Pacing back and forth in our motel room, accidentally dusting the old wooden furniture with my tail, probably the first time it had been cleaned in weeks. I wished Dave would hurry back from the wholesale computer outlet so that I could tell him about the unscheduled arrival of the ship, my brother Mitzep, my half-step-father Chopka, and the rest of his crew. It sounded like they were in trouble, while Dave was bored with our current routine: a dangerous combination.
Well, pacing wasn't going to get anything accomplished, I'd better put together a plan before my husband thought up one of his own. I'd prefer something without fireworks. Mitzep said they had to land soon. Maybe it was something wrong with the ship, or they had an injury. Though if someone was hurt I wasn't likely to find better care than Doctor Plaksa could give around here. No one that treated foxes, anyway. I hoped it was something else.
Anyway, first: Where? It was probably not a good idea to bring them straight into Canada without some advanced warning. But someplace close. This time of year the ground was soft and ready for planting. It showed tracks too well; we'd have to land them on gravel or pavement. A spot away from any farmhouse or busy highway, but still near enough to the border that we could make our rendezvous with the other ship on schedule. I spread out my collection of oil company and state tourist office maps on one of the beds, circling likely prospects. I'd check the spots using aerial photographs from the Internet later. Soon, though, I found I just couldn't work on it any more, and realized that my tail had been twitching for some time. I scraped everything into a pile and shoved them aside, flopping onto the bed.
I was just so angry…. Wait a minute. Is that true? I jumped back up and went into the bathroom for a drink of water, looking at my reflection in the mirror. A normal, healthy vixen looked back. What was I complaining about? The trip was certainly tedious (we'd made the same circuit four times this year) but nothing was really different. It was just…I wanted…what, exactly?
I went and sat back on the bed. I started to groom my coat with a brush. That usually soothed. This time though, the sensual feel of fur running through my fur had a hard edge to it, almost like I was…Dammit! That's it exactly. Mentally converting between our two calendars, I dug through my suitcase for my medicine; hunting for a certain pouch of foil-wrapped pills.
It was one year since I'd come to earth and I was feeling the hormonal effects of my second heat. I've always been susceptible to pronounced mood swings, in addition to always having had more-active-than-most musk glands. My contraceptive prescription was tailored especially for that; and in the rush to get moving, I'd lost track of the date. Now my body was reminding me with a vengeance. I gulped two pills. I counted the foil packs. Six left, not enough; not for eight days. I guess I have to order more. Not nearly enough. Well, it's not life threatening, I wasn't going to become pregnant, after all, but the lack of control over my scent and the emotional swings were just so undignified. I envied my twin, Marie. She'd be going through the same cycle with me, but in a civilized society where the druggist had pills for 'vixen's problems' right on the counter. Still, I guess I'd better tell Dave he'll have to put up with me.
He returned while I packed my remaining medicine away, knocking twice to signal before he unlocked the door. The pizza box in his hands had a pile of invoices on top; I reached outside and grabbed the carton with the sodas he'd set down in order to unlock the door. I felt pretty safe doing so because our big rental van was parked right at the curb, blocking the view from the parking lot. While he closed the door, I pulled the top off my drink and stuck my muzzle into the cup to wet my tongue and snag out an ice cube. Around the crunching ice, I said,
"Took you long enough. I'm thirsty! I could hear the maids standing around the ice machine all afternoon, or I'd have gone out to get some. The tap water is warm and tastes awful here, by the way." Dave opened the pizza box, handing me a slice.
"They'd screwed our order up. Put the wrong LAN cards in half the machines. I think they thought I wasn't going to check them all, first. Sorry I'm late, did you keep yourself entertained?" I bit off a chunk of the slice, enjoying the combination of bacon and pineapple, chasing strings of melted cheese with my tongue.
"But of course! We have a phone, so I chatted up a local fanboy. He'll be here any time now." I looked expectantly toward the door, and, as he looked to see what I saw at, took a bite out of his slice of pizza.
"Ha! He'll be afraid you are really some forty-year-old fat guy pretending to be a twenty-two year old vixen. He'll never show."
"This one's named Mitzep. He wants very badly to see us both." Dave looked at me strangely.
"You're not joking, are you?" I shook my head. "You did talk to your brother today." I told him about the call in between bites of pizza. Once I'd finished and wiped the cheese and grease off my fur, I showed him my maps.
