Sixteen years earlier…
Saber brushed out his silky fur after finishing his shower. The rest of his Fast Interceptor squadron was doing the same. Most of them where joking around or talking about their just completed training mission. He wasn't. As always he brushed out his fur so it would be dry before he had to put his skinsuit back on. Special care was given to the metal IV and telemetry jacks embedded in his skin, lest something get inside and cause an infection. A squeal from behind startled him. A glance revealed the noise to be from one of the new female trainees. One of the older male members of the squadron was pulling on her tail. Saber ignored the laughter. He had enjoyed the games the other pilots played long ago, before his mate died. The loss of his mate left a deep telepathic wound in his mind. Now he barely felt anything, the games had no appeal. Flying was the only thing he had left. When he joined telepathically with a starfighter's computer he came alive again. Nothing else mattered when he could hear that other voice in his mind.
He moved towards the pilot's locker room to finish drying off his fur. There was evaluations waiting to be filled out. He enjoyed paper work. The dull repeative typing was calming after having to deal with high energy pilots. It was worse with new recruits aboard. He reached up into his locker, once more grumbling about the lockers being made human sized. A large Meelek standing on two legs barely reached a meter and a half, the size of a short human. At least someone had gotten rid of the one size fits all nonsense. For all it's flaws, the Orlan Navy had excellent tailoring.
"Do you have a moment, sir?", a soft voice questioned.
Saber turned to see his executive officer, Quincy, who happened to be throughly soaked. It was probably the result of some prank or trainee hazing that backfired. The current batch of newbies seemed to be rather inventive.
"I have a moment, did you wish to speak privately?"
The other Meelek shook his head. "No, I was just going to offer to handle the paperwork for you."
Saber stopped trying to open his locker and looked at the XO. "For what reason?"
"To be frank sir, you need to take some shore leave."
"I'm fine. I don't need shore leave. Why don't you go?"
Quincy glanced back at the rest of the squadron which happened to be very intent at cleaning and drying their fur. "You don't want me to say this here, sir."
Saber scowled. He didn't like being cornered by his exec nor did he really care to be a squadron leader. "Quincy, you brought it up here, can finish it here."
His exec did something unexpected and walked to the door to the hangar bay and opened it. Saber held his tongue and walked through the open door. There had better be a damn good reason for Quincy to be acting like this. Nothing he could thought of would be reason enough.
As the door closed Quincy spoke softly and evenly despite standing naked, wet and shivering in the cold, open expanse of the hangar bay. "Saber. I'm your XO. I've noticed how distant you are from the new recruits. It's been getting worse for the last ten years. Ever since your mate died you've been pushing everyone away. It's time to get over it or quit. You're not any use as a squadron leader like this."
Saber hissed and his claws popped out of their sheaths. Quincy just kept speaking.
"You can't inspire anyone. Whether it's because you are so wrapped up in your own loss or something else I don't care. You are only going to get these pilots killed! Half Penny, the small black and orange girl we just got if you can remember her. She sees it more clearly than I do." Quincy scowled and hit Saber in the chest with an open paw. "She talked to me!"
Saber took a step back. For the first time in many years he felt ashamed.
"Do you get that? Half Penny talked to me. She's barely old enough to be out here and she's too young as it is. As I see I can give you a chance to fix this before I have to talk to the captain. I doubt it's going to do much good but I care enough about to to give you a chance."
"I'll take the chance you'll give me," Saber said softly. He hadn't had anytime off in ten years. He didn't know what he would do. He would have to figure something out.
Quincy sighed in relief, "Red Duran is talking the rest of the squadron down to the planet in a few hours. Try to enjoy yourself. Don't worry about the rules. You can get away with breaking a few. I'll handle things up here." A grin appeared on his face. "I'll have Half Penny 'brief' you on your 'mission' before you leave."
* * * * *
Half Penny walked down corridor A, looking for the cabin number that Red Duran had given her. Duran had said a fellow Meelek on the crew had decided to join the ship's fighter pilots on touring the city of Del'Nair on the planet below. Most of the touring would be in bars, nightclubs and various other types of establishments that didn't yet exist in the Orlan Empire. Half Penny was looking forward to personally leading this other Meelek around the seedier districts. She didn't get to play tour guide often, being barely past what was considered the age of consent (27 years old). As she walked further down the corridor she realize that she was in officer country. Silently she cursed Duron and his practical jokes. She stood straight and held her breath as she pressed the call button on the correct cabin. A shock ran through her as Saber appeared in the open door.
"Gyre Half Penny, sir. I'm here to, um, inform you about the shore leave tonight, sir." She felt blood rush to her face. If she was human she would have been blushing furiously as a red dawn.
Saber nodded. "Quincy said you would be along. Since we are leaving in less than an hour I think we should stop by the tailor's office and procure some proper clothing."
Half Penny stood with her jaw gaping for half a second and then promptly started heading to one of the eight lift tubes. So the squadron's exec had said something, these was going to be interesting. She would pick up her clothing later. Like the most of the Meeleks on board she didn't wear clothing when off duty. Saber was unusual in wearing his skinsuit all the time.
"There isn't a need to hurry Gyre," Saber said evenly when they approached the lift tube..
"Oh, of, of course," Half Penny managed to stammer out. She waited for Saber to enter the lift before risking talking. "I had planned to personally guide you around but Paxon Duron neglected to mention who you were."
