Flight of the Phoenix
Chapter 2 – Unexpected Baggage
By Bernard Doove © 2012





As the crew filtered out into the warehouse, they were directed to the shuttles by Martin.

"Zelkie, as our primary Loadmaster, our bigger shuttle is your baby. The main pilotís station has been preconfigured for taurforms. There are a limited number of stowable passenger couches, enough to take your family plus Ceres and Danson. Beliz has already arranged to have some of our cargo loaded, but thereís still plenty of room for everyoneís luggage. Iíll leave the rest for you to check and prepare for lift-off."

"Everyone else, stow your luggage on the other shuttle which Iíll be piloting. You should all have an information packet that was with your uniforms. Youíll find your assigned quarters marked on a map. Please drop off your belongings as soon as you can, but leave settling in until later. Change into your uniforms and head for your duty stations. Until we leave Earth orbit, everyone is on duty; Commander Oakwood will assign watches after that. While Zelkie and I return for more loads, I expect all crew to familiarise themselves with their posts and equipment in preparation for departure."

Martin then looked at the group of cubs. "I know that most of you are familiar with space travel, so I hope that you know to keep out from under our feet. Either stay in your cabins, or with M'Lertiña until we depart. In the future we will probably be able to give you more leeway, but for our first time, we need to keep things as uncomplicated as possible, please."

He turned his attention back to the adults. "Okay, weíre on the clock now, so letís get going!"

There was organised chaos while everybody sorted themselves out. Zelkie insisted on checking the manifests for both shuttles before allowing them to seal up. Ceres took the co-pilotís seat next to Zelkie, while Heywood was Martinís co-pilot. Martin got clearance from the spaceportís control tower and was soon accelerating up into Earth orbit, with Zelkie only a few minutes behind him. He felt exhilarated! Although he had made many such lift-offs while achieving his pilotís licence, this was the first time as captain of his own ship and head of his own business. His dream was really coming true!

Martin parked his shuttle in its assigned bay, well aware of Heywoodís scrutiny. The man had many years of experience over him, and he did not want to be found wanting. They were met by the skeleton crew from the shipyard who had been manning the ship until the real crew turned up. The foreman ceremoniously handed over a small PADD emblazoned with a phoenix symbol which contained all the shipís access codes, and congratulated Martin. He passed on a copy to Anastasiya who would be responsible for changing them away from the shipyard defaults.

After the crew had dropped off their luggage and changed into their uniform of choice, they headed to their posts, Risha returning to the shuttle bay to help unload the cargo, while Zelkie and Valentina were doing the same in the second bay. Martinís smaller shuttle was unloaded first, and he took the yard crew back to their orbital base before heading back to Big Sur. Zelkie had beaten him down though, and was already loading up. The coyote and chakat were kept busy shuttling for a few hours before their entire load was stowed.

Martin was pleased to see that Bethany seemed to have everything running smoothly when he stepped onto the bridge. "All stations report," he ordered as he took his place in the captainís chair.

Bethany said, "Flight plan filed with Earth Orbit Control and approved, Scheduled departure is in nine minutes."

M'Nissa'tk said, "Engineering reports power cores up to full readiness. Engines on stand-by and ready whenever you give the word."

"Course laid in," Ceres reported from the navigatorís station.

"Pre-flight checks completed," Heywood added.

Burningbright said, "Environmental systems all in the green."

Anastasiya spoke next. "All ports secured. Cargo scans completed and clear. Non-crew are all in their assigned cabins."

Martinís final lift had included half a dozen passengers. They had been met in the shuttle bay by M'Rarrtikar who had checked their tickets and passports before handing them over to M'Resk who had cheerfully and efficiently got them squared away in their cabins as if she had been doing the job for years.

"Excellent work, everyone. Any questions?" Martin asked.

There was a slight pause before Burningbright asked with a smile, "Hotfoot wants to know when you want to have the celebratory dinner?"

Martin grinned. "I almost forgot that. Letís schedule that for after second shift. Ask hir to have normal meals ready for those of us coming off first shift. I donít know about you, but Iíve worked up quite an appetite!"

The rest of the remaining time was spent in light banter until the chronometer told Martin that the time had come. He touched the comm controls and said, "Earth Orbit Control Ė this is the Phoenix. Awaiting clearance for scheduled departure."

A few moments passed before a voice replied, "Earth Orbit Control to Phoenix Ė you are cleared for departure on vector Delta Niner Charlie. Bon voyage, Captain."

"Delta Niner Charlie – thank you Earth Orbit Control. Phoenix out." Martin switched off the comm and said, "You have a go, Mr Baxter."

"Aye Captain," Heywood replied.

The human expertly manoeuvred the ship out of parking orbit and into the departure lane. They accelerated away from Earthís gravitational influence, and at a predetermined point, engaged the warp drive. Their voyage was well and truly under way.

Martin had Bethany stand down the crew members who would be taking the second shift, then left the bridge in her control. With the pressures of loading and getting under way, heíd had no time to think about food or drink, but now that those pressures were relieved, he realised how hungry and thirsty he was. He made his way to the mess hall where he intended to use the replicator to make a snack to keep him going until meal time, only to be confronted by Hotfoot who firmly steered him to a seat.

"Youíre hardly the first hungry captain that Iíve had to feed after departure," shi commented. "I have a light meal prepared for you and the others. Just tell me what kind of drink you prefer, and Iíll have it here in no time."

"Youíre a gem, Hotfoot," Martin replied gratefully. Coffee with cream, please."

Hotfoot returned quickly with a tray of food and a mug of coffee, Martin thanked hir before shi went to attend the other crew members whoíd had the same idea as Martin.

After his meal, he did a tour of his ship, checking on how the rest of the crew were doing. He was pleased to see that even the inexperienced members were settling well into their roles. However, he had to be reminded of certain other people not on duty. His wrist comm beeped, and he answered it. "Captain Yote here."

"Pardon me please, Captain," the voice of Keera, the eldest Caitian child came. "The children would like to know if they can leave their cabins yet?"

Martin castigated himself for forgetting them. "Yes, itís okay. Get yourselves something to eat if youíre hungry. The holosuite is programmed with a large assortment of scenarios if youíd like to check them out."

"Thanks, Captain," Keera replied before disconnecting.

"Better get used to taking them into account," Martin murmured to himself.

It had been several hours since he had risen from bed for a very early start to the day, but he was still too keyed up to go back to his cabin and relax. Now that they were under warp, there was no great need for him to be on the bridge, so he decided to head to the holosuite to see if the kids would check it out. He found that half of them had already gotten there before him, and a seaside program had been chosen. They were in the middle of choosing sides for a game of beach volleyball when he arrived.

"Captain! Can you be our umpire?" Ner'ritn asked. None of the children wanted to be left out of the game.

Martin smiled indulgently. "Sure," he replied. He pulled up a deck chair, took off his jacket and hung it off the back, and then propped up an umbrella to shade himself from the warm holo-sun while he watched the game.

Six minutes later, he was sound asleep.


 

An insistent beeping from his wrist comm finally woke Martin. He was startled to realise that the volleyball had been finished without him, and there were only a couple of chakat cubs sporting in the water. He answered the comm. "Yote here."

