’, and headed for the Portmaster’s office. Zelkie, as Loadmaster, had transmitted their manifest immediately, and it was waiting for his biometric imprint after the Portmaster gave clearance to start unloading the goods. The duty officer at the interplanetary courier desk accepted Yote’s urgent parcels, and then the coyote headed back to the ship to help with the unloading.
Chapter 5 Asteroid Adversity
By Bernard Doove © 2012
"It just isn’t right!" Yote complained.
"You’ve said that a dozen times already, Martin," Risha replied patiently as she groomed the fur on the coyote’s back. "Now stop tensing up so much."
Yote tried to take her advice. Their mutual grooming sessions were usually very pleasantly relaxing, but he was too keyed-up by recent events. He grabbed one of the four arms that were brushing him, and looked her in the eyes. "Doesn’t it bother you that we’re losing a stack of money every hour that we’re stuck here idle?"
Risha shrugged. "I have a job that I like and a place to call home. Everything else can be dealt with in its own good time."
Yote sighed in exasperation. "If that idiot, Karnak, keeps us in quarantine too much longer, we won’t even have that. Cargo has to be delivered by a deadline. Other cargo has to be picked up. Deals have to be made. Bills have to be paid. The crew has to be paid."
"You can’t blame Karnak for the quarantine. After he screwed up so badly with Penny, it’s hardly surprising that he’s doing everything strictly by the book. We’re stuck here on the ship until he can be 100% sure that we aren’t infected with the herm symbiont."
"Ha! I went to great lengths to document exactly what happened just so that we wouldn’t have to go through all of this. I bet it’s Karnak’s way of getting back at us for making him look like a fool."
Risha bopped Yote on the head with one of the brushes.
"Ow! What was that for?"
"Stop being so paranoid. Besides, the fact that Star Fleet is taking this so seriously can only play to our advantage."
"What do you mean?"
"We foiled a plot that could have devastated the entire Federation. Don’t you think that you could use that as leverage to make some lucrative deals?"
Yote stared at her for a moment, his jaw hanging open. He snapped it shut and rolled his eyes. "Of course. I’ve been so pissed off with Karnak that I haven’t been thinking straight. Damned if I’m going to let them off easy after what we’ve done for them."
"That’s more like it. Here – take these." Risha handed the brushes to Yote, then leant back to sprawl on the bed. "Your turn to groom me."
"You don’t need me to groom the fur on your front," Yote remarked, even as he admired her sexy nude body.
"No, but I’d like you to anyway," she replied sultrily.
Yote grinned. "Your wish is my command, and I know just where to start."
"I knew you would."
Yote was glad that at least he did not have to put up with the Yamatos. They had been beamed over into a secure quarantine facility on the station soon after they had arrived. It was also better for Shintaro that the people who had murdered hir mate were gone from the ship.
Without those distractions, and in a better frame of mind since Risha de-stressed him, he put his mind to figuring out how to make the best of the present situation. First, he put in a call to Captain Karnak.
The connection was made gratifyingly quickly, and Yote had to admit to himself that if Karnak really had it in for him, there would no way that he would be able to get to talk to the Fleet officer so easily.
The expression on Karnak’s face was polite but firm. "If you’ve called yet again to ask for the quarantine to be lifted, I regret that you have wasted your time, Captain Yote. You will not be given clearance until tomorrow at the soonest."
"No, I haven’t called about that this time. I’m calling in a favour or two."
Karnak’s right eyebrow raised. "Really? And why would I owe you a favour?"
"Aside from screwing us around with Penny? Your good record may have enabled you to get away with little more than a reprimand from Admiral Tartikova. If I was a bastard, I could sue Star Fleet and cause a nasty stink, and after that I’m pretty sure that the top brass would have a thing or two to say about you and your career. However, that’s not my style. I’d rather have you on my side and doing me a favour instead."
"Sounds a little like blackmail to me," Karnak commented.
"On an open comm line? What do you think I am – an idiot? I’m laying down the facts for you – I’m only interested in keeping my shipping company afloat, and my crew paid. To do that, I need income from somewhere. If it has to be through the courts, I won’t pull any punches, and I’ll have my father’s legal resources behind me. On the other hand, if I can secure some reliable cargoes, I won’t need to pursue that course. All I’m asking for is your help."
"And if I were to agree, what kind of help would you require?"
"We’ve proven ourselves with the delivery of the mind matrix generator, the capture of the hijackers, and the foiling of a plot that would have seriously harmed the entire Federation. We’ve got the score on the board, and now it’s time we reaped the rewards, I want to get my hands on one of those lucrative Fleet contracts. I would like you to make contacts for me and add your recommendations. That’s it. Nothing illegal – I’m just after the inside track."
Karnak seemed to mull it over for a while, then he seemed to come to a decision. "I will look into it. It’s not exactly my speciality, but I have someone on staff who knows how the system works, and I’ll put him onto you. He’ll be able to help you, while keeping things within the rules."
"Thank you, Captain, and are you sure I can’t start shifting my cargo this afternoon?"
"Nice try, Yote," Karnak replied with a half-smile. "Tomorrow morning after the med techs give their clearance, and not a moment sooner. However, I will have your documents processed and ready to go the moment that you do get that clearance. So if that is all, I have other pressing matters to attend to."
"That’s all for now, Captain. Thanks again."
The comm disconnected, and Yote leaned back in his chair with a feeling of satisfaction. "Step one completed – let’s hope that step two goes as well."
Karnak was true to his word, and Yote was contacted by a Fleet officer – a male human named Lieutenant Smails.
"Captain Karnak has explained your desires to me, Captain Yote, and I will endeavour to procure you some work from Star Fleet. However, before you get your hopes up too high, I will point out that most regular contracts are awarded months in advance. The only jobs available immediately are the type that you have been doing – the odd, irregular ones."
"I figured that might be the case," Yote admitted, "but I’ll take what I can to help keep my business going."
"Excellent! If you could give me an idea of your itinerary, I will find which ones would best suit your needs."
Yote transferred his planned itinerary to Smails. "There’s a bit of room for deviation in that itinerary," he informed the lieutenant.
"Thank you, Captain. I will call you back later this afternoon. Good day, sir."
Yote signed off, satisfied with the progress so far. Not as good as he had hoped, but not as bad as he had feared.
Precisely at 9:00 UTC the next day, the med techs gave the Phoenix their official ‘all clear’, the quarantine was lifted, and all their paperwork was approved. Yote had everyone who could do anything at all to help speed up the shifting of the cargo, put to work. Yote and Zelkie had everything planned to the minute to ensure that the work was done as swiftly as possible, and for once they encountered no hold-ups. Seeing as delays were an inevitable part of every job, Yote suspected that they had gotten a bit of discreet assistance there, for which he was grateful.
Much to Yote’s relief, they had acquired a large number of passengers, including one Star Fleet courier for whom they were paying a premium. The only condition to that well-paying fare was that nobody was allowed to ask his business, as confidentiality was an absolute requirement. Yote had no problem with that, and far from being a mysterious agent, the courier was quite a genial and pleasant ermine morph.
Yote was finalising the paperwork in preparation for departure, when a call came in on his comm from his father. "Hi, Dad. Nice of you to call, but as you keep reminding me, time is money, and we have a very tight schedule to keep."
Yote Senior smiled at that. "I’m glad you have your priorities straight, but I haven’t called to chat. You need to go over to the station right now and meet up with an associate of mine. He has a proposal for you that I think that you should consider."
Yote hesitated for barely a moment – he knew that his father wasn’t the kind of person to waste his time. "Okay, I’ll go right now. You can tell me the details while I’m on the way."
His father nodded and ended the call. Yote called up Bethany on his wrist comm as he headed out of his office to go to the shuttle bay. "Commander – I need you to work on the departure documents because I have to go over to the station right now. Not sure how long this will take, but I hope to be back very quickly."
"Aye, Captain," came her reply.
As Yote piloted the shuttle over to the station, he contacted his father.
"You’ll be met by a rabbit morph by the name of Haydn Cottonfield. He and I have been doing business for many years, and we’ve occasionally socialised. When he learned of your business, he approached me to ask me to arrange a meeting with you. When he explained why, I agreed. I’ll let him explain exactly what, but I think it should work well with your unusual set-up."
"I trust your judgement, Dad, but how is that going to be of benefit to me?"
"An unusual fare – one that should pay well, with the potential for long-term income."
"Cryptic, but intriguing. We’ve got a pretty full passenger complement though. I’m not sure if we can fit another in."
"Believe me, that’s not going to be a problem."
"Oh, I’m going to have to get even with you for all this mystery," Yote warned his father.
"Like I said, Cottonfield will explain, and you’re going to have to see the client for yourself."
"Well, I suppose I’ll find out soon enough. Gotta go now, Dad. I have to concentrate on docking."
Yote docked without incident and, as promised, found a well-dressed rabbit morph waiting for him outside the airlock. Accompanying him was a human female.
"Captain Martin Yote, I presume?" the rabbit said as he extended his hand.
Yote shook it and replied, "That would be me."
"A pleasure to meet Arthur’s son. I would like you to meet my wife, Adele," he said, indicating the woman.
Yote was a little surprised by that, but not exceptionally so. Mixed human-morph matings weren’t that rare, but few actually went as far as making it a formal marriage. "A pleasure to meet you, ma’am. Now, while I would normally be happy to chat at length, I am currently on an extremely tight schedule, and we need to get down to business."
"I appreciate that, Captain. Please accompany us to a nearby holosuite where we will explain everything, and you will meet our daughter."
They started moving off, and Yote asked, "Why couldn’t your daughter meet us here?" He wondered if they were talking about a rabbit or a human daughter, but figured he’d find that out soon enough.
"Because she cannot, Captain. Some years back, she and her mother were involved in a serious accident. My first wife died, and Madeline, my daughter, almost did also. Such were the extent of her injuries that she lost both legs and her spine was crushed beyond repair. She is a quadriplegic on permanent life-support. Technology gives her a chance of a life, nevertheless, and that’s where you come in."
They stepped into a translift, and it whisked them down a few floors to the entertainment levels. They made their way to the holosuite section, and the rabbit keyed the door to one of them. Stepping inside, Yote found himself in what looked like an arboretum. Sunshine filtered through a canopy of trees, dappling the path that led through the trees which opened up to reveal a small swimming pool. Yote started thinking that the pool would be forever being choked by leaves before realising that in a holosuite, that would never be a problem. Lazing by the side of the pool in a patch of sunlight was an attractive female rabbit morph, maybe 18 or 19 years of age, with soft warm-grey fur, dark blond hair, gold eyes, and dressed in a yellow bikini bathing suit, reading a book while sipping on a glass of fruit juice. When she noticed them approaching, she got up to meet them, bringing along her drink.
"Is this the starship captain, Daddy?" she asked.
"Yes, dear. Let me introduce you to Captain Martin Yote. Captain, this is my daughter, Madeline."
"A surprising pleasure to meet you, Ms Cottonfield, especially since I was expecting a quadriplegic."
She grinned mischievously. "And one with two fewer legs, I suppose? Can you guess why the contradiction?"
"You’re a hologram."
"Bingo! Although I really am here too." She pointed to one side where the holographic environment faded to reveal an object resembling a motorised sarcophagus. "I’m really in there. A sophisticated holo-program gives me a pseudo body though, one that enables me extremely realistic interaction with the real world." She held up her drink. "For example, I was really enjoying this fruit juice while lazing in the warm sun. It has some advantages too." Her clothing abruptly changed to a smart casual outfit of slacks and shirt. "The only catch is that I’m confined to holosuites, but it’s better than the alternative."
"I can certainly concur with that. However, what has that got to do with me?"
"I want a job on your ship."
That stunned Yote. "What?" was all he could ask.
"Let me explain," Haydn spoke up. "My fortune could give my daughter the means to have a semblance of a normal life, but within severe limitations. The only places that she can do so are within holo-fields, and one of the few places outside of entertainment precincts to have such are starships. I am proposing that I pay you to take Madeline on as an apprentice."
"And how is that going to work if she’s confined to the holosuite?" Yote asked.
Madeline interrupted. "I’m not quite that limited, Captain."
"Please elucidate then."
"I have learned to interface directly with computer systems. That’s one reason why this holographic simulacrum of mine is so close to perfect. I’ve studied starship computer systems, and I’ve been looking into starship design with an eye to becoming a systems controller. My life-support containment would be plugged directly into the ship’s computer systems, and from there I can do my job directly, and I would also be able to connect with your holosuite facilities. You do have a good holosuite, I presume?"
"Yes, as a matter of fact. The equipment was so tightly integrated into the holosuite that it wasn’t worth the effort to remove it when the Star Corps decommissioned it, and me and my crew find it invaluable for the boring parts of the voyages."
Haydn said, "I already made sure of that before I went ahead with this proposal. Anyway, that’s what we propose in a nutshell. I want my daughter to have a fulfilling life, and she wants to be a starship systems controller. I am willing to cover all costs, plus a generous amount as a fee towards taking her on with you. This agreement would last for a full round-trip, with the option of renewing it each time you returned to home port. I have a contract prepared which outlines the fine details, and the money involved."
He held out a PADD. Yote pulled out his and the contract was transferred. He glanced at the screen. The figure quoted was quite impressive, and he nodded. "Mr Cottonfield, you are aware that I must leave extremely soon, and as such I do not have the time to read that contract properly before signing it. However, on the face of it, I will give my verbal agreement. I will take on your daughter, subject to review of the contract."
"I would have been very surprised if you had signed without checking the contract, and I am prepared to accept your verbal agreement." He turned to Adele. "My dear, would you see to disconnecting Madeline’s support unit."
"Of course. Madeline, hon, time to withdraw from the holosuite systems."
"Okay, Adele. Just one sec though." Madeline went over to hug her father, the holosuite’s sophisticated force-field generators exactly reproducing the feel of the real thing. "Thanks, Daddy. I love you." She then hugged Adele too. "And thanks for all that you’ve done for me also."
"You’re welcome, hon. Now better hurry – we don’t want to keep the captain waiting."
"Bye!" the rabbit girl said before abruptly disappearing.
Adele tapped on the life-support unit’s control panel, and the holographic arboretum faded out. "We’re ready, Haydn."
"Good. Let’s get it to the captain’s shuttle and get them on their way."
They exited the holosuite, with Adele controlling the motorised unit. As they hastened along, Adele said, "Everything that your engineer needs to know about installing Madeline’s life-support unit into your ship’s systems, can be found in the manual copied onto the unit’s computer system. All it will need immediately will be access to power, and that will be sufficient for a few days, giving you plenty of time to get the rest hooked up. The other supplies are in the crates by the airlock. There’s more than enough for two trips in there."
"Won’t Madeline get bored while she’s disconnected for a few days?"
"For starters, she shouldn’t be disconnected that long. That’s just how long her onboard systems can cope by themselves. All she requires immediately besides power is a high-speed data link, and she can be interacting with the rest of you immediately. Secondly, even if she was cut off for some reason for an extended period, she does have an entertainment system built in also."
