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     Once the rest of the Library’s half-asleep residents had finally been rounded up – including Sarmis, who looked particularly uneasy at being let out – it turned out that only the vast room of bookshelves at the heart of the Library was big enough to actually hold everyone, when Tevak’s supporters were added to the mix.

     Still holding her by the hair, Tevak swung his massive arm, and hurled Aspazija bodily over the threshold. Unable to pull herself up out of her nosedive in time, the fessine collided face-first with the corner of a bookshelf; the impact choked her gasp into a startled grunt of pain. She sounded too shocked to cry out any louder.

     Aron darted around the marauders, to gather the fessine up from where she’d fallen and tend to the blood already streaming from one nostril. Thankfully, nobody moved to stop him.

     Ignoring the injuries he’d just caused, Tevak leaped casually to the top of one of the heavy work-tables, so he could see everyone. “A’right, here’s the deal.” He folded his arms and glared down at them all in turn. “A few days ago, I bought somethin’ of great value off of you bunch of snivellin’ meatsacks, an’ apparently, one of you lot decided you were gonna go against it. Well, the trade was fair, an’ I want back what I paid for – and if I have to tear the place apart to find the little hidey-hole you got her in, so be it.”

     A confused murmur rose from the assembled Library. Remaining quiet and trying not to draw attention to himself, Rae shot Halli an uneasy glance.

     “I don’t understand,” a little voice in the back of the room piped up, anxiously. “We-we never had anything you ever wanted, we don’t have anything of value to trade you for...”

     “Well sure, so ‘value’ might be hyperbole. In the short term, the deal was overinflated.” Tevak curled his lip in a sneer. “Disobedient, disrespectful little brat wasn’t worth half what I paid, but I got optimism about the future, see? The disobedience? I could deal with. The talking back, the disrespect... I got ways of taming bad behaviour, believe you me.” He waved a dismissive hand. “But when you losers break into my land, and steal my things? You bet I’m not gonna jus’ roll over and take it.”

     Jak stood, leaning forwards, his ears flattened and tail puffing up like an angry bottle-brush. “We don’t go near your friggin’ land, you paranoid freak-”

     A good solid punch in the face from Zinovy silenced him with a muffled yelp.

     Tevak’s crest flared, subtly, and his voice descended to a low growl. “The kid didn’t escape on her own. She was cut free. Which means one of you lot,” he waved a pointing finger at everyone in turn, swinging his arm in a long, slow arc; “broke in. For now, I don’t care who it was, yer all a hive mind of cowardly saps and yer all gonna help find her.”

     “Shows what you know. It was probably one of your bunch, trying to get back at you for some stupid skred,” Jak muttered, huddling down on the floor to nurse his throbbing muzzle. “’Cuz we all know how they respect you so much.”

     The giant flexed his fingers into a fist, trying to keep from adding to Zinovy’s violence.

     “We didn’t even know she was with you,” Aspazija added, in a feeble whimper. Aron’s careful pinching fingers at the bridge of her nose had stemmed the worst of the bleeding, mostly, but made it difficult to speak. “Odati said she thought Blink had run away.”

     Tevak gave the older vulline a smirk; Odati glared back, unimpressed. “Oh she did, did she?” He dropped back to the floor with a snort of chilly humour. “So you didn’t even tell ‘em, old woman?” He approached slowly, ensuring that the long claws on his toes tapped meaningfully against the stone tiles.

     Odati was not so easily intimidated as he would have liked, instead staring him out. “Tell them what?”

     “Just left ’em all running around in headless circles, right?” Tevak did a big orbit around her. “I’m sure you spun it to your advantage real well, too, make it sound like the ungrateful li’l brat couldn’t wait to jump ship.” He arched one broad shoulder in an artful shrug. “Can’t say I wouldn’t have done the same, but then I ain’t trying to sell myself as a sweet, inoffensive little old earth-mother.”

     Odati pointed her ears forwards, aggressively. “What do you actually hope to achieve by all this... this posturing?”

     Tevak’s temper flashed, briefly, and he managed to restrain his temper long enough to punch the wall, rather than Odati. “I want back what I paid for, you stupid cointe!” He barked the words violently enough that saliva sprayed into Odati’s face; to Tevak’s great satisfaction, she at last flinched back from him. “Playing stupid now ain’t gonna get you off the hook!”

