I do not own Stellaris. Paradox Interactive does.

Thanks to R. Moonstalker for editing.

Chapter published 2/25/19.


Modrig den Tarrob

Like a switch had been thrown, Cari went from the uncharacteristically enthusiastic psionics student to the stone-cold Great Khan of the Imari Horde. She rushed to her tablet - she'd placed it in some square indent in the floor, the telltale indicator of a hologram meeting - and spoke into it. "Get me General Koraci!" With a gesture of her talons, the far door opened. Outside, the party was over and only silence reigned. Cari's bodyguards rushed in and took up positions next to her while she opened a wall and rummaged through a closet, before grabbing something black and pinning it above her heart. Corcora hurried to Modrig's side and looked up at him with grim, black eyes. "Corcora, escort Modrig to a secure location," Cari said without turning around.

"Consider it done," his bodyguard said quickly.

'Wait, what's going on?!' Modrig shouted.

Corcora hopped over to the nest, grabbed his tablet, and forced it into his grip. He grabbed it by reflex. "We're getting out of here, what do you think?!" She reached for her breast and tapped something hidden beneath her feathers. Whatever machinery she had hidden there began to sprout black plates with the sound of clanging metal, growing over Corcora's body and rolling up her tailfeathers until she was entirely encased in dark armor, gold plumage replaced with dark metal. Her eyes were replaced by teal spotlights. A glance to the side revealed Cari and her bodyguards undergoing a similar transformation. "Come on!" she shouted, grabbing his right arm in a metallic talon and tugging him with irresistible strength.

Corcora tugged him into the hallways outside and he balked at the tropical environment. Cari furiously shouted orders into her tablet right behind them as they ran. They reached an intersection and his bodyguard tugged him to the right, away from the Great Khan.

Somewhere, far away, was a clang, followed by the screech of tearing metal. Modrig jumped in fright and nearly hit his head in the ceiling. 'Where are we going?' he asked the Imari tugging him along.

"Escape pods," she said simply. "If we're being boarded, but the fleets' sensors didn't detect anything, then it's a small force. Assassins probably, for the Khan."

Not the 'Great' Khan? he wondered in the back of his mind as he ducked down onto all fours when they entered a particularly small passage. 'Then how do we know where they are?!'

"Good idea." Corcora stopped and craned her neck to the ceiling. "Tev! Which way are the invaders?"

"Take the next left!" the AI's voice came over the intercom. "And hurry, they're using some kinda - " Then there was a burst of static, accompanied by yet another terrible screech.

The ceiling dented downward. He and Corcora stumbled back and he nearly tripped over his paws. Another screech, close enough and loud enough he had to flatten his ears, came accompanied by a shower of sparks from the ceiling. In the span of a heartbeat the metal tore open, and something conical, thick and glossy black with a tornado of moving mechanical limbs around it, burrowed into the ground and vanished as suddenly as it'd come.

He reacted far too late to ever have saved himself, yipping and leaping back what seemed like an eternity after the drill-esque thing had vanished. Corcora leaned over the hole, and he crawled forward to look down with her. There, going down and off to the side, was a thick tunnel like something made by a burrowing animal on the more dangerous colonies. But instead of dirt and stone, it was metal plates and electronics that'd been torn apart in an almost perfectly round hole. The only thing marring the perfection of the carving were multiple gashes and streaks, like claws had scraped along the walls.

His mouth hung open and a wheeze escaped his mouth. Every strand of fur on his body stood on end. Corcora hummed and spoke - which, with the pyramid of unmoving metal over her beak, looked alot like telepathy. She was saying... something, but Modrig barely heard her. His eyes were locked on the hole, and his mind kept replaying how easily the machine had torn it apart. If he'd been standing just a few steps ahead, underneath it when it came down...! His heart sped up and his lungs felt tight. Air, he needed air!

