Starbird by Kerry McCommon

Starbird
by Kerry McCommon

Summary: In this sequel to Tango, Kay has rejoined the Federation during a time of crisis.

 

 

Part 1

 

Kay Lazarus walked briskly down the corridor of the officer’s wing toward her own quarters. Pausing at the door for a retinal scan that allowed the computer to open the door on a voice command, she tugged at the uniform that still felt new to her. She glanced around the room and liked what she saw. The bunk was neatly made and everything else was stowed away and shipshape. She had very little that was personal in her quarters other than a few old fashioned hard copy books on a small shelf next to her bed. They included a book of mythology, a couple of archaeology tomes, a slender volume of poetry, and an old Chinese text of weapons and warfare. Nothing of much interest to a casual reader, but Lazarus had thumbed through them so many times they felt like old friends.

She tugged at the uniform top again and tugged it loose from her breeches in an attempt to make it fit more comfortably. The door chime announced a visitor and she called “Come in,” without looking up from the problematic shirt.

“Hi.” Kay glanced up and again caught her breath at the beauty that stood in her doorway. Lt. Carter Laughlin leaned against the door obviously amused, watching her struggle. Her sea green eyes were framed by wheat colored hair. Her nose crinkled in the most adorable way when she smiled. “Oh good. You’re getting undressed,” she teased Kay.

“Ha,” Kay couldn’t help but smile at Carter. “No, I’m trying to figure out why this uniform is so uncomfortable. I’ve become so accustomed to wearing coveralls that it doesn’t feel right anymore.”

“Well, I think it’s sexy,” Carter walked over to her and started to unbutton the blouse for Kay. She reached up to the taller woman and planted a light kiss on Kay’s lips. She found herself getting caught in Kay’s sky blue eyes and the light kiss turned into a deeper more sensual kiss that seriously threatened Carter’s equilibrium. “You were taking this off, weren’t you?” she murmured.

“No,” Kay smiled at her. “You know I’m on duty. I’m just taking a break to try to fix this uniform. It’s been driving me crazy.” At nearly six feet tall, with long, dark hair and ice blue eyes, Kay was simply striking. Generally oblivious to the effect she had on both men and women, she was keenly aware of the effect she had on Carter.

“Why don’t you get a man’s shirt?” Carter asked. “At least until you can have some made. Women’s shirts are cut too short for you.” She ran her hands down the front of Kay’s ill fitting garment as she spoke.

“I can’t believe I’m back in uniform at all,” Kay spoke with wonder in her tone. Having been forced to resign from the Federation a few years back on a trumped up charge, she had distinctly mixed feelings about returning to the service again. Her return had happened so quickly that she hadn’t had time to sort through the left over emotional baggage. She never would have agreed to return to the service it wasn’t for two things. First, the ongoing conflict with the Ultharians that emphasized the deep space station’s dire need of a fighter pilot leader. And second, and most important, Carter Laughlin.

Carter Laughlin had turned Kay Lazarus’s world upside down. Lazarus had always been a loner, at least emotionally. Then a few short weeks ago she had met the small lieutenant and in a blinding flash her days of solitude were over. She had been instantly smitten with the woman and despite her half-hearted attempts to resist the temptation, she had fallen quickly and deeply in love. Their connection was unlike anything she had ever dreamed possible. She had been resigned to the idea that she was not meant for love. At thirty-two she had certainly had her share of lovers, both male and female, and had even lived with a couple of them for a while, but she had never been in love. Lucky in cards, unlucky in love. It just wasn’t meant to be.

But it was. It had just taken its sweet time getting there, that’s all. And it had come in the form of a young career officer in the Federation. A kind of short, really cute officer whose nose crinkled when she smiled and who had a voracious appetite and a disconcerting habit of knowing Kay better than she knew herself sometimes. And who also had a way of making Kay face up to feelings that were not always comfortable.

“It’s a good look for you,” Carter told her, gently tugging on Kay’s blouse. “You’ll get used to it again. You just haven’t settled down yet.”

Kay nodded. Her journey back to the space station where she had been stationed several years before had been an eventful one. There was the thrilling shock of falling in love. Then the shock of discovering that someone she thought was a friend was not, and the added discovery that someone she thought was an enemy… well, that one remained to be seen. All in all, it was unsettling. And then to find herself back in a major’s uniform again, however ill fitting, was another surprise. Change had been the only constant in her life since her return to Deep Space Station Zebra.

“It’s a temporary assignment,” she reminded Carter, who needed no reminder. “Just until the crisis is past.” Her expression softened as she gazed on Carter. “At least it allows me time to stay here with you. That’s all I really care about.”

Carter searched Kay’s face intently. Her own current assignment was only scheduled to last a few more weeks and then she either had to reup for four more years or resign. Two months ago she would not have given it any thought. She was on a career fast track that had served her well. A chief communications officer on the bridge at the relatively tender age of twenty-seven was almost unheard of, but Carter was confident of her ability and proud of her progress. Now, everything was different. She was in love.

“Kay,” she began tentatively, unsure of how to approach the subject of their future together. “We need to talk about what we want to do…I have a decision to make soon.” Her color rose and she looked down at her feet. Forcing herself to go ahead with the subject that was constantly on her mind she said, “I need to know what you want from me, what you expect from us.” She could feel her cheeks burning.

Kay Lazarus looked at the woman who had become more precious to her than anything she had ever known and felt torn. Yes, she was crazy about this cute, funny, intelligent young woman, but could she ask her to throw everything she had worked for away at the drop of a hat? The Academy was a tough and grueling four years that Carter had admittedly worked for from an early age. She had an impressive resume already. If Lazarus’s comeback was truly temporary, then how could she ask Carter to walk away from her lifelong dream to run cargo in deep space with her? It didn’t seem fair.

Carter’s blush deepened as Kay hesitated. “Listen, nevermind. This is a bad time,” Carter suddenly felt the blood draining from her face. “I have to get back to the bridge.” She turned from Kay and started for the door, profoundly shocked that Kay had hesitated. Apparently her feelings were not on an equal plane with her lover’s. She was also deeply embarrassed that she felt tears beginning to well in her eyes despite her vehement orders to herself not to cry.

“Carter, wait a minute,” Kay called out to the retreating figure. “Wait! You misunderstood.” She appealed in vain to Carter’s back as she disappeared through the automatic door. “Shit.” She buttoned her shirt back up and hurried to the door only to see Carter turn the corner at the end of the corridor. “Damn.” She was only on a twenty minute break and had pilots waiting in the ready room for her to return for the afternoon’s recon flight schedule. Her sense of duty pulled sharply at her, but the distress she felt at causing Carter pain was almost overwhelming. Making her mind up, she sprinted in the direction that Carter had gone.

Turning the corner, she spotted Carter disappearing into her own quarters rather than heading back to the bridge. Kay trotted up to her door and tapped lightly. “Carter?” She listened but didn’t hear anything. “Carter, please don’t make me stand out here and talk to you. Open up, honey,” she spoke softly through the door.

“Come in.” Kay barely heard Carter say as the door slid open. She walked into Carter’s quarters to find the younger woman with her back to her. Kay’s guilt over causing the woman she loved pain was almost more than she could bear. She walked softly to Carter and placed her hands on her shoulders.

“Sweetheart, I’m sorry. You misunderstood my hesitation,” Kay spoke softly to Carter who still faced away from her. “Let me just tell you that I want to be with you more than I want anything else in the world. I want to spend my life with you. I just didn’t want to say what I wanted at the expense of what you wanted and have worked for so long. I…” Words failed her.

Carter wiped her eyes and turned to Kay. “It’s okay. We’ll talk later. We both have work to do now.” She visibly drew herself up.

Kay’s heart was breaking. “Carter, I would never do or say anything intentionally to hurt you. You know that, don’t you?” She tentatively reached out to hold Carter who at least didn’t resist. She was rewarded with a wan smile.

“I’ll talk to you after my shift is over,” Carter avoided answering. “I really need to get back.” She pulled her hand from Kay’s and reached up and kissed her lightly on the cheek. “See you later.”

“Okay,” Lazarus’s worried eyes followed Carter out the door. “Way to go, Lazarus,” she muttered to herself as she forced herself to head back to work.

*

The rest of day crept by for Lazarus. She was edgy and short with the pilots who seemed to take her moodiness in stride. Nkwanda Johnson, her second in command among the pilots, looked at her askance once or twice but decided to say nothing until the training runs were at an end. After docking the fighters back in the station, Lt. Johnson sauntered over to Kay. “Everything okay, Major?”

“Oh yeah, fine,” Kay responded. Realizing how she sounded, she forced a small smile to her face. “Sorry, Lieutenant. It’s a personal problem. I’ll shake it off by tomorrow.”

Nkwanda hesitated for a moment then plunged ahead. “Want to go have a drink? I’ll buy.”

Kay shook her head, then abruptly changed her mind. “Yeah. That sounds like a good idea.”

“Great!” Nkwanda was a little surprised at her squad leader’s acceptance. Kay Lazarus was not known for socializing other than her well known association with the chief communications officer, Lt. Laughlin. On DSSZebra, gossip was one of the main forms of entertainment no matter how hard one attempted to avoid it. Stories about personnel may as well have been uploaded into the mainframe they circulated so quickly, and when it involved someone as intriguing as either Lazarus or Laughlin it made the rounds at lightning speed. The news that they were a couple sent waves of either envy or disappointment through the ranks. But everyone agreed that the well-liked lieutenant had seemed radiant lately, and Major Lazarus had failed to live up to her reputation as a major hardass.

The two women strolled down the corridors to the main concourse where most of the station’s legitimate business occurred. “This okay?” Nkwanda gestured toward a small bistro.

“Sure,” Lazarus replied, obviously not really caring. Her moroseness had returned despite her earlier attempt to shake it off. Regretting her decision to come to the bar, she nevertheless followed the lieutenant to a small table set in a corner. Nkwanda slid her Personal Information Chip into the slot provided and a holo menu popped up. She informed the holo that she would like a particular Indonesian microbrew, then looked questioningly at Lazarus.

“Uh, the same, I guess,” Kay said, absolutely clueless about what she had just ordered.

Nkwanda smiled and placed the order. “Not much of a drinker, huh?”

“Not really,” Lazarus admitted. “I like being in control too much. When I was younger I drank occasionally but it rarely seemed worth the price I paid.”

“I promise to cut you off before it gets that far,” Nkwanda grinned. “Big adjustment being back on the station, isn’t it?” A server bot brought their drinks, a dark foamy brew Lazarus looked at skeptically.

“You know everything that’s happened to me since I’ve been back. Some of it’s been exceptionally awful, and some of it’s been…well, really great,” Kay said, taking a small sip of her drink. “Hey, that’s not too bad.”

Nkwanda nodded, sipping her own drink. “Yeah, I like a beer occasionally.” She slowly twirled the glass on the table. “It’s been rough for you, I know.” She tried to bring the conversation back to Kay.

“It was hard finding out about Lyra. I thought he was my friend. And it was a hard decision to come back even on a temporary basis after I was forced to resign,” Kay said. Nkwanda listened, aware that Kay Lazarus opening up any of her private life was a rare opportunity. “And then there’s Carter.”

Uh oh, thought Nkwanda, keeping her expression neutral. Trouble in paradise. “Carter’s a good person,” she offered.

Lazarus’s entire countenance changed as a slow smile stole onto her face. “Yes, she is,” she replied. “I love her.”

Nkwanda mentally reached up and shut her jaw which she was sure was hanging open. “That’s great, Major. So what’s wrong?” she asked gently.

“Please call me Lazarus or Kay when we’re off duty,” Lazarus told her. “And nothing and everything is wrong.”

Nkwanda was sure that this was a day of firsts where Kay Lazarus was concerned. First, she was socializing. Second, she said out loud she was in love. Third, she had a first name. Who knew? Aware of the honor bestowed on her, she watched and waited to see if Kay would continue.

“Nothing is wrong with Carter and me other than bad timing. When I first got here, I was hauling cargo and I was only going to be here long enough for upgrades to be installed and to have my supplies restocked. Then we met,” the loopy smile crept over her face once again and Nkwanda took a sip of her drink to hide her own smile. “And everything changed. The Ultharian attack on Gamma colony, the attack on the station, me being assigned as a civilian to the fighter squad. My name being cleared,” Kay frowned. “So here I am, temporarily back on duty until they decide to keep me or I decide to leave.”

“So what’s the problem?”

“Carter’s four years here are up soon. My future is undecided. She wants to know where I stand. I don’t want her to throw her career away, she’s worked so hard, but I don’t want to lose her either.” The pain of this thought was sudden and excruciating. “I just don’t know what to do,” Kay ended sounding more deflated than when she started.

“What does Carter think?” Nkwanda asked sensibly.

Lazarus looked at her. “I don’t really know.” Nkwanda continued to look at her as if she were a recalcitrant child refusing to learn a lesson. “I guess I should ask her, huh?”

“I guess you should,” Nkwanda replied with a twinkle. “You don’t really like that beer. Leave it with me and go talk to your woman.”

Lazarus laughed for the first time that day. “Thanks, Nkwanda.”

“You’re welcome, Kay,” Nkwanda replied sweetly.

*

Carter sighed as she left the comm station on the bridge that afternoon. Ever since she had inadvertently gotten on the wrong side of Major Joan Warren, the Executive Officer, Carter had not exactly avoided her but had not purposefully sought her out either. Today her XO had been in charge on the bridge while the CO had a rare afternoon off. The XO had not spoken to Carter other than to issue normal commands, but Carter had felt the tension between them all day. Relieved that the day was finally drawing to a close, and still feeling sick at heart about her earlier conversation with Kay, Carter was exhausted. Running her hand through her blond shoulder length hair, she moved wearily to her quarters. Pausing for the retinal scan to allow her entry, she glanced down the corridor toward Kay’s quarters. Disappointed on some level that Kay wasn’t waiting for her, she entered her room and glanced at the terminal. No messages. Shit. This day was getting worse by the minute.

Carter shed her uniform and pulled on a loose pair of trousers and a tunic. She walked to the small replicator and said, “Coffee. Extra cream, extra sugar.” What the hell. Picking up the hot mug, she sipped gingerly at it. Oh, that was good. Nothing lifted the spirits like a good caffeine and sugar infusion. Turning back to her terminal, she said, “Contact Major Lazarus.”

“Major Lazarus is unavailable. Would you like to leave a message?” the neutral voice of the central computer informed her.

“Yes,” Carter responded. A small light on her terminal blinked letting her know that her message was being recorded. “Hi Kay,” she looked at the monitor. “Call me when you get in please. I need to talk to you. See you later.”

She felt bad about their conversation earlier in the day. She worried that she had pushed Kay ahead of where they were in their relationship. The only way that Carter knew to handle the uncomfortable situation was by talking. That was something she was normally good at doing, although there were times when she found herself tongue-tied around a certain blue-eyed major she was rather fond of. She smiled to herself at the thought of Kay Lazarus. No matter what transpired between them, she was sure they could sort through it. If she had to wait forever for Kay to make up her mind, then she’d wait. She’d do what she had to do. Kay was The One.

A light tap on her door brought her out of her reverie. “Come in,” she called and the door slid open. Kay Lazarus paused in the open doorway and looked at Carter cautiously.

“Can I come in?” She asked Carter who melted at the sight of her. Kay had stopped by her own quarters and quickly changed out of her uniform into a deep blue tunic and black trousers. Deciding to bypass the comm system she walked directly to Carter’s quarters. Standing there now with her long dark hair loose on her shoulders, her ice blue eyes reflecting the love she felt, Kay Lazarus was a balm to Carter’s weary spirit. “I should have called you first,” she said.

Instead of answering, Carter walked to Kay and wrapped her arms around the taller woman. Both of them heaved a sigh of relief that the day had come to this. Kay pulled back a little and looked down at Carter. “I’m sorry,” they both said at the same time.

“Me first,” Carter said, putting a finger on Kay’s mouth when she tried to interrupt. Kay bit her lightly, and grinned at her through perfect white teeth. “I mean it,” Carter scolded. “I’ve been unhappy all day. I have to tell you that I didn’t mean to push you earlier. You have every right to take all the time you need with this relationship. Let go of my finger.”

“Sorry,” Kay said, setting free said digit. “I don’t have to think about what I want, Carter. I’ve known from the moment I met you. I guess what I need to know is what do you want? I don’t know why it never occurred to me to just ask.”

“No,” replied Carter. “I don’t know why it never occurred to you either. I’m pretty accessible, I think. I’m also pretty sure my heart is right here on my sleeve in case you’re interested in knowing about it.” She felt a curious mixture of tenderness and annoyance toward her lover. “We have to work on communication skills, Kay. I can get through anything if I know we’re okay, but my whole day is shot if I’m worried about you.”

“Yeah, it was a rotten day,” Kay agreed. She held Carter’s hand as she walked her over to the bed and sat down. “So talk to me. Tell me what you want to do.”

Carter took a deep breath. “I can’t believe I don’t have mixed feelings about this, but I don’t. I just want to be with you, Kay. If you don’t want to stay on Zebra then I’ll resign my commission. If you do want to stay then I have to ask you to make a commitment of at least four years and I’ll reup. I don’t care if we’re hauling garbage as long as I can be with you.”

“But Carter, you’ve worked so hard to get this far. If we choose to leave here you’ll lose it all,” Kay protested the younger woman’s sacrifice.

“Kay, as far as I know, I’ve worked this hard to get here to meet you. You, at the risk of sounding truly sappy, are my destiny,” Carter spoke softly.

‘I hardly know what to say,” murmured Kay, her eyes searching Carter’s face and finding exactly what she wanted.

