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    The Silver Egg
    Stepping through the tall, wide doorway into the oak tree, you see a very organically shaped room -- elliptical, high-ceilinged, and well lit with strategically placed mirrors and wall-mounted skylights. The tables and seats are all sturdy and wooden, apparently growing from the smooth wooden ground. A fire crackles warmly in a truly
    huge stone hearth set directly opposite the front door, set into one wooden wall, and warming benches inside the wide, mosaic-tiled fireplace welcome chilly travelers. The walls have a deceptive shimmer to them; the angle at which they're viewed sometimes makes them look to be just wood, other times swirling with decorative, naturalistic patterns. A glossy, wood-topped bar (with a tall door behind it) extends across one narrow side of the ellipse, and a sort of trapdoor lies at the other end of the ellipse. The delicious scent of cooking food drifts lazily through the room.

One bright morning, when Kerry, Vash, and Douglas are all at the Egg, Zildjian mentions to the three of them that she'd like to talk to them privately. The students all make their way off to class eventually, and the breakfast rush has ended before she beckons the three spacefarers into a back room to talk quietly.

During that meal, the data pads from the Indigo all chirp loudly once. Any of the crew members who get it out and look at it will see a reminder notice from the ship's computer, NOTICE: No signal capsules have been launched in some time. Please make an effort to report accurate status of all potentially valuable resources in a timely manner.

Zildjian says, "I thought I'd let y'all know, that the Yellow Rose did receive a copy of that message from Susan Laws y'all told me about." She gives the small group a worried look at the pads chirping, then adds, "Ah was gonna ask when Saki was heah too... but she's kinda gone native too, y'know? So... uh... what're y'all gonna do?"

    The first impression she gives is of gold... golden-tanned skin; a thick, short mane of wiry, bright sun-gold hair; golden pupils with slitted black irises; even her lips and fingernails have a dusty gold hint to them. Her movements are sinuous and carefully articulated, as if she's always precisely aware where every inch of her 20 or so foot length of reptilian tail is. From the waist up she's human enough, however, wearing a wide-necked, neatly cropped tank top with 'UTA' emblazoned across the front, and a curiously engraved and decorated leather armband on her upper left arm. The sole jarring notes are her odd, slightly dusty scent -- and a long, jagged white scar slashing across her slender throat; a relatively fresh remain of a recent wound.

Kerry snorts. "Ah, well. Looks like we've got a couple reasons to make a trip upstairs, then. D'you think Blue would like to come along with us, Vash?"

    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 folks' 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 he wears a poncho-like tunic instead of a shirt and a rather low-slung pair of shorts. The fabric is medium gray, but dull and glossy in odd patterns -- supposedly the different textures mean something to Keero sonar.

Vash says, "You have to be kidding. I'm afraid to take her near the shuttle, let alone in it. She's native, Kerry. She's afraid of it."

    Standing about five feet, tall for an uplift, Vash Montoya holds himself straight and relaxed, seemingly at ease with his environment, whatever that may happen to be at the time. An armadillo uplift, he is physically spare, compact under a layer of thick natural armor which covers most of his visible body, beginning at the bridge of his nose and sweeping back over his head. His hands are for the most part unarmored, but come with their own defenses: powerful digging claws. Perhaps for this reason he keeps his fingers loosely curled at his sides, half-concealing them. His muzzle is a bit shorter than a normal armadillo's, a bit clipped, giving him a somewhat Cerebus-esque look. He smiles a little, his eyes gray and cool, and folds his arms. You may notice, just at the back of his left hand, a slight discoloration -- a short, lurid white scar.

Douglas blinks, then lets out a breath, tucking away his pad. "I'd have been surprised if the Rose didn't get it..." He blinks a bit in surprise at Kerry's comment, then remains quiet and looks to Captain.

    Douglas Percival is a cougar, tall and with the sandy brown fur of all cougars, with the somber features and digitigrade legs common to that ilk. He stands a good seven feet tall, and yet is only somewhat solidly built; there is the slightest of indications in his build that some time in the past he wasn't exactly in the best of shape. Another unusual feature of his is the lack of a swishing tail, or rather no more than just the barest stub of one. He wears little in the way of clothing: a sort of plain tan skirt or kirtle which falls somewhere between 'knee-length' and 'mini,' and seems to afford him some modicum of modesty and freedom of movement... a shirt, short-sleeved and somewhat midriff-baring, of the same material but trimmed with matching bright and exuberant embroidery. His legs and feet are bare, but he appears to walk unconcerned about that lack.

Kerry shrugs. "She's an artist. I thought she might find an orbital trip inspiring. Just a suggestion." Zildjian leans over Kerry, as the smallest person with a pad, and tries to read over his shoulder whatever the chirp-message was about.

Vash says, "It's a nice thought. But she'll likely react badly to exposure to the shuttle. I've no intention of making her sick."

Kerry hmms. "True, Feina did... but I suspect humans may be less susceptible." He turns the pad a little so the lamia can read it. "Letters from home."

Douglas fidgets a little, glancing to Zildjian. "'Gone native...'" He looks at his clothing, chewing his lip. "We've sort of done that, haven't we?"

Vash says, "It's a bit late to be having seconds thoughts, isn't it, Doug?"

