluster beyond Donal—which they call the Horn by the way—nor our innocent friends with the clever technology on Estus are indigenous and so could actually be from anywhere. What we can be certain of is that they have the same technological origins, both in design and function. That’s something that can’t be said for any other people. Even in the Orion Spur, while the wrinkle-drive was independently developed by more than one people…none of them approached the design of that technology in exactly the same way…as we are seeing here.”

ChériA’na added, “And that one group is space-faring and one is clearly not and contentedly so, only suggests that the memory of it has gone from them. There are countless examples of a whole culture losing the collective memory of their own heritage. It is actually far more common than the alternatives…”

Tia wanted to be clear, “So we’re saying we have two, perhaps three groups of people—but they’re the same people originally. One group has gone blissfully intellectual and forgetful of their past. One group has retained their technology, even advanced it and are living in harmony with their new surrounding neighbors. While yet a third, possible group of these same people, are also space-faring but with no advancement from the original technology and are hostile to their environment… in fact toward any environment in which they find themselves…”

Rudikin just nodded, as did his partners. Tia finished by saying, “So where have all those stolen shipments ended up?”

Tei and Hana smiled. “Just a minute…” and they vanished.

The Valkyries chatted amongst themselves and were interrupted moments later when the Masters reappeared. “It would seem…” Tei began, “That while the Westerin have been the targets of planetary raiding, piracy, and outright theft for years and years…They have been more than a little remiss in following up on why their intended recipients have not put up a stink about being deprived of their purchased goods and resources…”

Hana finished, “You’ll have to make a bounce and check for the radiation tags’ traces yourselves, but it appears no one but the Westerin freighters themselves have been deprived of anything substantial…”

Rudikin interjected, “And it would seem: the pirates…”

Trici giggled, “That would make anyone mad at the universe. Always having your ‘rightful’ thefts stolen from under your nose and before you get to enjoy the booty yourself…”

Isabou and Kate agreed, “So we are now looking for the same needle in a stack of needles. An unscrupulous space-faring folk who know how to hide and stay hidden…” “It was just dumb luck, or a really quirky misfortune that we ran into them on Planris…”

ChériA’na replied, “There is one set of people who apparently know how to find them, judging by the trace you found on the people but no goods…”

Randi and Kate had to square everything that had just been said. Kate began, “So we’re saying: The Estus aren’t space-faring and don’t mind staying that way—social inept, Yensa called them. They haven’t personally provided any technology to anyone else…and they didn’t know that their tossers could be configured to be used as space drives.”

Rudikin nodded, “Check.”

Randi continued, “On the other hand, there appears to be an equally unsociable group of the same people who do have those tossers configured as space drives, but haven’t developed that technology any further than the most rudimentary levels. It is that section of those people who have raided, pilfered and outright stolen what ever they could lay their hands on—whether from traveling ships or from populated planets.”

Again Rudikin answered, “Check.”

Kate finished, “But there is a third group of these same people but who are different from their brethren in that they have advanced their basic technology, have established good and wholesome relations with their neighbors in the Horn—and now we suspect have returned all the ill-gotten booty stolen by their lesser cousins?!”

Rudikin raised his eyebrows, “Check and check…”

Hana exclaimed, “That explains why when Yellowstone first encountered Undersecretary Roulin Drit of the Westerin, he said: ‘We have been courted with talk of peaceful relations before, only to suffer the scars of their deceptions…’ I get it now! It just may be that the Westerin were approached first by ‘the Horn’ contingent of Estus cousins extending a hand of peace, just as we did. But their visit was evidently followed soon after by their ploddingly slow rascal relations, who ravaged the planet and its people rather than making nice! The pieces may be finally falling into place…”

Isabou cackled, “So the Westerin aren’t suffering from paranoid delusions over being singled out for pirate attack…but are now so inured to it, they don’t bother to follow up with their customers. They just declare the unwelcome intervention a loss and start over again…”

ChériA’na finally finished her initial observation, “The Captains of those three ships, one of which you found docked in the Horn—and perhaps their crews as well—know how, when and where to find their antisocial cousins. This also explains why even though they have an advanced space-drive technology, they do not stray far from home: Their rogue relations have spoiled every attempt they’ve made toward peaceful relationships…Every planet in the neighborhood, save two obviously, have them confused with their evil twins!”

Kate asked, “So Phase Two seems to have taken a wild turn. What should we do? Just cruise back to the Horn, knock on their hatches and ask, ‘Need help with your idiot relations? Oh and were you aware you have some other kin on the far side of the Gatin Cluster? Not very ambitious really, and stunningly dull conversationalists!’ I mean really! How else are we going to convince them to help?”

Randi was just as uncertain. “It would seem they’ve just resigned themselves to cleaning up after their brethren. They obviously aren’t going to do anything as drastic as fratricide. Do we actually think they are going to accept our plea to intervene for the sake of the Westerin?”

Master Tei smiled, “While it may appear as though they have been ‘cleaning up’ as you put it for quite a long while, even the most determined of people welcome assistance at some point in their toils. I rather like Kate’s approach…”

Kate burst out, “I was kidding!”

Master Hana stood up. “Camille is about to sound the dinner bell. You seven of all people know the Bag Enders’ modus operandi: If you have an idea, guess who gets to pursue it?” And she was followed out the door by her partners.

ChériA’na turned at the last moment looked to Kate and encouraged, “You know as triplets, you three have something more in common with these long time refugees than almost anyone else…That might be what really opens the door for a dialog.”

Tia muttered, “Oh great. So why don’t we go whole hog and play like Maria Theresa’s girls—we each marry into one of the factions and unite them by other bonds they can’t dissolve?”

Trici held up her hands, “Wait a minute! Which factions? The three Estusian groups? Or the Pirate Estusians, the Westerin and the Advanced Estusians? I am so not spending any time with the planet-bound eggheads if I can avoid it!” The other girls laughed outright.

Isabou sighed after she got her breath, “Romancing a Pirate…now what would that be like?”

Isha gasped, “Put it out of your mind entirely! Desperate, conniving, reckless, rude, insensitive, perhaps even brutal rogues do not get courted! They get blasted!”

Kate muttered as they headed to the dining hall, “No one’s ever said anything about their being reckless or brutal…Even the Westerin only complain about being robbed. There hasn’t been a peep about assault…accept on us, that is…”

Randi rolled her eyes, “We are so unremittingly estrogenic these days!”

With the increased population currently residing at NBE, the valkyries made plans to join the Anna when she arrived at the two systems in the heart of the Horn. They were intending to broach the subject with Captain Danielle, but as she was becoming more uncomfortable by the day, they just couldn’t find the right time to bring it up. So instead of waiting, Kate represented them at the morning Captain’s meeting and before everyone left she made a proposition.

She opened her mouth to speak, but Danielle interrupted, “I have an announcement to make before y’all head back to your posts…” Becka, Jimmy, the Masters, Val, Ivy and Norah turned to listen. “Lenora has made it quite clear that she will not go back aboard the Anna as baby-sitter-tutor for Tryda Paul. And she isn’t very content to be among the ranks of the scouts any longer either. In fact, the way she put it to me last night was: ‘I am almost eighteen years old. I have trained with the best in everything from Bridge duties to Engineering and Stewardship. I would have been heading to University, but that isn’t going to happen now. None of the guys look at me as a young woman—I’m just Lennie to them…at least ‘Misa and Numa have VJ and Sean to remind them they are special. The Timansis are in their own little world with their big plans for Buffalope and that leaves me…the spinster.’ Probably the most she’s said about herself in several years. So here’s what I would like to see happen…”

She turned to Kate. “I realize the valkyries have their own obligations and responsibilities keeping this place running and coordinating all our family events and such…but will you consider this: Take Lenora under your wings. Take the Anna’s place in the mission of exploration and for pity’s sake, show her what it’s like to be an independent woman. I’m just her mother it seems, and even as Captain of one of the finest vessels in the Actaeon Spur, I just don’t rate with her…” She teared up and Kate went to kneel at her side.

The Masters were quiet. Becka and Norah seemed to know this was coming. The gentlemen, including Valeran remained cautiously quiet as well. Kate declared, “Auntie Dani, I was actually about to demand that the Sheranara do exactly that. And truth be told, we love Lenora like a sister already…She’ll make an excellent Valkyrie. As for man-hunting, we seem to have that on our mind too, more recently than ever before—so Len has great company there as well!”

Danielle was very relieved. Whether it was the sudden relaxation from the abandoned build up of stress or just a curious coincidence, she went into contractions. “It’s about time!” she announced in a wince and a chuckle. Frank and Vivian had their hands full the next several hours. Dani was having twins. Norah stayed at her sister’s side through it all. Lenora was right there also, constantly whispering encouragement and gratitude that her mother was so wise, and strong, and loving, and… Everything a mother loves to hear actually. Valeran was her birthing-lounge chair support and even though his legs and arms had to have ached over the seven hour ordeal, he only smiled and had pleasant things to say during and after every exertion. Two boys announced their entrance into their company and family before the afternoon was fully underway. Fraternal twins—Elmo George and Wim Henry Daane—Danielle was rightly beatific.

Vivian took Valeran aside as the twins settled in for their first attempt to nurse. “Valeran, I know Dani is strong, but she has lost a lot of blood and she may not recover so quickly. It’s a good thing Aniva showed up when she did so that she could handle the c-section for the second boy, but even with her experience and skill, Dani hemorrhaged and it weakened her.”

Val asked, “It’s just rest though that she needs, right? I mean you’re not telling me to prepare for the worst or anything are you?”

Vivian’s expression was comforting, “She’ll get her strength back in time. It’s just that she will likely not be able to resume command of the Anna for quite a while even after her vitality is closer to normal. Aniva and I agree, someone should suggest to her to name a successor as Captain. She’ll have enough to deal with with twin boys…” Vivian didn’t want to add the last but she was compelled to, “…at her age.”

Valeran’s face wrinkled as if he were about to laugh, “..At her age? But Dani and Norah are only…” and his eyes became a little more serious, “…Oh my. Time has slipped by I suppose. Is it really that difficult to have twins after forty?”

Vivian chuckled, “It’s difficult at any age!” She corrected, “Unless you’re Viola MacLaren! Danielle and her sister are really strong women. I’m telling you that she’s not going to just bounce back from this as she would have twenty years ago…”

He sighed. “Yes ma’am. As it happens, at the Captain’s meeting this morning, just before she went into labor, she de-commissioned the Anna and has suggested that the Sheranara continue the ongoing exploration missions…”

Vivian looked impressed. “That woman never ceases to amaze me…”

Val continued, “And my little girl…Correction, my daughter the young woman, has secured a position with the Valkyries…” He mused aloud, “I suppose she’s way over due for entering the tlachtli pitch and defeating any one who dares enter the competition…”

On that subject, it was in the NBE pitch that the triplets—Kate, Tia and Trici—with Randi and Isabou, Ada and Isha inducted Lenora as their newest sister, made her an equal co-captain of the Sheranara and the jackrabbits, explained all their covert activities up to that moment and last but not least fell into a heated round of ‘girl-talk,’ after flying practice of course.

“Are y’all serious?!” Lenora exclaimed, then checked her voice lest someone might look suspicious.

Tia explained, “We have to. There are eight of us now, with two per rabbit…we have to build a fourth one…”

Isabou agreed, “We built Sheranara to be self-piloting, and we can always direct her remotely if we have to. Really, she’s that smart of a ship!”

Lenora rocked back in her chair. “This is way more than I ever expected when I finally got up the gumption to face down Mama. I was thinking, you know, maybe I’d get to run the Haven Lodge, or maybe take over as Steward for another ship or something…Not join y’all and become…well a Valkyrie!” she almost gaped at herself saying it. The girls giggled at just hearing her reverence.

Ada tried to put it into perspective, “We are just trying to do our part like everyone else around here. Having you on our side is just the coolest thing since we invented the personal shields with cloaks!”

Lenora yelped, and again had to cover her own mouth. She whispered, “Cloaked personal shields?! Y’all actually have cloaked personal shield devices? Jeez, how cumbersome are those for crying out loud?”

Trici held up her forearm and wriggled the wide cuff she was wearing. Once she had Lenora’s attention, she reached up her other hand and extended her forefinger. She slowly moved it toward the upraised cuff. She touched a node and…’poof,’ she was gone. “Miss me yet?” her voice sounded from just where she had been sitting—and in fact still was.

Lenora’s eyes were as wide as a cat’s. She reached toward Trici and her hand bumped into the field. There was a slight tingle in her fingers and a hum from the field. “Whoa! Too cool! Y’all have the best accessories!”

“Right?!” the other girls said in unison. Trici de-activated the field and grinned, “Just wait til you pilot one of the jackrabbits…now that is the fun a girl should have every day!”

Isabou remarked, “Speaking of that, let’s get you to the shop and get started on building Peter Rabbit. We have a date with the Horn that we have to attend to soon enough, now that the Anna is standing down.”