“That’s the communication thing I want to work on,” Carter lightly teased. “Say what you mean. That’s all I ask.”

“In that case, I love you. I think I’d like to stay on the station if it feels right.” It felt to Lazarus like a terrible risk to say that out loud. “We’ll work this out. I’ll talk to Captain DeForest and find out where my reinstatement stands. I’ll tell him I need to know as soon as possible,” Kay ran her hands down Carter’s back where they settled on her hips. Looking into Carter’s eyes, she felt the now familiar tingle running down to her belly. “Forgive me.”

“Nothing to forgive,” whispered Carter, reaching her lips up to Kay’s.

*

Joan Warren stood in front of the Commanding Officer’s desk giving him the daily reports. A minor skirmish reported by security on the concourse between two merchants, incoming cargo ships, outgoing passenger ships, the usual in other words, were all quickly reported and dismissed.

“The interesting news is still the space anomaly in Sector 12. Astrophysics still thinks it’s a new wormhole forming. Latest is that it’s still too unstable for a probe to get through and back again, but they’re keeping close tabs on it,” Warren informed Captain James DeForest. The formation of a wormhole was gigantic scientific news and the military implications could be equally valuable. Astrophysics had infected the entire station with excitement.

DeForest didn’t bother to contain his glee. “If they’re correct about this we should be swamped with Federation personnel and resources. The Federation will spare no expense for this opportunity.” It was no secret that Deep Space Station Zebra was often shortchanged when it came to the military budget. Out of sight, out of mind, seemed to be their reasoning despite the fact that Zebra was their first line of defense against the Ultharian front. DeForest was distressed at how much of his time went toward battling bureaucracy trying to fight for better funding and more people.

“Yes, sir,” Warren was pleased to see the CO looking a little more relaxed after his day off the bridge. “Will there be anything else, sir?”

“Actually I wanted to talk to you about Lazarus,” DeForest said, watching the XO’s reaction carefully.

“Yes, sir?” Warren never twitched.

“You know I’m trying to petition for her reinstatement,” he continued. “And I wanted to be sure you could work with her, Joan. I know there have been some hard feelings, but we need both of you right now. I don’t need trouble on my senior staff in light of everything else that’s going on.”

“I’ve spoken with Lazarus, Captain,” Warren informed him. “Briefly, but I believe that I’ve taken responsibility for my mistakes and I think we have a starting place. I’ll talk to her again.”

After years of animosity between the two senior officers, DeForest was surprised that Warren seemed so calm, but was pleased by her response. He was not sure what caused their rift to begin with and didn’t want to know. He just wanted peace on his bridge. “I appreciate that,” he allowed his pleasure to show. “See you tomorrow morning.”

“Good night, sir,” Warren exited his office and turned toward her quarters, allowing her composure to relax revealing a face that was a study in unhappiness.

*

Carter untied Kay’s tunic and pushed it back on her shoulders. The tunic was cooperative enough to fall to the floor while Carter ran her hands up Kay’s ribs to her breasts. “I love you,” Carter murmured to Kay. Kay moaned and leaned over to kiss Carter, lightly biting her lower lip. Kay pushed Carter back on the bed and reached her hands inside Carter’s tunic, which she then pulled over Carter’s head and tossed aside. Lying on top of her, her breasts pressed against Carter’s, was as close to heaven as she ever hoped to get. Wondering what she had done to deserve such happiness, they kissed deeply, Kay’s hands running up Carter’s compact body to her breasts. At Carter’s moan, Kay squeezed lightly only to feel Carter’s hips rising to meet her own. Kissing her way down her lover’s body, she unfastened Carter’s trousers and pulled them off. Gazing at the loveliness of the body before her, she was unable to stifle her sharp intake of breath at the sight of Carter drawing her knees up slowly.

“Take your pants off,” Carter demanded in a voice that Kay had quickly learned to love. She complied. Kay kicked her pants to the side and dropped to her knees at the side of the bed. Running her hands lightly up and down her thighs, Kay spread Carter’s knees wider opening her lover up to complete access. Gazing at the sight before her, Kay ran her tongue down the inside of Carter’s leg, nipping lightly at the sensitive skin. Carter’s hips involuntarily rose up at the same time that she moaned, “Now, please.” Unable to torment Carter any longer after this sweet plea, Kay moved her tongue and fingers where Carter really wanted them and delighted in the sounds and movement and smells and taste that issued from this woman who had changed her life.

*

Naked, eating replicated Japanese food in Carter’s small bunk, Carter laughed as Kay once again dropped her bite of synthetic raw tuna from her chopsticks. “I guess I don’t like raw fish,” Kay said, dismayed at both her failure and the mess she was making of Carter’s already wrecked bed.

“It’s not really raw fish,” Carter laughed, knowing Kay knew that as well as she did. “At least you don’t feel like it’s trying to swim upstream after you eat it.” She stretched her foot out and ran it up Kay’s leg, locking eyes with her. God, she loved this woman. Watching Kay’s eyes turn from ice to smoke gave Carter a sense of sexual power that she had never felt before. The idea that this gorgeous woman wanted her to the exclusion of all others was the best aphrodisiac she’s ever had. “You through?” Without waiting for an answer, Carter took the hapless chopsticks from her lover’s hand and somehow managed to move all the food out of the way before she once again appeased her real appetite.

*

Captain James DeForest shuffled through the reports on his desk, reading them but not really taking in the information. His latest communiqué from Command Headquarters on Mars was one more bull-headed, blasted, arrogant message from someone who should have never made it past Officious Clerk, let alone into a position of command. No doubt some pursed lipped tightass who really, really enjoyed being able to tell a space station commander “No.” DeForest took a deep breath and swallowed his anger, forcing his mind to think of nothing. Waiting for the calmness that followed, he sat very still until the entry chime announced a visitor.

“Come in,” he deliberately evened out his tone, dismissing his irritation

“Morning, Captain,” Lazarus entered the room followed closely by the rest of the command staff. They settled around the large conference table that dominated the room. DeForest noticed with amusement that Lazarus never sat in the same seat twice. Whether that was to consciously ruffle feathers or simply beneath her level of thought was the question. He refrained from smiling at the glimpse of annoyance that passed over the Chief Engineer’s face as Lazarus sat unconcerned in his usual seat to the right of the commander’s chair. The Chief Engineer, whose real name was Chester Androlly, was simply known as ‘Chief’. He was a serious man capable of wildly creative thinking where the space station was concerned. The fact that he had been born and reared in the artificial atmosphere of Mars lent an interesting purple cast to his otherwise dark features.

Also present for the command staff meeting were the Executive Officer Joan Warren, the new warrant officer Major Kevlan Dumas, the chief medical officer Michaela Buchanan, and the senior communications officer Carter Laughlin. “A good group,” DeForest thought as he watched them settle around the table. With the exception of Lazarus and Warren, there had been little dissension among his command staff, and hopefully that was behind them now. DeForest settled himself at the head of the table wondering briefly why Lazarus had never taken his chair and how he would react if she did.

“Something funny, sir?” Lazarus asked.

“Uh, no,” he replied. “Let’s get to it. Start us off, Major Dumas.”

New to the station, Kevlan Dumas had been recently promoted to major and had accepted the position of Warrant Officer after the unfortunate incident with John Lyra, the previous security chief. DeForest felt like Dumas was a perfect fit for the job: a man who had had his difficulties but had persisted and knew both sides of the law pretty well. “I’ve been reviewing staff and procedures and have implemented a few changes to the cargo and civilian teams. I introduced myself to the security staff my first day on duty. Told ‘em the first one to pronounce my name ‘dumb ass’ would find out pretty quickly that there are lower positions than ensign.”

The rest of the staff laughed and felt Dumas would blend very nicely into this group. The meeting continued with all senior officers reporting on their own field of expertise. When all were done DeForest turned to the XO and asked, “What’s the news on the anomaly?”

Joan Warren smiled taking years off her normally serious face. “I received pretty exciting news from astrophysics right before the meeting started. The wormhole, and that is what’s forming, has stabilized to the point where we think it’s feasible to send a probe through.” A murmur of excitement arose around the table. “I think at this point it would be wise to send a runabout to the general area and launch the probe from the runabout. Data wouldn’t have as far to travel and it might be nice to have a first hand look at it.”

“Agreed,” DeForest said. “Arrange for the away team to go as soon as possible. We need to know how this will effect us and if the Ultharians will have any military interest in it also.”

“I’ll pick the team today, Captain,” Warren said.

“If that’s all, dismissed,” DeForest said. “Lazarus, if you’d stay for a moment please.”

Carter glanced at Lazarus who shrugged slightly and then smiled. “Later,” Carter mouthed at Kay and headed toward the bridge for the Alpha shift.

Lazarus waited patiently for DeForest to say what he wanted. After what seemed a reasonable amount of time, she cleared her throat quietly. DeForest walked to terminal and said, “Play command message 1463.”

An ensign’s face appeared on the viewscreen. “Captain DeForest, this message is from Commander Northrup. He said to tell you that at this time your request about Major Lazarus is denied pending further investigation.” The young man had the decency to look abashed. “I’m sorry, sir. That’s the end of the message.” His image disappeared.

Lazarus remained impassive. “Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.” She turned to leave the room before her inner turmoil showed itself to the space station captain.

“Wait a minute, Major,” DeForest spoke softly. “I know this is a disappointment but I’ll go over Northrup’s head on this. It’s that important.”

“Sir, I can’t ask you to do that. He’ll make your life miserable, and consequently, that of the entire station. It’s really doesn’t serve the greater good,” Lazarus spoke firmly. “There are people who can perform my job. Lt. Johnson has progressed very nicely over the last few weeks.”

“Sometimes you have to pick your fights, Lazarus,” DeForest said simply. “This is right. A grave injustice was done and I have a chance to rectify it. You’re still on duty. Dismissed, Major.”

“Sir…”

“Dismissed, Major.”

Lazarus met the eyes of a leader who had made his mind up. Recognizing his determination, she saluted and left the Captain’s office, reeling at the repeated rejection of an organization she had wanted to devote her life to at one point. Now what? If it had just involved her, she would have shed her uniform and walked straight back to her ship Tango and have been gone within the hour. But now one very attractive lieutenant complicated her life. Once again she questioned whether it was right to space Carter’s career along with her already trashed career. Maybe she should just leave and save them both the trouble.

*

Part 2

Carter wondered why her lover had been asked to stay behind to speak to the CO after the command staff meeting was over, but soon dismissed the thought from her mind as the Alpha shift began. She greeted Lt. Annie Woo, the Gamma shift communications officer who briefed Carter and then wearily left the bridge. Carter scanned the log for the previous two shifts, looking for anything out of the ordinary. She ran a diagnostics program on the bridge comm center and then performed a visual inspection of the equipment. Lt. Carter Laughlin was an excellent engineer in her own right. She was checking the diagnostics results when the XO walked to her station.

“I want you on the away team to check out the wormhole, Lieutenant,” Joan Warren informed her. “Report to the shuttle bay at 1300 hours. We’ll be out for about three days.”

“Aye, Major,” Carter replied, wincing at the “we” and wondering who else would be on the team. If Lazarus wasn’t included she would miss her badly. Plus she would be trapped on the small runabout for three days with her XO, a woman she had a polite relationship with at best. Probably Lazarus wasn’t included, she thought glumly. Warren was in charge of personnel assignments, and there was no way she would want Lazarus along. Probably another engineer and a science officer would be the extent of the away team. She assumed Warren would pilot the shuttle herself.

At 1200 hours, Carter was excused from duty to prepare for the away mission. She immediately tapped into the nearest terminal. “Contact Major Lazarus.”

Lazarus’s face appeared. “Hi,” she greeted Carter.

“Why are you in your quarters in the middle of your shift?” Carter noted the background and asked, her mind racing in different directions.

“I’m packing,” Lazarus informed her.

Carter’s heart sank. Oh God. She was leaving her. Her reinstatement had been denied and she was leaving her. How could she look so calm when Carter’s world had just shattered into a million pieces? She felt her head swimming and for a moment thought she was going to pass out.

“Are you all right?” Lazarus finally looked concerned.

“Yeah,” Carter managed to croak out, silently demanding that her head stop spinning.

“Carter, if you don’t feel well maybe you should ask Warren to replace you on this away mission. I sure would miss you though,” Lazarus’s voice took on a wistful quality that Carter thought was adorable.

“No, no, I’m good,” Carter said, feeling a new lightheadedness coming on. “You’re assigned to the away team?” She was mentally giving herself a swift kick for leaping to stupid conclusions. Of course Kay wouldn’t just leave her.

“Sure,” Lazarus grinned at her. “They need a pilot and I’m the best they’ve got.”

“Are you sure that you’ll be able to fit your head in through the hatch?” Carter was feeling much better.

“If I can’t I’m sure you can cut me down to size,” Lazarus laughed and warmed Carter’s heart. “You’d better hurry. We’ve got to be in the shuttle bay in less than an hour. I stopped and got you a sandwich.”

“You are so sweet,” Carter was touched by her lover’s thoughtfulness.

“Keep it to yourself,” Lazarus pretended to growl. “I have a reputation to consider.”

Carter signed off and hurried to her quarters. She quickly threw a few items in her Federation bag and dashed out the door to run into Kay. “Oof,’ She grunted as she ran into Lazarus’s hard body.

“Come back inside for a minute,” Kay said in a voice Carter instantly recognized.

“Honey, we don’t have time,” Carter protested as her body betrayed her words by entering into her quarters again. As the door slid shut behind them Kay pushed her against the nearest wall and pressed her lips fiercely against Carter’s. Carter groaned and dropped her bag. Kay’s hands took on a life of their own and they roamed up and down her lover’s body. “Oh God, baby,” Carter murmured as her own hands reached for Lazarus’s buttons.

“You’re right, we don’t have time,” Lazarus replied wickedly. “I just wanted to give you something to think about for the next three days while we’re stuck in a shuttle with two other people.”

“Oh, I’m going to have to hurt you badly,” Carter leaned against Lazarus until she felt her strength returning to her knees. “Like I’d forget?”

Lazarus laughed and kissed her again, this time without the urgency. “Ready?”

“You’ll never know how ready,” Carter replied.

“I’ll bet I do.”

*

Entering shuttle bay 1, Carter was pleased to see a junior officer, Lt. Denise Dobbs from engineering waiting for the rest of the team to arrive. Dobbs was a fun person to hang around with, kind of a wild child in Carter’s opinion, but a hell of an engineer. There was no sign of the fourth member of the team.

“Hey Dobbsy,” Carter grinned at her. “You coming along on this trip?”

“Hell yes,” Dobbs grinned back at Carter, her Alabama accent evoking smiles from the two women. “I cain’t imagine why she picked me but I’m glad for any reason to get off this tub for a couple of days. I’m goin’ stir crazy.”

“It’s hard to think that being cooped up in a shuttle with three other people would alleviate cabin fever,” Carter remarked.

“Any change of scenery will do,” Dobbs replied with a twinkle. “You know how easily I get bored.” Dobbs was famous or possibly infamous depending on who you talked to, for leaving a long string of broken hearts behind her. “And this is a nice change of scenery,” she eyed Lazarus. “How do you do, Major? I’m Dobbs.”

Carter jumped in before Lazarus could respond. “This is Major Lazarus, Dobbsy. She’s our pilot.” The hand that was placed obviously and possessively on Lazarus arm informed Dobbs that Lazarus more than just a pilot to Carter. Kay looked down at Carter’s hand and an eyebrow edged up slightly.

“Nice to meet you, Lieutenant,” she shook hands with the young woman.

“Too bad you’re going to be so busy, you know, being a pilot and all,” she cut her laughing eyes at Carter. “We might coulda had some fun together. I guess it’s a good thing I brought crossword puzzles.”

Carter smirked slightly as Dobbs sighed dramatically and adopted a hangdog expression. They all turned as the shuttle bay door slid open once again and the XO walked toward them carrying a small bag. Uh oh, thought Lazarus. This doesn’t bode well.

“Are we ready?” Major Warren stepped on the gangplank leading into the shuttle. The other three women followed her, Lazarus and Laughlin glancing at each other. Lazarus managed a small smile and Carter returned it with an effort. Joan Warren was the chief science officer so she certainly had every right to head this away team.

Lazarus settled into the pilot’s seat and began the pre-launch sequence. Dobbs moved to the area where the probe was stored and began running diagnostics on the equipment. Carter started stowing gear. Her real work would start when the probe began sending back information from the wormhole. Warren strapped herself in next to Lazarus at the shuttle control panel.

“Everybody strapped in?” Lazarus asked. “Two minutes.” Dobbs and Carter settled in the rear seats and waited. The large cargo doors opened and they heard the whoosh of decompression and felt the shuttle lift smoothly and glide cleanly through the doors. Lazarus banked the shuttle away from the space station and input the coordinates of the wormhole sector. “We’re underway,” she said. “Be there in about sixteen hours.” She monitored the ever-changing readouts on the control panel while Dobbs and Carter unstrapped themselves. Dobbs returned to her probe and Carter made busy work for herself. Each woman felt a little uncomfortable in the presence of the XO, Lazarus and Carter because of the personal history between Warren and Lazarus, and Dobbs because she had fallen afoul of the XO on a few occasions. Secretly, Lt. Dobbs amused the XO endlessly, but Dobbs would never know that.

Dobbs hummed tunelessly as she entered data onto her padd and Carter glanced at her. “How do you even hum with an Alabama accent?” she asked quietly.

“Just skill, I guess,” Dobbs replied. “I have lots of talent you don’t know anything about, Carter. Not yet, anyway,” she grinned.

