Characters and Text © 1999, 2000, C Sandwalker
Arrallins © Dee Dreslough

Tension saturated the Bridge very soon after it was discovered that the ship was no longer in a recognised area of space. A-NO Keryss was the first to realise that, after having to perform evasive action to avoid a large asteroid that had suddenly appeared. Swearing to himself, he had checked their current position with where they were supposed to be, and found all was not right.

After re-checking his computations several times, he still came to the same conclusion. They were lost.

Captain Mastersson was roused from her slumber and quickly filled in on the current state of affairs. "How far do you think we're away from our last known position?"

Keryss sighed, his stripes almost seeming to pale. "Hundreds, thousands of light years...maybe even millions. I have no idea." His tail flicked nervously to and fro, betraying his internal agitation. "I'm afraid we may be stuck here, unless of course whatever accident brought us here occurs in reverse. Again, the probability of such a thing happening is effectively zero." He scratched idly at an itch on his foreleg.

"Would you like to bet on that?" Kira's face showed a calm facade as she brought up the old joke again, but inside she was seriously worried, partly about what to do with their passengers, and partly about their predicament. Thinking professionally, the refugees came first.

Keryss screwed up his muzzle in a weak Arrallin smile, shaking his head. "Not this time, I think. Enough is at stake for the time being." As if reading the Captain's thoughts, he asked, "What are we going to do with the Muscarians?"

Leaning back in her command chair, Kira pondered the problem. "Are there any convenient solar systems nearby?" Maybe they could drop off their passengers on a habitable planet, no matter that they'd have to fend for themselves. The ship carried only enough provisions for its crew. The people had been unceremoniously put into cold storage for the long journey which, it now seemed, was going to be a lot longer.

Keryss hurried back to his console, and began tapping on the keys, muttering quietly to himself.

While he did that, Kira went around the Bridge, checking on the various workings of her ship. Sefal told her that his end of things was relatively quiet, apart from Engine 2 suffering a few minor hiccups. "Not surprising, considering the age of this vessel. She's, what, fifty years?" he ventured.

"Forty-three," she corrected absently. "She was due for an overhaul five years ago, but she was appropriated by the GRO before that happened." The Galactic Relocation Organisation, one of the many organisations that had sprung up in the past century or so, had taken upon themselves the task of ensuring displaced people had some place to live, whether it be in the interim or permanently. They had taken over the services of a number of private operators and businesses, and now their vessels zipped all over the galaxy, transferring one planet's people to another planet willing to take them. Of the reasons for such an undertaking, war was becoming more and more popular, with many worlds fighting internecine civil wars, usually involving the government in some way.

The Captain sighed heavily to herself, remembering the good old days when she was free to come and go as she pleased. Now she was some company's flunky, getting not much more money out of it than she did when she worked for her own interests. She broke out of her reverie and inspected Carston's post. "Any luck?" she asked, referring to his efforts to contact home base or any other worlds within hearing distance.

Carston shook his head disconsolately. "I'm afraid I haven't had any. We're so far away from anybody that if they heard our messages, we'd probably be long deceased by the time we got a reply."

Kira nodded, then was about to say something when Keryss called her over to his station again.

Pointing to a diagram on his screen, Keryss said, "This is the closest I've managed to find. It's a system similar to Earth's but has only five planets, two of them suitable for life. It's about two to three months travel at our present speed."

Kira nodded. "Send this data to my personal console. I'll go over it, and inform you of my decision to pay a visit." She turned and stalked back to her chair, settling down and, after a moment or two's waiting, began perusing the planetary data.

She hmmed quietly to herself as she studied the two M-type planets available. The first, the second from the system's yellow sun, was slightly larger than Earth, had two main continental masses, and had a breathable atmosphere. The second planet, third from the sun, was a bit larger than the previous one, had four continents of various sizes, and a very oxygen-rich atmosphere. At their present distance, that was all their scans could tell them.

Looking up from her screen, she ordered Keryss to plot a course for the system, then suddenly realised as she did so that they were probably the first people ever to see this area of the universe. "While you're at it, perhaps you could analyse our surroundings, compile star maps, spectroscopic readings, that kind of thing. We're making history today by being the first to explore this...backwater of space." A big grin lit up her face as she contemplated the reactions she'd get from Earth's astronomical bodies. Then she amended her grin to a frown, when she took into consideration the fact that the Arralla's Victory may never get back to civilisation as they knew it. For all she knew, they might even have been shunted backward or forward in time.

A loud sigh escaped her lips, drawing the attention of her First Officer. "Are you all right, Captain?" Etayne asked, concern written on her elegant features. Her slim tail with its large tuft of white hair at the end began twitching, a sign that she was worried about her master.

Kira waved away Etayne's concerns with a dismissive gesture. "I'm fine, I'm fine. I was just thinking that...we probably won't be going home any time soon. If at all." The last three words were spoken in a barely audible mutter.

