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Rote To Dzuerongvoe

A claw rake barely missed Qithka as she continued dancing. From somewhere above her came the horrified howling cry of the Touchported Insurgent falling from the sky to the tune of Aegadh’s gravity constant.

Fighting continued. Qithka had to play a defensive game while her cautious Touchport spooled ready for her next attempt at laying claw on an enemy. When the sickening crunch of dislocated and broken bones sounded with the impact of the first jaunted Insurgent hit the street, Qithka was ready to touch another foe. It was the pained groan and death throe that taught Qithka just how deadly Matterport could be. It was a moral dilemma she had no time to consider. She had just let Aegadh kill a Vargr.

The second of the Insurgents disappeared with a POP! sound, the air rushing to fill the volume of his body jaunting 500 meters into the air above the fight. Qithka had no time to place her enemy. The sky was her limit. Her only Inquisitor foe left was dumbstruck by the loss of his two allies. A minute later, the falling Insurgent died with a similar crunching collision to the deck pavement.

Two deaths and only clothing and armor scrapes to show for it unnerved the disarmed Inquisitor. The demoralized leader turned tail and ran, especially at the sight of the angry mob of citizenry coming to rescue Qithka. Three Vargr against one was unfair to the locals and the fight was not a Charisma Infight. The trio had wanted a head, a trophy in the surge for the temple.

Qithka barely had time to see and hear the death of the second Insurgent when she collapsed, the strain of her Touchport overtaking her. She fell unconscious at the arrival of the locals.

[Referee cue music: Cyrus Reynolds - The Wolves]
* * *

The fight aboard the streetcar between Hew Hollowton and the - Usurpers he called them - was little more than a slapstick comedy. Six long, struggling minutes crawled on paws and knees as Hew and his assailants struggled to land claws on each other. He could almost hear some kind of hilarious theme music to the fight as it played its useless bats of paws versus claws. His first attack opened the chest of a Vargr, enraging the entire pack of Usurpers. From there the silly saxophone in the Ursa’s head played a fast tempo, staccato honking in his brain as the fur flew.

It was almost as if there was a sports commentator facepalming his frustration at the entire affair. A whole lotta swings and just as many misses. Hew wondered how angry his Drill Sergeant would be back in the Marines boot at Hew. Wolves all about the Ursa and no one laying a claw on each other after that first hit. But because he was in his Vaccsuit, Hew felt he could go all afternoon as the streetcar passed a station that it had meant to stop but did not.

The Usurpers were being defeated, not by First Lieutenant Hew Hollowton mind; it was their own furry pelts. The Vargr were panting and running out of steam by the end of the sixth minute of the entire kerfuffle. By then, even Hew was finding the melee more funny than mortally dangerous. His big mass should have been an easy target. However, the Brown Bear tower of bulk kept batting aside claw swipes or dodging bites from gaining purchase on his armored form.

Hew’s Vaccsuit was so comfortable that the manual he remembered reading boasted that its wearer would maintain a lengthy Stamina versus Human Endurance, lengthening mission duration and keeping a wearer attentive to the Task at hand. Little did a civilian model know that this Ursa was playing patty-cakes with a streetcar full of pissed off Vargr.

Trading swats swishing the air in the public vehicle, Hew began to laugh out loud at the entire debacle. This of course maddened the Usurpers and forced them to commit to a fatigued battle. Hew bellowed in humor as he knew he too was destined for fatigue tonight aboard the Panas Gankinra and perhaps a lecture from granny Shaa.

The melee of claws versus paws, Vaccsuit armor on Jack ‘n’ Shields turned the entire affair into an emptying clown car by the time the mag-lev vehicle stopped at the Downport terminus station. The vehicle emptied of panting, loping or crawling Vargr while the Ursa trudged out after them in what looked like a slow-moving Beast after a pack of panting Gvegh seeking escape from the ordeal. Nobody died, not even the single Vargr Hew had scratched. First Aid saved the poor puppy before he could lose too much blood.

“Claws are a bitch, aren’t they, dogs!” Hew yelled as he dropped to all-fours and panted as he padded from the terminus.

Across the Extrality Line at last, Hew saw that the Downport Security were arrayed with non-lethal ranged weapons drawn, though the Warden recognized Hew was a Traveller and allowed the Ursa ingress. All other fighting Vargr were subject to stunning, tranquilizing, or other riot rounds if the Line was threatened. The Government might change, but the Downport was going to be off-limits per the Warden.

Still panting by the time he arrived at the proper hangar, Hew could see Shaa Gankinra through the forward transpex of the Bridge. She looked infuriated as she yelled into her Comms headset and microphone. He loped his way into the ship once the Panas AI recognized him and opened the outer airlock to the disconnected gate gantry. The Ursa had to make a short leap from the gantry to the Personnel Lock to return to the Safari Ship.

* * *

Though he did not say so, Zhem was inwardly calculating the advantageous chance of Hew being a skilled Mechanic, an Electronics technician, and a specialist in Robotics. When the numbers became so vast, Zhem stopped the train of thought and simply filed it away under the filename: Luck.hxl for hyper-spreadsheet. He could come back to it later. Right then, Hew was installing new myelofibrin muscles, replacing armor plates, and syncing a spare eye and ear.

"Give that a reboot and then tell me if your 'pain' is gone, doc," suggested Hew Hollowton.

Outside the Panas Gankinra, the hangar housing the Safari Ship was rocked by external Pulse Laser fire from the dogfighting over the valley wall Downport. The local PADS had already expended its missiles, with only ground-to-sky Beams left to swat at fighters shooting at the neutral port.

Yellow after Yellow fell to a new Green Status as Hew worked on Zhem. "That is much better. I can see again in my right sensor. Thank you, Lieutenant."

"You might not believe it, but Robotics was my Minor in College."

"The fading pain is indication sufficient, Hew," answered Zhem more informally.

"Why did you Move to a Robot chassis, doc?" asked Hew as he finished the repairs.

A simple answer sufficed, so Zhem answered with, "Onwee." A Roboticist, even if a Minor in College should understand the term.

"I get that," nodded Hew. "Did it work, this new life as a Vargriform?"

"So far, my experiences have been new and thrilling my Logos. Yes. Yes, I'm relieved of Onwee, Lieutenant."

As the Ursa picked up his tools and reset the Makershop aboard the Panas Gankinra, Zhem found he could move again, see and target again, and triangulate sound sources again. Hew was his new physician, the Cym decided. His leather duster was bullet riddled, but the hat was unscathed.

Before the two gargantuan sophonts could leave the compartment, Capt. Shaa Gankinra entered. She was wearing her Advanced Heavy Vaccsuit-13, was armed with her Accelerator Pistol, and had belted on her Naval Cutlass. She looked stern or at least stoic to Zhem's Counsellor subroutines.
* * *

Here it comes, thought Hew to himself as Shaa addressed the two larger sophonts in the Makershop.

"How could you leave a teenager alone out there? Vargr are murdering each other right now on this Balkanized world." Shaa's voice was full of Vilani vitriol, a mother's protective instinct, and a grandmother's matronly authority.

Hew held up his paws in a surrendering gesture. His Mora upbringing was about to cave under the stare of the Captain. "I-I didn't know about the insurrection until I was already on the line back here."

"You were her BuddySystem partner!" shouted Shaa.

Hew snapped a notch in his self-restraint when he fired back with, "First of all, Captain, that is not a teenager! Qithka is older than any of us in her head. She has now three lives of experience and I shudder to be on the business end of her Dame or whatever. Secondly, I left her in an underground temple, nigh a bomb shelter bunker warren. Safe! Psi-monks all around her. Don't thrash me me before you know all, Captain."

Shaa pressed saying, "We're leaving, but not without Qithka, so saddle up, Pilot. We're going to extract her from that so-called bunker. I want this bird up-well as soon as she's aboard."

"How do we even know if she's still alive? That girl didn't want this life. You heard her story. She's suicidal!"

Shaa burned red-faced with anger before saying, "You could have pulled her out of that Church, and we could have come back after this mess. You will rescue your Buddy, First Lieutenant!"

Hew grinned his entire muzzle of fangs. And when the Human did not flinch, he asked, "Rules of engagement?"

Shaa pursed her lips tightly and answered, "Weapons hot, everyone and everything else is expendable." Music to his ursine ears, Hew nodded.
* * *

Deep inside the warren temple to the Church Of The Chosen Ones, Qithka was among standing room only cramped into the powerless elevator up from temple to the old dilapidated arcology. The electrical power had been killed by the insurgency taking over the Downport. Qithka thanked Runetha Saetedz that this elevator had a manual chain crank for such emergencies. As a battle between Inquisitors and Insurgents raged below, Qithka was the only Psion among this load. The rest of the priests were below fighting a rear guard for the refugees ascending this elevator shaft. Already she had taken her turn at the chain crank, pulling the winch claw over claw.

Now in a corner of the forgotten elevator, Qithka took stock of her situation. The priests had brought Qithka’s collapsed form back into the temple after her escape attempt and fight with the trio of Psion hunters. She had openly used her ECMs to downright kill two Insurgents and scare off their Inquisitor leader. While the fight had been slapdash and haphazard, it had sparked new anger at psionics and at this Institute hidden inside the Church temple warren.

Impacts from the impromptu battering ram at the front temple doors locked and barred echoed up the elevator shaft. Hearing the ramming attacks at the door from this high up meant that the entire warren must have felt each strike. It was not long before the coup would breach the outer doors and a bloodbath would begin. Qithka had wanted to stay downstairs and fight but was instead herded into the elevator with as many civilians as possible. Several cars had already shipped locals up and out of the valley and into the lower floors of the arcology mounted atop the chasm ridge.

When Qithka’s elevator ride lost power after closing the doors and failing to rise, the chain crank had been pulled from the utility locker. Rider after rider cranked the chain to slowly cause the car to rise. It was exhausting work. Already Qithka was Tired from her fight with the trio at the temple steps.

Looking back through her lives, the Relict Clone now understood why her great uncle Senior Scout Gevaudan Cannagrrh went everywhere dressed in his orange Hostile Environment Vaccsuit-14, the best civilian armor Imperial credits could purchase. The Pilot-Astrogator of the Ares employed by the mercenary Artemis Group knew well that trouble could strike at any time and in any port of call or interstellar flight.

