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First Flights

    Major Kerry Skydancer floats in his ship, the USAS Platte SAF-3, waiting in geosynchronous orbit and hanging in space some 36000 kilometers above the Amazon rainforest. One of the first constant-drive space vessels, she has been configured as an armed modular carrier. With no modules attached, the ship looks like a blunt arrow, with a 10 meter section housing the drive unit and core-tap power system at the rear, and the pilot's bridge a 5 meter long triangle at the front. Connecting them is the narrow 80-meter shaft containing the access passage and the connection points for the eight half-cylinder cargo modules she will soon be taking to one of the American research bases near the Artifact.

The justification of the 'armed' part of the designation is harder to spot -- but usually there are three missiles in separate tubes in the arrowhead and four snugged into recesses in the power section. Unfortunately they've been temporarily removed, since Major Skydancer glumly knows he's been tapped, for some ridiculous international political bullshit reason, to take a batch of Texas Confederacy scientists out to the LA station. Texan humans. He can hardly wait... the Platte has its usual cargo of air, water, food, and more scientific machinery than Kerry can shake a stick at -- no problem. Unfortunately (in regards to the Texan humans) his orders are quite clear. They know he's an uplifted, and he's been ordered to treat them with courtesy, and not embarrass the US.

    Kerry Skydancer is tall for a Keero -- nearly five feet in height, counting the oversized and elaborately ridged ears that dominate a short-muzzled face with sharp fangs and solid black eyes. His fur is very dark gray, nearly black, coarse on his body and fine and downy on his wing membranes. The wings attract most folk's attention the first time they meet one of his kind. They unfold to double the length of human arms for a being his size, leathery membranes supported by skeletal frameworks built on the bones corresponding to part of the wrist and the last two fingers of other mammals. (Unlike his tiny ancestors they do not allow true flight but only a barely controlled glide.) The membranes attach to his body from shoulder to waist, so the Air Force uniform has been modified into a medium-blue poncho-style tunic and shorts. The gold leaves of a major adorn the collar and three rows of medals adorn the left breast. On the right is the nametag engraved with 'Maj. K. Skydancer'.

Kerry can see the pods in various stages of being towed in, waiting their turn, and being fastened onto the Platte off to his right and left. Periodically the Platte shakes slightly as another pod is secured. Below (or above, depending on one's perspective) the Texan shuttle can be seen, rising towards the Platte.

Through the large porthole windows of the little shuttle, as it buzzes around Kerry's ship to the passenger entry, it can be seen that the Texan men are wearing the ubiquitous cowboy hat, and all of them have on shades. The scruffy looking canid uplift pilot gives the bat uplift a grin and a wink as the shuttle flashes by. Two of the men look happy, talking animatedly, and the third looks nervous. One of the women looks discontented and irritated, and the other is looking around excitedly -- probably a grad student, since she's sitting alone in the back of the shuttle. It's a good bet the humans are in the quasi-uniform most Texans wear: blue jeans, a decorated belt, cowboy boots... that sort of thing. The Texan women had more flexibility, from TV programs Kerry's seen, and sometimes wore dresses that accentuated their differing forms... along with too much perfume, from what he's heard.

Kerry twitches a wing in response to the shuttle pilot and sighs as the shuttle approaches the personnel module, and makes sure -- one last time -- that the engineering dock hatchways are locked down. "Don't need the !ee* cowboys mucking about with the coretap." Another sigh and he keys open the radio. "Texas Confederacy Shuttle, this is USAS Platte. Ready to dock, your station is module 4."

    USAS Platte, Command Deck:
    The tip of the arrow, the command deck contains a single pilot's couch in the center of a space crammed with monitoring readouts, computer screens, and the primary controls for the ship's maneuvering, thrust, missile, and life-support systems. The compartment is dim to human eyes, a faint greenish glow from the monocolor screens being the primary source of light. A few of the more sensitive humans -- and most uplifts -- will sense the fluttering ultrasound of Keero-adapted holosonic displays at the top edge of hearing.