Zildjian hisses softly, understanding now that she's seen the note... then looks up at Doug. Her articulation is very clear. "Yes... I can't go back though."

Kerry nods to the lamia, then looks thoughtful. "I can understand your not wanting to go back to Texas, or is there something more?"

Zildjian gives Kerry an amused glance, "Kerry... how will I explain four dead Texans? The bogeyman got them? I don't think so." She looks back and forth between the group, her golden slitted eyes thoughtfully narrow, "So... what are you all going to do?"

Vash says, "As much as I want to shield Crossroads from the Group... there's nothing really to do for it. If we send caps, they'll come. If we don't... they'll still come."

Kerry skrees, "Heh. We've got the records of what we've seen here, Zil. I think the US would be willing to believe a story about the bogeyman. But you're probably better off here, regardless." He turns to the armadillo. "You're the boss. What are we going to do now?"

Zildjian just shakes her head slightly, then looks at Vash worriedly. Douglas glances to Vash uncomfortably, then sighs, sitting down heavily. He doesn't answer right away. "Something happened when we confronted Drekaris, Captain," he says. "While he was talking, he made me remember the way things are back home, with the... the uplift ceiling. The collars, even if only Texas uses them.

"I tried to forget all that. I was embarrassed that I got taken by his influence, and didn't want to think I could be that... weak-willed. And normally I know I'm not, but..." He shakes his head. "I don't know, Captain. This," and he holds up the pad, "-made me remember that we have a Gateship in orbit, and nineteen other gates we can explore. I've also been reminded, indirectly," and he nods to Zil, "-that we've conveniently forgotten that we were sent here. And now I remember, ironically courtesy of Drekaris, that while we're here, free and alive and happy, there's Lord knows how many millions of other uplifts back on our original Earth in... well, some in slavery, others second-class citizenship.

"And if that's not enough... someone is approaching this world, someone who is expecting to rescue us from something. Someone who apparently has a Gateship as well."

Vash folds his hands. "Well, we have a couple of options... we can tell TAG the truth, and hope that the Aurora Group treats our new friends with respect. But given the amount of respect they give us... quite frankly I'm not holding my breath. We could omit certain data... but at most, that's a delaying tactic. Alternatively, we can falsify the data and tell the Group that Crossroads is the most heinous and deadly world we've ever seen and should be avoided at all costs." He pauses and flashes Doug an extremely stony look. "And I'll thank you, Douglas, not to ever assume I've forgotten what's going on back home."

Douglas sighs and rubs his eyes. "I'm sorry, Captain..."

Vash says, "Forget it. We need to make a decision now."

Kerry skrees, "Things have been a bit distracting. Seriously, though, I think we should be in orbit to meet Dr. Laws, or risk getting stranded here. I have no idea what she might think we need rescuing from, or if she even has any idea who is authorized to use the ships."

Vash closes his eyes a moment. And my S1 is off in the woods having an all-vulpine orgy. Picked a fine time for it, Sakura. "Authorization probably doesn't enter into it at this stage."

Douglas nods slowly. "And while we're up there, I can see what we can do about falsifying the capsule data records; if it's even possible."

Kerry skrees, "Exactly. If we're on board, we don't have to argue about who's the authorized crew. Or at least we can argue from a position of possession."

Vash says, "What are you talking about, Kerry?"

Kerry skrees, "Laws. I don't want to get stranded here if she decides to rescue us from our shuttle."

Vash just gives Kerry a look, then shakes his head, rubbing his eyes on the heels of his hands. "Right now, sending TAG false data is only a delaying tactic at best, and a way to get us all in serious shit at worst. For right now... let's go upstairs and tend to the ship. If we meet Laws in orbit, we can deal with her at that time."

Zildjian glances between the group, then hisses softly, "What if she's ground-based? Y'all want me to notify you?"

Vash says, "I'd appreciate it, Zil. You want us to check on the Rose while we're up there?"

Kerry skrees, "I've been thinking about what we've seen so far -- a dead world, a world with androids who are slaves, and our own home, with uplifts who are spear-carriers and laborers even in the more enlightened nations. The average isn't good. Here is the only place that seems to accept all species as equals. One in four. If Laws is another human chauvinist... who knows what she'd think about us on board a shuttle." He nods to Zil. "I don't think she is, but certainly."

Vash says, "Quite frankly, Kerry, what she thinks is immaterial right now."

Zildjian nods, "Okay. If I recognize an outlander, or if someone recognizes my shuttle, I'll let y'all know." She pauses, thinking, then hisses firmly, "Nah, leave the Rose... it can rot there, and all Texas' hopes with it, for all I care. This is my home now."

Vash says, "All right, Zil. I understand."

Kerry grins. "Well, maybe we can arrange to have our people claim her as salvage. That'll pay for the trip."

Zildjian murmurs, "Thanks, Va-" then glares at Kerry, "Do you think anything is sacred, boy?!"

Vash winces. "Kerry. That's one word too many."

Zildjian stares at Kerry, hands on her hips, waiting for an answer. Kerry ponders that question seriously for a long moment. "Depends on the definition... but... yes. Our duty to decent folk of all races. Anything we need do to further the goal of freedom for our own kind is fair game."