Qithka knew that Gevaudan had been laughed at, chided, admonished for his precautious outer wear. Yet, the HEV had saved her great uncle’s life more than three times, simply because he choked down his Charisma and sided with safety as a Traveller instead as a corpse in a body bag.

The very visible orange color of Gev’s HEV had been the color Zhevra could not stop saying during her recovery from a three-year coma. She had unconsciously been reminding herself that Gevaudan had indeed had an insane plan during Gevaudan’s Jump. He was no fool. The Dame’s brother always had an exit plan though a few did not pan out the way he had intended. Lunion was one example, when Gev led Imperial Aslan guards on an all-night chase before his eventual arrest and being dragged before the Duke of Lunion just before his and Uthka’s exile.

Qithka decided that she too would suck up her already pitiful Vargr Charisma and choose safety over style. She was no longer the Dame, an Entertainer and before the camera. She was no longer the Merchant-Captain, saving the remnants of the Thoengling Empire from total Collapse. She was just a third generation Pattern and now a middling Psion in need of evacuation. Her Advanced Heavy Vaccsuit-13 back aboard the Panas Gankinra called to her in Qithka’s mind.

Qithka thought the last jarring motion of the elevator car was another ram echo. The elevator floor came to a halt and the doors were cranked open by four male Vargr working in unison. The refugees flooded the ground floor while donning their respirators. Qithka buckled on her Combination-A mask and pulled up her lavender poncho hood. She did not need to be recognized though she could do little about her twice-ringed tail that bespoke of her Relict Clone iteration to those who knew what a Relict Clone was.

The dreary overcast sky was visible through the skeletal superstructure of the arcology. Yet here and there were parking garages hiding a few Vehicles being claimed by escapees seeking to put as much distance between them and the Downport now that their Faction had been uprooted from control of the city. Orders barked in Gvegh language urged everyone to pile into the remaining ground cars, off-roadies, and Lifter vans as possible. The arcology was not fully abandoned after the Interregnum. The COTCO priests had prepared an exit strategy. Too bad the elevator was offline. Qithka secretly hoped that the remainder priests like Arriknoesa had the Teleport ECM and could truly escape at any time after the front temple doors were breached.

As the vehicles cranked alive and floated off the ground, Qithka went to the overlook balcony to survey the siege below in the chasm. Like tiny insects swarming the city below, Vargr insurgency accosted anyone not of their Faction, jailing locals in their homes while securing the city. The coup was almost complete. Columns of smoke rose here and there from the valley floor greenery.

Statues and monuments were demolished. Officials, Functionaries, and leader types of all kinds were marched into the streets and publicly executed by firing squads, their weapons ringing out in concert and echoing against the tall chasm walls of the valley below Qithka.

A new mainworld order was coming into infancy and power. Qithka wished Witness, the Dame’s old magazine robot was here to record the takeover as well as the atrocities of regime change.

Though she tried vehicle comm after vehicle comm, Qithka could not breach the airwaves jamming that had silenced the Downport of all communications except direct LOS Comms beams, relays, and landlines. She was unable to raise the Panas Gankinra.

The Day was aging toward dusk with the Yellow main sequence star deciding it best to retire toward the western horizon when Qithka returned to the overlook and behold the aftermath of the coup. She hoped that the Downport had remained neutral territory, no Faction on Aegadh wanting to despoil their only link to the in-system planets and interstellar link to its colony on Oesar Gin Due. Governments might change, but the actual Starport Terminal and its peripherals were supposed to be sacrosanct against regime change. One could hope that Gvegh Vargr in this Pastoral Age had learned this lesson during the Collapse and Interregnum. But war has a way of breaking all rules of engagement.

The first stars of the night sky poked down though the clearing cloud cover as temperatures dropped with the sunset. The last of the air battles died off as assets became depleted on the losing side and losses for the coup Faction. The skies were silent of grav traffic. No civilians or corporate grav vehicles were to be seen. Who wanted to get shot down as a mistaken target of either side of the takeover?

Then the warren outer doors were breached at last far below Qithka’s vantage over the chasm. At the same time doors shattered and fell, the evening sky was sliced open by Beam Laser fire from the heavens. In the dimness below her position a bulwark siege fortification erected outside the temple steps was sliced and blasted from on high as if the Ancients were protesting the defilement of the COTCO warren.

Looking up an into the parting clouds and first stars, Qithka beheld the tiny dot that was the Panas Gankinra occasionally obscured by passing clouds. How was she making such accurate shots? Looking down into the chasm again, Qithka saw a troop truck explode when another Beam Laser rained down coherent light death from above. Such small targets were raked or hit with pinpoint accuracy; a thing not normally possible for starships in motion. But then the Safari Ship hung in the upper atmosphere in geostationary position while taking shots at ground targets also not moving. Vargr below in the valley ran about in panic as the temple siege was thrown into disarray.
* * *

Down in the valley and under the canopy Lt. Hew Hollowton ambled on his two rear legs as he carried his Mora Marines Peacekeeper Shotgun. The Ursa was dressed in his Improved Medium Vaccsuit (Ursa)-10. Armored and armed, the Marine trudged at a normal pace from the mag-lev streetcar terminus. No Vargr accosted him with the Peacekeeper skinned of its bandoleer, locked and loaded, carried openly. During the ride, the Ursa had synced his Ultimate Bio-Perceptor-14 he had looted from the Siege of Daumier. This was the mounted scope device that detected life auras via a technological means of Perception sense. With it and his Peacekeeper attached to his Vaccsuit Comms, Hew Hollowton became a Forward Observer for the Panas Gankinra by ‘painting’ targets through the scope.

Though he could have called down Beam Laser fire at any time, the Marine chose to check the siege fortifications for a few Vargr as possible before letting the starship weaponry far above him speak hot light down from on high.

“Fire,” he commanded through his Comm. Another Beam Laser column destroyed a personnel truck at its engine, spilling Vargr out its rear crew compartment. Another Beam struck a second bulwark of hunkered Usurpers before the broken outer doors of the warren temple.

With the Panas Gankinra far overhead and in direct line of sight, Shaa had been able to breach the communications jamming by keeping the Ursa within Sensor lock. His Comm signature was a makeshift beacon for the connection allowing Hew to feed triangulation for targets as a Forward Observer.

“Fire,” repeated Hew. An Armored Personnel Carrier felt its armor melting as the Beam Laser raked from the front to the rear of the vehicle.

Hew lumbered along on his rear legs as Vargr ran in panic, seeking shelter from the starship weaponry out of nowhere. With the mainworld in a state of regime change, the Downport had to remain neutral in all cases and thus silent about the geostationary position of the Panas Gankinra. Even so, the Marine knew he only had a few more shots with the starship weaponry. The Quad S-L-M Hybrid Turrets had to recharge. Gunfire tried to reach up into the sky but was grossly and sadly out of range to lay a bullet on the hull of the Safari Ship. The Downport PADS was already depleted of SAMs.

The Ursa trudged along up the steps firing shots from his Peacekeeper Shotgun to continue the panic among the ground forces. Much of the coup did not own ranged weaponry and only a few times did the ursine armor suffer grazes. Hew returned fire even as he retreated up to the battered front door of the temple.

At the outer door, Hew fished out his copy of the COTCO religious text, displaying it to the priests under cover. The abandoned tree trunk battering ram used lay before the doors. Hew took a final shot with the Panas Gankinra raking coherent light across the pavement at the bottom of the warren steps.

“Qithka?!” Hew Hollowton growled at the nearest COTCO priest, a faithful and Psion in robes. He did not speak Gvegh but knew that the Relict Clone’s name was familiar to them. Index claws pointed upward. Gestures of respirator masks clued the Ursa in that Qithka was far above the Startown chasm, having already evacuated. Nodding his helmeted muzzle, the Marine took his leave to the light show from above. No locals challenged the off-worlder though he did have to point his Peacekeeper at them to prove he was not to be accosted. “Travellers are dangerous sophonts,” he growled in his helmet, unheard by the panicked Gvegh Vargr.

Even though he commanded the field that Day, Hew knew that he too would reach his limit. True Soldiers with heavy weaponry would arrive soon when the Startown Government Hall was fully Usurped. Regime change on Aegadh could not be stopped by a lone Ursa armed with starship weaponry.

Landlines calling in reinforcements would respond soon, meaning that Hew needed to be out of the chasm and fast. Still, it felt special to be given a light show fanfare in exiting the COTCO warren temple on the outskirts of town. Such a thing his mates back in the Corps would never believe. The Ursa descended the steps and was extracted by Shaa Gankinra in the Safari Ship’s Boat when he signaled for dust-off.

“She’s up on the ridge, Captain,” reported Hew as he closed the airlock door to the Ship’s Boat. He felt the smallcraft lift though he was stable enough on all-fours to endure the lift acceleration.

“Nice spray pattern, Marine,” acknowledged Capt. Gankinra surveying the wreckage Hew had wrought with the Forward Observation. It was more to the credit that the Safari Ship had descended to the stratosphere before taking up a geostationary position.

The Boat lifted out of the chasm unchallenged by vehicles much too slow to give chase. In under two minutes, Shaa had a scopes visual of the waving, signaling Qithka02 Cannagrrh on the eastern chasm wall observation deck between it and the old arcology ruin. Refugees were still fleeing the warren temple to the east, either on foot or in ground vehicles. Hew popped the hatch and scooped up the teenage body in his huge paw by leaning out and catching the Vargr girl by her Quilt-9. “Got her! Go!” exclaimed the Ursa.

Hew felt himself hugged tightly by the smaller frame of Qithka. Feeling a little awkward, the Ursa opened his helmet and patted the Relict Clone. The spaceflight up to the Panas Gankinra left mainworld Aegadh to the winds of change.

“I though’ I migh’ buy th’ farm a Humaniti say,” panted Qithka from the run out to the Ship’s Boat.

“No rest for the wicked,” answered Hew Hollowton, referring to the Vargr witch in his massive arms.

