“What?” All three of the Four Arms stared at me. Bouncer curled in front of me, pressing against my legs. He exposed his fangs and snarled, his ears and eyes focused on the watching group. “Stop that,” I said.
“You are insane.” Seedrah’s eyes were huge. “He should be dead.”
“I am not,” I objected.
“Cerops are vicious. They attack anything between them and their chosen prey. Even though they are smaller than many of the prey animals, a mated pair can take down almost anything.”
“Bouncer has adopted me as a parent.” I wrinkled my nose. “Not a mate.” He certainly acted a lot like the young I’d seen being fed, just bigger. “I’ve raised enough babies to recognize the behavior. He’s never once tried to mount me or lay a claiming bite like many feline or canine species across many planets did.”
Life varied in many ways, but it also had many consistencies.
I crossed my arms over my chest. “Maybe you just never got close enough to them to discover their true nature.”
“Or maybe there’s something about you that’s special,” Timok said. “You reacted to stasis differently than any other being we’ve brought in before. He reacted to you different while in stasis.”
Dropping my arms, I raised my eyebrows. “Well, I guess you have a lot to study, don’t you?”
“You’ll let me? Study you?” Timok’s look turned calculating.
“Turnabout is fair play. You help me learn about Bouncer and the rest of Ardra.”
“Who is Ardra?” Garjah rumbled.
“The planet? That is the designation we’ve given it.” What did they call it? I’d have to ask. “I’ll need some recording equipment, something to write notes. The one I had would be great, I already had recordings and observations on it from before… well, before.” I didn’t want to say they’d kidnapped me, but that’s what they’d done.
“No recording equipment.”
I sighed loudly, and Bouncer’s ears twitched backward toward me before rotating forward again. “Seriously? You can disable it so it won’t transmit and check it whenever you want, make sure I’m not saving any data that would breach your security.” Garjah’s stone face, so rigid when he was in his security leader role, was hard to read. “Please?” I tried the smile that used to get me extra time to read before bed.
“Fine,” he grumbled. “But you will check in with before the end of every day. We will discuss what you’ve seen, where you’ve been, and what you recorded.”
“How about over the last meal?” Timok suggested. “Since Essell has such a hard time navigating the ship and doesn’t know how to read our language.”
I nearly goggled at him. What was he doing?
“Good. Last meal.”
“What about Bouncer? He can’t survive on his own, so you can’t let him go. I don’t really like him in a cage, even if this one is nicer.” I looked around at the small space, barely big enough for him to roam a few paces in each direction.
“Let’s do some tests,” Timok suggested.
Garjah argued with him and Seedrah for a few minutes, and I only objected when he suggested provoking him by poking him with something. “Do you really think a crew member will poke a wild cerops if he’s loose on the ship instead of running away?”
“He makes a good point, Garjah,” Seedrah said. “I would run.”
“You’d be a fool to turn your back on predator.” Garjah made his pronouncement and Seedrah’s skin darkened. But he didn’t argue, standing with his back to a wall several body lengths away from the cage. He held a weapon ready to stun Bouncer back into stasis.
“Ready?” Garjah asked.
“I trust Essell.” Timok stood equally distant from the cage, Garjah to one side. He was calm, but I was surprised. He trusted me? Why? He didn’t seem all that impressed with humans when I first overheard him. What had changed? “I trust he’s learned what being foolish about his safety can lead to.” Ahh, there it was. The snark. He was downright caustic in a way you couldn’t really call him out for.
Still. “Thanks. I’m opening the door now.” I reached through the bars on the front and undid the latch, sliding the lock to one side so I could crack open the door. Bouncer stayed beside me as I opened the door and stepped out slowly.
“Move so you’re not between him and Seedrah.”
I tried to follow Garjah’s directions, but Bouncer was careful to stay tucked against my side. From the way he kept an eye on the young alien who wasn’t quite as stable with his weapon as I’d like, he knew where the threat lay.
“Interesting. We knew they were intelligent and postulated a bond of some sort that allowed them to hunt as a single unit when pairs were mated, but we never studied the young ones with parents. He almost anticipates your moves before you make them.” Timok absently tapped two of his hands together. “Do you feel anything from him? Anything foreign at all?”
“What? No.” I had adopted a rather large predator quickly when before I normally would have steered clear, but… “I can’t feel anything.”
“Hmm, maybe it’s subconscious.”
“Let’s test him. That’s why he’s out of the cage, right?” Garjah said impatiently. He stomped suddenly, and Bouncer tensed but only pressed tight to my thigh. Timok proceeded to set off loud sounds of varying pitches while Garjah made sudden movements.
The only one that caused a reaction was when Garjah grabbed me. Bouncer thrust himself between us, baring his fangs. But then his nose wrinkled. He rubbed his head against my thigh, sniffed again, then swung his head toward Garjah. The snarling stopped, and his ears pricked up. He took a step closer to Garjah, sniffed, then yipped before rubbing against him.