It was something about the way the girl moved. She was human, as were at least a third of the other passengers that the latest transport ship had deposited on Whitehorse Station, but despite the fact that she shuffled along towards the security check like all the rest of the travel weary crowd with her head down and her shoulders slumped, Taylor watched her and waited for her to do something that would explain the wary feeling nesting in his chest. She looked young, no more than eight or nine years old. She was thin, too, and wiry, though most children who grew up in space were the same. A mane of thin brown hair reached just below her shoulders, and a loose hair-tie could only do so much to keep it out of her eyes. She followed close behind a young couple wearing the sort of sturdy clothes favored by colonists, and Taylor almost convinced himself that he was reacting to nothing. Colony kids always seemed to be a little different.
But then she disappeared.
She looked at him first, glancing up from her feet and staring at him long and slow out of the corner of her eye. Taylor’s first impulse was to look away, though whether that was out of some irrational fear or to keep from spooking her he couldn’t say, so he kept on watching. Or rather, he did until some disturbance farther down the line stole his attention for a split second, and when he looked back she was gone.
He muttered something under his breath and looked twice all through the line. The young couple was still there, as was the scattering of other humans and aliens of a dozen different species— everyone except the girl with the wolfish eyes.
He tapped the comm in his ear, and it clicked softly as the line connected. “Lumyan, keep an eye out for a girl trying to get into the station proper. Human, not even ten years old. You’ll know it if you see her.”
“Understood.” There was a pause, then his partner’s voice hummed in his ear again, this time with laughter barely held beneath the surface. “Anything else I should know? Is she the next big mob boss or something?”
“Heck if I know. I’ve got a feeling is all. Just let me know if you see her and try to keep her from running off.”
“Sure thing.” Lumyan paused again, then: “Want me to search for any puppies or kittens while I’m at it?” He didn’t need to see her grin to know it was there.
“Only if you want to. Taylor out.”
He hadn’t expected her to, but the girl had not reappeared. The young couple she had been following was still there, still looking tired and travel-worn just not like the parents of a child that had gone missing. He approached them anyway.
“Excuse me,” he said, and the two broke off a quiet conversation and looked at him. “Could I speak with you both for a moment? Are you traveling with a daughter?”
They were not. They had no children at all, let alone a girl almost ten years old. Taylor thanked them for their time and moved on again, scanning the crowd for the twentieth time in the vain hope of catching sight of her again, though he wasn’t at all certain she was still there at all. He just didn’t know where else she could be or how she had gotten there.
He had a better idea about five minutes later when the young couple caught his eye and broke away from the line to approach him and report that the bag that had contained their papers, currency, and a few valuables was well and truly missing. Taylor directed them towards the office that specialized in helping with that sort of thing and started for the front of the line. A clever adult would be able to come up with several ways to use the pilfered items to get inside. A clever child would have an even easier time of it. He tapped his comm again as he moved.
“Lum, she got her hands on some papers. Have you seen her yet?”
There was a pause of a few seconds the reply came, and Taylor grimaced at the delay. If the checkpoint was that busy, the girl might not have even needed the benefit of the papers to sneak right through.
“Sorry, Taylor. We just got swamped over here with a couple of clowns who don’t think the rules apply to them. If she’s come through I haven’t— oh, hell. I think that’s her. She just snuck through with another family.”
Taylor broke into a run. Colony papers didn’t have the built-in checks and safeguards the ones issued on the central worlds did. It was fiddly technology at the best of times, especially with the older printers that would be available on fledgling planets. The scanners would only be checking to make sure the numbers of people matched the numbers of passes.
As he approached, Lumyan looked up long enough to point and wave him on in the direction the girl had gone. “Towards the markets. Go! I’ll have Sarge send Rofik down to help me here!”
Taylor gave a grateful nod and bolted through. The wide hallway was busy, full of humans, feathered avings, four-legged xentou, and all the others who had just made their way through security and into the expansive rings of the station beyond the docks. The thirty seconds it had taken for him to get there was more than enough time for the girl to vanish in the crowd. And if— when— she made it to the markets, the haystack would get that much bigger.
He held out hope that he’d find her before she they reached the markets until the corridor spilled out into the massive, noisy, stall-filled room that was the markets. If futility ever needed a physical representation, this was it. It didn’t matter how long he spent winding his way through the bickering, bartering members of species from every corner of the galaxy. His chances of finding the girl were beyond poor.
After a few steps more he slowed, stopped and raised his eyes to the ceiling in a look that expressed his frustration better than words ever could. Then, he commed back to Lumyan.
“She made it to the markets. Nothing I can do for now. Might as well tell Rofik he can go back to napping in the precinct. I’m putting in an alert and heading back to you.”
The rest of the passengers passed through security without further incident, or at least without anything out of the ordinary. There were a few lost bags, a few complaints about the level of service they had received on board the transport ship, a few red-eyed travelers who weren’t certain where they were supposed to go next, but all that was to be expected. It took less than an hour to empty the rest of the line, and when the last of the exhausted passengers made it through and stumbled off towards the residential rings and the rest of the station, Taylor and Lumyan followed.