The adolescent form of Qithka02 Cannagrrh fell asleep in Hew’s embrace. Cautiously, he allowed her to rest as Shaa Gankinra returned them to the Panas Gankinra. He carried her to her cabin and tucked her in her bunk.

Meeting with Shaa and Zhem who looked like a concerned physician, the trio agreed as the Vilani declared, “No more Balkanized worlds unless it’s her homeworld from now on.”

“Aye, Captain,” said Hew.

“Compliance,” agreed Zhem with his new repaired ear, eye and armor.

As the Safari Ship departed for Orbit, Far Orbit and in-system commute to 70 Diameters, the world-system was waking up to Comms traffic news that Aegadh had endured a regime change. News reports to the other planets in the Yellow system received and acknowledged the changeover first. The Red system further out would hear the news later that Day. No one seemed overly concerned to Hew. But then change is what Vargr do best, he remembered.

However, the Comms blasted out a new constitution for an Impersonal Bureaucracy Government on mainworld Aegadh, the planets of Yellow and the distant Red system gave barely lip service to the regime change. Without a true Navy, the new government would not be capable of uniting the entire world-system out of Balkanization.

Propaganda filled the airwaves and space waves, heralding a new mainworld order, a change for good under the Agencies sharing power over the Starport on mainworld Aegadh. It was a new Day for the Temple world. Repairs were under way and the Agencies promised business would resume the following 12 hours. The Panas Gankinra had suffered an event of wrong place, wrong time here on Aegadh.
* * *

Though she was Sleepy, Qithka managed to wake for the two hours needed to plot the pathing to the next world two parsecs away. By her memory as the Dame and the starchart she had provided, Urkhaksadh / Dzen (Gvurrdon 1415) had the required Gas Giant wilderness refueling. Another world was possible, but Shaa was clear about skimming fuel. With her Portable Controller, Qithka laid in the jump pathing and let the Panas AI chew on the confirmation if Capt. Gankinra wanted to heed the results in 24 hours. Then she fell into a true, deep sleep troubled only by the ghosts of the two Vargr she had let the mainworld pavement kill in deadly falls. She had killed for the first time in this life, her third.

* * *

The Panas Sensors had the three vessels in a Far Orbit parking trajectory before their Active pings found the Safari Ship. Shaa Gankinra signaled each. Though two were surprised to see or hear a Human speaking Gvegh and this far coreward, Shaa traded peaceful reactions with firsthand news of the Downport status. The three ships in orbit were waiting out the coup below on the mainworld.

Shaa had the Safari Ship idle at 70 Diameters as the Ship’s Computer hustled Hastily to confirm Qithka’s pathing calculations. The Vilani was left on the Bridge while Hew Hollowton took a break to go have the talk, the talk being a visit to Dr. Zhem for Counselling. Shaa had seen that gleeful grin before in her years. It was the look of slipping Sanity. Some closure to Aegadh was necessary in a one-on-one, come to Ancients talk. Thankfully, the Marine complied and excused himself from the helm allowing Shaa the conn on the Bridge. With no contacts at 70 Diameters, there was little else to do. Qithka had yet to come from her cabin though she had taken her Portable Controller with her as the Engineer on the Panas Gankinra.

What had Qithka taken from her interlude for more psionics training? Like Hew, Shaa found herself curious and a little nervous about a fully-empowered Qithka whom the Ursa had unjustly labeled as suicidal. But the Marine was right. Qithka02 Cannagrrh had not wanted this life. She according to her story was snatched from the bowels of Zirunkariish remnants on Wild Vincennes and reiterated without her consent, all for some historical recount of her lives in the eras before the Collapse and Interregnum. That the deed had been paid for by the Galaxiad producers, the Wafer Edutainment based on testimony of Relict Clones called forward in time and given token pensions for their stories; it was galling to Shaa Gankinra. And now, a jaded Relict Clone who only wanted to return to the Dame’s homeworld was thrust into power, something no being stricken with ennui should take up. Yet it was the accident with jumpspace dementia that had triggered Qithka’s Awakening. Like it or not, all would soon see what Hew had witnessed on Aegadh. But in being witness to Qithka’s training, Shaa had seen the Ursa’s mental stability slipping.

Shaa had heard the stories equal to bad dreams to nightmares to night terrors. Those in close proximity to Psions using their powers were eventually at risk of Awakening themselves at whatever Life Stage they experienced such displays of the mental disciplines. Shaa had listened to Old Salt tales of how being around too many Zhodani for too long caused unwanted Awakenings followed by the harsh decision of whether to pursue testing and training or to let the crisis fade into a door never opened.

It was because of these space dog tales that perhaps Psions kept their secrets, hid their powers, cloaked their presences behind plausible deniability, deception, and misdirection. Ignorance was bliss. Lies. Half-truths were perhaps backhanded safety measures that Psions unfortunately used to keep unwanted Awakenings from happening. But to live such a life of untruth? With that hefty load of meditation, Shaa decided then that she would not inquire to Qithka about her newfound powers beyond the psionic Senses. Power had a way of evidencing on its own. Necessity had a way of encouraging the use of tools, physical or psychic.

The Panas Gankinra departed Aegadh at last with the fanfare of an enlarged jump Flash. A Jump Grid configuration produced a brighter brilliance lasting longer than conventional Jump Bubble fields in trade for earlier jumps in terms of Diameters from world-system bodies. With the volatility of the Balkanized Factions on Aegadh, Shaa Gankinra added a suggested Amber Zone label to the world-system for consideration by her Oberlindes Lines mission Patrons. It had been a Day for Shaa. She retired to her Captain’s Cabin, took a sleep aid and worked herself into a comfortable rest now that the Safari Ship was out back.
* * *

From her cabin terminal, Qithka installed the Datalink Memclip of the entire Library of the Aegadh COTCO Psionic Institute given to her by Arriknoesa. The Relict Clone now possessed everything she might need to start her own school if it came to that. But for now, she had to concentrate her attention to finishing her training over the coming week out back. Why had no one else thought of this? Most Stage training took about a week, so why not spend that week sequestered by the envelope of jump transit? The Dame had heard of mobile Psionics Institutes aboard planetary vehicles such as oceanic ships, barges, or remote orbital platforms. Why not a spacious starship then?

Panas, I need you to devote a Cell to helping me learn and train my Extra-Corporeal Manipulations,” declared Qithka alone in her stateroom.

“Compliance. Cell devoted to Psioncology. Let us begin with Move…” And just like that, the Panas Gankinra became her personal trainer, guide in practice, and experimental partner in the ECMs.

Except for meals, Qithka spent a week going over many nuances of the ECMs she had at her disposal: Move, touching, at a distance, and levitation were first on the docket of documented applications under the file of Telekinesis this Day. Teleportation the next Day would feature both jaunting herself as Gevaudan had learned from Isis and Uthka Varzeekh as well as Matterportation at touch and at a distance. The applications seemed at first endless in variation. The schedule presented by the slave-driver AI included The Touch to harm and to heal, the only ECM that was wholly limited to personal contact with an Object, the recipient of psionics use. Because the ship was now encapsulated in a hugging Jump Grid field, Qithka was forced to limit Out Of Body projections to within the confines of the Safari Ship. She dared not try to Force OOB on another, by what she called an “astral shove” in knocking another consciousness from their physical form. The week wore on as Qithka thankfully skipped over Energy Shift or EShift. She had no capability in that ECM this go-round. Rather, the Ship’s Computer dove wholeheartedly into Mentation or better known as Telepathy the most subtle of mental disciplines and the most invasive.
* * *

Hew Hollowton did need the talk. He just was not sure that a Cym could fill the role of a Counsellor. There was know-how, data, case studies and all; but did the doc actually know how to counsel an Ursa? But the Vargriform Robot Hew had repaired surprised him with, “Let’s start with your neck, Marine.” Oh yes! The tension had built up again over the past few Days on Aegadh and the escape Boost from that mainworld.

With a sure grip, a quick jerk, and a series of audible pop-pop-pop-pop!, Hew was able to relax in the Medical Compartment, his neck and head swimming in endorphins. Then the talk began. And with some liquid refreshment at his side, Hew unloaded.

By the time he was done with the first hour of listed concerns, Hew lost count of his encyclopedia of issues cramming his head and stealing his clarity. His problems and exile, a loss of what agenda to have after conscription to the Panas Gankinra, the mission into the coreward Wilds, and many other topics came up. That Hew had a large tumbler of Liquid Courage next to him helped the Ursa spew what was on his mind. Having weapons free on a strange world had unlocked a pantry of post-term Marine garbage Hew thought packed away in neat rows of his memory, satisfied that he had resolved his terms in the Mora Marines Peacekeepers. But when Capt. Gankinra had declared all others in his way as expendable, it opened that closet of Marine years again.

Hew felt truly guilty that he had left Qithka, his BuddySystem partner behind at the warren temple. To have Shaa stab him with it had hurt. Hence why the Ursa was all the more eager to track down the white-pelt Vargr girl at the expense of so many civilian locals, Usurpers not counted until after he had tallied his Forward Observer strikes. Hew felt that Shaa needed to better detail rules of engagement in the future to a Marine with tours under his ammo belt.

Counselling sessions took more than two Days with Dr. Zhem. Hew came to call the Cym-Robot by that when the Vargriform began to evidence true proficiency in pointing out errors in logic, balances of causality, and re-balancing Hew’s passions: anger with forgiveness, attachment with detachment, and so on. The Counsellor proscribed some playful physical exercise in the spacious 20-tons of empty cargo hold. Zhem went so far as to suggest a round of handball sports across from the Vargriform chassis he had repaired.

