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His blue limbs gleamed coolly in the hot air, they arched and flexed with unhurried grace. He spun sinuously in the air, catching the light of the sun in his hair. His was the only movement in the circle of watchers.
Now another joined him in the middle. His skin was dark red, his physique compact, contained. His movements made her think of what he didn't do, turns he didn't make, and leaps that existed only in his eyes. Finally, a third Eleusian joined the dance, this one bright yellow, jumping furiously on the spot, like the flickering flame of a candle. They were pure colors that never mixed, cold jewels that tumbled separately. They deflected each others movements, and only the impersonal thread of the flute-like instrument a fourth played held them even in the same space.
The music stopped abruptly and the dancers froze. She was in the front row – her only chance of seeing over the hulking Centaurans – and one of the first to applaud. Sudden, unexpected – it was a typical Eleusian ending. Then others joined her, in their fashion, and she reached into her suit to close her fingers around a hard shape and toss it into the circle. She saw it land and bounce with a bright ring. It was a decent amount. Then she clapped again, and watch as other coins, and currencies, danced through the air into the circle. The Eleusians bowed in the traditional Centauran manner, in deference to their hosts, curling their foreheads to the ground before turning to face the whole circle. They moved with unfailing grace, even when stooping to pick the coins from the grimy floor of the workshop.
She turned and walked back to her work station, and by the time she had gotten there and turned to look back, they were gone. She knelt beside the net of fiber optic wires and picked up her tools.
The Lyran beside her uttered a high pitched whistle, and the translator chip in her ear buzzed for a split-second as it activated. Its slightly disjointed voice whispered carefully to her.
“Goddamn right it's hot,” she answered, wiping a trail of sweat from her cheek with the back of her hand. The sun was low in the violet of the sky. “You'll get used to it – you'll come to expect it, at least. Anyways, it'll be night soon. It'll be be at least somewhat cooler then.”
His translator blipped and whistled at him quietly. She could see inside his large, conical ears, imagining the spot inside where the chip would bulge just under the surface of his mottled skin. An uncertain whistle was his answer. Green, that's all. Not here long enough. She smiled to herself as she went back to the circuits. He was green, too, in places, but a decent technician all the same. Factory trained, up on all the latest shit, and as a Lyran, his long arm appendages ended in long, flexible hands and fingers perfect for manipulating the delicate quantum system components. The next sound he made was lower and more melodic, and she answered before the small voice in her ear was finished speaking.
“That's the idea, you get some experience under your belt and you can get on a Lyran route. You can't expect much better than this in the Centauran quadrant.”
The Lyran's fingers paused beside hers, the narrow lips at the end of his long snout contorting with effort.
He made a clipped sound and she laughed a little to herself. No place for a belt on that physique. “This is a belt,” and she fingered the one at her waist. “It's an expression.”
No comment. The Lyran's long fingery things gestured at one of her tools, and she tossed it at him playfully. He snorted as she smiled, and the work continued in companionable silence for a time. Then, she felt the slight pressure of a paw on her shoulder and a breathy growl rasping above her head. She reached insider her ear to touch the bump of the translator softly, turning the volume down. Infernal device, muttering away incessantly. The contours of the Centauran's growls were familiar enough; after all this time, she only needed the disembodied, digital voice to fill in the blanks.
“I know what you mean,” she said, “they certainly weren't my favorite, not the best I've ever seen.” She sat back on her heels, looking up as the Centauran replied. “Obviously, the best Eleusian dancers aren't doing it for coins at a Station. By their own standards, they're probably not even that good. But Class VII's, you know, to us they look great just walking down the street.” She turned to the Lyran. “What did you think?”
He only made a non-committal noise. Well, ask a bloody Lyran about art, what do I expect? She winked at the Centauran as he turned to go. Then, she growled at him, and he turned, surprised. She couldn't contain her laughter, shrugging. “I was trying to say, see you later,” she laughed, and he made the belching sound she had been told was their equivalent, but still had to remind herself every time she heard it, so unlike anything mirthful did it sound. She watched him lumber away, the dark claws of his boots scraping along the metal flooring, and caught the Lyran doing the same. “You know, I viewed a report just this morning that Centaurans have more poets per capita than anyone else.”
The Lyran's long finger-things stopped their work momentarily, in shock.
