Thirty-seven years ago, as Terrans measure time, a child of light was born on a planet whose day knew no night, and whose night knew no day. It was a planet of turmoil, a planet of turbulence, a planet that had seen countless generations of war... a gas giant fraught with tremendous electrical pulses in the very air in which the inhabitants lived. The planet was the fourth circling a star called Daled.

The natives of this world had long ago adapted to what humans would consider a deadly environment. The electrical nature of the atmosphere gave them sustenance, and they held no physical form for more than seconds. Light and energy, they were merely a coalescence of radiance.

And yet, the war had given them reasons to hold physical forms for longer periods of time. As bright flaming orbs, immovable rocks and fantastical creatures that rode the winds, they escaped death at the hands of their enemies... and spied out their secrets, as well.

Centuries passed, and what could have been a brilliant intellectual civilization became tarnished and stagnant.

Once, not so long ago if seen through the eyes of the universe, something new and frightening fell from the skies into the light. It was a creature unlike any that had ever been imagined — shiny and metallic — and it had opened itself to their investigations. Many years passed while the people of the light communicated with it. The creature spoke to them in electrical impulses, telling them of many things... wonders beyond their heavens peopled by strange and unbelievable creatures. The people of the light learned that this beast, which had fallen into their midst, believed itself to be merely a conveyance of other, more advanced, beings. It told them it was a cargo vessel, named Demeter, from a planet called Earth that revolved around a distant sun. Demeter showed them images of living things and non-living things, things the people believed were mere fantasy.

The people of the light, those who ranked high in the social structure, learned to imitate these images. They learned that few of the species could live in the atmosphere of Daled IV... moments after flowing into the shape of a human or a dolphin, their physical form began to deteriorate. It became a game among the children of the light to see who could hold a shape the longest or who could change into the most shapes in a single day.

And then, when such games had become commonplace, the child was born and her parents called her Shia. If human values can be placed on alien races, one would have to admit that Shia was an intelligent, happy child. She loved the game of shape changing, and she was very good at it; maybe too good.

When Shia was five, her mother's sister had a baby too. Shia heard the grownups talking about the baby when they thought she wasn't listening. They said the baby's father was one of the dark people. Shia knew that couldn't be true, because everyone knew the dark people were bad. And ugly! Her cousin Salia was a pretty baby. She even seemed to shine brighter than other babies. Surely a baby who had a dark father couldn't do that.

Shia doted on her young cousin, and Salia seemed to adore Shia. From the moment Salia could move about independently, they were inseparable. But Salia constantly threatened Shia's neat little preconceived notions about the way things were. The youngster insisted that her father was, indeed, one of the dark people.

"But Salia," explained a seven year old Shia patiently. "The dark people are bad. They're mean. They hurt us."

The younger child glowed with a red hue. "Nuh uh. My daddy is good. My mommy loves my daddy and so he's good," she insisted stubbornly.

It was true then that Salia's father was one of the dark people. And so then it must also be true that he was a good person, if Salia's mother loved him. And a mean, bad person couldn't be Salia's father.

But... but the dark people were bad!

Poor Shia... she was so confused.

The process of transformation, once learned, was as automatic as the breathing process of humanoids. To transform, one must study the form and function of the desired object. In the games of Daled children, they practiced the transformation process, unconcerned about the resemblance their creations had to the actual object they imitated.

Some children, however, are perfectionists. Shia was one such child. She studied the files contained within Demeter, wanting desperately to imitate human, feline, avian, lupine, canine forms. Mastering the simpler forms of earth and water, she became frustrated when the perfection of intricacies of higher life forms eluded her.

The other children, content with their perfunctory imitations of Terran creatures, taunted Shia when she howled in frustration at their — and her own — inexact duplications.

"What's the matter, Shia?" asked her cousin, perplexed, one day as they played together. "I look like this thing called a dachshund."

Shia sighed. "No, Salia. You almost look like a dachshund. Look..." Shia took on the form of the small dog. "You see how the eyes should be just a little bit closer together? And the tail is much shorter. Do you see?"

"Well, yes. But, Shia... what does it matter? The Terrans will never see us. Why shouldn't we make the shapes the way we want?"

Shia sighed again. Salia was only four — she didn't understand. "It's because this is the way these creatures are. If we are going to imitate them, we should imitate them exactly. Otherwise, we are just shaping imaginary creatures."

Salia looked at her older cousin with respect. "If you say so, Shia, then that's the way it must be." Her dog form wagged its too long tail happily.

Shia nodded. "And once you can look like the thing, then you have to learn how to act like the thing."

"How do you do that, Shia?"

"Well, I guess we just need to talk to Demeter. It will tell us how all these things act." Shia transformed to a large tabby housecat. "Watch how a cat thing acts around a dog thing."

