Flight of the Spartan
By Coyotenose

Chapter 1 - Steel Gray


“Captain Misty?” the child asked, looking up and trying not to shiver, “How long are we going to be in here?” The pod in which she sat was so cold that her breath clung to its transparent panels, and she had crossed her arms to keep her hands warm. Normally she would have a thick, glossy, black coat of fur to protect her, but the adults had been forced to shave everyone as a precaution. She looked pitiful without that birthright, and it was heartbreakingly apparent how thin she had become. The child was covered in wires and sensor pads. Some fifteen needles had been inserted under her skin, including two in the top of her head and one only an inch from her right eye. She was doing her best to be brave.

“We don't really know, Shade,” Aremist replied, and gently stroked the child's ear. “It should be only until we clear the patrolled zone. I'll be watching you and Desha all the time, in person or on the monitors. And Lulu here will be waiting as soon as you wake up.” She held up Shade's ragged wolf doll, which couldn't be left in the pod with the child. Aremist's voice was a gentle thing despite her fangs. 'Like rain on the meadows', her brother Aers had once told her.

“Is Desha asleep now?” Shade asked, and stretched her neck to peek out. The pod could accommodate a two hundred kilogram occupant, and its size only emphasized how small she was. “He usually stays up a long time. I don't want him to get scared.”

Aremist nodded and gently pressed the child back down, guiding her onto her back. “Uh huh, we helped him fall asleep just a few minutes ago. You two might get to play in your dreams. Now close your eyes,” she brought up a container of salve that her Fathers had prepared and applied it sparingly to Shade's eyes and naked muzzle. The child obeyed, although she had to fight hard to keep from wiping it off her nose. “Don't touch this stuff, okay? You'll only have to put up with it for a minute or two.”

Shade nodded, her eyes tightly shut, and took in quick gulps of breath through her mouth. She's so trusting, Aremist thought, and the tall wolf woman felt tears on her own face. Please, let her not look at me. Aremist glanced to the next pod, which had almost completely fogged over. Shade's twin, Desha, was inside it, his body cooling in a state of induced hibernation. She prayed that they would both be alive when the ship found a safe port.

“You're very brave,” Aremist told the child as she finished up, “Just lay your head back now and you'll be asleep before you even know it. Keep those eyes shut.” She leaned down into the pod, cooed in Shade's ear, and gave it a lick. Shade giggled, but didn't open her eyes. Aremist stood and turned a tiny valve on one of the tubes leading into the child's right arm. Within ten seconds, Shade's form went limp. Aremist ran a tube into the child's mouth, wrapped a soft sealing tape around the muzzle and applied more salve to her lips. She carefully arranged the wires, and then sealed the pod with a few taps on the control panel adjoining it.

Aremist looked around the storage bay. All the children were asleep, and her siblings were aiding the adults through the same procedure now. The last two Fathers were there as well, checking connections and giving advice, though they were somewhat groggy. Each had a dangerous cocktail of painkilling drugs in his system, but they were determined to see this task through. She admired them so much, and had to close her eyes and fight to contain her emotion. Aremist thought her implants must be in need of adjustment. She rarely had this much trouble concentrating.

She walked through the storage bay, looking in each pod. The people within them were so still, their faces slack and pale. If not for the steady beeping of the wall of monitors that ran the length of the bay, Aremist would have thought that her ship had been converted into a morgue. A flash of movement from one pod drew her eye, but it was only her own reflection. The wolf woman thought that she had rarely looked so good. She was momentarily captivated by the image: fine golden fur coated a tall, nubile lupine with athletic limbs and a dancer's grace. Her bright green eyes were of a curious intermediate shape between canine and feline, and managed to seem proud and kind at the same time. Long, fox-red bangs draped about her ears, and the braid trailing down her back had been growing out since the day of her 'birth'. Aremist smiled at her reflection, and it returned the favor. It had even, perfect teeth and a cunning, sexy smile that would be the envy of the worlds one day. She tilted her head and raised her ears in a fetching manner, then looked around to see if anyone was paying attention.

Save for the pods, the storage bay was empty. Aremist looked both ways, then walked towards the far end and stopped at the exit. She punched the switch to open the double doors and stepped through, but didn't see any of her family-crew there either. Instead she looked around the storage bay stretching ahead. She walked through, noting the hibernation pods and the sleepers within. The exit doors beckoned, and she punched the switch and stepped through.

The storage bay stretched out before her. She walked through in a rush, trying to touch the deck as little as possible. The bay was chilly, and she could barely feel her toes on the metal floor grates. Her hands were becoming numb from the cold. At the far wall, she punched the switch and stepped through the exit doors and into the storage bay. The only noise was the click of her toenails echoing behind her. The monitors had all stopped beeping. She rushed through the bay and saw that all of the medical readouts along the wall had flatlined. She reached the far wall, punched the switch, and ran into the storage bay, looking for help. Her feet were cold. At the far side, she punched the switch and ran through the double doors. She screamed for help from her crew to open the pods, even though she could plainly see that only bones were left inside them. She reached the far wall, punched the switch, and ran through the double doors.

Captain Aremist Baker-Jones awoke to darkness. She could see nothing around her, but a slow red data stream began to scroll down her vision, obscuring her blindness with sensor readings, warp drive status and a duty list of a dozen ship's systems in need of maintenance. A mental command activated her sight, and the world came into stark view. Aremist lay on a makeshift cot just inside the entrance to her vessel's main engine room. It was a bit too small, and her animal legs were drawn up. Her arms were folded protectively over her chest, with her muzzle tucked down over them. Her body, what remained of it, was a mass of disassociated twinges and internal aches.

She rose and stretched while looking up at the glowing tower that was the ship's warp core. It was the only source of light in the engine room; anything else would be a waste. There was a powerful, omnipresent humming in the room that made one's skull ache, but Aremist had learned to ignore it long ago. The wolf woman reached back and carefully detached a pair of cables and a diagnostic scanner from the base of her skull. She tapped a few buttons on the scanner and studied the results on a monitor beside her cot with an expressionless face. Her right eye zigzagged along as the information raced down the small screen, absorbing words and numbers with an unnatural steel-gray gleam. The left eye held no sign of life. It was a gray, translucent orb, lidless and fearsome, embedded in a molded plate around the eye socket. A dull glow could be seen deep inside the eye.

My implants are out of sync after all, she thought, and tapped a few more buttons. No surprise that I would have nightmares with the way my brain is lit up. My body was trying to warn me. Aremist brought up her personal duty list and made room on it to adjust the devices, which regulated her damaged nervous system. As she worked, the hum of the main power core altered in tone for a brief second. Her golden-fuzzed ears, rather than twitching, swiveled mechanically towards the sound. She glanced back at her monitor and spent several moments studying the field data before concluding that nothing was amiss with the main drive.

The wolf woman visited her makeshift bathroom nearby, cleaning herself no more than was necessary and making sure her eyes were in proper working order. Aremist picked up a toothbrush that she thought had belonged to her sister, Theana. She peeled back her lips with one hand, brushing as gently as possible with the other. The gums ached all the time now. She spat into a small basin, tinging its white finish with red. Aremist paused to examine herself in the mirror.

