Flight of the Phoenix
Chapter 3 Passenger Peril
By Bernard Doove © 2012
The first hint that anything was abnormal did not come from Anastasiya. In fact it came from the least likely source on the ship. Yote was in his office and had just completed the day’s paperwork. He turned the chair around and leaned back to relax while watching the stars streak past in the viewport. It was all an illusion of course. Even at top warp speed, stars simply did not go by that fast. In fact it was an artefact of hyperspace that was not really fully understood. There was some speculation that they were stellar objects in that plane of reality, although they didn’t seem to show on scans other than as purely visible light. No one had actually encountered those objects – at least none that survived to tell about it. Nevertheless, they gave people the sense of moving fast, and they were pretty and relaxing to watch.
There was a knock behind him, followed by a voice that said, "Pardon me, Captain, but could I have a word with you?"
Martin swivelled around to see Penny standing in the doorway. "Come in, Penny. What’s bothering you?"
The mouse entered, and Martin could already see that the normally irrepressible girl was upset about something.
"It’s the passengers, sir – there’s something odd about them."
"Odd? In what way?"
"Well… normally they spend the first couple of days chatting, getting to know each other. There’s not a whole lot to do besides watching vids or watching one of my little performances."
"And they’re not this time?"
"That’s just it – it’s as if they’re carefully avoiding unnecessary public contact. The passenger bookings suggest that they have nothing to do with each other, but I still have this odd feeling… I can’t really put my finger on it."
Martin considered her words. "It’s only your third voyage – heck, it’s only the fourth for many of us. There are plenty of circumstances that we haven’t encountered yet. We’ll probably run across many unusual situations in the years to come. I think we’ll just have to wait a while and see how things work out."
"Oh… okay." Despite accepting his words, Penny didn’t move to leave.
"That isn’t what’s really bothering you, is it? You can tell me, Penny."
"It… it’s something a lot more personal," she said hesitantly.
"I’m prepared to listen if you really wish to tell me about it."
"It’s that teen canimorph – the one that came along with his father at the last moment. He recognised me."
Martin frowned. "How is that possible?"
"His father works as a security guard at the spaceport. The boy was visiting his father there on one of the days that my father dragged me along in the vain hope of getting me interested in his business. I was wearing a cheesy dress at the time, so I tried to persuade him that he’d gotten the wrong person, but he was adamant that he was certain that it was me. And Captain – he says that there’s a reward posted for information leading to finding me."
"Damn. So the guy wants to claim the reward. That will make things awkward when we get back to Earth."
"It’s worse than that, Captain. He wants to blackmail me."
"What?" Martin was outraged. "I’ll kick the bastard off the ship at the next port! Wait – what could he be blackmailing you for if not the reward money?"
The mouse remained unhappily silent.
Martin put two and two together and got even more pissed off. "Did you try telling him that you’re a lesbian?"
Penny nodded. "He said, ‘Doesn’t matter to me. You’re going to be my bitch for the rest of the trip, or else daddy gets a message for where to find his stray lamb.’ He then left me to think about it. I think that he’s confident that I’ll give in."
"I think that he’s wrong. Why didn’t you tell him flat out to go to hell?"
"I didn’t want to cause you trouble with the passengers, or with my father if I did that," Penny said earnestly.
Martin got out from behind his desk and gathered Penny into an embrace. "Oh, Penny dear, I’d rather take on a hundred such people than let any of my people come to harm. You’re more than just crew to me, y’know?"
Penny sniffled and nodded. She hugged Martin back and said, "Thanks, Captain."
"Now go back and give that guy your answer – preferably one that involves kicking him in the balls. Don’t tell anyone that I told you to do that though. I suggest that you take Anastasiya along with you in case he doesn’t like your answer and tries to cause more trouble."
Penny’s smile was returning. "I’ll do that, Captain." The mouse girl left with the bounce back in her step.
Martin sat back down at his desk and considered what Penny had told him. Despite his reassurances, he was a little perturbed by the news. In the few times that he had met them, the passengers had given him a vibe that he didn’t like, but just as with Penny, he couldn’t put his finger on it. Penny’s observations only added weight to that feeling. He would have to have a word with Anastasiya after shi dealt with dog boy.
Penny contacted Anastasiya and arranged to meet hir at hir office. There she explained the situation and the captain’s recommendation.
Anastasiya nodded. "I will wait out of sight. If boy is smart and let’s things lie, I will let the matter stay just between you two. If not smart, I will be there if you need me."
"Thanks. He’s usually in the passenger lounge. Let’s get this over with," Penny said determinedly.
The German Shepherd morph was alone in the passenger lounge, playing a video game. He glanced up as Penny entered, and he grinned. "Finally realised that you’d better play things my way?" he asked as he paused the game and got up out of his chair.
"Oh yes, I’ve come to let you know my answer," Penny said as she reached up as if to embrace the boy. Instead of hugging him though, she pulled him in closer and kneed him in the groin as hard as she could.
With an anguished cry, the dog collapsed n the floor in agony.
"I hope that I made my position crystal clear," Penny said sweetly. "Don’t harass me any more, understand?" Without bothering to wait for an answer, she turned and exited the lounge.
Unfortunately she did not see the boy struggle to his feet while grimacing in pain. He stumbled after the mouse and caught up to her while she was waiting for the trans-lift. He took her by surprise, grabbing her by her jumpsuit and spinning her around to face him. "Nobody does that to me, you bitch! Now learn your place!" he yelled hoarsely. He hauled back his fist to bash the terrified mouse, only to have it stopped in mid-swing. His arm was yanked painfully behind his back, and he was hoisted up until his toes lifted from the floor.