Lenora looked pensive, “Do you really think all that was my fault? Mama loves flying that ship…”

Two of the girls put their arms over her shoulders, “Leni, we were going to demand they do it anyway. Besides, the Anna can convert into a sea yacht and these folks around here are getting the itch to be out on Buffalope’s seas….Who knows, we may have to brush up on our sailing skills sooner rather than later ourselves.”

Randi added, “Valkyries rule in everything or nothing!”

“Except having a string of adoring men lined up outside our apartments…” Ada sighed.

Randi laughed, “…That’s the ‘nothing’ part alright!” They all laughed all the way to the workshops.

Wim and Elmo joined Kisa, Hynisa, Torval, Noel and Anya’s boy, Timothy in the NBE nursery. One or the other of each of their parents were nearly always at home while the other joined the exploration, mapping and trading ships for days at a time. It took the vakyries twice as long constructing the fourth jackrabbit. They insisted that Leni perform the bulk of the labor, configuring the systems and tuning the drives after installation. “There’s no better way to know your ship than to build and pamper her yourself…” the valkyries observed. Leni was justifiably weary by the end of the project, but at the same time wholly emboldened and empowered by the efforts.

The Anna stood down to ‘stations-keeping’ at NBE just before she was due to encounter the two systems previously investigated by the valkyries. Before Sheranara took her place and made the first encounter with the mystery ‘Estusians,’ Jolly and Resti along with Tuvi and Kiji—and Torval—took the first tour joining their company on the historic venture. That alone took the most adjustment for the valkyries, who for so long had kept to themselves anything to do with their ongoing clandestine ventures. It was a challenge to be always mindful of just what was discussed and what ‘accessories’ worn during the course of the daily activities shipboard.

As it turned out, their greatest concern—that the ‘Mrontatoi’ would discover their covert ops work—wasn’t as critically top secret as they imagined. Each of the ships in the fleet had their own little secrets and their own little ‘authorized-but-hush-hush’ missions from time to time. It was just that none of the other ships could boast the tools which the valkyrie brought to bear on the task. Nor were there any vessels like the Sheranara and her jackrabbits, and personal cloaked shields together with a very exclusive RP library, made their company equally exclusive and Sheranara the de facto flagship of the Roaming Wing. The Mrontatoi couldn’t be fooled by anything; Ada and Isha had said as much when the eight young women discussed the situation their last day before taking up the new missions.

“Look, the Rutatoi, and Mronan for that matter—same people almost—we are more cat than we care to admit sometimes…and that goes for being curious about anything that seems even the slightest bit out of the ordinary. Honestly we can’t help it…” Ada insisted.

Isha concluded, “It might take Tuvi and Jolly a little longer to be confirmed in their suspicions, but Kji and Resti are going to instantly see through any ploy we conjure to disguise our undercover toys and activities…”

Randi and Kate asked, “So y’all are saying we should just indoctrinate them straightaway and give up any pretensions of secrecy?”

Leni offered, “Actually, you might be surprised to know that those four have a few secrets themselves…” The other girls turned to her instantly.

“Like what?!” Tia spoke for them all.

Leni looked a little sheepish but continued, “It’s not common knowledge of course, but being aboard the Anna most of my life I have seen and heard more than any one suspects…” She paused and lowered her voice, the others leaned in closer. “Those four have been into more tight places and gotten out again without their fur getting singed than any other away group, save yourselves no doubt. And don’t think for a second that because Kiji and her sister look like cuddly balls of fur they are harmless…They are not! Those two weren’t kidding when they mentioned in passing that they were well-trained as young girls. They are wickedly lethal. Remember a few months after the second Loreneran Council meeting? And the Anna was escorting home the new delegates from Hutsia and Planris?” The girls nodded, she continued, “It seems that the Planrii hadn’t all gotten on board with joining the Alliance—maybe still haven’t, I don’t know. The four of them took a little ‘tour’ of some of the outlying provinces…you know, just to see the sights while they were assessing the planet’s resources and such—normal stuff. They were at an outpost in the mountains when their ‘hosts’ decided to ‘entertain’ them much longer than they wished…something about a ransom and some really nasty threats. I overheard Kiji and Resti’s report to Mama when they got back.” She shuddered as if the memory was her own. “Those two can be really clinically detached when it comes to the safety of their loved ones…probably themselves as well…but definitely for those they care for. There wasn’t a captor left standing and very few alive after they’d made the mistake of underestimating ‘harmless’ female Mrona. Tuvi and Jolly confirmed their reports; truth be told, those two guys didn’t have to lift a finger to effect their escape. And the way Resti told her side of it, it was mostly Kiji who ripped through the would be hostage-takers in a matter of minutes, leaving the wounded and dying around her like a…well like a cornered pantheress…”

Isabou took a deep breath and let it out. She looked around at her seven sisters. “Okay. As our new crew aboard Sheranara, we fully prepare the Mrontatoi for what they can expect as full members of our company… Agreed?” The others nodded. “Besides, the Masters will be dropping in all the time any way and they certainly don’t keep secrets at all well…”

Needless to say, Resti and Kiji were just as delighted with all the fun ‘toys’ aboard Sheranara and the jackrabbits as any of the valkyries had ever been. And Kiji was right about Torval being hyper-Homo-Pantherinae. At the ripe old age of three months, he was already more than a handful when he wasn’t strapped to one of his parents or anybody who volunteered to carry him when he slept—during the ‘daytime.’ He was crawling like a cub already, and what wasn’t securely fastened down was subject to being toppled onto the decks. Sheranara Triquetra kept constant vigilance over the little rascal, and if she’d had extensionals, she’d have been the ideal baby-sitter. As it was she merely kept his whereabouts constantly displayed on the Bridge monitors.

“Here’s what we know about the inhabitants of these two systems of the Horn…” Randi began the briefing with the Mrontatoi as soon as they bounced to the Anna’s last position…still two days from the subject planets. “…The indigenous peoples are a lot like the Melnithor..and look a bit like the Malekiai, except semi-space-faring. That is to say, they have colonized their satellites and set up space station-ports, but don’t fraternize much with any other peoples. Those two systems are only a few light years apart, and they seem to be the same folk—Except for the people who Captain and crew three particular vessels that routinely dock in one or the other region.”

Kate took up the story, “Here’s the deal: you know the Estusians have a limited tangle technology…” The four listening to the story nodded. “…That same design is employed on those three ships…but these are full blown wrinkle drives and they weren’t built on Estus—Our compositional scans were conclusive. And the clincher here is that the people themselves, as we have since found out, are genetically identical to both the Estusians and…” she plunged into it, “…perhaps the pirates who have been pillaging this entire region of space. But this is the little mystery that has kept us looking forward to this first encounter: The pirates have an inferior version of the wrinkle drives…less sophisticated and less efficient. So how is it that they are the ones who do the pilfering, only to have their relatives come along and repatriate their booty to the originally intended recipients.”

Jolly asked, “And the ‘sophisticated Estusians’ just hang out in the Horn? You’re saying the extent of their using the better wrinkle drives is just to clean up after their nefarious, supposed cousins?” The valkyries just nodded.

Isabou replied, “See why we’re anxious to meet them?”

Trici pointed out, “Their whole story is going to be better than we can imagine, I’m sure…”

Resti and Kiji smiled; Kiji mused, “Three groups of the same people, separated by vast distances, none of whom are indigenous to this region of the Spur—essentially of unknown origins. And each so very different from the other in temperament and technological progress…”

Resti nodded, “Let’s go have some fun!”

2

Once upon a time…

“For once you have tasted flight you will walk the earth with your eyes turned skywards, for there you have been and there you will long to return. ”

—Leonardo Da Vinci

Sitting around the main salon aboard Sheranara Triquetra’s Archangel avatar, the valkyries had only just completed the mission update for their new company when Torval decided to test his leaping abilities. He launched from a lounge chair, over the leg rest and onto Leni’s shoulders…sort of. She yelped as his little toddler toenails—claws—dug into her back. Kiji called him at once.

“Young Torval! It is not alright to jump on people!” The little cub looked mischievously chastened as he arranged himself more comfortably on Leni’s shoulders while his mother attempted to coax him off.

Lenora took a deep breath and pushed her startled nerves and momentary pain from her mind. She winked to Kiji and remarked, “What he doesn’t know is that sometimes his perches may become traps!” And she reached up to successfully snare his arms and legs with her hands. It was his turn to yelp, all mischief gone from his expression.

Tuvi asked the next question that was in everyone’s thoughts, “Do we know for certain which are the good guys, which are the rascals and which are really the socially inept ones?”

Kate offered, “Masters HanaRin and Tei have confirmed the Estusian lack of cultural history and have verified their ambivalence to space travel. Masters Rudikin and ChériA’na are certain there is some sort of connection between the two peoples who are space-faring. It is because the more advanced group have established normal, productive relations with the nearest inhabited Horn worlds that we suspect they are the ‘good guys’ as you put it…”

Resti pointed out, “But that doesn’t necessitate their ‘cousins’ actually being bad guys… Desperate, to be sure, and foolhardy…but evil?”

Tia and Isabou agreed up to a point. “Yet it was very likely those cousins who have so terribly tainted their more advanced relations’ reputations in the Spur. So if not villainous, then at least: Always in the wrong place at the wrong time doing the wrong thing…”

Sheranara’s voice came over the comm, “Within hailing distance of the inner Horn worlds. Shall I make an appeal for docking permission, Captain?”

Kate, whose tenure as Captain began this mission and would see it through, replied, “Yes please Sheranara dear, take off our cloak and offer our regards for their hospitality. Once we have received clearance, I’ll make formal introductions…”

She turned back to Resti, “We don’t know. That is the point of this rather unorthodox mission. If possible we shall reunite the disparate parties, at the least we shall have some answers to our own questions. In the end we hope to quell piratical activities. We have several advantages going into this affair. One: we know these folks have three very large, constellation-class ships and at least several yachts and scout ships, while their ‘cousins’ have no more than two all told. Two: we appear to be a single vessel when in fact we are three, and we have the four jackrabbits that are faster than any ship, even Sheranara Triquetra herself… That makes seven ships at our disposal. Three: we are twelve very persuasive individuals, if it comes to that. And Four: they may not be aware, after centuries of expatriation, of their relations a hundred light years away on the edge of the Gatin cluster, but we do.”

The main viewer was almost filled by the sight of the near side space ports-stations around the planet and the few around the moon in orbit. Jolly remarked, “Looks just like Anywhere, Milky-Way. I’ve always been fascinated that just like our inner worlds, our outer worlds seem to follow a general pattern familiar to all… I mean how we go about construction, the design of the architecture and access…all so very similar and available…”

Lenora asked, “And tell me again why we are visiting this system first, before the other one where we know the three ships in question prefer to dock?”

Kiji grinned and recited a Mronan adage, “Only a fool doesn’t take advantage of help that’s available…”

Randi nodded, “What sort of people are these that have so thoroughly embraced our mystery guests for the last who knows how long? It’s best we make nice with the hosts before approaching the long-term guests…”

Kate turned to her sisters, “Ada, Trici please begin a sweep of the ships in residence; I would like to avoid any surprises. But be sensitive to their being aware of our scans, how ever unlikely—-Based on our own experience—they may have the ability to detect such probing.”

“Aye, aye skipper!” they responded and moved over to the science station next to Tuvi. He watched them as they opened a panel he didn’t know was there.

He asked, “Captain, I suppose it’s too much to ask but are there many more little surprises tucked away around this ship? I’m sure I speak for Jolly, Resti and Kiji when I say: I’d really like to be as familiar with Sheranara as I can be.”

Kate wasn’t taken aback. “Absolutely. It is just that we forget sometimes that…” A voice came over the comm and interrupted.

“Welcome Sheranara Triquetra of the Roaming Wing. I am Mu, Harbormaster of Kourl…”

Kate replied, “Thank you for your gracious hail, Mu. I am Captain Katherina Belle MacLaren representing the Loreneran Alliance on a mission of peaceful exploration and trade. May we be allowed a docking berth? If not, we can assume orbit and shuttle to meet you.”

“By all means do please accept our hospitality. Docking berth Seven on Station Four is available. I am sending you coordinates now…” Mu answered genially. “And might I add, that is a very fine vessel Captain. My compliments. Oh, and one other thing, we detect that you’re capable of hyper-light travel, we prefer that no such travel be initiated within thirty light minutes of Kourl. Thank you for your consideration in this matter. It’s a simple precaution and safer for everyone; as you have noticed the ISM is denser here than elsewhere in this cluster.”

Tuvi remarked aside, “For a people that don’t venture far from home, they have a surprising grasp of what lies beyond their backyard…”

Isabou replied, “Their friends, the advanced Estusians, have no doubt been complicit in that precaution and for the general knowledge of space beyond the Horn…”

Kate was answering, “Thank you Harbormaster Mu. We shall certainly respect your protocols in all things. We have decontamination sequences ready to engage once berthed, unless you prefer to initiate your own protocols in that as well…”

He responded, “No doubt yours are satisfactory. We shall perform a cursory decon sweep as you enter the docking ring. I assure you it is wholly non-invasive. I shall shuttle over to Station Four and greet you personally upon your arrival. It’s not often we have guests from so far away as the famed Julinissan system. In fact we hardly have any traffic other than our own ships at all!”