She was too thin by far, and with her fur trimmed almost to fuzz for practical reasons, she could barely pass as her own species anymore. Her eyes didn't blink or tear up, her nose was never wet unless she used a special inhaler, and her cheeks were as hollow as those of any malnourished prisoner. Not a bad analogy, Captain, she thought, and spat into the basin again, disgusted. Those adjustments would need to be moved to the top of the list. She couldn't work effectively if she was this distracted.

Aremist's mane of hair was trimmed down to a half-inch length, both to simplify cleaning it and to prevent any accidents from occurring. She could vividly recall having part of her scalp torn out once, when her hair had been caught while forcing open a frozen hatch. She ran her right hand over the short reddish patch on her head. That hand was sheathed in a metallic glove that extended halfway up her forearm. Inside the glove were only a few nerve bundles connected to a complex system of artificial joints, musculature and sensor pads.

The entire left arm, shoulder, and leg were very similar to it, though somewhat bulkier. They were unwieldy-looking cybernetic limbs, whose attachment points had been hidden deep under the surrounding flesh. The limbs seemed rough in design, almost unfinished, but they were deceptively fast and strong. The outside of each was covered in black touch pads, and sealed with a flexible, transparent 'skin'. That seal served both to protect the inner workings of the limbs, and to muffle the constant whirring noises that the artificial muscless emitted. She thought she could still hear them anyway, though, late at night...

Aremist shook her head, hard, and forced her thoughts to clear. She suffered not a moment of fuzziness or vertigo from the action. Her eyes could not lose their focus, and her implants compensated too quickly for dizziness to ever be a factor. She finished her business and left the engine room, shrugging on a black tank top and velcroed shorts out of habit rather than any need for them. A chill permeated most of the vessel, but even without her fur, the wolf woman scarcely noticed. She hung her communicator around her neck and a pistol on her belt. They were items she never needed, but could never allow herself to forget. She donned flat shoes, and a small scanner went around her left ankle to insure that her balance was calibrated properly; it was a chore to maintain an artificial paw, but the alternative was to remove and replace her organic leg, then convert both to a plantigrade design. She didn't have the resources to waste on that.

Strange dream, though, she thought. I didn't look like that even when we set up the pods. I'm not sure I ever looked like that. Aremist's rarely remembered dreams were usually very literal, more like replayed events than anything else. She forced herself to think about her duty list. Brooding introspection would be the death of her.

In the storage closet that she had converted into a mess hall, Aremist revved up the recycling devices that she had salvaged from other parts of the vessel. They doled out a thick sauce for her to eat, as well as a small, gelatinous slurry to replenish her vitamins. The food made her teeth ache as well. If only the replicators still functioned . . . but they had used up too much memory and power anyway. When the last one had broken down, she had stripped it for parts. She hung a bottle around her neck, her ration of water, and sipped some through a straw. Aremist picked up her dental chew before leaving. Made from a tied-off piece of synthetic leather, it helped to keep her jaw and teeth strong despite the lack of solid food.

She chewed absently on it, paying no mind to the thin lines of spittle that ran down her muzzle, and walked to sickbay. The adjustments to her implants took almost an hour, far longer than she had expected. She was beginning to hear the subdued voices of her crew, and they grew louder as she recalibrated the devices in her skull and parietal lobes. When she finalized the adjustments and the program took effect, there was no true feeling of relief, only a sudden lack of sensation. She would sit and wait a few minutes, then take new readings to be certain, but the voices were gone again. The only sounds to be heard throughout the vessel were the hum of the warp core, and the steady beepings of the wall of monitors in the main storage bay.

“Captain's Log, date zero-five zero-four two-three-three-five Terran standard, six-one one-two three-one-nine-nine Osidon Beta standard. Acting Captain Aremist Baker-Jones reporting, random encryption active.” The synthetic voice echoed hollowly on the darkened bridge of the ship she called Packmaster. Nearly all stations were inactive; most were splayed open, circuits exposed as if some wild beast had gutted them. Long trails of wiring led from each one to the central tactical station, located behind the command seat. Tactical was now an abomination of cobbled-together screens and parts, designed to allow a single person at least partial access to all ship systems. The light it cast made its operator seem a gaunt ghost, a wolf with pale, naked skin and shadows for eyes. She did not look down at the monitor recording and transcribing her words, but rather stared at the main screen on the far wall. The screen was blank; it still functioned, unlike many devices aboard Packmaster, but the more vital systems begrudged even the small amount of power it consumed. As well, Aremist did not want to be reminded of the last thing she had viewed on that screen.

The wolf woman continued, her artificial larynx producing tones less natural than any ship's computer. “It has been… twenty-two Terran standard days since my previous log entry. Nine hours after that entry, the Packmaster dropped out of warp without warning. Plasma vents on the port nacelle had failed to open due to corroded connections, and the ship's computer automatically began core shutdown procedures as per my previous commands. I was awakened by the alarms and initiated emergency protocols; Packmaster was under control sixteen hours later. However, the pursuit vessel Magister Vos Milistisith had detected our presence during the shutdown and intercepted us before the core could be brought back online and the sensor refractors engaged.”

“Operating under minimal power, I offered surrender. I do not know if the Osidon vessel intended to capture me alive, or if they simply wished to close to optimum firing range. When they drew close enough, I activated reserve power and initiated my previously programmed and readied maneuvers. As expected, it destroyed Packmaster's decks Nine and Ten as well as eighty percent of the backup cells, but the Vos Milistisith was crippled.” Aremist stood silent. “I had sufficient power to arm the remaining weapon battery and finish the battle.”

A warning alarm sounded, and the wolf woman turned to a monitor on her left and began entering commands. Several minutes later, she turned back to her log with a heavy sigh. “I have been working to salvage Packmaster since the battle,” Aremist intoned in her mechanically regulated voice, “and we are underway once again. However, our stabilizers are degrading rapidly and I can no longer keep up with the demands of the ship. Awakening crewmembers to assist me would be counterproductive. I cannot spare the time or the consumables for their medical needs.”

“My options have been reduced to surrender, or planetfall. Soon the ship will be incapable of controlled descent, so I have chosen planetfall while choice remains. In approximately two hours, Packmaster will attempt a landing on an apparently uninhabited planet with an oxygen-rich atmosphere. Just prior to entering the atmosphere, I will launch observation satellites in the hopes that a… sympathetic vessel will pass through the system before our status changes. End log.”

Aremist walked around the tactical station and settled into the command seat. Her shoulders slumped and she dropped her muzzle to her chest. The wolf woman raised her hands in front of her eyes and turned them slowly. It seemed that they should be shaking; in fact it would have been comforting to know that her artificial appendages could tremble. “What am I going to do, F

athers?” she mumbled to the deserted bridge. Seized by impulse, Aremist tapped the control pad under her right hand and brought up a list of lectures recorded by the two who had most contributed to her upbringing. She picked one to play at random. The main screen came to life and lit the bridge, bathing her in a vision from seven years ago. It was one that she hadn't seen before. The doctors Maxwell Baker and Leonard Jones, both vulpinoids of Terran origin, were discussing various childcare techniques with which they themselves were barely familiar. The doctors were nervous and more than a little foolish-looking, their tails twitching as they tried to explain proper grooming while holding up furry dolls.