"So you like it rough, boy?" came Anastasiya’s growl. "I like it rough too, and I think I’d like to play with you for a while. Do you like that idea, boy? Are you man enough for me?"
The dog knew who and what Anastasiya was, and he went cold with fear. "No!" he gasped.
"Pity – you could have been such fun. If you don’t like it so much, why are you bothering my friend, Penny? I don’t like it when my friends get hurt. I like to hurt people who hurt my friends."
"Pl… please, don’t," he begged as Anastasiya’s grip tightened and hir claws dug in to emphasise hir words.
"Foolish child," Anastasiya said contemptuously, releasing the painful grip that shi had on him.
He collapsed on the floor, only to be hauled back up to his feet by his shirt. The tiger then shoved him into the waiting trans-lift, saying, "I have good room waiting for you. Ship’s brig is nice and clean and never been used."
The tiger came by Martin’s office to report the incident, leaving nothing out.
Martin thanked Anastasiya for hir good work, and then added, "I’m going to throw the bastard off the ship at Elantra. I don’t care that it’s a small colony that hardly gets any passing traffic – it’ll be his problem to find his way to his destination, or back home. I just want him off our ship as soon as possible. Better inform his father, of course."
"I will make arrangements," Anastasiya assured him.
Martin wasn’t surprised to see the adult German Shepherd barging into his office shortly thereafter.
"What the hell do you think you’re doing to my son?" the dog yelled without preamble.
Martin noted that he was a rough-looking character with a torn ear. Although none of the passengers who chose to travel on a tramp vessel like the Phoenix had much money, this person’s dress was a distinct notch below the norm, and he was coming across as a homeless bum rather than a thrifty traveller.
"Your son sexually assaulted one of my crew, Mr Shepherd," Martin said coldly. "He has been put under arrest and will remain in the brig until I deliver him to the authorities at Elantra."
"You can’t do that! He has to come with me to the Landrau colony."
"I am the ultimate authority on this ship, Mr Shepherd. I can and have the right to eject any undesirables. Your son will not be going to the Landrau colony with you."
"You can’t do that! He’s got a ticket through to the Landrau colony. You’re obligated to take him there. I’ll sue you if you don’t!"
"You should have read your copy of the rules and conditions, Mr Shepherd. You haven’t a legal leg to stand on. However, if you don’t wish to be parted with your son, I will quite gladly put you off at Elantra also." Martin already had just about enough of this obnoxious morph.
"What? This is outrageous! I’m warning you, Captain – don’t cross with me!" The dog leaned over the desk with his teeth bared in a snarl.
"And I’m warning you, Mr Shepherd, that I won’t tolerate any misbehaviour on my ship. You are on the brink of joining your son at this rate."
"Don’t lecture me, you smug coyote! I’ve had to deal with your kind before – you and your arrogance. Think you’re better than me?" He started poking Martin in the chest quite forcefully. "I’m onto you. You’re just another stuck-up son of a bitch to me, and if you don’t let my son out of the brig right now, I’m gonna make you regret the day you were whelped!"
Martin had taken all that he was going to. "Anastasiya, would you take Mr Shepherd to see his son and acquaint him with the facilities there?"
"With pleasure, Captain." The tiger grabbed Shepherd’s shoulder in a vicelike grip.
Shepherd winced in pain, but as he was dragged off, he defiantly yelled, "You’re going to regret this, you bastard! And sooner than you think!" He was hauled out of sight, but his ranting continued. "And I won’t be forgetting you either, you cock-bitch freak. Arrgh!"
Martin smirked. Somehow he felt that Anastasiya hadn’t appreciated Shepherd’s comment. He hoped that shi didn’t get too rough with the fool. He didn’t want to be explaining too much to the Elantra authorities.
With eight days to go before they reached the Elantra colony, Martin was glad that everything seemed to settle down to normalcy. The passengers still seemed unusually stand-offish, but nobody gave them trouble like the Shepherds did. He reviewed the passenger list – five morphs, two Voxxans and a human – all bound for the Landrau colony on business of some kind. Only the human had booked onwards to their next port of call, another colony world, and then to Voxxa. The others would have to wait until another ship came along eventually to either go back home or to another destination. The Landrau colony did not have regular shipping as yet, and starships like Phoenix which were contracted by the Star Corps to supply them, were almost the only means of getting to and from the world. If the passengers had done their homework though, their stay might be a minimal one if another starship from another planet arrived soon after Phoenix. That was their problem though.
Eleven days passed without incident. When they were still twelve hours out from Landrau, Martin took himself off the bridge, leaving Ceres on watch with Baxter at the helm. He headed off to the mess hall to see what Hotfoot had available for supper before he retired for the ‘night’. As he exited the bridge into the passageway to the trans-lift, he came across an odd sight. Ner'ritn was patiently feeding a cable from a reel into an open service conduit. The cable appeared to be being pulled by something unseen.
"What are you up to at this time?" Martin enquired curiously of the Caitian girl.
"Oh, hi Captain. I’m helping Momma M'Nissa'tk replace a faulty sensor cable," Ner'ritn replied without halting the careful feeding.
"Well, it’s a sure bet that your mother isn’t in that tiny passage, so how’s it being pulled through?"
"Menalippe is in the conduit. Mom was cursing the narrow service ducts when Menalippe walked by and volunteered to help."
Martin nodded. "Makes sense – she’s the smallest of any of us, and very flexible. You should get the job done in half the time."
"That’s the idea."
"OK, carry on, but don’t make it too late. It’s your bedtime, I know. As for me, my stomach is reminding me that it’s time for me to eat. Good night, Ner'ritn."
Martin continued onto the mess hall where he found that Hotfoot had been forewarned that he was on his way, and shi had a meal served up and ready for him. The two Voxxan passengers were there also. One looked up at Martin, nodded in curt greeting, and then turned his attention back to his food. Martin was about halfway through his meal when that Voxxan got up from his table and walked over to Martin’s.
