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Farside Base: Part One


by freefalldreams

--------

Officially, civilians weren’t allowed in the command room. The command room was for Farside Patrol only.

     Tonight wasn’t a night for obeying rules, though. Tonight, the transparishield dome at the top of Farside Base was on the brink of becoming a war room, in a war that Farside had only two hours to prepare for. Half an hour of those was gone already, not that time would have made much difference. Despite its name, Farside Base was a scientific research station, and nothing more. Farside Patrol was meant less for fighting than for high-altitude research and general keeping of the peace, and the squadron’s tiny fighters were only fighters in name. At this very moment, extra weaponry was being hurriedly added to the absurdly under-armed spaceships.

     Meanwhile, the usually cosy command room was uncomfortably crowded, and the ventilation system was working overtime. Not that it fazed the perfectly groomed figure in the violet flight suit of Farside Patrol, leaning across the central consol, oblivious to the irritated glances he was getting. Even across the room, I could smell his strong Chokato perfume, and his supernaturally bright teeth sparked glistening reflections off the dome. Everyone here knew him, and everyone disliked him. The patch on his chest bore the number “2”: He was Karl Devilaris, brave reporter, ace pilot, and infuriating snob. To me, the blue Kau with long golden locks barely held in place by a hairnet was someone else altogether...

     Commander C was glaring at him from her seat across the consol. “I must ask you to cease your foolishness at once, Farside Five”, the Ice Bori snapped, baring her sharp icicle teeth. A trickle of meltwater ran down her brow. Clearly, her personal heat-shield was getting overloaded by the stuffy room and the stress.

     “Take a chill pill, Crystal,” said the half-robotic, half-red Shoyru sitting at right angles to her. The Demon was painting his knife-like metal nails red, his favourite colour. The blue stripes of face paint on his cheeks were shiny: they must be new. War paint, probably, or his idea of war paint. The Demon wouldn’t be fighting. He was too valuable, being the director of Farside Base, and he couldn’t fly his way out of a paper bag anyway.

     I was getting glared at more then Farside Five. What was I doing wrong, besides just existing and being in Farside Patrol? Of course, I knew. It went back to the day I first met Karl Devilaris...

      ******

     “Let’s face it, Explorer,” my brother Karmapa said, “none of this really works. My name? Not snappy enough. Neopia Central? No news, or at least it’s all good news, which you know is no news. Seeing as we’re now stuck in the Neolodge while Freefall’s off having fun somewhere, I really think we should do some real reporting.” He took a bite out of a large toffee apple, and sticky juice dripped onto his bowtie.

     I was making the calculations needed to find a safe answer when the door banged open, and an Island Ogrin rushed in, looking very frazzled. I recognized my friend Geena.

     “Sorry for the intrusion,” she blurted out, “but your door wasn’t locked, and I really need to get away from this stupid place!” As I tried to make sense of this statement, she spun, yelling “Girls!” down the corridor.

     A little green Cybunny hurried in, pushing a baby carriage. A baby Aisha sat in the carriage, grinning and waving.

     “Explorer, these are my sisters, Ciyan and Rai,” Geena said, just as Karmapa opened his mouth. “I think you saw them in passing, way back when, when we were on our way to Meridell... Look, we had a big fight with Mid, you know, our big brother, and he threw us out of the house. I know your owner’s away too, and I know you’re here, but we need a place to stay...”

     A moment ago Karmapa had looked as if he was going to complain. Now he was grinning. “Wonderful!” he said. “Karl Devilaris will need an entourage. Feel like a trip to the far side of the moon?”

     Geena blinked. “Who is Karl Devilaris?” she asked. I set to work explaining Karmapa’s alter ego.

      ******

     “Hey, pretty girl, your hair’s falling down.” The words were only a whisper in a crowded room, but they jerked me back to the present. As I pawed at the long red braid that had come untwisted from its bun atop my head, more whispers started. “Your helmet’s gonna leak with that stuff all over.” “Chop it off, girl, chop it off.” “How’d you grow it that way, magic?” “Just like you and that sneaky snob knew about Sloth, just too late to do anything?”

     “Enough!” Commander C was on her feet, looking furious. “Just because she’s a girl...” she started to say.

     “With long hair,” added a voice, and others chimed in, “An Island girl too,” “An Island Wocky, no less!” and finally “An Island Wocky from Neopia Central, who has long hair and told us that Sloth’s about to attack us!”

