Flight of the Phoenix
Chapter 13 The Final Challenge
By Bernard Doove © 2012
Martin checked the calendar again – four years, eleven months, and twenty-seven days since he received his bequeathal. Three days short of five years since he had bought this starship, renamed it Phoenix, and made it his home as well as his business. Half a decade spent with a crew that were more like his family now. In two days they would arrive at Earth. In three days, he might lose it all.
M'Rarrtikar and he had pored over the books, checked every financial detail, chased up every debt, but in the end it still was not going to be enough to pay off the bequeathal. Although their recent years had been reasonably profitable, and indeed in some cases had been a bit more than Martin had estimated back when he started, it had fallen just short of making up for the financial disasters that they had incurred in the first couple of years when it would hurt the most. The ultra-low bid that he had put in to guarantee winning the Faleshkarti contract had also eaten into time that could have been spent more profitably. Martin’s last ray of hope had been to finally get some reward from the Hesperia Corporation, and in fact they had managed at last to get a promise for a significant amount for compensation after unbelievable delays. Unfortunately they would get it too late to be of help right now, and it was only after they had started legal action to get that compensation had they found out why the delay had been so great. Like other big companies, Hesperia had many shareholders, and one of the biggest shareholders turned out to be Windsor. Behind the scenes, he had been throwing every barrier and delay that he could manage within his power. He had even been behind trying to get Hesperia to renege on the promise of docking fees waived in perpetuity, but the ever efficient Madeline had recorded and archived that conversation with Hesperia’s manager, so that was quickly dealt with. Not that that was currently of any use to them. However, the legal wheels ground around slowly, and getting that compensation was not so quickly achieved. Martin wondered if the man had somehow become aware of his financial deadline, or was just plain obsessive.
A knock at Martin’s office door interrupted his introspection, and when he looked, he saw Burningbright, M’Resk, Penny, and Valentina standing in the doorway.
“Can we talk with you for a moment?” Burningbright asked.
“Sure! Come in! What can I do for you?” Martin asked as cheerfully as he could manage.
“It’s what we can do for you,” the chakat replied. “We've heard from M'Rarrtikar about our problem.”
Martin noticed how shi had said ‘our’ problem rather than ‘your’.
Burningbright continued, “We’ve all discussed this, and we'd like to offer to loan you our savings to help pay off your debt. Whatever it takes to meet the deadline.”
Martin was touched, but also a little saddened. “I appreciate the offer immensely. Thank you, everybody, but I cannot accept it.”
“Why not?” Penny asked with a touch of annoyance. “We all want to keep this crew together. We're all prepared to do whatever it takes to make it so.”
Martin sighed. “It’s not because I don’t want to, but because it would make no difference. Paying off the bequeathal isn't just a matter of giving my father the money. It's a matter of paying off the entire debt. Getting the money from you merely transfers the debt, not pay it off. It’s the principle of the bequeathal – to prove that I can be successful and debt-free within a specified period. Even if you couched it as a gift, for the purposes of the bequeathal, it would still be regarded as part of the debt.”
The looks of disappointment were heartbreaking. Martin added, “Look – we're not dead yet. There are one or two things that I can try when we reach Earth. Just keep your fingers crossed.”
They left with more hope than Martin felt. Realistically there was virtually nothing more that he could do to get the money, but he did not want them fretting more than necessary.
Bethany arrived not long after that. She closed the office door and sat down in one of the chairs without bothering to ask. Looking up into the air, she said, “Madeline – privacy please!”
Madeline’s voice replied, “I'm outta here!”
Bethany then fixed Martin with her gaze and said, “You're not fooling me - you've got nothing left, have you?”
There was still a touch of mischievousness left in the coyote. “Are you so sure of that?”
“I think I’ve gotten to know you better than most, Martin.”
First name terms, was it? That was unusual. “I think I may yet surprise you, Bethany.”
“Prove it! Tell me what you have in mind.”
