Captain Roddy Hernandez walked up the docking tube and into his ship, the Mripan Suzar. Mripan Suzar meant Suzarís Harmony in Yatta, and the ship was owned by Suzar Spaceships on Voxxa, was flagged on Luna, and was under contract to the Chakastra Fuels Consortium, headquartered on Chakona Gateway, where Captain Hernandez and his mate lived. He was a jaguar morph whose parents had emigrated from Argentina to Chakona. He was still strong and robust, but was starting to go a little grey on his cheeks and behind his ears.
He was met at the end of the docking tube by a human, dressed like he was in officersí whites, who gave him a salute and a cheeky smile, saying, "Welcome aboard Captain."
Hernandez returned the salute and then shook his hand. "Hello Paul. I thought theyíd promoted you."
They turned and went into the ship. "They offered it to me, but I convinced them that I was more use as a First Officer. Captains have too much paperwork. You spend all of your time in your office and none running the ship."
Hernandez looked down at the PADD on his waist, and then smiled. "Well, Mr. Conrad, I guess itís a good thing that Iíve got you here to take care of that for me. Who else is aboard?"
"Redcoat is down in engineering with some of hir crew, supervising the last of the refit and the Fuel Handler is in the bridge doing something with the remotes."
"Sharpknives isnít on board?"
Paul chuckled and asked, "You more interested in your stomach than your engines?" Hernandez managed a sheepish look, and Paul continued, "Last I saw, shi dragged Mr. Lepus into the station to Ďhelpí her select the proper plants for her hydroponics section so that we would have the produce shi wanted at the right times."
They had reached the Captainís cabin and went inside. Hernandez asked, "Have you ever served with Mr. Slisston before?"
"Yes, several years ago," Paul replied. "Heís a stickler for procedure."
"I wouldnít want a Fuel Handler that wasnít."
"I know what you mean. When he came aboard he said that he would have an apprentice with him on this trip. The information is on the system."
"Very good. Iíll let you get back to your duties. Iíll stick my head into the bridge and then go down to Engineering and see what theyíve done. Thanks, Paul."
"Happy to be of service, Roddy. Iíll see you later."
Paul left and Captain Hernandez went into his day room to update the files on his PADD, and then went across the passageway to the bridge. As he stepped inside, he saw his Fuel Handler at a console, apparently giving instructions to his remotes. The main display showed a schematic diagram of the Mripan Suzar with a blinking light about halfway up the 1200 meter long boom which Hernandez assumed was the location of the remote.
Cargo ships in the Stellar Federation generally fell into two categories. There were fast transports used to move small, very high value packages and diplomatic dispatches deemed too sensitive to trust to the FTL networks. The others were ships that hauled cargo carriers, ranging in size from a few thousand carriers to huge ships capable of carrying hundreds of pods, each with up to 1500 carriers. There were no interstellar bulk carriers. The only bulk commodity worth the transport cost was Boronike Ore, and there wasnít enough of that to justify special ships.
The Mripan Suzar and a few dozen sister ships were the exception to that. They were designed to do one thing only, move anti-matter from the production plants in isolated star systems to the points where starships were serviced and fueled.
Hernandez cleared his throat and the Fuel Handler turned around, turning on his translator. "Captain Hernandez, I am Senior Fuel Handler Slisston Mseran. It is a pleasure to meet you."
The Fuel Handler was a Merraki, a reptiloid just over a meter tall, but strongly built. His voice was high pitched and hard for many to follow, but was rendered into excellent Terranglo by the translating device built into his com badge. His kind were not morphs like Hernandez, but natives of the planet Kantorg and were known for their skills as engineers.
Hernandez shook the offered hand and said, "Likewise, Mr. Slisston. Iíve heard of your reputation and am looking forward to working together on this trip."
"I do as well. It is a wonder that we have not encountered each other before, both of us having long careers with the Consortium."
"The luck of the draw, I guess." He pointed to the console and asked, "Are our systems up to your standards?"
Slisston turned back to the console and said, "Yes, Captain. Mostly I am checking the function of the drones that I will use during the trip. I have the Number 137 Stasis Unit torn down to see how it handles. It has met my expectations."
He turned back to the Captain. "It was pleasurable to be able to board the ship by just walking down the boarding tube this time. Much nicer than having to take the shuttle out to the fuel depot."
"I agree, but it was only because the shipís drive system needed an upgrade. If you donít need anything, Iím going down to engineering to see if Mr. Redcoat is happy with everything theyíve done."
"Please go ahead, Captain. Thank you, but everything is proceeding as I expected."
"Very well. Iíll see you later, Mr. Slisston."
Hernandez left the bridge and turned right in the central passageway, passing the door to the crew lounge before reaching the lift, taking it to the engineering section, located 25 meters aft, or Ďbelowí, given the orientation of the shipís gravity field, the habitation section.
He found the shipís Chief Engineer, Mr. Redcoat, supervising the reinstallation of the access panel on the larger of two warp cores on board the ship. Redcoat was a chakat, a centauroid morph whose lower body resembled a large predatory cat, with a humanoid upper torso. The term Mister was generally applied to all officers regardless of gender, and in this case was at best half right. Chakats, while looking superficially female, were all fully functional hermaphrodites. Redcoat took her name from the color of the fur covering hir body. It was a dark brick red color, with darker patches on hir ears and the tip of hir prehensile tail. Hir hair was black, and shi kept it cut to a short buzz so it wouldnít interfere with hir duties.
Second Engineer Alisa Whitefoot had the control unit for the tractor beam installed in the engineering section for moving heavy equipment. Whitefoot was a foxtaur vixen with typical red fox coloring excepting her white feet, which were common in the village on Terra where she was from. Third Engineer Robert Spallings was supervising two of the crew members as they fastened the cover. He was a weasel morph, about 1.2 meters tall, and very adept at getting into tight spaces. Assisting him were Spacers First Class Thomas Whitefang, a wolf morph, and Cindy Ambrose, a human, both of them natives of Chakona.
Redcoat turned to the Captain and said, "Captain Hernandez, Iíd like introduce Nebula Starwalker. Shi was the engineer responsible for the upgrade to the Mripan Suzarís drive system."