Haydn added, "I made sure that she got the best and most foolproof equipment. I also made sure she got the best care by marrying her therapist." He grinned at Adele, who blushed a little.
Yote said, "Judging by the hug she gave her stepmother, I’d say that Madeline approved."
Haydn nodded. "It’s funny – I’m always trying my best to make sure my little girl is happy, but she has never stopped trying to make me happy too. She never felt that I was forgetting her mother when I started going out with Adele. I am a very fortunate father, Captain. Do you see why I would do anything for my child?"
"I do, Mr Cottonfield, and I’m a little bit envious."
"Find the right female, Captain. I was luckier than most, because I found two."
Yote thought about both Risha and Bethany back on the ship, and how they both had their merits. "I wish it was as simple as that, sir."
"Call me Haydn, Captain. I’m trusting you my most precious possession – I expect that we’ll become a lot more familiar soon enough."
Possession? Yote marvelled at the difference between Madeline’s father and Penny’s. One would not let go, while the other would not hesitate to do so if it made his daughter happy. "Then call me Martin. I promise not to let you down, Haydn."
"Thank you, Martin."
They reached the airlock, and loaded Madeline’s unit aboard. While he secured it, Haydn and Adele brought in the crates of supplies on anti-grav sleds. With those stowed, Yote was ready to leave.
"I hate to make this such a hasty departure, but I will be in contact with you again soon."
"Bon voyage, Martin," Adele said, and Haydn followed up with a firm handshake.
Yote got clearance to depart immediately and made his best legal speed over to the Phoenix. On the way, he commed Bethany. "Is everything ready to go?"
"Everything but you," she replied. "We’ve been given a departure window in seven minutes – are you going to be able to make it, or will I have to call in a delay?"
"I’ll be there and docked in time. Be ready to leave precisely on schedule."
Yote parked the shuttle on board and sealed up the shuttle bay with a couple of minutes to spare. He dashed to the trans-lift and got to the bridge with seconds to go. Bethany was seated in the command chair, and she gave him a stern look.
"Cutting it a bit fine, aren’t you?" she asked as she rose out of the chair.
Yote waved her back. "You have the con, Commander. I’ll explain as soon as we get under way.
Bethany nodded, and right at the appointed moment, they left their parking orbit and manoeuvred through the local traffic until they were sufficiently far out of the Earth’s gravitic influence, and then they went to warp.
"All systems nominal, Captain," Bethany reported.
"Good. Ceres, you take the con. Commander, come with me." As they left the bridge, Yote tapped his wrist comm. "M’Rarrtikar and R’Murran – report to my office, please."
Bethany and Yote made their way to his office where they waited for the Caitians to arrive. In the meantime, Yote used the office’s replicator to prepare everyone’s favourite drinks. M’Rarrtikar arrived first, and R’Murran a minute later. Yote let everyone settle down with their refreshments first before saying anything.
"First of all, I’d like to thank you all for your excellent work today. We achieved a great deal in a very short time, and it’s a credit to everyone on this ship that it all went so smoothly. I’m very proud of this crew, and I’ll be telling that to everybody later. Right now though, there’s a couple of things that need to be done. R’Murran – you, Presaith and Loander have to install something that I brought with me."
"What needs both engineers and a comptech?" R’Murran asked.
"A life-support unit belonging to our newest crewmember."
M’Rarrtikar looked startled. "Captain! We can’t afford another person on crew. Adding Shintaro was bad enough."
"Whoa! Take it easy! This crewmember won’t cost us anything. In fact, we’re being paid to take her on as an apprentice."
M’Rarrtikar calmed down, then asked, "What kind of crew person needs a life-support unit?"
"Good question," Yote replied, and then proceeded to tell them all about his meeting with the Cottonfields. "So your priority is getting Madeline integrated with our ship," Yote concluded.
"Aye. I’ll get onto that right away," R’Murran acknowledged as he rose from his chair.
"M’Rarrtikar – let’s have the financial report."
The Caitian called up figures on her PADD which she set to display on the main screen. "The good news is that in spite of the late penalties, we have scraped past the break-even point. As long as nothing goes wrong on this voyage, our figures will stay in the black. The bad news though is that the ship will be due for essential servicing, which will not be covered by the profits made on this voyage as they currently stand."
Yote nodded in agreement. His ballpark figures had nearly matched the actual ones. He tapped his own PADD and changed the main display. "Thankfully, that may yet be fully covered. Smails got back to me just before I went over to see the Cottonfields, and he has a couple of shipments for us to pick up along the route. Add to that the money that Haydn Cottonfield is paying us for taking Madeline, and I think we’ll be doing nicely."
M’Rarrtikar swept her expert eyes over the figures, and then she smiled. "Now that’s much better. I forecast a modest profit in light of this news. Before you ask though – it’s still not enough to give the crew a raise. Perhaps a little bonus though."
"Do the figures and let me know what we can afford," Yote instructed.
"If we’ve got the financial worries out of the way," Bethany said, "we should look at another impending problem."
Yote’s brow furrowed. "And what’s that?"
"The crew need a break. Because of the quarantine, nobody got shore leave. By the time that we get to our next destination, a number of them may be getting cabin fever, and going by the current itinerary, they aren’t going to get much of a chance for R&R there either."
"Hmm… good point. Okay, I authorise pushing up our speed above standard cruising. Figure out what speed we need to make in order to give the entire crew at least half a day of uninterrupted shore leave. We can spare a bit of anti-matter," Yote said, looking pointedly at M’Rarrtikar.
"Aye, Captain," Bethany replied. "In the meantime, I suggest that we step up the cross-training exercises. We’ve also got an apprentice to train. That will have the added benefit of keeping their minds occupied."
Yote leaned back in his chair with a sigh of satisfaction. "Looks like we may finally be back on track. Between my father, Star Fleet, and myself, we’ve lined up some significant work for the next voyage, so the Phoenix may soon be rising from the ashes once more."
Three days into the voyage, Ilya Minsk was already a bit bored. Although his Star Fleet assignment was important, it was far from exciting, and the ermine had nothing to do until he reached his destination. The Phoenix was hardly a cruise ship with a plethora of forms of entertainment, and he didn’t really want to sit around watching vids all day. He was told though that they had a holosuite that he could use, as long as the crew was not using it already.
He was disappointed to find that it was in use, but at least it was not closed to him. It seemed that a number of the crew were engaged in various forms of exercise and training, and the holosuite was currently configured as a gymnasium. One of the tiger morphs was engaged in unarmed combat with a two-tailed fox, with a grey fox vixen apparently refereeing. A couple of Caitians were doing gymnastic exercises, while two Faleshkarti, a mouse, and a rabbit were playing handball. The latter aroused his curiosity as he had briefed on all the crew as a matter of basic security, but there had been no mention of a rabbit doe on the list. She had the crew badge on her sports halter, so she was not a fellow passenger, all of whom he’d been appraised of anyway. He stepped up to watch the game and get a closer look at her. Aside from the halter, she wore gym shorts like the others, and nothing else, so he was able to admire her lithe athletic figure. Only a few years younger than himself… not bad! A nicer match for him than the more full-figured mouse fem, or the two herm aliens who were still children anyway.
Ilya kept watching until the game played out, which took quite a while because they seemed to be fairly evenly matched in skill. The result seemed of little concern to them as they appeared to be just doing a fun form of exercise rather than any serious competition. He did notice one odd thing though – while the Faleshkarti and the mouse were all breathing hard from their exertions, the rabbit seemed fresh and rested. He had to find out more.
Approaching the rabbit, Ilya said, "Good game. You must be really fit because you don’t look the least bit tired."
The rabbit grinned back at him. "I have an unfair advantage there – I don’t get tired."
Ilya raised his eyebrows sceptically. "Pardon me for saying so, but I find that hard to believe. I’m Ilya, by the way."
"I know – the Star Fleet courier – and I suppose you’re partly right. I mentally tire. My name is Madeline, and I’m the new apprentice Systems Controller."
"You mentally tire, but not physically tire? Now you’ve really got me puzzled. Mind if I test that statement and challenge you to a game?"
Madeline’s grin grew wider. "Want to see who gets tired first?"
The two Faleshkarti giggled. The girl was hiding something, but he could not figure it out yet. Still, it had given him a good opening line, and Madeline seemed willing to play along. An hour later though, after continuous hard-fought matches, he was almost worn out, while she still was not flagging in the slightest. That grin of hers was starting to get infuriating.
"Enough!" he exclaimed. "I see that you will eventually win even if through sheer indefatigability. How do you do that?"
"I think I’ll see if you can figure it out. No cheating by asking any of the other crew though."
"Okay. I’m going to go back to my room now and take a shower. Can I meet up with you later?"
"Sure – I’ll be in the rec room."
"Great! I’ll meet you there then." With a wave, he headed off to his room. If he had looked back though, he may have wondered where the rabbit had disappeared to.
After refreshing himself, Ilya made his way to the rec room where various crew and passengers were playing vid games, Lirkar-Kr’rin, or just chatting with coffee and snacks. As promised, he found Madeline there, having a conversation. She spotted him entering, and waved him over.
"Have you figured out my secret yet?"
He shook his head. "The only morphs that I know of that have enhanced endurance are all former war beasts, and I’m sure rabbits were never included amongst those."
"I wouldn’t know that, but you’re right – that’s not the answer."
"Want to give me a clue?"
"OK." She stood up and moved her chair in front of her. "Take this chair."
Puzzled, Ilya attempted to do so, only to have his hands pass right through it. "Wha…? It’s a hologram! But if you were sitting on it…." He reached out to try to take Madeline’s arm, but again he could not touch anything solid.
"Unlike down in the holosuite, I’m insubstantial here." Madeline pointed to the holo-emitters on the ceiling of the rec room. "Those units can only project an image, and a focused sound projector make my voice seem to come from my mouth. However, there aren’t any force-field projectors and other systems to give me a physical presence."
"So I was playing against a solid hologram? No wonder you never got tired. But what are you? An A.I.?"
Madeline gave him a look of genuine disappointment. "Oh, come on! Do I sound like an A.I.?"
"No, no you don’t. But I know that Phoenix is not a brain ship. Those are very rare and well known."
"You’re right – Phoenix isn’t a brain ship, but you would have been a lot closer than your A.I. guess."
"Put me out of my misery and tell me, please."
Madeline relented and told him her story. He was surprised and concerned for her, but he had to admit that she was dealing well with her situation. "So you work in conjunction with the ship’s computer, rather than replacing it?"
"That’s right. By being directly plugged into it, I can multitask way beyond the abilities of any normal person, and control various ship’s systems directly. It also enables me to flawlessly replicate my body as a hard hologram in the holosuite, except of course it doesn’t physically tire."
"Quite an advantage," Ilya conceded. "So, can you go anywhere on the ship as a hologram?"
"Sadly, no. While I can be aware of most places through the ship’s systems, only this room and the bridge have the auxiliary holo-emitters so far. Between them, they give me a real presence in the most important places – my primary work and relaxing environments."
"So you still need to relax despite everything else?"
"Sure! There’s a real body tied into this ship’s systems, and I still need to unwind, and even sleep occasionally."
"And you’re restricted to the ship too, aren’t you?"
Madeline’s face fell. "Yes, I’m afraid so."
Ilya was annoyed with himself. Madeline did not need reminding that in spite of all the technology, she was nevertheless still severely handicapped. "I’m sorry – I should not have brought that up."
Madeline shook her head. "No, don’t let it bother you. I’m still luckier than most in my condition, and I’ve made peace with that fact. I’m determined to make my life a worthwhile and fulfilling one within those restrictions." Her grin returned. "And how many quadriplegics get to control a starship?"
Ilya smiled back. "None that I know of. But next time, I’m going to play some game against you that doesn’t involve physical exertion!"
Madeline laughed. "Deal!"
They chatted conversationally for a while until Ilya excused himself to head off to the mess hall for a meal. As the ermine departed, Risha smirked and commented, "I reckon he’s got the hots for you."
Madeline nodded. "Yeah, and he’s cute. Fun to tease too."
"So, are we going to see a little shipboard romance?"
Madeline stuck her tongue out at the cougar. "Don’t be silly. Besides, you don’t know me very well yet. You’re not going to be able to figure out what I find attractive until you do," she added cryptically.
Phoenix’s first stop was an asteroid. However, it was far from being just a barren rock. The star system in which it was located had been a big disappointment because despite having an ideal star, its planets were unsuitable for any form of colonisation. One had potential for mining, but there were more economical sources. The system might have been written off if it hadn’t been for its extensive asteroid belt with rare metals in relative abundance. The star’s location at a point roughly central to four colony worlds made it ideally placed to not only supply materials to all of them, but also act as a central transfer point between those worlds.
The six kilometre long asteroid was named Hesperia, and it had been mined extensively, leaving it riddled with a maze of passageways and enormous caverns. The Hesperia Mining Company had decided to seal off the tunnels and fill it with air to make it into a habitat, and then they began filling it with offices, shops, and residences. In a surprisingly short time, Hesperia had grown into a vibrant and exciting city. The HMC prided itself on not only providing living facilities, but recreational ones also. Just about every form of entertainment could be found there, and with them came the gambling venues. Many shipping lines used Hesperia as regular R&R port, and the city was often referred to as the New Las Vegas of space, named after the famous city in the middle of a desert that died when the Gene Wars began. Like that old city, the asteroid was lit up like a Christmas tree; all the more to impress the tourists who flocked there as they gazed from the observation lounges of the starliners. Less impressive were the docks that serviced the freighters that kept the city in space supplied with everything from fresh packs of cards, to tankers of water and air.
It was to one of these that the Phoenix was directed. Heywood deftly piloted the ship into position where the automated docking tractor beams took over. The sound of the magnetic mooring cables anchoring themselves signalled their arrival. There was not much to be unloaded there as the city was serviced regularly by the much larger freighters that docked daily. Their consignments were of a more urgent and critical nature that couldn’t wait on the slower ships, and thus paid a handsome premium. As Yote had instructed, Phoenix had arrived early, which would not only make their customers happy, but would give the crew a much-needed break.
"Welcome to Hesperia City," a voice over the comm announced. "You have been assigned cargo bay 72. Please report to the Portmaster’s office before commencing unloading."
"That’s my cue," Yote said. He touched the P.A. button. "All hands – commence unloading procedures. We will be using cargo bay 72 upon receiving clearance from the Portmaster." He turned off the P.A. and turned to Bethany. "Mr Oakwood – you have the bridge."
Yote departed for the personnel airlock where a docking tube had already been extended to the ship, sealed, and filled with air. "very efficient," Yote murmured in satisfaction. He picked up a couple of VIP parcels that were boldly marked, ‘PERSON TO PERSON – SIGNED DELIVERY ONLY
Because they were docked directly to Hesperia, they were able to save a lot of time due to not having to shuttle it down. The freight was therefore unloaded very quickly, and Yote was soon able to make the long-awaited announcement.