“No, I’m going to leave it until the last day. It really is my final option.”
Bethany looked intensely frustrated. “Damn it, Martin, stop being so coy! Can't you tell that I'm trying to help?”
“Everyone is trying to help, Beth. We're all in the same boat. Literally, as it happens. Why should I make a special exception for you?”
“Because I have so much more to lose!”
Martin was shocked by that admission. “How so?”
“Because I might lose you, you damn idiot!” she yelled at him, her eyes bright with incipient tears.
Martin’s heart felt like it almost stopped for a moment, then he got up out of his chair and placed his hands on her shoulders reassuringly. “You don’t know how long I've been waiting to hear something like that. If that's how you truly feel, then I promise that you won't lose me, Beth.”
“How… how can I be sure of that if you won't tell me your plans?”
“What I have planned is very risky, and I don't want to involve someone that I care deeply about. But if that person is willing to share my life, no matter the outcome – good or bad, then I would be willing to take the risk. I would share everything without reserve.”
“That almost sounded like a proposal,” Bethany said hesitantly.
“Remember a few years back when you asked what kind of person interested me? It wasn't someone just like you. It was you specifically, but first you had to come to terms with the past. I’ve waited years for that, Bethany. I don’t want to lose you either.”
“What about the other girls you've had in your life? First Risha, then Madeline, and that coyote tart at Hesperia. All of them younger than you. Why would you want a vixen fourteen years older than you?”
“I would never have realised our age difference was so great if I didn't know your background, and frankly it never mattered to me. You already know what my relationships to Risha and Madeline were really, and that so-called tart was sexy, but she was chasing me, not I her. No, I've only been interested in one person for years, and that person is you.” But you had built a wall around yourself that I had to chip away slowly until you were ready to trust again, and to forgive yourself.”
“What? Why should I need to forgive myself?” she asked, jerking away from Martin’s arms in annoyance.
“Beth, that creep, Russ, was the worst kind of slimeball, I know, and what he did to you was truly terrible. However, you went out with him solely on the basis of the fact that he was a handsome tod, and then you accepted an invitation to his place. Both actions were very naïve for a vixen of your maturity, and you have never forgiven yourself for those mistakes, have you?”
She reluctantly shook her head.
Martin continued, “Well, we all make mistakes, Beth. You learned the hard way, but it’s time that you lay that to rest and get on with your life. Forgive yourself and learn to live again. And please, live it with me.”
Bethany looked woebegone, and the tears welled in her eyes, brimming over. She stepped back into Martin’s arms, burying her face in his chest. He could feel her body shudder as she sobbed for several minutes. Martin knew that he had said more than enough, and he let go on like that for several minutes until the catharsis brought her back under control.
“Are you feeling better now?” he asked gently.
She nodded, and then murmured, “Say it.”
“Say what?” he asked in puzzlement.
“You know what I mean. Say it.”
Martin realised what she was wanting to hear, and pushed her chin up so that he could look into her eyes. “I love you, Bethany. Will you be my wife?”
“Wife? Not mate?” she asked in surprise.
“My parents are married. Seemed to work for them.”
Bethany smiled. “Yes, I could see that, and I think that I like that idea. I love you too, Martin. I've loved you for longer than I was willing to admit to myself. I accept your proposal.”
They kissed for the first time, long and hungrily. When they broke at last, Bethany said, “Now will you tell me what you have planned for us?”
“Of course. I promised, didn't I?” Martin explained what he intended to do, and her face grew grave.
“You're right – it is risky. We could end up with all sorts of problems.”
“You don't want to try it?”
“Of course I want to try it. We have our family at stake.”
“Then it's agreed.” Martin heaved a huge sigh. “Phew! Honestly, sharing this with you has made this a whole lot less daunting.”
“That’s the beauty of sharing our lives – it halves the load. Speaking of sharing though, there's one more thing that I'm wanting you to share with me.”