Vash says, "Kerry, you need to stop right now before you dig your ass into a hole the rest of us can't dig you out of. Saying anything goes as long as it furthers our cause is starting to stray into Austin, you dig?"

Zildjian straightens up in anger, looking somehow larger than usual, and hisses at Kerry, "Then I suggest you start acting like it, boy! I swear to god you act like the world is your oyster sometimes -- it's whether you want to do this or that, or whether you get to fly, or if you want to play at being the hero!" She points a jabbing finger at the little bat's chest, "Let me tell you something, boy... you do that long enough, and you get to pick up your own broken pieces!"

Zildjian settles back on her coils, still bristly with anger, but hisses, "Sorry, Vash... forgot he's yours." She stares with slitted eyes at the bat, then turns and hisses to Vash, "Glad he's not my insubordination problem..." She turns to slither out of the room, empty mugs in hand, hissing quietly, "...otherwise he'd have been lunch... gonna get some refills..."

Vash takes a deep breath, and lets it out slowly through his nose. He shrugs. "It's not worth getting yourself worked up over, Zildjian." The big lamia nods quietly over her shoulder to Vash... then flicks her tail neatly out of the door closing behind her.

Kerry looks stricken at the lamia's outburst and slumps in on himself as she leaves. He seems unwilling to meet anyone's eyes. Vash closes his eyes and takes another deep breath. "I don't have anything to add that hasn't been said already. But I suggest you remember this in the future, Kerry. That's all I've got to say about that." He stands up slowly. "That's it then. Get your gear ready, and back here in two hours. We're taking off as soon as possible."

Douglas nods quietly and stands. He blinks a bit, looking at his clothing, then chuckles softly. "I wonder if I can even find my jumpsuit..." He ambles, albeit quickly, from the room, heading for the warren and already composing how he's going to break the news to the trolls.

Kerry swallows, gathers himself together, and salutes. "Yes, sir!" He heads for his room to pack his weapons.

Vash watches his subordinates leave, then pauses to sit on the table and rub his eyes again. Honeymoon's over. He shakes his head.

A few moments later the door opens. Blue is holding it wide for Zildjian, who slithers back in with a couple of filled mugs in each fist. The lamia looks around with a bit of surprise -- and then worry, "Uh-oh..." while Blue bounces in looking bubbly and excited, "Vashti-love! I have something fo... uhm..." she notices his tired demeanor, and leans against him, putting her arms around him, "Sweetheart... are you all right?"

Zildjian quietly slithers out of the room. Vash smiles a little and hugs Blue gently. "Yeah, I'm okay... just got a lot on my mind, that's all. Hey, Blue... do you mind waiting here a minute? I gotta go ask Zildjian something."

Blue looks worried, but nods, "Of course, Vash." She hugs a little tighter for just a moment, then sits back and smiles at him, "I have something for you."

Vash gives the human a squeeze. "Just be a sec... I promise." He stands up slowly and puts on a brighter face for his partner's sake. "I just need to square something with Zildjian... better to get work out of the way before the fun, right? Easier to enjoy it that way. Don't go anywhere." Blue smiles brightly and nods... although she looks a bit worried still. He heads through the door he last saw Zildjian pass through.

Zildjian's easy to find... she's coiled up on the hearth, waiting. There are two filled mugs in front of her. Vash frowns and glances around to make sure no one else is within earshot. He moves a little closer. "Zildjian... you okay?"

Zildjian rubs one golden skinned hand along the back of her head, making her hair stand up oddly, and has trouble meeting the 'dillo's eyes, "Yeah... m'sorry, Vash. Was rude of me t'butt in on your turf." She sighs, looking away, and mutters, "Like I have any rank anyway, any more..."

Vash says, "My turf? What... oh. I see. No... no. Zildjian, my chain of command doesn't have any bearing on your feelings. It needed to be said, Zil, and I can't say it."

Zildjian glances sideways at the 'dillo, "Well... shouldn't've been me, y'know?" She has a sip of her mug, then rests her elbows on her coils, and her chin in her hands, "I... don't know who I am any more, Vash... all my life I've busted my tail to be accepted for my learning, my self, and not to be regarded with scorn and fear just because of an accident of birth. Now I'm someplace where that accident of birth is getting me more credit than I think is my right... and who I was... doesn't really seem to fit any more." Her golden-eyed gaze swivels to regard Vash, "Do you feel that way too sometimes here? And... do you worry about losing it?" She sighs softly and hissingly, "I do... I... I like not being just another disposable tool, y'know?"

Vash folds his arms and sighs quietly. "I do, Zildjian. I've been thinking about it for a long time. It keeps me up nights." He grins lopsidedly. "I can't sleep next to Blue and I feel like an ingrate for not being able to relax, even there. I don't know what I'm supposed to do. It's just arrogant for me to think that I can single-handedly keep the Group from finding this world... and at the same time, if they come and plunder it... it'll be my fault. I don't really want to be a hero, Zildjian. I just want to live with my girl and be forgotten. But I can't do that either. I love it here... but there's too many people at home for me to think of, and too many of my own people died for it."

Zildjian sighs again and nods, her expression morose. "Yup... it was easy to decide when I couldn't leave. Now though..." She's silent a bit, then hisses quietly, "So... what are all your options?...and... what are your goals?"