Carter laughed. Dobbs’s flirting came as easily as breathing came to most people. She flirted with everyone: men, women, superior officers, or the maintenance crew. It had gotten her in trouble and brought her many adventures, but it was part of her make-up and she could no more change than a jaguar could change his spots.

The crew lapsed into silence, each woman busy with her own thoughts. Finally there was no more work to be manufactured, and they settled down to wait until early morning when they would arrive at the wormhole. “Why don’t you let me pilot while you take a dinner break?” Warren formed a question but it really wasn’t a request.

“Okay,” Lazarus replied. The shuttle was on auto anyway and scans showed nothing unusual in the area. She got up from the seat and stretched her long frame, noting that she had the rapt attention of both Carter and Dobbs. She grinned at Carter. Dobbs sighed again and went back to her crossword puzzle.

“What’s for dinner?” Lazarus asked, knowing it made little difference. The replicator on board was capable of only limited menus, all of which tasted remarkably similar.

“Shit on a shingle,” Dobbs drawled. She frowned at her crossword puzzle.”Hey, what’s another word for synonym?”

“You’re soo funny, Dobbsy,” Carter groaned, but was unable to keep the smile from her face. Lazarus laughed at both of them and sat as close as she could to Carter. Carter felt a thrill chase up her spine from Lazarus’s leg touching her own. She looked at her lover, captured by the intensity of those eyes.

“Oh, don’t bother,” cracked Dobbs. “I’ll be more than happy to get everybody’s supper ready.” She heaved herself to her feet with a great show of being put upon. “Ya’ll just keep on doin’ whatever it is you’re doin’.”

Carter rolled her eyes and got up to help. Lazarus leaned back in her seat and closed her eyes. Thoughts kept chasing each other in circles in her imagination. She still hadn’t had a chance to tell Carter about the results of DeForest’s petition for reinstatement. She wondered if Warren knew. She wondered if DeForest really could succeed going over Northrup’s head and what the eventual price would be for that act. She wondered what would happen to Carter and her if DeForest didn’t succeed. She wondered…Oh for Pete’s sake. What was the point of all this? Tomorrow was just a dream. Focus on the job at hand and let tomorrow take care of itself. A thousand things could happen between then and now. Focus.

The next thing she knew Carter was touching her shoulder and telling her dinner was ready. Good job focusing, Lazarus, she thought. I fell asleep in about three seconds. Carter squeezed her shoulder and smiled at her. That would be about the extent of their personal interactions for the duration of this trip, Lazarus thought with regret. The three women ate their food indifferently and then Lazarus returned to the front to relieve Warren so she could eat. The XO had been abnormally quiet the entire trip so far and now she made her way to the back of the shuttle positioning herself so as not to invite conversation.

Warren split the night into two shifts, she and Dobbs taking the first shift, Lazarus and Laughlin taking the second. Lazarus was grateful they were the only two qualified pilots on board so that she wasn’t forced to sit through a shift with Warren in such close quarters. She did feel a small pang of pity for Dobbs who was at least cautious enough not to openly pout. Pulling down two of the small bunks in the back of the shuttle, Lazarus winked at Carter and climbed into one of them. Carter contented herself with a smoldering look and mouthed “I love you” at Lazarus who rewarded her with a look of her own. Carter settled down on her hard bunk and fell quickly asleep. Lazarus watched her for a while and then drifted off.

*

Warren hesitated, then reached down and touched Lazarus on the shoulder. Kay’s eyes instantly flew open and Warren jumped a little. “Your watch,” she said softly and turned away. Lazarus sat up and stretched, then stood over Carter’s bunk where she lay, her breathing steady and deep. Lazarus smiled and leaned down. “Wake up, baby,” she spoke softly, not caring who heard. Carter’s eyes didn’t open but she smiled and reached up to Lazarus. “We’re on watch,” Lazarus forestalled her.

“Oh,” Carter opened her eyes, remembering where she was. She sat up on the edge of the narrow bunk and Dobbs plopped down next to her.

“Move over, Blondie,” she yawned. “I’m pooped.” Carter forced herself to stand and Dobbs immediately fell down on the bunk and started to snore.

Carter shook her head. “That’s Lt. Blondie to you, Alabama.”

Lazarus already had the conn and to Carter looked as if she were born piloting a ship. Carter admired her for a moment until Lazarus felt her eyes on her. “Come sit,” Lazarus patted the seat next to her. Carter was happy to oblige, turning around occasionally to check on their passengers, waiting until she was sure they were both sleeping before she leaned over and kissed her partner.

“I’ve been wanting to do that for hours,” she whispered. “I had a dream about you.” She wore a puzzled look as she tried to dredge the bits of dream from her memory.

“Oh yeah?” Lazarus leered at her.

“Not that kind of dream,” Carter waved her off. “Don’t distract me. I’m trying to remember.” She frowned in concentration. “It was outside, on Earth. We were riding horses, and you had a baby on your back in a sling, I think. And we were wearing weird clothes. I was practically naked, but I didn’t care. And you had on some kind of leather thing. It was sexy. You know, the blue eyes, the leather.”

Lazarus felt a jolt of déjà vu as Carter spoke and shot a look at her. “A baby, huh? I’m not sure if that qualifies as a dream or a nightmare.”

“You don’t like kids?” Carter asked carefully.

Lazarus hesitated. “I guess. I never gave it a lot of thought. The nightmare part would be having me as a mother.”

Carter lapsed into silence and Lazarus felt as if she had disappointed her in some fundamental way. “You want kids?”

“I don’t know. A cat would be nice.”

“A cat?”

“I never gave kids a lot of thought actually.” Carter kept her gaze firmly fixed on the stars streaking by.

Lazarus felt a sense of relief wash over her. “I want you to be happy and if you want to have a whole ship full of kids or cats, then I guess we will.” She reached over and took Carter’s hand.

Carter kept her eyes glued to the passing stars. She sat in silence, aware of Kay’s occasional glance in her direction. She finally said, “Tell me about growing up in California.”

Lazarus spoke haltingly at first, unused to talking about herself, then gained momentum as memories of her mother returned. The hours passed slowly as they spoke quietly and crept closer to their destination. About an hour out, Lazarus turned to Carter and said, “I guess we’d better wake them.” Carter was running a constant scan on the surrounding area and nodded agreement but didn’t get up. She punched in some new data and frowned.

“What do you make of this?” she asked Lazarus. “This looks like it might be an alien warp signature up ahead.”

Lazarus looked at the screen and switched on the yellow alert. “It could just be interference from the wormhole, but wake up Warren, will you?” The yellow alert automatically began recording and storing all incoming data while transferring the same back to the station. Carter stood and turned but saw that Joan Warren was already up and waking Dobbs. Carter moved back and allowed the Major to take over the co-pilot seat.

“What do we have here?” Warren asked softly, manipulating the scan for a finer definition of the data. “Still too far away to tell.” She eyed Lazarus speculatively. “I think whatever is giving us these readings is heading in the vicinity of the wormhole. Be nice if we got there first.”

Lazarus grinned. “Then we will. Dobbsy, how much power can you get us without taxing the warp core?”

“If it’s speed you want, sister, uh, Major, I can give it to you. I’ll divert a little power from the shields and you can take her up to warp six.”

“That’s Major Sister to you, Dobbs. Tweak it and give me warp six.”

*

The shuttle streaked toward the wormhole. “It’s an Ultharian warp signature, Major,” Carter informed her XO. “It’s a starbird class.” The starbird class was an Ultharian cross between a fighter and a science probe. It was no faster than the shuttle but it was larger and had superior weapon and research capabilities.

“Return full power back to the shields, Lt. Dobbs,” Joan Warren said. “How far away, Lieutenant?”

“I’d say we’re at least an hour ahead of them, Major,” Carter informed her.

“That’s enough time to send the probe through,” Lazarus said.

“Let’s do it then,” Warren agreed. “Lt. Dobbs, as soon as we’re in range, activate the probe.”

“Aye, Major,” Dobbs was all business now. “We’ll be in range in three minutes.”

The probe was designed to begin gathering information as soon as it entered the wormhole, which now loomed in front of them, sending data back to both the shuttle and the deep space station. “Ready to launch, Major,” Dobbs said.

“Go ahead,” Warren told her. They watched as the small cylindrical probe shot into the swirling vortex of the wormhole.

“Estimated retrieval in about twenty minutes,” Dobbs told them.

“I want to shut down all unnecessary systems,” Lazarus said. “Let’s hide our presence from the Ultharian scans as long as possible.”

“No, I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Warren replied. “I want to be ready to run if we have to.” She turned and walked toward the aft of the shuttle.

Carter and Dobbs both froze momentarily awaiting Lazarus’s reaction. Lazarus shrugged her shoulders. “It’s your call,” she said softly. The three women waited in silence as data began to pour back from the probe. Carter was busy analyzing the information about the wormhole’s organization but she could feel the tension radiating off her lover.

Carter reached over and patted Lazarus’s hand, giving her an encouraging smile. Looking back to her screens, she frowned. “Kay, I’m getting an energy reading I’m not familiar with.”

Warren hurried back to the console and peered over Carter’s shoulder. Dobbs and Lazarus watched as the odd reading blipped across the screens. Suddenly Lazarus reached forward and punched the shuttle sending it shooting across the black sky. “It has an Ultharian signature,” she said as Warren and Dobbs attempted to keep their feet beneath them. “Hang on.” She quickly worked the controls of the shuttle taking evasive actions against the incoming Ultharian threat.

“What is it?” Carter asked.

“I don’t know. But I assume it’s not a good thing,” Lazarus smiled grimly. Dobbs suddenly went sailing through the cabin and Warren barely hung on as the velocity of the shuttle came to an abrupt halt. “What the hell is this?” Lazarus growled. “I think they have us in a tractor beam.” She battled the controls.

“There’s no such thing from this distance,” Warren said.

“Well I’ll be sure to ask them for the specifics as soon as I see them,” Lazarus snarled. “Carter, try to pinpoint this energy reading. Dobbs, give me all the power to the main thrusters. I’ll see if we can pull free.”

The women worked quickly and silently for minute. “I’ve diverted all available power to the thrusters, Major,” Dobbs told Lazarus.

“I’m going to punch it. Hang on,” Lazarus slammed all power to the thrusters. The shuttle strained and groaned against the pull of the energy beam with no results. The shuttle began to shudder in its effort to break free.

“Hull integrity is collapsing,” Carter said.

“Power down,” Joan Warren told Lazarus.

“No,” Lazarus replied. The shuttle shook harder.

“We’re going to break up,” Warren raised her voice to be heard over the grinding of the shuttle.

“Not yet,” Lazarus said. The tension on the shuttle’s integrity was as hard as the tension on the women’s nerves.

“Power down, Lazarus. That’s an order,” Warren spoke firmly. “We’ll think of something else.”

“No.”

Carter glanced at her lover, trusting her judgment about piloting the shuttle implicitly. She was not so sure about her judgment concerning Joan Warren however. Lazarus had the oddest look of enjoyment on her face. Carter realized she liked the predicament they were in and she liked battling wills with the XO. She sighed and tried to ignore her fear of breaking apart in space.

“I’ll hang you for this, Lazarus,” Warren snarled at her just as the shuttle broke free of the energy beam.

“You are hot stuff, girl,” Dobbs laughed. “I thought we’d bought the farm on that one.”

“We aren’t out of trouble yet,” Carter said. “Here they come.”

The Ultharian starbird shot into view. Its sleek lines belied its reputation as a research ship. “Evasive action,” Warren told Lazarus, but she had already begun to swing the shuttle about and begin standard evasive maneuvers. The shuttle was hit by the first round fired at it and all the women braced for the impact.

“Shields down to 50%,” Carter told Lazarus.

“Return fire,” Lazarus looked at her lover, knowing she had never shot at a target other than an unfortunate meteorite.

Carter never hesitated as she input the automatic firing information and returned fire on the pursuing vessel. “They took a hit but little damage,” Carter checked her scans.

“Keep firing and hold them back. I’ll try to…” Lazarus’s words were lost as another blast from the starbird rocked the small shuttle.

“Shields are offline,” Carter tried to keep the panic from her voice.

Lazarus quickly swung the shuttle about and headed toward the wormhole. “We’re going in,” she announced. The shuttle sped toward the wormhole with the starbird closely in pursuit. Carter felt the shuttle groan in protest as it entered the turbulence of the unstable wormhole. The shuttle began to spin and everything went black.

*

Part 3

Carter watched as Kay slowly pulled her tunic down off her shoulders. Standing naked before her, the desire in her eyes was unmistakable. Carter moaned involuntarily as her lover slowly moved over to where she lay and leaned down over her. Her hot breath caressed her cheek and then she began licking her face…? And panting really loud? This was unusual. No, Carter wasn’t so sure she liked it but if Kay wanted…

Carter shook herself awake and found herself staring into the soulful brown eyes of a young canine that was kind enough to lick her face once again. “Jeez,” she wiped her face in disgust. “I hate dog spit.” She knew something was off kilter but for a few seconds couldn’t remember what was wrong. She sat up as a vision of a starbird and a wormhole came crashing back into her memory. She was still on board the shuttle, lying in a bunk, but the hatch was open and daylight was streaming in. Kay was sitting next to her, asleep sitting up.

“Hey,” Carter reached over and touched Kay on the arm. Her head jerked up and her eyes locked onto Carter’s.

“Oh, thank god you’re okay,” Kay’s voice cracked with relief. She enfolded Carter in a huge hug, rocking her slightly, pulling back and looking in her face, then engulfing her again. Carter’s mind swirled with questions but at the moment being held by Kay Lazarus answered the most pressing one. They were alive, somehow. Kay pulled back again and kissed Carter.

“All right you two. Knock it off or share,” Dobbs’s Alabama accent never failed to make Carter smile.

“Where the hell are we?” Carter finally managed to get out. “And who is this?” She pointed at the small canine.

“That’s the $64,000 question, isn’t it?” Dobbs replied. “But wherever it is, it cain’t be all bad if there’s dogs there. Come here fella,” she called the pup.

“His mother’s probably the size and disposition of a grizzly and is going to eat us any minute,” Lazarus sat the pup on the floor and he hurried to Dobbs. She looked at Carter. “How’s your head feel?”

“Not too bad,” Carter assessed the situation. Her recent concussion had been cause for alarm but this was nothing along those lines. “I’m still confused though. Where are we?”

“We ain’t in Kansas anymore, Toto,” Dobbs laughed. “But instead of over the rainbow, we’re through the wormhole.”

“We took a direct hit right before we escaped through the wormhole,” Lazarus told her. “By some supreme stroke of luck, we found a class M planet and sort of crash landed on it.”

“What does ‘sort of crash landed” mean?”

Lazarus looked at her ruefully. “We’re stuck here. What wasn’t damaged in the attack took a beating when we entered the atmosphere and landed.”

“Thank your lucky stars we had a hell of a pilot on board,” Dobbs said seriously. “No one else could have gotten us down alive.”

“I don’t know about that,” Lazarus dismissed the praise. “And besides, what have we gotten into? Who knows what, if any, sentient life is here? Or if there’s sufficient food and shelter.”

Carter gazed around the cabin in disbelief. She spotted Major Warren lying on the opposite bunk. “She okay?”

Lazarus glanced over at her. “She took a bump on the head too. And she has a broken arm. I reset it and splinted it. I gave her an injection of painkiller and antibiotics. She’ll live.” She spoke with disinterest.

“Okay,” Carter changed the subject. “What’s next?” She stretched her head over and felt her neck give a satisfying crack. “Oh that felt good.” She stood, Kay’s hand holding onto her arm, and gingerly moved her arms and legs. Everything felt pretty good considering. “Hey, when we came through the wormhole weren’t the Ultharians right behind us?”

“That’s another thing. Yes, they were. I have to assume they’re in the vicinity too. But we just need to worry about one thing at a time. First, we need to start working on the shuttle and see what we can salvage. Then we need to take stock of our supplies and see how to ration what we have until we see what the situation is as far as food and water go.”

“Salvage?” Carter felt the blood drain from her face. “You mean, we’re shipwrecked here?”

Kay watched Carter carefully. “It’s possible. I need for you to help Dobbs check the systems out as soon as you’re feeling up to it.” Carter slowly sat back down on the bunk. “You’re a better engineer than I am, Carter. You and Dobbs would be the judges of what our situation is.”

The shock of the idea of being shipwrecked on an unknown planet was slowly penetrated by the responsibility of doing the job she had trained for all her life. She pulled herself back to her feet. “I guess we’d better get busy then, huh?”

Lazarus pulled the smaller woman into her arms. “I’m sorry we’re in this mess,” she spoke quietly into Carter’s ear. Carter held her even tighter.

She looked into the taller woman’s eyes. “Hmm. If I had to be stranded on a planet with just one person, it would be you. Things could always be worse.” She reached up and kissed her lightly.

“Hey, I’m not chopped liver over here, you know,” Dobbs complained.

“What’s she talking about?” Lazarus asked Carter. “Who said anything about liver?” Carter laughed and walked over to the hatch door. The planet she saw looked remarkably similar to most class M planets.

Lazarus had somehow managed to set the shuttle down in an open field, but all around them was what looked like virgin forest. There was no sign of sentient life. ‘And no sign of blood sucking monsters so it could have been worse,’ Carter thought.

“I’d better start working on the scans,” she said. “I think we need to check for life signs.” She walked over to where Dobbs was already working. “Move over, Dobbsy,” she bumped her with her hip. “I’ll show you how it’s done.”

“Anytime darlin’ ” Dobbs smiled sweetly at her.

“Hey!” Lazarus mock scowled at Dobbs. “I’d hate to have to kill you Dobbs, but I will. Leave my woman alone.”