     “Even if we wanted to, we can’t give you what we don’t have.” Odati struggled to recover her haughty poise, her voice trembling. “She’s not here. She’s not been here for days, and none of us have any idea where she is.”

     “Right – an’ you should know, right?” Tevak massaged his scraped knuckles, glaring. “All right. Maybe if you give back your end of the bargain, I’ll reconsider.”

     Odati stiffened, subtly. “Why should I?” she challenged, although her voice still quavered, perking her ears forwards as aggressively as she could manage. “We did our deal, our business concluded. If you bought something from a shop and then lost it, you wouldn’t go back for a refund.” She echoed the belligerent arm-fold. “The fact you lost her isn’t our fault. Don’t blame us for you inability to control your underlings.”

     Tevak balled his fists, but somehow reined in his temper before he walloped her. “Shoulda known an addict would never give up her drugs.” He bared his teeth in a smile that looked more like a grimace. “I’m beginning to think I mighta been scammed, here.”

     “What’s he talking about, Odati?” Aron asked, softly, in a voice that suggested he knew exactly what Tevak was talking about, but was hoping to be proved wrong.

     Odati remained silent, stubbornly pretending to have not heard him.

     “All right.” Tevak put up his hands, as if in defeat. “All right, we’ve hit a wall, I get it.” He paced back and forth in front of the little group, like a hostile general in front of captured troops. “I’m gonna be generous, an’ give you snivelling [pukes] the chance to redeem yourselves. Since it was one of you lot sprung her free, you’re all gonna go out there, you’re gonna find her, yer gonna bring her back, and yer gonna hand her over.” His smile broadened, although it wasn’t echoed in his eyes. “So it should be easy for you. Right?”

     Ripples of uneasy conversation spread through the assembled crowd. Rae remained quiet, listening unhappily as the earlier concern for the missing woman started a transition into some degree of resentment.

     “He can’t make us do anything,” a voice close at hand whispered; Rae glanced back, but couldn’t identify the speaker. “ ’Specially not for someone who was barely even here ten days. She’s not our responsibility, any more!”

     “Quiet!” Tevak barked, silencing the twitters. His heavy tail slapped the bookcase behind him, making it rattle. “I don’t give the smallest smear of skred if you knew or you didn’t, cuz that ain’t gonna find her. All you ought to be thinkin’ is where she might be, cuz’ if you ain’t found her and brung her back in the next three days, I’m torching this place. Got that?”

     A collective gasp of horror rose from the group.

     “You-you can’t do that-! This is our home!”

     “We’ll never find her in three days, Kust is huge!”

     “We don’t even know if she’s still in the city-!”

     Tevak smiled, coldly, silencing them. “Then you all better get moving, huh.”

* * * * *

     “Bathtime” for baby danata was proving to be quite the eye-opener. It mostly involved a fine comb, and a mister bottle full of water and mild detergent... and a lot of elbow grease. Get a nymph too wet, and she suffocated, so the only way to actually wash the tiny creatures was by repeatedly damping and combing and damping and combing, to get out any dirt (and maybe the occasional little parasite) she’d picked up from playing outside.

     And Blink had thought bathing Serendipity was hard enough! All that had actually entailed was getting the sparkling into the water, and encouraging her to remain in the water for long enough to scrub the worst of the dirt off her plating before she got cratchity and started splashing.

     While Blink tended to the older nymphs, who could clean themselves for the most part, Wears Blossom took charge of the very youngest hatchlings, including the single male in the group, one of the hungry little ambulatory seedheads. She had the patience of a saint, Blink noted, watching her carefully combing the scruff out of the trabek’s fluffy white pelt – the lapsi refused to sit still, grabbing for food and wriggling, and no sooner had the imago got one portion of his fluff clean, he usually inadvertently smeared dirt back onto it. For his part, the baby acted like she wasn’t even there, not even when she tugged at the tangles, dedicatedly stuffing his tiny face with fruit and fish, wing-discs fluttering involuntarily in enjoyment.