"Captain," came Bethanyís voice, "could you come to the bridge to relieve Mr Baxter and myself so that we can have a meal?"

"Iíll be right there, Commander," he replied, wondering just exactly how long he had been asleep. He regretfully levered himself out of the comfortable chair, realising that there were going to be many such minor interruptions with this small crew running this big ship. But that made the job more interesting. Martin never wanted his dream career to turn into mind-numbing monotony.


 

Of course there were a few teething problems as they all settled into their roles on the ship. M'Resk slowly got used to the presence of the big tigers. Heywood, despite a willingness to treat the morphs as equals, still had to get comfortable with the social dynamics. Anastasiya got a little too gung-ho about hir physical training sessions, and had to be asked to lighten up on the crew. Bethany continued to be stiffly formal, which grated on many peopleís nerves. The latter particularly bothered Martin as he needed her experience badly, both to operate the ship smoothly, and also to learn from her in order to be a better captain. A week into the voyage, he had to call her into his office and have a heart to heart talk about the matter. The result was a promise to try harder to be social and friendly, but Martin knew there was not going to be an overnight change.

The biggest surprise that Martin had though, happened shortly after his talk with Bethany. He was about to head off to bed when the door to his quarters chimed. Clad only in his shorts, he opened the door to find Risha standing there, dressed only in a casual one-piece ship-suit.

"Is there anything that I can do for you, Risha?"

The cougar fem looked uncertain and hesitated before replying, "Would it be possible for me to sleep with you tonight?"

Martin looked at her quizzically. "Are you looking for sex?"

She shook her head. "No! Not that. I meanÖ I just canít stand being left alone. I thought that I could cope, butÖ. Please, Captain, I just need the company."

Martin was half tempted to demand to know why, but refused to pry into something that could be deeply personal, although he still suspected her motives. "Okay. Itís not as if I wouldnít mind a bit of company myself. But thatís all."

He stood aside to let her into his quarters and indicated the door to his bedroom. As the captain and owner, he had a fairly luxurious cabin with a spacious living area separate from the sleeping area. She stepped into the bedroom and Martin followed.

She stopped next to the king-size bed and waited for Martin to say something.

"I sleep on the right side normally," he said, moving in that direction.

"Okay. UmmÖ I prefer to sleep nude. Will that bother you?"

"So do I, so if that doesnít bother you, you wonít bother me."

"Thank you." She started stripping off the ship-suit, and Martin did the same with his shorts. The lithe and curvaceous form of the naked cougar started stirring his interest, and he quickly climbed under the sheet, turning his eyes away from the stimulating sight. Risha climbed in next to him, settling down on her side, facing away from him. As she had said, she just needed the company, and she quickly fell asleep.

Martin wished that he was able to do so also. It had been a long time since he had been able to spend some intimate time with a fem.

Risha was gone in the morning when he woke, although the residual warmth in the bed next to him indicated that she had been there until very recently. He could hardly expect anything else though Ė if she wasnít going to explain last night, she was unlikely to do so now.

Martin did not bring the subject up when he encountered Risha in the mess hall, although he did feel that she looked cheerier than she normally did in the morning. He could not decide though if he was imagining it in light of what had happened the previous night.

In retrospect, he should not have been surprised to see her again the next evening at the same time, but he was.

"May I?" she asked simply.

Martin stood aside and waved her in wordlessly. Like the previous night, she disrobed and climbed into her side of the bed, and he climbed into his. He awoke the next day as she was getting out of bed. She noticed and stopped to give him a smile.

"Thank you," she said sincerely, before dressing and leaving.

The next ten days, Risha joined Martin for all but two of the nights. She never said why, but by now he was certain that her demeanour had improved. It was obvious that she had security issues, but he still refused to pry just to sate his curiosity. It was her business, and she would tell in her own good time if she wanted to. Meanwhile, one of his crew was happier, and he had to admit to liking the company also.

On her next visit though, things changed. He noticed her scent immediately when he opened the door for her Ė she was in heat. The pheromones were the wrong kind to stimulate him directly, but knowing that she would be horny and in his bed was enough to provoke a reaction.

"Risha, are you sure that you want to sleep with me tonight?" He did not bother mentioning her condition Ė she knew to what he was referring.

"I especially donít want to be alone tonight," she replied.

Martin shrugged. "Okay, if you think you know what youíre doing."

Risha climbed into bed with him as usual, but instead of lying down on her side with her back to him as she normally did, instead she faced him and started stroking the fur on his chest.

"RishaÖ" he began.

"Captain," she interrupted, "please shut up." Her hand wandered lower and found his sheath.

That was more than Martin could resist, and his manhood rapidly unsheathed. Despite what she had said, Martin tried protesting. "Risha, I know that youíre horny as hell, but donít do anything that you will regret in the morning."

Risha stilled his voice by covering his muzzle with one of her hands. One other continued to play with his manhood, while a third resumed stroking his chest. "Captain, Iíve always enjoyed an active sex life until recently. I want to resume that, and I want to do it with someone whom I can trust. Will you be that person for me?"

Martin gave in to the inevitable, but not without a sense of anticipation. "As you wish, but with one proviso. My name is Martin; Iím not your captain tonight."

Rishaís smile was filled with pleasure and the promise of delights to come. "Very well, Martin, let me show you what a four-armed lover can do for you."

And she proceeded to do exactly that. While Martin was not a virgin, his ambitions had left him little time for a social life for several years, and he was far from experienced in the ways of making love. Risha was quite the opposite, and quite aggressive in her techniques. She nearly blew his mind with pleasure, even as he tried to give his utmost in return.

It was quite some time later that the two lay panting in each otherís arms, exhausted but satisfied. Then Martin noticed the tears leaking from Rishaís eyes.

"Whatís wrong, Risha. Please tell me that this wasnít all a mistake."

Risha shook her head, a smile coming to her muzzle. "No, Martin, it wasnít a mistake. It was catharsis. I needed this more than you think. I needed to start laying to rest the ghost of my past."

"You donít have to tell me any more. Iím just happy to be able to be here for you, although Iím not sure if you havenít done a lot for me too."

"But I want to tell you. I need to get this off my chest while the moment is right." She proceeded to tell Martin about meeting Carson, and their plans for a life together. Then she related the events that led to his death, and her loss and despair. Her sense of abandonment at a moment of vulnerability had left her with a constant feeling of insecurity, and being alone at home was no longer tolerable. Basically she had to leave home to escape the memories and the loneliness. As the only unmated male on board the ship, Martin had been the only lifeline for her insecurity, but being the captain, she had been hesitant to approach him at first. When she could bear it no longer though, she had sought him out, and that had been enough then. Her heat had reawakened other needs and desires, and in the comfort of the security of being with him, she had reached out to him for both physical and emotional fulfilment.

"And now I feel better than I have in many months," she concluded. "The loss and loneliness have started to fade, and I have you to thank for that. You never pushed; you never questioned; you were just there when I needed it. I couldnít have asked for more."

"Youíre welcome, Risha. Iím very happy that I was able to help." Then Martin grinned. "Although I must say that I thoroughly enjoyed the way that I got to help."