"I think we should have them land here." I poked a clawtip on a spot outside Walhalla, North Dakota. "It's easy to spot from the air, well off the interstate, about four miles south of the border; we can drive across on this back road if there's any trouble. We can bring them in just after sunset, get them settled, and still make our rendezvous up north by ten the next day. We just need a place to put them until we get back."
"The camping gear's in the van. We'll stash it in that state park up there. You'd never be able to drive through customs with me driving the truck, anyway."
"Just the southern side. The Canadians don't have any trouble with my passport. As long as my rabies vaccination is up to date, that is." We laughed, thinking about the over-zealous young livestock inspector who'd insisted on verifying my shots the first trip through, in spite of the RCMP special agents escorting us.
"Right. Okay, so we leave them camping in the woods. What do we say to the other Diyim'yi we're meeting at the airport?"
"Let's ask Chopka. My brother hinted that they might have troubles back home."
"Do we want to put ourselves in the middle of this? I'm just asking, because it might get sticky. And those Canadians make me leave my guns behind."
"Dave, they're family. And I haven't been too happy with the attitudes of the crews of the last couple of ships who have come to pick up cargo. Something isn't right. I respect Chopka, and I certainly trust my brother. Maybe we'll find out what' going on back home, finally."
"You're right, as usual. I trust Chopka, too. He's as straight as they come. Your opinion of him is just biased because he was trying so hard to get you into bed, back before he married your aunt. Marriage will have changed him, you'll see." Dave lay back on the twin bed, reaching for the TV remote, forcing me to take drastic measures.
I struck a pose on the bed, putting my paw on my hip and opening my mouth, trying for a shocked expression, while simultaneously floofing my tail at his face. I hoped for his sake those pills kicked in soon.
"I seem to recall he tried to bed your other wife, as well. What makes you think he won't try for me, again?" He spit imaginary fur out of his mouth and leaned over and caught me by the ankle and shoulder, pulling me over his chest as he continued to roll, pinning me under his human bulk.
"We had a discussion, and he decided he wasn't that interested after all." He rubbed his face in my fur, pretending to bite me. "And I convinced him the two of you are much too dangerous for a little fox like him."
"Just checking." He made another grab for the remote, and I slapped his hand, claws out. "Much too dangerous, especially if you try that again. There's nothing on that TV you need to see right now." He held his hand up so that I could lick the scratches.
"I knew I should have ordered veggie pizza." I growled. Plenty of time to tell him later.
Sioux Falls has never done much for me, so an early dawn departure north across the prairie improved my mood. Chessec was driving the van half a mile in front of the rental truck, traveling slightly above the speed limit to avoid suspicion. It hadn't happened yet: One or two oncoming drivers each day swerved or slowed down as they noticed the vixen through the tinted windscreen, but all had dismissed it as a costume or hallucination. Hoping no trooper with too much time on his hands decided to stop her, I trailed far enough back to react if needed.
I was honestly relieved to find out Chessec was in heat again; with that factored in her mood swings made sense. She was still worried that the reduced dosage of hormones she was taking might not be enough: there was apparently some social stigma attached to a public display. 'Nice' girls didn't have a scent, or something like that. I thought she might be having second thoughts about our marriage. Just because she shared a telepathic bond with Marie, it had been sort of a shotgun affair, and maybe she was having second thoughts. I just reminded myself that her suddenly sharper tongue was more than offset by her increased attentions in bed. On second consideration, she seemed very human.
We left the interstate nearly a hundred miles south of the border and drove secondary roads to avoid the ever-more-frequent weigh stations and checkpoints. By mid-afternoon found us in Pembina Hills Wildlife Area, a small patch of second growth timber and hills surrounded by otherwise flat and empty farmland. The campsite had no full time attendant, just one of those honor-system fee posts and a dozen parking slots. I parked the truck and joined her in the van.
"We made nice time today," I observed. She 'harrumphed' and stuck her snout in the air. I smiled and counted slowly to ten.
"We could have stopped at a bathroom someplace along the way." She said tartly, pulling the key out of the ignition and determinedly climbed out of the van. I stared at the dashboard until she returned from the restroom, resisting the desire to grab a drink from the cooler behind the seat. Long practice with wives of both species made me refrain from any comment, especially regarding female bladder capacity. She droveslowly around the park scenic loop once. "You're tentatively forgiven. That restroom was the cleanest I've seen on this trip. Just remember next time we do this." She stopped the van on an overlook above the small river, and reached back into the cooler to grab a of piece ice. "We probably ought to have Mitzep land over there. No one can see the ship from the road, I think. Let's take a look." She pulled her blouse and shorts off and climbed out of the van wearing only a scarf.
