Several hours later, Merlani steps out of the docking ring access corridor and into the central atrium of the Luna Orbital Space Station with a smile, pausing to stretch a residual bit of shuttle stiffness out of their arms. “Ah,” they say to no one in particular, “I always forget how nice it is up here—reminds me of home.”
“This is smaller than AC-NW, though, isn’t it?” Reese asks, no small hint of excitement coloring her voice.
Merlani nods. “About half the size, but I still like it here.”
High above them, beyond the reinforced polyglass dome of the atrium, there’s a magnificent view of Earth’s Moon itself and the galaxy beyond. This time of day, the station’s orbit is bringing it into line so that Earth is rising over the horizon of the gray expanse of the lunar surface. The lights of two of the Moon’s five domed cities are clearly visible too, shimmering like stars that have been somehow misplaced among the ancient craters and plains.
Around the atrium, in between all of the hydroponic plantings of decoratively-arranged food plants, four levels of refreshment stations, entertainment facilities, and station operations offices are busy with the bustle of people from all of the different ships docked here. There’s even a few Florivans in the mix, from what Merlani can see, along with the distinctively different bodies of a handful of multi-eyed, feathered-serpent-like T’irsh-fel on one of the upper levels. Space stations like this one are always full of interesting goings-on.
“So,” says da Silva, “where do we go now, Commander Potts?”
Uncle Julian chuckles. “You and Cadet Vasquez should stay with Ocean while they sort out the household business. Ping me if you wind up needing me for anything. Cadet Kouassi?”
“You’re flying us home, so you’re sticking with me. Once we get ourselves some coffee and stretch our legs a bit, the two of us will head back to the shuttle and make sure we’ll be ready to go once they’re done.”
“Yes, sir!” Kouassi salutes and follows Uncle Julian as he strides off towards his favorite place on the station to get coffee. As they disappear into the crowd, Merlani catches Kouassi asking their uncle if he’s permitted to get tea instead—and, naturally, Uncle Julian getting a good laugh out of that.
“Well, Barker,” says da Silva, putting on his most formal ‘bodyguard tone’, “I believe that means you’re in charge now. Which way do we go to sort out this household business of yours?”
Merlani shrugs. “Well, since all I was actually told was that I needed to come up here, your guess is as good as mine, daSilva.” They glance around. “We might go check with the cargo office first to see if there’s something listed for me to pick up.”
“Lead the way, then, oh noble agent of the Florivan Council of Elders.” Da Silva makes an elegant—if dramatically exaggerated—bow. “I’ll guard your tail with my life if need be.”
Merlani and Reese share a look, both of them desperately trying not to crack up. Merlani stifles a giggle. “Okay, oh fearless bodyguard…” They gesture with said tail in the direction of the cargo office. “We’re going this way.”
Reese walks beside them through the atrium, da Silva making a point of staying precisely a step behind and to Merlani’sright. That’s even funnier somehow than his tone of voice had been, but they do appreciate that he’s practicing for protecting actual dignitaries.
“I’m not exactly an agent of the Council today, you know,” Merlani tells him, casting a glance over their shoulder. “Just a member of Elder Celadon’s household running an errand for them, that’s all.”
“You make it sound like your grandparent’s just handed you a basket and asked you to scamper off to the market for peaches, Cinny.” Reese grins, lightly nudging them with her elbow.
Merlani shakes their head, twitching their ears with amusement. “In my world, this is the closest it gets to that.” They pause, unable to stifle a laugh this time. “Granted, knowing Elder Celadon, there’s always a chance that I am going to end up with a basket of peaches or something by the end of this little ‘mission’.”
“Wait,” says da Silva, just as the three of them arrive at the doors to the cargo office. “Barker, you’re not up here as the Council’s agent?”
Merlani turns to look at him with a curious swish of their tail. “No, I’d have been told if this was Council business. Why?”
Da Silva looks between them and Reese with confusion still obvious in his tone. “My orders were to escort and assist the ‘Council’s Agent’—when you showed up on the shuttle, I figured that was you—but if it’s not, then who…?”
Merlani’s eyes widen as they make the connection. “They said it was the Council’s Agent? Not me? They didn’t give you a name?”
Da Silva nods.
“That means something specific?” Reese asks.