The wolf woman watched them for several minutes, and grinned when Doctor Baker managed to drop his doll. She reached up and felt her muzzle. Only the right side was smiling. Most of the left half of her face had lost its fine motor function when the eye and socket were destroyed. That's why I missed this recording, she mused. I was blind that day. Aremist shut off the monitor, stood and strode back to the tactical station. Her implants would need to be adjusted immediately after planetfall. One more thing to add to the list.

Aremist should have been horrified by the amount of damage that her vessel's presence had caused. Standing at the base of a ramp leading from the belly of the Packmaster, she couldn't even recognize the plateau that she had touched down upon a month ago. Regular venting of plasma from the ship had baked the land for several hundred meters in every direction. The ground in a thirty-meter patch nearest the vents had melted into dull, ashen rivulets, as if lava had poured from the earth around the vessel.

Nothing had survived the ship's presence. The tall grass that was so prevalent in this region had burned away in a radius of over two kilometers, set aflame by the terrific heat of the engines or destroyed by the radiation that permeated the ship's hull. Aremist herself was basking in it now, but she knew that the radiation was well within the level of tolerance with which her Fathers had managed to endow her. Of more immediate concern was the temperature. She needed to get away from the vessel as soon as possible, before she risked heat exhaustion. But moving quickly would endanger her as well.

The wolf woman spoke a few words into the remote module that hung over her heart, and the ramp raised up behind her. Her readings told her that the wind most often came from the east, so she set off in that direction. Aremist was no hunter, but she reasoned that the animal life in that direction would be less contaminated by radiation, and less spooked by the sounds and scent of her vessel.

The journey was not a short one. Aremist's feet, even shod with gripping pads, were not made for such terrain. She couldn't lope along, low to the ground, as she might have wished. It would have been faster, but would have also dehydrated her quickly, and increased the chances of some unknown predator ambushing her. Instead the wolf woman held an antiquated medical scanner before her, searching for lifesigns large enough to be of use. Her other hand carried a handmade, long-barreled needle rifle, simple in design and lacking any kind of sights or targeting system. The rifle's strap was slung over her shoulder, and she moved the barrel slowly from side to side, always pointing it exactly where she was looking so there would be no delay if she had to fire. Her personal energy weapon was hung at her side, but Aremist saw no need to waste its power cell. She could easily fashion simple alternatives from the thousands of unused parts inside the Packmaster. Apart from her ranged weapons, Aremist carried a square-edged machete cut from a length of scrap metal, the scanner, a remote module, and a double water ration. These were hung from a thin utility belt; she otherwise hunted in the nude to help keep her temperature in a tolerable range. She had shaved almost all of her fur. Aremist had tried to jury-rig a heat dissipation system that she could wear, but some of the essential components were needed to ensure the operation of the remaining pods. The remote module hung over her chest had been set to give warning if any vessels were detected in orbit around the planet she had chosen as her 'bolthole'. Aremist again wondered if the satellites that she had managed to launch before planetfall would be her saviors or betrayers. But the deed was done, and now there was meat to catch.

Choosing to leave the ship had been difficult. It seemed as if every system was in constant need of repair. Aremist spent seventeen hours out of her twenty-seven hour day servicing it and monitoring the hibernation pods. Fifty-eight out of sixty-four pods were still intact; when her implants were operating correctly, she found that acceptable. But she had calculated that within two weeks at the most, she would no longer be strong enough to make the decision to hunt. The ship's supplies had been recycled countless times, and now Aremist had only a few scraps of nutritious food stored away. This trip had the potential to worsen her situation. If the local fauna proved inedible, she would have wasted enough energy to reduce her survival time by several days.

After an hour, the wolf woman had descended from the plateau and the region of burnt or radiation-corrupted ground, and she warily stepped into the first large patches of grass. Some of the growth was half again as tall as Aremist, and could easily hide creatures large enough to swallow her whole. Her medical scanner had been set to give a proximity alert, but it was no longer dependable. Entropy and radiation had taken their toll on nearly everything Aremist touched.

The scanner seemed to have a reading on a larger lifeform, and Aremist tracked it with painstaking care. The grass made her trek slow and difficult. It was too thick to easily break or cut through, and too dense to just push aside. Once or twice the wolf woman saw what she guessed to be game trails, but what little instinct remained to her was enough to make her avoid them. The unreliable scanner was a better option than walking into some predator's waiting jaws.

Finally she came upon a clearing, formed by several patches of bare rock. Aremist found the rank spoor of some native fauna, probably an animal as large as herself, and the medical scanner indicated that it was nesting among the rocks. Aremist's artificial eyes magnified the scene, and she soon spotted its lair, a deep crevice among the stone. The wolf woman skirted the edge of the clearing and took up a position with a good view of the crevice, not far from the grassline. Slowly and in absolute silence, she set the scanner aside and checked her weapon. She took a seat, using the knee of her artificial leg to support the rifle barrel.

Aremist's furred ears swiveled to either side and locked in place. She settled her rifle and locked a programmed action into her cybernetics with a few mental commands. Her limbs and eyes would now function in near-perfect coordination. She took careful, easy aim on the crevice, set her finger against the trigger, and waited. Her heart rate and breathing slowed, and within a minute, Aremist was as still as the stone underneath her. To an outsider she might have seemed the very epitome of the Hunter, one who lived in harmony with nature, who believed in the sacred bond between predator and prey and for whom the hunt itself was an act of meditation. Her ears did not twitch; her eyes did not blink.

Aremist possessed no more spirituality than a spring-loaded bear trap as she waited. Even if she fell asleep from exhaustion, her eyes and hands would still aim and fire at the first creature to enter her field of vision. The wolf woman had spent six years practicing with her implants and cybernetics. Aremist's eyes and ears and limbs and implants were useful in many ways. But as she had discovered over time, they were best suited to killing. Her Fathers had rebuilt her unsalvageable portions as well as they possibly could with the limited tools and time aboard their ship, and she had managed to improve on their design. They had expected her to have to protect everyone after they were gone. They needed her on her feet, more than anyone else. She was the oldest; it was only right. Her finger remained absolutely motionless, poised across the rifle's trigger.

The animal actually managed to look in Aremist's direction before it slumped to the ground. She picked up the medical scanner beside her, but did not lower her weapon until she was certain that no other significant lifesigns were near. She rose and made her way towards the dead predator, which lay only a few steps from its home. The beast was reptilian in general outline, about half again as heavy as Aremist and solidly built. It had a skin tone similar to the gray stone of its lair. As the wolf woman watched, its color gradually faded to a nauseating blue-green. That made her pause. If the species was capable of camouflage, she needed to be more cautious. Aremist walked up to the beast, while rescanning the nearby area for sign of any of its kin.