"FOCUS!" Corcora shouted, grabbing him by the head and forcing him to look at her. "Can you jump across?" He nodded shakily. "Then follow my lead." She tensed and hopped across the gaping hole. She landed with a flutter of her arm-wings on the other side. Modrig tensed his limbs, curled up, and sprung like a coil.

For a terrible, sickening moment, he was above the hole. Wider than he was tall. Deep enough to break something if he fell. He felt for certain he'd stop dead in the air and plummet. But then he kept moving, and his paw pads touched down on metal. A strangled noise slithered out from his mouth as he stood up as much as he could.

"This way," Corcora insisted, reaching up to his paw and tugging him along. "Left!" she said triumphantly when they came to a two-way junction. They turned down the left, and a duo of gunfire cracks echoed somewhere far behind him. Gunfire. Actual gunfire. Someone was being shot close enough for him to hear!

Modrig entirely lost his sense of direction as Corcora led him up and down and left and right. Which part of the ship were they even in? The front? Near the engines? 'Are we close?'

"We are," she confirmed, taking another turn through the tunnels that ran like veins throughout the ship. "Escape pods are right heeee..." she said, trailing off. The passage before them was completely collapsed, metal panels and solid blocks of electronics cluttering the misshapen corridor like a puzzle with the pieces forced together until they fit. "Rot," she swore.

'It's blocked off!' he said hysterically, his limbs trembling and his head faint with adrenaline. 'Where do we go? Is there another way? This was just the fastest, right, it was - '

"Get a hold of yourself!" she snapped. "There's more than one set of escape pods, and more than one way to each." She looked left and right, humming quietly for a moment. "This way," she said at last, darting back the way they'd come. He whimpered quietly and followed after her, keeping his eyes on the ceiling. Who knew when it'd implode down on him? When one of those drill things - were those actual Stranglevine soldiers?! - would come and sheer through his flesh?

The sound of angry bird chatter came from up ahead, prompting Corcora to hold out a wing and stop him. "Friendlies!" she shouted. They rushed forward and came face to face with a group of four armored Imari in a diamond-shaped formation. "Corcora Tenju," she greeted. "I was escorting this VIP to the escape pods, but the path's collapsed. Can you provide escort?"

"No way," the lead Imari said. "We've been ordered down to floor C, Stranglevine soldiers have been reported in the bay." He turned to look up at Modrig. "And get this mammal a mask, they're using some sort of chemical weapon. Nothing like it in intel, they cooked up something new."

Corcora brought a talon to her face as the others pushed past. "Of course they are. Alright, just... just let me think," she said.

'But where do we go?' he asked, fingers laced together.

Corcora turned on him and snarled, actually snarled. She shook her head and backed away. "I said let me think. We keep going. There's no gas mask sized for you, so we need to... to... get to the nursery and from there circle back around," she concluded, already heading away for the umpteenth time, with Modrig following helplessly after her.

Every twist and turn there was the distant shriek of metal. Every slope down there was - somewhere, far away but close enough for his ears to make out - the scratchy sound of avian screaming. Before too much longer, they came to a sealed double-door, and Corcora tapped something on a glowing panel next to it.

With a hiss the doors slid open, revealing a vast chamber with a ceiling much taller than he'd have thought the diminutive aliens would've needed. Balconies ringed the walls halfway up, and hundreds of honeycomb structures on the upper floor were locked shut. Carved into the ceiling at an off-angle was a gargantuan tunnel of devastated wiring, and in the middle of the chamber, tall enough to nearly scrape the ceiling, was almost certainly a Stranglevinian soldier.

It was twice his height, covered completely in armor as black as sin, so thoroughly there wasn't a petal of the actual alien itself visible. On its base was something that looked like a large pot, sprouting a multitude of metal legs to scurry about the ground. With the metal covering it the Stranglevine appeared as little more than a flexing, narrow cone that ended in a sphere where the four fronds that made up its head would've been.

