Flight of the Phoenix
Chapter 10 – Children, Children!
By Bernard Doove © 2012




Martin paused in his exercises to watch Anastasiya and Shintaro sparring. Both were conspicuously pregnant, the kitsune even more so than the tiger, but aside from some moderation in their attacks, it did not seem to be slowing either of them significantly. Nevertheless, Martin was concerned. Both were going to be first-time mothers, and had no way of knowing how well their birthings would proceed, and all he had to offer was a paramedic for medical supervision. He had dodged this problem once when M'Resk had miscarried, but that was something he hoped would not be repeated this time. He sighed. “Time to bite the bullet,” he murmured to himself, then went back to his exercises.

When he had completed his routine, he went back to his cabin, showered, then got dressed in his uniform. He tapped his wrist comm and said, “Commander Oakwood, please meet me in my office.” He then repeated his request to M'Lertiña.

Bethany was waiting for him when he got to his office, while M'Lertiña followed mere seconds later. He invited them to be seated, then said, “Have either of you considered what to do when Shintaro and Anastasiya come due?”

M'Lertiña replied, “As a paramedic, I've been trained to deal with births on an emergency basis, but I am not qualified to deal with problems arising from them. I would prefer it if you did not place total responsibility for them in my hands.”

Bethany added, “In Fleet, we did have qualified doctors on staff, but most people nevertheless chose to spend the last few weeks of their pregnancies on their home worlds with their families, and of course proper maternity hospitals.”

Martin nodded. “I didn't seriously consider leaving their births in your hands, M'Lertiña. Your paramedic skills are always going to be a last resort. As for having them stay on a planet for a few weeks, well... Shintaro has no home nor family outside of Phoenix, and I'm pretty sure Anastasiya will threaten mayhem if I try to put hir off the ship for such a ‘trivial’ reason.”

“You're talking yourself into the only alternative,” Bethany observed.

Martin gave her a lopsided smile. “Yeah, you're right. I was hoping against hope that you might have some alternative that I'd overlooked, but it looks like I'm going to have to try to hire a doctor’s services for a while.”

“That's not going to be cheap,” M'Lertiña remarked.

“Do you happen to know the going rate for a ship’s doctor?”

“As a matter of fact, I do have a good idea. As a paramedic, I was frequently called on to help the ship’s doctor on the ship, and we were good friends. He gave me a good idea of how much they can earn.” She quoted a pay range and Martin winced.

“Ouch. Even just for a few weeks, that's going to hurt the purse. Maybe tussling with Anastasiya wouldn't be such a bad idea after all.

Bethany frowned at him. “You can't be serious?”

Martin shook his head. “No, not really, but I don't know if I can afford that.”

“Did you think you could afford several Star Fleet trained personnel when you were putting together the crew?” Bethany asked pointedly.

“No, I didn't; so you're saying that I should put out the offer and see what comes?”

“What have you got to lose?”

Martin could not think of anything. “Okay, I'll do that. For the sake of us all, I hope that we get lucky.”


 

As usual, Phoenix had taken on some passengers looking for cheap fares to their next destination. It was not often that those passengers were Rakshani however. A female and her teenage son in this case. Their species was not exactly renowned for their sociability with other races, so it was no surprise that the mother did not leave the privacy of her cabin. The son, however, was another case. Quickly bored with confinement, it did not take him long to find the holosuite. As it happened, it was currently running a program for the children – a basketball court was set up, and three chakat children, two Caitians, two Faleshkarti and a tiger cub, were playing a game. A young rabbit woman was acting as referee, dressed in the traditional black and white striped shirt. The Rakshani boy was not familiar with the game, but he decided that it looked simple enough.

“Hey! Can I join in?”

The children looked at each and shrugged. Madeline said, “Sure. You can join with Katarina’s side. That will help balance against the chakats on the other team.”

“What's your name?” Candycane asked.

“I'm Zarej na Parshak ap Lorensar.”

“I'm Candycane, Zarej.” Shi introduced the others, but when shi got to Katarina, the boy snorted in contempt.

“You're the scrawniest Rakshani that I've ever seen,” he said, looming over hir.

Katarina was a timid soul, and did not take this well. “I'm an Amur tiger, not a Rakshani,” shi mumbled.

“And shi's a lot younger than you too!” Lemondrop said with a frown.

“Okay, okay – let's get on with this game already,” Zarej said impatiently.

The game restarted, and it soon turned out that the Rakshani teen was a pretty quick learner. Unfortunately, he was also proving to be a rather selfish player, taking risky shots rather than passing the ball to a teammate with a better chance. He was also a very rough player.

Madeline blew her whistle yet again to pull him up for yet another foul. “Zarej, if you can't play this game properly, I'm going to have to ask you to leave.”

Zarej scowled. “Fine then! Play your stupid game without me! Let's see this glisp do anything without me.” He threw the ball straight in Katarina’s face, and the child was knocked to the ground, yowling in pain.

“Go back to your cabin!” ordered Madeline. “The captain will be hearing about this.”

Zarej snorted in contempt, but left anyway.