“I too need to fully calibrate the repairs you gave me,” admitted Zhem as the Counsellor session concluded on the second Day. Each Day after Counselling, the Vargriform and the Ursa squared off in the pressurized hold to swat a ball back and forth across the empty cargo hold. Shaa Gankinra came in occasionally to ask the score, but otherwise left the two giants to ‘play’.
* * *

Shaa Gankinra had set a quiet notification gateway for her ship to inform its Captain of Cell usage, the same when she had first learned Qithka was a proficient, teenaged Astrogator and later a Relict Clone. Now, Qithka was using the Panas AI for some serious computer time in devoting a Cell to the esoteric topic of…Psioncology. The Vilani grandmother was not remotely aware that a Ship’s Computer could be installed with such strange Library Data. Yet, Qithka seemed content in her cloister of a stateroom. Through the week, Shaa had only seen the ringtail appear in the Galley for a quick meal or at other times for a fast shower in the Shared Fresher. All other times, the Vargr was in her cabin doing Ancients-knows-what.

For Shaa, she spent the week making sure nothing came up Yellow aboard the Panas Gankinra, consulting the final leg of Qithka’s jump route home as dated as her remembered Dzen Subsector starchart was. The jump to Urkhaksadh / Dzen (Gvurrdon 1415) looked on the route to be a simple crossroads. The Low Population Desert world was listed with about 500 Gvegh Vargr tending a Cold, Downport shipyard. At least that was the score back in….1200, a time of Shaa’s ancestors.

According to Qithka’s starchart from her Pattern era, Urkhaksadh was traded back and forth between the Thirz Empire and the Society of Equals. A Starport A on a Cold mainworld with little else to interest starships, the world-system fell to Corporate supervision offering shipyard services on what Qithka called the Edge. The needed facility was thus left alone to conduct simple business as it had no voiced concern as to which border the crossroads fell. It had Gas Giants, interstellar technology, an Excellent Downport and no-questions, Low Population staff on hand. All this was according to Qithka whose Inner Dame remembered these things from antiquity.

But to be safe and on the privilege side of things, Shaa’s Astrogator had wisely plotted a breakout at the innermost Small Gas Giant at Size M on the diminutive end of the spectrum of Jovians. Though a Corporation on paper, that very low Law Level of 2 was cause for concern and a stiff arm. Shaa would soon see if Qithka’s Universal World Profile digits were accurate. If anything was true to Shaa’s reckoning, it was that the Vargr never stayed the same for very long. Leaders lost power or died off, providing opportunities for ambition. This constant vying for charismatic greatness amid peers was why the canine race had weathered so many Breaks with brittle breakdown but then snapped back to the daily grind as if the Breaks were but footnotes to suffer a short stumble and recovery. Shaa wished that Humaniti could take a clue from the Vargr and recover from the Collapse and Interregnum so quickly. It was centuries into this Pastoral Age and still those behind the claw had yet to reach out and probe the Wilds.

Fifth Night came. The crew without passengers gathered at the table. There was an awkward hush as Zhem placed the meal on the table, verbally hoping that all would find the fare visually, olfactory and nutritionally satisfactory. Though Hew Hollowton sat on the deck floor, he heartily accepted three entrees and chatted with his Counsellor. The two were warming to each other after a week of scorekeeping handball in the half-empty cargo hold. Qithka appeared in her lilac unitard under Mesh-7 armor and draped with her lavender poncho which had seen better days even if laundered.

Shaa risked breaking new ice with Psion Qithka, for the poncho worn at the table meant that the white-pelted Relict Clone was sinking further into the new role, the next milestone in power and Vargr Charisma. But the female held her tongue and listened to Hew and Zhem show the statistics of their handball matches to the teenaged bi-centenarian. There was a subtle demure motion to Qithka’s down turned nose and muzzle whenever Hew spoke his turn about some fantastic ace serve or another risky maneuver. But when Zhem’s turn came to recite a match between Vargriform and Ursa, the girl paid full attention to the Cym. Was she more comfortable with the Ship’s Medic?

“The computer estimates breakout on 318-1902, Qithka,” Shaa began as the Ursa and Cym depleted of tallied score and games. “182 hours out back.”

Qithka pointed her nose to Shaa and nodded to say, “From wha’ I cin rem’mber, Cap’n,” answered Qithka in her antique Anglic before her and Hew, “Urkhaksadh were a fuel reserf, a serf-stop, an’ mot’ball wreckyart. No much t’ fight over, is all.” Shaa had to agree by looking at the baseline UWP of the world. “We cin skip aft’ skimmin’, if’n yew wan’, Cap’n.”

Qithka was right. Three biologicals aboard a Safari Ship was not in jeopardy of running out of food, water or other supplies. A Life Support renewal could wait until Qithka was looking at her homeworld on the Panas Scopes. Shaa nodded in agreement with the quiet voice of Qithka. “Let’s at least trade strings with this-…Urkhaksadh and see what they say before we commit to a commute to the mainworld.”

“Yes, ma’am,” answered Qithka.

“Aye that,” agreed Hew. The Ursa looked happier, more centered, and quickened now that he had sweat out the ordeal on Aegadh.

“Compliance,” answered Zhem though the Vargriform voiced the answer more believably than the Panas Ship’s AI.

Without Freight or Passengers destined for Urkhaksadh, there was no committing Trade or Commerce to tie the Panas Gankinra via contract. Shaa could simply map the world-system, update Qithka’s starchart and save all the data for Oberlindes Lines and their cartography mission.
* * *

To Qithka sitting at the Fifth Night party table, there was an unspoken fuse burning down, a timer ticking toward zero, a come-to-Ancients moment about to happen. Subjects of talk were depleting and she had not contributed save the starchart information on Urkhaksadh.

Zhem seemed pleased that his biological charges were healthier and had enjoyed his cooking in the Galley. Hew was less grim now that he’d played a few Days with Zhem in the empty cargo hold. The Ursa Marine had not blabbed Qithka’s ECMs, the few that he had seen her experiment with on Aegadh before the coup. Shaa was certainly concerned with her crew. That Qithka had sequestered herself in her stateroom all week was not helping the Fifth Night party.

It was in the way that the others were snatching glances at Qithka, seeing what she would say next, hoping for some glimmer of what she had been up to in the COTCO warren temple Psionic Institute and in her cabin. Surely Captain Shaa Gankinra knew that Qithka had been using Ship’s Computer Cells in her continued dive through the Library Data she had been given. All this week, she had been training, training and considering whether or not to begin a Vargr Psionics Institute of her own now that she had such a wealth of encyclopedic data in the Datalink or Memclip she had been given by Arriknoesa.

It was not that Qithka was being antisocial. She was partaking in the topics and remaining present. But her mind was partitioned now, the Psion wanting to return to training and finish this Stage, fully measuring what she was capable of in the realm of Extra-Corporeal Manipulations. But soon enough, Human eyes, Bear eyes, and the omniscient sensors of the Vargriform were on her. The fuse had burned down, the timer dinging.

“It’s time to address the oliphant in the room,” announced Qithka02 Cannagrrh. She instantly had everyone’s attention though Hew and Shaa took an extra second to recalibrate for her dated Anglic accent. “I want to thank Hew for saving me. I want to thank him for his discretion, letting me come out with my latest developments as a Psion. Let me preface now that I’m discovering that I am not some Zhodani, psionic demigod. There are things that I will never be able to do, things I dare not do, actions that will cost me dearly to perform, and abilities that I hope will serve this ship and my comrades. I dunno if there is a Psion’s Oath in this year 1902, but if you need me to speak one, I’ll draft up-…” Qithka was cut off by the touch of Shaa’s hand on her claw on the table. She had sat next to Qithka.

The Human hand on Qithka’s claw was gentle, warm, matronly, and the assuring touch of a grandmother. Through the touch of Psychometry, Shaa let her thoughts be telegraphed through that touch. For touch was the surest, most secure connection to most of Qithka’s ECMs. Reading her mind through the voluntary touch, a gentle grasp of Human to Vargr, Shaa’s thoughts supported Qithka’s training even though there was a tinge of curiosity. The Vilani woman did want Qithka to continue talking but wanted the Relict Clone to know that she was not in trouble or pressured to showcase herself like some Psion under glass or in some display case aboard the Panas Gankinra, (Look But Don’t Touch being the sign Shaa was thinking in her head).

“Hew saw a few of the abilities I can do,” continued Qithka who returned her claw grasp equally to the Human holding her. “I measure that I am middling in my capabilities. The closer I am to an Object or a Subject, the better success I can enjoy. It swells my heart that I’m still just a teenager of age, and that you are taking me home to Dzuerongvoe. I promise you that I will do all that I can to get us there safely.” The Ursa swigged his drink. Zhem lowered his stance to fully target Qithka who had the floor. Shaa’s grasp urged her to continue, her mind inviting the same.

“I will list what I’ve discovered but remember that by no means have I mastered any of it. This has been new to me too. I assure you that I have no agenda on anyone’s mind, will or personal or mental space. If I have to go out and buy you two Psi-Shields for peace of mind, I’ll do so.” More gentle grasping from Shaa calmed Qithka’s declaration. The Captain had her in emulated Vargr Charisma.

Qithka then began to list what she had been experimenting with. In the realm of Move, she could telekinetically Move an Object or Subject at a distance or by touching it. Loading cargo for the teenaged Relict Clone would never again be a problem without a grav-jack in the hold or at a Starport. Levitation, Moving herself to or from an area was risky and Qithka had been successful up to 50 meters, though beyond that was taxing and prone to failure.

Teleporting, or jaunting was easier on Qithka in small, line-of-sight trips. She detailed the dangers of change in pressure, temperature and momentum before and after a teleport. Here too were limits to how far she could instantly appear elsewhere. Matterport while touching was far easier though the Size of the target was a hurdle. Again, Qithka stressed that her job as the Freightmaster aboard the Safari Ship was going to be far more efficient. This seemed to earn her a smile from the Vilani grandmother.

“Size and distance will be the key variables when I use Teleport and Matterport,” explained Qithka in detail. Then she continued on to her other ECMs.

Qithka had no ability in Energy Shift or EShift as it was abbreviated. It just would not come to Qithka at all. But she did have The Touch. She could heal or cause damage to living beings at the contact of her claw on a living sophont. It was no better than First Aid, and it did make the recipient speed up their metabolism as if under Slow Drug effects. “I can maybe stabilize a dying friend or continue healing over several uses, but they’re gonna get hungry and thirsty fast. Tired too.”