Gunfire split the air and made him duck down, ears flattened at the sharp volume. Imari soldiers on the walkway above fired down at the Stranglevine, holding out their armored talons and shooting bullets from the palms. But like a cyclone of metal more and more arms sprouted from the plantoid's suit, placing themselves in the line of fire and sparking whenever they blocked a shot. It pointed back at the Imari and returned fire, equally if not even more deafening. One of the avians went down and his eyes followed them, nauseous horror rising in his stomach as the soldier's body went down, down down, bounced on the ground and left a bloodstain and - and - and - and - !

He wrenched his eyes away and followed his bodyguard. Corcora rushed towards an exit, and Modrig followed her without thinking, but he still kept his eyes on the Stranglevine. It skittered to the side on its robotic limbs with a deafening clang clang clang, gripping rails and hooking into the metal walls to pull itself along the floor and up the side of the room like an insect.

Something flew out from it, and Modrig's eyes followed it. It was a ball, like a piece of machinery had broken and fallen out from the alien. All the Imari ducked and looked away, what was going on?!

"Modrig, don't - !" Corcora began.

FLASH!

He screamed when the grenade exploded in a nova of light and sound, and the shockwave physically pushed him back along the ground. Modrig's paws flew to his eyes, but too late. Even with them closed there was an insistent green splotch anywhere he looked and the world, now hauntingly silent, spun around him nauseatingly. Desperately, he reached out with his psionics and felt the glowing minds of a dozen people around him. There was the Stranglevine's mind, the soldiers firing down at it, and Corcora still close by.

He reached out, groping at thin air, and gasped in relief when Corcora's talons closed around his wrist and pulled him forward. He stumbled and nearly tripped, but soon Corcora's mind-glow shoved him down and against something hard. A wall. He was laying against a wall. Why was she stopping?! There was a giant murderous plant alien right there! He could still feel its mind-glow, close enough to touch, they had to - !

"Modrig," he heard faintly. "Modrig, can you hear me?"

'Barely,' he said, his own telepathy booming compared to the silence. 'Can't believe I looked at it. Stupid.' Abruptly a cough rose in his chest. He hacked up a few wads of phlegm.

"You're a civilian, don't worry about it." Humph. "Can you see?"

He opened his eyes then instantly regretted it. Everything was blurred, and the green spot was still pervasive. Eyes watering, he closed them again. 'No,' he moaned. 'Just minds with my psionics.'

"It'll have to do. Let me help you up." Mechanically strengthened arms helped him onto two legs. "We're going to loop back around. Just take it easy."

'We've been walking forever,' he complained. 'They just keep blocking off the path, we keep having to, having to...' He trailed off, but did his best to follow Corcora when he felt her mind moving away.

Slowly but surely, his vision began to clear. He blinked his watering eyes furiously, as if he could wipe the afterimage of the stun grenade from them by force. They itched, too. In fact, if he thought about it, every fur on his body prickled and stood on end, itching.

Crunch!

The wall behind him burst open and he yipped, running forward and glancing backwards against his better instincts. From the newly formed hole in the wall was the orb-capped visage of an armored Stranglevine. One of its mechanical arms came up out of the hole and gripped the metal floor, and another emerged to face him and Corcora. This one was like a pipe, long and hollow, and with a hearty thunk a canister flew out of it.

He'd learned his lesson from last time. Modrig flattened his ears and looked away, closing his eyes tight.

But there was no explosion of light and sound. Just the bone-rattling rumble of the Stranglevine tunneling to elsewhere in the ship, and a faint hissing.

Hissing?

The canister, still spinning with the momentum of its toss, was spraying something from its ends. It was like fog from dry ice, but with an unnatural brownish pink tint to it.

"Ah!" he shouted, reaching out with his telekinesis on instinct. He imagined a ball forming around the gas, then compressed it in and lifted the gas canister. It formed a rippling sphere of mist, already dense enough to shroud the weapon itself from view. Stumbling, Modrig backed up with the contained gasses following him at a distance. His eyes still stung, so he closed and rubbed them.