Dobbs laughed, albeit rather nervously in Carter’s opinion.

“She won’t kill you Dobbsy,” Carter grinned. “We need at least two engineers.”

“Golly, thanks,” Dobbs muttered. “Your compassion is underwhelming.”

“I’m going out to check out the surrounding area,” Lazarus informed them while checking out a phaser for damage.

Carter looked concerned, but nodded. “How long will you be gone?”

“I’m not sure. I’ll have my comm badge on, if you can get the comm system up,” Lazarus said.

“You have one hour. Then I come after you,” Carter’s tone was decisive.

Lazarus blinked. “Yes, Lieutenant,” she saluted lightly as she exited the hatch. “And I’m going to take this pup home.” The pup bounced behind her wagging his tail.

*

Carter kept a close watch on the chronometer while she worked and at an hour she stopped her tasks and turned to Dobbs. “I’m going to look for Kay.” She still didn’t have the comm system up on the shuttle. The damage was bad but between she and Dobbs they felt it could be repaired.

“You want me to come with you?” Dobbs looked doubtful.

“No. Someone needs to be here in case the XO wakes up,” Carter nodded her head toward the still sleeping Joan Warren. Carter reached for a phaser in the storage locker. “I’ll be back as soon as I can. Maybe you’d better close the hatch door.”

“And roast like a pig in the oven? Not until we get the environmental systems back. I think I’d rather be eaten by aliens, thank you,” Dobbs wiped sweat from her brow as she continued working on the comm system. “I think I’ve gotten the ELS back online.”

“Great!” Carter was thankful that at the very least the Emergency Locator Signal was activated, although what good it would do them was unknown. They could be in a different galaxy for all she knew. She sighed. Federation protocol dictated that certain procedures be followed in emergency situations whether they did any good or not. It was calming and felt useful to know exactly what you were supposed to do when you became stranded in…well, somewhere in the universe. She had a thought. “You don’t think the Ultharian ship will pick up the signal and come looking for us, do you?”

“I don’t see how they could have survived the entry into the atmosphere,” Dobbs replied. “Hell, I’m not sure how we survived it. But I won’t activate it if you think it’s a bad idea.” Carter was technically her superior as a member of the senior staff.

“Let’s wait,” Carter decided quickly. “I think we need a better grasp on our situation before we send out a distress signal.”

“Okay,” Dobbs agreed. “I’ll work on the comm links until you get back.”

Carter stepped outside the hatch and felt the cool air playing through her hair. Her fingers tightened around the phaser gun in her hand. She looked around her at the primeval forests that edged the field in which the shuttle incongruously lay, a hunk of technology in a primitive world. A movement caught the corner of her eye and she turned to spot Kay trudging out of the woods, the pup bounding along behind her. Carter smiled at the sight of her taciturn lover chatting with the pup who gazed adoringly back at her. Seeing Carter watching her, Kay waved and grinned at her, picking up her step to join up with her. Carter stuck her head back in the hatch. “Kay’s back,” she informed Dobbs.

“The good news is that I found water not too far from here,” Lazarus told Carter and Dobbs when she reached the shuttle. “There’s a river about a mile that way,” she pointed. “I saw signs of animal life, though no actual animals other than this varmint,” she petted the pup.

“What’s the bad news?” Carter asked.

“I saw signs of a frost line by the river and a few chunks of ice floated by. I think we can expect a pretty big temperature drop at night,” Lazarus said. “I’ll gather some wood for a fire, unless of course, you’ve gotten environmentals online since I’ve been gone.”

“Nope,” Dobbs cheerfully informed her. “We did get the ELS working but decided not to activate it.”

“Good,” Lazarus agreed. “That seems the prudent course for now.” Carter felt ridiculously pleased that her conclusion was the same as Lazarus’s. “I think we’ll be here for a while,” Lazarus continued more seriously. “I feel like survival is the first order of business and that includes warmth, food, and water for tonight. We have S rations and water, so how about if I steal Carter away from you for a while to gather firewood? You can inventory our supplies and see where we stand.”

“Okay,” Dobbs agreed.

*

“Wow, this is beautiful,” Carter peered around the pristine woods. She and Lazarus had wandered to the edge of the forest in search of fallen wood that could be used to make a fire. “Kind of spooky though – all this wilderness on a strange planet with night falling.”

“Don’t let your imagination run away with you,” Lazarus smiled indulgently at the smaller woman. “Let’s just get the wood we need and get back to the shuttle so we can make camp.”

“Could you just hold me for a minute?” Carter asked, peering up into ice blue eyes. “I’ve hardly had a chance to touch you since we’ve been here.”

Lazarus enfolded Carter into her arms, rubbing her hands up and down her back. “Are you okay?” Lazarus asked.

“I’m okay. I’m with you,” Carter told her. “That’s all I need really.” She reached up and stroked Kay’s face, her fingers pausing at her lips. “Do you think we’ll ever get off this planet?”

“I don’t know,” Kay responded honestly. “I have to assume that we won’t but work like we will, if you know what I mean.”

“No, I don’t know what you mean,” Carter replied, subdued even further.

“I mean we have to prepare for every contingency, including the possibility that we won’t be rescued and we can’t fix the shuttle. At the same time I have to keep working constructively toward the idea that we will be rescued, or something will happen that will enable us to go home.” Kay slowly explained. “We can’t let ourselves become overwhelmed with the complexities of the situation. We just need to survive from day to day and keep our spirits up. Depression is not an alternative.”

“Clean your house in trouble times,” Carter said softly. “That’s what my grandmother used to say.”

“Exactly,” Lazarus smiled. “I love you, Carter Laughlin.”

“Right back at you, Lazarus.”

*

Carter felt as if her arms would break by the time they got back to the shuttle but she didn’t complain. Kay had carried twice as much firewood as she had and hadn’t even breathed heavy. Carter was fond of heavy breathing but not in this circumstance. “Where do you want this?” she gasped.

“Just drop it,” Kay replied but Carter had already complied before the words had finished forming. Lazarus laughed. “Why don’t you start building a fire over there?” Lazarus pointed to a spot. “I’ll run back and pick up that other stack we left.”

“Honey, the sun’s starting to go down. Take an extra jacket. And hurry,” Carter asked.

“Okay.” Kay stepped inside the shuttle to find an extra jacket. Federation uniforms were made of materials that changed properties as needed for warm, cool, or wet, but extreme temperatures required extra measures. “We’re back, Dobbs. How’s the patient?”

“She rolled over and moaned one time. I thought she was gonna wake up, but she started sawing logs again.” Dobbs grinned at Lazarus. “She’s not running a fever or anything though.”

“The injection I gave her should be wearing off soon,” Lazarus looked over at the slumbering XO. “Carter’s building a fire. I’m going back for one more load.” She grabbed a Federation issue jacket and headed back out.

“Major?” Dobbs called after her. “I completed the inventory and we’re a little short regulation ration issue on board.”

Lazarus stopped and walked back in. “How short?”

“We’ve got maybe enough for three days if we’re conservative,” Dobbs informed her.

“Shit.”

“That’s why they call them S rations. I don’t know if it’s a blessing or a curse.”

“Okay,” Lazarus accepted this information. “Tomorrow we go into full survival mode, but tonight let’s just get some rest.” She ducked back out the hatch.

“The temperature feels like its dropping already,” Carter said. “If you’re going, go now and hurry back.”

Lazarus leaned down and kissed her, pulling back to drown in those green eyes.

“I mean it, Lazarus. Move it. And then get back to me to keep me warm,” Carter murmured the last part with warm breath in Kay’s ear.

Lazarus shuddered. She pulled her jacket tighter around her lean body. “I’ll be back in a flash.”

*

But the sun was setting by the time Lazarus stumbled back into camp. She dropped the load of wood next to the rest and dropped down to stack it. Carter had a nice fire cracking and popping. She and Dobbs were sitting on a blanket, Dobbs hand resting lightly on the pup. Joan Warren sat on the other side of the fire.

“Everything okay?” Carter asked her lover. Lazarus nodded as she settled down next to Carter who moved close to her.

“I got caught in a thorn bush but other than that it was pretty noneventful. It’s getting cold fast,” Lazarus said. Carter could feel her lover’s body shaking from the cold and she put her arm around Lazarus’s waist. They leaned into each other drawing comfort from the warmth of their bodies. “How are you feeling?” Lazarus spoke to Joan Warren. Warren’s face was pale in the firelight, her arm held awkwardly to her chest.

‘Been better,” Warren attempted a wan smile. “Lt. Dobbs tells me you ‘saved our butts’. ”

“Remains to be seen,” Lazarus deadpanned. “I think we should split the night into three watches. I’ll take first watch. Carter, you take second and Dobbs third.”

“I can take a watch,” Warren sat up straighter.

“Not tonight,” Lazarus dismissed her offer. “You need to rest.” She picked up a long stick and poked the fire. Carter glanced at her, thinking that was the nicest thing she had ever heard Lazarus say to Warren.

“Maybe you’re right,” Warren visibly drooped. “In fact, I think I’ll go to bed if that’s okay.” She got to her feet and swayed a little.

“I’ll walk you in, Major,” Dobbs hopped up and moved next to Warren, her hand hovering behind the XO ready to catch her should she fall. “I need to check on a couple of things.” Carter smiled at the kindness of her brash friend and watched them walk into the shuttle, Dobbs unobtrusively protecting the Major.

Lazarus turned to Carter. “You ought to try and get some sleep. Tomorrow’s going to be a long day.”

“Couldn’t be longer than today,” Carter yawned.

“Sure it could,” Lazarus smiled. “Besides, I’ll be waking you up in four hours for your shift.”

“Okay,” Carter stood and turned toward the shuttle. “I’ll be back in a minute.” She returned with a blanket and a pillow that she threw down next to Lazarus.

“You sure you want to sleep out here? It’s getting cold,” Lazarus inquired.

“You won’t let me freeze, will you?” Carter put her head in Lazarus’s lap and pulled the blanket up to her chin.

*

In her dream, Carter felt a tremendous longing for something she couldn’t see. She was searching and searching but didn’t know what she was looking for and seemed to be wandering an unfamiliar path that led nowhere. Her sense of urgency increased with each unfruitful turn in the path when the path itself dissolved in front of her. Her disappointment was overwhelming and she began to cry in frustration when Lazarus shook her awake.

“Carter, wake up,” Lazarus yawned. “I’ve got to crash for a couple of hours or I would have let you keep sleeping.”

The dream faded instantly. “Jeez, it’s cold!” Carter shivered. “You were supposed to wake me two hours ago, Kay. That’s not right for me to sleep through my watch.” She was annoyed that Kay had taken it upon herself to let Carter sleep at her expense. “And you need to sleep too.”

“I wasn’t sleepy until a few minutes ago,” Kay almost slurred her words. “Now I don’t think I can stay awake another minute. Don’t let the fire go out or we’ll freeze to death.”

“You’ve got to stay awake for a few minutes more. I have to go find a convenient bush and get some coffee,” Carter forced herself to stand, watching her words practically freeze in the air before her face. “Anything happening?”

“No,” Kay murmured as she slipped away into sleep. “All quiet.”

Carter watched her for a moment as Lazarus’s breath evened out and deepened. ‘I guess you were sleepy,’ she thought. Looking around, it seemed quiet. She could spot no movement outside the perimeter of the light but couldn’t muster up the wherewithal to leave the relative safety and comfort of the fire. “One of the few times I’ve wished I was a male,” she muttered and gathered her courage. She tread cautiously into the darkness, dreading the idea of removing her clothes to answer nature’s call. Gritting her teeth, she reached for her pants when she felt a hand roughly cover her mouth and then complete darkness descended.

*

“Major Lazarus!” Lt. Denise Dobbs shook Lazarus’s shoulder as she struggled up from a deep sleep. The sun was rising and it was still cold enough that it hurt to breathe. “Lt. Laughlin is gone. She didn’t wake me for my shift and I can’t find her. Major, wake up!”

Kay Lazarus could hear the words but they didn’t make any sense at first. Her eyes burned and she felt as if someone had shoved a box of cotton in her brain. What was Dobbs saying? Carter was missing? ‘She was right here a minute ago,’ Lazarus thought foggily. No, it was dark then. The sun’s rising. Alarm finally pierced her consciousness. Carter was missing.

Lazarus struggled to her feet, her balance precarious. Dobbs reached out and held her arm to steady her. “Are you all right, Major?”

“I feel drugged,” Lazarus said. Shaking her head to clear it, she looked around. Nothing. Joan Warren stepped down from the shuttle still holding her arm gingerly to her chest.

“What’s happening?” she asked sharply.

“Carter is missing,” Lazarus responded tersely. “Joan, lock yourself in the shuttle, and Dobbs and I will go look for her. Dobbs, grab a couple of phasers and the med kit.”

“I’m going with you,” Warren stated. She moved back into the shuttle to get the supplies Lazarus requested plus a few things she hadn’t.

Lazarus followed her to the hatch door. “We don’t have time to take care of someone who’s injured, Joan. Stay here in case she returns.”

“No. I’m going. I’m still senior officer here, Lazarus,” Warren snapped back at her. “I’ll leave her a note in case she comes back here, but if there are hostiles out there you’ll need me.” She softened her tone a bit. “Besides, I feel much better today. I wouldn’t go if I thought I would be a burden.”

Lazarus accepted what Warren said with reluctance. “Let’s go then.”

The women slowly circled the now smoldering campfire of the night before looking for traces of the missing woman. “Look over here,” Warren called out. Dobbs and Lazarus hurried over. “The grass seems beaten down here, and look. It seems like a trail leads that way,” she pointed.

Lazarus gazed at her with grudging respect. “Did well in your survival classes at the academy, huh?”

“I did well in everything,” Warren replied. Dobbs muffled a snort.

The three women followed the faint trail until it reached the edge of the forest. Lazarus took the point and cautiously stepped into the cool shadows of the trees. There appeared to be a natural trail in front of them that they followed silently and as quickly as they could. After a while Lazarus put her hand up halting the search party. She pointed up at a tree. About halfway up the tree was the skull of an obviously carnivorous animal hung on a broken branch. “That’s not a good sign,” whispered Dobbs. Lazarus shook her head.

“At least we can be pretty sure she wasn’t carried off by a wild animal though,” Lazarus spoke softly.

Dobbs raised her eyebrows quizzically. “No blood,” Lazarus explained.

Dobbs blinked. “Yeah, that’s encouraging.” Warren glared at both of them and hand gestured them to keep moving along. After another hour of methodical tracking, Lazarus glanced back to see Warren’s colorless face and called another halt.

“Let’s rest for a few minutes and eat something,” she said quietly. Dobbs and Warren both sank wordlessly to the ground. Warren pulled some S rations from her bag and passed them around. The three women ate silently each lost in her own thoughts and fears about the small lieutenant.

*

Carter had long since given up trying to struggle after the gag was in her mouth and the smelly cloth was tied around her face effectively blinding her. Her hands were tied in front of her and she was alternately pushed and pulled further and further from everything that was familiar to her on this planet. She didn’t know what had her, although from listening carefully she would guess it was a humanoid of some kind since they seemed to be walking on two legs also. They used no speech and made very little noise moving through the forest, guiding her firmly along so she neither tripped nor fell. They walked through the devastating cold until Carter was sure she would collapse and still they walked on. When she could see light peeking in under the cloth over her face she knew that they had walked through the night and still they walked on.

Finally she came to an abrupt halt and refused to budge. She was pushed from behind but wouldn’t cooperate with her captors. She heard a slight rustling sound as one or more of them moved around her and then she felt herself being lifted into the air and carried along. She considered kicking out at them, knowing she could hurt them, but dropped the idea since her hands were tied and she was gagged and blindfolded. Even if she could escape from them, she had no idea where she was in relation to the shuttle. And she still had to go to the bathroom. She experimentally tried to scream through the gag and the ones carrying her stopped immediately. Her feet were placed on the ground. ‘Either that helped or they’re going to kill me,’ Carter thought as she felt her hands being untied and the blindfold removed from her eyes. “Holy cow,” Carter said as the blindfold fell and her captors were revealed to her.

*

Kay Lazarus was increasingly worried as the day went on and the trail meandered and diminished and came back again. She hoped they were on the right path still as they had seen no sign of Carter or anyone else. Her anger was growing also. She knew she had been drugged the night before although she could not figure out when. Her frustration was compounded by her own stupidity in leaving in such an all-fired hurry without the proper equipment. She had been so sure that she would find Carter that they were now too far from camp to make it back before the freezing night fell. They might all die and it was her fault. Reluctantly she called a halt.

“We’ve got to head back. I didn’t bring the survival equipment we’d need to spend the night out here. We can pack up what we need and head back out in the morning,” she said, ‘If we survive the hike back’ she thought.

“I’ve got what we need,” Joan Warren calmly informed her. “I grabbed a tent and blankets.” Dobbs held up the bag that she had been carrying with her all day. Lazarus had seen her with it but had been so preoccupied with searching that it had failed to register.

“Once again Joan,” she said carefully, “I am grateful to you for your survival skills. When we find Carter I’ll tell her it was because of you.”

“Thanks, but that’s not necessary,” Warren seemed pleased however. “Let’s keep moving.”

*

Part 4

Carter felt the blindfold fall away from her eyes and she blinked, unaccustomed to the light. As her eyes adjusted and she saw her captors revealed to her she was unable to stop herself. “Holy cow,” she muttered.

“I don’t think I appreciate that,” said one of the women standing in front of her. All five of them were dressed in skins and roughly woven materials decorated with beads and feathers, long hair braided with rawhide and colorful ribbons. All carried weapons, some staffs and some bows. Carter noticed daggers carried in belts and leggings.