It nearly gouged her ankle open. The corpse convulsed reflexively, and its eight-centimeter long claws lashed out. They scarred the stone around its feet and fanned out in a deadly arc. Aremist's mechanical leg kicked off the ground and launched her over the body just as its claws scraped the skin of her organic paw. She landed, and immediately fired a shot into the animal's skull. More shots went into each of its legs, and then the weapon was empty. The echoes hung in the air unnaturally.

Aremist knelt behind the corpse and scanned it for a time, eventually deciding that it was edible and free of parasites. She considered her options. A large portion needed to be returned to the Pack Master, in case she did not find more prey for a while. But she was weak, and not sure that she could haul even a quarter of the meat back with her. Furthermore, she had not thought to bring a rope or pack of any kind to simplify the task. Survival training had never been deemed necessary in her upbringing.

After a minute's thought, she began hacking at the corpse with her square-edged machete. When Aremist had removed several strips of meat from its flank, she drew her large, decrepit laser pistol, adjusted the setting, and charred the meat on the spot. The combined stench of burnt flesh and the beast's natural internal odor was appalling. The wolf woman gagged, then put a rough lump of meat in her mouth and tugged at it. Despite its rancid taste, it was almost a welcome change after the recycled mush to which she had grown accustomed.

As she worried the meat, Aremist contemplated her problem. She fired again, this time at a small stone near the corpse, and trained the beam on it until the surface of the stone was quite hot. She placed more chunks of meat on that stone to cook them. The effect was pitiful, but Aremist needed a full stomach, and doubted that she could hold down meat that was completely raw. The meat in her mouth now was so charred as to be nearly inedible, and she had to waste water swallowing it.

The wolf woman ate slowly. She gagged several times, but managed to avoid vomiting. When her shriveled stomach was almost full, she rested just inside the crevice that had served as the creature's home. Half an hour later, she chopped meat from the animal's sides and belly to carry back to her ship. In a fit of grotesque brilliance, she cut strips from the skin and gut of the corpse and knotted them together, then used the longer strips to bundle as much meat as she could safely carry.

Aremist was filthy from the gore and innards of the predator, and stank like a baked corpse. She began the march back to the Packmaster, while calculating how long this limited food supply could last her. Her mouth ached badly.

The corroded power cell in Aremist's medical scanner was almost the death of her. While hauling the animal meat, she had no free hand to observe the scanner, and never noticed that it had shut down. The proximity alarm stayed silent, and the wolf woman walked blindly past the second predator.

Two sets of long, curved claws came to bear as the beast charged from the underbrush, attacking from behind and below her. It aimed for her hamstrings. One set of claws skittered harmlessly down her cybernetic leg. The other set would have torn out the tendon of her right knee, but Aremist was already turning to her attacker. Instead the claws dug deep gashes down the side of her leg, and it buckled under her weight.

When Aremist's implants were functioning, she was not even capable of feeling surprise. Even as she toppled over and the beast readied its claws for another swipe, her body was in action. Her right hand moved to draw the laser, while her faster left arm broke her fall. She landed on her side and drew her legs up. Aremist's mechanical leg shot out like a piston into the beast's shoulder as it tried to close in. It was shoved back half a meter by the impact. Before it even reacted to the blow, Aremist leveled her pistol, stroked the trigger, and set its head aflame.

The wolf woman grunted in pain and pushed well away from the predator's twitching remains. She did not want its nervous reactions to endanger her. She checked her useless medical scanner and closed her right eye, realizing that she had not brought even a basic medkit on her hunt. Aremist snapped her head around, looking for any signs of another animal, and then shoved herself to a standing position.

Balance was simple to maintain. Her gyroscopic implants were so precise that she did not even need a tail to keep a perfect stance. But the pain of her wounds made her organic leg shiver, and she was losing a good deal of blood. Too much, considering that Aremist's organic body mass was small to begin with. Any wound was relatively larger for her. The loss of so much of her marrow in favor of artificial bone made the situation even worse. She had to get back to her ship immediately.

Aremist sat back down and used the short belt that held her pistol and machete to tie off her leg. She gritted her teeth and pulled it painfully tight. It wasn't safe, but she could not spare any more blood loss. She laid the machete down and fired her laser at it intermittently, on low power. When it was red hot, she picked it up, and let out a low whine of pain. Even through the wrapped handle, it burnt her hand.

       The wolf woman allowed herself a few moments to think about the pods back aboard her ship, and then pressed the machete blade into the first claw wound. She screamed until she was gasping for air. She looked around, grabbed a strip of meat from her supply, and put it between her teeth. When she cauterized the second and third gashes, she bit down on the meat, and it helped.

That task complete, Aremist leaned over and breathed heavily for several minutes. She shuddered, and vomited up the meat that she had downed earlier. The wolf woman lay in that spot for a while, trying to focus her mind by counting prime numbers. She panted heavily, and occasionally poured water on her lips. The world felt very far away.

Something touched her breastbone, prodding insistently. Aremist pushed herself up to a sitting position and put a hand to her chest. The remote module was vibrating over her heart. The wolf woman gained her feet with a cry of pain, snatched up her weapons and limped off in what she thought was the direction of the Packmaster's landing site. The satellites were shrieking alerts, trying to warn her of an intrusion into the planet's orbit.

Chapter 2 -- Jade Green

“… and you just wouldn't believe how big your sister is getting. Say 'Hi' to Hawkeye, baby!” There was a purr and a Mewp! that the chakat recognized as belonging to hir infant sibling. “Anyway, sweetie, our time limit is up for this packet,” hir sire continued. “Come back to us soon! We might have a surprise or two for you.” Hir mother joined in, and their voices chorused, “We love you! Hugs and Nuzzles!” The subspace transmission came to a close, and Lieutenant Chakat Hawkeye relaxed on the couch in hir quarters to daydream about hir family. Or rather, shi tried to relax. Hir mind was racing over the details of the message, trying to somehow pluck hir family out of the recording and seat them in the room beside hir. Shi listened to the complete transmission a second and then a third time.

Hawkeye stretched out on the couch and lay hir chin on hir crossed arms. Hir third voyage aboard Magus was going like clockwork; shi hadn't even had a real patient in days. But that just gave hir more time to be homesick. It had been easy to handle at first, but hir parents had gotten pregnant again, and now shi had a sister that was growing up while shi was light years away. The chakat rolled onto hir back and stared at the dimmed ceiling lights. Hir prehensile tail found the huge ball of pink yarn that a crewmember had given hir as a joke on a previous mission, and Hawkeye passed the minutes by tossing it in the air and batting it back up. Finally the door beeped, announcing a visitor. Hawkeye jumped to hir feet and sent the yarn flying. Shi tried to smooth down hir yellow, tortoiseshell-spotted coat in the seconds it took to reach the door.

“Come in,” shi called out in a singsong voice, and the door to hir quarters slid smoothly open just before shi reached it. But the figure in the doorway was not the chakat that shi had expected. Lieutenant Junior-Grade Jacob Tanner ducked his head and stepped halfway inside with a toothy grin. At a full two meters in height, the brown, shaggy-feathered Quange was almost miniscule for his breed, though he possessed nearly twice the mass of any of his crewmates. He was holding what appeared to be a box of candy in one hand, and an information pad in the other. Apart from a green-on-black Star Fleet tunic, he went unclothed.