“Oh? What's that?”
“I'll need to show you back at your quarters.”
“Oh! Are you sure?”
“Yes, my love; and this time it's no mistake.”
The news of their engagement cheered up the crew for a while. Hotfoot insisted on whipping up something special to celebrate, and Martin and Bethany encouraged it for the purposes of morale. They had already celebrated in the most intimate of fashions.
They had all sobered up somewhat by the time they reached Earth. Before they started the unloading process though, Martin called them all to a special meeting in the rec room. Everyone soon arrived with the exception of Bethany who was on watch on the bridge. However, she already knew what he was going to tell the crew, so he began without preamble.
“You all know that I am due to pay off my debt by tomorrow, and you also know that I cannot do it by then. By the terms of the bequeathal, I will then be required to close down my business and take up a job with my father. That would mean that the entire crew would be out of a job, and a lot of my clients will be very angry. Well, I am not going to go down without a fight. I want everyone to treat this as a normal stopover. We will unload all the cargo, and we will pick up our scheduled consignments and bring them back to the ship as originally planned. Then tomorrow, this is what I intend to do….”
Martin explained his intentions, and then said, “If anyone of you feels that they cannot participate in this, please let me know, and I will settle up your pay and entitlements and give you a glowing letter of recommendation. You will be able to leave Phoenix tomorrow with my blessing.” He paused for a moment, and then asked, “Anyone?”
Penny spoke up, “Captain – stop wasting our time. We're all behind you 100%.”
There was a chorus of agreements to that, and Martin had to smile.
“Okay! Thanks everyone for your support. Now let's get to work. We've got a lot to do before the real fun begins!”
Earth being Phoenix’s home base, it was normal for there to be at least a 3-day R&R break after the cargo had been dealt with. This time though, everybody was still aboard the next day. Martin decided that he might as well not put off his confrontation with his father any longer than he had to, and so he gathered all the crew together again, but this time they all crowded onto the bridge. It was the only other place that Madeline could produce her holo-body, and nobody had to be absent on watch.
Martin took his seat in the Captain’s chair. “Okay, Maddy, connect us to my father, please.”
It was business hours there, so he was not surprised that he had to get to him at his office. The main view screen lit up with the image of the elder Yote.
“Well, well, I must admit I’m a little surprised. Considering what my people have been telling me, I would have thought that you would have let this go until the last minute. So tell me, son – are my people wrong? Have you got the funds to repay your debt?”
“No, I haven’t, although if your people are that good, you know just how close I am to that goal.”
“Irrelevant, and you know it. You have disappointed me greatly, son. I will be sending one of my administrators to begin the process of winding up your foolish business. I expect you to report to me tomorrow, and I will inform you what job I have chosen for you.”
“No,” Martin said.
Yote senior scowled at Martin. “What was that?”
“I said no, father. I will not let you do this.”
The elder coyote’s visage grew thunderous. “You have no choice! You know the terms of the bequeathal, and they are absolute. You took the risk and failed, and now you must accept the consequences.”
Martin’s looked sorrowful but resolute. “I regret that I must fight you over this, but there is no way in hell that I am going to let you destroy what I have built over these five years. I have a beautiful starship which embodies my dreams. I have a successful business with an excellent reputation, and with great profit projections. But most of all, I have this crew…” He waved his arms to indicate everyone gathered about him. “…that are family to me now, and they mean far more to me than your bloody bequeathal bullshit!”
Arthur Yote leaned into the video pick-up and growled, “How dare you defy me! You will honour your commitment, or else I will be forced to shut you down the hard way. I will get you black-banned for breaking contracts and non-payment of debts, and your crew won't get another job on a starship. This is your very last chance, so think very carefully before you speak.”
Martin sighed. “Very well, father. I am sorry that it has come to this but… go to hell.”
His father looked as if he was going to burst from apoplexy, and Martin braced for the inevitable tirade. Instead he was shocked when instead he burst into uproarious laughter.