"All shore leave parties are now free to enjoy themselves as they see fit. You have ten and a half standard hours before you have to be back for a prompt departure at 2200 hours ship time. Any latecomers will have their pay docked, but other than that, I don’t want to see you back here, okay?"
There was cheer amongst the crew, and then a mass exodus. Soon there was no one left aboard the ship except for Yote, and of course Madeline. Her holographic image blinked into existence on the bridge, and she gave him a curious stare.
"Aren’t you going on shore leave, Captain?"
"Someone has to stay on watch on the ship, and it’s best that the rest of the crew get the opportunity for R&R first."
"You need some R&R too – I could stay on watch. It’s not as if I can go anyway."
Yote noticed that there was a touch of wistfulness to that statement, rather than envy. He hoped that it would remain that way because there was nothing that he could do to change that situation. "Maddy, you’re doing a great job so far, but you’re still only an apprentice. The watch officer needs to be one of the command staff anyway."
"Oh, I see. I understand," Madeline conceded with disappointment, but then she rallied. "But you still need a break."
"And I’ll get one. R’Murran drew the short straw, and he’ll be back in five hours to relieve me. Then I will take a few hours R&R."
"What did you intend to do?" she asked curiously.
Yote shrugged. "Probably take in a show. Maybe go visit a bar and shoot the breeze with a few other spacers. Whatever takes my fancy."
"What will you do until then?"
"Kill time somehow. Want to play a game?"
"Always! I play a mean game of Scrabble if you think you’re up to the challenge?"
Yote grinned. "You’re on!"
They were midway through their third game, score tied at one game each, when Madeline’s ears pricked up. "I’ve just ‘heard’ an all-ships announcement."
"What is it?" Yote asked curiously.
"There’s a bulk freighter, The Olympian, limping into the system. They were attacked and badly damaged by pirates. They apparently have very limited control, and all ships are advised to avoid their flight path until they are picked up by a tug ship and docked at the repair facilities at Vulcan Shipyards."
The shipyards were used for all maintenance and repair facilities for the asteroid miners, and were located on another of the floating mountains located conveniently close to Hesperia. "Is that going to affect our departure at all?" Yote queried.
Madeline cocked her head as she examined the flight computer’s data. She shook her head. "No – it’s due to arrive an hour, more or less, before we depart."
"Good. One less thing to worry about. At least it’s not us in trouble for once."
Later, after a meal break and change of games, R’Murran turned up on the bridge. "I’m here to relieve you, Captain."
Yote looked at the chronometer. "That time already? I hardly noticed. You might want to take up this game with Madeline – it will help pass the rest of the watch."
"I might just do that. Have fun, Captain."
"I intend to. Sorry that you had to cut yours short."
Having never been to Hesperia before, the first thing that Yote did was wander around Hesperia, gawking like any other tourist. He resisted the temptations of the various Renzar merchants hawking their wares along one of the many shopping districts. Then he passed into the central main cavern and gaped in awe. It had to be at least half a kilometre to the roof! Transit tubes criss-crossed the empty space, but it was the spectacular light display that riveted his sight for several minutes.
Eventually though, he tore his eyes away and accessed Hesperia’s entertainment guide, checking for live theatre performances. Deciding that he’d had enough of real-life drama, he chose a comedy instead. That killed about half of the time that he had available, but he felt that it was worth it, giving the show at least four stars out of five.
Feeling a bit of thirst, he decided it was time to look for a good bar. Looking up recommendations for bars that were frequented by spacers, he settled for one called "The Gamma Quadrant". Therefore he wasn’t surprised to find an assortment of ship’s crews in there, from freighters to Star Fleet. What startled him was running into some familiar faces.
"Seems like we think alike," he told the people gathered about one of the tables.
Ceres grinned and said, "Might as well join us for a drink, Captain. They brew a pretty good beer here."
"Don’t you believe it, Captain," Bethany said. "It seems Starwalkers have strange tastes."
"I wouldn’t touch such weak stuff," Zelkie added.
"You chakats could drink straight ethanol and it would be scarcely strong enough for you," Risha retorted.
"I’ll stick to what I know," Yote decided, and flagged down a waitress – a well-stacked (and apparently well-tipped) vixen. He placed his order before asking, "So where are the others?"
Ceres replied, "Did you know that they have a famous botanical garden in one of the caverns? It’s part of the environmental system that helps keep the air smelling sweet, but it’s awarded for its aesthetic design also."
"I suppose that explains where Danson is," Yote guessed.
Ceres nodded. "Yep. I had my fill after a couple of hours, but he’s still exploring it. I told him I’d rendezvous with him later, and I went looking for a bar.
"And this is where I found hir when I arrived," Zelkie said. "My mates have taken the cubs to somewhere suitable for their age. Frankly their choice made me gag, so I begged off. I believe the Caitians have all gone to some family show. We have no idea where the others are." No one was going to use their comm to interrupt their R&R just to ask what they were up to.
"As long as they’re back on time, it doesn’t really matter," Yote conceded. The vixen turned up with his drink, and he tipped her a reasonable amount. With both Bethany and Risha there, he didn’t want to show any excessive interest in the sexy fox.
Yote spent a bit of time with his shipmates before leaving to mingle with some of the other spacers. He was involved in a discussion with a couple of other independent shippers when the power suddenly glitched. The lights dimmed, and the artificial gravity oscillated, making his stomach lurch uncomfortably.
"What the hell?" the Voxxan he’d been chatting to exclaimed. "That’s not supposed to be able to happen."
Yote hadn’t known what to think. He started to ask a question when his wrist comm buzzed. "Yote here," he answered.
"R’Murran here, Captain. There’s been an incident that I thought you should know about."
"We noticed. Go ahead."
"You are aware of a damaged freighter making its way to the repair facilities?"
"Yes – The Olympian – attacked by pirates and barely functional."
"Well, there was an explosion there that knocked us badly."
"Why in hell is the ship so close to Hesperia?" Yote demanded angrily. "And what damage has been done to the ship?"
"Captain, The Olympian is nowhere near Hesperia yet – at least not for a conventional explosion. There was an E.M. pulse and a burst of radiation. I think they have an antimatter leak."
Madeline’s voice cut in, "Half our sensors were overloaded by a wave of radiation. I’m still seeing spots before my virtual eyes. The rest of the ship seems to have survived the pulse though."
Electro-Magnetic Pulse! That accounted for the effects on Hesperia. Although hardened for use in space, the electronics would have a harder time dealing with EMP. Yote said, "If it happened once, it could happen again. Put up what shields that you can and monitor the situation closely. What’s The Olympian’s current condition?"
"Still there, but drifting," R’Murran replied. "It must have been a fraction of a gram only, but that ship has to have been riddled with hard radiation. The crew is likely to be dead or dying. Tug ships have just been dispatched to deal with it."
"Captain!" Madeline interrupted. "I’m picking up a signal from The Olympian. Their First Officer is reporting massive systems failure and their engineering crew are not responding – presumed dead. They’ve tried to eject their power core, but it’s not responding. Their captain has gone to try to trigger the manual ejection system."
"The radiation will surely kill him," Yote replied.
Yote’s Voxxan acquaintance had been listening to the conversation with interest. He spoke up. "They’re all as good as dead anyway – he might as well spend his last minutes doing something useful."
Yote had suspected as much, but had not wanted to articulate it. He got up from his chair. "Nice talking to you, but I’ve got to go."
The Voxxan nodded in understanding, and then set about contacting his own ship.
Yote left to find the others. It turns out that they were also trying to find him.
"Madeline let us know what’s happening," Bethany said. "I think that we should head back to the Phoenix."
"I was thinking the same thing. I have this sinking feeling that the trouble has only just begun."
They started heading for the exit, but just then the vid screens switched to a live news feed. A concerned news reader started announcing what Yote had already learned, but then the picture switched to what seemed to be live video from a starship near The Olympian. The first thing that was obvious even from that distance was a gaping hole in the hull where the engineering section would be located.
"Hell! I don’t know if they’ll even be able to eject their power core in that condition," Ceres commented.
"I’m not waiting to find out," Yote replied. He continued out of the bar, followed closely by the others. Some of the other patrons had gotten similar ideas and weren’t far behind. Outside, he called the Phoenix again. "Madeline – you there?"
"Of course, Captain."
"Issue an immediate recall to all crew. No exceptions. No delays. I want the rest safely back on board as soon as possible."
"Understood, Captain. Sending recalls now. We’re still closely monitoring The Olympian. The tugs are nearly there. Wait… there appears to be some movement near Engineering. Debris seems to be being pushed out…"
"R’Murran here, Captain. According to the specs that I’ve pulled up, that’s where the power core ejection port is located. It looks like somebody is managing to do something… yes… I see it. The core is definitely coming out. It’s slow though – it must be catching on the wreckage. I hope that it doesn’t get even more damaged. One tug is heading for the core… it looks like it’s using its tractor beam to prise it out… yes, it’s got it. The tug is starting to pull away from the ship. Still too close for comfort though. What is that pilot doing? He’s taking a big risk if he doesn’t…"
There was loud short squeal on the comm, and the lights went out, followed by the artificial gravity. The background hum of electrical and mechanical equipment disappeared, only to be replaced by screams of fear and panic from the people who had never experienced weightlessness before, let alone in complete darkness. For the briefest moment, the blackness was absolute, and Yote felt a twinge of panic himself. Then the emergency lights came on. Pitifully few and not very bright, they nevertheless were able to relieve the stygian darkness sufficiently to enable people to be seen hanging helplessly in the air. It was immediately obvious who were spacers and who were tourists. While the latter futilely tried to get back to the floor, the experienced spacers either latched onto something secure, or waited calmly waited until they drifted within reach of something or somebody. Yote witnessed two Star Fleet officers brace against each other and push off in opposite directions to reach handholds on the walls. In zero gee, there was little point in sticking to the designated floor.
Yote had been caught mid-step when the gravity failed, and his momentum carried him forward and slightly upward. He snagged a pole as he passed by it, and turned to check on his ship mates. Bethany was on a similar trajectory as he had been, but just out of reach of the pole, She calmly held a hand out to him, and he hauled her in. He spotted Zelkie walking along the floor as if the gravity plates were still on. Of course shi was using hir telekinetic ability to do it, but it looked odd when everybody else was weightless. For a moment he couldn’t see Risha, then he found her drifting helplessly in a crowd of non-spacers who were more of a hindrance than a help.
"A little assistance, please!" she yelled to be heard over the racket when she caught Yote’s eye.
Yote directed Zelkie to pull the cougar down to them, and then he looked for Ceres. He found the Starwalker already fetching the more helplessly stranded people. Ceres had of course reacted instantaneously when the gravity went off, and was in perfect control of hir movement at all times. Absolutely no one could match a Starwalker in hir element.
With everyone accounted for, Yote tried to get back in contact with the Phoenix. When no one answered, he started getting a horrible sense of dread. He tried again.
Bethany put a hand over his comm. "Captain – there’s no point in trying to comm the ship. Your signal won’t get through. We’re inside an asteroid with many metres of rock and metal blocking low-powered comms like ours. Without power to the comm relays, they’re useless."
Yote nodded in understanding, but remained frustrated. "I’m worried about R’Murran and Madeline, and has anything happened to the ship?"
"Hard to say. If that was another stronger EMP burst, the ship’s shields should have coped. If it was something else, we won’t know until we get back to the dock."
"Then we’d better get going. If the power doesn’t come back on soon, we won’t be able to use the transit tubes, and the dock is a couple of kilometres away."
"On the plus side, we don’t have to walk it all. In freefall, we can push off and coast through the air," Bethany pointed out.
"As long as we don’t bump into anyone along the way," Risha added.
"I can fend people off with TK nudges," Zelkie offered. "You will have to hang onto me though – action and reaction are still in effect."
"Let’s do that. Zelkie, manoeuvre us against a wall so that we can push off…" Yote looked around to get his bearings, "…thataway." He looked for Ceres, and called out to hir, "Ceres! Ceres! We’re headed for the ship now."
The foxtaur waved to show that shi had understood. Shi bounced off a statue, heading off in their intended direction.
Meanwhile Zelkie had got them all into position against a wall. Risha climbed onto hir back, locking her two lower arms around the chakat’s waist. She held out her other two arms to either side, and Yote and Bethany took double arm grips on them.
Zelkie said, "Okay, brace yourselves against the wall, and push off when I say three. Ready? One, two, three!"
They shoved off as hard as they could. They sailed smoothly through the gloom at a fast pace, with only the occasional lurch as Zelkie pushed aside some hapless person, incidentally helping them to reach a secure point. They reached the end of the cavern that held the row of bars and restaurants, and another bounce aimed them for the connecting tunnel. There they were slowed down by the crowd in the confined space until they passed into the huge main cavern.
Risha gasped. "Omigod! There are people floating hundreds of metres up there! What will happen to them if the gravity comes back on now?"
"They’ll have a heck of a harder landing than we would," Yote said grimly. "Hopefully the people in control will have the sense not to turn the grav-plates back on full as soon as the power is back on. Turning them on at a tenth of a gee for a couple of seconds could pull everyone downwards until everyone is safely anchored."
"Do you really trust them to do that?" Bethany asked.
Yote sighed. It was true – he couldn’t. "Zelkie – can you reach that far with your telekinesis?"
"I’m… not really sure," shi replied doubtfully. "I’ve never tried from that distance. It’s a clear line of sight… maybe."
"Park us somewhere safe and give it a try. Even a little pull should help them to drift down to safety."
Zelkie found a convenient sign to grab with four limbs to use as an anchor, then shi turned hir attention to one of the drifters. A frown furrowed hir face as shi concentrated hard on the distant figure. "It’s like trying to hold a greasy eel with chopsticks, but I think I’m having an effect… yes, I can feel it… their delta vee is now towards the floor."
"Okay, don’t take any more time than you have to. Move on to the next one. We’ll just have to hope that they’ll have the time to drift down to safety."
Zelkie chose hir next target, then the next, and the next. Shi must have done at least two dozen when Bethany spoke up.
"Look over there," she pointed. "There are people with zero gee manoeuvring packs. They’ve started picking up the drifters."
Yote nodded. "Looks like the authorities might finally be doing something. That’s our cue to move on."
Zelkie said, "Okay – is everyone still hanging on firmly? We’re off then." They shoved off in the direction of the docks. Crossing the main tunnel took some time, but they did it without incident, noting that people were calming down and getting more organised. Many were heading for the docks like they were.
"Some of those people might be in for a nasty surprise," Bethany commented.
"Why is that?" Risha asked.
"Let me guess," Yote answered. "If they didn’t have their shields up, their ships might be as dead as Hesperia."
"Exactly. If EMP is the culprit, they’re going to have to break out their emergency spares from the shielded stores just to get basic life-support operational again. At least here in Hesperia, there’s a huge air reserve, although lack of circulation will be a major issue."
They reached the beginning of the docks and, as predicted, there were crowds trying to board their ships. It got too crowded for their formation, so they separated and manoeuvred through the tangle of people and objects.