“It means me!” answers a bright, cheerful Florivan voice from above. “You’re right on time, kittens!”
Merlani and their two human friends look up. Merlani can’t help laughing when they see that it is, in fact, their Entile Ilmisitting at table on the next level up, waving down at them. As usual, they’re dressed in their casual amber tunic and trousers and have a set of bright-colored enameled bangles jingling on their tail.
“Entile Jade!” Merlani calls up, still delightedly surprised. “No one told me you would be here!”
“Now, really, Little Ocean.” Entile Ilmi leans on the railing beside their table and winks their third eye. “When have Nidaand I ever told anyone where I was going to be before I was there?”
Merlani shakes their head mirthfully. “This is why people call you a Phantom, Entile Jade.”
“Maybe so! Come on up, kitten, and bring your friends—we can go pull the surprise on your uncle once I’ve finished my tea.” With that, Entile Ilmi turns back to their table and the cup of tea in question.
Merlani laughs again and motions for da Silva and Reese to follow them to the nearest crew lift.
“I think ‘Cheshire Cat’ might be an even better description for them than ‘Phantom’,” says Reese, eyes still a bit wide.
Merlani’s ears twitch with amusement. “You have no idea how right you are, Reese…”
Once they’ve made it all the way back around to the refreshment station where Entile Ilmi is sitting, Merlani finds themself the happy recipient of a long-overdue hug. They can’t help clinging to their entile for an extra moment or two, if only because it’s been nearly two years now since they’ve both been in the same place.
“I missed you too, Merlani,” Entile Ilmi whispers into their ear before letting them go and sitting back down in their chair beside the railing. They gesture to the other chairs around the small table. “Now, sit down for a moment, all of you, so I can finish this and refill it before we leave—oh, that travel cup there is tea for you, Little Ocean. I didn’t know what sort of poison your friends here prefer.” They tap the button on the table to pull up the menu interface. “Go ahead and order your coffee, Miss Vasquez, Mr. da Silva, but be sure you have it delivered in a travel cup so you can take it back to the shuttle. We have some time to spare, but I’d rather we were early than late.”
Reese and da Silva share a look that’s equal parts overwhelmed confusion and amusement before sitting and tapping through the menu to place their orders.
“I thought you were with Endeavor the last time we talked, Entile Jade,” says Merlani, taking a sip of what turns out to be their favorite variety of lightly sweetened green tea. “Somewhere off around Teegarden’s Star?”
“I was!” their entile smirks over the edge of their teacup at Merlani. “But since I had an appointment on Earth today… well, I made my way here. Endeavor was only a brief bit of Council business to get them back to the shipyards while our dear cousin Cornflower was under the weather, thankfully—although I do need to talk to Cerulean while I’m hear about recommendations for a secondary Nav/Quan team for Cornflower.” The smirk becomes a soft hint of a genuine smile. “It’s about time they had one… You have some folks graduating from your program this year, don’t you?”
“We do,” Merlani says, catching the unspoken good news hidden in their entile’s words: Cornflower has survived catching their first litter of kittens, and next year when those kittens open their eyes and are publicly announced to the world as existing, they’ll be acknowledged as a future Elder of the Council. That, of course, means that there has to be a secondary team on their ship now, both for their sake and the ship’s. “Is that why you’re here, then? Scouting for people to recommend?”
Entile Ilmi takes a sip from their own tea and then shakes their head. “No, that’s just convenient. I’m here on personalbusiness for once, instead of some errand of the Council’s.”
“Ah.” Merlani nods. They don’t bother asking any further. They know their entile well enough to know that they’ll be told what’s actually going on sooner or later.
“Now,” says Entile Ilmi, turning their attention to the two humans at the table, “as I should have said already, I’m sopleased to finally meet you both in person. Mr. da Silva? I hope you don’t mind my requesting to borrow you while I’m here. If the Council has to insist on me having a companion of some sort when I’m between ships to ‘protect me’, I prefer it to be a human I’m at least somewhat familiar with.”
“I’m honored,” da Silva replies, clearly doing his best to remain professional even though his voice still sounds a bit like he’s not sure whether to be shocked or excited. “My assignment wasn’t explained to me in detail, sir, but I’ll do my best to keep up.”