Nebula was another foxtaur, but was solid black and, like Redcoat, was a hermaphrodite, and was visibly pregnant.
Hernandez shook hir hand and said, "Shir Nebula, you are the project engineer Gateway Shipfitters, Ltd.?"
Shi smiled and answered, "Yes, sir."
"Your firm has an excellent reputation." He turned to the Chief Engineer. "Mr. Redcoat, you are satisfied with the work?"
"Yes, Captain. All of the work has been well done and according to the specifications provided."
"Very well, Iíll expect a report on the work before we undock."
"Of course sir. It will be in your in box by 13:00 ship time."
"Thank you, Mr. Redcoat." He turned back to Nebula and said, "Shir Nebula, it was a pleasure meeting you."
"It was my pleasure, Captain."
Conrad came down to engineering as they were finishing their work. He asked, "Finished up, Redcoat?"
The chakat settled back to all fours from where shi had been inspecting the fasteners on the cover and turned to him. "Weíre ready to go, Paul. All the static tests are green and we just need to do the full power checks on the way out of the system."
Paul nodded. "Very good. Please see Shir Nebula out." He turned to the crew as they finished putting away their tools. "Whitefang, Ambrose, Mr. Lepus and Sharpknives will be back in about forty-five minutes. Please double check the public areas of the ship to make sure everything is secure. Ask Mr. Lepus if she needs any help when she returns."
The wolfmorph said, "Yes, sir," and the human nodded as they headed for the lift.
On the way up, Cindy asked, "Tom, is this Captain as much as of a hard-ass as he sounded back there earlier?"
Tom shook his head. "How long have you worked for the Consortium?"
"Almost four years, Chakonan."
"This your first time on a fuel transport?"
"Yeah, I started out on tugs, then spent a couple years in docking support, mostly doing outside work."
"Let me guess, you were just promoted to Spacer First." The lift opened and they went out to the outer passage to start their sweep. Cindy nodded and Tom continued, "You know that you wonít find anybody with a lower rating than Spacer First on a fuel transport. Yeah, the captains on these ships are definitely Ďby the bookí types. These captains personally review and approve the crew that serves on their ships. The only reason youíre here is because ĎCaptain Hard-Assí decided that he wanted you on this ship."
Cindy looked like she had something on her mind as they finished their check and came into the crew lounge just as a chakat, a female rabbit morph, and a male foxmorph arrived with several powered carts in tow. Tom went up to the rabbit morph and said, "Mr. Conrad said we were at your disposal, Gail."
"Good." she turned to Cindy and said, "You must be Cindy Ambrose."
"Yes, sir," Cindy replied, shaking the rabbit morphís offered hand.
"Iím Environmental Engineer Gail Lepus, and you can just call me Gail, unless we happen to be on the bridge." She turned to the chakat and said, "Spacer First Cindy Ambrose, meet Spacer First Chakat Sharpknives. Sharpknives is the shipís cook and quartermaster. Shiís the second most important person on the ship to keep happy, after the Captain."
Unlike the others, Sharpknives wasnít wearing a uniform tunic, but an attractive civilian blouse. Shi took Cindyís offered hand, and then turned it into a hug. "Welcome aboard hun. If you need anything, just come and see me."
Gail grinned and continued, "Just donít touch hir knives or invade hir kitchen without permission." She indicated the foxmorph and said, "This is Kevin Reddings, also Spacer First."
They shook hands and Gail tapped her com badge. "Mac, have you loaded the consumables?"
"Yes Gail. All loaded and the umbilicals are detached and retracted."
"Then please come to the lounge, weíve got Sharpknives produce to take care of."
"On my way, sir."
In a few minutes, a small mouse morph walked into the lounge. Gail said, "Cindy, this is Environmental Tech Marcus McLauren. Mac, Spacer First Cindy Ambrose. Cindy, I understand you have some hydroponics experience."
"My parents did some hydroponic farmingÖ"
"Good, go with Mac down to the hydroponics section and get our produce installed. Tom, Kevin, you two help Sharpknives get the rest of hir stuff stowed. Weíre due to undock in three hours, at 14:30. You can come back here and get some lunch when you get done. Mac, Iím going to do my walkthrough. If you need anything, give me a call."
"Will do. Come on, Cindy, letís get our hands dirty, or at least wet."
Captain Hernandez walked into the bridge at 13:58 and sat down in his command chair. Slisston turned to him and said, "Captain, my apprentice is not on board yet."
"Yes, Mr. Slisston. Cadet Primrose, welcome aboard. Please connect me with Gateway Traffic Control."
Cadet Chakat Primrose adjusted hir com panel. "Thank you, sir. Gateway Traffic Control is on the line."
"On speaker please. Gateway Traffic Control. This is Captain Hernandez on the Mripan Suzar. It seems we are missing an Apprentice Fuel Handler."
"Yes Captain. He is coming in on Shuttle 2285 Alpha Juliet. Alpha Juliet is due in forty-seven minutes. Please undock on schedule and meet the shuttle before breaking orbit."
"Understood, Gateway Control."
"Gateway Control out."
Captain Hernandez punched a button on his command chair. "Attention: Undocking in 30 minutes. Stations report in priority order."
"Captain, Spacer Whitefang. Boarding airlock sealed. Boarding tube retracted. Clamps still in place."
"Thank you, Spacer Whitefang. Mr. Redcoat?"
"Captain, Chief Engineer. Warp Core Two powered up to 100%. Warp Core One on standby."
"Thank you, Mr. Redcoat. Mr. Lepus?"
"Captain, Environmental. All systems green. Umbilicals detached and retracted. We are on internal environmental control."
"Thank you, Mr. Lepus." He shut down the intercom. "Mr. Conrad Ė boom stabilization for acceleration, please."
"Yes Sir. Bringing up stabilization tractors." The boom holding the anti-matter containment equipment was 1200 meters long, and much too light to support any loads under acceleration. It was stabilized by a complicated network of tractor beams which had to be brought up carefully to keep deflections within the specified limits. The system was designed to contain the anti-matter, in the form of liquid anti-hydrogen, in 250 fields of not more than 100 kilograms each. The mass of the boom was reduced as much as possible to minimize the energy released, and to separate the stasis fields enough to protect their generators, in case of an accident.