"I believe that you have two passengers in the brig?" he asked without preamble.
Martin glanced up. "Mr Kavenak, isn’t it? Yes, I do. Is that a problem?"
"Yes it is, Captain. I would like it if you would release them immediately, please."
"Sorry, but that isn’t going to happen until we reach Elantra."
"I’m afraid that I am going to have to insist."
Martin suddenly found himself staring at the business end of a weapon. It was a curiously makeshift-looking device, but Martin was instantly sure that it was nonetheless effective. He noticed that the other Voxxan had gotten up and pulled out a similar weapon, and moved to cover the entrance to the galley. There would be no heroics coming from Hotfoot. He glared up at Kavenak. "How did you get those aboard my ship?" All people passing through the spaceport were automatically scanned for weapons, but most starships did their own additional scans for full security. Martin had no reason to believe that Anastasiya had lapsed in hir thoroughness.
"That’s not important. What is important is releasing your two prisoners and forgetting about leaving them on Elantra."
"Why are they so important to you?"
"Stop asking questions and get up. We’re going to the brig now, and you’re going to behave yourself or else. Hand over your comm and don’t try any tricks. Revendi, bring along the chakat."
Hotfoot was very upset at being rousted from hir kitchen at gunpoint. The fact that shi was obviously being used to ensure Martin’s good behaviour disturbed both of them. They left the mess hall and headed for the trans-lift. They called a car, and moments later they were herded inside and headed up a few decks into parts of the ship that were out of bounds to the passengers. Biometric controls normally kept them out but allowed the crew to have easy access. Unfortunately it also let in anyone who was with the crew.
Anastasiya’s office was next to the brig, of course. Martin hoped that the tiger had retired for the night, but it was not to be. Shi was sitting at hir desk, working on something, but as soon as Martin entered, shi turned hir attention to him. Shi immediately sensed something was wrong and threw hirself out of hir chair in an effort to take Kavenak by surprise… and amazingly succeeded. One powerful hand pushed his weapon aside as the other went to deal him an incapacitating blow. Unfortunately shi had not yet seen his companion. Revendi’s weapon hummed and Anastasiya screamed and dropped like a sack of potatoes.
"Anastasiya!" Martin cried out, bending over the tiger to check hir out.
"Leave hir!" commanded Kavenak. "Shi’s just stunned. Now release Shepherd or I will shoot hir again. That will be enough to stop hir heart."
Martin glared at the Voxxan, but did as he was told. He led them into an adjacent room which had three cells. Father and son Shepherd had been given the luxury of a cell each. Martin went to the control panel and released the electronic locks on both.
The adult dog rushed out of his cell and gave Martin a roundhouse punch to the face. Martin was knocked to the floor, dizzy and in pain from the huge blow. "That’s for locking me up, you son of bitch!" Then he turned to Kavenak. "What the hell took you so long to free me?"
"Shut up!" Kavenak snarled. "You got yourself into this mess. You and your idiot son have nearly ruined our plans. If we didn’t need to keep this out of the authorities’ view, I would have cheerfully left you to your fate. Now try to be of some use and lock this chakat up. The tiger is unconscious in the next room. Drag hir into a cell also before shi comes to. Captain – you’re coming with me."
Martin had no choice – the nerve-shock from the heavy-duty stunner at his back was just as capable of killing also, as Kavenak had threatened to do to Anastasiya. As they headed out, he noticed Revendi at the controls of the security systems, and he suspected that the Voxxan was disabling many of the measures that prevented their free movement, such as the trans-lift and compartment locks. As they continued out towards the trans-lift, he asked, "What do you intend to do with us?" He didn’t really expect a reply, but he got one anyway.
"For now, you will all get to enjoy the comforts of your cells. When we get to Elantra, we will need you to reassure the authorities that everything is okay. Then you will proceed to Landrau as planned."
"We’ve got cargo to unload there, What about that? If we don’t, it will look very suspicious."
"You’ll unload that too, and you’ll even have some help."
"Help? How so?"
Just then the trans-lift arrived and the doors opened. One of the other passengers, a European lynx morph, was inside and also brandishing a stunner, which was pointed at Penny and M'Resk.
Kavenak stood aside to let the others out. "The brig is ready for those two, Anders," he told the lynx. "Hurry back – we need to round up the entire crew before someone can raise the alarm."
"Right," the lynx replied, and they headed off while Kavenak and Martin entered the trans-lift.
Penny and M’Resk arrived at the brig just as the two Shepherds had finished dragging Anastasiya into a cell. The younger grinned nastily when he saw Penny and grabbed her arm.
"I told you that you’ll be my bitch, Now I’m going to make up for lost time. OW!" His father had backhanded him on the muzzle, and his eyes watered from the pain.
"Can’t you keep your cock in your pants for even five minutes? I’m sorry I let you talk me into bringing you along. If it wasn’t for you, we wouldn’t be in this clusterfuck right now. Put her in the cells with the others! There will be time for that later."
The younger Shepherd glared hatefully at his father, but did as he was told.
"Stay here and help put the prisoners in the cells when they’re brought in," the elder Shepherd ordered. "I’m going back to join the others."
Meanwhile Martin and the two Voxxans had reached the bridge. The extra security there could not be overridden from Anastasiya’s desk, so Martin was needed to access it. The coyote had been trying to think of a way out of their predicament without success, and he was distressed that he was being forced to put the rest of his crew in danger also.
Ceres was surprised to see Martin return. "Is there a problem, Captain? Why are these passengers on the bridge?"
