Day 30:

Ekit chuckled at the capitaine's levity. He grinned, then absently felt his shoulder with one hand. "Capitaine," Ekit said cautiously, "why did the ship go into evasive action?"

"Temperance told me you were roughed up because of that," Pomeroy said, smiling apologetically. "Really, I should tell you what that was about regardless. Apparently, a rather infamous smuggler and son of a prominent family was turned over to Hadratspace Dock authorities by some of his incensed fellows. He remembered seeing you and from his description of the 'fiendish jinn' that had appeared from nowhere, the authorities guessed that the Clairvoyance was carrying a mandarin spy."

"Oh," Ekit exclaimed quietly, his eyes wide with horrified understanding.

"Don't worry," Pomeroy said reassuringly. "We hadn't connected more then the most basic sytems on docking and the station had waited to long on to the ship until we had fed them our star drop log, the record of our previous docks along with news and messages of various sorts between systems. We disconnected with the Dock and dodged the tracer probes they sent after us. Now we're running fast. The only injury sustained throughout was your banged up shoulder."

"Well, that's something at least," Ekit said, clearly embarrassed and relieved.

"I have one more request," Pomeroy said, glancing at the clock and noting the time: three minutes until the drop was made.

"Yes?" Ekit inquired politely.

"Refrain from focussing very much on any single object or desire or we may come out of the drop and experience a string of remarkably bad luck."

"I'll try," Ekit said, forcing a laugh from suddenly nervous lips.

"Now off with you, I don't want you mocking your capitaine for his merely human limitations."

"I would never mock an honourable and kind man such as yourself, Captaine Pomeroy," Ekit said seriously.

"So you say," Pomeroy said with a laugh. "Leave, and take your obsequious statements with you. Flattery shall get you no where."

"I meant it," Ekit said, rising from his seat and turning to exit the room.

"Perhaps you did," Pomeroy allowed with a chuckle. "Be off with you!"

"Yes, capitaine."

Ekit left the room and walked down the hallway, analyzing the conversation. The computer interrupted his thoughts, intoning over the ship speakers, "Beginning drop to Lavasseur space."

Ekit paused and tried to decide if he should find somewhere to sit while the change occurred, but before he came to a decision the disorientation of the drop began to effect him. This time when his perception of reality altered, he did not try and match the information his brain was receiving directly to his senses, deciding instead to try and take things as they were. It was hard and his mind kept slipping back into the normal universe of sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell that he had spent his entire life in. Yet with extreme concentration on, of all things, not concentrating, Ekit was able to sense a reality beyond his own. It was not above or below, within or without. It was merely different, neither good nor bad. His thoughts ran like water over a shallow, sandy bottom and he felt as though he could reach out and hold each idea as if it were a precious jewel glinting in the sun. Every time one idea flowed into another he wanted to cry, and suddenly he realized the thoughts were not his own: they were the thoughts of every person on the ship. Most remained fairly constant, and as he recognized them for what they were more crowded within his perceptions. He began to feel squashed by the memories and dreams of others, the sharp edges prodding him in awkward spots of his almost-body, maybe-mind.

With a shock, he sensed another "stream" of thought like himself, one that had not frozen into an adamantine form and continued to flow and change despite the strange conditions. He felt as though, by sensing it, he had brushed against the consciousness or perhaps pulled it to him.

He realized that the other stream was a girl, terrified of herself and of the world around her. The terror went much deeper than a simple fear of the unknown: she was afraid of sharing her honest opinion and even of analyzing her subjective reality. Without the resilience to think clearly about what was happening to her, the girl's mind was about to break from the stress of the new and strange environment she found herself in. Not thinking about the censure of the captain if one of the crew died or even the gratitude of whoever it was he was helping, Ekit soothed the rippled waters of the girl's mind. He somehow had an image of him removing great boulders from her innermost consciousness, freeing the way for fresh and delightful thoughts.

There were many boulders, and some Ekit had to work very hard to remove. He found it almost impossible to keep his stream of consciousness, his life river, separate from that of the girl. In such a situation he discovered that keeping the generally necessary boundaries of self and other were impossible.

Together, becoming one person as thoughts mixed and flowed, the mind lifted the last of the boulders. Instead of removing them when he had begun, Ekit had arranged all of the boulders to the side of the girl's mind. Now the combined mind rearranged the boulders into an intricate pattern. Many had shrunk during the process, the combined force of the thought flows wearing away at them. Others had grown, convictions strengthened by the shared contact. As the ship finished it's drop to Lavasseur space, Ekit returned back to himself as a single entity, deeply changed by the strange encounter. He blinked his eyes and was surprised to see deep brown eyes blinking back at him. He backed away and took his arms from around a warm, feminine body, clearing his throat awkwardly.

"You are Talibah," Ekit stated, looking anywhere but at her. He knew that the experience they had just shared, whatever it had been, was not the least bit sexual. It had been incredibly deep and intense, a sharing of morals, beliefs, thoughts, reasoning, memories, and even tastes on such simple subjects as food. Yet Talibah was a gorgeous young woman and she knew he felt that way. Inversely, he also knew that she had suffered greatly at the hand of men and held, in the depths of her thoughts, a secret loathing for them.