"Try your comm now," Bethany suggested. "We may be close enough for a direct signal now."
"Good idea." Yote keyed his comm. "Yote to Phoenix."
"Captain! Thank goodness – we’ve been trying to contact you," came Madeline’s relieved voice.
"All of Hesperia has lost power, so the comm relays don’t work. Fill me in as to what’s happening. How’s the Phoenix?"
"We’ve burned out a number of sensors, and they’re going to need replacing. Otherwise our shields held and protected us from the blast."
Yote sighed. There went the bonuses again. "Okay, what blast?"
"As you’ve probably guessed, the damaged power core blew up. It was still far too close despite the efforts of the tug ship driver. That person is a hero for getting it as far away as they did. A pity that they were killed doing it."
"What about The Olympian?"
"It’s dead. Nobody on board could still be alive after bearing the brunt of that radiation blast."
Yote was grateful for the sheer amount of rock that had shielded the inhabitants of Hesperia.
Madeline continued, "The radiation hit a lot of ships here that didn’t raise their shields in time. There could be a lot of sick or even dying people aboard."
"Damn!" Yote swore. "If Hesperia’s problems go on too long, they’re going to need to evacuate as many people as possible, but the ships might not be useable."
"Captain!" R’Murran’s voice interrupted. "Lack of power to the environmental systems may be the least of Hesperia’s problems. I’ve been tracking The Olympian, and it’s been knocked slightly off course by the blast. It’s currently on an intersecting course with Hesperia!"
"Hell! What about the second tug?"
"It was too near the explosion, and their shields weren’t good enough at that range to prevent them from being disabled."
"I don’t suppose they have a third tug?"
"I’m not sure, Captain, but I doubt it. The tugs are only for the maintenance site. Hesperia doesn’t deal with those ships. The big space liners are assisted into the dock with the fixed tractor emplacements. They’ve also got a couple of super heavy-duty tractor beams that are used for warding off objects such as other asteroids in the region, and they could do the job, but of course they’re out of action also."
Yote was worried. With over half the Phoenix’s complement still unaccounted for on Hesperia, he not only had to consider that they might be trapped, and even if they weren’t, whether they could get to the ship before The Olympian crashed into Hesperia. "Keep a very close eye on the situation, and keep trying to contact the others. We’ll be there soon."
"Aye, Captain," came both R’Murran and Madeline’s voices.
The Hesperia City Council had gone to a lot of effort to attract the tourist Fedcred. Amongst its more recent additions was a theme park intended to draw in families with children of all ages. Naturally this was the destination of choice for both the chakats and the Caitians, not to mention the playful mouse, Penny. Not that the chakats needed cubs as an excuse to enjoy the attraction; their general sense of playfulness made it almost irresistible. However, it was the opportunity to let the children let loose without the normal ship’s restrictions that was the prime attraction, letting the kids be themselves out of the restrictions of shipboard life. They had even offered to take the Amur Tiger child, Katarina, along with them to give hir parents a bit of free time for themselves. Both children and adults were enjoying their day immensely.
The adult chakats wanted to do other things with their limited time though. Hotfoot wanted to shop for foods and items to prepare some special meals for Shintaro, not to mention adding to hir culinary repertoire. Burningbright wanted to shop for clothes and other knick-knacks. Zelkie had not wanted anything particular from the shops, but expressed a desire to visit some bars and gossip with other starship crews. So they divided up their available time and took turns indulging themselves, while the other two kept an eye on the cubs. Hotfoot went first, and after locating the market district, found much of what shi needed and dropped it off at the Phoenix before rejoining the others. Burningbright went next. By the time that shi returned, R’Murran had left to relieve Captain Yote. Zelkie then left, intending to meet up with everyone back at the ship. Everything was going perfectly.
There was a therefore a great deal of disappointment when the recall from Phoenix came in. However, all the children and some of the adults were already aboard a roller coaster ride, and they had to wait for that to complete first. While they knew that there had to be some sort of big problem, nobody expected total power failure. The one thing that the designers of the coaster system had not taken into account was the total lack of gravity. Without it, the precisely calculated and balanced forces on the ride were thrown out of kilter, and the carriage jammed at the top of a corkscrew loop, leaving its entire load of passengers stranded, locked into place by the safety bars.
M’Resk, who was heavily pregnant, had been refraining from the high-stress rides. She was kept company by M’Anissa’tk and Burningbright who had both had their fill of rides. Everyone else was aboard that coaster. Burningbright was nearly overwhelmed by the sudden flood of fear and panic, not the least of which was coming from the people trapped on that ride, especially hir children. For once, hir high empathic sensitivity was working to hir detriment.
M’Resk looked at the chakat in concern, unaware as yet of the predicament their cubs were in. "What’s wrong, ’Bright?" She grabbed the chakat’s foreleg as shi started drifting away, too preoccupied with the empathic onslaught to watch out for hirself.
"The cubs – they’re so afraid. Everyone is afraid! It’s too much! I’m… I’m trying to block it out… Must concentrate on calm… Focus down… Shut down the negative… Ooh… I…I think I have it under control now." Shi looked up and M’Resk could see the emergency lights reflected in the tears in hir eyes. "I feel fear everywhere, M’Resk. Whatever has happened has affected a lot of Hesperia, if not all. It must be something to do with that emergency recall that we just got."
M’Resk nodded. It had come in too late to get the children and the other adults off the ride, and they had been waiting for it to complete before they could head back to the Phoenix. She started to take out her comm to get back in contact with the Phoenix.
"Where’s the coaster?" M’Anissa’tk asked, peering into the gloom.
Burningbright pointed up to where the coaster was stalled. "They’re stuck up there. That’s why they are so frightened."
"Oh Goddess!" M’Anissa’tk exclaimed in her native tongue.
M’Resk said, "I can’t get through to anyone on the comm. What’s going on?"
"It looks like a major power failure. If it’s widespread, it may have knocked out the comm relays also," M’Anissa’tk replied.
"Then what are we going to do about the children?"
"See who is in charge first." M’Anissa’tk grabbed M’Resk’s arm and pushed off in the direction of the coaster station, with Burningbright following behind. The morph at the controls was already besieged by other parents.
"Listen, lady," he repeated wearily, "I’m telling you what I told them – without power, I can’t do anything. I can’t call for help, and there’s no walkway on the corkscrew to get them down that way either. You’ll just have to wait until the power comes back on."
"Without gravity, you don’t need a walkway," M’Anissa’tk pointed out.
"Are you nuts? If the gravity comes back on while anyone is up there unsecured, they’ll fall to their deaths!"
The Caitian had to concede that he was right, and there was no choice but to wait and see what happened. The emergency recall had her worried though; they might not have the luxury of time. As the long minutes passed by and she watched people being plucked from mid air by some brave rescuers, she suddenly realised that if this was a Hesperia-wide problem, there would be no way that they would be turning the gravity back on soon. "I’m going up there," she announced. "How do you work the safety bars?" she asked the leopard morph.
"I can’t let you do that, lady."
"You don’t have a choice, mister. Hesperia has huge problems that aren’t going to be fixed quickly."
"You don’t know that," he replied.
"I’m a former Star Fleet maintenance technician with plenty of experience. I see nothing is working, not even the environmental systems. If anything is going to be restored fast, it’s that. But nothing has. We have a major disaster developing, and we need to get those people down and evacuate."
"Don’t you dare, lady!" He grabbed M’Anissa’tk’s arm to restrain her. "Try anything, and I’ll get Security to arrest you."
"Yeah, good luck with that," she told him. "Burningbright – this man is trying to stop me from rescuing our cubs and mates. Help me out, please."
The chakat had been hovering nearby, fretting over the delay. Shi came over to them, put a handpaw on the leopard’s arm, and squeezed.
"Arrgh! Leggo!" yelled the leopard, releasing his grip on M’Anissa’tk.
The Caitian pushed back and floated out of reach, and only then did Burningbright release hir grip on the leopard.
"You’re a fool, and you’ll get all those people killed!" he shouted at her.
"I don’t think so," M’Anissa’tk said as she positioned herself to shove off. "And I’m not going to wait around for ages for you to realise that I’m right." She sprang hard, and hurtled towards the stalled coaster.
Some of the captive passengers saw her coming. Her daughter, Keera, was one of them. "Mother’s coming!" she shouted in excitement. "She’ll get us out of this."
First M’Anissa’tk had to bring herself to a safe stop. Unfortunately, while her aim was very good, it was not perfect. She had to reach awkwardly for a handhold, and wrenched her shoulder bringing herself to a halt. Pushing the pain to the back of her mind, she started looking for the safety bar locking mechanism. It wasn’t hard to find as it had to be easily accessible by the attendants. Keera, Ner’ritn, Kannekin and Katarina were in the first carriage.
"You know that you’re not going to fall when I unlock the safety bars, don’t you?" she asked them. "Just push off towards the floor – not too fast. You don’t want to crash into it after all this."
They reassured her that they knew what to do – all except Kannekin who clung fanatically to the carriage.
"I’m scared, mamma, It’s so far down!"
M’Anissa’tk put her uninjured arm around her son. "It’s okay, cubling. It’s not really down, after all." She lifted her arm above her head and pointed to where M’Resk was beckoning the others. "Here, it is up, and I know you’re a great leaper. All it takes is one leap of faith from you. Can you do it for me?"
Kannekin looked again, and realised that it was indeed up, if he wanted it to be. "I will do it, mamma."
"Good boy." She let him go, and he leapt.
M’Anissa’tk smiled proudly after her child for a moment before turning her attention to the people in the next carriage. This one was fitted out for taurs, and held Lemondrop and Candycane.
"Can I get a reassuring hug too?" Lemondrop asked with a grin.
"If it will help," M’Anissa’tk agreed.
She gave both chakats a hug and set them free.
"Whee!" cried Lemondrop as shi pushed off towards safety – a bit too fast, but that was normal for hir, and the Caitian didn’t worry about the cub.
M’Anissa’tk worked her way along, freeing Pixiepaws and Hotfoot, then M’Lertiña, M’Rarrtikar, Penny, and the rest of the passengers. One family of four absolutely refused to let her free them though.
"We’re waiting for the proper authorities," a rather uptight Siamese cat morph informed her, despite the protestations of her children.
With a helpless shrug, M’Anissa’tk left them to wait for help that might be many hours coming. With everyone else free, she then followed the others back to the floor, although by now she was having a hard time regarding it as such. People being people though, everyone was aligning themselves perpendicular to that surface, so a floor it remained.
"Let’s get back to the Phoenix," she declared, and the others readily agreed.
It was easier said than done though. Panicky people, many unsure of how to handle themselves in freefall, had caused a bottleneck at the theme park’s exit, and it took them a long time to get out. Then there was the matter of figuring out which direction to take. They had arrived by transit tube, and without power, they had no access to navigation information. It took them a while to find a local inhabitant who could give them clear directions on how to get to the docks, and they were a long way distant. Riding herd on a number of cubs did not make the task any easier.
While they were traversing a connecting tunnel filled with people moving along at a slow pace from handhold to handhold, Burningbright sniffed deeply. "I don’t like this. There’s no air circulation, and the air is getting foul in here. Too many people in too small a volume."
"Nothing we can do about it except not waste time in here," M’Rarrtikar replied. "No dawdling, Kannekin!" she said with a glare in his direction.
"I’ll keep him moving," Keera volunteered, exerting her authority as eldest child.
They forged ahead as best they could through the slowly moving mob.
Anastasiya and Valentina had invited Shintaro to tag along with them. While the kitsune had tasted the new and unfamiliar on the world of Pellucidar III, Hesperia made that place look dull by comparison. Shi was not a stranger to crowds and big events, but the loudness and brashness of the city within a rock was quite a revelation… and very exciting. One thing that Hesperia seemed to be big on was competition fights of various kinds. The tigers found an aikido championship was being held that day, and Shintaro was keenly interested.
Although Valentina did not practice martial arts like the other two, shi nevertheless enjoyed it as a spectator sport. The three spent several hours watching preliminary events, right through to the finals, with Shintaro critiquing the techniques of each competitor. After the final event, shi insisted on meeting up with the winner to offer hir congratulations. It was not easy, but shi did manage to do so, much to hir pleasure.
They were all very hungry by that time, and they set off for the restaurant sector in search of Japanese cuisine. Although Shintaro enjoyed the food that Hotfoot prepared, the chakat did not have much knowledge of Japanese style cuisine, nor all the necessities for making it, and so the kitsune was missing the foods with which shi was most familiar. The tigers liked variety though, so they happily went along with hir.
After a leisurely and very enjoyable meal, and not a little inebriated from generous quantities of saké, they set out in search of more fun. They found it in the form of a dance club. Shintaro had never been in anything like it before. Having been raised in a fairly traditional Japanese manner, nightclubs and such were very foreign to hir. However, after a lot of urging from Anastasiya and Valentina, the kitsune tried it out – perhaps encouraged by the inhibition-loosening quantity of alcohol that shi had drunk. Soon shi was enjoying hirself quite a lot, immersed in the music and energy of the experience. All three were so engrossed in it though that none of them heard the recall from the Phoenix, and so they had no forewarning when the lights and music died, and the gravity failed. Then Shintaro nearly lost hir lunch.
Feeling increasingly queasy as shi hung in mid air, shi called out loudly to be heard over the screams of fright. "Help, please, Anastasiya-san!"
The tiger had been caught by surprise also, but shi was within arm’s reach of Valentina. Drawing hir wife close, shi said, "I need to push off you."
Valentina nodded in understanding, and looked around to see where shi would end up. There were panicky and frustrated people filling most of the volume of the dimly lit club, and with hir limited experience in freefall, colliding with some was inevitable. "OK – go!" shi confirmed.
Anastasiya shoved and floated quickly over to Shintaro, snagging hir as shi passed, then halting their drift by grabbing a fixture.
"What is happening, Anastasiya-san?" Shintaro asked while barely stopping hir self from throwing up at any moment.
"Major power failure. Grav plates are off. Maybe air too. If power does not come back soon, I think we must go back to Phoenix." Anastasiya looked closely at the kitsune. "Are you okay?"
"No – my stomach is falling and I am deathly sick."
Anastasiya grinned. "Don’t worry, my friend – is not fatal. Freefall lessons for you when we leave Hesperia, and motion-sickness antidote too."
Meanwhile Valentina had drifted into a group of people. Shi fended off one easily enough, but ended up crashing into a wolf morph.
"Hey! What the hell do you think you’re doing, bitch?"
"Apologies, comrade; I am not adept in freefall."
"I’m not your comrade, and I don’t like your knee in my face!"
By now Valentina had realised that this was the kind of person who became belligerently angry when drunk. Shi tried to extricate hirself from the tangle of limbs, but lacked any hand or foothold except the wolf himself, and hir efforts only served to make him angrier.
"I said get out of my face, bitch!"