Trici looked up from the scans. After the comm channel was closed she announced, “We have scanned fifty-two vessels in Kourl space. All of them are locally grown, so to speak. Although we have noticed that a number of them are elementally distinct from the others…”

Ada added, “Their fingerprints match what we have in our database for their sister system’s world. All apparently trade ships, and two that seem to be conspicuously diplomatic vessels of some sort—they are labeled as such, anyway.”

Kate turned to Kiji, “Take us in please, and take your time. I want as many of these other ships as possible to have time to scan us if they wish, and have Sheranara Triquetra well established in their records as well.”

Kiji nodded. “Ahead sub-light factor two; we’ll arrive at the coordinates offered in thirty minutes…”

At the Comm, Isha giggled. “Y’all should hear this…” Kate nodded and she put it on the ship’s speaker system. “I’ve only heard a little of it, but it’s hilarious!”

They all listened to what was purported to be the local news. Satirical renditions of weather reports—the temperate world below them was evidently experiencing a rash of typhoons which the broadcaster said were the result of mis-placed anger on the part of government officials. There were reports of athletic matches in a game called ‘tusha’ which turned to chaos as fans rushed onto the fields to participate with the players. None of them knew what the game was precisely, except that it was played with four on a side and practically no one ever showed up as spectators—it seemed to be a game like tennis or racketball. On and on the ‘reports’ went through all aspects of Kourlan society and its challenges.

“Captain, I am beginning docking procedures…” the voice of Sheranara came over the speakers. “Decon commenced and airlocks purged. Recycling now.” There were gentle thumping noises as the docking clamps found purchase. “Harbormaster Mu is waiting on the deck beyond.” She concluded.

Kiji rolled her eyes, “There’s not really much a helmsman need do aboard this ship is there?!”

Kate shrugged. It was true. Kiji mused, “Perhaps I would be of better use in the arboretum and galley…”

Masters HanaRin and ChériA’na appeared at the doorway from the Bridge. “Are we there yet?” Hana asked tongue-in-cheek. She and Chéri looked as normal as two human females could look. They were dressed in the uniforms of junior officers.

ChériA’na interjected, “We’re just along for the looksee. That and we happen to suspect that Kourl is a protected planet…”

HanaRin added, “She’s a very pretty world…it’s just that she’s so relatively young, in a starfield that is relatively young as well. But she does show the signs of being well-cared for at one time….”

ChériA’na nodded, “That goes for her sister world of Hanis as well…”

Within a few minutes, Kate and Randi emerged from the airlock and were amiably greeted by Mu. “I am so glad to have this opportunity!” he fussed. “I have taken the liberty of contacting the Guildsman assigned to this station; I’m certain she’ll be delighted to enter into profitable negotiations for our continued intercourse…” and he glanced to Kate unhappily. “Unless you decide we don’t have anything to offer… I understand we are a rather remote destination and we perhaps don’t produce anything sophisticated enough for stellar travelers such as yourselves.”

Randi assured him, “Our likes and dislikes are as varied one world to the next as one person to the next. There is always a market for just about anything.”

He grinned at that. “How very Kourlian of you to say so! I’ve a notion we shall get on just fine!”

He guided them through the main promenade of the station, pointing out this or that latest thing, their technological achievements overcoming such and such a challenge through the years. They were soon joined by the Guildsman, an even taller person than the Harbormaster who already towered over Captain Kate and Randi. “This is Guildsman Lis; she has absolute dominion over the goods and materials that flow through these stations to and from Kourl…” He turned to Lis and introduced the ladies. “This is the Captain of the Sheranara Triquetra, Katherina Belle MacLaren and First Officer Anna MirandaLinn Backhouse. They are here representing the Loreneran Trade Alliance…”

Lis smiled. “It is good to make your acquaintance.” She waved a hand to the market and offices around them. “Is this a familiar sight to you then?”

Kate grinned, “It certainly is Guildsman Lis. We are right at home in a bazaar…”

Lis took the opportunity to ask, “And I understand your ship is technologically rather advanced…Besides trade goods and resources, is your technology also a subject of negotiation?”

Randi chuckled, “Excuse me for laughing, but we seldom encounter such straightforward, no nonsense individuals as yourself. As a matter of fact, we have quite a catalog of technological advances which are most certainly available for negotiation. As long as we’re about it, why have your people not ventured beyond the Horn? You certainly seem capable of hyper-light travel to a degree at least…”

The Harbormaster and Guildsman glanced to each other. Mu offered, “Perhaps that is a question best offered to a civil administrator… Something to do with political will, isolationist policies and the like. We have been space-faring peoples for less than a hundred generations. Between this system and the next…where we have a strong presence as well…colonies as it were…we have had our hands full just tending our own business with four planets in two systems.”

Lis quickly added, “That’s not to say that we turn away from chances to expand our friendships beyond these two systems…we just don’t have much call to do so at present.”

Kate asked, “If you wish, I can put you together with some of my company who are prepared to go over our catalog of offerings as well as perhaps discuss long-term contracts and such…”

Lis smiled broadly. Mu spoke up, “Please do give your company leave to visit our stations here and our establishments on the planet. We are delighted to have guests…”

Randi asked off-handedly, “Do you have many guests then?”

Mu swaggered a little, “As a matter of fact we entertain vessels from beyond the Horn quite often. Mind you, most of them are from the other direction down the Spur from Julinissa and the Horn…” He waved a hand in the general direction of ‘that-away.’ “There are the Tulna, and the Vin, the Estun and the Hilach; of course those latter have become almost residents of Torsa—our sister system and colony world.”

Kate tried not to betray her excitement. “Estun…that sounds like very familiar name…”

Lis nodded, “They have been a part of our efforts in the Torsa system almost since our arrival there ages ago. Now those are some people with some advanced technology…they just prefer to keep to themselves for the most part…” She looked more closely at the two before her, “In fact had you not introduced yourselves and made it clear that you prefer open trade, I would most certainly have taken you for Estun maidens—I mean if we had just passed on the promenade or something…”

Kate touched the comlink on her chest; it chirped. “Tia, you may have the company commence shore leave. And bring along your satchel of Alliance materials, you and Resti are going to enjoy sitting with Guildsman Lis and her team for a while…” she turned to Lis, “…Do you have an office or favorite cafe?”

Lis grinned, “Actually yes, the latter. It’s so much more pleasant negotiating with tea and cake at hand than in other more officious places…”

Randi asked, “Out of curiosity, what is your travel time to Torsa?”

Mu smiled, “Longer than your own no doubt,” and he chuckled. “Our ships make the trip in a week and a half. I know the Estun ships are more than twice that fast. And your own ship? The Sheranara Triquetra? How quickly does she cover a few light years?”

Kate answered, “She is the fastest ship we’ve ever encountered, you understand, it is unfair to compare her to other vessels. My sisters and I rebuilt her ourselves for this very purpose.”

Mu and Lis’s eyes grew round, “You are Engineers as well! How fascinating.” Masters HanaRin and ChériA’na accompanied Tia and Resti to where the four of them stood talking.

Lis remarked, “The little cafe I like is down one level. I’ll have my team meet us there in just a little while. Would you care to take the long way round? It’s a very wonderful view of Kourl from the observation gallery just up there…” she pointed around the bend.

Hana and Chéri beamed, “That would be lovely. Thank you.”

Mu excused himself and hastened back to the Harbormaster’s offices. “Still on the clock I’m afraid…Hope to see you all during your stay…” and he was gone.

Tuvi and Kiji approached with Torval asleep across his papa’s chest in a sling. Kate gave a brief rundown of what they were able to glean thus far in there visit. Kiji exclaimed, “And they’re called the Estun?! How remarkable a coincidence is that? Perhaps they are aware of their kin in the Gatin Cluster?”

Kate agreed, “We’ll only know if we can gain a meeting with them.”

Her comlink chirped; Lenora’s voice sounded, “Captain, Isabou and I are ready to bounce on that other matter you mentioned…” Kate knew precisely what ‘other matter,’ but Kiji and Tuvi plainly did not.

Kate responded, “The negotiations here should proceed for another several hours; try to get all our shopping done before then and I look forward to at least hearing from you by dinnertime…”

“Clear,” came the singular response.

Kiji had to ask, “Other matter?”

Kate replied in a very low voice, “Just a little window-shopping trip. It’s about that time of month when pirates tend to become active, and the girls had a notion that perhaps they might look over the shoulder of our neighbors to see if their cousins are in the neighborhood as we suspect they may be…”

Tuvi chuckled, “Serving the Sheranara, there is never going to be a dull moment, is there!”

Kiji giggled uncertainly; she looked a bit pensive. “Captain, just how is that to be accomplished? I mean even the jackrabbits, small as they are and cloaked, should show up as reflections on scans…”

Kate whispered, “Kiji, we have been remiss in y’all’s orientation aboard Sheranara. You have seen most of our toys, but we haven’t explained their…uh…unusual properties and functions. We are not using the same cloak as the rest of the fleet…and truth be told, there isn’t much aboard Sheranara that is anything close to what is installed on the other ships…”

Tuvi, the Sheranara’s new Chief Science Officer was interested instantly. “Whoa, rewind. I think Torval and I are going back to the ship for a closer ‘guided’ inspection…”

Kate smiled and touched her comlink, “Trici, Isha, Jolly—our Chief Science Guy—is coming back to the ship. Please take Jolly and him through a very specific tour of our toy arsenal and answer all their questions…”

“Will do Cap’n Katy…” Isha and Trici answered. “Huh?!” Jolly sounded from behind them.

Kiji was torn between getting those answers and sticking close to Kate; the latter won out. “Captain, just what exactly are they hoping to discover ‘looking over someone’s shoulder’ as you put it?”

Kate directed them towards what appeared to be a garden area. The air inside was a little more humid and warmer with the fragrance of rich soil and flowers. “While we have established certain probabilities with regard to our mystery friends, we have yet to verify our suppositions…let alone see just what sort of people they really are.” She was interrupted by a gardener. He came from around a large planting area and set his tool bucket down near at hand, squatted and began tending the area next to them, humming as he worked. They watched him with interest since both of them had spent plenty of their time doing almost the same thing aboard their ships.

He glanced up at them watching his work. He smiled, stood and stretched his back. “Sorry to have interrupted you ladies, but these here have begun to be unsure as to whether or not they like living in a house…” he gestured to the exotic shrubs he was tending.

Kiji grinned, “Not a problem in the least, sir. We are sorry to have been staring, it’s just that we perform similar duties aboard our vessels and have often had the same thoughts.” She added, “You are very good with them…I find myself humming or singing to our plants as well…”

“They pick up the vibrations of the station in their roots and it’s not what they are used to…I’m just trying to reassure them is all,” he admitted.

The women noticed that this fellow wasn’t Kourlii. He wasn’t tall enough or pale enough. In fact he looked far more like a stripe-less Westerin or Human than anything else. His hair was slightly graying. The stubble on his chin hinted that he thought more of his plant growth than hair growth. His shoulders were broad, which made him appear more like a scarecrow; his frame was lithe but there was a strength beneath that was almost palpable. Kiji continued, “Do you have other responsibilities here? Or are you from the planet and contracted to maintaining the stations’ gardens?”

He looked at her for a moment without speaking. She and Kate both flushed with embarrassment. Kate added, “We apologize! We didn’t mean to pry. We are explorers…it just comes second nature I suppose…”

He chuckled, “No harm in asking…” and he settled on the ground next to them, legs crossed under him. “As a matter of fact, I do not reside on any of these stations, nor do I have a dwelling on Kourl. You might say I’m something of a vagrant gardener. You were correct however, I am contracted for these services…it’s just that my wife and I live aboard my little ship. She’s an antique, but she does all that I ask of her—the ship, I mean!” His face was inscrutable…perhaps nostalgic, perhaps distracted or annoyed…it was hard to tell. “Now, what about yourselves? What brings a charming cat-woman and a daring red-head to my gardens instead of the stalls of the bazaar?”

Kiji replied, “I am Kijesta Deshi-Timansi, and this is my Captain, Katherina Belle MacLaren. We are from the Sheranara Triquetra just docked for a visit…”

Kate continued, “Our compatriots are negotiating trade and possibly an invitation to membership in the Loreneran Trade Alliance…”

He smiled, “Ah…the Alliance. I have heard rumors of that fledgling organization. Peaceful, mutually beneficial trade… Very enlightened. A breath of fresh air long overdue for any people anywhere. And what connection have you to this Alliance? Are you legates or ambassadors perhaps? If so, I might volunteer my little ship for membership—having such lovely women as yourselves as the drawing card, so to speak.”

They giggled; Kate asked, “You are not Kourlii. From whence have you come to these stations? And where did you pick up the gardener’s trade?”

He leaned back with his hands on his knees letting his arms brace his recline. “That is a fair question. But before I offer a response, am I too far off the mark to ask you where you had your arising? There are not many other than the Westerin who have our physique…and the Westerin are striped…you and I are not…”

Kate hesitated. “We are from a little system off that away…” she motioned, “…A little planet called Buffalope. We now have a dwelling space on her moon. Our fleet is called the Roaming Wing for the simple reason that we are essentially that—peaceful, roaming explorers.”

