Flight of the Phoenix
Chapter 1 – Crew Review
By Bernard Doove © 2012





"You look a bit young to be wanting to buy a starship," the salesman on the other end of the videophone remarked.

Martin Yote repressed a sigh. That had been pretty much the response of every starship broker that he had contacted so far. In fairness, not too many twenty-one year olds came shopping for interstellar vessels, let alone something of the size that he was after. Nevertheless, the young coyote morph put on his most professional façade and said, "I assure you that my need is real, and my means are adequate. I would like to send you the specifications of the type of vessel in which Iím interested, and the price range that I am looking at."

"In that case, I would be delighted to help you. We have recently acquired several additions to our inventory, and I am sure that we can find something to interest you."

"Excellent. Let me transmit the specifications and my letter of credit for you to peruse." Martin had the documents ready, and with a touch of the transmit key, they were sent to the broker.

The man opened the files, and his eyebrows arched when he read the letter of credit. Then he checked the specifications and nodded. "You donít aim small, do you?"

"No Ė I intend that my business gets off to the best start that it can. SoÖ can you help me?"

"As a matter of fact, I have two or three possibilities for you. I see that you are looking at a moderate cargo capacity, and two of the ships that I have might interest you. The third would need some modification, but the added expense would be worth it because of the extra features it has."

"Whatís so special about that?" Martin asked warily, wondering if the salesman was trying to up-sell him.

"Itís an ex Star Corps vessel. It has a longer range than most cargo vessels, better crew facilities, including a holosuite, high-end equipment that government vehicles are required to have, and a few other goodies that the average starship doesnít normally have fitted."

"Sounds a little bit too much for my needs," Martin responded doubtfully.

"I admit that it could be pushing your budget, but I strongly urge you to consider it at least. I will send you the specifications of all three ships that fit your needs, and let you consider their merits. Take your time looking them over, and I think that youíll agree that the Star Corps vessel is a strong contender."

"Very well, Iíll do that."

The broker transmitted the documents and Martin shut down the connection. He then settled down to read the specifications of all three starships thoroughly.

Six cups of coffee, one hastily heated bowl of pasta, and many hours later, Martin was feeling torn. He had dismissed one of the two freighters that had been offered because the power core was in need of major overhaul, and much of the other equipment was in need of servicing or upgrade. The other freighter however was close to what heíd had originally in mind for his venture, although it too would need a bit of work. Nothing near as much as the other though, and it would leave him a bit of financial elbow room. The Star Corps vessel was tempting him badly however. It was already designed to carry large amounts of supplies and equipment, and would not take much work to adapt it to more conventional cargo loads. Removing one superfluous crew accommodation deck would give him more cargo space too. It was the other features that made the ship so seductive though, but also that much more expensive. If he chose that ship, he would have to go into significant debt before he lifted one crate from the ground.

He still had not made a decision when his wrist comm chimed with a reminder that he was due to have dinner with his parents that evening. He hastily shut down his work centre and ordered a PTV to pick him up from his apartment. With the efficiency of the artificial intelligence that ran the Public PTV network, one was ready and waiting for him as he exited the apartment. His comm identified him as the person who had ordered the PTV, and it opened to allow him entrance. He entered his destination, and the AI-driven electric vehicle took off and joined the traffic flow seamlessly. Without people controlling them, they were able to make the most efficient decisions, and make the best time, and thus he was able to get to his parentsí home with a bit of time to spare.

The PTV turned into the driveway of a fenced estate, the gate already opening to allow him entry as it automatically detected an authorised person aboard. The vehicle drove past manicured lawns and landscaped garden beds and pulled up at the front door of a mansion. Martin disembarked, and as he walked up to the door, it opened for him, but this time with a real person responsible for that.

"Welcome, Martin," the lynx morph butler said with a genuine smile. While he was a professional manservant, heíd been more of a friend and confidante than an employee to Martin while he had been growing up.

"Thanks, Alain. Howís Dadís mood today?"

"Quite good, actually. I believe he has been looking forward to this eveningís meal with you."

Martin grimaced. "Letís hope that his mood remains good when I tell him what Iíve done."

"So youíve gone ahead with your plans? I doubted that your father dissuaded you from your dreams. Nevertheless I support your decision, for what itís worth. One must take oneís own course in life. Anyway, your room is ready as always so that you can freshen up. Dinner will be served in fifteen minutes."

"Thanks again, Alain."

Martin made his way to his old bedroom which was permanently kept in readiness should he wish to visit. It had an en suite bathroom where various toiletries and fresh towels had been left out for him. He freshened up, brushed his fur, and then put on a jacket from the wardrobe. While his father was not a snob, he did expect his son to dress appropriately for a formal dinner. It was, after all, his 21st birthday celebration.

He headed for the dining room, with both a sense of anticipation and dread. Today he officially left the comfort of his fatherís protection and took off on his own course. However, unlike his siblings before him, Martin was not choosing a career that met with his fatherís approval, a fact that he had made plain four and a half years agoÖ.

 

Martinís second brotherís birthday was the excuse for this family get-together, having just turned twenty-one and received his fatherís bequeathal. Like his sister and elder brother, Hank now had to decide how to use that money to set himself up in a business, or buy into an existing one with the goal of making back that money and turning it into a profitable success. It was a generous bequeathal, and an excellent head-start for any young person with the talent and drive to make it a going concern. There was only one catch, but it was a big one Ė they had to make back that money and show a specific amount of profit without the slightest extra help from their wealthy industrialist father, and in a maximum of three years. If they failed, they had to give up the business and take a job in their fatherís company, starting at the bottom. It was excellent incentive.

Brandon, the elder brother, had played it safe and bought one of his fatherís smaller businesses, Smart thinking and good business practices saw him reach his goal in less than two years. His sister, Clarice, was more ambitious and decided to start her own company, but used her knowledge of her fatherís conglomerate to ensure that it would succeed. It had not yet, but was on track to do so in a few months, almost exactly as she had planned. Today, Hank would declare his intentions.

Their father was a very busy man, and his spare time was at a premium, but he always reserved these days for his family. He was not a bad father, but he was not at home as much as his children would have liked. His manservant, Alain, had become much like a surrogate father to Martin, but there was no replacing the real thing. Therefore these events were always exciting for him.

The siblings had always gotten along as well as any normal brothers and sisters did. Their father had worked his way up from relative poverty, and never let his hard-earned wealth go to his head, and especially not to his childrenís. They had never lacked, but they werenít spoiled either. The bequeathal arrangement was one way that he made sure that they learned the value of working for their money, but without having to struggle like he had at first. Now that Hank had reached twenty-one, there would be fewer opportunities for the entire family to gather, so they made the most of them when they could.

The dinner culminated in the traditional birthday cake, and it was not until Hank had blown out the candles and the family congratulated him that their father would let anyone talk business.

"So, son, what have you decided to do with your bequeathal? Youíve discussed several good ideas with us, and Iím curious to know what youíve settled upon."

Hank replied, "Iím not going to play it as safe as Brandon, but Iím more cautious than Clarice, so Iíve decided to go halfway. Iíve discussed this with Clarice, and Iím going to invest in her business. She has reached a point where she wants to expand, but needs backing. We believe that by pooling our resources, we can both get the maximum benefit. She will reach her goal sooner, and I wonít have to start from scratch."

"That sounds like a good compromise. I look forward to seeing the results." Then their father looked in Martinís direction. "And while weíre on the subject, have you got any idea yet what youíre going to aim for? Youíve only got a year and a half before you complete school and have to decide on tertiary studies."

"I do have a goal, actually," Martin replied. "I want to buy a starship and start my own independent shipping company."

Yote Senior frowned. "This is a joke, right? Shipping is a mugís game. Do you know how many independents fail in their first year of business? Do you know that most struggle with debt for many years, and maybe never make any decent money? Only the big shipping companies make money at that game, and they have the benefit of huge infrastructure and other advantages. Youíd be better off buying into one of their subsidiaries."

"No, I intend to be my own boss. I could never be that if I do it your way. Besides, I want to travel, not sit behind a desk."

"If you do well in a safer business, then you will have the money to travel after a few years."

"If all it takes is the money, dad Ė why have you never left Earth and seen some of the galaxy? Not even one little vacation to Hesperia Asteroid city?"

"An interstellar trip takes weeks Ė I canít be away from the business for that long just for a vacation. You need a sense of proportion, son."

"And thatís why I want to be a starship captain. I want a larger proportion devoted to having a life, not just a business."

"Enough of this foolish talk. Think long and hard, son. You wonít have the time or money for interstellar jaunts if youíre working in the warehouse of one of my companies after your business fails."

"Believe me, dad, I will be thinking about it."

 

Martin had done little since then but think about how to make his dream work in reality, if for no other reason than to prove his father wrong. His studies had covered every aspect of business connected with commercial shipping, from learning what goods were profitable enough to ship between worlds, to operational procedures for starships, and getting his pilotís licence. Ironically, despite his goal of having more time for a life, those years had left him very little time for socialising, and he did not even have a steady girlfriend yet. He sincerely hoped that would change soon.

His father continued to try to dissuade him from his course, but to his credit, did not actively block Martinís goal in any way. Despite Martinís hard work and thorough preparations though, he doubted that he would ever hear a word of encouragement from his father, and he was resigned to that fact.

"Hereís the birthday boy," announced Brandon as he entered the dining room. In fact all his siblings had beaten him here, as well as his parents.

"We were beginning to think that you were going to be a no-show," Clarice commented.

Martin grinned. "This was one event that I was sure that you werenít going to start without me."

"Donít be too sure of that Ė Iím pretty hungry," Hank retorted.

Martin noted that he had put on a lot of weight lately. He had always been a big eater, and his lifestyle was not doing him any favours.

Martin gave his mother a hug. "Good to see you, Mom."

"You really should visit more often," she gently chided.

His father said, "Sit down next to your mother, Martin, and letís get this celebration under way."

Martin did so, and soon the table was abuzz with conversation as parents and children caught up with each otherís lives. While they chatted, appetisers were served, then a fancy main meal, followed by Martinís favourite dessert Ė passionfruit pavlova. Normally he tried to avoid such foods, not wanting to go Hankís way, but this was his one indulgence. Then of course there was birthday cake.

Martin had been semi-dreading the cake, because it marked the end of the embargo on talking business at the dinner table, and it was also when he would be committed to his course of action. He blew out the candles, there were cheers and congratulations, then the inevitable question.

"So, Martin, what have you decided to do with your bequeathal?" his father asked in a tone that was a faint warning to make a smart choice.

"My mind is unchanged, Dad. I will be buying a used starship to refurbish and start my own shipping company. I have already started shopping around for the ship."

"I suppose youíll be swanning around the space in some leaky rust-bucket that will cost you a lot in maintenance, and Iíd be ashamed to be seen in?"

Martin was stung by his fatherís disdain. "Of course not! In fact Iíve virtually settled for a former Star Corps ship. Itís outdated by Stellar Services standard, but a wonderful start-up for someone like me. Once itís refurbished, Iíll not only be able to show it off to prospective clients, but it will also look smart enough for the passengers I intend to take on top of cargo."

"I still think youíre being a fool, but on your head be it."

"Gee, thanks for the encouragement, Dad."

"Well, I think youíre being bold," Clarice opined. "Perhaps you can show me around when itís ready. Iíll even christen it for you if you like?"

Martin smiled gratefully at his sister. "Iíll take you up on that, Ceecee."

She and her brothers steered the subject away from Martinís plans for the future in order to restore the pleasant family atmosphere. No more was said on the subject for the rest of the evening, but Martin was uncomfortably aware that he had committed himself to the more expensive starship after shooting off his mouth about it. He prayed that his figures were right, because even if they were, it was going to be a close thing.

 

Martin dickered with the broker and managed to squeeze out a few extra concessions. He was grateful for the times that his father had let him sit in on negotiations, and so he had a very good idea on how to do it well for himself. He had the ship moved to a shipyard to have the necessary modifications done, and the refurbishment of passenger cabins and facilities. After that, he spent most of his spare time either practicing for his Master Pilotís licence, or tracking down business. He had a firm date set soon, and that left just one important thing left to do Ė he needed a crew.


 

Heywood Baxter was a very excited ten year old boy. Of course any boy would be excited on the occasion of their birthday, but the tenth was when he would be getting his Companion. He remembered the tests that they had done with him which they said would determine what kind of Companion he would be getting, but he was never told what the results of those tests were. That was the way they traditionally did things on the Non-Aligned world of Celeste Ė it was supposed to be a moment of discovery and bonding between a human and his personal morph slave.

He had waited impatiently throughout the birthday party that his parents had arranged for him and his friends. Some of them had their Companions already Ė Manny had a German Shepherd bitch morph, and Lyleís was a deer buck. Heywood wondered what species his was going to be. They told him that they were psychologically matched to each person Ė he didnít even really understand what that meant. However he did know that they were supposed to stay with you all your life, so you had to like them a lot.

The moment at last arrived when a van pulled up outside of their house with the logo of a well-known gene-tech factory on its side. Heywood rushed outside to meet the occupants. The driver got out and grinned at the boy.

"Let me guess Ė youíre the birthday boy. Heywood, isnít it?"

"Yeah, thatís me. Have you got my Companion?"

"Not so fast, my friend. First I need your parents to sign for the completion of contract, then you get to see your Companion."

Heywood raced off yelling, "Dad! Mom! Come out here! Hurry!"

Of course Heywoodís parents already knew what had to be done, but they put on a show of reluctance to draw the moment out. Eventually they relented and signed, and the driver opened the sliding door of the van. A small morph got out, spotted Heywood, walked over to him, and waited while he got a good look at his new Companion.

Heywood saw beige fur with very dark brown fur on the forearms and lower legs, a very slim build, and bright eyes surrounded by a mask of dark fur Ė a black-footed ferret morph. He loved ferrets!

"Hi Ė Iím Menalippe, and Iím so happy to meet you at last, Heywood," she said.

Heywood grinned hugely. She was perfect! "Come on inside Ė I want to show you to my friends!"

"Iíd love to meet them," she said enthusiastically.

The two ran inside while his parents smiled proudly; their own Companions sharing the moment with them.

 

As was intended and designed, Menalippe was the perfect companion for the boy. She and Heywood played the same games, read the same books, and shared all their interests. She went to school with him and learned alongside him and his friends and their Companions. At night, she had her own bed in his room. They were inseparable. Years passed and puberty saw him grow into a healthy youth, along with the usual sexual urges Ė and Menalippe was perfect there too. By this time though, they shared one big bed. It was not until his eighteenth birthday that he got a severe reality check.

 

"Could we have a word with you, son?" his father asked.

Heywoodís mother was there also, instead of out with her Companion, so it had to be a matter of some importance. "Of course, Dad. Whatís the problem? Mena and I havenít been keeping you awake, have we?"

Heywoodís father smiled. "No, nothing like that. Take a seat, son Ė we have an important matter to discuss."

Heywood settled on a sofa, Menalippe beside him as always, and he waited curiously. His mother sat with her panther morph Companion in a two-seater, but his father remained standing while his rabbit doe morph Companion sat to one side on a chair.

"Next week you turn eighteen, and itís time to announce your betrothal."

"My what?" Heywood asked in surprise.

"You will be introduced to the girl you will marry when you turn twenty one."

"But I havenít met anyone that I would even want to go steady with, let alone marry," Heywood protested.

"That has nothing to do with your marriage. Your mother and I arranged your marriage years ago to the daughter of a business associate of ours. This will make stronger financial ties between our families, and of course she will provide you with an heir."