Etayne wasn't convinced, but let Kira be. Returning to her own chair, she began brooding about the situation as well. If she definitely was going to be stuck here, then she'd very well make the most of it. Being the sole Arrallin Alpha female on board, it was her duty to take a mate from one of the two Alpha males present, those being Keryss, who she privately thought was the much better looking one, with his well-proportioned body, gold eyes and medium-width stripes of sage brown; and Sefal, who was nice enough, but rather more taken with engines and such than he was with females. His tawny stripes were too wide for her liking, making him appear as if he were dark with white stripes.

On the other hand, Keryss was quite often a nervous wreck, and Sefal was quietly confident. Etayne sighed inwardly. She had plenty of time to think about the problem. It was at least a year before she would be taken by the incredible lust that, if not sated by a suitable male, would eventually lead to her going mad.

Etayne moved that thought to the back of her mind, and concentrated on something else other than mating and their predicament. Her looks, for example. She couldn't recall the last time she had had a good groom.

Travelling at the fastest speed possible under the circumstances, it took a little over two months to enter the heliopause of the system, which had since been named Pentathon, as there were five planets, and another three weeks to actually enter an orbit around Pentathon III.

More in-depth scans revealed much more about the planet than what had been found at first glance. The atmosphere had a strange purplish cast to it, as if some ambitious artist had dipped the world in pale lavender paint. The clouds that floated through it were a clashing yellow, and composed mainly of sodium vapour and sulphuric acid. An examination of the ocean, rather basic due to the ship's limited facilities, showed an abundance of carnivorous life-forms, a lot seemingly in similar size to the long-extinct elephant.

On the land were vast expanses of forest, apparently normal looking, despite the alien species, and running around in the open areas large herds of some predatory types of animals, like dinosaurs, but hexapedal.

Captain Mastersson dismissed the planet almost immediately as being far too dangerous for habitation. The clouds alone were invidious enough, showing signs of letting loose their toxic precipitation very frequently. She shuddered to think of what effect the rain would have on humans and Arrallins alike.

A quick spin around the planet to gain momentum, and the Arralla's Victory carved a trajectory towards the next world in, the only other M-type planet in the system.

Much better, thought Kira as she browsed through the information coming in from various analytical instruments. The oceans appeared to be friendly enough, with only two or three large predators. The atmosphere was peculiar, in that it seemed to have two very distinct layers. The top layer, comprising the higher third of the atmosphere, was very dense, almost completely saturated with water vapour. The bottom two-thirds appeared very similar to Earth's, with slightly higher concentrations of nitrogen and oxygen. The clouds that floated between the two layers were perfectly normal, as far as could be determined.

The best discovery came from the one of the two land masses. The humans on the Bridge were fascinated at finding evidence of cities, however few. The fact that there were cities clearly indicated intelligent life.

Keryss was beginning to look distinctively uncomfortable at this information. A year's pay flashed slowly before his eyes. He may not actually have a use for money, like all Arrallins, but the principal of the bet stayed the same. He was going to lose the bet.

"Yes, this is perfect," Kira murmured to herself. She stood up and faced the Bridge. All eyes looked to her expectantly. "People, this planet will suit our purposes admirably. Hopefully, if there are intelligent beings here, they won't mind our little intrusion." She turned her gaze to Keryss again, noting the sour expression on his face, and said, "You know what to do. Put us down somewhere near one of those cities we saw."

Keryss nodded, tapping out the commands into his console. The computer responded with an inappropriately cheerful, at least to him, chime to acknowledge his input. "Touchdown in two point four days, Captain, near the easternmost 'city'." He preferred not to think of the artificial constructions as cities, rather he hoped they were just rocky outcrops eroded into weird shapes.

"Good," Kira said, enthusiasm staining her voice. "Keep me informed on developments as they come in. I'm going to try and sort out my wardrobe, limited as it is." She turned and headed for the doors, passing through them then disappearing down the corridor.

Over the next forty-eight hours the planet, now named Distratos because of its peculiar two-layered atmosphere, grew large on the main screen, its curve getting less and less noticeable until the screen resembled a massive, animated mural. All eyes on the bridge watched the beautiful spectacle unfold; the clouds floating by on powerful currents of wind, the vibrant colours of the land, lush dark green forests, pale green plains, and the oceans' deep blues and greens.

Despite himself, Keryss found the world strangely captivating. His subconscious mind catalogued the features, pointing out possible sites to establish Hives, should the opportunity present itself. He hoped that, if indeed there were intelligent beings on this planet, that they would be at least friendly. The ship was beginning to run low on provisions, and should they find themselves having to leave this haven, within a few months the situation would be somewhat critical.

Keryss idly scratched himself. Either way, he was certain to lose the bet. Tracking on that thought, he wondered if the Captain had actually collected on any of her bets. The hope that it might only be rhetorical seemed to perk him up slightly. Then the fact that they might never return home again rendered the bet a moot point, as they were definitely not going to get paid this far out in the universe.

He grinned in a mock evil way, and busied himself with mapping out Distratos' surface.

On to Chapter 6