I walked alongside her as she ambled on all fours down the trail leading into the woods. Although Chessec said she feels more comfortable walking like that; it still made me feel guilty, like I was treating my wife as an animal. She was clearly happy enough: Tail wagging, stopping to absorb interesting scents I could only imagine, pointing out the evidence found by her nose. I've always wondered what it's like, knowing it could just as easily have been me changed instead of Marie. I thought of her for the second time that day, the image blurred by a strange one of Chessec in Marie's original, human form. With a slight smile, I blinked myself back to the present.
We stopped on the edge of a small clearing, perhaps fifty feet across. The ground was firm enough for the shuttle; the trees were just thick enough to block our view of the road. We checked the ground for obstructions, hidden holes or rocks.
"They'll be here in four hours. I vote we go for a swim."
"That sounds good, but we're just missing one thing: A pond." She yipped a laugh, then took off full tilt into the woods. I followed at a more leisurely pace, hearing a splash followed by the indignant quacking of ducks from ahead. Chessec was swimming in a wide bend in the stream, her scarf draped over a rock on the bank.
"Hurry up!" I piled my clothes alongside and jumped in, too.
"Damn, this is cold!!!" I waded back onto the sand bank. "It's only early spring, this far north."
"For you its cold, maybe, but I'm wearing a fur coat. Did I mention the van's air conditioner isn't working again?" She splashed some water at me. "I'm going to stay out here for a while. I want to wash some of my scent off before the crew gets here."
"I thought I'd fixed the air?"
"No, you fixed the heater. I don't need a heater." She found some clean sand and started to scrub. "You can't smell me anyway, with that dead nose of yours, but more civilized people will." I laid my head on a rock and closed my eyes against the sun. I could tell her mood was better. She was still excited about tonight, but not nervous any more. I began to feel a nap coming….
Chessec waited until she was right beside me before she shook the water out of her fur, then pulled my pocket comb out of my pants and sat down to comb out her tail, a big grin on her face.
"You know what payback is?"
"I'm beginning to get the idea…." Our play was interrupted as she stopped and cocked an ear to one side.
"Someone's coming," she whispered. As I pulled on my shorts, a young man in a Fish and Wildlife Service khaki uniform arrived from further downstream. Chessec ran up and sniffed his trousers until he patted her head. We exchanged polite greetings, during which he (1) complimented my nice dog; (2) asked casually if I'd had any luck fishing, and (3) attempted to detect the odor of pot in the air. After all that, as he turned to continue his walk, he remarked,
"A lot of old folks hike the trail up on the ridge. Some of them tend to be easily alarmed; and a person never knows when they might have an audience. I'd wear the shorts; hate to cause the old dears a heart attack." He smiled and continued on down the path. Chessec followed him quietly while I finished dressing, and met up with me back at the clearing half an hour later.
"I wonder how much he saw? What do you think?"
"I think he's a real game warden, or whatever you call them. He stopped a fisherman another mile upstream to checked his license and creel."
"I mean about the site. Think we'll be seen?"
"Maybe by someone back at the campsite. If anyone shows up we could have Mitzep move the ship again. That guy didn't even carry a radio."
"Not definite. All the agencies use cell phones now. You watch TV. He could have one in his pocket, and you'd never know."
"I stuck my nose in his pocket."
"That's not where I saw it!"
"Well, his fingers felt so good in my ears, I felt I ought to return the favor." The discussion went non-verbal from there, and any little old ladies with binoculars doubtless expired on the spot. When we were done, I could smell her, but we both had time for a second bath before sunset.
The familiar glow of Mitzep's shuttle exhaust was mostly lost in the glare of the last sliver of a beautiful sunset. It landed almost silently, starting a few small grass fires that I put out with a shovel and bucket of water while his passengers disembarked. The young pilot came over to see if I needed help while Chessec greeted them.
"This is still a nice planet you've got here Dave. Sky's getting pretty busy, though."
"If you would have filed a flight plan we would have got you a landing slot, and be staying in a hotel instead of a tent. What's going on?"
"That, sir, is indeed a question, one that will take a while to explain. Why don't I introduce you to everyone else?"