There's the usual calm background hum of radio traffic, imperceptible to a human standing in here but reassuringly ever-present to Keero ears: "Houston, this is PCSS Lemonyellow coming in as per your instructions... ETA 24 minutes now." "Raging Morrow, you are not, I repeat not cleared for San Francisco -- we're socked in. Try San Jose." "Shuttle *crackle* of EUAS Nephilim. We've go*crackle*asty atmospheric *crackle*," "Da, Simulacrum is loaded and ready to go!" Sharp and clear Kerry hears the voice of the shuttle pilot, "Ah gotcha, Platte, roger an' thanks!" The canid uplift sounds... amused? Hard to tell.

Kerry's orders list the people he's carrying: Dr. Dennis Lansky (the top scientist in the group), Dr. Victoria Gleason, Dr. Jose McCallum, Dr. Bruce Hughes-Hallet, and Dr. Zildjian Sidhe. They're conducting some new and doubtless very important tests on the Artifact... if the speed with which they were able to hitch a ride there means anything. Bureaucratics aren't his forte. He opens the intercom from the command deck to the passenger module as the Texan shuttle docks, "-to be sure the connections were made correctly, of course." The thought continues, inside his own head even on his own ship... pity I didn't have time to bugger it to stay on permanently...

A woman's voice, annoyed, "-don' see why they cain't give us a normal ship! It's probably... unsanitary! Boy, careful with thet bag!" A man's voice, "Now, Vikky, you know how impo't'nt it is fo' us to get theah as soon as possible..." Kerry can hear forced joviality, "-wouldn't want th'new station t'get cold w'thout us!" Another younger man's voice, "Hey! Foah cabins, great! One each!" After that it's mostly a lot of walking around noises, rattling and hissing, as if things were being dragged and carried around by the shuttle pilot -- or at least that seems a reasonable conclusion considering all the instructions being given.

Soon thereafter the shuttle darts away, and Kerry receives notification that the pods are all attached and the tugs are clear. He acknowledges the completion of attachments. "Roger that, Space Control. All modules show green across the board. We will be departing in 27 minutes, as soon as my guests are settled in." With that, he sighs one last time and opens the other side of the intercom to talk to his unwanted guests. "Welcome aboard, doctors. We will be starting our outbound thrust in... 26 minutes. I apologize for not being on hand to welcome you personally, but I needed to be on the bridge for the docking maneuver. I'll be down in a few minutes to make sure you're secured for the start of acceleration."

There's sudden silence on the other end of the intercom... then some whispering, "Is that it?" "Shh!" A cough, then the lower toned male voice, "Ahh... thanks. We'll see ya then." More movement noises, then doors shutting... then a sibilant female voice, "Ahhh... captain? You gotta moment, please?" A little more uncertainly, "-or... pilot? Ah'm sorry, Ah don' know yoah rank?"

Kerry glares at the intercom, which fortunately doesn't have a visual circuit. He responds, a bit more pleasantly than he feels at the moment (not that most humans can tell emotions in a Keero voice -- they usually describe it as 'shrill'), "Major Kerry Skydancer, USAF. I'm just finishing up some preflight checks, Doctor. Go ahead."

"Uhhh... nah, maybe Ah bettah wait 'til you get heah... as long as we don' take off first Ah'm okay."

Kerry skrees, "We won't. I'll be down in a few minutes."

"Awright, thanks."

Kerry runs a few more items on the checklist before flying down the pylon shaft to module 4, grinning at using his wings. Though nearly useless groundside, they provide perfect maneuverability in freefall. Reaching the correct access hatch, he opens the entrance to the central space of the passenger module. When the bulkhead door opens she's there, waiting silently right in front of the door, a dark blue duffel set on the ground on end, held in front of her with both hands. She stares down at the bat uplift interestedly, her eyes hidden behind her shades. She's wearing a cropped t-shirt with UTA emblazoned across the front... the first impression she gives is height, golden skin, golden hair and... an odd dusty scent. Very odd... like the hair on the back of one's neck wants to raise, somehow. She smiles apologetically, waving the fingers of one hand at Kerry, "Howdy. Ah'm Doctah Zzildjian Ssidhe. Um... Ah'm ssorry to be a botha, but d'you have uh a sspare crew cabin, pleasse?"