There was a glint of metal, and Valentina felt a jolt in hir abdomen. Shi looked down to see a spreading dark stain on hir clothes just below the left ribs. Shi then grunted in pain as the wolf kicked hir hard, sending hir spinning away helplessly. The last that shi saw of the wolf was him disappearing into a cloud of floating patrons. Shi grabbed for a handhold, and pain lanced through hir side as shi brought hir tumble to a halt. Shi looked about, trying to find Anastasiya and Shintaro, but shi could not see them. Shi was also completely disoriented, and could not see which way to go to get out of the club. Shi hung there, hand against hir wound, waiting to be found.
Eventually Anastasiya came floating up to Valentina, towing Shintaro behind hir. "Found you at last. These people are going crazy in here. Best to leave now while we can… what is wrong, Val?"
Valentina held up hir blood-covered hand.
"Chyort voz'mi! What happened? Let me see that!" Anastasiya started pulling up Valentina’s shirt. "Damn! Is too dark in here to see properly. Keep your hand over it and we’ll take you to medic."
As soon as shi was able to, Anastasiya braced hirself against a rigid object and shoved off in the direction of the exit which shi had previously located, pulling Valentina along with hir and, with the space-sick kitsune still hanging onto hir tail, joined the growing throng attempting to leave the club. Anastasiya was not above using hir size and ferocity to intimidate other patrons into giving hir priority, and soon they were outside. They were dismayed though to find out that the entire cavern was in the same condition.
"How are we going to find medic?" Valentina wondered as shi grimaced in pain.
Anastasiya was wondering that too. Hir comm was apparently useless, and shi could not get access to information services. Shi did not have the slightest idea how to find a medic. Shi had another attempt at looking at Valentina’s wound. Drifting close to one of the emergency lights, shi could at last see how bad it was.
"Is clean stab wound. Ship’s autodoc should be able to fix. We need to get back to Phoenix as soon as possible if we can’t find medic."
"Look up," Valentina instructed. "Transit tubes are dead too. We will have to travel there entirely by our own means."
"Yes, but I will do all work. You will not exert yourself. In zero gravity, I can handle you easily." Anastasiya looked at Shintaro. "But not two. You must pull yourself together and cope by yourself."
Shintaro nodded. "I understand, Anastasiya-san. Do not worry about me. I will keep up as best as I can." Privately the kitsune hoped that shi could do so without leaving a trail of vomit behind hir.
Anastasiya gathered hir wife into hir arms. Hoping that shi correctly remembered the direction back to the docks, shi pushed off, followed by the determined kitsune. The tigers had repeated encounters with other people as the various clubs emptied of patrons. Some were fellow spacers who were making their way to various destinations, but most were clumsy tourists. At one point, a hysterical rabbit morph latched onto Anastasiya and would not let go, slowing hir down considerably. When Shintaro caught up, shi managed to pry the morph off Anastasiya, and they continued until the next obstruction. That turned out to be an emergency bulkhead that was blocking the access tunnel between two of the caverns. A huge crowd was crammed into the tunnel, trying to get through.
"What is happening here?" Anastasiya asked a Caitian woman who was patiently waiting her turn.
She replied, "The power glitch that happened before the blackout caused the emergency bulkhead to trigger and lock down. They were in the process of lifting it when all power was lost. I’m told that there’s only a gap big enough for one person to squeeze through."
"Damn! Do you know where is medic?"
"Sorry, no. If you need to get through in a hurry though, you can go before me."
"Thank you. I must get my wife to ship as soon as possible."
"Is that blood? Oh, goddess! Let me help." She started talking to the people in the queue ahead of them, and one by one, they allowed the tigers to cut in front of them. In that manner, they worked up to the front of the line relatively quickly. There Anastasiya pushed Valentina through a narrow gap that was barely big enough for the large tiger morphs, and then followed, with Shintaro bringing up the rear. The helpful Caitian was allowed to go next, and Anastasiya thanked her profusely before hastily continuing hir journey.
Emerging from the tunnel, they found themselves in one of the bigger caverns. Anastasiya was glad to see that the upper areas were relatively free of obstruction. Shi braced hirself against the wall once again, and shoved off hard. They were making excellent progress and were about halfway across the cavern when shi realised that there was another figure approaching hir. With a sense of dread, shi realised that they were on a collision course. Shi curled protectively around Valentina and awaited impact. Fortunately the other person was an experienced spacer, and he fended them off as best as he could under the circumstances. There was a bruising blow, but they were otherwise fine… except that they were now knocked off course. Worse yet, they had lost a lot of momentum. Anastasiya was able to watch as Shintaro passed below them, unable to help the two. Very slowly, they were drifting towards the roof, losing precious time all the while.
Several minutes passed before a call alerted Anastasiya to someone’s approach. Startled, shi realised that it was Shintaro. "Hold out your arm!" shi shouted again.
Anastasiya did so, and Shintaro grabbed it as shi passed, imparting a lot of momentum to them. The roof started approaching at a considerably faster speed.
"How did you do that?" Anastasiya asked in wonder.
"I may be space-sick right now, Anastasiya-san, but I am always a samurai, and I learn fast."
The tiger was hugely impressed, but shi had to give hir attention to the approaching rock ceiling. Looking back, shi could see the dimly illuminated portal to the docks. Shi carefully twisted in mid air to ensure that hir feet met the rock so that shi could push off toward it. Shi barely noticed that Shintaro did exactly the same, and they pushed off the roof in nearly perfect unison. They approached the portal, just above it where they could meet the wall feet-first to kill their momentum. They got lucky and had a couple of convenient poles nearby to use to make their way down to the portal and into the tunnel. Then they were in the corridor that passed by the docks. Unfortunately it was at the opposite end from where their ship was, so they had to run the gauntlet of the many crowds milling in front of the various docks.
Anastasiya called out to Shintaro, "Try contacting Phoenix!"
The kitsune grimaced. "I tried to do so as soon as we reached the docks, and have tried several times since. There is no response."
Anastasiya cursed under hir breath and continued to forge on as best shi could. Valentina was quiet – too quiet. Shi suspected that hir wife had lost consciousness. It was with relief that shi finally saw the sign indicating their dock number. They entered the dock and their hearts sank. The Phoenix was gone!
Heywood and Menalippe were excited – it had been too long since they’d had the opportunity to go on leave as a couple, and they intended to make full use of this opportunity. They first took a guided tour of Hesperia’s highlights before choosing some attractions to patronise. Some shopping was done – most of it new clothes for the ferret woman. She tried on many outfits while he patiently indulged her whims.
After they arranged to have her purchases forwarded to the Phoenix’s dock, they indulged in a concert, followed by a formal meal at a swanky restaurant. The food was excellent, but it was the atmosphere of the place and the diligent attention to detail by the staff that made it special and romantic. It also cost a small fortune, but neither one cared.
They looked into a casino, but aside from a few trivial bets on a couple of games, they decided that it wasn’t for them.
"Let’s just do something fun," Menalippe suggested.
"Did you have anything in particular in mind?" Heywood asked curiously.
"The chakats mentioned that they were going to some kind of fun park. How about that?"
Heywood grinned. "Sure, why not? It’s not something that we can do on the ship, so I’m all for it."
They continued on until they reached the elevators that took people up to the transit tube station. As they waited for it along with several other people, both Heywood and Menalippe’s comm came alive with Madeline’s voice.
"Emergency recall. All Phoenix crewmembers are to report back to the ship as soon as possible. No exceptions. I repeat – everyone must return to the Phoenix immediately."
Menalippe sighed in disappointment. "Well, it was lovely while it lasted. I wonder if the emergency has anything to do with that power glitch we just had?"
"We’ll find out soon enough. This transit tube goes to the docks in the opposite direction."
They piled into the elevator, and the doors closed. It was a round car, with the back third a clear window to the cavern beyond. As the car rose, they got an excellent view of the cavern landscape – until the lights died and the elevator came to an abrupt halt. The grav-plates failed too, so while the emergency brakes brought the car to a safe stop, its passengers’ inertia made them keep going, and everyone was thrown into the roof. There were cries of pain and fear, and one person started screaming loud and long.
"For God’s sake, shut up!" someone yelled.
The screaming continued however until a loud slap silenced the culprit. The passengers gradually sorted themselves out of the tangle they found themselves in. Someone had puked, and nobody escaped getting some of the floating vomit on them.
"Oh no, not this again," moaned Menalippe.
"Did you pack those anti-motion-sickness pills like I told you to?" Heywood asked, reaching for her purse.
She nodded. "Yes…urp!" She gulped back her rising gorge.
Heywood quickly found the AMS tablets and gave her one. She had a little difficulty swallowing it without water, but managed soon enough. The medicine was very efficacious, and within minutes, she was feeling reasonably good again. She still hated the weightlessness though.
Meanwhile, the elevator passengers speculated on what had happened.
"Must have blown a circuit-breaker," someone remarked.
"One circuit-breaker doesn’t black out an entire cavern," another replied scornfully while indicating the gloomy scene beyond the glass.
"Try the emergency button again."
"There’s no power, you fool. It’s not working."
"My comm’s not getting through to anyone or anything."
"Mine’s not working either. The salesman said that it was their best model, and I’d never have any problems with it. I’m going to demand my money back!"
"People – listen to me! QUIET!" Heywood yelled.
Surprised, the other passengers shut up and looked at the human.
Heywood continued, "What nobody seems to have noticed is that the ventilation has died also."
"So what?" a rather fat feline morph asked. "So it’ll get a little stuffy in here. I’m more concerned about missing my appointment if this thing goes on too long."
"You should care. In zero gravity, air doesn’t circulate normally, and it has to be fan-forced or else oxygen starts depleting and carbon dioxide starts accumulating. Before too long, we’re going to run out of air in this confined space."
"Omigod!" a vixen morph exclaimed. "We’ve got to get out of here!"
A couple of panicky people started clawing at the door, trying to prise them apart.
"Stop that! Heywood exclaimed. "You’re just wasting your effort and our air. Even if you could get those doors open, there’s nothing but the solid rock of the shaft on the other side."
"Have you got a better suggestion, smart-ass?" another human asked.
"The roof – maybe there’s a service hatch," Heywood suggested.
They looked at the ceiling panels that had been knocked askew when they crashed into them. A couple of people started wrenching them out. One of them put his head into the gap.
"Damn! It’s too dark to see anything. Wait a moment…." A light glowed from the man’s comm, illuminating the recess. "Yes, I see a hinged lid… Shit! It’s locked! Why the hell is it locked?"
"Probably to stop idiots from joyriding on top of the elevator," Heywood replied. "Can you break it open?"
"I’m sure going to try!"
There ensued a lot of pounding and cursing, but eventually the man came out of the recess with a scowl on his face.
"It’s no use – it’s too solid. I haven’t been able to move it or break it."
"Let me try!" a burly wolf morph said.
"You’ll be wasting your time."
"Screw it! I’m not giving up!"
But eventually he did. The elevator was simply too well built.
"What about the glass?" the vixen morph suggested.
"Shatterproof," Heywood answered. "Safety standards would require it."
"Then what can we do?"
"Nothing. Literally. Just hang about and stop wasting oxygen. We’ve already done too much. Let’s just be calm, conserve the air we have left, and wait for the power to come back on, or for a rescue team. Watch the window for a chance to signal for help."
Amazingly, that’s exactly what everyone did. By then, the panicky ones had calmed down to a state of mere worry, and they saw the logic of Heywood’s advice.
Heywood gathered Menalippe close and quietly said to her, "I’m sorry that our day out was spoiled."
"It’s not your fault, and it’s been a wonderful day despite this. I’m happy just to be with you."
"Me too. I love you, Mena."
"I love you too, Heywood."
No more words needed to be said, so they kissed and cuddled in contented silence. Heywood’s eyes continued to watch through the glass though, hoping to catch someone’s attention and help them out of their predicament.
After several more minutes of struggling through the growing chaos, Yote and his compatriots had at last reached the Phoenix’s dock. Naturally they could not access the ship through the main bay without power to open the doors, but the personnel airlock had a failsafe that enabled them to manually operate the door.
"Mind the gravity!" Yote warned as they approached the entry port to the starship. The steep gradient from zero gee to normal ship’s gravity made their stomachs lurch, but otherwise they were glad to have weight again… except perhaps for Ceres.
Yote and Bethany hastened for the bridge, closely followed by the others. As they did so, Madeline’s voice came from the speakers.
"Welcome back! Have you heard from the others?"
"No – I was hoping that you might have done so by now," Yote replied.
"The last that I heard, most were in a section of the asteroid opposite to where you were. That would be more than enough to block person-to-person comm transmissions, and of course to the ship as well. Hopefully they’re on their way, but we won’t know until they get back in range, or Hesperia’s power is restored."
"Any change to the situation with The Olympian?" Yote asked hopefully.
"No – it’s still on collision course."
Yote brooded on this until they stepped onto the bridge. R’Murran got out of the command chair with relief. Madeline looked like she wanted to hug them, but her holo form couldn’t do that, so she just stood there smiling happily.
"Glad to have you back, Captain," the Caitian said with relief.
Bethany said, "Do you know how many other ships were affected, and how many are still operational?"
R’Murran put a layout view of Hesperia on the main screen. "The ones in green also had their shields up before the second EMP hit. The ones in red did not. The ones in yellow are on the opposite side of the asteroid, and were presumably shielded from the EMP. Because normal comms are down, I can’t verify that though. We can use sub-space radio if we really need to contact them though."
"How many of the remaining active ships have tractor beams powerful enough to deflect The Olympian?"
That class of ship was the interstellar equivalent of a super container ship. There were only a few in its class, and they were the heavyweights of the shipping industry. An ordinary docking tractor would be about as effective as a rowboat towing a tanker.
The Caitian studied the specs, then announced, "One."
"Which?" Yote queried.
"This former Star Corps ship was equipped to handle extraordinary situations out where there were no other facilities, so it has some high-powered tractors and the bracing needed to use them. All those other ships are normal commercial ships or passenger ships with standard equipment for docking purposes or cargo handling, which would not be up to the task."
"Are you sure Phoenix can do it?"
"I’ve studied the Phoenix’s specs thoroughly, Captain. It would be marginal at best, but I believe we have a small chance. However, it’s imperative that we leave immediately or else our efforts will definitely be too late."
"Madeline – any news from the rest of the crew?"
"Then we can’t wait. Prepare for immediate departure. R’Murran – how are the engines?"
"I’ve been warming them up since an immediate evacuation became a possibility."
"Good man! Zelkie, lay in our course. I’ll take the con while we manoeuvre out of dock. Ceres – disengage the boarding tube and close the cargo access port. Disengage magnetic anchors." When all that was done, Yote took the ship smoothly out of dock, and then lined it up on the course that Zelkie provided.
"Watch out for traffic," Bethany advised. "Without Hesperia Control, things could be dangerous around here."
"All extra eyes on the screens! Madeline, watch our remaining sensors," Yote ordered before carefully engaging thrust.