At 14:28, Mr. Conrad said, "Boom stabilization complete, Captain. We are go for acceleration."
"Very well. Cadet Primrose. Gateway Control, please."
"On the speaker, sir."
"Gateway Control, Mripan Suzar. We are go for undocking. Please send tractor beam targets."
"Mripan Suzar, Gateway Control. Standard procedure is thrusters for undock."
"Gateway Control, we are a fuel transport. We do not outgas anything and are not equipped with thrusters."
"Sorry, sir. We donít get many of your type here. One moment please." The com link was muted at the other end for a few seconds, then came back up. "Sending tractor beam targets."
"Mr. Milpar, align tractor beams and set to station keeping." Sylvia Milpar was one of the two Watch Officers on board. She was a fox-morph. The other was a collie-morph named Brent Sheppard. He was off duty, resting in his cabin, since he would have the first watch after leaving the system.
"Tractor beams at station keeping, Captain."
"Thank you. Gateway Control, we are maintaining station keeping. Please open docking clamps."
"Mripan Suzar, Gateway Control. Docking clamps opening. Sending departure vector. Stay on this orbit until rendezvous with shuttle Alpha Juliet, then contact Departure Control."
Mr. Conrad said, "Confirm clamps open, sir."
"Gateway Control, Mripan Suzar. We confirm clamps open and have the outbound vector."
"Mripan Suzar, safe sailing and Godspeed. Gateway Traffic Control out."
Tom Whitefang confirmed that the boarding tube to the shuttle was sealed and opened the airlock. The Apprentice Fuel Handler who stepped on board looked like a fox-morph, but was, in fact, a Voxxan. He said, "Senior Fuel Handler Slisston? I am Apprentice Crandle Dontrell."
Mr. Slisston shook his hand and said, "Welcome aboard, Mr. Dontrell. It is good to have you with us finally."
Tom closed the airlock and confirmed that the boarding tube was withdrawn. He tapped his com badge. "Mr. Conrad, Mr. Dontrell is aboard and we are clear of the shuttle."
"Thank you, Tom. Seal the hatches and evacuate the airlock."
When he had finished that, Mr. Slisston said, "Mr. Dontrell, this is Spacer First Tom Whitefang. He will show you to your cabin. If you have any questions about normal ship operations, Iím sure that he will be glad to help you."
"Thank you, sir. Tom?"
"Please come this way, sir."
They started down the passageway and Tom said, "We will be moving outsystem as soon as traffic clears, and going to warp soon afterwards. Dinner will be available in the crew lounge at 17:00. There is also a replicator in your cabin, if you prefer, but we have an excellent cook on board, and I would suggest hir dinner over the replicator. Shi has also been known to take requests from time to time."
"I will certainly join you, Tom. And please call me Crandle."
"Of course, Mr. Dontrell. The ID assembly is set for 18:00 in the crew lounge. Here is your cabin, sir."
Crandle shook his head and grinned at Tom. "Thank you, Tom, Iíll see you at dinner."
Slisston met the Captain in his day room at 17:45. "Captain Hernandez, you are ready?"
"Yes, Mr. Slisston, please come in."
"Very well, your certificate please?"
The Captain handed the Fuel Handler a data chip, which he put in his PADD. "Captain, please place your hand on the PADD and look at the video pickup."
The Captain did so, and then Mr. Slisston said, "Biometric analysis matches your certificate and the certificate matches the records in my database. You are, in fact, Captain Roddy Hernandez and are authorized to serve as the master of this ship."
"Thank you, sir." The Captain took out his PADD and repeated the procedure on Mr. Slisston. When done, he said, "Senior Fuel Handler Slisston Mseran. Biometric analysis matches your certificate, which matches my database. You are who you claim to be and are authorized to serve as Fuel Handler aboard this vessel."
They went across the passageway and repeated the procedure on the rest of the crew. When they finished, Captain Hernandez asked, "Mr. Lepus, do your scanners show anyone else on board?"
"No, Captain, we are all here in the lounge."
He turned to his First Mate. "Mr. Conrad?"
"I confirm Mr. Lepusí report, sir."
"Very good. We will be traveling to Fuel Production Plant 83, orbiting Sirius A. The journey will take approximately 18 days. We are expecting to begin loading operation at 02:40 on the Twelfth of August, and will be adjusting shift schedules during the trip so that first shift will be beginning at that time.
"Spacer Ambrose, does any of your extensive experience in vacuum work include the use of tractor maneuvering units?"
"No, sir. Iíve had some sessions in the simulator, but no suit time with them."
"Get with Whitefang in the morning. Youíll work outside for three hours each morning for the next week."
"But, sir, weíre in warpÖ"
"You need to get used to that too."
Slisston said, "I would like Mr. Dontrell to join them, if thatís alright, Captain."
"Of course, Mr. Slisston."
"Thank you, Captain." He turned to the Voxxan and said, "We will work on the remotes in the afternoon."
"Mr. Sheppard, you will have the watch now. Mr. Milpar, you have the next one. Cadet Primrose, you are with Mr. Conrad in the morning. The watch schedules are posted on the network. Are there any questions?" Not seeing any, he continued, "You are all dismissed. Have a good evening."
When Tom came down to the suit locker room after breakfast the next morning, Cindy was finishing up removing the thruster pack from her suit. She asked, "Should I put this back in the locker, or is there somewhere else youíd rather have it?"
"In the locker is fine. Iíll get a tractor unit for you."
When he got back, he showed her how to install the unit and make required the safety checks. Once that was done, Mr. Dontrell came up and opened his locker. Cindy took off her ship suit and underwear and hung it up in the locker. As she was making the sanitary connections, she saw the Voxxan looking at her and asked, "What, you never seen a girlís plumbing before?" His ears blushed as she stood up and zipped up the liner.
Tom just shook his head as the Voxxan Apprentice got changed. They got their suits on and did the safety checks for each other. Walking into the transporter room next to the suit lockers, Cindy said, "It feels strange not having an airlock in the locker room."
Tom said, "After this trip, it will feel strange to have an airlock in there. Computer, three to transport to the Check Room."
After the transport, Cindy said, "An empty room?"
Tom glanced at the Voxxan, who said, "This is to insure that there is no leakage from the suits."