The cat's back arched, fur stood on end and it began hissing furiously. As Salia came closer, fascinated, the cat lashed out with its claws, first one, then the other, lightning fast, until it connected with Salia's dog nose.

Salia snapped back into True Form, startled by Shia's attack.

"I don't believe you! Cat things don't act that way!"

Shia flowed smoothly to True Form. "Yes, they do. Demeter told me so."

"But cat things are too pretty. Pretty things shouldn't be... they shouldn't do... well, they shouldn't act ugly."

Shia's form flowed around her little cousin in a semblance of an embrace. "Cat things don't like dog things, Sal... at least, not most of the time. That's what Demeter said. And on the place called Earth... well, pretty things can act ugly and ugly things can act pretty. It's a very strange place." But maybe not so different from our place, she thought, if a dark person could act in such a way that a person of the light would love him.

It happened just before what might have been Salia's fifth birthday, if Daleds acknowledged such things... the dark people had come to the place where they lived and killed, and killed, and killed. Salia's parents had been killed. Shia's parents had been killed. So many other people had been killed.

Both girls were inconsolable. They clung to each other as though the world was deteriorating around them... as indeed it seemed to be... as though each was the only stability the other could find. An older woman named Anya, friend to their mothers, continued to watch them... trying unsuccessfully to separate them... for long days. Finally, her patience wore thin.

"Children! You must stop this nonsensical behavior! I know you miss your mothers... I miss them too... but you must stop this... this... caterwauling. We must take Salia to a safe place."

Both girls simply looked at Anya as though she was a mad woman.

"Come now, children," said the woman. "Salia must come with me, away from here. We will go far away from all the fighting... Salia will be safe... and someday she will come back to stop the fighting."

"No... not gonna go," mumbled Salia into the safety of her cousin's form.

"No!" Shia yelled at Anya. "You're not going to take her away! You're mean and nasty and... and old and ugly! Go away!" she screamed.

For the first time in the ten years of her short life, Shia was struck by an adult. Hard. At first, all she noticed was the stinging pain, and she loosened her hold on Salia. Too shocked to move, she did not resist when Anya enfolded Salia's young form and pulled her, shrieking, away from Shia. Stunned, Shia could only watch... until the anger started building.

But by then, it was too late. Anya and Salia were gone.

Shia vowed, though, that no one — ever — was going to hurt her again.

On a planet with no seasons, where the same side of the planet's face always lifted itself to the sun, the passage of time was not as important a concept as it was on other worlds... for how can time be measured in small increments when nothing ever changes?

By the Terran reckoning of time, however, Shia was nearly thirteen years old... almost old enough to be considered an adult. She still wasn't supposed to go all the way down to the planet's surface alone... but she was almost old enough. And she knew how to take care of herself.

At least she thought she did.

It was very different near the surface. The pull of the planet was irresistible, even in True Form. The air was thick with gases that would kill most of the humanoid races in a heartbeat... and kill the rest in a minute. By Federation standards, this was a hostile, inhospitable planet not worth more than a second glance. To Shia, it was a delightful playground filled with ever-increasing wonders.

The planet possessed an odd anomaly... there were certain pockets of geographical formations that pulsed, quite regularly, with x-ray emissions. Although noted by Federation survey teams, it wasn't interesting enough to them to warrant further study, especially given the hostile environment of the planet's surface. Some unknown underground source would emit these x-rays for approximately forty eight Terran hours... then be still and silent again for about ninety hours.

Unfortunately for Shia, she arrived in the area only moments before the forty eight hour period of x-ray emissions. And also unfortunately, Shia did not know that x-rays prevented Daleds from changing shape.

Drifting slowing down to the planet's surface, Shia shifted form... where there was once an indistinct coalescence of energy, there now sat a large boulder.

Shia became rock... granite, dense and heavy. It wasn't enough for her to simply look like a rock. She had to be the rock. But what do rocks do?

She settled herself comfortably on the pebbly surface of the planet. Rocks must be able to sit without moving for lengthy periods of time, so they must be comfortable against their resting surface.

Rocks are impervious to most weather conditions. A boulder that stood six feet high and spanned another five feet was not going to be affected by the winds of Daled IV. Shia sat very still, ignoring the light winds, the flashes of lightening and the crashes of thunder.

A rock does not react to the activities around it. So Shia ignored the movement of particulates in the air, ignored the shifting sand-like ground cover nearby, ignored the occasional passage of other Daleds in the sky above her.

A rock does not know the passage of time when measured in increments of less than eons. And so Shia did not know how much time had passed when she finally tired of her game. The young are not known for their patience, and although Shia was a more patient youngster than most, it was not surprising that only a few hours had passed since she arrived at the planet's surface.