Fortunately the ship was able to depart without any dangerous encounters. Once clear of the vicinity of Hesperia, Phoenix poured on the speed.
Yote considered the task that they had set themselves. "R’Murran – can you figure out the optimum points for us to attach our tractor beams?"
"Can do, Captain." Technical specs started flashing across his work-screen.
"Ceres, figure out the optimal direction in which we need to pull it."
The time spent closing the distance between the Phoenix and the derelict seemed tensely interminable, but they made good time, and soon Yote was manoeuvring their ship to take up the optimal position that R’Murran had calculated. The super-freighter dwarfed their ship, and Yote had to wonder if R’Murran’s figures were right.
"Are we ready?" Yote demanded.
"Tractor beams ready, captain," Bethany replied.
"Full power available, sir," R’Murran confirmed.
"Engage!" Yote ordered.
The Phoenix had not one, but two heavy-duty tractor beams, and both flashed out to latch onto the chosen anchor points on The Olympian. Yote applied full power to the engines, and the superstructure of the ship audibly groaned under the strain.
Madeline looked nervous. "Captain – the strain gauges are red-lining."
"How far into the red?" Yote queried.
"Not far… yet."
"Keep an eye on them and let me know if they get worse. Zelkie – how are we doing?"
"Hard to say yet, Captain. We’re an ant trying to move a melon. Wait… yes, it’s deflecting. Calculating rate of change…."
There were several long, tense moments until the chakat spoke again.
"Oh hell. Captain – it’s not enough. We’re too close to Hesperia for our current rate of deflection to cause it to miss."
"Shit! R’Murran, can we get any more power out of the engines?"
"Not without probably blowing them up, sir. We need another ship to help us."
"What other ship? You said that the others aren’t equipped with heavy-duty tractors."
"Maybe there a Star Fleet ship in the system. They might have the tractors," R’Murran suggested.
"Star Fleet? I saw Fleet personnel in Hesperia, so that means that at least one ship that we couldn’t see on the opposite side has to be theirs." Yote activated the sub-space radio. "This is Captain Yote of the Merchant Vessel Phoenix calling any Star Fleet vessel docked at Hesperia. Please respond."
Yote was gratified to get a rapid response. The main screen lit up with the image of a canine morph in Fleet uniform, looking harassed. "This is Lieutenant Commander Alsace of the FSS Valiant. This had better be important – we’re trying to cope with a bad situation."
"Whatever you’re dealing with, you’d better drop it and help us. We need…" Yote began.
"Who the hell do you think you are, Yote? You can’t just barge in and demand help from us. We have an asteroid full of people to worry about. Now stop bothering us…"
Bethany stepped into view and barked, "Shut up and listen, Alsace!"
Alsace jerked back in surprise. "Wha..? Who? Commander Oakwood! I didn’t realise you were there."
"Still dithering and not listening to people, Alsace? You’re never going to be promoted if you don’t learn to find out the full situation before reacting. Where’s Captain Lister?"
"He’s out of contact on Hesperia, as well as the First Officer. I’m the most senior in charge at the moment."
"Then you’re going to have to do. Are you aware of what has happened?"
"The Olympian’s power core blew up and the EMP and radiation blast knocked out the power to Hesperia."
"What you cannot tell yet because you are on the wrong side of the asteroid, is that same explosion has also put The Olympian onto a collision course with Hesperia. If that isn’t prevented, most of the people still in Hesperia will probably be killed."
Alsace looked stunned for a moment, then shook herself. "By the Makers! I didn’t know. What did you have in mind?"
"We’re trying to tow the ship. Captain Yote’s ship is equipped with a strong tractor beam, but the ship isn’t enough by itself. We need a second vessel to help tow The Olympian into a safe trajectory. I happen to know that the Valiant has a strong tractor also. In order to save the lives of tens of thousands of people, you are going to have to stop whatever you are doing and rendezvous with the Phoenix and help deflect that freighter."
"Right. Give me one minute to drop off all our rescue personnel and shuttles so that they can keep working while the Valiant joins you."
"Now that’s good thinking. Rendezvous with us at the coordinates we will transmit to you. Mr Sandblossom, please calculate the optimum rendezvous point and transmit them to Valiant."
Zelkie was already doing that, and shi very quickly had the coordinates for Alsace.
"Coordinates received. We’ll meet you there soon. Valiant out."
The screen blanked, and Bethany turned to Yote and said, "My apologies for interrupting you, Captain."
Yote waved it off. "You were obviously in a better position to deal with them than I. An old acquaintance of yours?"
"I served on the Valiant with Alsace before I was transferred to my last ship. He’s always been too easily flustered, and he needs to be handled firmly. I don’t think he even realises that I’m not in Fleet any more."
"That’s to everyone’s advantage right now. The last thing that we want is a jurisdictional dispute when every minute counts."
A few minutes later, Madeline reported, "There’s a ship coming from the direction of Hesperia on an intercept course. Transponder says it’s the Valiant."
Yote keyed the comm. "Phoenix to Valiant – come in please."
The screen lit up to show Alsace once again. "Yes, Captain Yote?" he asked far more politely.
"My engineer has figured out the optimum attachment point for your tractors, as well as the delta vee you need to apply."
"Send us the details and we’ll be ready, Captain."
"Thanks, Commander. Phoenix out."
The Valiant quickly approached the stricken super freighter. Even two ships seemed inadequate to move that behemoth. Nevertheless the Valiant got into position, attached its tractor beams, and began adding its considerable might to the task of deflecting the gigantic ship. Even so, much time had been lost waiting for the Valiant, and they still could not be sure that it was enough.
‘Good grief!’ thought Yote. ‘How big was that explosion to have knocked this gigantic mass off course?’
Several long minutes passed as they kept up their effort. R’Murran started to look concerned about the power output and strain that they were putting on the ship.
"Zelkie, how much longer?" Yote asked.
"We still won’t clear if we quit now, sir."
Fifty seconds later though, R’Murran said, "Captain, I advise shutting down very soon."
"Zelkie?" Yote pleaded.
"Not yet," shi advised.
Madeline was the next to speak, her tone very concerned. "Captain, strain gauges are peaking. We risk major structural damage if we don’t quit."
"And everyone on Hesperia, including our crew mates risk death if we quit too soon," Yote replied grimly.
The seconds ticked by until Zelkie announced, "We have to disconnect and move Phoenix, or else we’re going to crash into Hesperia too."
"Shut down tractor beam!" Yote commanded, and then immediately set a course to avoid the asteroid. Keying the comm, he said, "Phoenix to Valiant – we’ve had to shut off our tractor. What is your situation?"
"We were just about to ask you the same, Phoenix. Tractor beams aren’t supposed to be run at full power non-stop for so long. We’re just about to shut off ours also and manoeuvre away from Hesperia. My navigator says that we’ve might not have done enough though."
Yote looked at Zelkie, who said, "He’s right. It’s going to scrape the asteroid, but there’s some big structure there that’s going to take a direct hit."
"Put it on the screen."
Zelkie switched the view to show the approaching structure. "It looks like one of the control towers. There are also other structures close enough to be affected. I hope that they know that they’ve got a ship about to hit them, and have evacuated."
"Without power, there’s no way to warn them if they haven’t."
Yote brought the ship to a relatively stationary position a few hundred metres away from the point of impact. "Shields on full," he ordered. "I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I want to be ready for anything."
It was like watching a train wreck in slow motion. With imponderable force, The Olympian struck the asteroid, gouging out chunks of rock, and continued on unchecked into the structures. There were explosions, with gouts of flame jetting out of various places until the oxygen that fed them was exhausted. Those watching on the bridge imagined the sound of tortured metal on rock and steel as the two giants of space struggled for supremacy. It seemed to take forever before the derelict passed the asteroid with a gigantic gash scarring its side.
Yote heaved a sigh of relief. While Hesperia might have suffered some shaking, it had not broken. Their crew mates and family would have their chance of getting back to the ship alive. He called the Star Fleet vessel again. "Thanks for your help, Valiant. We could not have done it without you."
"Thanks for being on the ball, Captain Yote. Now you’ll have to pardon us – we have to ensure nobody gets into a collision course with this hulk, and then get back to Hesperia to help with the rescue operations."
"We have crew to pick up also. Phoenix out." Yote leaned back in his chair and allowed himself a moment to let out the tension. He then took a deep breath and ordered, "Let’s get back to our dock as quickly as possible. All eyes on the screens again."
This time they encountered a couple of ships leaving the stricken city. That slowed them down, but they were able to pull into their dock without incident, although this time they had to do it much more slowly and carefully without the benefit of the automated docking system. They encountered one problem though – without power, the docking tube could not be extended and reattached.
"I can go out and manually haul it into place," volunteered Ceres.
"OK. How long will it take you to suit up?" Yote asked.
"For that little job, and with time being at a premium, I won’t bother suiting up."
"Say what?" Yote said with his jaw agape.
Ceres grinned. "Just a little ability we don’t talk about, Captain. There’s a reason why we’re called Starwalkers."
Shi left the bridge, and the stunned coyote looked at Bethany. "Can shi really…?"
Bethany nodded. "Yes, shi can. Their bodies are impervious to vacuum, and they can store about an hour’s worth of oxygen. They don’t usually operate without suits though because they normally work for long hours in space, and hard work also reduces the time that they can survive without replenishing their oxygen supply. And one last thing – they don’t want some idiot seeing them working without suits believing that they can do it too."
"I’ve known hir all this time, and I never knew shi could do that. I’ve got to watch this! Turn on the camera in the personnel airlock."
They watched as Ceres arrived and closed the airlock door behind hir. Then shi grinned at the camera, realising that shi was being watched. Shi slowly blinked, and when hir eyes opened again, they showed solid gold orbs.
"Third eyelid," murmured Bethany. "Seals the eyes and protects from radiation."
Ceres cycled the airlock, and while the air was being pumped out, shi withdrew a safety harness from a cupboard. Fastening it around hir waist, shi then opened the bulkhead door and pushed out confidently. They watched hir float over to the tube where it coiled lifelessly. Shi grabbed the frame with hir two dextrous forepaws, and started hauling hirself back to the port hand over hand using the safety line. Somehow shi imparted a bit of rotation to the frame and it turned to line up with the port. Shi released it a moment before the magnets in the frame clanged onto the hull. Then the ship’s docking system took over, clamping the frame and completing the seal. Ceres then overrode the safety control in order to start filling the airlock with air without closing the bulkhead door first, thus pressurising the access tube. When the pressure equalised, Ceres blinked hir eyes back to normal and pressed the comm button. "Boarding tube is ready, Captain."
"Well done, Ceres, and thanks for the show."
Ceres grinned. "You’re welcome, sir."
Yote turned to Madeline. Before he could ask, she shook her head. "No – no contact with the others yet."
R’Murran spoke up. "Permission to go look for them, Captain?"
Yote nodded. "Your entire family is out there, as well as Zelkie’s. You two do that. Ceres can go with you as shi’s best equipped to function in there in these conditions, and shi has hir mate to look for also."
"Aye, Captain," R’Murran said, and left the bridge with Zelkie following immediately behind.
Hundreds of frightened and frustrated starship crewmembers were gathered at the ports of their disabled ships at a loss for what to do. The air was noticeably fouler by now, and they found it hard to push through the chaotic crowds.
"If those people had a gram of sense, they’d be moving back out to the big main cavern. They’re using up all the air here," Ceres commented.
"That’s why I had us bring these oxygen tanks," R’Murran replied. "We could encounter even worse conditions in some of the smaller tunnels and caverns."
"When do you think that they’ll be able to restore power? If they can, that is," Zelkie queried.
"Hard to say. It depends on what back-up equipment they have in their stores. If I was in charge, I’d have back-ups for all the vital equipment in shielded stores, but I don’t know what Hesperia’s situation is. It wouldn’t be the first time that the relevant authority has skimped on certain items because they cost too much, or they thought that the likelihood of disaster was virtually nil." R’Murran gave his head a doleful shake.
"Why was the power knocked out anyway?" Zelkie asked. "Everything else inside Hesperia was shielded by all this rock and metal, so why did that fail?"
"Because of Hesperia’s power source. Like a normal space station, they have an antimatter power core. Actually they have four, with one kept in reserve for downtime on any of the others. Because antimatter reactions produce a lot of radiation, the safest and simplest option is to locate the power cores on the outside of the asteroid."
"So the EMP was able to knock out the power cores because they weren’t protected by many metres of rock and metal?"
"Well, yes and no. If the actual power cores had been affected, we’d all be dead because the antimatter containment would have failed, and there would have been an explosion even bigger than The Olympian’s power core. However, the power cores are well-shielded and still producing power. Unfortunately, all the controls, monitoring, and distribution grid are also located outside, next to the power cores, and while they are adequately shielded against normal radiation peaks such as solar flares, they weren’t up to blocking EMP and radiation of that magnitude. The good news is that the repairs needed should be confined to just that one facility. The bad news is that most of that facility is probably junk now."
"Then does that mean that Hesperia is doomed?"
"Not if they had any sense when they designed the system. All they need to do is get one thing going – the power supply to the environmental system. The rest can wait until later."
"So they won’t turn the gravity back on immediately?"
"That’s likely to be one of the last things restored. Grav-plates are rather energy hungry."
"So the time that I spent hauling people down from the big cavern was wasted?"
"What do you mean?"
Zelkie explained what shi had done in the big cavern.
"I see," R’Murran said with a nod. "No, your efforts weren’t wasted. It would be pretty terrifying for anyone, even hardened spacers, thinking that the gravity might come back on at any moment and they’d plummet to their doom. The less time that they spent up there, the better."
"You’re right," Zelkie said with gratitude.
The group emerged into one of the larger caverns. They travelled quickly to the other side, with R’Murran hanging onto Zelkie as shi provided the same service as previously. By now though, the only people not on the floor were those who were deliberately travelling in freefall like they were. At the far end, they found two access tunnels to other parts of Hesperia.
"Okay – the map that I downloaded onto my comm shows that the right one should take us to the theme park."
Ceres said, "Can we take the left one? That leads to the botanic gardens, and that’s where I left Danson."
"How can you be sure he’s still there? He could have moved since you left him, especially if he heard our recall message," Zelkie pointed out.
"He’ll be there. There’s nowhere else that he could be because he wasn’t comfortable anywhere else. He had been getting pretty freaked out by all the noise and crowds. When we found the gardens, it was like a lifeboat to him. He didn’t want to leave."
"You told us that he was having too much fun exploring it."
Ceres’ ears drooped. "That’s what he was doing, but only because he refused to go back out with me unless we returned to the ship. I didn’t want to go back to the ship, and I was getting bored with the gardens, so I left him there. Oh Makers! I’ve been so selfish! It’s always been what I wanted, and now he’s in danger again because of me."
"It’s not your fault that this has happened," Zelkie reassured hir.