"What if I donít want to get married? What if I canít stand the girl?"

His father frowned. "Heywood, you canít be so naïve as not to know how marriages work here on Celeste. Our whole culture has been based on this way of doing things, and it has worked well for us since this world was colonised. You will marry this girl. Besides, if you put some effort into this marriage, you will find it has many advantages, and you may even learn to love her. I did not meet your mother until our betrothal, but we respect and care for each other."

"I always thought that Iíd have some say in the matter!" Heywood protested.

"Donít be ridiculous. Teenagers arenít qualified to know whatís best for them in the future. Weíre talking security for your finances and your children, and the inter-family bonds that makes our way of life so successful. Thatís why you have a morph Companion to take care of your base needs so that your marriage may be ruled by your head and not by your emotions."

"I donít find the concept of love to be ridiculous."

"Enough! This isnít a debate. I am telling you what is going to happen next Thursday so that you will be prepared, and wonít embarrass us in front of our associate."

Heywood glared at his father, but knew that he was fighting a lost cause. "Consider me advised," he growled, and then got up and marched out of the room with Menalippe at his heels. He stormed into his bedroom, and his Companion barely made it inside before he slammed the door.

"Argh!" he yelled, and kicked an inoffensive sports bag across the room, scattering its contents widely.

Menalippe said, "I hate to say this, but your father was right Ė you are being naïve. You knew what to expect, but you chose to turn a blind eye to it."

"And why should I accept it just because itís the way it has always been done? Heywood demanded. "Why canít there be a compromise? Why should I be forced into a relationship with someone when the person with whom Iím in love is right here in front of me?"

"Shh!" Menalippe said urgently, waving her arms in a manner to suggest that he lower his voice. "You know thatís forbidden, and that they would never compromise on that. Talk like that could get you into deep trouble, and might even get us split up. You know that humans and their Companions may love each other, but not be in love."

"And yet how can the powers-that-be create for us our perfect companions and expect us not to feel this way? How many others have been forced into loveless marriages while the ones they should be marrying have to stand aside and pretend that it doesnít bother them?" Heywood looked keenly into Menalippeís eyes. "And it does bother you, doesnít it?"

Menalippeís eyes fell, and she nodded. "Yes. I knew to expect this, but it bothers me a lot."

Heywood took the ferret girl into his arms and hugged her. His anger gave way to tenderness, and he said quietly, "I love you, Mena. I love you with all my heart and soul, and whatever happens on Thursday, nothing will change that."

"I know you do, and I love you no less. No human girl could ever care for you more than I do." She tilted her head up and her muzzle met his lips, and they kissed deeply.

Soon their kissing turned to more intimate caresses, and then they were busy removing each otherís clothes. Moments later, they were on their bed making love.

A long and satisfying time later, they lay together enjoying the afterglow in silence. Eventually though, Heywood broke their reverie.

"Weíre going to have to find a way out of this."

Menalippe turned her head to look at him. "Okay, but how?"

He sighed. "I donít know. But Iíll have three years to find out before Iím forced into marriage. Maybe Iíll get some idea if I sleep on it for a while. Goodnight, Mena."

"Goodnight, my love."

 

Heywood was still without a plan of action though when his future wife arrived with her parents. One look at her Companion told him volumes about her. He was a horse morph Ė tall, powerfully muscled, and conspicuously male. There was nothing subtle about her relationship with him, and it was a jarring contrast with the gently intimate relationship that Heywood had with Menalippe. The two humans belonged together as much as fire and water.

Nevertheless, Heywood endeavoured to at least be courteous to Alexandra, if for no other reason than to make life no more unpleasant than it had to be. However, despite her being polite and gentle in return, she nevertheless gave the impression that she was looking at something that had crawled out from under a rock.

While both their parents were having a lively and amiable talk mostly about the future of their children, Heywood and Alexandra endured a chilly and uncomfortable time forced together. It was impossible to tell who was more relieved when she had to leave with her parents.

Heywood tried to escape without having to talk with his parents, but his father caught him at the door.

"So what are your impressions of your betrothed?" he asked.

"Even more than I expected, Dad," Heywood replied, and beat a hasty retreat before his father queried just what exactly he meant by that.

Back in his room, he sank onto his bed with a groan. Menalippe sat beside him and stroked his head.

"I canít live with that, Mena," he said with a touch of despair.

"But you will have to. Itís not as if you can run away. The betrothal law is upheld worldwide."

Heywood was struck by a thought. "Youíre right Ė but only on this world. It doesnít apply on other worlds."

Menalippe frowned in thought. "Are you thinking of leaving Celeste? Your parents would never allow it, and besides itís far too expensive for us to afford."

"If you go as passengers. If I can get a job as starship crew, then cost wonít be a factor."

"Again Ė your parents wonít let you take a job like that. In fact your schooling is being aimed at you taking up a part of their business. I donít think that will get you a job on a starship."

"Right again, unfortunately, so I am just going to have to learn a trade without them finding out about it."

"How are you going to do that?" Menalippe asked sceptically.

"Give me time to work it out first, love, but I think I know what to do. Iím going to need an ally though if Iím going to make this work."

"That got Menalippe curious. "Who would do that?"

"Why Ė who else but my beloved bride-to-be!"

 

Heywoodís parents were surprised but pleased a few days later when he requested that he make a trip to visit Alexandra, and could they make arrangements with her parents for a convenient date? They certainly could, happy to see that their son was warming to the idea of being betrothed. Alexandraís parents were equally pleased, and ensured that their daughter was ready and waiting when Heywood arrived to pick her and her Companion up.

The atmosphere was positively glacial in the car, and their Companions were equally uncomfortable, but they did not have to endure it for long. Rather than taking Alexandra to a restaurant as he had implied for some getting-to-know-you talk, he turned off the main road to head for a quiet picnic ground that he had searched out beforehand.

"Where are we going?" demanded Alexandra.

"Somewhere very private," Heywood replied. "Despite what this meeting appears, I have something to discuss with you that you are going to want to hear, unless Iím a terrible judge of character. And we have to do it where Iím sure that we wonít be overheard."

"Then why not just say it right here in the car?"

"This may take a while, and seeing as weíre supposed to dining, I thought we might as well have something to eat while weíre at it."

Despite herself, Alexandra was intrigued. "Okay, but this had better be good."

It was not long before they pulled into the picnic ground. It was one of the more out of the way places, and being the middle of the week, there were no others there, as Heywood had hoped.

"So why here?" Alexandra asked.

"Because we wonít look out of place here if someone does come along. We even packed a complete picnic basket to complete the image, not to mention the food." He indicated the basket that Menalippe had fetched from the trunk. She put it on one of the picnic tables and started unpacking it. The others seated themselves around the table.

"Enough mystery Ė what is it you want?" Alexandra asked impatiently.

"First Ė a question. I want you to answer me with complete and unvarnished honesty. Do you want to marry me?"

"Not if you were the last human on Celeste," she replied with finality.

"Excellent! he replied, and she looked startled. "The feeling is mutual. So - what if I told you that I have a plan to avoid that fate? How far would you go to help support that plan?"

"That depends on what you have in mind," she replied cautiously.

"First I need you to promise that you will tell absolutely no one about this," Heywood insisted. He did not bother asking the same of Samson, the horse morph Ė what one would agree to, the other would honour.

"You have my word."

"I intend to leave Celeste on a starship as one of its crew. To do that, I need to take extra classes to learn a trade suitable for a starship, but I canít cover up that much extra time without a good excuse. Thatís where you come in. We will pretend to have a great deal of interest in each other, and want to go out often. If your parents are anything like mine, theyíll only be too glad to encourage us to do so. Of course Iíll be at those classes while you can be doing whatever you like in the meantime. We only need to be together when I pick you up and drop you off. Oh, we might have to put in a few appearances together at our folksí places occasionally, just to keep them happy, but I think that we can tolerate that under the circumstances, donít you?"

Alexandra mulled that over, then asked, "How long are we going to have to do this?"

"Iím afraid that it takes a while to earn the necessary qualifications. I think that it will take pretty much three years."

"Ouch! Thatís a long time to maintain the pretence."

"I know, but I canít afford to buy a ticket Ė I donít get any serious money until I turn twenty-one."

"What if you used that class time for a job instead so that you can pay the fare?"

"Bureaucracy Ė Because Iím under twenty-one, I couldnít get a ticket without my parents finding out about it, and they might find out about the job also. I already investigated the possibility and had to give it away. But our society actively encourages tertiary education, so itís easy to sign up for classes. UmmÖ I might need a bit of financial help to pay for them. I canít attend two sets of classes and hold down a part-time job also."

"I might have known thereíd be money involved."

"Itís going to take every cred that Menalippe and I have as it is, so Iím not asking lightly. Besides, it will pay off well in the end. The long delay has one definite advantage for you."

"Oh? How so?"

"Your birthday is just a few weeks after mine, right?" She nodded. "Request your parents that we get married on your birthday as a special present to you. Iíll arrange to leave the night before though, and when I donít turn up, you can be the distraught bride left at the altar. Hereís the kicker though Ė because youíll be a legally totally independent adult as of that day, you will no longer be subject to the betrothal laws any more."

Alexandra looked amazed. "I canít be forced to marry anyone after I turn twenty-oneÖ Yes! Heywood, youíve got yourself a deal! Now, how are we going to work this?"

They ended up discussing the details for over an hour, and their Companions served them food and drink while they did so, occasionally offering opinions or suggestions. The journey back to Alexandraís home was far more relaxed now that the two humans were enthusiastic conspirators rather than inevitable spouses. Later they could tell both their parents that the date had gone wonderfully well with complete honesty.

Heywood took some aptitude tests to determine what career would best suit him. He was pleased to discover that he had scored highly in piloting, and enrolled immediately in an appropriate course. He also took an extra course in nav-systems as a back-up. The charade with Alexandra worked even better than they had hoped, although over the ensuing months they had some awkward moments where their plans almost came unstuck. Because he was concentrating so much on his clandestine lessons, his grades in the regular classes began to slip, and his father warned that if they continued to do so, his frequent outings with Alexandra would be severely curtailed. In order to get his grades back up, Heywood had to spend even more time studying. To help him make the most of his time, Alexandra arranged a small apartment where he could concentrate on his studies, while she and their Companions made sure that he ate well, and took care of other distractions. It amused them that in some ways, they were becoming the spouses that they were trying so hard to avoid.

As the months passed, something else changed between them Ė they became friends. There still was not the slightest bit of romantic interest between them, but respect and liking grew in both. When the holiday breaks came, they took the opportunity to do some things together as friends would do. Sometimes though they deliberately involved their parents to maintain the fiction of an engaged couple growing closer. Their friendship helped make their personal sacrifices much more bearable, and nearly three years later, it was almost a shock to realise that it must soon end.

This evening, the foursome were at a fancy restaurant to celebrate Heywoodís graduation and attaining his pilotís licence.

"So, what happens now?" Alexandra asked.

"Now comes the tricky part. I not only have to find employment on a starship, but I also have to get it on a ship that leaves on the morning of the wedding, if possible. If not, Iíll have to go into hiding until I do. Despite being twenty-one, the betrothal law remains in effect until the marriage contract is sealed. Neither of us will be free until I leave Celesteís jurisdiction and I can tell everyone that I wonít be coming back. That would nullify our betrothal, and you canít be forced into another. So itís up to me to make sure that I get on a ship that day. Any sooner and your parents might slap another hasty betrothal contract on you with someone else, so I canít leave early either. The bottom line is that I need a good dollop of luck for this part of the plan."

"Have you gotten any leads yet?"

"No, but Iíve registered with a recruitment agency. They tell me that I have a pretty good chance."

"I have a good feeling about this. Youíve worked hard, and you deserve a lucky break." Alexandra raised her glass of wine. "A toast to you and Menalippe whose love and devotion has brought this day about."

Two weeks later, confidence was no longer so high. The only offers that Heywood had gotten so far were too soon or too late. One was so long after the wedding date that he was almost certainly likely to be discovered. He persisted though, and with just two days to go, he got a bite.

"Alex Ė I got it!" he excitedly commed her. "Thereís a ship departing on Tuesday night that needs to replace a retiring pilot, and Iíve got the position!"

"But thatís well after the wedding is supposed to be held Ė theyíll be looking for you all day."

"Thatís when the ship actually leaves, but I will have to report in long before that, so Iíll drive in that morning before the wedding. If everything goes well, Iíll be on board before they even start looking."

"Is it a ground-launch ship, or do they shuttle up to it in orbit?"

"Ground launch," Heywood confirmed.

"They might trace your car to the spaceport and locate you before they launch. You need to get there some other way."

"Good point. Donít want to be stymied at the last moment. I canít trust public transport though because the A.I. might be able to trace me, not to mention the difficulty of lugging all our stuff."

"Iíll get Samson to take you there. Iíll pretend to have him go on an errand for me because Iíll be too busy getting ready for the wedding. He can rendezvous with you and Menalippe somewhere discreet, and take you to the spaceport, and then come back here before any questions are asked."

"That should work, and I know a good place to rendezvous."

They set an exact time and place, and then signed off.

On the morning of the wedding, Heywood insisted that he drive himself and Menalippe to the wedding, pointing out that he would be driving his wife to their honeymoon retreat, so he had to have his car there, and he might as well drive it. He also left a little early, saying that he wanted to make sure that absolutely everything would be ready for the big moment. Menalippe and he had carefully packed everything that they thought they would want or need on the starship, and had stowed it in the car the previous night. They did not want anyone querying why they were taking so much.

They rendezvoused with Samson in the car park of a quiet public garden on the south side of town, located well away from the spaceport, but near to a route that suggested that he might be heading for another town further down the coast. They transferred all the baggage to Samsonís car and headed off to the spaceport.

The equine morph was normally untalkative Ė not unfriendly, but not given to chatting much. It was not often that he initiated a conversation, but this time he did.

"I want to thank you, Heywood. My Companion had been dreading marriage so much that it was hurting both of us. You have given us quite a gift, even if it was started just as a way of getting yourself out of a similar fate. You could have easily abandoned us without taking us into consideration."

"Donít praise me too much, Samson. Alexandraís willing cooperation made my goal more achievable."

"I know, but itís still appreciated. Alex wanted me to pass on a message, knowing that it would be unlikely that she would see you today. She said that if you were the last human on Celeste, she would consider marrying you after all."

Heywood chuckled. "High praise indeed. Anything else?"

"Yes. She said that she will not miss her fiancé at all, but she will dearly miss her good friend."

Heywood nodded soberly. "Yeah, Iíll miss her also for that reason. We four made a pretty good group, didnít we?"

"Indeed," Samson replied, and then returned to his normal non-chatty state.

Samson helped them unload their baggage onto a trolley at the spaceport. Menalippe gave the big horse a big hug, to his surprise, and then he had to hasten back to Alexandra.

Heywood showed his documents to the security guard at the crew entrance, and was directed to the correct launching cradle where he would find the Stellar Rose berthed. There he found one of the crew on duty at the ramp leading to the personnel lock, and once again he showed his documents.

The man looked them over and said, "So youíre the new assistant pilot? Youíve certainly brought quite a load with you."

"Itís my first job, and Iím leaving my old life behind. Itís possible that we will pare this down over time, but for now I think weíre prepared to cover all our needs."

"Fair enough Ė I remember my first time well. Youíre a bit early, so take your time unpacking before reporting to the captain at 0300 hours when heís due back. Have your slave report to Hatfield in Shipís Services to be assigned her duties."