"You are Ekit," Talibah replied. "I - I thank you. You have saved my life twice in one day."

"Nonsense," Ekit said. "Here there are no days."

"Yet the human body still has rhythms to it and-"

"I don't mean in space," Ekit said with a half smile. "I meant in Lavasseur space."

"Is that where we are?" Talibah asked with wonder.

"Yes. What did you know about it?" Ekit asked, perplexed. No sign of any comprehension had existed in her mind before Ekit had intervened and even then it was mostly the facts they had felt true rather than facts they knew to be true which they had exchanged. Talibah knew dimly of Ekit's former encounter with Lavasseur space, but surely that could not incite the awe he almost felt emanating from her.

"I helped to plot a course through Lavasseur space for the ship," Talibah said, gazing around her as if searching for a clearly obvious difference between normal reality and this place she now inhabited, if only for a moment.

"Oh," Ekit said softly. Understanding dawned on him, born from his recent immersion in the girl's psyche. Talibah felt as though her talents were small and insignificant, that no one cared about her beyond using her, and that something else sad and pathetic here.

"What is different about this place?" Talibah asked curiously.

"You didn't pick that out of my mind?" Ekit asked, surprised.

"No," Talibah replied, almost sullenly. "I didn't pick much of anything out of your mind besides what you threw at me."

Ekit raised his eyebrow in amused doubt.

"Well, alright," Talibah said, sticking out her tongue. "Maybe I caught bits and pieces of your memories."

Ekit looked away, a blush staining his cheeks.

"You caught some of my more sensitive memories," Talibah remarked with asperity beyond her almost sixteen years.

"Yes, but none of them were the least bit tender," replied. Horror leaked into his eyes and he carefully kept them averted from the girl.

"You needn't hide your revulsion," Talibah said gently, stepping to Ekit and laying a soft hand upon his cheek. "You showed me how horrible such things were, and your memories gave me hope for something better and more real."

"You are so calm about it now," Ekit said, remembering her raw unadulterated fear.

"You showed me how to be brave. Not strong mind you, I recognize the fallacy of that mind set as well as you do, but brave enough to face my past and be able to set events aside when I need to. I think I will always hurt." A darkness lay behind her eyes. With a shrug of her shoulders she shrugged it off and smiled. "But others carry evil memories inside of them and live decent lives. They must. I can't be alone."

"Of course you aren't," Ekit told her, worried that all his hard work would go to waste and her mind might twist despite his best efforts. "I am here aren't I, even when everyone else is asleep."

"Frozen you mean," Talibah said with a wry twist of her mouth.

"You noticed that sensation too?" Ekit asked. "I felt as though there were thousands of jewels piercing me, cutting through my flesh and blood and chopping at my thoughts themselves."

"I visualized it as ice seeking to freeze my heart, but yes. Much the same idea," Talibah replied.

"You asked what was different," Ekit said, removing the girl's hand from his cheek. It was nice, he wouldn't deny that, but she was far too fragile to show the least bit of interest in.

"Yes?" Talibah asked, curiosity lighting up her eyes. Ekit forced his attention from her, reminding himself of Capitaine Pomeroy's very good advice to focus on nothing.

"Watch this," he said, careful to only alter the area around him very briefly. He located a door with his eyes and thought very hard about it opening. Suddenly, there was no door. "There!" Talibah glanced in the direction of Ekit's triumphantly pointing finger and frowned in confusion.

"What?" she asked.

"Just keep watching that door," Ekit instructed, taking a deep breath before focusing again. Once more, the door vanished. Ekit glanced at Talibah to see her reaction to his showy display, he heard her sigh in disappointment.

"For a moment I thought the door had vanished, but then it - wait, did you look at me?"

"Umm," Ekit said intelligently.

"That must be it, it's a matter of concentration!" Talibah giggled excitedly. "I'll try." She focused her attention, biting her lip and straining with every muscle in her body.

"No, no," Ekit corrected kindly. "Don't use your body. Just wish for it, don't try and make it happen. Think very hard, 'Wow, wouldn't it be awesome if the door opened so I could go through?'"

Talibah glanced at him, nodded that she had heard and understood his advice, and looked at the door once more. This time though her shoulders tensed up and she rolled to the balls of her feet, most of her remained relatively loose and uninvolved. Slowly, flickering rather like a dimming light, the door vanished. As soon as Talibah grinned, the door reappeared, fully solid.

"It was invisible for a bit," Talibah said with a sigh.

"Not invisible," Ekit corrected with brilliant eyes. "You altered the basic pattern of the door causing it to be both transparent and perhaps mildly viscous. I managed to step through a door doing roughly what you just did and I don't remember having trouble getting through it at all, but I was rather confused."

"You? Confused?" Talibah said with a laugh.

"I'm only mortal after all," Ekit grumbled, hiding his grin.

"But not human," Talibah declared as if solving a great mystery.