     “Enough!” Commander C yelled again. “You can’t blame the messenger, Neopia Central’s a very nice place, hair is a personal matter, and I will not have you insulting your comrades! And I’d like you to remember that I’m a girl too!”

     Nobody spoke. Nobody except for a starry Uni, one of the tech staff let in because of the emergency, who looked up from the consol with a look of infinite sadness in her eyes. When she finally spoke, all she said was, “I think you should stand in the freezer for a while, Commander.”

     Commander C glared at the Uni, then at her own front hoofs, which were dripping. “I’ll meet you when the battle starts,” she snapped, and stormed off, leaving a large pool of water where she had been sitting.

     The nasty comments started again as soon as she was out the door. Finally, after struggling with my hair for far too long, I gave up.

     “Fine!” I shouted. “Will someone please get some scissors and cut this off? Preferably in a buzz cut!”

     Before anyone else could open their mouth, Karl had jumped up, bumping the Demon and making him smear nail polish across his paw. “No, Explorer!” he shouted. “It took three days to make that potion! You can’t just cut it off!”

      ******

     “Super-organized bags, ok. Fancy clothes, maybe. But hair?” I glared at Karmapa, who was brushing his own blond locks out of his eyes. “Why? And more importantly, what was in that potion you slathered over our heads?”

     Karmapa shrugged. “Turn about is fair play, Explorer,” he said. “You wouldn’t make me a new wand, so I had to turn to other forms of magic. Now you want me to share my secrets?”

     I glared at him, wishing, not for the first time, that I hadn’t taught him magic. I had been so thrilled when my newly adopted little brother showed some skill, I hadn’t bothered to think of the consequences. He had excelled at magic, even making himself a wand; I had settled for turning a found stick into a magic staff long before then.

     The trouble had started after an exceedingly annoying, and in hindsight quite farcical, misadventure in Meridell. During our chaotic escape, he had been forced to abandon his wand in Meridell Castle. Neither of us considered it wise to go back to Meridell, so Karmapa had set about making himself another wand. The only problem was that he seemed to have totally lost his knack for wand-making.

     I had tried to help, but only succeeded in causing several explosions. Finally, Karmapa gave up his quest for a wand, and began to concentrate on the branches of magic that didn’t require one. He quickly became an expert potion-maker, and soon I would find pots full of unlikely ingredients bubbling over any heat source he could find. I had never expected a hair-growth potion, though!

     I stared across the nearly empty terminal of Neopia Central spaceport, and pushed back the rather frizzy red locks I had been graced with. They were definitely hair, hair like Freefall had on her head, not overgrown fur. Besides the colour difference, which Karmapa had refused to explain, the entire texture was different.

     Geena was trotting across the room, her hoofs clacking loudly on the stone floor. Like Karmapa and me, she walked on her hind legs, but for reasons of practicality, not vanity. She was carrying a tray with three plastic cups on it.

     True to form, Karmapa ignored her. “Everyone famous has hair,” he said. “Hannah, Sophie, Isca... so why not Explorer, sister of Karl Devilaris?” He then glared at Ciyan, who had just pushed up Rai’s baby carriage. “Important Neopians also maintain a dignified posture.” Ciyan, clearly tired, had gone onto all fours after parking Rai next to our row of cold metal seats.

     “Who ordered the lemon iced tea?” Geena snapped, plopping the tray onto an empty seat. “Explorer, I got you Ummagine tea, you said you wanted a hot drink.”

     “I said I wanted coffee,” I clarified, as Karmapa took the lemon iced tea.

     Geena shrugged, taking the other iced tea herself. “No coffee. I figured it was the next best thing, or would you rather have Grenanna iced tea?” She offered her cup.

      “No thanks.” I tried to hide a shudder. Geena liked sour drinks much more than me, and I did need something hot to drink. The spaceport was cold, and I was underdressed. Karmapa had convinced me to swap my usual grass skirt for blue denim overalls and a brown T-shirt, but I was almost cold enough to use some magic. I reached for my staff, which was slipped through a loop on one leg of my overalls. Karmapa didn’t look cold, but then his dark blue suit was probably quite warm. I glanced at his new bowtie and grinned. Just seeing a tie in that shade of pink was enough to warm me a bit.

