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The Pakkrat

SOC-14 1K
Admin Award

By the Pakkrat

* * *
Ri: Let’s stay calm and tell each other what we remember. I’ll record us this time. Just go back to our arrival on Lair months ago. Agreed?

Uessae: The truth this time, Lidus. This amnesia was done to us too.

Lidus: We broke out of jumpspace and were on final approach to mainworld Lair. I remember being on Sensors....
* * *

Lair (Provence 2402) A8859B9-E (or F debatable) Ga Hi Pr Pz Cp (again debatable) Cx K [Vargr] [Amber] VLPr


To me, the blue marble on the zoomed scopes was like any other. “You’re going to miss final approach to Lair, Ri,” warned Uessae Noedhin. Unlike her, an Aekhu Vargr from Deneb Sector and an integrated Vargr formerly of the Third Imperium, I did not have any special attachment to Lair. It may have been on the Bucket List for us: visit Lair, but now at breakout from jumpspace, I was riveted to my own boards unlike Uessae. She and Miss Lidus Ka were using the ship sensors to take stills of the various planetary bodies within range of the scopes.


I had my back to all of it. Though I had made my first big payout on the last world we Travelled, it was still not big enough to cover the repairs I needed to bring the AFT-BS33 Thuegueus II back up to AFT-BS44. By that I mean, the Fast Far Trader used to be Jump-4 capable and could kick it up to four gees in-system. It’s okay. You should see what Uessae did to the other ship who attacked us. Instead, I was studying the Universal World Profile of Lair the homeworld of the Vargr race.

For the record, my name is Ri Dzuerrgksungkorokoutue the Captain-Owner of the Thuegueus II, its Engineer, its Purser and the cook for the ladies fogging the boards and ogling over the oceans and land masses as Uessae lined us up for approach to the mainworld. I’m Logaksu if you can’t tell by looking at my brown pelt with lighter brown ventral fur. It’s not turning gray yet. I’m only 47, still a spring chicklizard. My amber irises were glued to my own boards as I sat at my Engineering console on the Bridge. Call me a shut-in, a dweeb, a closet case or whatever, but I’m the one who makes the payloads turn into payouts. I’m a card-carrying member of the Dzarrgh Federate Merchants Guild. I just don’t go around yelling it out to the universe. Uessae had to pry it out of me when I was outed as a credit-pinching tramp trader. That’s us Logaksu, the Travelling traders.
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Miss Lidus Ka, at 27 years young for a Vilani Human, asked questions to both Uessae and I, although I was using the ship’s comms to get a solid connection to the Lair SysNet and begin trading. I had Polymers to sell and wanted a buyer at the Downport by the time our landing gears touched down.


“Lair is Size 8, barely under Terra-norm though you might not feel it,” reported Uessae as the ladies, Vargr and Vilani perused the physical characteristics.

“Nice that they have a G5 main-sequence, primary star,” added Miss Ka. She may be Vilani, but her Family Ka reeks of megacorporate funds, funds to which I no longer had access. I earned our way out this far coreward from the border between the Third Imperium and the Dzarrgh Federate. I half-listened to the ladies as I waited the minutes for an answer from the SysNet, a request for buyers of Polymers. Business before pleasure.

Lair has a Dense atmosphere. At times like that, one has to breathe deep and slowly and let the tightly packed oxygen in each inhale do its work. If you breathe to fast, you’ll only wear yourself tired. The surface of Lair is 51% hydrosphere, oceans mostly with a few sea inlets, large islands and archipelagos. I heard the ladies list out the names of the four tectonic plates and the five continents on the crust of Lair.

Lair has over 2,590,000,000 sophonts and it’s not just us Vargr. Like other Major Race homeworlds, Lair is home to all the Vargr ethnicities not just us Logaksu, though Logaksu is the official language spoken. I hoped Uessae had been practicing with the translator software. Lair is administered by a - get this - a Non-Charismatic Dictator. One would guess initially that the Vargr homeworld would cater to Vargr Charisma and have a Charismatic Dictator at the helm, but no. There must have been some static in Lair’s past that necessitated a more direct approach: force of arms.

Lair’s Law Level meant that there would be no weapons carried off the Thuegueus II. No weapons were permitted outside the home. For Uessae and I, it meant fangs and claws only, Infighting being the preferred style of natural combat among us Vargr. But while I knew that Miss Lidus Ka was trained in Bayonet, she would not be allowed one off this ship. The BuddySystem was called for. If there were other races, Humaniti included on Lair, I could only guess at what those without natural weapons did to feel safer dirtside.

“Twenty-five tons of bulletproof Polymers,” I said to the trade agent some hours away at our present acceleration of three gees. “Good Protectorate stuff from the crate I opened.” I was talking on the comms as Uessae announced that Lair has attained Tech-15 in a few sciences and applications, but sophontologists and engineers claim Lair is still Tech-14. My vote is TL-15, because it’s good business to butter up your buyers during the sale. Nice world you got here, gents.

Lidus Ka listed what traders like me call Trade Classifications. Lair is High Population being over a billion strong. It’s a Garden world, with conditions in or around Terra-prime gravity, atmosphere, hydrosphere, pressure, and other numbers that don’t require wearing a VaccSuit out the airlock upon touchdown. Lair is the Capital of the Lair Protectorate which over jump we learned that it seceded from the Empire of Varroerth in 777 Imperial Calendar. It just happened, and both polities try extremely hard to pretend the other doesn’t exist. Lair is Pre-Rich, meaning that it has the resources to exploit but the Population is so high the two don’t balance enough for a fully-Rich Classification, (which to me is better than Industrial usually indicating a Tainted or polluted atmosphere).

With that many Vargr ethnicities and other races on Lair and such a high population, it is easier to accept the Puzzle Trade Classification. It’s called a Puzzle because the mainworld while noisy and Discordant among the continental Packs, there’s no war. And this ‘puzzles’ the sophontologists. To me, they’re doing something right. I dunno what, but it’s keeping the peace and that’s good for business. So the Puzzling Amber Zone rating fashioned by the Non-Charismatic Dictator and the higher than average Law Level is no surprise. Lair wants its peace and is willing to crack down on dissent.

“The Naval Base for Lair is on that moon,” pointed out Uessae. She’s former Imperial Deneb Navy and it makes sense that she would like to see Vargr warships up close as we decelerated toward the mainworld. Turns out that every world of the Lair Protectorate has high-tech Naval Bases, so it’s no wonder why the Empire of Varroerth has yet to re-annex their lost systems. The Varroerth Governor of Grnouf Subsector surrounding the Protectorate doesn’t have the Charisma to take on Lair dictator Ulurs Otsunga. Hence the mutual ignoring of each other.

Lair has three satellites, a Luna-sized one and two smaller planetoids that are too small to call moons. It also has seventeen orbital platforms. I chose Platform-9 and was assigned by System Traffic Control to Berth-75. I slid the navigation glide path to Uessae’s console at the helm controls.

I found a buyer for the Polymer plates in the cargo hold, but I’d have to wait until the Fast Far Trader was on the ground to shake claws on a price per ton. One last growl or snarl before the numbers were finalized. I had a nice payout on Oegninong (Provence 1802), but that would not be enough to pay for the repairs and refit to squeeze out that fourth order of jump nor the thrill ride of four gees the Trader had when I had her built and weaponized. But that’s a story already told. Eyes forward, tail wagging.

Five planets, two Gas Giants and moons galore make up Lair System. I learned in jump transit that the only planetoid belt has long since been mined out during pre-jump space flight history of the Vargr. After that 15% payout of sleaze-haggling weapons grade Plutonium scored on Oegningong, I had designated the mainworld our jump target. None of us aboard the Thuegueus II had the patience to skim Goullaengrak the Large Gas Giant for fuel. So, I will eat refueling, though it’s hardly a scratch.
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Vidzoengnoezeghz Korrghaeksoeluel was the fourth, Working Passage crew on the Comms securing us a berth approach to one of the seventeen orbital platforms. She’s the young Merchant who owned the Plutonium I helped Broker for my cut. Another Logaksu like me, the young female had never seen the cutthroat pits of commodities markets. I was reluctant to land directly on Lair until we got our planetside feet back and after trading was complete. The parking platform was self-sufficient enough to load and unload our sold Polymers.

Black claws and long arms in a ship’s slicker surrounded me. Uessae’s black pelt is distinctive for an Aekhu this far coreward. With a hug on me from behind, she whispered, “You’re missing the show, munny-grubber.” And she was right. I had my nose already into what was sitting in Imbalance at the local Highport trade hub. I was missing it all. I spun about from my boards at the Engineering Console on the Bridge. I licked her in thanks and turned my attentions to the landforms and oceans of Lair.