"Hey now-"

At the sound of Talibah's uninhibited laughter, Ekit became silent. He watched her, her mouth open with happiness, her eyes crinkled with delight, her nose so very perfect on her face. With a strength of will that left him breathless, Ekit forced his mind from dwelling on what he wished to do to the girl. She was not much more than a child and while she had been through hell, that did not necessarily mean she was much less innocent, he tried to remind himself. He also reminded himself that mere minutes, or perhaps an hour ago, he had only been mildly attracted to her. In fact, he had been more emotionally invested in Audrey, the girl who had shown him to lunch and then ate with him, entertaining him up until she began to get a bit weird. Yet now the thought of Audrey paled in comparison to the glorious mind and exceedingly attractive body of Talibah Gharam ibnt Muzikkir Hasan.

"Do you know where crew quarters are?" Talibah asked unexpectedly.

Ekit did, in fact, know where crew quarters were. More specifically, he knew where his crew quarters were. Yet he was very wary of what might occur if the two of them wound up together in a small room with one bed, so he cleared his throat and said fimrly, "No."

"No you don't or no, you think it would be a bad idea for me to, while still in Lavasseur space, sleep?" Talibah asked.

With me, Ekit mentally added to her comment. Carefully not answering her question, Ekit suggested flippantly, "Let's go up to the bridge, shall we? The view is spectacular and I have a few gems to impart to you concerning the history of humanity and spacer plans."

Talibah eyed Ekit speculatively, clearly making some very shrewd guesses of her own about why he had changed topics so quickly. With a smile and a shrug, she said, "Sure, sounds like a blast."

The ship rose slowly from Lavasseur space into normal space time, breaching through the gentle waves at the interface like an ancient whale from the days when Earth's seas were still populated by species other than those farmed specifically by humans. It rocked gently in the surf of a grand celestial beach that was the true beginning of normal space it seemed to sigh sadly. The Clairvoyance began her engines to slow the kick received when exiting Lavasseur space. She began a gentle glide around Beta Hydri, a orange dwarf very similar to the home star of humanity: their Sol as it were.

The humans on board roused from their somnolence and slowly began to move about, checking systems largely operated by the ship computer already, and stretching aching, stiff limbs. Two of the crew sat side by side on the floor of the bridge, fingers barely brushing against each other. They curled in upon themselves and when one of the technicians that checked the ship screens after every drop noticed them. (Occasionally the screens would crack or otherwise break spectacularly and then they had to be replaced quickly. Without those large screens, a great deal of planning could not be done. The screens were capable of dynamic three dimensional projections which greatly eased a huge number of ills that could be suffered in trying to complete calculations, logistical plans, and the occasional evasion of a space battle.) The technicians called a friend over and soon a small crowd was gathered around the two people. One of the crowd, a fat woman edging her way into her seventieth decade though she looked little older than forty five, said, "Temperance told me about that boy. Said he recovered from the sedative she put him under like a regular bouncing ball. He's something special, that one. Heard tell Caprice herself is apprenticing him."

"Who'd you hear that from, Maureen?" a short, thin man with very bushy eyebrows asked.

"Little Audrey herself," Maureen replied serenely.

"As if I'd believe anything she has to say. That girl is a load of trouble and no mistake," a second woman, tall and big boned, though not quite fat, and firmly in her late thirties, said.

"You aren't old enough to know who to believe and who not to," Maureen snapped. "Get back to your job, Tamara, and the same to the rest of you. Almonzo and I are perfectly capable of helping these two back to their quarters without the rest of you gossiping like a bunch of old hens."

"Have you ever seen a hen?" a third woman asked Tamara quietly. "Those things are ugly."

"And so are people who gossip instead of getting down to business when there's mountain's of it to get done," Maureen snapped. "Come on up, lovey," she murmured to Ekit, patting him on the back. He groaned and stretched up a hand to bat her away, then tensed up suddenly. "Hush, you're awake now and we can get you back to your quarters so you can rest for a bit al quiet and safe," Maureen soothed.

"Come along then, little one," Almonzo said, lightly touching Talibah's shoulder. She murmured something inaudible and sleepily rose, blinking at the bridge around her.

"Where's the other me?" she asked, her sleep clouded mind unable to think of the proper way to phrase her question en français. Blinking a few times and staring bleary eyed into the slightly lined face of Maureen she tried again. "Where's my second half? The part that is me but not. The - he has a name. Edward? Edward Kittinger?"

"Who lovey?" Maureen asked, perplexed.

"I'm right here," Ekit sighed tiredly. "Don't worry." He yawned widely. "I won't leave you if you want me to stay."

Talibah smiled and sighed, satisfied that she was not alone in a spiral arm of the Milky Way that was full of strangers. "No, you can do whatever," she said expansively. "I've got to sleep."

"Hang on sweets," the short man told her. "Drap your arm across my shoulders like so... very good. Very good indeed. Now I'll jut take you to your quarters and you can get a good twelve or fourteen hours of sleep before anyone will interrupt you for anything."

"Ekit," Talibah asked, fright in her voice. "Ekit, who is this man?"

"He's safe and harmless," Ekit reassured her, his eyes closed tiredly. "He'll take you to your room and then he'll get back to his job."

