Part 1: Awakenings.
I set the mug on the console in front of me as I let the warm, soothing taste of the coffee course through my body. Glancing over the various indicators, I noticed that an hour had passed since we woke up from our stasis sleep. Chakat Silktail, our captain, was staring at the viewscreen, which was currently showing the space in front of us. I relaxed, took another sip and tried to reconstruct my memories of what had happened only a month ago...
The engine had never run so good. I installed the new parts we bought after our last delivery-run, and she softly hummed as I turned her on again.
"We're ready to leave captain", I said into the mike on my head-set. "She's all fixed and ready for action."
"Good," was hir answer. "If you could join us on the bridge now, we have clearance to leave and, if we're lucky, we can be back on Chakona before the festivities start."
As I came on to the bridge, the captain was already manually piloting our vessel out of Voxxa Spaceport. Shi liked doing that hirself, and I could only admire hir steady paws. I like to think I'm good at what I do, but shi's the best pilot I ever saw.
Alex, our communications/security/provisions-officer, was steadily relaying our positions to ground-control and providing the space-customs with the proper clearance-codes.
There were indeed just the three of us, the minimal skeleton crew on what was, originally, a ten-member vessel. But, seeing as all three of us were willing to work hard and were adequate at performing our tasks, we got by just fine.
Maybe I should introduce our odd bunch right now.
At the helm is our captain, Chakat Silktail, child of Flutesong and Broadpaw. Shi's in full command of the ship, including Navigation. Shi's also our leading specialist in the field of Science. Shi served as Senior Science Officer on board of a great ship, until it was decommissioned. Shi bought the 'CSV (Chakonan Space Vessel) Starhopper' with the money shi saved with her pay. Shi's a more than adequate captain and I would trust hir with my life. Shi has milk-chocolate coloured fur on hir back and sides. Hir belly, breasts, chin and part of hir face has cream-coloured fur, as do hir paws and tail tip. Hir hair is the same colour and is usually worn in the spacer's ponytail. There are a handful of cream-coloured spots on hir fur that remind me of a snow leopard. Hir name suits hir, for shi has exceptionally long and silky fur on hir tail. Shi's as tall as I am; that's about 5' 2". Shi usually wears hir spacer's regulation uniform on the bridge (although exceptionally low cut, you can't help but notice), but I've seen that shi has quite an extensive collection of tops, halters and bikini's too. Shi often wears them when I'm posing for one of hir artworks, which shi often asks me to do. The most striking aspect of hir appearance are hir eyes, a nice deep violet to offset the cream-coloured fur of hir face.
Alexander Dawson is the second member of the crew. He's a normal human from Earth. Without doubt the tallest member of the crew at about 5' 9". He looks tough, with a muscular and lean frame and deep-blue eyes that seem to have seen too much. He refuses to share anything about his past or why he joined this ship. I think he may be running away from someone. The captain and I have decided that, if he ever wants to share his past with us, he'll do it of his own accord. He performs his tasks to the best of his abilities, but I think he needs to think a little more often before he jumps into action. He can also be very blunt with what he says, but I guess that's just him. For some reason, I trust him more than I should, but that could be my animal side speaking. His mentality towards other species differs much from the people on Earth. In his opinion, all species deserve equal rights and opportunities. The only thing he shared with us other than what I told you, is that he likes animals of all kinds, and sometimes gets fascinated with us morphs. Fascinated about what is anyone's guess but his.
Then there's me, Zwokkie of House Bluepaw, child of Softpaw and Jester, at your service. I'm the Technical everything officer on this ship, and I'm in control of the weapons systems. Not that we use those for anything else than blasting at asteroids, but the ship's got them for safety measures. I'm a Skunktaur; Chakat-kin. We got the second name due to the fact that our bodies' genetic make-up is nearly identical to Chakat. We, too, are a hermaphroditic race, but we only take on one gender at a time, either male of female. The shifting process comes at a physically draining cost and we don't do it often as a result. I've got a preference for being male, and was in that form when I joined the crew. I still have to grin when I think back at the look on Alex's face when he first met me in my other sex. My fur markings are simple: black fur all over, save for my face, human-like long hair, the tip of my tail, my chest and lower body underbelly, these are white. Additionally, I have white 'gloves' or 'socks' on all six of my limbs and two white stripes that start at the nape of my neck and run along my spine to the tip of my tail. A tousle of hair always seems to hang across my face, no matter how I try to keep it back. There are two things that stand out in my description: I've got sparkling deep green eyes, uncommon amongst my race, since almost every Skunktaur has brown eyes. And there is a blue patch of fur on my right chest, shaped like a paw-print. It is a denotation of my lineage and a constant reminder of the enslavement in the past of the Skunktaurs. When working I like to wear an all-purpose vest with lots of pockets and loops to keep my tools and equipment at paw's reach.