Madeline turned back to Katarina. The others were gathered around hir, one of them calling on her comm for M'Lertiña to come to attend to the tiger whose nose was bleeding profusely. “Damn, what's going to happen when Anastasiya finds out about this?” she murmured to herself before putting in a call to Martin.

The coyote was even more alarmed. If the boy’s mother decided to defend her son, the hellcat might pose a real threat to Anastasiya, especially in hir gravid condition. In the end though, Martin realised that a confrontation was inevitable, so it would be best to do it under the most controlled conditions. He called both Anastasiya and Shintaro to his office, and explained the incident to the tiger. To his surprise, hir reaction was a lot more restrained than he expected.

“In part of Arkhangelsk where I grew up, bloody noses were badge of honour. Katarina could stand some toughening up. However...” Shi put hir hand on hir phaser significantly. “...does not mean that assault should be ignored.” The tone of hir voice brooked no argument.

Martin nodded in agreement. “That's why I asked Shintaro to come along also. I'd like you both here when I confront the boy’s mother.”

“A wise idea,” Shintaro agreed. “I hear that Rakshani can be very aggressive when defending their family.”

“Yes, and ocean is a bit wet,” Anastasiya added dryly.

Martin got on the comm and requested M'Resk to ask the Rakshani mother to come to his office.. “Just tell her that the captain requests her presence. I don't want her getting aggravated with you. If she does anyway, don't hesitate to leave.”

Understood, Captain.

As it turned out, the Rakshani woman was calm when she arrived, although she became wary when she saw both of the security staff there, standing on either side of Martin’s desk.

“You asked to see me, Captain?”

“Thank you for coming, Ms Palayeth. Would you like to take a seat?”

“No, thanks. Your Terran chairs tend to be uncomfortable for me.”

“Very well, I'll come to the point. Are you aware that your son assaulted one of our children?”

Palayeth stiffened, then scowled. “No, I was not aware of any such thing,” she declared.

“Zarej had joined the children in playing a game of basketball in the holosuite. He was unduly rough, and when reprimanded, deliberately threw the ball into the child’s face, injuring hir. This is totally unacceptable, and I want to know what you intend to do about it?”

The Rakshani looked as if she was going to explode into rage, and both kitsune and tiger firmed their grip on their weapons. However, Palayeth abruptly sighed and deflated.

“My apologies for my son’s actions, Captain, to the child and hir parents. Life has been difficult for me trying to raise my son on my own, but without a father to help keep him disciplined, I fear that events such as these have been becoming more frequent.”

“May I ask what happened to the father?” Martin asked gently.

“He was killed in a stupid incident, and Zarej blames him for being careless and leaving us behind. Now I'm trying to stop my son from following the same self-destructive course.”

“I see. However, I am now presented with a problem. I either have to confine the boy to his cabin for the remainder of the journey, or run the risk of another incident.”

“With all due respect, Captain, you can't keep Zarej confined to the cabin for that many days. The journey is dull enough as it is without being restricted access to many diversions.”

“I still must put the interests of my crew and their children first...” Martin began.

“Pardon me, Captain,” Madeline’s voice interrupted.

“Yes, Madeline?”

“I have a suggestion, if I may. Confine him to his cabin for the rest of the day as punishment, but let him go out again tomorrow. In fact, encourage him to play again. If he relapses, I have a special program in mind for him.”

“Nothing too extreme, I hope?” Martin asked.

“That depends on his mother.”

Palayeth hooked her thumb in the general direction of Madeline’s voice. “Who?”

“Madeline Cottonfield, our ship’s systems controller, and also my special assistant. She can't be present right now, but she was the one refereeing the game that Zarej was playing in.”

“I see. Well then, Ms Cottonfield, would it help to know that we Rakshani usually consider you Terrans too soft on discipline? I doubt that you would do more than a stern Rakshani father would.”

“My methods might differ, but I think I know how to handle him.”

“What are you? A big tiger like this one here?”

“No, just a defenceless little bunny girl.”

Palayeth wondered at the tone of that statement, and was even more puzzled at the grins on the faces of the Phoenix crew.


 

They all had to wait to find out what Madeline intended though. After the tongue-lashing that his mother gave him after the incident, he mostly avoided the other children for the two days that it took to get to Chakona. Although the Rakshani were continuing on to the Phoenix’s next destination – a Rakshan colony world – they took the opportunity to visit the chakat home-world at the same time as the crew took shore leave.

It was pretty much a normal visit to that world. The timing was ideal in that it was early Autumn, and the weather was perfect. Because Phoenix was running nicely on schedule, they had the luxury of time to relax and recharge in a pleasant atmosphere. The chakats headed for the beach, volunteering to take all the crew’s children, while the rest of the adults entertained themselves in various ways. Martin was the only one of the crew who had yet to go off-duty because, beyond all expectations, he had gotten a response to his request for a ship’s doctor, and he headed to the Amistad Spaceport recruitment centre.

Martin had arranged an appointment with the applicant for shortly after they finished the unloading and loading of shipments. At the reception desk, he was informed that the applicant had already arrived, and was waiting in interview room seven. He was pointed in the right direction and found the room occupied by a female serval morph. She had short hair, looked about middle-aged, and was quite attractive despite fairly conservative clothing.

