- Profitable Deals -
Kestrel Sempai: FanFiction
Another Max Eilserson story, this time also featuring Dureena and the rest of the crew of the Crusade.

Dureena stalked down the ship's corridor, scattering crewmen in every direction. Her slight stature was more than made up for by her attitude, which was usually one of strength and confidence. Today, however, she was not happy, and it was very obvious to anyone who saw her they would be much safer staying out of her way.

Earlier this morning she had gotten a message from Dr. Chambers that someone had died, and although Dureena did not know the individual personally, it was one of her people, and therefore not so much a personal loss as a loss to the universe.

About a month ago, the Excalibur had discovered a small group, no more than twenty individuals, of Dureena's race on a planet while tracking down some humans that had escaped from Earth. Since the humans had already made contact with her people by the time the ship got there, everyone had been infected with the Drakh plague. The planet had immediately been placed under strict quarantine, although Dr. Chambers still got intermittent reports on the health of the population. One such report had come in that morning.

While the thought of revenge for the death of her race and her planet was never far away, this death had brought all of those dark emotions to the surface with a fury comparable to the summer storms that would rage against the cliffs near where she had spent her childhood. She wished she could be one of those storms, to hail and blow and strike down with fierce lightning all those who had contributed to the complete destruction of her past and future. But, for now, all she could do was storm through the ship's corridors on an errand for the Captain.

She stopped in front of Max Eilerson's quarters and forcefully pressed the door alert. Nothing happened. She pressed it again, growing more impatient by the second. Again, nothing. Reaching into her arm guard, she removed a small card. Third time's a charm, she thought to herself as she inserted the card which bypassed the lock and opened the door for her. Dropping the card back inside her sleeve, she entered the room.

Max sat at his desk, elbows propped before him, chin resting on his interlaced fingers. He wore what looked like a large pair of dark glasses that also seemed to have some sort of audio component, since they also covered his ears. Which would explain why he hadn't responded to the repeated calls of his com bracelet or com panel, and why she had been sent here to retrieve him.

As she moved across the room, she became aware of a small pot on the floor in front of Max's desk. About a foot in diameter, and only half that tall, it looked handmade and old, yet the light and patterns that emanated from its open mouth were unearthly. Try as she might, she couldn't make out anything distinct in the fluctuating waves of color and motion. As she got closer to Max, though, she became aware of a low hum which also seemed to be coming from the pot.

She reached out and shook his right shoulder, in no mood for subtly, and found her hand suddenly locked in a vice-like grip. The rest of his body hadn't moved, but his left hand now covered her fingers, pressing them down onto his shoulder, while his thumb, positioned just under and behind hers, pulled up with an almost painful force. She instinctively froze, not wanting the trap to close any tighter.

With his right hand, Max removed the glasses, laid them carefully on the desk, and looked up at her. His expression was unreadable, but there was a ferocity in his eyes that she had never seen before, and she felt all of her rage drain away. Max was intellectual, egotistical, and usually intensely annoying, but he was never dangerous. And yet, that is what she felt from him right now. Whatever it was that she had interrupted, it meant a lot to him, and he was not happy.

"My hand," she said, still not moving.

Something shifted within him, and then suddenly he was the same old Max. He let go of her, leaned back in his chair, crossing his arms in front of his chest. She took a step back, rubbing out the soreness in her thumb.

"Are you feeling particularly sadistic today, or did you have a purpose for breaking into my quarters?" he asked.

"The Captain wants you to go with him to meet a trader planetside," she answered, still rubbing her hand.

Max sighed, and turned back to his desk.

"I have better things to do than to accompany the Captain on his little jaunts," he said, looking down at the pair of glasses.

He should have known better than to start this here, where anyone could disturb him. Yet despite the interruption, he was in a good mood, something almost guaranteed to happen when he beheld such beauty.

Dureena moved a step closer. When Max looked up at her, she nodded at the glasses.

"What are they?" she asked.

Max smiled, and lifted the glasses gently off the desktop.

"Windows to a most magnificent soul," he said, "if you'll pardon the cliché." Standing up, he gestured for her to sit down.

While they weren't exactly enemies, they weren't exactly friends, and this apparent, niceness - for lack of a better word, defied every expectation she had about Max Eilerson, who was always quicker with an insult than a compliment. Still, the Captain had waited this long; a few more minutes wouldn't kill him, and hopefully not her either.

She sat down.

Max turned her so that she was facing the small pot which was still spewing its colored lights into the air. He stood behind her and placed the glasses over her eyes and ears. He wouldn't leave them there for long, just enough for Dureena to get a taste of what was possible.

There was a brief moment of disorientation, and then she was somewhere else. Where, she didn't know, but it was someplace old, full of stories and histories and comedies and tragedies and births and deaths and heroes and villains.

There was music that wasn't music. Notes that formed melodies that grew into songs that solidified into figures. A boy was born, who laughed and cried; who grew into a youth, who loved and lost; who became a man, who betrayed and was betrayed; who turned into a ghost, that was lost and finally found. She heard the victory cries on the battlefield, and the mothers' tears hit the floor when they heard the news.

And then she was back on the ship, sitting in Max's chair, her hands gripping the edge of the desk so tightly she had to forcefully relax her fingers. Slowing her breathing, she blinked, as colored spots danced before her eyes, and were gone. She tried to remember what she had seen, what she had heard; but it was already at the edge of her mind, fading even as she reached out to catch it.

Looking up at Max, she saw him watching her with great amusement evident on his face. He could count the number of people he had shared this with on one hand, and still have fingers left over. To see the guarded Dureena so shaken was indeed a treat.

"Scholars have said that Kyoan's work was so finely crafted as to appeal to even the most base of the masses," he said, as he walked around the desk. "Judging from your reaction, it appears they were correct."

Bending down, he placed a lid on the pot and gently picked it up off the floor. Walking over to a shelf crowded with an assortment of alien artifacts, he carefully put the pot down, folded the glasses, and rested them beside the pot.

Dureena still sat in the chair, once again in control of herself, unscathed by the insult. "So who's Kyoan?" she asked, hating to want something of Max, yet desiring to know more about what she had just experienced.