“I don’t expect you to believe me when I say I can project myself out of my Gvegh Vargr body and go on a walkabout, just my core, my mind, and my remaining psionics,” announced Qithka to the continued attention of the three at the table. “I have to agree that it looks like half-baked meditation or that I’ve fallen completely Asleep. But I don’t know what I can apply Out Of Body for. So, it will have to sit and wait until I really need it. Sorry if I’m rambling.” Qithka flattened her ears and her tail drooped out the back of her chair.

The Relict Clone went on to explain that she could encourage Out Of Body on another, most successfully by touching them. “I call it my Astral Shove because I don’t know what else to name forcing someone out of their physical form. Maybe Forced OOB or the like.” A person simply needed to recognize what happens to them and mentally will their return to their body and wake up from the trance. This was the hardest ECM to explain for Qithka. But it was not the most offensive power in her repertoire.

“If unshielded,” continued Qithka, “I can read your minds at conversation range. I promise you now that I will avoid that as much as I can. I have enough on my mind right now that I can’t afford to be doing that to you all. Out to fifty meters, it gets very hard on me, so I won’t even try to do so beyond that. I can read the Captain most easily because she is touching me.” That declaration earned Qithka a pat on her claw from the Vilani who peacefully removed her hand. “There is another variable in that the more intelligent and educated a Subject is, the more I have to filter through. Mental Size is what I’m learning they call it.”

And that concluded what Qithka had discovered in her capabilities. She was not some omnipotent uplift of the Ancients, not some Zhodani paragon of psionics, not some mind usurper. “And if you want me to take a vow or oath or the like I will. I’ll draft one-“

“Just be yourself, girl,” rumbled Hew. “If you get too uppity, I’ll put you over my knee easy-peasy.”

There was gentle laughter from Qithka and Shaa. Zhem had to follow suit a second later with his simulated humor, but the Cym did attempt laughter.

Fifth Night ended with the crew having dinner and drinks, Qithka still denied alcohol at her age and now that she was a full Psion. The Vargr retired first to her cabin to continue Stage training and work on more subtle nuances of her ECMs. Hew sat back in the Commons and watched a holovid drama. Shaa went to bed earliest. Zhem, Zhem did not retire at all. The Cym-Robot simply cleaned up after the Fifth Night party and collected his own thoughts for his Wafers.
* * *

With no passengers to service, Zhem stepped onto the Bridge at the same time the jump field melted away to reveal normal space. Present here were Hew Holowton at the helm, Shaa Gankinra taking measurements at SensOps, and Qithka working on her Portable Controller to cycle the Jump Drive into cooldown while bringing the Maneuver Drive online. Everyone but Zhem was dressed suit-and-tie in their various Vaccsuits per standard operations. The Vargriform watched the forward transpex viewport and listened as Sensors data finalized.

The Panas Gankinra had fallen slightly short of 100 Diameters, 110 to be exact. Ahead was a small ball of blue-white Gas Giant. An ice Ring angled just so and a closer moon of the Jovian had put too much resistance to the Safari Ship’s jump approach. The combination was too much gravity well and ended jump on time but not in the right spot.

“We’re looking at a seven-hour commute before skimming,” complained Shaa who slid a few navigation vectors over to Hew at the helm. The Ursa saw them and queued up the best he thought efficient onto his Scopes board.

“Maneuver Drive online and Jump Drive cooling,” reported Qithka from a corner of the Bridge, the Portable Controller in her lap. “We have enough fuel for an emergency jump and more than a week for operations.”

“Gonna hafta go around that moon,” growled Hew. To Zhem, the three biologicals were gesturing their frustration, each to the flavor of their species. Face palming from the Vilani Human. Ears tugging showed on Qithka. Chin lift and scratching with ursine claws from the Bear at the helm. Zhem decided he too needed a gesture for exhibiting quandary or dilemma.

The Cym-Robot decided that fingertip touches apex to tenting his hands was enough to be seen, but not taken as too significant a gesture. Zhem tented his hands with his fingertip pads coming together. Only Qithka saw the new movement from him.

“It’s okay, Zhem,” said Qithka. “Seven hours won’t be out of our way. Besides, it gives Shaa time to map the system and see if the mainworld answers Comms. They should have seen our jump Flash by now if higher technology.”

At five million kilometers from the Size N, Small Gas Giant in Orbit 10, the crew waited and waited for a hailing call of from the mainworld in the Cold edge of Orbit 5. The Safari Ship at three gees continued through silence. Shaa mapped the system as she monitored the Comms antenna.

The hours ticked down. Zhem’s biological friends took breaks from the Bridge in turns. Hew had just returned to the Bridge to pilot the supremely easy fuel skimming maneuvers. The Ursa did have to deal with frost accumulation on the tips of the Lifting Body hull of the Safari Ship as he descended into the upper H2 deck of the N-sized Jovian. The ride bounced a little making Qithka yelp when a jarring bumped her off the deck to land back on her tail wrong.

Ten hours, power naps, snacks, and shifting positions after jump breakout, Shaa smiled to put a voice call on the overhead speakers. The hail was not from the mainworld in Orbit 5, but instead came from the strangely Hospitable planet in Orbit 2 which should have been ablaze at that distance from an F4 V Yellow-white, main sequence star.

On the Sensors boards system UWP began filling slots on each of the planets in the Urkhaksadh world-system. The hailing Hospitable had included its string and extensions. Shaa Gankinra reciprocated by sending a salutations call and Ship Mission string and lack of available trade status back toward the Hospitable. Zhem saw on the boards that the Hospitable, non-mainworld had named itself Urkhaksadhae, somewhat after the quiet mainworld and world-system. With the string exchange came more data that only the Cym could digest fast enough.

In a span of seconds, Zhem could calculate that a commute in-system to Orbit 2 Urkhaksadhae instead of mainworld Urkhaksadh was still a waste of time. Seven thousand Vargr had settled a lawless cove inside the protective albedo of a Fluid planet. The Corrosive atmosphere and intense greenhouse were simply too dangerous for the Panas Gankinra to attempt a landing. Neither the mainworld nor the Hospitable had orbital Highports. Unless a protected spacecraft landed at the Spaceport G, little trade was possible. The Pastoral Age had set its mark on this world-system. In turn, the Heterogeneity and Acceptance were rated as Monolithic and Xenophobic. Neither planet wanted unscheduled visitors that they had not hired.

Minutes after some debate, Capt. Gankinra and the crew came to the same conclusions that Zhem had already fathomed. By now, the Vargriform had come to understand that biologicals with their brains could intuit some amazing ideas but at rates infinitely slower than the silicon calculations of Cym capability.

It was decided then that the KFK-BL33 Panas Gankinra would by pass Urkhaksadh and Urkhaksadhae and jump to the final destination, Qithka’s homeworld Dzuerongvoe.

The crew of the Safari Ship turned the Lifting Body hull to point outbound to the closest 70 Diameters jump point. Shaa took her turn at break while Qithka began pathing for her homeworld.
* * *

Though she did not relish another week out back, Qithka02 Cannagrrh found herself antsy to make the jump to Dzuerongvoe / Dzen (Gvurrdon 1413). What would her homeworld be like centuries after her last sight of the mainworld in her Pattern mother’s life after 1200 Imperial? Would there still be a Pack Cannagrrh? What would the Universal World Profile look like in this Far Far Future time so-called the Pastoral Age? Quietly and with a nervous index digit, Qithka hit the COMMIT button on the SensOp-Astrogation Operating Console on the Bridge across from Hew Hollowton at the helm.

Jittery with anticipation, Qithka tried mediation exercises catalogued in the Library Data from Aegadh. She attempted to dance herself into exhaustion requiring sleep to pass the time. Qithka even relieved Hew Hollowton for a sleep as she took the helm. Keeping the ship pointed and inside the guild splines did not help her nerves. Zhem tried to Counsel her as the Ship’s Medic, but to no avail. Jump transit was coming and a week out back could not be over soon enough.

When the Panas AI confirmed Qithka’s pathing well into the next Day, Qithka was already in Engineering for the command to initiate the Jump Drive for a two-parsec jump to Dzuerongvoe. Every minute step of Starship Operations could not come fast enough. With no interstellar traffic this far out of the Size N Gas Giant in Orbit 10, (the rest of Urkhaksadh being limited to microjumps to various planets), the Panas Gankinra gave the world-system a final, departing jump Flash once pseudo-mainworld Urkhaksadh had acknowledged the Safari Ship’s detour.

From her Portable Controller, Qithka asked the Panas AI for the estimated time out back. The answer she received threatened Qithka’s Sanity. Almost seven and a half Days jump transit was expected by the Ship’s Computer. “I just cannot get a break!” Qithka exclaimed as she stood down Engineering. Not one of her jumps had resulted in a breakout earlier than 168 hours. The ring-tailed Vargr fumed in her cabin to read that Fast Drug had a duration of 60 Days, a downtime now too long for a single jump. Qithka tossed the unused dose in the mirror cabinet of her Shared Fresher locker. Unless the ship misjumped, taking Fast Drug would make her oversleep the breakout to her homeworld. The Relict Clone was forced to savor every impatient hour on this last leg of the long journey save for sleeps which she took at the first yawn.

Qithka faced off against Hew Hollowton in the cargo hold in defeated match after match in handball. The Ursa simply had too long a reach to intercept her serves and volleys. Though she was more agile and dexterous in games of zero-g grav-ball, microgravity did not tire Qithka as sufficiently as handball. Still, she was happy to collapse into her bunk and sleep away as much of jump transit as she could.

The Psion was called to play telepathic games with the others. She was to determine the truth of made-up rumors between Hew and Shaa, Zhem being completely immune to telepathy. Via touch Psychometry and conversational Telepathy, Qithka practiced reading only surface thoughts. The others complied by holding answers in their conscious thoughts whenever Qithka approached for a shake of the extremities. It was good Mentation practice for her. Hew and Shaa were able to let down their nervous guard over the stigma of that mental discipline, at least for the game of Rumor Mill.

First Meal was a celebratory meal among the crew since there were no passengers aboard. Layered slabs of steak, fish, and poultry of some kind were given spicy rubs and plenty of sauces to make a “meat cake”, the kind and variety to tantalize any meat eater. Shaa and Hew augmented the gluttonous dish with salads while obligatory carnivorous Qithka took a modest helping of the stack of protein.

