A Shared Obsession

Planet #4145212-3554E (Fifth moon of Daneub), Research & Monitoring Station Telesta

In the dimmed illumination provided by the station lights being set to quarter strength, the gentle glow of the data screens and monitor lights cast a muted rainbow across the matte black and nickel panels of the interior station surfaces, from walls to floor to the lone figure seated before the massive wall of screens, hands occasionally drifting here and there across the control console. It was peaceful, serene. The faint hum of the more powerful systems could be heard echoing through the station, providing a soothing sort of un-music to the sole person present to hear it.

Zanson was always alone when he visited Telesta. Partially by preference, but also partially because, out of the few people who had access to the station, he was the only one who ever went up with any sort of regularity. Technology was something few Daneubians had any interest in, so remnants of the long-lost technology that Daneub had possessed millennia ago was viewed with nothing more than idle curiosity by the general population.

Even the Research and Historical department, as a general rule, tended to dismiss the remnants of Daneub's past as immaterial. The past was gone. What was of interest was the present, and the future yet to come. It was people who provided change, people who shaped the future to their will. Therefore, it was people with whom Daneub's curiosity dwelled.

Still, even with the general mindset all Daneubians had of peace and simplicity, there were a few Researchers and Historians who understood the value the old technology, the Telesta station included, could have if utilized cautiously. Thus it was that Zanson and a handful of others were permitted to access the scant remaining fragments of the past for the good of Daneub and all its people.

Occasionally outsiders were granted temporary access, though always with a native Daneubian researcher with them. Zanson preferred to let others give such tours. He disliked the never-ending disbelief such visitors always expressed when confronted with the fact that Daneub had deliberately given up its technology, and continued to find little interest in it. Always they pressed, trying to convince him how much better technology made everything.

If they couldn't understand him, neither could he understand them. It always left him feeling lost and adrift, that they could not see how their precious technology brought pain and war to their doorsteps. At the press of a button, they could annihilate hundreds, thousands of people. Without such weapons of war so readily available, one who wished harm upon another would have a much more difficult time of it. He would have to confront his victim face to face, look into his eyes, and watch as the life bled out of him.

Perhaps being forced to kill in such an intimate manner would reduce the murder that was so prolific across the stars. But then again, perhaps not. There were some species that simply seemed to thrive on violence, as baffling as such a concept was to any Daneubian.

Though perhaps it shouldn't be quite so baffling, given that Daneub was also home to a second sentient race. Daneub's Hellcats were amongst the fiercest warriors in known space, and carried death in their claws in the form of a potent poison that brought death within minutes. That two such drastically opposite races could have arisen on the same planet, and indeed, coexisted quite peacefully, had ever been a source of incredulous disbelief for the rest of the Infinitum Government.

Zanson's lips curved into an amused half-smile and he called up his personal files on one of the smaller monitoring screens. He was privy to a certain parcel of information that would have half the scientists in the IG falling all over each other if they knew. Occasionally he was tempted to release the report he'd written, just to see what would happen, but always he simply touched up a few things here and there and sent the file away until he felt like looking over it again. Daneub did not need such scrutiny. Best to let such information remain forgotten, like the rest of Daneub's more complicated past.

Still, it pleased him to know, for a variety of reasons.

Poison Claws A Treatise on Daneub's Hellcats

Daneubian Hellcats are well-known throughout the Infinitum Government for their speed, agility, cunning, fighting skills, intelligence, and most notably their deadly poison-tipped claws. As one of the few races in the IG possessing no known magics, they are increasingly sought after for positions within the Authorities, various personal guards, and the standing military. Their loyalty is almost unquestionable, to the point where even their volatile tempers are not considered much of a deterrent.

The most fascinating fact about these creatures is one that is little-known even on their homeworld of Daneub, and virtually unheard of in the universe at large. Many are those who have wondered at how such an insignificant planet could have produced two sentient species; research shows that such a parallel evolution is nearly impossible. Daneub is no exception. Daneubian Hellcats were genetically engineered.

Daneub's natural inhabitants are often thought of to be somewhat backward and uninteresting due to their gentle natures and preference for simple things. Indeed, compared to the outspoken and temperamental Hellcats, they seem somewhat boring. Which is exactly what Daneub wants to be. They have no interest in warfare or politics, and technology on Daneub is limited by their choice. There is some trade that takes place, and even that is mostly a result of natural Daneubian curiosity.

Curiosity is part of what created the Hellcats. The age-old question of "What would happen if...?" The other part dates back to a time long before the Infinitum Government had been established, when Daneub looked up at the stars and that curiosity led them to wonder what was out there. Though there are few records still remaining in the modern day, Daneub once built ships to carry them into the stars so that they could assuage their curiosity.

Unfortunately, the stars were not nearly so peace-loving and friendly as the curious Daneubians.

The few who made it back to their planet to warn their people were adamant that Daneub needed to be able to defend itself against the warlike races they'd encountered. To that end, the Daneubian scientists selected the fiercest predator of their world, a small feline roughly the size of a Daneubian infant, and set about modifying it to suit their needs. The resulting culmination of their research was the Daneubian Hellcat.

By the time the IG discovered Daneub, few Daneubians or Hellcats knew or cared about the origins of the Hellcat species. The Hellcats had served their original purpose, keeping Daneub safe from the dangers of space. In return, Daneub accepted them into all levels of their society, even going so far as to develop a respect bordering on awe for the guardians of their people.

In modern times, Daneub's two species have grown more distant as the Infinitum Government reduced Daneub's need for protection and introduced a technology that, while the Daneubians expressed little interest, the Hellcats accepted eagerly. More and more Hellcats live off-world, exploring the stars, and Daneub barely seems to have noticed. It is the opinion of this researcher that, were Daneub's people as a whole to know the true origins of their sister race, they would be pleased by what their former protectors have become. Certainly they continue to react with pride whenever news of a Hellcat accomplishment reaches Daneub. To Daneub, Hellcats are nothing less than oddly-furred cousins.

Would it be that all races could accept those who are different from them as easily.

A faint smile lingered on his face as he went back and edited a few things here and there, rewording things, and adding the qualifier that he hadn't gotten around to fixing the last time he'd looked at the file.

There are indications that this is incorrect and that Hellcats do indeed possess magics, but nothing has ever been proven one way or another and Daneub shrugs the question off as immaterial. Those few who might be able to provide a conclusive answer prefer to let the mystery stand.

It was impossible not to chuckle quietly, and he knew he'd have to change that last line sometime later. Such remarks did not belong in a formal scientific treatise, true as they may be. Still, as he was the only one who would ever see what he'd written, he could leave it be for now.

With one last faint chuckle, he updated the date to reflect the current day and cycle, then closed the file.

Zanson sa Dirmark, Researcher and Historian, Fourth Cycle, 312th Day, 9,728th Turn of the Stars. Daneub.

Foolish, perhaps, to spend so much time on a file that no one else would ever see, but he'd long possessed a certain personal interest in the Hellcat race and his writing provided a safe outlet for that fixation. It didn't interfere in his work, so no one particularly cared. If they even realized at all, which was unlikely. Zanson had always been solitary. Yet another reason why he was so perfectly suited to tending the monitoring station, and why everyone else was so content to sit back and let him do it.