I hurried to my station, anxious to get back to Chakona. The Freedom Celebrations were starting next week, and I was looking forward to seeing my family again. Not to mention indulging in the festivities! It was the only 'real' Skunktaur festivity we had. We celebrate our freedom from slavery and honour and thank the Chakats for setting us free. I invited captain Silktail and Alexander to join me at my parents' home. Both had often heard about it, but never actually celebrated this day on the Skunktaur Archipelago itself, and they were at least as anxious to get away from Voxxa as I was.
If I remember it well, the captain had given the order to go to Warp Four, and we were leisurely travelling along when Alex got up and left the bridge. He mumbled something about "checking the cargo and the supplies" and we left him to do his job. My console registered him going into Supplies, then into the cargo bay. There's a tracking device built into our headsets, used to keep track of crew on ships and planet surfaces and stuff. It's a personal code, and my bridge-station shows who's where.
I got myself some coffee (yep, on the bridge, as long as we do our job right, the captain doesn't mind). He took an hour to finish his job, and it seemed like he did more than that, because he entered the bridge eating a rather large sandwich. He sat down at his station and we all enjoyed the silence of space for a while.
Suddenly, my console flared up, and Code Red emergency was immediately issued throughout the ship. I checked the messages, and checked them again, because I couldn't believe what was happening.
"What's wrong, Z?", asked Alex.
"Zwokkie", I said automatically. But that didn't matter, Alex has been calling me 'Z' from the first day we met, and I keep on correcting him. It's one of these oddities we have. But this time, having to correct him, temporarily removed the creeping feel of panic from my mind. I could already feel the rush of adrenalin coursing through me as I explained what happened.
"Warp coil overload!", I yelled, "Captain, We gotta get down to Engineering and try to fix it before we explode!"
I'm always amazed at the speed of a Chakat. Shi beat me to the bridge doors, even though I was only four feet away. We got to Engineering and shi started working on the computer there, while I began looking for any physical fault. I checked all the usual dials, skimming them, relying on my keen sight and strong memory to notice any faults when I saw it. The distribution lines to the engine were smoking, they shorted and the feedback was overloading the coil.
"Shut the engines down!", I shouted needlessly. I already knew that the empathic bond my species can form (two-way for other Skunktaurs; One-way for Chakats) had already relayed the information I had seen.
"I can't! They're stuck!", was hir reply before I even stopped talking.
I gave up on the subtle approach and started yanking at the cords, Silktail joined in and so did Alex when he finally arrived. The lines couldn't withstand our combined force and they snapped, finally shutting down the engines and stopping the feedback.
"We're not safe yet", said Silktail. I knew what shi was going to say, but I was too busy with trying to figure out what had caused this malfunction, that I didn't finish hir words. "The coil has to discharge its overload somewhere. Since the engines are no longer an option, it will release into the atmosphere. The entire ship will be flooded in radiation within", shi glanced at a dial, "TEN minutes!"
"Won't we be safe in the stasis pods?", asked Alex.
"Yes", I said, "But we're adrift and we can't stop our motion. Besides, we have to program the computer to let us out of stasis when it's safe or it might take years before we wake up."
"Unless, we're found," said Silktail. "I'll set an S.O.S. and the timer. You go ahead into the pods.
I wanted to object that shi might not make it in time, but again the empathic bond betrayed my thoughts before I could utter them.
"THAT was an order!" shi barked. We complied, reluctantly.
What happened then was an easy guess. The radiation reached safe levels within a month and we were released the next day. I was glad that the Captain made it, and shi smiled as shi sensed my relief. Ship's log showed we got caught in the pull of a large asteroid. It had pulled us along for a month and jammed our emergency signals.
Stellar charts showed us well outside known space, and well outside reach of the nearest communications system. But worst of all was that we missed the Festival. We could get back given time, but the Festival wouldn't be back for another year! And we had been so looking forward to it...
We fixed the distribution lines; I make a point of keeping enough spare parts around at all times and we were soon finished.
I took another sip of coffee.
"What are you thinking about?"