"The premier poet and composer of the Fravi culture, a race which has since scattered itself across the universe and into anominity," Max said, as he came back and sat on the edge of the desk. "She lived approximately three hundred years ago, and created nine operas within her 35 year lifespan. They were performed in magnificent amphitheaters to crowds of thousands."

"There are countless copies in innumerable languages, but the original recordings are the only true way to experience such things. Narn is not known for its subtleties of language."

"That vessel," he said, gesturing over his shoulder at the pot, "is but one of a collection of twenty. What you saw was only a small part of the whole. As big as this ship claims to be, it doesn't come near being adequate to properly host Kyoan's tenth opera."

Max looked around the room with a slight look of disgust on his face. "However, when I find it necessary to retreat," he continued, "a part of perfection is preferable to nothing."

"Tenth opera?" Dureena asked. "I thought you said there were nine."

Max laughed and pointed at her. "So you are paying attention, " he said. "Perhaps there is hope for you yet."

Dureena bit back her retort, filing it away for later, when she didn't need to put up with him.

"To the known universe, there are nine Kyoan operas," Max said. "For me, being the wonderful person that I am, there is a tenth."

Dureena leaned forward in the chair. "But if these operas are in such demand, wouldn't the tenth be worth a lot of money?" she asked, knowing how much of Max's life revolved around personal profit.

A light shadow flickered across his face and was gone before she was even sure it was there.

"There are some things," he said softly, "some rare things, that can only be profitable if you find the right person." And even then, they can disappoint you, he thought to himself.

Then he said, with his usual egotism, "And I know of no one, other than myself, who would give Kyoan's tenth opera the reverence it deserves."

"Have you ever heard all of it?" she asked, trying to image what that would be like, and knowing she failed to even come close.

His eyes lost focus for a moment, as if he were remembering. "Once," he said, his voice sounding far away, even though he was only a few feet in front of her.

Dureena stood, taking a step closer to him, trying to see in his eyes what he had seen. "What was it like?" she asked.

He opened his mouth as if to speak, and then closed it, shaking his head. There was no way to put into words what he had experienced, and to even try, he would have to remember...

---

It was a once in a lifetime performance. All twenty vessels had been recovered and repaired. It had taken him weeks to figure out the correct placement since there were no records of it ever having been performed, and he had only Kyoan's handwritten notes to go by. As brilliant an artist as she was, her handwriting left much to be desired.

Catherine, his wife, had come out to watch it with him, which, while it surprised him, pleased him as well. Things had not been going well between them. His work demanded his full attention and most of his time. For her to travel all this way to share this with him was indeed a special event.

They had watched it, all seven hours of it, along with the rest of his IPX team, and several vice-presidents of the company who had complained the entire time they were there about the cost of this, by their terms, useless production. People would pay for advanced technology or weapons, not magical pots.

At the end of the performance, everyone was silent. Even the VPs were speechless. At least for a moment. Then they were stumbling over themselves trying to get a com line back to Earth to set up the marketing and duplication rights.

He remembered watching them leave the amphitheater in a flurry of suits, and thinking to himself that this time, it was wrong. This opera, this masterpiece, shouldn't be sold to peasants who couldn't begin to understand the intricacies of the story being told, let alone the musical constructs incorporated.

"Looks like you did it again," Catherine had said. "This commission should keep you comfortable for a while." She had no love for IPX. It stole from other races and it had stolen from her.

Even in his memory, her voice didn't break. She had stood up, put something in his hands, bent down to kiss him lightly on the cheek, and then walked away. Looking down at his hands, it had taken a moment for him to read the word 'divorce', and a moment longer to understand.

That night there was fire in the field house. The vice presidents were very troubled that all of the vessels were destroyed since it was likely they wouldn't make their quarterly bonuses now. In a grumbling mass, they had boarded their shuttle and returned to Earth.

Max's team had finished some last minute tasks before being re-assigned to other expeditions. Once they were all gone, Max had carefully wrapped and shipped nineteen of the vessels to a safe place. The last he had taken with him wherever he went. A small piece of perfection in a worn earthen pot.

---

"What was it like?" Dureena asked again.

But Max was silent, lost somewhere in his past.

"What?" she said, surprised and disappointed, and a little bit hurt. To be able to see a small part of such greatness was thrilling. Yet to know that there was more that she would never be able to share in was painful. Max had seen it, and just as he had laughed at her before, he was probably laughing inside at her now. Angry, she lashed out.

"The great Max Eilerson at a loss for words? I need to take a picture because no one's going to believe me when I tell them."

Brought back to the present by her voice, Max realized his lapse. It was bad enough to dwell on the past, but to be caught in the act, especially by Dureena, was too much.

"I should have known better than to expect civilized behavior from a thief," he shot back, pushing himself off the desk. They stared at each other, both on the defensive even though neither was being attacked.

Max's com bracelet beeped. He grabbed it off the desktop. "Eilerson's Antiques and Artifacts, what can I help you with today?" he snarled at it, as he slipped it onto his wrist.

"I want your little IPX ass in this shuttle before I count to 10," the Captain's voice said. "And if you happen to see Dureena, bring her with you, I don't care how."

"Your wish is my command, Sahib," Max said, as he grabbed his bag from a chair and headed out the door.

"Cut the crap, Max, and haul it," Gideon said before breaking the link.

"Always so eloquent, our Captain, don't you think?" Max asked as he slammed his hand against the wall panel to open the door. It barely got out of the way in time as he stormed out of the room. A fury in her own right, Dureena stalked after him.

The ship's corridor cleared twice as fast as they headed for the shuttle bay.

***

It was obvious they were not in the best part of town. Neon lights advertising a multitude of pleasures demanded their attention. The few species that they saw refused to make eye contact, hurrying by in a hushed silence. Things moved in the shadows, at the edge of their vision, and every now and then, there was a cry in the night.

Gideon was in the lead, following some kind of map in his head, as he lead them down sidestreet after backstreet after alley. Max walked in the middle, letting anyone within earshot know how much he didn't want to be there. Dureena brought up the rear, most of her concentration focused on keeping their party in one piece. It had been simple enough to get the pickpockets and other members of her guild to leave them alone. The body shoppers had taken a little more persuasion, although if Max didn't shut up soon, she was sorely tempted to carve him up herself.

"This wasn't in any of the Ranger reports," Max said to Gideon, as he stepped over a slumped figure.