With a slight shake of his head, he returned his attention to the plethora of screens and the data they displayed. A few showed the weather patterns over various parts of Daneub, including what appeared to be the buildings of a rather nasty storm. He sent a message off to the section leader for that area with a warning so that the people would be prepared, then turned his attention to the other screens. The deep space monitors were all clear of asteroids, meteors, ion storms and anything else that might pose a threat to Daneub. Solar activity was normal. Geological activity was normal. Space traffic was...

Interesting. For the most part, Daneub's space traffic was fairly light compared with other planets. Primarily merchant and freight class ships, with the odd shuttle or leisure craft coming by to drop off or pick up passengers. The ship that had just left, though, had only been on the ground for ten minutes before taking off again. That was distinctly odd, unless-

Zanson's heartbeat started to speed up as he tapped into the planetside computers, calling up the docking logs and finding the last ship to leave - Custom Class Star Ship #41250896, The DayTripper - and accessing the transfer logs. There was a slight delay as the dockyard systems were considerably slower than those on the Telesta station, but finally the requested data came through and Zanson bit his lip.

Single passenger and belongings dropped off. Race: Hellcat. Name: Yaral'nkoma.

Over the console, Zanson could see his hands beginning to tremble and he folded them into his lap to still their movement. Yaral was back. Yaral was back on Daneub, undoubtedly with stories of his adventures from the last half term. Yaral always had stories, and Daneub was always more than eager to hear them. Even now, someone had surely noticed he was back, and the town would be gathering as word spread and everyone flocked to hear of all the fascinating things that went on in the rest of the universe. Daneub's curiosity was almost legendary. That the traveler was one of their own only made it all the more intriguing.

He shouldn't go. There was no reason to go. He'd installed monitoring systems in all the meeting halls long ago to better be able to record important events, and he'd be able to hear every word from Telesta just as well as he could in person. There was absolutely no logical reason to go all the way back down to the planet to hear Yaral speak.

With a soft sigh, Zanson switched all his interactive systems into standby and left his chair, heading through the halls of the station to the small docking bay where his personal ship rested, calling himself all kinds of idiot even as he powered it up for the trip down to Daneub.


Planet #4145212 (Daneub), Informal Hall of Assembly, Peligir City, Southern Continent

Readjusting to the presence of people after so much time alone on the station was always difficult. So many people, so many emotions, everything leaving him disoriented and unsteady until he managed to find his inner balance. Small groups were easier to deal with. Comforting, really. The gentle feel of having others around you, sharing in their peace and joy and happiness. Larger groups, like the one currently assembled to hear Yaral speak, were much more difficult to handle.

Many were the times Zanson wished he was one of those Daneubians whose magics required close proximity to function. Then, the sharing of emotions was a personal thing, not this near-overwhelming mass of excitement, anticipation, and lust.

It was the lust that was always hardest to deal with, though he could never begrudge them that feeling. Not when he shared it himself. And who wouldn't, looking at the handsome, powerful Hellcat? Even clad in worn pants and faded jacket, his strong build was obvious underneath his short, reddish-brow fur. The irregular gold stripes were a recessive trait, and as such made him seem even more exotic and desirable. His eyes were also bright gold, Zanson knew, though he couldn't see them from his partially-hidden spot in the far back of the meeting hall. He didn't have to be able to see them. He'd seen them enough times in vids and stills that the color was forever burned into his memory.

No, he would never begrudge the others the lust that inevitably arose every time Yaral came home to Daneub, even as he struggled not to let it affect him. Yaral, he suspected, had only to beckon and he'd have his choice of anyone. On Daneub or beyond.

And that thought always hurt far more than it should. He had no claim to the handsome Hellcat; he doubted Yaral even knew he existed except in the vague, impersonal manner that came with Zanson's status as one of the top five Researchers on the planet. And even that was doubtful. What reason would a man whose life was full of all the excitement and adventure that space travel could bring have to pay attention to someone so boring and plain as a Daneubian Researcher? Compared with all the other exotic and fascinating beings in space, Zanson was no more interesting than an oddly-shaped pebble in a sea of gemstones.

Such a depressing thought. Zanson shook his head, forcing himself to concentrate on what Yaral was saying, realizing with a rueful smile that he'd missed large portions of the story. He always did. It was impossible to listen to what Yaral was saying and not concentrate on the way he looked, the sound of his voice, the easy smile he always wore when recounting his adventures. Zanson wished he could pick out the Hellcat's feelings from the mass pressing in all around him, but his control had never been that good, and he didn't dare move closer and risk being seen. He could only imagine what kind of warm, contented feeling Yaral would have, surrounded by people hanging on his every word, given free food and drink in thanks for the entertainment they got in return. Probably an easy pulse, with a faint prickle from a Hellcat's more excitable nature...

And again, he'd managed to totally miss what Yaral was saying. It was a good thing he had the whole thing recording to watch later. Multiple times. It usually took five or six viewings before he managed to concentrate enough to hear the whole story, though lately it had tended to take even more.

He really was pathetic.

With a start, he realized that the meeting was coming to an end, people shifting and beginning to stand, some heading up front to talk with Yaral in a more personal setting. Before anyone could get back to his little corner, Zanson slipped out of the assembly hall and hurried through the streets toward the dockyard and his waiting ship. The sooner he got back to his ship, the sooner he could return to the safety of the station and mope about his pathetic obsession in private.

So fixated was he on getting back as quickly as possible, Zanson failed to notice the figures watching him, waiting, until there was a sharp pain in the back of his head and he tumbled to the ground, his world going black.


It never failed, Yaral noted in frustrated amusement, that whenever he was in a hurry he got flocked by people wanting to talk and touch and generally get completely in his way. Most times he didn't really mind and dealt with it accordingly, but this time was different. It was always different, the first day home on Daneub after he'd been in space, because it was only on that very first day that he appeared.

Zanson sa Dirmark, one of Daneub's most noted researchers, and also the one about which the least was known. The man avoided public places and gatherings, seldom spoke with anyone other than his fellow researchers, and barely ever left the old research station on Daneub's fifth moon. Everyone he'd spoken with had different reasons as to why, but in the end none of them had really mattered. What mattered was that Zanson almost always showed up the first day Yaral got back to Daneub, always staying in the far back of the hall where he was easily overlooked, always leaving shortly before the meeting came to an end.

Though today he'd stayed longer, until the people had started to move. Yaral wasn't quite sure what it meant that he'd stayed, or even that he came to listen at all. Of course, he knew what he wanted it to mean, but there was absolutely no reason for a man as famous and influential as Zanson sa Dirmark to have any interest other than professional in someone whose sole point of interest was that he never kept the same job for more than two months at a time.

Still, he could always dream, and Zanson had stayed to the end today. Maybe that meant something. Maybe that meant today would be the day he'd actually get to talk to the elusive man.

Provided, of course, he could manage to extricate himself from his adoring fans.