“Hahahahahahahaaaa! Go to hell indeed. Well said, son. Right now I am so proud of you, I could burst. I knew you had it in you, and you didn't disappoint me one little bit.”
Martin wondered if his father had suddenly lost his marbles. “What are you talking about, dad? One moment you're threatening me, and the next you're praising me?”
Arthur Yote leaned back in his chair, quite at ease and with a grin on his face. “It's taken over ten years for me to find out whether I had judged you correctly. Five years since I was certain that you had the potential in you to be great. A man only shows his true colours under adversity, and I have seen yours shine through despite all the obstacles in your path. You rightfully told me off for trying to destroy what you have built, and that's why I am telling you right now that you can consider the terms of the bequeathal to be fulfilled.”
There were cries of delight from various crew members, but Martin was not ready yet to celebrate. “What game are you playing at, dad? Is this some sort of ruse to get me to let down my guard?”
His father’s grin grew wider. “Instead of making a quick getaway in your ship to parts unknown? Oh yes, I know that you've been busily loading Phoenix up with cargo, and filed a flight plan for not long after this conversation. Admittedly I would not have known if I hadn't been looking specifically for things like that. It really got my expectations up when I did. So let’s make this formal and binding. Turn on your recorder.”
“It’s already recording,” Madeline spoke up.
“Very efficient, young lady. Haydn is right to be proud of you. Anyway, here's the official bit: I, Arthur Yote, confirm that my son, Martin Yote, has fulfilled the terms of the bequeathal to my complete satisfaction, and he is now free and clear to pursue his career as he sees fit.”
The whole bridge was unrestrained this time as they whooped and cheered in joy.
Yote senior waited for them to calm down a bit before continuing, “I further decree that I am officially naming Martin Yote as my successor. The family business will be his when I pass on.”
“What?” Martin exclaimed. “Father, you have me hopelessly confused. This is all coming out of the blue. Why are you doing this?”
“I suppose I've had my bit of fun now, so I will explain. This started back on Hank’s twenty-first birthday. Do you recall what happened then?”
“Isn't that when I first told you that I wanted to be a starship captain?”
“Yes, and start your own interstellar shipping business.”
“Which you promptly told me was foolish and risky, and I should look at some other career.”
“And it was all true. It was also bold and independent of you. Unlike your siblings, you had chosen a more difficult path, but one with potentially great rewards. I hoped that you had the strength of will to follow that dream.”
“But you never said anything like that. In fact, right up until I turned twenty one, you kept telling me all the ways this business could fail.”
“Yep. Made you more determined to prove me wrong, didn't it? Also made you research all those problems, so that when you did begin business, you had a head-start on avoiding the pitfalls. Why else do you think that I continued to pay for your education, no matter what classes you took to fulfil your dream? Starship pilot training doesn't come cheap y'know, and I was under no obligation to pay for that, but I didn't want you distracting yourself with a part-time job. I wanted you to succeed, son, but you had to be doing it for yourself, not for me.”
“But you still said you disapproved even after I put together the business. And what's this about naming me your successor? Shouldn't that go to your eldest child? Surely Brandon will be pissed off about that?”
Arthur shook his head. “I explained the second purpose of the bequeathal to all your siblings long ago, and they all know that my decision on who would be my successor would only be made when the last of you had completed it. You see, it wasn't just a test to see if you had the talent to run a successful business. Every one of them did well with their choices. Some were more ambitious than others, some more cautious, but in the end they are all very competent business people. However, I was looking for that something extra, the something that built the family business from nothing into the major company that it is today. Merely keeping it running at the level it is would be good safe business practice, but I want it to continue to grow and adapt to meet future needs, and for that I needed someone with both the vision and the talent and determination to make it happen. You defied me when I told you to forget your dream. You went ahead and made it a reality regardless of everything I did. You made it a success despite some of the worst disasters that were beyond your control. And you had the great big hairy balls to ask for help against Windsor’s machinations despite that being against the rules. You have everything it takes to do the job, and take Yote Industries into the future.”