He absorbed her admission without judgement it seemed; he then answered her question. “I learned gardening from my father and mother. We are essentially a space people but unlike yourselves, we don’t roam about overmuch. I am Kar Tasha; my people are called Estun.”

The ladies gasped. He wasn’t sure why. “You are shocked? Why is that?”

Kate explained quickly, “We have met a people, who look very much as you and I appear, over a hundred light years from here, they are called the Estus! It was just such a seeming coincidence…we were taken aback momentarily is all.”

Kar Tasha rubbed the stubble on his chin. “Estus, you say. And they are like us in appearance… That is a strange coincidence to be sure…” He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. He gazed at the little shrubs and began a story. “I was maybe twelve years old; my grandfather tended the gardens of the wealthy Kourlii…” he gestured toward the planet below the station. “…But not here, it was on Torsa where the great colonial families still had their estates that stretched from horizon to horizon. Those are long since turned into parklands for all, and the gardens are the jewels of their attraction for visitors. I asked my grandpa, ‘Why are we so different from the Kourlii?’ He was a mild man; quirky, but his mind was sharp. He answered me and said that we were not Kourlii, we did not arise on Torsa nor on Kourl. ‘We are alone among strangers; we must be always careful to treat others as we should like to be treated. In that way we may find our place amongst all these others. We are all alike after all—on the inside at least…’

I was young and curious. ‘But where did we come from then, grandpa?’ He sat back, just as I am now with you, and told me this story…

Before my grandfather’s grandfather’s grandfather was a lad your age, we were a people living upon a beautiful garden world. We were a brilliant folk. We invented devices and machines that allowed us to preserve the beauty of our planet…keep it pristine and growing for all time. We plied the skies and the space around our world. We developed great cities under transparent domes on the largest of our three moons. Such was life on Estura and her eldest daughter, the moon Astrallin. The sun around which we lived, had a partner that it was said could suck the life of our sun clean away…and had before, in the dimness of the distant past. So it was said, so it happened again.

My clan was one of the last among others to hold onto our lands on Estura. We tilled the fields, kept herds of small wooly beasts called serps, and provided food for our brethren on Astrallin. Other clans maintained our fleets of ships, while there were other clans who mined Astrallin and the nearby asteroids for raw materials that kept our technology prosperous and constantly in a state of innovation. The few clans that resided permanently on Astrallin were the cleverest ones. They discovered the secrets of the world and translated those discoveries into the useful devices and tools upon which we relied to maintain our seemingly idyllic existence. All that became endangered when our sun began an erratic cycle of convolutions. They said that at first it was just intense flares and winds that erupted from time to time.

Our chieftains gathered to debate what might be done should the unthinkable occur and our existence become mortally threatened. It was decided that truly great ships should be constructed, larger than any yet built; made ready and waiting near Astrallin to ferry us away to the safety of farther planets in our system out of reach of any calamity that might befall Estura so much closer to our sun. That proved to be the grandest project of our existence. The construction of three vastly enormous vessels was begun. It took years to accomplish, but none too soon it turned out. The scientists of Astrallin installed their greatest innovations in those ships…such that at any moment, we could transport en masse aboard those ships and nearly as quickly evacuate ourselves from danger. An amazing technological advancement to be sure.

It happened that only a couple years after the ‘escape plan’ was made ready, we had cause to deploy it. It all took place so fast. Observers on Astrallin saw the first signs of the end when our sun began a perturbation unlike any that had come before. The news spread instantly to Estura and out through the fleet of ships—some were in transit between the planet and the moon, some were in the asteroids—all were caught off their guard. Our family, our clan and the other clans who tended Estura made the transit to the great ships in the space of just a couple hours. At the same time, the clans of scientists under two beautiful domed cities of Astrallin transited also. Only the mining ships and some of the transport ships were slow to join the escape vessels.

Everything seemed to happen so fast. In the next few minutes after the great vessels were nearly filled with refugees, our star’s partner erupted. The waves of debris ridden fiery gas rode out in circles from her, filling the space as far as anyone could see. The freighters and mining ships were almost with us, but only a handful made it to docking before the command was given to bounce.

Bounce we did, but not as our scientists anticipated. In hindsight, it was probably due to the extreme rupture in the space around us…but whatever the cause, we did not arrive at our prearranged safe haven just outside the system. No. Those three vessels and the few other ships that tagged along, were ripped from normal space entirely. Although the nightmarish journey was actually rather brief, to those escaping it was interminable.

One vessel, carrying most of our clan—the majority of our people—was lost in an annihilation unmatched by anything they had ever seen before. A second vessel carrying many of the clans of scientists and engineers, miners and freighter folk, fell into the nearest star when they came out of the nightmare journey. They had no power over their course and never a chance to avoid their deaths. The third vessel alone, with a few of the mining freighters, survived. There was a malfunction, probably due to the stresses of the transit, and nearly the entire population of refugees aboard, waiting in the vast holding areas with their possessions, were transited to a nearby planet before the strange drive kicked in once more and the vessel was impelled upon another journey, dragging the few ships left with them.

Communication between those few ships was established and it became clear that there were only a handful of capable scientists and engineers left to operate the vessel. Most of those that were left were artisans, farmers-gardeners-shepherds, like my own clan, there was one intact clan of engineers and a smattering of our prized scientists. It was the latter who brought the vessel out of that transit. They didn’t know where they were. The freighter ships that had tagged along got as far away from the great vessel as they could, fearing that another episode of unexpected transit might envelop them if they stayed to close. They became lost somewhere out in the unfamiliar regions of space, not to be heard from for a very long time indeed.

The escape vessel was marooned. Her drives were kaput, but there was enough food and other supplies aboard to accommodate those remaining for many months. So it was decided that they should limp on thrusters alone to the nearest habitable planet. There they would cannibalize the vessel, rebuild the drives as best they could and attempt to start their lives over in a new place. The planet they puttered to was Torsa’s nearest neighbor, what they later found out was called Scharn by the Kourlii who were just beginning to colonize Torsa.

But for a long three years they were certain they were alone. Sensors and scanners had to be constructed from scratch. The tangle-drives had to be nearly completely rebuilt, and the new ships themselves had to be designed only from what was available of the original vessel. It was sheer coincidence that great discoveries were made during the process of reconstruction. A few of our most innovative physicists happened upon a technique to not only improve the tangle transit devices, which they so relied upon to complete their projects, but nearly quadrupled the efficiency of the tangle drives for the ships as well. They were soon set to travel through space faster than ever before, in three ships that were far superior in function—if not appearance—than any our people had built before. It was in those earliest days then that they encountered the Kourlii. They were not alone! Such rejoicing has not since spread through all our people at one time. We have been close friends and allies of the Kourlii ever since.”

He had sat up straighter and straighter as he told the tale until as he finished, he was nearly on his feet once more. He raised a foot from beneath him and stood. Kate and Kiji stood with him. Kiji exclaimed, “Kar Tasha, that is one of the most glorious and harrowing stories I have heard in a long long time…”

He shrugged, “That’s the story my grandpa told me, just as others have been told by their own folks… The stories are all pretty similar, so they may be accurate; who knows?”

Kate sighed, “And the clans that became lost fearing a repeat of the frightening transits? Were they ever found?”

Kar Tasha cocked his head toward her, “Ah… Them. That’s another tale, and I’m sure I’m not the one to tell it…” He thought for a moment, the ladies waited patiently. He seemed to be having an inner struggle over exactly how to proceed. At length he offered, “I will send word to Ran Shuta, the chieftain of the Remista Clan…” he demurred, “…Our clans are now arranged around our three main ships—Remista, K’Estura, and K’Astrallin. She’ll have to decide how to approach your reasonable request…” He bowed to the ladies and ambled off a little ways. He reached into one of his pockets and held an odd device up to his face. It must have been a communication device because he was in an animated conversation with someone.

When he turned back to them, he smiled, “Should you wish to learn more of my people, Kar Chatir…the Cheiftain’s mate…will be happy to oblige. If you have not made plans to visit the sister system where is Torsa, he said they were contemplating a journey here in any event—-they were just finalizing a schedule.”

Kate replied, “As a matter of fact, after hearing of the Torsan colonies, I was considering making that hop after we have reached amicable agreements here…”

Kar Tasha smiled, “I happen to know that Ran Shuta likes to stroll the bazaars of Kourl…She’ll welcome the additional excuse to make the trip. I’ll relay your thoughts on the matter and we shall see…” He went back to his comm-device and that was that. The Remista would be arriving within the next seventy-two hours.

Kate inclined her head. “Now then Kar Tasha, we have kept you from your gardening tasks. Kiji and I are capable hands…give us some direction and we shall assist you here!”

Kar Tasha smiled mischievously, “That really would be a great help. My wife will be most put out with me if I ‘dawdle’ too long over my chores…”

Kate giggled, “Good man! Let’s get busy here, and I think we shall have to have you and your wife as our guests for supper this evening aboard the Sheranara.”

He bowed, “That is grand! I’ll just let Tisha know so that she’s not caught unawares. She has a stall on Level Six vending herbs and such—the results of our gardening labors. At which docking ring is the Sheranara?”

Kate replied, “I do not know which ring it is on, but it is Docking berth Seven…”

He grinned, “Ring Three! Our little ship is on the other side of that same ring! I’ll tell her at once. If you two are in earnest about helping…” he pointed to a broad sweeping bed of flowers and fruiting shrubs a little way off, “…That bedding needs to be checked for its soil balance and any dead and dying branches, leaves and such tilled back into the soil… The flowers we save, the other matter we recycle…” and he handed them a canvas bag from his tool bucket and two pair of clippers.

They accepted the tools and were off, chatting the whole while. Kate was mindful to first inform Isha and Trici that they would be having guests for supper. It was nice to get their hands in the soil as they discussed the correlations between the tale they’d just heard and the suppositions they’d already made. Masters HanaRin and ChériA’na strolled near to them. “We are going to make a closer inspection of the planets that are home to the Tulna and Vin just a ways further into the Horn. Rudikin was adamant that we should and we have certainly satisfied ourselves that these planets, Kourl and Hanis, and the two in the other system, Torsa and Scharn are well-maintained and balanced for the most part, but are sadly not the special worlds we have been seeking…”

ChériA’na added, “If we are not back for supper, don’t wait up…” and they were gone.

Meanwhile aboard Peter Rabbit just off the second planet in the Torsan system, Lenora and Isabou were making a couple discoveries of their own. While Torsa was host to the Kourlii colonies and now the Estun Clans, the more distant planet of Scharn had been left to itself. Primarily because the dominant species of that primordial jungle and forested planet was a predatory beast both cunning and strong. One could be killed, but as they were seeming to organize themselves into traveling groups…it felt more like murder. Both the Kourlii and the Estun avoided interference as much as possible. They still infrequently visited the surface to hunt smaller game and gather foodstuffs, plants and such, but all the while avoiding the Sch’Nor—their name for the developing beast-people—was a priority.

All Leni and Isabou knew of it was what their scans revealed. The entire surface was dotted with migrating clusters of bipedal creatures amongst the herds, flocks and other animal life of the planet. The flora was dense in most places and there was an abundance of freshwater, and a plethora of marine-life in the sparkling seas. That and it rained almost constantly somewhere on the surface in one place after another.

Lenora was scanning the last hemisphere of Scharn and everything still looked pretty much the same as the rest, until suddenly…

“Isabou! There’s a ship down there! It’s near the shore and that largish forested area, there…” She reached over Isabou’s shoulder to point the spot out on her monitor.

Isabou was equally surprised, “And just who do you suppose is visiting and why?”

Leni narrowed the scan field, “I’m not picking up any of those clusters of bipeds anywhere nearby… I can’t resolve the ship itself, but…” and she shifted to the sensors, “…I can say that their drive signature isn’t too very different than the ones all around the mystery ships docked around Torsa…”

“We have already set an RP tag on the moon of this planet, we could meander on down and take a closer look…” Lenora suggested hopefully.

Isabou giggled, “We do have loads of time before we should get back and not be missed…” She punched in the coordinates rather near to where the suspect ship still sat at the edge of the forest in the foothills of a large mountain range. “Probably a rain forest…Hope you don’t mind getting a little damp…”

Leni laughed, “Me? Melt? Not Dani’s little girl! Take us in Commander!” They did just that, and it was very damp, hot and humid to be more precise. They set their wrist cuffs to bounce them back to the ship. Isabou set Peter Rabbit on voice activation so that when they returned they only had to call the ship’s name to regain entry and bounce.

Rain forest indeed. “This is really reminiscent of equatorial Julinissa, don’t you think?” Isabou sighed, content to be on a planet once more.

Leni, following Isabou down an animal path through the thick undergrowth, answered softly, “Very much like equatorial lots of places…” She swatted a large buzzing thing from next to her ear. “…Same annoying buzzes, chirps and hoots. Life is tenacious; let’s just avoid being fodder for any life around here.”