On Day Three out back, Qithka acquiesced to a Counsellor talk which to her surprise included a full body massage from Zhem in the Med Console. Qithka lay there as she spewed her anxious anticipation out to the Vargriform running his hands over her pelt and digging his sadistic fingers into trigger points she had cultivated with stress.

Day Four was Holovid Night. The group watched a dramatization of the Rebellion. It had been suggested that Qithka present some piece of historical documentary from her era, brought forth from Library Data now known only to Ships’ Computers and largely called up only by those who could remember what to query. Qithka chose the Second Civil War out of a need to fill the time. Then she cried at the part when Ovaghoun Vargr Archduke Brzk and his entire family was assassinated by a bombing at Cerise Station in the Antares world-system. The documentary offered several possible outcomes had the Archduke lived through the Rebellion, some of which were positive branches, others quite negative including sitting on the Iridium Throne and dominating both Human space and the Vargr Extents of the times.

Fifth Night was the jump transit party. Dance practice, both to hone her skill and to wear her impatience out, bore fruit as she danced an Ovaghoun war party dance with her metal fans. Qithka had searched and searched through the Library Data for Vargr dances, most especially the ones she had seen Zhevra Cannagrrh perform. The Suedzuk had not spoken the origins of the dances she had performed after recovering from her three-year coma.

Qithka spent Day Six of jump packing. She had known from the start of this journey home that she would not remain the Jump Engineer and Astrogator for the Panas Gankinra forever. She wanted to go home to a world her current feet had never tread. She packed away her clothes, her gear, Malice the Accelerator Pistol, and straightened her cabin from life aboard the Safari Ship.

Day Seven, the final full ship-day of interstellar jump, Qithka wrote. And this she did best of all thanks to the Dame. She wrote letters of thanks to Shaa Gankinra, Hew Hollowton, and Zhem. She drafted a system review from her memories as the Dame and later as the Merchant-Captain. In it, she included everything she could recall about Dzuerongvoe, its UWP, history and affairs from the Golden Age to the New Era (of the 1200s for who could call it New now in the year 1902?)

Qithka set down in her impromptu memoir the Triangle, World Hex, Terrain Hex, and Local Hex of the grounds named the Cannagrrh Villa and the surrounding estate, its vineyards, fields of barley and hops, the brewery, and the distillery. She described the mountain chains to the north and the South Woods hunting grounds to the south.

One nagging reminder remained a thorn in Qithka’s side: time. Centuries of time had gone by since her personality engram had last visited Dzuerongvoe. Now that she was Qithka02 Cannagrrh the double-ringtail, what would welcome her home? As she dressed in her Advanced Heavy Vaccsuit, Qithka decided to belt on Malice as her partner to rediscovering, scouting, and surveying Pastoral Age Dzuerongvoe. Then jump rumblings set off alarms. It was one hour until breakout. Qithka trembled in her frame to limp toward the Bridge. Nothing in the universe could stop this breakout.

In her pathing, Qithka had aimed directly for mainworld Dzuerongvoe. Highport or not, Downport or not, she knew the planet had oceans and seas for the Safari Ship to drink deep. And she wanted no side trip skimming to delay her homecoming. The Panas Gankinra had exhausted only two-thirds of its fuel in a two-parsec jump, plenty for an in-system commute should Capt. Gankinra change her mind.

“Breakout,” reported the Panas AI, the calm female Human voice. “Welcome home, Qithka Cannagrrh,” It added. Shaa must have input that long awaited message. It was in the Captain’s head when Shaa heard it announced on the Bridge.
“Sensors confirm,” said Shaa. “Let’s open her up and see some stars.” Qithka eagerly keyed the controls to the viewport blinders to expose the forward, panoramic transpex. The last vestiges of jumpspace were corroding away from their embrace about the Safari Ship. “Now for a fix on our position. Not bad, Qithka! Dzuerongvoe confirmed and we sit-…108 Diameters from a world in the middle of a Hospitable Zone in Orbit 7 about the primary.”

Home. Just the word was evoking enough. Qithka walked forward on the Bridge and right up to the wide viewport, carrying her Portable as she moved. “Jump Drive on cooldown and M-Drive at your command.” It was almost a murmur from the Vargr.

“No bogeys,” continued Shaa with her Sensors results, sliding Scopes and a flightpath over to Hew Holloway. “We had a big jump Flash, so let’s hope someone saw us.”

“Beginning thrust, up to three gees,” encouraged Hew at the helm. He too wanted to see what had so motivated Qithka02 Cannagrrh to travel to a world this life had never seen save for in the mind.

The bright Blue-white primary lit up the Inner System while the familiar but distant Orange secondary star illuminated its smaller Outer System. The world-system map began filling with planets, two Planetoid Belts, two Gas Giants, all shared between the Blue and the Orange. The amazing thing about Dzuerongvoe that Qithka’s memory confirmed was that it had three Habitable Zone worlds. A Hot world rimmed on the close edge of the Green Band. Mainworld Dzuerongvoe ahead of the Panas Gankinra held the Goldilocks position. And a Cold tundra world rested in the furthest edge of the Habitable Zone. Three worlds with Vargr living on them.

“Incoming Comms,” smiled Shaa but then twirled her silver-gray hair in her Human fingers to add, “Tight beam from an orbital Highport. They want to trade strings which is good. But-…Qithka…your homeworld has been Red Zoned they say.” Qithka turned back from her wide-angle view of the system with its tiny dot of blue-green directly ahead. Red Zone was a designation of dire warning, that a world was interdicted, closed off from traffic. Forbidden was the actual designator.

“But why?” asked Qithka. Her homeworld had always enjoyed Impersonal Bureaucracy after Impersonal Bureaucracy with middling Law. What had the Collapse and Interregnum done to it?

“It’s in the Universal World Profile,” pointed Shaa Gankinra gravely. “Whenever Government added to Law reaches above 22, the world is deemed too stifling in both to deem worth interaction.

Qithka’s claws rose from her slung Portable Controller to her muzzle, covering her mouth. The Wilds are not worth it, choked her thoughts, the saying coming back to haunt her.

Qithka joined Shaa at SensOps to reconfirm the strings were on the correct worlds. There, in the middle of the Habitable Zone was listed Religious Dictatorship, (rule by COTCO Penitents, the low sect of the Church), followed by an Extreme Law D. No weapons and no privacy of the home when visited by Penitent apostles and templars. Qithka’s homeworld was ruled by low-Charisma Penitent prophets surrounded by sycophant apostles and enforced by templars. The Relict Clone’s memories from the Dame and from the Merchant-Captain Qithka01 fell into place for recollection.

The Penitent sect of the Church Of The Chosen Ones (all caps intended) was the lowest sect, a branch of the belief that though the Ancients had uplifted the Vargr for greatness, the Breaks, (Rebellion, Virus, and the Mind Tsunami) had challenged the race to step up. But the Penitents believed that the Vargr had failed their Ancients creators, had sinned, and were due for punishment at Ancient means before the Vargr could rise up the Charisma ladder again. The proof was that the Vargr had not dominated Charted Space yet as was foretold, failure evident and worthy of self-aggrandizement and punishment.

Two of those punishments were also ready examples. The Collapse followed by the Interregnum were disciplinary to the Penitents. The Pastoral Age was but the backdrop to the price of failing the Ancients, or so the Penitents believed. More data was available but Qithka was too shocked to read further.

“The warning came from the Highport,” explained Shaa. “A nearby world named Lloursouth of the remnant Society of Equals has captured the world in Orbit 8 and this derelict Highport over the mainworld. While mainworld Dzuerongvoe is Downport C, the Highport is almost derelict at D. And they are warning us against landing dirtside.”

To come all this way, over two-thirds of a year of travel. It was heartbreaking to Qithka02 Cannagrrh. “Will they interdict us if we try to land?” Qithka asked.

“I don’t think they have the means, girl,” answered Shaa. “They have station guns, but no craft that can challenge us. And look here.” Shaa zoomed the Scopes to refocus on the wreck of an abandoned Highport. “They don’t have all sections of the platform powered. Just a couple of hangars, a few hab blocks, the Admin, and Engineering. The Highport isn’t in danger of falling out of orbit, but it has seen better days. Negligence. I’ve seen this before.”

The Red Zone label was in name only. Lloursouth was yet unable to enforce an interdiction. The Society of Equals held its former Capital in name only. That there were no spaceships on the Sensors and no upper atmospheric flights on Scopes or Radar told Qithka that her homeworld had sunk below space travel in technology. Centuries of missed history had degraded a world she once knew at Tech-12.

“Their Warden is hoping we will dock in orbit before we make any brash moves,” said Shaa seemingly echoing what she was hearing on her headset and microphone. The Comms was buzzing Gvegh in her ears.

“Can we at least make an orbital survey first?” asked Qithka in a hopeful request.

“Of course, Qithka,” agreed Capt. Gankinra. “Helm, take her around for a mapping orbit per our mission for Oberlindes Lines.”

“Aye,” acknowledged Hew who adjusted his travel splines on the Scopes for a Far Orbit approach.
More and more data filled the world-system map. Though mainworld Dzuerongvoe was of most interest, Shaa noted the UWP strings of the two other Hospitable Zone worlds. The tropical InnerWorld in Orbit 6 was 90% oceans with volcanic islands, atolls, archipelagos, all blanketed in jungles. With no traffic up or down, the crew of the Safari Ship had to conclude this world too was pre-spaceflight in technology.

The Cold Hospitable in Orbit 8 was a tundra of conifer forests filling the warmer valleys along its equator. The string here told more story. Lloursouth had captured this world sometime during the Interregnum. Placing a Military-rule Outpost there set up a listening post to study the mainworld. Lloursouth had preserved what little was left of the Tech-12 the world-system had remaining. Spaceships from Orbit 8 restocked the Highport on a monthly basis. Lloursouth was not yet out of the Pastoral Age to fully reclaim Dzuerongvoe. Who knew when anyone in the Wilds would rise again to interstellar polities?