Heywood had to remind himself that they were not Celeste citizens, but came from another of the Non-Aligned Worlds where they had different attitudes towards morphs. That had been one of the difficulties in getting a suitable ship, but he had wanted a non-Celeste ship because it was unlikely that they return soon, or cause him trouble with the authorities here. The flip side was that he and Menalippe would have to put up with another worldís attitudes towards her.

"She is my Companion, sir, not just a slave," he politely reminded the man.

"Thatís right Ė you Celestians have your morphs bonded to you. Donít worry Ė weíre not going to do anything to her. Sheís just going to have to earn her keep while sheís on board with you."

"We expected as much, sir," Heywood replied.

"Good. Get on board and get familiar with the ship. Weíll have more than enough time to chat later." He instructed them as to where to find their assigned cabin and sent them on their way.

Heywood and Menalippe took his advice and got settled in. He met the captain at the appointed hour, and found him to be a stern but pleasant man. He was ordered to start his first watch at 0600 hours, so he was free to meet and get to know many of the crew beforehand. It helped keep his mind off the fact that by now there would be a major search for him going on. He fervently hoped that while they might check the spaceport, it would not occur to them to check the crew rosters. He sweated over that right up until the moment that they took off.

"Mr Baxter Ė you are the pilot in control. Letís see what youíve got," the captain ordered.

Of course Heywood was nervous Ė it was his first professional lift-off, but with the Chief Pilot at the station next to him watching and ready to take over in an emergency, some of the pressure was off him. He set out to impress.

The Chief Pilot never lifted a finger while Heywood launched them from the cradle, boosted the ship through the atmosphere, and set a course away from the gravity well of Celeste.

"Well done, Mr Baxter. I think weíll keep you on," the captain commented.

"Thank you, Captain," Heywood replied, and gave a quiet sigh of relief. He was now officially a spacer, and he and Menalippe were free at last.

 

A month later, Heywood was surprised to get a note forwarded to him from Alexandra. In it she let him know that it had taken them three days to track him to the spaceport, and they knew that he was on board Stellar Rose, so he had better not return because he would be arrested for violation of the betrothal laws. As expected, her parents tried to arrange for her to marry someone else, but she refused, quoting that she was devastated by being abandoned by her fiancé and she could never marry another. Heywood wanted to wish Alexandra good fortune for the future, but thought it inadvisable to make any sort of contact with her. He never heard from her again.

He did receive messages from his parents which ranged from demanding that he return home to fulfil his obligations, to pleading that he think of how this had affected the family. Considering how they had not bothered to think about how it affected him, he took little notice of their pleas. He missed them nonetheless, but he could never go home again.

As it turned out, Stellar Rose never went back to Celeste. Apparently it had been an unusual port of call for the freighter which plied the routes between the Non-Aligned Worlds. Heywood and Menalippe fitted in reasonably well with the rest of the crew, tempered only by their different attitudes towards the slave species. When Heywood made it totally clear that his Companion was not theirs to command at a whim, the captain ordered the crew to keep their hands off her. She was treated pretty much as a low-level crew member thereafter, except that she did not earn a wage. That did not matter to her and Heywood though because they did not have much opportunity to spend his wages. He did not trust what might happen on most worlds if he brought her along on shore leave, and he did not care to go alone most of the time.

Six years passed, and during that time Heywood achieved his Master Pilotís ticket. Then their Chief Pilot met a girl and decided to settle down planet-side, and Heywood was promoted. He might have been doing that job for the rest of his career except for a twist of fate.

Stellar Rose was adrift light-years from the nearest inhabited world, her warp engines crippled.

"Iím sorry, Captain," the engineer reported, "but itís hopeless. Thereís no way that I can fix the warp drive outside of a shipyard."

"I see. Then weíre left with no option but to call for help."

"You know that the only ones who are likely to respond way out here are the Feddies."

"I know, but itís still better than the alternative."

Twenty eight hours later, a Star Fleet ship came to their aid. Shortly thereafter, all the morphs aboard were Ďfreedí, and Heywood and Menalippe were ripped apart, not to see each other again for many weeks.


 

Ceres had enjoyed a wonderful childhood in Black Foxtaur village, but always knew that shi was destined for much more. It was not just a feeling, but a hard truth Ė shi was not the same as hir parents. Or to be more accurate, hir surrogate parents. Although they had mostly black pelts, they also had white fur on their chests, bellies, hands and paws, while shi was solid black from the tip of hir ears to end of hir tail. Even more different was the fact that shi was a hermaphrodite, while hir parents were single sex Ė both females, but that was hardly unusual for foxtaurs. Vulpamours (lesbian foxtaurs) were a high percentage of the families in any foxtaur community due to their gender imbalance and other factors. But that fact also made them perfect contenders for the Stellar Foxtaur breeding program. Vulpamours already needed to get someone outside of their relationship to get them pregnant if they wanted children. It mattered not that the someone was actually the New Generation Genetics company that was in charge of the breeding program, and who were seeking volunteers to be surrogate mothers for the new breeds of foxtaurs. Because they were similar in looks and build, the Black Foxtaurs were chosen to raise the Starwalker breed of Stellar Foxtaur. Hir parents had wanted children, and the financial and other incentives were enough to convince them to join. Both vulpamours had been implanted with an embryo, and Ceres had a Ďsisterí named Vesta. Not that they were true sisters because they had none of their parentsí DNA, and there was variation built into their own in order to prevent inbreeding when they started having children of their own, but that did not matter to Ceres anyway. Vesta was hir sister in all but fact, and they did virtually everything together as they grew up. Then one day, something happened that would forever push them apart, and as so often happens, it was over a boy.

Ceres and Vesta were only two of a few dozen Starwalkers being raised in that village, but despite being amongst Black Foxtaurs all their lives, they still naturally started gravitating towards others of their kind as they matured and started getting interested in adult matters. Ceres had been no different until shi met Danson one day. The young tod had been raised on a farm at the opposite of the village from Ceres, and while shi might have seen him at one of the community festivals, shi had never really met him. It was at the Harvest Festival not long after shi had turned seventeen that shi had been randomly partnered with him for a dance. Shi found him to be witty, charming and surprisingly knowledgeable for a farm boy, and shi ended up spending the rest of the evening with him. It did not bother him that shi was a herm, and shi liked the way he related to hir. Shi asked to see him again the next day.

When shi told Vesta about him, hir sister had laughed. "Youíve just got a crush on him. Youíll soon wake up and realise that he can never replace a Starwalker like us. Have fun while it lasts though."

That had annoyed Ceres. The things that had attracted hir to him just were not part of the psyche of the average Starwalker. It was the sameness of all the others of hir kind that had held hir back when many of the others were already forming relationships. Shi knew that made hir different from the others, but shi did not think much of it for now. It would be a few years yet before they left the community to really start their lives as pioneers out in the stars, and many things could and would change in that time.

Only as time passed, this did not pass. Instead, the two grew ever closer together until one day Ceres realised that he was waiting for hir to propose. Being a herm, shi never really ascribed to most gender stereotypes, but that did not apply to Danson. In foxtaur society, it was the female who proposed, and in their relationship, that role was hirs, and he waiting patiently for hir to do so. For once in hir life, shi was so flustered that shi did not know what to do, and so consulted with hir counsellor at the Stellar Foxtaur training facility which shi had been attending three days a week since a very early age.

Amongst the facilities there was a zero-G gymnasium, a facility set up specifically for the Starwalkers. None of the other six breeds of Stellars would be working in the environment that shi had been bred for Ė space Ė and so the Starwalkers had that to themselves. The first day that they had gone to the training facility, they had been introduced to the gym. They were like birds with clipped wings who suddenly discovered that they could fly again. The joy and freedom of moving around in that weightless environment rammed home to all of them that their future lay away from the grasp of a planetís gravity. The teachers had struggled to get them to leave that first time. Nowadays Ceres used it whenever shi wanted to think deeply about some problem. Hir thoughts seemed freer and clearer when shi was in hir natural environment. This time though, the answer was not clear Ė shi was bred and destined for outer space, while Danson was anything but. However, shi knew that shi loved him, and now shi knew that he loved hir too. Shi turned to the only other person who ever managed to answer the hard questions for hir Ė Chakat Cornsilk, who was named after the colour of hir hair. Cornsilk had joined Ceres in the gymnasium at hir request, but while the chakat could never match a Starwalker in that environment, shi certainly was no slouch in there either. Ceres told hir of the problem that confronted hir.

Cornsilk smiled reassuringly at Ceres. "Things arenít quite as bad as they seem, Ceres. Itís true that you would never be happy if you stayed on a planet, but donít count out your boyfriend yet. When the Federation started the Stellar Foxtaur program, they did so knowing that the Stellars would have complete freedom of choice when it came to their individual destinies, and thus some of them would not become part of the next stage of the program. In other words, a life in the service of the Star Corps is not your only possible destiny. You could consider another career in space that would allow Danson to accompany you, if he wishes. You said heís farm raised, so have you tried asking him if he might be interested in hydroponics, for example? Thatís always a valuable position on any starship or space station."

Ceres realised that Cornsilk was right Ė she had been taking a blinkered approach to the problem. It had not occurred to hir that shi did not have to do what shi had assumed shi would be doing. But would Danson be interested?

He was surprised but curious. Although a farm-boy, his association with Ceres had exposed him to broader horizons, and he was willing to look into itÖ if shi was keen for him to go with hir.

Ceres realised that he was hinting that he was looking for that proposal from hir. Shi made hir decision, took a deep breath, and said, "Danson, would you be my denmate, and follow me to the stars?"

Danson smiled happily. "I would follow you across the galaxy. I accept your proposal."

After appropriately celebrating their bonding, the pair made their plans for the future. Shi concentrated on training for a commercial enterprise, while Danson took Cornsilkís suggestion and studied hydroponics. Vesta thought Ceres was crazy though, and their relationship was strained a bit because of it. That disappointed Ceres, but hir future was more important, and Vesta just had to learn to live with it. Shi was much more concerned about Danson, and whether he would cope with hir crazy plans. He accompanied hir to the Starwalker training facility where he was definitely the odd foxtaur in the group, but still made to feel welcome because he was a symbol of their freedom to choose rather than be destined to work for the Star Corps. The trips to the facility also helped ensure he would not develop the crippling Territorial Attachment Syndrome during the critical years of his development. Although it was far more common in vixens, they did not want to risk it happening to him.

Eventually the time came that the Starwalkers graduated and almost all of them chose to accept the Star Corps offer of employment. Ceres bid a sad farewell to hir many friends, and then shi and Danson went on a search for a starship that would be willing to take on two novice crew members such as them.


 

RíMurran was enjoying the last day of the Jahazrah, a combination family reunion and festival that was only held every two hands (8) of Caitian years, and the previous one happened while he was on a tour of duty, so he was making the most of this one. The leonine alien was not pleased to cut his stay short when he received a call to return immediately to his starship, RíVerrastrrís Victory, and report to the First Officer, but it was not entirely unexpected. He entered her office and was told to take a seat. He curled his tail through the slot in the seatback and sat down and waited to hear what Commander MíTisharr had to say.

"I hear that you are looking to take on a Fourthwife," she said with a warm smile. "Congratulations on finding someone for that role. Itís been quite a while since you got your Thirdwife, hasnít it?"

"Yes, it has," RíMurran agreed. "My family has been very happy with the status quo, so finding MíResk was something special."

MíTisharr sighed. "I know, and thatís what makes what I have to say extra hard. Star Fleetís family policy encourages Fleet personnel to bring their mates and children with them in times of peace, and thankfully the Federation has been basically at peace for a very long time now. Caitians even get extra leeway due to the nature of our gender imbalance compared to the other member races of the Federation. However, there is a limit, and you have just reached it. Because your Secondwife, MíAnissaítk, is also Fleet personnel, you were able to have three wives on board, two being the limit for non-Fleet crew, but you cannot have another non-Fleet wife and stay aboard this ship."

"MíRarrtikar warned me that there might be some problems, but I didnít think that it was that bad."

"Iím afraid that the regulations are quite specific on this matter, so let me lay out the options for you. First Ė You can give up the idea of having MíResk as Fourthwife, and that would be the end of the problem. Second Ė You can take MíResk as Fourthwife, but she cannot join you here on the ship." She held up a hand to forestall a protest. "I know Ė thatís a very poor option, and certainly one that I would not agree to, but it had to be said. Third Ė You can take MíResk as Fourthwife, but be forced to take a post planet-side, and never be part of a shipís crew again, unless you lose one of your non-Fleet wives, goddess forbid. Fourth Ė You leave Star Fleet and do what you see fit with your life without any interference from us. This is a big decision to make, so I suggest that you discuss it with your family and get back to me. Iím afraid that I will need your answer by 0200 tomorrow ship time in order for me to arrange a replacement for you if necessary."

"Yes sir. I will do that as soon as possible." RíMurran got up to leave.

MíTisharr had one last thing to say though. "I must admit that I am a little bit envious of you, RíMurran. If I hadnít been so focused on my career, I might not be unmated today. You would have made a fine choice for me if I was just a bit younger. I would happily trade some of my rank for your status. Donít let your career get in the way of doing what makes you happy, okay?"

"I wonít, sir. Thank you."

As he made his way back down planet-side, he reflected on his relationships and what had brought him to this turning point.

RíMurran was an unremarkable looking Caitian. His mane was nice enough, and at 155cm (5í 1"), he was taller than the average male although not the tallest. However, what distinguished him was his exceptional engineering talent, which had caught the eye of a Star Fleet recruiter. He had accepted a scholarship to the Star Fleet Academy straight after graduating from Kattenírrtsk University, and there he studied starship design and operation. It had left him little time for socialising, and thus it wasnít until he had been at the academy for several months that he had met his future Firstwife. It was the midyear break, and he had been enjoying doing a whole lot of nothing for a change. He was lazing at the side of the pool when he was whacked by an errant ball. An apologetic female had collected the ball, and on a whim he had asked her name and invited her to dinner with him. Her name was MíRarrtikar, and she said yes.

They had hit it off well, and thereafter he tried to make as much spare time as possible to see her. Upon graduating from the academy, they exchanged vows in front of a Mentarkan priestess and became husband and wife. When he was assigned to the Federation starship RíVerrastrrís Victory, MíRarrtikar accompanied him and took one of the civilian positions suitable for her skills as a qualified accountant. It was Star Fleetís policy to free up Fleet personnel for more important work by utilising their non-Fleet mates to do such jobs during peacetimes, and in doing so, helped maintain better morale by keeping families together.

Inevitably on a Caitian-operated ship, he had attracted the attention of several other unmated females, but the one who interested him in return was a maintenance technician named MíAnnissaítk. MíRarrtikar recognised the attraction and compatibility with them and, as was her right and duty, proposed to MíAnnissaítk, who accepted the position of Secondwife, with the Aspect of Strength.

Soon after, MíRarrtikar gave birth to their first child, a daughter whom they named Keera. They took leave for a few weeks for the event, during which time they met MíLertiña, a teacher and volunteer paramedic. They liked her immediately, and spent much of their leave with their new acquaintance. When it was time for them to return to RíVerrastrrís Victory, MíRarrtikar formally asked her to be RíMurranís Thirdwife, and she accepted, taking the Aspect of Fertility due to her high libido, which was unusual for a Caitian. By tradition, the wife who takes that Aspect must get pregnant within a year of the ceremony of bonding, and MíLertiña happily did so, bearing them another daughter whom they named Neríritn. Because of her paramedic training, she worked as a nursing assistant on board the starship.