Isabou was silent, she stopped suddenly in the path and peered around them as if her sight was penetrating the ivy covered boles of the immense trees and through the verdant forest floor itself. “There’s the sound of running water, and I also smell something that may have been scorched recently…”

Leni offered, “I hear the water too, but if you smell scorched anything, it could be that we are very near the landing spot for that other ship. It scanned to be similar to the Westerin sub-light ships—reaction drives. Those would have caused quite a scorched ground landing…”

They cautiously went forward, picking their way through glistening damp fronds of enormous fern-like plants and the dangling tendrils of a variety of vining creepers. The ground beneath their feet suddenly began to descend after a half an hour of the gradual climb. “I’m pretty certain it’s a waterfall not a stream…” Isabou intimated just as they broke into a narrow clearing. Across a hip-deep meadow of ferns, above the far treetops, they could see the splashing lip of a very high waterfall. Its crashing sounds were now clearly muting the background noises of bugs and critters. Lenora unholstered her blaster, “I’ll lead across the open patch. Give me ten or twelve steps so you have a clear field of fire…” and she ventured forward.

Isabou scanned the forest edge in all directions as Leni stalked across the clearing. She moved out after her as soon as she was sure there were no unusual, suspicious movements in the undergrowth. A small flock of screaming birds rose up suddenly as Leni reached the halfway spot. They had gotten spooked by the presence of the girls and rose up an a clamor all at once. Leni looked back to Isabou and made it clear that she no longer needed to use the ladies’ room. Isabou giggled in spite of her own similar condition. They reached the far side, holstered their weapons and made their way toward the foot of the waterfall. Leni muttered, “We almost had roast fowl for a snack back there. I nearly started to fire at them before I realized how utterly terrified they were of us…”

Isabou nodded and pointed suddenly, “Oooh! Look!” There in front of them was a crystal clear pool, bubbling beneath the cascading waterfall. It did not take a discussion for them to know exactly what was most needed next. They waded through the shallow stream issuing from the pool and settled on a large boulder near to it. There, they proceeded to peel off their soiled and smelling clothes. With their weapons close at hand, they cleaned their things on the rocks at the edge of the pool. Leni made a quick scan of the pool and surrounding area.

“Nothing but a few fish, and small critters as far as this thing can reach…Of course it didn’t detect those nesting birds back their before we crossed the meadow…”

Isabou smiled, “They weren’t moving and evidently when they sleep their body temperature matches their surroundings—good defense mechanism; bad for scans…”

Lenora waded out to above hip deep into the chill waters of the pool. “I suppose there’s nothing to do until our clothes dry a little bit…” Still carrying her blaster belt, and with her dagger and laser in a thigh holster strapped to her left leg, she giggled and dove under the water only to re-emerge closer to the far side and the falling water. Isabou was equally unclothed. She strapped her gun belt back around her waist, then dove in and followed Leni to have a proper ‘shower’ under the falls.

Standing beneath the pummeling torrent was almost heaven after the hours trudging through the damp forest paths. The roar of the water kept them from hearing much, but each of them was in the habit of scanning their environment in routine intervals. It was Isabou who spied them first.

Two dogs had just begun sniffing around the base of the rock above which they had hung out their clothes to dry. She nudged Leni and pointed with her chin; they backed under the falls a little further into a small alcove carved by the water into the cliff face. Moments after the dogs appeared, two young men strode up the stream bed after them.

“Great!” Lenora’s voice whispered, “Just what we get for not making reservations…” Isabou stifled a laugh.

The dogs were on the boulder now whining about not being able to reach the fluttering kilts, vests, undershirts and ladies apparel decorating the branches above them. The two fellows, dressed for primitive hunting it appeared, called to their animals. “Here Dunny! What have you found there?” His mate saw the clothes first.

“And just where did those come from, I’m wondering?” he asked aloud to his mate. The second guy calmed the dogs and reached up to inspect the articles.

“Chas, we’re not alone here…” and they both assumed their guard, peering at the pool, the waterfall and the edges of the forest all around them. Mollified that there wasn’t an immediate threat, ‘Chas’ reached up to snag Lenora’s underwear from the branches.

“We may not be alone, Rufe, but then whoever it is has marvelous taste in threads…feel this fabric! It’s like the down of a wooket, it’s so soft…” Chas felt the almost dry fabric. He looked cautiously around the area once more.

“Would you wear something like that?” he asked his partner.

‘Rufe’ held up the briefs over his lap. “I would but these are too small for me…”

Chas nodded, “The owners of these items can’t be far…” and he winked to his buddy. He added in a loud voice, “Wouldn’t be trapsing about ’round here in nothing at all… Might get bitten up by guanic flies…then where would they be?” There was a yelp from the waterfall.

Lenora whispered anxiously to Isabou, “Hush! Even if there are such a thing as guanic flies, we have to get our things and get out of here!”

The fellows set down their hunting rifles and began stripping off their boots, disappointed that the morning’s hunt had gone so poorly. They were talking quietly to themselves and holding the girls’ complete attention. That gave Dunny and Guppy, their dogs, time to nose around the edge of the pool and surprise Lenora and Isabou by sniffing right up to where they stood cowering in the little alcove. One of the dogs let out a wailing yowl, which prompted the other one to do likewise.

Chas and Rufe were on their feet, rifles in hand in a flash. Rufe called out, “Guppy! Get back here…Now!” The dog and his pal emerged a little ways from under the waterfall but wouldn’t go any further.

Chas commented, “Guess they found a critter or two…” he glanced up at the clothes in the branches once more. Rufe followed his gaze.

Rufe replied, “Well they can have ’em. I’m for a quick dip in the water before we finish this little expedition. We’re bound to down something before we have to give up the hunt for the day.” And he proceeded to strip off the rest of his clothes, with his boots and socks already off and drying.

Lenora just kept repeating to herself, “Don’t take off your clothes…Don’t take off your clothes…” Isabou was muttering too. But her incantation was miles from her cousin’s objections.

The young men waded out into the pool, leaving the dogs staring around the pool and their clothes with their weapons leaning against the same boulder on which the girls had found relief earlier. The fellows lolled in the water, wary for the slightest movements around them.

Lenora whispered in Isabou’s ear, “If we activate our personal shields, we can make a dash for our things and bounce back to Peter Rabbit… These guys don’t need to ever find out where the strange clothes went…”

Isabou nodded, but there was an odd twinkle in her eye. They did just that. They engaged their personal cloaks, and carefully worked their way out from under the waterfall intending to skirt the pool and retrieve their clothes. The dogs weren’t so cooperative. Both animals hopped up at the girls as they stepped from stone to stone. While the fields ensured that they themselves weren’t thrown off balance, the ruckus was instantly apparent to Chas and Rufe.

“Hey now?!” Rufe exclaimed. “What are you two going on about?”

One of the dogs had just gotten his paws up onto the field in front of him and was, for all the world walking around the pool on his hind legs—a rare sight to say the least.

Chas laughed until his sides hurt. “What…What’s gotten into Guppy?!” he guffawed. “Did you train him to do that?”

The girls looked over their shoulders at the ‘dancing dog’ and broke into laughter of their own. It really was a ridiculous sight to behold.

The fellows heard their laughter and froze where they were, treading water in the middle of the pool. Dunny, the other dog, joined his pal and they were both on their hind legs leaning against an invisible barrier and looking like bipedal creatures instead of their normal postures. Isabou de-activated her cloak and walked around Lenora’s to set the pups back on their own feet again. Lenora rolled her eyes and de-activated her cloak as well. The fellows in the pool were stunned into silence.

Isabou crouched down next to the great dogs and rubbed their necks, tossled their heads and scratched behind their ears. The dogs were in heaven. Lenora looked out at the center of the pool and the two shocked faces staring back at them. “Uh…Sorry to have intruded on your hunting party… We didn’t know to expect anyone…”

Chas tried to answer evenly but his voice was shrill. “Oh… uh… no worries. We…uh…” and that’s the best he could do.

Rufe was just as taken with the sight of two armed and naked females appearing from out of nowhere. “Just a curious happenstance. Didn’t mean to intrude…”

Isabou stood up tall and asked with a smile, “Then you won’t mind if we gather our things and go about our way, then?”

Both fellows raised their hands from the water and waved as best they could, neither able to digest what was plainly staring them in the face.

Lenora followed Isabou back to the boulder, with the fellows’ eyes riveted to them as they walked. They carefully redressed and smiled to their now adoring audience. “Gotta bounce!” Lenora called more than a little embarrassed over the debacle.

“See ya in the funny papers!” Isabou called and they touched their cuffs and vanished.

Chas turned to Rufe, “Mate. What just happened here?”

Rufe replied, equally stunned, “I’m not sure, but we have got to get some toys like theirs!”

Chas stared at the vacant spot the girls had just occupied, “Rufe, my man, this was the best hunting trip we have ever been on!”

Rufe made some broad strokes toward the shore. “Chas, if we don’t find those ladies and beg them to keep us around, we will have nothing left to hope for the rest of our lives!”

“Aye, aye to that mate!” Chas replied. Dunny and Guppy rolled around on the boulder where Lenora and Isabou had just been dressing. They were happy puppies.

“What the… What were you thinking!?” Lenora began in on Isabou as soon as they were in Peter Rabbit and ready to bounce. “We could have made a clean getaway, even if they would have been left with a lot of unanswered questions about things moving around their…” and she heard herself describing the logical outcome. She didn’t pursue it. Instead she asked meekly, “Chas really is extraordinarily cute, don’t you think?”

Isabou turned around in the cramped pilot’s seat to look at Lenora. “Oh, so now we’re going to assess this little junket on its real merits, are we?”

Lenora apologized; she sputtered, “…I have never seen other real men… I mean without their… I mean just standing there as bold as…”

Isabou giggled, “I thought you sounded distracted back there. A little too anxious and ready to be gone…”

Leni reviewed her own actions and words of the several minutes after the dogs showed up. Isabou continued, “At least you took a fancy to Chas. Rufe is more my type—practical, witty, broad shoulders, long legs and…”

“I saw the same gear you saw! I don’t need a recap!” Leni squealed, which threw them both into a fit of laughter that they maintained as they emerged from the jackrabbit in its berth aboard Sheranara.

The comm chirped to life on the wall near them. It was Kiji’s voice. “If you two have had your fill of shopping, I could use your assistance in the galley. We have Estun guests tonight and you won’t believe what we’ve found out today!” The girls broke up into another bout of giggles and laughter as they made their way toward the galley.

Kiji and Kate noticed them as they entered the galley. “And just how did your hair get so wet?” Kate demanded.

“The forests and jungles of Scharn are hot and humid…” Lenora replied nonchalantly.

Isabou added, “…And tall and broad and deep-voiced…” the girls erupted into another fit of giggles.

Kiji looked to Kate who stared back at her and the girls. “Huh?”

Lenora calmed herself, “We had a great shopping trip is all…” Spurts of chuckles and titters continued as they took up paring knives and lent a hand with the meal preparation.

Kate asked cautiously, “Any sign of pirates, then?”

Isabou looked up into a distant spot passed the ceiling, “No we definitely took as much as was taken…” Lenora nodded and sighed with her.

Kiji and Kate shrugged in exasperation and let the topic be. If the girls weren’t forthcoming with anything just now, at least they were laughing and giggling; so whatever happened it wasn’t harrowing. They were back safe and sound. No sign of pirates and no mention of danger. There was an interesting dinner ahead which might just lay the groundwork for a most illuminating and prosperous interchange with Ran Shuta, chieftain of the Remista Clan and leader of all Estun people. Kar Tasha and his wife Ran Tisha were going to get the red carpet treatment tonight. The Masters popped in before the guests arrived.

Rudikin explained, “We’re just here as the hired help this evening. HanaRin, ChériA’na and Tei-tei wanted to hear their stories firsthand, so here we are. Honestly, we expect to just serve the meal and such this evening…nothing special in the least—and no special attention. Okay?” Kate smiled and was ready to insist that they join the table, but when the Masters decided upon something it was probably best to follow their wishes. “Servants it is then…” she sighed.

The Estun gardener and herbalist arrived at Sheranara’s airlock a little after seven local time. Isha and Trici met them at the ‘door’ and greeted them. “Welcome aboard Sheranara Triquetra!”

“Thank you kindly…” Ran Tisha replied, smiling. “This is very exciting for us. We are not invited aboard many of the ships that call at this port, and certainly never a ship as magnificent as the Sheranara.”

Isha and Trici couldn’t help but grin. Trici acknowledged, “We are just that proud of her ourselves. Please allow us to give you the nickel tour!” They led their guests through all the cabins and salons, explaining as much as allowable considering the circumstances and their own penchant for keeping secrets. Dinner was an elegant affair and went smoothly even when the topic arose about how to approach Ran Shuta.

Ran Tisha explained, “Actually she’s just like you or me…it’s just that she has the weight of all the clans on her shoulders…”

Kar Tasha nodded, “It’d be the most annoying thing in the world to me, if I had to have so many folks always around me… ‘bodyguards,’ special assistants, couriers and such always hovering about…”

Kate was curious, “So when they arrive and if they are inclined to accept an invitation to visit Sheranara, you think they’ll have all those people with them too?” She looked to the ‘wait staff,’ “We may have to do some serious shopping to prepare a meal for that many folks. It’ll be just like back home!”