Vash looks into the fire for a moment. "Mine? I don't know, Zildjian. I'd love nothing more than to stay here with Blue. But my conscience isn't going to let me do that. Douglas... he just wants to feel useful and not taken for granted. Sakura... that's tough. She'll never leave Crossroads. I'll never convince her to give it up. And truthfully I can't come up with a good argument to give her... that conscience thing doesn't work so well when it's not you that can't sleep at night. Kerry..." He takes another breath. "I think he wants to leave, and sooner than later. I don't think he's comfortable here. Things aren't always the way he expects them to be... but I can't really blame him. I don't think he'd act the way he does if he wasn't honestly in a bad way here." He shakes his head.

Zildjian nods slowly, listening... then smiles ruefully, the tips of her fangs unwittingly showing a bit, "Damn, Vash... wish my former captain'd given half the thought you do to your crew." She sits with her chin on her crossed arms and stares morosely into the fire for a bit, flames reflecting scarlet and gold off her dilated pupils -- then rolls her head fluidly enough to look over her shoulder at the sound of a door quietly opening. A soft voice murmurs, "Vash? May I come out now...?"

Vash half-turns. "Yeah... yeah, of course. Of course. I'm sorry. Didn't mean to make you wait." He smiles regretfully to Zildjian. "I just wish I had some answers to go with them, Zil."

Blue walks out quietly, picking up on the mood of the room, and comes to sit next to Vash. She looks rather worried, glancing between the lamia and the 'dillo, then leans against Vash slightly and says quietly, "Tell me, please, Vashti, what's wrong?"

Vash frowns. "I gotta go back to space for awhile, Blue. If I don't send word back to our home... they'll eventually send someone looking for us. They'll probably come anyway... you know? Opportunity and all that. This is the first world we've found with real life on it." That was still alive, at least. "And there are still more Gates out there. Not all of my crew agrees on what we should be doing... and I don't have the answers they want."

Blue looks stricken, glancing between the other two again, then whispers, "Leave?! When?"

Vash says, "Just... for a few days, this afternoon. We have to send a capsule back through the Gate with a message for home. Then we'll be back again. It shouldn't be more than... a few days at the most. It's what happens afterward that's on my mind."

Blue takes a deep breath or two, color coming back into her face, although her hands are tightly clasped in her lap. She nods slowly, then looks directly at Vash and says softly, "Do you want your necklace back? -or can I keep it?"

Vash bites his lip. This couldn't possibly hurt any worse. "Keep it, Blue... remember. I promised... as long as you have it, I'll find my way back to you."

Blue gets a rather tremulous smile, then hastily turns her face so it's resting against Vash's chest. She takes another few deep, shaky breaths, then sits back again to look at him, "Then... I still have something for you, Vashti." She takes one of his clawed hands and carefully turns it over, opening it... then gently deposits something in his hand, and closes the claws over it. She looks up at him and tries for a brave smile, "It... it's to keep you safe and bring you back to me, love. I... I know heroes have to keep going out on adventures, but... well, I hoped you wouldn't mind if I gave you something like that?"

Vash says, "I don't mind. Of course not. Thank you Blue... I promise, I'm coming back in a couple of days. I don't want to go, but this is probably the best thing for everyone." He opens his hand. In his palm is a locket with a clear front. Inside is a tiny curl of brown hair, a dried flower bud, and a dried rowan leaf. Around the edges is some kind of writing that he doesn't recognize. He smiles wanly and slips the cord over his head, tucking the locket under his shirt. "I'll be back soon, Blue. I promise."

Blue nods, still holding Vash's hands if he lets her, and says softly, "Vashti... why is it bad to have your people come here, please? I know the Queen of the Fey doesn't mind visitors and traders. Are your people..." She ponders, then says puzzledly, "-are they... dangerous or something? Aren't they at all nice, like you and Zildjian and all the others?"

Vash smiles a little. "Well... the people that sent me here, they're... well, you could call them traders. They're like a really, really big merchant guild. They're easy to deal with. Money is the motivation behind most of what they do. But they're not the only people back home. People like the ones that sent Zildjian... they're not nice, no." You can stop treating her like a child, Vash. She deserves the truth. "We... I mean, people like me, and my crew, and Zildjian, we weren't born, on our world. We were made, Blue. They made us to fight their wars for them and do the things they didn't feel like exposing humans to. That's why I'm alive, Blue. I'm a soldier because that's what they made me to be. They made my people, in fact... just to fight Zildjian's. And back home, there are some people that still think of us as disposable... that think of us as animals, or worse. And if I'm responsible for bringing those people here, then I don't know what I'll do."

Zildjian doesn't move; a huge, morose, silent heap of coils nearby, trying not to draw attention to herself so that Blue can have at least the illusion of privacy with Vash. Blue listens to Vash intently, a troubled expression on her face, while the dancing firelight gleams on her silky hair. She's silent for a long while... then finally she says, "Well... isn't that what the United States of Nippon was like too? They... they used tech to kill all their deities, but they forgot the spirits can't ever be slain where their followers don't wish it... and they were driven back. And... and in Azteka, that's where the humans are eaten by their deities, aren't they, as the worthiest sacrifices there? Or... or at least, that's what I was told...?"