Kerry winces at the light flooding out of the compartment, closing his eyes down to slits and peering at Dr. Sidhe. !ee* cowboys! Should've known they wouldn't keep the lights down. Once over that shock, he responds. "Doctor.. there is a spare crew compartment, but it is extremely small and the... facilities... are communal. You would have a great deal more room sharing a cabin here in the module. I'm sure we could rig a screen to split one if privacy is an issue." He blinks at her apparent upright stance in zero g, and deliberately lets himself drift to an angle to the bulkheads.

The woman glances over her shoulder, then looks back at Kerry worriedly, "Uhmm... Mayjah Sskydanssah, Ah really don' think asskin' one'a them t'sshare with me'ss a good idea?" Hopefully she adds, "Ah can get real ssmall if y'need?" Her head turns to follow him, and as he drift past her he can see the shirt's not as cropped as he'd originally thought. It ends just above her hips... or what would be hips. She's firmly anchored to the ground because her... tail is coiled to brace her there, from side wall to wall. There's... a LOT of tail there! The woman smiles apologetically again, taking off her shades with one golden, long nailed hand and holding out the other, "Ah'm ssorry, where're mah mannahss... pleassed ta meetcha, mayjah." She has slitted golden eyes too. She seems to... shrink? -no, tighten up her coils, and her height lowers until she's at eye level with Kerry.

After a few moments of stunned shock, the major responds, his two fingers and thumb clasping her hand. "Doctor... I must admit to some surprise. I was not aware that any uplifts held such positions of trust in Texas. I understand your request. Certainly you may use the crew cabin."

The doctor smiles again, her unblinking eyes amused, "They don', mayjah... they were dessperate for ssomeone of mah sspecsiality to go out immediately. But even though they're gonna replacse me ssoonesst with a human..." she straightens slightly, accidentally raising Kerry too since she's still holding his hand, "-they won' be able to take thiss away from me... it'll be theah on mah ressume!" She grins suddenly, her rather pointed teeth showing, "Ah'm goin' to sspacse if it'ss the lass thing Ah do!" She happily adds, "Thank yew foah the cabin, mayjah! Juss' point me theah, pleasse?"

Kerry grins back, his teeth equally pointed. "I'm sure. It's that way-" He points with an extended wing in the 'up' direction. "Let me sort out the humans and then I'll be up to get you settled in."

The lamia beams at Kerry and nods, "Ah 'magine they're pretty ssettled already- oh!" She tilts her head at him, "Ahhh... have you dealt with Texsanss befoah, mayjah?" For her the word 'Texan' has almost 3 syllables.

Kerry looks grim. "On occasion, doctor... on occasion. But never without a weapon before. It will be... a new experience."

The doctor raises an eyebrow... then just nods and says softly, "Let it wassh offa ya, mayjah... lahk Ah do. This closse to gettin' out there... well, ain't nuthin' worth gettin' collared for." She shrugs, then sighs softly, turning and heading for the cabin. Her movement in zero-G is sinuous, oddly undulating, as if she were swimming through the air, with at least one part of her body always touching some surface for traction. Kerry looks after her for a moment, then grits his teeth and goes into the passenger module to make sure the rest of his guests won't try strapping themselves against the ceiling.


The Platte's usual route is first New York station, which is internationally owned, labyrinthine, smelly, and dirty. It's mostly automated machinery, and Kerry doesn't spend much time there -- just enough for the station's mechanicals to de-attach one of the cargo pods full of air, water, and food for the few individuals stationed there. Then it's on to Los Angeles, derisively so named because all the creative fruit-eaters (human and uplifted) are stationed there. That's where he'll drop off the Texas Confederacy scientists and their equipment, and where they'll be taking another interstation shuttle on to the new Dallas station.

Finally he'll stop at Siberia, the cold and distant Russian Alliance station, which always has a breakdown of some sort to report, which puts more time on his schedule. He's obligated by international treaty to respond to those... but he don't mind because that's where Kiska, the jovial (if frequently drunk) uplifted grizzly bear lives. She thinks Kerry's a cute little thing, and does a booming black market trade amongst the uplifted and the humans in the little space stations surrounding the Artifact, with her small (if potent) still.

The humans aren't much fun to be around, and Kerry notices the lamia avoids them as much as possible. They tend to keep to themselves, however, only occasionally demanding either Zildjian's or Kerry's attention. She refers to them always by title, whereas they refer to her as 'Zilly.' Kerry is also getting heartily sick of the word 'boy!' in that particular tone of voice.