     Ciyan had been rummaging in Geena’s old brown duffle bag, and now pulled out several plastic containers. I knew what they contained, of course: Steamed broccoli, tinned orange sections, quiche, gooseberry jelly... a larger one contained a bunch of bananas, and a bag was full of mint lollypops and honey sticks. Even with the limited time and non-existent cooking facilities we had, Geena had made sure we had a supply of at least two healthy and delicious meals. Privately, she’d told me she simply went back to her house and raided the fridge, fruit basket, and cupboards.

     “Eat the perishable stuff first,” Geena said, as Ciyan began opening containers at random.

     “Candy!” Rai yelled, standing up in her baby carriage.

     “Have some gooseberry jelly,” Ciyan said, offering her the open container.

     “No!” Geena yelled, but it was too late: Rai had stuck a paw in and shoved as much jelly as she could hold into her mouth. A second later, she yelled “Sour!” and spat it at Geena. The green gloop landed on the brim of Geena’s large hat, then started to drip into the lap of her purple dress. Ciyan started to laugh, and Geena ripped off her hat and threw it at Ciyan, while shouting, “Don’t you have any brains?”

     Ciyan shrugged and put on the hat. “You’re right,” she said, “I should have given her a spoon.” She pointed at her own dress, which looked very like Geena’s, and now had jelly on the front of it too. “See,” she said, grinning, “matching stains.”

     A loud laugh came from behind us. I prepared to scream at Karmapa, but found that the laugher was actually a blue Lutari standing at the end of the row of seats. “A lady of fashion already,” he said. Geena growled something inaudible and tried to wipe the stain off her dress with her pink handkerchief.

     I looked at the stranger. He was tall and, like most Lutaris, bipedal. He wore a smart black suit, which looked like Karmapa’s in black and white. He had a black duffle bag slung over his left shoulder, and a black briefcase in his left forepaw. “Mr. Devilaris?” he asked, holding out his right forepaw to Karmapa.

     Karmapa reached out and shook the proffered paw with an air of indifference. “Good to see you, Kent,” he said. “This is my sister, Explorer...” He waved his free hoof in my direction. “...her assistant, Geena...” He shrugged one shoulder at Geena. “...and Geena’s sisters, who I thought I’d let her take on a trip every kid dreams of.”

     Kent didn’t seem to be paying much attention. He was staring at Geena in a way that seemed equal parts delight and horror. “Haven’t I met you before?” he asked quietly. I shook my head.

     “Yes, Kento,” Geena said sharply. “The last time we met, you made King Skarl very mad at us. Been to the Lab Ray a few times since then, have you?”

     “No... er... yes, but... um...” Kent, or Kento, stammered. I backed away from him so quickly that I stepped into the container holding the remains of the gooseberry jelly. If this “Kent” was the Kento I had last seen as a Cloud Ruki, I wanted nothing to do with him.

     “Don’t be shy,” Geena said. “Mr. Devilaris is actually Karmapa, who bore the brunt of your foolish spy games.” Kento dropped his briefcase, which, instead of hitting the floor, dangled from a chain that apparently attached its handle to Kento’s wrist. Ignoring it, Kento stared at Karmapa, who was staring at him. Geena went on, “You’re not the only one who’s been to the Lab and taken a fancy name...”

     “Look,” Kento said very quickly, “I had no clue who you are, but I’m glad I got a chance to say sorry. I’m pretty sure I got the worse end of that stick...” He shrugged, and made a frantic gesture with his paws. “I’m on my own now, no pro-Kass group... or anyone. I’m not like that anymore, that’s someone else. I mean, everyone knows me as Kent...” He waved a paw at the ceiling. “...up there. And, you know, they wouldn’t have sent me to get you if they didn’t trust me!”

     At least two minutes passed before anyone spoke. Then Karmapa said, “Very well, Kent. My assistant should be here at any moment.” He bent over and picked up a boxy black case from the floor.

     “He’d better be, Mr. Devilaris,” Kent said quickly, looking at a wristwatch that peeked out from under his jacket sleeve. His right sleeve, I noticed. “The shuttle’s going to start boarding in about five minutes, and we need time to get through security.” He reeled in the chain, and I caught a glimpse of the metal cuff on his wrist at the other end of it.

     “She won’t be late, I promise you,” Karmapa said, opening the case.