Martin still felt a sense of unreality. “But… I don't want to be head of Yote Industries. Didn't I also say that I just wanted to have a relatively small business where I could devote time to my family, instead of always being in the office like you?”
His father waved a hand dismissively. “For starters, son, I don't expect to be shuffling off this mortal coil anytime soon. My doctor says he's going to have to force me to retire at gunpoint because I’m so healthy. Strange man. Anyway, circumstances can change a lot in that time. Besides, you can appoint a general manager to take care of the day-to-day operations, while leaving the big decisions to you. I'm sure that you can fit that into those boring intervals while travelling between ports, and with access to that fantastic network that you're in, you can certainly telecommute at will. I don't foresee any real problems.”
Martin tried to take that all in. “I… thank you, Father. This really is a shock to me… but I must admit that I am proud of my achievements. Best of all though…” He looked about him at the grinning faces of the crew, before turning back to his father with a huge grin on his face. “Phoenix lives!”
There was a roar of approval from everyone.
Arthur Yote waited for the cries of celebration to die down before saying, “So are you going to take off on that scheduled flight, or are you going to come home and celebrate with your mother and I?”
Martin replied, “We can certainly put back our departure to the original date, but I won't be coming home, because I am home. When would you like us to come down to visit?”
“Right away. In anticipation of this outcome, your mother has been preparing a special party for days now. We expect to see all of you there, Madeline included. We’ve installed several holo-projectors in various rooms, one of them with energy-construct capability so that she can have a solid presence too.”
“Wow! You're really going all out on this. We can make it even more of a celebration though.” Martin took Bethany’s hand and said, “Bethany and I are engaged to be married.”
His father smiled. “Whaddya know? Your mother was right again – she said that you two would get hitched.”
Bethany was startled. “Lydia knew? How long?”
“Hmm, maybe three years or so ago after one of your visits. It's a wonder it took you this long.”
“That was incredibly perceptive of her. I certainly never thought I would then.”
“Your future mother-in-law is a very perceptive woman. She helped me build Yote Industries from the beginning, and only semi-retired from the business to raise our children.”
“Oh? Well maybe she could arrange a celebrant so that we can kill two birds with one stone.”
“Knowing my wife, she might well have that contingency planned already. I'll let her know. Anyhow, I suggest you all get ready for the party, and I will see you at the house when you arrive. I have to wind up a couple of things and head off home too. After all, family is more important than business, isn't it, son?”
“Right, dad. See you soon.”
The crew burst into excited discussion, and Martin pulled Bethany gently towards him. He kissed her, and she returned it in full.
“You've really taken to this idea of marriage, haven't you?” Martin murmured.
“Seems like I've been waiting years for it,” she smugly replied.
Martin laughed. He then called everybody’s attention. “Okay everybody – put all your stations into standby or station-keeping mode, then get ready to party! We shuttle down in one hour…”
“Make it an hour and a half,” Bethany interrupted.
“Like I said, we shuttle down in ninety minutes. Anyone later than that gets to do janitor duty while the rest of us are having fun.”
The bridge quickly empty of everyone except those who needed to do their work there. Martin headed off to his office, taking along Bethany whose hand he did not want to relinquish. There he contacted the maintenance shipyard and managed to snag a technician who could do some light maintenance while managing to babysit Phoenix in their absence. Then they headed to the Captain’s quarters, now both of theirs. Bethany had not had any opportunity to move anything in as yet besides a few toiletries and some clothes.
“Did you need the extra time to get ready?” Martin asked.
“Of course, and so do the other ladies and chakats. This will be a formal party, not a little social call! Besides, it gives us a bit of time to celebrate together.” She towed him into the bathroom and started undressing.
Martin took the hint and followed suit. Soon they were in the shower together, but getting clean was hardly the thing they had uppermost in mind.