“It's true, I've heard it before.” Her own fingers acted almost on their own, first pinching the translator's volume up, then gliding almost unconsciously over the control panel, guided by her expert eye. “Hand me the number seven, would you?”
The Lyran passed her the tool, then stopped to watch. His whistle sounded fretful, but the voice in her ear was quite matter-of-fact.
“Yessir, it's a little meteor damage, it looks like. The engineer told me their heating system went on the fritz all of a sudden, it wouldn't go below 51 – too hot for Centaurans, even, if such a thing is possible.”
Her fingers were now checking their work, running over the joins to make sure they'd taken. They fell still, satisfied by the smooth weld. She sat back on her heels again, and felt the heat like a wave, squeezing the sweat from her pores. “My shift's almost over. Will you be okay for a few minutes on your own if I leave now? You can close it back up?”
The Lyran's face was blank for a split-second, and then his hands fluttered in a motion of reassurance.
“Great. Thanks a lot.” She pursed her lips, and closed her eyes in concentration as she stood up. The whistle was unsteady, but around the right pitch and inflection. She smiled at the expression that flitted across the Lyran's face. “I boarded in pretty close quarters with a couple of Lyrans while I was apprenticing. You can't help but pick up an expression or two.” She paused a few seconds, until his translator had finished its hushed whistling. “Anyways, I'll probably work another shift with you soon – our schedules will be about the same. See you later.”
She listened carefully to the Lyran's answer, to copy it better next time.
Good-bye, said the voice in her ear.
Out of the Station and into the street...
The metallic shine of the shower room startled her eyes. She unfastened the heavy protective layer of her work suit and let it slip stickily from her shoulders. Then, she stepped out of it completely, and hung it on the rack for cleaning. Selecting a diluted strength from the dial, she stepped under a nozzle and let the cleaning solution wash over her face and body, and soak through her hair. She opened her eyes after what seemed like a long while to find two Centaurans looming beside her, one familiar from the lighter blue tuft of fur on her snout, and she smiled a greeting. There were some curious growls from one, and a short belching laugh from the other. She joined in the laughter as her translator explained.
“Well come here, don't be shy - she asked me the same thing when she saw me for the first time.”
She held out her arm, and the Centauran touched it gingerly with his forepaw. Then she held her hand up to his snout. He sniffed, and growled softly. The skin of a Centauran's palm is fairly thick, but characteristically, his touch was gentle, his retractable claws safely inside their leathery sheath. “It's okay,” she said softly, guiding his paw back to her skin, “you can keep going.” She closed her eyes and felt his slightly rougher skin run from her arm, under her chin, then across to her breasts. Her nipples tightened in response, and the Centauran growled in alarm. “It's okay,” she laughed, “it means I like it.” His paw hesitated, then quickly completed the inspection. He growled again.
“Yes, I do have to be careful. I keep myself covered up here at work, and I have to go for zinc treatments every month. Otherwise, I'd've had burn damage a long time ago.” The water flow stopped, and she squeezed the excess from her hair. “I'll see you around.”
She walked naked to her locker in the next room, curious stares just part of the background noise to every single day of the last two years here at the Station, living here amid the kaleidoscope of species that came and went. In drier seasons, the cleaning solution dried in moments, but now the humidity kept a light sheen on her skin. There was only one movable step-ladder in the locker room – only one, for all the aliens employed here – it was also part of the backdrop to her daily routine to have to search for it in the aisles of this cavernous space. Today it was hiding in only the second aisle she checked, and she pushed it with one finger to her own locker, finally able to climb up and reach the lock. She placed her palm on the huge red square, and the door slid open. Factory-made hooks hung mockingly just out of reach. She'd tried to find and install her own, but in the end, had to be satisfied with a makeshift series of shelves she'd fashioned out of scrap metal and plastic blocks she'd swiped from the parts room.
She dressed quickly, simply. The belt fit loosely around her waist, gathering in white folds of Centauran cotton, and leaving much of her skin bare. The heat would be settled around the building and out in the street like a coiled serpent. She passed by a large window on the way out. The sun was suspended heavily just above the buildings of the city. At this point, its descent would accelerate, and in a few short hours it would be completely dark. After all her time here – two years in her native rhythm, at least she thought so, but had never counted the cycles or kept track too exactly – the days and nights of the Centauran Station still passed as slowly and regularly as the remote, circling beams of a beacon, while her own cycles of sleeping and waking bobbed up and down irrelevantly on the waves.