"But what if he stays," Talibah muttered, panic welling in her deeply shadowed eyes. Huge bags graced each eye, inelegant ornaments testifying to exhaustion on a perfectly elegant face.

"He won't stay, but if you want me to I can sit beside you to be sure no one hurts you," Ekit said. He blinked his eyes, desperately fighting the urge to collapse on the floor and sink into blissful repose.

"Would you?" Talibah asked in a small voice.

"Now Ekit," Maureen said warningly. "You're dead on your feet and you have to rest. The capitaine would give me hell if I let anything happen to you, you know."

"I'll sit with her," Ekit tiredly informed the fat woman. "She's just as special as I am. She was aware during the drop."

"She was what?" Alonzo asked incredulously, awe crossing his face as he glanced at the girl whose arm was slung across his shoulder.

"Conscious during the drop up until we both fell asleep while coming back up. The lady's right, I'm falling asleep on my feet. Could I lean on one of you so I don't need to bother with knowing where I'm going?"

"Take my arm," Maureen offered in a motherly fashion. "There's a dear. Now come along, we've got a bit of walking to do to reach your quarters."

"Talibah's quarters you mean," Ekit corrected automatically.

Maureen and Alonzo shared a glance. With a shrug of her soft shoulders, Maureen acqueisced. "Talibah's quarter's it is then."

The four walked down several hallways. They eventually reached a hallway of lavender and blue. One side led to rooms labeled for men. At the next intersection, Ekit could dimly make out, through his bleary vision, a sign proclaiming couple and family accommodations.

"I'm afraid she's been assigned a rather spartan room and bath," Alonzo said apologetically to Ekit, the boy being much more alert than Talibah.

"I don't mind. Is there a cot I can stretch out on or anything?" Ekit mumbled.

"No, just a chair. It's form fitting, so you should be alright," Maureen said reassuringly.

"Thanks," Ekit said sleepily when he was deposited in a form fitting chair as promised.

"No trouble at all that we wouldn't willingly take again. See that you behave yourself and don't fool around till both of you have had some decent medical exams."

"Don't worry monsieur Almonzo," Ekit sighed, leaning his head back and allowing his body to relax. "I'm too exhausted to ravish the most beautiful woman in all of humanity."

With a reassured chuckle, both Maureen and Almonzo left the room. The door slid shut behind them, a gentle whoosh of air puffing through the room when it was sealed closed. "Ekit?" Talibah mumbled anxiously.

"I'm here," Ekit replied just before drifting off.

Talibah, for all her exhaustion, couldn't get to sleep for almost an hour. She sat up, glanced furtively at Ekit, and once she was certain he was really and truly asleep she removed her scarf from her head. She thought briefly about keeping her dress on, but decided with a shrug that there were covers on the bed and she did, after all, have underclothes on.

She shucked her outer layer and slithered into the temperature controlled comfort of the electronic blankets. With a happy sigh, she fell quickly into a deep and dreamless sleep.

Pomeroy stood from behind his crowded desk. Though all files, be they financial, personal, military, political, or anything else, fit neatly in his personal computer or the data banks of the ship or a mixture of both, Pomeroy had accrued a large collection of small physical items throughout his career.

A small figurine of a bird adorned one spot of his desk. It was a rarity from World Name in the Star Name system and had been given to him as a birthday gift by his mother when he had turned twenty three. That was the official coming of age date for spacer children and his mother had been sure to give him something he could appreciate his entire life. The bird was a delicate blend of art and electronics. When it felt the heat of an approaching hand or arm, the bird would open its tiny wings, flutter them, and skip away from the warmth. However, when a certain whistle was sounded, the bird would calm and allow a person to hold it on a single finger. The bird would tilt its head, blink one glittering multicolored eye, and give a sweet trill from its tiny beak. If bored by inactivity or a lack of noise aimed at it, the bird would hop back to the surface it started from and then skip-waddle to its starting position. Sometimes the hop was quite far, and in those instances the tiny wings proved invaluable, allowing the machine to glide to a safe landing. Pomeroy had often felt the urge to name this enchanting device, yet had always resisted. He felt that a woman should perform such an honor, since a woman had given the precious thing to him.

A great deal else cluttered the table as well, none quite so fantastic or precious to him. A clip of a drawing on real paper by a niece, a handwritten letter on loose electronic paper that he had preserved for years, an ancient and beautiful paper weight from the primitive colonial days on different world name in the different star name system, and a carefully folded silk scarf all shared the limited space of Pomeroy's desktop, along with a dozen other rare or curious objects.

Pomeroy glanced briefly at the pile of treasures and smiled. They were not free to fly about the room in case of an emergency: they were protected by a clear plastic and within that a plastic gel of sorts that supported the objects without damaging them in any way. He longed to take out the bird, whistle to it, and watch its avid interest in anything and everything. It was a balm that he found soothing on the worst days and delight even on the best.

Yet he did not have time. He needed to check the bridge and see that everything was running smoothly. With a sigh, he left his private office and refuge and made his way through the brightly colored hallways to the nerve center of the Clairvoyance.