      ******

     Somebody bumped my elbow, and I jumped. How had I gone off down memory lane in this situation? I couldn’t even remember answering Karl...

     The command room was even more hectic than it had been earlier. My violet-clad fellow Patrol members were hurrying around, but seemed to be doing nothing more urgent then gossiping. That couldn’t be said for the group around the central consol, however. The Starry Uni was speaking frantically to the Demon, while Karl, looking ever so slightly worried, was opening the boxy black case.

     Without warning, the Demon rounded on him. “Out!” he shouted. “I want you and your stupid, noisy, low-tech machine out of here! I have a base to worry about, I have a battle to worry about, I have an escaped traitor to worry about, I don’t need to worry about you too! OUT!”

      ******

     “What’s that thing, Karl?” asked Mel. I was looking at her more than Karmapa’s mysterious machine. To be fair, I don’t think anything could have prepared me for Karmapa’s assistant being Melancholy, a Grey JubJub who was my friend Violet’s little sister. She was also the most cynical creature I had ever met.

     We were sitting in the front row of seats in the shuttle’s tiny passenger cabin. Geena and I were still smarting from the insult of having our bags emptied and our food confiscated in the name of security and decontamination. Adding to the smart was that Kent and Karmapa had been waved through first and apparently not checked at all.

     Karmapa had just opened his mouth to say what the odd little printing machine was when a voice boomed over speakers that must have been hidden somewhere. “I see we don’t have many of you this evening,” it said. “That’s good; we’ll be off in about ten minutes. We just need to get the rest of the cargo loaded. Meanwhile, a lovely lady will help you with your harnesses... right, Pix?”

     An annoyed voice answered him. “I am not a lovely lady, I’m your co-pilot. Send Amber for a change.”

     The first voice laughed. “She only knows how to talk to engines,” it said. “You just can’t help being nice.”

     Pix seemed not to like the first speaker’s reasoning, but the voices stopped. It was at that point, for no real reason, that the enormity of what was about to happen hit me. I hadn’t really thought about it since Karmapa explained his plan, but now it hit me. I was going to the moon! I was going to fly in space!

     I didn’t have long to think about that. Karmapa had perched his machine on his lap and was fiddling with a stack of blank white sheets of paper he’d pulled out of the case. When they were inserted to his satisfaction, he started to tap at the keyboard with one hoof, while steadying the machine with the other. I watched in fascination as the machine chattered and slowly began to spit out a sheet of printed paper from its top.

     “Where did you get that?” Kent asked sharply.

     “Junk shop,” Karmapa mumbled, not paying much attention. “Says something about Farside Base on the bottom, gave me the idea...”

     Kent grabbed the machine and inverted it, causing paper to fly out and ink to drip onto the already dirty orange carpeting. Ignoring Karmapa’s angry shout of “Hey, that’s mine!” he slowly read aloud the faded writing stamped into the bottom of the machine: “This typewriter is the property of Farside Base, Kreludor, and is NOT TO BE REMOVED FROM FARSIDE BASE!” I could see that the last seven words were in caps, but Kent’s voice would have made it clear even if I couldn’t see them. He glared at Karmapa.

     “So someone stole it,” Karmapa said, tossing his hair. “Happens all the time.” He caught Kent’s glare, and grabbed the typewriter back from him. “I’ve never been there, so don’t look at me that way!” He pulled a blue floss pick out of his pocket and commenced to clean his teeth.

      ******

     “Your teeth!” I jumped, staring around the command room. The Demon was yelling at Karl. “Your hair!” he shouted. “Your teeth! How nice your suit looks on you, and your fancy pyjamas that you wear half the morning!” He waved his polish-smeared paw. “You’re a disgrace to Farside Patrol, and I won’t have you lose us this battle! Go and do your teeth and your hair and your face!”

     The other members of Farside Patrol started murmuring at that. Karl wasn’t liked, but he was the third best pilot at Farside, and the second best who was going to be in this battle, at least on our side. My stomach did a back-flip as I remembered the traitor. Second only to Commander C, and now it seemed he’d been working for Sloth all this time...

     I stood up. I’d be hated even more for this, but I was currently second-in-command of Farside Patrol, and it was my duty to make sure the Demon didn’t take things too far. “You can’t dismiss a member of Farside Patrol, sir,” I said. “Your authority is only over the civilians here, you’ll have to talk to the Commander if you’ve got a problem with one of the pilots.”