Although he still managed to smile politely, he suspected that his growing frustration was beginning to show due to a few odd looks he was given. Good. Maybe that would let him slip away and hopefully catch up with his mysterious watcher before the man managed to retreat back up to his impenetrable lunar station and Yaral would have to wait another year or more before he had enough stories to bring back to Daneub to draw Zanson out again.

He didn't want to wait. It felt like he'd been waiting forever.

Making his apologies, not even sure what excuse he gave, Yaral exited the assembly hall with as much speed as the crowd would allow, taking the small side door he'd seen Zanson slip out of and pausing outside to get his bearings. There were a handful of Daneubians in sight, along with one or two other Hellcats, but none of them were the distinctive bright purple he was looking for.

He'd paid a small fortune to be able to see that purple, even if it was only brief glimpses many months apart. Hellcats, like most cats, couldn't see in color. Their night vision was excellent, and they could see in some ranges that many others couldn't, but if they wanted to be able to see visible-spectrum colors, they had to pay a tidy sum to have the operation.

It had taken him quite a few terms to save up enough, but it had been worth it to be able to really see his elusive Daneubian obsession. Even if it did mean he got more than a few odd looks when people realized he wasn't colorblind.

Growling beneath his breath, Yaral slipped back inside and carefully sniffed the dark corner Zanson had been watching from, relieved that there was only one scent present and no one had wandered through to muddle things. That would make tracking him considerably easier.

Outside again, he began following the faint trail down the street, nearly running into one or two pedestrians in his single-minded pursuit. It took all his restraint not to snarl at them; it wasn't their fault they were in his way. But every time he had to slow down meant Zanson was that much further ahead and that less of a chance Yaral would catch him before-

Yaral stopped, blinking, then carefully retraced his steps. The scent had stopped, and at the point where it stopped it was muddled, other scents intruding. He growled and lashed his tail, ears flat against his head as he stalked in a wide circle around the point where the trail had been lost, snarling angrily enough that the people nearest to him took a few hasty steps back and veered carefully around him.

Gone. The trail was just gone. That meant a vehicle of some kind, probably a land-skimmer or ground transport of some kind. Enclosed, because otherwise he'd be able to pick up the scent. Once again, he'd lost Zanson.


Merchant Class Star Ship #21225254, The Babylon

His head hurt something fierce, throbbing with a dull ache that refused to go away. Gingerly Zanson opened his eyes, disoriented, staring around at the unfamiliar surroundings in confusion. Sleek metallic lines and bulkheads, minimal furnishings, a single closed hatch. So much tech... a ship?

Frowning, Zanson tried to move, discovering to his alarm that his hands were bound behind him with some kind of thick material that didn't budge no matter how much he struggled. His feet appeared to be similarly restrained, and when he peered down at them he saw thick bands of some silvery material.

The first stirrings of panic began to rush through him even as he twisted and squirmed, trying to get into a sitting position. If he was on a ship he could be anywhere - possibly not even on Daneub anymore.

The thought filled him with terror. He was just a boring, peaceful Daneubian. He was more than happy in his dull routine, getting his knowledge of the universe second or even third-hand. The stars were no place for him. They were dangerous, unpredictable. He wasn't an explorer. He didn't like the unknown. He wanted his little ship and his quiet station and a handsome Hellcat he'd probably never see again.

His entire body shook and he desperately fought against tears even as he gave into the impulse to curl up into a little ball. He didn't know how long he laid there, caught in the grip of fear and panic, before the hatch slid open and three men entered.

Human, he realized immediately, unable to sense even the smallest flicker of their emotional state. Humans always unnerved him. It felt like they weren't really there, just soulless dolls that walked and talked. No more alive than rocks or air.

The shortest and stockiest of the three, with a wide nose that sat slightly askew on his face, immediately stomped over to where Zanson was huddled and stared down at him with an expression Zanson couldn't place. Dealing with humans was so hard. Their faces almost never matched what they were really feeling inside, and he had no way of knowing what they were truly feeling.

"You," the human said gruffly. "Can you understand me? Do you speak Zero Standard?"

Zanson fought a grimace, wrenching himself upright to buy himself time to smooth out his expression. Stupid human. Even if Zanson hadn't learned Standard, which he had, he was a Researcher. Of course he had a language chip. A considerably better one than his captor had, apparently, if the man's chip didn't translate Daneubian. That was rather insulting, really. Daneub wasn't that remote.

"Yes," Zanson finally said, leaving it at that.

The wide human squatted down in front of him, hot, squalid breath washing over him and making him struggle to prevent being sick. Ugh! What was wrong with humans? Didn't they bathe?

"Where's the tech hidden?" the man demanded, and Zanson's stomach rolled again.

When he felt as though he could speak without throwing up, he managed to ask faintly, "What tech?"

The man backhanded him across the face, making him cry out and very nearly fall over before he managed to regain his balance. "The tech!" the man spat. "The tech your planet hid when it decided to become a squalling bunch of fuzzy wusses. Where is it?"

Zanson stared at him long enough to earn himself another backhand, and this time it did knock him over. He laid there for a moment, reorienting himself, then stared up at the man through the short, uneven fall of hair he'd cut to resemble bangs. "Daneub rid itself of technology a long time ago," he said slowly, as if to a particularly slow child. "Little remains beyond curiosity pieces and some of the weather control systems."

"Liar!" the man roared, striking him sharply again, hard enough that Zanson could taste blood. "You know where it is. Of all you stupid fuzzy purple things, you're the one that maintains the tech stuff. You know! Where is it hidden?"

"Nothing is hidden!" Zanson protested, feeling the blood trickling down his face. That was going to mat his fur rather horribly, and he grimaced to think about it. "What remains of the old tech is scattered, few systems still operational, only the lunar research station still fully functional. That is all that remains. Daneub doesn't like technology. Why would we keep something we find detrimental to harmonious living?"

This time he saw the slap coming, though that didn't really make it hurt any less. His vision swam rather disconcertingly as the blow made the throbbing in his head worse, and dimly he heard the thick human swearing and shuffling around.

"Trunk, Pascal," the human barked. "Get over here and see if you can loosen the fucking furry thing's tongue."


Custom Class Star Ship #25118112, The Wishing Star

Just when he'd thought this day couldn't possibly get any worse. Yaral stared up at the sleek black and silver ship, one of the smallest he'd ever seen (and that was saying quite a bit) but also one of the most elegant. Whoever had built it was a master of the craft. Unfortunately, admiring it wasn't getting him any further on his quest.

The Wishing Star. Custom Class Research vessel owned by and registered to Zanson sa Dirmark, and used to transport the reclusive Researcher to and from the research station on Telesta. Currently sitting dormant in a ship bay, with no sign of its owner anywhere in sight.

If everything was normal, this ship should be long gone into the skies, and Zanson with it. The fact that it was still sitting idle on Daneub meant that something was very, very wrong. It made him growl and lash his tail and stalk around the ship in a wide circle, running his hand across the smooth hull.