"Yes, there’s a problem, Ceres, and they are it. Martin indicated the weapons that now covered the foxtaur and human too.
Kavenak said, "Don’t try anything stupid, and no one will get hurt. Captain, I want you to disable all the security systems and release the controls to us. I’m familiar with the procedures, so don’t try any tricks. Try to send out a warning to your crew and I will kill you, and then get Blackie to do it instead."
Martin had no choice but to take that statement at face value, and he reluctantly did as he was told, knowing that it would leave the entire crew vulnerable and helpless. "It’s done."
Kavenak activated his wrist-comm. "Kavenak here – all the security has been disabled. Take over Engineering and round up the remainder of the crew." He turned his attention back to the others. "Put everything onto full automatic. You won’t be needed here until just before we get to Elantra. Everyone off the bridge now!"
They were herded back to the brig where they found R'Murran and Presaith already incarcerated. They looked questioningly at Martin who could only shrug helplessly. He presumed that the hijackers must have been waiting outside of Engineering for the word to be given in order for them to have been rounded up so quickly. He was immensely relieved though to see that Anastasiya had recovered consciousness, although shi seemed to be nursing a huge headache.
Gradually the rest of the crew and all the children were being rounded up and crammed in the cells with the rest. The hijackers swept the ship deck by deck, rousting some of the ship’s complement from their beds. Zelkie, Burningbright and all the chakat cubs came in all at once with three people covering them with their weapons. Zelkie had a grim look on hir face and was carrying an unconscious Candycane on hir back. When the villains had left Martin was able to ask what had happened.
"They caught us totally by surprise, Captain," Zelkie explained. "We were all asleep in our common room when suddenly those three were in our room and trying to wake us up."
Martin knew how deeply chakats slept once they settled down, so it was unsurprising that they had had a hard time rousing them.
Zelkie continued, "The wolf decided to ‘encourage’ me by pistol-whipping me," shi said as shi touched hir fingers to a bright red stain on the fur on hir forehead. "Between being too dizzy from the blow, and with too many guns pointed at the cubs, I wasn’t able to fight back."
"What happened to Candycane?"
"Shi attacked the wolf after he hit me. Shi was knocked unconscious for hir effort. I couldn’t protect hir," Zelkie said bitterly.
"It’s okay, Zelkie. No one is blaming you. If you want to blame anyone, blame me. I disabled all the security, including the locks on your cabins."
"Why did you… no… you had a gun pointed at you too. I can’t blame you for that, Captain."
"But I will take responsibility for it. All is not lost though. We just need to bide our time for now."
"Not much else we can do."
Next to arrive were Risha along with the Caitian children – Keera and Kannekin. Risha looked dishevelled and seriously pissed-off – the angriest Martin had ever seen the usually placid cougar. Keera wasn’t happy, but she was relatively calm. Young Kannekin though was really upset, and he was sniffling and generally not listening too well to what their captors were telling them to do. The wolf bellowed in anger and shoved Kannekin towards the cells. He stumbled, fell hard, and started bawling, tears flooding his eyes.
There was a scream of rage from the cougar, and she leapt upon the wolf, heedless of the weapons trained upon her. Caught unawares, the lynx didn’t bring his weapon to bear upon her until too late, and she had the wolf between them as a shield. She grabbed both of the wolf’s wrists in two of her hands, restraining them while the other two rained blows on his face and abdomen. Her claws opened long gashes in his fur before the lynx was able to get around and shoot her. Risha yowled in agony for a brief moment and then collapsed. The wolf swayed on his feet, almost joining Risha on the floor. One eye was already swollen shut, and blood matted his fur in a couple of places.
The lynx cursed, unlocked the least crowded cell, and then stepped back a safe distance. "Get her and those kids into your cell – now!" he demanded as he waved his weapon menacingly.
M'Nissa'tk, who was already in that cell, came out to gather up Kannekin, while Ceres and Baxter gathered up the unconscious cougar.
The lynx reactivated the lock and then took the time to examine the wolf. "Shit, Marko – you’re a mess!"
The wolf growled and seemed to be recovering. He pushed the lynx away. "I’ll be okay, Anders. Just let me at that cunt!"
Anders restrained Marko. "Don’t! Kavenak's running this show, and he says that they stay unharmed."
The wolf snarled, but relented. However, as he turned to leave, he said, "I will get payback later though."
Eventually the cells were filled with the remainder of the crew, plus their one human passenger who was complaining bitterly about his mistreatment. Martin murmured to Burningbright who was in the cell with him, "'Bright, can you do a scan of that man? I need to know if he’s genuinely a prisoner like us, or if he’s a plant here to keep an eye on us."
Burningbright nodded and Martin addressed the man. "Mr Davies, are you alright?"
"Yeah, sure I am. Being dragged out of bed at gunpoint is the highlight of my trip."
Ignoring his sarcastic comment, Martin looked at Burningbright questioningly. The chakat gave him the thumbs-up sign. Satisfied with hir verdict, Martin said, "We’re not too thrilled about it either, but hang in there, and we’ll try to get you through this unscathed."
"Big promises from a guy behind bars," scoffed Shepherd Senior who had brought in the man and had paused to gloat.
"That reminds me," Martin said, turning his attention to the dog. "Kavenak never did explain how you got those weapons on board my ship." He was not sure if the dog would answer either, but it did not hurt to try fishing for information.
Shepherd looked smugly proud. "They’re my invention. I used my knowledge of security scanners to create them. They came aboard in pieces which, when scanned, resembled other harmless items. The focusing crystals were encased in a scan-absorbent substance that masqueraded as packing material. The batteries were uncharged so that your scanners could not sense the high energy potential. All we had to do was bring the parts together, assemble them, and then charge them up. Piece of cake, really," he boasted.