"It doesn't have to be," Gideon shot back. While he could usually endure Max's attitude, his insistent whining was bringing the Captain to a slow boil. As much as he had wanted to bring some security guards with them, the kind of people he was dealing with would not appreciate his caution, and any kind of lead on a cure was not worth jeopardizing for personal comfort.

"Then how do you know it's worth my time?" Max asked, stretching his stride a little more to keep up with Gideon's brisk pace.

Gideon paused at an intersection of two alleys, then headed off down to the left. "I don't give a damn whether or not it's worth your time, Max," he said. "It's a possible cure for Earth, therefore it's worth your life, which, I might add, is currently in question, and I'm not talking about the local inhabitants." Gideon stopped abruptly and turned around. "Do I make myself clear?"

Max barely had time to stop before running into Gideon, which put him eye to eye with the Captain, who seemed to be just a bit on the touchy side this evening. No matter, Max thought to himself, he would humor the man for now, especially since any discussion would only prolong his misery. Giving Gideon his most charming smile, Max said, "But of course, Captain, of course."

Irritated at Max's smugness, Gideon was willing to let the truce hold. Flashing a bright smile, he said, "Good," and turned to a nondescript door on his right. He opened it, gesturing for Max to precede him. After a slight hesitation, Max entered the darkness. Dureena followed him.

As she passed him, she heard Gideon say, "Thank you."

Startled, she turned to face him. "For what?" she asked.

"For making sure we had safe passage back there," he said, the lights from the street faintly illuminating his face through the open door.

"Is that why you wanted me along?" Dureena said, assuming it was.

Gideon shrugged. "After the news this morning, I thought you might need the distraction," he said.

Dureena was surprised. Of course Chambers would have told Gideon about the death on the quarantined planet. But for him to think of it with regard to her personally was something she never would have expected. Very few people had ever cared how she felt about anything.

While she had heard the crew speak highly of Gideon, it hadn't really mattered to her who was the captain of the Excalibur. She wanted revenge and the fact that it coincided with the Earth Force's search for a cure to the Drakh plague was a fortunate coincidence, one that she would use to her advantage as much as possible. So while she lived on the ship, she had never considered herself a part of the crew. Looking at Gideon and seeing the concern in his eyes, she understood the crew's loyalty, and for the first time, truly appreciated the Captain of the Excalibur.

"And I appreciate your patience," Gideon added. "I would have let that last guy have Max".

"I almost did," Dureena said, turning around to continue down the hallway. Behind her, she heard the Captain laugh as he closed the door.

Max was waiting for them at the end of the hallway in front of another door. While he wondered at what had put them in such a good mood, he didn't ask, although somehow he had the feeling that it was at his expense.

Gideon put his hand on the door and turned back to address them.

"I don't trust this guy," he said. "Word of our search has pretty much been spread around enough so that the wackos are starting to come out of the woodwork." He paused, looking at each of them in turn. "But that doesn't mean we can afford to ignore them. I'll do the talking, but I want you two to stick close and pay attention. Whatever this guy has got, it's going to be expensive and anything you can pick up on that might help would be appreciated."

Dureena nodded, and Max sniffed, which was about what Gideon expected. He pushed his way through the door.

They entered a small courtyard, or at least it appeared that way in the dim light provided by the few hanging bulbs that weren't shattered. Their line of sight was blocked every way by boxes stacked on storage bins heaped on top of crates. But as quiet as their past journey had been, this place was literally screaming, because inside of every box, every bin, every crate, was something alive that wanted its freedom. Gideon barely recognized a third of the species in the cages nearest them. Dureena looked like she wanted to kill someone, and Max seemed to be immensely bored with the whole situation.

From a back corner, there came the sharp crack of a whip, followed by a cry of pain. As it slowly worked its way closer to them, the noisy excitement that had been generated by their arrival slowly faded into a fearful silence, broken only by intermittent whimpers.

The whip cracked one last time, just off to their right. Gideon turned to face their guest, his hand resting lightly on his PPG as Max took up a personally safer position behind him. Dureena was nowhere to be found.

A tall alien rounded a tower of small cages. He was dressed in tight dark brown pants and black knee high boots. A white long-sleeved shirt billowed loosely about him as he walked toward them with an easy, confident grace. The whip danced lightly in his right hand, sparking slightly with the electric current that ran through it. His long dark blue hair was brushed straight back from just above his light green eyes that seemed to twinkle in the scattered light.

"Ah apologize for the wait, El Capitan, and for that dreadful noise," he said, waving his hand in the air to encompass the courtyard's inhabitants. His speech had a slow, smooth rhythm that was almost hypnotic. "Mah name is Waylin, and Ah welcome you."

Gideon nodded, and said, "So what have you got for me?" wanting to make this as short an exchange as possible. The whole atmosphere gave him the creeps. Everywhere he looked, the eyes of something pleaded at him to free it. And while they were just animals, it was painfully obvious that this was a cruel place to be.

Waylin laughed, a soft, throaty sound. "Mah, mah, aren't we the direct one today," he said.

A small bird in a cage next to his feet hopped close to the bars and peeped. With an idle flick of his wrist, Waylin knocked it across the cage with the end of the whip. It lay on its side, one wing sprawled at an unnatural angle from its body. There was a slight burnt smell in the air.

Max covered his nose with his hand and turned away. Gideon took a deep breath and focused on the task at hand. If Waylin truly had something that could help cure the plague on Earth, then Gideon would have to stand the bastard's cruelty. If, however, he was a fake, Gideon swore Waylin would find out exactly what that electric whip could really do.

Waylin laughed again at their reactions and ambled over to a small stack of crates. The tower tilted precariously as every being inside its cage moved to get as far away as possible from Waylin as he reached out and moved the top box to another pile. Placing his whip off to the side, he reached in and removed something from the next box. Turning around to face them, he held out his prize.

It looked like an extremely large toad, and a very sick toad at that. Its large brown eyes that peered up at Gideon were glazed and cloudy. Its skin was dry and cracked. Gideon had no idea how it could possibly provide a cure and was about to say as much when Waylin withdrew the animal and placed it back in its box. Securing the top, he picked up his whip again.