Uessae returned to her helm to slide past a Vargr Corsair vessel, one of those mercenary ships I’ve mentioned in the past. Not every Corsair is a pirate. The Uengkou-class Corsair is a variable mission hull. It’s most famous role is the charismatic raider and pirate, yes; but it sees service in Privateering, remote patrols, search & rescue and even surveys. The Corsair captain was cordial to Vidz and asked many questions about our Imperium-make Fast Far Trader. An index claw over my mouth told her not to say too much. We were to discharge Vidz from Working Passage upon docking. I hope she sticks to the investing portfolio I helped her plan for her future.

Discharging Vidz also meant her taking her Red Wizard avatar, an Elementalist for which she was becoming famous for her obscure holovid references in her battle cries, one for each of her wizard’s basic elements. Miss Ka’s Artificer and Vidz’ had hit it off as we gamed in the heavily-instanced online fantasy game. Truly, the game was meant to pass the time in jump transit. All had agreed to play to enjoy rather than to Win. It was a moment to be social without committing Vargr Charisma over.

Uessae Noedhin pulled easy-as-you please descent into a landing pad berth with a swing-arm gantry on wheels that sucked tight to the starboard side personnel airlock. As soon as the gears were down and the hydraulics normalized the hull’s attitude relative to Platform-9, Berth-75, we suited up, Uessae and I in our Combat Armor; but left our weapons on the ship. Uessae’s armor screams Corsair Queen with all the colors and decorations.

Miss Ka was paired with Uessae so I could discharge Merchant Fourth Officer Vidzoengnoezeghz Korrghaeksoeluel. I had a printout letter and swiped a digital copy to her Hand Computer-11. It was a letter of recommendation she could use if ever she crewed a starship as a fellow Merchant. Vidz was very grateful and gave me a hug before picking up her luggage and leaving the Thuegueus II. That vixen may go far yet.

By the end of 122-1105, I was down one crew, paid Cr2000 for orbital berthing, signed for refueling and sold the 25 tons of Polymers at a sleazy Cr525,000. I was just a little closer to seeing the refit of the ship. But so much could happen to me and my crew before then. Such was the nature of Travelling.

Our objective Library Data we had obtained on Oeghzvar was updated as a package of berthing and refined refueling for Cr40,000. It’s an entertainment to see how a world thinks of itself in its brochures, advertisements, and other charismatics. The Lair Library Data from Lair itself was far more harkening back to Vargr values of the First Diaspora. Where other worlds looked outside in, Lair looked outward from its prestige as the Vargr homeworld. Most Vargr simply shrug and move to the download. I took note of it, however. I noted the free download, courtesy of Highport Services.

* * *
Uessae: Is this what you usually log, Ri?

Ri: Yeah, plus a little more to include my take.

Lidus: Can we move on?

* * *
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Lair (Provence 2402) A8859B9-E (or F debatable) Ga Hi Pr Pz Cp (again debatable) Cx K [Vargr] [Amber] VLPr

Starports can smell a Traveller in need of funds. It’s nested among the other advertisements, tourist traps, sightseeing excursions and buried under all the overhead of starship maintenance. And I needed credits, a lot of them to fully repair the Thuegueus II.

And in my search for a Patron since the Lair download was fruitless as a Rumor other than its egotism, I was halted by that tingly, fur-raising sensation. I had my mental Shield up but felt like a ninja had crept into my mind’s Lobby to have a look around. I am a tested and trained Psion, but one of no appreciable worth. I had already passed by crowds of Vargr and other sophonts on Platform-9.

You see, Uessae and I found a Psionic Institute on Aezorr mainworld some months before Lair. In our forties, testing so late in life means less and less psionic potential. Humans say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. It’s true and not just for dogs when it comes to the pseudoscience of the psionic disciplines. We snuck off to a remote island for an adventure, testing and training.

And I apologize here and now for not coming out after Aezorr to Lidus Ka. She’s Vilani and after the 800s Imperial, they don’t take too well to psionics. But Aezorr is out in the Vargr Extents where Imperial laws and fear of the disciplines does not apply. Miss Ka was already upset, rain-soaked and left out, her birthday missed. I baked her a birthday cake. But we still did not come out to the Vilani woman. Uessae instead had a female-to-female with Lidus, our outing was a Vargr wilderness fling, a call of the wild. A lie.

I can perform Life Detection through a wall and Shield my mind. I can push a few grams across a table or push buttons with Telekinesis. But that’s it! Uessae too has Shield, Life Detection and Telempathy. She can cheat, only a little. But she reached for the stars and the stars answered. Uessae is a Special, and special with a capital S. If Uessae Noedhin drains herself psionically for the Day, through the use of her graduation gift, a Pocketwatch-4 Focus a simple windup clockwork chronometer, she can see up to fifteen seconds into the future. A lot can happen in that time I remind her. She has saved our lives more than once because of her ability to make a move or a decision after seeing the fork in the road of fate. Beyond that, she is just as blind as the rest of us. Blind and tired.

And it was that mind ninja that got my hackles raised and distracted from the Imbalance cargo yard when I was approached by then-Emissary Khavall Iko, a Logaksu male with about the same pelt coloration as me. His eyes are deep brown while mine are that amber orange I got from my dam. Of a lesser build, the Emissary approached me, declaring himself a Patron seeking to hire some Travellers. I tried to ward him off, that our vessel was due for the drydock for repairs. He was unfazed. He wanted Travellers, off-worlders who were objective to Lair. He was of lesser Charisma, so his tail drooped more than mine and he nodded at my rebuff. A dignified chap, though he was rated in Liaison enough to know how far he could go with me. I was still pretty intimidating standing there, interrupted from my religion of Trade and Commerce while wearing Combat Armor even if unarmed. I don’t own a normal VaccSuit.


And though my Lobby, that part of one’s mind that is still opened to giving attention to others than oneself was still tingling, I let Khavall Iko pitch himself as a Patron. Emissaries are not well-paid. I did not think whatever task he had for hired Travellers would pay for the ship’s repairs. Additionally, he was out-classed for dealing with a Merchant like me.

Discounting a long, drawn out dialogue, Iko explained that he was a two-term Emissary. Nothing special there. But he was older than 26, about the age of a two-term Anything. I asked him what he did before that. And that was the mystery I arrived at before he could give me a helpless shrug. He could not remember. How does one lose twelve years of their life? Drugs maybe? Booze can’t do that. Khavall Iko admitted that he had no memory of what he did before becoming an Emissary a little over eight years ago.

Khavall Iko had a lucrative career as an Emissary. He was scientific, methodical, gave and took as an Emissary should when called to task. He had meager funds and clout. But for the life of him, he had no records or memory of his life before then. I of course asked him about his cubhood. Then, he brightened a bit. He remembered his youth and education. This narrowed the gap to a simple missing twelve years. I was beginning to see a focused and perhaps deliberate gap in the Emissary’s memory.

I did not tell him I was a Psion, even if a puny one. We Psions are trained to hide in plain sight. It’s not deception if there’s no inquiry, right? Psionics is like the other skeletons in the closet. On most worlds, Lair included its sorta don’t ask, don’t tell. Psion or not, I was not qualified to go digging into this Vargr’s gap. I was beginning to think I had been outed somehow but fell for the complimentary title of Traveller. He had called me a Traveller.
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Travellers are special sophonts. We’re dangerous. We have the skills and the ambition to leave our homeworlds and blaze our paths among the stars. Things happen around Travellers, things most folk would rather stay home, lie down and avoid. So, this notoriety blinded me into accepting an investigative job. I could bring in Uessae and see if she could do anything for Khavall Iko the amnesiac missing twelve years of his life.

If I could bring in Uessae and maybe Miss Ka, (I certainly did not want to leave her out since Aezorr), then so too could this Emissary Khavall Iko. Once I’d been hooked on a mystery, he introduced his attaché, a smallish, cloaked, female Vargr who reeked of a scent that was repellent to most Vargr noses. When the twenty-something pulled back the cowl of her cloak mantle, her claw came up, too far into my personal space for comfort. But then I looked at her and saw why. The young lady was blind, her ocular orbs two milky-white pearls. Her clothes were shabby, and her fur was unkempt. And strange objects and knick-knacks, crystals, bones, metal wire twisted in unfamiliar patterns were here and there tied or sewed into her outerwear. She had less Vargr Charisma than both Khavall and I, but she was very friendly. An amnesiac and a blind female. I tingled again in my mind’s Lobby.


Khavall Iko introduced the younger female as Rekkha Vaikrou, a Loner of the previously unknown to me ethnicity of Vargr called the Roth Thokken. She had a golden beige pelt, a pattern unfamiliar to me. I had never met such an offshoot of the Vargr. My experience was limited to my own Logaksu, Aekhu like Uessae and I’d had dealings with a few haughty Ovaghoun Vargr. I’ve seen and been handedly experienced the “red pelts” Suedzuk and the huge Urzaeng respectively But I’d never until then met a Roth Thokken. Until that day, I had no knowledge of the ethnicity. Iko explained to me that Rekkha though blind was not handicapped as many assume. I didn’t pry. The female simply let me shake her claw and then backed off respectfully. She carried one of those folding, segmented walking canes for the blind. But if I recall, she did not seem to use it in the classic fashion. The Emissary explained that Miss Rekkha had been his assistant starting in his second term in diplomatic services. I did not see the connection between an Emissary and a Loner, but who was I to judge? I once crewed two Imperials and took on a Vilani, so I had no room to talk.