“Hello, you must be Doctor Andrea Leptailurus. I'm Captain Martin Yote,” he said as he extended his hand.

She got up and shook his hand. “Yes, and I presume that you're from the Phoenix?”

“That's correct. Please be seated and we can get this interview under way.”

Martin took his place behind the interview desk and looked at his PADD. “I took the time to look over your qualifications, and I see that you have the necessary licences for practicing as a ship’s doctor, although you have never taken such a job before. Why now?”

“I have only just got those licences so that I could take a break from my life here.”

“Looking for a glamorous life aboard a starship? I'm afraid that you won't find such on a commercial starship such as mine.”

“No, nothing like that. In fact it's the opposite to what I want. I'm leaving all that behind me.”

“You want a relatively dull life for a couple of months?” Martin asked in surprise.

“Exactly. Longer than that even. I have belatedly realised that my work has become my life, to the detriment of everything else. I am trying to make a break from all of that.”

“Hmm... well, I might have moved to a small country town to try to achieve that, but if that's the way that you feel, I'm not going to look a gift horse in the mouth.” Martin scrolled through her résumé. “I note that you're experienced in maternity. Both our prospective mothers are herms, by the way.”

“So are the majority on this world,” Andrea pointed out.

Martin grinned. “Yes, but they're not chakats in this case.”

“I've had my share of those also. It's rarely a problem.”

“Good. You seem to have had experience in a broad range of areas, which makes you very suited towards being a starship doctor. However, as you have never done this before, are you sure that you will be suited to such a life?”

“To be honest, Captain, I've no experience to go by, either my own or someone else’s, so I can't be sure that I'd be suited to it on a long-term basis. However, I am certain that I can do the job effectively for the minimum period that you have indicated that you will need me.”

“I can accept that. Now about compensation – my advertisement for the position indicated that you would be payed at the low end of the scale, subject to negotiation. To put it bluntly, Doctor, Phoenix is a privately owned business with very tight margins. We simply cannot afford to pay you too much. If you request a higher scale, I will have to shorten the length of your employment, but I would rather have you stay on longer to watch over the babies and their mothers for several weeks.”

“The agency informed me of all that. As I told them, money is the least of my concerns. I would be happy to stay on for as long as you are prepared to have me for the minimum rate.”

Martin’s eyebrows raised in surprise. “You'd make a terrible negotiator, Doctor. May I ask why you're so set on getting this job that you're willing to do it so long for so little?”

“You're suspicious of my motives?” Her mouth quirked in a lopsided smile. “I suppose it does sound very odd, and you wouldn't want some nutcase on the crew. Firstly – frankly I'm far from poor and I don't need the money. Oh, I won't work for free, but as long as I get the basics, it doesn't really matter. You see, as I said, my life was dominated by my work. I spent very long hours at it, and I was well-compensated for it money-wise. However, I let everything else lapse while I spent practically my whole time at the hospital. Then one day I came home very late as usual, and the house was empty. My mate had left me, taking our son with him. Only then did it get through to me that he had been trying for a while to tell me that we were growing apart. It's too late to fix that now, but it's not too late to get a life. The trouble is, even if I find some little backwater town to settle down, I'd soon be taking on more and more work until it took over my life once more. I recognise that obsessiveness in me, and it's inevitable because I love my job. I've always wanted to be a doctor, and I've always put my career before everything else. It's a wonder that I even found time to get mated in the first place, let alone have a child. I need to find some way to limit that tendency to obsess, and I believe that a job on a starship will achieve that. There is only so much that I can do with such a small crew, and that means that I will be forced to socialise the rest of the time.”

“I understand,” Martin replied. “I must admit that I did not expect that as a motivation, but several of our crew have had some odd experiences of their own that led to them joining Phoenix. I think that it has helped to make us a very close-knit and sociable group, so we can offer that much for you. So if you're happy with the basic pay and conditions, I am happy to offer you the position.”

“I'm satisfied. Where do I sign?”

Martin passed over his PADD with the contract displayed. Andrea signed the screen, and it took her biometric reading for positive identification. Martin then transmitted the document up to Phoenix.

“Welcome to the crew, Doctor.”

“Thank you, Captain. When and where do I board?”

“We are all on shore leave today. Come back to the spaceport tomorrow and be at Pad 37 by 1300 local time. Anything else that you need to know?”

“Have the two patients had proper tests by a gynaecologist yet?”

“I believe that they made an appointment with one at the maternity hospital today.”

“Could you contact them and ask them to get their doctor to transmit their full details to me for their records? Give them my licence number for authorisation.”

“I'll do that.”

“That should be all. I'll be bringing along all my personal equipment which, in addition to yours, should cover all our needs.”

“Very good. I'll see you tomorrow then.”