The guest couple chuckled. Ran Tisha responded, “Oh I doubt if all of those hangers-on will be allowed to accompany her and her husband to a dinner party. However if you think there will be any business conducted…then she’ll need heads up for that and yes, there may very well be a cadre of followers in attendance.”

Kar Tasha observed, “Just a change of subject, I still can’t get over how similar we are to each other. I mean from our appearance to the way we approach matters big and small. Your picking up gardening tools and helping out—very Estun. To even the foods you serve and enjoy…all very Estun.”

Randi admitted, “All pretty typical of our folks at New Bag End as well. We like to enjoy ourselves as much as the next folks. And when there is work to do, we jump in with both feet…just like anyone would…”

Ran Tisha qualified, “Like anyone should…but unfortunately not all do…”

Kar Tasha put a hand on his wife’s; he explained to their hosts, “Tisha has always taken a dim view of Ran Shuta’s boys…ever since they were about five or six and made a mess of her shop during a visit….”

Ran Tisha interjected, “…And didn’t lift a finger to help clean up their mess…”

“I assure you…” and he looked at his relatively chastened wife as well, “…Chasir and Rufesha are much more mature than when they were children…”

At the mention of the ‘boys’ names, Isabou and Lenora spewed whatever was in their mouths nearly across the table. Their sisters on either side of them patted their backs and looked solicitous.

Kar Tasha asked innocently, “Are you ladies alright? Was it something I said? I do beg your pardon if I have overstepped some boundary of courtesy…”

Isabou and Leni shook their heads and tried to speak though their voices were weak from nearly choking. “…It’s not… you… Kar… Tasha…”

Lenora gathered herself together, “Just an unhappy coincidence is all. Very sorry. But do please do go on… You were saying something about Ran Shuta’s family?”

Nothing escaped the Masters and broad smiles spread across their faces as soon as Isabou and Lenora began to apologize.

Ran Tisha continued, “I am a silly old woman to hold an account against two children, as if the men they are now is somehow equivalent to their childhood selves. I haven’t seen them for years, but by all accounts they are well-groomed to take up their father’s role in the Clans as soon as their folks decide to step aside. They are both well-honored by one and all…”

Tia asked, “It sounded as though Clan leadership is matriarchal. That Ran Shuta is the head of the Clans… What role does her husband fulfill?”

Kar Tasha attempted to explain, “We didn’t mean to be misleading. Ran Shuta is indeed the leader of all Clans, as well as her own of course. Kar Chatir is the one who must handle the administration of the Estun in matters of policy, relations amongst the Clans, alliances and treaties, even marriages, christenings, ship construction… In a word, nothing happens without his blessing…”

Tia was still confused, “That sure sounds like what a leader does alright. So what is it that Ran Shuta does? Is she just a figurehead or something?”

The elder couple laughed. Ran Tisha caught her breath, “Heavens no! She makes the final decisions for all of what Tasha has just begun to list as their obligations…the list is actually quite a bit longer, but you get the gist. He manages the Estun estate, you might say, she is more like the owner after a fashion. Though of course that’s just an analogy…No one owns the Estun…”

Her hosts nodded, that was understood. Tia was far more satisfied. It was Isabou who returned to the topic of the heirs apparent. “So their sons have been trained in all matters to do with the Clans, as their father has done. And if they marry?” Lenora kicked her under the table; she winced a little as Ran Tisha answered.

“Those poor ladies! Whoever would be fool enough to take on the job would become just what Ran Shuta is to the Estun now—revered leader of the Estun Clans and final arbiter in all Estun matters of estate and direction. Although truth be told, I’m not entirely sure that any woman in her right mind would step into that role—those roles, rather—knowing what was in store for her, them…I mean.”

Lenora was very interested, “You mean both their wives would be like ‘Co-Leaders’? How would that work?”

Kar Tasha tried to clarify. “It probably wouldn’t come to that. Which ever son marries first, they will be the accepted leaders of our people… But if, and it’s a remote notion to consider, both sons should marry within the same month, let’s say, then yes…their wives will be as you say: Co-Leaders of the Estun. And I hope for all our sakes they get along well…”

Ran Tisha added, “Really well! The last time the Estun were led by such an arrangement it was Ran Shuta’s grandmothers. Those two women couldn’t agree on napkins, let alone the direction of the Estun in any matter greater than meal selection. Thankfully their husbands were extremely close and took up the slack for their devoted wives’ inabilities.”

The conversation turned to ship construction and ships’ gardens which prompted a closer tour of Sheranara’s gardens. The evening wound to a close. Lenora and Isabou volunteered to see the couple home—another Estun tradition. They took the opportunity to pump Ran Tisha and her husband for any more information they might have regarding the Shuta family and at last bid their new friends a good night. They practically skipped the whole way home. The company gathered in the lower salon, nearest the airlock to the docking platform. Isabou made a report of their trip to Scharn, omitting the embarrassing encounter with the Shuta men.

In the morning, a messenger arrived shortly after breakfast begging ‘audience’ with the Captain of the Sheranara. Kate ‘received’ the emissary and listened.

“It is the wish of Ran Shuta that she and Kar Chatir be allowed to meet with yourself and those of your company who wish to attend. Ran Shuta would very much enjoy to host you all aboard her flagship, the space yacht: Dauntless, for a banquet and talks of alliance. She has heard good things of the Sheranara Triquetra from the Kourlii and hopes that your good friendship include the Estun.”

Kate allowed the message to sink in and she responded in kind. “We are pleased and honored to be received so warmly by Ran Shuta, Leader of the Estun Clans. Please convey our gratitude and acceptance of her invitation. We feel most privileged over her attention to us.” Then she added, “However we would like to make a counter offer: Sheranara would very much like to host herself and her family before the banquet as an act of reciprocity for her generous invitation. A tour of the ship, drinks and appetizers perhaps.”

The messenger smiled, “No doubt Ran Shuta will be pleased to accept. I shall deliver your words straightaway Captain.” With that he bowed and excused himself.

Randi put her arm over Kate’s shoulders, “Well done Captain. I bet your wishing someone else had drawn the short straw for this mission…”

Kate sighed, “You can say that again. Maybe I can talk Tia or Trici into playing me for the next few days…”

Trici was snacking on an apple and on her way out when she overheard her sister’s plaint. “No way! You’re it, and don’t think Tia’s going say any different either. She won’t have the hot seat for anything on this go around. I’m going to the market for a few essentials; anything to add to the list?” Neither woman had any pressing needs and said as much. Isha and Ada joined her then and they were off.

Resti announced, “Ivy has received all our documents of agreement with the Kourlii folks. He said we did a good job covering the basics. Oh and one other thing; he said there was another Westerin shipment pilfered in transit to Hatsia and asked had we heard anything about raiders or pirates from the folks around here. I told him there hasn’t been a peep. That was correct wasn’t it? Have we heard anything?”

Kate shook her head and looked to Lenora and Isabou. They shook their heads as well. Kiji shrugged, as did Tuvi. Kate replied, “I am beginning to wonder about there being a renegade Estun faction at all. I didn’t think it appropriate to quiz Kar Tasha about it. And every Kourlii we’ve had any contact with only has the highest regard for the Estun.”

Kiji interjected, “Still it is a mystery how it’s Estun-like drive signatures that repeatedly show up at each raid site…”

The next morning the Estun courier returned with Ran Shuta’s regards and acceptance of Sheranara’s invitation to a pre-banquet reception. “…The Dauntless will be arriving this day. Will early evening fit into the Captain’s plans for receiving the Chieftain, her household and staff?”

Kate answered evenly, “That is ideal. We look forward to the encounter with pleasure.” He again smiled, bowed and excused himself. She turned to Randi, “We better get set for entertaining royalty…”

Master Tei-tei came into the salon from out of nowhere. “If it is alright with you Katherina, we would very much like to again serve your guests.” She turned to Kiji, “And we are also having our doubts that the Estun are in any way connected to the raids. That they appear to be behind the return of many of the commandeered shipments is a poser still, yet the sensor network the valkyries have installed does not indicate Estun presence in the least. It is a mystery.”

Kate agreed and added, “Of course the Masters may fulfill any role you wish with regard to our honored guests. You will be attending the banquet they are providing for us…won’t you?”

Master Tei chuckled and the room was brighter, “Wouldn’t miss it!”

Around six-ish local time, an older couple, a bit younger than Kar Tasha and his wife and looking as though they were also contract help at the station, arrived at Sheranara’s airlock and asked to be admitted. Randi and Ada were there and greeted them. Randi introduced herself and her sister, and kept on introducing as the rest of the company sauntered into the salon. “And who do we have the pleasure of entertaining?” she asked of their guests.

The gentleman replied, “I am Kar Chatir and this is my wife Ran Shuta. I believe we were expected?”

There were squeals around the room from the ladies. Kate came forward and begged their forgiveness… “Honestly, we were made to understand that you would have a passel of folks with you—not just yourselves… I mean this is grand that you feel comfortable enough to just amble up to a strange ship and confident enough to enter by yourselves…” she was obviously flustered.

Ran Shuta chuckled, “…Like just plain folks, you mean?” She looked to her husband who was also smiling, “I assure you we do have a retinue in our wake, but we thought it a nicer start if we took up your invitation ourselves alone.” She curtsied. “So this is the famous Sheranara…” The way she said it, it sounded like a mythical vessel.

Kate recovered herself. “Please come have a look at her…” and she led the couple through all the cabins and salons, Bridges, workshops, arboretum and galley…explaining functions, capacities and appointments as she went.

Ran Shuta was fascinated, “So Sheranara Triquetra isn’t just a fanciful appellation; she really can separate into three independent ships! Fascinating!”

Kar Chatir was equally impressed, “Chasir and Rufesha would love to have seen this…no doubt they shall have some opportunity at some point to do so…”

Lenora asked timidly, “Are your sons not with you then?”

Ran Shuta sighed, “I’m afraid that my sons are indisposed at present. They assured us that they would be back from their junket well before now, but as yet we have not heard from them.”

Isabou asked cautiously, “Is that like them? I mean to be absent from you without word for lengths of time? Is their any cause for concern?”

Kar Chatir replied, “Actually they are very good about keeping us informed of their activities. They left four days ago on a hunting trip to Scharn—nothing unusual about that, we’ve been taking them there since they were lads. It’s just that they were due to be back in time to join us for this trip to Kourl…”

Lenora insisted, “And they had no other engagements? Could they have been delayed by an encounter with the indigenous bipedal creatures?”

Kar Chatir narrowed his gaze at her. “And how would a member of the Sheranara company know anything about the Sch’Nor?”

Lenora didn’t miss a beat, “Rumors is all. Casual talk at the bazaar.”

That assuaged his momentary suspicions. “The Estun are on very good terms with nearly all the Sch’Nor tribes. They’re a primitive lot, but curious and inventive, to be sure. Now…” and he sized up Isabou and Lenora, “…tell me: What has evoked your singular interest in my sons?” He turned to the rest of the company and explained to Captain Kate, “Most people avoid talking about them entirely…they had a boisterous youth and generally made a mess of things wherever they went…” He turned back to the ladies in question and waited.

Isabou admitted, “We entertained Kar Tasha and Ran Tisha the other evening and from their descriptions of Estun traditions and customs, we just naturally expected your sons to be with you is all.”

Ran Shuta nodded, “And they would be…”

A messenger demanded entrance at the airlock, Resti admitted her. She went directly to Ran Shuta and whispered something into her ear. The leader’s face paled and she relayed the message to her husband. The rest of the company tried to seem unconcerned at being left out of the intrigue. Ran Shuta announced hastily, “I am very sorry to make this an abruptly short visit…”

Kar Chatir explained hastily, “That was a message of grave import.” He looked to Isabou and Lenora, “You were asking if there was cause for concern? It seems there is.” He turned to leave with his wife. “We shall make good our offer of a banquet as soon as this exigency is resolved. Please accept our heartfelt apologies…”

Kate interrupted, “Ran Shuta…” she turned back obviously anxious to tend to the emergency laid at their feet. “Siress, how fast is the Dauntless?”

Ran Shuta cocked an eye at her, then it dawned on her what might be coming. “She can manage four hundred C…”

Kate nodded to Randi, who gathered Isabou, Lenora, Tuvi, Tia and Isha and headed up to the Archangel Bridge. She turned to Ran Shuta, “Siress allow me to offer Sheranara’s avatar the Archangel. She’ll wrinkle at nearly three times the speed of the Dauntless…” she took a deep breath and made a command decision. “…And if you are headed anywhere we have been we can put you there instantly…and I mean now!”

Kar Chatir glanced to his wife with the pained worried expression of a father. She nodded to him and he relaxed. “We shall be pleased to accept your offer.” She turned to the messenger, “Summon Tesa and her team I want them here inside the minute. We lift for Planris in two!”