"Modrig, what are you - oh no," Corcora said, turning back to face him. "I imagine that's the chemical weapon they were talking about," she said faintly, staring up at it.

He grunted and breathed out hard through his nose. The pressure in his psychic 'bubble' was getting harder, and he was forced to expand it from the size of his head to the size of his torso. 'It's still releasing gas,' he said, panic rotting in his stomach and sizzling his nerves.

"Airlock's not far, let's go get rid of this thing."

They ran, with Modrig keeping the toxic gasses hovering just overhead. He was getting a headache from keeping it contained; the canister was still releasing poison, slowly but surely raising the pressure within his barrier. He kept slipping, and the swirling orb kept getting just a little bit bigger.

Up, across, down, down, right left, down. It seemed every new corridor they went there was a sparking hole torn through it, so recent the edges were still red-hot. The worst was when the hole was torn from floor to the ceiling, forcing them to carefully crawl across the gap while still keeping the ball of chemicals together. But then thankfully, mercifully, they arrived at a wide hall lined on one side with rows upon rows of glass doors. Beyond each was a wide cubical chamber with walls covered in vents. All of them were empty, and all of them had a sealed durasteel door at the far end.

Corcora rushed over to the closest airlock and slid a piece of the wall - a panel he hadn't noticed in his panic - aside and furiously tapped along the holographic display hidden behind it. She balled a fist and punched it, growling, "No, screw the safeguards... there!" Silently it slid open and Modrig frantically levitated the gasses in. With another tap, Corcora sealed the door.

The moment there was something solid between Modrig and the chemical weapon, his telekinesis ended like a string had been cut. The bubble of force vanished and the accumulated gasses exploded outward in a rolling tide of pink and brown. He yipped and jumped back as the gaseous death leapt for him, only to feel silly when he realized that it was safely contained.

'It's in,' he called to Corcora.

Without responding she slammed a fist into the control hologram. The far doors of the airlock tore open and the deadly miasma was sucked out so fast, he could've blinked and missed it. They slid back shut and began to slowly repressurize. "Alright," she said, stepping back. "Good, we - oh no, what are you doing?"

Modrig had slipped to the floor and leaned against one of the smoother panels on the walls, panting heavily. 'Just give me a moment,' he managed to say before erupting into another coughing fit. Was that a spot of blood in his phlegm? His airways felt rubbed raw, his muscles twitched under his fur, vibrating like he was being electrocuted and there was a sucking pit of weakness in his gut. By the Great Plan, this heat!

"No, we keep moving. You're probably breathing in traces of that stuff in the air, we need to get you out of here and to a clinic, pronto." Corcora hauled him up. "Good news is, the escape pods aren't far from here."

'Okay, okay,' he managed, stumbling on his feet. The fingers on his right paw didn't want to cooperate, and there was a persistent headache just beneath his forehead from having kept the psionic bubble around the chemical weapon. 'Let's get out of here, please.'

They set off again. Thankfully, true to her word, they didn't have to go far to get to the escape pods. His sense of direction was long gone, but he still got the vague impression that the long hallway with doors to the escape pods sat right on top of the airlocks they'd come from. Door might've been doing it a disservice; they were thick vault chambers, with locking mechanisms he couldn't even imagine. Probably even had a thin coating of neutronium.

Corcora grabbed the wheel, tapped a pattern along its spokes, and heaved it to the side. As it spun it slid down, eventually flattening into the door as it vanished into the floor. He rushed without prompting into the escape pod's interior. The layout jumbled, like it couldn't decide what way it wanted to be 'up' and which one 'down'. Cots stood up from the ground, and up ahead a captain's seat sprouted normally from the floor. Did the escape pod not have artificial gravity generators?