"Ah can tell by your handsome expression that you are not impressed, El Capitan," he said, languishing against a short stack of crates as the animals inside cowered back in fear. "That there is prime example of a Parkinese noda, very rare. It's said they can live for a thousand years. Ah can't vouch for that myself, you understand, but Ah do have it on good authority that this particular noda is over five hundred years old."

"And your point would be?" Gideon asked.

"Well it was mah understanding that you all are looking for a cure to a nasty little plague," Waylin continued. "And you've got to think that anything that can live for a thousand years must have something going for it, being able to live that long without getting sick, you see."

Feeble as it was, Gideon did have to agree that it was a possibility. While he himself had never heard of a Parkinese noda, Dr. Chambers would undoubtedly have something in her files, and anything was worth a shot. In the next few years, Earth was going to get more and more desperate, so they might as well get as many wild cards out of the way now as possible.

Suddenly Waylin straightened, staring down past Gideon, looking very uncomfortable. Gideon turned and saw no one. Then he looked down. Standing beside him was what appeared to be a small pyramid of rocks, about waist high, which he knew hadn't been there before. A deep grinding sound that could have been words came from the pyramid, and Waylin was on his knees at its side in an instant, answering in the same language. At least, Gideon assumed it was a language. Looking for his resident expert, Gideon saw Max off to one side, apparently arguing with someone who was hidden by more boxes. Just as he was about to go and fetch Max, the conversation ceased, and Waylin stood up.

"Mah sincere apologies, El Capitan," Waylin said, his confidence back. "This is my employer, Kerukasa, the owner of this fine establishment," he said, gesturing at the pyramid of rocks. Gideon nodded, and the rocks shifted slightly.

"Ah was just explaining our potential deal and have received his blessing", Waylin continued, as he walked back to the boxes and picked up the noda's cage. Out of the corner of his eye, Gideon saw Max join the group, Dureena just behind him, a small cage in her hands.

Kerukasa made some kind of comment. Waylin, acting as translator, said, "He says to tell you the price for the noda is 5,000,000 credits."

Gideon laughed, a short, unhappy sound. "That's outrageous," he said. Granted, since Earth was under quarantine, the credit was not what it used to be, but that much cash could purchase a small ship.

"No, that's bad translation," Max said, kneeling down beside Kerukasa. The alien turned and Gideon assumed it was now looking at Max, although he had a hard time seeing a face of any kind on it at all. Waylin was suddenly very uncomfortable again.

"Ah'm sure Ah don't know what you mean," he said, a slight quaver in his voice. Max smiled, and Gideon had the distinct impression of a cat eyeing a mouse.

"Ah think you do," Max said, mimicking Waylin's drawl. Then he spoke to Kerukasa in the alien's native tongue. As Max spoke, Kerukasa's skin took on a decidedly darker and redder color.

When he was finished, Max stood up. "I believe he would like to have a few words with you," he said to Waylin.

The young man wet his lips, obviously frightened. As he knelt down by Kerukasa, Gideon pulled Max off to the side. "What was all that about?" he asked.

Max brushed his hands on his pants as if he had just handled something dirty. "It seems our friend Waylin was marking up the merchandise by a mere 5000 percent," he answered. "I abhor sloppy business practices so I felt obligated to pass this fact on to Kerukasa. I think you will have a more reasonable offer once they have finished their conversation."

Gideon looked back, but it seems like Kerukasa wasn't done with Waylin just yet.

"Captain," Dureena said, her voice shaking slightly.

Gideon looked at the small cage in her hands. Through the bars, he could see a small, cat-like animal cowering in the corner. Its darting eyes were a cloudy yellow and it coughed intermittently. Its red fur was matted and filthy, with some bare patches along its legs and back. Looking up at Dureena, he was surprised to see tears in her eyes.

"Dureena," he said, reaching out to her.

She backed away from him, holding the cage close to her, protecting it. "It's an eren," she said. "I had one as a pet when I was a child. They only exist on my planet."

She reached a finger out to pet the eren, but it pressed itself back against the bars, trying to stay out of reach, its small body trembling. "I understand, little one," she said. "Life is one fear after another when you live in a cage."

Dureena withdrew her hand, wiping it across her face to clear the tears. "I never thought I'd seen one again," she said, almost to herself. "The Drakh destroyed my planet so that nothing could live there. To find this, an eren." She looked up at Gideon. "My people considered an eren a sign of good luck," she said. "I can't leave it here."

"Now wait a minute," Gideon started. As much as he hated to see these animals treated like this, he wasn't about to turn the Excalibur into Noah's ark.

Max cleared his throat. "Captain," he said, "Kerukasa would like to speak to you."

Dureena started to back away, but Gideon grabbed her by the arm. "Stay," he told her, not letting go until he saw her nod in agreement. Turning to Max, he said, "If she's not here when I'm finished, you are going to regret it, understand?"

Max thought of protesting, but seeing the look in the Captain's eyes, wisely decided against it. He moved to stand behind Dureena, effectively blocking her way out of the courtyard. Satisfied, Gideon turned his back on them, praying they would both be there when he was done dealing with Kerukasa.

The noda's cage sat in front of Kerukasa, and Waylin had completely disappeared. The electric whip lay against Kerukasa's side, its tip lying in a small pool of blood, a detail Gideon found disturbing. The alien rotated slightly, and Gideon thought he could see what appeared to be two eyes looking up at him. He knelt down beside the alien as it ground out several sentences. Gideon looked back at Max for a translation, relieved to see Dureena was still there as well.

"He apologizes for Waylin and has terminated his employment," Max said, "He wants to give you the noda as a gift, in the hopes that you will do business with him again some time."

"Thank you," Gideon said, addressing Kerukasa. The alien leaned forward slightly in what Gideon interpreted as a nod.

Gideon motioned Dureena over, and she stepped forward, after a slight push from behind by Max. Gideon held out his hand for the eren's cage. Dureena tried to back away, and found herself stopped by Max. He didn't try to hold her, but he was there, solid as a brick wall. She could break through easily, but blood would be spilt.

"Dureena," Gideon said, still patiently holding out his hand to her. If he could, he would buy the eren for her, but it wouldn't do anyone any good for her to steal it. He had had enough trouble getting her onto the ship in the first place; he didn't want to loose her now.