Blue's voice falters away for a moment as she looks at the lamia for verification -- then remembers this lamia's not native. She takes another breath, then adds, "Well... well, I'm not sure, but... but I was always taught this world wasn't without defenses too...?" Then she brightens, remembering, "The dishonorable ones that came with the Zildjian... the Wild Hunt took care of them, didn't they? -and left the honorable lamia!"

Kerry bustles back downstairs, dressed in his ship-suit again, with his pistol holstered at his shoulder and the sling wrapped around his head again. He's carrying minimal gear in his rucksack, having left most of his locally obtained equipment and clothing upstairs. Finding no one in the other room, he peeks -- a bit nervously -- through the door where Zildjian had gone. Overhearing Blue's last comment, he nods. "Sounds right to me. I'm all set, boss."

Vash smiles a little. "I know it is, Blue... I just don't like the idea of making them necessary. I kind of hope that eventually I'll make myself obsolete. But... you're right of course. We don't have a real choice in the matter. So we may as well try to make it as beneficial for everyone. Blue... I love you. And I'll be back real soon." Then he oh's, as a thought hits him. "Why don't you come with me, Blue. I'm going to get my stuff together... and I think Zildjian has something she needs to tell Kerry."

Kerry looks even more nervous at that thought, but stands his ground and doesn't say anything. Zildjian glances over her shoulder and nods to Kerry, while Blue bites her lip, trying hard to be brave, and hugs Vash tightly. She whispers, "Sure, Vash," and rubs her face against his shoulder for a moment... then blushes and tries to casually rub the damp tear marks she's left on his shirt away, so no one will notice.

Vash smiles tenderly and curls an arm around Blue's waist. "C'mon, Blue... let's go." He leads her gently away from the room.

Zildjian silently watches the couple leave... then without moving her huge form, turns her golden-eyed gaze to Kerry. Kerry looks at the floor rather shamefacedly. "I'm sorry about making that crack, Zil. I honestly thought you wouldn't care what happened to the Rose after what you said."

Zildjian regards the little bat for a few long, silent moments... then finally sighs a long, gusty, hissing sigh. She raises her human torso enough so she's no longer coiled horizontally and waves Kerry over, "C'mere, Kerr. Have a seat."

Kerry comes over to the hearth where the lamia is coiled and clambers up to grab his usual overhead perch. He stretches his wings and then folds them up again. "I've been a jerk again, haven't I?"

Zildjian regards the bat again, then just shakes her head slowly, unsmiling. "Kerry... have you ever heard the phrase 'what goes around comes around'? -or 'you reap what you sow'?"

Kerry skrees, "Of course. Standard cliché for... oh. It actually works here, does it?"

Zildjian just nods. There's a long silence, and then she quietly says, "You did me a real good turn, years ago, Kerry. I like you... I don't want to see harm come to you... but please, remember that things are different here?"

Kerry skrees, "Bozhemoi. I'll try to keep it in mind... I have been thinking about what I can do if we do get stuck here, though, besides teaching trolls to fly. I don't know if you've had a chance to investigate -- but even if technology doesn't work the same way here, mathematics should be the same everywhere. I think. I'll need to sit in on some classes at the university, and I'll need to learn their notation and the written language, too -- but I should be able to teach mathematics."

Kerry grins. "And since that's the way things work here, I think Vash is worrying unduly about Home warships conquering Crossroads. I have a feeling that it wouldn't work out very well. I'll make sure he puts that in the log for our message home, shall I?"

Zildjian hisses quietly, "Kerry... you're missing my point here, boy. Stop planning for you. Think about what impact your actions will have on others; what the people around you might like... and maybe, just maybe, try to consider how others might see you... because your life might depend on who your friends are, someday." She pauses, then hisses dryly, "Again."

Kerry gets serious. "Understood. I'll backslide, and we both know it. But I'll try."

Zildjian regards the little bat unblinkingly for a long moment... then nods finally, "Please do, Kerry. I'll try to always have a place for you at my hearth... but I'm still working on making my own hearth here too." She leans forward, reaching up to gently unhook his feet from the ceiling -- and where did she get so good at that? -- and turns him effortlessly and neatly right-side up, with the ease of practice, to give him a hug. "Now... scamper, guy. The folks that could be your best friends ever are waiting on you. You don't want to annoy them any more."

Kerry sighs as he wraps his wings around the lamia's torso to return her hug. "Will do. It's just... things are just odd here. I do things that I think should help, and they don't. I'm still trying to figure out how this world works." He lets go and turns to leave. "We should be back soon, Zil. But we expected to be back soon to the Indigo when we first came down here. If we're not back soon, tell Dow I said goodbye -- and if we don't get back at all, tell her I hope she finds happiness."

Zildjian says, "I will, Kerry. Come back safe, so I don't have to." She smiles as the bat leaves... a sincere one, this time.

Douglas is waiting with Vash and Blue, but at a discrete distance from them to allow them some privacy, outside the Egg. He is dressed (in his view, almost miraculously) in his TAG jumpsuit, and with his satchel and tools -- and, out of habit, a spanner in his boot. Kerry rejoins the others. "No sign of Sakura yet?"