A few days into the run, Kerry's lying in the control couch as usual, when he hears a faint, odd, scraping noise nearby. Kerry skrees, "Is that you, Doctor?"

There's a heavy thump, a cheerful, "Howdy, mayjah!" and Zildjian sticks her head up through the hatch. She pushes her golden hair back with one hand, "Thiss iss a great placse to play!" She grins, "Ah think Ah lahk half-G!" She looks around curiously, "What'ss all thiss? Can Ah botha you, or are you buszy?" She adds, "Y'know, you can call me Zzil, mayjah..." her grin is rueful, "Juss' pleasse don' evah call me Zzilly?"

Kerry skrees, "Thank you, Zil. I'm Kerry to my friends. And no, I'm not particularly busy at the moment, so you can't bother me. If I was busy, then you'd be bothering me." This last is delivered with a grin... Keero humor. "C'mon up -- or at least as much of you as will fit -- but don't touch anything. This is the ship's control room."

Zildjian rises smoothly up through the floor, neatly folds a coil around the hatch to brace herself, then rests her arms carefully on the back of Kerry's couch, and her chin on her arms. She stares silently and unblinkingly out at space, although occasionally her tongue flickers out... definitely a bifurcate snake-like tongue. Finally she says dreamily, "Issn't it beautiful?"

Kerry grins. "I've always thought so. The best part is, they pay me to do this." He pauses before continuing. "I've been meaning to ask since we first met... what is your specialty?"

In the dim light her slitted eyes widen and almost look human-normal... except for the occasional flash of a nictating membrane crossing them. She grins quietly, "Lucky you. I wanna get assigned to a sstation out heah ssomeday... a place of mah own, lahk yo' sship heah. Linguistics 'n' computer science mostly... bit a' engineerin'." She smiles quietly, "We lamia are quick learners." She eagerly adds, "I have a theory 'bout th' Artifact... wanna heah it?"

Kerry grins again, teeth flashing in the dimness. "Don't we all? What's yours?"

She chuckles, then says "Well, it's a buncha piecsess a' thingss floatin' in sspace inna roughly csircular pattern, raht? An' each piecse hass patterns onnit, an' raht now they're thinkin' it'ss decorationss onna Artifact 'r ssomethin'? Weell... what if that sstuff onnit wass lahk directionss 'r ssomethin', y'know, t' all th' thingss we need ta know? Wouldn't it be wonn'rful if the cure t' cancser 'n' how uss uplifteds could live longer 'n' how to treat folkss kindly 'n' sstuff lahk that were onnit?" She smiles again, her eyes dreamy, "If'n that wass what wass onnit, betcha Ah could sspend a lifetime here decsipherin' it... with no humanss aroun'!"

Kerry skrees, "Hmmm. I suspect you're right about the marks being writing. The trick is to figure out if there's any way to get a handle on deciphering it. As for the rest? I hope you're right... although I can't imagine what the key to universal peace would say. Might be the only way to do it would be to turn into ants. A cure worse than the problem." He pauses. "Once you're out here, y'know... there might be a way to stay."

Zildjian nods determinedly, "Ah intend t'do mah besst to sstay. Ah got mah equipment -- Ah'm gonna do th'besst job Ah can. If'n Ah can find ssomethin' unusual out with th'toolss Ah got, well..." She shrugs, "Got th'best code-breaker ssoftware Ah know of."

Kerry skrees, "Indeed..." His voice trails off into softness. "You realize, Zil... if they try to send you home before you're ready, there are alternatives..."

The lamia is silent and still for a very long moment... then she murmurs softly, "You sseriouss, Kerry? You teassin' me?" She's silent a moment longer, then adds quietly, "You realizse if'n Ah try ssomethin' lahk that 'n' they catch me it's th'collar for ssure? Prolly you too f'r helpin'... why would you take a rissk lahk that f'me?"