Carter remained silent, her mind reeling. These women were human to all outward appearances. Her universal translator was part of the damaged comm system on board the shuttle but she could understand them so they were speaking English. Oddly accented, but English nonetheless. Trying to keep one eye on her captors, she surreptitiously glanced around. They had apparently decided to untie her because they were at the edge of a small village. Dwellings made of roughly hewn logs with thatch roofs centered around a common area that contained a raised platform and a well. More women milled about the small village; a few of them curiously watched the incoming party.

“Untie her hands,” the same woman spoke to another woman who did as she was told. Carter rubbed her raw wrists, relieved to move her arms again.

She hated to say it but she had to. “I have to go to the bathroom.”

This announcement was greeted with puzzled looks. She tried again. “I need to visit a bush…now.” She tried to keep her legs from crossing. Her body language was clear if her words weren’t and the talking woman pointed behind Carter.

“Go,” she said, gesturing with her staff.

“Yes, I have to go,” Carter agreed ducking quickly behind the indicated bush. As she relieved herself, her mind raced. No way she could take on five armed women with no idea where she was, no food or water and no shelter. She was going to have to cooperate until she had a chance to change the circumstances. Or until Lazarus came looking for her. She was pretty sure that was a probability.

She walked back out to where the women stood waiting. “Why have you taken me?”

“Come with me,” the talking woman began walking toward the village. Carter stayed where she was. One of the other women gave her a not so gentle push with a staff. Carter glared at her but refused to move. The talking woman stopped and turned. “Are you going to stand there all day?”

“I need some answers,” Carter replied. “Starting with why have you taken me?”

‘You’ll get answers,” said the woman. “From the queen. Come with me.”

Realizing her standoff was going nowhere fast, Carter reluctantly followed the woman into the village. As they entered the village Carter noticed that all activity ceased and every eye followed her as she was led to a dwelling with more ornamentation than the rest. The woman ducked into the doorway with Carter behind her. Seated at a small table was a woman. She didn’t look like a queen to Carter.

She looked up as the talking woman and Carter entered. “Good morning, Teryn.” She stood and walked over to them. Her expression did not change but Carter could feel an undercurrent of excitement in her. “Who is this?” Her eyes raked Carter up and down.

“I don’t know her name, Loryl,” Teryn replied. “We discovered a group of four near the field on this side of the river. They had a metal shelter.”

“Why didn’t you bring them all?” Loryl asked.

“There were only five of us,” Teryn replied. “At least one of them is a warrior. One of them is injured. It was either this one or the other small one and this one was the easiest.”

“I resent that,” Carter mumbled.

The queen, Loryl, looked at her with surprise then turned back to Teryn. “How did you get her away from the warrior?”

“I shot the warrior with a dart when she was in the forest,” Teryn said. “She never knew. It took a long time for her to sleep though. Longer than any I’ve ever seen.”

“You shot Lazarus with a dart?” Carter was furious and frightened. “Will it…” She stopped, unsure she could control her emotions.

The queen and Teryn watched her carefully. “Ah, she is your mate?” Loryl asked.

Carter spun on Teryn and caught her with a blow to the stomach with her foot before the feeling went out of her legs and she dropped to the floor. To her surprise both the queen and Teryn began laughing. Teryn reached down and helped Carter to her feet after releasing the pressure points that Loryl had used to disable her. “It’s not too many who can take me by surprise, little one,” Teryn smiled at her. “I think we may have underestimated you.”

Carter was not amused. “Will Lazarus, um, my mate, recover from the dart you shot her with?”

“She’ll sleep it off. With most people it takes a day or two, but her reaction was slower so I don’t know when she will awaken,” Teryn shot a look at the queen who nodded.

“So you said I’d get answers. Why did you take me?” Carter repeated for the third time, addressing herself to the queen.

*

Relieved that they were able to continue the search party, Lazarus silently led Dobbs and Warren along the faint trail through the cooling forest. Suddenly she halted and raised her hand for the other two to stop. Waving them along with her, she ducked off the side of the path and quickly moved toward some rock formations nearby. Gesturing to them to hide behind the rocks, they all three slipped quietly and quickly out of view of the trail. Warren looked at her questioningly. Lazarus nodded toward the trail and Warren saw what Lazarus had heard coming.

Walking silently, two women carrying staffs and dressed in animal skins were checking the path for signs of the intruders their queen was expecting. “Human?” Warren mouthed at Lazarus. Lazarus shrugged. They watched as the women continued down the path. Once they were out of sight, Warren turned to Lazarus. “How did you know they were coming?” she whispered.

“I heard them,” Lazarus replied. “I think they’re expecting us. You two stay put. I’m going to scout ahead and see what’s waiting for us.” Without waiting for a reply she slipped away and quickly disappeared into the forest.

*

“Why did you take me?” Carter repeated.

The queen watched Carter for a moment as if deciding something. “We came to this place many generations ago.” Carter briefly wondered where the men were. “We were a small group at first that became smaller when the males all died of sickness. The females that were left assumed that they would die out too as time went on, but instead we adapted very quickly. Some of us have developed the power to produce children and as the generations continued we grew into a larger colony of mostly farmers, artisans, and warriors. But for the last few generations we find our numbers dwindling again. When Teryn spotted you we were hoping that you and your friends might be a welcome addition to our colony, perhaps even capable of producing children.”

Carter’s mind reeled again. Were they human and if they were, how did human women produce children without reproductive technology? That was impossible. “Why didn’t you just ask us? Did kidnapping me and forcing me a long march blindfolded seem like it might a productive thing to do?”

Loryl looked at Teryn who had the good grace to blush slightly. “I ask your forgiveness. Our party was small in numbers and we were unsure of your intentions or fighting capabilities.”

Carter was only slightly mollified. Food and water would go a good ways toward making her feel friendlier she decided and as if to chime in, her stomach announced her decision.

“We need to feed our guest, Teryn,” Loryl told the other woman. “What is your name?” she asked Carter.

“Laughlin. Carter Laughlin,” she replied, and was met with puzzled looks.

“Laughlin is where you are from? Or your mother’s name?” Loryl asked.

“Actually Laughlin is my father’s name,” she told them. “Carter is my name.”

Loryl said, “We carry one name only. Sometimes when we meet others I would say I am Loryl of Earth. That is the name of our village.”

Carter hid her amusement. “Loryl of Earth wouldn’t be quite specific enough where I come from. Earth is the name of my planet.”

All the color drained from the face of the queen and the warrior. Loryl regained control of her emotions first and turned to Teryn. “Keep this news to yourself for now, warrior.”

“But this is a matter for the council, Loryl,” Teryn was plainly shocked that Loryl would keep this information secret.

“Yes it is,” Loryl replied. “But not until the council convenes in two days. I need time to think. I ask you for a life favor, Teryn.”

Teryn was disturbed by the turn of events but conceded to her queen. “That is not necessary, Loryl. You are my queen. It will be as you ask.” She turned to Carter. “I will take you to D’ryan’s house. She is gone for the season and you can stay there.”

“Wait a minute. I’m not staying anywhere. I want to be taken back to my people,” Carter’s anger returned.

“I beg your indulgence,” Loryl stepped in. “Go with Teryn and eat and rest, then come back here that we may talk some more. If you then want to return to your people, we will take you back. You cannot return alone. You are not equipped for the journey. We were wrong to capture you as we did but I swear we will return you when you want to go.”

‘Damn it,’ Carter thought as her stomach growled again insistently. The queen was right. She was ill equipped to return to Lazarus and the shuttle without aid. It wouldn’t hurt to eat. And rest. She stifled a yawn. “Okay. We’ll talk later.” She followed Teryn out of the queen’s quarters.

*

The sun sank lower in the afternoon as Warren and Dobbs sat quietly and waited for a sign of Lazarus. Finally, sighing deeply, Dobbs stood and said, “I’m gonna pitch the tent, Major.” She began pulling the equipment from the bag she had carried that day. Joan Warren ignored the ache from her arm and head and stood to help.

“I think I’ll try to gather some firewood. It may give our position anyway, but we’ll freeze otherwise,” she said. “Hopefully no one will be prowling around after dark.”

“Pick the driest wood you can find,” Dobbs told her. “It smokes less.”

With her arm in a sling, Warren was only able to pick up what she could carry in one hand. Dobbs had the tent set up quickly out of sight of the path they had followed, so she helped the XO gather bits of wood to keep them warm. Fallen branches were plentiful and it was not long until they had enough to last several hours.

“Do you think they got Lazarus?” Dobbs finally queried.

“No,” Warren responded. “She’s pretty smart. She’s excellent at recon. I’m sure she’s okay.”

Dobbs wasn’t as sure as Major Warren but there was little she could do about it this late in the day. Survival for herself and the Major was the uppermost thing in her mind. If Lazarus had gone and gotten herself lost, then she’d have to figure it out herself. Be a shame if she froze. She was a fine looking woman.

*

Carter decided not to ask what was in the bowl of stew she had been handed. She scooped a small amount onto the wooden spoon and tasted it cautiously. “This is pretty good,” she told Teryn.

Teryn nodded. “It is yerak stew.” She sat across the rough table from Carter and watched the small woman eat. Carter wondered what a yerak was but not enough to ask. She glanced at Teryn. The warrior was tall, her strong face serious and lean. Her long brown hair was twisted in a single braid down her back with no ribbons or adornments like the other women Carter had seen earlier. Her brown eyes sparkled with intelligence. “You and the warrior have no children?” she asked Carter.

Carter swallowed her stew. “No.”

“How long have you been joined?” she asked.

” We aren’t what you might call officially joined,” Carter said. “We’ve actually only been seeing each other for a few weeks.”

“Weeks?” Teryn was puzzled again.

“How long is the moon cycle here?” Carter asked.

“Forty days,” Teryn replied.

“We’ve been seeing each other for about two of your moon cycles,” Carter told her.

“I do not know your customs,” Teryn said. “If you are ‘seeing each other’ is it to determine her worthiness, or your childbearing ability?”

Carter laughed. “Neither, actually. We’re seeing each other because we love each other. And it’s a strong, uh, physical attraction.”

“But what’s the point? What do you give back to your tribe with this union?”

Carter thought. “It makes us happy. Happy people are productive people.” Teryn continued to look mystified. “Lazarus, my mate, is a leader among the fighters of my people. I am a senior officer…nevermind. I am one of the leaders of my people, but not the main leader. If we are happy together when we are off duty then we work harder and have more energy on duty. Does that make sense?”

“I am not sure. So when do you have children?”

Carter realized that this tribe of women on the verge of extinction had narrowed their focus down to survival. That meant procreation was the most important issue facing them. Which brought her back to the question that had plagued her from the start. “I don’t know if we will have children. Children are plentiful where we come from. But we still have males to help with that,” Carter said, leaving out the reproductive technology that had rendered male participation almost obsolete. “I don’t mean to be indelicate, but where I come from it is impossible for two women to have a child without a sperm donor. How does that work?”

To Carter’s amusement, the tall warrior’s face flushed with color. “When two women are joined,” she began, and then stalled. “When two women are joined,” she started again.

“When two women are joined?” Carter supplied helpfully.

Teryn took a deep breath. “Once they decide to have a child, there is a season that occurs twice a year where they can experience the bonding ritual. This involves taking an herb known to our healer that sends the pair into a deep state of relaxation. It also enhances the physical aspect of their relationship. From this union, one or both of them may become with child.”

‘That explains exactly nothing,’ Carter thought. “It’s the physical aspect of the relationship I wanted to know about,” she said gently. “Can you tell me about that?”

“I think the healer would be better at that than me,” Teryn’s color rose again. “I am not joined with anyone. I have not experienced bonding.”

“Oh,” said Carter. Surely this extraordinarily attractive young woman was not… “I see. Is it required that you be joined to have sex?”

“No, it is not required.” Teryn was totally flustered. “I am a warrior and a hunter. I haven’t time for other things.” She paused. “Nor have I ever felt what others say they feel for another. I do not think that joining is meant for me.” She stood abruptly. “I think that you should rest. There is wood for a fire. It is getting late.” She turned and fled.

Carter mused over what she had, and had not, learned from Teryn. But she was very tired. She looked around the single room dwelling. It was actually attractive in a primitive way, she thought. The fireplace was built of smooth stones. The walls and floor had roughly woven fabrics of various hues covering them. The bed was also covered in several blankets that looked warm and colorful. She wondered about the absent owner. She built a fire in the fireplace, struggling with the flint and tinder she found on the hearth. When the flame finally flickered, she blew gently on it until she felt confident enough to pile a few small logs on top. Once the fire was burning merrily, she stripped off her clothes and crawled into bed, thinking briefly that it was very comfortable before she slipped into oblivion.

*

Dobbs built a small fire as the sun slipped down. She and Joan Warren huddled as closely together as possible without actually touching as the temperature plunged. They chewed morosely on S rations and watched the fire pop and crackle. “So what’s the plan, Major?” Dobbs asked after what seemed like an eternity of silence.

“Live through the night,” replied the XO. “Then in the morning, we’ll go looking for two of them, instead of one.”

“Any ideas on how to do that without getting eaten by the wild women of Borneo?” Dobbs said. “And I don’t mean that in the most interestin’ way.”

Warren laughed, surprising Dobbs. “You make me laugh, Lieutenant. I hope when we get back to Zebra that we can be friends.”

Dobbs was shocked but kept her voice level. “Now that would be interestin’ Major.” Dobbs wasn’t sure that the XO had any friends or even knew how to go about having any. “So you think we’re gonna get back to Zebra, huh? Despite the fact that we have no ship and no idea where we are?”

“Yes, I do,” Warren replied. Dobbs wasn’t reassured somehow. They lapsed back into silence.

*

Lazarus watched from the tree, still as death. When the small village had settled for the evening and she was sure of the guard’s routines, she slipped silently to the ground. She had watched long enough to know that Carter was alive and that she wasn’t guarded. The relief that had flooded her when she spotted the small woman crossing the common area earlier had brought tears to her eyes that had almost frozen on her face before she quickly wiped them off. The fact that Carter seemed to be chatting with her captor hadn’t really surprised Lazarus too much. If there was one thing Carter could be counted on for, it was talking. When Lazarus saw the taller woman leave the small house in a hurry, she assumed that Carter was now alone in the hut.

Slipping quickly and silently from shadow to shadow, Lazarus moved toward the hut avoiding the village guards. Easily she opened the door and slipped in, relishing the warmth of the room. The light from the fireplace allowed her a full view of the hut. She was alone in the room with her sleeping lover. Slightly surprised at the ease with which she had located Carter, she allowed herself to relax a little. She placed a log on the fire and sat on the edge of the bed. Lazarus watched her lover sleep for a minute, then touched her gently on her arm.

Carter was having the same dream again. This time she recognized the path as being on this blasted planet, although it continued to wind and disappear and go nowhere. The same sense of frustration and desperation engulfed her. She simply had to get to whatever was waiting at the end of that path. She could feel the presence of someone she loved, someone who was trying to tell her something important. She followed the path as it wound around to find herself back where she started. She could feel the tears of frustration building. “Carter.” Someone was calling her.

“Carter, honey, wake up,” Lazarus stroked her arm softly, trying to awaken her gently and quietly.

Carter fought her way into consciousness. “Kay!” She threw her arms around her lover’s neck. “Oh my god, you’re here!”

Lazarus grinned as Carter held on to her. “Let’s not wake the village, baby. I’m glad to see you too.” Carter smothered Kay’s mouth with her own several times. “Are you okay?”

“I am now,” Carter replied happily. “I’ve got so much to tell you. You must be freezing. Take your clothes off and get in bed with me.”

“Wait a minute. Are you a prisoner here or what? Don’t we need to think about escaping?” Lazarus was totally confused.

“Well, it’s complicated. I’d have to say that no I’m not a prisoner. I’m not here of my own free will,” she hastened to explain. “But I’m not really a prisoner anymore either. It’s a long story. Take your clothes off and get in bed with me. I’ll tell you all about it.”

“You don’t have to twist my arm,” Lazarus shrugged her jacket and clothes off and snuggled up close to her lover.

“Where are Dobbsy and Major Warren?” Carter asked.

“I left them in the woods,” Lazarus replied. “You know, Joan surprised me with her survival skills. She mmmff,”

Her words were lost as Carter kissed her again. “As long as they’re alive, I don’t care.” She climbed on top of Lazarus, their bodies pressed together. “Warmer?”

“Not yet,” Lazarus’s eyes locked onto Carter’s. “Could you get a little closer?”

“I’m sure I can work something out,” Carter said obligingly.

*

Part 5

Dobbsy couldn’t remember when she’d spent a colder night. They sat as close to the fire as they could without catching on fire themselves, then crawled into the tent when they could stay awake no longer. Major Joan Warren was not exactly what she thought of as a touchy-feely type so she kept her distance in their sleeping bags. Not that the XO interested her in that way. Dobbs didn’t want her body, just her body warmth, but instead spent the long, cold night huddled into a small tight ball. She prayed for the sun to rise. And of course it did.

Dobbs jerked awake from her restless sleep to what sounded like an animal snuffling around their camp. “Major,” she hissed at Joan Warren, whose eyes snapped open. Dobbsy pointed at the door of the tent. Warren nodded and reached for her phaser. Both women silently rose. Warren pointed the phaser at the door as Dobbs reached for the opening. Dobbs pulled a small crack open and laughed softly.

“I guess he didn’t appreciate being abandoned,” She reached out and pulled in the pup that had attached himself to the women. “Where were you last night when I could have used your body heat?” She held the small canine who was obviously thrilled to have found his people again.