"Sir, arenít there force fields to prevent contact with the anti-matter?"
"Yes, but thereís no point taking chances. Even one milligram of gas from you suit would result in an energy release of 90 gigajoules. I know that I donít want to be around if that happens."
Their suit check being okay, they then transported to the staging deck on the forward side of the habitation module. Tom showed Cindy and Crandle how to use the tractor maneuvering units on the suits, and then they spent the rest of the week inspecting the tractor beams and containment fields on the boom.
When Captain Hernandez came into the gym a few days later, he found Cindy on the treadmill. As he passed it to get to the weight station, he noticed a change in the gravity field, and that the inclination was changing. Cindy had on the VR goggles and ear phones and, apparently, hadnít heard him come in. He completed his routine and was cleaning up when the treadmill stopped and Cindy took off her gear. She saw him and said, "Good evening Captain."
"Good evening, Cindy. I noticed that you had the gravity turned up while you were running."
"Yes, sir. Iím getting ready for a marathon on Bertramís Colony. Theyíve got about one and a quarter standard gees there."
He smiled and said, "In that case, I can see that Sharpknives will get no trouble from you about keeping fit on this trip."
She picked up the cleaner and started cleaning the equipment she had used. "Sharpknives, sir?"
"Yes, in addition to cooking for us, shi also is charged with keeping us healthy. How has the training with Tom been going?"
"Very well. The tractor units are more versatile than the thrusters that Iím used to, as long as you stay within range of a solid target." She smiled and added, "They are also useful for catching wayward tools."
"Indeed they are." They left the gym and turned in opposite directions to their quarters. "Good night, Cindy."
"Good night Captain."
Sirius A was ringed with solar power satellites, but the eight anti-matter production plants were in polar orbits. This was to avoid the dust and gas that tended to collect in the ecliptic plane. They did not operate within 15 degrees of the ecliptic and were also behind shields that served as collectors for the power beamed from the power-sats and shielded them from the solar wind. The presence of Sirius B and C in the system had prevented the formation of any planets in the habitable zone around Sirius A. That and its proximity to the central worlds of the Stellar Federation made it an excellent production site.
When the Mripan Suzar arrived at the Sirius star system, they rendezvoused with the space station located at the L5 position following Sirius B in its orbit of Sirius A. They went through the same identification process with the pilot from the station, a chakat named Bluetoes, before moving out to the fuel production plant.
Captain Bluetoes reconfigured the command chair into a couch for a ítaur and moved them into an orbit 1000 kilometers beyond Plant 83 with the boom aligned toward the station. Shi said, "Iíve confirmed the telemetry link with Sirius Station. All commands to the Mripan Suzarís systems are being logged in the station archives as well as full audio and video recordings on the bridge and fuel management sections. Mr. Slisston, begin your final sweep."
"Bringing up the sweep field, Captain."
The sweep field was essentially an air shield, but much tighter than a standard air shield. It was also three kilometers in diameter and not tethered at its circumfrence. It moved down the length of the ship, sweeping any stray dust and gas away from the ship. Creating and maintaining this air shield required most of the power available from the smaller of the two anti-matter cores on the ship. After twenty five minutes, Slisston said, "Final sweep completed captain, we are clean."
"Thank you, Mr. Slisston." Captain Bluetoes removed a small control console from hir pouch and plugged it into the command couch. After logging in, shi established contact with the plant and used the tractor beams on the plant to move the ship into position. Confirming that the ship was fixed properly in place, shi said, "Senior Fuel Handler Slisston, you may begin."
"Thank you, Captain. Mr. Dontrell, bring up the containment field in position one."
"Containment field one is configured to receive fuel, sir."
The fuel handlers spend the next eleven and one half hours in the very delicate task of transferring liquid anti-hydrogen from Plant 83 to the containment fields mounted along the boom of the Mripan Suzar. There were 250 positions along the 1200 meter long boom, each capable of holding 100 kilograms of anti-hydrogen or 45 kilograms of anti-proton plasma. Each position had a containment field to hold the anti-matter, an air screen to protect it from contact with matter, and a stasis field generator, which was used as a fail-safe backup. The Mripan Suzar took on 20,800 kilograms of liquid anti-hydrogen and 1,440 kilograms of anti-proton plasma. After moving away from Plant 83 and setting course out of the system, they were met by a shuttle from Sirius Station. It moved into a parallel course ten thousand kilometers from the Mripan Suzar and Captain Bluetoes was transported aboard. Captain Hernandez then set course for Voxxa.
The Fuel Handler and his apprentice came into the lounge and collapsed in their chairs. Sharpknives brought their dinners to them, and Slisston looked at hir, some of the glassy look leaving his eyes. "Sharpknives, how did you conjure up Stassi eels and marsh greens on this tiny ship?"
Shi smiled and said, "I have a few connections here and there."
He turned off his translator and said, in barely understandable Terranglo, "My thanks you may have very greatly. All of your eggs fertile it will be of pleasure to the Gods to be."
With that, he devoured his dinner, even to picking up the bowl and licking it out before he retired to his cabin. Dontrell also had a special dinner, but since he grew up on Chakona, it was not as exotic as Slisstonís.
Cindy looked up from her PADD as Mr. Conrad joined her and Redcoat at the table in the lounge. Glancing at the hologram above the PADD, he asked, "Warp Theory?"
Cindy smiled and said, "Yes, sir. Iím studying engineering at Dewclaw, and Red Ö um, Mr. Redcoat agreed to help me with some difficulty Iíve been having. Iíd like to thank you for letting me tag my assignments on the ends of our situation reports."
"It doesnít add much overhead to the transmissions, which have to go out twice a day anyway. It wasnít my doing though. Captain Hernandez suggested it when Redcoat mentioned that you were concerned about getting behind in your classes. I trust hir advice is helpful?"
"Yes, sir. Itís like have my own, personal professor on board. I was wondering something, though."
"Considering the potential for destruction that this much anti-matter represents, why donít they use automated ships in this service? I know that the plants are automated, with just periodic maintenance inspections."
"That was tried several decades ago, but there was a series of accidents. There was no loss of life, but the destruction of property and the economic impact were very great. The investigation found that there was some benefit to having a live crew involved."