Martin knew that fooling the sensors was not quite that easy, and yet this person had achieved it. He had to admire that skill even as he made a mental note to upgrade the scanners… if they lived through this. The dog’s willingness to talk did not bode well for the crew’s future – they knew too much.
"Enjoy your stay in the brig," Shepherd smirked. "If I remember, I might even bring you something to eat later." The dog then walked out, presumably to rejoin his fellow conspirators.
Martin was glad that the canine morph did not hang about. "It’s about time we got left alone. Now we can start fighting back."
Davies stared in disbelief at Martin. "Fight back? We’re all locked up – what the hell do you think we can do from in here?"
"More than you think, but first – does anyone know where Menalippe is?"
M'Nissa'tk replied, "If she’s smart, she’s still hiding in that service duct. I’m afraid I quite rudely slammed the cover down in her face when I realised what was happening. Hopefully she’s figured out what’s going on and stays safe."
Martin nodded. "Good. Now I know where everyone is, I can act more confidently. Once we get our comms back, we might be able to use her, seeing as our captors don’t seem to be aware that she’s on the crew."
"Menalippe has been working second shift with me, so I don’t think she’s met any of the passengers yet," explained Baxter. "I’m glad she’s safe, and I hope that what you have in mind won’t change that, Captain."
"Don’t worry, Heywood, I plan to bring us all through unharmed. First priority – getting out of here. Zelkie – can you deactivate the cell locks?"
"Yes, Captain, if someone tells me what switch to hit."
Anastasiya said, "Look at panel that I am pointing at – see row of blue-lit buttons? Depress and hold any of those for two seconds."
As Martin and the others watched, all three buttons were depressed telekinetically, and after two seconds, they turned red and the cell doors opened.
"Told you we need biometric switches," Anastasiya commented as they eagerly exited the cells.
"But aren’t you glad that they weren’t in the budget?" Martin asked with a grin.
"Am glad that they didn’t know Zelkie is a K5 Talent, or else they would have used disabler."
"True, but let’s count our blessings. Everyone grab your comms." Martin picked up his from the pile on Anastasiya’s desk where they had all been dumped. "Right now we have the advantage of surprise. We know exactly how many there are – seven including Shepherd’s idiot son. I’m presuming that they have at least two or three competent spacers amongst them, as they couldn’t count on us to cooperate with absolute certainty, so there are probably two on the bridge, and at least one down in Engineering.
"That still leaves two or three unaccounted for," Ceres pointed out.
"Not for long." Anastasiya keyed in a command into hir security system. The screens lit up with data and images. "Voxxan named Revendi and horse morph on bridge. Lynx in Engineering. Kavenak and wolf in Cargo Bay One. Two curs in recreation room."
"Shepherd has probably done his bit," Martin speculated. "Now he’s just extra muscle when needed."
"Why are those two in the cargo bay?" M'Nissa'tk asked. "They’ve hijacked the whole ship, so why bother?"
"Probably because they know about our special consignment which is located there," Valentina guessed.
"'Tina…" Anastasiya began warningly.
Martin held up his hand. "It’s okay. They’ve gone to far too much trouble to hijack a ship that would only give them a modest return for their efforts, which implies that they know that we have something of rare value aboard, and if they know, you might as well know also."
"You’re talking about that secret consignment that Valentina wouldn’t talk about, aren’t you?" Zelkie guessed.
"Yes, and judging by how our pirate friends are homing in on the secure store, I’d say that the guess is confirmed. They’re after the mind-matrix generator."
"The what?" Danson asked in confusion.
"It’s what makes a Transporter more than an oversized replicator. Without it, you cannot send any person through it because they’d come out mindless at the other end. It’s the Federation’s most closely guarded secret. Places like the League of Non-Aligned Worlds reverse-engineered replicators long ago, but the creation of the mind-matrix generator was a major leap in science – literally a stroke of genius that has never been duplicated. The strategic value of the Transporter is enormous, and the knowledge of how to create one of those generators is fanatically guarded. The units themselves are sealed in such a way that any attempt to scan or tamper whatsoever will cause them to self-destruct into an unrecognisable mess. A working unit is worth a king’s ransom to certain people."
"But I thought that pirates already have transporters?" M'Nissa'tk asked.
"Some do – ripped from their victims’ ships. However, the matrix generators have a limited lifespan. After a set period, they become inactive. Legitimate operators can get theirs replaced; pirates end up with a big paperweight. The Landrau colony, which is where our unit is destined for, has to get in a special tech just to activate this one. He travels separately from the unit for security purposes though."
"If it needs to be activated, then what good is this unit to them?" Risha asked.
"Is simple," Anastasiya answered. "If they found out about shipment despite security, is most likely they know how to activate one, or arranging capture of tech also."
Martin nodded in agreement. "Indeed – there’s no such thing as a perfect secret, although Federation safeguards are incredibly complex. Anyway, enough talk – it looks like Kavenak has discovered that they can’t get into the secure store. That means that they will be coming back to get me to open it up for them. Anastasiya – let’s prepare a little surprise for them."
"Already on it, Captain," Anastasiya replied as shi keyed the biometric sensor on the weapons locker. Shi passed out phasers to Martin, Oakwood, Valentina, Ceres, R'Murran and M'Nissa'tk.
"What about us?" Hotfoot asked when it became apparent that no more phasers were forthcoming.
"You have licence or Star Fleet training?" the tiger enquired. When it became apparent that none of the rest did, shi continued, "I think that is something we must rectify in future. Meanwhile, you can have stunners, but only as a last resort to use." Shi handed over the defensive weapons to those who wanted them.