     The Demon’s face twitched. He hated being alone with Commander C, and he hated going to the kitchen even more. He glared from me to Karl and back again, then stormed out of the room. Before the doors slid shut, someone else had raced in past him. A small form, wrapped in a pink blanket, with a bell tied to the red ribbon around her neck and a stalk of broccoli in one paw. Rai was definitely not allowed in here, but here she was, racing to my feet.

      ******

     “Karmapa, can we please slow down?” Geena complained. “We’re at the Space Station; we have three hours until our ship...”

     “You will call me Mr. Devilaris, Geena,” Karmapa said in a voice of deep contempt. “We are going to Grundo’s Café for dinner.”

     Geena rolled her eyes at me. We were both queasy from the ride up. I had a sneaking feeling that my owner would not be so keen on real freefall if she had been on the shuttle with us, watching all the accumulated rubbish float gently up from the floor while Rai’s baby carriage waggled at the end of its tether. Geena had been spacesick, Rai had wailed incessantly and nearly escaped from her special seat harness, and I had discovered that closing my eyes only made matters worse, making me feel like I was spinning. Karmapa and Kent had ignored everything around them, chatting amiably, while Mel made predictions of trouble ahead.

     Ciyan seemed happy enough, though. She had stared at the floating rubbish the whole trip, and while we were going through security, had gotten Rai settled back in her baby carriage, which Ciyan was now pushing. Rai was contentedly winding up a Hissi-in-a-box, and seemed happy too.

     “Hurry up, girls,” Kent called from ahead of us, “I want to get there while there’s still Space Rocks, Ice Apples, and Garthroxian Goo.”

     “I’d like a good casserole,” Mel put in.

     “Candy,” Rai said quietly.

      ******

     “Iced tea, anyone?” The door had hummed open without my noticing it. Ciyan, dressed in a black jumpsuit, was pushing a small cart. Glasses rattled against the three jugs of iced tea that topped the cart. “Lemon, Grenanna, or Purplum,” she said, then gasped. “Rai!” she yelled, making a dive for her little sister, who was banging the broccoli stalk against the dome as high as she could reach.

     “Spattaslot!” Rai shouted, grinning, as Geena hurried in with a tray of sweets and a huge grin on her face.

     “I think you’d better come to the kitchen,” she said, setting the tray down on the cart. “It seems the Demon has locked himself in the closet.”

      ******

     “This isn’t a room, it’s a closet!” I snapped. “Plus, the bathroom is a broom cupboard!”

     It had not been exactly a good day. The only food I had found appetizing at Grundo’s Café was the sweets, and I felt unsatisfied and sick to my stomach. Rai had cheese all over her, Mel was cross because the disgusting meat concoction she’d eaten was too dry, and we could have all done with a nice hot drink.

     Instead, we were being shown our cabins on the “three-day wonder” to Kreludor by a very stupid Rainbow Bori. The best thing that could be said about them was that they were well-equipped. Geena’s cabin had a bed, a small fridge, a desk with a pot of cloth flowers on it, two chairs, one an armchair, a cot attached to the wall for Rai, and most impressive, a screen on the wall that showed movies and could be controlled by pushing buttons on the desk. The little bathroom in the corner even had a bathtub, but it was so small that there was barely enough room to stand between the sink and the toilet, and the main room was to the same scale.

     “I can’t have them both in here,” Geena said with a sigh. “You’re just going to have to take Ciyan, Explorer...” I forced myself not to groan. My cabin across the corridor was just as small.

     “I’ll get an air mattress for the child, Miss Devilaris,” the Bori said. “I think there should be enough room, since there won’t be the baby bed taking up space.” He hurried out.

     “Maybe he’s not as stupid as he looks,” Geena said, flopping onto the bed.

     “What did he call me?” I asked, feeling a nasty itch in the back of my mind.

     “What, aren’t you in on the fancy names thing?” Ciyan asked, emerging from the bathroom. “We thought that since you’re Mr. Devilaris’s sister, you’d be... Here, I bet I can get the passenger list on this thing!”

     She sat down at the desk and started pushing buttons. The screen flickered on, showed what must be the external view, flicked to a cartoon about Faellies, switched to a close-up of a green Wocky’s face for a moment, then showed a menu. Ciyan gave a satisfied sigh and hit another button, causing the passenger list to fill the screen. “There you are,” she said a short time later, “Explorer Of Worlds Devilaris!”