Redcoat chimed in, "Also, with us here on the ship, it is less likely that we will take shortcuts that could cost us our lives."
Cindy nodded and shut down her PADD. "I know itís an incentive for me, and Iíd better hit the sack. Iím on the roster for filter inspection in the morning, and Mr. Lepus likes to get started early. Good night sirs."
She got up and left. Redcoat went over to the replicator and returned with two cups of tea. Shi said, "If I remember correctly, this is how you like it."
He took a sip and nodded. "Your memory is fine, Redcoat."
Redcoat took a sip of hir tea, and asked, "Paul, now that itís just us in here, why are you here? I know that they offered you the Chakastraís Peace."
Paul took another sip of tea before answering. "Roddy was my first captain. I havenít heard anything about his retiring, but heís getting to that age. Taking one more berth as First Officer wonít hurt my rating with the Consortium any."
"Itís not like you couldnít get hired by one of the other fuel transport companies, but youíre right, Roddyís not one to accept a lesser posting, and he is pushing the mandatory limit for his genome."
"Heíll leave the Consortium when they move him off of the fuel carriers. I know heís got a place on Equatoria, but heís not the type to vegetate in paradise."
Redcoat shook hir head. "No, I figure heíll end up at Dewclaw, or possibly Twintails. He came up through engineering and heís kept up his ratings."
"I think that Twintails is more likely. Heís always been more of a Ďhands oní type rather than a theorist. So, where is your lovely mate tonight?"
"Primrose is in hir heat cycle, and ĎAuntie Sharpieí is less intimidating than ĎChief Engineer Chakat Redcoatí. Besides, while the three of us could sleep on that bunk, there isnít room for us to do anything else together on it."
Paul finished his tea and said, "My bunks the same size that yours is, and Iím just a little human squirt. Plenty of room for any Ďextracurricular activitiesí that you might have in mind."
"Iím moving toward my male phase, just to let you know."
"You know thatís never been a problem for me in the past."
"Youíre quite right. I accept your invitation, First Officer Conrad."
"In that case, Chief Engineer Redcoat, let us retire to my cabin."
The Mripan Suzar rendezvoused with the fuel depot orbiting the L2 point beyond Voxxa. This was sufficiently far from the normal traffic lanes so that there was little contamination by ships thrusters and other out-gassings. It also gave an interesting view of Voxxa, with the planet permanently eclipsing its primary. The L2 depot supported the refueling requirements of ships calling on Voxxa as well as the in-system ships based there. They unloaded 8,600kg of liquid anti-hydrogen, which the station would process into anti-proton plasma, using the energy from positron-electron annihilation as a power source. The station also supplied proton plasma that the in-system ships used as thruster fuel to maintain a neutral charge on the station.
As they started their leisurely, sixteen hour trip to the L3 Fuel Depot, which serviced other parts of the system, Cindy sat down across from Apprentice Dontrell and asked, "Will you at least be able to say hello to your relatives on Voxxa while weíre here, Mr. Dontrell?"
He shook his head and said, "I only have distant relatives here. I grew up in Wanganui, in a mostly Voxxan neighborhood. And please call me Crandle?"
"Okay, Crandle, but only in here and when we are off duty. We are practically neighbors, since I grew up in Amistad."
"That would explain your, umÖ"
Cindy noticed that the inside of his ears were blushing, and said, "My total lack of any nudity taboo?" She smiled as she saw his ears turn bright red. Her mother had told her not to pester people like this, but it was such fun! "My growing up in Amistad got me started, but my parents were companions to a chakat triad, and my Auntie Marigoldís idea of what constitutes proper sex education for a young woman is, I think, a little more explicit than what most kids get on Terra."
Seeing that she had, once again, gone too far, and that Crandle was about to flee from the lounge, she said, "I understand you are going to solo when we get to Voxxa L3?"
Crandle calmed down some and took a drink of juice. "Yes, Mr. Slisston is going to let me do the transfer there."
"How long have you been an apprentice?"
"Three years, but first I had five years of engineering at Dewclaw. This trip is my Journeyman exam."
"Well, congratulations. Thanks for letting me join you, but Iíd better hit the sack. Iím on the roster for standby support, so while youíre having fun flinging anti-matter around, Iíll be in my suit, in the check room, just in case something happens."
"Well, Cindy, I hope you will be bored to tears in the morning."
She smiled and said, "Believe me, so do I. Good night, Crandle."
Crandle had a successful fuel transfer at Voxxa L3, and the Mripan Suzar left the system headed for the LHS 2397a system. The Senior Fuel Handler said, "When we rendezvous with the Greyfurís Bitch you will handle all of the authentication and fuel transfer."
"Yes, sir. They get the 1440kg of plasma."
"That is correct. They will distribute it to several smaller stations along their normal trade route."
They arrived several hours before the Greyfurís Bitch and Cindy went down to one of the observation rooms for a direct look outside, and was trying to find the primary of the system.
She was about to call on the shipís computer for help when Tom joined her. He said, "Looking for LHS 2397a?"
She nodded and said, "Not having much luck."
"You see the bright star?"
"Thatís Sirius, where we loaded fuel."
"Yes, now, look 5 degrees aft and 3 degrees to your right."
"I see it now, that tiny red dot."
She shook her head. "Not much to look at. No wonder this thing doesnít even have a name." She turned to Tom and asked, "Why meet here?"
"Itís close to our route, and the proximity of the brown dwarf companion, which you canít see, gives this system a distinctive gravity signature, so itís easy to find while weíre in warp. Weíve met the Greyfurís Bitch here about half the times Iíve been on this route."
"I take it the captain is a wolftaur."
He nodded. "Itís a family owned ship, but Iíve never met them. The captain and the fuel handler go over for the ID verification, then we transfer fuel, accept any messages they want sent, and we go our separate ways. We tag the messages on the end of our status transmission, like weíve been doing for your homework."
Cindy glanced back at the star. "There certainly isnít anything to stay here for." She smiled at Tom and added, "Now I can really say that Iíve been in the back of the beyond."
Once the Greyfurís Bitch matched their heading, 10,000km off, Captain Hernandez and Mr. Dontrell beamed over for the ID verification. Hernandez stepped up to shake the wolftaurís hand and said, "Captain Greyfur, Ms. Arrinelia, I trust you are well."