"Get in, strap in," Corcora said, closing the door behind him and shoving him forcefully into one of the cots. He stumbled and stood against the upright mat of gray plastic. There were a set of brown buckles outrageously low, so he had to curl into a ball the size of, well, an Imari to properly secure himself. Modrig glanced to the side; there was a compartment locked away into the walls. He flicked it open with his telekinesis - his headache pulsed at the effort - to see it was filled with cans of water and bags of birdseed. Of course. He closed it.

CRASH! Modrig jolted and turned to look behind him. With his eyes he could only see the door, but he sensed a gargantuan mind-glow behind it. It was another one of them, wasn't it? It'd found them! They were going to -

All the air squeezed out of his lungs as the escape pod shot out of the galleon, with a sound not unlike a choked cough. The Stranglevine's mind flew off into the distance, too far for Modrig to sense. With a heave of effort he pulled himself back onto the cot properly as the forces compressed him against it. With a glance forward he saw Corcora standing up in her armor, with metal struts keeping her attached to the controls.

And then they accelerated.

To say he grunted would be to lie and say he could've made any sound at all, with his lungs crushed flat. His eyesight blurred and he closed them to avoid being nauseated any more than his stomach pressing against his spine already was. He felt a sickly withering sensation throughout his body, as if the oxygen he'd already breathed in was being squeezed from his blood. Bugs crawled inside his brain and he felt woozy.

Just when he felt like he was going to pass out, the pressure relented and artifical gravity finally turned on. 'What kind of escape pod is this?' he said. 'Acceleration like that hasn't been needed since, since...' Damn it, his history lessons were failing him. 'Since long ago.'

Corcora unlatched herself from the front of the ship and hopped back. "Beats me. Your people were supposed to upgrade our ships with your technology, but I suppose the engineers didn't ask for the escape pods to get the same treatment. In any case, we'll be arriving by the habitat in a few minutes. Feel free to get up."

With fumbling paws, Modrig undid the straps around him. Even dulled down, his claws shook so hard he nearly tore them to ribbons. He stumbled out into the central corridor, found the wall farthest away from the doors, and sank back down. His heart still hammered in his chest. His skin beneath his fur was still raw, and a hacking cough rose up from within him. Adrenaline still filled him with a strength-sapping buzz. Now that they were out of immediate danger, panic began to well up inside him and tighten around his lungs, making it impossible to breathe.

"Oh, this again," Corcora muttered. "Civilians, I swear."

He ignored her, muttering prayers in his head. Great Plan show me the way, guide me to it, give me the knowledge that I am where I need to be. Give me the knowledge that I am where I need to be. Give me the knowledge that I am where I need to be...

Meanwhile their shuttle drifted on through space.


Cari Alvie

She tapped a talon on her foot against the metal ground, looking over General Koraci's crimson feathers as he worked. He sat on a cushion, watching a dozen screens at once and tapping furiously on his tablet to control them. The screens showed the camera feeds of various soldiers fighting through the IHE Midnight Tenu, corralling and being corralled by the Stranglevine strike team onboard her ship. It'd been a long, long time since Cari had directed any sort of ground action personally, but he looked to have it well under control.

Though it did burn her pride that she'd had to flee to the system's habitat, rather than stay on the ship and fight off the plantoids alongside her soldiers. But however honorable that would have been, the smart thing was to stay out of the way and let them do their jobs.

"Keep up the good work," she told him before turning away.

Cari stepped out of the cramped, depressingly dark room into the main foyer of the habitat's military headquarters. The heads of her intelligence agency milled about behind her, glancing at beeping screens built into the wire-covered walls, and she chanced a look out the window into the habitat at large.

While designing the new models with her engineers, they'd taken inspiration from the Siltheshen Swarm's architectural designs. The results showed; rows and rows of houses and workplaces went all along the walls and up the ceiling, held in place by antigravity technology in a way that looked not unlike a hive of insects. From afar it looked cramped, but that was illusion; the actual residences were tightly packed, but had ingenious paths and walkways going between them. With less room dedicated to getting around the habitat, people could have more homes in less space.

