Hugo had been presumed dead for three months. Despite this apparent barrier, his Census form and an Income Tax bill had still managed to be delivered, the former via Vagabond One's PRAPH transmitter, the latter having been shoved into his hand by a disgruntled juvenile Hyolarthian when Hugo had stepped off the ship at a space station near the Horsehead Nebula to buy Solan cheese and clothes designed to fit persons of his species.
After leaving Menph and the battle against the invading Krideros fleet, the Vagabond leader, Jasky, had sunk into an exhausted torpor. With Vagabond One on autopilot, he had spent most of the journey thus far in his sleeping tube, amidst a pile of exotic alien food the snerberts had given him. The only information Hugo had succeeded in prying from him was that he'd set the destination for the Large Magellanic Cloud, simply because it was fastest route out of the neutral territories and back into Magellanicean space.
Hugo tried talking to Medth. She didn't seem to enjoy speaking to him, preferring to sit in a flight chair and stare in a brooding way out of Vagabond One's windows -- not that there was anything to see when the ship was superphotonic. After asking her questions for half an hour, Hugo managed to obtain the opinion that she doubted the Krideros ships would return to Menph because there were unlikely to be any emales remaining on board to start a colony, since they didn't carry them as standard practice.
Later, Hugo supposed, he would have to try to inveigle Jasky into giving him a ride back to Sol. But meanwhile, the deadlines for his paperwork were all void and his boss couldn't get on his back. And he was going to see Magellanicea, the territory of the most advanced race known to humankind. This was the sort of thing he'd imagined and looked forward to when he'd been a kid and said he wanted to be an ambassador when he grew up, rather than sitting at a desk writing reports and making sure forms were in order.
With Jasky sleeping, Medth spent much of the journey poring over the scanners and course computers. Hugo kept up to date by downloading news reports through the ship's tachyon console. He used the opportunity to do things he'd never have had time to do ordinarily, such as reading books -- mostly bad romances written by Pennans who evidently had nothing better to do either.
One afternoon, Hugo was interrupted from reading a rather pungent description of Pennan seduction (Pennans can't see color and thus any account by one depends heavily on their sense of smell) by noises coming from the sleeping quarters.
Hugo set down his computer. "What's Jasky doing?"
Medth was reading something and didn't answer.
Hugo stood up and went aft to the sleeping bays. "Jasky?" He shuffled closer to the fith's sleeping tube. He could hear rapid, snuffly breathing and muffled squawks. "Jasky, you having bad dreams? Jasky?" Hugo reached his arm into the tube and prodded the fith inside it. Limbs clunked against the inside of the tube and the next instant a moist warmth closed on his arm and four sharp points punctured his skin.
"Ow!" Hugo yanked his arm out. "Jasky, you just bit me!"
Jasky squinted and blinked. The spirals of his dilated pupils tightened into their contracted shape. He stared at Hugo, then at the wound on his arm. "Wasn't me." He slumped back down and immediately his body relaxed back into sleep.
Cursing under his breath, Hugo moved his face away from the sleeping tube's atmosphere, where an overpowering stench of fith filth seemed to have become trapped. He wet a cloth in the ship's shower room and went back to the control room.
"This behavior can't possibly be normal, even taking into account that he's a different species."
"He's a Highlander," Medth said, in a moment of uncharacteristic loquacity.
"What's that mean?" Hugo swabbed the wound on his forearm angrily. "That he lives forever, unless he gets decapitated?"
Medth did not turn to face him from where she sat hunched over the navigational computer, but her sensory antennae gave a brief upward jerk, which Hugo interpreted as the equivalent of a shrug. "It means he is descended from a racial group of fiths adapted to live on a planet with an elongated elliptical orbit. They evolved hibernation to cope with the severe winters."
"What, you're saying he's hibernating? Isn't it warm enough for him in here?"
"With Highlanders, every so often something can trip them into hibernation mode."
"What tripped him into hibernation mode?"
"Possibly the stress of organizing a war," Medth suggested.
One of these days, Hugo decided he was going to take up residence on a planet where people didn't have wars, and begin a new and peaceful lease of life as a one-man bomb disposal squad.
He fetched some dehydrated food from the ship's kitchen and went back to his seat. The colonization attempt had been thwarted but the battle had been internecine. There had been the casualties on the surface, and emotional scars in the Resistance had become evident. "How are Fesil and Penth?"
"Fesil says he just needs a few myrrs to recover. Penth's arm is improving." Medth looked away from him, as though she had lost interest halfway through the sentence. Her eyes had turned to the long-distance scanner on the control console.
"Something is following us!" She looked back to Hugo. "Get Jasky!"
"You get him yourself," Hugo argued. "He bit me last time I tried to see if he was okay!"
Medth bared her teeth at Hugo. "Jasky!"
A faint noise came from the sleeping quarters. It was followed by louder noises and Magellanicean expletives. Jasky crashed into the control room and flailed his way to the flight seat.
"Give me visual." The fith picked up his interface band and rubbed at his eyes.
"There is a Krideros following us!" Medth said.
"I've yet to see a Krideros confuse a Vagabond scanner," said Jasky. He peered into the visual display. "But there's definitely something out there. It's giving out a delocalized signal so our system is unable to pinpoint it. I've never seen Andromedans use that tactic. And this scanner was manufactured after Magraph. Krideros cloaking systems shouldn't pose a problem to it."
"It could be something the Andromedans developed by themselves," said Medth. "They may be fools but they're not stupid."
Jasky leaned back on his seat and grimaced. "If it were a Krideros, it would have attacked by now."
The communications light flashed on the control panel. Medth activated it.
"Jasky, what the fwipp is that?" came Fesil's voice over the tachyon comm. "Penth reckons it's a wywylwynd."
"It could be," Jasky mused, fingering his siphon tusk.
"What's a wywylwynd?" Hugo asked.
Jasky put on his interface band, seized the steering control, slammed on the reverse thrust, hurled Vagabond around, and accelerated towards the anomaly.
"Where are you going?" Fesil demanded as Vagabond arced back on itself.
"Follow me!" Jasky shouted frantically.
Parhelion slewed itself around and pursued Vagabond. Dead ahead of them, the anomaly had stopped moving. Jasky settled himself into his flight seat, his face tensed in concentration.
"I know it, I know it," Jasky re-engaged the light drive. "Medth, we need full power!"
"What's a wywylwynd?" Hugo repeated but no-one bothered to answer him.
"You think it's Leviathan?" Medth said. "When you already saw it twice? Don't you think that would be taking a coincidence too far?"
As they came closer, Jasky started to decelerate, and it became clear that the marauder was indeed Leviathan. The huge ship hung in the sky, its silvery flank turned towards them. It was big. Bigger than Hugo remembered it. The legendary ship's long tail stretched out behind it, and on its side the insignia was clearly visible. As Vagabond approached, the monstrous vessel swung aside, pivoting in a manner that didn't seem to fit with the laws of physics to get its tail clear of their path. Jasky decelerated hard and swung about Leviathan's hull. As it turned, Vagabond followed, circling the rotating ship. "Follow it!" Jasky shouted to Parhelion. "How do we get in?" he wondered aloud as he spiraled in closer. Vagabond spun, steering under the towering flank of the ship and through one of the wing scaffolding cavities, a minnow beside a whale. Somehow Jasky sensed what was about to happen and engaged the PRAPH device.