The wolftaur captain just nodded and said, "Captain Hernandez."
His mate, who was also a qualified fuel handler for plasma, looked uncomfortable, and Hernandez was about to ask what was wrong when Dontrell said, "Captain Hernandez, there are four more people on board the ship than our records indicate."
Before Hernandez could respond, his com badge activated. "Captain, Conrad here. We were preparing to report our rendezvous with the Greyfurís Bitch when we were cut off. The FTL link is being jammed."
The door opened and someone shot Captain Greyfur, and then a male felitaur with tiger patterning on his fur came in. He said, "Hernandez, the captain is only stunned, but his phaser isnít set to stun," and pointed to a large bear morph wearing light body armor holding a weapon on Hernandez.
The felitaur tapped his com badge and said, "Beam us onto the fuel carrierís bridge."
When they materialized, Sheppard was saying, "Ö another ship in the system and someone is beaming Ö" and the felitaur stunned Mr. Conrad, who was sitting in the command chair.
The felitaur turned to Hernandez and said, "I had hoped that it wouldnít come to this, but youíre too much Ďby the bookí for your own good."
Hernandez practically spat at him, and said, "What are you going to do to my crew? What have you doneÖ"
"Iím not here to answer your questions, Hernandez. Youíre going to follow my orders or Iím going to start spacing your crew. Transporting them into space a few thousand kilometers away wonít jeopardize the fuel transfer."
The bridge door opened and a wolf-morph came in carrying Spacer Ambrose, her arms twisted up behind her back and said, "I found another one, Capt.
Hernandez growled and lashed out, opening the wolf-morphís face with his claws. The felitaur fired his stunner into the deck and said, "Stop, Captain. Donít make me shoot you too."
Hernandez snarled and said, "Go ahead and shoot me, pirate. If you try to do a fuel transfer without me, all of the stasis fields will lock up and you wonít get anything. Iím going to make sure that the rest of my crew are alive and well."
The pirate captain glared at Hernandez before tapping his com badge and saying, "Number 3, come to the bridge."
"We havenít been able to find the Third Engineer, Captain. Nobody here is saying anything about him."
"Weíll deal with that when we get there. Get up here."
A foxmorph, also dressed in light body armor, came up to the bridge door. The felitaur said, "Three, go back to the left. Two, drop that girl and pick up the other human when everyone else is out of the bridge. All of you follow me out and donít make any sudden moves. If I have to stun anybody, someone will get spaced."
The crew followed him out to a storage room for filters and other life-support spares, and they went inside, except for Captain Hernandez. The pirate leader said, "Now, you are going to tell me where your third engineer is hiding."
Hernandez glanced at his crew and back to the captain. The captain said, "If you donít, Iím going to space that human girl that you seem so fond of."
"We left him at Voxxa, he had a family emergency."
The pirate tapped his com badge and said, "Four, youíve scanned the ship?"
"Yes, sir. No signs of anyone else on board."
He turned back to Hernandez. "I suppose youíve got records to back you up."
"Let me get to a terminalÖ"
"I donít think so. You and the Merraki come out here. Everybody else get away from the door."
The pirates took Captain Hernandez and the Fuel Handler back to the bridge. There was a cat morph there when they got there. He said, "Captain, Iíve got this panel set so it only controls the tractor beams. The fuel panel is already set up and doesnít have access to anything else."
"Hernandez, youíre going to do the fuel transfer just like we werenít here at all. Iíd rather take all of it, but I donít have anything to handle the liquid H2 and this ship is too slow and easy to find. Remember, itís not just your crew on the line, but Iíve also got crew on the other ship. I know what should happen, and if everything goes smoothly and according to procedure, nobody gets hurt."
Slisston looked at Hernandez, and Hernandez nodded and sat down at the tractor station and called the Greyfurís Bitch. "Greyfurís Bitch, close to within 1000 meters and lock out thrusters."
When the captain woke up in the storage room, he saw Tom Whitefang stagger over to the door. Everybody else was still stunned and drifting in the middle of the room, since the gravity had been cut off.
As Tom tried to open the door, somebody banged on the outside of it. The Captain said, "Get back, Whitefang. If they open it weíll try to jump them."
The pounding stopped and they heard, "Is anybody awake? This is Spallings."
The captain said, "Spallings, they stunned everybody, but Whitefang and I are awake. Whatís happened?"
"Theyíre gone, sir, but weíve got some problems. Theyíve welded the door shut and Iím going to have to cut it open. Everyone move to the left side of the room, as you face the door."
Redcoat and Alisa Whitefoot were both wearing working coveralls, and a pair of ítaur coveralls, which had some degree of heat resistance, were large enough to cover most of the Ďpileí. Alisa started to wake up as the Captain was pulling the coverall off of her lower torso. She gave him a slightly drunken grin and said, "Captain, I had no idea Ö"
He returned her grin. "Iíll have to take rain check right now."
After tying the suits together, with the Captain and Whitefang holding the ends, the Captain said, "Go ahead Mr. Spallings."
They could hear a laser working on the door, then the door started glowing and the laser broke through the door just above the latch. It traced a semicircle around the latch and then cut off. They could hear Spallings grunt a couple of times, then the door swung open. The Captain came out and asked, "What is the situation?"
"Sir, the engineering section is evacuated. From what I could tell from the remotes, neither of the cores is working, and we have no fuel. Weíre running on the fusion backup power supply and stored power in the cells. Between the two of them, we have about eighteen hours on the containment fields."
"What about the gravity?"
"I cut it off to save power."
The Captain nodded and turned back into the storage room. "Whitefang, get everybody moved into the lounge and start getting everybody something to eat and drink. Give Redcoat and Whitefoot a stimulant to bring them around quicker. Spallings, are our suits still intact?"
"Yes, sir. They didnít seem to hit the suit lockers."
"Letís get them and go down to engineering. Whitefang, once Redcoat and Whitefoot are sober, send them down."
Forty minutes later everyone gathered in the lounge. The Captain, still wearing his suit liner, said, "Core Number One is useless. Theyíve taken the containment and mix coils out of the core, so weíre going to need a full rebuild. They also took most of the engineering spares and the tractor beam in the engineering section. The door is damaged and wonít seal, so anything we do there will have to be in suits.