“Not happy to see me?” Jacob asked in response to Hawkeye's crestfallen appearance. His voice carried a casual drawl that made him seem rugged and confident, as if nothing in the world could ever be wrong. “Winterwind's putting in a few extra minutes in Sickbay. Little accident involving an ensign, a Jeffries Tube and a careless ankle. You'd think people with only two legs would be more careful with them. Anyway, shi ought to be along shortly.” He held out the candy, but didn't step all the way inside.

Hawkeye shook hir head and smiled. “I'm sorry, Jacob, I'm happy to see you too. It's just that this last message…” shi trailed off, waving hir hand at the room as shi looked for the right words to describe hir mood. Hir ears stiffened. “Don't mind me. Come in!” Shi grabbed both the candy and Jacob's arm and hauled him into the room. Despite their size difference, the chakat almost had a strength advantage on him. “Is the candy from you?” Hawkeye asked, and smiled even more in response to his nod. “You sly, handsome man, it smells like real chocolate too!”

“Afraid so, Hawkeye. Not everybody cares for the replicated kind, so I stowed away some for emergencies.” The quange brushed his hand through hir auburn hair as shi opened the box. “Winter said you might be in need of some company right about now. Shi did send something for you too, though.” The chakat looked up, and, guessing Jacob's meaning, moved in close for a hug. Jacob leaned down and put his head over Hawkeye's shoulder, using his chin and muzzle to draw hir in close before wrapping his long arms around hir back. Hawkeye purred and licked his neck, instantly comforted by the enveloping embrace. Nobody else could hug like a Quange. Shi plucked at his mane with hir fingers, a motion which never failed to elicit a warm reaction, and he returned the favor by nibbling on hir hair until they were both laughing.

They sat and chatted for a few minutes while listening to one another' messages. “Now tell me the problem, little lady,” Jacob was saying around as he chewed on sweetened greens from the replicator. He wasn't even a fan of real chocolate, which made his present all the more miraculous. “There's less than ten days until we reach the Vermitris system. You ought to be excited and jumpy, not moping around. Mystery and wonder await, you know.” They both rolled their eyes at that. Planetary survey was by and large an incredibly dull job for officers in their positions. There would no doubt be hordes of interesting finds and new species to examine on Vermitris-2, but the bulk of Hawkeye's and Jacob's work would be organizing information that Star Corps specialists and trainees gathered.

“At least you get to spend some of your time planetside,” Hawkeye replied, and poked the quange amiably. “I'll probably only visit the planet when Winterwind comes back to the Magus.” Shi stretched hir backs and popped a coconut-crème candy in hir mouth. “Though with any luck, shi and I will be the first people to make love on the entire planet.”

Jacob laughed. “There you go! Always look on the bright side. You can even put that on your resumè when we get back.” Hawkeye giggled. “Course, if shi can't make it to that date, I can always find you a stand-in,” the shaggy equitaur added with a nicker.

Hawkeye was in the middle of an innuendo-laden retort when the intercom buzzed. The voice of their vulpinoid captain, Thaddeus Marshall, sounded through the quarters. “All medical personnel to duty stations. Emergency teams and Security to Transporter Room Two and Shuttle Bay Two. I repeat, all medical personnel…”

Hawkeye and Jacob stared at each other for a long half-second, then jumped up. Hawkeye was ten meters down the hallway outside before the quange had even exited hir quarters. Shi galloped through the corridor, tapping hir comm badge and checking in without a pause as shi dodged startled crewmembers. The responses that Hawkeye received over hir communicator made hir run faster.

An hour later, Hawkeye found hirself pacing the transporter room, waiting, hoping for a lifepod to be found and brought aboard. The emergency beacon whose signal Magus had intercepted had led them to a gutted starship, a hulking, antiquated model that had apparently been recently involved in combat. Since then, emergency teams had been unable to do anything but wait as Magus swept the area for survivors and other vessels. Hawkeye paused and checked hir equipment as shi had already done many times, rowling to hirself.

A gentle hand came to rest on hir shoulder, and half of hir tension fled immediately. Hawkeye looked around at Winterwind, Magus's new Chief Medical Officer. The older chakat's fur was a soft, spellbinding silver tinged with grey swirls that seemed to have been delicately painted across hir body. Hir green eyes clashed brilliantly with hir coat in a way that only made them more entrancing. Hawkeye had been told that hir own eyes possessed the same quality, but shi had trouble believing that. Winterwind's expression spoke of tranquility, and shi projected it so clearly that Hawkeye smiled and quieted at once, hir paws losing their restlessness. The two chakats took care of each other's needs, and tried to have meals together at least once a day. For Hawkeye, not falling in love with hir superior officer was a difficult chore at times.

“I thought you were stationed in the shuttle bay, Sir,” Hawkeye murmured, forcing hir eyes past the other chakat to the doors behind hir.

“We're done here, Lieutenant. Your team can return to their duties,” Winterwind replied, dignity and allure mixing on hir tongue. “The captain has informed me that they won't be needed.” Hir eyes were sad for a bare moment as shi moved hir hand to Hawkeye's elbow. “You'll want to accompany me to the briefing, Hawkeye.”

After Hawkeye dismissed the medical team, the chakats made their way to the primary briefing room. The meeting promised to be short, as the room was overcrowded and virtually none of the officers present were sitting. Captain Marshall and his second, Commander Vynrali ili Rusla, dominated the opposite half of the briefing room. Thaddeus Marshall's ears were set as rigidly as his jaw, the Terran vulpinoid a picture of muscle tension. Hawkeye instantly sensed in him a concern for the entire crew. Rusla was a sharp-eared Voxxan who could have been the captain's brother, although their species were not truly even related. His body posture was far more relaxed, which was normal for the meditative fox. He radiated only slightly less worry than Marshall, but Hawkeye could see that he trusted his captain enough to allow himself a partial release from anxiety.

As the door slid smoothly closed behind the two chakats, Captain Marshall began. “As many of you know, the Magus came within range of a damaged emergency beacon almost two hours ago. That beacon belonged to a vessel tentatively identified as Magister Vos Milistisith, a starship operated by the military of the Osidon star system and very far away from home. The ship evidently lost a battle approximately thirty standard days ago with an unknown force. We have sent word to Osidon-1 of the attack, though any reply will be slow in coming. The Vos Milistisith is… was a reconditioned Pretelski-class cruiser, one of four acquired by the Osidon government some years ago.” As he spoke, Commander Rusla brought up a schematic of the vessel on the briefing monitor and at the dozen stations built into the room's single, narrow table.

“The rough alterations you see are our best judgments so far on Vos Milistisith's customizations. It had been fitted with the best weaponry its military could provide. It was an old vessel, but its destroyer should be considered very dangerous.” Marshall's posture somehow became even grimmer. “After crippling the vessel, its attackers apparently took the time to destroy the beacons and communications grid. Only one beacon survived, and its transmissions were so weak that we almost missed them entirely. They then compromised the shuttle bay and detonated the engines of the six to eight shuttles aboard Magister Vos Milistisith, and fired upon all of the lifepods. The attackers finished by systematically puncturing every remaining major compartment of the ship. They fired upon the ship's engines, but the crew had already shut down and ejected the warp core by that point.” As he looked at the schematics and details of the attack, the captain's eyes had narrowed to the point that Hawkeye wondered how the screen could not burst under his gaze. He nodded, and Commander Rusla took a step forward.