Imari were flocking about the streets, moving up and down the elevators and transportation tubes. They clustered around shops built into the walls, milled in and out of restaurants, and she even saw a teacher leading a muster of chicks into a museum. And that was only the level she was on; more floors extended all the way to the top and bottom of the habitat, each as densely packed.

Turning away, she approached one of her subordinates. "Ereni," she said, locking eyes with the other avian's crimson eyes. "What have you found?"

Ereni held up a tablet and tapped it to display a paused video. It was the outside of the Midnight Tenu. "They came in pods scattered around the outside of the hull," she said. "See the spots? Here, here, and here." She pointed with a talon each time, drawing Cari's attention to a little speck of black on her flagship.

"Why didn't we notice them before?" she asked, sick worry growing in her gizzard.

"Special materials coating," Ereni said crisply. "We managed to dislodge one and examine its material, we think it's experimental stealth technology they've cooked up. Went right past even the Vulo's tachyon sensors."

Cari narrowed her eyes. "If so, that means there can likely be many more of these coming to other places in our nation. This habitat strikes me as an attractive target, if they have such substances. What can be done?"

"Star Transit telescopes arrayed around the outside of the habitat could do it," she said. "The pods are fully visible to light, just not sensors. Telescopes on the outside, sweeping back and forth, will notice any time a pod blocks the light of a star. It won't stop them from coming on its own, but it'll give advanced notice and some idea of where they are."

She nodded, making her crest of feathers bob. "And how practical would this be to implement?"

Ereni thoughtfully nibbled at air with her beak. "It'd be a little tedious to set up the telescopes on the outside of our habitats, and to do maintenance on them, but the actual wiring and having them sweep the sky would be simple."

"Draw up a budget estimate and get back to me," Cari said, her eyes hard and talons clenched in a fist. "Carry on." As Ereni turned away she tapped along her own tablet and sent a message to the habitat's administrator, telling him to schedule a decompression drill. With that done, Cari's beak tightened angrily. Mere hours ago she'd been top of the world, her heart soared and her gizzard light, at the thought that she really could succeed in her mission. That conquering Sun's Scrutiny was a sign, was proof that she could do this.

And as if to humble her, the universe immediately decreed that her flagship would be boarded, torn apart from the inside, and pumped full of corrosive gas. Star's sake, they hadn't even spotted their actual fleets yet. Her people were strong and she had faith in her command of tactics, but it was telling that the Stranglevine Composters had never, not once, been attacked first until she'd come along. For now, the stories of their strength were just that, stories. How long until she was in the tale herself? How many more tricks and subversions and assassinations could she survive?

Beep. She brought up her tablet and checked the caller. Ah, Modrig's bodyguard. Hopefully some good news. Her golden face appeared on the screen, with a backdrop of white hospital walls. "Cari," she greeted. "I've delivered Mr. den Tarrob to the habitat. He inhaled trace amounts of whatever chemical weapon the weeds were using, so he's being checked up in the gene clinic. But he is in good talons now. Orders?"

Some good news indeed. "Once he is treated, bring him to me in the habitat command center," she said. "I wish to get a sense of how this affected him." After all, this would've been his first taste of violence, no? "Dismissed."

Corcora saluted. "By your will," she said, before ending the feed.

There were several other matters for Cari to tend to. Fleet Array T-389V turned out to still be alive on her ship, but the intercom systems had been destroyed. She'd have to give the AI a reward, it'd been the first to notice they were being boarded and had likely saved a great many lives by raising the alarm. She also had to get an estimate to how bad the damage to her ship would be, how long to repair it, and whether or not she could do these repairs while traveling or if the Midnight Tenu would be dockbound for the foreseeable future. The estimate couldn't be done quite yet, as there were still hostiles on the ship, but it wasn't something she was looking forward to.

Eventually, General Koraci laughed and released a series of musical hoots. While sending off messages to her other subordinates, she stormed into his command center and stared down at the sitting Imari. "Yes, Koraci?" she asked.