"The good news is that Core Number Two is still intact. I guess itís too small to be of any use on their ships. With no fuel however, it wonít do us a lot of good."
Slisston said, "Captain, if I may?" The Captain nodded and he continued, "As you know, they took all of the anti-proton plasma. We still have 9,400 kg of liquid anti-hydrogen, but no equipment to process it into plasma. If we donít come up with something to provide power, weíll have to trigger the stasis units. That will lose the rest of the load, which will cause economic disruption throughout the federation."
Dontrell asked Redcoat, "Do we still have the hydrogen ionizer?"
Redcoatís eyes lit up. "Yes, itís still down there, and I can rig something to trap the electrons."
"We only need a few grams of anti-matter. If we flood it with electrons, they will annihilate with the positrons and weíll have anti-proton plasma left over, and the energy produced will only be twenty or thirty kilojoules, but our systems arenít set up to handle that small an amount of material."
The Captain turned to the Fuel Handler and asked, "Mr. Slisston, the containment fields are designed to keep 100 kg of hydrogen liquid. If we had only a couple of kilograms, could we use it to freeze it?"
The Merraki nodded. "Yes, then we could use a hand laser and suit tractors to remove what we need. They are low enough in power that they could operate through the air screens without disrupting them."
Primrose asked, "What about transferring it to the core?"
Mr. Slisston said, "Childís play, my dear. I can make a containment vessel for plasma from an air-tight canister, a reprogrammed com badge, and wires stripped from a light fixture, if need be. Weíve been doing that for centuries. The engineering section is already evacuated, so transferring it into the core isnít a problem."
The captain asked, "Mr. Redcoat, who is best with a laser cutter?"
Shi pointed at hir Third Engineer. "The same one who cut us out of the storage room, Bobby Spallings."
"How about the suit tractors?"
Tom Whitefang said, "That would be Cindy. During her training, she was running circles around Mr. Dontrell and me by the second day, and by the end of the week, I had her doing maintenance with the suit tractors instead of her hands."
The Captain asked, "How long will it take to freeze a kilo of anti-hydrogen?"
Slisston said, "About three hours. That will give me enough time to make a containment vessel."
"Very good. You get started on that. Mr. Dontrell, go ahead and move a kilo of liquid anti-hydrogen to an empty storage bay and start cooling it. Mr. Conrad, youíll be in charge of the outside team. Who do you need besides Mr. Spallings and Spacer Ambrose?"
"Let me have Sharpknives and Alisa. They can hold and steady Bobby and Cindy so they donít have worry about their footing and can concentrate on what they are doing." He glanced at Bobby and asked, "I do have one question for Bobby though."
He grinned and said, "What?"
"How did you hide from the piratesí scans?"
"I went into the stasis chamber with the fresh meat. I rigged up a timer and a sensor on the control so it would turn off for about thirty seconds at random intervals about every twenty minutes, as long as there were no active scans. Their scanners couldnít distinguish between me and the rest of the meat through the stasis field."
Before turning into her room, Cindy asked, "Sharpie, could you come in here for a minute?"
Sharpknives gave Redcoat a hug before shi went to help Slisston with his containment vessel, then joined Cindy. Cindy gave hir a hug, and after a minute, Sharpknives asked, "Whatís troubling you?"
"I just need a cuddle right now."
"You ought to take a nap while weíre waiting for our part of this."
Cindy looked at Sharpknives and asked, "Will you join me?"
"Of course, dear."
They got undressed and into bed. Sharpknives asked, "Whatís this really about? I can sense that youíre nervous about something."
Cindy snuggled up closer to Sharpknives. "I wasnít expecting this when I signed on."
"Youíve fueled ships before."
"Itís not the same. With that you just take the bottle out and connect it to the right port. Iím going to be out there practically holding the stuff in my bare hands."
"Iíll be out there with you. Tom was right, you are better with the suit tractors than anyone else on board."
"Iíll do it, but Iím responsible for your lives too."
"Worrying about it now wonít do you any good. Just try to get a little sleep." With that, Sharpknives started projecting calming feelings, and shi could feel Cindy start to relax.
Shi was about to drop off to sleep hirself when Cindy said, "When I first met you, I thought you were just the cook."
Sharpknives chuckled and Cindy added, "I know. When youíre cooking, thereís no Ďjustí about it."
"Listen dear, you have to be a Spacer First to serve on these ships. I got qualified so I could serve with Redcoat after our kids grew up."
"How long have you been on these ships?"
"Itís been more than thirty standard years. Iím the third ranking spacer in the consortium, which means that I can get my choice of berths."
"And since Redcoat is one of the top engineers, and you canít have a chakat serving alone Ö"
"You got it, and here I am."
They both lay there for a while until Cindy said, "Thanks, Auntie Sharpie," and Sharpknives felt her fall asleep.
The pirates had stripped their transporter equipment, so the outside crew went out through the engineering section and then around the habitation module and up the boom to where Dontrell had frozen 1.3kg of liquid anti-hydrogen. The pirates had left the equipment on the boom alone, both because it was so specialized that it wasnít good for much else, and because they didnít want to take a chance of blowing themselves up.
When they got there, Sharpknives grabbed two holds with hir handpaws and another one with hir tail and wrapped hir arms around Cindy. Alicia fastened her tack-boots firmly to the boom and grabbed Bobby Spallings. When they were set, Conrad said, "Weíre ready, Mr. Slisston. Letís go, just like we practiced it."
"Containment field coming off in five, four, three, two, one, now."
Cindy Ďgrabbedí the chunk of ice with her suit tractors and said, "I have it. You can start, Mr. Spallings."
"Beginning my cut. Iíll try to get about a fifth of it on the first attempt."
He started his cut, a thin line of the ice vaporizing where he was cutting it. The vapors were contained in the air shield. He was about half way through when the piece broke into three chunks, the largest one heading toward Conrad. Cindy used one of the suit tractors to contain the two smaller chunks while giving the larger piece a shove away from the First officer and the boom. Slisston said, "Iíve reactivated the containment field."