About a year after Neríritn was born, MíAnissaítk decided that it was time for her to contribute to the growth of the family, and asked him to get her pregnant. She eventually gave birth to a son, a very welcome addition for a species where about 83% of children are female. They named him Kannekin.

His family settled into a comfortable routine for thirteen years during which he was promoted several times. A male with three wives had a significant amount of respectable status, they all had jobs they enjoyed, and family life was wonderful. It may have stayed like that for many more years if it had not been for the big clan celebration that coincided with their shore leave one year.

RíMurran, his three wives and their three children were all looking forward to the big event. It was on the sixth day of the Jahazrah that he ran into MíResk, a young woman who had been only five years old when they had last met. She had stuck in the memory of the then fifteen year old RíMurran because she had been such a joy-filled child who always made him smile. She had said to him with all the seriousness of a five year old that one day she would be his wife, and he had smiled and said heíd wait for her to grow up. Grown up she had, and into a beautiful and joy-filled adult. He asked her to enjoy the festival with their family, and by the time they were almost due to go back to the starship, RíMurran was thoroughly taken with her. He asked MíRarrtikar to consider her as Fourthwife.

This had troubled MíRarrtikar. She liked MíResk, but she was significantly younger than RíMurran, although that did not seem to be a problem to either. The biggest obstacle was not something that she could do much about, and that was Star Fleetís policy on families. She had told him that she would think seriously about it, but needed some time, and he had to accept that. She had spent that time considering the pros and cons, and then went back to the starship early to talk with the officer in charge of personnel. The result of that meeting had brought him to this moment, and the big decision that would have to be made.

RíMurran returned to the others and called a family meeting, and then related what MíTisharr had to say.

"So those are the choices," he said in conclusion. "íNissa Ė this is going to affect you a lot also. Youíre the only other one of us with an actual career in Star Fleet. What are your thoughts?"

MíAnissaítk gathered her thoughts for a moment, then replied, "I only ever wanted to work in space, and Star Fleet was a means to that end. If we can get another job on a starship, I would be satisfied."

"Good. íTiña Ė any comments?"

"No, husband. I will be happy anywhere that I can be with you and my co-wives," MíLertiña replied.

"That just leaves the Firstwifeís opinion. So what is it to be, íTika?"

"Husband, you make this difficult. The question that must first be answered is whether you can be happy away from Star Fleet. It has been your life since the Academy. Are you going to turn your back on it for love?"

"I had it easy, Firstwife. I got the choice of career handed to me with a scholarship, and Iíve learned so much since then. Perhaps itís time to spread our wings and fly somewhere else to put what Iíve learned to the test. I think maybe itís time for me to abandon the safe route and see what else life has to offer."

"Then if no one else has anything to add, I will consider our options and give you my decision tomorrow. As the Terrans say, Iím going to sleep on it."


 

Risha de Mar was quite an attractive cougar morph fem Ė long hair, glossy fur, curvaceous body, and a nice bust. Nevertheless, she did not find it easy to get boyfriends. It was the extra pair of arms that usually put them off. Set one above the other, they were perfectly integrated into an otherwise totally normal physique, and Risha quite liked having the extra limbs. Unlike most other people, she had never had a job where she wished she had an extra pair of hands. She was a not a freak Ė her kind had been deliberately gene-engineered this way well before the Gene Wars, and because it was a dominant trait, it bred true even when they mated with a normal two-armed cougar.

However, liking her extra limbs did not mean that they did not cause her trouble. She had suffered the taunts of her peers while growing up, and even had to physically defend her two younger siblings from harassment when she was older. Now though, the biggest problem was finding men who did not find her four arms a turn-off. That was why when she had met Carson and he had found her intriguing and exotic rather than freakish, she had fallen hard for him.

Carson was a male cougar about a year older than her. He had a great zest for life, and loved to share it with Risha. She was drawn into his world, and soon they were spending as much time together as they could. Inevitably they became lovers, and spent many passionate nights together. Risha soon could hardly remember sleeping alone, and certainly had no intention of ever doing so again on a regular basis. He asked her to be his wife rather than settling for the usual mating contract, and she had enthusiastically agreed, setting a date for the wedding.

A few weeks before that came to pass, they set off one weekend for some off-road bike riding. Risha was inexperienced on the trail bikes, but was enjoying learning from Carson. A whole morning went by in no time, and they quickly worked up an appetite. They found a small town with a café that catered to the passing trade, and had a light meal before continuing on. Some time later, Risha began to feel nauseous. As it grew worse, Carson suggested that they head for the cabin that was their base camp. The cabin had been in Carsonís family for generations, and was used intermittently for various reasons, and was perfect for their weekend jaunt. As they reached the cabin, Carson took a look around the darkening sky.

"Looks like there might be a storm approaching. I should have checked the weather forecast before we came up here."

"Right now, I donít really care," Risha replied. "I just want to lie down for a while. It can pour rain if it wants to."

"Is it getting any better?"

"No Ė worse." Risha swayed on her feet, and Carson hastened to support her into the cabin. She immediately sprawled on the bed with a groan.

"Sounds like you might have food poisoning. Last time Iím going to that café. Anything I can get you?" Carson asked solicitously.

"No Ė just leave me to my misery."

"Sorry, Love. Iíll just put the bikes under shelter."

Carson barely beat the downpour. The storm hit them with a wall of wind and rain that hammered on the roof, but the cabin was well maintained, so they remained dry and warm. However, after about an hour of the torrential downpour, the power failed. Carson found and lit a couple of kerosene lanterns that were amongst the variety of recreational equipment with which the cabin was stocked.

By this time, Rishaís condition had worsened. She had to rush to the toilet several times, and lay sweating on the bed in between. Carson was getting very worried.

"Hon Ė you need some medicine or something."

"HowÖ are you going to get itÖ here in the middleÖ of nowhere?" Risha managed to ask.

"Iíll ride into town and find help."

"In this weather? NoÖ Stay with meÖ Iíll survive."

"A little rain wonít hurt me. Iíll be back before you know it," he replied confidently.

Risha wanted to protest some more, but another spasm stopped her.

Carson donned his riding gear and opened the door. The howling gale momentarily pushed him off balance and sent loose items blowing around the room, and then he was through and gone. Risha did not even hear the sound of his bike over the noise of the storm.

For Risha, her illness seemed worse without Carson there to comfort her. She fretted constantly, then when she realised that more time had passed than could be accounted for by a round trip, even in this bad weather, she really started to worry. She weakly searched for her comm to try to call him, but discovered that she had forgotten to charge it, and the battery had died. She was alone and out of contact, and too sick to ride out on her own in this weather. Only exhaustion finally caused her to fall into a restless sleep.

She awoke some time in the morning Ė exactly when she could not tell without a clock or her comm. The power was still off, and she was still alone. She felt weak and ill, but far better than last night. She managed to hold down a little food and drink.

And she waited.

By now she was in a panic. She could not imagine why Carson had not returned. Eventually she decided that she had regained enough strength to ride out herself. She left a note on the table for him, although it was unlikely that she would miss him riding in. There was only one dirt track to the cabin after all.

The storm was gone as if had never been, leaving a cloudless blue sky. Risha noticed that everything was saturated though. She would have to take extra care while riding. She took it very easy along the track, and slowed down a lot on the curves. She had nearly reached the paved road when she was forced to a stop. Only her slow speed prevented her from running into a landslip that covered the road. The saturated soil had slid off the hillside, completely blocking the road. On the other side of the landslide was a police vehicle. Risha carefully picked her way over the rubble and approached the officer.

"Whatís going on here, sir?" She asked. "Can I get through?"

"Yes, maíam, but would you happen to know a cougar morph bike rider?"

Risha grew alarmed. "Yes Ė my fiancé, Carson. He went out last night and didnít come back."

The officer looked sorrowful. "A local farmer found a rider this morning. Apparently he hit the landslide and crashed heavily. Itís with much regret that I must inform you that he is deceased."

Risha crumpled to the ground, wailing her anguish.

 

For a long time after the tragedy, Risha refused to be left alone. It took her a long time before her life resumed a semblance of normalcy, and even longer before she started dating again. Nothing ever lasted though because the men found her too clingy, or suffering in comparison to her dead lover. Risha realised that she had to make a break from her previous life in order to start afresh. She could think of no bigger break than to leave Earth altogether.


 

Two chakats entered the family restaurant and looked around for their daughter and hir lifemates. It did not take Lavenderbreeze and Twitchtail long to spot a couple of hermaphrodite felitaurs like themselves, and made their way over to join them. The chakat with light reddish-brown fur with bold red Ďsocksí noticed them coming, and bounded over to greet them.

"Mum! Dad! Iím so glad that you could make it!" Hotfoot exclaimed as shi hugged hir parents enthusiastically.

"How often do we get to see you, what with you always travelling? Of course we had to come," Twitchtail responded. "But isnít it odd that you, a master chef, should be celebrating at a restaurant?"

Hotfoot grinned. "Iím not that obsessed with cooking, Dad, and even I like to have a day off from cooking for a change. Besides, you never know what ideas you can pick up in places like these," shi added with a wink.

Lavenderbreeze replied, "At least this way you arenít in the kitchen half the time. And how is my daughter-in-law?" shi asked as Hotfootís tiger-patterned mate came over for a hug of hir own.

"Iím doing very well, Mama Lavender," Burningbright replied. "Itís good to see you again."

"Whereís Zelkie?" Lavenderbreeze asked, looking around for Hotfootís other lifemate.

"Theyíve got a fancy ice cream soda bar here, and Zelkie took the cubs to get a drink of their choice. Actually, here they come now," Burningbright pointed out.

A reddish-tan chakat with white spots and stripes was approaching with three 13-year-old cubs in tow, each of them holding a huge glass with an elaborate ice cream soda concoction. Only the fear of spilling their marvellous drinks restrained the cubs in their enthusiastic greeting of their grandparents. Only after each had gotten their hugs was Zelkie able to get one of hir own.

"Iím glad that you were able to come at such short notice," Zelkie said. "We had not expected to be so tight for time when we originally planned this get-together."

"So why the rush? And are your parents coming also?" Twitchtail enquired.

"Both my and Burningbrightís parents intend to be here to help us celebrate our 14th anniversary as lifemates. You two just happen to be the first to arrive. As for the rush Ė weíll explain that when the others get here."

"I suppose thatís fair," Twitchtail conceded.

Shi and Lavenderbreeze seated themselves at the table, signalled a waiter, and ordered drinks. They engaged in small talk until three more chakats arrived Ė Burningbrightís parents Ė Dandelion, Pawtapper, and Tailkicker. Another round of hugs ensued and they were barely done when another chakat arrived, this time though with a Bluepaw skunktaur partner in typical male phase. Zelkie was in the arms of hir parents Ė Truenote and Zuko Ė in a trice. The cubs werenít far behind, and a laughing Zuko fended them off with hys telekinetic ability. Two cubs hung in mid air giggling, while the other one had the chance to give the skunktaur and chakat a huge hug before being hauled into the air to be replaced by one of the others.

While they were occupied, Zelkie turned to an 18-year-old skunktaur who had accompanied the others. "And how is my young brother? Still giving Dad and Mum a hard time?"

Darkwave grinned. "You know me Ė the perfect son."

"Yeah, sure," Zelkie said with a grimace. "Iím glad you came along anyway."

With everyone finally gathered, they placed their orders for the main meal, and munched on the appetisers that had been ordered in advance.

"Okay, so now that everyoneís here, whatís the big news?" Tailkicker asked. "And why the big hurry?"

Zelkie answered for them all. "Of course we wanted to celebrate our 14th anniversary on the actual date. Itís the first time that weíve been able to do so in many years because our interstellar travels havenít coincided until now. Not since we first declared ourselves lifemates after graduation, in fact. We had originally planned to spend a week on Earth celebrating with our families, but we have also decided on a career move. We resigned from the cruise ship as of this trip back to Earth."

"I thought that you loved your jobs there?" Twitchtail remarked.

"We did, but the fact is that it had become routine. We did the same runs every trip, and did the same things every time. We wanted a career in space because we wanted to see new things and places, and get a bit of a challenge to our abilities. Of course finding another ship that fitted that need and would take all three of us and the cubs was not going to be easy. However, we did find one, but it leaves tomorrow afternoon. Itís a freighter with a hard departure time, so we have to squeeze in as much as we can before then."

"Well, Iím glad that you were able to find a new ship so quickly, but Iím sorry that itís at the expense of family time. Weíll just have to make the most of these moments together. So whatís the name of this ship?"

"Itís called Scottís Venture, and to tell you the truth, weíre all wondering what itís going to be like. Itís going to be a big change from the cruise ship."

"No doubt. I hope that you fit in well though. Iím sure that youíll let us know soon enough. In the meantime, letís hear all the news from your latest trip."

Burningbright spoke up. "Lemondrop has decided that shi would like to follow in my footsteps and be an environmental engineer."

Pawtapper beamed at hir grandchild. "Thatís great news. How are your studies coming along, hon?"

"My tutor says that Iím doing really well, Gramma," Lemondrop said excitedly, and proceeded to tell all the details while hir parents proudly listened. Then the other cubs had to tell all about what they had been doing too. The evening was getting off to a great start, which boded well for their future course.

 

Several weeks later, they disembarked at Big Sur spaceport in disgust.

"The first thing that I am going to do is take a long bath, and then another. I want to get the stink of that ship out of my nose permanently!" Hotfoot declared.

"Better be a big tub, because weíll be joining you," Zelkie agreed fervently.

"At least you two didnít have to work with the biggest pervert," Hotfoot snarled.

Burningbright grimaced. "No, but I could not help sense his slimy feelings every time I was near him."

"I still canít believe we were hired because the captain thought that all chakats were sex maniacs and would put out for his crew," Hotfoot added.

Zelkie snorted. "My handpaw crushing his balls soon disillusioned him as to that matter."

"Didnít stop the rest of the crew trying to cop a feel at every opportunity, did it? If we wouldnít have been left stranded at that outpost, I would have jumped ship long ago."

"Yeah, so you keep saying, Burningbright," Zelkie said tiredly, having heard it a thousand times. "I know that your strong empathic Talent made it hard on you, but the rest of us had to deal with verbal and physical abuse that was just as bad."

"Thank God they left the cubs alone," Hotfoot added.

"Letís just all forget about it and find a hotel with taur facilities and get that bath," Zelkie suggested.

"Youíre right. We all deserve a vacation," Burningbright concurred.

They herded themselves and their cubs through the spaceportís bureaucracy and took a Public PTV to a hotel that advertised taur amenities. There they did their best to unwind and think about anything but the ship of horrors that they had just escaped from. It wasnít easy though because they were hurting financially from the early termination of their work contract. Eventually Zelkie sighed and hauled hirself out of the spa and stepped into the fur-dryer.

"Iím going to start making enquiries for work. With the three of us needing to find positions on one ship, we need as much of a head start on that as soon as possible."

"Maybe our old cruise line will take us back?" Hotfoot suggested.

"They warned us that it might be hard for all three of us to get our jobs back when we served notice," Burningbright reminded hir.

"Yeah, youíre right," Hotfoot said glumly, "But a small chance is better than nothing."

As it turned out, it was no chance, and it was a fortnight before anything likely came along. The adults made sure that their cubs made the most of the time after the poor experience on Scottís Venture. In fact they treated it as a holiday, and everyoneís spirits were quite bolstered after several days. Nevertheless, Zelkie was quite excited when shi brought in some good news one morning.