The messenger walked toward the airlock, speaking into a comlink on her wrist. Nearly as she reached the door, a tall woman flanked by three others was just there waiting to be admitted. Kiji raised her eyebrows, “That’s what we call attendance!”

Kate waved a hand to the now six Estun, “If you will follow me Siress of the Estun, my sister Randi will take you wherever you wish and need within two hundred light years—Planris first…”

Ran Shuta passed through the passageway after her companions toward the Archangel Bridge. As she came abreast of Kate she whispered, “I’ll not be forgetting this kindness Captain. We have a saying: ‘A friend in need is a dear friend indeed.’ We shall be close, your people and us…very close.”

Kate whispered back, “You go girl; fetch your kin. We’ll have a reception ready upon your successful return.”

On the Bridge Randi directed, “Stations. Sheranara-Archangel, begin separation sequence! We bounce for Planris.”

Tuvi took the Science station and called out, “Scanners and sensors ready for action…”

Isabou and Lenora were at the helm and ops respectively. “All systems ready Captain,” they chimed as one.

Isha sat at the Comm. “Harbormaster Mu has cleared us for departure…he’s a bit confused about just what he’s clearing for departure, but we have his blessing…”

Sheranara’s voice came through the speakers, “Separation attained. Bounce to Planris configured.”

Their guests were wide-eyed at the quickness and efficiency of Randi’s Bridge crew. Tia, at Randi’s side as First Officer, commanded, “Cloak and Bounce!” At once the main viewer was filled with the northern hemisphere of Planris. She turned to Ran Shuta, “Siress, where exactly would you have us take you?”

She recovered her poise enough to look to Tesa, her Security Chief. Tesa announced, “Captain our intel suggests the southern continental range at these coordinates…” and she rattled off the location. Tia needn’t have heard the rest.

She said aloud, “Thought it might be…I have a personal score to settle with that lot…” she nodded to Isabou.

Isabou set her jaw and responded, “In three, two, one…Bounce!”

They were hovering over a familiar high mountain fortress. Randi assured her passengers, “We are invisible to them and to their sensor-scanner systems.” Nothing was going to surprise the Estun after the initial bounce, this was a magic carpet ride of fantastic proportions.

Tesa spoke up, “We would be scanning for two Estun men and perhaps two dogs with them if we are lucky…”

Tuvi announced, “Got the dogs, they are alive at least. In the northeastern annex, there…” he pointed to the spot on the main viewer.

Tesa and her team turned to Randi and Tia, “How are we to gain entry?”

Tia grinned a devilish grin, “Right this way Chief…We happen to have the keys to this installation…long story. Let’s just say that the last time we were here I didn’t get to shoot back…”

Isabou and Lenora turned to Randi, “Permission to join the away team Captain! Actually we rather insist!”

Randi looked at her sister and whispered, “I hope you two know what you’re doing…” Aloud she called to Tia, “Your color guard is right behind you sis; y’all have fun…” The Estun guard and three of the valkyries gathered what weapons they deemed necessary and stepped into the salon. Sheranara’s voice came over the speakers, “I have configured your cuffs for the desired location and for return. Tia, do try and keep this one from being shot up.”

Tesa offered Tia a flicker of a smile as she donned the forearm cuff. Tia requested, “I know this is your show, but I’d really like to go first…just give me ten seconds alone with these guys, please?”

Tesa looked over to Ran Shuta who was just entering the salon. She nodded. Tesa then nodded to Tia. Tia looked to Isabou and Lenora. Lenora whispered, “Sister, you can have all the fun you want, but Isabou and I are coming with you…we’ll explain later.”

Tia shrugged, “Let’s go.” They vanished.

Randi showed Tesa and her team how the cuffs functioned and gave them the nod to bounce. “She’s had more than enough time. Any longer and you won’t have anything to do…” They vanished.

Tia, Isabou and Lenora appeared in an almost vacant corridor. The two sentries assigned there had their backs to them as if having just passed that location. They went down silently and quickly. The girls moved stealthily and rapidly from door to door scanning as they went. They opened several, tossed in stun grenades and moved on.

Tesa and her team appeared in the same spot the others had. They saw the two downed sentries and made their way toward the far end of the building. They passed room after room of slumped, stunned bodies. They reached the end of that corridor and reached the stairwell; she waved two up and she took the other fellow with her down. Each team moved furtively and each team had to step over dead or stunned bodies as they proceeded. Tesa’s lieutenant whispered, “Boss, these are Westerin. Look…” and he wiped a rag over the nearest body’s exposed arm. The paint that made him look like an Estun came right off, revealing his true stripes…in this case literally.

Before, when Tia, Isabou and Lenora had reached that same stairwell, Tia took the ‘up’ and the other two took the ‘down.’ Several grenades, laser shots and a few plasma blasts later, Isabou and Lenora finally found the door they’d been scanning for. Lenora scanned the whole space on the other side of the door. She motioned to her sister to indicate: ‘Two guards, one on each side of the door inside.’ Isabou nodded and stepped over to where Lenora indicated, leveled her laser and adjusted its setting, she glanced to her partner, who held up her fingers, ‘Three, Two, One.’ They fired, there were thuds on the other side of the wall. They opened the door and peered into the inky darkness.

Isabou, called aloud but softly, “Rufe are you here?” There was a moaning noise.

Lenora called, “Chas, tell me you’re not hurt…”

Another moan and a voice answered. “Rufe do you hear that? It’s got to be the voices of our forest goddesses. I’d recognize those beautiful tones anywhere!”

Rufe replied, groaning, “Yeah, if we’re not hallucinating again you mean…”

Isabou lit up the room with a torch and untied Rufe’s hands and legs while Lenora did the same for Chas. As she pulled his blindfold off, she whispered, “You so owe me big time for this mister… You made me worry about you!” and she kissed him most thoroughly on the mouth. Lenora and Chas were in a similar ‘conversation’ when Lesa and her lieutenant came up to the door behind them.

“Ahem…” she cleared her throat. The two couples were undisturbed. In a few moments they came up for air.

Isabou turned to Chief Lesa, “Uh…Resuscitation…They needed resuscitation.” The fellows nodded as they stood, silly grins across their faces.

Chas regained a professional tone and explained, “Chief, we took your advice and checked out the Westerin freighter bound for Resran. Just as we have suspected for ages, it has been the Westerin behind all their own incidents, just like your agency surmised but couldn’t prove. They absolutely have a black market and extortion operation, and it’s headquartered right here!”

Rufe added, “They’ve been using those two wrecked ships they stole from us all those years ago. The same ones that our compatriots had to abandon when they were…as the stories say… ‘Invited to never return.’ And we almost got away from their freighter without incident to report to you directly, but Guppy and Dunny sorta got excited about chewing up one of the pirates…”

Chas continued, “We’re not saying it’s all Westerin in collusion, they just may have turned a blind eye to it, but as you’ve probably noticed, all our captors are striped beneath their skin paint. So without a doubt, here is some faction of Westerin who have been determined to pursure their own larceny and avarice while continually framing us forever to throw off suspicion and make our lives miserable in the mix!”

Lesa turned to the gaping faces of the girls. “It has been my agency’s contention that the only way the Westerin could have made the advancements in their bid for space travel is if our own technology had been pirated and somehow replicated. It just didn’t occur to us that they were capable of having resurrected the lost freighters… Our own missing clan—long lost to us—had to have paid dearly with their lives… and failed to keep that from happening…”

Isabou, on Rufe’s arm, and Lenora on Chas’s, spoke up, “We can absolutely certify to anyone who wants to know, that there has never been a single Estun vessel anywhere near any of the raids…”

Isabou continued, “We’ve had every freighter, port, station and loading dock tagged for nearly five months now…still there have been several more incidents.”

Rufe announced, “We shall honor our fallen at last. All Estun will sing of them. Those who were lost shall once more be a part of our company in spirit at least.

Tia came down the corridor dragged by two hounds and followed by Lesa’s other teammates. She practically cackled, “These are good boys! They took care of the last three bad guys themselves… after I cut their leashes, I mean.”

She looked at her sisters on the fellows’ arms. Her eyes grew round as saucers. Lesa noticed; aside she remarked, “So you didn’t know either. That’s a relief at least…”

Tia exclaimed, “You two Rascals! No wonder you didn’t say anything about your little ‘shopping trip’ to Scharn!”

Chas remarked to Lenora, “Not a word? Really? How surprising is that?” He turned to Lesa and Tia and began to say, “I can tell you how we met these lovely ladies. You see we were…” Lenora pulled his face to hers and stopped him from speaking instantly. He didn’t resist.

Lesa repeated, “Resuscitation… uh huh…”

Tia held tight onto Dunny and Guppy’s collars. “Let’s blow this burg, before them that can wake up, do…” She vanished, followed by Lesa and her team.

Before Isabou and Lenora transited with Chas and Rufe, the two fellows took a knee before them. Rufe spoke first, “You two are all we have been able to think about for days now. At first we weren’t sure but that it might have been a dream. But you are real, here and now. We don’t know much about y’all, but more now than we did before…”

Chas finished, “Please allow us the opportunity to get to know you, your family, your friends… to learn to love you…”

Isabou answered for them both. “Rufe, Chas, if you hadn’t noticed, we are pretty stuck on you two as well…” They bounced for the Archangel.

Lenora called, “All accounted for Captain! We have a banquet to attend. Let’s Bounce!”

Randi smiled to Isha, “Please inform Kate that she has to resume playing Captain; I’m done in a few minutes.” She said to Sheranara-Archangel, “Bounce dear!”

Ran Shuta enfolded her sons and their father put his great arms around the three of them. Isabou and Lenora stood by shyly. Chas relaxed his arms around his mother. “Mama, Papa, we would very much like your blessing to court these two wonderful women…”

Rufe added, “And not only because they just nicked us out of the bad guys’ clutches. We sorta ran into them on Scharn and haven’t been able to stop thinking about them…”

Kar Chatir nodded as he looked over at the ladies, “…Rumors? Talk at the bazaar?”

Lenora apologized, “We couldn’t very well say we went for a swim with your sons, if they hadn’t even introduced us to you yet…”

Chas qualified, “Actually we weren’t ever in the water at the same time…”

Isabou countered, “We’ll remedy that soon enough, I’m thinking…”

“I suppose that that is completely up to them and their families,” Kar Chatir answered his sons. “Perhaps they aren’t at all interested in having Estun Clansmen in their ranks…”

Randi overheard, of course, and answered for her sister, “I am Anna Sonia Isabelle’s only kin in this Spur. I have more faith in my sister’s judgement of people than I do anyone else. If she says Rufe is a great guy, he’s the best there is and that’s a fact.”

Isabou blushed, “Well after we exchange a few more words and ideas than we have already, I might just say that very thing…” She elbowed Rufe and he grinned like an idiot.

“Oh! Absolutely. That’s what Chas and I were saying before. We just want the chance to do that very thing…” he hurriedly added.

Lenora spoke up then, “As for my folks, they would have been here to meet with y’all instead of the Sheranara, but my mama just gave birth to my new little twin brothers and has decommissioned her ship the Anna. But I bet they’ll pop on over for the banquet as soon as they hear the news I have for them…” She dragged Chas to the Bridge to ask Isha to send the communique.

The speakers came alive; Sheranara announced, “Reunion with the Raven and Lioness complete,” and there sounded like a sigh, “It is good to be home again.”

Randi grinned, “Yes it is, thank you Sheranara, you are a very good girl.”

Isha was just leaving the Bridge as Lenora and Chas came up. “Oh! Leni, the Masters have informed your folks of something or other and they’re waiting downstairs. By the way, you have blood on your kilt, you might oughta change. Cap’n Dani doesn’t need to know you’ve just gotten back from a romp on Planris, if you know what I mean…”

Lenora gasped at the news, then just as quickly dashed to her cabin to get a fresh kilt. Chas was left with Isha for a moment. He smiled. She asked, “I’m guessing you are the ‘something or other’ the Masters informed Val and Dani about?”

Chas took a deep breath, “I don’t know who are the Masters, nor how anyone but the four of us could have known anything at all…”

Isha pursed her lips, “You are in for a surprise then…”

Lenora came back up. “Okay buddy, let’s do the dog and pony show for the folks…” He waved back to Isha who waved in return.

He asked as she pulled him along, “Are all these ladies your sisters? Isha looks a lot like a cat.”

Leni giggled, “And so does her twin sister. That’s a long story I hope to tell you soon.” They reached the chute to the lower, main salon. She took a deep breath. “How do I look?”

Chas smiled, “Like the goddess you are.”

She pecked him on the cheek, “You are so good! I hope you live through this…” And they dropped down to the main salon.

The first sight that caught their attention was the presence of the Masters, and they weren’t incognito. The second was Ran Shuta and Kar Chatir in a very animated discussion with Captain Danielle and Chief Valeran. Ran Shuta had both Elmo and Wim in her arms and was beatific. Valeran was explaining something about sleep-loss to Kar Chatir and Danielle was just finishing her rendition of how to feed two boys at once…which was why Ran Shuta had the two boys in her arms. She was showing Dani how she had done the same thing with Chas and Rufe when they were that size.