She looked at the eren inside the cage, seeing not just the animal but her whole planet. Now that she actually had it hand, how could they ask her to give it up?

She felt Max shift as he placed his head next to hers.

"Give it to the Captain," he said softly, his breath warming her cheek he was so close.

Still staring at Gideon's outstretched arm, she said to Max, "Give me one reason."

"Because I don't want to die, and just as a random guess, neither does the Captain," he answered, his voice low, and deadly serious.

"I don't understand," she said, trying to buy time to make a decision.

Max nodded at Kerukasa. "That is a Ignalasi, a remarkably short and vengeful race. It may not look very mobile, but if you take that cage without paying for its contents, we will not make it back to the shuttle alive."

Dureena didn't want to believe Max; she wanted to just take the eren and run away. But she also knew how protective Max was of his own skin; he would not joke about that kind of danger. She looked at Gideon who still patiently held out his hand to her. Personally, she could handle herself regardless of the consequences, but she would not put another's life in danger because her actions. Not again.

She looked once more in the cage, making a silent promise to the eren, and then handed it over to Gideon.

He held her eyes as he took the eren and said, "Thank you." She lowered her eyes, unable to meet his gaze.

Gideon picked up the noda's cage, and put the eren's cage in its place. Pointing down at it, he asked, "How much?"

Behind him, he could hear Dureena's surprised intake of breathe. Being a thief, he guess it never occurred to her to pay for something she wanted. Or perhaps she didn't have the money. Either way, he had been authorized to go up to a certain amount for whatever it was that Waylin was selling. He didn't see any reason why it couldn't be an eren, given that the noda was free.

Kerukasa wobbled slightly and spoke several sentences. Gideon and Dureena both looked back at Max for a translation.

"Since it is one of a kind," Max answered, rolling his eyes as if he didn't believe it, "it is more expensive than Waylin's price for the noda. However, none of that matters in this case since it has already been sold. The buyer is coming to retrieve it later tonight."

Dureena stepped forward, towering over Kerukasa. "I don't care, I'll beat any price. How much?"

Kerukasa wobbled again, which Gideon took as a 'no'.

Dureena dropped down on one knee. "How much?" she demanded, her right hand reaching for her left sleeve.

Both Max and Gideon surrounded her in an instant. Gideon was between her and Kerukasa, and Max had gently but firmly taken her right arm and pulled it slightly behind her back. It wasn't anything she couldn't get out of, but it did keep her out of reach of her knife. At least one of them.

"Remember what I told you," Max said, raising her arm so her body would follow. Now that they were all standing, Gideon and Max shuffled away from Kerukasa, Dureena sandwiched in between them, looking like a bad comedy skit. When he thought they were out of throwing range, Gideon turned his back on Dureena, praying it wasn't a mistake, and addressed Kerukasa.

"I think we'll be going now," he said. He held up the cage. "Earth thanks you for the gift."

Kerukasa leaned slightly forward and ground out a short phrase. Gideon assumed it was a good-bye and herded the other two out of the courtyard without waiting for a translation.

Back on the Excalibur, both Dureena and Max left the shuttle bay before Gideon could have a chance to talk to them. He decided it was probably best if they both had a little time to themselves, so he walked down to Medlab to hand the noda off to Dr. Chambers. That done, he headed for the bridge.

"Welcome back, Sir," Lt. Matheson said, as he vacated the command chair for Gideon. "Did you find anything useful?"

Gideon settled into his chair, running a quick eye over the readouts. Satisfied with what he saw, he turned to Matheson. "Not sure yet. Dr. Chambers is checking it out right now. Have you ever heard of a Parkinese noda, Lieutenant?"

Matheson paused for a moment. "I believe the Drazi consider them a great delicacy, only to be eaten on a certain holiday that takes place near the end of their year."

Gideon sighed. "Figures. Well, at least it was free."

He turned his chair to face the viewport.

"Take us out of here, Lieutenant," Gideon said, preparing himself for their next stop, a small colony at the edge of Narn space who's local medicine man claimed to be able to heal any sickness by consulting a book of the gods.

"Then we're leaving without the last shuttle?" Matheson asked. Knowing the Captain's personal grudge against leaving anyone behind, he wanted clarification before leaving orbit.

Gideon swung around in surprise. "What shuttle?" he asked slowly, his voice lowering slightly, which was never a good sign.

"The one that left a few minutes after you arrived," Matheson answered, calmly.

Gideon slapped the arms of his chair as he got up.

"Dureena," he said, cursing himself for believing she would give up so easily. "From now on, no one leaves this ship unless I personally authorize it."

"I'll be sure and tell that to Mr. Eilerson when he comes back," Matheson said, waiting for the information to sink in.

Gideon was almost off the bridge before it happened. He stopped. Then he turned around and within three steps was eye to eye with Matheson. "What did you just say?" he asked.

While he knew the Captain was not upset at him personally, Matheson still wished for an extra few inches between them at this point in time. "He returned to the planet just after the first shuttle left. I assumed you knew about it," he answered.

"The day I know what Max Eilerson is thinking is the day I want to be taken out and shot," Gideon said, backing away from the Lieutenant. "Anybody else leave the ship that I should know about?" he asked, exasperatedly.

"Not that I'm aware of, Captain," Matheson replied, wishing he could help, but unable to think of anything that would at this point.

Gideon nodded.

"Good," he said, turning to leave again. "Let's keep it that way. I'm heading down to the planet to pick up one thief and one xenoarchaologist, hold the mustard."

"Be sure and give yourself authorization," Matheson said to Gideon's retreating back, hoping to lighten the Captain's mood just a little.

"Don't quit your day job," the Captain threw back, the tube doors closing behind him.

Matheson smiled, and returned to the command chair.

***

This was the same place, it had to be, Dureena thought to herself as she looked around the empty courtyard. As much as her ears had hurt from the noise when they had first arrived earlier that evening, they now ached with the silence.

Except for a few tufts of fur and a feather or two, there was no evidence of the multitude of cages and animals that had existed here only a few hours ago.

Dureena cursed and stamped her foot in frustration. While she was grateful to the Captain for offering to buy the eren, this just proved to her once again a lesson she had learned early in life. If you want something, you take it, because there are no second chances. The eren was gone, and while the emptiness she felt inside threatened to overwhelm her, she set her mind to the task at hand. Everyone leaves a trail. All she had to do was find the buyer. And then he would be hers.