 

As realistic as the holosuite scenes were, in some ways they were too perfect. The beach scene, for example, did not reproduce the sudden gusts of hot wind that sent fine sand in your face, the holographic sun never burned, and you did not tread on dead sea creatures or plants. That's why the children so loved the real thing – it was more exciting than the sterile sameness of the reproduction. They thoroughly enjoyed themselves amongst the crowds of the popular beach, and the hours flew by before the adults finally declared that it was time for dinner. Only then did the youngster realise how much of an appetite that they had worked up. By then, several of the other adults had rendezvoused with the beachgoers, and they all wandered off to find a suitable venue. An adjacent park had a family restaurant set in the middle, which seemed to be very popular, judging by the crowds taking advantage of the excellent weather to enjoy some open air dining. Too popular in fact, because they were told that their large group would have a considerable wait before they could be seated. After a short discussion, they decided that they would wait a while for the space to open up, but the younger children soon started fidgeting impatiently. Eventually Kannekin asked if they could go off exploring.

“Alright,” M'Rarrtikar conceded, “but stay together, and don't go too far. Come back immediately when we call you on your comms. As the eldest, Keera is in charge.”

The cubs willingly agreed, and they left as a group and headed towards the shops that faced onto the park on the other side of the road. The waited for the lights to stop the vehicles that rolled past nearly silently. Chakona’s traffic was always a contrast to most places that they visited due to its reliance on almost totally electric vehicles which were quiet and pollution-free. Occasionally a totally empty vehicle would pass by – an A.I.-controlled Public PTV, a kind of automated taxi, on its way to collect a fare. They crossed the road and headed down the sidewalk, looking for something to interest them. Two blocks down and they struck paydirt with an amusement arcade.

The modern arcade featured interactive games that relied on multiple players, often featuring holographic displays and sense feedback that were far more sophisticated than any home system. They also had dance competition games that were very popular. The children spread out seeking their favourite diversions.

For a while nothing unusual happened. There were the normal waits while people took their turns while others watched. Then a pair of older teen wolf morphs decided that they were not finished playing with one of the games and refused to yield it to the next people in line. Those people were Candycane and Pixiepaws.

“Hey! You've had your turn,” Pixiepaws objected.

The tall wolf boy moved up close to the chakat to glare down at hir, trying to dominate hir. “What's it to you, greenie?”

“We've been waiting, and your turn is finished,” Pixiepaws said firmly, not at all intimidated by the teen after doing self-defence sessions with Anastasiya.

The boy’s companion stepped up next to the other, crossed his arms and snarled. “Well you can wait a bit longer. We're having a re-match, so beat it.”

Candycane came to hir sister’s assistance. “No, you can get back in line with everyone else.”

The first wolf said, “What is this? Freak-show day? Did your parents mate with clowns?”

Pixiepaws could sense that the boy was trying to needle them, but shi rose to the bait anyway. “You leave our parents out of this! They at least know how to raise cubs that know how to take their fair turns!”

The boy just laughed and they both turned to go back to the game. Pixiepaws reached out to grab the arm of the first boy, who whirled around and knocked the arm aside. He then put both hands on hir chest and shoved hir aside hard. The chakat’s four-footed stance prevented hir from being knocked off hir feet, but that did not stop hir from getting angry. Without thinking, shi reached out with hir mind and gave the teen a huge telekinetic shove. The wolf flew off his feet and knocked over his companion, and they landed in a tangle of limbs.

The dispute had attracted some attention, and the onlookers gasped in surprise. Some of them turned to glare accusingly at the chakat who suddenly realised what shi had done. The wolves were already getting to their feet, and they were looking very pissed off. Candycane knew that the situation was getting worse, and moved up close to hir sister to help defend hir. However, before anything more could happen, a voice roared over the excited babble.

What the smegging hell is going on here?!

A very irate renzar – an ursine alien species – came striding up to the group. He wore a badge that indicated that he was the manager, and he was not in any mood to put up with people disrupting his business. He stopped next to the game and took in the scene. “Oh, it's you two again. What have I told you about hogging the games?”

The renzar was no taller than the wolves, but easily out-massed them, and it was mostly muscle. It was clear that the wolves knew they were outclassed and remained sulkily silent.

“Right – you two are out of here now, and I don't want to see you back!” He hooked his thumb in the direction of the exit, and the wolves slinked off.

Pixiepaws and Candycane were about to move off when the renzar turned his attention back their way. “And who was part of that ruckus? Was it you two?”

Pixiepaws meekly replied, “Yes, sir.”

“I run a family business here, and I won't tolerate any troublemakers. I haven't seen you two here before, so you get one warning. Any more trouble from you two, and you'll be banned like those wolves. Now get out of here. You're done for today.”

The chakats slunk out, embarrassed at letting things get out of hand. They saw Keera glaring at them on their way, and knew that they were going to cop it from their parents later. They stopped outside the arcade, wondering what they should do next. Minutes later, the others came out and joined them.

“We were told to stay together,” Keera sternly told them, “so you've forced the rest of us to leave. I hope you're happy.”

“Hey! That wolf started it!” Pixiepaws objected. “And he insulted our parents.”

“Yeah, and what do you think they’ll say when they hear about this?”

“Do you really have to tell them?”

“I've been left in charge of you, so what do you think?”

The chakat had nothing to say, and the Caitian sighed.

“Okay, I won't say anything this time, but only because I don't want everyone else to get into trouble along with you. But I won't do it again.”