“I’m sure you will—and you’ve either forgotten or you’re uncertain about it, but you’re welcome to call me Jade.” They turn to Reese with a genial dip of their head. “Same goes for you, Miss Vasquez.”
“All right, Jade.” Reese nods, then tilts her head curiously. “May I ask you a question, then? No need to answer if it’s too personal.”
“Oh, please do.” Entile Ilmi drains the last of the tea in their little ceramic cup. “I like curious human kittens.”
Reese smiles. “Well, you said your Council of Elders insists you have a human companion… do you not have a Navigator to travel with you, then?”
Entile Ilmi shakes their head. “I never have, and I doubt I ever will.” They pause for a moment before adding, “well, I suppose that’s not entirely correct; I borrowed my Nida’s current Navigator for a few months at one point, but his compact has always been with them.”
“Ah.” Reese nods thoughtfully. “I didn’t realize there were any Florivans outside the Academies who didn’t have counterparts of their own.”
“As far as I’m aware, there aren’t others, anymore,” Entile Ilmi replies. “My situation is a bit unique in general, though.”
Before either human can ask more questions, the hovering multi-limbed service robot arrives with a tray bearing three travel cups, each one marked with its contents, and a paper sack full of pastries. It sets all of this down on the table, then buzzes off to collect its next delivery from the kitchen.
“There we are, then!” Entile Ilmi gets to their feet and shoulders their travel bag, picking up their newly-acquired travel cup of tea in one lower hand and the paper sack in the other. “Come along, kittens, we have places to be—where is that uncle of yours docked, Little Ocean?”
“We’re on outer ring A, airlock sixteen,” Merlani replies, scampering to catch up with them.
Reese is right there at their side in moments, while da Silva slips into his precisely-one-step-behind-and-to-the-right position behind Entile Ilmi.
“Now, really, Mr. da Silva,” says their entile, turning to look at him and beckoning with their tail as they walk. “I know you’re assigned as my bodyguard officially, but I like my companions where I can see them. I’ll tell you if we get into a situation where I need you to act formal.”
“As you wish, then, Jade.” Da Silva chuckles and moves to walk beside Entile Ilmi instead. “Why do I get the feeling this is going to be even more of a ‘learning experience’ than Colonel Albright made it out to be?”
Entile Ilmi smirks at him. “Oh, I’m not doing my job as a mentor right if it’s not. Now, kittens, tell me all about your team and what’s been going on at this Academy of yours?”
“Well,” says Merlani, happily accepting one of their Entile’s free upper hands to hold while they’re walking, “I went on a field trip yesterday to see some amazing caverns and meet the bats who live in them…”
They arrive back at the Academy just in time for Merlani, their teammates, and their entile to slip in through the back door of the big lecture hall where Commander Saleh’s second-year History, Tactics, and Theories of Command students are about to give the major project presentation that’s worth a full third of their grade for the term. The five of them take the empty seats in the back row and make themselves comfortable.
Twelve presentations later on people ranging from the head of Fleet supply services to Admiral Marvin and back again, and it’s finally time for Merlani’s friends to have their turn. It seems fitting, somehow, that they would be going last.
“Now, class,” says Commander Saleh from their chair at the side of the stage, their dusky, lyrical voice echoing over the room’s sound amplification system, “our last group drew a bit of a challenge for their assignment… but I’m sure they’ve done their best researching their subject. I know it’s late in the day, and you’re all probably eager to get down to the mess hall before it fills up, but I expect you to give Cadets Katz, Lavine, and Martins your full attention.” They clap their hands sharply together once and then hold an arm out to the three cadets standing behind the lectern in the center of the stage. “Cadets? You have the floor.”
“Thank you, Commander Saleh,” says Katz, dipping his head respectfully. He turns his attention towards the rest of the class. “Our group drew the name ‘Jade of Procyon.’ They’re more properly known as the Agent of the Florivan Council of Elders, Star-Keeper Jade Ilmi of Procyon and Elder Celadon’s household…”
Merlani has to admit to themself as they listen to their friends describe their entile’s involvement in the Novan War that there must be even more the adults in their family have never told them about all of that. For one thing, while they’ve heard the story before about how their Ai-Nida Celadon had been injured at the battle of Procyon and Elder Navy and their Entile Indigo had taken over most of their duties with the Defense Fleet until they could recover, they’d never realized just how much responsibility had fallen on Entile Ilmi’s shoulders—even though they were never officially part of the Fleet.