Roth Thokken, it was explained to me, hail from deep trailing, far off in the Vargr Enclaves, in the unknown reaches and frontiers where the Suedzuk were marginalized after their own ignoble history. But here on Lair, as I came to discover, Vargr of any and all branches of the Major Race can be found. With such a cosmopolitan, racial homeworld, I had to hold my reaction and accept that Vargr history cannot cover everything in a single person’s education. Rekkha and her ethnicity were a mystery to me, but not the Focus of the Emissary’s gap in memory. But I did keep my nose pointed away from the reeking female. What scent was that?

Why hadn’t Iko sought out a doctor, I asked. He had and though he was assured his memory would eventually return, physicians were baffled in the loss of twelve years without signs of head trauma, coma or substance abuse. All my leads were on the Emissary before me. But for this, I needed help. I needed to bring in Uessae and Miss Lidus Ka. Travellers who band together tend to rely on each other’s varied gifts and talents when confronting adversity.

Though trained in Medical, I’m not a full doctor. I needed help and some technology assistance. I drew Khavall Iko and his assistant back to the docked Thuegueus II. The first thing on the list was a brain scan and see if there was forgotten trauma. This triggered a check by Starport clerks to see if Iko and Miss Rekkha were paying Passengers. None get by without a ticket it seems. So, I had to accept Iko presenting a Low Passage voucher and at least Cr10,000 of Rekkha’s money before I could let them though the airlock.

Aboard my weaponized Imperial Fast Far Trader, I took the scans. They yielded nothing. No injuries or trauma. But the fact that Iko could not recall twelve years of his life began the first inklings of suspicion in me. No pathogens or biological agents. None of the techno-horror, holovid stuff like nanite infestation or goos. I tried to break any hypnotism too, but for all I know of that non-psionic discipline. Psyche-affecting yes, but truly psionic? Maybe, if one’s Telepathy is high enough. Mine isn’t and neither is Uessae’s. We’re just too old.
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I thought for sure that the Tech-15 Medical Console aboard the Thuegueus II would find something. The next modality we tried after Iko and Miss Rekkha met Uessae Noedhin and Miss Lidus Ka, (who found Rekkha to be adorable to a Vilani despite the blindness), was the Lair SysNet. And this is when I truly missed “Jack”. I could have used Jack’s medical skills as well as his back alley expertise on the SysNet. I miss him still. He was also from my homeworld.

Using facial recognition software, a linkup with a missing persons database and some serious backdating, we found a recording of Iko at Aforrarrang University speaking as a Professor of Paleontology and Archaeology. Younger and less dignified, Khavall Iko was a distinguished teacher of Paleontology and Archaeology.

“You disappeared on Aerueo Fen Continent that last summer, from a field trip,” I declared to the group and Iko directly. “The last field trip returned to Gaenfouzoudo in the Bay of Gekersguekel without you. You up and dropped off the grid.”

Lidus Ka the Vilani and only Human among us spoke up. “Maybe he was on to something and had to - I dunno - adopt a false identity?” It was the tone of her voice that tingled my Lobby again. The shut-in Engineer in me dislikes cloak and dagger. But maybe Lidus was speaking more innocently in that Iko may have found something else on that field trip.

Uessae asked a significant question then, distracting from someone dancing on my grave. “What was the field trip’s focus? What was being toured?” No computer results. We would have to ask the Aforrarrang University personally. My turn.

“I think Uessae, Miss Ka and I should do the legwork,” I suggested. This was starting to smell fishy, fishy like the cannery I rescued Uessae from on Biinersa (Corridor 1111). Did a colleague attempt to bump off Khavall Iko during a fateful trip to the outback of Lair?

“Do you want a tinfoil hat for the outing?” Lidus asked.

“Very funny.”

* * *
Ri: In hindsight, I could have done better with a Psi-Shield Helmet.
* * *
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Lair (Provence 2402) A8859B9-E (or F debatable) Ga Hi Pr Pz Cp (again debatable) Cx K [Vargr] [Amber] VLPr

From Platform-9, Uessae, Lidus and I took a 90-ton Shuttle from orbit to the capital city of Aforrarrang by commuting to Aforrarrang Peninsula Downport. The megaopolis sprawled everywhere east and south of the rounded landform poking its blunt head from the west coast of large Safokunggaru Continent. We passed over the thickest range of mountains in our descent. I counted three active volcanoes spewing ejecta and clouds of ash that concealed the equatorial landmass.

I was glad to have pre-paid for all our city-wide commuting online. Waiting for a taxi or bus was time we did not have to waste. From the Downport, we zoomed on a mag-lev train system directly over the groundcar traffic and directly below the low-altitude flyers, gravs mostly but a few aerodynamics and VTOL craft peppered the skyline.

The Aforrarrang University was a campus city unto itself. With Lair being High-Population, Hi for short, I saw each department as a crop of sharp, Vargr architecture, arcologies. Each arcology held dormitories, student shopping districts, libraries, classroom levels, laboratories, sub-level parking, the works for everything that university Major might need. Entire superstructures were dedicated to each piece of paper a student could earn from the University. And the air was thick and warm today. I had to hold my snout closed with a claw to remind myself to avoid panting. The sea level atmosphere being Dense was at task and panting only made it more difficult.

Arriving on campus, we three then had to take a campus groundcar taxi to the Department of Antiquities encompassing both Paleontology (Geology was next door a few kilometers to the east) and Archaeology. The elevator ride up the transparent tubes and the transparent, polymer lift cab was unnerving. Both Lidus and I were holding onto the rails and to Uessae. Up into the low, gathering nimbus clouds we rose to the apex administration offices of Antiquities we rose.

We were well met with a Dean Foukhaduerr Not-gonna-try-his-Packname, a friendly Logaksu male who was intrigued at the mention of Khavall Iko’s name being spoken after eight years. (Remember that Iko had reported spending eight successful years as an Emissary for- get this - the Lair Protectorate, before his twelve empty years.) I had to wrinkle my nose in that the Dean smoked a large pipe full of something akin to cloves and tobacco. His pipe was still full of embers and his office reeked. Dean Foukhadeurr was most pleased to hear from us that Professor Khavall Iko had been found. The faculty had packed up his possessions to make room for his replacement. Lidus Ka took them so she could return them to Iko, whom I suspected would be unfamiliar. Well, maybe not the photo captures. Those images were definitely a younger Khavall Iko.

We shared to the Dean that Iko had certainly had a mishap of some kind and perhaps forgot to tender his resignation or even an extended leave from the Aforrarrang University. But we could not yet let the former Professor return just yet. This was disturbing but Dean Foukhaduerr was understanding. Uessae inquired as to the field study from which Iko disappeared. We received a file on it and the report of the missing Professor from attendant faculty and students.

“Can we meet those who were on the field trip?” I asked.

Foukhaduerr flattened his ears in helplessness before saying, “I’m sorry, but after eight years, all those on that trip have departed Lair in pursuit of their careers.” Without looking like some private investigators, we backed out with our thanks. We at least had the file on the field trip waypoints on a continent named Aerueko Fen far west of Aforrarrang. This would require more than just planetary transit. Thus, we rode back up the gravity well to retrieve the Thuegueus II. All of the major cities of Lair had fully functional Downports. Most of the minor cities had Spaceports. Lair was indeed a megaplex aside from the nature preserves and mountains.

“Not going to dig out the Air/raft?” Uessae asked me on the Shuttle flight back to orbit.

I could only shake my head at Uessae since Lidus was with us. She did not yet know about Aezorr and our “romantic fling.”

* * *
Lidus: I’m still angry about that.

Ri and Uessae: Sorry.

* * *
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Lair (Provence 2402) A8859B9-E (or F debatable) Ga Hi Pr Pz Cp (again debatable) Cx K [Vargr] [Amber] VLPr

Uessae agreed with me to let Khavall and Rekkha stay the night in separate cabins on the ship. I dreamed of her watching me on some airless asteroid and busting my tail in a gentle fall down some slope. She simply shook her head at my image on a monitor. Then I woke to her gently shaking me awake.

“Ri, look,” she said in the privacy of the Captain’s cabin. “There was a fire and explosion at the Department of Antiquities, where we were just yesterday. The news says a fire started in his office was a smoking accident that set off flammable hard copy in the Dean’s wastebasket which grew into a blaze. The fire in the Dean’s office reached a pressurized gasses containers utility closet. The entire floor exploded, Ri. Everyone on that floor including the Dean died from fire, smoke, concussive blasts, shrapnel or ejection from the windows of the arcology.”