"That would be fine. I haven't been on any planets leave out of the Empire before."
She clamped down on her anxiety by using a few exercises she learned in her telepathy classes, the practical classes, not theory. She touched the steel coin that hung on a light chain around her neck. There would be no turning back. After overhearing Quicy's conversation with Saber there could be no turning back. She took as deep as a breath as she would dare.
* * * * *
Half Penny walked onto the hangar deck, light flashing off the shiny blue scales of a modified combat skinsuit. The many tiny scales cover every inch of her body and clung tightly. She looked more like a reptilian predator than a Meelek. Even her eyes had large scales over them. The suit was both functional as armor and as clothing. On closer inspection each scale of superdense composites had a glyph etched on it. There was no smell of metal or lubricating oils. The scales slid smoothly and soundlessly over each other, so smooth as to never need oil or repair. Saber followed her wearing a similar looking suit which had mere hardened metal scales without adornment. His newly created clothing was just for show and probably just for tonight. Half Penny had had her suit for nearly three years. Only a trained eye and knowing which details to look for would reveal the difference. They boarded the shuttle, with Saber determining that he might as well try to have a good time.
Upon landing in Del'Nair, Half Penny lead Saber to a squat building with a small line of people waiting to get in. Green neon lights on the front declared: "All Species, All Kinds, Welcome Yourselves". The people in line wore various costumes. One, a human, wore only a sparse amount of leather and a generous amount of chains and piercings. The blaring klaxons coming from inside stirred excitement in Half Penny. She only hoped that Saber would at least tolerant the music. Two slim green money vouchers got Half Penny and Saber in the door with little fuss. The bouncer slipped Half Penny two small rods along with a single blue voucher worth about a third of the value of a green one.
"They don't like Meeleks here much. I had to pay more, " Half Penny shouted into Saber's ear over the music.
The nightclub was laid out with a sunken large central dance floor surrounded by cage like bars. Chains looped from the ceiling holding lights, speakers, and fog generating spheres seeming at random. The dance floor was in a constant haze. Outside the metal bars was many small tables, further out was doors to small rooms at a glance looked to simply hold a bed or table. Four metal stairs lead to a mesh floored balcony that circled the center. Half Penny look at Saber with as much of a grin she could project through her skinsuit. Saber's ears merely pulled back. He was probably wincing at the shriek from the band playing in the center of the nightclub.
Half Penny motioned for him to sit at one of the small tables. She went to get drinks from one of the bars. The selection of various alcoholic, narcotic, and hallucinogenic beverages was far greater than she had encountered before. It took four attempts to get the bartender to understand that she wanted something that was only alcoholic. It was probably because she was talking in percentages of alcohol rather than whatever measurement they used. Or it could have than that she had to literally crawl up a chair to reach the bar. She handed over her blue voucher in return for a pair of long, thin tubes with clear liquid. A quick sniff allowed the sensors in her suit to check the contents which proved to be nearly pure ethyl alcohol.
All of the sound in the nightclub faded for a second, caused by an active sound damper. Then the sound of a gong accompanied with shrieks and deep guttural growls assaulted her ears. The peroids of sudden silence and mix of ancient instruments, animal shrieks, and rumbling growls was characteristic of this particular band. While she enjoyed it, Saber would most definitely not. Half penny took the two rods the bouncer give her and dropped one into each glass. The rods were enzyme-coated cocaine. Upon contact with alcohol the rods would dissolve and produce a more potent chemical. Meeleks, unlike most other species, could metabolize alcohol directly so it was impossible to for Saber and her to get drunk. Cocaine, however, was not so safe. The chemical in the glasses that she carried to the table was a powerful stimulant to the telepathic regions of the Meelek brain. The side effects of long term use were dangerous and usually lethal. She handed one glass to Saber and they both took a sip. Half Penny let the liquid pool on her tongue. Her mouth slowly grew numb. She felt more in control and aware. It was the exact same feelings she got when using some of the performance boosting drugs that Fast Interceptor medical packs had for emergencies.
Saber glared from across the table. He was starting to feel it too. Half Penny felt worry begin to eat at her confidence. Hadn't she determined there was no going back? Memories from her kittenhood floated to the front of her mind, the words of Rachel, one of her teachers.
"We cannot be responsible for how we die. We cannot be responsible for what life gives us. We can only be responsible for how we live. We can only change ourselves and hope that others chance with us."
Half Penny opened her eyes unaware that she had closed them. Saber was still glaring at her. She inhaled deeply. We can only be responsible for how we live. She opened her telepathic senses and located Saber. His tightly constructed defenses had crumbled from the effect of the drugs she pushed her words to him gently. No point in losing her voice shouting and risk being overheard. Responsible for how we live. "You feel vulnerable but I won't take further advantage of you. I only wish to talk for now. Will you listen to what I have to say?"
A defeated reply reached her. He would listen. He would listen because he didn't believe he would have another choice. It would not be easy.
Half Penny spoke quietly but not softly across their telepathic connection. "We are hunters of the truth. Followers of a Way that has been lost. We are twelve. We are to be thirteen."
The unspoken question hung in the air as the music faded to silence. Half Penny could not ask. Not after what she had done. She closed her eyes.
"We are not responsible for how we die or what life gives us. We can only be responsible for how we live. We are to be thirteen. We are asking you, Saber, to join us in our search for truth."