"Okay – listen up!" Martin commanded. "I want everyone back in their cells except Anastasiya. Close the doors to make them look like they are locked. When those two get here, they’ll be looking for me, so they shouldn’t notice Anastasiya’s absence until too late. Shi will conceal hirself and come up behind them when they enter the brig, and then take them out. Those of you with weapons, keep them concealed and don’t use them unless something goes wrong. Now hustle! They’ll be here shortly."
Everyone hastened back to their cells and closed the doors. Martin placed himself at the front in full view so that the hijackers wouldn’t start looking around. In the end their trap was almost undone due to the indicator lamps on the door lock buttons still glowing red, but the wolf who noticed that, hesitated for just long enough for Anastasiya to silently come out of hiding from behind hir desk, and shoot them without warning.
"Are they dead?" Loander asked as they emerged from their cells once again.
"No – heavy stun setting only. Killing is too good for these." Anastasiya kicked the Voxxan contemptuously. "Hope they enjoy headache it gives them as much as I am enjoying mine."
"Search them and remove everything on them, then lock them in a cell," Martin ordered. "We’ve got four more to capture, and the rest aren’t likely to be so obliging as to walk into the same trap. Any ideas?"
"I know how to get the dogs," Penny spoke up. "All we need is a little distraction."
"Go on," Martin encouraged.
The sound of the door opening immediately drew both sets of Shepherds’ eyes. Abruptly, Penny was shoved through it and the girl stumbled and nearly fell. She turned and yelled at the unseen shovers, "There’s no need to be so rough, you bastards!" Then she turned, spotted the dogs, and froze. "Oh, shit."
Shepherd Junior grinned. "Looks like I’ve finally been given my toy, hey Dad?"
Shepherd Senior gave a bark of laughter. "Yeah, and now’s the time to play while you have the chance."
As the youth approached the mouse, Penny stepped back and shrunk up against the wall, and then tried to move away from him, but was soon backed into a corner.
"I told you that you were going to be my bitch, girl. I’m gonna make you regret the trouble you’ve given me."
The father watched in amusement. He knew his son’s tastes – they weren’t so different from his own. With his eyes on the two though, he did not notice his weapon lift from the table next to him and silently fly across the room into the hand of a chakat. He did notice when his son’s fist suddenly froze in mid-swing.
"Dad! Something’s grabbed me. I can’t move!"
Penny stopped cringing and suddenly smiled. "Don’t worry, you’ll have other things to worry about. Here – let me remind you." She then kneed him in the balls, and then did it a second time for good measure before Zelkie allowed him to drop to the floor, weeping tears of agony.
Shepherd Senior had not been idle. He had grabbed for his weapon, only to find it missing. He whirled around and found himself staring at the emitter of the phaser held by Anastasiya.
"Hello, doggie. Want to play? No? Please do something stupid. You are pathetically easy to catch."
The tiger’s taunts goaded the dog morph into action, and he leapt at Anastasiya, who pistol-whipped him as shi effortlessly dodged his attack. Shepherd crashed to the floor, but started struggling to his feet again. The tiger shot him using the heavy stun setting, and he collapsed unconscious.
"Very obliging doggie," Anastasiya said happily. Shi went over to Shepherd Junior and nudged him roughly with hir foot. "Want to play too, pup?"
"N-no," he grated out between clenched teeth.
"Pity," shi lamented, and then knocked him unconscious also.
After stripping the Shepherds of everything, they locked them in the next empty cell.
Martin smiled. "Well done, everyone. Penny – you were incredibly brave to play bait like that."
"My pleasure, Captain. Really!" She had genuinely enjoyed getting the better of the young dog and his father.
Zelkie added, "And I’m pleased to not have weapons pointed at my crewmates so that I could use my Talent safely.
"It was probably a good thing that you didn’t dare use telekinesis when you were captured," Martin opined. "If you had, they might have been chasing you around the ship while the rest of us remained locked up, or you might still have been captured and rendered helpless. Either way, we would not now be in a position to fight back."
"Good point," Zelkie admitted.
"Okay, people, listen up. This is going to be the tricky bit. The bridge is going to be a lot more difficult to retake safely, and time is against us. Sooner or later, these four are going to be missed, so what I want you to do…."
"Revendi to Kavenak – what’s taking you so long?" came from Kavenak’s confiscated comm.
Martin groaned. There went that plan.
"Kavenak! Answer me!" … … "Marko, are you there? Where are you and Kavenak?" … … "Shepherd, report! Have you seen Kavenak or Marko?"
Martin shut down all the comms and sighed. "One unanswered comm they might put down to equipment failure, but several will ring alarm bells. Any bets that they haven’t sealed off the bridge yet?"
"Is sucker bet," Anastasiya said from behind hir desk console. "Bridge has gone into security lockdown."
"Any suggestions anyone?" Martin asked.
"I have an idea of how to get the drop on them once I’m on the bridge," Ceres offered. "Of course, first we need to get that door open."
"Which is designed specifically not to be opened during lockdown," Bethany added.
The crew were quiet for several moments while they tried to think of alternatives. Then the silence was broken by a very soft voice whispering from Martin’s comm.
"Menalippe to Captain Yote. Can you hear me, Captain?"
"Mena's okay!" Baxter shouted with relief, and the others made happy responses also.
"Sshhh! Quiet! If Menalippe needs to whisper, you might be heard when I reply." Everybody immediately quietened, and Martin hit the reply button to quietly reply, "I’m here, Menalippe. Are you safe?"
"Thank heavens, Captain! I’m safe for now. When I overheard the Voxxan tell the horse that he thought something had happened to his partners, and you might have escaped, I took the chance of trying to contact you."
"We did escape, and we’ve captured four of them. That just leaves the two on the bridge and one in Engineering. Wait! You said that you overheard them. Where are you?"