I was both half-awake and thought my dream had shifted to a nightmare, one of those where one believes they’re awake but remains in a new dream chapter gone bad. Only for me, I was stuck in a hazy reality, one that wouldn’t fade. I was stunned, groggy and in disbelief. That’s when Uessae showed me the downloaded report on her Hand Computer-11.

I whispered a question to Uessae, “Did you-....y’know, do the Pocketwatch thing?” I was referring to Uessae’s psionic power of Predict. She has a singular, special discipline to see up to fifteen seconds into the future allowing her to make a decision or take an action on a preferred course of fate. However, the dark-furred female in bed with me shook her head in the negative.

“We had already gone from the Dean’s office half an hour before,” explained the Aekhu. “I couldn’t have seen it coming if I tried. And I didn’t try, Ri since Lidus was with us. I’m sorry, Ri. I didn’t see it coming.”

I grabbed Uessae Noedhin in a hug. Now entirely awake and sober to this news, I reassured her, “The Masters on Aezorr said you would not see everything and that seeing too much would lead to Cassandra’s Conundrum.” It was a Terran term, brought over from Anglic.

Cassandra’s Conundrum is the dilemma a prophet, soothsayer or a Psion like Uessae can suffer - the decision whether or not to divulge the future. There was some Human seer in Terra’s distant past by the same name, Cassandra who was killed for giving predictions that those around her did not like. The dilemma for the precog is whether to speak someone’s doom or not - or the penalty for not warning of impending doom. It’s a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation, getting burned by one’s own gift...or curse. Though I did not have this power, Uessae would feel its sting. And this was likely her first, the failure to preserve life. As I hugged Uessae, I thought back to the dying embers in Dean Foukhaduerr’s smoking pipe. Accident?

With an atmospheric re-entry and Uessae at the helm, I called ahead of the incoming tropical storm for a hangar berth at C-rated Gaenfouzoudo Downs. With the hangars going fast, I had to shell out at total of Cr8800 for the hangar and Life Support renewal. It was that time again. From the Downs, we could use the Air/raft again, (pretending to unwrap it for the first time while Lidus was still asleep). With the storm bearing down on the Downport, a wall of billowing purple and lightning, we piled into the gravitic vehicle and took off south, following the coastline.

Thick urban megaopolis thinned about an hour southwest out of Gaenfouzoudo. Lair is High Population after all. We had learned that Gaenfouzoudo was once the capital city of Lair. That was before Vargr Prince Erzikh Dhadh some millennia ago, before Lair spaceflight. Never-ending urbanization gave way to dotted towns separated by government subsidized farms misted by robotic arm aqueduct pipelines. Then the farms thinned even further to countryside with sparse communities that doubled as ranches. Before us lay the Arrak, plains to the horizon.

“Library Data says that is the Arrak, where the Vargr race were supposedly planted by the Ancients!” Uessae had to yell above the winds whistling in our ears. Air/rafts are open vehicles with but forward windshields. What I would have given for a convertible. Uessae’s driving is more akin to smallcraft piloting.

“That’s the first waypoint of the field trip!” I too had to holler above the winds. For its historical significance, the Arrak had been designated a preserve. Vast tracks of tall grasslands as far as the eye could see, and we were well above Nap-Of-Planet to my dismay.

Uessae circled about this narrowing of the continent for a bit. We stopped and stretched our legs and had a packed meal on the hood of the Air/raft. Now I understood why many Vargr don’t place much importance of Lair in their lives. There’s not much to see. Supposedly, this is where the Ancients dropped off the first Vargr in seeding Lair. It was nothing special to look at. Then 30,000 years of prehistory, history, spaceflight discovery and even jump technology all took their turns. But the Arrak had stayed the same swath of rolling landmass with tall bluegrass.

“Look!” Lidus called out to us.
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Above us was a wing of avian flyers. Wide condor wings, ugly as sin head with beaks, a finned and long tail trailed behind each. On the tip of each tail was a calcified ball brimming with specialized ‘feathers’ that I would call spikes. The Human word dredged up in Anglic for this species was jokingly named manticore, but the Logaksu name is dhuvogh or “air flayer”.

And we got into a scramble for cover under the Air/raft as these monsters dive bombed us, their spiked tail thrashers swishing the air or shredding the tall grasses. Each swooping attack was to lash in a pendulum action that dangerous, spiky tail. Lesser or small prey could get impaled on those spikes and be carried off by the beast for a meal as the animal curled up its tail about the trapped prey. Several swishing thrashers came too close for comfort. More than one struck the Air/raft and scratched the paint or dented the outer pates as we hid underneath.

There was that tickle again, the feeling of a too-close shave. (Not that we Vargr shave, mind you.) These animals were far braver than usual and acting in more than just instinct to hunt. It was in the way they kept coming back for more strafing swoops with those thrashers. When the longest gap between attacks became our turn, I called to the others, “Get in the Air/raft and buckle up!”

We scrambled and climbed into the vehicle and strapped in. Squawks of avian calls answered as the wing of attackers lined up for another series of passes. Once we were all in, I had Uessae invert the gravitic Air/raft so we could ride upside down while buckled in. Blood rushed into my head as we flew low altitude away from the dhuvogh wing. My heart was pounding but we outdistanced and outmaneuvered the attackers by slipping under the canopy of the equatorial jungle called the Dzuengfuerr.

You see those holovids where the heroes are zooming on grav-bikes at breakneck speeds between huge trees? Grav-bike chases in action scenes. Well, we were upside down in a larger Air/raft and dodging some hefty trunks ourselves. Ferns and other undergrowth swished just a meter from my head as we darted and swerved. I had creaky claw knuckles after the death grip on the “Oh Shit!” handles. I thought I might lose my lunch! But the jungle canopy managed to conceal and confound the manticores long enough for them to give up the chase and seek other prey. Vargr in the past have lost their lives or cubs to those things. But we did not bring our ranged weaponry with us in this investigation. If we had, it would have been a different story, one of anti-aircraft retaliation. Is it any wonder why we Vargr are so fast and nimble?

Then our cell-net connection was broken by the thick, darkening jungle. No GPS either. It was getting late in our excursion. And now we were lost in the Dzuengfuerr. None of us were willing to fly above the jungle canopy to risk another attack by the dhuvogh again, so we righted the Air/raft and slowed to regain our wits. I am not a Scout. I am not a Scout. I’m just a Merchant in the outback of Lair, way out of my league.

Oddly enough, though strangely appropriate in hindsight, it was Emissary Khavall Iko who had a survival fire and a camp going. I’m a simple Merchant. Uessae was ex-Navy and Lidus was born with a platinum spoon in her mouth. Even Rekkha who assisted him had to follow his lead in securing our lost position in the Dzuengfuerr. It was late and served no purpose to drive around in the night under the canopy of jungles.

“Is this how it feels to be blind?” I asked Rekkha Vaikrou.

“Not even close,” replied the Roth Thokken a term I was getting more comfortable using. “And I’m not lost, just displaced.” I saw her half-lidded eyes squint in the attempt at a smile. The basic Vargr paralanguage I learned are less learned by those blind at birth. It’s like such emotional paralanguage is not in their vocabulary. Rekkha didn’t wag her tail or loll her tongue. She did pant when hot as that action in us Vargr is physiological. Her reactions were in her word choice, inflection, and stressors. I’d never get the hang of that ethnicity.
Lair (Provence 2402) A8859B9-E (or F debatable) Ga Hi Pr Pz Cp (again debatable) Cx K [Vargr] [Amber] VLPr

I did not get much sleep that previous night. The seats in the Air/raft did not lay fully flat and I had no blankets. We had not planned on getting lost in a jungle after an avian attack. The cacophony of night wildlife calls woke me often. They generated a poor attitude in me the next morning. I wanted my cabin bed at least. My only consolation was that I found Uessae in my arms, snuggled up next to me for warmth.

“Hey, snuggle-fur,” whispered Miss Ka to me, drawing me from only five minutes of blissful sleep. “You’re sunrise guard duty.” Even better. So, I sat up and let Uessae put her head in my lap as I watched the others snore, have dreams or sleep soundly. And this was my first sunrise to witness on Lair. I fully intended to sleep in the Air/raft the next day if the opportunity presented itself.

True to old military habits, Uessae’s body clock woke her very early as the sky lightened, and the stars bid us farewell. When she came back from behind the huge tree that we had agreed was the privy, I saw her holding her Pocketwatch-4 that clockwork windup job she had earned from the Institute of Esoteric Mysteries on Aezorr. It was her Focus, allowing her to sharpen her psionics. Everyone else was asleep still though I envied them. But upon seeing the ex-Navy Captain’s black claw holding it at her chest, I knew she was Predicting. Those normally deep blue eyes were mirrors reflecting the coming sunrise. Serious, she pointed. I tracked her gesture.