However, the x-ray emissions were going to continue for another forty four hours or so.

At first, she was no more than surprised that she couldn't shift back to True Form. But slowly her surprise became worry... and worry became fear... and fear became panic. Had she been in a form that could move, she might have moved out of the area bathed by the x-rays. But she had chosen the form of rock... immovable. And there was no one to help her, because no one knew where she was. And now there was no way to let them know.

Rocks don't see, rocks don't hear, rocks don't speak and rocks don't feel. For an eternity of hours, Shia was locked in a form of sensory deprivation, alone with her thoughts and her panic. As hard as she tried to calm herself, it was no use. She was, after all, still only a child and had not yet completely mastered self-discipline.

And then, suddenly, she found herself once again in True Form... weak, tired and more frightened than she'd ever been in her short life. She drifted just millimeters above the ground... if she had been human, she would have been shaking uncontrollably.

She never mentioned the incident to anyone, not even Salia; although she did later learn about the effects x-rays have on Daleds. And despite the fact that she appeared to recover completely from the experience, it did have its lasting effects.

Life seemed dark and empty without Salia to brighten it with her cheerful innocence. Shia often wondered what Salia was doing on Klavdia III... wondered if she was having any fun at all. Shia couldn't imagine Salia being able to have any fun with Anya, but did acknowledge, to herself at least, that she did not like Anya at all.

Shia spent considerable time pouring over the records contained in the little ship, Demeter. What started out as insatiable curiosity about the living beings of Earth soon turned into an obsession. Shia wanted to learn everything Demeter had to offer about Earth and its inhabitants.

She studied the history, the cultures, and the languages of Terrans. She delighted in their music and was baffled by their religions. She was astounded by the multitude of ways humans could communicate.

Language, for instance... there were hundreds upon hundreds of languages, the vast majority of which were spoken. Humans used their mouths to create the sound, used their ears to hear the sound. It wasn't too terribly different from the communication of the Daleds, really. Sound waves... electrical impulses... Shia supposed the theoretical concepts were similar at least. And humans could recreate sound using electrical impulses!

But there was more to communication that mere language, she learned. Many of the animals of Earth, including humans, used facial expressions and body movement to communicate.

With all the myriad forms of communication, and disparity of meaning within those forms of communications, Shia was beginning to understand why humans didn't even appear to understand themselves, let alone the other races that shared their planet.

Shia found the very concept of religion paradoxical. It seemed that the practice of religion had fallen out of favor several centuries ago, however. While a few of the religions enumerated in Demeter's records seemed to stress self-reliance... which was a notion that made sense to her... the vast majority of them seemed to imply that there was some sort of... parent or overseer — or even many of them... watching humans, cataloging their faults and determining various rewards and punishments.

Her shading dulled in frustration. This was something she would probably never understand about humans. And she so desperately wanted to understand everything about humans.

Ah, but then there was the music! Even when conveyed as mere electrical impulses from Demeter's memory banks, it was so incredibly varied and exciting! Someday... oh, someday, she promised herself... someday she would find a way to actually hear Tchaikovsky’s music and the voices of Mahalia Jackson and Placido Domingo.

Her obsessions caused her problems, though.

"Shia... where were you today?" Nenya was kind, and truly did treat Shia as her own child. Sometimes she worried about the girl.

Shia's coloring faded, something of a shrug. "With Demeter."

Nenya would have sighed if she was human. "Shia, you spend more time with that... well, whatever it is... than with your age mates. You don't seem to have any friends, and you haven't shown any interest in anything. What do you plan to do with the rest of your life, dear?"

The young woman considered the question for a moment. The answer was painfully obvious, despite the fact that she had no idea — as yet — how she would achieve her goal.

"I'm going to leave this place, Nenya. I'm going to study humans... by meeting with them."

Nenya's color oscillated. She really did worry about Shia.

Eleven years had passed since Shia had last seen her cousin. It was a long time. And yet... and yet, on a planet with no seasons, where the same side of the planet's face always lifted itself to the sun... what exactly did time mean?

And now, Salia was home. Anya had become more possessive and controlling than Shia remembered... not that Shia remember much except the fact that she couldn't stand the woman. Anya told Shia that Salia shouldn't be disturbed... that she needed to rest... that she need privacy.

But Shia had simply rushed passed Anya, ignoring the older woman's protests.

Salia's True Form had flared brightly in the happiness of seeing her cousin. "Oh, Shia! I've missed you so much!" she exclaimed as their forms flowed together and around one another.

Salia had come home. Her cousin, her sister, her friend... her best friend... was finally home again!