Chessec was more surprised by the existence of the jaguar cubs than I was. To me, any alien was still a rare creature. H'raawl-Hrkh's impressive, towering form still amazed me enough that any smaller feline could only be an understatement. The cubs were excited by their new surroundings, glad to be off the ship and eager to explore. Plus, their internal clocks said it was early morning, not almost bedtime. They made pests of themselves, interrupting with the kinds of questions one expects from young children. Finally, Nurse Berypt took her charges for a walk around the perimeter of the clearing while the ship's crew; Chessec and I discussed what to do next. They quickly filled us in on the problems with the ship, the need for the Captain to return to the homeworld quickly, and the renegade faction within the Exploration Corps. We spoke in Diyim'yi as much as possible with Chessec translating when the conversation got too difficult for my own, now-rusty grasp of their language.
"…so If we can't resupply, we'll have to either leave people here or abandon the ship entirely. Can you get us some?"
"It shouldn't be too hard to buy more oxygen. Finding a safe place to load it will be a bit of a challenge. We'll try to shift operations north of the border tomorrow anyway, and I'm not sure there won't be some screwy Canadian law that says you can't sell LOX to foxes." Chessec groaned.
"Why are you going there?" Mitzep asked.
"One of the things your sister and I have been working on: Diyim'yi now has kind-of -diplomatic relations with the Colossus of the North. The other ship will land a shuttle there tomorrow that we need to meet. If we'd known you were coming we could have asked permission to let you land there directly; I'll ask for it tomorrow. Meanwhile, you get to camp out with us."
"On cots, I hope?" I tossed him an air mattress.
"Not quite. Might want to start blowing." He looked at he nozzle dubiously, wrinkling his thin lips experimentally.
"Got a valve extension? I don't think any of us will be able to work these." Chessec grinned and handed him a foot pump.
"Way ahead of you, little brother."
Leaving the ship and its crew in the woods and our van in one of the campsites, headed for the border in the rental truck. Dave drove. This was our fourth trip into Canada and we had everything down to a routine. The secondary road was a major tourist crossing without much commercial traffic; the harried US border patrol agent dealt with a steady stream of motor homes, giving only a cursory look at our rental paperwork before waving us through to the northern side.
The inspector at this particular border crossing had caused us problems before; with strict interpretation of the many rules governing rental trucks, pets (me) and the legality of importing wholesale electronics. With some consultation with our Canadian counterparts we learned to use this dedication to our advantage. He would find some fault with our paperwork, then Dave would insist on seeing a supervisor, and we would be directed to pull the truck into a covered shed for further inspection. By coincidence, a senior inspector with a special team would 'just happen' to be there ready to help.
"Hi, Colin," I leaned out the passenger side window ant greeted the security specialist we'd first met in Washington. He'd been promoted, with full-time responsibility for his government's end of things. "Are you ready to arrest us as the illegal aliens we are?"
"Oh, very funny, Chessec. Like you haven't used that joke every single time we've met. I might not show next time, and young Tommy out there at with the clipboard will put you in a kennel until Dave produces your rabies tag." His assistants poked around the truck while we talked, keeping real customs inspectors away.
"I'm sorry, I've missed you. You are a sight for sore eyes. It makes my day to see you. Anything to worry about on the road north?"
"Just follow the unmarked car. When you get to Shilo, there is a military exercise going on, so stay on the main road until you get to our compound."
"OK, we'll see you there." Just then Dave came back out of the customs house with his paperwork.
"I swear you folks have a form for everything. This time, I only filled out the French side, just from spite." He shook Colin's hand, continuing in a lower voice. "Chessec, why don't you ride with him in his car and fill him in about Mitzep's ship." That sounded like a good idea, something I'd not thought of. There were going to be enough tricky moments this time, and he deserved some background.
"Sounds good." As I agreed, Colin looked a little sheepish.
"About the car…We borrowed it along with the bomb dog handler from the barracks at Winnipeg, and his dog is, well, riding in the back seat."
"And I, as Ambassador, will be riding in the front seat with you. If he's well behaved, he can stay with us. Otherwise, he could always ride with Dave. He's used to hair on his seat cushions."
"When you say 'he' can ride with me, did you mean the dog or the handler?" We walked over to the sedan, really an SUV that had a built-in cage in the back. The handler stood uncertainly beside the vehicle, where a black nose was pressed against the window.
"Oh, what a pretty dog." I pressed my own nose against the glass. An excited cocker spaniel licked the inside, trying to reach me. "She doesn't seem too vicious. I was expecting an Alsatian."