First, there was nothing but undergrowth foliage amid the huge trunks. Then, a second after I had looked there came a series of pop-pop-pop, snapping sounds. And just like that, the air pressure normalized to allow the teleportation arrival of five Vargr in camouflage fatigues. Uessae had Predicted their arrival just seconds before. She would be powerless for the rest of the day, but I was warned of the Psions’ arrival. I barked an attention alarm and rose to meet the newcomers.

Teleportation has to move the air out of the way of the incoming mass. And it does so with a snap or pop sound depending on body volume and local Atmosphere, Lair being Dense. Hence the dull popping. It sounds the opposite when a jaunter departs, the air rushing to fill the volume where the Psion used to be. Just a heads-up in case you ever hear such. Though Uessae and I did not rate in the discipline, it did not stop us from sitting in to learn about psionic teleportation. It was part of the core curriculum and I had paid a pretty credit treasure for the semester.

Among Psions, Uessae and I still being closeted since Aezorr, there is this unseen, mental and mutual acknowledgement. Humans might call it a handshake. One or more of these Psions brushed up against my mental Shield, knocking on my Lobby. Repulsed from my thoughts, the Psion who had tried blinked his eyes at me. Then the Vargr nodded his head respectfully. We had secretly outed ourselves to each other though I didn’t have to try to probe him in return. It was momentary and split-second before the telepath nodded to me. Likewise, something must have happened to Uessae as another of the five newcomers nodded to her. Both were subtle and apologetic for the attempt to read our minds. The others weren’t so lucky. The teleporters had our story from Lidus and Khavall Iko. And did one of them nod to Rekkha the Roth Thokken? It was over so fast.

Just because there were seven or so Psions in this encounter did not mean we were automatically friends. There were greetings and pleasantries. We explained our lost situation to them. The teleporters understood better and guided our team to a nearby clearing we had missed in the night. The clearing was still under the curling canopy, but it was wide enough for structures I had to call a hamlet. This was their Psionic Institute.

The Psionic Institute was unobtrusive, hidden in plain sight as a jungle depot and was not truly low-tech. In each of the two-story log cabins were plenty of tech. It’s just that from the outside, the hamlet looked plain and grassroots. Most of your Psionic Institutes are concealed, cloistered, or otherwise hidden away. They’re not illegal on Lair I came to learn, but it’s best for psi-seekers to be tested in their search. Uessae had been tested via her investigation and I had to survive a deadly predator pouncer attack on Aezorr.

This was Lidus’ first Psionic Institute and she was nervous the entire time in the company of Vargr Psions. Claws, teeth and psionics. Khavall Iko was just as interested, but he had a more pressing matter. His memory loss was baffling to the Psions and their Instructors.

“Professor Khavall Iko, it is good that you have returned,” declared one Psion.
“I’ve been here before?” Iko queried.

“Some years back, you hired Master Tekkhi to come with you on your expedition,” answered one female Instructor. “He has not returned.”

Khavall Iko rubbed his temples in attempting to recover his lost years. “I don’t remember. It’s a fog before my years as an Emissary.”

Iko and the Instructors shared stories as Uessae and I listened in. We two tried to emulate Lidus’ uncertainty and insecurity about being in a Psionic Institute, the deception also made believable in that we were still deep inside the Dzuengfuerr. Uessae sidled closer to the Vilani woman to ease her a bit. I noticed that blind Rekkha Vaikrou was not disturbed in the least, though she fidgeted with some things in her deep pockets as the Instructors caught Iko up on his ‘expedition’.

It appeared that Professor Khavall Iko passed through the Dzuengfuerr during his last expedition, being in the years he could not recall now. He hired one Vargr Psion named Master Tekkhi, a - ready for another Vargr fluke? Master Tekkhi is a Kokasha. I did not know what a Kokasha Vargr was. Well, apparently Iko presented his field expedition and convinced Tekkhi to accompany him. Iko and Master Tekkhi then took the expedition deeper into the Lair outback.

“Where did Iko go once joined by this Tekkhi?” I asked, partially to stay on the trail of this investigation. I was hired by Iko to do such.

“We do not know,” came one answer.

Another Psion offered, “But we do know where Master Tekkhi is now though.”

And the trail continued. We were fed, watered and given a hard copy map this time with a TL-3 compass and told to orienteer our way out of the Dzuengfuerr. Uessae and Lidus shined then in using the map and compass along with Lair’s current declination. Again, I’m just a Merchant who needs repairs done on his ship, needing credits. Master Tekkhi was currently on Ofakh Gurz Continent and holed up in the eastern desert at the foot of the mountains. Tekkhi had never truly come back from that expedition eight years ago although he was alive.

When I asked how the Psions of the Dzuengfuerr knew this, all I got was index digit claws pointed to their craniums. Psionics. It’s like a magic Explain-all Card, I was coming to understand. In order to continue on the trail, we would have to fly our Air/raft to Feksoudi, stock up on desert gear and supplies for a trip across the equatorial sands of Lair.

In the late night, Uessae joined me in bed. Whispering to each other, I learned that she had traded all her lesser doses of Booster and Double psi-drug for not one but two doses of Special, the highest tier of psi-pharmacopeia. Sternly, I warned her that it would take a dire emergency for me to rely on psionic enhancement drugs. Our promise held.

* * *
Lidus: That was a boring trip. Nothing happened except when we got to Master Tekkhi in the desert.

Uessae: I recall the name of that desert: the Ungodhi, Lair’s largest desert.

Ri: And it was hotter than hell.
* * *
Lair (Provence 2402) A8859B9-E (or F debatable) Ga Hi Pr Pz Cp (again debatable) Cx K [Vargr] [Amber] VLPr

The Ungodhi desert of Ofakh Gurz Continent tried to squeeze me like a sponge of all my bodily water. We panted uncontrollably as we downed liter after liter of water. I hung my head out the side of the Air-raft to let my panting calm and the wind cool my mouth. It’s a stereotype I know, but I was dying of the desert climate. I’m not a Scout.

Dunes flew by underneath our Nap-Of-Planet flight like sine waves on some graph. The bright faces of the dunes were a lit yellow-orange while the shadowed sides of the windswept desert was a tan. And the wind was hot. We had circled south of the Ofakh Gurz mountain range bisecting the continent and now flew north. Even in the desert there were communities here and there. Mining towns, desert flora farms, and waystations comprised civilization even in the deep desert.

We had stopped in Feksoudhi City to purchase supplies and desert robes. I looked like some low-tech caravan trader like my Logaksu ancestors of pre-spaceflight Lair. Uessae wore white over her dark fur and though I knew she was suffering the worst for her coloration; she spoke no complaint. She was toughing it out like the Imperial Naval Vargr I admired. Lidus drank water and did not complain but did suffer even as I.

We carried reflective parasols, to both provide shade and to reflect as much of the G-type star’s heat back to the sky while our robes insulated us further. Ahead lie the face of Ofakh Gurz range. It was a precipice wall of eroding mountains bordering the Ungodhi. Uessae and Lidus checked the map and compass as I drank even more water. I am the Medic of this outfit.

Iko and his assistant Rekkha were suffering the heat in their robes. However, I noticed an anticipation coming off the amnesiac Professor-Emissary. Was he hoping that meeting this Kokasha Vargr Master Tekkhi would spark some alleviation to his memory loss? And we had forgotten to ask what sort of Psion was Master Tekkhi. I had been caught up in trying to deduce what a Kokasha was. We did not have access to Library Data in the Air/raft for me to consult.

With Uessae and Lidus in the lead, we had landed the Air/raft in the foot cracks and had to hike - yes, hike - into the precipice face. Khavall Iko and Rekkha were just behind Master and Commander and Miss Ka, eager to get into the shade of the cracks. I brought up the rear and struggled not to pant myself into exhaustion. I may be strong, but I’m not built for the desert.

Just south of the Lair equator, we weaved through ten minutes of precipice crack to follow the route given us by the map. Why had Master Tekkhi retreated here? This was not his home the Psions told us. But something had driven the Kokasha Psion out here into the sweltering extremes of heat. Walls of vertical rock and broken rockfalls greeted our intrusion.

It was the echoing of a distant male Vargr voice speaking in a language I did not understand that halted the team temporarily. Ears turned to track the echoes to their source. Around the next sharp face of the precipice crack was a cave crack, a dark wound in the shadowed gap we had trekked. The voice became more audible. It was mumbling or talking to something. Uessae marked it as a male Vargr before the others. That the language was unknown to all of us made us nervous enough to flare our claws and take cautious steps in Infighting stances.