Zanson had left the Hall of Assembly and made his way on a fairly direct course back toward this ship. The trail had ended less than a five minute walk from the Wishing Star, and Zanson was nowhere to be found. Zanson was not a social man. He did not randomly decide to go elsewhere with other strange-smelling people. Unless Yaral was very much mistaken, wherever Zanson had gone it was not willingly.

Swearing colorfully, Yaral pounded one fist against the gleaming exterior of the Wishing Star.

"Voice print authorized. Identification please."

Startled, Yaral spun around and stared, finding no one within sight. He looked cautiously around, ears twitching, automatically dropping into a defensive posture. He held almost perfectly still, minus the ears and the very tip of his tail, waiting.

"Identification please."

Incredulously, Yaral slowly turned around to stare at the ship, noting that a small row of colored lights had lit up fairly near to where he'd punched it only moments ago. They blinked at him, seeming to go on and off in no logical pattern as he stared at them.

"Uh..." Yaral licked his lips and swallowed. "Yaral. Yaral'nkoma."

All of the colored lights lit up at once, then went dark. A moment later a seam appeared in the hull of the ship, widening quickly, and Yaral swore and dove out of the way as the hatch swung down. He crouched where he was for a moment, watching the dust settle, then cautiously moved around to stand at the base of the sleek silvery steps leading up into the ship.

"Huh..." Cautiously he set one foot on the first step, fully expecting it to close up again. When it did nothing, he advanced to the second, then the third step. Finally out of steps, Yaral found himself staring into the interior of Zanson's ship.

It was just as sleek and beautiful as the exterior, with more screens and tech than Yaral could readily identify taking up almost the entire interior surface. A small door led to what was probably the engine compartment, but Yaral was more curious about the wide control console and the multitude of blinking lights he could see.

It seemed Zanson had left his ship powered up, which further indicated that he'd fully been intending on returning to it quickly. Yaral slid into the single available seat, hovering his hands over the controls as he identified each system. Navigation, propulsion, communications, there were the standard ones, but a lot of the systems he didn't recognize, and of the few remaining he only dimly knew from his brief tour of duty aboard a Research Class vessel four terms ago. He supposed it made sense, given that Zanson was a Researcher, but he'd never seen quite so many systems all fitted into such a compact space before. Whoever had built it had really known what they were doing.

Looking over the screens again a bit more carefully, Yaral found one that was displaying an image of Daneub with a tiny blinking purple dot right in the center. Curious he poked at the dot, yelping when the screen suddenly zoomed in close enough to show the bulk of the southern continent.

"Huh," he said aloud, touching it again, discovering that a downward sweep made the image zoom out, while an upward motion focused more tightly on the purple dot. A sudden suspicion gripping him, Yaral zoomed the screen in as far as it would go until he found himself staring at a very high-resolution overhead of a Merchant Class ship, the little purple dot continuing to blink at him from somewhere slightly near its center.

Yaral's claws flexed over the controls, nails sliding over the smooth surfaces. He growled and carefully backed the screen out enough that he could see exactly where the ship was berthed, then shoved out of the seat and spun on his heel, stalking furiously for the hatch.

Zanson had better be alive and unharmed when he got there, or someone was going to die a most painful death.


Merchant Class Star Ship #21225254, The Babylon

Either the pain was all beginning to merge together into one big pain, or there wasn't a single part of his body that didn't hurt. Zanson was hoping for the former, but didn't really have much belief in it. He lay as still as he could where they'd dropped him, concentrating on breathing as shallowly as possible because that hurt less, and listened to his captors arguing. While at first they'd sounded only angry, as time went on he'd started to note an increasing undercurrent of fear and panic in their voices.

"This is not good. Fucking fuzzy doesn't know a damned thing!"

"Our employers will not be pleased if we return empty handed. They are paying for results, not empty excuses."

"What the hell does it take to break this guy? I've had sworn bodyguards and soldiers break under less."

The third voice, which had been fairly silent until now, spoke up. "Maybe the rumors were wrong, and Daneub really doesn't have any tech left."

"Shut the fuck up, Trunk. The bosses were damned sure about this one. Wouldn't be that confident if they didn't have some sort of inside info. It's here. I'd bet my ship on it."

"Then perhaps the secret is kept by another. Certainly it seemed a bit too obvious for practically the only Daneubian with an interest in technology to be the one charged with keeping it hidden."

There was a heavy silence for several long, excruciatingly painful breaths, then the leader swore again. "Well what the fuck are we going to do now? We can't just dump him somewhere, this guy's one of their leading scientists! The fucking fuzzies aren't a threat, but any of you happen to notice how many Hellcats are walking around out there?"

"Then we will simply have to make his death look like an accident, and try again later."

There was a brief pause before the leader spoke up again. "Yeah? Got any ideas, Pascal?"

"He's well known to be reclusive and solitary. I think if we take him out beyond the-"

Pascal cut off as alarms began sounding, and all three of them swore. Zanson managed to crack open an eye long enough to watch all three of his captors bolt for the hatch, the doors sliding open long enough to let them exit, then sliding shut again. He watched for as long as he could, but was unable to keep his eyes open for very long before finally giving up and doing nothing at all except breathe in very carefully, and back out again.

Merchant Class Star Ship #21225254, The Babylon

Any other time or place, Yaral would have found the sight of fifteen Hellcats gleefully throwing rocks at a star ship to be hysterically funny. He suspected he'd still find it incredibly amusing once his anger wore off, but for the time being he could think of nothing but getting inside that ship and finding Zanson. He'd found the ship with little difficulty, but getting inside it had proven to be slightly trickier. Of course, there was a reason the saying "Craftier than a Daneubian Hellcat" had been coined.

As he watched, the main hatch slid open and three men rushed out, their jaws hanging open in disbelief at the sight before them before tightening into anger.

"Hey! What the fuck do you think you're doing?" the middle one spat.

One of the Hellcats, a rather striking tri-color tom named Kea'takovvi, broke away from the others and sauntered over to meet the trio, flanked by two more toms and a female with a jagged ear. He stopped a few meters from the hatch, crossing his arms and smirking with all the cocky deviousness that came with being out of the kitten years, but not yet an adult.

"Well hey there Gramps," Kea'takovvi greeted, smirking. "Nice bookends. They must give some totally awesome head, cause I sure as fuck wouldn't wanna keep them around to look at."

Yaral bit his lip so that he wouldn't laugh, but it was a close thing. When he'd asked Kea'takovvi to provide a 'creative distraction' he'd known it was going to be interesting. Seems he'd been right.

"Who the..." Heavy feet clumped away from the ship as the human trio advanced on Kea'takovvi and his friends, though one broke away to go yell at the Hellcats that were still throwing rocks.

"Who the fuck are you?" the short man snarled. "Get the fuck away from my ship!"

Kea'takovvi laughed, looking entirely at ease as he faced down the furious human. "I am the Master of this Turf," he declared, throwing his arms wide, "And I have declared that your ugly-ass ship needs to get out of my territory."

The human stared at him. "Your... You smartass little punk!" he screamed, looking as though he'd like nothing better than to smack the smirk off Kea'takovvi's face but somehow restraining himself. "This is a public fucking dockyard! So you and your little hellions get the fuck away from my ship before I fucking lose my temper!"