“Oh great,” said Joan Warren. “What are we going to do with a puppy? We’ve got to track Lazarus and Carter while avoiding the hostiles. He can’t come.”

They both looked up as the rest of the tent flap opened to find themselves staring at the business end of two arrows.

*

Lazarus awoke at dawn to feel her lover’s hands running lightly up her sides. She opened her eyes to find Carter straddling her body, a distinctly lascivious look on her face. From the corner of her eye she noticed the fire had been stoked and the room was warm and friendly, much like the woman who was on top of her. Wordlessly, Carter leaned down and kissed Lazarus lightly, running kisses down her throat and tugging gently on her earlobe with her teeth. Her hands were not idle either as they circled Lazarus’s breasts, pausing to tantalize sensitive points before moving on. Lazarus moaned as she wrapped her own strong hands around Carter’s back, reaching down to feel her lover’s heat. Carter shifted down Lazarus’s body, her lips and tongue busy. Despite their passion from the night before, Lazarus found herself responding quickly and enthusiastically.

Carter heard her lover whimper softly as she parted her legs to reveal the private treasure hidden within. She smiled a knowing smile, fully aware of the dark-haired woman’s desires. Her hands traveled the loved and familiar territory, her mouth a willing accessory. Lazarus reveled in the touch of her lover who was instinctively in sync with her body’s demands and supplied those demands both gently and forcefully. By the time Lazarus’s heart was racing and she was covered with a light sheen despite the outside temperature, the sun was moving through the trees and into the cracks around the dwelling’s door.

Lazarus reached for her lover pulled her to her and kissed her eyes. She gently pushed her to the bed and began working her way down Carter’s body. She could feel her lover’s excitement in the push of her hips and from the unconsciousness way Carter’s hands tangled in her hair. Deep in her own thoughts and emotions, she was startled when Carter froze. “What’s wrong?” she asked as she turned her head to follow Carter’s gaze.

“Hello Teryn,” Carter said.

*

“Uh oh,” said Denise Dobbs, staring into the point of an arrow.

“Back off,” said Joan Warren, pointing her phaser back at the two women outside the tent. The women looked at the phaser, glanced at each and didn’t move.

“Back off, now!” Warren’s tone announced her intentions. The women obviously had no frame of reference for the phaser but took a step backward anyway, slightly lowering their bows. The four women stared at each other, at an impasse.

One of the tribal women took the first step and lowered her bow. Audible sighs signaled the end of the standoff. To Joan Warren’s immense shock the woman spoke to her. “You must come with us. Our queen wishes to speak with you.”

Warren and Dobbs exchanged looks. “You speak English?” Joan asked.

“I do not know what ‘English’ means,” the woman replied. “You must come with us,” she repeated.

“You stole our friend,” Warren said severely, allowing her anger to show.

“She is safe,” the woman replied. “We will take you to her.” Joan Warren turned from the women and shot the phaser at a boulder that shattered. The look of shock on the tribal women’s faces was very satisfying.

“Yes, you will,” she agreed.

*

Teryn looked everywhere except at Carter and Lazarus. “The queen wishes to see you,” she said, and backed out of the dwelling.

“She probably doesn’t require seeing quite as much of me as Teryn just saw,” cracked Carter. “I guess we have to finish this another time, sweetheart. I’m sure your presence has been announced by now.” She looked at her lover whose face had switched from that of a lover to that of a warrior in an instant. They rolled out of bed and pulled their clothes on. “I really don’t think there’s anything to worry about, Kay.”

Carter had told Lazarus about the conversation that she had with the queen and later with Teryn. “I’m not worried. Just cautious,” Lazarus replied. They had puzzled over the reproduction question and why Loryl was insistent about the silence concerning the information that the strangers were from a planet called Earth. Lazarus had no insight into either mystery. Carter noticed that Lazarus had her phaser tucked into the waist of her uniform.

They exited the small hut together to see that a crowd had gathered outside. Lazarus hovered protectively over the smaller woman. Carter could feel the tension rolling off of her lover. “Easy does it, sweetheart,” she murmured as she stepped boldly ahead, walking through the crowd as if it was something she did every day. Several warriors in the crowd stood protectively in front of others, eyeing Lazarus who remained calm but alert, following Carter. They left the crowd of women standing and watching as they walked into the queen’s hut where she stood talking with Teryn.

Loryl looked up surprised at their entrance as Teryn instantly drew a dagger from her belt. “It is not wise to enter into the private dwelling of the queen unannounced,” Loryl said coldly.

“I wasn’t aware it was a custom here to knock,” Carter responded with a pointed look at Teryn. “I apologize.”

Teryn refused to meet her eyes. “I am at fault, Loryl. I entered D’ryan’s house this morning unannounced.”

Loryl looked at Teryn puzzled, then smiled as light dawned. “I see your warrior has found you,” she said to Carter. “I hope you were comfortable last night. Who was on guard duty?” she turned to Teryn.

“Ky and Shiana,” Teryn told her.

“See that they are given extra duty to make up for their lapse. Perhaps you would be willing to show us how you slipped in without notice,” Loryl added to Lazarus.

Carter nodded at Lazarus. “This is Lazarus. Kay, this is their queen, Loryl, and you’ve already met Teryn, sort of.”

Lazarus nodded at the women. At that moment, a clamor arose from outside and Teryn stepped over to the door. “The scouting party is back with the other two,” she told them. Lazarus and Carter hurried to the door and stepped out to see Joan Warren and Denise Dobbs strolling into the village alongside two of the tribal women.

Dobbsy was grinning from ear to ear at the sight of the village and its occupants. “Ooh la la,” Carter could hear her mutter. Carter grinned as they caught sight of one another.

“Lt. Laughlin,” Joan Warren looked relieved. “And Major Lazarus. We were worried about you, but you appear none the worse for spending the night in the elements.” She wore a wry expression at Lazarus’s obviously well rested appearance. Her hand rested on the butt of the phaser she had tucked into her pants.

“Things are not quite what they seemed,” Lazarus informed the XO. “It is complex, but not dangerous, I believe.”

The XO nodded and Dobbs said, “Major Warren is hurt. I need to get her somewhere that she can lie down.” Carter noticed that despite her bluster the XO had little color in her face and still held her left arm awkwardly to her body.

“Take her to the healer,” Loryl instructed a woman who stepped next to Warren and took her arm.

Warren looked at the queen. “I do not need a healer.” The two leaders locked eyes and wills. After a tense moment, Loryl smiled at Warren and something seemed to pass between them.

“Perhaps if I accompany you,” she asked softly smiling.

Joan Warren’s demeanor abruptly shifted. The pain shone brightly in her eyes. “Very well,” she acquiesced. Villagers and strangers alike stood and watched as the queen took the Major’s arm and led her to the healer’s hut.

“Well, I’ll be dipped,” said Dobbsy.

*

Dobbs, Carter and Lazarus settled down under a tree and caught up on what had happened and what they had learned. Eventually Lazarus stood and said, “I think I’ll wander over and check on Joan.” She left Carter and Dobbs speculating about what had passed between the XO and the queen, and heard Dobbsy’s ribald laughter floating on the cool breeze.

Lazarus ducked her head into the healer’s hut as she knocked on the door frame. Joan Warren lay on a cot, her left arm resting on her chest. Loryl sat in a straight backed chair next to the bed talking intently to the XO. A woman whom Lazarus presumed to be the healer sat at a small table grinding herbs in a mortar.

“Am I interrupting?” Lazarus inquired hesitantly.

“No, Lazarus, come on in,” Joan smiled at her. “I don’t know what these herbs are that Simone has given me but I feel pretty good.”

‘Simone?’ thought Lazarus. “I’m glad you’re feeling better,” she said aloud. “Can I talk to you for a minute?”

“Sure,” Joan replied lazily.

Loryl smiled at her. “I’ll be back later.” She nodded at Lazarus and exited the hut. Lazarus claimed her abandoned chair. Joan watched her walk out the door with an appreciative look on her face.

“Listen Lazarus,” Joan spoke clearly but her eyes appeared slightly glazed to Kay. “I want to talk to you about all that shit that went on between us.”

“Uh, that isn’t really necessary, Joan,” Lazarus inwardly cringed at the thought of bringing up their past history.

“No, I think it is,” Joan insisted quietly.

Lazarus resigned herself to a sensitive chat. “Okay. What do you want to talk about?”

Joan’s fingers tapped nervously despite the apparent effect of the herbs. “You know when you broke it off with me that I was hurt. And angry.” Lazarus nodded but remained silent, listening. “I felt as if I had been seduced and abandoned.” She laughed self consciously, embarrassed. “But that had nothing to do with what happened later. I swear to you Lazarus, I honestly believed that you were sending information to the enemy. I didn’t want to believe it, but all the evidence pointed that way. Now of course I know that the evidence was planted and I was being led that way. I went over it and over it, trying to determine a different reason for what I was seeing. Trying to decide if my personal feelings about you were coloring my judgment in any way. And I couldn’t find another reason for what was happening. I made a professional decision as an officer. And I was wrong. I apologize. I can never make up for what I did to your career and I don’t expect you to forgive me for it.” Joan closed her eyes. She seemed drained of energy and emotion.

Lazarus knew she had to respond but the words didn’t come easily. She noticed with dismay that Joan had tears leaking out from her closed eyes. She reached over and took her good hand and squeezed it gently. “It doesn’t matter anymore, Joan. You made mistakes. I made mistakes. It’s water under the bridge.” They sat in silence for a while holding hands, until Lazarus realized that the drugs Joan had been given were sending her into a deep sleep.

Lazarus got up and left the hut, wondering when the healer had left. She never had gotten around to asking Joan to find out what she could from the healer. Oh well. Lazarus felt lighter and cleaner than she had when she went in to talk to Joan. The rest could wait for another time. She spotted the queen at the same time that she saw her. Loryl met her in the common area.

“How is she feeling?” she asked Lazarus.

“She’s asleep,” Kay responded. “Better, I think.”

“She was quite anxious to talk to you,” Loryl looked inquiringly at Lazarus. “I hope she was able to do so before the herbs took effect.”

“Yes, she did,” Kay said. “Thank you for your kindness to her. She is a proud woman and does not easily accept help.”

Loryl smiled. “I recognized a little of myself in her, I’m afraid.”

Lazarus glanced around. “Do you know where Carter and Dobbs went?”

“They’ve gone to the river with Teryn. She will keep them safe.” Lazarus thought of Teryn with her staff and daggers, and Carter with her phaser and wondered who would keep whom safe. You never knew.

*

Carter and Dobbs came tearing back into the clearing an hour later. “Kay, come here!” Carter called, as Lazarus started moving toward them. The tribal women in the clearing stopped what they were doing and watched. Carter grabbed Lazarus’s hand and pulled. “Come on. We found the starbird!”

“What?” Lazarus asked Carter as they all began hurrying back in the direction from which they had come. “Any survivors?” She pulled her phaser from her waist and checked the charge on it.

“No,” Carter answered. “Not that we found anyway. We found a couple of bodies, but there had been scavengers there and it was a mess.”

“It was flat out disgustin’ is what it was,” Dobbs said cheerfully. “I cain’t believe it didn’t burn up in the atmosphere, but then I still cain’t believe we didn’t either.”

“Where’s Teryn?” Lazarus asked.

“She stayed there to watch over the wreck until we got you,” Carter said.

“I offered to stay with her but the spoil sport made me come with her. I think she doesn’t trust me around that good lookin’ woman for some reason,” Dobbs complained good-naturedly.

Carter rolled her eyes. “You’re right Dobbsy. I don’t trust you around her. You leave that poor girl alone.”

Dobbs put on an injured air. “What are you talkin’ about? You’re worried about me hurting a big bad warrior? I wouldn’t do that. Unless she wanted me to.” She laughed.

“Appearances can be deceiving Dobbs,” Lazarus said cryptically. “What kind of shape is the starbird in?”

“Not too bad considering,” Carter said. “I think it’s in better shape than the shuttle.”

“Then we may have just gone into the salvage business,” Lazarus smiled.

*

After disposing of the “flat out disgusting” remains of the Ultharians, the two engineers poked and prodded the starbird familiarizing themselves with the alien systems. It was not the first Ultharian technology they had come in contact with since the war began and was not totally foreign. “I need to return to the shuttle for tools,” Carter announced. Dobbs nodded agreement.

Teryn looked at the sun’s position in the sky. “You can’t today. There isn’t time to make it there before nightfall.”

Lazarus agreed. “I think we should head back to the shuttle at first light. We could be back by nightfall tomorrow with the tools we need.”

“I suggest we return to the village,” Teryn said. “If the queen is willing, I will go with you tomorrow as your guide.”

“Why thank you Teryn. That’s awfully nice of you,” Dobbs purred. Carter shot her a look. Dobbs smirked.

*

That evening, Carter, Lazarus, and Dobbs sat around a central campfire with the tribal women. Loryl disappeared for a minute and returned with Joan Warren who looked tired but better. Carter noticed that the more of the yerak stew she ate, the less appealing it became. Still it was better than S rations and she noticed that the other Federation women seemed to enjoy the change of pace.

“Teryn tells me she has offered to guide you back to your camp,” Loryl said to the Federation women. “I must go before the council but I do not think I am premature in saying that I hope you will consider staying here with us.” She addressed all of them but looked at Joan Warren when she spoke.

The firelight was deceiving but Dobbs was fairly sure that Joan Warren blushed before she found the fire to be a truly fascinating thing on which to focus her attention.

“Tell us how you came to be here, Loryl,” Lazarus asked.

“I am not one of the story keepers,” Loryl responded quickly. “The entire story would be better left for another time. For now, let me just say that we came from far away many generations ago. We have carved out a life here and this is now our home.” She paused. ” I think I will send a few others on your journey tomorrow. There is a better chance of a safe return in larger numbers.”

Lazarus noticed, but allowed the queen her evasion of their history without commenting. “Thank you, Loryl. We would appreciate the guidance. I think it might be a good idea to get an early start. Teryn assures me it will take all day to get there and back again.”

“Yes,” Loryl said. “And even then you will have to hurry.” She turned to Joan Warren. “I think the healer would rather you stayed here until you are feeling better.”

“I agree,” said Lazarus. “You can’t help carry anything with that arm anyway. I can get anything you need for you.”

“No, I want to go,” Joan said stubbornly. “I have things I need to do.”

“Then I shall travel with you as well to make sure you get back safely,” Loryl said softly. The tribal women glanced at one another. The silence around the campfire that followed that statement spoke volumes.

*

Lying in bed that night, Carter draped over Lazarus in her usual position, they spoke quietly. “I still haven’t found out too much about these women,” Lazarus said, stroking Carter’s hair. “We don’t know their history, how they got here, how they have children, or where the men went. I don’t really understand why it’s all a secret either.”

“Maybe it isn’t really a secret,” Carter guessed. “Maybe Loryl is just keeping her own counsel until she knows us better.” She rubbed Lazarus’s belly. “We haven’t divulged a lot of information about ourselves either.”

“True,” Lazarus conceded. “But not because it’s a secret. I haven’t wanted to discuss where we come from with them simply because of the difficulties involved in explaining a deep space station and wormholes to a tribe of women who hunt with bows and spears.”

“But they don’t know that,” Carter said. “All they know is we haven’t told them, not why. I’ll see if I can draw Loryl out tomorrow on the hike back. Or maybe I should ask Major Warren to do it. She seems to have her undivided attention.”

“What’s that all about, do you suppose?” Lazarus wondered.

“Well what do you think, you big doofus?” Carter laughed at her.

“What?” Lazarus genuinely didn’t know.

“She likes her, sweetheart,” Carter watched as comprehension dawned.

“Loryl likes Joan?” Lazarus was surprised.

“You sound like a sixth grader,” Carter outlined Lazarus’s lips with her fingertip. “Watch them tomorrow. You’ll see.”

Lazarus lightly caught Carter’s finger with her teeth and growled. “I like you and not like a sixth grader.”

“Ooh, that works out nicely,” Carter whispered back.

*

As the sun was rising the next morning, Carter and Lazarus met up with Loryl, Teryn, Dobbs, and Warren. Carter briefly wondered where the other two women had slept the night before. She noticed two other women joining them.

“This is Ky and this is Shiana,” Teryn introduced the guards that had allowed Kay Lazarus to slip unnoticed into the village. “They will be joining us today.” The two new women nodded gravely and Carter thought a little nervously to the Federation women. Apparently traveling with the queen was a huge responsibility and a chance to make up for the blunder of allowing an intruder to infiltrate.

Ky and Shiana took the point after exchanging quiet words with Teryn who was obviously in charge of this expedition. Dobbs followed them. Loryl and Joan went next, closely followed by Carter, Lazarus and Teryn. The early part of the trip was mostly silent as the women found themselves deep in the forest, moving cautiously but quickly down the trail. It was midmorning before Loryl gave a short whistle that brought Ky and Shiana to a halt. “This is a good place to rest,” she said. “Though not for long.”

“Are there a lot of wild animals around here?” Dobbs inquired casually.

“Yes,” Teryn replied. “Dogs that hunt in packs, and felines that hunt alone. And there are yeraks, but they are the hunted, not the hunters.”

“What exactly are yeraks?” asked Carter, remembering the stew, not sure she wanted to know.

“Yeraks are yeraks,” shrugged Teryn. She pulled a piece of jerky from her pocket and handed it to Carter. “That is yerak.”

Carter nibbled it. “Pretty good,” she told Teryn. Teryn grinned at her and Carter wondered again at the solitude this lovely young woman had imposed upon herself. Teryn pulled out more jerky and offered it around before she began chewing on a piece.