"But it is! Without me, he would never have left that farm that he grew up on. I wanted to follow my dream of working in space. That’s what I was made for – that’s where I belong. But I’d fallen in love with the silly tod and insisted that he come along with me. That’s why you seldom see him outside of hydroponics. He just isn’t at home within steel walls, with machinery to keep him alive every moment. I knew that when I dragged him into space with me, but I did it anyway because I was only thinking of what I wanted. Since then his life has been threatened by pirates, a herm symbiont, and now a derelict freighter. He never wanted any of this. It’s all my fault."
Zelkie hugged the distraught Starwalker. "Ceres, you may have been selfish, but you can’t put the blame squarely on you alone. Danson would never have followed you into space if he didn’t truly love you – and he does. I may not have an E-rating as strong as Burningbright’s, but even my average empathic sense can tell how happy he is in your company. He loves you as much or more than you love him. He sacrificed a lot just to be with you, so don’t overlook that."
Ceres sniffled. "I hope you’re right."
"I know I am. Now go find him and bring him back to the ship. R’Murran and I will go the other way. We have families to find too."
"Thank you! Good luck!" With that, Ceres was off like a shot down the left tunnel, leaving Zelkie and R’Murran to head off down the right tunnel.
Danson had not liked the compulsory freefall training that he’d had to do aboard Phoenix, but he had to admit to being glad that he had not been totally useless when the gravity was lost. In fact, after a bit of initial queasiness, his stomach had settled down, and he was kind of enjoying the lack of weight. It was rather surreal in the gardens right now. With just the emergency lights adding a bit of illumination, it was like a moonlit night in the forest back home. He drifted amongst the branches of the trees like he was in a flying dream. Pausing to smell some of the blossoms occasionally, he was curiously content. In blissful ignorance of the degree of peril that he was currently in, he waited patiently for his lifemate to turn up to guide him back to the ship. Shi had told him that shi would be back, and he had utter faith in hir.
He must have drifted off to sleep because it seemed like no time at all before he heard hir voice. It was coming from his wrist comm. Shi had to be near because all attempts to contact anyone before had been futile. He pushed out of the tree that had stopped him from drifting, and he floated ‘skywards’, trying to catch sight of Ceres while he returned hir call.
"I’m up here, my love," he sent.
Ceres had been searching the ground where shi had expected to find Danson, but now shi looked upwards. Shi spotted a foxtaur shape silhouetted against one of the emergency lights, and shi gasped in surprise. He looked like a Starwalker at complete ease. Shi bounced off a rock and closed in on him. He spotted hir coming, and opened his arms to hir. They came together in a joyous reunion, hir momentum imparting a spin, and they orbited each other as they kissed.
When they eventually broke off the kiss, Ceres said, "I’m sorry for leaving you here alone, my love. It must have been terrifying for you when the power failed."
"I must confess that it freaked me out at first. It was the not knowing what was happening that bothered me the most. Eventually though, I found myself beginning to enjoy the experience, and I think I’m starting to see what attracts you to working out here. Maybe you can teach me to move about in no gravity the way you do."
"I would love to give you lessons, dear. I would have offered sooner, but I thought you wouldn’t be interested."
Danson chuckled. "I love my plants, but I’m not entirely a basket-case away from them, although I admit that Hesperia was a bit too much at once. I followed you out into space because I wanted to be with you, to do things with you. I think we can share some of those things, don’t you?"
"You’re right. From now on, I’ll be taking better notice of what you want, I promise. Right now though, I’ve got to get you back to the Phoenix. I’m glad that you stayed here – it made you much easier to find." Ceres took a firm grip around Danson’s waist and started orienting them to push off from an approaching feature wall.
"I knew that you’d be back for me, no matter how long it took, or what obstacles were in the way. So the best place to be was right here. So what has happened?"
"I’ll explain along the way. Be prepared to push off in a moment when I say ‘go’. Ready? Three…two…one… Go!"
With precise timing, their hind legs shoved off the wall in synchronisation, and they shot off in the direction of the access tunnel, skimming over the tops of trees in perfect unison.
As Yote watched Zelkie, Ceres and R’Murran departing on the monitor, Madeline announced, "Incoming call from the Nebula Queen, Captain."
"Which is that?" Yote queried.
"That’s the huge cruise ship berthed nearby."
"I wonder why a cruise ship is calling us? Put them on, please."
The main screen lit up with the visage of a fox morph… no, a Voxxan, judging by the unusual fur pattern. He was smartly dressed in formal whites.
"Ahoy, Phoenix! Would I be addressing Captain Yote?"
"That would be me. What can I do for you, sir?"
"My name is T’eelix, and I’m the captain of the Nebula Queen. First of all, I’d like to offer my thanks for that magnificent effort in diverting The Olympian. I would have lost many of my passengers and some of my crew if that disaster hadn’t been averted."
"You’re welcome, Captain. I gather that you also survived the EMP pulse that has put so many of the other ships out of action."
"Yes, and again it’s thanks to you in part. When I saw you put up your shields after the first pulse, I thought that it might be wise to follow suit. A few other ships took notice also, but far too many were complacent. We’re taking on many refugees from them and Hesperia also. My bosses back home aren’t going to be happy, but you don’t turn your back on disaster victims."
"I understand. I’m still trying to locate many of my crew."
"Well, that brings me to another reason for me calling." He gestured to someone off-screen.
Anastasiya stepped into view. "Hello, Captain. I’m happy that you did not leave without us after all," shi said with a grin.
"Ana! Is Valentina there with you? Why are you on the Nebula Queen?"
Anastasiya’s grin faded. "Valentina was attacked with knife. I needed to find medic. Nebula Queen was first ship that I found that was still operational and could give help."
"Makers! How is shi?"
"Good medic here. Valentina is fine. Just needs a few days rest to recuperate."
"That’s a relief. Can you come back over now, or will you be waiting for Val? And is Shintaro with you?"
"Yes shi is. I was just checking to see what situation was like first, Captain."
"I’d like you back here as soon as possible. I’ve sent out a search party to try to find the others, and we’re undermanned here."
"I will return immediately with Valentina then."
"Good." Yote turned his attention back to T’eelix. "Thank you for aiding my crew, Captain."
T’eelix waved it off. "It was the very least that I could do in return for what you did, Captain Yote. I hope you find your crew soon, and I wish you well for the future. Nebula Queen out."
"Whew! Three down. Let’s hope we find the others soon."
It was some time though before they got more news. By that time, Valentina was resting comfortably in hir quarters and Anastasiya and Shintaro had joined the others on the bridge.
The comm chimed. "Ceres to bridge. I’ve just come aboard with Danson."
"Good to hear, Ceres. Send Danson to his post and get ready to go out again. I’m going to send you out with Anastasiya to look for Heywood and Menalippe."
"Understood, Captain. Ceres out."
"Where to start looking for them, Captain?" Anastasiya asked. "Ceres knew where Danson likely to be. Zelkie and R’Murran knew where their families were planning to go. But Heywood and Menalippe had no specific plans. They could be anywhere in huge city."
"I know, Ana, and that’s what worries me. I feel almost completely helpless."
Despite the seriousness of their task, Zelkie couldn’t help blowing the minds of a few people as they passed through the tunnel. Shi used hir telekinetic ability again to give hirself sure footing, but used the ceiling as a floor instead. Shi left some very confused people in hir wake.
"Behave yourself, Zelkie," R’Murran chided.
"What?" Zelkie asked innocently. "It’s roomier on the ceiling."
It was true enough. Despite there being no true up or down in zero gravity, most people still oriented themselves to the usual floor despite the extra chance of bumping into others.
They passed into the next cavern.
"According to the map, the route to the theme park is to our right – that way," R’Murran said, pointing in the right direction.
"We can use the transit tubes as guides," Zelkie pointed out.
"You’re right. Let’s pour on the speed now that we’re in the open again."
The duo got enough elevation that they could clear all the edifices in the cavern, and pushed off hard in the direction of the next tunnel. Most of the traffic was in the opposite direction as people evacuated the theme park, but not many had the confidence to freefall so far above the floor, so Zelkie rarely had to nudge anybody aside from a potential collision. As they got close enough to see clearly despite the poor illumination, they could see a constant stream of people coming out of the tunnel.
Zelkie frowned. "That’s a small tunnel. So many people in such a small space can’t be good. The only thing circulating the air at the moment is all those people moving in the same direction."
"Worse yet, the map shows one of the longest tunnels in Hesperia. The air is probably pretty bad in there right now. I’m really glad that I brought this oxygen," R’Murran replied.
They reached the end of the cavern and Zelkie started pulling them down to street level. "Phwaugh! That air is really foul in there." The chakat’s nose wrinkled in distaste.
"Yeah, let’s not waste any time in there."
"It’s going to be hard going against the flow."
"I know. Can’t be helped," R’Murran echoed.
The Caitian let Zelkie lead the way, hir Talent gently clearing a way through the slowly-moving throng. After only a short time though, Zelkie said, "I can sense Hotfoot and Burningbright! Something has them very worried." Shi looked about, trying to see past the crowd of floating people. "There they are!"
The chakat took them in that direction. Burningbright had already sensed Zelkie’s approach, and was overjoyed to spot them. Shi pointed them out to the others in the group.
R’Murran immediately noticed that something was wrong.
M’Rarrtikar said, "Thank the goddess that you’re here! M’Resk is very unwell. I think it’s the air. None of us are feeling too good right now."
"We brought oxygen tanks. Let me get a breathing mask on her." As R’Murran proceeded to do that, he continued saying, "You’re not too far from the end of the tunnel. Don’t slow down for me, Get everyone out into the next cavern as soon as possible."
"I’ll boost you along," Zelkie informed them, and started telekinetically hauling the group. There were too many for hir to control well all at once, but at least shi could impart more speed. Shi was starting to feel thick-headed too, and knew that they needed to get out as soon as possible. Shi decided that it was time to start using hir own oxygen tank that shi had been saving until it was really needed.
R’Murran followed as best as he could while assisting M’Resk. His wife started responding to the oxygen though, and soon was looking much better. R’Murran took an occasional breath from the oxygen mask also to ensure he did not succumb to the lack of breathable air. He wondered how the rest of the people in the tunnel were faring. They exited the tunnel and found themselves being hauled telekinetically upwards into the clear open air where the others were waiting and breathing deeply to clear their heads.
M’Anissa’tk asked, "Are you okay, M’Resk?"
M’Resk nodded. "I… I’m still a bit woozy, but I think I’ll be fine." She put her hands on her swollen abdomen. "I’m just worried about the effect this may have had on the child."
R’Murran said, "Just take it easy on the way back to the ship. Let us do all the work. We’ll check you over in sick bay when we get back."
Zelkie said to R’Murran, "I’m worried about the people that are still in the tunnel."
"I know, but what can we do about it? Our oxygen tanks aren’t going to be much help."
"Actually, one tank might be enough for what I have in mind. You continue to the ship with the rest of the group."
R’Murran asked, "What did you have in mind?"
"Turning on the ventilation," shi replied, then took off without wasting more time explaining hirself.
R’Murran wanted answers, but he realised that it was more important to get everyone else back to the ship. "Okay – everyone link up. We’re going to all jump in that direction. As long as we keep together, we’re all going to be okay. Are you ready? Jump!"
It was an awkward effort, but they managed to stay together and headed in the right direction.
Meanwhile, Zelkie had put hir mask back on and was heading back up the tunnel as fast as shi could. Without having to worry about anyone else, shi made much better speed despite going against the traffic. Time was of the essence now. The tunnel seemed ridiculously long, but shi had to remind hirself that they had made use of existing mining shafts rather than planning it this way, and it wasn’t the main access to the park. Shi was very glad to have the oxygen mask to keep hir clear-headed. Eventually shi came out into the open again and saw that that there were still many people trying to enter the tunnel. Shi positioned hirself in the middle of the entrance and started blocking people from entering.
"STOP!" shi yelled as loudly as possible, which for a chakat was very loud with the full force of hir taur lungs behind it. "Nobody enter the tunnel! The air has gotten too bad!"
The people nearest to hir stopped and started paying attention, although some people still foolishly tried to ignore hir.
Zelkie continued, "There are lot of people getting very sick from lack of oxygen and too much carbon dioxide because there’s nothing to ventilate the tunnel at the moment. Adding more people will just make it worse."
"Are you saying we’re trapped here then?" someone called from the crowd.
"I hope not. I’m going to try something. I have a strong telekinetic Talent. I am going to try pushing air into the tunnel. If I can get some sort of flow going, not only will it help the people in the tunnel already, it will enable the rest of you to follow soon after."
"Are you sure you can do that?" another concerned person asked.
Zelkie shrugged. "I’ve never tried it before, but it seems possible, and it’s not as if we have much choice. Now please move back from the tunnel and give me a bit of room to work."
It was difficult to make the crowd move back from the entrance, but when the people had moved away sufficiently, the chakat braced hirself against a post that was almost opposite the tunnel entrance. Shi spread hir hands wide and closed hir eyes. The people thought that shi must be guiding hir telekinesis through hir hands, but Zelkie was doing it partly for putting on a show for the people so that they would not think shi was just standing there doing nothing. The other reason was that shi was trying to envisage pushing a large volume of air into the tunnel mouth. It worked. A large volume of air moved into the tunnel, and of course was immediately replaced by air flowing in from the cavern which was in turn pushed into the tunnel. As shi got a better handle on what shi was trying to do, the process got more efficient, and the air speed picked up. The people closest to the tunnel could feel a draft heading in the direction of the tunnel, but Zelkie, who was virtually on top of it, was getting quite a strong wind. After a lengthy period of this going on though, some people started to get restless.
"When can we go into the tunnel?" a canine morph asked with a trace of annoyance.
The constant effort was taking its toll on the chakat, and shi gasped, "Soon! This… isn’t exactly… easy, y’know!" Shi gritted hir teeth and kept up the pressure as long as shi could. Then with a moan, shi stopped and nearly passed out. Shi panted heavily for several seconds before saying, "OK. That’s as much as I can do. I hope it’s enough. Please don’t crowd too much."
The crowd surged forward, pretty much ignoring hir advice.
A strange chakat stopped next to Zelkie. "That was impressive. Thanks for doing that. I had not realised that it was so bad in there. My name is Chakat Spinner, and my cubs and I will always be grateful."
Zelkie smiled. "I’m Zelkie Sandblossom, and my family was in the same situation; how could I not do anything about it?"
"Of course. Do you require assistance? You look pretty wiped out."
"I think I’ll take you up on that. I think I’ve pretty much burned up my energy reserves with that stunt. My body is drawing on my milkwater right now, but it will take a bit to get back up to speed."
"Okay, then let me do the work," Spinner said, putting hir arm around Zelkie’s waist to pull hir along. "Cubs – hang onto my tail and don’t let go." Spinner joined the crowd still pouring into the refreshed tunnel.
"Here, use the oxygen mask," Zelkie instructed.
"Isn’t the air okay though?"
"Don’t want to waste the oxygen in the air, and you’re the one doing the most exertion."
"Makes sense," Spinner agreed, and continued taking them down the tunnel while drawing fresh oxygen.