Kea'takovvi laughed again, and Yaral only heard the first part of his retort - "Dude, you already lost your temper!" - before he'd managed to slip inside the ship while the human trio was otherwise occupied with Kea'takovvi and his miscreant friends.

Inside looked much like any other merchant ship he'd ever been in. He immediately turned right, pacing down the hallway to where he knew the smaller cargo lift was located, taking it down a level and swearing when the doors opened up to reveal two more rather ugly excuses for humans. Fortunately they were considerably more surprised to see him than he was to see them, which gave Yaral a distinct advantage in that he got to strike first. He lashed out with his claws, catching one man across the cheek and while the other managed to get an arm up in time to protect his face.

Yaral's moment of smugness evaporated when neither man dropped to the floor in agony, and he swore again as he realized that they must have been inoculated against Hellcat venom. Well, fuck. That changed things a little, and he wondered who in the stars these guys worked for that they'd been given Hellcat antivenom. That stuff was not cheap, Yaral knew.

Still, just because his poison didn't work didn't mean his claws were useless. He ducked to one side and kicked ugly #1 into ugly #2, sending them both sprawling to the floor. They were both still scrambling for their weapons when he reached them and klunked their heads hard against the deckplates, sending them into blissful unconsciousness. Idiots. Obviously no one had ever taught them how to fight. Or maybe some moron had figured that a Hellcat's poison was his only weapon.

He snorted and left the imbecile trio where they were, moving deeper into the ship to the smaller cargo holds where the more valuable cargo was usually kept. Also, incidentally, situated not quite at the center of a Merchant Class ship.

There was one more human standing guard outside cargo hold B-2, and that one put up slightly more of a fight as he actually managed to get his weapon out before Yaral got to him. He still went down, sporting a few nasty claw marks that were going to require more than a few stitches, and Yaral took the liberty of relieving him of his keycard.

The cargo hold hatch slid open and Yaral made it all of two steps inside before stopping, entire body beginning to shake in fury, tail lashing wildly behind him as he screamed out his anger. The pitiful bundle of grey fabric and purple fur stirred, head lifting and eyes opening just the merest crack, slowly fixing on him. The lips parted, but only the barest whisper of sound came out.

Yaral was across the hold in two bounds, kneeling and gathering Zanson up into his arms with the utmost care, cringing when the slightest jostle drew a whimper from the beautiful Daneubian. He held Zanson to him as close as he could, growling and unable to help it, quite certain that the next person he saw on this ship was going to wind up dead in the most painful manner Yaral could devise.

Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately as he wasn't about to set Zanson down to fight, he encountered no more crewmembers on the way back out. He emerged through the outer hatch to find the outside situation hadn't changed much in the time he'd been in the ship. Kea'takovvi and his friends were cheerfully taunting the irate humans and occasionally ducking away from blows, doing a very good impression of insolent teenage delinquents. They looked up as he appeared, playfulness fading from their expressions and eyes narrowing, and Yaral nodded once, giving a low growl.

None of the three humans stood a chance, only one managing to get out a brief, startled scream before being cut off by Kea'takovvi's claws. All that came out after that was a wet gurgle, and even that soon faded as the life spilled out of the man to stain the earth crimson. It was over almost before it had begun, and Kea'takovvi wiped his claws off on the deceased men's clothing before approaching Yaral, the rest of his forming a loose semicircle around them.

"Is he okay, Yaral?" Kea'takovvi asked, wincing as he looked Zanson over. "He looks pretty bad..."

"I don't know yet," Yaral said quietly. "I'm going to take him back to his ship and call the medics from there. Can you take care of this ship?"

Kea'takovvi snorted. "It'll disappear for a bit, then show up again just in time to have a nice little accident. Don't worry about it. We take care of our own."

Yaral smiled faintly. "Thanks, Kea."

Kea'takovvi rolled his eyes. "Like I'd ever tell you no." His gaze flicked again to Zanson, cradled so carefully in Yaral's arms. "That the guy you've been sighing about for terms?" he asked.

Yaral looked down at Zanson, smiling sadly at the pain-drawn face. "Yeah," he said softly. "He is."

Kea'takovvi took a careful step back, then grinned. "So you'd better do something more than sigh this time, yeah?" he quipped, then turned and bolted, secure in the knowledge that Yaral wouldn't give chase while Zanson was in his arms.

Yaral shook his head fondly and turned, making his way back toward the Wishing Star while his cousin and his hooligans dealt with the dead men's ship.


Custom Class Star Ship #25118112, The Wishing Star

It was all too surreal to be true, but Zanson was fairly sure he'd never dream anything like what had been happening. Somehow Yaral had shown up and rescued him from that horrible ship, then there had been a strange conversation that he couldn't really remember beyond how nice it had been to hear Yaral's voice up close, and then he thought he must have passed out again because now he was on his ship and he couldn't remember at all how he'd gotten there.

Though Yaral must have had something to do with it, that much Zanson was certain, given that he could still hear and feel Yaral, though faintly, swearing at something. When he finally convinced his eyes to open as far as he could make them, he felt a faint smile cross his face despite the pain. Yaral was swearing at the computer.

He opened his mouth, though no words came out. Somewhat vexed, he swallowed a few times and tried again, irked when it came out little more than a whisper. Still, Hellcat hearing was excellent, and Yaral was already spinning around to face him where he'd been propped up in his flight chair before he'd gotten more than two words out.

"Med systems, fourth panel on right, call diagnostics scan."

Yaral stared at him blankly for a moment, then scrambled to find the proper panel, muttering darkly beneath his breath when it took him a minute to find it and figure out how to work it. Zanson would have chuckled if he hadn't known it would hurt too much, and even so he couldn't help a soft laugh when Yaral jumped as the medical probes emerged from the chair and began their work.

Almost immediately pain-blocks flooded through his system, and he sighed in quiet relief. The Wishing Star was too small to really do much, but it was enough to get him home to the more advanced systems on Telesta. And already the anti-inflammatories that had been injected into his bloodstream had muted the swelling enough that he could get his eyes all the way open.

He reached out, fingers moving surely across the familiar controls, inputting passcodes and authorizations until the main screen blanked out before coming up with four images, one at a time.

All four were Daneubian of various colors, the one in the upper-left's fur so pale with age that it was nearly while. All four of them started when they saw him, expressing quiet dismay that he forestalled with a slight gesture. They silenced, and he swallowed again to ease his throat.

"My friends," Zanson said softly, "Project Lethe has been compromised."

Almost immediately came the expected outburst, questions flying, the four voices speaking so quickly that the words all blurred together into an incoherent, jarring noise. Then the pale Daneubian barked out a few sharp words and the rest subsided, drawing a faint smile from Zanson.

"Thank you, Urisel."

The pale Daneubian nodded. "You're welcome, Zanson." His expression clouded, concern and worry warring for dominance. "What happened? You look..." Urisel gestured helplessly.