Mapping of mainworld Dzuerongvoe showed familiar continents overbearing the 40% oceans, seas and streams with lakes. Mountain ranges jutted up in patterns dictated by plate tectonics. Qithka sighed to see her home Triangle again and the World Hexes on the map that had been on Vehicle sensors through two previous lifetimes of planetary commutes. But was Cannagrrh Villa still there? Had Pack Cannagrrh survived into the Pastoral Age here on Dzuerongvoe. Only a descent to the planet would answer that. Lloursouth would not stop Qithka02 Cannagrrh from returning home with their token Red Zone flag.

Shaa whispered to Qithka who was staring rapt at the survey mapping, saying, “They don’t know we have a Ship’s Boat. You and Zhem could eject on the backside of the planet from the Highport and glide down on minimal power to land.” The suggestion both surprised and caught Qithka off-guard. Her heart swelled and raced her blood.

“Do you mean that, Captain?”

“No blockade, no battle, no problem, girl.”

Qithka hugged the taller Vilani grandmother.

Hew had heard with his Ursa ears. He growled, "The Ship's Security Bear says you go fully armed and armored."

"Yessir," agreed Qithka. After Aegadh, this Dzuerongvoe at Law D held by masochistic COTCO prophets, Qithka would prepare this time down.
* * *

Zhem watched with rising curiosity and an amazingly high Pathos at 91% to see Qithka rushing to load the Ship's Boat with her gear. Once he had helped her stage the weapons, armors, personal items, a week of Vargr rations, and sundry items, Qithka performed a quick series of miraculous deeds.

Pop, snap, crack! The sounds of compartment air rushing in to fill the volume of space where staged items had been picked up on Zhem's auditory sens-...his ears. He saw item after item Matterport into place inside the Ship's Boat cargo compartment. Qithka touched each small collection. At her claw upon an armor, it was gone only to reappear inside the Ship's Boat. In this way, Qithka the Psion Freightmaster loaded the spacecraft.

For all their slow, biological, short-lived natures, Zhem was still able to find new wonders in those sophonts not born of silicon. The Cym logged his Pathos with the label of wonder.

Behind Qithka, Zhem boarded the Ship's Boat while carrying his Portable Medikit. He would not be caught again planetside without a means to treat his biological charges.

As the Panas Gankinra slipped past the night terminator and into the shadowed side of Dzuerongvoe from the sentinel Highport, Hew Hollowton levered the manual release at the same time Zhem levered the matching release inside the Ship's Boat. At first, nothing happened. But gradually and gently, the spacecraft slid out and down from its external niche and mated hatches. Qithka took the Controls of the smallcraft and made tiny corrections with Lifters pushing off from its mothership.

Observing Comms silence, the Ship's Boat fell further behind and below the orbiting Safari Ship. At 5000 meters apart, Zhem watched from behind seated Qithka as she engaged the M-Drive still in the gravitic shadow of the Panas Gankinra. Choosing a Slow descent into reentry, the Boat glided at a steeper angle, left behind by Shaa and Hew.

Down through Reentry descended the Ship's Boat, blazing with atmospheric friction. Punching through troposphere storm clouds, the spacecraft was struck by sheet lightning, blowing the airlock outer hatch completely off to go flying aft. Qithka yanked on the controls to right the Ship's Boat and regain control of the plummet out of the sky. Zhem closed the cockpit door so he could peer into the shattered airlock. Winds whistled outside the inner door.

"How bad is it, Zhem?" asked Qithka at the helm, calling via the compartments intercom.

"It will be a repair bill, one that Shaa Gankinra will hold against us, Qithka," answered the Vargriform.

Triangle, World Hex, Terrain Hex, and down to the Local Hex, the Ship's Boat descended. Zhem saw a forest below rising to receive the damaged craft. To the Cym, he guessed that Qithka02 wanted a concealed landing zone amid huge, canopied forest of deciduous trees.

In the darkness of night on mainworld Dzuerongvoe, with the patter of rainfall on the hull, Qithka said, "Welcome to South Woods. Cannagrrh Villa should be just a walk north." When the pressure differential light on the inner door turned Green, Zhem opened it.

The Ship's Boat sat on landing peds on a thick copse of heavy trees. Rainfall dropped from branches and leaves. Undergrowth foliage had half-swallowed the craft into partial concealment. Even so, Qithka's piloting was subject to critique.

Attempt humor. Zhem pointed at the shattered airlock and its missing outer door. "The trees scratched the paint. Shaa will be displeased."

Qithka noted the line of Zhem's indication and laughed. It made Zhem beam inwardly.

To avoid becoming lost in this South Woods, (discount that the Local Hex was above the northern tropic line), Zhem activated his Ballistic Tracker, an inertial recording, marking his anchor location to the Ship's Boat.

The Relict Clone set off north on foot while Zhem followed her.

South Woods.jpg
* * *

Hew Hollowton escorted the smaller Shaa Gankinra from the airlock. Both had to climb down the ladder to the Hangar deck to meet with the mixed welcome of the Highport Vargr. Everybody was in some kind of armored Vaccsuit. The female Warden in the lead and sporting the most Vargr Charisma wore a pelt-tight number that armored where needed and betrayed her curves where not. An Advanced Small Vacc Suit (Vargr) at Tech-12 was Hew’s guess. Lightweight too. The Warden led half a platoon of heavy bruisers trailing behind her. Still, everyone was shorter than Hew, all-fours or up tall and erect. He and Shaa were armored and armed. This was a meeting of forces. Shaa had not missed the Military Rule (Mr) in the Trade Classifications listed on the Hospitable in Orbit 8 owned by Lloursouth.

Hew had taken note that Qithka had packed all her belongings from her cabin. This was to help the ruse that she was never aboard the Panas Gankinra. The Captain had purged all records of Qithka’s presence from the ship. The Panas AI alone was told to remain quiet about Qithka though the logs showed nothing about a Freightmaster aboard.

But since the talk between Shaa Gankinra and the local Warden was in Gvegh language and Hew had to rely on cues or gestures from the Vilani woman.

Mission? Deep Wilds survey mission for Oberlindes Lines back in the Republic of Regina. Passengers? None. Cargo? Long-term spare parts, survival needs, extended rations, with 20 tons left over for trade, currently empty. Crew? Just a Vilani and an Ursa. With Shaa gesturing to the Marine Ursa, Hew stood up on his hind legs and stuck out a claw to clasp with the tiny female Warden. Several station Soldiers jumped back as if a huge monster or attack pet had appeared before their eyes.

Because of the military outpost nature of the captured Highport, there was no available Trade and Commerce to be had in orbit. If the Panas Gankinra sought such, an interlude to the Outpost in Orbit 8, some ten hours away at three gees, was suggested.

Turning to Hew, Shaa spoke in Anglic and translated most of what Hew had missed in frightening the local grunts. The Red Zoning was indeed serious in its nature. It came with a disclaimer that any ship voluntarily landing would not be rescued from planetside if events became pear-shaped. Shaa had been correct in that the orbital platform lacked the assets to enforce the Forbidden (Fo) label, but still felt it apt to describe the situation on the mainworld below.

Shaa explained, “It seems the Penitents are so low-Charisma that they legalized Vargr sacrifice to the Ancients as penance for sins committed, laws broken, treason, heresy against the Church. COTCO immigrated to Dzuerongvoe from the Aegadh temple world long ago, well back into the Interregnum. They have had some time to bring everyone else low. Misery loves company it seems.”

Hew scratched his chin with a claw, a gesture that entranced the space Soldiers below him. Why hadn’t they been told this before Qithka launched?

Shaa did not miss the query claw gesture and so elaborated with, “Lloursouth here in this world-system has been mopping up salvages from fools attempting to land and do business planetside. They have salvage rights and would claim our ship if we were killed by the natives.”

“How enterprising,” remarked Hew to the surprise of the Vargr. A Bear that talks and reasons even while dressed in a sophont’s Vaccsuit was still a surprise.

“Yes,” nodded Shaa and continuing with, “and though the mainworld is Tech Five, they have just under seven billion faithful laity willing to let Travellers be next on the altar, sacrificed to the Ancients.”

Shaa turned back to the Highport Warden Arro, (Hew was introduced), and spoke again in Gvegh. The Panas Gankinra would like to conduct Trade and Commerce with the Military Outpost in Orbit 8. She was rewarded with nods of canine heads and claw gestures of renewed welcome. To Hew, it seemed that these armed forces were bored out of their craniums for action. The Ursa wondered when the next staff rotation would come to the Highport, either from Orbit 8 or from Lloursouth parsecs away.

Though the remnant Highport maintained a Tech 12 hodgepodge of systems supported by deliveries from the Military Outpost, such did not upgrade the grunts staff to provide any better services than a Highport D. Shaa and Hew conferred back aboard the Safari Ship. It was obvious that Qithka was in danger again. That she had Zhem with her did little to calm Hew. He voted for another extraction and to the Ancients with both the COTCO planetside, Lloursouth scavengers and Outpost and their Society of Equals in shambles. He wanted to know the girl was safe. Oh, and Zhem too. He could feel his neck tensing again.

“We will circle the mainworld again, pretending to survey for more mapping of Resources,” schemed Shaa Gankinra. “With a tight beam, we’ll hear what Qithka has to say. She might not want to leave Dzuerongvoe. We give her a few days, do some Freight runs back and forth from the Outpost to this Highport, waiting for her to call for rendezvous. She has to have her homecoming.”

“It’s risky,” countered Hew. But he remembered that Qithka02 Cannagrrh was also suicidal. Now that she was home, finding nothing of her Dame’s era or her Pattern mother’s following life, this Relict Clone might end the cycle. But to keep from angering the Vilani grandmother, the Ursa held his thoughts closer than poker cards to his chest.

“We’ll refuel where we are welcome, signaling the Ship’s Boat in intervals,” added Shaa to her plan. “If she calls, we come in hot and put some real fear of the Ancients to these backsliders.”
* * *

The rains had stopped once the storm clouds caught on the tall mountains and dumped their load. Qithka and Zhem emerged much closer to her remembered location of Cannagrrh Villa, judging by the familiar position of the mountains to the north and southwest. South Woods had bordered much more north and thus encroached upon Villa lands.