     The tiny white babies did little more than sleep and gorge themselves, evidently. Wears Blossom had explained it was something to do with growing as much as possible, as fast as possible, before they pupated and their exoskeletons toughened up, but even that didn’t make the sheer quantity of food the little male was packing away any less amazing. He must have consumed half his body-weight in food in the last day or so, and didn’t seem the least bit sated.

     In a strange, abstract way, he reminded her a little of Flash; alert and happy and ever appreciative of his never-ending breakfast. “Does he have a name yet?” she wondered.

     “No. He will get his name once he has grown up,” Wears Blossom explained, combing her way through the scruffy fur. “Once he has characteristics by which we can identify him.”

     “Can’t you just call him ‘Hungry’?” Blink half-joked.

     Wears Blossom gave a sort of vague, non-comprehending smile, apparently recognising the fessine was trying to be humorous, but not really understanding it. “All lapsi his age are equally hungry, so it is not really descriptive enough.”

     The trabek seemed to sense they were talking about him; he perked his antennae briefly at the giant fessine, and squeaked. “Walk!” the translator said, in a hesitant male voice. After a period of silence from the earpiece, another couple of words spluttered from the struggling computer. “Listen out of?”

     “It doesn’t understand him?” Blink guessed.

     “Lapsi practice making noises, but they do not really talk,” Wears Blossom agreed. “Your translation software cannot readily distinguish between our speech and other sounds, so attempts to translate everything.”

     “Middle roll!” the lapsi added, over the top of his chewing noises.

     Blink smiled at him, wondering what he actually meant. The meaning behind the wordless chirps and squeaks of her own children back home could be guessed from their context, but these little creatures were completely alien. “Do you ever want to have children, Blossom?” she wondered, getting back to the business of grooming the infant sitting on her own lap; it had begun to wriggle and chirp impatiently when her hands stopped moving. “Of your own, I mean.”

     Wears Blossom didn’t even have to think about it. “No.”

     “Not ever?”

     The imago gave her a glance, antennae perked up and forwards in a way Blink had learned to interpret as amusement or challenge, then clicked her mandibles thoughtfully. “Why would I need to? Matica trusts me to look after my siblings when they are small. What difference would it make if they were my genetic material instead of hers?”

     “I-...” Blink found she had no answer, for that. “...guess that makes sense.”

     Finally satisfied that he was clean as she was ever going to get him, Wears Blossom set her comb to one side and shooed the trabek out of her lap; he toddled all of three steps before plopping back down onto his tiny backside on the most convenient cushion, and resuming the important task of troughing his way through his half-eaten plate of fruit. “If any of my sisters feel the urge to lay, it means a time of great sorrow is ahead,” she explained, as the next infant took its place in front of her. “It means mother is dying.”

     Blink gave her a glance; the imago didn’t look overtly concerned by her statement, and the fessine was finding it difficult to work out what was a fault of the translator, and what was just normal danata stoicism. Probably the latter, she reminded herself, getting back to teasing out the remains of a knot of tangled fur. Getting all worked up and upset about something that there was no evidence was ever going to happen in the near future didn’t seem to be the sort of thing the pragmatic little females did.

     A familiar little grey figure appeared through the sunlit doorway from the outside. “Hello, friend,” Duskwing greeted Blink, with a little bob of the head, then bowed very steeply to her little sibling, so they could touch brows, antennae fluttering together in greeting. The nymph in Blink’s lap chirped and waved all four arms, excitedly, patting her tiny hands over her sister’s fur.

     Blink couldn’t help smiling as she watched them – while so many things about her hosts were incomprehensibly alien, there were some things so familiar it was as though her whole family had been transformed the same way she herself had. Although, she corrected herself, Flash and Dipps didn’t so much gently bump heads like this as come together with brain-rattling headbutts. (One of the quirks they’d picked up from their sire, it thankfully didn’t seem to have done them any harm – so far.)

     Duskwing settled on a vacant cushion on the floor nearby, tucking her feet up on it like Blink had done. “Would you like me to take a message to your friends? I have spoken to Travels Far, and she has given me permission to do so, if you would like.”

     “All done, little one.” Blink stroked the small head of the nymph in her lap, then lifted her gently to her feet; the little danata bowed steeply, chirped a thank you, and moved away to join the cluster of other infants close to her age. The fessine watched her go before finally turning to glance at her friend. “A message?”