A single main passageway led through the entirety of the docking ring. Turning right would take them down to the markets, and Taylor stopped for a moment and looked off that way until Lumyan slugged his shoulder.
“Won’t do any good, mate. Well. It might make you feel better, but there’s no way you’re finding her in there.” She winked. “Your words, more or less.”
Taylor grumbled, but he turned and followed Lumyan to the left and the precinct office. It was a small room, just large enough to hold a pair of desks and four chairs and still be comfortable. Taylor sank into his seat and woke his console with the intention of updating the alert to something more detailed than “Human girl, brown hair, 1.5m tall, approx. 10yrs old. Contact security if seen.” If nothing else, pulling her image from the security cameras in the docking bay and attaching it might keep would-be do-gooders from trying to turn in any of the brown-haired ten-year-olds who actually belonged on the station. He had just found and added what he needed when the door hummed and slid open to admit a pair of g’keyli.
Taylor’s stomach turned upside down and slid back against his spine. He was ashamed to admit it, but of all the alien species humanity had encountered since taking to the stars, the g’keyli unsettled him the most. They looked, to human eyes, like massive, bipedal canines. The smallest he had ever seen was nearly two meters tall, and the pair that loomed above his desk now, staring at him, were bigger. The fur that covered their bodies was long, braided and beaded in places and dyed with dark colors in others. They wore little in the way of clothing beyond belts with pouches and pockets and what little their culture asked for modesty’s sake, and while the end result was both practical and sensible, it also seemed a little wild.
The smaller of the two, relatively speaking, took a slow, deep breath, then twisted her tongue around human, English words that fit so poorly in her mouth that they came out with a rough, growling lilt.
“Do you have a moment, Packprotector—officer? I am Niumra, this is my mate, Grumyu. We would speak with you, if you have the time.”
She crouched down so that her golden eyes were level with Taylor’s brown ones. It was a sign of respect. That was what some quiet memory desperately said again and again in the back of his head. He just found that hard to remember when a mouth full of long, white teeth dipped that much closer to his neck, even when that same mouth was saying such civil words. His own mouth was uncomfortably dry, and he had to swallow before responding.
“Of course. How can I help you?”
“The transport ship that is docked here now, is that the Azdatses?”
Taylor nodded. “It is. Do you need to board her?” He forced himself to match and keep the g’keyli’s sharp, bright gaze.
“No, thank you, Packprotector. We have our own vessel, but we believe that one of our own was aboard the big transport. A young one named Aruri. She rode the transport here, and we must find her before she gets herself lost any further. Will you assist us?”
Taylor swallowed again, a little more easily than before. Though not by much. “We’d be happy to help,” he said, “but I’m afraid you’re the first g’keyli we’ve seen on the station in months. You’re certain she was aboard the Azdatses?”
Niumra turned to Grumyu, and they spoke a few words in their own tongue before she looked back to Taylor and nodded once, pointedly. “Quite certain.” She was about to continue when Grumyu touched her arm with one of his heavy, paw-like hands and tilted his head in query.
Niumra’s ears flicked backwards, almost pinning, and the two canids held another hurried conference in their own language. It seemed more combative than before, and Taylor put his hands below the table to hide the fact that they were shaking. He had almost regained his composure a few seconds later when the comm station in the corner of the room chimed, and both he and Lumyan rose on instinct. She waved him back into his seat with a wink and an impish expression. He paused, but there was nothing to do but drop back down and attempt to calm his hands once more as Lumyan transferred the call to her own comm before stepping outside to answer it.
It only took the g’keyli a moment or two to finish, and Niumra turned back to him with an almost sheepish expression. “Forgive us. My mate and I disagree—”
But whatever she was about to say slipped away as Lumyan burst back in and called across the room.
“I’m so sorry to interrupt, Taylor, but someone saw the girl. She’s still in the markets, apparently trying to steal herself some dinner. Stall A-34. They think she’s still close. Go! I’ll cover here.”
Taylor was up and on his feet in half a second, and halfway to the door in one more. He was about to apologize when both of the g’keyli started after him, and Niumra’s paw brushed his shoulder.
“Wait, Packprotector. We will help you hunt.”
She phrased it like a statement, but the question was clear. Taylor hesitated, and fear twisted another knot into his stomach. But there was no time. Taylor gave a quick nod.
“It’s a human child, somewhere in the markets. ” He reached back and turned his console screen so that the two g’keyli could see the picture taken from the security footage. “She looks like this.”
Grumyu gave a short, sudden bark and followed it with a wild pattering of words in his own language. Niumra stopped him with a paw on his chest before whirling back to Taylor. “We understand.” There was a wild look in her golden eyes.
“She’s just a child. Be gentle!”
“We understand! We go!”