As it turned out, all of Martin’s siblings attended the party as well. Despite what his father had said, Martin was still unsure about how they would take the news that the youngest child had scored the mantle of successor. He need not have worried. His siblings all sincerely congratulated him, and Burningbright later confirmed that they meant what they said. He was so proud of them that day. After hearing all the horror stories about envious siblings fighting over the family business, it was good to see that that particular cliché wasn't going to happen here.
Haydn and Adele Cottonfield were at the party also. Many of the other crew’s parents who could get there on short notice were also in attendance. Conspicuously absent of course were Penny’s parents, and she sincerely hoped that they did not even know she was there. Arthur had reassured her that extra security precautions had been taken, but he doubted that there was anything that bitter old man could do anymore.
Lydia had indeed foreseen the possibility of a celebration of union between her son and Bethany, and she had a celebrant on call. With the cooperation of the weather, the ceremony was held in the formal gardens in the gentle warmth of a Spring afternoon. Martin had found a nice suit in the wardrobe of his room, but Bethany looked radiant in a dress that Lydia had arranged for her. Before their entire extended family, they exchanged vows and were pronounced husband and wife.
The party lasted late into the night, and it was a long time before the newlyweds had the opportunity to consummate their marriage. In the afterglow of their lovemaking, Martin reflected on his good fortune in meeting Bethany. Her misfortune seemed more like fate pushing her his way, for he could not think of a more perfect mate, not even if she was a coyote also. After all, they were both canines, and that meant that they were physically compatible too.
“Darling,” Bethany interrupted his reverie.
“I remember you saying something a while back about wanting children too.”
“Yes, but I was not going to rush you into that.”
“Thank you, but I’m forty years old, and biology waits for no woman. It would be best that I have them sooner rather than later.”
“So you want to try on your next heat?”
“Yes I do. Would you want a boy or a girl?”
“Hon, you know I would be happy with either. Look at the joy that Madeline brings Haydn. But I am a typical male in that I have teeny-weenie preference for a son.”
Bethany laughed. “Fair enough. However, whichever we have first, I hope that they have an equal chance of taking over from you as captain.”
“I promise to be as fair with our children as my father was with me and my sibs. Whoever would make the best captain will get the job. However, like my father, I intend to be around for a lot longer, and spending every moment with you, my love.”
“Sounds perfect to me, dear.”
Fond farewells had been made, and the crew of the Phoenix gathered once more in the rec room. Martin nodded to Bethany who tapped her PADD, and the sound of the bosun’s whistle came through the P.A., bringing conversation to a halt.
Martin said, “I asked you all to gather here first before taking your stations in order to make an important announcement. I’ve said a lot about how this crew is more like a family, and now that we're clear of debt, there are some things that I can do that I could not afford before. One of them is this – I am giving every one of you a share in the ownership of Phoenix.”
There was an excited babble of comment at that news, but Martin held up his hands for quiet.
“While Bethany and I will retain a majority ownership, I want you all to know that while you are a part of this crew, your input is valuable to us, and your reward will be reflected in the value of your share of the business. Once we're under way, I will issue you with the official documents. If you have any questions, I’ll answer them then. Right now though, it’s time for all hands to go to your stations. We have a schedule to keep!
A little while later, Martin was receiving reports of readiness from the departments. Finally Bethany said, “All stations ready for departure, Captain.”
“Thank you, Commander.” He contacted Earth Orbit Control and received clearance to depart on schedule. Right on the mark, he said, “Take us out of here, Mr Roo.”
“Aye, Captain,” came Bruce’s reply.
The starship Phoenix eased out of orbit and soon was beyond Earth’s gravitational influence, on its way to the interstellar depths where it could once again truly fly.
Characters and story copyright © 2012 Bernard Doove
except Risha DeMar who was created by Chakat Fleetfoot and used with permission.
Art © 2012 Kacey Miyagami
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