“The attackers did not destroy the vessel, though.” Vynrali ili Rusla began. “They may have been too damaged by the combat to finish the job, in which case we have to expect that they are in the nearby region.” He raised an eyebrow, a strange look on a Voxxan, and gazed around the room. “The Vermitris System is the closest inhabitable system. If they're aware of its existence, we may encounter them soon. Captain Marshall has already requested that a fully armed Star Fleet vessel join us at the earliest opportunity.” Rusla scratched his muzzle absently. “The Magister Vos Milistisith was an old ship, but it was armed to the fangs. The damage to the ship indicates that it suffered a massive bombardment to the forward sections of the ship, followed by several dozen precision shots. Whoever did this, the Osidons knew they were coming, and the other ship still won.”

“Vrael,” came the voice from Hawkeye's side. Shi looked to Winterwind. “The 'Osidons' are called Vrael,” the medical officer repeated. “I've located their files, such as they are. The Vrael are not inclined to share medical and genetic information, so we know little about them other than they are essentially humanoid, scaled, approximately one hundred and sixty-five centimeters in height but semi-quadruped.” Winterwind looked around the room. “We haven't attempted to recover any of their bodies. The Vrael do not trust other species to treat their dead properly, and they might take offense to anything we do.”

“Very true, Doctor,” Marshall cut in. “As I said, we've informed their military of what we discovered and given them coordinates. For now, we will continue as planned to Vermitris, and keep an eye out for strangers. Dismissed.”

Hawkeye turned to leave the room, but stopped halfway, facing the rectangular viewport along the briefing room wall. Shi slid through the press of hir crewmates and slowly made hir way over to peer into space. Outside, the stars glimmered peacefully. But many of them were blocked by a dark, ragged mass, dimly outlined by the presence of the Magus. Hawkeye could see the thin trails of a pair of tractor beams projecting from hir vessel, holding the lifeless hulk once called Magister Vos Milistisith in place. It was the first time shi had viewed the corpse of a starship. The chakat hurriedly turned and escaped the room.

Hawkeye watched the stars pass by Magus, a frown on hir muzzle. Shi had chosen to sit near a viewport in the forward lounge, and had been alone for more than a quarter of an hour. Shi kept hir arms crossed tightly under hir breasts, as if seeking security, and jumped slightly when Jacob let out a whickering sound behind hir. The quange's powerful, amiable scent had already surrounded Hawkeye, and shi was chagrined to not have noticed him.

“Still thinking about your family, Hawk?” The equitaur inquired, drawing close. Shi was his superior, so he avoided any physical familiarity. Even though the two were merely friends, they didn't usually hug in public.

“Not exactly,” Hawkeye responded after a long breath. “About the ship we found yesterday. I keep wondering… I guess, which star out there is hiding the people who slaughtered that crew.” Shi looked up at Jacob, as if he was a kind father with answers to every question in the universe.

“Not much good dwelling on that, you know,” came Jacob's kind drawl. “I find the only important questions are the biggest ones and the smallest ones. You know, 'Is there a God?' and 'Where is my shirt?'”

Hawkeye put hir hands over hir muzzle as shi let out nearly explosive snickers. “So all the middle-of-the-road questions aren't important?” shi managed.

“Well,” the quange replied, “they might be vital, they might be lifesaving, but they usually aren't the right questions. Take you, for example.” Jacob cocked an ear at the chakat. “You're wondering where this rogue ship is, but that isn't the part that matters to you. I saw your eyes when I came up, Hawkeye. You had the look I've seen on a lot of faces, the look of somebody who just got a real good idea of how big the universe is.” The quange broke tradition then, and put an arm around hir shoulders, pulling hir in close where he could speak more quietly. “So now you're probably wondering, 'could I die out here and my family never even know what happened to me? My baby sister never even meet me? Just float out here forever?' Trust me, I've been there too, Hawk. Most of us have, at least a little.” Jacob rubbed hir shoulder and set his chin lightly on hir head. “You Chakats are used to having a lot of close bonds, to help ward away feelings like that. The rest of us just kind of muddle through, and eventually we deal with it.”

Hawkeye thought for a moment. “I guess we do have it easy sometimes, Jake. Almost everyone I know transferred, retired, or opted out before this voyage. Winterwind is the only other empath aboard, and though we're close, shi's still new to me. And hir duties keep hir busy almost all the time.” Shi looked up at the quange apologetically. “Your being on Magus still is a godsend, but it's hard sometimes, not spending much time with my own kind. I'm sorry, that sounds insulting…”

Jacob shook his head to interrupt hir. “None of that, little lady. There're a lot of good reasons to have more than one Chakat aboard ship. You can't tell a dim-witted Quange like me everything that you want to say, because there aren't any words for it. I imagine it's like being in a room full of half-awake people all the time. You need an empath that knows what you mean without it being spoken out loud. So no apologizing for being what you are, got it?”

Hawkeye looked up at him in surprise. “Got it! How did you get so smart?” shi asked.

“My grandsire was a bartender, as you well know,” the quange replied. “I grew up listening to people spill their problems, and I know most everything there is about how folks are.” He paused. “And I asked Winterwind,” he added.

“Humph!” Hawkeye scrunched up hir nose at the equitaur. “I knew it. And no calling yourself 'dim-witted' or I'll shed all over your quarters!”

Jacob chuckled. “If you do, I'll be a gentlehorse and not make up any stories about how they got that way.” Hawkeye punched him in the arm.

The Vermitris system was a bore for the most part. Magus's medical branch received several reports of possible microbial life on the outer planets of the system, but each had already been checked and rechecked before it fell into their hands. Vermitris had six major orbiting bodies and a number of planetoids, and the Magus spent almost two weeks thoroughly sweeping the system and noting any anomalies while making ready for its primary task, surveying and exploring Vermitris-2, an apparently inhabitable planet. Hawkeye spent hir days on routine checkups and chatting with those who passed through sickbay. Winterwind was often engaged in meetings that ate away at hir off hours, and the younger chakat never assumed that shi would be free to socialize. Very few members of the crew had anywhere near as much free time as Hawkeye. Shi accepted 'rainchecks' more often than shi dated, and spent quite a bit of time in the ship's gyms with crewmembers that shi barely knew at all. Hawkeye almost never saw Jacob Tanner. The junior science officer was constantly sequestered with a mountain of sensor readings and a crowd of what he affectionately called 'know-nothing green-eared alien bait', Star Corps volunteers that were almost as skilled as himself, but not half as organized. Shi could not understand how Jacob could only be a junior lieutenant with the amount of responsibility to which he regularly yoked himself and pulled along with an efficient smile.