Vash says, "I didn't expect her to. I don't think she cares much about home anymore. Regardless, it can't wait... we've got to go ahead and take care of this."

Blue is struggling with tears occasionally, but trying hard not to cry, and to be brave for Vash. She's packed him a lunch, neatly wrapped in a nice patterned cloth, and apologizes to the others for not having some for all of them... they didn't have enough food at her house, unfortunately.

Douglas smiles, and reassures Blue that she needn't worry, as the trolls fed him well before they let him leave. At Vash's words, he looks quietly, and with a slightly unreadable expression, to the Captain... but says nothing, and only nods. "Aye, sir," he says softly.

Kerry skrees, "Yah. I remember, we told them we'd send a preliminary report after our survey of the worlds in this system, and then we never got back up to do it. They're probably worried by now. Pity we can't do that from down here, but..." He looks at Blue. I wonder if he asked her to come at least as far as the landing field?

Vash is wearing his jumpsuit and his backpack again, the suit zipped all the way up to his throat, making it seem too small for his armored frame. He hugs Blue gently, and thanks her again. He leans in close and whispers softly to her, "I love you. When I come home... we'll celebrate. Just you and me."

Blue hugs Vash so tightly she's almost shaking, as if she'll never let go. Zildjian slithers to the doorway of the Egg and smiles, "Take care, y'all. Blue, don't worry... they're just going to visit their ship up overhead, then come right back home. We can tell Doug's clan that he'll be back soon, if any of them turn up." Blue walks silently over to the lamia and nods, not trusting her voice. Zil smiles and adds, "We can even call them, I think, from my old Egg up there in Aykuh." She stands with one hand resting on the much smaller Blue's shoulder, and the two of them smile determinedly as they wave goodbye to the departing group.

Kerry waves as they head out. "Good idea, Zil! We'll call before we take off, and if you look south you might be able to see us. Something neat for you to draw, Blue."

Vash says, "Let's roll, guys. Let's get this over with." Douglas nods quietly and follows along after Vash to the Alshain.

The walk out to the ship is familiar and easy, and Alshain is there in the field, waiting silently. It responds normally to the request for access, revealing a hold full of beams, gears, and lumber, with boxes of plans, from the Master's workshop, and the great mechanical button pusher from the airlock door. All systems are running normally.

Kerry nods and settles himself in the pilot's chair, running through the checklist carefully after so long on the ground. The FAA would have a fit if they knew I was flying this thing after such a long hiatus and no simulator time. Too bad... He nods as the telltales all come up green. "All set, Captain. Do you want to make the call to Zildjian's Egg, or should I?"

Vash says, "Why don't you do it, Kerry." He closes his eyes as the other power the ship up, and waits for the brief wave of discomfort to pass.

Douglas settles into his seat, doing the checks of the shuttle's systems as routine. Something's unusual, though. It takes him a few moments to realize that the shuttle's technology is so complex; the trollish technology seems so straightforward and clear.

Kerry keys the mike and tries to contact Zil, having noted her ship's operating frequency before. "This is shuttle Alshain calling Egg. Alshain to Egg, do you read, over?" He waits for a response, noting with pleased surprise that he doesn't feel much in the way of tech-nausea this time.

There's a crackle and a few hissing pops from the radio, and then an excited voice, "-shian, your gremlins are work-*hiss*ome quick please and tell them wh-*crackle*" and then gently hissing laughter and another, familiar voice, "-sn't gremlins, Blue. Here, press this button... now hold that, and speak slowly, okay?" A moment later they can hear Blue again, "Hello? Hello?"

Kerry grins and keys the mike again. "We're just about to start the takeoff run. Alshain should clear your southern horizon at a bearing of 190 and move eastward from there. We'll be back soon. Over." He turns and offers the microphone to Vash. "Sure you don't want to say something?"

Blue says doubtfully, "Bearing what?" and then her voice fades slightly, as if she's not talking into the headphone, "If it's not gremlins, who's taking your message to and from them?"

Vash stands up and leans down to the microphone. "Be home real soon, Blue... I'll bring you back something from the ship."

There's a startled, "Oh!" from Blue... and then the smile can almost be heard in her voice, "I... I'll be waiting, Vashti... come home soon."

Vash says, "You got it, hon. Don't worry."

Annifred's laughter can be heard, "My turn, ja?" then a cheerful, "Ay! Vash, bring pretty-feets back too -- we not done with him!" Though he's looking at the console, Doug's ears perk right up and he straightens in surprise. He looks at the forward console, smiling, but then Annifred's claim of not being done with him startles him, making him blink in surprise.

Vash snorts! "Heh... okay, Annifred, I promise. I'll watch out for him."

Kerry waits for Vash and Douglas to finish, then takes the headset back. "Figure two days total for orbiting, sending the messages, and de-orbiting on schedule, gang. If something comes up to delay us -- like Dr. Laws -- we'll try to contact you... " He looks at Vash and continues after a brief pause, "...exactly three days from now from the Indigo. Does that sound reasonable, Captain?"

Vash says, "Sounds good to me. Let's get this done with."