Kerry skrees, "I know. I'm not going to try to make the decision for you, Zil.. because that isn't a risk for me. The US doesn't use the collars -- I'm not even sure we know for sure how they work. The only risk for me is messing up my career over a diplomatic incident. The brass seem to want to make nice with the Texans for now, and if you defect from my ship I'll be the one they yell at for messing it up. But I'm a US Air Force officer, and I'm the master of this ship. I'll tell you right here and now, if that crew of... persons back in module 4 try to put a collar on you, I'll jettison 'em halfway to Saturn. But once you're on LA, if you want to leave, just go over to the US side. Or you can get off at New York station if you want, or stay on board and get off at Siberia... though I'm not sure I'd want to do that, personally. They tend to have emergencies a lot."

Zildjian is silent for a long time again. Finally she sighs softly, her tongue flickering slightly. Uncertainly she says, "Ah... Ah dunno, Kerry. Ah really wanna sstudy the Artifact... but... Ah'd really lahk t'not end up lahk mosta mah ssistahss... toyss 'n' petss 'n' bodyguardss for rich humans... or dead ssoldierss... ain't that many of our bloodliness left... ussta be two hunnert fifty of uss. Now there'ss only 90 or sso left."

Kerry reaches out with a wingtip and flips a switch with it, then stands up. "And none of your blood in the US... you'd be cutting yourself off from your kind completely. Trading your possible children for yourself is truly a devil's bargain, Zil." He bows then, the formal version with wings spread out and swept forward, head down. "I won't mention it again, and I will honor your decision. But if you decide to -- or if you need any help I can give you -- just ask."

Zildjian rears back slightly as Kerry rises, to get out of his way... then looks surprised as he bows. Hastily she says, "Ah ain't a human, you don' hafta bow t'me, Kerry!" She hesitates, then formally puts both hands over her golden-skinned face and sweeps a graceful, low bow in return. She adds with a faint smile, "Cain't have but one baby girl anywayss... ssomethin' about how the original geneticsisstss coded our parthenogenessiss. Ah'm the only fertile membah of the Ssidhe bloodline, even tho' mah granddam'ss still alive."

Kerry waits for her to rise again. "Of course you're not a human. We Keero rarely do that for anyone, Zil. But you deserve respect and honor for succeeding as you have against the odds, and for doing what you can for your sisters... and it's not likely that any of the Texan humans will give you the respect you deserve. So, just once, you receive the honor due you..." He blinks. "Parthenogenesis? You mean you... well, well, well... I take that back, then. Now it's the bargain between staying safe and raising your daughter free. A different devil indeed."

Zildjian looks shocked, "Ah nevah thought o'that!" Her eyes get wide, "Ah could, couldn't Ah... raisse her free..."

Kerry skrees, "Well, think carefully about it. You've got four weeks before we arrive at New York Station. We haven't even reached turnover yet."


Zil is a pleasant enough crew mate for the trip. She works frequently on her little lap top trying to sharpen up her linguistics-cracking code, does her best to stay quietly out of Kerry's way (as much as over 20 feet of reptilian body can do so) when he seems busy, and when he's not she's an interesting conversationalist. She has a great deal of fascination about the USA, space, stations, ships, and anything else associated with them that Kerry wishes to talk about, and although Kerry won't talk about the specifics of US ships, he is quite happy to talk about unclassified things. She doesn't touch his stash of crickets, and will whip up a mean spicy chili for dinner once if he lets her, which leaves him impressed, if a bit breathless. He can frequently find her coiled up by the biggest windows available in the crew areas, just gazing silently out into space, absently chewing on a fingernail and thinking hard.

Zil watches with silent fascination as Kerry docks and is automatically unloaded at New York station. However it is between New York and LA, when he is just sitting in the captain's couch and watching both the stars and the rapidly-growing Artifact on a rearwards-aimed screen, that she finally speaks to him about his previous suggestion. She checks first with him that there's no recording devices or speakers on, -- "None that I know of. Are you sure your people didn't slip something onto you or into your luggage?" -- then quietly informs him that she's given his suggestion a lot of thought. She'd like to be free of worry about her future... but she can't be sure anyone else would let her go out into space. So she's going to try persuading Dr. Lansky not to have her replaced... maybe she can get in a full year of work that way. If they decide to ship her back early, well... then she'll try defecting, she thinks.

Kerry nods. "I hope you're making the right decision, then." He makes a note to speak to his military contact on LA, to make sure that the humans there pay attention to her if she does decide to leave.