Another message came from Hawkeye's family, but shi waited more than a day to listen to it, not wanting to hear hir parents without one of hir few close friends beside hir. When Winterwind was finally free, they made love for a time before cuddling up to play their messages. Shi purred and sighed gently in hir sleep while lying against the silvery chakat later, out of simple relief. Hawkeye had a few Companions on Magus, but no one else like Winterwind, whose quiet presence convinced hir that shi wasn't so far away from everyone, after all.

They awoke early. Winterwind's day had been already been planned to the utmost, but shi still made time to eat breakfast with Hawkeye and play their messages again. As they made their way through a leisurely replicated meal, Hawkeye laid hir head against the other chakat. Outside hir quarters, every encounter with Winterwind was defined by formality and the chain of command; inside was nothing but solace and comfort. They smiled, listening to the voices of Winterwind's faraway mates, with their cubs babbling and squealing in the background.

“How do you stand missing them so much?” Hawkeye asked suddenly. Winterwind's tail, wrapped in hir own, stiffened slightly, but the rest of hir remained tranquil. The CMO was such a pillar that only a chakat could have noticed that hir heart wasn't really on the ship.

Winterwind turned hir head, and Hawkeye was lost in those vivid green eyes. Shi was certain that shi was staring, but shi couldn't shift hir gaze. The other chakat's expression only hinted at hir awareness of that fact. Winterwind was clearly used to being stared at; it was a reaction that Hawkeye had seen several times on crewmembers encountering hir superior officer for the first time. But the older chakat gave off a sense of real pleasure when Hawkeye gazed at hir in that way, and that made looking away almost impossible.

Winterwind lifted hir spoon and took a bite of hir food, but didn't break eye contact, as Hawkeye half-wished shi would. “It's hard to say in so many words,” shi finally replied. “I wouldn't be happy staying in one place all my life, and my mates know that, they knew it before we ever declared ourselves. And they wouldn't care for life aboard ship.” Winterwind took a breath and another bite, and this time shi did look away slightly. Hawkeye let loose hir own half-held breath. “If I stayed on Chakona, I'd be restless, and the family would suffer for it. Not noticeably at first, but those kinds of feelings are as much like seeds as any others. Given time, they take root, grow, and eventually multiply.” Hir eyes became distant for a long time, and Hawkeye thought that shi was looking past the ship. “Perhaps it's this: if I was at home all the time, part of me would always want to leave. When I'm away, all of me wants to come home.” Winterwind blinked, returning to the vessel. “But there are benefits to being here as well,” shi added, adding emphasis to the words with a subtle flick of hir tongue.

Shi looked to Hawkeye, and the younger chakat was again caught in hir placid sensuality. Winterwind picked up hir spoon and ran it over hir tongue, cleaning it with a languid enthusiasm. Hawkeye knew then that Winterwind was completely aware of the effect shi was having. “You do know what you're doing,” Hawkeye said, in a much lower and breathier voice than shi had intended.

The older chakat's eyes were dancing. “Sorry, Hawkeye, I just cannot resist seeing you all hot and bothered like that.”

Hir smile was more mischievous than apologetic, though, and Hawkeye could already sense another 'attack' coming. Shi saw the trap, and decided to turn it about. “Oh, you're vicious, Winter,” Hawkeye told the other chakat with a husky gleam in hir throat. “Work me up, then head off for the entire day and leave me with idle hands and dirty thoughts?” Shi leaned in and licked Winterwind's cheek. “Didn't your mother teach you any manners?” Hawkeye asked, cocking hir head. Shi took Winterwind's hand from the table and lifted it to hir face. “Shi must have at least taught you to wash up after eating,” Hawkeye added, and began to lick the fine silvery fur unhurriedly, while keeping hir eyes on hir Companion's face. Shi was already going to be thinking about Winterwind all day, but shi intended to return the favor at the very least. The other chakat was too surprised to regain control of the situation, and only stared at hir. Hawkeye would have been roaring with amusement if shi hadn't been so stimulated hirself.

Winterwind, always so calm, had just begun to breathe heavily when the intercom buzzed. Both chakats looked up automatically, and Hawkeye stifled a curse. The captain of the Magus was calling all senior officers, and Winterwind had donned hir tunic before the announcement was over. Shi picked up hir medical scanner and strolled to the door, arching hir tail in a maddening way as shi stepped into the hall beyond. That line crossed, Winterwind looked back inside over hir shoulder. “See you later… Lieutenant,” shi said before departing, with a slow, seductive emphasis at the end. The door slid shut again, and the chakat inside stood staring at it for a long time. “Oooh!” shi fumed, and stomped a foreleg before turning to clean up breakfast.

The bridge of the Magus was filled with anticipatory tension. For the last twelve days, her crew had been waiting for the 'big payoff', the chance to explore Vermitris-2, a recently discovered, inhabitable world without any known sentient presence. Magus had conducted numerous long-range scans of the world while doing its duty and surveying the rest of the system, but those sensor readings had only whetted the appetites of the teams preparing to visit the planet. Captain Marshall could see the longing in their eyes. He could almost swear that some of them smelled aroused.

Not that he could truly blame them. The preliminary reports indicated that Vermitris-2 had given birth to many higher life forms, that its rough soil supported tracts of thick, 'elephant grass'-like flora that ran for hundred of kilometers over and amid rolling hills and flat plains. Marshall's spine tingled at the very thought of it. Having spent his childhood summers on Earth playing among cornfields, he appreciated the sense of mystery that came from being enveloped in growth. It was like a blanketing sea, gently swaying in the wind. Walking in those places awakened in him both the fear and excitement of what might lay five steps ahead, and the strange certainty that he was a part of that sea, that he moved and flowed with it, and nothing could ever be wrong while he was there. Thaddeus Marshall had heard many captains, living and dead, compare the exploration of outer space to sailing upon a vast ocean, but he knew that they were mistaken. Space was an endless field, equally mysterious under the sun at noon as under a full moon.

Captain Marshall had tried not to dwell on the fact that he would be lucky to spend five minutes on Vermitris-2. There were too many details that needed his attention, especially following the discovery of the Magister Vos Milistisith. He had wondered for weeks what was hiding just ahead of his ship, waiting as it had for that other vessel. Magus was strictly a ship of exploration. It was well shielded, but its weaponry would not deter anything that could launch the bombardment that had crippled the alien vessel. Many days after that encounter, Marshall had finally begun to relax, to trust in his crew and ship and that they would be able to meet any challenge that came before them. He had been looking forward to his five minutes planetside. Then the long-range readings from Vermitris-2 picked up what had been previously overlooked, and again he found himself wondering what was lurking just ahead.

“How many satellites, Lieutenant?” The vulpinoid captain inquired. His tail wanted to stiffen and twitch, and he forced it down, fought down every reaction that might unduly alarm his bridge crew.

“We have readings on four now, Captain,” came the response from his far left. “They don't match any known standard configuration, and none are transmitting any identification.”

Marshall crossed his arms and set his chin on one forefinger. His first officer was standing to his right, already covering the obvious possibilities: private exploration, the discovery of Vermitris by another government, rogue agents using the planet as a base of operations, and, of course, the unknown destroyers of the Vrael ship and its crew. The vulpinoid found the last possibility to be the most likely by far. “Conduct a full sweep of Vermitris-2, its moon and all other nearby bodies,” he ordered after a moment. “Set a course for the planet. We'll simply have to take a closer look.”