"You're thinking of guard and attack dogs. She's easier to walk around crowded airports", her handler observed. "Should I take her over to the truck with me?"
"Not unless you really want to share a seat with her. We'll get along fine otherwise." To his credit, he didn't hesitate too long before agreeing, although he did glance up and catch the quick shake of Senior Inspector McOwen's head. "We'd better get moving."
Colin and I drove north. The dog sniffed and whined until we got out on the highway, then finally curled up to sleep. The two of us talked about the schedule for a while, and then moved on to more casual topics. The counterintelligence officer was an imperturbable host, with more common sense than most humans. He'd be sure to do the right thing in the face of stupid decisions on the part of his superiors, so I felt pretty safe with him. Right now it was certainly in his government's interest to be nice.
"Another ship entered your solar system this week, an unscheduled stop for repairs. I had them land south of the border last night; do you think we could shift them up to Shilo?"
"That certainly explains why NORAD went crazy. Your ship flew right up the throat of the PARCS radar at Cavalier before it dropped too low. They almost blamed it on Russia."
"Yes, oops. I'm sure the minister will allow it, but we'd better call once we get there. He'll want something in return, I'm sure."
"No examination by those two damned scientists again. I'm not stripping down for any other humans besides my husband."
"We'll work something else out. What about their damage? Can we help with anything?" He sounded offhand about it; I'm sure they'd love to examine one of our ships up close.
"I'll have to ask the flight engineer. Say, come to think of it; she might be willing to be locked in a room with those two for some comparative anatomy studies."
"I don't trust them any more than you did. It might be dangerous."
"Oh, they'd probably survive, maybe." We entered the hills, leaving the farming districts behind for forest as we approached the army training area that surrounded our compound. I looked back through the window and checked that Dave's truck was still following us.
"One more thing-we'd like the two shuttles at opposite ends of the field if possible, and to keep the crews out of sight of each other." Colin turned to face me, raising an eyebrow.
"Interesting. Would you care to tell me why?"
"It's a factional dispute, I'd just rather avoid the chance of trouble." He slowed without stopping at the gate, his own man standing next to the guard to wave us through.
"Chessec, we'll need more details than that. I can't have unknown aliens with 'factional disputes' trying to settle them in our country. Are these newcomers dangerous?"
"Yes," I said, thinking of all those felines in Mitzep's shuttle. "But not to you. Besides, they're family."
"So the 'official visitors,' then. What about them?"
"I don't know who the government is sending. Last time was just a contract freighter crew, nobody special. I'll just have to meet them and find out."
Colin parked the SUV behind the hangar, while Dave drove the truck inside and someone closed the doors. We met in some attached offices the government had given Colin's program. His security detail were unobtrusive, just enough in sight to keep away the curious, but not enough to attract attention on their own. Dave joined us.
"I wish your guys would just read the inventory sheets. They want to search everything again. I'm not smuggling plutonium inside those computer cases, you know, just computers. The foxes have their own plutonium, already." He popped the top on a soda. "And another thing, your vending machine out there ate my fifty cents."
"If you wouldn't use those underweight quarters, it would work. Sit down: Tell me about Chessec's extra visitors."
We discussed contingencies for a while, giving the Canadians enough time to open up all the computer cases and plant who knows what listening and tracking devices inside them. It didn't do them any good, but it gave us plenty of examples of state of the art surveillance equipment. Colin went through the study program his scientists hoped to perform on selected crewmembers; I tried to guess which ones they'd put up with. We had reached a standing agreement that any medical examination they chose to administer could be repeated on a human subject, particularly the examiner, at a later date. Our own scientists, in consultation with Dave, had determined that human biosciences weren't sophisticated enough to gain information to design anything harmful based on a few tissue samples. I considered this more in the nature of confidence building measures.
I met the first shuttle while Dave rode across the field to look at where Mitzep would land once we had them safely inside the hangar. The new shuttle looked disappointingly normal as it circled the landing pattern once, taxied off the runway and up to our hangar. I'd been told it would be disguised, but the small executive jet was a perfect deception. I'm sure some of the waiting dignitaries thought we were pulling a fast one, maybe with actors in fur coats flown in from Winnipeg. The first Diyim'yi out of the hatch was a tall, light furred male wearing Commander's insignia. Behind him were two general cargo crewmen and the pilot, a vixen. I met them at the bottom of the ladder with a pleasant "good morning."