"Good day, Capitaine," Maureen greeted curtly from her station. She was monitoring incoming information and prioritizing it for various people's eyes. Several others helped her; the volume of information hitting the ship when she first entered a star system, no matter how recently she had been there, was always huge. Orbits of various bits of debris in first the Oort cloud and then on further in had to be received first from the Clairvoyance's own sensors and then from outlying satellites, then occasionally relayed to incoming ships behind, and then finally received yet again from the stations and docks themselves. A great deal of other information also had to be dealt with: trading, prices of assorted goods, politics, even notes about family members and friends. Maureen serenely sorted through it all, never judging a message or panicking, always simply shunting it along as it needed to be shunted, where it needed to be shunted, and when it needed to be shunted.

Pomeroy acknowledged her greeting and continued on. He stopped before the wall of screens and feasted his eyes upon the bright dot that was his home star: Beta Hydri. He then scanned the rest of the image, more for pleasure than in the hopes of spotting anything particularly interesting or important. A glint of motion caught his eye and he pointed to it.

"Tamara, would you check that?" he asked.

"I'll have Audrey do it. She's with me today," the woman said.

"Why isn't she working with Paris?" Pomeroy asked.

"He's still sleeping and the course worked and was set, so she's working on something else for the moment."

"Do we have anyone at astro navigation?" Pomeroy asked, worried.

"I don't know," Tamara replied easily. "Ask Maureen, she knows everything."

"I think I will," Pomeroy said, anger blurring into his words.

Tamara smiled, glad to get back at the fussy old bird. Maureen had had no right to snap at her so when everyone knew how silly Audrey always was with those revolutionary ideas of hers. Though the idea of setting one power against the other did appeal to the woman on some deep level. She smiled, a dangerous glint in her eyes as she considered the glorious prospect.

"Do you know who is taking care of astro navigation?" Pomeroy asked Maureen quietly.

"I think Almonzo went to check on that a few minutes ago," Maureen said, slightly distracted. "He'll know. And he used to work those boards when he was a bit younger, so if worst comes to worst he can hold the job till Paris or one of his apprentices gets on the job."

"Did you suggest he go check on astro navigation?" Pomeroy asked, a laugh in his tone.

"I might have," Maureen said casually. "Now away with you, you blown-up tadpole. I have work to do."

"Right you are," laughed Pomeroy. Maureen's careful watch on the functioning of the Clairvoyance would be sorely missed by all when she decided to go groundside, as she surely would soon. She would make some child a marvelous foster mother, and once her duty to the spacer colony on Aphrodite was done, she would surely go into politics. Pomeroy grinned at the thought of Maureen's implacable good humor and wisdom battling the fast talking bulk of politicians. He suspected she would both enjoy politics immensely and be very good at it.

Rolling his shoulder and striding back to stare at the screens, Pomeroy asked, "Tamara, what about those speckles I saw? Some cometary trails this far out?"

"Oh I don't - fuck!"

"Your language is not well suited for my tender ears and years," Pomeroy said. "What is the matter?"

"Ships, that's what's the matter!" Tamara cried in terror. "Not just one or two mind you. A whole fleet of the things, an armada, a swarm, a -"

"Get some ID's." Pomeroy snapped out crisply, interrupting Tamara's hysterical chatter.

"Should I send the audio loops over the main speakers?" Maureen asked after a tense moment, which was shared by the several dozen spacers assembled on the bridge.

"Granted," Pomeroy said, taut as a violin string.

"Greetings from the Light of Aurora," a voice whispered through the bridge.

Cheers resounded in the large space as more names spilled over the speakers: the Laws of Newton, the Sight of Galileo, the Dynasty of Ptolemy, Alexander the Great, the Elegance of Shakespeare, the Garden of Goethe, and dozens of much newer and less prestigious names.

Pomeroy whooped and shouted with the best of his crew, ecstatic that not only had his silent note, timed to drop while in the midst of Lavasseur space, been heard, but it had been responded to less than seven hours after arriving in system. He wondered why the congregation was so large, and his joy dimmed somewhat. Was Ekit planning something, and this was part of his manipulation of the fabric of the universe. He glanced at the screen and saw nothing but stars and the blackness of space, yet he grinned, knowing his friends and colleagues were risking all to support his crazy scheme.

Ekit awoke with a cramp in his back and a leg that was definitely asleep. He groaned and wondered what he had been thinking to fall asleep in a chair. Then he remembered Talibah and her panic at the thought of him leaving her alone with another man. He glanced at the cot and was startled to see a head of long, tangled black hair. He stood up and clenched his teeth as he waited for the pins and prickles to die down in his leg as circulation, the blessed flow of life blood, returned to the abused appendage.

He leaned over the cot and glimpsed a face, pale against the darkness of her hair. It was Talibah's face and yet it was not, made strange and unfamiliar by the hair which had remained hidden even in her most private thoughts. She was neither proud of it nor ashamed of it, merely uncaring of the beautiful fall of silky blackness that half hid her face as she slept. Ekit caught his breath at her beauty and turned away before he kissed her. He decided a quick walk would do the trick and so he left the room as quietly as he could after quickly using the facilities and freshening up.