"I’m still in the service ducts. I crawled up to the bridge to see if I could do anything, and I saw Heywood and Ceres being captured. I’ve been waiting here ever since."
"Stand by, Menalippe. I might have something important for you to do."
"Okay, Captain. Standing by."
Martin looked over to Ceres. "You said that you had an idea how to get those two on the bridge?"
Ceres nodded. "There’s one thing that isn’t locked down, and that’s the artificial gravity. If that could be shut down, there’s no way that either of them could keep up with me long enough to shoot me, let alone catch me. All you need to do is get the bridge doors open the moment that the gravity plates are turned off, and I can bounce around inside and pick them off."
Martin shook his head. "Too dangerous. I’ve seen you practice your zero gee manoeuvres, and you’re pretty amazing, but the bridge isn’t that big, and you still have to get through the door first. There’s such a thing as a lucky shot too."
"That’s possible," Ceres conceded, "but I’ll come in high, and those two will be aiming for normal level, and besides, while I’m doing that and distracting them, Zelkie can hold one of them and Anastasiya can come in low. Remember that we’ll have the advantage of surprise because they won’t be expecting an attack… if we can get that door open, of course."
Martin asked, "Zelkie, can you telekinetically hold both of them?"
Zelkie gave an apologetic shrug. "Sorry, Captain, my Talent is very strong but not very selective. I might be able to try holding both, but I also might end up losing control of both. I’d rather concentrate on one."
Martin considered the suggestions and knew that there were still risks, but he didn’t exactly have a lot of alternatives. "Okay, we’ll do that. I just hope that those nerve stunners are the only weapons that they have. It’ll take at least two hits from them to be fatal." He tapped his comm. "Menalippe – the duct that you’re in – it comes out under the console near the door, doesn’t it?"
"Is it possible for you to remove the access panel quietly enough to slip onto the bridge and hit the door override button without being seen?"
"I.. I think so, sir."
"Captain! That’s too big a risk for her to take!" Baxter objected.
"I’m sorry, Heywood, but if we don’t regain control of this ship, all our lives may be at risk. Menalippe is our best, and perhaps only hope of getting onto the bridge in time."
Baxter wanted to argue further, but without a reasonable alternative to suggest, he shut up.
"Menalippe, we’re going to take positions outside the door. When you’re ready, give me the word. Then I’ll give you three seconds to get out and hit the switch. We’ll be shutting off the gravity then, so make sure that you dive clear of the doorway."
"I understand. I’m going to need a few minutes to get the access panel off without being heard."
"Right. Signal us when you’re ready." Martin switched off the comm. "R’Murran… where is he?"
Loander said, "He and Presaith have gone to Engineering already. They’ll be able to switch off the gravity plates from there once they take care of the lynx."
"Of course. Ceres, Zelkie and Anastasiya – let’s go."
"I’m coming too," Baxter said firmly.
Martin could not deny the man, so they all headed for the trans-lift. When they got to the bridge level, they emerged into a corridor illuminated by red flashing lights indicating emergency lockdown. They walked past the captain’s ready room and the conference room, up to the sealed bridge door. The word ‘LOCKED’ glowed next to the door controls. Anastasiya and Zelkie took up positions on either side of the door.
Ceres said, "Captain – I’m going to need something to push off against when the gravity goes. There’s no wall or anything to brace against facing the door. I’m going to need your help and Heywood’s."
"What do you want us to do?"
"Squat on the floor with your back to the door. Heywood – you squat behind the captain and brace yourself against him. I’ll put my hind paws against your back and shove off hard. Your combined inertia will give me enough to work with, and by squatting, you will be far less of a target if things go wrong."
They got into position and Martin turned on his comm. "R’Murran – are you ready to turn off gravity on the bridge level?"
"Just give the word, Captain."
"Stand by." He tapped the comm again. "Menalippe – we’re ready. What’s your status?"
The little ferret morph was scared stiff. She was feeling cramped in the narrow tunnel. It had never been intended for anyone to move through it – not even lithe mustelids. Trying to remove the panel in those confined conditions was not only difficult, but every little noise she made, sounded very loud within the duct, and she was terrified of being caught at any moment. With a final creak, the access panel popped off. She barely managed to stop it from clattering to the floor. After a moment to confirm that the two hijackers had not noticed, she replied to Martin.
"I’m ready, Captain," she whispered.
"Right. Three seconds – go!"
Menalippe slid out of the shaft as quickly as possible and stood up… and stared right into the eyes of the horse morph who gave a startled oath. Menalippe gave out a frightened squeak, but remembered to lunge for the door controls. She slapped the door lock and then attempted to dive for cover. Because she had caught them by surprise though, they were a fraction slow to react, and she was safely out of harm’s way when the doors opened. A moment later, the gravity shut down, throwing off the horse’s aim. The Voxxan had recovered quickly, but was still unprepared for the Starwalker foxtaur shooting through the doorway and over their heads. Between Ceres and Menalippe, the distraction was enough to cause them to overlook the others for a critical moment. The horse’s weapon was suddenly ripped from his grasp and he froze. Then he collapsed as a phaser shot followed. Meanwhile the Voxxan tried to track Ceres but, lacking an anchor, futilely swivelled in the air. The foxtaur bounced off a couple of bulkheads, completely at home with the weightlessness, and calmly shot him a moment after his colleague.
"Clear!" Anastasiya called from the doorway.
Baxter shot onto the bridge, desperately looking for Menalippe. He spotted her helplessly squirming in the air near the ceiling. "Mena! Are you alright?" He manoeuvred to reach her.
"I don’t feel so good, Heywood."
"Oh no! Where did they get you?" he asked solicitously as he reached her and drew her into his arms.