Max's warning echoed in her mind again, but this time she was alone, and without the burden of the others' lives, she could act without restraint.

"You're so predictable it's pathetic."

It was only the recognition of the voice that stopped Dureena from letting fly a knife, as she turned to face Max Eilerson. Still wary, she kept the knife out.

"What are you doing here?" she asked, surprised by his presence.

"It was such a delightful trip I thought I'd come back and take in some more of the sites," he said, waving his hand in the air casually. "If you must know, I'm here for you."

Dureena lowered her knife. "The captain sent you?" she asked, looking puzzled.

For a moment, Max looked uncomfortable. Before he could answer, though, Dureena spun around at the sound of footsteps approaching her from behind. There, making his way slowly across the courtyard was Waylin. He wore a long black cloak that covered him from shoulder to ankle. In spite of herself, Dureena took a stop back as Waylin passed though a pool of light and stood before them. The right half of his face was terribly burned. He reached up to brush back a wisp of blue hair with an equally scarred hand.

"Ah'm afraid Ah must apologize for my appearance," he said with a throaty laugh that turned into a rough cough. Once he had recovered, he looked at Dureena and his features twisted into a horrible grimace as the muscles of his damaged face tried to smile. From beneath his cloak, he withdrew his left hand.

"Ah believe this is what you are looking for," he said, holding up the eren for Max and Dureena to see. Its terrified eyes darted wildly around as it struggled feebly in Waylin's grip.

Dureena started forward, "If you've hurt him in any way," she threatened.

Waylin quickly stepped backward, out of reach.

"Ah wouldn't dream of hurting this poor creature," he said petting the eren lightly with his right hand. "And while I did not expect you, Ah'm ever so glad you're here to join in the fun," and with that, the fingers of his left hand encircled the eren's neck and his right hand gripped one of its back legs and pulled.

There was a soft crack, and the eren ceased its struggles forever.

"You bastard," Dureena heard Max mutter but her whole world had just died with the eren. One knife was already in the air as she drew another.

"Dureena, no!" Max yelled as he reached out to stop her, his fingers just grazing the braid in her hair as she launched herself at Waylin. Her first knife bounced harmlessly off of Waylin's shoulder, deflected by his cloak. The second grazed his cheek has he moved to the side. Throwing the body of the eren at her, he laughed wildly as he turned and ran across the courtyard. He had just reached a door in the far wall when he fell to his knees with a cry of pain.

As much as she wanted revenge, Dureena had stopped to catch the body of the eren. Sinking to her knees, she lay it gently on the ground. There would be time for Waylin later. Everyone leaves a trail. And then he would be hers.

She heard Max come up beside her, but she didn't care. Kneeling above the dead eren, she knew there were words to be said and actions to be taken, but her mind was blank as she stared at the lifeless body before her.

At Waylin's cry, she looked up with surprise. There was the crack of a whip and blue sparks of electricity shot out like fireworks from the end of the courtyard.

"Kerukasa," Max said, as Dureena noticed what seemed to be a short dark form leaning over Waylin's prone figure. There was another flash of blue and Waylin's body twitched.

Dureena looked up as Max stepped in front of her. As he held out his hand to her, she shook her head.

"Not yet," she said, as she cut away part of her vest. She wrapped the eren in the piece of cloth and began to dig a small grave. In the background, there were a few more sparks and cracks of the whip, but she didn't notice. Waylin had been taken care of, and although a small part of her regretted not having been the one to do so, it faded quickly as she recited the prayers of her childhood in the language of her people. Once the burial was finished, Dureena got to her feet, feeling hundreds of years old. She left the courtyard and made her way to the shuttle without looking back.

Max watched her go without a word. Then he knelt, put his hand lightly on the small grave, and closed his eyes for a moment. There was soft grinding noise off to his right.

"Yes, perhaps I should have told her I was the buyer," Max answered in the same language, slowly rising and brushing the fresh dirt from his hand. "But after our little incident this afternoon, I had my doubts Waylin would still agree to the sale." He looked back at the body at the end of the courtyard. "Damn it's irritating to be right all of the time."

Nodding his farewell, Max left the courtyard.

***

"Captain, about the noda," Dr Chambers said, as Gideon blew past her in the corridor. Despite his need to retrieve Dureena and Max, Gideon slowed down enough to let Chambers join him in the transport tube.

"What is it, Doctor? I'm in a bit of a hurry," he said, taking a seat. Slightly out of breath from running to catch up with him, Chambers dropped into a seat across from him.

"Forget something on the planet?" she asked.

"No, but apparently Dureena did, and Max went to help find it," Gideon answered.

Surprised at the odd pairing, Chambers didn't push the topic. Instead, she passed the captain the group of papers she had been holding. He glanced at them briefly, then looked up at her for an interpretation.

Chambers sighed. Why did she bother writing up all of her research when everyone always looked at her for a verbal explanation anyway?

"I hope you didn't spend too much of Earth's money on that thing, " Chambers said, leaning back in her seat.

"Actually, it was free," Gideon answered.

"Good, because it would have been a poor investment. It's dying. Probably has been for the past fifty to seventy-five years."

Gideon sighed and ran his fingers through his hair. "Is there any chance of it helping with a cure?" he asked, assuming the answer was no.

Chambers surprised him with s shrug. "I don't know. I've found records of nodas living for over seven hundred years, but that is in their native environment. They appears to have a symbiotic relationship with an insect and plant species of their native planet. Any noda separated from these other species dies within a century across the board."

The Doctor paused a moment.

"I'll send it back to Dr. Franklin on Earth with the next Ranger. Given the noda's inheritantly long life span, we may be able to learn something that might retard the symptoms of the plague. But it won't cure it." She gave Gideon a small smile. "Sorry."

He held her gaze for a moment and then nodded. "Thank you, Doctor," he said, as he leaned back and closed his eyes.

He hadn't really held out much hope, but a small part of him was surprised at the amount of disappointment in his gut. And this was just the beginning. Who knows how many false trails they would follow in the coming months or, God forbid, years? And each one would have to be followed to its logical end. He couldn't afford to let any chance of a cure go by, yet his mind ached at the thought of facing failure after failure. But he was the Captain of the Excalibur and with that title came the responsibility of not only his crew, but the millions of lives on Earth that depended upon a cure being found within the next five years.