Shashina still didn't like Anya much. The older woman was overprotective and overbearing. She was a trained bodyguard, had protected cousin Salia almost from the day she was born, and yet Shashina knew she could kill the woman six ways from Sunday if she wanted. Six ways from Sunday. Shashina shook her head. Terran idioms were so... interesting. She wondered how that particular one had evolved; Demeter didn't seem to know much about etymology or the development of idioms.

Today, Anya was glowering in the corner of the room while Shashina talked with her cousin. They were in the fabricated room beneath the surface. Salia enjoyed human form and this was the only place on the planet she could sustain the form for any length of time.

"Shia, I don't understand your opposition to Daled joining the Federation. It would benefit us."

Shashina, a tall young woman with long raven hair, worn in two tights braids, and bright golden eyes, smiled at Salia. "You're still thinking of that handsome Wesley Crusher, Sal." She sobered. "Sal, our history is one of almost constant war. I'm just afraid the Federation would take advantage of our... unique abilities in violent or unethical ways." Then she laughed. "I know, I know... I have no right talking about ethics... being a spy and all." She sighed. "But Sal, that's a choice, a path, I chose. I'd hate to see someone forced into something she didn't want to do."

Salia shook her head. The Dauphin of Daled had matured in the past five years, and had indeed managed to unite the people of the light with the people of the dark. Children were being born and growing up to know themselves as simply the people. Even to Shashina, who had spent so much time fighting in the war, it felt good.

"And Sal... my name is Shashina now. I am the Falcon."

Salia smiled. "Ah, yes. Shashina means 'falcon' in one of those old Terran languages doesn't it?" The younger woman laughed. "You haven't changed a bit, have you? You’re still completely fascinated with Terrans and their culture." She shook her head. "I've heard of some of the exploits of the Falcon, of course. Everyone seems to believe the Falcon is a man."

It was disconcerting to watch the tall young woman change into a handsome middle-aged man... elegantly dressed with neat black hair slightly graying at the temples, bright golden eyes twinkling with humor.

"And everyone is always right, of course," he said in a deep resonant voice. "Damien Edwards, at your service."

Salia laughed. "Cousin, if I didn't know better, I'd say you enjoy this game."

"I always have, haven't I?" Damien shrugged with a gracefulness that was almost cat-like. "It's probably why I found myself in this line of work... it's almost like playing." His smile was sincere and his whole manner seemed to say trust me, I am your friend.

"But tell me, Sal... what does old Sourpuss have to say about the Federation? As I recall, when you and she returned from Klavdia III, she couldn't say enough negative things about them."

Salia's eyes flickered in Anya's direction, then focused again on her cousin. "Anya's... reluctance to think fairly about the Federation... the very nature of her... disagreeableness... has caused quite a number of people to actually favor an alliance with the Federation." Salia's smile was tight and grim. "She's not well-liked."

Damien nodded. "No. She isn't. And I can almost understand others flocking to the Federation banner simply because Anya hates them. Watching her glowering at us from the corner has almost got me liking them. Of course, I've never liked that old witch, you know that."

Salia nodded. "I know. And just what is it about the Federation you dislike, Cousin?"

"Dislike, Sal? It's not that I really dislike them... I don't know them well enough for that. It's simply that I don't really trust them. And unless I trust them, I wouldn't want them to have any... power... over us. You do understand that, don't you, Sal?"

"I guess that's where we differ, Falcon," said Salia with a smile. "I am simply more trusting than you. I'm willing to negotiate with them... I'm willing to talk about how we can contribute to their confederation, and how we can benefit by being part of it... I'm willing to give our children the opportunity to go out there and see the stars and planets that you see... that I won't get the chance to see."

The Falcon was silent for a long time, watching Salia... measuring the sincerity of her passion. When he finally spoke, it was quietly. "I can almost see your dream, Salia. There is a lot out there to experience... and no reasons why we shouldn't be out there experiencing it... even you, dear cousin. But..." Damien sighed. "But I just don't know enough of the Federation to be able to say I trust them. I deal with the slime of the universe, Sal... not beings that inspire trust, like your Wesley Crusher. Perhaps if I were to... get to know the Federation better..." He shook his head, and smiled. "Not likely in my line of business, is it?"

He leaned forward and took Salia's hands in his own. "I'll tell you this, though... despite the fact that I can't wholeheartedly support your decision to negotiate with the Federation, I won't get in your way like Sourpuss does. Does that suit you?"

Salia smiled. "It's more than I expected to get from you today, my friend. I know you still have some influence here... will you use that influence to dispel some of the opposition to my ideas?"

The Falcon considered Salia's request, and finally nodded. "I will speak to those who will listen... and request them to remain neutral and open-minded. Will that be sufficient?"

Salia's smile was almost sad. "It will have to be, Shashina. Won't it?"

© Kelly Naylor