     “Yes.”

     Blink drew her index finger along the blade of the little comb, making the teeth vibrate. “...can I think about it?”

     Duskwing gave her a more serious, confused look. “You do not want them to know you are safe?”

     “Well-... yes, I just-...” Blink stroked her thumb over the inside of her discoloured wrist, awkwardly. “Someone I thought I could trust had a hand in putting me in that basement. Handed me over to the enemy, like I was just a piece of meat.” She pursed her lips and shook her head. “I’m not sure who I can trust, any more. If they could do that to me, they probably won’t hesitate to tell them that I’m here with you, and I wouldn’t forgive myself if I brought the monsters to your doorstep.”

* * * * *

     Surprisingly, Tevak didn’t seem averse to the two groups working together, when Sadie pointed out that they’d need access to the Station and help from his pack – in fact, it seemed like the hind merely beat him to it, and he’d been seconds away from suggesting it himself. Although, watching them posturing and trying to catch each other out, Rae strongly suspected that the giant was only open to collaboration because he didn’t trust his unwilling Library helpers, and wanted to keep an eye on them.

     Halli, Rae and Sarmis were joined at the Station by Zinovy, who looked thoroughly piqued at having to work with his arch enemies and offered only an unintelligible grunt in greeting. His tailtip lashed continually from side to side as he led them down into the basement, muttering sourly under his breath the entire time.

     Finally getting to see the basement prison where she knew Blink had been confined, Halli really had to work hard to contain the sudden upwelling of rage; the Station Pack hadn’t even bothered to hide what they’d done to the poor girl, simply leaving all the accumulated filth to lay where it had fallen. The dirt and stink and general horror left Halli trembling in her efforts not to instantly fly at their guide with her claws out.

     “You kept her down here?” she demanded, incredulous. To her increasing annoyance, she could hear herself getting shriller by the second. “How is this-... it’s a-a... this is a cesspit!”

     Zinovy bristled, puffing himself up and his feelers coming up off his shoulders, aggressively. “Don’t you get all up in my face, fe-male,” he growled, demonstrating his teeth. “She made her decision. She coulda been comfortable, but she chose to fight it instead.”

     “...made a choice...?!” Halli spluttered, unable to find words to adequately sum up her rage. Sarmis stepped in front of her just in time to catch her before she could physically assault the hart; she struggled against his restraining hands. “This wasn’t a choice, this was-was... torture! How dare you try and insinuate she chose this-!”

     “Hal, Hal... ease up, eh?” Sarmis hissed, forcing a smile. “Or d’you wanna make this whole mess even worse?”

     Halli glared up at him, but managed to suck back the disparaging comment before it could jump free.

     Zinovy quite happily acted like nothing was the matter. “Boss thinks she snuck out through here.” He crouched with his oil lantern next to the ominous black mouth in the wall. “S’a tiny gap, though, and we ain’t figured out where she got back out through. I’m wonderin’ if she got stuck somewhere.”

     “Tiny gap, I’m a tiny person.” Halli got down on all fours and inspected the vent. “I’ll see if I can see anything.”

     “Whoa, hold up. I wouldn’t go crawlin’ in there.” Zinovy caught Halli’s shoulder before she could duck into the pipe. “Boss used a smoke bomb to try and see if she was stuck in there, pipes’ll be all full of soot and stink. I was figuring we could use mirrors, or somethin’.”

     Halli sagged back onto her heels, and threw her hands up in despair. “Great. So not only is it filthy, there’s now no way of following her scent to find which way she went. Fantastic!” She let her hands plop heavily back into her lap, glaring. “Did the virus just fill all your useless skulls with more muscle, or something?”

     Rae intercepted the hart before he could deliver a kick to the zaar’s back from one of his sharp little hooves. “I’m guessing that because Tevak brought his temper to our doorstep, you didn’t have any success finding anything?”

     Zinovy stamped his hoof at Rae’s foot, miraculously missing any of the laima’s toes, and jerked himself free. “So help me, I will punch one of yers in the nose in a minute,” he threatened, waving a finger close enough to Rae’s nose to make the spur back off a step or two. “Of course we ain’t found anything-! Frick would we be bothering with you bunch of useless weaklings for otherwise?”