“We must leave,” Loryl announced. She stood and offered her hand to Joan Warren who accepted the help up. The rest of the trip was without incident and they arrived at the crash site of the shuttle in the early afternoon. “We cannot spend much time here if we hope to return to the village before nightfall.” She eyed the shuttle with wonder.

“It won’t take long,” Carter assured her as she hurried into the shuttle. Followed closely by Dobbs and Warren, Carter gathered her diagnostic tools and all the hardware she thought she might have a use for in the Ultharian starbird. Dobbs was right behind her carrying everything else. “Major, should we set the ELS now that we know the Ultharians aren’t going to track us by it?”

Dobbs had managed to repair the Emergency Locating System but they had decided to not activate it because of their uncertainty concerning the Ultharians who had been chasing them. “I don’t see what harm it can do,” she replied without much interest. “I don’t imagine it will be picked up by anyone in this area for a couple of millennia.” The two women remained silent at this pessimistic observation. “And you know, as long as we’re stuck here, there’s not much sense in calling me ‘Major’. I don’t see a lot of reason for a chain of command among four people.”

“Who are you lady, and what have you done with Major Warren?” Dobbs spoke first. Carter waited for the explosion that didn’t come.

“I’m serious, Dobbs. I mean Dobbsy. Isn’t that what people call you?” Joan asked her. “I suppose it’s possible that we’ll get the starbird running, and survive a second trip through an unstable wormhole, and then get back to Zebra without being mistaken for the enemy and getting blown to smithereens, but how likely is that? Just call me Joan. I’m pretty sure our military careers are over.” Carter decided that Joan didn’t look nearly upset enough to believe all that she had just spouted off. She glanced over and noticed Lazarus leaning against the hatch listening.

“Okay, Joan,” the name rolled glibly off of Dobbsy’s tongue. “What about you, Major Lazarus? What do you want to be called?”

“You can call me Lazarus,” said Lazarus. “And I agree with Joan. There is no need for chain of command anymore.”

“You don’t call her Lazarus, do you?” Dobbsy asked Carter.

“Sometimes,” Carter replied.

“Sometimes really loudly,” Lazarus enjoyed the flush that swept across Carter’s face. And then thought, ‘Uh oh.”

“And sometimes I call her other things too,” Carter said sweetly. “Sometimes I call her Booboo, and sometimes I call her Snookums, and she really likes it when I call her my little sweet potato, and sometimes I call her…”

“All right, all right, I’m sorry” Lazarus grumbled. “Have you asked Joan about talking to Loryl?”

“Smooth segue, Snookums,” Carter grinned. “No, I haven’t.”

“That’s Major Snookums to you, Lieutenant,” Lazarus said. All four of the women laughed and then the laughter faded as a wave of sadness over the loss of their world swept through them, and they contemplated their new world.

Part 6
Everyone, including the queen, was loaded down with the equipment and supplies from the wrecked shuttle. Only Joan Warren was spared due to her injured arm. Consequently, the trip back to the village was slower going than they had managed earlier. At some point in the trip, one of the few moments when Loryl left Joan’s side, Lazarus sidled up beside her and whispered their concerns to the former XO. Joan nodded her agreement. Lazarus fell back to rejoin Carter and Teryn.

“I have asked Dobbs to stay with me until you are able to leave,” Teryn was telling Carter as Lazarus rejoined them.

“Oh.” Carter shot a look at Lazarus who shrugged. “Thanks a lot, pal,” Carter hissed at her.

“Should I not have?” Teryn asked tentatively, noticing the exchange.

“It was very kind of you, Teryn,” Lazarus said. “I’m sure Dobbs appreciates it.”

“I’m sure,” muttered Carter.

“I’ll make sure she behaves herself,” Lazarus whispered to Carter as soon as Teryn wasn’t paying attention to them. “I’ll talk to her.”

“How are you going to do that?” Carter asked. “We no longer have a chain of command.”

“No, but I’m still bigger and stronger,” said Lazarus. “If I give her The Look, she’ll behave herself.”

“Good point,” Carter said.

*

Night was falling and the temperature dropping as they tread wearily into the village. Lazarus had her little talk with Dobbsy who was properly subdued after mild resistance. Carter and Lazarus went to rest for a little while before meeting everyone for the evening meal. Sprawled across both Lazarus and the bed, Carter rubbed Lazarus’s belly. “Did I tell you I was having weird dreams?” Carter asked.

“What kind of dreams?” Lazarus said.

“I dreamed that I was searching for something I couldn’t find, and the longer I looked for it the more elusive it became. It was very frustrating. I dreamed the same thing twice. And then last night I dreamed it again, only this time my grandmother was in it and she was telling me which way to go on a path and I knew if I did that I would find what I was looking for finally.”

“Oh,” Lazarus said politely, and yawned.

“Then today when we were going to the river, I spotted a path and it was the path in my dream. I asked Teryn where it went and she said to another part of the forest where they gather herbs. I told her I wanted to follow it for a bit and that’s when we found the starbird.”

“That’s an odd coincidence,” Lazarus wasn’t particularly impressed.

“I don’t think it was a coincidence. I think it was a message,” Carter replied.

“From whom?” Lazarus tried to keep her skepticism from her face.

“I don’t know,” Carter said. “My grandmother maybe. I just know that I dreamed it too many times for it to be a coincidence. And it came true.”

“Did you start dreaming before we came through the wormhole?” Lazarus asked.

“No. The first night we were here is when I first dreamed it.”

Lazarus was unsure what to make of this. Had it been anyone else she would have laughed at the idea but so many strange things had happened and continued to be a mystery that she reserved judgment on prognosticating dreams. “I’ll talk to the healer tonight if I get a chance,” she said.

“I don’t need a healer,” Carter said indignantly.

“No, not for you,” Lazarus smiled at her lover. “Just to see if that’s an unusual occurrence around here.”

“Oh. Speaking of which, let’s go get something to eat,” Carter replied enigmatically.

“Eating is an unusual occurrence?” Lazarus asked, smiling at the bottomless pit that posed as a woman.

“No, but we still haven’t found out what yerak is. I think that’s kind of strange too,” Carter responded suspiciously.

“Ah, sweet mystery of life,” Lazarus replied.

*

Joan Warren smiled as the two women approached. “Good stew,” she raised her bowl. Carter smiled wanly at her and picked up a bowl for herself and Lazarus.

“How are you feeling?” Carter asked her.

“Tired, but better,” Joan replied. She spotted Loryl walking toward them and smiled. Carter watched the years and worries fall from Joan’s expression and felt happy for her former XO. She reached out and felt for Lazarus’s hand with her own, pleased that Joan had a chance to feel free from the stress of command and guilt and whatever other demons she had fought during her years in the Federation. Maybe that could lead to the freedom to feel something for someone else and to actually enjoy that feeling and allow it to become something special. She wrapped her fingers between Lazarus’s.

“Hello,” Loryl spoke to them all but only had eyes for Joan. She sat down next to her. “We are having a council meeting tomorrow to discuss all of you, among other things. I need to talk with you about several matters. You are the leader among you, are you not?” She spoke to Joan.

“Not anymore,” Joan responded. “I guess I’ve abdicated.” She smiled ruefully. “I think you would be better off talking to Lazarus if you wanted our leader. I’m out of the leader business and I think I like it.”

Loryl absorbed this for a moment. “Very well. I need to tell you, all of you, of our history. We came to this planet on a starship many generations ago when we were both men and women.” All three of the women were astonished that this tribal woman would know what a starship was, let alone claim to be a descendent of space travelers. Ignoring their expressions she continued. “The legend says that our people were lost and landed here in order to survive. Their provisions were gone and this planet seemed hospitable. The first few moons were good and all went well. Houses were built, food was plentiful. The weather was harsh but they adapted. Then the first winter came and almost everyone fell ill. The women stayed sick longer but all lived. The men all died. It was presumed that the women would die out also as time went on, but healers discovered that the illness had changed the women. We now had the capability of producing children on our own. The first generation of women had only female children and there was great fear that a male baby would succumb to the same illness that took the first males, but we never found out. No one has produced a male child since.”

“I’m curious about how women become with child,” Lazarus asked awkwardly. “What exactly is the procedure for that?”

Loryl’s face lit up. “Are you and Carter interested in having a child?”

“Uh, no. It’s more of a scientific curiosity,” Lazarus’s look of consternation amused Carter.

“The planet gives us children,” Loryl replied, disappointed. “When two women decide to have children they go through the ritual of asking the planet to honor them with a child by spending three nights in the caves of Selena. They then go into a deep trance. If the planet chooses them, then the one who wishes to give birth becomes with child.”

“I don’t understand,” Carter said, voicing the bewilderment of all of them. “How can the planet make a decision?”

Loryl shrugged. “It just does. We don’t really understand it either. I understand the planet told you how to find the alien ship.”

Carter stared at her. “I had a dream. Several dreams.”

“That was the planet telling you what to do. Did she send you the memory of someone you honor?”

“Yes. Well, I guess. I dreamed of my grandmother,” Carter was bewildered.

“That is how she works. Through dreams and trances.”

Joan asked, “So you worship the planet as a god?”

Loryl laughed. “No. We honor the planet as a provider of food and shelter and water and children, but it is not a deity.”

“You mean the planet itself is sentient?” Lazarus asked quietly.

“That’s not possible,” Joan whispered.

“The planet speaks to us through dreams and trances. The planet provides for us physically. The planet gives us children. If that is what you mean by sentient then I suppose it is,” Loryl said.

The three women sat and thought about this for a few minutes. Carter could feel the cold wind starting to cut into her and moved closer to Lazarus. Joan shivered and Loryl moved closer to her. “Perhaps we should move indoors. The night is falling,” Loryl stood and held her hand out to Joan who took it. They walked over to the hut Lazarus and Carter were staying in and Lazarus started a fire. They all sat quietly absorbing the information they had received from Loryl.

Finally Lazarus broke the silence. “Why do you need to discuss us in your council meeting?”

Loryl sighed. “Our legend also says that someday another starship would come to return us to the place we originally came from. That place is called Earth.”

“I thought so,” Lazarus said. “The odds were astronomical that we would be propelled through a wormhole, crash land on an M class planet, and find women who spoke English. Is there any of the original ship left?”

“The outer shell. The rest has been used for other purposes or disappeared over the seasons. We have been here for several generations,” Loryl said. “The council needs to discuss the possibility of our leaving this place. It seems that the legends have come true with your arrival. Our time here seems to be waning. Children are fewer and fewer and we will die out unless something changes. We were hoping when you landed that you might bring new life to our village, but when we heard you were from Earth it changed everything. Now it seems we’re meant to leave here.”

“There’s no way that we can take the entire village with us even if we do get the starbird flying,” Lazarus explained. “It’s a science vessel meant to carry a crew of six or eight. If we make it back, and that’s a big if, we can try to retrace our steps and send someone after you, if you want.”

“I see,” Loryl said. “Then when you leave, you possibly will never return?” She asked Joan Warren who sat with a stricken expression on her face.

“It’s very possible,” Lazarus replied. “It would be difficult to say the least.”

“Then that gives us much to discuss in council,” Loryl stood. “I will leave you for the evening. Sleep well.” She turned to Joan. “May I speak with you privately, please?”

Joan nodded and stood to leave. “We’ll head out to the starbird early then?” she asked Lazarus. Lazarus nodded. “Good night.” Joan followed Loryl.

Carter turned to Lazarus. “That was unbelievable. A sentient planet? Who fathers children no less. And speaks in dreams. Think it can get the starbird up and running for us?”

Lazarus laughed. “Doesn’t seem likely, does it? But there are strange things in the universe. We’ve discovered sentient life forms before that were hard to believe. Why not a planet?” She eyed Carter. “Say, here’s your big chance. Want to make a baby?”

“I’m not going in a cave for love or money, but if you want to give it a shot right here I’m game,” Carter grinned and reached for her lover.

*

The next morning found five women trudging toward the starbird for a day of repairs. Carter noticed that Joan Warren alternated between elation and depression, and Dobbs seemed subdued. Teryn was her usual taciturn self. The work went better than anyone expected with Carter and Dobbs supervising the repairs. Teryn showed a distinct aptitude for the minor mechanical chores she was assigned. Joan and Lazarus tackled the things they felt comfortable with, while Dobbs and Carter took on the heavy engineering problems. At midday they broke for a brief meal of yerak jerky and water.

“We’ve got to get this thing flying just to get away from this yerak stuff,” Carter told Lazarus. “The first several hundred times it wasn’t too bad but I’m way over it. I’m actually missing S rations.”

“Ooh, that is bad,” Dobbs said. “I don’t believe I’ve ever heard anyone say that before. Carter, nobody misses S rations. Unless you were flat out starving and even then…” She shuddered. “I don’t think this stuff is so bad. I could teach ‘em how to barbecue and I’ll bet it would be pretty good. We make the best barbecue in the world in Alabama, you know.”

“I have a cousin in Texas who’d argue with you about that,” Carter told her.

“Texas?” Dobbs snorted. “They think beef is barbecue. But only because you cain’t ride a horse and steal a pig at the same time.”

“And you can barbecue yerak?” Carter laughed. “We still don’t even know what that is.”

“Would you guys shut up? You’re making me sick,” Lazarus looked at the jerky she was holding and sat it aside. “Let’s get back to work, okay?”

The rest of the day saw many problems solved on the science vessel. As the sun sank lower in the sky, the women gathered their tools and set out to return to the village. “What’s our time line here?” Joan asked Carter.

Carter looked at Dobbs. “I’m thinking about a week, don’t you think?” she asked.

“Maybe a little less, if everything goes okay,” Dobbs agreed.

“I see,” Joan said thoughtfully. She lagged a little behind the others obviously deep in thought. After a bit Lazarus fell back and joined her.

“Everything okay?” she inquired.

“Yes and no,” Joan replied, a little embarrassed. “I’m pleased that we may actually have an option to being shipwrecked here, but at the same time…” She trailed off.

“Loryl?” Lazarus asked.

Joan nodded sheepishly. “I find myself really drawn to her, Lazarus. I can’t tell you why. We have nothing in common. She’s a member of a tribe on a primitive planet and I’m a Federation officer. Or was. I’ve had twenty years of schooling and I don’t even know if she reads and writes. I’m a scientist and she’s a queen.” Joan laughed at the absurdity of that statement.

Lazarus smiled. “But you’re both leaders. You’re both women of strong convictions and ethics. Think of what you bring to the table rather than how far apart you’re sitting. Besides, she’s a total babe.”

Joan laughed. “I agree.”

“Are you…have you…” Lazarus stopped, not sure whether she should even ask.

“No, not yet,” Joan replied. “But I slept with her last night. Just to keep warm of course.”

“Of course.”

“It could have very easily happened, but neither of us pushed for it.”

“Things happen in their own time,” Lazarus said. “And if we can leave in a week or so, maybe it’s better not to start.”

“Maybe,” Joan sounded downcast. They walked the rest of the way back quietly.

*

After they had eaten the evening meal with no further complaints from Carter, she and Lazarus went wearily to their hut. Lazarus built a fire and the chill quickly evaporated from the room. They sat in front of the small blaze leaning on one another.

“Joan is falling in love,” Carter said.

“Yeah,” Lazarus said. “Bad timing on her part, once again.”

Carter didn’t reply. Joan’s previous history with her lover was not one she cared to think about too deeply. Sensing her lover’s unease, Lazarus changed the subject. “Teryn was pretty good with those conduit relays. I was surprised how quickly she managed that.”

“Yeah. She actually had some pretty creative ideas about things,” Carter said. “She may be a warrior now, but she has the makings of an engineer hidden in there somewhere.” She scooted even closer to Kay. “If we don’t get the starbird flying I could think of worse places to be stuck.”

“I think we’ll get her up,” Lazarus said wrapping her arms around Carter. “Getting home again may be a difficult job though. I hope we can survive a second trip through an unstable wormhole.”

“Here or there, as long as I’m with you,” Carter looked in Kay’s startling blue eyes. She brushed a dark tendril of hair behind Kay’s ear. Kay leaned down to Carter and brushed her lips against Carter’s only to feel Carter’s hands tangling in her hair and pulling her even closer. The sweetness of her lover’s mouth invited further exploration and in a few minutes Carter could feel her heart hammering erratically in her chest. She pulled Kay’s hand to her heart. “Can you feel what you do to me?” she whispered. Kay’s hand slipped lower and she smiled to hear her lover’s breathing becoming shaky. She slowly unfastened Carter’s clothes and pulled them down her body until Carter lay naked on the rug in front of the fire. She knelt at Carter’s feet and looked at the lithe, strong body in front of her.

“What are doing? Come here,” Carter reached her arms out to Kay.

“I’m making memories,” Kay said. “Despite everything we’ve had to go through lately, being with you these last few months, has been the best time of my life. I want to remember it always.”

Carter was moved. “Take your clothes off and come here. I’ll make some memories for you.” Lazarus was happy to oblige her.

*

The work on the starbird progressed as Carter predicted and as the days passed, systems fell into place. On the fifth day of their work Teryn lay under the communications console doing a final check on the multiplicity of relays and chips. Dobbs stood above tweaking the alien system when suddenly a hum emanated from the system. “I think we’re online. Damn I’m good,” she crowed. “Just stay down there baby and we’ll celebrate,” she said to Teryn.

“In your dreams, sister,” Teryn responded. Carter, Lazarus and Joan looked at Teryn with surprise. “I’ve been sharing space with Dobbsy,” she explained to them. “She is teaching me the current vernacular.”

Dobbsy laughed. “Well if I cain’t have her, I have to teach her how to take care of herself.”

“Seems to me she’s doing all right,” Lazarus said.