Risha laughed. "Then youíll be happy to know that Iíll be wanting moreÖ therapy?"

"As long as itís tomorrow. Youíve worn me out completely."

"And youíve done a pretty good job of tiring me out too," she replied. "Tomorrow it is."

They then snuggled up together to sleep facing each other for the first time, and were soon fast asleep.

Martin woke to the sound of the shower running. Unlike the previous nights, it seemed Risha was freshening up before leaving. Considering how they both smelled after last night, he realised that he would soon be following suit. The shower stopped, quickly replaced by the sound of the fur-drying cycle. Martin entered the bathroom to see her turning around with all four arms raised to allow the jets of warm air to thoroughly dry her. She smiled when she saw him, unconcerned that they were both naked. After last night, that would never be an issue between them.

After Risha stepped out, Martin showered thoroughly, noticing through the glass door that Risha had started brushing her fur. She was working on her hair when he stepped out, and started to brush his own fur. She asked him to brush the fur on her back, and then she returned the favour. Both enjoyed the grooming process thoroughly. Then she got dressed, kissed him on the cheek, and left without saying a word.

Neither person even hinted at the previous night all that day, but that evening she was back at his door, and they made love again.

The next day, Rishaís heat had abated, and she did not show up at his room. He went to bed, keenly feeling her absence.

From then on, Risha would turn up four or five days every week, and half the time she was in the mood for sex. Martin never pushed her for more. He realised that he was not her boyfriend; he was a source of security and satisfaction for someone who was rebuilding her life. It did not matter Ė he was enjoying the status quo for now, and for however long it lasted.

There was one related incident however. One evening as Risha was joining Martin, Bethany happened to be walking down the corridor. She frowned a little, but did not stop or say anything. The next day though, she stopped by Martinís office while he was there by himself.

"Captain, may I speak frankly?"

Martin was a little surprised at that opening question. "Certainly, Commander. Whatís bothering you?"

"Are you certain that itís a good idea to be fraternising with the crew? You are the captain and should not be showing favour to anyone." She left her own experience unspoken, but clearly indicated.

Martin sighed. "Commander Ė need I remind you that this is not a military ship? While I do need to retain a certain amount of respect for my position of authority, when Iím not being the captain, I am still a person who has normal interactions with other people. If I choose to have any sort of a liaison with a woman, that is my business, not the shipís, and certainly not yours."

Bethany was still stiffly disapproving. "It is shipís business if she is trying to gain advantage and privileges through sexual favours, and causing resentment amongst the other crew members."

"Enough! For the record, she has neither asked for, nor would I give her, anything for sexual favours. For reasons that are very personal to her, Risha is very insecure and needs the company Ė she hates being alone. So unless you find a valid reason for being concerned, Risha will continue joining me whenever she wishes, and you will keep your nose out of it. Am I making myself quite clear, Commander?"

"Perfectly, sir." She then turned and left, but Martin could tell that she was very angry indeed. Not that he could completely blame her, considering her recent past, but he was not going to let her misfortune affect his own relationships.


 

Despite the best efforts of M'Lertiña, it was not possible to keep all of the children occupied all of the time. Although their school studies kept them busy for some of the time, that still left them plenty of time to get into mischief. Fortunately most of the time they were able to amuse themselves in the holosuite with its extensive library of locales to try out, with multiple safeguards built into the programs. Nevertheless there was still the urge to explore the ship that was their home for the foreseeable future, and occasionally they had to be ejected from places where they did not belong.

This day found two chakat cubs checking out places that they had not been in yet on deck seven. They noticed Ceres in the corridor ahead of them and, wanting to avoid questions about being on this deck, ducked down a side corridor. Peeking out, they realised that Ceres had apparently not noticed them, and shi was opening a door that was marked: ĎCAUTION: Z-G SHAFTí.

"Hey, that door was locked before," Lemondrop said.

"Must be one of those places the grown-ups want us to stay away from," Pixiepaws replied.

"Theyíre always too cautious and wonít let us into the fun places. Letís follow Ceres."

"We canít go in there!" Pixiepaws protested.

"Why not? Shiís left the door unlocked."

"The door says ĎCautioní. It has to be locked for a reason."

"If it was dangerous, it would say ĎDangerí, not ĎCautioní. Iím going in for a look. You can stay out here if you like."

"What if someone sees you?"

"Better keep a look-out for me then," Lemondrop said with a confident grin that did not quite match what Pixiepaws could sense shi was feeling.

"No, Iíll follow you and watch your back."

They approached the door and looked about to see if there were any witnesses, then Lemondrop hit the door switch and rushed inside while Pixiepaws followed, looking over hir shoulder to make sure that nobody saw them going in. Because Lemondrop was so hasty, shi did not notice that the floor simply stopped about a metre inside the door until almost too late. Shi teetered on the edge of an enormous drop with a meep of fear. That turned into a squall of terror as Pixiepaws, hir attention distracted, bumped into hir, toppling hir over the edge, all hir limbs flailing futilelyÖ

Ö and hung there in mid air.

What neither cub knew was that Z-G stood for Zero Gravity, and the Z-G Shaft was a broad corridor without artificial gravity that went down most of the decks of the ship. Itís original purpose when it was a Star Corps vessel was to provide a ready means of moving equipment about a ship that needed to be flexible in layout and purpose out on the frontiers where there were no ship docks and other facilities. It was not as essential for its new life as a trader, but the crew found it handy to move cargo pods between the decks Ė a tractor beam mounted at the end of the shaft quickly and safely moving anything that could fit inside. Most of the time though, it was not needed, so it was kept locked, and when it was needed during loading procedures, the children were required to be out of the crewís way, so they never learned about its existence before now.

Having heard Lemondropís cries of fear as shi exercised, Ceres rose rapidly from below, skilfully bouncing off the walls to propel hirself quickly and exactly where shi wanted to go. Shi brought hirself to a halt next to Lemondrop who was still desperately trying to grab something to stop falling, not realising that shi was in fact merely drifting slowly across the shaft.

"What are you cubs doing here?" Ceres asked. "You should realise that this place is out of bounds."

Pixiepaws hung hir head guiltily. "We just wanted to see what you were doing. UmmmÖ can you get Lemondrop, please?"

The Starwalker looked at the panicky cub. "I suppose shiís learned hir lesson by now." Shi looked back at Pixiepaws. But donít you have your sireís Talent for telekinesis too? You could pull hir back yourself."

"I canít lift that much yet!" Pixiepaws protested.

"Shiís in freefall Ė you donít have to lift hir at all. Just pull hir back to the edge."

"Oh, yeah." Pixiepaws was embarrassed not to realise that. Shi reached out with hir mind and tugged at hir half-sister, who drifted over to the edge.

The moment that Lemondropís paws got traction, shi hauled hirself over the ledge and shot out into the corridor. Shi stopped there, panting wildly.

Ceres exited the shaft and put an arm around the quivering cub. "Relax Ė youíre safe now. In fact you were never in danger," shi said reassuringly. "Havenít you ever been in freefall before?"

"No," Lemondrop replied in a very small voice.