     Sarmis pursed his lips, thoughtfully. “There used to be a plan of the ventilation system in the cleaner’s cupboard on the second floor. Is it still there?”

     Zinovy folded his arms. “What are you plotting, spur?”

     “If she was as weak as you’re implying, she can’t have gone far, certainly not through here. We just need to look for the closest vents to this one, and check each one individually.”

     “You think we ain’t already done that?” Zinovy huffed and flicked a hand in a beckoning motion. “Fine, fine, whatever. Follow me.”

     Up in the cupboard, they found the plans, right where Sarmis had said they would be, hidden behind a musty old set of work overalls. Although faded and brittle with age, the ventilation diagram had somehow managed to avoid the graffiti that ruined the rest of the paper in the old station and was still fairly clear.

     Sarmis squinted his good eye at the diagram. “All right, so... this is the basement vent...” He touched the pad of his index finger against the grid, and drew it along the friable paper, following the pipework past a selection of small blue rectangles. “Did you check these outlets?”

     “I just told you. We already. Checked. All of ‘em,” Zinovy griped, speaking slowly as though talking to idiots. “Trust me, spur. She ain’t. Here. Not to mention, if she’d snuck out into the Station, her stink woulda been easy to follow.”

     Sarmis shot him a withering look. “Well, pff. I don’t doubt that. But if she’s not here, where is she? She can’t have just vanished in a puff of smoke. So, you musta missed something.” He turned back to the image. “Can you get into all of these rooms? They’re not, I dunno, full storage rooms, or anything?”

     “No, we checked ’em all.” Zinovy frowned at the picture, twitching his drooping whiskers. “We ain’t checked all the vents in the roof, though. Figured she couldn’t climb that high.”

     Sarmis squinted at the image. “No, she wouldn’t have gone that far. The pipe makes a sharp bend here...” he mapped it out with a chipped fingernail, “...and gets narrower here. Even a half-starved prisoner like her couldn’t have got through there. So these are the only exits she could have taken, right?” He pointed to a handful of faded blue rectangles, close to ground level, before getting to the tight twists and turns.

     “Right, and we checked ‘em all. How many times have I gotta say it?”

     Rae leaned in a fraction closer. “You missed one, Sam – there’s an outlet here.” He pointed to a faded blue rectangle barely discernible from the ink detailing the internal pipes. “Opens onto the river, it looks like. Did anyone check this one?”

     “Uh.” Zinovy had the decency to look at least a little embarrassed by his earlier tone. He scratched the back of his neck. “I dunno. I didn’t realise there was vents on the back wall. You, uh, wanna go check it out, then?”

     Sarmis curled his lip. “Your boss is threatening to make us homeless if we don’t find Blink, so yeah, definitely let’s go look.”

     Halli caught his arm, as they made their way down the stairs towards the outside. “Why are you trying to help them find her?” she hissed, faintly. Concern had tightened in the corners of her eyes. “Please tell me you haven’t been in on this the whole time.”

     Sarmis found a tormented smile from somewhere. “I’m trying to buy us some thinking time.”

     “How is going along with Tevak’s demands meant to help-”

     “Because we’ve got to do something, Hal. What were you thinking he’ll say? I don’t know, maybe oh well, never mind, you all did your best, you’re all free to go?” The pale spur spread his hands, palms up, frustrated. “If we refuse to co-operate, he burns the Library down tonight. If we at least look like we’re making an effort, we’ve got a day or two to work out how to save our home when we can’t find her.”

     Halli backed down. “You’re right, I’m sorry,” she excused herself, quietly. “After-… everything else, I just... I should be able to still trust everyone, and I don’t know that I trust anyone, right now.”

     “I know. I… don’t really know what to say about Odati,” Sarmis admitted, faintly, his voice low and almost hollow. “She played me for just as much of an idiot as she did you guys. I had no idea she had such an evil streak in her.” He laughed, humourlessly, and pinched his nose, trying to nurse away a headache. “An’ I still feel like I have to apologise for her. Skeida. Guess it proves she’s right about one thing, huh.”