Lenora and Chas waited patiently for their folks to notice them. It didn’t take as long as it felt. Dani reached an arm to her and held her close. She spoke loud enough for Captain Kate to hear, “When I sent you off with Kate and the girls to become an independent woman, I rather thought you would enjoy the freedom at least a year or so before snagging the hearts of innocent victims!” Kate shrugged. Lenora blushed and Ran Shuta laughed aloud.

Chas stood tall, turned to Dani and Val and asked formally, “Captain Daane, Commander, I would very much like your blessing to court Lenora. We don’t know each other well yet, but we seem to have many things in common already. Chief among those things is an abiding desire to be with each other. That is a start at least…”

Danielle smiled, “We raised her to use her own reason in all things. If you can win her love, you are as good a man as they come.”

Ran Shuta interjected, “So our being Estun is of no concern to anyone of you?”

Val was stumped. “Why should it be?”

Kar Chatir answered easily, “The Estun have been shunned by every people in the Horn, save the Kourlii, and as many folks within fifty light years of here…”

Master HanaRin spoke up then, “About that…As your sons and these others have uncovered, that condition is about to change dramatically. The Westerin shall now be relegated to their own system. We have seen to that…

Rudikin added, “Which means there is a vacuum in the Alliance for honorable, dependable freighters and traders in this area of the Spur. Any ideas?”

Rufe and Chas nearly shouted, “We have some excellent ideas actually and have been chomping at the bit to put them into practice!”

Rudikin replied, “Thought you might…”

Ran Shuta announced in a loud voice, after handing Wim back to his mother, but still holding onto Elmo, “Will the young Captains Isabou and Lenora please escort their new beaus to the Dauntless… We have a feast prepared, and more to celebrate than ever we’d hoped. This is a glorious day for the Estun and our new partners the Roaming Wing!”

It was easy that evening and into the night to find either Isabou or Lenora, one just had to spot the tall grinning heirs of the Estun and there they were at their sides. It was after the last toast was made, after the final farewells were bid and the Dauntless began to empty that Randi took Isabou’s arm and got to at last hear the whole short tale of her sister’s new beau. And once the valkyries were in their own apartments aboard Sheranara, it was retold again.

“…And I got to get some of my own back for that scrape with the renegades months ago…” Tia crowed after the second part of the tale was retold. “That almost made up for the shock of seeing you two mooning over the tall, dark and handsomes when I reached the lower floor. I was just relieved you had actually sorta met them at least once before throwing yourselves into their arms for better or worse.”

Isabou protested, “No one’s gone all ‘better or worse’ yet! We’re just maximizing their attentions for as long as we can fool them into thinking we’re adorable…”

Lenora agreed, “They’re going to realize at some point that we aren’t the run of the mill soft and cuddlies they may be mistaking us for. When that hour comes, we’ll be as ancient history as fire and clubs.”

Randi mused, “I happened to spend a bit of time talking to Lesa. If I were y’all I wouldn’t expect the heirs apparent to give up on you too soon. It seems Estun women are very much valkyrie material. I wouldn’t be surprised if they take up tlachtli and rule every pitch they step into. And as for independent thinkers…’Hello!’ it’s a matriarchal society for the most part. You two are more ‘Estun women’ than some of their own…and that’s all these guys have ever known…”

Ada and Isha giggled, “So in a word: You are so doomed!”

Lenora and Isabou fell back on the bed in a mock swoon. “Aah, what a way to go…” they moaned.

While the rest of the company of Sheranara proceeded with the Dauntless to visit Torsa and meet the other clans, Lenora and Isabou took Chas and Rufe to see New Bag End and meet the rest of their folks. Besides being riddled with questions, the two brothers also got to see firsthand all that the Roaming Wing had accomplished on Buffalope. The Safe Haven Lodge was just habitable at last so they had a respite from ‘mingling’ for the rest of the evening at least. In the morning, they all went out on one of the catamarans for a sail. If the yacht had been more complete they would have taken a coastal trip. As it was they simply sailed the great lagoon and ventured only a little ways onto the sea before returning.

All the while Chas was a fountain of questions for Lenora, just as Rufe deftly queried Isabou. They heard of the families’ origins in the Orion Spur around Sol and Silessa, of the explorations of the Selena fleet and the newly widened Alliance there. They learned more about tlachtli without playing it than they needed, and about the traversable wormhole that had brought just these few to the Actaeon Spur. They were allowed access, with Val and Dani and the boys in attendance, aboard the Anna for a trip to the Julinissan system where they were greeted as returning relatives of a sort. Then they bounced to Estus and got an eye-opening afternoon walking through the cities of their long estranged brethren there.

Lenora and Isabou weren’t merely answering questions, they were actively probing their new beaus not only for their personal histories, which were interesting to say the least, but also for the Estun traditions, customs, Clan structures, names, relationships, ship layouts, worlds visited, and so much more than the brothers even realized they were providing.

When they bid Lenora’s folks adieu and caught up to the Sheranara docked with the Remista around Torsa, the first thing the girls were able to do upon arrival was to greet Ran Shuta and Kar Chatir as Estun women should…using proper titles, gestures and manners befitting their hosts. The brothers’ parents were extraordinarily impressed to say the least. Truth be told, that added even more pressure on Chas and Rufe to do all that they could to woo and successfully court these most wonderful ladies.

As Ran Shuta put it to them when she had them alone for a brief little while the evening of their return, “If we are to lead these Clans into a new Renaissance, to join and partner with the peoples of the Actaeon Spur at last, we need two women who are as strong, wise, and meticulous as these two. You both are to become our people’s hope for our future, you must have women to guide us who are natural leaders. We know that there are viable candidates among the K’Estura, and K’Astrallin clans, even a few among our own Remista. But we have been isolated too long, and that’s not good for succeeding generations of Estun…”

Chas offered, “Mother? Are you suggesting that we throw ourselves wholly and fully into making ourselves indispensable to Lenora and Isabou?”

Rufe voiced the same concern, “Are you actually telling us to win their hearts or else?”

Ran Shuta laughed aloud, and for a moment the fellows relaxed thinking the pressures they were beginning to feel were just in their imaginations.

She answered simply, “Yes,” and left them with the sweetest conflict of emotions they had yet experienced in their lives.

From the one side, to be given carte blanche to pursue and marry the very women they adored beyond words, and on the other side, they were practically being told by their parents to do so. Caught between their own desires and the rebellion toward independent action they’d always cherished as their unique gift. It wasn’t a conflict that was un-resolveable. They did the most sane thing they’d done in any relationship they’d ever had…they went to find Lenora and Isabou and explain exactly what their mother had counseled and then their own feelings and thoughts about it… All in the presence of the other valkyries!

They were aboard Sheranara, docked next to Remista hanging above Torsa. Lenora burst into tears. Isabou was embraced by Randi for support and the fellows suddenly looked as though their dogs had just died. Rufe pleaded with Isabou, “We didn’t mean to cause you pain over this…”

Chas added to Lenora, “Honestly we thought this was a good idea! We are hopeless after all, I suppose.”

The two ladies rubbed their arms across their faces to wipe away their tears, put their hands on their mens’ shoulders and said in no uncertain terms, “We aren’t distraught. We are over-joyed at your ability to share your deepest feelings and thoughts with us—and in the presence of our sisters for crying out loud!—you are the grandest, most wonderful, dearest, most treasured…”

Chas and Rufe had learned from them well; they stopped their mouths instantly. Lenora and Isabou did not resist. The rest of the valkyries were swimming in tears of joy for their sisters. Kate and Randi summed it up ideally. “This calls for a very special celebration. And we can only think of one location fitting enough for it…”

“The temple of the Enthileste on Julinissa!” they announced together.

The Masters appeared; Chas and Rufe nearly jumped. Isabou and Lenora whispered, “Yeah, it takes some getting used to…”

Master HanaRin spoke directly to the two couples, “If that is your choice, we are pleased to make the arrangements ourselves.”

Chas stepped forward and knelt before the four glowing planet gardeners. “Masters, we are humbled. We would very much like to have all our peoples present and not just as a symbolic step forward for both, but because we shall need the support of all our family, friends and relations to contain the great rapture of our happiness at this blessed event.”

Master Tei put out her hand on his head, “Kar Chasir, co-leader of the Remista Clan and the Estun people, husband and helpmate to Ran Lenora Virginia it shall be as you wish.”

She turned to Rufe, and held out her hand towards him. “Kar Rufesha co-leader of the Remista Clan and the Estun people, husband and helpmate to Ran Anna Sonia Isabelle is this also your wish?”

He knelt next to his brother and took her hand. “It is.”

Master Rudikin proclaimed, “It shall be so. The Actaeon Spur shall have her Renaissance and her peoples shall rejoice. Those who have for too long been alone shall be enfolded in the embrace of others. Together a new era begins for all our people.”

The valkyries were sobbing, Isabou and Lenora looked as though they had been transformed themselves. And after a fashion they had been. When in the course of a person’s life they encounter the sublime, the miraculous starkly, tactilely pervading their being, it is a transformative experience. The same was evident for their husbands as well. Now their journey would begin.

Master ChériA’na said it, “We shall begin now. We ourselves shall make the personal invitations of both our clans and to the peoples of the Alliance. Tell us; name the day…”

Rufe and Chas stood shocked, looked to their brides and held a short conference. The ladies responded, “Is seven days from now sufficient notice?”

Kate interjected, “We are so Livingson! No long engagements, no protracted courtships…just do what is right, right now and move on!”

The Masters bowed to the couples and vanished. Almost at once Sheranara’s Comm was lighting up and chirping. Messages of congratulations and promises of attendance were already pouring in. Rufe remarked, “Yeah, this is going to take some getting used to. Kinda like water to a parched throat!”

New customs were begun with the announcements. Chas and Rufe spent the next week in the company of Isabou and Lenora’s folks exclusively, while Lenora and Isabou were embraced by the Estun Clans for the next seven days. Each pair were further guided through those families’ lore, and traditions. They were dressed for their wedding day in the wardrobe of the Roaming Wing and of the Remista…but the guys were representing the Wing, and the girls the Clans. It was a beautiful touch.

When the Masters said they would make the arrangements, nobody really understood the extent of it. Not only was every single Alliance world represented by crowds of their people, but the Julinissan Temple, her gardens and terraces had been almost remade for the occasion. A broad avenue now led from the villages below the mountain and wound through the majestic, breath-taking valleys and dales up to the sanctuary. In spite of the fact that everyone in attendance was compelled to walk the whole journey from the base to the top, there was not a moment of complaint nor of regret.

It took a day and a half for all to make the trek, and it was a moving party the whole way up. The Clans and the Wing became almost indistinguishable from one another by the time the last of the parade reached the summit. Besides the terraces, the Masters had created an new spring-fed crystal clear mountain lake to surround the temple proper and the long path leading out to it. After the long trip up, nearly every person, young and old enjoyed a bath in the refreshing waters before donning their wedding day garb.

Master HanaRin stood at the opened portal of the atrium leading to the temple proper behind her and the two couples walked the long aisle amidst all those gathered, to at last stand before her. Her words were few, their meaning powerful. The vows were exchanged and pledges made. In a voice only a Master could employ, the mountains echoed her proclamation that these four were now new beings and would henceforth act as two. And those two would be as one leading the united peoples of the Estun and the Wing.

Her great words were immediately answered by the single voice of the many gathered there as they shouted as one voice: “To love and to those who bear it!”

The feast that followed made the parties and dining on the journey up the mountains seem as trail snacks. After Kar Rufesha and Ran Anna Sonia Isabelle, Kar Chasir and Ran Lenora Virginia had passed through all their guests there assembled, and lent their heartfelt hopes that each was well and should prosper, they stepped out onto the water and climbed aboard the wedding gift from Captain Danielle and Chief Valeran—the Anna Virginia.

Dani explained, “Ran Isabou, this was your parents’ ship, they entrusted it into our care. It is only fitting that you four have it now as your own. We are certain your folks would have it so. And for our precious, Ran Lenora, this has been your home for most of your life, what is yours by right shall always be yours.”

Isabou and Lenora told their husbands the whole story of the ship, from its beginnings in the Larrson shipyards of Gotland to the South Seas of Earth, to John Robert and his new bride Virginia Kaitlyn Belle, who would transform it into an aero-space ship to ferry their family into the stars as vanguard for all the peoples of Sol and later of Silessa. Her avatars over the years of their journeys to what she was here and now in front of them.

They raised sail and left their waving guests on the island. Just as they reached the far shore, the ship transformed and they rose into the sky and vanished. The Anna bounced to her auxiliary self and re-merged. The four of them were on her Bridge. Isabou turned to the other three, “Shall we off to where it all began?” They smiled.

In a clearing covered knee-deep in ferns sat a great starship. Not far away beneath a towering waterfall, there frolicked two couples, heedless of their shouts and laughter, splashing and giggles. The roar of the falls and their voices were masked to the outside world by an energy dome that kept them as safe from intrusion as if they had been in the void of space. Where it all began, indeed…