Infighting is the tough-love, cub-years method of brawling every Vargr grows up learning. Some take their lumps of youth in learning their Vargr Charisma and accept their place in the Pack. Others take Infighting with them into the armed forces. Still more try to master Infighting like some Human martial art, becoming adepts of tooth and claw, footwork and throws, ground wrestling and submission holds, (most often ending with teeth at the throat for a yielding of the loser). We continued into the dark, natural tunnel with such brawling stances, changing them as the tunnel weaved deeper into the precipice of the Ungodhi, Ofakh Gurz.

There were gradual and intermittent slopes and twists in the tunnel. I busted my tail, coming down on my rump when I slipped on some loose, sedimentary layers of loose sandstone. Even after my rescue of Uessae on Biinersa, I am no hunter or stalker. Lidus merely shook her head at me having given away their position. Still the mumbling continued as we descended ever so slightly into the dark. When it became pitch black, Uessae cracked and shook one of those chemical lights encased in plastic. We could see again in the tunnel. I was less nervous to see the others still with me.

The air moistened and condensation was on the walls of the tunnel as we made further downward. In the glow of the chemical light, we nodded to each other as the temperature dropped to less than Oh My Ancients, I’m Gonna Die.

The saying goes, use it or lose it. The same is true in being multilingual. And this Master Tekkhi was speaking in his ethnic Kokasha tongue. I deduced it first when we finally found this smallish, diminutive even, Vargr male dressed in rags. The drying bones littering the wet grotto were testimony to the Psion’s survival skills. The hermit sat hunched at the edge of the small, underground pond. He was scribbling in the sandy shore. All about us were crystal quartz outcrop deposits. Strangely to me, each exposed, hexagonal crystal seemed to catch Uessae’s light glow, amplify it a little and pass it to the next outcrop. The effect was that as we lit our small area, the entire grotto became illuminated. Normal quartz crystal does not do this. Hence my surprise when we spotted hermit Master Tekkhi scribbling in the wet sand with his claw tips and babbling to himself in his native tongue. He had not used Gvegh, Logaksu or any other ethnic language for quite some time it seemed. That or he forgot how, perhaps likened to Khavall Iko’s problem.

None of us could read Kokasha or make out if the pictographs were actual words or mad scribbles. The scribbles tended to blend together and encircled the pond’s shore. The water was still and now lit by the magnified light sourced by Uessae.

The hermit was still a rated Psion. Both Uessae and I subtly nodded to each other behind Miss Ka’s back as Iko tried to talk to the mad recluse. Master Tekkhi’s mental Shield was defending his mind even still. Yet he evidenced no other discipline then.

Rekkha spotted that the scribblings had stretched outward from the underground pond, up the shore slope to the walls and reached as high as the short Kokasha could scratch with his claws. I saw no other tools. Tekkhi had gone feral in his survival. He must have hunted desert fauna with tooth and claw while slaking his thirst among the stalactites and stalagmites dotting the grotto like teeth.

Master Tekkhi seemed to ignore our intrusion and cared not that his home was now lit with Uessae’s chemical light. He scribbled more and then skittered to the still waters to talk at his reflection in cycles. Rinse and repeat. We had to step carefully to avoid erasing his previous treatises in the sandy shore as we approached.

Emissary Khavall Iko tried his best in bringing his Liaison skills to bear in attempting communication with Master Tekkhi. Uessae attempted to Leader her way into his attention. No dice. Hell, I tried to sleaze-haggle him back to a language we could understand by offering the hermit some meat rations. Nothing but Kokasha-ese came out his mouth.

It was Rekkha that seemed to encourage Tekkhi to respond. Maybe it was her youth or that she was Roth Thokken, a non-standard ethnicity of Vargr in that she was blind. Rekkha Vaikrou tried touch, laying her soft touch upon the shoulders, back, head and arms in connection with the mad Vargr. At her soothing touch and even hugs, the visionless female stopped Tekkhi long enough for him to point at a gathering of his belongings at the edge of the grotto wall. All of us looked to where he was pointing his dulled index claw.

Next to a sand-filled depression covered by some ratted cloth serving as Tekkhi’s grotto bed were six collections of like items. The first two piles of bones were small and largely identical. The second pair of stacks featured dried mushrooms, (Logaksu language has a different word for fungus). The third pair had a number of wooden twigs all of them broken into smallish but similar size. It was these three piles to which Master Tekkhi pointed. The hermit mumbled in his birth language.

“Digit bones of some kind of desert mammal,” I declared upon examining the first two piles. I began counting while Lidus looked on.

“Mushrooms,” added Miss Ka. “Edible mushrooms. He must grow them in this cavern using his offal.” I nodded to her in agreement.

“Sticks,” contributed Uessae Noedhin. “For fire?” I looked about and saw no fire pit or campfire. Tekkhi was apparently comfortable enough in this grotto. So comfortable, that he ate raw meat and likely mushrooms for extra nutrition. Who knew what else on the desert the hermit had consumed?

“Digits, mushrooms, sticks!” Master Tekkhi called out, this time finally in Logaksu. I translated for Uessae who was getting the hang of Logaksu after these months Travelling coreward into the Vargr Extents. “Digits, mushrooms, sticks!” he called out again.

“He’s raving,” said Rekkha Vaikrou. “He’s obviously insane or very feral in his isolation.”

“Maybe not,” offered Lidus Ka. “Do you know what a euphemism is?”

“Sure,” answered Rekkha. “We Roth Thokken are masters of alternate vocabulary when speaking and hiding the actual term.

I smarted then. Tekkhi was blocked, Shielded even, against himself. Was it amnesia? I struggled to diagnose if the small Kokasha male was rambling or actually communicating in euphemism, talking without saying exactly the words he wanted to say.

“No, look!” Iko chimed with his voice echoing off the karst topography. “He wrote in Logaksu next to each. The first piles are labeled ‘left’ and the second set are labeled ‘down’.
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It was Lidus Ka who solved this puzzle. We would have gotten nowhere without the Vilani Human thinking in Anglic while we Vargr were thinking in Aekhu, Logaksu or another ethnic language outside Tekkhi’s ramblings. Miss Ka produced the map of Lair again. “I think I know....but...what is the prime meridian of Lair?”

Uessae and I looked to Khavall Iko and Rekkha. Rekkha shrugged and asked, “Do I look like a cartographer?” The blind Roth Thokken had been born blind; she had explained again. But it was Professor-Emissary Iko who provided the answer.

“Zero degrees longitude,” he said in Anglic, surprising me and talking directly to Lidus, “is set on the Palace of Erzikh Dhadh in Aforrarrang.” I looked at him curiously. “What?” Iko backpedaled. “I learned that in ED5.”

“Digits is degrees,” corrected Lidus Ka. “Mushrooms are minutes and the sticks are seconds. Degrees, minutes and seconds in Anglic.” And that is why I would have never solved this puzzle. I was thinking in Vargr vocabulary. Master Tekkhi was unable or unwilling to speak those words, either due to inability or fear of those words.

Uessae ordered me and Lidus, “Count each pile and let’s record how many degrees, minutes and seconds ‘left’ or west – as if looking at a map. Then we record how many degrees, minutes and seconds ‘down’ or south of the equator Master Tekkhi means.”

I counted my pile of rotting and drying paw digit bones the Kokasha had piled up in eight years. I was meticulous in getting the count accurate. The others did likewise with their piles. Numbers appeared before I was done with the bones. I may be a Medic, but I can still get grossed out on occasion.

“Digits! Mushrooms! Sticks!” whooped Master Tekkhi as we counted. Uessae entered the results in her Hand Computer-11 when each pile was counted. Lidus Ka compared the longitude numbers with the grid on the hard copy map. When the count was complete, she did the same with latitude.

“What continent is this?” Lidus asked as she pointed her Human finger at the southernmost landmass far to the south. “Sixty-two degrees, forty-five minutes, thirty seconds ‘left’ or west by forty-five degrees, twenty-nine minutes, sixteen seconds ‘down’ or south.” The piles had been numbers, labeled by Tekkhi, a set of coordinates he could not or would not speak.

“Gaksadudha,” answered Khavall Iko. “Those coordinates are in the heart of the Fothironggen.” For those who don’t speak Logaksu, Fothironggen means “frost-fangs”, likely a range of eternally frozen mountains far to the southern polar region of Lair. From dehydrating desert to bone-chilling, frozen wasteland. Or so I assumed.

Master Tekkhi physically resisted all attempts to bring him with us. The little Kokasha ran around the far side of the grotto pool to keep away from us. The team marked his cave position exactly on the hard copy map and we gifted the hermit with all the robes, supplies and gear in the Air/raft. Then we left the mad Psion to his scribblings. Something had happened to him, I mentally diagnosed. If Master Tekkhi did not wish to return to civilization, who were we to force him even if he was insane and surviving that way?

On Aezorr and at the Institute of the Esoteric Mind, Uessae and I took many courses to best understand and often unlearn about psionics. Nothing we knew of could do this much damage to a Master Psion. And we had been told that Tekkhi is a telepath or was a telepath. The only discipline the sandy-yellow Kokasha evidenced was an impenetrable Shield about his mind further garbled by his madness and additionally cloaked in his native language. He was thinking in Kokasha.