He strode down the corridor and then paused, realizing he was utterly lost and without a destination. He decided he might as well see if he was allowed on the bridge before checking back with Caprice. Normally he would have gone straight to his assigned task, but since his insane escape two or three days before (he was rather unsure how to count the time spent in Lavasseur space), he was a completely different person. It was not the superficial change he had felt at first, it was something deeper. He suspected that the only real change was due to his remarkable encounter with Talibah as the Clairvoyance sank into Lavasseur space. He smiled at the memory. When he realized he was thinking more about Talibah and her incredibly lovely hair, he tore his thoughts away and focused on what to do with him self. The bridge was a good idea he determined, and so he asked the ship for directions. It promptly supplied some and he memorized them, mildly anxious at seeing how many turns were involved.

"Clairvoyance," he said. "remove the map from the wall. Stop." The map disappeared. "Thank you," he said wryly, supposing the computer to be without any courtesy units.

"You're welcome, Edward," the ship responded through it's local speakers. Ekit jumped, rolled his eyes at his own surprise and forced his shoulders to relax. It was just a ship board computer, he reminded himself with a grin. It was very clever, possibly even sentient in its own inhuman way, but definitely not any sort of threat.

Ekit made his way to the bridge and only got lost once. When he did he asked for directions once more from the ship and this time was sure to be slightly more polite. When speaking to an incredibly powerful possibly intelligent thing, it is wise to always be as polite as possible.

When he reached the bridge he was surprised to see Audrey sitting at one of the stations. "Good day," he greeted her with a smile.

"Good night, you mean," she sighed tiredly. "I've been working since just before le Capitaine Pomeroy came on the bridge and all hell broke loose."

"When was that?" Ekit asked.

"About five hours ago. Maybe six. I'm not sure, something like that."

"I don't see le Capitaine now," Ekit said.

"He probably went to shuffle some files or type up an obnoxiously long report for one investor or other, or maybe even to grab some shut eye."

"You sound envious," Ekit said with a small smile.

"I am," Audrey groaned dramatically. "That dratted woman, Tamara, left me here to fend for myself until her apprentice can get up the nerve to get back to this station. Unless you want to take over?"

"I don't know the controls. Anyways, I suspect Mademoiselle Caprice is waiting very impatiently for me as it is."

"A shame you got stuck with that one," Audrey said with a sigh. "She's not as bad as Tamara mind you, but she can get to be an awful pain with fairly little prodding."

"Have you ever prodded her?" Ekit asked with a grin.

"Perhaps," Audrey hedged, a smile hiding in her eyes.

"Perhaps the girl says," Ekit exclaimed with a laugh. "What are you doing at the moment?"

"This is the scan station, so I'm supposed to be watching these," Audrey said gesturing to odd screens of graphs and circles before her, "and those," she finished, gesturing to to large segments of wall that were a startling array of colors.

"And you can make sense out of all that?" Ekit asked, astonished.

"Sometimes," Audrey said with a laugh. "Mostly I just pray nothing happens while I'm watching so I won't get the blame for missing it."

"What's that?" Ekit asked, pointing to two slightly brighter blue spots against a deep blue-black background.

"An anomaly," Audrey groaned. "I'll have to check it. How did you spot it so quick?"

"Fresh eyes make for fresh sights," Ekit said, almost apologetic.

"Sounds like an aphorism to me," Audrey said with a sniff of disdain while typing instructions to her computer.

"It probably is," Ekit sighed sadly.

"Hey, those things aren't stray bits of rock or ice," she commented with surprised.

"What are they?" Ekit asked.

"Ships?" Audrey said uncertainly. "They have a slight heat signature suggesting engines of some sort or else they are really, really bizarre bits of stray metal."

"Call up le capitaine," Ekit demanded. Audrey took no notice of his peremptory tone, too disturbed by yet another something occurring on her very brief stint at the scan board.

"I sent a message to him," Audrey said after a brief spurt of typing. "I hope he responds qui-"

Audrey froze, hand to her ear as she listened to something through her earpiece. When Ekit tapped her on the shoulder urgently she waved for him to take a seat beside her and pick an earpiece of his own. Gingerly, he inserted the small piece of electronics into his ear and froze at the tone of le Capitaine Pomeroy. "- be an emergency or I'll skin your hide six ways before sending you back to that mother of yours. Now what is it?"

With a grin like a cat in the fish bowl, Audrey said, "Maybe you should say hi to Caprice for me while she's-"

"Don't go there girl," Pomeroy boomed furiously. Audrey covered her mouth to contain her laughter and gestured to Ekit to explain.

"I spotted some funny colored blips on that - funny colored screen," Ekit began awkwardly.

"You too? Can a man get no rest?" Pomeroy wailed. This sent Audrey into fresh bursts of mirth. Tears streamed down her face as she laughed at some joke only she saw.

"Yes monsieur, me too. And I doubt you have been able to get much rest in the past few days. At least I haven't, Capitaine."