"I thought you spent years aboard cruise ships with your parents, and I know that they have zero grav recreational facilities for the passengers Ė so didnít you ever want to try them?"

"Yeah," Pixiepaws answered as shi cuddled hir sister, "but the crew werenít allowed to use them Ė only passengers."

"What? Not even at night shift?"

"Starships donít have a real night, and cruise ships are active 24 hours a day. There isnít a night shift."

"Well that must have sucked," Ceres said sympathetically. "Tell you what Ė Iíll have a word with the captain and see if he will allow you to play in the Z-G Shaft under my supervision. You can learn how to handle yourselves in freefall." Ceres lifted Lemondropís head to look into hir eyes. "And not be afraid if you ever need to use it." Shi gave the cub a grin and wink.

Lemondrop smiled weakly back. "YeahÖ okay, I guess."

"And donít rush in where you donít belong in future," Ceres added.

The cubs nodded guiltily.

Ceres got Martinís approval and let the chakat cubs know. They not only told their sister, Candycane, but all the other cubs as well. Consequently the shaft was quickly filled with a cloud of inept children. It took a while before the Starwalker was able to get them organised so that shi could start properly teaching them how to handle themselves. While some of them were uncomfortable at first, at least none of them threw up due to the precaution of having them all take anti-nausea medication beforehand. Once shi was satisfied that they had the basics down pat, Ceres introduced them to a variant of a game that shi and the other Starwalkers had played at the training academy, with some adaptations due to the unusual locale. It had elements of basketball and soccer, with makeshift goals mounted at either end of the shaft. Plenty of bumps and scrapes were accrued, but nobody minded because they were having so much fun, except perhaps for Kannekin who remained clumsy and very uncertain. The game somehow acquired the name of Shaftball, and became one of the more popular means of entertainment, and not a few of the adults also. Ceres was more than pleased because shi got to exercise in hir natural environment without it becoming a boring chore. MíResk took advantage of it also to give the passengers another option for keeping entertained.

Martin remarked to Bethany while watching one of the games, "And to think that I once thought that the Z-G Shaft was mostly a waste of space. If it hadnít been handy for moving cargo between decks, I would have had it taken out during the shipís renovation, but it wasnít cost effective at the time."

Bethany nodded. "It wouldnít be the first time that something turned out to be unexpectedly useful. As long as I was in Fleet, I still regularly came across unusual but ingenious adaptations of old things. Some things are worth sitting on for a while to see if something pops up to make them useful again. Itís certainly helping to keep people fit."

"Yes, Anastasiya was quick to point that out too. Shi wants to incorporate regular scheduled matches into the fitness regime. Want to pick teams and have a little competition?" Martin asked.

Bethany eyed him with a small smile on her muzzle. "Youíre on, Captain, but donít forget which one of us has many years of experience in space."

"Itís a team sport, Commander, so letís see who can put together the better team. And Iím choosing Ceres to be on my team," Martin declared with a grin.

By the time that they reached their next port of call, the Commanderís Commandoes were beating the Captainís Conquerors by five games to three.


 

Although he had hoped otherwise, Martin had not expected his refurbished ship to perform absolutely flawlessly. So it came as no big surprise to him when Burningbright stopped by his office a day before they were due to arrive at the planet, Bounty.

"Have you got a moment, Captain?" Burningbright asked from the doorway to his office.

"Sure, come in," Martin replied. "Whatís up?"

"Itís the number 2 air scrubber Ė itís performing well below specification."

"Is that the new or reconditioned unit?"

"The reconditioned one."

"HmmÖ Iím going to have to have words with the shipyard about that when we get back to Earth. Anyway, what do you recommend that we do about it?"

"Iíd like to take it offline and determine why itís malfunctioning. That way I can give you a full report on the problem. The other units should be able to cope with the load well enough meanwhile."

"Sounds good to me. How long should it take? Weíre going to need all hands when we get to Bounty."

"That depends. I could do it by myself, but if you want to get it done before we reach Bounty, then itís a two-person job. Iíd like to enlist M'Anissa'tkís help to do that.

"I regard this as a priority job, so go ahead and get her to help you."

"Sheís on second shift, Captain."

"Ah, okay. HmmÖ go have a talk with her and arrange a mutually agreeable time for you to work on this together, then go see Commander Oakwood and confirm the change."

"Will do, sir. UmmÖ while Iím here, thereís something else thatís concerning me. Itís a bit more personal though."

"Iím always ready to listen, 'Bright."

"It's M'Resk. Sheís putting on a good façade, but I can sense that sheís tired and stressed. Forgive me for asking, but might you be working her a bit too hard?"

Martin was genuinely surprised. "I donít understand why that would be. M'Reskís responsibilities shouldnít be that onerous."

"Perhaps you should talk to her about them," Burningbright hinted.

Martin nodded. "I will. Thanks for the heads-up. In fact, if you sense any other possible problems, let me know so that I can deal with them before they get out of hand."

"Aye, Captain," Burningbright agreed, then departed.

Martin then tapped his comm. "Captain Yote to M'Resk Ė please report to my office at your soonest convenience."

After a brief pause, M'Resk replied, "Acknowledged, Captain. Iíll be there in about ten minutes."

Nine and a half minutes later, M'Resk tapped at his door.

"Come in and sit down, please, M'Resk."

The Caitian did so, and because Martin was looking for the signs, he realised that Burningbright was right Ė she did look tired.

"M'Resk, how many hours have you been putting into your work lately?"

M'Resk looked uncomfortable. "I donít have a set shift because of the nature of my job," she replied evasively.

"I know, but that isnít what I asked," Martin said gently.

"Captain, I know you only took me on because you wanted my husband as your engineer. I know that what I do isnít very important, so I try to do as much as I can to make up for it," she replied earnestly.

Martin sighed. "So youíve been working basically from the time that you get up until you go to bed again, right?"

M'Resk hesitated, then nodded silently.

"My dear lady, whatever gave you the idea that what you do is unimportant? You canít measure yourself up against your husband. I canít do what he does, but that doesnít make me less. We all need to do whatever we're best at doing, and your job of looking after passengers is just as important because of that. Bored passengers can cause problems, or simply get under our feet. We need their money, but we donít need them interfering with shipís business, and youíre helping to keep that from happening. On top of that, a happy customer tells others about their experience, and word-of-mouth brings in more passengers. This all helps our profit margin. However, as important as these things are, itís still just a job, and one that I donít expect to put more hours into than the rest of the crew does. In the end, this is a trader ship, not a pleasure cruiser, and we are not expected to keep our passengers entertained constantly, nor attend to their every whim. Do you understand?"

"Yes sir."

"Good. Thereís no such things as make-work on this ship, and I want you to know that I am very happy with what youíve been doing. But now I want you to take more care of yourself, and in future try to stick to no more hours than a standard shift."

"Yes sir," M'Resk said again with more assurance.

"Now go wrap up whatever youíre doing, and take the rest of the day off. Do whatever you want. Go take a nap might be a good idea. But if I see you doing some work again today, Iím going to knot your tail, get me?"

M'Resk grinned. "Believe me, I donít want a kinked tail."

"Excellent. Now get out of here," Martin said with a smile.

"Thanks, Captain!"