     “I don’t understand what she could have possibly got out of it,” Rae admitted, drooping downstairs behind them. “I mean, Blink’s immune. She’s not a threat to anyone.”

     “She’s also a pretty fessine,” Halli added, sourly. “She probably sees that as the biggest threat.”

     “I’d kinda rather we didn’t talk about her right now, if that’s all right with you guys?” Sarmis interrupted, thinly. “Let’s find Blink, and figure out this mess. Then we can work out what in kettu’s name we’re going to do with Odati.”

     Rae nodded, and gave his shoulder a little squeeze. “Sure, sure; sorry, man.” The poor spur sounded fairly well crushed by the betrayal; Rae figured that wasn’t entirely unreasonable, after all those long, dedicated years Sarmis had spent as Odati’s loyal right-hand-spur.

     Actually accessing the small quay behind the police station proved to be easier said than done. A good twenty minutes struggle proved the hinges of the door in the ground-floor corridor had corroded past the point of ever being functional ever again, and the old ladder over the wall outside had long since rusted away and fallen off.

     At last, Zinovy found a length of knotted rope, down which Rae awkwardly clambered, teeth gritted against the tight pain in his shoulder. The coverless vent was an obvious dark patch on the algae-streaked grey wall; the spur crouched down very close to it, and sniffed warily at the concrete; the recent smatterings of rain had rinsed away a lot of Blink’s scent, but in the corner where the quay met the wall there were still enough traces lurking to identify the missing laima.

     “Anything?” Halli prompted, leaning down over the wall to watch.

     “Yeah, she was out here.” Rae nodded confirmation. He followed the dregs of rancid scent along the narrow quay, and onto the soggy, half-rotted ladder that led down to the water.

     “So she swum across the river?” Zinovy wondered, ears perked. “Well, great! We can hoof it across the bridge upriver, and pick her scent back up over there, right?”

     “Assuming all the rain we’ve had over the last few days hasn’t washed it away,” Halli reminded.

     “Guys... guys?” Rae waved his hands, attracting their attention back. “Blink’s never swum in her life, ever. If she fell in there, there’s no way she’d have managed to swim across – might not even have kept her head above water.”

     Zinovy’s previously helpful manner turned hostile again. “You’re just trying to get us off the scent.”

     “No, I’m serious.” The hard sensation of rising bile tightened Rae’s throat. He swallowed thickly, trying to dislodge the lump of difficult emotions. “If she’s gone into the river, she’ll have been swept down the estuary and out to sea. Be lucky if she hasn’t drowned.”

     “We’ll check the far shore anyway,” Sarmis reassured, reaching down with a hand to help pull Rae back up. “Sometimes determination lets folk do incredible things, right? If she had the oomph in her to escape the revolting conditions Tevak’s lot were keeping her in, she might have got across the river, too.”

     Although Zinovy was nodding along with Sarmis’ words, confidently, both Rae and Halli sensed it was mostly false sentiment to try and keep their spirits up.

     “We better check the coastline, too.” Rae pursed his lips, and had to struggle to get the next words out. “Will Tevak be satisfied if we bring back a body?”

     The nyen flared his crest again, fixing Rae on a glare. “Only if you guys can prove you weren’t the ones what sprung her loose in the first place.”

     Sarmis put himself in front of Rae, defensively. “How about we find her first, Zinovy?” he suggested, in a tone that brooked no argument.

     Zinovy put his hands up and snorted. “Fine, whatever. Delay the inevitable, whatever you like.” He flounced away towards the street; his words trailed back over his shoulder, barely audible over his stroppy hoofbeats. “If the culprit just freaking admitted it, Tevak would go easy on the rest of yers, but pah, what do I know. Mebbe y’all just masochists...” His voice faded around the corner.

     “Guess we better follow him,” Rae groaned. “Coming, Halli?”

     At the lack of reaction, he glanced back over his shoulder to find the zaar still staring out over the river, brow creased. He set a hand on her shoulder, attracting her attention. “Hal?”

     Halli straightened, and blinked. “...huh?” She looked like a sleeper waking from a long dream – or perhaps a nightmare. Rae couldn’t help wondering what she was thinking about, although he had some suspicions.