It was pre-dawn now. Zhem had graciously carried Qithka’s duffle of extra gear in addition to his Medikit. The two had trudged through the undergrowth and between the thick trunks of the canopy trees. Though Zhem showed no signs of fatigue, Qithka had lugged her Advanced Heavy Vaccsuit, Malice the Vheavy Accelerator Pistol and cleaved through the brush with her Great Big Knife. She had already totaled the kilos she was wearing and employing at 17 kilograms. She was about whupped when the Vargriform spoke.

“You can change armors now and hand me the blade, Qithka,” offered Zhem.

Panting with her tongue lolling out, Qithka asked, “You sure? I agreed to Hew’s orders.”

The Cym twisted his metal, canine head in an attempt of expression, an angle that looked impossible for a biological Vargr. He had over-expressed a reaction. But he was learning. The meta-identity inside the chassis had been watching Qithka this entire voyage.

“We have not encountered any locals since landing,” explained Zhem, “and Lt. Hollowton is not your commander, Qithka. Perhaps your Quilt-9 will protect and be less a burden.” Qithka nodded her head and began unsealing her Vaccsuit. Quilt was both good armor and would help Qithka blend in with a lower-tech society better. Zhem took Qithka’s Vaccsuit into the satchel and turned to hack more path from the South Woods while Qithka changed.

Qithka was grateful that Zhem was learning disobedience. But she also remembered that like Vargr, Robots worked off of Charisma. A leader not present was not in command. Zhem was learning his nature as well as Vargr behavior.

Qithka followed behind the mechanized bulk of Zhem who made short work of blockading brush. Soon enough, the pair were clear of the woodsy canopy and saw stars through the weakening clouds. Though Qithka remembered only Villa grounds trails, she beheld her first gravel road running a course east-west along the valley between the mountains north of the Cannagrrh estate. In previous lives, a gravitic Vehicle such as a gravcar, grav-van, or gravbike had been the commute of preference. Well, except for Gevaudan who had mastered the Grav-belt, a singular mode of personal transport he favored as his ship had no available room for an Air/raft.

The Vargr and Vargriform walked freely toward the mountains to the north of South Woods. The skies began to lighten with the coming dawn. Soon, Qithka would reach the front doors of her home Villa.

"How much further, do you remember?" asked Zhem.

"Now don't you start that!" huffed Qithka. "The Dame had a huge, two branch family to wrangle. I-..." Then she realized that Zhem was attempting humor again. "We're almost there, whiny."

The Orange sun broke over the mountains followed shortly by the Blue primary star. Both shed beams of light on the valley that was Pack Cannagrrh lands. Lush green slopes overlooked South Woods. The gravel road had already been crossed. Qithka02 Cannagrrh turned about and scanned the mountains to fix her position. She should have seen the keep, vineyards, the distillery, and the servants’ quarters. Nothing.

[Referee cue music: Les Friction - Your World Will Fail]
No buildings, no fences, nothing Qithka could see hinted that there was once Pack estate once owned by the Cannagrrh. Just a valley answered her searching eyes. "It's supposed to be here. I remember it clearly."

The barely fields were replaced now with grassy slopes to the east. The barley to the west similarly covered by green. The vineyards were absent.

Qithka walked about, second guessing her memories. "It was here. It has to be here!" Her heart began to race in desperation. Behind her, Zhem walked like a zephyr, his joints swishing. His tail did not wag.

Qithka turned this way, then that, checking the eternal mountains again. More light beams played over the east-west valley. "I know it is here! There is an Arcology just a thousand kilometers to the west through the valley! Why isn't it here?!" Qithka02 Cannagrrh became desperate. Back and forth she tracked, uphill and then downslope.

Tears came as memories became juxtaposed over the terrain Qithka could now see clearly. She began to whimper in a cry about to burst like a failing reservoir dam.

Then suddenly, Qithka stubbed her toes and toenails on a piece of hard stone. Looking down through the thick slope grass, the Vargr parted the sward to reveal a smooth block of foundation stone. It was the Villa base stone, the keep foundation. Racing about, Qithka's heart sank to find the entire foundation fractured, separated far apart. Something had destroyed the keep in her memories. Entire generations had grown up in Cannagrrh Villa.

Bleats, calls from a herd of woolpuffs came from the west, a herd moving toward the dawn light for warmth. The beasts were valued for their wool, milk, and meat. The Villa had never owned herds. Vintages and lagers had been bottled under the Pack Cannagrrh label.

The graveyard! remembered Qithka. The families' cemetery might have survived. Runetha Saetedz, let it be there! Zhem followed the jogging then dashing Qithka to the graveyard on the northern valley slopes to the west. Below, the gravel road ran parallel to Qithka's run. How many times had the young female and future Dame run from a tail whupping out to the cemetery?

The graveyard had stood generations, housing Qithka Cannagrrh's ancestors. There. There it was. The short, flat stones were worn and overgrown by bushes let spread and grow. But the Villa graveyard stones sat almost concealed in the soil.

Weather and time had worn the stones. Gvegh letters engraved were but shadowy discolorations on the upward faces. Qithka searched until she found her-...the Dame's grave. She had died before Gevaudan who was buried next to his elder Sister-Dame. Falling to her knees in a kneel before her Pattern grandmother stone, Qithka02 cried, sobbing uncontrollably.

"It's gone, brother. It's all gone, taken by time." Her Pattern mother, Qithka01 had requested cremation instead of burial. There was no newer stone for the Merchant-Captain.

Behind her, Zhem halted at the edge of the cemetery. With simulated reverence, the Cym kept his respectful distance.

"There's nothing left, brother. But-...I need you. I need my brother." Qithka took a deep, sobbing breath and called, "GEVAUDAN! I NEED YOU! Please come back!"

Arching her head back, Qithka02 Cannagrrh howled a deep, mournful cry.

"GEVAUDAN! I’m sorry! Come back to me. I want my brother! I want my brother back..."

Qithka clawed at the grassy, overgrowth above her long-dead brother's grave. Sucking in more air, she cried, "There is nothing left for me here but you! GEVAUDAN! Gevaudan....gevaudan..." Echoes of her calls bounced off the valley walls.

The herd of woolpuffs passed downslope between the cemetery and the newer gravel road. The animals seemed to answer Qithka in their bleating.

On her knees, Qithka02 lost all hope. There was never anything to come home to. Cannagrrh Villa was erased, perhaps by a mudslide or an earthquake, or destroyed by the Vargr of Dzuerongvoe over some war or three.

It had been a waste to return here. Qithka had wasted the time and efforts of Zhem, Shaa, and Hew. All for what? asked Qithka in her mind.

The ringtail had not asked for this life. It was a waste. A wasted life.
She had given her testimony of the Ages to the Republic. She would not go back to see some embellished holovid or Galaxiad dramatization of herself. To bear the now-empty memories today in 1902 made Qithka02 feel hollow inside.

She was done. Qithka would prevent another iteration, another life of this hollow suffering. This time there would be no more Relict Clones. They had pulled one over on Qithka01. But no more.

In one smooth, committed move, Qithka02 Cannagrrh drew her Ultimate Vheavy Accelerator Pistol (Vargr)-13. Opening her mouth, she rammed the barrel past her teeth, deeper into her muzzle.

"Qiktha, NO!" shouted Zhem becoming a blur of motion.

Too late, friend. Qithka pulled the trigger to blow her brains out. Nothing happened. As Zhem zoomed up next to her, she pulled the trigger again. Still alive.

The Relict Clone pulled out the Pistol and looked at it. Armed. Full magazine of gyrojet dart rounds. Safety off. Not dead.

Zhem halted next to Qithka and swiped the weapon from her in a blur. Then calmly, he said, "Accelerator Pistols won't fire if blocked less than a meter from the barrel. Safety to keep the round on target."

Qithka sobbed. She couldn't even kill herself correctly. She felt herself now in a limbo, a deadness inside with nothing to show but a negative balance of wasted time and efforts. Wind through the valley moaned in her ears.
"That'n not how itz pronounced!" called a male voice in Dzuerongvoe accent from downslope. Qithka heard the voice, young, teenaged perhaps. Looking downhill, the ringtail saw a male Gvegh Vargr shepherd climbing uphill to Zhem and Qithka among the flat and flush gravestones.

The lad could not have been more than 17, 18, 19 reaching years of age. Carrying a Herder's Crook staff equipped with a scything, Khenourr blade folded along the lower shaft, the adolescent panted his way up to Qithka. He was instantly amazed to see Zhem move to regard and protect Qithka.

The Herder wore a beige canvass robe, the kind stiff enough to push aside thorns and sharp leaves, armor against foliage. Qithka rose and studied the newcomer and asked, "What?" The lad had an all egg-white or off-white pelt, smiled and turned to face perpendicular to the sun rises. He had one ocean blue eye and one deep emerald-green eye!

"Ah sed, that'n not how itz pronounced. Itz pronounced Zhévaudan, stress on the last s'yble." He had a strong voice, for calling after his woolpuff herd.

Qithka02 fell back a step in surprise. Her bro-... Gevaudan's name had survived the centuries, drifted a little but unmistakable. "How do you know that?" asked Qithka.

"S'cuz itz mah name," brightened the Herder now done panting.

Qithka02 Cannagrrh fell again to her knees turned to gelatin. Thank you, Runetha!

"S'wrong wit her?" asked Zhévaudan.

Zhem answered in his simulated, Vargriform voice now stressed with new emotion. "Nothing is wrong. Especially not now."

To Qithka, it mattered not how. She let the fantasy in her head play out. The descendants of Gevaudan and Zhevra Cannagrrh genes had lasted. Life and bloodlines had lasted into the Pastoral Age.

Qithka recited in her head, Gevaudan's eyes are blue. His HEV is orange. He had a plan. That old sonovabitch Pilot-Astrogator-Slaver had a plan. And his plan had bore fruit despite the loss of material things. "Runetha, tell him that I've returned. I came the long way around." Finishing her prayer, Qithka stood up to introduce herself to the Herder Zhévaudan.