Kerry grins and pushes the throttles full forward. "We're on our way, then. Seeya soon!" The engines roar, and the ship leaps forward when the bat releases the landing brakes, bouncing slightly over the field and then lifting into the air easily.

The rest of the trip up to the Indigo is calm and predictable. The ship responds to the shuttle normally, and docking is smooth. When the airlocks open to the ship, it seems cramped, full of hard surfaces and harsh, artificial lighting... and it smells funny. Despite this, the computers say everything is peachy and all is normal, except that there are a large number of reports missing.

Kerry grins to himself, the cramped, smelly, and harshly artificial environment just what he always expects when he gets on shipboard. And for now, it's still in free fall... he spreads his wings and flits easily through the air.

Vash says, "All right. We'll file the backlog reports and get the capsule ready to go. We'll cite... bad weather or something while we were doing the survey. Sounds better than Wild Hunt tractor beams. We ought to unload this huge pile of crap we took off the Master, too."

Kerry skrees, "I thought you weren't going to tell them fibs, boss? We've got our daily diary entries to work with, after all."

Vash says, "Who said anything about lying? They'll find out about the magic soon enough. They're expecting geological and weather surveys. That's what they're gonna get."

Kerry nods. "Yah, we should get rid of that junk and take down something more useful. No tech gadgets, but maybe some of the tools and fabric samples?" He looks skeptical. "You think they'll believe the magical stuff better if they smack their own noses against it, eh?"

Vash says, "I think it's less likely to get us landed in the asylum they stuck that lupine uplift in."

Douglas nods quietly. "I'll see if I can't keep the computer from downloading anything too extreme, that we don't want it to, into the capsule. We should have total control over what goes into the capsule, but if TAG is the least bit paranoid about what might be here, considering the last expedition, they might have some automatic entry-makers."

Kerry skrees, "Still think we need to put in some kind of explanation as to why we're so late filing the reports."

Douglas deadpans, "Sunspot activity. The computer systems helpdesk back at the company I worked with before TAG would use that excuse all the time."

Kerry chuckles. "Sunspots it is, then. I doubt that managers would be able to put the lie to it."

Vash says, "We'll give them the sensor scans and let them draw their own conclusions. We'll tell them the natives are relatively friendly and that they might be willing to trade, and that there's a lot of potentially dangerous wildlife, so they should exercise great caution. We might also tell them that first contact took a lot longer than expected since none of us speak the language. That isn't technically a lie..."

Kerry skrees, "It's not a lie at all."

Vash breaks off in the middle of his sentence to declare, "-and god damn it, it smells weird in here. What's with the recycling in here?"

The bat snorts at Vash's aside. "Ships always smell funky when you get on board from a clean environment." He adds, "What about our speculations as to how the Texan ship got filled with diamonds in exchange for the crew...?"

Vash says, "We didn't have time to survey the rest of the planet. We don't know what the Texans were doing on the other hemisphere."

Douglas says, "We can just report that we didn't find any ourselves."

Kerry nods. "Okay, no speculations yet."

Vash says, "It didn't smell this way when we got on back in the cornfield. Ah well... I shouldn't be surprised. No, no speculations... let's let them draw their own conclusions."

Douglas starts scrolling through his console. "I'll have a look at the LS subsystem, Captain. We just might be way too used to the air of Crossroads."

Kerry chuckles. "Captain... do you really think anywhere on Earth Home is a clean environment compared to Crossroads?"

Vash says, "Do we need to argue about this? Let's just get this done with so we don't have to breathe it anymore."

Kerry nods. "Good point. I'd like to check the bridge and see if there's any track on this new ship. With your permission, Captain..?"

Vash says, "By all means." Kerry salutes and heads for the ship's control center.

Douglas glances to Vash, then nods, "I'll go prep the cap-launcher, then."

Vash nods. "Good deal. I'm going to head to the bridge myself and review the command logs. Probably ought to update the Captain's Log too."

Douglas nods, and starts to head to the door, taking two steps before pausing. "Er... Captain... may I ask you something?"

Vash says, "Yes, Doug?"

Douglas turns a bit to look to Vash. "Sak- er, Doctor Murasaki, that is. You feel that she's never going to... well, that she'll not have anything to do with us, anymore?"

Vash smiles. "Nah, that's not what I meant, Doug. I just don't think she wants to go home. And I can't blame her. I don't think she's got a whole lot to go back to."

Douglas seems, in some way, to relax a little bit. He nods, quietly and but once. "I don't think I can blame her, either. Thank you, Captain." He slips through the doorway, making his way to the capsule storage, rolling up his sleeves for some gray-matter-to-circuit combat with the log computer. Vash grins and pushes off the bulkhead, gliding toward the bridge access, hands in his pockets and shaking his head. I wish everyone was so easy to reassure. I know I'd sleep better at night.

Douglas is pleased to discover that the capsule submits to his programming readily. He calls up to the bridge. "Bridge, capsule room. Captain, I think we're golden here. We can put just about whatever we want into the capsule and it'll think it's legitimate."

Vash grins. "Never doubted you for a second, Doug. Let's put the relevant logs together and get this thing launched... then let's go home. We're all expected."