     I felt my fur bristling and my claws sliding out of their sheaths. How dared Karmapa give me the silly name he had taken for himself? I might have stormed off to find him and give him a piece of my mind, but the Bori rapped on the door at that point.

     “Your cabin’s ready, Miss Devilaris,” he said. I gritted my teeth as I realized I was going to have to stand being called that for three days.

     Ciyan raced out the door and was tapping her paws impatiently by the time I figured out how to unlock my cabin’s door. The Bori had apparently thought key-cards were too basic to need explaining, but I didn’t understand them at all!

     Squealing in delight, Ciyan raced for the fully-made airbed which stood, rather inexplicably, in the centre of the room. She flung herself onto it...and bounced back up! Laughing, she landed on her hind legs, and leaped up again, reaching for the ceiling. I wondered if I should stop her, but decided that I’d just put a cushioning spell on the floor so she wouldn’t hurt herself if she fell. I slipped my staff out of its loop...

     It was a good thing I did use magic, even though it seemed to take more effort than usual. Moments later, the wall screen turned itself on, and announced very loudly that “The following is an important safety announcement and should be watched carefully!” The noise made me jump and bang my paw against the desk, and startled Ciyan so much that she misjudged a landing and slipped off the bed. She clutched at the bedding as she fell, and dragged most of it with her, landing on the magic-cushioned floor under a pile of green and brown blankets and cream sheets and pillows, and showing the airbed to be bright pink.

     “Wow,” Ciyan said, ignoring the important announcement, “this carpet is softer than the bed! I should sleep here!”

      ******

     “You mean to say that the Demon is stuck in the kitchen closet?” Karl asked incredulously.

     “Locked in it, in fact,” Geena chuckled, “from the outside. He’s screaming his head off.”

     “I’ll bet he is,” said the one mutant in Farside Patrol, a mutant Cybunny everyone called Vile. She had been sitting in a corner since Farside went on high alert, speaking to no one and being ignored by all. Vile was just like that, perhaps because of being mutant, perhaps because she was one only three female pilots in Farside Patrol. Nobody cared about Commander C, and her influence sheltered me, but she never seemed to notice that Farside Twelve, in her oversized flight suit, might need a bit of support every once in a while. Not that anyone bothered her, of course. Her size made her too intimidating for that. They just ignored her, and she returned the favour.

     At the moment, Vile seemed strangely communicative. “So,” she asked, smiling slightly, “did you lock him in there, Geena? He deserves it, thinking he can bawl out the cooks and still expect a good supper.”

     “He hasn’t gotten one for weeks,” Geena said. “Everything he’s served is either burnt or undercooked, and will be until he learns the meaning of respect.” She laughed, not noticing the uncomfortable looks the pilots were shooting at each other. We’d all heard the Demon’s incessant complaints about how awful his food was, but had assumed he was only being grumpy. I personally hadn’t ever had a bad meal at Farside.

     “You didn’t lock him in there, did you?” I asked nervously. “You’ll be in more trouble than even the Commander can fix!”

     Geena and Vile both rolled their eyes at the same moment. “The Commander,” Geena said.

     “The wonderful Commander C,” Vile groaned.

     “Since when has the Commander ever fixed a thing for the kitchen staff?” Geena said, giving me a pitying look. “And no, I did not lock the Demon in the closet, and your beloved Commander can bear witness to that. Apparently it has something to do with that spy or whatever.” She spun around, and walked out the door, an annoyed look on her sharp face.

      ******

     “What’s taking you so long?” I asked, rather annoyed at the time Geena was taking in the bathroom. “We’re supposed to be at the Captain’s table, thanks to Karmapa’s string-pulling! He’s going to be really angry if we’re late...”

     “I’m busy, Explorer!” Geena said in a rather muffled voice. “I’ve got to get this cheese out of my teeth!”

     “Mine!” Rai shrieked, and Ciyan yowled. I turned to find Rai smacking her sister with a comb, while Ciyan tried to wrest it from her paws.

     “Stop it!” I shouted, trying to grab the comb from Rai, who bit me. I didn’t think she had any teeth, but her gums sure were hard!

     “Explorer, can’t you control them?” Geena demanded angrily from the bathroom. I bit my tongue to stop myself from reminding her that they were her sisters, and that I found them uncontrollable.