The sheer scale of the War and the tragedies their own family suffered during it are hard for Merlani to comprehend, even though the shadow of it all has been part of their life for as long as they can remember. They can only imagine what it must be like for Entile Ilmi and the handful of visiting Fleet officers and veterans in the room to listen to these presentations, having been there and part of everything. They give their entile’s hand a squeeze when their friends come to the section of the presentation Merlani knows must still be the most painful for them to remember—the part about how the Novans destroyed the Sanctuary planet at Procyon itself, and with it the majority of their species, even though Entile Ilmi had managed to get out without the Novan invaders noticing and bring the Defense Fleet to their people’s aid in time to bring an end to the occupation.
Entile Ilmi looks over to them with a gentle but still sadness-tinged nod. They scoot their chair closer and wrap an arm around Merlani’s shoulders. “I’m okay, kitten,” they whisper into Merlani’s ear, quiet enough that even Reese and daSilva probably can’t hear them. “The story hurts, but it has to be told. Your friends honor our people by telling it so well.”
Merlani nods, snuggling up next to their entile for the rest of the presentation anyway.
At the end, Commander Saleh leads the whole audience in a well-deserved round of applause for Lavine, Martins, and Katz. Entile Ilmi stands to add their hands to the sound, and continues clapping loudly long after everyone else has stopped.
Everyone in the room turns to look at them. Still clapping, Entile Ilmi slips out of their seat and walks down the center aisle of the room to the stage, hopping up onto it with an easy grace. “Saleh, old friend,” they say, offering a nod of greeting to the instructor, “I’d like to congratulate your students personally for the excellent job they’ve done with their presentations. Do you mind?”
“Of course not, Jade,” says Commander Saleh, shaking their head in what seems to be amused amazement. “Feel free to talk as long as you like. I’ll be posting their grades next week after I’ve had a chance to read through all of their written reports on the project.”
“Thank you—Don’t worry, kittens,” Entile Jade calls to the class as they take the lectern, “I promise I won’t take too long talking so you can make your escape before all of the good pastries disappear. Hello, by the way! I’m Jade; I’m told most of you probably know me better as the ‘Fleet’s Phantom’.”
A murmur that’s mostly scattered giggles and soft gasps passes across the room.
“As you just heard,” Entile Jade begins, “I was the same age that a lot of you are now when the War began. I was the youngest of my people’s Star-Keepers—our story-tellers, the ones tasked with keeping our history alive in memory so that its lessons and truths would be passed down to those who came after us. On the day the peace talks concluded, I was the only Star-Keeper left.” They pause, the bangles on their tail jingling softly as the deep sadness they’re keeping out of their tone is expressed in its long, slow swishing. “In the years since, I have done all that I can to continue the work that was entrusted to me, not only with our stories and traditions, but with the stories of our human friends and the lives that were touched by what I hope with all my soul is the last war either of our peoples will ever know.”
Merlani finds themself brushing unbidden moisture out of the corners of their eyes. Reese sets her hand on theirs. Merlanilooks up at her, then accepts the silent hug she’s offering. They’re grateful their best friend knows them well enough to recognize that they need one.
“On behalf of those of us who’ve been the subjects of your presentations, I’d like to thank all of you,” Entile Ilmicontinues, “for being willing to listen to and gather our stories, for doing your best to learn from us, and for telling our stories and helping to keep them alive. Not all of us who live through such days can talk about them easily; some cannot talk about them at all. So many more no longer live, and it is only in the stories we carry with us that we can ever hope to know them.” They dip their head for a long moment.
The whole room is silent save for the soft jingling of the bangles on their tail as it swishes to a thoughtful, even rhythm.
When Entile Ilmi raises their head again, they’re smiling. “I’m proud of you, cadets,” they say, “for the work you’ve done here and the stories you’ve come together to tell. You are the future of the world we share. I look forward to seeing how you shape it.”
With that, Entile Jade turns to Merlani’s three teammates who are still standing on the side of the stage. They walk over and give each of them a hug in turn before hopping back down and striding back to their seat in the back of the room next to Merlani.
“Thank you, Jade,” says Commander Saleh, breaking the long silence that follows. “I couldn’t have said it better myself. Class dismissed.”