He looked away from the humans he'd been staring at and snapped, "That's good morning, sir; isn't it, Lieutenant?" He spoke in our own language, thankfully.
I counted to ten, then replied, through my teeth, "Not, anymore. My rank is Ambassador, Commander." Whoever said only the smart ones get promoted?
"The fleet hasn't confirmed that." For once, I was glad Dave wasn't around. This idiot was just the right color to start a new career as a throw rug after he skinned the corpse. I tried one more time, counting backwards from five first.
"Nevertheless, the Corps has. You are keeping our hosts waiting. We're you planning to say something to them?" He snarled as he pulled a piece of paper from his pocket.
"Weegr..eet you." He began to read phonetically. I interrupted.
"You don't have to fake it. I'll read that. Part of the job." I plucked the paper from his paw, turned and rattled off the platitudes, then waited patiently while a foreign office type gave his reply. I translated, "He says 'likewise.' What happened to your translator?"
"We were supposed to have a combination pilot-first contact specialist assigned, but she was injured just before departure. Her replacement is only a pilot."
"I see. Well, then I'll take her place. Remember that I can say anything I want to them." We moved our way down the greeting line. At least he knew to shake hands and smile; not to show too many teeth. He got a worried look as the meaning of my sotto remark sunk in. As we got farther from the ladder of his ship, he realized just how much his mission depended on me. As we walked into the meeting room, he made an attempt to apologize. Smiling as I seated his crew opposite the human delegation (an equal number of politicians, scientists, and foreign affairs types, plus Colin's assistant), I replied, "We can talk about it later, once this is over. While the cargo is being loaded."
The diplomatic session lasted about an hour; with our side not willing to trade much, and theirs not willing to make a public treaty yet, not much more could be done. After we broke up, the shuttle pilot and cargo handlers went back to the hangar to load the first increment, while the Commander and I had our private conversation in the quarters he'd been assigned.
"You handled the negotiations well," he admitted grudgingly. "They clearly want to know how to build ships like ours, and would give almost anything for it. Too bad our masters will only allow trade for precious metals at the moment." My throat had dried out. I walked across to get a glass of water from the pitcher on the table next to his couch.
"The last message I received said we might offer pharmaceuticals next time. Did you receive any information about that?" He indicated he had not. As I stood in front of him, he unconsciously wrinkled his nose, testing the air. I could smell it too: last night's dosage of hormones was wearing off. Refilling my glass, I backed away from him.
"It must be terribly lonesome to be the only Diyim'yi on the planet. Do you ever find yourself missing your own kind?" He tried his best to look sincerely interested, but it was an oily, contrived come-on. I wondered why he was hiding his natural disgust at my uncouth personal hygiene. Was he just looking for a female (he was a sailor just in port, after all), or was this a calculated move to suborn me? I was attracted: the natural muskiness of a healthy dog-fox was an unconscious stimulant to me in my present condition. If I had the weak will and instinctive passion of the vixens in Dave's trashy stories, I would have responded. Instead, I put down my glass and stepped into the doorway.
"I will go check on how far along they are loading the cargo. Will you accompany the shuttle back to the ship this trip; or wait here until it comes back?" I had the door closed before he formed his answer.
My last-minute substitution for the previous shuttle pilot made the Commander suspicious; I guess she had been an important part of his plan. They substituted me because they suspected he was a part of the conspiracy. And I was available; I had already begun training as the backup pilot. We were betting he hadn't been important enough to be told about my defection yet, and our departure had been rushed to keep him from communicating with anyone on Nurnkh.
The ship was a modified freighter, and we were the only two fleet officers aboard: the rest of the crew was civilian. As fellow officers, we were forced by custom to socialize together. So I just kept my mouth shut where possible and agreed with whatever he said. He wasn't too bad a person, aside from his xenophobic views, and he seemed to go out of his way to befriend me, setting aside the difference in rank when we were alone together.
My instructions were to contact the female Diyim'yi on Earth and warn her about the conspiracy, and to tell her if I discovered anything about the Commander's role in it. When I asked how I would know whom to contact, Marie smiled and assured me it wouldn't be a problem. Seeing her, even in an enormous building filled with hairless aliens, there was no doubt which one was Chessec; the family resemblance between Marie and her was unmistakable, even from a distance. They might almost be twins. She was dressed in an expensive green silk summer dress cut just the right length to display her well-brushed tail, and had the eye of most every male in the place, not just the Diyim'yi, either.