The street was busy going into the Entertainment District, the crowds stirring the air with activity, and she switched off the monotonous echo of the translator by pinching it hard, and quickly. There were no vehicles allowed here, and only the occasional flit-flit-flit reminded her of the moving sidewalks overhead. Long shadows pointed towards a horizon that was already a deeper blue. Many of the regular crowds knew her here, in the District, and her passage through the street was accompanied by a cacophony of growls, the odd squeak or snort from a Betelgeuse, Sirians, and others even more exotic; between them all, a few noises that sounded very nearly like her name, or at least, so she imagined. She smiled, waved and nodded in return at long snouts, and faces of blue fur, and green scales, saying her name softly under her breath – Anika, Anika, Anika... – to remind herself of the real shape of the word. From force of repetition, the sound became as empty as a dry glass, and she was anonymous for a moment before regaining her footing. Those that didn't know her, stared curiously. She could feel the straightness of her spine as she walked, the light touch of the cloth on her skin.
She let herself be carried along by the flow of the crowds past all the boxes of light and noise that spilled out onto the street. Colored lasers traced the name of each nightclub into the sky above.
A chance meeting at a Centauran bar
As she moved away from the Station compound, the crowds grew thicker and thicker, until they were slowed to a steady ooze. Smells of cooking and heavy Centauran liquor drifted calmly through the moving masses. Her dress was beginning to cling to her back – no, this wouldn't do at all. Her eye was caught by a familiar and welcome name off to the side. She called it the Den, although she'd never asked what the sign actually meant. She stepped impatiently around a group of Centaurans who had stopped indecisively in front of her, and slipped into a small alleyway just off the main street. She crossed the street quickly to a quieter, and more dimly lit place.
The huge door opened with effort, and she muttered to herself, brushing a wisp of hair from the dampness of her forehead, something about Centaurans and their center-of-the-universe mindset. They invite us here to work, and then make zero accommodations. She wondered if registering another complaint at the next union meeting would be worth the effort.
The subdued murmur of growling and squeaking voices was the only sound to disturb the sleepy warmth of the bar. The door fell heavily shut behind her. The bar was long and made of a dark material – stone, she imagined, unless it was some kind of synthetic. Climbing onto a stool at one end, she waited to catch the bartenders attention. When he finally set all four of his red Centauran eyes in Anika's direction, she raised one finger. The bartender nodded. She had found certain advantages to being so conspicuous. Her glass seemed small and fragile in the Centauran's hand, the lights reflecting dimly on the smoky liquid inside. She took her drink to a corner of the bar, grasping the heavy goblet in both hands.
From her perch, she could look out over most of the room. The drink was bitter and strong, even watered down, and had to be taken a sip at a time. Her eyes moved quickly over the different shades and textures of skin, the features of the face, recognizing some. There were only Centaurans and a few Betelgeuse – and one Anika humanoid, she told herself. She compared fur, leather, and reptilian scales, and the thin, lightly browned layer of cells that covered her own frame.
Through the window, the perpetual ebb and flow passed through the main street, a spectacle that never failed to fascinate her. She turned back to the room after a while. A crowd of Centaurans gathered around someone by the entrance, then made way. She looked, stunned, for a moment or two before taking it in. No, not just like me, not quite. Not quite human... But – a Vegan? Yes, a real, live Vegan. He made his way to the bar through the crowd of Centaurans, and small throng of Betelgeuse, having to pick his way carefully around their colorful dress. He spoke to the bartender briefly, and perhaps due to Anika's patronage, or so she imagined, the bartender also handed him a (relatively) small glass filled with familiar looking stuff. The Vegan raised it to his lips with his slender fingers, eyeing the rest of the room warily. Some of the crowd was already making the connection, staring first at him, then at her, growling and snorting softly to each other. He was probably the second humanoid they'd ever seen. The Vegan followed their attention to her direction, and his eyes widened in surprise. She found herself smiling as he slipped quickly through the tables towards her.
“Please, sit down,” she said, fumbling with the translator in her ear.