     Enough was enough, I decided. I pulled my staff out of its loop and waved it at the struggling pair, while focusing my mind on the comb... which flew out of Rai’s paws, as intended. What I did not intend was for it to fly toward me and tangle itself in my own long hair.

     “Ok, I’m done,” Geena said, walking out of the bathroom and dabbing at her newly-applied blue lipstick with a tissue. “If you’re ready to go... Explorer, that is not the kind of comb you put in your hair!”

     I opened my mouth to explain, but was interrupted by a loud rap on the door. “Geena?” Karmapa’s voice called through the door. “Is Explorer there? We’re late for supper, and the Captain’s not going to be happy!”

      ******

     “Aren’t you coming, Explorer?” Ciyan asked. I blinked, and realized that the command room was quickly emptying. For a second, my mind went into panic mode: could I possibly have fallen asleep, and had the battle begun? Then I realized that the only noise was that of Farside Patrol hurrying out, while sirens would have filled the air had there been a battle in progress.

     “They’re going to turn the Demon loose,” Ciyan explained. “Are you all right? You were just staring off into space for a bit.”

     “I’m fine,” I said, getting up to follow the rest of Farside Patrol. “I just went off down memory lane a bit.”

     “C’mon, Rai,” Ciyan said, grabbing her little sister’s paw and hurrying after me. “You what, Explorer?”

     “Went off down memory lane a bit, that’s all,” I said. “I’ve been doing that all night, for some reason.”

     “Really?” Ciyan asked, and she sounded so worried that I stopped and looked at her.

     “Yeah,” I said, wondering if she might have the answer to my odd drift-offs. “Is something wrong?”

     “Well...” Ciyan looked seriously worried now. “You weren’t... seeing your life flash before your eyes or anything, were you? I mean, I’ve read...” Ciyan looked, at that moment, as if she were much older than she was.

     “I don’t think so,” I said, suppressing a shiver. “I’ve read about that too, but I think it’s supposed to be much faster, like if my fighter was falling out of the sky or something. If I see that, it’ll be later in the evening.”

      ******

     “Isn’t this a rather dangerous job? I can’t believe he asked the Captain that! Has your brother lost his mind?” Geena said indignantly. “I can’t believe she didn’t just tell him to get lost!”

     I grunted noncommittally, while searching my bag for my shampoo. Geena was sitting on Ciyan’s clumsily remade airbed, combing Ciyan’s ruff and complaining about Karmapa’s appalling manners, while Rai snoozed on the floor.

     “I mean, using that noisy print-machine at the table! And asking that dumb question... Really, a meal is not a time to interview someone.”

     I found my shampoo and stood up. “That’s just the way Karmapa is,” I said. “If you want to think about it, even his clothes were rude.” Geena laughed, and I went on, “Not only did he still wear that silly tie, he put that awful lime green hankie in his pocket, and never mind that it clashed appallingly. And who wears white gloves to dinner any more?”

     “He should know that hoofs, gloves, food, and ink don’t mix,” said Ciyan, and we all laughed.

     “Well, I’m going to try out the bath,” I said. “Night, Geena...” I squeezed myself into the bathroom, leaving her to get herself and Rai back to their own cabin.

      ******

     I came back to the present to a scene of confusion. I had apparently walked to the kitchen while lost in memory... not that it was that surprising. I knew Farside Base by heart. What I wasn’t used to was seeing the kitchen in the sort of state it was in at the moment.

     Most of Farside Patrol was clustered around the walk-in closet in one corner, the green door of which had a very large padlock on it. I could hear the Demon shouting in a muffled voice from inside. Karl was attacking the padlock with a sharp knife, while Vile was rummaging through the cupboards. Commander C was lounging at the worktable next to the freezer, looking amused and much more solidly frozen than she had the last time I saw her. Some of the other inhabitants of Farside were also crowding around or sitting on the large counter in the middle of the room, making the kitchen even more bustling than usual. Rai had her paws in a large pot of sticky caramel, and Geena was stirring a pot of something green, seeming very uninterested in the rather chaotic room.

     I stared at Geena’s back for a moment. I had to talk to her, and I had to do it now. I glanced at the silly Techo clock above Commander C’s head, seeing that it was exactly eleven o’clock. One hour to midnight.

To be continued...

 
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