"Go on with your report," Pomeroy said with resignation. A woman murmured something in the background and Ekit suddenly realized what Audrey had been implying. He was surprised, but he only found the situation mildly amusing. Mostly he wanted le Capitaine to deal with whatever problem was brewing so that Ekit could get on with thinking about how to phrase his and Talibah's resolution when push came to shove, as he was certain would happen. He had a grim foreboding that he already knew at least one of the origins and passengers of one of the two ships.

"Audrey scanned the two ships quickly and she said that they definitely aren't loose bits of rock or ice. She thinks that they're metal."

"That she's spotted two more ships, you mean," Pomeroy said dryly.

"Oui, Capitaine Pomeroy. She does sir, and so do I."

"How much do you know about that system, boy?"

"Not much," Ekit admitted. "Almost nothing at all. But I think you should trust Audrey on this and come have a look."

"Alright," Pomeroy sighed. "Get one of Maureen's people on it to get whatever noise they can and sit tight for me."

"Oui, Capitaine," Ekit said. He looked at Audrey whose face was, for perhaps the first time in their brief acquaintance that Ekit had seen, completely serious.

"What is it?" Ekit asked, worried.

"Those are not friendly ships," Audrey said, fear lurking in her generally bubbly voice. "Their heat signatures have vanished and they have implemented some kind of shielding. It's fairly primitive, it scatters the search pattern instead of consuming the search beams altogether, but their intention is very clear."

"Could you get Maureen's people, whoever they are, on finding that signal like le Capitaine wanted? I don't know anyone on the bridge except you," Ekit said.

"Aw, I'm flattered," Audrey said, a hint of her playfulness leaking through her worry. "Sure I will. Hey, French guy's name, I've got a problem for you to solve."

"For you, anything," the young man responded with a charming smile.

"Yeah, yeah. I know. Look, there's this funny part of space you need to listen to for me, eh?"

"Give me the coordinates and I'll get right on it," French guy's name said.

Audrey rattled off a long list of numbers and French guy's name seemed to know exactly what to do with the information. Ekit felt just how far he had to go before he became a true spacer.

Ekit felt useless sitting in the seat beside Audrey. She was rapidly checking screen after screen, setting the computer to notify her of changes within certain parameters on a variety of maps and graphs. French guy's name was equally busy with his screens and earpiece, completely wrapped up in the task.

Ekit was relieved when Pomeroy came onto the bridge. It was obvious he had thrown his clothes on and his hair was still rather rumpled. He was clean however, having taken the time to jump into a quick shower. Ekit almost got out of his seat, then decided he could hear and see what was going on just as well from his current spot as he could from any other.

"I've got something," French guy's name said. "It's scrambled really well. I can't - hey! It's clear!"

"Well give it to us, man! Patch it through to the bridge speakers," Pomeroy demanded impatiently.

"It was completely scrambled," the man muttered as he tapped keys. "No way I could have possibly figured it out and then poof-" he finished just as the bridge speakers cut in.

A short clipped stream of words spewed from the speakers. It repeated frequently, clearly a looped name. Ekit listened for a moment and his eyes grew dark with anxiety.

"Ekit, I believe you can speak mandarin," Pomeroy said quietly.

"Oui," Ekit admitted reluctantly. "The message can be translated roughly 'Name of ship of the Most Excellent Chang out of Sol System. Then there is a string of numbers: one, five, ninety-three, four, ten, two, zero. At the end of the hail is a request for the return of a lowly gaun of Chang.'" The youth fought the irrational fear that the spacers would return him to his former owner. He reminded himself of his immense value to them and his relatively small value to mal'Cara. Then he wondered why, if he had such little value, mal'Cara had sent an interstellar vessel after him. That started the circle once more.

"If you think," Pomeroy said after a moment spent observing Ekit's white, tight-lipped countenance, "that I shall give you up to them, then you are wrong."

"There's another message," French guy's name said tentatively.

"Play it!" Pomeroy demanded.

"Oui, Capitaine," French guy's name said, tapping instruction out quickly to his computer.

Out of the speakers echoed a new voice, smooth and oily. It spoke in a foreign tongue, possessing a richness and simpleness to it that both the spacers and the chinese lacked.

"Do you speak Arabic?" Pomeroy asked Ekit with a grin. Not seeing the humor in the situation, Ekit simply gazed levely back.

"No Capitaine Pomeroy," he said with mild regret. "I do not."

"Isn't there a girl on this ship who does?" Pomeroy asked, glancing around the bridge as if searching for her.

"She's sleeping, Capitaine," Ekit said quickly.

"Then she shall be waked," Pomeroy stated.

"No, Capitaine," Ekit said firmly.

"No?" Pomeroy said, his easy going stance instantly transforming into one of menace. "Do you know whose ship you are on, boy?"

"Yours, Capitaine," Ekit said bravely. "But you should not wake her. She was up for more than twenty four hours except for a very brief nap while in extreme emotional distress. She led a very hard life, as I believe she herself informed you, and she had an equally hard escape. She then discovered Lavasseur space and almost died from the shock of yet another strangeness to deal with. She can effect the universe better than I can sometimes, especially in small, delicate ways. We practiced on doors and walls throughout the ship. One we even tried to rearrange completely, though I do not know if it worked at all."