His voice was soft, and the words trilled just a touch on his tongue. “You won't need that awful thing in your ear.” He was sliding in beside her, and she just stared. “I worked under a Solarian first mate for three years, when I started out,” he smiled, “though most of the crew, and the captain, were Vegan. We all learned some of your language – the one you call Inglish.”
“All the worst of it, I bet.”
He laughed. “Later on, I took a course or two, it led to promotions because my timing was good -- it was during that push for expansion into your quadrant. Different postings, more courses - you get the idea.” She nodded in understanding. The Vegan looked around, and it seemed like half the room was turned in their direction, a bank of red eyes in dark, furry faces that peered at them through the dim lighting. “I think we're causing quite a sensation.” His eyes darted from side to side nervously. “I've never been stationed so far out.”
“You needn't worry. I've been here about seven Centauran months, and I've always felt quite safe. They like to have a good time, but I've never seen any violence here.”
The Vegan stared into his glass, as if wondering whether he should let himself be seduced into reassurance. His fingers twisted on the table in front of him.
“You'll get used to it, the way they look,” she continued. “They really aren't vicious carnivores, you know. Didn't you read the brochures?”
He looked at her for a moment, then they both laughed lightly at the shared prejudice. There was a space of silence. A Vegan. He frowned again. She leaned towards him conspiratorially. “Don't worry, this is a local hangout, and most of the locals don't even wear a translator. Why would they?” The Vegan looked around, as if considering the information, visibly trying to relax into the hard Centauran bar stool. She turned her head, but not too far, keeping him in the corner of her eye so he wouldn't disappear.
“Are there many Solarians working here now?” he asked.
She laughed again. “I'm the only one any of them has ever seen! You too, I don't think there are any Vegans here. I've certainly never seen any.”
“Well, if you're the only Solarian they've seen, it's fortunate they're seeing such a nice specimen.”
One of his eyebrows was arched crazily – slightly different facial muscles, perhaps, or a variation in facial bones.
“That's very original,” she replied. There was a studied lightness in her voice. At least, he would have all the same basic parts, she was sure of that. Hopefully, the rest wouldn't be too different, but she hadn't met very many Vegans, either, it was only what she'd heard. The largely Centauran crowd had, for the most part, turned their snouts back to their own drinks.
“You don't know how much better I feel, seeing you.”
“I remember how it was at first,” she shrugged vaguely. “I suppose I'm used to it now.”
“Would you like another drink?” he asked.
“No, thank you.” She stared at her glass. “These few drops will last me. This stuff is deadly.”
He looked down at his own glass. “It is strong,” he agreed. “Perhaps I should slow down.”
Strangers in a strange city
There was more of a breeze now, or maybe it was just the contrast with the sluggish air of the bar. They walked slowly, almost gingerly, together towards the brighter lights and sounds of the main street. An animated mass flowed through the city, and they had to flow with it. She paused for a moment against the current, and he stopped beside her. The Vegan's fingers were cool and firm as they squeezed hers, his palm smooth.
“Just so we don't lose each other.” He caught her eye and smiled.
Her eyes darted quickly ahead to find the small, empty pockets of space they could move through, leading like stepping stones to her residence complex. Blue fur and green scales surrounded them, jumbled with the lights, loud Centauran music, and the swell of voices. The street shouted and danced around them dizzily.
“Is it much farther?” he asked, his eyes moving quickly, not knowing what to observe, what was important, uneasy at the chaotic crowds.
“It's just up here,” she gestured ahead, around the next corner, “past the Pink Palace.” There was no other way to describe the place. While Centauran culture, she'd observed, had a taste for colored lasers and bright pigments, nothing in the Entertainment District quite matched the intensity of the fuchsia emanating from down the street. The small, two level building itself, the lights, and all the furnishings you could see from the street glowed fluorescent pink.
“Wow,” was all he managed at first.
“The place caters to Centaurans from the fourth quadrant,” she explained. She pulled him closer, ostensibly to navigate around the large line-up for the Pink Palace, but took the opportunity to whisper into his ear – “I can hardly wait to get you home” – the skin of his arm tingling against hers. Then, taking on a mock cyber-commentator's voice, and hardly giving him time to react, “You'll observe, most of them in the line up are a bit shorter than the average Centauran, a darker, more purply blue.” She laughed at the cold, disjointed sound of her voice, so closely had she learned to mimic the ubiquitous voice of the translator, switching back to her usual tone. “The vivid pink, it has some kind of traditional significance, but here, they're trying to make it hip.”