Pixiepaws and Candycane heaved a sigh of relief. The group started to move off in search of alternative distraction, but only a minute later, Keera’s comm went off, and they were told that it was time to rejoin the adults at the restaurant.


 

Martin picked up a last-moment consignment before Andrea arrived with a van full of medical equipment. He helped her stow it securely aboard the shuttle.

“Aren't there any others people coming with us?” Andrea asked.

“Everyone else is already aboard Phoenix. They went up in our other shuttle. That means you can sit in the co-pilot’s seat and enjoy the view if you'd like?”

Andrea accepted with a little trepidation.

“Been in space at all before?” Martin asked.

She shook her head.

“It's not much more than a normal aircraft ride, but the view is more spectacular. Don't worry about the controls in front of you – they've been deactivated. Just enjoy the ride.”

Andrea was not sure that she had not made a mistake anyway. Sure, the view was amazing, but it was also a little bit terrifying. When they went into freefall, her claws punctured the material of the armrests, and they did not retract until they docked in Phoenix’s shuttle bay.

Because his attention had been on the piloting, Martin had not realised Andrea’s state until he had shut down the shuttle. He grinned as he said, “I'm going to have to dock your pay to fix those.”

Andrea’s ears grew hot as she blushed in embarrassment. It was not the way that she had hoped to start off her employment.

Martin took pity on her. “I'm just teasing, Doctor. If that's the worst that happens on your tour of duty, then you'll be doing very well. Now let's get you unloaded.”

Martin enlisted Risha’s help to get the equipment up to the sick bay while he headed for the bridge. As soon as all departments had acknowledged their readiness, he ordered departure for the Rakshan colony that was next on their itinerary. As soon as they had escaped Chakona’s gravitic influence and gone into warp, he left the bridge in Bethany’s care and headed to the sick bay to see how Andrea was settling in. He found it crowded with opened crates and equipment in various states of assembly, and her personal luggage set on the floor to one side.

“Doctor, you could have unpacked your own stuff before getting down to work. Didn't Risha point out the medic’s quarters that are adjacent?”

“Um... yes, she did. I just thought it best to set up as much as I could before we departed.”

“We've been on our way for the past half hour,” Martin pointed out.

Andrea blinked in surprise. “But I didn't hear or feel anything.”

“In a properly functioning starship, you would have to be paying attention to notice anything. Inertial compensators cancel out acceleration, and warp drive is reactionless. However, that's beside the point. It's obvious that you're letting your work obsession affect you, so I'm ordering you to stop this for now, unpack your personal stuff, and settle in properly. Once you've done that, come to the rec room and meet with the off-duty crew, and get to know them over a cup of coffee, or whatever your favourite beverage happens to be. If you have any questions, just ask Madeline.”

“Who's Madeline?”

“That would be me,” Madeline’s voice appeared to come from the air between them.

“Oh!” Andrea was slightly startled. “Are you always listening in on people’s conversations?”

“Part of my job, Doctor. If you want privacy, just tell me. When you want things back to normal, just use your comm to let me know.”

“Speaking of which,” Martin said as he dug into one of his pockets, “I have your personal wrist comm. Please make sure that you're wearing it at all times when you're on duty, which while on this ship pretty much means all the time that you're not in bed or in the shower.”

“I understand the need to be on call, Captain.”

“Good. Now get settled in, Doctor.”

“Yes, Captain, but please just call me Andrea when we're not talking on a professional basis. I... it's just one of the things that I want to do to help disassociate myself from my job.”

“You want people to talk to the person, and not to the profession, so to speak?”

“That's a good way of putting it.”

“Fair enough. Outside of sick bay, I won't call you ‘Doctor’ unless you're specifically doing your job. I'll see you in the rec room soon.”


 

Andrea did not take very long to settle into her quarters. While she had brought along plenty of equipment, her personal effects were considerably less. She found a ship’s uniform neatly folded on her bed and took the time to change and freshen up before heading for the rec room. As she stepped into the corridor though, she realised that the captain had not given her directions to it.

“Madeline?” she said hesitantly.

“Here, doc,” came the prompt reply.

“How do I get to the rec room?”

“Easy! Head to the translift at your right....” Madeline continued to give Andrea directions as she walked, concluding with, “See you there.”

Andrea resolved that one of the first things that she would do would be to get hold of a map to the ship and memorise its layout. She could hardly stop to ask directions in an emergency, nor could she expect Madeline to be available 24 hours a day.

Andrea found the rec room readily enough, and found Martin there as well as Risha, a black foxtaur, a rabbit, a chakat, a pregnant tiger, and an even more gravid fox with two tails.

“Ah, Andrea – come in!” Martin said. “Everybody, this is Doctor Andrea Leptailurus.”

There was a chorus of welcomes.

“Let me guess – you would have to be Anastasiya,” Andrea said to the tiger.

“Pleasure to meet you, Comrade Doctor.”

“I will want you to see me soon after I finish setting up all my equipment in sick bay.”

“No rush, Doctor. Little one is not due for several weeks yet,” Anastasiya said as shi patted hir belly.

Andrea turned to the kitsune. “And you must be Shintaro. I believe that you're due much sooner.”