Martin noted that aforementioned tail was waving a lot more jauntily as she departed. "I hope future problems will be as simple to solve as that," he murmured to himself before he called Bethany to let her know about M'Resk, and then getting back to his work.


 

A young voice came from the doorway of Martinís office. "Pardon me, Captain. Could I talk to you?"

Martin looked up from his work to see the eldest of the Caitian children waiting for an answer. "Sure, Keera. Come on in."

The girl walked up to his desk and fidgeted for a moment before saying, "I'd like to learn how to operate a starship; maybe even become bridge crew."

Martin was curious. "How long have you felt that this would be your choice of career?"

"I thought about it back when we were still with Star Fleet, but I didn't much like the military aspect. Since we've been on your ship though, I've liked the way it's run, and I think that this is what I really want to do."

"Fair enough. You do realise though that it takes good grades in a variety of subjects to qualify for training in careers suitable for bridge crew?"

"Of course, Captain. I already have good grades at my current level, but rather than wait until I graduate to start training, I thought that maybe I could come onto the bridge and get a head start on learning stuff Ė only when you're not busy, of course."

Martin nodded. "Work experience Ė not a bad idea. I wish that I could have done the same. Tell you what Ė I'll run this by Commander Oakwood, and if she's agreeable, we'll set up some kind of regular training class. Find out what suits you best, and then you can focus your studies towards that goal."

Keera smiled happily. "That would be perfect, Captain. Thank you!"

"Whoa! I have to square it with the commander first. She's responsible for running the ship, and I won't override her if she feels it's inappropriate for you to be doing that."

Keera tried to quell her excitement, but she still felt optimistic. "Okay, Captain."

Martin ran the idea past Bethany the next time they met on the bridge. She nodded thoughtfully and after a moment said, "I think that's an excellent idea. I'll speak to her and set up a schedule."

Soon after that, Keera was a regular visitor to the bridge, and she took turns with whoever was on duty to go through some exercises at various stations. She even got to wear a shipís uniform, although it did have ĎCadetí on her shipís badge.

M'Rarrtikar came to Martinís office soon after Keera started her training.

"I'd like to thank you for allowing Keera to learn from the bridge crew. It not only means a lot to her, but it relieves a worry for us also."

"For you? How is that?" Martin asked in puzzlement. "Didn't you think she was going to get a good enough education?"

M'Rarrtikar smiled. "No, nothing like that. You're not a parent, so you probably haven't thought about it, but Keera is a teenager, and while our cultures might vary in some things, there are some things that are universal. In this case, it's Keera reaching that time of life when she gets rebellious and dissatisfied with the way things are. By giving her this training, she's focusing on what she wants, rather than our expectations. I'm sure that it will help make the next few years smoother for all of us."

"You're right Ė I hadn't thought of it in those terms. However, by the same token, what happens when she starts getting interested in finding a mate?"

M'Rarrtikar sighed. "I wish I had a good answer for that. Back when we were still in a Star Fleet ship, there were other Caitian families with young males. We fully expected Keera to find someone amongst them, or at least keep her happy until something better came along. On this ship though, the only male is her brother. The only way that she's going to find a potential mate is to meet one when we're in port somewhere. If she doesn't, it's possible that we would have to leave her with family back on Cait."

Martin frowned. "But if she has her heart set on a career in space, I don't think that will go down very well."

"Yes, you see our problem. As her parents, we must look after her best interests. However, what are they? Her career? A family? It isn't an easy choice."

"I would think that establishing a career would be the best thing to do first."

M'Rarrtikar shook her head. "You aren't taking Caitian culture into account. How well you do in your career depends not only on what you know, but on your status. You can gain status in various ways, but the simplest is to get mated. Our family has a fairly high status due not only to R'Murranís career achievements, but also because he has four wives. It doesn't matter how well Keera does academically Ė if she competes with another Caitian female with similar qualifications but is also mated, that personís status will always win over Keeraís unmated status. She needs to find a suitable mate to do well in a career."

Martin grimaced. "I see. That makes things complicated. So what do you intend to do?"

"For now Ė nothing. While she is happy with the way things stand, we can afford to wait and look for answers. With luck, something will come along before it becomes a crisis."


 

There were a few more minor problems amongst the crew on that first leg of their voyage. The Caitians especially were concerned about their disparate schedules, but a bit of fine tuning with their shifts alleviated that situation. Nothing was perfect of course Ė they had too small a crew to give everyone what they liked.

Heywood, while proving able to fit in with a crew of anthros quite readily, nevertheless occasionally grated on peopleís nerves because of his strong opinions on various subjects which were often at odds with the majority of others. They quickly learned to avoid debating certain subjects with him, and that mitigated that problem.

The chakats, outside of their duty shifts, tended to be a bit lazy, and werenít thrilled about being required to attend Anastasiyaís physical fitness sessions. Ironically, they were some of the most enthusiastic players of beach volleyball, and other very physical games available in the holosuite, and later the Shaftball matches. Martin put the moaning about the exercises down to being rather boring, and asked Anastasiya to make the sessions more interesting. In the end it was Valentina who came to the rescue with some well chosen music to help make the sessions more lively.

Danson proved to be somewhat reclusive. Martin wanted him to socialise with the crew a lot more, but was not going to force him to do so. However, a word with Ceres led Martin to realise that it was not shyness, but a discomfort with the sterile environment of the ship that kept him in his gardens most of the time. Martin solved this with a twofold approach. Firstly, he asked Danson to make planters that could be placed in the corridors and various public rooms about the ship to alleviate that sterile feel. Secondly, he dug up a holosuite program that had his native forests in it, and with Bethanyís help, added sub-programs from other sources. Basically he made an imitation of a foxtaur festival. Its resemblance to the real thing was somewhat crude, but good enough for Danson to willingly join the others in the festivities. Thereafter, similar social events were regularly scheduled for his benefit, but also because the rest of the crew enjoyed them.

It was therefore a fairly well integrated and happy crew that reached Bounty.


 

The Phoenixís first port of call was an agricultural colony. While the world had been a disappointment in terms of resources, it had been a godsend to the early space explorers. Much of planet Earth was still recovering from decades of war that had ruined so much prime agricultural land. It had been let regrow naturally, and today much of it was either grasslands or forest inhabited by the various species of wildlife that had survived the devastation. Despite the regrowth though, the soil remained dangerously unsafe for growing food crops, and would remain so for decades, or even centuries. Earth desperately needed new food growing areas. Bounty proved to have a geography and climate that was near perfect for large scale cropping, the only type that was truly economical for interstellar shipping. Even so, only the urgent requirement for lots of food made it a viable proposition at first. Nowadays, vast improvements in technology and starships made it a thriving worldwide business. There had been objections at first to the wholesale changes to much of the planetís ecology, but the needs of the people of Earth were greater, and Bounty became the new food basket for the regrowing population.

Still, to maximise profitability, foods were shipped in bulk wherever possible. Stasis units kept perishables as fresh as newly harvested for their long trip to Earth or other destinations in massive freighters. The worldís import needs were also generally served by those freighters which would otherwise have returned empty. This helped keep costs way down. However, occasionally someone on Bounty needed something that could not wait for that long, and thatís where the independent traders came in. Martin had been able to offer a far cheaper rate than any of the big multi-planetary shipping companies, and he had scored an impressively large consignment. All he had to do was to deliver it on time.