Kerry drifts over to Sakura's sensor station when he arrives on the bridge and checks things out. Hmm.. okay, that looks good. All the automatic scans seem to be working fine. And there's the original copy of Law's message. His facility with the sophisticated scanners isn't high enough to reprogram them, but he's been watching Sakura long enough to be able to punch up the readouts, and this inspection seems to have gone correctly. Now... let's see if the navigation scanners have picked up anything. He flits over to the pilot's station with just a twitch of his wings and anchors himself with one foot while he checks for any unusual navigation beacons or engine flares.

Kerry grins. "Excellent. We've got all the scanning data for the last three months ready to go." He transfers the accumulated information to the message capsule, then chirrs at the lack of data on his own consoles. "No sign of any incoming ships. Maybe this Dr. Laws person has a stealth craft. Or maybe she's further out than we thought. I don't have anything else for the torpedo, Captain."

Vash says, "Then let's get it going. Laws'll contact us again if it's that important. No point in racking ourselves over it any more."

Kerry sighs. "I suppose." He pauses. "Oh, yes... that reminds me... mind if I take a half-hour or so to download some files to my data pad?"

Vash says, "Actually I was going to do the same thing."

Kerry grins. "Great minds, and all that. Let's be about it, then. I'm looking for magical legends, higher mathematics, and ultralight aircraft design."

Vash says, "Sounds good. I'm just gonna bring a couple old favorite books."

"Understood, Captain. Launching it now." Douglas sets the appropriate programming into the capsule, then sets it back into its ready-rack, being extra careful to wipe out any evidence of his tampering. He pats it lightly. "Head back home," he says, partly cheerfully and partly wistfully, "-and if you're made to tell more than we want about this place, I hope that you give the uplifts there some hope that there's a life other than that of a collared slave or second-class citizen." He closes the hatch over the rack, keys the launch panel unlocked and then, after just a pause, enters the commands that drop the capsule from the Indigo, sending it on its long journey out to the Gate.

The computer flickers several messages across the status screen. Little robotics move the capsule into position and it fires, its internal navigation systems repeating its plotted course, confirmation -- and it is on its way. After the launch has completed Douglas looks over at the screen, which has the details, Memory core updated among other things. The bottom of the listing has some statistics, including the number of gigabytes transmitted on the capsule... which is a surprisingly large number.

Douglas blinks at the screen and frowns, starting to run a diagnostic with one hand and keying the intercom with his other. "Bridge, capsule room. Just how much data did we dump into the cap-logs?"

Vash tilts his head. "Um..." He looks at Kerry. "You tell me."

Kerry frowns at the request. "Just a sec, I'll tally it up." A moment later he flicks open the intercom. "Should have been about 2 Gig, Douglas. What did it say on your end?"

There is silence over the intercom for a moment. "Oh, for kittens' sake..." Doug's voice is exasperated and sounds a bit more than a little nervous. "Pilot, that capsule just took off with three hundred and seventy six gigs. Moment, lemme see if I can see what got dumped in. Dammit!"

Vash says, "Holy fuck."

Kerry skrees, "Bozhemoi. Probably was set to dump the automatic recordings of the ship interior. They'll get a whole lot of nothing for the past three months if that's what it is."

Vash says, "Well, we did tell them that first contact took a lot longer than expected."

Kerry chuckles. "That's an understatement, yes.

Vash sighs irritably. "It's never easy."

Kerry skrees, "And if Alshain was sending the whole time, the Makers know what they'll think of the landing and subsequent events. I wonder if the Wild Hunt even shows up on data recordings..."

Vash says, "It's too late to worry about it now."

Kerry skrees, "True... but it's still plenty early to think about damage control if it's something we didn't want sent out this early."

Vash says, "How exactly you plan on doing that? Send out another cap that says, 'Oops, never mind'?"

Kerry shakes his head. "Other direction. If worse comes to worst, try for an audience with the Faery Court and tell them what we can."

Douglas says over the intercom, "Not necessarily. They'll pick up our logging in to do the telemetry of the Alshain. Ah, found something... yeah, that was it. The stupid chunk of Josephson silicates made backup images of the entire system every so often. It packed a core dump in there. It also included all the synchronized data from the shuttle, the data pads, security systems on board... if it pushed electrons, it was recorded. Including, probably, the attempts the Master made to break into the Alshain. Captain, if at all possible, I'd recommend knocking out that capsule. Maybe our communications laser, focussed on it for long enough, will damage it at least a little."

Vash says, "The laser's not going to do anything, Doug. They made it too low-power to be jury-rigged on purpose." He looks at the bat and says, "Look, Kerry... let them come. If they really want to know... we can always tell them the truth. If they don't believe us... well, the Wild Hunt owes us a favor. I don't think anyone's gonna try deporting us."

Kerry chuckles. "Good point, that."

Vash grins. "Thanks. So c'mon, let's pack up and go home... our real home. They'll be contacting us soon enough."

Douglas says over the intercom, which is still open, "I'm inclined to agree with you, Captain. We'll have to trust that Crossroads, after likely hundreds if not thousands of years of dealing with what to us is supernatural, can deal with any Earth forces that investigate." What happened in Nippon was contained, after all. He manages a quiet smile at Vash's words. "Meet you both in the hangar deck."

Last modified: 2001-Nov-14 15:17:09

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