"They didn’t hurt me, but could you please turn the gravity back on. I think I’m about to puke." Unlike most of the crew, Menalippe had never been tempted to try out freefall in the Z-G Shaft, and she was seriously distressed with this novel experience.
Heywood laughed in relief, and shoved off the ceiling to get them back to the floor. He grabbed a handhold and called out, "Captain – could you re-establish artificial gravity before Mena succumbs to space-sickness!"
A few seconds later, the gravity plates switched back on. All the crew were braced for the return of their weight, but they allowed the hijackers to crash to the floor unimpeded.
Martin walked over to the couple and gave the ferret a quick hug. "You’re a hero, Menalippe. I don’t know if we could have done this without you."
Ceres, Zelkie and Anastasiya also came over to add to their congratulations. Menalippe was still feeling queasy, but she smiled and felt a little embarrassed for all the attention.
Martin said, "Anastasiya, could you please clear the trash from my bridge."
"Delighted to be obliging, Captain. Ceres – would you please to be assisting me?"
Martin sunk into his captain’s chair with a sigh of relief. He keyed the ship’s P.A. system. "This is the captain speaking. The ship is now completely back under our control. My thanks to everyone, especially Zelkie and Menalippe, without whom we’d still be in deep trouble. Second watch – please report to your stations. All others – I suggest that you get some rest. We reach Elantra tomorrow."
Martin shut off the P.A. and then keyed a private link. "Yote to M'Resk."
"M'Resk here, Captain."
"Could you please make sure that our one legitimate passenger is placated. Offer him something special from our private stores. Davies happens to be a representative from the company that manufactures the matrix generators, here to oversee the transfer to the customer, and I want him to leave Phoenix with a good impression of what our crew will do in the face of adversity."
"Will do, Captain."
Martin leaned back and closed his eyes, trying to force himself to relax. A minute later he heard Bethany say, "I relieve you, Captain. Please go to bed."
"It’s not your watch, Commander," Martin replied. He looked about. "Where’s Heywood?"
"Mr Baxter is currently comforting his mate. Considering the risk that Menalippe took, I think that we can excuse him for a while. I will take his watch until he’s free."
"Fair enough. Ceres should be back shortly. The bridge is yours, Commander."
Martin was only halfway back to his room when the weight of fatigue hit; the stress of the incident finally catching up to him. Back in his cabin, he started undressing, only to be interrupted by the door chime. Not unexpectedly, he found Risha waiting outside the door. He waved her in and closed the door. The four-armed cougaress immediately embraced Martin, leaning her head against his shoulder. He could feel her shaking – coming down from the tense situation was affecting her too.
"I saw how you defended Kannekin. I think that you’re going to be a great mother someday."
"Thank you, Martin," she responded. After a moment’s silence, she continued, "Would you like to be the father of that child?"
Martin was surprised – she had never hinted at anything more to their relationship than the casual sex and comforting company in bed. "Er… I don’t even know if we’re genetically compatible."
"Sorry – that’s not what I meant. I would be pleased if the father of my future children was like you."
"I see. In that case, I would be honoured to be chosen to be the father of your children."
"Thank you." She let go of him and started undressing.
Martin continued disrobing also, and they climbed into his bed.
"Just hold me tonight, please," Risha requested. "I feel safe in your arms."
Martin was not in the mood for sex either, but he was happy to hold the sexy cougar while they both drifted off to sleep.
The worst part of dealing with the hijackers turned out to be dealing with the Elantra bureaucracy. Martin spent many hours writing reports, answering questions, and dealing with the endless hassle of the unending stream of petty details that the situation demanded. And when one department finished with him, another came along and started asking for all the same things again. For the third time, he gave them his thoughts on the matter.
"I’m fairly certain that they had originally intended to take control of the ship between here and the Landrau colony. My intention to turn the Shepherds over to the authorities here would have stirred up too much unwanted attention to them, with the risk of their plans being leaked, or even balked, so they moved up their timetable. They probably only kept me and others alive so that we could help them get through your bureaucracy without suspicion, keeping the rest alive as hostages to ensure our good behaviour. If their original plans had gone ahead, I’m betting that we would have been unlikely to survive the takeover, unless they decided to take us as slaves, of course."
"And your cargo was really that valuable that it was worth going to so much effort just to hijack your small ship?" the man asked sceptically.
"You have no idea," Martin said fervently. Ships the size of mine specialise in high-value consignments rather than bulk goods."
"And you still won’t reveal the nature of the particular item that they were after?"
"Not until after it has been delivered – that’s the terms of the contract. The information will be provided to you immediately after that – well before those hijackers come up for trial."
"Very well, Mr Yote. I will follow that up in due course. That will be all for now." The interviewer turned off his PADD.
"Thank the stars!" Martin murmured, getting up from his chair. He left the office and found both Bethany and Risha waiting for him. "You’re still here?" he asked with a grin. "I thought that you would have given up on me ages ago."
"They kept us long enough with giving statements that we thought that we might as well wait," Bethany explained.
"Well, I’m grateful that you waited anyway. I declare that we are now officially on shore leave for R&R. How would you ladies like to go to Elantra Port’s swankiest restaurant – my treat?"
Risha smiled broadly. "I’d love it!"
Martin arched an eyebrow at Bethany. "And you?"
"Oh, alright. I think I’d like that."
"Great!" He took Risha’s arm in his and offered the other to the normally taciturn vixen.
She eyed it reluctantly, sighed, and then took it.
Martin gave hir a big grin and said, "Commander – there’s hope for you yet!"
Continued in Chapter 4.
Characters and story copyright © 2012 Bernard Doove.
except Risha DeMar who was created by Chakat Fleetfoot and used with permission.
Art of Menalippe by Diana Harlan Stein.
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