And they went. Rushing the the door, flying down the corridor. The g’keyli let Taylor keep the lead, but their mere presence was enough to keep the halls clear for their passage. Only idiots stood in front of a loping g’keyli. The effect was less noticeable once they reached the markets themselves, but even then they made their way through the crowds in half the time it would have taken Taylor alone. He also got the distinct impression, once they reached stall A-34, that the aving merchant was a great deal more polite than he might have been otherwise.
“I appreciate your coming so quickly,” he said. “It’s good to have some sign that you humans do care about the security of your station. Too bad you couldn’t stop the little wretch before she savaged my wares.”
The attempted raid was evidenced by the various meats and breads still spilled all across the floor beside the stand.
“Where is she now?” Taylor felt impatience rising up the back of his throat, and he fought it back down beneath a show of professional calm. It got harder as the merchant began to let loose a flood of complaints, none of which gave any hint as to which way the girl had gone.
“…and I demand reimbursement from the station for… failing… to…”
Taylor frowned in confusion and was about to ask what was troubling the merchant when he noticed that the aving’s eyes were focused over his shoulder. He glanced in the same direction and found the answer on his own: Niumra’s muzzle was wrinkled in annoyance, showing almost an inch of her long, white teeth. It was all he could do to keep his knees from giving out. His voice was husky when he spoke.
The aving pointed further down the row of stalls.
He muttered a quick thanks, and the three of them were off again, moving quickly down the opening in the crowd provided by the presence of the huge canids. Even as they went, Taylor felt a rising certainty that it was all in vain. It didn’t matter how close they got without catching her, not when she could vanish into the crowd or between stalls at a moment’s notice. But perhaps if they split up.
“Niumra.” He stopped and turned around to look at her, and his whole heart jumped up into his throat. She and Grumyu were both just behind him, both standing at their full height. He forced his words out over a dry tongue. “We won’t find her this way. We need to cover more of the markets.”
“Of course, Packprotecter. I was about to suggest the same.” She was about to translate for Grumyu when Taylor forced himself to speak again.
“But one more thing. The girl, she’s human. She’s not as strong as you. Don’t hurt her.”
Niumra clamped her mouth shut and flicked her ears back. A chill tumbled down Taylor’s spine that grew a thousand times worse when something that sounded too much like a growl escaped the g’keyli’s throat.
“We are not fools, Packprotector,” was all she said. Then she exchanged a few words with her mate, and the two big creatures stalked off in opposite directions through the crowd, leaving Taylor to continue in the direction they had been going.
His progress was not as quick without the g’keyli to clear the way, but if it had been he might have missed the upturned container that drew his attention to a small space between two stalls. And if he had not seen that, he would not have seen a pair of hazel eyes staring back at him when he peered inside. He also wouldn’t have suffered a surprisingly heavy blow to the head when the girl hit him with a length of aluminum pipe she had clutched in both her hands.
She hurtled past him while he was still reeling and sprinted wildly through the crowd of milling shoppers. Taylor scrambled to his feet.
“Station Security! Stop her!”
No one did. A few tried, but the girl was too fast, too agile, too wiry. She slipped out of their hands or between their legs, and Taylor knew she was getting away all over again.
And then Grumyu appeared from around the corner of a stall, just ahead of where the girl was running. He barked something fierce and forceful in the g’keyli language, and the girl stopped and dropped to the floor. The big g’keyli stepped forward until he stood just beside her, towering above her tiny form and growling low.
“Grumyu, wait!” Taylor’s knees were weak again. The g’keyli didn’t understand any human tongues. He could only hope the alien would hear and understand his name.
If he did, Grumyu gave no sign. Instead, he bent down over the girl, still growling, and placed one enormous paw on her thin chest.
“Grumyu!” Taylor started running forward, horrified by the images provided by his own mind of what was about to happen. “Grumyu! No!”
He was still yards away when something caught his shoulder and stopped him in his tracks. It was Niumra. Taylor yelped and shrieked like a child.
“Hush, Packprotector. The girl is fine. You are fine. Stop your fear.”
Taylor went quiet. He couldn’t tell if it was because he had regained control or because he was too scared to make a sound. For the moment, he didn’t care.
A few yards away, Grumyu’s low, rumbling voice continued speaking. It was joined a moment later by a second voice, a tiny, thin, and piping voice that answered inexplicably with g’keyli words.
“Our pup,” said Niumra. “Our Aruri.” She lifted her paw from Taylor’s shoulder, tentatively at first and then more freely when he didn’t run. “She is curious and rebellious, and she found her way onto the transport ship. We did not realize until too late.”
It took some time for Taylor to find the courage to speak. When he did, a question came out first. “Your pup?” he asked.
“Yes,” said Niumra. “Our pup, since we rescued her from the broken ship where her blood parents died. She was tiny and very weak, but we helped her and raised her, and she is ours.”
“Ah,” said Taylor, and he nodded.
Niumra made a chuffing sound that might have been a laugh. “You are surprised?”
He paused and considered, then nodded again. “I think I am.”
“That’s alright,” she said. “Many are.”