As this was their first test making a delivery as a new crew, Martin ordered a rehearsal of the procedures, which pointed out some minor bugs that they were able to iron out ahead of the real thing. When they pulled into orbit, M'Rarrtikar had all the Iís dotted and the Tís crossed on the paperwork, and Zelkie and Martin quickly and efficiently shuttled loads down to the spaceport where Risha coordinated the unloading with the ground crews. On Martinís first trip down, he took one of Phoenixís passengers, a young rabbit morph who had been sent to Earth to further his studies at a university, and was now returning home to take up a career.

The deliveries went without a hitch, and Martin was delighted to pick up a couple of priority deliveries for his next port of call. On his last trip down, he took several of the crew and cubs to get a few hours of fresh air and sunshine before they had to depart. Bounty had no tourist facilities whatsoever though, so there was no point in stopping longer.

Once under way again, Martin asked Hotfoot to prepare a special celebratory dinner. He scheduled it to overlap the change of shifts so that everyone could enjoy it about the same time. Right at the end of the first shift, everyone was in the mess hall except for Bethany, who was listening in from the bridge, and Martin called for everybodyís attention.

"Before the second shift has to go take their posts, I want to express my thanks to everyone for their fine efforts at Bounty. Everything went very smoothly, with everybody giving their best. Even the cubs helped out here and there, even if it was just to fetch refreshments for the rest of us. The bottom line is that we worked together as a crew should, and Iím proud of the lot of you. If the rest of the voyage goes as smoothly as this, Iíll be absolutely delighted. Thank you for vindicating my choice of you as the Phoenixís crew, and my shipmates." He raised a glass of sparkling wine that had been served to all who drank such, with other appropriate drinks to those who did not. "A toast to the continuing success of the Phoenix, and the people who make it so!"

There were cheers, glasses clinked, and the various crew congratulated each other. It was a very happy ship that proceeded to their next destination.


 

After Bounty, their next port of call was Erdatta, a Voxxan colony world, then Voxxa itself. Then they started looping back via another Voxxan colony, a Federation relay station, a Terran mining colony, then finally back to Earth. Aside from the air scrubber which Burningbright and M'Annissa'tk successfully repaired, systems on the Phoenix performed flawlessly, and the crew were now operating just as well. M'Rarrtikar reported a very profitable trip which Martin was able to apply to repaying part of his debt. He gave the crew two days R&R before they had to leave for their next voyage. Nobody realised that they had one unaccounted for passenger though.


 

Anastasiya had discovered the mouse morph when a routine security scan of a crate had revealed the presence of anomalous contents. The tiger had hauled her up to the captainís cabin where a bemused Martin had interrogated her.

"Just what do you think you were doing? You surely didnít think you could get away with stowing away? Youíd have had to leave that crate long before we got to our next destination."

"I didnít have to stay hidden for the entire trip," the mouse explained. "Only for as long as it took for it to be too late to turn back."

Martin had to admit that she had a point Ė there was no way that they would have turned back once they were under warp for their destination. "Okay, youíre right, but how the hell did you avoid detection until now? Security at the spaceport isnít that lax."

"I had help."

"AndÖ" Martin prompted.

"And Iím not saying any more. My helper doesnít deserve any repercussions for my actions."

"Thatís a matter of opinion, but itís not my place to do the job of law enforcement at the port. However, it is my job to look after the welfare of this ship. So why were you trying to stow away? And donít just say Ė Ďto get to Chakonaí."

"But that is half my reason anyway," she replied as if it was perfectly reasonable. "The other half is that I want to get away from some people."

Martin frowned. "Are you in trouble?"

"Not yet," the mouse replied with an impudent grin.

"What do you mean by that?"

"It means that my parents would hit the roof if they find out."

"What do you mean Ďifí? Weíll be taking you back down on the next shuttle and handing you over to Port Security. I doubt that theyíll be slow to let your parents know."

"Iím hoping that you wonít do that. In fact, Iím hoping that youíll let me stay on."

That surprised Martin. "Now why would I do that?"

"Because Iím eighteen and old enough to make my own decisions, and Iím prepared to work my passage. Also because youíd screw up my life if you send me back."

She gave Martin her best wide-eyed helpless waif look, which might have worked a lot better if she wasnít so well fed and sexy.

Martin sighed. "Alright, letís assume that you may have some skills that I might want. Iíd still like to know why I would be doing you such a disfavour by putting you off my ship."

The mouse grimaced. "Because if you do, my parents will force me to marry Edward."

That sounded like a terribly familiar story to Martin. "So you donít like the guy, and you reckon that leaving the planet is your best alternative? Surely you could just leave town?"

"Oh no, I really like Edward Ė heís a genuinely nice guy. Iíve known him for years."

Martin was confused. "Then why are you avoiding marriage so drastically?"

"Captain, if Iím going to marry anyone, itís going to be to the fem of my choice."

"Oh, youíre gay. Sorry, I should have thought about that possibility. Still, thereís no need to leave the planet just for that."

"It is if your name is Penelope Windsor."

Martinís eyebrows raised in surprise. "Windsor? As in Windsor Imports? Youíre the daughter of the owners of one of the biggest import companies on Earth?"

"Yep, thatís me," Penelope said with a grin. "And Dad has quite a long reach when he tries."

"I know Ė my father deals with him big time, and now heís one of my clients also. Now Iím beginning to see where that inside help came from. It also makes me a bit nervous about doing anything that might harm our business relationship."

"Even if the girl you found was named Penny Lane?" Penelope asked ingenuously.

"Huh? What do you mean?"

Penelope reached inside her coveralls, pulled out an ID card, and handed it to Martin. He looked at it and saw the name ĎPenny Laneí printed next to Penelopeís picture.

Martin looked at the mouse. "If I put this into a reader, Iím betting that Iíll get a really good fake ID, wonít I?"

Penelopeís grin never faded. "Yep."

Martin rolled his eyes. "OK, so why Chakona?"

"Why not? Iíve always wanted to go there, and I should be able to make a new start for myself, and not as Daddyís little girl."

Martin had to admire her spirit, and it reminded him of his own desires to break free of the mould and do his own thing. Still, there were financial considerations. "So what can you do to earn your passage? And how are you planning to pay for the food that youíll consume, plus all the other expenses?"

"Oh, thatís not a problem." She took another object out of her pocket and showed it to the coyote. "I may not be able to take a regular commercial passenger service because Daddy would track me down in an instant, but I certainly could afford it. This e-cash card has a large stash of Fedcreds on it Ė quite untraceable. Iím sure that we can come to some arrangement."

"No doubt we can," Martin said drily. "But what can you do for us? I canít take you on as a paying passenger Ė I wonít fake the paperwork for that. An unknown stowaway has to work for her keep though."

"Iím an entertainer. I play the keyboard and sing. I tell jokes and really good stories. Iím a great game partner. Try me and see!" Penelope said enthusiastically.