"I'm all right now," Zanson said softly. "They caught me while I was heading back to my ship, and questioned me repeatedly over the location of 'Daneub's hidden tech.' They seemed fairly certain it existed, despite my repeated denials and explanation of the current state of things." He folded his hands together in his lap, looking over each face one at a time. "I don't need to tell you what that means."

Four matching grim expressions met his gaze, lips pressed into a thin line. It was Urisel who responded, shaking his head slowly. "Until we figure out how the information got out, I suggest you change all access signatures to yours alone, Zanson. You are the only person whose household the leak could not have come from, given that you don't actually, ah, have a household." He smiled faintly in apology.

Zanson chuckled quietly. "No offense taken, Urisel. I like my solitude." He nodded to each of them in turn. "Good luck, my friends. Let us hope that we can silence this rumor before things get out of hand. Peace be with you."

The other Daneubians bid him farewell, then the screens darkened one at a time. When the last of them was gone, Zanson took a few slow breaths to steady himself before turning his chair slowly around to where Yaral was watching him in confusion. This was one of those moments when he almost wished he left his fur long rather than cutting it so unfashionably short, as long fur would better hide the flush he could feel spreading across his face.

He was alone in his ship. With Yaral. Who had rescued him. And was now watching him with an expression Zanson had never quite seen before, so intense that he couldn't quite meet it, dropping his gaze instead to the floor.

"Thank you," Zanson mumbled to Yaral's feet.

There was a period of silence, in which Zanson struggled not to fidget, then Yaral shifted slightly and spoke, sounding puzzled. "Why do you always leave before the meeting is over?" he asked.

Zanson jerked his head up, startled, staring at Yaral's golden eyes. "You... noticed me?"

Those gleaming golden eyes widened briefly, then it was Yaral's turn to look away, his own cheeks coloring beneath his short reddish fur. Always it was so hard to sense Hellcat emotions. Most Daneubians had given up even trying, save for those, like Zanson, who already knew it was possible. Yaral's feelings were like a gentle balm, even as they jumbled and danced around one another, all mixed together in a highly confusing manner. It was... pleasant.

"I..." Yaral drew in a slow breath, then carefully straightened as he turned back to meet Zanson's eyes. "I always noticed you. I always come back to Peligir City because that's where the spaceport is that you land at..." He lowered his gaze, voice softening to barely a whisper. "That's where you are."

Zanson stared, his own emotions as confused and tangled as Yaral's. "I... you... really?"

Yaral flushed again. "Yeah," he admitted quietly.

"But... but I'm boring!" Zanson protested. "Nothing like... like..." He gestured helplessly at Yaral.

Yaral's brow creased, and Zanson could feel a thread of confusion dominating the rest of Yaral's emotions. "You're smart, and knowledgeable, and respected, and... and..." His blush deepened. "And beautiful. Who wouldn't notice you?"

Zanson blinked slowly, running over things in his head before coming to a very important decision. He carefully got to his feet, pleased that he didn't even sway, and stood right in front of Yaral. "May I be terribly forward?" he asked.

Yaral blinked at him in confusion, all those emotions whirling again, then he cautiously nodded. "Yes?"

Slowly, deliberately, Zanson gripped the thick material of Yaral's jacket and pulled him down, tipping his own head back so that their lips met inbetween. Soft and hesitant at first, a question given physical form, it shifted into something hot and consuming and all-encompassing as Yaral pulled him close, arms encircling him loosely, mindful of his injuries.

One kiss melted into another, then another, before Zanson broke off to shove Yaral into his chair, climbing into his lap to straddle his legs and reclaim that delicious mouth. He could feel a rumble reverberating throughout his entire body as Yaral purred in pleasure beneath him, hands that could kill a person in minutes stroking so gently up and down the length of his back, both over and under his shirt.

A growing uncomfortableness in his pants reminded him of certain minor details, and Zanson muttered darkly as he pulled away from Yaral, shifting around in the Hellcat's lap until he was facing the console. Behind him he could feel Yaral's tingle of curiosity and answered it aloud. "Not enough room on the ship."

With the ease of long familiarity, Zanson sent the Wishing Star up into the atmosphere and beyond, toward the all but deserted Research Station he called home. Once the ship was locked on course, he swung back around and resumed his position from before, straddling Yaral's thighs.

"Now then," he murmured, pressing close, "Where were we?"


Planet #4145212-3554E (Fifth moon of Daneub), Research & Monitoring Station Telesta

This was a dream. It had to be a dream. He'd been watching, longing, for what seemed like forever, wanting something he thought he'd never have, and now... now he was standing quietly in a corner of a research station very few had ever seen, and even fewer had permanent access to, watching the man he'd dreamed about for more years than he could remember carefully shrug out of his clothing and seat himself in what he'd called a medical cradle.

It didn't look like anything Yaral had ever seen before, but he was starting to get used to that. The walk from the Wishing Star to the medical room had been more than a little disorienting, and it had taken him nearly the entire trip to remember that the Telesta station was a remnant of Daneub's more technological past. Expecting it to look like the IG equipment he was familiar with was foolish.

Still, he'd discovered it wasn't quite so disorienting if he pretended none of his surroundings were really there and concentrated only on Zanson.

Beautiful, graceful, perfect Zanson. Who even with injuries that made Yaral wince in sympathy managed to move with a quiet sort of poise and dignity. Who watched him when he thought Yaral wasn't looking, the desire in his deep garnet eyes matching and stoking Yaral's own. Whose every move made Yaral want to kiss him senseless.

Amongst other things.

Zanson was one of the few Daneubians who spurned the popular fashion of keeping his silky purple fur long (Some of them actually had to pin their head fur back or they couldn't see!) and kept it cropped close enough to his body that it was only a little bit longer than Hellcat fur. That made it very easy to see and admire the sleek lines of his body, though it made it very difficult not to touch, not to run his hands along the sleek softness of that vibrant fur, petting, caressing...

He hoped whatever Zanson was doing sitting naked in that medical thing didn't take long. Even without being able to touch he was so hard it felt like his pants were going to leave permanent marks where his dick was pressing up against them. Yaral shifted subtly, trying to make it a little less painful, knowing he'd failed in the subtlety department when Zanson's head came up and those deep red eyes met his own.

Zanson's lips curved up into an amused smile. "It won't be much longer," he said, gaze freely running over Yaral's body, tongue flicking out to lick his lips. "If I could make this thing work any faster, I would."

Yaral made a sound low in his throat and shifted again, because that hadn't helped the tightness in his pants at all. It was an agony to just wait and watch and want, knowing he was allowed to touch now and still unable to. He didn't know how long he waited, though it felt like an eternity, before Zanson was finally sitting up and sliding out of the chair-cradle-thing, walking toward him, arms wrapping around his neck, still completely nude.

Moaning low, tail twitching restlessly back and forth, Yaral pulled them flush together and bent his head to claim Zanson's mouth, the flavor like ambrosia, heady and dizzying and absolutely perfect. Kissing Zanson only got better; that mouth and those lips were like a drug that he couldn't get enough of, so very much better than he'd ever imagined. At least before, when he'd merely been longing from afar, he hadn't truly known what he was missing. This last drought had been sheer torture.

