Interlude

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"Think she'll come?"

Captain Chui Shan Fung glanced up from her holo-slate. Akcharrch, her Ongkoarrat companion, sat at the foot of Mr. Spock's ramp, scratching her belly with one of her three-toed feet. I suppose that might more properly be hands, Shan Fung thought. Aki had six, after all, and had never once expressed a preference.

In truth, there were many things the Ongkoarrat never expressed preference on; they simply couldn't be bothered. They had no concept of gender at all, and the crew of the Carpathia had ended up calling Aki "she" due the pitch of her voice, which was—especially to human ears—vaguely feminine. Aki didn't seem to care what they called her, as long as her pilot seat was always ready and her copilots weren't utter rust-brains. For despite her vague resemblance to a bulky, two and a half meter long sloth-bear and the fact that she walked on all sixes, Aki was one of the best pilots in the known universe. It was an Ongkoarrat thing.

"I hope so," Shan Fung said.

"Captain, we've known each other too long for that. What do your instincts tell you?"

Shan Fung sighed and set down the holo-slate. "She's young. She practically jumps at her own shadow and I fear getting her to trust anyone is going to take a great deal of work. Even so, there's a fierceness to her. She pulled a knife on me, you know."

Aki made a sound like a cat choking on a hairball and rocked forward onto her front feet, her bulk shaking with amusement. Shan Fung fought the urge to roll her eyes, because captains with a history of service in the Marines did not make undignified facial expressions, at least not in front of their crew members. Except this was Aki, and in the end Shan Fung gave in.

"You sure know how to pick them, Captain," Aki said with a chuff. "If she's like you say, she ought to fit in just fine."

"Perhaps. She really is a nervous thing. She struggled to look me in the face, just like I read, although...she could be very expressive and intense. Frankly, I'm not sure what to think. The one thing I'm certain of is that she has no wish to spend the rest of her life here."

"But can she do the job?"

"Based on my instincts, you mean?" Shan Fung glanced at Aki, who nodded. "She won't just be good at her job. She could change the universe."

Aki's ears flickered, that was all. Damn creature is so hard to read, Shan Fung thought, though not without fondness.

The rattling of metal drew both their attention before anything further could be said. Shan Fung glanced up and held back a knowing smile as she caught a glimpse of Xandri Corelel making her way towards them. The girl dragged a rickety metal luggage cart, one of the ancient ones with wheels. A suitcase and a duffle bag were piled haphazardly on it, and two small cages, both placed with care.

Goodness, she looks even worse under the light of day. She was remarkably unremarkable in appearance to begin with, her skin pale, her features plain, her hair slinky and limp and a pale yellowish color with streaks of dusty brown. Being so thin made her cheekbones stick out in a way that didn't suit the oval shape of her face at all. Her old gray hoodie hung on her as if she was little more than a walking hanger, and dark circles under her eyes suggested a night with little or no sleep.

"Got to hand it you, Captain," Aki subvocalized through her translator-implant, the words passing through Shan Fung's private comm, "you've always had a knack for scraping misfits out of the gutter, but this one really beats all. You said you found her lurking in a gambling den?"

"Yes, and I recommend you don't gamble against her. She might not look like much, but I've seen her clean several people out over the last few days."

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