“I am honoured to meet you, Doctor-san,” Shintaro said as shi bowed as much as hir pregnant condition allowed.

Martin then introduced Ceres and Zelkie, but before he could introduce Madeline, she beat him to it.

“And I'm the resident ghost,” Madeline said, extending her hand to the serval.

“I recognise your voice. Why do you – eek!” Andrea squealed as her hand passed through the rabbit's.

“Told you I was a ghost,” Madeline said with a grin. “I haunt this ship.”

Andrea hesitantly put her hand out again and passed it through Madeline’s arm. “You're a hologram. Why?”

“Aw! She caught on too fast,” Madeline said with a wry grin.

Martin said, “You're getting more like Penny every day. Stop teasing Andrea and tell her about yourself.”

Madeline did so, and Andrea was quite intrigued. “Could I have a look at your life-support unit?”

“Sure, but there's not much to see. I'm totally sealed inside to keep the interior sterile.”

“What? Not even a visual inspection window?”

“Well, yeah, but you don't see much anyway. The suspension gel that my body is in tends to make me look a bit weird.”

“What if you have a medical problem?”

“The life-support unit is state of the art, and can cope with just about anything.”

“What about the things that it can't cope with?”

“Just like everybody else, there's always the possibility that I could have an emergency when I am a long way from help. Life is a risk, Andrea.”

“I realise that, but I hope that I can be considered an alternative while I'm aboard.”

Martin interjected, “I'll be getting the entire crew to have full check-ups with you, Doctor. I can't see why that would not include Madeline.”

“Excellent!” Andrea declared. “Now, didn't somebody promise me a coffee?”


 

Andrea was gradually introduced to the rest of the crew, and everybody soon had received the most thorough health check of their lives. The doctor was most intrigued by the Faleshkarti physiology which had significant differences from Terran biology, and even Caitian biology which was almost as familiar to her. However, most of her attention was focused on the two who were the reason that she was aboard. Shintaro’s biology was so similar to a normal fox morph’s that she decided that it made no difference, and she confidently predicted the baby’s arrival to within a day’s leeway. She observed hir exercise routine and got hir to modify it a bit, as well as Anastasiya’s. After that, it was mostly a matter of waiting.

The day came on the sooner side of Andrea’s prediction, presumably triggered by the kitsune’s exercises that day, mild though they were. In the middle of hir session, Shintaro was hit by hir first contraction. Anastasiya anxiously hustled hir friend to the sick bay, getting Madeline to alert Andrea along the way. The doctor made Shintaro comfortable on a bed that had been specifically prepared for that moment, and they settled in for the period of labour.

Not long after, Hotfoot and Zelkie turned up and asked to come in, and Andrea asked why.

“We'd like to witness the birth,” Zelkie explained as if it should be quite obvious.

“I thought as much,” Andrea replied. “For starters, the birth could be many hours away. Second of all, your chakat traditions notwithstanding, you don't belong here unless Shintaro invites you, and so far the only person that shi seems to want at hir side is Anastasiya. So shoo!”

The two chakats slinked off in disappointment.

“Chakats!” Andrea muttered with a roll of her eyes before she turned her attention back to Shintaro.

As it happened, the labour only lasted about an hour and a half from the time of hir first contraction. Doctor Hiro’s genetic engineering that defined how the herms were built meant that they were made for relatively easy births. With Anastasiya there for support, Shintaro delivered a healthy kitsune kit.

“Your child is beautiful, my friend,” Anastasiya said with a grin. “What are you going to name hir?”

“Shi will be Kiku-chan in honour of hir sire. Shi will receive all the love and devotion that I can no longer give my lifemate.”

“That is good choice, I think. Rest now. If you need me, call me any time.”

“Thank you, Anastasiya-san,” Shintaro replied as shi gazed proudly at the baby in hir arms. “Please tell everyone that we are both doing well.”


 

Zarej had basically kept to himself and found what amusement that he could, but he was now bored enough to reluctantly approach the other youths in the hopes of joining in. By coincidence, it was during another basketball game, although he would have been happy to play any other sport with them.

Madeline of course spotted him approaching even before he got to the holosuite, and she warned Keera. “Looks like we might be able to put my plan into action. Zarej is heading here.”

“Okay, I'll take over refereeing the game. You get ready.”

Madeline’s form morphed from a young adult female to that of a mid-teen male. “How do I look?” she asked, her voice altered to sound like a boy of that age.

“Like an awkward, gangly teenage buck rabbit,” Keera reassured her.

“Perfect! ‘Madden’ is ready to play. Now we'll see if Zarej has learned his lesson and is prepared to play nicely, or not.”

Madeline had discussed her plan with the youths so that they could act accordingly, so as soon as they saw ‘Madden’, they knew the ploy was about to be initiated. Not everyone was thrilled about it though.

“I don't want to play with that jerk!” Pixiepaws declared.

“Everyone deserves a second chance, Pix,” Madeline said. “Besides, I won't let anything happen to anyone this time.”

“He can have his second chance without me,” Pixiepaws stubbornly replied.

Keera frowned at hir. “We need you to fill out the team. And if that's not a good enough reason, then I call in a favour. You owe me big time for not telling how you got us kicked out of the arcade.”