Zil pauses, then finishes quietly, "Kerry... Ah wanna thank you... f'bein' willin' t'suggest somethin' lahk that t'me. That... that takes courage, Ah think." She hesitates, then adds, "You bowed t'me... Ah'd lahk t'return th'favor, if'n y'don' mind, lahk we lamia do t'each othah." She leans forward cautiously, until her golden-skinned face is quite close to his smaller, dark-furred one. Her tongue slips out and flickers lightly across his cheek three or four times -- soft, warm, neither dry nor wet... then she leans back and smiles at him -- then slips swiftly and quietly back down the hatch, with a muted rustle of scales.


    Time passes with quiet regularity for Kerry, punctuated by routine, regular trips to and from the stations around the Artifact. It is while orbiting Earth almost two years later that he first hears the newscast from the TC, proudly declaring a major breakthrough in translation of the sigils on the Artifact by their noted group of scientists on the station Dallas, headed by the brilliant Dr. Dennis Lansky.


It is only six months later that Kerry answers yet another distress call from Siberia, only to find Kiska cheerfully awaiting him with the news that she's finally going to have company here! She's quite pleased -- apparently a group of scientists are being sent out to Siberia as well, to help work on the Artifact's sigils. She solemnly confides in him that she's going to have to clean up her act -- she won't be able to give him these nice breaks any more in his schedule! But to salve his doubtless broken heart she gives him a jug of her finest, many hugs, and sheds a few happily melodramatic tears... and then updates him on the gossip concerning the little community that floats around the Artifact.

The biggest and most exciting news she has is, of course, about the lamia on LA that went insane. She doesn't know the precise details, alas -- the Texans are being most unfriendly and tight-lipped! -but apparently they managed to catch it before it harmed anyone. Didn't he have one on his ship once? He must have been lucky... terribly dangerous she's heard they are -- although, she'll add with a teeth-rattling, friendly slap on his back, definitely no match for a good Russian bear uplift!

Kerry's breath hisses out between his teeth. "Dangerous? Yes... but good friends when you get to know them, Kiska. I suspect she was the same one, and I doubt our Texan friends are telling the truth about her. You know how they are about Uplifts. If... if she manages to get over here, by some miracle... would you take her in? As a favor to me?"

Kiska nods gravely, agreeing with his first comments... then breaks out into a huge, fanged, beaming smile at his last query, throwing a powerful furry arm wide, "But of courze! Anyzink for my favorite little Keeroshchee!" She wraps him up in one of those disconcertingly enveloping hugs, and he can hear the rumble through the thick fur on her massive chest, "Am sinkink ve uplifts must stick togezer!"

Kerry nods, or at least tries to. "As one of the American revolutionaries is supposed to have said, we must all hang together, or we shall surely all hang separately." He pauses to explain the joke to the Russian bear. "Seriously, Kiska -- what exactly have you heard about it? I'd suspected she hadn't been sent home, else Dr. Lansky couldn't have been stealing her work -- and that's exactly what I think was happening."

Kiska politely doesn't squish Kerry, has a good laugh over the peculiar American sense of humor, and cheerfully tells him what she knows... which isn't much, unfortunately. The Texans sent the new replacement scientists out on a heavily armored ship, and the pick up point was apparently again LA. The previous Dallas scientists were there waiting already, except for the lamia, who'd apparently been showing signs of the usual "cabin fever" mental instability one often found in unprepared space station personnel. The relatively unarmed LA personnel were in no position to argue the ambush the Texans laid for the lamia... although Kiska relates with some degree of impressedness how the lamia apparently almost tore through one of the airlock doors as it was, before falling.


Kerry finds a personally astonishing lack of curiosity or interest in what the Texans did, when he gets back home and starts asking questions. The end result is that he's reassuringly assured US operatives will keep an eye out for this uplift if they have time -- which he's not sure he believes -- and the US quietly sends a heavily armed spaceship of their own out there. Much public international brouhaha follows, and eventually a treaty is hammered out that details what ships and armaments each country can send out there.

Of Dr. Zildjian Sidhe, however, there is no word nor sign... for the next couple of years...




Last modified: 2000-Aug-23 19:06:34

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