I climbed through the hatchway just in time to hear her explode at some remark the Commander made. Her ears briefly showed disappointment, but she recovered and quickly snarled an angry response that caused him to step back half-a-step. His outburst surprised me, too: It seemed out of character, almost an act. I wondered if the conspiracy had given him specific instructions, or if she just hadn't been what he'd expected. Clearly something was developing. As we followed her into a meeting room, the air currents brought her scent to me: that might be the cause. The Commander had casually propositioned me early into the voyage. He hadn't pursued when I turned him down, but then, I hadn't been in heat either. Maybe that was all it was.
I wasn't able to see her by myself that day. The cargo handlers and I loaded the shuttle and took the first load back to the ship, returning later that night to rest. I spotted her passing in the hallway as I was filling out my postflight paperwork. Seeing no one else around, I followed.
She crossed the hangar floor and exited one of the small doors let into the hangar door. I ran along behind her, peering cautiously out into the night. She was just disappearing around the end of the building, so I sped up even more and caught her before she climbed into a ground vehicle.
"Please, we have to talk." She stopped and waited until I got there. "Ambassador Chessec, I have a message from the Corps, and greetings from your sister, Marie. Can we talk privately?"
"Climb in, Lieutenant." She held the door of the vehicle while I climbed inside. "What was your name, again?"
"Annas, Ambassador." She looked at me, a thoughtful expression on her face.
"Call me Chessec." She started the vehicle and drove it across the active runway toward some darkened buildings on the other side. "Where do you know Marie from?" I told her the highlights of my story, beginning with what had happened to Mitzep and everything since. When we arrived at another hangar, she shut off the engine and we sat in the dark while I finished. Finally, she climbed out of the car. "Follow me." A tall human was waiting for her just inside the building. "Stay here." She said something to him in his own language, then left the room through another doorway. He looked at me curiously, saying something alien to me, as well.
"I don't have a clue what you just said, but I hope it was friendly." I'd begun to realize the risk I was taking: I'd violated the Commander's order to stay put, and now I was alone with a strange alien. He didn't appear to have a weapon; but as big as he was, he really didn't need one.
"I was just saying I guess this means I don't get much sleep tonight. I'm friendly enough, as long as you don't try to leave before my wife gets back," he said in passable, but heavily accented Diyim'yi. "Why don't you take a seat?"
Chessec returned in a few minutes, followed by Mitzep and Berypt.
"You're alive!" I threw my arms around my sister.
"That's her, all right," Mitzep exclaimed. "It doesn't mean she's not still one of them." I protested that I had changed; that my time with Jena and in her people's compound had convinced me that the conspiracy's genocidal policy was wrong. He looked up at the mention of Jena. "How is she?"
I told him what I knew. Chessec had me repeat everything I'd said to her, and then I answered questions for another hour. They seemed satisfied that my change of loyalty was genuine. Finally, they told me about the damage to the other ship, and the need to return to Diyim'yi as soon as possible. Mitzep and Dave got sidetracked into a conversation about what to do about the freighter.
"Then we'll have to stall them."
"What good will that do? There's bound to have been another ship direct from Nurnkh by now."
"Of course. We can't do anything about that, but we can keep them from knowing exactly when we land. We only have to leave first."
"OK." They looked at me. "Annas, could you fake some damage to the shuttle, keep it grounded here for about three days?"
"It would have to be something I discover on the next flight. So tomorrow, at the earliest."
We were engaged in a technical discussion about how to fake a hydraulic leak without crashing the ship, when a siren began to wail across the airfield.
The loud sirens flattened everyone's ears in the room; at least everyone's that could move independently. Dave hit the light switch, throwing the room into darkness. Assured he was blocking the door, I yelled for everyone to get on the floor. The siren cut off, leaving a ringing silence. Sporadic gunfire receded into the distance.
"Nobody tries to go outside, do you understand, Annas. We have guards out there already." I hoped that was still true. "Dave, where's the phone?"
"On the other desk. You going to call Colin?" He pointed. "The command center's '101' on that line." An excited young man put me through to Colin almost immediately.
"Chessec, it looks like someone was trying to break into the opposite end of the hangar you're inside. At least five men, three dune buggy-like vehicles. All the vehicles are escaping down the runway, but we're not sure if they left any bombs or if there were any others. Do you have all your people?"