Pixiepaws’ ears lay flat in humiliation. “Oh, alright.”

That was resolved just in time as Zarej had entered the room, and was approaching the group.

Keera turned to look at him coolly. “What do you want?” she asked with just a trace of hostility. She did not actually want to put him off.

“I'm bored and I want to play. I'm not banned, so I'm allowed to join in.”

“Are you going to play like a team member, not play rough, and not hog the ball?”

“Yeah, sure.”

Keera looked towards the others. “Will we let him play?” she asked them.

They made a show of reluctance, then begrudgingly said, “Okay.”

Zarej was put against ‘Madden’s’ team, and the game recommenced. For the moment, everyone played it straight. If Zarej behaved himself, nothing exceptional would happen, and they could be satisfied that he had learned his lesson. Madeline made sure that she was competing with him wherever possible, and leaving openings for his teammates for him to take advantage of, encouraging him to work with the team. At first he was calm and cooperative, passing the ball at most opportunities, but gradually he started to get more and more aggressive, and hogging the ball. After Keera pulled him up for yet another foul, Madeline caught Keera’s eye and several of the others. It was time to start the lesson.

Up until then, Madeline had restricted herself to the skills of the average teen, but she happened to be a good basketball player, and with some enhancement from the holosuite systems, she stepped up the pressure on Zarej. She constantly blocked him, stealing the ball occasionally. Without breaking any rules, she made it nearly impossible for him to achieve anything. She made a point of passing the ball to her teammates, while his loudly griped that he would not pass even when he had a clear opening. In general, they made it the most high-pressure scenario that they could, expecting him to reach the breaking point.

And he eventually snapped. Upon having the ball stolen yet again by Madeline, with a loud growl, he grabbed her and hurled her several metres. She crashed to the floor in a manner that may have broken a bone or two, if she did not happen to be an energy construct rather than having a real body. Of course she was totally unhurt, but she lay there dramatically for a long moment. The others had stopped to watch, knowing that the real fun was about to start.

Zarej just stood there, panting and growling at ‘Madden’, his ears folded back and his muzzle wrinkled in a snarl, oblivious to the others. Then he was startled as the rabbit started to laugh. Madeline got to her feet, her laughter growing louder, mocking him. She walked up to the Rakshani youth, craning her neck up to gaze at him in contempt, despite the fact that he was 35 centimetres taller than her, and nearly twice her apparent mass.

“What's the matter? Can't play properly, so you have to take your frustrations out on little guys like me? It will never make you a better player.”

“I won't be mocked by a plant-eater!” he yelled, making a grab for her.

She dodged him easily, and grinned infuriatingly. “Can't even catch helpless prey either, I see.”

That stung him, and he leaped at her. She dodged again, giving him a hard kick on the backside as he passed, and he stumbled to the floor.

“Better get someone to hold me so that you can actually hit me. Oh wait – you don't need anybody else to help you. You're too big and strong to need anybody else.”

He howled in rage and leaped at her, but she moved impossibly fast. Each time she was almost within his grasp, she slid away, laughing.

“Hold still, you pathetic flea! I'll show you what it means to be strong!”

“Okay,” Madeline said obligingly. She stood there with her arms folded, a mere three metres away.

With a cry of triumph, he charged the rabbit, intending to tackle ‘him’ to the floor and pummelling ‘him’ into submission. Instead he crashed into an immovable object; the rabbit may as well have been carved from stone. He dropped to the floor, heavily stunned, his head pounding and his vision swimming.

“Smeg!” Madeline swore. “I didn't expect him to lead with his face.”

Zarej’s mother stepped out of the concealment that Madeline had set up for her. “Do not worry too much. We Rakshani are tough enough to cope with something like that.”

“I've called the doctor to come look at him anyway,” Madeline replied. She had not intended to cause major injury, only to teach him a lesson. She had taken the precaution of discussing her plan with his mother to ensure that there were no unwanted repercussions against the crew. His mother had actually been impressed by the idea.

“You would make a good Rakshani parent,” was her comment. “There is no honour in strength alone, and he needs to learn that.”

Madeline reflected that she did not want to raise rabbit children that way, but it did seem that tough love was the preferred Rakshan way.

Andrea arrived quickly, and scanned the boy. “He has a broken collar bone, and mild concussion. Nothing that we can't fix immediately. Let's get him to sick bay.”

Zarej was carried out by his mother, and the players drifted out of the holosuite, leaving Madeline with just Keera. The rabbit resumed her normal form and looked glumly at the Caitian. “This seemed like a much better idea before.”

“We all thought so, Maddy. Don't be too hard on yourself.”

“I suppose so. If Palayeth isn't mad, I suppose it will work out.”

“Let's wait and see if Zarej’s attitude has changed before we get too bent out of shape about it.”

“Yeah, you're right. I'd hate to get all cut-up about this only to find out that he hadn't learned anything from the experience.”

Keera grinned. “At least he will probably have learned not to crash-tackle rabbits in future!”