He broke the kiss when it was either that or go without air, and he was seriously tempted to just forgo breathing altogether, but Zanson was already slipping from his embrace and pulling him out of the medical room, making his way easily through the empty station hallways and through a small doorway before stopping, his face rapidly heating.

"Oh..." Zanson breathed in embarrassment, looking away rather than meeting Yaral's eyes. "I... ah..."

A large portion of the room was covered in monitor screens, and most of those were on, showing a variety of stills and vids - of him. Newscasts, meetings, all kinds of events where someone had taken pictures. Nothing personal or private, all public appearances, but the sheer quantity was rather impressive.

All the screens went dark at once, and Yaral twisted to find Zanson with his hand on a wall panel, still flushed and looking rather studiously at the floor. Yaral smiled and walked over to him, running his hands through the longish purple strands on top of Zanson's head.

"It really is a pity," Yaral mused, "That it took you getting yourself kidnapped to get what we both obviously wanted..."

Zanson's head came up quickly, garnet eyes wide, and Yaral found himself grinning. "Remind me to show you my collection of research reports some time," he said with a wink. "Pretty sure I have all of them that you released to the general public..."

"I guess that makes us both rather pathetic," Zanson laughed faintly.

"I prefer to describe myself as hopelessly obsessed," Yaral stated mildly, sliding his arms around Zanson's waist. "And I see a rather comfortable-looking bed over there where I can prove just how obsessed I am. If there are no objections."

Zanson smiled slowly and began walking backward toward the article of furniture in question, never quite leaving the circle of Yaral's arms. "Oh, please do."


Something was different, but it was hard to drag himself up out of the pleasant bliss he'd been floating in to figure out what it was. He was warm and content, curled up against a sleek, powerful body that he'd gotten to know rather well, over and over and over again, listening to the beat of Yaral's heart in the darkness, interspersed with slow, steady breaths. Beyond he could hear the faint hum of machinery, and he knew if he opened his eyes there would be tiny spots of colored light dotting the otherwise lightless room.

He didn't open his eyes just yet, concentrating instead on what was different. It was small, subtle, but important. He felt truly relaxed for the first time in memory, and he was fairly certain it wasn't just because he'd gotten laid. Repeatedly.

Though that was a good part of it.

Next to him (and partially under him, given how he was lying) he could feel the bright, easy glow of Yaral's contentment, with smaller bubbles of lust, awe, and a rather strong possessiveness mixed in. It made him smile, and for the first time in his life he was glad that his magics were so strong. Hellcats were almost impossible to sense. Not quite as impossible as humans, but hard enough that most people believed them to be totally non-magics-capable.

Which wasn't quite accurate, as Zanson was in a position to know, but it was the generally-held belief. His cursedly strong magics forced him to hide from society, but at the same time let him feel the presence of the one person in the universe who mattered most. At the moment, he was willing to call that a fair trade-off.

No, more than fair. Zanson's eyes snapped open in the dark, tears pricking at them before he firmly shut them again. Now he realized what was different. For so many terms he'd lived alone, cut off from the rest of his people lest the constant press of emotions drive him insane. The solitude, however, hadn't been much better. Daneubians were not made to live alone. Their empathic magics made them closer to each other, to life, than most races. To not be a part of that, to be so terribly, completely alone, had been killing him one day at a time.

But Yaral, Yaral didn't overwhelm him. Zanson could sense him, but only just. And most importantly, he wasn't alone.

Suddenly unsettled, Zanson slipped out from underneath Yaral's arm and out of bed, making his way through the darkened station to the control room. He slid into his seat, switching everything out of standby and looking over his screens for anything out of the ordinary. All was quiet, peaceful. Including the Lethe Project.

He sat back with a soft sigh, rubbing his head just above his ears. Faintly, like a distant caress, he could still feel Yaral. A tiny, beautiful light in his dark world. What was it going to be like, when Yaral returned to the stars and Zanson was alone again? It hurt too much to think about.

Returning all systems to standby mode, Zanson paced back through the quiet hallways of the station to his room, standing in the doorway and looking over the tall, powerful figure lying in his bed. He'd desired this man for more terms than he could remember. And he'd gotten him, at long last. But he was insane if he thought he could keep a Hellcat. While their wanderlust wasn't as strong as in some species, they possessed a curiosity almost as powerful as the Daneubians' and it tended to drive them out into the stars to see what there was to see.

No Hellcat would be happy cooped up in an abandoned lunar research station. Especially not Yaral'nkoma, who flitted from place to place so frequently that he'd never kept a single job for more than two months at a time. He'd been practically everywhere and seen everything, and there was still so much more yet to be seen. No, Yaral would never be happy here.

Lost in his private misery, he didn't notice the shifting in Yaral's emotions until the Hellcat lifted his head, golden eyes gleaming in the dark. "Zanson?" he queried.

Zanson forced a smile onto his face, knowing that Yaral's Hellcat eyesight would easily see it in the darkness. "I was checking some systems. I suppose I ought to go reset Lethe's passcodes too..."

Yaral sat up straighter, reaching out an arm toward him, and Zanson was helpless to resist that pull. He found himself seated in Yaral's lap, his head against Yaral's shoulder while the Hellcat petted him idly. "What is Lethe?" Yaral asked.

Lifting his head from Yaral's shoulder, Zanson smiled faintly up at the Hellcat. "You do realize you are sworn to secrecy on that, I hope."

Yaral snorted. "There's only one person I'd ever want to tell, and that person already knows," he replied, the tips of his claws running lightly down Zanson's back and making him shiver.

And blush. "Oh."

He heard a soft chuckle, then warm lips were pressed against his, Yaral's kisses scattering his thoughts and leaving him unable to do anything but feel. Better than even in his most private of fantasies, hot and possessive and overwhelming in a way that only ever left him aching for more.

Then he was standing, one clawed hand carefully holding his shoulder to keep him balanced, with absolutely no clue of how he'd gotten there or why he was up and not still in Yaral's lap where he belonged.

"You were going to go fix your secret thing," Yaral said, voice thick with the amusement Zanson could feel. "I distracted you."

"I'd rather stay distracted," Zanson muttered, though he did bring the lights up so he could locate clothing and shrug into it. However much he didn't want to. He did, however, draw the line with Yaral, insisting that the pants would do just fine and the shirt and jacket weren't necessary. Considering the kiss he got in response, he rather suspected that Yaral didn't mind at all.

Back on the Wishing Star, Zanson initiated start-up procedures and laid in a flight path, jumping a little when hands landed on his shoulders and began kneading gently. He managed to keep his wits about him, though only just, and his eyes kept wanting to close.

"You are very distracting," he muttered.

"Thank you," Yaral laughed, leaning down over the back of Zanson's chair to kiss his cheek. "I will take that as a compliment."

Zanson chuckled softly. "Oh, it was." He engaged the ship's secondary drive, making the brief acceleration necessary to catch up with Daneub's third moon. Neither the largest nor the smallest, with no interesting geological features, very little attention was given to it.

Which was exactly as it should be.