     “I said, are you coming? Zinovy is about to charge off into the wild blue unknown and cause untold mayhem in the process...”

     “Sorry.” The fal managed to dredge up a humourless smile that compressed her lips down to a thin line. “I’m coming. I wasn’t paying attention.”

     Rae somehow resisted the uneasy urge to be facetious, resting his elbows on the wall beside her. “She’ll be all right-”

     “That’s a bit of a departure from ‘she’s probably drowned’, don’t you think?”

     Rae studied his hands where they rested on the wall. “Back on tiao’I, we talked a little about her old life,” he said, softly. “I keep thinking of all the things she told me she went through, and compared to all that? This is, is-... nothing.” He shook his head. “She might have been a big ball of angst, but she was a fighter, too. She’s a survivor.”

     “...Was. Before she got turned into a laima.” Halli glanced sidelong at him, not quite able to meet his gaze. “That creature made her immune, it didn’t make her indestructible.”

     “She had help escaping.” Rae covered her hand with his own, trying to be reassuring. “They wouldn’t help her get free, then let her drown immediately after.” At least, I hope not. Unless it was to spite Tevak in the first place.

* * * * *

     Blink stirred in the dead of night to a weight on her chest. She awoke fearful of getting sick, to find a familiar little ghost sitting on her, mandibles open expectantly.

     “It’s night-time. You’re supposed to be asleep.” Blink propped herself on her elbows, and sighed tiredly. “You can’t seriously be hungry already.”

     He perked his head to one side, antennae waving, and squeaked softly. It didn’t take a translator to work out what he meant. Hungry! Feed me.

     “All right.” Blink sighed, resignedly, setting him gently on the floor so she could sit up properly, listening to him chatter excitedly. She didn’t bother to put her earpiece in – she knew from earlier in the day that his nonsensical little clicks and squeaks would only give her translator an aneurysm. “Let’s see what Blossom left for you...”

     She turned to the side, to where Wears Blossom had stowed all their supplies. Obviously anticipating night-time awakenings, the experienced nursemaid had left a small selection of covered bowls of fruit and fish on the surface of the lowest unoccupied bunk, where they’d be close to Blink’s fumbling hand. Not sure she could endure feeding him that vile, smelly fish on her own at this time of night, the fessine instead selected a squashy ball-shaped fruit that was almost half as big as the baby himself, before going to sit in the doorway with him in her lap. He wiggled expectantly, reaching all four arms towards the ball, so apparently approved of her choice. Good.

     Not sure precisely how to go about preparing it – she was pretty sure she didn’t just hand it over – Blink first sliced the fruit in half, then pared away a thin segment from one of the cut faces, which she offered to him. The lapsi held it in all four hands and examined it, tested it in his mandibles... then looked up at her and held it back out with a questioning noise.

     “Not good enough, eh?” She accepted it back, and looked at it. Maybe the skin wasn’t edible? She ran the knife carefully round under the waxy surface, peeling away a thin, rubbery layer, and offered it to him again.

     Now the rind was trimmed away, he happily accepted it, and began eating. Blink couldn’t help the small smile that traced over her lips, and stroked his head.

     While he chomped his way through each pale-coloured slice, she prepared the next, carefully paring the inedible rind away from the temptingly succulent flesh inside. His hands were bigger than his crop, though, and he happily grabbed for each slice before he’d finished its predecessor. Soon all four tiny hands were full of half-eaten slices, and Blink was sure he would happily have tried to take the next piece if she’d offered it, free hand or not. Instead, she put her knife to one side and waited for him to catch up.

     She let her attention drift out over the waters, only half listening to the noises of satisfied chewing coming from her lap. Like a carpet of rippling velvet, the ocean spread out in front of her as far as the eye could see, bordered by the narrow strip of rough sloping meadow in front of her, with its battlements of scrubby thornbushes that blocked out most of the sound of the waves. The remaining sound of distant surf crashing against the rocks was barely audible under the baby’s voracious chewing.

     Hunting the small glowing insects floating through the night sky, nocturnal fliers wheeled about over her head. They sang strange, hollow music to each other as they danced above the ocean, pale leathery ghosts under the moonlight. Updrafts from the cliffs occasionally buffeted them into cartwheels, but they never once crashed into each other, spinning dizzily in their pursuit of their supper and each other.