Teryn sat up. “I need to know a great deal if I’m to come with you,” Teryn told them seriously. “Not only the current vernacular, but politics, history, and customs, to say nothing of basic engineering so I may earn my keep.”

Lazarus blinked. “What do you mean ‘come with us’? Where?”

“Back to your home,” Teryn replied calmly. “Loryl and the council have decided that I should accompany you in order to learn more about the possibility of returning to Earth.”

“Loryl decided?” Lazarus grew very still, a bad sign in Carter’s opinion. She watched the flush creep up her lover’s neck and knew it was a bad sign. This wasn’t a good thing.

‘Wait, Kay. Maybe this isn’t such a bad idea,” Carter attempted to defuse the awkwardness of the situation.

“Whether it’s a good idea or not isn’t the issue, Carter,” Lazarus snapped. “Loryl doesn’t make our decisions for us.”

“Loryl and the council,” Teryn reminded Lazarus. She faced Lazarus’s obvious anger with no fear or trepidation. “The council is required for all decisions of great import.”

“Whoever,” Lazarus thundered. “The point, Teryn, is that we should have been consulted before this decision was made. I’m not sure it’s a good idea to take you along.”

“Just as it’s not only the council’s decision, it’s also not only your decision, Kay,” Carter tried to suppress her anger at Lazarus’s arrogance. ‘This requires a lot of discussion from all sides.”

Her anger pinched the color from Lazarus’s face. “I can’t believe you agree with this.” She turned and left the starbird.

“Wait a minute, Kay,” Carter called after her in vain. “Jeez. She’s so hard headed.”

There was an awkward silence for a moment before Joan spoke. “Actually this may be a pretty good idea. Sort of a trade. Sort of.”

Dobbs and Carter looked at each other, then at Joan. “What do you mean?” Carter asked.

Joan cleared her throat, stalling. “I’m thinking of staying,” she said.

“Stayin’ here? What in the world for?” Dobbsy asked.

“I like it here. I’m happy here,” she replied simply. Carter looked at Joan’s face and once again noticed that she looked younger and less troubled than Carter had ever seen her. The stress of leadership had weighed heavily on Joan and a single week had had the effect of erasing years from her face. “Besides,” she flushed a little. “It may be a bit premature to speak, but I think I may have met someone who fits me, as odd as it may seem to others.”

“I don’t think it’s odd at all, Joan,” Carter smiled and reached out to take the former XO’s hand. “I’m very happy for you. Of course, we’ll support any decision you make. I will anyway,” she amended, not daring to speak for her volatile lover.

“What are ya’ll talkin’ about?” Dobbs was astounded at the swiftness of change that swirled about her.

“I’ll leave you to that,” Carter grinned at Joan. “I have to go find my girl.” She left the starbird and looked around for a clue as to where Lazarus may have gone. Probably not back toward the village she decided. The only other path nearby led to the river. She headed in that direction. Several minutes later she spotted a familiar form standing next to the churning whitewater of the river. She moved behind Lazarus and tentatively placed a hand on her shoulder. “Hey.”

Lazarus turned and smiled ruefully at her. “Hey. Sorry I snapped at you. I’m an ass sometimes.”

Carter hugged her. “It’s okay. It was a surprise. I know you hate surprises.”

“Good thing you didn’t throw me a party. I might have killed someone.” Lazarus relished the feeling of calm that came over her whenever Carter was near. “What are we going to do about Teryn, Carter? How can we take her back?”

“Why can’t we? If she’s willing to go, why shouldn’t we take her? She’s a descendant of Earth. There is no prime directive to violate. That only involves alien cultures that haven’t been exposed to space travelers. It’s true she’s not trained to work in current technology, but you’ve seen how smart she is and how quickly she learns. She’ll adapt. I don’t see why she shouldn’t come with us as long as it’s her choice and not the decision of the council.”

“Maybe,” Lazarus conceded. “I still think we should discuss it more before we decide.”

“There’s something else, Kay,” Carter said. “Joan said she’s staying. She likes it here.” She watched her lover’s face carefully for her reaction.

Lazarus frowned and shook her head. “I think that’s a rash decision too. What if she sees us leaving and changes her mind? She’s going to give up everything for a two week relationship?”

“Honey, you know lesbians don’t know how to date,” Carter laughed. “Even Dobbsy told me she’s only been on three dates in her life. The first one lasted three years, the second one lasted five, and the third one lasted four. Joan will be fine.”

“I suppose so. There’s nothing I can do about it anyway as ill advised as it seems to me,” Lazarus said. “I guess we’d better get back to work. Nobody’s going anywhere if we don’t get the warp core online.”

“The warp core can wait a few more minutes. I need to know if we’re all right,” Carter held Lazarus’s hands and looked into her eyes.

“Of course we are, sweetheart,” Lazarus told her. “Come to think of it, you were a pretty quick decision for me and that turned out to be the best thing I ever did.”

“Sweet talk will get you everywhere,” Carter smiled as she tangled her hands in Lazarus’s hair and pulled her down into a kiss.

*

The warp core proved to be a more difficult job than they had first thought and a trip once again to the wrecked shuttle was called for. This time they planned to spend the night and after a long day’s hike and longer time spent salvaging parts from the shuttle, they huddled around a campfire as closely as they could sit to one another. Joan and therefore Loryl had chosen not to come this trip but the two erstwhile guards Ky and Shiana were along for added safety. From what, Carter had yet to determine. Probably the dreaded yerak.

The pup that had appeared and disappeared had appeared again and was settled snoring lightly next to Dobbsy. Her hand rested on his head. “I’ll miss this little fella,” she said wistfully. “I haven’t seen a real dog in three years. Holo dogs aren’t quite the same.”

The dog in question raised his head suddenly alert. His hackles rose and he emitted a low growl.

“What’s the matter, boy?” Dobbs asked quietly. All ears and eyes were on full alert, Ky, Shiana and Teryn with drawn weapons. Lazarus, Carter, and Dobbs with drawn phasers all turned their backs to the fire.

“Over there,” Lazarus said, gesturing with her phaser at eyes that glowed with the reflected glow of the fire.

“And over here,” responded Teryn from the other side of the fire. She let loose an arrow that sang into the dark and found its mark. Snarls of unearthly pain made the hair on the back of Carter’s neck stand up but fear had its place in the fight that ensued. Lazarus quickly followed Teryn’s lead and shot her phaser in the dark. The slight light reflected from the beam exposed red eyes on what looked like an oversized jackal’s body. Lazarus shot again and nicked the animal as two more charged in. Carter and Dobbs fired their phasers and backed the animals off into the dark. From the other side of the fire came an anguished scream and as Lazarus spun around she saw the animal leap toward her. She tried to compensate for the angle but the animal was upon her before she could react. As quickly as it was on her though it fell lifeless to the ground and Lazarus saw Teryn standing where the animal had been wiping the blood from her dagger.

“Thanks,” Lazarus managed, dazed. She looked for Carter who was kneeling next to her. “Are they gone?” Lazarus asked.

“I think so,” Teryn said. “Are you hurt?”

“No, I don’t think so,” Lazarus said. “Is everyone all right? Are you all right?” She looked anxiously at Carter.

“I’m fine,” Carter said. “A little freaked out, but okay.”

“Ky is hurt,” Shiana said holding her friend around the waist. Teryn hurried over to check the woman’s wounds. She tended to the injured woman while Lazarus, Carter and Dobbs settled their nerves.

When Ky had been tended and adrenaline had dissipated, Lazarus asked Teryn, “What the hell was that?”

“Yeraks,” Teryn replied calmly.

“You’re fucking kidding me. That’s what we’ve been eating?” Carter laughed nervously.

“They are a main food source for us,” Teryn said.

“And almost us for them,” Dobbs replied. “Who eats predators?”

“Other predators,” said Teryn. There was no response to this and a long cold night followed accompanied by little or no sleep.

*

“I’m ready to go now,” Lazarus told Carter on the trek back to the village early the next morning. “I’ve had enough of this place. I’d rather face Ultharians, pirates, and even Federation jackasses than go through another night of that. Let’s get that warp core online.”

“I hear you sister,” Carter replied.

*

The group redoubled their efforts and by the end of the next day was ready to try to bring the warp core online. The fuselage that contained the core hummed and turned a very comforting shade of blue. “Damn, I’m good,” Dobbs crowed again.

“Hey you had a little help,” Carter protested. “I’m the one who figured out the reactor timing.”

“Okay, damn, we’re good. Doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, does it?”

“No, but it does have the ring of honesty,” Carter sniped.

“Would you two knock it off? You’re making me sick again,” Lazarus tightened a clamp. “I think we’re ready to run a diagnostic. Carter?”

“I’m on it,” Carter’s relief at getting the starbird flight ready was palpable. The night of the yerak attack had stressed all of them to the breaking point. Carter had eaten only vegetables and the small amount of S rations they had left since then. She was feeling very antsy about getting this bird off the ground and back into the familiar territory of space. She began running the diagnostic.

*

Two days later found the starbird ready. Teryn and Joan Warren left early to return to the village while the rest stayed to iron out a few technicalities. After knocking off for the day they walked back to the village. “When do we leave?” Carter asked Lazarus.

“As soon as possible. I want to make sure Joan is sure of staying and Teryn is leaving of her own free will,” Lazarus replied. “And we need to stock up on whatever supplies we can find. I don’t know what we’ll find out there.” She reached for Carter’s hand. “It’s a big risk you know. I really wasn’t sure we could get this ship up and running, and I’m pleased that we have, but now… well, taking it into space is another risk entirely.”

“I know,” Carter hugged her. “It’s a risk I’m willing to take though. I don’t want to spend my life here Kay. I’m an engineer on a deep space station and living among the wolves is not my cup of tea.” She frowned. “If we are stuck here I’m glad it’s with you, but I say risk be damned. I really want to go.”

“Okay,” Lazarus agreed, convinced by the look of relief that flooded Carter’s expression. “I’ll talk to Joan and Teryn and make sure we’re set.”

“And me,” Dobbs said. “How do you know I want to go?”

They looked at her in surprise. “You’re thinking about staying here?” Carter asked.

“Hell no,” Dobbs said in disgust. “But a girl does like to be asked every once in a while.”

Carter rolled her eyes. “You’re consistent, Dobbsy, I’ll give you that.”

*

After cleaning up and finding something for Carter to eat that didn’t contain fried, stewed, or barbequed yerak, Lazarus walked over to talk to Joan who was still staying in Loryn’s hut. Lazarus knocked at the door and entered when Loryn called out to her. She sat with them at a small table. “We’re getting ready to go,” she said to Joan, the question unasked but hanging in the air between them.

“Yes,” Joan replied to Lazarus but looking at Loryn. “I’m staying here. I’m sure.” Loryn reached for her and stroked her cheek. Lazarus felt as if she had intruded on an intimate act and looked away.

“I needed to make sure that was what you wanted,” she said. “And also,” she continued, “I needed to make sure that Teryn is going with us because she wants to and not because of some order from a council.”

“Teryn was requested by the council to go but it was ultimately her decision,” Loryn said. “She would be ineffective if she was forced to go where she did not want to go.”

Lazarus considered her words. “Very well. You understand that I can’t promise that you will ever see her again.”

Sorrow passed Loryn’s face but she replied, “Yes. I know.”

Lazarus hesitated then said to Loryn, “There’s something I want to ask you.”

*

“We’re leaving day after tomorrow. Loryn has promised to give us some supplies to cover whatever the replicators can’t produce,” Lazarus told Carter as she entered their hut.

“Good,” Carter sighed. “The thought of leaving is a little nerve-wracking but not as bad as the thought of staying here forever.”

“Listen Carter, I, um, want to talk to you about something,” Lazarus suddenly looked nervous. She twisted her hands together. Carter watched her and suddenly felt nervous too.

“What?”

“I was thinking that since we are leaving here in two days and there is a possibility that we may never get back, that…Well I was thinking that this is a place where it might be kinda nice if…I was wondering…”

“For god’s sake, Kay, spit it out,” Carter felt herself growing more jittery by the moment.

Lazarus took a deep breath. “I was wondering if you would marry me before we leave.” She felt sick as the words left her mouth. The feeling intensified at the sight of her lover standing in front of her obviously in shock. “Honey? You okay?”

Carter nodded and closed her mouth. Her circulation system kicked back in and color came to her face. “I’m just a little surprised, that’s all.”

Lazarus still felt sick. “Why? I love you. I want to spend my life with you. I thought you felt the same way.”

Carter wrapped herself around Kay. “Of course I do, sweetheart. I didn’t think you were the marrying kind. And I wasn’t sure I was either.”

“And now?”

“Yes.”

“Yes?”

“Yes.” This agreement was sealed with a kiss, which led to another, which led to roving hands and probing fingers before they pulled part shaking with desire.

“The ceremony’s tomorrow morning at sunrise.”

“What?” Desire disappeared.

“Don’t worry. It’ll be a piece of cake.”

“Even I’m not interested in a piece of cake at sunrise, Lazarus.”

Lazarus shrugged. “It’s tradition. It’ll give us the rest of the day to get the ship packed.”

“Ooh, how romantic.”

“We have the rest of our lives, Carter,” Lazarus whispered, the risk they were undertaking sitting like a boulder between them. “I’ll make it up to you. I know where we can watch six moons rise over the mountains of Carsonium 3. We’ll take a picnic and a bottle of wine. I’ll make it up to you, I promise.”

“You can make it up to me tonight actually,” Carter ran her fingers up Lazarus’s ribs, feeling her shudder beneath her touch. “I think we should celebrate,” she spoke huskily in Lazarus’s ear. “It’s not every day that I agree to marry the woman I love.”

“No, me either,” Lazarus managed to say before the celebration began.

*

Sunrise came too soon for Carter who never understood how Lazarus could get by on such a little amount of sleep. “Hop up, babe,” Lazarus sounded remarkably cheerful for someone who had gotten maybe two hours of sleep and had not had coffee in weeks. “Rise and shine.”

“I’ll rise…” Carter mumbled.

“I know, I know. You refuse to shine,” Lazarus laughed. “Nevertheless, we’ve got get going. People are already starting to gather for the ceremony.”

Carter was quickly wide awake. “I guess I’ll wear my jumpsuit,” she said sadly.

“Yeah, not a lot of choice,” Lazarus pulled her jumpsuit on as she spoke. “Would you rather not do this? We can wait if you want. This has been sudden.”

“No, I don’t want to wait. The jumpsuit is fine. It’s not like I’ve dreamed about getting married my whole life in some fancy wedding gown or something,” Carter smiled at Kay. “The jumpsuit is what I feel the most comfortable in anyway.”

“Good. We’ll have a comfortable wedding,” Lazarus smiled back at her. Their eyes locked.

“We can have this ceremony but I couldn’t be any more married to you than I already am,” Carter told her.

“Indulge me,” Lazarus enfolded her in her arms. “I really want to marry you.” They walked arm in arm to the square to meet Loryn where she stood next to the well. The women of the village smiled and touched them as they walked by.

“I want you to stand with me Dobbsy,” Carter said to Denise Dobbs who wiped a tear away. “Don’t cry. You’ll get me started.”

Lazarus looked at Joan. “I don’t suppose you would want to stand for me?” she asked hesitantly. To her dismay, Joan burst into tears and then all four were laughing and crying until the ceremony began familiarly, “We are gathered here this morning…”

*

Their hearts were still full with the emotion of the ceremony as they sat down to a breakfast that delighted the rest of Carter’s senses. “I’m thinking of becoming a vegetarian, Kay,” she leaned into her lover and fed her a piece of sweet bread.

Lazarus laughed, partly at what Carter was saying and partly from the joy of being alive. “Whither thou goest,” she replied. Carter eyes were shining. She was absolutely beautiful.

Carter looked at the woman she had just married. She was pretty sure that Lazarus had no idea how beautiful she was but she intended to let her know with every breath she took for the rest of her life.

*

Despite the pleas of the village women to stay and eat and drink with them, Lazarus, Carter, Dobbs, Joan and Teryn went to the ship and loaded supplies for the rest of the day. They checked and rechecked systems. Carter crawled all over the ship and inspected every rivet for the hundredth time. Dobbs checked them again. By late afternoon, there was nothing left to be done. A sense of sadness crept into the conversation.

‘I’m going to miss you Major,” Dobbs told Joan Warren.

“Thank you, Lieutenant.” They fell easily back into military roles now that the flight was a reality. “I will miss all of you,” Joan replied. “I will especially miss the opportunity to tell the tale of standing for Lazarus at her wedding. Who would believe that?”

“I’ll tell them for you,” Lazarus smiled at her.

Carter flung her arm around Lazarus’s shoulder. “And I’ll tell them we all spent our honeymoon working on an Ultharian starbird.” They laughed and walked back to the village for the final night.

*

The next morning most of the village walked them over to the starbird. Teryn spoke quietly with Loryn then hugged everyone several times but remained dry eyed as she clambered aboard the ship. “I’ll show her where to stow her gear,” Dobbs followed Teryn aboard.

“Goodbye Joan,” Lazarus hugged her former adversary.

“I can’t tell you how much I appreciate everything you’ve done for me,” Joan said sincerely. “Take care of her, Carter.”

“Oh, I will,” Carter told her former XO. “You take care of yourself. Are you sure about this?”

“Very sure,” Joan watched Loryn as she stood apart from them, allowing Joan her goodbyes.

“Ready?” Lazarus asked Carter.

“As I’ll ever be,” Carter grinned up at Lazarus. The women turned and walked into the hatch and Joan heard the swoop of the air lock as it sealed them in. The village women all stood back as the engines hummed and came online. The blue glow from the warp core intensified and the starbird lifted from the ground and disappeared into the morning sky.

The End

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