"Thereís a ship now hiring crew. Itís a new commercial trader, so there wonít be an entrenched mob like the last one, and it notes that because they wonít have any set route, and it could take a while before they returned to Earth. That means we could get to see lots of new places, and because they need an entire crew, that means that itís likely that theyíll need all three of us."

"That sounds really promising," Burningbright said. "When are the interviews being held?"

"Tomorrow. Iíve already put our names down. Just waiting for a reply."

Hotfoot said, "In that case, Iím going shopping. I need a few ingredients to cook up my résumé!"

"Buy some bananas! I havenít had a banana in ages," Zelkie ordered.

"Werenít you playing with my banana just last night?" Burningbright asked with a leer.

Zelkie rolled hir eyes and then hit hir mate with a pillow.


 

Not far from the White Sea in the north-western part of the Russian Territories lay Arkhangelsk, a small city noteworthy for its timber and paper industries, microbiology laboratory, and a large gene-engineering facility. The latter was responsible for turning out many a morph species up to and throughout the Gene Wars. The city managed to survive the worst ravages of the wars, and grew into one of the countryís major commercial cities afterwards. One of the last species that the gene-tech facility had produced before controls were put on creating new morph breeds had been intended as a war beast, but instead they missed out on most of the fighting. Russia had been left with a large number of Amur Tiger morphs that it no longer needed, and pretty much abandoned to their fate. The gene engineers had done a masterful job with them though, and the clever and hard-working tigers soon established a firm foothold in the population of Arkhangelsk, contributing much to its prosperity and growth. It now boasted about half of its population as Amur Tiger morphs, their numbers quickly rising due to the fact they had been intended to rapidly breed replacements naturally while technological resources were under strain from the wars. To maximise this, they made it so that all the tigers could get pregnant Ė in other words, they were hermaphrodites.

However, just because they were all of one gender and bred specifically for one reason, it did not mean that they were all alike otherwise. Their builds varied as much as their personalities. Some were powerhouses, while others were lean and fast; some were more feminine and some more masculine. And that was what drew Valentinaís attention to Anastasiya as they both enjoyed one of Arkhangelskís many nightclubs. Valentina had a definite feminine bent, which made Anastasiyaís leather-jacketed form and masculine attitude very attractive to hir. Their eyes met and Anastasiya gave hir a roguish smile. Shi came over and wordlessly invited Valentina to dance with hir, which shi willingly accepted. They spent the rest of the evening enjoying each otherís company, and later exchanged comm numbers.

Eight months later, they were still together and contemplating getting engaged. Valentina could already picture married life with Anastasiya. Only one thing spoiled that vision Ė Anastasiya refused to give up running with the gang whose leathers shi wore. More than once shi had arrived at Valentinaís place in a bad way Ė fur ripped out, bloodied nose, and multiple aches and pains. But at least shi came every night.

But tonight shi had not.

 

Anastasiya groaned and tried to stand up, but the stab of pain from the gouge in hir side, and the dizziness from loss of blood, foiled hir effort. Shi sank back into a snow bank already deeply stained with hir life fluid. Shi fumbled for the comm in hir coat pocket. After a ridiculous amount of effort, shi managed to extract it, only to let it drop to the ground in despair, shattered by the same assault that had so seriously wounded hir.

Shi gave a humourless laugh. "So here I die in badly lit back street, and Iíve never even left Arkhangelsk. Big tiger of world I turned out to be." Shi realised that shi didnít feel cold any more, and knew that hypothermia was setting in. "Stupid fool! Why did I listen to Nadia? Should have told hir to go fight Rostovs by hirself, but no, I had to go along. Must be in rut Ė too much testosterone. íTina told me not toÖ. Sorry íTinaÖ soÖ sorryÖ."

Consciousness slipped away. An unknown time later, shi became aware of a voice calling hir name. Shi tried to focus on the person leaning over hir, shaking hir shoulder, but shi blacked out again.

 

To hir great surprise, Anastasiya woke again. The first thing that shi noticed was that shi was cosily warm. The second thing shi noticed was the sharp jab of pain in hir side when shi tried to move. Shi moaned in pain.

"Donít try to move, my love. Youíre safe now."

Anastasiya opened hir eyes to see a vision Ė Valentina was leaning over hir with a concerned look on hir face. "UrrÖ not sure if I have not died Ė I see an angel."

Valentina smiled. "Iím as close to heaven as you will get for now. Med techs have patched you up and you are going to be fine."

"I am glad; it gives me chance to ask your forgiveness."

"Forgive you for what? For nearly getting yourself killed?"

"Yes. And for being idiot. And for not listening to you."

"No, I cannot do that."

Anastasiya was shocked, then saddened. "I am sorry, íTina. I knew that I would go too far one day, and I would lose you."

"You are still being that idiot, Ana. I cannot forgive you because you always say that you will stop this madness, but then you go right back to doing it when your so-called friends ask. Only way that I will forgive you is for you to break with gang, get real job, and marry me."

"You would marry a fool like me?"

"If no longer a fool. I love you, Ana, but I want a real future, and itís not with a gang member. Grow up and be responsible. Come home to me and make a family with me."

"I will, Tina, I swearÖ" Anastasiya began, only to be stopped by Valentina putting a hand over hir muzzle.

"No, Ana; no swearing this time. You do as I tell you. Just one moment." Valentina took out hir comm and tapped in a code. When shi got a response, shi said, "Anastasiya is awake", then disconnected again.

Anastasiya was about to ask what that was all about when a strange hum filled the room. To hir surprise, a glittering form took shape and coalesced into a familiar figure.

"Aunt Svetlana! What are you doing here?"

The Amur Tiger was dressed in Star Fleet uniform, with a rank badge of Port Admiral. Shi glared at hir niece and said, "Trying to get you out of trouble again, hopefully for last time. I have been talking with Valentina, and we have decided that you are going to school when you have recovered sufficiently."

"School? I am too old for that, and how would that help anyway?"

"You are not too old for this school, although considering grades from before you dropped out, that might be good also. But no, this is school for security trainees. Put that wild energy into something that you should be good at. Learn how to fight properly, defend even better and, God only knows, perhaps learn to think before you act."

Anastasiya had to admit that it sounded intriguing, but before shi could ask any questions, a nurse bustled in and glared at Svetlana.

"Where did you come from? No, donít bother answering. Out! The patient needs more rest. You too," she said, looking at Valentina. "Youíve seen that shiís alright, so you can leave now. Shoo! Go home!"

Valentina held up hir hands in surrender. "Iím going! Iím going! But firstÖ" Shi leant over Anastasiya and planted a kiss on hir muzzle. "Get strong soon."

Valentina and Svetlana were hustled out of the ward, leaving Anastasiya to ponder what shi had just been told. Considering that shi had not expected to survive, things were looking up. Perhaps shi should have been near-fatally stabbed sooner!

 

The second day after shi was released from hospital, shi was enrolled in the training college. The first day was mostly devoted to Valentina, but also to rearrange some things in hir life. The first couple of weeks at the college were spent hitting the books mostly because shi was not yet fit enough to participate in the more physical side of things. When shi did finally get into martial arts training, shi discovered how little shi really knew about fighting, to the point of being embarrassed at hir ineptitude compared to the other trainees. Shi made sure to quickly change that situation. Hir instructors were also pleased at how well shi took to the more cerebral problems such as planning security arrangements, identifying weaknesses in defences, and usage of sophisticated technologies.

During the months spent on the training, shi came home to Valentina every night. Valentina supported them both with hir work at a logistics company. Shi was in a modestly paid job in warehousing, but it paid the bills and kept food on the table. When Anastasiya graduated from hir course, shi was immediately offered a position in a prestigious security firm. Shi came back from the interview with a broad grin and a huge bunch of flowers.

Valentina accepted the flowers with a smile. "I take it that they were happy with your interview?"

"Better than that Ė they gave me job starting tomorrow!"

Valentina hugged Anastasiya and they kissed deeply. Then Anastasiya gently pushed hir beloved back to arms-length. "Time for me to keep another promise. Valentina, will you be my wife?" shi proposed.

"Of course, my love. Is next Sunday soon enough?"

"What? Donít you need to make preparations? Is big event!"

"I have been preparing since you left the hospital. I had faith in you and booked the church long ago. Told parents and relatives and friends to keep day free but not tell you."

"What if I had not passed course? Or got job?"

"Would have married idiot anyway. I love you, Ana."

Anastasiya shook hir head in amazement. "What did I ever do to deserve such good fortune? I love you so much, Val, and next Sunday will be just fine."

 

The wedding went off without a hitch. Hir new employers had told hir to take the Monday off for a brief honeymoon when they found out, and the couple took advantage of it to spend a day and a night at a nice hotel beside the White Sea. Three weeks later, Valentina announced that shi was pregnant, and in due time they had beautiful cub whom they named Katarina. When Valentina had to go on maternity leave, Anastasiya had supported them, and encouraged hir wife to take as much time raising their child as shi saw fit. Valentina only went back to full-time work when their child was two years old. Katarina was seven and a half before they made another life-changing decision.

They were seated around the table eating their dinner when Valentina said, "Ana, how satisfied are you with our life here?"

Anastasiya looked at hir wife quizzically. "I do not understand? Itís a good life Ė we eat well, we have good home and not half-bad cub." Shi winked at their daughter who stuck hir tongue out hir sire.

"No, not that. I mean Ė we never leave Arkhangelsk. The furthest that we have ever been is to that hotel on the White Sea. Iíd like to see more."

"What brought this on so suddenly?"

"We have a new customer. He is an alien Ė a Caitian. I was given his account to take care of. Iíve never seen an alien except on vid screen. We talked about many things not business related, and I soon realised just how tiny our part of the universe really is. I donít want to spend my life in just this cosy little speck of the galaxy."

Anastasiya thought about that for a little while, then said, "Did you have any ideas about bringing this about?"

Valentina was relieved. Shi had been unsure what to do if Anastasiya had been resistant to the idea. "Talking to the Caitian also suggested course of action Ė we find jobs on starships and get paid to see galaxy!"

"That is a very big step, Val. And what of Katarina? We cannot simply take hir out of school and away from hir friends."

"Hey! Iíd love to go on a starship!" Katarina said excitedly.

Anastasiya shook hir head. "It isnít that simple, young one."

Valentina replied, "There are ships that take families and have tutors aboard and other children for hir to play with. Shi is still young enough that a break from hir social group here wonít be too hard on hir. If we leave it too long, it will only get harder."

"I see that you are very determined about this idea. Very well, Iím sure that you must have brought home much material to help try convincing me. We will discuss it after meal."

Valentina had far less difficulty persuading Anastasiya than shi had expected. In truth though, Anastasiya had been getting a bit bored with hir job. Shi was very good at it Ė so good that it had become too easy, and thus dull. It was time for hir to move on to something else, and the something else that Valentina offered was very tempting.

They made some enquiries, looked into some shipping companies, and then eventually made a decision to apply for work on a cruise ship. Because neither had any experience on starships before, both had to take relatively junior positions, but they did achieve their goal to start seeing more of the galaxy. They spent over a year on that ship before deciding to move on again. It was not because it was a bad place to work; in fact it was so good that the ship had a high employee retention, and neither was likely to see promotion any time soon because of that. The ship also had a limited route, and another ship could offer them more to sate their curiosity. When they finished their latest voyage and disembarked at Earth, the first thing that they did was start looking for possibilities that would take both of them. Only one stood out as filling their requirements nearly perfectly.


 

Commander Second Class Bethany Oakwood was very much a career-oriented Star Fleet officer. She had little time for socialising when that time could be put to better use. Nevertheless she did not want to end up alone for the rest of her life either, so she went out on shore leave occasionally with her shipmates, and kept her eyes open for a good prospect. An attractive grey fox vixen like herself had no trouble getting attention from males of many species, but she was a lot more choosy. Then after she was transferred to a new ship, she eventually set her sights on its First Officer Ė a handsome red fox morph named Edward Russ. He was not only a capable officer, but also a compatible species Ė an ideal match for someone in the Service Ė a fact she did not hesitate to point out to her friends.

It did not take long to attract his attention in return, and when they took shore leave on Earth, he asked her out with him. The day passed very pleasantly, and Bethany decided that she had made a good choice. They had dinner at an upmarket restaurant, at the end of which he suggested that they finish the night with coffee at his apartment.

Bethany was a little surprised Ė few career officers bothered to maintain a permanent residence planet-side. Nevertheless she was curious to see his place.

"Well Ė okay, but just coffee," she insisted.

"No problem. I just want this day to last a little longer," he assured her.

The apartment was small but cosy rather than cramped, decorated with items garnered from various worlds. It did not look very much lived in, which was hardly surprising.

"I just use this as a home base when Iím on leave, and my family know where to find me when Iím in town," he explained as he started to prepare the coffee.

"I suppose it might be handy," Bethany conceded. "I donít think Iíd have any use for one, but itís nice to have some place that isnít on the ship."

"Yes Ė some things are better away from the workplace," he agreed.

He brought over the mugs of coffee and handed one to her as he sat down beside her on the sofa.

"MmmmÖ good coffee," Bethany said appreciatively. "This is a nice cap to this day out together."

"It could be even nicer," Russ replied, putting his hand on Bethanyís thigh.

Bethany frowned at the offending appendage. "Thatís not appropriate for a first date, Edward."

"Come on, Bethany Ė you know what you want. I know what you want. A fair portion of the crew know that you have the hots for me. Just go with the flow."

"Commander Russ," Bethany began formally, putting down her coffee, "I insist that you take your hand off me right now."

"Your words say no, but your body says yes. I can scent your desire."

"My hormones donít dictate my mind, Commander. This ends now!" she said, rising from the sofa.

Russ yanked her back down again. "No, itís just begun," he told her forcefully. His hand groped her breast as he pulled her in to kiss her.

Bethany buried her fist in his solar plexus, and the tod reflexively released his grip. She slipped out of his grasp and headed for the door, grabbing her shoulder bag along the way. "Iím seeing that you go on report for this, you prick!"

"This isnít over yet!" he gasped out as she closed the door behind her.

Bethany took the next shuttle back up to the ship, and the first thing that she did was stop by the Security chiefís office to swear out a complaint. Only then did she head off to her room, fuming all the way.

"Smeg! Why did he have to ruin things? Who does he think I am? Iím no cheap slut! Itís obvious why he has that apartment now. Damn it! We could have had something good if he wasnít such a bastard."

Still angry when she went to bed, it took her a while to get to sleep.

The next morning as she prepared for her duty shift, she received a message to report to the Security Chiefís office.

ĎSome action already on my complaint, I suspect,í she thought as she headed there. She was a little surprised to see Russ there already. It bothered her to see that he had a smirk on his face. The Security Chief asked her to be seated.

"Commander Oakwood, I am officially warning you that we may be charging you with attempting to bribe a superior officer with sexual favours, assault on a superior officer, and attempted blackmail."

"WHAT?" yelled Bethany, jumping to her feet. "He was going RAPE me, and youíre charging ME?"

"Sit down, Commander! That is your story. His version is that you pursued him with the intention of gaining extra favours and privileges through offers of sexual acts. He claims that you took advantage of what was supposed to be a quiet coffee at his place to half strip and flaunt your body, and when he rejected your advances, you assaulted him and threatened to blackmail him with false allegations."

"And you believe that crock of shit?" she asked incredulously.