The transport tube chimed and stopped.

He opened his eyes and stood up. Seeing the look of concern in Chamber's eyes, he gave her shoulder a light squeeze as he walked out of the tube. "Carry on, Doctor," he said. She nodded, as the transport tube door closed and whisked her away.

Preparing to enter the shuttle bay, Gideon stopped to answer the alert from his com bracelet.

"Captain," Matheson's voice said, "I thought you'd like to know that shuttle one is currently docking, and shuttle two has just left the planet's atmosphere."

Gideon smiled, although there was little happiness in the gesture. "So, our runaways have decided to return home," he said.

"Should I confine them to their rooms and cancel their entertainment privileges?" Matheson asked via the com link.

Gideon smiled again, and this time it was in the truest sense of the word. "Thank you, Lieutenant," he answered, "but I don't think that will be necessary. Please make a note that they are not allowed any dessert for the next month."

On the bridge, Matheson nodded to himself at the change in the Captain's tone of voice. While it wasn't in the job description, lightening the Captain's moods was an integral part of his position on the ship as he defined it.

"So noted," Matheson said, as he broke the connection.

***

All of the words Gideon had prepared in his mind were suddenly irrelevant as the shuttle bay door opened to reveal Dureena. She strode past him as if he wasn't even there, her vest torn, her hands covered in what looked like blood and dirt, her eyes red as if she had been crying.

He grabbed her arm and then released it just as quickly when she spun around, knife in hand.

"Dureena," he started, but she cut him off with a wave of the knife.

"Just, just stay back," she said, her voice strained. She turned away and continued down the hall, leaving Gideon alone with his confusion.

Beside him, the docking bay door opened again, this time presenting Max Eilerson. Seeing the Captain stare at the retreating form of Dureena, Max tried to slip behind him, but instead found himself face to face with Gideon.

"What the hell happened down there?" he asked Max, clearly unhappy with whatever conversation he had just had with the thief.

Max stared at him a moment.

"Some people are more cruel that you can imagine," he finally answered.

Seeing that he wasn't going to get anymore of an explanation, Gideon stood aside and let Max walk past him. Thumbing his com bracelet, he made a connection to the bridge. "Get us away from this place," he told Matheson, as he wearily made his way back to the transport tube.

***

As much as she would have liked to exercise herself into oblivion, Dureena had stopped before that point and now slowly made her way back to her cabin from the gym. She hoped by making her muscles as tired as her mind, she might be able to get some sleep. Wiping the small towel that hung from around her neck across her brow, she entered her dimly lit cabin. And froze.

Someone had been in here while she was gone.

A quick survey of the room didn't show any obvious signs of intrusion, but she could feel it, and she had learned long ago to trust her feelings over any other evidence her other senses might provide.

And right now, she felt alone. Whoever had been here was no longer present. Which didn't mean they hadn't left a nasty little surprise behind, she thought, as she carefully moved across the room, verifying the identity of every object she passed. She had almost crossed the room before she stopped herself.

What was she thinking? She was on a ship in the middle of vaguely chartered space. The only people here were those who wanted to be. Well, with the possible exception of Max, although despite his ego, he did have his useful moments. And while there were a few who had not welcomed her presence with open arms, once Gideon had vouched for her, she doubted that were any among the crew that would want to harm her.

Dureena sighed, sinking into a low chair. It had been an incredibly long and painful day, and she just wasn't thinking straight. Tomorrow she would wake up and it will have all been as a bad dream. Suddenly immensely tired, she dropped the towel over her face and sunk back into the chair, her arms hanging over the sides, fingertips touching the floor.

She had almost drifted off to sleep when something small and furry landed on her chest.

With a cry of surprise, she threw it away from herself, and jumped behind the chair, knife in hand. Slightly disorientated, it took her minute to focus on where she was, and to try and understand what had happened.

She peered over the chair. From across the room, clinging to one of her wall hangings, a pair of green eyes gazed back at her. Then the clips supporting the drape gave way under the unaccustomed weight, and with a plaintive little cry, the green eyes slid down the wall and landed with a light thud in the corner. There was the sound of a fierce amount of thrashing as whatever it was tried to free itself from the netting. Then silence.

And then Dureena heard a sound that instantly brought tears to her eyes. It was the low, long wail of an eren in trouble. Her family's eren had made such a sound at least once a day when it was a kitten and had gotten itself into some kind of trouble too big for it to get out of again on its own. Dureena and her sisters had taken turns rescuing it from the most amazing places around the house.

Unsure if she was dreaming, Dureena cautiously walked over to the wailing corner and used her knife to cut through the netting. After removing two layers, she uncovered a small, catlike mammal. As soon as its head was clear, it stopped crying and looked up at her. It blinked its green eyes, and tried to raise a paw to bat at her knife, but it was still too entangled in the drape.

Crying freely now, Dureena quickly cut away the rest of the wall hanging. Now completely unhindered, it shook itself from head to toe, yawning. Dureena held out her hand. The eren leaned forward to sniff her fingertip, then jumped into her palm. Lifting her hand, she brought the eren to the level of her face. Its fur was a shiny, healthy black, except for a tiny white tuft at the end of its long tail. Small enough to easily fit in her hand, she guessed it couldn't have been more than a year or two old. It blinked at her, and then thrust its head forward to rub against her cheek.

She closed her eyes, praying that it wasn't a dream, that somehow, from somewhere, an eren had come to be with her. On her planet, every family had an eren, and when that eren died, another eren would find its way to the family. They were a special link within her culture.

She had been through so many emotions today, from learning of the death of one of her people, to finding an eren when she had never imaged one could have survived, to losing it before her eyes, to having one land on her chest in her very own cabin. And while she still believed and at times practiced the rituals of her people, her rational mind knew that there was a more logical explanation of how this eren came to be here on the Excalibur other then the mythology of a dead race.

Thinking of the ship brought her captain to mind. Gideon had offered to buy the sick eren from Kerukasa. Maybe he had worked out some other kind of deal. Maybe that is what he had wanted to tell her when she had drawn her knife on him outside the shuttle bay.