He stood, lifting his body off the ground so that his legs were visible again, and turned to her. His eyes were upturned and glinted happily. "Cari, I've wonderful news. The last of the Stranglevine strike team has been fought off. The chemical weapon they used is being vented safely, with a sample kept for study. Some of the soldiers and chicks got mangled by it pretty bad, but nothing some time in a gene clinic won't fix. We even managed to capture one alive!"

That made her stand up straight, her crest feathers rising and tailfeathers opening wide. "Truly?"

He nodded vigorously, doing little hops as he stared at her. "My soldiers disabled their power armor and are even now in the process of transferring them to a contained cell, in little more than an oversized flowerpot. There was some complication about a suicide poison in their old suit's soil, but it was taken care of."

She cawed happily. "Splendid indeed." Hmm. To keep the prisoner on her ship, or sequestered in a habitat? After a moment, she decided to keep the plantoid aboard the Midnight Tenu. They may be a useful bargaining chip in the years to come. "What is being done about the vessels they used to invade?"

"Being dislodged, investigated for traps, and then brought in for analysis as we speak," he replied.

"Excellent! Contact the engineers and have them determine the status of the ship. Once they have looked it over and come to a conclusion, message me. I'm having a system put in place to check for more incoming pods, so stay on alert for more until we confirm there aren't any more heading our way." She glanced at her tablet, read the message on it, and nodded. "I must take my leave, Koraci. Take care."

Cari turned and left while the General gave his farewells to her. Her bodyguards following her, she headed past several huddles of working Imari towards the headquarter's doors. She strode out, briefly folding her tailfeathers to fit through, and opened them again when she was on the other side, breathing in the clean, sterile air of the habitat now that she was free of the cramped rooms of the military HQ. The low murmur of noise from the habitat's denizens rose up around her now that she was outside.

The Vulo was there, as was Corcora. His robes were lowered and tied around his waist since he wasn't in the arctic cold that his species preferred. His tongue lolled out of his jaws as he panted heavily in the heat. The psionic glow in his eyes was dull and his ears were flat. His paws clenched and unclenched against the fabric of his clothing.

"Modrig. How do you feel?" she asked kindly. "I cannot imagine this was easy for you."

'... I don't want to talk about it,' he said quietly, looking away and sniffling his nose.

She nodded, looking this way and that. "I understand. The first battle is always the hardest, even for our chicks." Cari made a mental note to hire him a therapist. A Qiran one - they were legendarily easy to get along with. "Is there anything you want?"

'I just want to go to bed.' He continued looking at the ground.

"I see." Without looking over to his bodyguard, she continued, "Please bring Modrig somewhere to rest. Get him some medicine to make sure he sleeps deeply and dreamlessly, too. That will be important these next few nights." Her eyes continued to wander, but she directed her attention to Modrig. "I want to apologize for getting you caught up in this, Modrig. Rest assured I am taking measures to ensure this will never happen again."

He looked up at her and furrowed his brows. 'We'll see.'

That tickled something inside her. Was Modrig growing a backbone? Good. She stepped closer to him and took his paws with her talons. They shook in her grip, and he snapped to look at her. It always struck her as pleasantly strange, the way other species maintained eye contact to give attention. "It will not, Modrig. We were caught once by their cloaking technology, but now they have shown their wing and it will not work again. Right now, take some time off. Corcora, go with him and make sure he takes care of himself. I understand, like most of his people, he has a rigid exercise regimen he tries to adhere to. Ensure he does."

"Done," she said, her tailfeathers flat. The disrespect was forgivable.

"In that case, I must take my leave. I have a prisoner to look in on." And, now that she thought about it, her own workout had been pushed aside by the attack. Well, it would have to wait a little longer.

Cari sent off a message to a professional interrogator in the system, and strode towards the shuttle bay. Time pay this captured Stranglevine a visit...


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