"Where is your evidence otherwise, Commander? Itís your word against his, and he has a clean record, while itís common knowledge that you have been eyeing Commander Russ."

"That only means that he has always gotten away with it before this in that private apartment of his. I want to contest the charges, and Iíll be insisting on a court telepath to verify my allegations."

"Thatís your privilege, Commander. I donít think we can allow it to get that far though."

"We can allow? What do you mean by that?" Bethany asked suspiciously.

Russ spoke up then. "It means, my dear, that if you go ahead with that, Iíll probably get off with little more than a reprimand due to my good record and the little that actually happened, but your career will be destroyed. You will never be promoted, you will get all the worst assignments, and your reputation will be trashed."

Bethany looked from Russ to the Security Chief, and she suddenly realised that they were in collusion. "And what if I drop the charges?"

"Then we can resume where we left off last night," Russ replied with that smirk back on his face.

Bethany realised that she was trapped. No matter what path she took, her future was ruined. She knew a man like Russ would continue to wave his threats over her, and if she acquiesced to his demands, she would only give credence to his lies. There was only one thing left to do under the circumstances, and it cut like a knife to do it.

"I wonít be your slut, Russ, but I acknowledge that you could and would ruin my career if I tried to fight you. So I am going to do the one thing that I can to get away from you. Iím going to resign my commission. The captain will have my letter of resignation on his desk within the hour. Now, unless you plan to arrest me, I will bid you two miserable excuses for civilised sentients goodbye, and I hope to never have the misfortune to meet either of you again.

Bethany left the room unopposed, perhaps because she had surprised them with her decision.

The captain was very surprised to receive Bethanyís resignation, and she quoted personal reasons when he queried why. He reluctantly accepted it, and she was on a shuttle back dirt-side as soon as she could pack her belongings. She had gotten the shuttle to Big Sur Spaceport, which was the width of the continent away from Russí apartment, wanting to be as far from that memory as possible. She could not help thinking how ironic it was that she now needed a place to stay. It was the middle of the night here, and not a good time to call family. Fortunately she had plenty of money saved, and could well afford a hotel room for a night or two.

After that first night, Bethany ended up staying with her younger sister who, aside from badgering her constantly about her reason for leaving Star Fleet which she did not want to talk about, made her feel welcome as a guest for an indefinite period. With that settled, Bethanyís thoughts focused on the future. She had never made alternative plans Ė as far as she had been concerned, she had intended to stay in Star Fleet until she retired. Starships were her life, and she did not want, nor was she really trained for, any other career. After spending a week taking a holiday at her sisterís insistence, she got down to the task of finding a job in a commercial starship company. Ex-Fleet personnel were always in demand.

Except for some reason, she was not.

It took a long time before she found out why, and for the first time in her life, genuinely wanted to murder somebody. Her reputation had been systematically trashed, and she was on every companyís blacklist. Not one would even let her get a foot in the door or give her a chance to defend herself. Russ had done a thorough job of getting back at the vixen who had dared defy him.

It was with increasing desperation that she started looking through the advertisements for little independent ships. She found one that was a brand new start-up business which sounded more promising than most. She made an appointment and, to her relief, got an interview for the next morning. In fact she was asked to be the first for the day. Bright and early, she got dressed in her Fleet uniform (minus the insignia), and left to meet her fate.


 

Martin had been worried that he would not be able to get the crew that he needed by the deadline. It was one thing that he could not plan meticulously, although he his research suggested that the time allotted should be sufficient. He had visited the shipyard to inspect the work being done on his starship, and found it to be on time and on budget, and so he had been able to lock in a departure date. Some of his potential clients required that firm date before they would commit to a shipping contract, so he was glad to have passed that hurdle. It had only left him a limited time to put together a crew, and for that he contracted the services of a recruitment agency. The word was put out to fill the vacancies in all departments of a medium-size freighter, and then he waited.

In less time than he thought, the agency informed him that they had several applications. He looked through them and was quite pleased with the results, but he was particularly surprised by the application by a former Star Fleet officer, which seemed too good to be true. Her file came marked with a warning however, but he was desperate enough for an experienced professional that he was more than willing to give the person an interview. In fact he scheduled her for the first of the interviews that would start the next day.

Martin was assigned a temporary office at the recruitment agency from which he could conduct the interviews. He made sure that he was early, and that the receptionist had an up-to-date list of the interviewees.

Promptly at the scheduled time, a grey fox vixen immaculately dressed in uniform turned up. It made Martin wish that he had worn the fancy formal uniform that heíd had made to impress clients, but his standard duty uniform would have to do.

"Please be seated, Ms Oakwood." Martin picked up the PADD with her résumé on it. "This is an extremely impressive record Ė three years at Star Fleet Academy, qualifications in nav systems, computers, and field command, seventeen years of exemplary service, with a rapid rise up the ranks, and with quite a potential for a lot more." He put down the PADD, folded his arms and looked at her keenly. "So what on Earth brings you to an infant starship service like mine?"

Bethany looked uncomfortable when she replied, "I was forced to resign from Star Fleet, but Iím a career spacer, and I want to be back among the stars."

"That still doesnít answer my question though. Someone with your qualifications could have the pick of employment opportunities. I could never afford someone like you, and you know it."

The vixen was silent for a long moment, and then she sighed. "Will you please keep what I have to say strictly confidential?"

"You have my word."

"I left Star Fleet with some prejudice. My name is mud with all the big commercial operations."

"And why would that be? What sort of problems would I be inheriting if I take you on?"

"None Ė the allegations were trumped up. I chose to resign rather than to fight them."

"And what were those allegations?" Martin pressed.

"Conduct unbecoming an officer. Bribery. Indecent assault. A few others." The vixenís voice was bitter.

Martinís eyebrows rose. "That certainly sounds like grounds for a court martial. What was their story?"

"That I tried to seduce a superior officer in order to gain promotion, and then got violent when he rejected my advances."

"And whatís the real story?"

There was a flash of gratefulness from the vixen when realised that she was not going to be dismissed immediately. "Itís true that I had made advances to that officer. He was a handsome tod, and I had made no secret to the other crewmembers that I found him very attractive. I managed to get a date with him when we were on shore leave, and I thought things were going quite well when he had asked me back to his apartment for coffee. I had told him that it had better be just coffee for the first date, and he had assured me that thatís all it was. To make a long story short, it wasnít. He made sexual advances and I told him to stop. He didnít, and things went downhill from there. I pressed charges against him the next day, but he countered with false charges of his own, and because I had made such a big deal about chasing him, his word would be believed over mine."

"Surely an investigation would have exonerated you though?"

"He has powerful friends. He made it clear that if I pursued the charges, my career would be ruined. Iíd get all the worst assignments and have zero chance of promotion. Iíd always have to look out for subtle harassment. If I dropped the charges though, then he would drop his, but then he would get to have his way with me. Iím no fool Ė I took the only way out and resigned. I didnít count on them dragging my reputation through the dirt anyway to ensure that I could not cause trouble later. Because of it though, no big commercial operation will even touch me. No offence, Mr Yote, but your ship is something of a last resort for me."

"No offence taken, Ms Oakwood, and for the record, I accept your story. While Star Fleet might have a great reputation, it is hardly perfect, but their loss is definitely my gain. I would like to offer you the position of First Officer. How soon can you start?"

"Immediately, Captain."

Martin noted her immediate switch to formality as he held out his hand to say, "Welcome aboard, Bethany."

She shook his hand and replied, "Thank you, Captain, but please call me Commander Oakwood. This is strictly a professional relationship."

"Very well. Itís quite obvious that despite being owner-captain, I lack experience. In fact Iíll be counting on you to keep me from making bone-headed mistakes. My main function is the business side of shipping, determining where we go and when. I have a Master Pilot licence, but virtually no practical experience. We will have to pull together a working crew, and youíre the one whom Iíll be counting on."

"I appreciate you being candid with me. Iíll be happy to help you out in any way, sir."

"Very good. I have several other interviews to conduct today, and I want you to sit in on them and offer opinions where necessary."

"Certainly, sir."

"And Commander, please remember that this is a civilian ship, not a military one. While respect for command should be maintained, I donít want stiff formality. Try to get used to that."

"Yes sir," she said with a hint of an apologetic smile.

Martin grinned. "Okay, while weíre waiting for the next applicant, let me show you an overview of the shipÖ."

They spent the next forty minutes going over aspects of the ship, and Martinís goals for it, by which time Bethany was feeling much encouraged by her choice of last resort. Despite his youth, Martin seemed to have a good grasp of the basics, and a viable plan for the future. Shi in turn had responsibility for an entire ship and its crew. It might not be a Star Fleet ship, but it was not a clunker either, and any hope of being an XO on a Fleet ship had been years away still. Under the circumstances, she reckoned that she had come through the situation fairly well, and she was determined that she would make the most of it.

The receptionist announced that the next group of applicants had arrived for their appointment, and Martin asked her to send them through.

"Group?" Bethany queried.

"Three chakats put in applications together. Iím assuming that theyíre mated."

A moment later, the three chakats in question entered the office. The first was a classic tiger pattern with auburn hair. Shi was followed by one that had an ochre coat with random brown spots, and Ďbootsí of dark red fur. Hir tail tip and hair were the same colour as hir paws. Last to enter was a light tan chakat with cream stripes reminiscent of a spotted skunk. Hir hair was a rather spectacular shade of red. When all three taurs had entered, the small office was rather cramped for room.

"Thank you for coming. My name is Martin Yote, and I will be the captain of the ship for which you are applying for positions. This is Commander Bethany Oakwood, our First Officer. I assume you are a mated triad?"

"Lifemated, yes," answered the one with red paws.

"Iíll go out on a limb and guess that youíre the one listed as Hotfoot?"

Shi grinned. "Yes, thatís my name. Care to guess the others?"

Martin shook his head. "No, although Zelkie and Burningbright are very distinctive names."

"May I guess?" Bethany asked before Hotfoot could say more.

"Sure!"

Bethany pointed at the tiger-striped one and recited, "Tiger, tiger, burning bright, in the forests of the nightÖ"

The chakat smiled. "You caught the reference. Not everyone knows that old poem by William Blake."

"That means that you must be Zelkie," Martin said to the last one. "A rather unusual one for a chakat, isnít it?"

"My full name is Zelkie Sandblossom, and I was named like that because my sire was a skunktaur." Shi pulled down hir blouse a little bit to reveal a paw-shaped blue-coloured patch of fur over hir right breast. "Thatís how I got this too."

"Did you inherit the skunktaur Talent also?" Martin asked curiously.

The PADD on the desk in front of Martin suddenly lifted into the air, pirouetted in front of his muzzle, then settled down gently again.

"That would be a yes," Martin answered his own question. Anyway, letís get down to your applications. I see you all spent twelve years on the Star Odyssey before resigning. Why did you leave?"

"We chose a career on starships to see different worlds," Hotfoot replied. "The work was good, but our choices were too limited, so we eventually decided to try another type of ship."

"Fair enough. If everything goes as planned, there wonít be many places in the Federation that we wonít go. However, you have a gap here in your résumé between then and now. What happened to your plans?"

"Thatís a time that weíd rather erase from our lives, and weíre ashamed to have on our records. We signed up on a freighter, but found out too late that they had rather perverted ideas about what chakats are like. We got off that ship at our earliest opportunity."

"My sympathies. Racial stereotyping just never seems to go away, no matter how advanced that we think we are. That accounts for the gap; now letís have a look at your qualifications. Letís seeÖ Burningbright Ė I see that you have applied for the position of environmental engineer. Iíve gotten your records from Star Odyssey, and they are glowing in their praise of your work. My ship is a lot different from a cruise ship though, so will you be comfortable with the new system?"

"Provided that I get a chance to review it beforehand, yes. The basics are still the same; just the equipment and application is different. Give me a couple of days with the equipment and I should have a good grasp of it."

"Good. And what about other systems? Could you help the Chief Engineer if they need an assistant? Our ship will have just a small crew, and most of us will need to have a secondary duty."

"Thatís no problem. Environmental is my speciality, but hardly my only field of competence."

"Excellent." Martin turned to the next chakat. "Now, Zelkie, youíre after the post of Loadmaster Ė what are your piloting qualifications?"

"Iím fully rated for both passenger and heavy-lift cargo shuttles," shi replied.

"What about starship piloting?" Martin asked hopefully.

Zelkie shook hir head. "I started studying that, but never pursued it seriously."

"Thatís a pity Ė I could do with a good starship pilot. Nevertheless your current qualifications will be very useful for when we load and unload cargo. We usually need a fast turnaround."

"Itís no different on cruise ships. Time is money, and you need to be very organised. I was quite good at the job, even if I do say so myself," Zelkie added with a hint of pride.

"Yes, your record indicates that they were sorry to see you go. I think youíll do well on my ship." Martin then turned to the last chakat. "Hotfoot Ė your résumé is rather odd. You have indicated that you were Assistant Chief Chef on Star Odyssey when you left?"

"Yes Ė I would have been Head Chef if Pierre had retired, but he liked his position there, so there was no chance of further promotion."

"Yes, I suppose it would be hard to get ahead if you had stayed on. Anyway, the bit that I find odd is that you only have a small amount of detail, plus a note to say that you will be bringing along the rest of your résumé with you. Why? What did you mean by that?"

Hotfoot held up a box that shi had brought with hir. "Words can only say so much about a cook. The proof is in the pudding, as the saying goes. Or in the pastries in this case. Here are samples of my work that I whipped up just for this interview. Please try them."

Martin looked at the contents of the box. There were both savoury and sweet pastries inside, and he tried some of both, indicating to Bethany to try some too.

Hotfoot continued, "I was tempted to bring along a hot dish also, but I didnít know if I could keep it in ideal condition by the time we were interviewed."

Martin licked his lips and grinned. "I might think you were trying to bribe me with these delicious goodies."

Hotfoot just smiled a little smugly. "A bribe can only work if itís really tempting, and if my little sample is really that tempting, then I think my ability is proven, donít you?"

Martin laughed. "Impeccable logic! Youíre as good as hired. Commander, do you have any questions for these three?"

Bethany nodded. "Just one. Iím assuming that you have children. How many?"

"Just three cubs," Hotfoot replied. "We each had one soon after we mated. We didnít want to have to deal with a large family while travelling."

"Thatís sensible, but we donít have a teacher or child-minder as yet," Martin said.

"Thatís okay. We have plans in place if you donít get one."

"I did expect to get some families though, so itís on my agenda. Iíll let you know if I find someone suitable."

"Does that mean weíve got the jobs?"

"Not so fast. First you should know what weíre going to be doing. Then you can decide if you want the jobs."

"Weíre pretty easy, as long as we can be together."

"Still, you should realise that weíll be away from Earth for months at a time. The nature of my business means that I wonít have a set schedule, and Iíll only be coming back to home port only when I am returning with freight. That means that you wonít be able to see your families for an extended period, and I know how important that is to you chakats."

"Thatís okay, Captain. We came to terms with that possibility a long time ago."

"Good. Iím also hiring with a long view. I want to have a crew that I can rely on keeping for at least four and half years."

"Why that long?"

"Because if I havenít turned a decent profit by then, Iíll be selling up and quitting the starship business."

"I see." Hotfoot looked at hir mates, who gave hir a silent nod. "Weíre agreed Ė weíll stick with you for that long at least."

"Excellent! Welcome to the crew. I will have your employment contracts sent to your comms. In the meantime though, I have a favour to ask. Would one of you stay and give your empathic impressions of our applicants?"