Martin grinned. "I can see why your fatherís plans didnít fit you. Are you sure youíre his daughter? You sure donít sound like the child of a big businessman."

Penny nodded rapidly, her smile never fading.

Martin could not help but be amused by her unwavering cheerfulness, and he figured that she might just work out after all. "Okay, youíve managed to appeal to both my curiosity and my own dreams of independence. You can stay. Iíll hold onto this e-cash card for now, and weíll work out expenses later."

"Thank you, Captain!" The mouse gave the coyote an unexpected hug.

"UmÖ yeahÖ donít do that, please," Martin said, acutely conscious of her plush breasts pressing up against him. He turned to Anastasiya who had been awaiting the verdict. "Anastasiya, let the record show that Ms Lane was discovered an hour or so after we went into warp. Now find her a spare cabin while we finish loading up. We donít want her spotted by anyone before we depart."

"Aye, Captain," Anastasiya replied with a grin.

And so that was how Penny started as the shipís Entertainment and Morale Officer. Her fake ID had been sufficient to gain her a visitorís visa at Chakona, but Martin had advised her that if she wanted to try for residency, it would never hold up under the closer scrutiny. The point had become moot however when the girl had formally requested to stay on as regular crew. By then she had so enamoured herself with the rest of the crew that Martin would have been very hard pressed to say no. In fact, most of them had come with her when she had made the request. The only one who had been less than thrilled when Martin had agreed was Bethany, although not for the reason that the mouse constantly flouted formal procedures, or was less than satisfactory as regular crew. No, it was a lot more personal. Penny had developed a crush on the flustered vixen despite being informed that she was firmly heterosexual only. Martin was constantly amused by the fact that the normally unflappable commander was nearly helpless before the cuteness onslaught of the little mouse. As much as he valued his First Officer, sometimes he reckoned that she needed to have her cool exterior rocked a bit, and that was best done by someone who didnít directly affect the running of the ship.


 

Phoenix completed another voyage without incident, along with another nice profit margin. M'Rarrtikar was able to report that Martin was well within the parameters of paying off his debt within the stipulated time, and that pleased the coyote greatly. The one sour note was that the workload on the crew was beginning to show on a few of them. Phoenix needed a couple more personnel to relieve that pressure, but Martinís budget did not really have sufficient margin to allow him to hire more people yet. He wanted to, but until his debt was repaid, he could not take the risk. There was too much to lose if he came up short. Unexpectedly, a solution presented itself from a surprising source, although it did leave him feeling bemused at first.

Martin had been in his cabin working on his contacts in order to secure more cargo contracts when Bethany let him know that if he could spare a moment, he had important visitors. He told her to send them up, and he went to meet them as they emerged from the translift. One of them was in Star Fleet uniform Ė a jaguar fem Ė no, a herm, he noticed. Shi was accompanied by two incredibly cute fennec fox morph children Ė about twelve years old, he estimated. The only thing wrong was that Martin happened to know that there werenít any fennec fox morphs on Earth.

"Captain Yote, I presume?" the jaguar asked.

"That would be me," he confirmed as he held out his hand to shake hirs.

"My name is Commander Aileen Ramirez, and we come to you with a request from the Federation Council."

Martinís eyes rose in surprise. "What on Earth, or anywhere else for that matter, could I do for the Council?"

"First let me introduce these people," Aileen said as shi gestured to hir companions. "These are Loander and Presaith, representatives from the planet Nameth. They are Faleshkarti, an alien herm species, not Terran morphs."

Martin smiled at the Faleshkarti and said, "No offence intended, but I have never heard of that world or your species, and arenít you a bit young to be representatives?"

The one identified as Loander replied in softly accented but precise Terranglo, "It is hardly surprising that you have not heard of us as we have only recently opened up relationships with the Federation. As for our apparent age, while you are correct when you say that we are young, in fact we are both at the beginning of our professional careers, and at a very normal age for our kind."

"You will find them to be quite remarkable," Aileen added.

"Why would I find them anything at all? What did you come to see me for?" Martin asked.

Aileen replied, "The Faleshkarti people have requested to send a number of their kind out into the Federation to observe and assess how they might fit in. We would be grateful if you could take Loander and Presaith with you so that they can experience shipboard culture and how you interact with other worlds."

Martin was a little puzzled. "Isnít a small commercial vessel an odd choice? Wouldnít they be better off going in a Star Fleet ship or visiting communities on Earth?"

"Believe me, Captain," Presaith answered, "there are plenty more of our kind doing precisely that and many other tasks. Loander and I specifically requested a ship of your nature because it fits in best with our skills and desires."

"Not that Iím agreeing to take you on, but what kind of skills are we talking about?"

"I am a starship systems engineer, and Loander is a comptech."

Martinís ears pricked up at the latter. "We donít have a specialty comptech amongst the crew, and we have a software glitch that has been giving us problems. Letís see if you can do anything about that, and then maybe Iíll consider taking you on. You are familiar with Terran computer systems, I hope?"

"Of course," Loander replied, "or else there would not be much point in applying for the post, would there?"

Martin noted that while they looked like children, they sure didnít talk like them. "HmmÖ right. Come with me."

Martin led them all up to the bridge and showed Loander one of the workstations. He logged into the station and pulled up one of the system programs. "This program has been regularly crashing despite being reinstalled. Our engineer has determined that the equipment that it monitors is in perfect working order, so that doesnít seem to be triggering it. Although we have competent comp operators, we have no programming experts, so we havenít tracked down the problem as yet. Do you think that you can do anything with it?"

Loander nodded. "If the situation is exactly as you described it, I can find it," shi replied confidently.

"Good luck," Martin said, then turned his attention to Presaith. "Now you said that you are a starship systems engineer; what kind of experience have you had with Federation systems?"

"Not a lot," Presaith admitted, "but I am fully rated on Faleshkarti systems, and I canít see a problem learning the differences."

Martin was sceptical that a twelve year old could be a fully rated engineer, but he was not about to say that in front of the Star Fleet rep. He said to Ceres who had been standing watch on the bridge, "Keep an eye on our Faleshkarti guest, Ceres, while I take the others to meet R'Murran."

"Aye, sir," the Starwalker replied.

Martin led Presaith and Ramirez down to Main Engineering where he introduced them to his Caitian engineer.

RíMurran was as surprised as Martin had been, but a tad less sceptical. "Letís see your qualifications," he said.

Presaith handed him hir PADD which listed hir qualifications with the Federation equivalents next to them. After scrolling through them, he said, "These look fine, but letís see what youíre like in practice. Computer! Set controls to training mode alpha."

"Training mode alpha engaged," came the neutral voice of the shipís A.I.

"Alright, Shir Presaith," RíMurran said as he tapped a few buttons, his claws tik-tik-tikking over the surface of the controls, "Iím setting up an emergency cold start scenario. Show us what you can do to get us going with the least amount of harm to the ship."

Presaith nodded and looked over the controls to familiarise hirself with the layout. Although they were set a bit high for someone of hir stature, shi acted confidently and with little difficulty. After several minutes shi said, "Done Ė optimal output reached."

RíMurran smiled. "That was very well done considering that you are new to this shipís systems. Iíll set up another scenario. Once again his short fingers played expertly over the keys to set up the problem, and once again the Faleshkarti handled it with little difficulty.