     Blink smiled, sadly. Reminded her of home, in a strange, abstract way, sitting on a cliff instead of a landing platform, watching small biological creatures flying instead of her friends, her relatives, quietly envious of their aerial freedom. Even the creatures’ unmusical, chattering songs reminded her of the constant radio babble on the wideband back home – a soup of packets of data passing between individuals, identity checks, positioning requests, and a constant music of conversation, thousands of high-efficiency clicks and trills. There might be friendly rivalry between the various classes of fliers, but they never stopped talking to each other.

     Blink sighed, shakily, wishing she too could sprout a pair of wings and fly away from it all. What she’d have given to have been up there with them, up in the sky with her family, light as air and nimble as the breeze that carried them – but ground-bound dirt-huggers like her weren’t made for flying. Even her thoughts were too two-dimensional, too slow and plodding, unable to think outside of her own personal box. You were always going to be left behind, Bee. They couldn’t keep carrying you around forever.

     Looking to her right and along the shoreline, the Institute was a beacon of optimism on the distant headland, on the opposite side of the bay. The lights were on, inside, turning the huge windows into a pale yellow star, landed among the tough grass and scrubby trees of the coast. I will get in there, she promised herself. My last chance. Oh, Skydash. I’m so sorry. I will speak to you again, before it’s too late.

     When she finally tore her attention away from her daydreams and glanced back down at the baby, it was to find he’d tired of waiting and now sat busily gnawing on the tough rind, trying to scrape the soft flesh out from the inside with jaws badly designed for the job.

     “I’m sorry, bitlet.” Blink held out a hand for the fruit. “Let me finish cutting that up for you.”

     At first, he made a little growl of displeasure and drew away from her, continuing his determined gnawing. Blink sat and waited, patiently, until at last he convinced himself he wasn’t going to get through it himself, and relinquished the inedible object into Blink’s waiting hand, letting her continue to prepare it.

     He’d munched his way through almost half of the fruit by the time he ran out of momentum, and Blink guessed from the way the chewing noises had slowed down that maybe his crop was finally full. Finally, just the one slice remained in his hand, perfect and un-nibbled; he looked up at his carer, and held the unchewed slice out to her with a sleepy grunt.

     Blink noticed the tiny slip of darker colour on one end – a scrap of rind she’d missed. She took the slice back, and delicately pared it away. “Is that better?”

     The trabek studied the slice, examining it delicately with his sensitive antennae, but didn’t take it back.

     “I see. All done, eh?” Good; maybe she’d get another hour or two of sleep before the hungry little monster woke her up again? She scooped him up, carefully – not a difficult task, he could have sat quite happily in her palm – and carried him to his bunk, three levels up on the wall above her ground-floor mattress, before setting him down on his cushion. He gave a sleepy chirp and capsized with an audible little fump.

     “Night night, bit. Sleep tight,” she murmured, tickling him gently under his chin. His little beak automatically closed sleepily on her finger, before he worked out what it was and let it go.

     “You can’t possibly have any room at all left in those little tanks.” The fessine smiled, and stroked the fuzzy head. “If my uncle was here, he’d probably call you ‘Bitey’,” she observed, softly, although she knew the little mite didn’t understand her. “Your appetite’s too big to be a ‘Nibbler’.”

     Hoping that leaving him in peace would encourage ‘Flash’ back to sleep, Blink settled back on her own jigsaw of mattresses in the corner of the floor, at the foot of the wall of bunks. She sat propped against the wall, blanket loosely around her shoulders, and slowly consumed the remaining little segment of fruit; the sharp tang made her mouth tingle.

     You have to make a decision soon, Blink. She closed her eyes and let her head bonk softly back against the cool wall. Any day now, Tevak will find his way here, and he’ll tear the place apart, given half a chance. You’ve got to make one last determined strike for the Institute.

     Then what, hope for a miracle? She sighed and covered her face with her hand, trying to massage a little of the tension out of her temples.

     Little miracles do happen, every now and then, her conscience reminded, in a tiny voice that mostly blended in with the encroaching fog of dreams. You’re living proof of that. Just put it to good use, Bee.

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