The bridge crew duly set to their tasks. Shortly the message had passed throughout the Magus. Even without leaving the bridge, Marshall felt the excitement build throughout his ship. Over fifty Star Corps members had come on this voyage solely for the chance to visit Vermitris-2, and their anticipation had been growing like a living thing. Almost the entire crew was absorbed by it now. Most of them had forgotten about the Vos Milistisith.

A short time later, the planet was in full view. Its narrow seas and sparse cloud cover made Vermitris-2 seem nearly barren from orbit, but previous sensor sweeps conducted by another vessel told a different tale. Captain Marshall was hard put to keep from holding his breath as he observed the radiant world 'below' them. But there were other details to attend to first. The satellites came fully to life when the Magus entered orbit, three of them noting the presence of the ship and sending a short burst transmission to each other. “Each satellite also transmitted a short, encrypted message to the planet's surface,” Commander Rusla noted.

“And to what, precisely, did they transmit their messages?” Marshall's asked of no one in particular. This time his tail did twitch. The answer appeared shortly on the bridge's primary viewscreen. It was a dark, blunt vessel on the surface of Vermitris-2, resting on a bare plateau in the sunlight. Few details could be seen, but the set of its engines and the flared design along its lower decks somehow reminded the vulpinoid of a legless, elongated crab.

“That's a Manifest-class, warp-capable but even older than a Pretelski,” Vynrali ili Rusla commented. “They're capable of emergency landings on a planetary surface, but it's neither efficient nor safe. “Looks badly damaged as well, Captain. Its engines are active, but the power signature is erratic.”

“And that would be our mystery vessel,” Marshall commented, filtering through the sensor information on the grounded ship. 'Damaged' was an inadequate word for what he was seeing. The hull was partially irradiated, the reserve power cells and secondary drive nonexistent, the ship's visible weapon systems and sensors totally inactive. Irregular venting of plasma from its engines had surrounded the ship in a thermal nimbus that the Magus's crew would have detected long ago, had they been looking for it. What bare readings of the warp core could be gathered indicated that it was being held together by something akin to 'spit and bailing wire', as Marshall's grandfather had liked to say. The ship was a powder keg, and no one could tell how long the fuse was; only that it was lit. “Lifesigns?” he queried. The response was 'possible'. Radiation made such detailed scans unreliable, but it was so intense as to render the chance of finding survivors almost negligible anyway.

“Hail them,” the captain finally ordered. Silence returned to the Magus over every channel. The hail was repeated, and again. Marshall found himself in the unenviable position of sending a team to shut down the unstable warp drive, with the possibility of it detonating at any time. The grounded vessel would cause enormous damage if its safeties failed, wiping out a tract of land that would be visible to the naked eye from orbit and spreading the radiation now permeating its hull. The order had almost left his mouth when a response finally came.

It wasn't a voice that came over the channel, just a thump, followed by a scratching sound and a cough. There was no visual on the monitor. Next came a sound of dry, ragged breathing that made Marshall's stomach curl and his tongue want to back up into his throat. “This is Captain Thaddeus Marshall of the Stellar Federation vessel Magus. Please identify yourself,” he intoned calmly and clearly. Several seconds of silence followed. Marshall repeated his message. “Do you require assistance?” he added.

Another cough, and then came the voice. “Stellar Federation vessel, this is the starship Packmaster. We are in need of emergency medical and engineering assistance.” The voice was dry and mechanical, not the pleasant tones of a modern computer, but an accented, synthesized voice with a undertone that seemed to buzz in the keen ears of the morphs and Voxxan on the bridge. The voice repeated the exact same message, and Captain Marshall could hear the coughing recommence behind the artificial voice. He made a quick gesture, and the audio communication was momentarily cut off.

“Why are they transmitting an automated message when they're obviously present?” Commander Rusla asked quietly beside him. “And not using video at all?”

Marshall suppressed a shrug. “They may wish to disguise their identity, but it will hardly work if we help them as they request. Their communications system may be damaged, but I wouldn't bet on it.” He held up his hand, and the channel was reopened. “You aboard the vessel Packmaster, may I have your name and registry?”

“Captain Aremist Baker-Jones,” came the reply after a moment, in that same artificial voice. “Registry…” a longer pause. “I don't know,” the voice concluded. “Captain Thaddeus Marshall, my ship is in urgent need. If you are able and willing to assist, please do so.” More coughing echoed behind the voice, then a quiet whine of pain. “My crew requires more aid than I can provide.”

Marshall glanced down at his personal information screen. The Magister Vos Milistisith was in his thoughts, rolling over and over endlessly where they had left it. But the Packmaster was in peril. The sharp-eared vulpinoid had no doubt that the pained cough he heard was genuine. He clamped his teeth tightly. “Ready emergency teams and a shuttlecraft at once,” he ordered over his shoulder, and then turned back. “Captain Baker-Jones, we will be sending aid shortly.”


Marshall was struck by an impulse; simple curiosity perhaps, but he justified it as a need to learn more about the hidden person to whom he was speaking. He wished to see the other captain's face, to judge his or her or hir expressions and decide whether or not offering assistance was a mistake. “Captain, I would like to establish a video link,” he announced. “Please do so if your communications system is functional.”

Silence followed. The vulpinoid captain felt that he could actually sense the person on the other end of the channel having an internal debate. His ears slowly angled forward. He became aware that he was holding his breath waiting. The entire bridge was silent. Somehow, the other captain had mesmerized them with the mystery of the unseen face and unnatural voice. Then the view on the main screen shifted without preamble, from its magnified overhead shot of the Packmaster to an interior view of its tiny bridge and captain. The bridge crew seemed to skip a collective breath, and Thaddeus Marshall heard someone murmur a short prayer.

She was pale and leprous, with visible lesions on her thin skin and a patch of dried blood around her nose. Aremist Baker-Jones was an emaciated patchwork creature, archaic mechanical limbs welded onto a scarred frame. Neither of her mismatched eyes seemed to be focused on the screen. Her shaved flesh was striped with the dark stains of bodily fluids. Marshall imagined he could smell her, although an atmosphere lay between them. A rattling cough escaped her body, and at the same time that synthesized voice came to life from her open mouth. “I'm transmitting the primary access codes to my vessel, Magus. Do not attempt to transport directly into the ship. Our radiation levels and unstable energy field would make such an attempt… unsafe. I'll be awaiting you.” Her mouth closed again, and Baker-Jones slowly slid forward until her chin lay on the command station before her. Her hands fell to her sides. With the wolfmorph's artificial eyes, it wasn't clear if she was still conscious. The bridge of Magus came chaotically alive as Rusla began barking orders. Thaddeus Marshall called out the other captain's name several times, but she only stared blankly from the surface of Vermitris-2.



To be continued.

Chakats, Chakona and the Chakat Universe are the creations of Bernard Doove and are used with permission.

The Quange are copyright © 2004 to Roy D. Pounds II.

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