RíMurran turned to Martin and said, "For someone who has never laid eyes on this shipís particular design, Presaith did extremely well. Iím confident that with training, shi could almost be at my level in a short time. Captain Ė I know that weíve been a bit shorthanded due to economic considerations, but I would really like to take hir on as Engineer 2nd."

Martin nodded. "Iíll take your request into consideration, Chief." He turned to the others and said, "Letís go back to the bridge and see how Loander is doing."

Martin was surprised to see that Loander was not at the computer station, but chatting with Ceres instead who seemed to be showing hir some of the other bridge equipment. "Was there some sort of problem holding you up, Shir Loander?"

"No, Captain. I have found and fixed your software bug already."

The corner of Martinís muzzle twitched. "YouÖ fixed it already? You went through that complex program and found in under 45 minutes what my crew had failed to find in days?"

"Yes, sir. I found the problem in about thirteen minutes and wrote and applied the fix by about twenty. Iíve been conversing with your astrogator about your voyages since then. I hope that you will seriously consider taking us on so that we can share your travels."

Martin blinked in mute astonishment for a long moment, then asked, "Are you sure that youíre only twelve years old?"

Loander nodded. "In Terran years, yes."

Martin absorbed that, then shook off the shock. "Shir Loander, Shir Presaith, Commander Ramirez Ė please accompany me to my office."

Once back in his office, he sat behind his desk and waited for the others to make themselves comfortable. Then he said, "Okay, whatís the deal, Commander? If youíve checked us out thoroughly, you should know that weíre a very new outfit, and while weíre making very nice progress, we still arenít in the black and wonít be for at least a couple more voyages. R'Murranís request notwithstanding, I really canít afford to put on two new crewmembers as yet, especially ones as highly competent as these two obviously are. Weíre stretched a fair bit, but almost everyone is cross-trained and can cover for other people now. So even if I wanted to, putting these two on the payroll would not be a good idea until I can afford a larger crew."

Ramirez replied, "Yes, we did check you out and know exactly how you stand, but we have an offer for you. The Federation Council will pay Loander and Presaith a wage commensurate with their positions on your ship. You will provide meals, accommodation, equipment and uniforms. This agreement will be effective for one complete round trip after which the situation will be re-evaluated."

Martin leaned back in his chair, clasping his hands behind his head. With a sly smile, he said, "Commander, letís talk details."


 

The Faleshkarti had proven to be excellent additions to the crew, although even now Martin still had a sense of unreality of having two children fulfilling their jobs in the manner of adults twice their age. That voyage had done much to enlighten Martin, however, and he empathised with their raceís plight Ė a race that lost much of its intelligence when they reached sexual maturity and entered their breeding phase. He also had to admit to being a little relieved to find out that they werenít really a super-intelligent species Ė they just got up to that level much faster, but then plateaued at that level that much sooner, with just a few years of productive life before they lost it again. Martin fervently hoped that the Federation scientists would quickly find a solution to their dilemma. They both still had several years leeway though, and Martin was more than happy to sign them up for another tour of duty after the Phoenix completed its third voyage. Commander Ramirez had made it plain though that if he wanted to continue using their services after that, the Federation would no longer be paying their wages.

Martin had been bemused to see them acquire a liking for hot chocolate and start spending their free time with Katarina. Despite their intelligence, sense of responsibility, and professionalism, in the end the Faleshkarti were still children, and they identified best with the tiger child who, despite being a couple of years younger, already was much taller than the fennec-like aliens. Anastasiya and Valentina were happy for the Faleshkarti to be hir friends as they seemed to inspire their child to higher achievements. Valentina even seemed a bit maternal towards them. This somewhat puzzled Loander and Presaith as they had absolutely no experience with the phenomenon. No Faleshkarti knew hir parents, nor was brought up in anything that Terrans would recognise as a family. However, they found it pleasant and tolerated the tigerís attentions. Like everyone else, they had found their place in the crew, and they in turn accepted them.


 

It was time to depart for their fourth voyage, and Martin finished off the remainder of his coffee. With the last of the crew now present in the mess hall, barring M'Resk, he could start the pre-flight ritual that had evolved over the past voyages. He nodded at Bethany who had been awaiting his signal. At a touch on her PADD, the bosun's pipe blew in the room, bringing conversations to a halt.

Martin said, "M'Rarrtikar Ė have all our passengers arrived and been checked in?"

The Caitian replied, "Yes, Captain. M'Resk reports that they are all settled into their cabins for take-off. We have one extra Ė one of the passengers brought along his son at the last moment. I charged him full fare plus a late booking fee."

Martin nodded. "A bit more income wonít go astray. Risha, have we got adequate reserves to feed an extra mouth for the duration of his stay aboard?"

Risha replied, "The passenger was booked just early enough for me to get some extra supplies loaded onto the last shuttle at the last moment, so we still have the normal optimum reserves."

"Excellent. Valentina Ė what is the cargo situation like?"

"All freight is stored and secured," the tiger replied. "We are expecting priority parcel still though. Is due by courier drone within ten minutes Ė five minutes before lock-down."

"Thatís cutting it a bit fine, but itís a high priority item and theyíve paid in advance, so weíll wait until the last moment. We cannot afford a fine for missing our departure slot though, so keep a close eye on the situation." Martin was aware of what the item was, but part of the contract stipulated total confidentiality as well as urgency. Only he, Bethany, and the two tigers knew exactly what they were carrying, and why it was being delivered so close to deadline.

Valentina nodded and turned hir attention to hir PADD to do precisely that.

"Department heads Ė sit-rep please," Martin continued.

"Everythingís in the green, sir. Weíre good to go," reported R'Murran.

Baxter said, "Scheduled diagnostics and maintenance completed on navigation and helm systems. All nominal, Captain."

Burningbright spoke next. "Environmental systems flushed and replenished; all is green across the board."

Anastasiya was the last to report. "All cargo scanned. No suspicious goods or devices detected. No stowaways found," shi added with a wink to Penny. "All ports secured except for main cargo hatch which is awaiting priority parcel."

"Which is just arriving," Valentina interjected. "Pardon me, Captain, while I take delivery."

Martin nodded and said, "Go." As the tiger left, he continued, "My friends, this voyage will mark a milestone for our young business. With the successful completion of it, Phoenix Incorporated will be halfway to the goal of being in the black, well within the time I allocated, and that will mean some well deserved bonuses."

There was a chorus of cheers at that news.

Martin continued, "We have been fortunate to acquire some lucrative contracts, but it has been your hard work and dedication that has been a large factor in our success, and I thank you all. Now letís make this the best voyage yet. Hotfoot has agreed to cook up something special for the main meal tonight, but until then, may your gods smile upon us as we get under way. Everybody to stations Ė we depart in eighteen minutes."

Exactly on schedule, the control tower gave Phoenix clearance to depart from its slot at Earthís gateway station, and make its way along the carefully plotted route through the crowded spaceways around that world. Once clear of Earthís gravity well, the starshipís warp drive engaged to begin its historic fourth voyage.


Continued in Chapter 3.


 

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

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