Zelkie said, "Burningbright has the strongest empathic Talent of us all. Shi would be the best choice."

"Gee, thanks for volunteering me, Zelkie," Burningbright said in mock outrage.

Zelkie just grinned back.

"Okay, Iíll do it."

"Great! Iíll give you a bonus Ďconsulting feeí for that," Martin told hir.

Burningbright laughed and stuck hir tongue out a Zelkie.

Martin continued, "I will be letting you all know when and where to meet to begin work in a few days. In the meantime, I recommend making the most of your time left here on Earth."

Zelkie and Hotfoot insisted on a parting hug.

When they had left, Martin said to Burningbright, "While weíre waiting for the next applicants, perhaps you would like to have a look at our environmental systems?"

Burningbright nodded. "Could I get a copy of the specs so that I can look them over in detail later?"

"Not a problem."

They spent the next twenty five minutes looking over the specifications until the next applicant arrived Ė a male wolf morph who was applying for the job of Chief Pilot. Neither Martin nor Bethany were particularly impressed with him, but put him down as a maybe.

The next two applicants were two tiger morphs. There résumés said that they were both herms, but Martinís first impression when they walked into the interview room was that one was definitely masculine biased, and the other more feminine. The masculine one introduced hirself in heavily Russian-accented Terranglo as Anastasiya Tartikova, and the other as Valentina Tartikova.

Martin began, "I see that you have quite extensive experience in the security field on Earth, Shir Anastasiya, including a small local spaceport, but only about 16 months on a star cruiser. Why leave that to take on a job with a commercial trader?"

"Valentina and I felt stifled Ė we spent all our lives in one small area, but we wanted to get out and see universe. Also, there was too much emphasis on staying and keeping everything in community. Cruise ship jobs were our way of making clean break, and that was very good then. But there was no chance to advance our careers on cruise ship, and we felt that your ship could offer better future, and see more worlds."

"Fair enough. I can certainly empathise with the desire to see other worlds, although my constraints were more personal rather than cultural. Do you think that you will be comfortable working in a totally new environment though?"

"I studied requirements and see no problems."

Bethany asked, "Do you have the appropriate licences for weapons?"

Anastasiya produced copies for them.

"HmmÖ you have quite a broad licence allowance. That allows us a few more options. Weíll have to talk about your recommendations for equipping our ship."

"I would want to do thorough evaluation of whole ship first."

Martin nodded. "Yes, that would be a good idea. Anything else?"

"Not security-wise as yet, but I can also offer services as physical trainer when not needed on security job."

"I never thought about that, but it would be good to keep the crew fit between ports of call." He looked to Bethany. "So what do you think, Commander? Does shi fit the bill?"

"I would have preferred someone with actual experience on a commercial trader as that is a lot different from passenger cruisers, but hir credentials are otherwise excellent. I would find hir acceptable."

"Good. Now, Valentina, I see that you gave up a job as a logistics manager at a large manufacturing company. Do you think your skills translate across to interstellar shipping?"

"More than that, Captain Ė I have already dealt with several interstellar customers and suppliers."

"Very good. You would be working directly with me to coordinate our routes and goods."

"Not a problem, sir."

"Then let me fill you both in with what sort of business weíll be doing, and where weíll be going." Martin did so, and then asked them if they would be prepared to commit to a job under those circumstances.

Anastasiya answered, "That is very close to what we imagined job would entail, so we would commit."

Martin looked at Burningbright who had been quietly listening to one side. "What are your impressions?"

"Very positive," shi replied. "Iím already looking forward to chatting to them."

"Then itís settled." Martin turned back to Anastasiya and said, "I will send you and your mate your contracts, and I will talk to you again soon about when to start your jobs."

"Thank you, Captain, but must correct you. Valentina is my wife, not mate. We were married properly in church!"

"I stand corrected," Martin said with a smile.

After the tigers had left, Martin said, "We seem to be doing quite well so far."

Bethany replied, "I agree, but from my limited knowledge of commercial shipping, donít think that itís all going to be that easy.

Her words turned out to be prophetic. The next interview was with a badger morph who was applying for the post of Chief Engineer. His qualifications seemed okay, but his record showed him moving from ship to ship on a regular basis. When queried, he replied that he had itchy feet, and did not like to be tied down for long, although on one occasion it was a case of not fitting in well with the crew. Martin was going to query him more when Burningbright caught his eye and firmly shook hir head. Martin decided to cut the interview short and told the badger that he would let him know if he had the job.

With the badger gone, Martin looked to Burningbright who said, "He was deceiving you, Captain. Bending the truth in places; outright lies in others. I would class him as being big trouble."

"Thanks Ė that confirms my feeling that there was something wrong. I just hope that I can find someone else whoís qualified for the job. Iím curious though Ė why didnít you pick up on the bad vibes of that last job that you had?"

Burningbright grimaced. "Several reasons. First Ė we were rushed into it, and didnít take the time to look further into the prospective jobs. Second Ė the one who interviewed us wasnít one of those who wasÖ interested in us, so he was focused on the actual jobs that we were applying for. Third Ė we were interviewed away from the ship, just like here, so I couldnít pick up on the negative emotions until too late."

"I see. A hard lesson learned."

There was some time before the next interviewees were due, so Martin suggested that they go out for lunch. Enquiring with the receptionist, they were told of a nice sit-down restaurant about a block away. There they had a pleasant meal while chatting, although it was really mostly the chakat enthusiastically talking about hir family and travels.

When they got back to the interview room, Martin reviewed the next appointment.

"Another couple Ė foxtaurs this time. A Black Foxtaur applying for the hydroponics job. That sounds promising. The other is a Starwalker. What the heck is a Starwalker?"

"Hire hir," Bethany said definitely.

Martin blinked in surprise. "I havenít even said what this person is applying for yet."

"It doesnít matter Ė although I could narrow it down. Shi will be perfect for whatever shiís applying for."

"Going by the pronouns, this person must be a herm, but what else is special about these Starwalkers?"

"They are one of seven special breeds called Stellar Foxtaurs. Hir kind was specially bred to be perfectly at home in space, and they are all very well trained in their chosen fields. I donít know why shi did not join the Star Corps program like the others, although Iím guessing that it might have something to do with that Black Foxtaur, but shi would be an invaluable asset."

"I bow to your superior knowledge," Martin conceded.

When the duo arrived, it was quite obvious that they were mates by their body language. The Starwalker introduced hirself as Ceres, and hir mate as Danson. Shi was applying for the post of astrogator, with a side speciality of E.V.A. expert. Danson had a brand new degree in hydroponics, and knowing how much the average foxtaur liked their natural ways, it was an interesting contrast to the high-tech farming on board a starship. Ceres made a point of the fact that they would have to take both of the foxtaurs, or neither Ė they would not split up. Martin could not see sufficient reason to reject Danson just because he was inexperienced, and Bethany was still keen to hire the Starwalker. He supposed that he would find out for himself just how good the Stellar Foxtaur was. He hired them both on the spot.

Their next appointment nearly did not get an interview. They were reviewing the résumé of the next couple Ė a human and a ferret morph. Martin was interested until he came to a certain point, then he exclaimed, "What? Theyíre from the Non-Aligned Worlds! You know what that means?"

"The ferret jill was probably a slave," Bethany commented.

"More to the point Ė he was a slave-owner!" Martin said angrily.

"That does not necessarily follow, but itís likely."

"No way Iím going to hire him! Iíll tell the receptionist that their appointment is cancelled." He reached for the intercom.

"No, weíll interview them," Bethany firmly contradicted.

Martin was startled. "I thought that a former Star Fleet person like you would agree with me?"

"Itís precisely that which is why I want to give him a chance. Star Fleet usually sends LNAW people back to their world and confiscates their slaves. But here we have that human not only here, but with a morph that should not be within a hundred kilometres of him. I want to know the reason."

"I think youíre reading too much into it, but okay."

When the couple in question arrived, the first thing that Martin noticed was that they were holding hands, and Burningbrightís ears pricked up with interest, a small smile on hir muzzle. Something had made hir like them already. The ferret girl certainly did not look submissive at first glance. In fact she was very normal for her kind, and dressed in a nice off-the-shoulder top and skirt Ė dressy without being formal, and perfect for the interview. She could have been the girl next door, and she looked quietly confident.

The human by contrast was definitely nervous.

"Please be seated," Martin instructed. When they had done so, Martin looked at the PADD in his hand. "I see that youíre applying for a job as a starship pilot, with a Masterís licence and six years experience on the Stellar RoseÖ a Non-Aligned World ship." Martin put the PADD down and folded his arms. "Tell me, Mr Baxter, why should I hire someone whose people practice slavery of my kind?"

Heywood Baxter had been going through this kind of thing for many weeks now, and this was the furthest that he had gotten so far and he was desperate to make a good impression. "Firstly, sir, even though I haveÖ had what you would call a slave, I am not a slaver. She was given to me when I was ten, and I certainly didnít have a say in the matter. Nevertheless I was glad that they gave Menalippe to me. She has been my closest companion for years, and she means more to me than you would ever think for a slave. The Non-Aligned Worlds differ in their approach to slavery. On mine, every human gets a companion for life, usually on their tenth birthday. The morphs are not intended to be there simply to wait upon us Ė they share our lives, help us when itís needed, and even be our lovers when we mature."

Martin interrupted, "Youíre not doing much to dissuade me yet. It seems to me that Menalippe didnít have much say in the matter."

"Thatís not true, sir. Mena was bred to match my personality, so she wanted the same sort of things that I wanted without coercion. The slave bond that you are so worried about is as much for her protection, because it means that she is only responsive to my needs and canít be commanded by another human."

"Iíd heard differently Ė that they must obey any humanís orders unless they contradicted their masterís."

"That may be true on other worlds, but not on Celeste, my home world. We do not see eye to eye with many of the others. Also, our situation was a little different."

"How so?" Martin asked, his curiosity piqued.

Heywood was relieved when it seemed that the coyote was going to hear him out. "The companions are supposed to satisfy all our base needs and desires, including dealing with hormone-stoked teenagers. However, the only social and legal relationships we could have were with other humans. We would marry for money, politics or power. Some of us had our marriages arranged long before we even got our companions. Sex with our spouses is purely for producing an heir while our companions continued to serve our more visceral desires. At the age of twenty one, I was to be wedded to a girl whom Iíd only met for the first time at my eighteenth birthday whereupon I was told she was my betrothed. I knew that I did not want this, not only because I knew nothing of this girl, but also because I was in love with Menalippe. Captain Ė you can do almost anything with your companion morph, but falling in love with them is a big no-no. I spent the last three years before my forced marriage learning my skills, and then on the day I was supposed to be wed, I left home to take a job aboard a starship. I broke the law and tradition, left my home and family, and bound my life to a morph, all because I love Menalippe more than anything else in my life."

Burningbright spoke up for the first time. "And how do you feel about this, Menalippe?"

Martin realised that the chakat was not merely looking for information, but trying to get an empathic response.

Menalippe said, "Itís all true. We companions are expected to love our humans, but not allowed to be in love, if you appreciate the distinction. Heywood risked everything for me though, and I could do no less. I am a ferret morph companion, and I am proud to say that I am in love with my human. He deserves a fair chance from you."

Burningbright looked at Martin, then smiled and nodded.

Martin was satisfied that they were telling the truth, but his curiosity was aroused. "So how did you come to be here in Federation space?"

"Pirates," Heywood replied. "They donít just attack Federation ships, yíknow? The starship that I was serving on was attacked and disabled. A Star Fleet cruiser rescued us, but that put us under their jurisdiction, and once in the Federation, slaves are never returned to the Non-Aligned Worlds. Once they finished their well-intentioned meddling, they returned Mena to me, knowing full well that I could never go back without her. So now Iím a probationary Federation citizen looking for a job to support both myself and my beloved. Will you give us that opportunity, Captain?"

Martin glanced in Bethanyís direction and she gave him a curt nod. He decided that if an ex-Star Fleet stiff like her could give Baxter a chance, then he could put aside his prejudices too.

"Mr Heywood Baxter, I offer you the position of helmsman and chief pilot." He held out a PADD with the contract on display. "Here are your salary and benefits. Do you accept?"

Heywood barely glanced at the contract before replying, "Yes, as long as Menalippe stays with me."

Martin hmmed, then said, "We donít have room for non-paying passengers."

Heywood began to look distressed.

Martin continued, "However, we could use someone to perform Shipís Services Ė in other words, all those odd jobs that donít fit into anyone elseís responsibilities." He took back the PADD and changed screens and tapped in a few new figures, then held it out to Menalippe. "Hereís my offer."

Menalippeís eyes widened in surprise. "That is most generous, sir. So does that mean that we get to stay together?"

"Of course. Canít be breaking up lovers, can I?"

Menalippe smiled gratefully, then said, "I see that you have put my name down as Menalippe Baxter. I am just Menalippe, sir."

Martin frowned a little. "You love Heywood?"

"Yes, sir Ė with all my heart."

"But have you formally mated?"

"No, sir."

"Then I expect you to produce a mating contract by this time tomorrow or else I will not take either of you on."

Heywood said, "Iíll see to it today, sir."

Martin nodded. "Good. That will be all for now."

The pair got up and thanked him before departing. When they were out of earshot, Bethany said, "What was that mating contract business all about?"

Martin leaned back in his chair. "I donít intend to let it be known that she is a former slave, or even a Ďcompanioní as they call it, because it could cause problems. If however it does get out, they will have a legal document to show that they are mates Ė husband and wife, not master and slave. Itís time that they started thinking that way too, and making them get the mating contract will help reinforce it. Besides, do you know what a pain in the butt it is dealing with bureaucrats who wonít accept that a person hasnít got a surname?"

Bethany gave him a hint of a smile. "Devious coyote," she murmured.

Martin flicked an ear and asked, "What was that?"

Bethany said, "Nothing. Letís interview the next applicant."

That applicant was solo for a change, but startled everyone as none had ever seen a four-armed morph before. The 23 year old cougar woman seemed otherwise quite normal though.

After introductions, Martin said, "Before we start, Ms de Mar, I have to askÖ"

"Yes, theyíre natural and normal for my kind," Risha interjected. "I come from a long line of four-armed cougars, both male and female."

"Must be an interesting family. Anyway, back to business. You havenít applied for any specific post, although you list your skills as storeperson, handyman, and office manager. Thatís an interesting mix. Would you care to tell us more?"

"My father owns a repair business. He taught me all of his skills as I was growing up, and Iím pretty much a jack-of-all-trades. I worked my way through college at his workshop by helping him fix things, procuring parts, and running the office part-time. I can put my mind to most things related to that kind of business."

"Flexibility is very useful when you only have a small crew," Martin admitted. "We could use you in various roles such as quartermaster, handyman, and perhaps you can handle comms?"

"It would not take me long to learn the systems if necessary."

"And that brings us to the next point Ė you have never been into space before, according to your résumé, so why the interest now?"

"I need to get away from here, away from a part of my life that is now finished. The reason is very personal though, and I would rather not talk about it. I assure you that it would not affect my performance."

"That is your privilege, so I wonít press you, but going by your résumé, you would seem reliable. We will consider your application and let you know. Thank you for coming, Ms de Mar."

After Risha had left, Martin said to Burningbright, "Iím not quite sure what to make of her. Whatís your opinion?"