* * *
Uessae: I remember now that Ri was fiddling with my Hand Computer-11 after the Ungodhi desert. What were you doing?

Ri: After what we had seen and been through on Lair up to that point, I got the wild notion to record the steps, including our missteps while on Lair. It seemed an excellent quest to submit to the developers of Red Wizard. I saved our path from Aforrarreng through to Gaksadudha thinking that this would make an engrossing Wizard quest of some kind. It was a side idea and had nothing to do with the mission to help Khavall Iko regain his lost memory.

Lidus: But that recording or log may be what saved us.

Uessae: Too soon. Let us cross that chasm later.

* * *
Lair (Provence 2402) A8859B9-E (or F debatable) Ga Hi Pr Pz Cp (again debatable) Cx K [Vargr] [Amber] VLPr

It took a few days, but we relocated the Thuegueus II from Gaenfouzoudo and the Bay of Gekersguekel to Fekhsoudhi. I had wanted our ship berthed in the closest Starport to the southern, sub-arctic town of Gaksadudha Continent. The northernmost coast was tundra and conifer trees, evergreens down there. Various industries were active on Gaksadudha. Logging, mining, refining, fishing, the usual for most coastal civilization with melting glaciers on the southern horizon. The mist-hidden peaks of the Fothironggen dared us from their lofty heights.

I have a love-hate relationship with opportunistic markup of prices. I’m a Merchant. Something not found in the Human Third Imperium is the wavering costs of products from food to starships here in the Vargr Extents. I knew the score, but this adventure was costing me credits. And the stereotype is true about us miserly Merchants. We hate to part needlessly with our funds. I love to sleaze-haggle when it suits me, but not when the tables are turned. Feksoudhi may have sold gear for hot climates, but it was on Gaksadudha Continent that we had to pay though the nose, a full 25% markup much to my reluctance, for cold climate wear, gear, and supplies. Those coordinates given to us by Master Tekkhi were likely why he had fled into the deep desert. Something had happened to him and the Professor-Emissary Khavall Iko in the Fothironggen.

Another curious thing about Lair that Travellers need to be aware of is cultural quirks. Parking our Air/raft from the flight south from Feksoudi, we almost ran afoul of a curious law on Gaksadudha. Those Vargr living on this frigid frontier must re-marry if they wish to continue living in the near-pristine wilderness towns and coastal fishing cities. It’s to encourage development of families and Packs there.

Uessae Noedhin was targeted by this law. Lidus being Human was exempt. Uessae’s prior relationship to deceased Ofo was almost taken to be a marriage by the law. We had to argue semantics between Aekhu and Logaksu language to convince the locals that Uessae was not married and that she did not have to re-marry under this law. While we had help from Emissary Iko in this, his skills in debate and negotiation helping, it was during this encounter that I got my first inklings of an idea.

I wanted to propose to Uessae. I knew I loved her, and we had a new flame going since before leaving the Third Imperium. It was this re-marriage law that first sparked the idea of popping the question. But at the time, the mission seemed more important and I tucked away the notion. Uessae and Lidus were gaining quest momentum, a Red Wizard gaming term, now that we could see the icy peaks rising into the clouds.

* * *
Uessae: You what??

Ri: (reaching into his Merchant trousers for the wedding ring) I wanted to hold off until a better time but now that the cat is out of the bag... (kneeling and holding up the purchased and opened wedding ring box) ...Uessae Noedhin, Master and Commander of the Thuegueus II, famous and powerful Godstriker in Red Wizard, Helmsman and Naval Captain, Precognitive Psion and fellow amnesiac; will you consent to marry me and be my mate-wife?

Lidus: Eeeeeek! (Facepalming and other hand over her mouth)

Uessae: (looking at the engagement ring and wedding wrap) I-...
* * *
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It was not difficult to retrace Prof. Iko’s steps here on Gadsadudha Continent. He, Master Tekkhi and the remnants of his Lair field excursion had discovered something in the glacial ice of the “frost fangs”. He had poured a plaster molding of fossilized ice of something truly alien. The mold was still on hand, stored secretly in a warehouse paid for all these eight years by Aforrarrang University in his name. It was likely that Iko at the time pulled some strings to hide the fees deep in the university budget. We now gathered about the plaster molding.

Whatever was in that dense ice was not of Vargr make. It was some kind of hollow ring about three meters in diameter, tall enough that even an Urzaeng Vargr could not reach up and touch the opposite edge. The sigils had to be Oynprith or something similar. Iko somehow knew this though he still could not recall having made the molding. None of us spoke the language of the Droyne. It was one-half a copy of a relic, though more than two of us were ready to point claws at the Droyne race at the sight of Oynprith. Lines of circuitry were also frozen in the molding. It was a piece of technology.

Iko found notes on the dig site in the warehouse where the ring cast was stored. These were tucked into a rucksack amid other overland survival gear discarded after the field expedition discovery. Climbing gear, lines, ripped tents, even a loaded Autopistol, (likely for mountains fauna protection). Reading the 8-year old findings in his personal handwriting, we were able to conclude that Iko and Master Tekkhi had found the compact ice buried under lesser dense snow and frost. Whatever this ring was, it was removed from that site, the ice assumed to melt and deform. But it did not. Since the entire glacier moved so slowly, the compact ice beneath the surface was deformed only a little. The ring was still very apparent and retained the details of what had been taken before Iko’s discovery. The notes also spoke of Tekkhi’s apprehension at the time. This find of theirs could not have been Droyne in nature despite the Oynprith sigils. Though Droyne did on occasion visit Lair, the fossil record of layers went back further than Lair spaceflight. Something or some things had been on Lair before the Vargr took possession of the mainworld.

This news was disturbing, more so because the notes stated that the cast was not made at the coordinates given us by mad Master Tekkhi now hiding in the desert, a far extreme from the frozen mountains looming above us and to the south. With haste, we drove the Air/raft out to the dig site. It was gone, the glacier not only moved in eight years, but the ice melted, and the original mold source lost to us. All we had left was the crumbling plaster mold forgotten these eight years and Tekkhi’s coordinates. Another trek was coming.
Lair (Provence 2402) A8859B9-E (or F debatable) Ga Hi Pr Pz Cp (again debatable) Cx K [Vargr] [Amber] VLPr

I was insistent that we stay the night in one of the lumber towns. Uessae and Lidus found us lodging at the one closest and upslope toward the Fothironggen to my dismay. Uessae in the night stole the blankets and I ended up shivering by sunrise the next day.

There was that feeling again, the sensation of a deadly, clean-close shave where one is at the mercy of a barber’s blade. As we geared up for the hike, Uessae provided a snow tractor vehicle she had rented. The open air Air/raft was too delicate for the mountain winds and cold temperatures. The ATV on tracks would get us to the coordinates. And I was sure another on-foot hike was guaranteed.

Vargr don’t usually wear shoes in normal climes. But we make exceptions for extreme temperatures, desert shoes and now arctic boots, insulated pants, and sealable parkas. I tried to suggest that Iko’s assistant Rekkha did not need to come with us, but the blind Roth Thokken was adamant about her position beside the now-Emissary. They had been together these past eight years, so I acquiesced. Roth Thokken don’t usually emote with paralanguage, but Rekkha did in that exchange with gestures and posture rather than facial expressions, paralanguage or tail positioning. She showed more bravery than I to head into the “frost fangs”.

The snow tractor ride was bumpy, upslope at angles I thought precarious and spanning over gaps I knew to be dangerous. A down-southerner blew a blizzard in despite weather control technologies more commonly used in nicer latitudes on Lair. Visibility inside the tracked vehicle was minimal. I sat in my seat, blood draining from my furred face. At any moment we could be stranded in the blizzard.

Lidus handled the land navigation as Iko drove the tractor. I was beside Uessae with Rekkha opposite. Uessae was calm, her leadership experience speaking for us. She kept us motivated. Meanwhile, Rekkha fiddled with items in her pockets she did not need to see to manipulate. What Roth Thokken Vargr feel the need to carry with them I’ll never understand or likely see. They are a weird and remote corner of our race.

In terms of latitude and longitude, we arrived seconds away from the exact coordinates. It took an hour or two to hike between ridges. Mountains towered above us. Avalanches and rockfalls were on my mind constantly as we hiked quietly between the cloudy peaks. The blue sky was shrouded by the misty clouds adhering to the range. The effect was a post-blizzard, still-as-death silence. It was our frozen funeral if we weren’t careful enough. Feet crunched through half-meters of snow accumulation.