As soon as R’Murran had reached the other side of the cavern, he tried sending the others ahead to the Phoenix while he waited for Zelkie.
M’Rarrtikar interrupted, "No you won’t. You are going to take our children, your wives, and the chakats back to the Phoenix. I will stay here and wait for Zelkie."
"As you say, dear." The Firstwife had spoken, and there was no debating her decision. It was her responsibility after all.
M’Rarrtikar was thinking about the good of the ship also though. Phoenix needed her engineer more than her purser. She settled into a suitable position to wait.
It was a long time coming, and shi almost overlooked her crewmate in the poor light as she wasn’t expecting to see hir grouped with other chakats.
In fact, Zelkie had seen M’Rarrtikar waiting, and as soon as they reached the cavern wall, had asked Spinner to let hir go. Only when shi had separated from the group did the Caitian notice the familiar pattern. When they came together, Zelkie said, "M’Rarrtikar, this is Spinner. Shi helped me after I exhausted myself trying to ventilate the tunnel."
"My thanks for helping my crewmate, Spinner."
"No problem; glad to help. Will you be okay now, Zelkie?"
"I think so. I’m feeling better now, and I have M’Rarrtikar to help me if necessary."
"Good. I’ll be on my way now." Shi looked at the connecting tunnel. "Um… is that tunnel safe?"
"It’s much bigger and shorter, so I think so," Zelkie reassured hir.
"Great! Tail high!" Hir cubs echoed hir words.
"Tail high to all of you too!" Zelkie replied. As they left, shi said to M’Rarrtikar, "No need to rush back – this oxygen should last until we get back to the ship if we need it, and I’m not up to full speed yet."
"Fine with me. We can head back at whatever speed you’re most comfortable with, and you can tell how you managed to ventilate that tunnel."
Long before any of the Caitians or chakats had gotten back to the Phoenix, Yote had sent out Ceres and Anastasiya to look for Heywood and Menalippe, plus any of their missing passengers. Four of them had turned up so far, but that still left a few unaccounted for.
"I know that this is pretty futile because it’s like looking for a needle in a haystack, but I can’t just do nothing," Yote had told the Starwalker and tiger. "But I cannot risk sending out anyone else at this stage either. Ceres is by far the best equipped to deal with the current situation, but I’m not sending hir out alone, especially when we can’t even stay in contact. Both of you are to take breathing apparatus with you just in case, if not for yourself, but for others. Every minute that the power is off, it’s getting worse in there, so there’s likely to be problems. Help if you must, but try to keep on mission. Good luck to you both."
Because one direction was as good as another, they chose to start off from the same cavern, but headed for the tunnels at the other side from the ones taken earlier. They avoided the open areas because they were the safest and easiest to traverse. They headed for the most crowded areas, looking for any places likely to cause hold-ups or preventing people from getting through. They found plenty of those, but nothing insurmountable. They did start encountering people dressed in high-vis clothing with the letters H.E.R. on them - the Hesperia Emergency Response team. Although seriously overstretched, they were helping to coordinate evacuations in the worst affected places. The duo decided that they would be wasting their time wherever the H.E.R. personnel could be found on the job. They had a lot of ground to try to cover, and all the while they kept hoping that their crewmates had returned to the ship in their absence.
"Is it my imagination, or is it getting darker in here?" Anastasiya asked.
"At a guess, I would say that some battery-powered emergency lights are running out of power," Ceres replied. "Hopefully they have some running on power-packs which won’t run out of power, but given that they are way more expensive, I don’t think they’re going to be very common."
"I don’t think that even you can work in complete darkness, my friend."
"No, I can’t, and this is just making our job harder."
They continued on their quest with a renewed sense of urgency.
Yote welcomed back the chakats, Penny, and the Caitians with much relief. He was much concerned about M’Resk though as she still looked unwell, and after hearing what had happened, he ordered hir to the sick bay, and instructed M’Lertiña to give her a thorough check with the autodoc. Then he had nothing more to do than nervously wait. Unfortunately, the first news came from the sickbay, and it wasn’t good.
"Captain," came M’Lertiña’s voice from the comm. "M’Resk has gone into premature labour. We need a real medic here!"
Yote cursed, then replied, "I’ll try asking the Nebula Queen if we can borrow theirs."
Yote immediately contacted Nebula Queen and explained the situation to T’eelix. The Voxxan looked concerned when he replied, "My medic has been kept busy due to this incident, but I will see if he can be freed up. I’ll get back to you soon."
The Voxxan was true to his word. It was not long before their medic was at the Phoenix’s airlock, and he was led to the sick bay to lend his expert help. Yote was left to fret over yet another thing over which he had no control.
Hours after Zelkie and M’Rarrtikar had rejoined the ship, he was still waiting for good news when Madeline materialised on the bridge in front of him.
"Captain! They’ve restored power to the environmental systems! Fresh air is being circulated into the docks."
"What about comms?" he dared hope.
"No, not yet, but surely it can’t be far… Whoa! They just came online, and there’s an insane amount of traffic from queued communications. We’re going to have to wait a bit for that to clear before we can contact anyone."
"Do your best to get through to them the second that there’s bandwidth."
It seemed like an eternity, but it really wasn’t too long before they got in contact with Ceres and Anastasiya.
"Captain, do you have good news for us?"
Yote’s heart sank a little. "No. Neither Heywood nor Menalippe have checked in. Madeline – is there any response at all from their comms?"
"Sorry, Captain, but the system says that the signal should be getting through, but there’s no response."
"Right. Ceres – what’s your situation out there?"
"Some more lights have come on, and we’re noticing draughts from the ventilation system, so we are assuming that they’ve gotten the environmental systems back online. Other than that, the situation is much the same. No power to most things, and of course the gravity is still off."
"Can you continue searching?"
"Can do, Captain. We’ll report back at least every fifteen minutes."
"Acknowledged. Phoenix out."
Yote settled in to wait for more news. He refused to let anyone relieve him on the bridge, and Hotfoot had to bring some food and drink to him there to get him to eat. Not knowing what was happening was gnawing at him constantly though, and he hardly managed half the food.
At last, Madeline excitedly announced, "Incoming signal from Heywood’s comm, Captain!"
Yote pounded the acknowledgement button and said, "Heywood, is that you? Where are you and Menalippe?"
Instead of Heywood though, a strange man’s voice replied, "This is Garth Blake from the Hesperia Emergency Response unit. Who am I addressing, please?"
Puzzled, Yote responded, "This is Captain Yote of the commercial starship Phoenix. Why are you using that comm?"
"Would this Heywood person be a male human about thirty years old?"
"Yes! Is there a female ferret morph with him, about the same age?"
"Yes, there is. We have just found them together while trapped in an elevator with a number of other people. It’s my sad duty to inform you that all on board were asphyxiated from lack of oxygen."
Madeline gasped, and Yote felt like he was hit in the gut. "Are… are you sure?"
"Sorry, but yes. I have been contacting relatives and acquaintances of all these people using their comms, and it isn’t getting any easier to pass on this news."
"I see. Thank you, Mr Blake. Where can I collect their… remains?"
The H.E.R. man gave them the details and then excused himself as he was very busy.
Yote slumped in his chair, and all of the bridge crew were stunned silent by the horrible news. Eventually Yote punched the comm again to contact Ceres and Anastasiya. He passed on the news and instructed them to bring their bodies back home.
Everyone was gathered in the hydroponics bay, even Madeline whose holo-projector had been temporarily relocated from the recreation room. Yote and Danson stood next to an odd anomaly in the high-tech plant farm – a two metre square plot of real earth. It was one of the few things that Danson had insisted on bringing with him when they joined the Phoenix – some of his home soil from the farm where he grew up. He reserved it for some special plants, but today it was going to serve another purpose.
Yote held up his hand to indicate he wanted everyone’s attention, and the quiet conversations stopped.
"I have asked you all to come here now to pay tribute to our lost comrades. Not all of you know this, but Heywood and Menalippe both originally came from Celeste, a planet belonging to the League of Non-Aligned Worlds. And yes, that means that Menalippe was a former slave. I almost did not even consider Heywood for his position on the Phoenix due to that fact, but I was persuaded to at least hear his case first. I am glad that I did. Heywood and Menalippe defied his family, their world’s customs, and the planet’s laws to be together as true lifemates, not master and slave. His devotion to her was undeniable and complete."
Yote paused because emotion was threatening to overcome his speech. After a moment, he continued, "Heywood was sometimes an abrasive person, with strong opinions about unpopular subjects, but two things that were never in doubt were his competence and loyalty to the ship which became their home. Menalippe who had never been trained for a life in space, nevertheless made herself a valuable member of this crew, up to the point of having a major role in regaining control of the ship when it was hijacked. Both of them deserved better than to die in such a meaningless way, but their contributions to the Phoenix will be remembered for as long as the ship survives."
Yote paused to wipe a tear from his eye before continuing. "Even more tragic is the loss of someone who never even got the chance to live. M’Resk’s miscarriage caused the loss of her first child, and deprived us of our first ship’s baby. We all mourn for her loss."
He turned to a nearby bench on which were three small urns. "These are the ashes of our dear comrades and M’Resk’s child. Because Phoenix is their home now, I have asked Danson to prepare part of his special garden where we will scatter their ashes. This is similar to the foxtaur tradition of returning their relatives to the soil in the cycle of life." He handed one of the urns to Danson, another to M’Resk, and the last for himself. They each carefully scattered the ashes onto the prepared area. Then the foxtaur raked the ashes into the soil.
"Danson has selected a plant that he has been cultivating since he picked them up on Voxxa. They are known simply as the Lovers’ Embrace. This species has distinctive male and female plants, and are always found growing in pairs. Despite their love for each other, Heywood and Menalippe could never have children in life, but in death they will nourish these plants and they will produce fine fruit year after year. I ask Penny and Burningbright to please plant these in the garden."
The mouse and the chakat each took one of the pots that Danson offered to them, and carefully planted them close to each other.
Yote continued, "Unfortunately we do not have any plants from Cait, but Danson has a dwarf rose that I am told resembles the Caitian thornflower. This we plant in memory of the lost child."
Danson handed the pot with the rose in it to M’Resk. She was still weak from her ordeal, but she managed to plant it with the support of R'Murran. Then the foxtaur watered them all thoroughly.
Yote continued, "My crew… my friends… my family… We have lost too many of our own today, but they will always be with us in spirit, and I hope that they watch over the Phoenix for as long as she sails the stars. Thank you everyone."
The crew exchanged hugs, many of them with tears in their eyes, before they started departing for duty stations. Before they left though, Yote asked Bethany and Zelkie to join him in his office.
He settled in his chair with a sigh, rubbed his eyes for a moment, then straightened up and said, "With Heywood gone, we are short a master pilot. Until we find a replacement, Zelkie, I am going to have to ask you to step up and take the back-up role."
"But I’m only rated for shuttles, Captain," Zelkie protested. "I haven’t gotten a master pilot’s licence."
"I know, but I’m the only one with that rating, and I can’t be on duty 24 hours a day. You will only be expected to relieve me when there is nothing of that nature expected, but I suggest that you study up on those skills anyway. If nothing else, you will be able to increase your skill set, not to mention be eligible for a higher rate of pay. But for now, I need you to fill that gap. Can I count on you?"
"Of course, Captain."
"Thank you, Zelkie."
"What about Menalippe’s position?" shi asked.
"What about it? I don’t expect you to do her odd jobs too."
"No, I meant did you have anyone in mind to replace her?"
"Not yet. It’s not as if she had a vital role. For now, everyone is going to have to pitch in a little more to do those odd jobs."
"Can I make a suggestion, sir?"
"I’d like to recommend my brother."
"Your… brother? Oh yes, your sire is a skunktaur, and you must have a skunktaur sibling."
"Correct. Hys name is Darkwave Quanda."
"Hy has a chakat-style name while you have a skunktaur type?"
Zelkie shrugged. "So my parents are a bit weird sometimes."
"Okay. So why are you suggesting hym?"
"Hy’s a bit like Menalippe – smart but untrained. Hy is not lazy but hy has always been too restless to settle into one job. I reckon that this job might be well suited to him."
"Hy sounds promising. I’ll check hym out when we get back to Earth and see if hy’s interested."
"Thank you, Captain." Zelkie then left.
"What happens now?" Bethany asked.
Yote took a deep breath and let it out with a deep sigh. "We’re badly behind schedule, we’ve expended much fuel, and now we’re being asked to take some refugees to our next destination. We’re badly in need of some good news right now."
As if on cue, the comm buzzed. "Captain – I have the Hesperia City Administrator on the line."
Surprised, Yote said, "Put them through please."
The desk’s screen lit up with the image of a female lion morph. "Would I be addressing Captain Yote?" she asked.
"I am Captain Yote. And you are…?"
"My name is Sarabi Keller, and I am the Hesperia City Administrator. I have a report on how you were instrumental in saving Hesperia from a fatal crash with The Olympian."
"I had a lot of help from the Valiant."
"Which would not have been in time to prevent the disaster if you hadn’t acted when you did. We owe you a huge debt, Captain. Due to the magnitude of the disaster that we have to deal with, there’s little more than our thanks that we can offer right now. However, as a token of our gratitude, we are waiving your docking fees now, and in perpetuity."
"That’s much appreciated, Madam Administrator, but right now, we could do with a lot of fuel to replace that which we expended."
The Administrator looked off-screen at someone. After a moment, she nodded and turned her attention back to Yote. "I am authorising a refill for you, Captain. I am happy that I could this much for you before you left. Now I hope that you will pardon me, but I have a lot more to get done right now. Bon voyage, Captain Yote."
"Thank you, Ma’am."
The screen blanked out and Yote looked at Bethany. She said, "Do you suppose that she knows just how much fuel a ship of this class can hold?"
"I don’t know, but I’m going to take her at her word and fill up. I’m going to burning a lot to make up for lost time."
Three and a half hours later, with refugees crammed into every spare cabin, and their antimatter stores filled to capacity, Phoenix departed for her next destination.
The ship had never seemed so crowded. It was never intended to carry so many people, and interstellar trips took days with everyone forced to rub shoulders in relative discomfort. Ilya had not had much luck in finding time with Madeline lately. However, he found out that the holo-suite was scheduled to be set up with a tranquil forest program, intended for both crew and passengers to get a break from the sterility of the starship, and the aggravation of the crowding. He hoped that he could ‘bump into’ Madeline there. As usual, when entering the sophisticated holo-suite, it was hard to believe that the room was not hugely vaster than it actually was, and he knew that he’d have his work cut out for him if he was going to find her here. He ran into several chakats, two Caitians, some Voxxans, many morphs, and one foxtaur before he finally heard the sound of a familiar female voice. No – two female voices.
Approaching cautiously so as not to simply barge into them, he caught sight of the owners of those voices. He froze, watched for a moment, then quietly backed away, the sight of Penny and Madeline ardently kissing, burned into his mind.
Characters and story copyright © 2011 Bernard Doove.
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