The chakat sighed. "Sheís trying to cope with a very deep sorrow. Sheís lost someone very close to her, and she hasnít really coped with that as yet. She feels very lonely and struggling to reach out again. However, I sensed no deception with regards to her application for a job. My opinion is that sheís running away from the hurt, but that shouldnít affect her work, as she said."

Martin considered what Burningbright said, then asked Bethany, "Have you anything to add?"

"Most people have emotional baggage of some sort, myself included. As long as it doesnít interfere with her work, she is worth considering."

Martin nodded in agreement. "And as I said, itís good to have someone with versatility. If we get no other applicants for her job who might be better, I think I will hire her."

There was a lull for a little while. One applicant cancelled their appointment, and no more had been scheduled. Martin had the office booked all day though, so he waited to see if any more applicants would call in. He put the time to good use though with further discussions about the starship systems with both Bethany and Burningbright.

With just a bit over an hour to go, the receptionist called to say that a number of Caitians had arrived and wished to be interviewed as a group. Martin told her to send them in.

Although he knew what Caitians were, Martin had never personally met one, and now he had a whole group of them coming in. He wondered what the alien felinoids were doing here on Earth applying for a job.

The first entered Ė a male, closely followed by four more adults Ė female this time. Then three teenagers Ė two females and one male Ė also squeezed into the interview room.

"Good grief! How many more of you are there?" Martin exclaimed.

"This is all," the male adult answered. "My apologies Ė I did not realise that the room would be this small."

"Okay, but why bring the whole family?"

"Because we want you to be aware that if you employ us, this is what you would be taking on."

"I see. Point made though, so could I have the children please wait out in reception while the interviews are done?"

The male turned to the eldest child and said, "Keera, take your sibs and wait for us outside."

"Yes, father," Keera replied, and herded the others out.

Martin then introduced himself, Bethany, and Burningbright before saying, "Because you have just turned up without an appointment, I havenít had a chance to review your résumés, so please introduce yourselves and the jobs for which you are applying."

The male said, "My name is RíMurran, and I am applying for Chief of Engineering."

A female then spoke up. "I am MíRarrtikar, his Firstwife. I look after our familyís finances, and Iím a qualified accountant. I offer my services as your shipís Purser."

"I am MíAnissa'tk," said the next. "I am Secondwife, and a maintenance technician fully qualified for starship systems."

"And I am Thirdwife, MíLertiña by name. I am a teacher by trade, and a licensed paramedic."

The last female was noticeably younger, and she said, "My name is MíResk, and I am Fourthwife. I do not know if your ship can use my services, but my skills are in hospitality."

Martin was a little overwhelmed. "Pardon my ignorance, but youíre all his wives?"

MíRarrtikar spoke up. "Yes, we are. This is not unusual for our species as females greatly outnumber males. Our culture revolves around the Rrurwanz Ė a Pride or Harem in Terranglo, with one male and up to six wives."

"I see that Iím going to have to learn a bit more about your species if you are going to join the crew," Martin admitted, "but for now we had better stick to business. Your résumés have now been loaded onto my PADDÖ and RíMurran, I see that you have recently retired from Star Fleet. Why is that?"

"Too many wives. It was either them or Star Fleet. My wives are my life; Star Fleet just a job. The choice was easy."

"I can empathise with that, but why would you want to work for my fledgling shipping business. Itís quite a come-down for someone of your training." Martin had a strong sense of déjà vu.

"Again, too many wives. It is not easy to find a ship that will take all of us. That is why I brought the entire family in at first so that you could see what you would be in for up front. We tried to get employment on Kà'iît, but there were no multiple positions available. Star Fleet allowed me to remain on board my ship until we reached Earth so that we could try our luck here. So far yours has been our best chance."

"I can see where you would have problems, but Iím glad that I have so many vacant positions. Iíd even stretch things a bit to get hold of a Fleet engineer such as yourself." Martin scrolled through RíMurranís list of qualifications. "Heck, I think you should be interviewing me as a suitable captain for your needs!"

RíMurran grinned a toothy smile at that.

Martin continued, "Letís assume that youíve got the job, so next we skip toÖ MíAnnissa'tkÖ did I say that right?"

"Close enough," she replied.

"Youíre ex-Fleet also. I assume you resigned to follow your mate? Or should that be husband?"

"Either will do, and yes."

"I see that you are very well qualified also. I intend to have a strong maintenance program in mind for my ship, so I know that I can keep you busy, and you could be RíMurranís back-up."

"Iím not an engineer, sir."

"No, but your mate would be the only engineer aboard, and we need some people to take over or help out in some situations. I would not expect you to do everything he does, but you would be more competent than most to handle those duties."

"I see. Yes, I can do that much," MíAnnisa'tk agreed.

"Now Ė MíRarrtikar Ė your record shows that you were a civilian employee on the Star Fleet ship. What did you do there?"

"I did a range of jobs, from keeping track of expenditures, to payroll."

"In other words, the same things that you reckon that I will need doing?"

"Exactly," she replied with a small smile. "You always know exactly how your finances stand with me in charge of them."

"Considering my tight budget, that would be useful, and I canít spend as much time on it as an employee dedicated to the job. Okay, I admit that I could use you. Now, as for MíLertiñaÖ" Martin looked to the Thirdwife. "I cannot afford to have a full medical doctor on staff, but a paramedic in conjunction with the shipís autodoc is almost as good. And youíre a teacher as well? I have at least three teenage chakat cubs and a tiger morph who will need tutoring, not to mention keeping out of trouble. Think youíd be up to the task of handling them as well as your own children?"

"I already did far more than that on the Fleet ship," she replied confidently.

"Excellent That just leaves us withÖ" He consulted his PADD to refresh his memory. "ÖMíResk. Believe it or not, your skills will be quite useful. Independent commercial ships like mine frequently take on passengers. We offer a cheap alternative to the cruise lines for those who want to do interstellar travel on a small budget. Itís very much a no-frills operation. They get a small cabin with a bed and basic facilities, somewhat like a backpackers hostel. They eat in the crew mess hall, use the same recreational facilities as the crew when theyíre not in use by them, and there are almost no extras whatsoever, but we do want to keep them occupied during the long trip. I really could use someone for Passenger Services who could look after them from the time they step aboard, until the time they leave. Help them settle on board, keep them amused, and make sure they stay out of the crewís way during the trip. Would you like that job?"

"Yes, Iíd love it!" she replied enthusiastically. "Itís certainly better than being a deadweight, which I feared might happen."

"Then I think that we can come to an arrangement, unless the Commander has any problems with this?" Martin looked at Bethany who had been perusing the résumés a bit more thoroughly while heíd been talking.

She shook her head. "I see no objections nor concerns."

Martin looked to Burningbright and asked, "Would you be satisfied with MíLertiña tutoring your cubs?" Of course he was also discreetly asking hir opinion of them based on hir empathic assessment.

"I believe that she will do fine, Captain," Burningbright reassured him.

Martin then turned back to RíMurran. "I would like to formally offer you the post of Chief Engineer, and your wives their appropriate posts. Your wage was advertised, but weíll have to negotiate the others. Do you find this acceptable?"

"I would," RíMurran agreed.

Martin ended up doing the negotiations with MíRarrtikar. As she had said, she handled the familyís finances, and he was quite impressed by her aptitude when they had all finished and signed up.

Both parties were quite satisfied as the Caitians left. Bethany had to comment though that Martin had stretched things a bit far for some of the wives.

"I said that I would if I had to," Martin replied. "But Iíve managed to get myself an ex-Fleet engineer rather cheaply in exchange, so Iím not complaining. Besides, in one sense I didnít stretch things at all. One of my aims is to make my shipmates more family-oriented rather than just people thrown together as a crew. I believe that between them and Burningbrightís family, itís going to work out much as I wanted.

Bethany looked thoughtful. "I suppose so. Iím afraid that after years in the Service, Iím too used to thinking of things from a military perspective."

"Youíre not in the Service any more, Commander, so I suggest that you practice loosening up a bit."

"Yes, sir," she replied.

ĎToo soon for her,í Martin thought, and let the subject lie.

With the Caitians gone, Martin checked with reception to see if there were any other latecomers, but was told that there were none.

Bethany asked, "Do you feel that we have enough crew to properly man the ship?"

"Barely," Martin replied. "Although you would probably be able to gauge that better than I. We got lucky in a few places, but weíre still lacking a specialist comp-tech. I know that you are competent in that field, but stillÖ. Anyway, I should count my blessings. I could have done a lot worse. Getting RíMurran was a huge load off my mind."

"So your planned departure is locked in now?"

"Yes. I suggest that you start considering how best to set watches with these personnel, and anything else that youíre more experienced at planning than I." Martin turned to Burningbright. "Thank you for your input Ė it was quite useful. Iíll be sending everyone the details of where and when to meet later on. I suggest that you make the most of the next couple of days."

"Weíll do that, thanks. Iíll see you then." Burningbright then offered a parting hug which Martin accepted.

After shi departed, Bethany said, "You really should reserve a more respectful relationship between the crew and yourself, Captain."

"For chakats, that is respectful," Martin replied with a grin. "Now if shi tried to grope me while we huggedÖ."

Bethany resisted the temptation to roll her eyes. She suspected that he was trying to get a rise out of her, and remembered his suggestion to loosen up. "If you wonít be needing me any more today, Iíll be heading home now. Iím sure that my sister will be happy to hear that I will be out of her fur soon."

"Have a good evening, Commander."

Martin hung around the office until time almost ran out, and started to pack up. Heywood and Menalippe arrived just as he was about to leave the office, and they proudly showed Martin the mating contract. He congratulated them, signed them up officially, and then told them to go home, pack, and wait for the call in a few days.


 

In one of the warehouses bordering the Big Sur Spaceport, the brand new crew gathered bright and early three days after the interview. Martin was there to meet and greet them as they arrived, and had them gather in the office where he had drinks and snacks. The youngest of RíMurranís wives Ė MíResk Ė was not as experienced with meeting other species, and was somewhat intimidated by the large tiger morphs, but seemed to be putting a brave face on. In fact, all the Caitians were much smaller than the tigers, being naturally a small species, but the rest were used to dealing with the much larger races. The tigersí nine year old child, Katarina, was already as tall as they were. Shi was a little bit shy of most of them, but seemed to be more comfortable around those hir size, despite the fact that they were adults.

The various other children were already getting to know each other. Martin had been startled to meet the chakatís three children. While he knew that wildly varied fur patterns were the norm for chakats, these three were exceptional even for their species. The first was Lemondrop who was the least remarkable with hir base of white fur with splashes of orange and yellow on hir shoulders, back, feet and tail. The second was Candycane, and shi was tiger-stripedÖ in pink! An otherwise normal stripe pattern was startling in pink on white, with pink hair to top it off. Martin could figure that red fur could have been lightened enough to produce the eye-catching colour, but that couldnít explain the final cub. When Pixiepaws stepped into view, his jaw hit the floor.

Candycane and Pixiepaws

"Bright green?" he gasped. "How is that even possible? Is it a dye job?" he asked Zelkie while trying to take in the sight of a cub with green fur with white chest, belly fur, and other markings, and yellow-green hair.

Zelkie grinned. "Nope, itís completely natural. Gotta admit that it startled us just as much when shi was born. Best we can guess is that it has to do with my skunktaur genes." Shi pointed to the blue paw-shaped mark on hir fur where it showed above hir halter. "We reckon that shi was going to be a normal yellow-furred cub, but it mixed with the blue skunktaur colour genes, and this is the result."

"Shi certainly wouldnít be hard to pick out in a crowd. Does it bother hir to be green?"

"Well, chakats are varied enough that even an odd colour like hirs didnít result in too much teasing, and shi seems to like being so distinctive. Iíd say so far it hasnít affected hir adversely."

"Letís hope it continues that way. So, how old are they?"

"Theyíre all thirteen. When we three den-mated, we decided to all get pregnant at once, so they were born within a few days of each other. Candycane is the eldest of the three." Zelkie smiled affectionately. "Shi sometimes feels that as being the firstborn, that makes hir responsible for hir sisters. Donít be surprised if shi occasionally tries to act too adult. Watch out for Lemondrop though Ė shi seems to have just two speeds: stop and go. Shi tends to do everything at breakneck speed."

"Shi gets underfoot sometimes?"

"Yes, but on the other hand, shiís always the first to finish hir chores."

"Anything distinctive about Pixiepaws; besides hir colour, I mean?"

"Shiís an artistic type. Shi loves to dance, and shiís getting pretty good on the piano keyboard."

"Iíll look forward to hearing hir play."

Last to arrive were Danson and Ceres in a rental truck with a large sturdy crate amongst more traditional luggage in the flatbed.

"What do you have there?" Martin asked curiously.

"Would you believe a couple of tonnes of soil?" Ceres replied with an apologetic grin.

"What on Earth is that for?"

Danson answered, "Itís some of the soil from my home. I wish to have a traditional garden growing in that soil as a connection to my family and clan."

"I see. ThatísÖ unusual, but I suppose it canít hurt. Anyway, get unloaded and join the rest of us as soon as you can. Iíll send out Risha to operate the lifter for that crate."

When that was accomplished and everyone was gathered back in the office, Martin called them to attention. With him was a female coyote morph dressed in business attire, and a petite lynx girl.

"Ladies, gentlemen, and shirs, welcome to the first day of what I hope will be a long and prosperous venture. Let me introduce you to a couple of people first. This lovely lady is my sister, Clarice, whose warehouse facility this is. Clarice has agreed to be my agent here on Earth, and all goods bound for this spaceport will go into or come out of this warehouse. Of course Clarice doesnít handle these things directly, which brings me to this other lovely lady Ė and extremely competent warehouse manager I might add Ė Beliz Carlotta. In addition to storing or expediting our freight, this office is our default point of contact on Earth, so Iíll suggest you all get to know Beliz so that she can help you out as needed."

There was a pause as the chakats insisted on giving Beliz a hug, then Martin continued.

"Now I suppose a few of you are wondering which ship you have signed onto. Well, the reason that I havenít mentioned her name yet is because she hasnít been properly dedicated as yet since her refit. Clarice asked me long ago for the privilege of doing so, and I ask her now to step forward."

Clarice stepped up and Martin handed her a PADD. A monitor on the wall lit up with a view of a starship with all of its ports unlit, and only minimum navigation lights on. It was mostly visible only by the stars it eclipsed.

Martin gestured at the image. "This is our ship, and the view is from a remote drone that is fitted with a special piece of equipment. Clarice, please do the honours."

Clarice said, "I hereby name this ship the Phoenix. May good fortune smile upon all who sail her." She touched a button on the PADD which sent a signal to the drone. There was a slight shudder in the scene on the monitor as the drone spat out millions of tiny pellets in a very precise pattern. The pellets impacted on the hull of the ship and burst, releasing their load of special gilt paint. Like magic, the name "Phoenix" appeared on the hull, glittering in the floodlight of the drone. On cue, the ship then lit up everywhere, and the crew cheered.

"Thanks, Marty," Clarice quietly told her brother. "Thatís something that I thought Iíd never do."

"Youíre welcome, Ceecee," Martin replied. Then he addressed the others. "As this is a professional outfit, I have provided with uniforms in various styles which you will find in the next office. Theyíve been tailored to your specifications, so they should fit perfectly. So, please grab yours to take with the rest of your luggage, and make your way out to the warehouse where our two shuttles are waiting. My fellow crewmates, we are now in business!"


Continued in Chapter 2.


 

Characters and story copyright © 2012 Bernard Doove.
except Risha DeMar who was created by Chakat Fleetfoot and used with permission.

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