Remembering that brought a groan to her lips. While she wasn't exactly on bad terms with the man, she was quite sure it was not good practice to threaten the captain of an Earth Force ship. Holding the eren tightly, she slowly stood up.

Not sure what to do with it, but not wanting to let it out of her sight, Dureena was about to drop it into an empty box when it wriggled out of her grasp and clawed its way onto her shoulder. Kneading its claws into her vest, it got a good grip and lay down, apparently for a nap. Out of the corner of her eye, Dureena saw it yawn, lay its head on its forepaws, and close its eyes.

For the first time that day, Dureena smiled. Then she sighed. Although she doubted she would be put in the brig for her previous behavior, an apology would probably be a good place to start. And after the apology, she could thank Gideon for the eren - the second most impactful act of kindness that anyone had ever shown her.

She left her quarters and headed for the bridge. Walking through the ship's corridors, she felt an immense sense of peace for the first time in many months. The slight weight on her right shoulder and the gently purr in her ear reaffirmed the concept that the eren was real and not a figment of her overworked mind. She was about to enter the transport tube, when she paused and looked back down the corridor. Max Eilerson's quarters were there, off to the right.

The transport tube doors chimed insistently, and she stepped away, letting them close behind her as she walked back down the hallway. Before she could stop herself, Dureena thumbed the alert.

"If you must," came the answer, as the door slid back to reveal Max's quarters.

Max looked up from his paperwork as Dureena entered. Sighing, he removed his reading glasses and turned to face her.

"Does the Captain need more handholding or do you have the mistaken impression that I like your company?" he asked, idling twirling his glasses in one hand.

Dureena sighed inside. She knew this wasn't going to be easy, yet she hadn't fully realized how difficult Max could make a situation. It had been a random thought as she had gazed down the corridor, that she should thank Max for coming down to the planet to look for her, even if it was on the Captain's orders. Then she had suddenly found herself ringing the door chime, then standing here before his desk

She opened her mouth to speak, but was cut off as the eren launched itself from her shoulder with a joyful yowl and landed lightly in Max's lap. It quickly made its way to the top of his head where it curled up into a tiny black ball, its long tail hanging down between Max's eyes. It was the most ridiculous thing she had ever seen; Max Eilerson with an eren on his head. She couldn't help it, she laughed.

Max rolled his eyes which only made her laugh harder. The more he tried to look dignified, the harder she laughed until she almost couldn't breathe. Working her way over to the desk, she gently picked the eren up and cradled it in her hands. It opened one sleepy eye, found nothing of interest, and closed it again.

"I'm sorry, Max," she managed to say, "I don't know what got into him."

Max stood and placed one hand lightly on the eren's head, using his fingers to scratch behind its ears in a familiar motion. Seeing the affection in Max's eyes, Dureena made the connection.

"You," she said. "You're the one who left it in my quarters."

Max suddenly withdrew his hand, as if he had let too much show. Sitting back down in his chair, he crossed his arms in front of him, distancing himself from Dureena and the eren.

"IPX recently started a biodiversity division. Their purpose is to study any flora or fauna that expeditions come across and evaluate their potential worth." He nodded at the eren. "That turned up on a reconnaissance by your planet after the Drakh had been there. As you know, there wasn't much left alive down there, but somehow, it survived. Being the last of its species, its intrinsic worth has dramatically increased."

Dureena was aware Max was talking, but the words had faded into the background. Of course, she thought to herself, this would be about profit. Gods knew if Max Eilerson ever did anything out of the goodness of his heart, if he even had one.

"Since you are one of the few still around who know anything about this animal, IPX has generously agreed to release it into your custody for a limited time," Max continued.

Dureena carefully positioned the eren up on her shoulder again, to free both of her hands, her feet shifting as she slightly widened her stance. No one was going to take this eren from her, not again. It was a part of her world that she never imagined existed, and having found it, she'd be damned if she was going to give it up, least of all to Max and IPX.

"No," she said, ready to fight, then and there.

Max paused, an annoyed look on his face. "No wonder you're a thief; you have the business acumen of a rock. And a rock has the potential to be a diamond, or at the very least, a nice piece of quartz."

He leaned forward to be sure he had her attention.

"In any deal, there are conditions and understandings," he continued. "IPX entrusts you with this creature on the condition you will return it when it reaches sexual maturity so that tests can be done to determine if it can be cross-bred with other species."

Dureena felt sick thinking of what such tests might entail.

"The understanding is that since you are the most familiar with this species, you will determine when it needs to be returned." Max stopped speaking, looking straight into her eyes.

"Do I make myself clear?"

She took a deep breath, trying to be sure she had heard him correctly. It was up to her to give the eren back.

"So if, in my expert opinion, this eren is not fit for breeding," she began.

Max shrugged, leaning back in his chair.

"Then since there are no second opinions available, some investors back home are going to be very disappointed," he said, confirming her wish.

Dureena relaxed, feeling the tension drain away.

"And you're okay with this?" she asked.

Max's eyes shifted slightly to the left as he looked at the eren perched on her shoulder. It opened an eye and yawned, its tiny pink tongue stretching out between tiny sharp teeth. The side of Max's mouth twitched as he tried unsuccessfully to contain a smile.

"To me, this is a profitable deal," he said, looking at Dureena once again for a moment. Then he slipped on his reading glasses and turned back to his desk.

"Any other conditions I should be aware of?" she asked, still trying to wrap her mind around the situation.

"Yes," Max answered, and despite herself, Dureena felt her stomach twist into a small knot of fear. "His name is Neko-san, and he prefers coffee to milk."

Dureena dropped her head so that the smile that twisted her lips was hidden from Max's view by her hair. She felt the eren, Neko-san, rub his face against her cheek, the beginnings of a purr building softly in his throat. Some things are only profitable if you find the right person, she thought to herself, letting Max's words resurface in her mind. Then she raised her head, as serious an expression on her face as she could muster.

"I'll remember that, " she said.

"See that you do," he answered, peering at her over the top of his reading glasses, his expression deadly serious. Then he dismissed her with a wave of his hand, returning to study the paperwork in front of him.

Dureena walked down the ship's corridor, a smile on her face, and Neko-san's long tail swaying gracefully down her back.


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