He didn't answer, could only gawk as they walked past. His hand was warming slightly in her grip, a pool of cold sweat beginning to form in his palm. Once past the Pink Palace, she led him around the corner, and it was suddenly quieter, darker. An enormous, boxy complex loomed ahead, an octagon in burnished metal of indiscriminate and weathered gray, with oval windows, and floors that terraced back slightly as each rose above the next, back from the street and up as far as her eyes could see. She stopped at the door, freeing her hand to touch a squared panel. Doors slid noiselessly open, and they stepped inside. An elevator gaped at the end of the long hallway.
“See, one advantage here, you'll be fit in no time,” she joked. “It's like a perpetual marathon and obstacle course combined.”
Their footsteps echoed dully on the cooled metal floors. Finally, they reached the elevator and stepped inside. She raised her palm overhead again to touch a black square on the wall. The doors slid shut. There was no sensation of motion, only a few seconds of stillness, then they slid open again. He was inside the apartment before her.
“Well this is it,” she said, “what do you think?” She turned to face him, her hands motioning towards the living room. He began to laugh. “What's so funny?”
“Do you have a ladder to get on the sofa?”
“If you can call it a sofa!” she laughed, trying to see the large piece that had the shape of a chaise lounge - so the Centaurans could lounge on their sides - upholstered in a dark brown, furry material, with his eyes. “And yes, actually, for ladders I have three good movables for the whole place. And one of these,” she reached over, picking up a stick that leaned against the wall, “get yourself one of these right away. See?” It was a grab stick, light and balanced, she held it with three fingers as she manipulated the controls to show him how claws at the end of the stick could grab at switches and too-high shelves in various ways. “Nothing fits. Get used to it; that's all you can do. They don't make anything that fits our size. And cover up the walls, that damned metal they use everywhere,” she gestured at the walls that she'd painted blue and white, green in the kitchen. “Maybe it's just me, but it made a huge difference.”
“I feel like a little rag doll,” he complained.
“Is your place as big as this?”
“Actually, I'm still living at the Station. I'm on a waiting list.”
“You poor thing. This Lyran I worked with today, he got a place right away.”
“A Lyran? I haven't seen one in ages.” He paused. “Is he the only one too?”
“No. They run the Research Center, more or less.”
The Vegan shook his head. “Lucky.”
She reached over to turn on a light, and felt his arms slide around her waist as she straightened. His skin had a bluish cast against the white of her clothes. His lips touched her shoulder, and he laughed again.
“You Solarians live in a perpetual fever,” he said.
The words blew past her ear and she shivered deliciously as her skin burned against his. She turned to face him.
“What's this?” He held it up for her to see, his fine, bluish features frowning in incomprehension.
“A Solarian timepiece. A very old-fashioned one. See?” She pointed to the longer hand. “This goes around once to move the smaller one a single notch, and this, twice around, is one day.”
He contemplated it for a moment longer as she settled her body against him, the fingers of his other hand absentmindedly twisting in her hair.
“Small wonder your blood boils,” he concluded.
He set the clock back down on the table. Her fingers were loosening the neck of his tunic, and he turned his attention back to her abruptly. She pulled his lips to hers, hungry, and his hands reached to pull her tighter against him. His lips were cool too, and for the first time, she could also feel that his skin was also somehow firmer, tighter, perhaps slightly thicker than hers, despite the delicate nature of his features. His tongue was thin and agile, like a chilled snake inside her warm mouth. But the kiss was like kisses she remembered, deep and enveloping, and it was enough for a time to simply let all her hunger flow through her lips and let their hands explore each other. They slipped slowly out of their clothes.. Finally, she paused for a moment.
“You're so beautiful,” she said, stepping back to see all of him, lithe, the same basic shape as a human male but with variations, like a longer, more convex ribcage that made his torso seem sculpted, and elegant, smaller ears. He had no hair, anywhere. The blue cast of his skin was darker in the joints and creases, it went to a deep violet.
“You're so soft, so warm,” he reached for her, moving closer to her again, and their hands reached for each other in a seamless movement that eventually became another long kiss. “So beautiful too,” he said.
“It's been so long..” she whispered after a while.