The cave we found at Master Tekkhi’s exact coordinates did not surprise me. The downslope past the entrance did not surprise me. What surprised me, even bringing up the rear, was that I lost my footing and began sliding and bouncing downwards. I caught Khavall and Rekkha in my uncontrolled slide like pins in the Human game of bowling. Rekkha had been guided by the Emissary in the ice cave glittering by another one of Uessae’s chemical lights. Then the three of us went crashing, shouting obscenities, and panicking as we slid downhill in the tunnel. Lidus tried to dodge Rekkha but failed. I plowed into Uessae while on my belly and feet first as I tried to scramble for a solid grasp on anything. The entire group’s voices echoed as we slid faster and faster past jagged ice formations that could have impaled any one of us easily. I knew this because I caught air more than once in ricocheting off a curved embankment turn in tunnel. Thank the Ancients that Uessae held onto her chemical light!

Even now, I am grateful that we ended in a soft halt in a patch of powdery snow accumulation blown down the tunnel from the surface. But that same powder was also our lubrication in the slide. I ached from being battered on the way down. Everyone checked each other for injury. I did my quickest Medical best to diagnose any such. Luckily, we had only bumps and future bruises.

At least, I am happy the bottom of the slide from hell was not occupied by some wooly, towering, claws-and-teeth monster fauna. This is Lair, Ri not some unexplored ice ball of a world.

We had arrived in an icy cavern. Embedded in the rear wall of this crystal ice and rocky opening we beheld by chemical light the Artifact. I can say Artifact now because it was truly alien, far more alien and immediately real than the plaster mold back in the warehouse. I heard Iko describing what he saw to blind Rekkha. Uessae and Lidus played the light over the three-meter, perfect ring. It was half-covered in encrusting ice. Iko used a climbing pick to clear the ring entirely. Lidus was the first to actually use the word.

“Ancients,” murmured Miss Ka. “An Ancients Artifact.”

While everyone was approaching the strange, bluish metal ring standing against the rock wall, I was approached by Uessae privately. She palmed one of the Special psi-drug doses into my pocket as I concealed the act with my body. If any time was dire, now was the time to have maximum use of our disciplines, this was one of them.

Our carried gear scattered up and down the doomslide into the cavern, we had no hope of hauling this ring-

* * *
Lidus: Monadium as we now know from the egg found on that planetoid.

Ri: Let’s not backtrack. It’s confusing me.
* * *

...monadium ring back up the tunnel to show to the mainworld Lair public. Then the hours ticked over the date.
Lair (Provence 2402) A8859B9-E (or F debatable) Ga Hi Pr Pz Cp (again debatable) Cx K [Vargr] [Amber] VLPr

Professor-Emissary Khavall Iko spent some time chipping and clearing the ice about the ring. Lines of circuitry, patterns I had never seen before among Oynprith sigils were revealed. Curiosity took the amnesiac as if he were digging at his brain for answers as well as chipping at ice. Rekkha too was engrossed in helping him clear the ring to stand independently of the cavern wall.

Lidus spent the time going over the notes. “It’s some kind of device. Why would a piece of art feature such permeating pathways like circuitry?” The Vilani may not have been the brightest bulb, and she might truly have pissed off her ED5 teachers; but she knew the right questions to ask.

Taking a moment to brush off his claws of ice, rock and slush, Iko answered with, “If it is a device, we might try activating it. Clearly its form is meant for something to pass through its diameter.”

I saw from the corner of my eye Uessae motioning, doing something to herself. She was dosing herself with Special as the others talked.

“Do the notes say that Emissary Iko found what made that ice impression fossil and activate it?” It was Rekkha who posed the question. “Maybe it is responsible for his memory loss.”

“Doubtful,” answered Khavall Iko shaking his head in the negative. “If I had then surely it would be found by someone and not simply exist as a plaster copy.”

Lidus offered then. “I think the Professor Iko and Master Tekkhi may have made that cast in secret. Where is the rest of the expedition that came with them?”

“Before he died,” I answered, “the Dean of Antiquities said that all the students and staff on that field trip left Lair, pursuing Careers. Surely had they known about the find they would have tried to go public in these eight years.”

Nods and wagging tails. Iko and Tekkhi had been on to this ring like butterbees and nectar, buzzing and darting about their discovery with avid curiosity. With only a cast to play with, how did Iko lose his memories and Master Tekkhi turn into a blathering idiot?

More time passed as we took a meal from protein bars and canteens of water. Iko and his assistant Rekkha were again before the artifact. They were seeking some means to activate this technology. Lidus again poured over the notes in trying to find clues in Iko’s previous outing eight years ago. Uessae was slightly shaking and hiding it by appearing excited about this new find. It was the Special she had injected, the psi-fluids ramping up her Psionic Strength Rating or PSR as the drug took full effect. Though I saw what the drug was doing to Uessae Noedhin, I hid it by making the occasional, verbal monetary adjustment such a find was worth, like a money-grubbing Merchant everyone looks down upon in the holovids.

“Iko thought he was being followed,” reported Lidus who looked up from the Professor’s notes. “So, did Master Tekkhi.” That news put even me on edge. The stepping on my grave, clean close shave, and now that pregnant moment, the dead silence before the storm breaks. Were we next? I think I may watch too many holovids.

Still more time passed as Uessae’s psionic power grew while the others tried to activate the monadium ring. Then, when I thought the ex-Naval Captain could contain herself no longer, she brightened, her ears pointing straight as if electrified up while her tail was as rigid as a flagpole. “Let me try,” she suggested with a calm voice, one with Charisma and authority.
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The others watched Uessae approached the strange ring. I saw then that her left claw was clasped about her Pocketwatch-4 hanging on its chain about her neck. Of us all, Uessae has the highest measured Education. It’s on her UPP card. As the ship’s Medic and Engineer, I am privy to my crew medical charts and ratings. Uessae Noedhin is the most learned Vargr I’ve ever met. And she was amped up on Special. The stuff put her PSR through the roof as far as I could tell. Her Shield was a fortress. My Life Detection pinged her the loudest life form in the cavern. This was her moment.

Seeing her claw on her Focus, I knew what discipline Uessae was using. In her testing on Aezorr, she had shot for the unknown and the unknown had answered. Using all her power for twenty-four hours, Uessae could see up to fifteen seconds into the future. As the Naval Captain approached the artifact, I could only guess that she was searching the next moment for the right fork in the timeline, the right fifteen seconds to pursue. It makes watching idiot savants doing whatever they do look like cub’s play. It’s short-lived, but Uessae’s Predict power has saved our tails from mobs, space battles and even kept us from a very bad misjump. We still misjumped, but it was the best misjump Uessae found in under fifteen seconds. Uessae was searching for the best fifteen seconds of the future as she closed in on the monadium ring.

This wasn’t psychometry. It wasn’t some kind of technomagical affinity. She wasn’t communing with the device. Even I could feel no life from the thing with my piss-poor Aptitudes. Uessae was looking into the future for the correct thing to do. In that scan, hopped up with Special, Uessae was digging fast for the answer. And in the space of her approach, she found it. Like a safecracker thief, Uessae Noedhin released her Pocketwatch-4, a wind-up clockwork of brushed nickel, and touched Oynprith sigils slid heretofore unseen panels in the metal and moved tiles of the ring plates into a new configuration. Then the device responded.

There was a deep, echoing hum and a bright flash of beacon light outward from the ring’s center that illuminated all the ice crystals of the cavern. The beam was stronger than some lighthouse lantern. The Oynprith sigils spun along the ring faster and faster. Dazzled by the light, my eyes stung so bad I thought I’d end up blind like Rekkha Vaikrou.

The light softened and we could finally see the gray barrier of jumpspace as viewed by more than one sophont at a time. To confirm this, we took turns closing our eyes to let one of us gaze upon the jump field barrier. Each of us in turn got a close up - very close up view of the mercurial quicksilver barrier of jumpspace field barrier. Why we weren’t going into jump dementia eluded me and every case study I had read on those who gazed at the jumpspace edge of reality in the past.

It’s because jumpspace, like light, (is it an energy or a particle?) knows it’s being observed. That’s why it goes all grey when more than one observer is perceiving it. Metaphysical, right? I don’t know everything about Jump Theory, but this ring was acting like it. I was dumbstruck, too dumbstruck to see Uessae taking the lead and stepping up to, into and beyond the event horizon of the undulating barrier. And she was gone! Not on the other side of the ring. There were only several centimeters between it and the cavern wall. Uessae was elsewhere!

“A gate,” guessed Professor-Emissary Iko.

“Portal,” I babbled my own guess.

“I’m next!” exclaimed Miss Ka who stepped up to see Uessae disappear beyond the barrier.

Uessae is right. I’m such a chicklizard. I hesitated while Lidus Ka stepped into the undulating metal barrier next. Khavall Iko took the initiative before me. Grabbing his assistant by the wrist seemingly in order to lead her to the device, the Professor-Emissary was halted by resistance from the Roth Thokken. The action tore my attention from the ring to witness the exchange that happened next. My crew missed it entirely but would soon learn from Rekkha and I.
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