The moon's surface was covered with craters, some considerably larger than others, and it was toward one of the large ones that the Wishing Star headed. This was where things got a little tricky, and he reluctantly had to get Yaral to release his shoulders so that he could keep all of his attention on piloting. The surface of the moon crept closer and closer, until for a brief moment it looked as though they were going to crash right into it and Yaral's tension spiked, before Zanson made a sharp turn and brought the ship down inside a jagged crack in the surface that was nearly impossible to see from the air - unless you already knew where it was.

As they passed deeper into the chasm beneath the moon's surface, Zanson could feel Yaral's tension ease slightly, though it didn't completely go away. Zanson couldn't really blame him. He'd made this trip hundreds of times and it still made him nervous. But, he supposed, it meant there was that much less of a chance that someone would stumble across it accidentally.

Only half a kilometer left... a quarter... less than a hundred meters... there. The narrow chasm opened up, and the Wishing Star's forward lights illuminated a massive circular hatch that could easily admit a ship fifty times the size of the Wishing Star. All around the perimeter of the hatch were tiny red lights set at even intervals apart, glowing dimly in the stygian gloom. Zanson's hands flew across the controls, transmitting the proper access codes. A moment later a pleasant voice came over the ship's speakers, politely inquiring, "Identification?"

"Zanson sa Dirmark."

"Voice print verified. Passcode?"

Zanson flushed and shot a brief glance over his shoulder before responding. "Yaral'nkoma."

As the system acknowledged the passcode, Yaral started laughing quietly. Zanson ignored him, entire face burning, and concentrated instead on the hatch that was rapidly irising open. He moved the Wishing Star past the iris and set it down gently on the landing pad. A few commands later re-closed the hatch and the inner bay began to pressurize, before Zanson swung his chair reluctantly around to face a smirking Yaral.

"Yaral'nkoma?" Yaral asked.

Zanson flushed hotter. "I forgot about that..."

Yaral chuckled but let it go, following Zanson to the door and blinking curiously as it was opened. "You pressurize the entire bay?"

Zanson shrugged. "It works that way. There's no other way to access the inner doors, so even if someone got past the outer hatch, they wouldn't be able to pressurize the bay without proper authorization."

"That's a lot of security," Yaral said, frowning. "Just what are you hiding in here?"

Zanson smiled faintly. "You'll see."

He led Yaral out of the ship and across the empty bay to what was probably the strangest-looking access terminal the Hellcat had ever seen. Zanson was used to it, but Zanson had been one of its guardians for a long time. He reached up, placing his hand against a featureless section.

"Access requested. Identification Zanson sa Dirmark. One companion."

The terminal lit up in a myriad of colors, scanning them both, then a single light illuminated. Zanson ignored it for the moment, instead manipulating other sections, carefully resetting all access codes and bio-scans to accept his only. The lights blinked once in acknowledgement when he was done, and only then did he touch the confirmation light.

Seams appeared in the formerly featureless wall, large sections sliding open to reveal a wide, open hallway beyond. Zanson smiled and gestured. "Shall we?"

To his somewhat-embarrassed pleasure, Yaral twined his fingers with Zanson's own before going in. He was intensely curious, Zanson could feel, as well as a little nervous and content all at the same time. Zanson wondered if he ever felt just one thing at a time, or if he was always so amazingly complicated.

Then Yaral stopped, shock flickering through him, and Zanson had to set aside his contemplation of Yaral in order to pay attention to where he was. A wide, circular room with more monitoring screens than the entire Telesta station possessed on one side, and a thick, clear field on the other, behind which was an enormous hollow chamber filled will all manner of unidentifiable things.

"What..." Yaral licked his lips slowly. "What is all this?"

Zanson shrugged, leading him over to the clear viewing window and reaching up to lay one hand against the energy field. "I don't know."

Surprise. Puzzlement. Yaral looked down at him and blinked. "You guard it, but you don't know what it is?" he asked.

"I know what some of it is," Zanson clarified, "But only a tiny portion. I like to read the archive files when I'm bored and have nothing better to do, but there's no real point other than idle curiosity." He looked out over the storage room, not really seeing it, his mind elsewhere. "Daneub has long been happier without its technology, free of those who would use us for war and other such purposes. It's better this way."

Though the surprise was gone, the puzzlement remained. "Then why keep it at all?" Yaral asked. "Especially if you're afraid someone will find it and use it..."

Zanson laughed, turning to look up at him with a smile. "Curiosity has ever been Daneub's weakness. Always we want to know. What is this? How does it work? What happened when?" He shook his head, smile turning rueful. "No Daneubian could ever destroy knowledge. Lose it, forget it, oh yes. But never destroy."

He turned away from the window, leading Yaral to the other side of the room where the screens waited, lighting up at his approach. "Indeed, I and the other watchers have been adding to the knowledge kept here, as have those who came before us, and those who will come after. The entire history of Daneub and its peoples is recorded here." Zanson paused, then smiled slowly as he looked up at Yaral. "Including all of your travels."

Yaral smiled faintly, his emotions still a tangled whirl, fingers tightly interwoven with Zanson's. He was silent for a long moment as he thought over all that he'd been told, and Zanson waited while those confused feelings settled themselves out. After a few moments Yaral frowned, pulling Zanson closer as he looked around at the room again.

"I don't even know exactly what is contained here, but it terrifies me to think of what might happen if some of the... less amicable elements in the universe were to get ahold of it," he said quietly.

"Because it is Daneub's there is very little here in the way of weaponry," Zanson pointed out, "But I do not believe it would be that hard for one of those, as you put it, less amicable elements to modify were they truly determined."

Strong arms wrapped around him, Yaral holding him close. "Yes. Best to leave it lost," he said quietly, a prickle of something - anticipation and nervousness? - flickering through him before he spoke again. "I'll help you keep it safe, if you want..."

Surprised, Zanson looked up, meeting those fascinating golden eyes. There was no deceit whatsoever in Yaral, only that uncertainty and a strong desire. Desire that strengthened when Zanson slid his own arms around Yaral's waist.

"I thought... I thought you'd still want to roam. You've never stayed put in one place before..." Zanson said faintly.

Embarrassment flooded Yaral, though the only external sign he gave was a slight ducking of his head so that he was no longer meeting Zanson's eyes. "All I ever wanted was to get your attention. I only ever seemed to have it when I brought back stories, so..."

Zanson flushed, hiding his face against the curve of Yaral's neck. "You have it now," he mumbled, blushing further. Oh did Yaral have it.

Mischief. Lust. A certain playfulness. "So, with all the stuff in this place, I don't suppose anyone thought to install a bed?" Yaral asked.

Zanson looked up, knowing his face was still hot and not really caring. "No," he replied slowly, sliding his hands up Yaral's chest to wrap around his neck, "But I made sure there was lube on the ship, and if you want I'd be more than happy to give you a lap dance on the ride back."

Yaral growled, low, a delicious sliver of possessiveness in it that wasn't helping the state of Zanson's pants at all, then abruptly Zanson was being kissed hard and picked up all at once, Yaral striding down the hallway toward the ship as fast as he could move without running.