"I'm not sure, wait." I spoke to Mitzep. "Get H'raawl-Hrkh, make sure everyone is safe. We'll stay here." He waved and slipped through the inside door. I told Colin what we were doing. "How about the other hangar?"
"There wasn't any attack over here. Your Commander is trying to say something to me, though. He seems upset. Here." He must have passed the phone over.
"Chessec! What is the meaning of all this noise? Have you seen my pilot?" I explained about the attack in as few words as possible. "It looks like they went to the wrong building. I have Lieutenant Annas with me, and will return her as soon as it's safe." I urged him to cooperate with Colin until I could get there.
Mitzep brought the cubs back with him, all of them with armfuls of ordnance. He started handing out rifles. "H'raawl-Hrkh is guarding the shuttle. She wants to know if we should evacuate?" I shook my head when Colin called back.
"They've escaped. Drove right into the back of two MH-47 Chinooks, which pretty well tells me who they were. Not that SOCOM will admit it. They're getting away, too. All our outside phone lines are 'out of service' and my own security helicopter has somehow developed 'bad fuel.'"
"We could send the shuttle after them. It's armed."
"Probably better not. We should plan to get you all out of here as soon as we can. In case they decide to destroy what they can't have themselves." That put a kink in my plans.
"Colin, hon, there might be some complications. Let me call you right back."
I hung up the phone and went over to squat next to Dave, motioning Mitzep to join us. "We might not get three days, Colin says we need to leave before anything bad happens. If we load all the oxygen canisters you can carry, plus everyone you came with, will you have enough to make it home?"
"No. I can take one passenger. Captain said one of the cubs, if we don't get any more." I caught Annas' eye.
"Would your ship take the rest?" I knew the answer, but had to ask.
"The Commander might accept the crew as prisoners, but never Berypt's cubs. Anyway, that crew is likely to cause an 'accident' even if he didn't order it. You would have to hold them at gunpoint to make it work."
"We'd have piracy added to all the other charges the fleet has against us." Mitzep didn't sound like that was such a bad idea to him.
"Better not take the risk. Dave, we need to get asylum for H'raawl-Hrkh, Berypt and two cubs." I had a thought, "Should I go back with Annas, to argue for another ship?" No, as soon as I said it, I dismissed it as a dumb idea. They might just forget the whole thing once I'm home.
"Open up! It's McOwen!" There was a knock on the door. Motioning us all behind desks, Dave turned the handle. Colin stepped in, looking with disapproval at the slug-throwers aimed at his midsection. "Marie, I need you to bring the pilot back over to the other hangar and translate for the other crew."
"We'll be right out." I told him about our arrangements. "Other than that, we can have both ships lift at first light. Once you get in touch with Winnipeg, you ought to be able to furnish us some fighter escort."
He agreed. Annas and I climbed into his sedan, which was escorted by two armored personnel carriers filled with nervous-looking infantry in battledress. During the short drive across the field I could see dozens of troops establishing a perimeter. The Commander met us in the doorway of the command center, followed by a very large young human soldier. Colin gestured.
"Young Private Jones has orders to sit on your friend if he tries to leave. It was about all I was able to explain to him without words." I sat down and explained that his trip was going to have to be cut short, that I promised better security next time, and that it would be best if Annas took off at first light. I didn't get the feeling that this Diyim'yi officer would be a booster of additional trade with Earth. He looked ready to leave. I shook his hand, wished him a good trip, and left him to gather up his crew. Colin drew me aside.
"Chessec, one other thing you should know. When the alert started, your Commander wasn't in his room. He was running across the runway, back from the other hangar. I think he followed you."
"I'll need to warn Annas. She might be in danger. There's not much he can do about the others." I wrote a warning on a slip of paper, then made a final visit to their shuttle to wish them a safe voyage home. Under the pretext of hugging her, I pushed the note into the zipped open neck of her flight suit. Her eyes widened until she felt the paper, then she smiled.
"I'll miss you too." The shuttle took off as inconspicuously as it landed, just another small jet flying off toward the north, while two CF-18s orbited, waiting to fly an approach pattern. They followed it north. As soon as they were off the tower radar, Mitzep launched his own shuttle in a maximum angle, max g's takeoff to the northeast. The sonic boom shook the windows, and doubtless angered some locals.
We gathered everyone who was left behind onto a band-tour bus style motor home with tinted windows, and left the compound with heavy escort. Colin, Dave and I sat at a table and made plans, while the rest looked out at the strange planet where they were now stranded.