 

Zarej recovered quickly enough, or at least physically anyway. His humiliation at the hands of the little ‘plant-eater’ however stung for days after, exacerbated by his mother’s lecture on honour and self-control. It remained to be seen whether the Rakshani boy had at last learned his lesson, but for the remainder of the trip to the Rakshan colony, Zarej gave nobody any trouble.

With little to do until Anastasiya gave birth, Andrea offered to give M'Lertiña more medical training to make her more useful both as an assistant to her, and as a better paramedic when she was gone. Martin approved, but with a caution to keep it to keep it to a normal shift. Andrea reassured him that she would not be sacrificing any personal time.

The chakats were again disappointed when Anastasiya went into labour weeks later. Valentina supported hir wife during the event, and Katarina asked to be present at the birth of hir sister, but aside from Andrea and M'Lertiña, they kept the birthing within the family.

After a five and a half hour period of labour, the child was born and declared to be strong and healthy. Shintaro was the first and only one to see Anastasiya before the tiger got some rest, but shi was able to tell the others that the proud parents had named their child Petrushka. The rest of the crew got to celebrate the event with Anastasiya the next day.

Several weeks later, a couple of days out from Chakona, Martin came into the rec room at an odd hour, looking for some refreshment. As he had suspected, Bruce was not there to be a barista for him. That happened frequently enough that Martin had one day surreptitiously had his perfect espresso patterned, and he could get it from the replicator whenever he wanted – as long as nobody was there to witness his sneakiness. Tonight there was just one person, but she was sitting by the observation window with her attention on the view outside, so he was able to get his favourite brew. Then he wandered over to the window and quietly sat beside Andrea.

The doctor glanced his way and said, “Good evening, Martin.”

“Feeling a bit introspective tonight, Andrea?”

“Yes, a bit. How did you know?”

“This seems to be a favourite choice of many people when they're in that mood. Is it about the upcoming end of your contract aboard the Phoenix?”

“Right again. I have mixed emotions about it. On the one hand, I've achieved what I wanted to do by going out into space – finding time to be myself and socialise. I've made many dear friends on this job. However, on the other hand, I feel under-utilised. This is such a well-run ship with a relatively young and healthy crew that you don't really need a doctor most of the time. M'Lertiña is certainly competent enough to meet your needs.”

“So you should be happy that we'll be back at Chakona in two days,” Martin commented.

“You would think so, but I'm not really looking forward to returning to what I left behind. I've enjoyed my stay on Phoenix, and I'm reluctant to leave as yet.”

“Heh! You're not the first to feel that way. I wouldn't mind you staying on for a while longer, but frankly I can't afford to be paying for a full-time doctor who has so little to do.”

“I certainly understand that, and I'm not asking you to keep me on, but it does make me wonder what exactly I want to do with my life when I get home. If I go back to my old job, my compulsiveness will inevitably lead me back into my bad habits, and I don't really want that to happen. Then there's the small town option, but would I be willing to settle for that? That has been the beauty of my stay here – I could not stray from my goal even if I wanted to. But as I have already said, it's the opposite extreme, and I'm finding myself getting bored occasionally.”

“Perhaps you might want to take up some hobby?”

“Ha! Maybe I should.” She grinned at him before turning to look at the streaks of light that were the fascinating sights of hyperspace. “I'm going to miss this.”

“And we'll miss you,” Martin said sincerely.


 

After a day off for shore leave, the last of the crew were gathering to ride back with Martin in his shuttle. As usual, one of his last tasks was to check with spaceport’s booking office to see if there were any more people looking for a cheap fare to their next destinations. Two had already been shuttled up on previous loading trips, but it paid to keep checking up until the last moment. He was pleased to hear that there was one looking to go their way.

“She's in the waiting room. I told her that you would be showing up soon,” the desk clerk informed him.

“Thanks!” Martin said, heading for the lounge. He opened the door and immediately spotted the sole occupant. “Andrea! What are you doing here?”

“I thought that this was where you got to hitch a ride on commercial starships,” she replied with a smile. “Going my way?”

“You know as well as I do where we're headed. What's going on?”

“Well I went back to the hospital where I was working before, and they were quite willing to have me back on staff. But I was not there long before I realised something – I did not know most of those people. I'd been working alongside them for years, and yet hardly knew much more than the names of some of them, whereas I had become very familiar with everyone aboard Phoenix. I knew then that I could not go back to that life. Or should I say lack of life? So I decided that I would quit and do something more with my life, so here I am.”

“I still can't afford you, Andrea.”

“Who said you had to? I'm here as a paying passenger. One thing about being a workaholic is that you don't have much time to actually spend your wages. However, I was thinking that perhaps I could work my passage?” she replied with a mischievous grin.

Martin caught on, and returned the smile. “And what services can you offer, Ms Leptailurus?”

“Oh, I was thinking medical services, but I hear that you have children aboard also who might benefit from some biology lessons.”

“And in the boring parts in between?” Martin prompted.

“Someone suggested that I take up a hobby. I was thinking gardening. You do have a hydroponics section, I believe? I brought some flower seeds that I'd like to see if I could grow.”

“Excellent! And how far do you intend to go?”

“I'll let you know when I get there.”

“Then welcome to the Phoenix. I hope you enjoy your journey with us!”


Continued in Chapter 11.


 

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

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