I looked up at the captain, puzzled. I noticed shi was standing at the other end of the bridge and I measured the distance; just over 10 metres. A large bridge, yes, but keep in mind that six out of the normal ten crew were usually stationed on the bridge. Shi was just out of the 'active reach' of my empathic capabilities and shi couldn't have sensed my emotions or strong thoughts then.
"I was thinking about the accident", I replied, "I can't help but think I overlooked something. There has to be something. I know that engine and she shouldn't have shorted out like that."
Slowly, she padded over to my spot. "Well, you just have to accept the fact that you might have made a mistake. Nobody's perfect." Shi put an arm around me, and looked at me. "I know of something that might make you feel better", shi said as she began to stroke my fur.
I shifted uncomfortably. "I'm sorry," I said, "But I can't do that. I like you, I really do. But ...." You should know that chakats often engage in sex-play and savour making love with anyone they feel close too. Skunktaurs, despite being closely related, tend to take a lot longer before they open up to someone to make love with them, some exceptions excepted. And although I had strong feelings towards the Captain from the day I met hir, and I knew that shi wanted to make me feel happy and cheer up, I couldn't accept hir obvious offer.
Shi sighed as the message was wordlessly conveyed.
"The only way those lines could have ever shorted, was if I didn't properly seal the lid on that radiation dispersion thingy."
"Active Radiation Distribution Relay System", shi corrected me.
Okay, so I wasn't good at calling whatever-it-is by whatever-it-is-called, but I know what it does, how to make one and, most importantly, how to fix one. "And you know I'm doubly careful with radiation. I even installed that counter to warn me if I ever forgot to check the lid."
Then it struck me: that counter! Every time someone works around the ARDRS, a detection device adds a count to the display near the exit. And if someone leaves while the numbers are mismatched, it gives off warning signal. The numbers can only be matched if I seal the lid with my personal access-code. That means the lid is always supposed to be properly sealed.
I made my way to Engineering, I was so hyped-up, that I even outran the captain. There it was. I had reset the counter after the last service and it should have read 3:3. Instead it read 4:3.
Someone had messed around the device. And someone had shut off the alarm. After I opened the panel, I noticed that the wires were cut. Sabotage!
We were back on the bridge, both drinking some coffee. Silktail normally never drank any, but now shi told me shi'd really like a cup of that stuff. Maybe it was my needing a cup this bad that gave hir an appetite for it too.
"There's two things I can think of," shi said. "One is that someone got to the machine when we were off the ship. They opened the device, took half of the radioactive material and left, with the lid not properly closed. And.."
I interjected: "That's impossible. That would mean that the counter would be incorrect before I changed the parts. It had to happen after I left. And besides, if it was a robbery, why did they only take half? It doesn't make sense to me. As for that second option, I don't want to think about that."
At that point Alex came back into the room. "Is that coffee?" he asked.
"Yep," I replied, "Want a cup? I think there's one left."
He poured himself a cup, black. I can't see how anyone can drink coffee black, but he likes it that way. "Better savour what you've got in your cup," he said after his first sip. "I just finished inventory. After getting rid of the supplies that were spoiled due to radiation poisoning, we have about two weeks of supplies left, max. And we're out of coffee."
Not having coffee around isn't that bad, we can manage without it, but only two weeks of supplies, while it would take us at least a month to get back to charted space... We'd have to find a suitable place to restock soon.
The captain and I, originally engineered to survive, could, if properly rationed, survive for the entire duration of the trip. Shi stored nutrients and liquids in specially modified tissue in hir breasts, as do all Chakats normally. I had a similar supply in the fibrous tissue surrounding the muscles of my tail. My tail is therefore about 50% thicker and quite a bit longer than it would be if it were in ratio with my body. It also stores hormones and enzymes needed for rapid cell production when my body needs to adapt to different surroundings or when I shift my gender.
Alexander, however, isn't so lucky. Being an average (and unaltered) human, he doesn't have the capabilities to store nutrients. I suppose Silktail and I could cut down on rations, but even then I guess he would starve before we would even reach Voxxa. Our estimation is that we would get to Voxxan space first when we got back into charted territories.
He told us about having served with a specialty corps in the Earth marines, that he could survive worse odds, but we all knew that this was a bit too big a situation.
All we can do is travel our fastest speed. Only, due to the breach and because we lost half the efficiency of the ARDRS, our fastest speed is now about Warp 3. We better find supplies soon.