"She can remain conscious in Lavasseur space?" Pomeroy asked after a beat, astonishment in his voice.

"Oui, Capitaine. And it was very wearing on her. You see, not only can she and I remain conscious in Lavasseur space, it seems that we must. Our minds are unable to settle into a sleep pattern," Ekit said, his voice calm.

"Did you spend long there this most recent drop?" Pomeroy asked, certain that was question Ekit wished him to ask and willing to play the boy's game for a few more moments.

"Oui, many subjective hours. Maybe nine. At least seven."

"Very well, I shall not wake her," Pomeroy said after eyeing Ekit closely. "Do not think I was swayed because of your immense value to me or loose control of probabilities while in Lavasseur space. I was swayed by your reasonable argument."

"Oui Capitaine," Ekit said.

"And being swayed has cost me much in the eyes of the rest of my crew," Pomeroy said, smiling bitterly at those around him. "That see me as soft now. For you, for this one time, I will let it pass."

"Of course, Capitaine," Ekit said, his tone absolutely serious leaving no room to say he mocked Pomeroy's loose control or thought any less or greater of him for the man's decision.

"Now," Pomeroy said, straightening his loose shirt somewhat, "Clairvoyance, would you translate the message currently playing on the bridge speakers from Arabic into Français? Stop."

"Gladly captain," the ship speakers breathed in a pause between the Arabic version of the message and a version en français.

"Name of ship of the Godly Mujikkir ibn Muhammad Hasan out of Delta Pavonis System. Three, two, four, seven, dash eighty-one, seventeen, zero. Chinese spy ship Clairvoyance, supposedly out of the uninhabited system Beta Hydri, actually from Earth, Sol system. Seek and capture. Destroy if necessary."

"We need to get to Aphrodite before they reach us," Pomeroy told his available crew. "Preferably more than an hour before they reach us so that we have time to talk with those hard headed old snobs below that think they run the universe through ships like ours, their supposed agents."

"What's all the fuss about?" Caprice asked, striding onto the bridge looking absolutely immaculate.

Pomeroy murmured a short phrase in her ear and her eyes widened. "But we never thought -" she breathed, incredulous.

"Indeed," Pomeroy said with a laconic smile.

"And now -"

"Oui, my internal ops officer," Pomeroy told her affectionately.

"So now we run with all possible haste for our beloved and rather difficult Aphrodite?" Caprice asked with an answering grin of her own.

"Oui," the bridge chorused with Pomeroy.

The following hours were a blur of motion in Ekit's memory. He hurried to the internal ops room in the wake of Caprice. Together they checked over every single internal system of the ship from top to bottom, nose to tail, and starboard to other side. Sometime during the rush of things to be done quickly and perfectly, Talibah poked her head in the door.

"Ni how," she said to Ekit with a smile.

"Hello in Arabic," he replied with a brief smile of his own.

Then her face vanished and the door slipped shut. He was glad she checked on him; it made all of the events of the past few days seem a bit less like a dream.

When the ship finally fell into synch with Aphroditespace Docks, Ekit was exhausted once more. "We're here with plenty of time to spare," Caprice said, looking at his drooping shoulders with pity. "Go take a shower and spend some time with Audrey or the new girl you tugged out of thin air. Who knows if we'll come out of this alive?"

"Will it really be that bad, Mademoiselle Caprice?" Ekit asked anxiously.

"With you looking after yourself, you'll probably come out of this setup without a scratch," Caprice said with an affectionate pat on Ekit's shoulder. "Be off with you! Be sure you're back at military time here hours. That gives you two hours of leisure. Use it well!"

"Of course mademoiselle," Ekit said with a grateful grin. He practically flew down the corridor, only pausing to ask the computer where Talibah was at the moment. He was not going to touch her once, but he enjoyed her company and the sense of complete understanding that existed between the two of them, as if they were two halves of a whole. Almost complete understanding, Ekit amended regretfully.

He was surprised to learn she was back in her sleeping quarters. He felt safe enough to return there. While he might wish to do a variety of very interesting things to the girl, he would not even touch her without her express and very clear permission. He did not want to cause her any pain vaguely similar to the rapes she had experienced up through a mere two days ago.

He knocked politely on her door and stepped back, allowing it to remain shut until Talibah admitted him. "Come in," she said in a distracted tone. He slipped within the small room when the door was barely half open. He was surprised to find the girl stretched out with a portable computer unit before her.

"What are you doing?" he asked curiously.

"Reading poetry," she replied, slightly less distracted than before but still thoroughly engrossed by the material before her.

"Ah," Ekit said, aware of Talibah's deep love of the written word in all its myriad forms and even, in some small part, sharing her love. Before that life altering blending of minds, Ekit had only viewed language as a tool to communicate with others. Now he appreciated the elegance and depth of meanings within language. Being relatively fluent in two languages, he even understood some of the ways in which a language exemplified the culture that spoke it.

Ekit sank into the chair beside Talibah and watched her read, admiring her figure through the black folds of her dress. She finished the poem, or at least paused in reading, and looked up at him, her eyes dark pools of fire. "Have we docked?"