“Oh my, yes,” and his face frowned as he thought about the implications. “Seven Centauran months? That's..” and his eyes drifted towards the clock.
“Well,” and she smiled, “I don't really go without. The Centaurans are a very agreeable species – I don't know if you've seen what they do – “ he shook his head, no, “well, it's a lengthy explanation, but I'll just say for now that the experience does nothing for me. But they have incredible forepaws..hands...they can be very delicate.”
He laughed, and kissed her neck.
“I'm like an exotic pet. Some of the locals, in places like this, with such a transient population, they look for far out aliens like me,” she continued.
He chuckled and pulled her closer again. “You are an exotic pet,” he said, kissing her.
She led him to the bedroom, where they climbed up a ladder and onto the huge Centauran bed to lay down on the rough linens, caught up in the dance of her warm flesh against his cool blue skin. They moved together for a long time, showing each other their best positions, the best angles, wriggling and twisting and adjusting, finding all the best ways they could feel each other, and explore the essential rhythm of him inside her.
It was sometime later, and she had lost track of time and space. They were both drenched in sweat. They had paused, disentangled for the moment.
“Come with me,” and she took his hand, to lead him to the bathroom.
Inside, the walls reverted to the ubiquitous shiny metallic finish the Centaurans preferred. Another of the movables, a small touch-glide step-ladder, gave her access to a sink positioned just around the top of her head, and makeshift shelves housed all her personal items – soaps, exotic oils from every quadrant, all over the galaxies. A grab stick in the corner let her open the shower stall and fiddle with the temperature controls. His hands stroked her back as she leaned over. She was aiming for something between her heat and his coolness, stepping in when it felt just about right. He followed, taking her by the waist as the door shut to enclose them in the fine spray, turning her around and then pushing her back against the wall. Vegans are stronger.. she remembered hearing it, and felt it now as he lifted her up slightly, holding her up against the wall. She loved watching him, running her hands over his smooth skin...
“Where am I ?” he asked groggily.
She laughed. “I'm hardly sure myself.”
Later on, after the third, fourth time, she was covered in his sweat, could taste the strange, bitter-salt taste of it on her tongue. She stroked the fine, yet strong bones of his back, and wiped a trickle gently from his forehead.
“I hope the heat isn't too much.”
“No, no,” he insisted, falling beside her.
She pulled a blanket up to her waist. His body chilled again rapidly, making gooseflesh rise along her arms, but the sensation wasn't at all unpleasant.
“You won't go back to the Station tonight, will you?”
He yawned before he could answer, and they both erupted in quiet laughter.
“That means no, in Vegan,” he said.
His arm curved comfortably around her waist, and the tiny hairs at the back of her neck were stirred slightly by his breathing. She'd half shut her eyes, in a placid state somewhere between waking and the darker stillness of sleep, every cell in her body still singing, alive with him. Her own breaths were quicker, sounded shallow against his. A light went out in the courtyard. It was night-time for Centaurans too.
So many bright gasses...
* * *
He blinked in confusion, flailing his arm blindly in the direction of the sound.
“It's okay, I'm turning it off.”
She had to reach over him to get to the alarm, another of her old-fashioned clocks – the only kind of Solarian timepiece she'd been able to find in this corner of the universe. His eyelids twitched, and he muttered unintelligibly at the jolt of warmth from her skin. She pulled back the blanket and wriggled out, kissing him softly on the forehead before pushing off the edge to drop to the floor.
She washed quickly, and got dressed in a standard issue worksuit, one of several in the hall closet. He was lying across one corner of the bed, his smooth, blue skin against the rough white of the Centauran sheets. She let him sleep, staying only in the doorway to look at him for a while, then turned to leave. She paused only once more before she left, directly in front of the telescreen, right beside the elevator door. She spoke softly into the screen, and the words wrote themselves across in perfect Solarian. He must be able to read it, she reasoned, but then requested the Vegan translation too, just in case. She considered the message – too friendly, perhaps, for his cooler blood? Call me later... But she left it unchanged.
She reached the outside, and it was quiet, as quiet as the District ever got, with most night clubs closed and only a few stragglers, the more exotic aliens, still looking to be entertained. There were three moons out already, and a liberal scattering of stars, despite the lights of the street.
So many burning gasses out there, and so little flesh and blood.
She stumbled, looked down as she righted herself, then continued ahead, towards the Station.