Conrad said, "Nice fielding, Cindy. Mr. Slisston, can you retrieve that?"
"No, sir. The vector isnít right to take it with the fuel handling tractors, and the pirates took the general purpose tractors with them."
"Is it going to be a hazard to us?"
"No, sir. It is on an outbound vector at 23 meters per second."
Mr. Dontrell said, "Iím tracking it. With the particle density out here, I estimate that it will last about six years. Itís still at about 10.5 Kelvin, and there isnít enough radiation out here once it gets away from the ship to melt it. We can plot its trajectory and collect it once we get the tractors working again."
Conrad said, "Okay, we can leave it for later. Mr. Slisston, what happened?"
"Analysis shows that a small piece broke off in a void in the ice that vaporized much faster than expected, since it wasnít in thermal contact with the rest of the mass. The sudden increase in pressure caused a crack along other flaws and the piece that came out had more kinetic energy than the air shield could stop. The other two pieces donít contain any voids, so this should not happen again."
"Letís hope not. Cindy, are you ready to grab the last two pieces?"
"Mr. Slisston, drop the field."
"Dropping the field in five, four, three, two, one, now."
"Iíve got them," Cindy said. "The larger one has a mass of 194.8 grams. The smaller one is 18.6 grams."
Conrad said, "Move the large piece to containment site 137."
"Moving it now."
The larger of the pieces moved out and then to the next containment field on the boom. Slisston said, "I have it now."
Cindy said, "Iíve got the last piece."
Conrad said, "Mr. Spallings, a third of that one please."
"Yes, sir." He sliced one off of the remaining piece.
Cindy said, "5.3 grams, just what we need."
Conrad said, "Move the larger one into 137." When that was done, he asked Slisston to bring the containment field back up to begin to heat the chunk of ice. When it was melted he brought the bottle out and had Cindy hold it near the containment field.
Slisston said, "Iím moving the electrons out of the bottle and into the containment field. Cindy, hold it steady. When I bring up the electric field to contain the plasma we are creating, it will try to pull the bottle into the field."
"I have a firm grip on it, Mr. Slisston, go ahead."
The outside crew saw some sparkling as the annihilation of the electrons and positrons excited the anti-hydrogen atoms. The whole process took about twenty minutes and then Mr. Slisston said, "Iím moving the plasma into the bottle now. AhÖ That has it. Cindy, bring the bottle out and let Mr. Conrad put the cap on it."
He did and the captain told them to come inside. They gave the bottle to Redcoat, and shi had the anti-matter transferred into Core Number Two and had power back up in ten minutes.
Captain Hernandez and Slisston came down to the suit locker as the outside crew were taking off their suits, cleaning them, and putting them away. The captain said, "Spacer Ambrose, you did an outstanding job. Iíve placed a commendation in your record."
"Thank you sirÖ"
Slisston interrupted her and said, "If you have considered becoming a fuel handler, I would be happy to provide a recommendation for entry into the program at Dewclaw University, and I may be able to help you get a scholarship as well, so that you can study full time."
"I really do thank you both," Cindy said, standing up a peeling off her suit liner, "but if you will excuse me, Iím going to take advantage of the fact that we have gravity and hot water again, and get a shower."
Slisston opened his mouth to reply, but the captain put a hand on his shoulder and said, "Of course. I want all of you to come up to the lounge and get something to eat."
Sharpknives said, "Iíll be right upÖ"
"No, Spacer Sharpknives. You are barred from your kitchen. We have replicator patterns of everything that youíve made on this trip. That will do for now. You are all off duty for the next twenty hours. Mr. Conrad, Iíll be covering your watch."
Conrad nodded and said, "Thank you, sir."
Captain Hernandez met with Conrad, Slisston, and Redcoat in his ready room after everyone had a chance to rest. The captain started off, "Redcoat, how do we stand now that Core Two is up again?"
"Weíve got enough power for the containment systems, life support, and gravity for the next half year. Unfortunately, we canít go anywhere. The pirates stripped both the warp drive and the sub-light drive. They also took the maneuvering tractors, not that they would do any good out here anyway with nothing to push on. The first set of boom stabilization tractors are also gone. Apparently, that was as close as they wanted to get to our load."
"Can the maintenance hatch in Engineering be repaired?"
"No, not with what we have on hand. We donít even have a plate large enough to weld over the hatch."
"Thatís about what I figured. The pirates also took the FTL link."
Redcoat shook hir head. "That doesnít surprise me, considering that that thing is worth about the same as a medium sized ship."
"It wonít do them a lot of good unless they can override the security lock on it. Because of that, we have now missed one status report, so someone will be looking for us. Since we made our last report when we came into the system, they will start looking here.
"That has a drawback however. They also did a job on our longer range sensors. We canít track that chunk of anti-hydrogen ice anymore. It should be about 2100 kilometers away, and I know about where, but I donít have any confirmation of that. I do know that it hasnít hit anything of any size, and Iíve got an optical scan set up in that direction."
Mr. Conrad said, "Roddy, if someone comes into the system, they wonít be able to tell that from normal hydrogen ice. If they scoop it up Ö"
"Yes, Paul, it would destroy that ship. We still have line-of-sight com, and Iíve got a beacon going on the emergency frequency to warn anyone who comes into the system along with my best estimate of its location and trajectory. Paul, Iíd like you to double check my figures, and put the watch officers and Cadet Primrose on it as well. When someone does get here, I want to be able to give them an approach trajectory that we know wonít intersect it."
"Iíll get on that Roddy, but I do have one more question."
The Captain glanced at the Fuel Handler and then back at his first mate. "I thought you might, Paul."
"Why didnít we just lock everything down so they couldnít get anything?"
Slisston said, "Paul, you know how the stasis fields work. They are intended to be a failsafe system to protect others even if this ship crashes on an inhabited planet. As a result, once they are activated, the stasis fields cannot be shut off. They are powered by the anti-matter itself, and allow it to burn off at a controlled rate."
"Yes, it is the same system used on anti-matter powered shuttles."
"Yes, and if one of those activated, the most likely outcome is that the shuttle will be lost along with all crew on board."
Hernandez said, "Paul, I know you were offered the Chakastraís Peace, but you turned it down before you had your masterís briefing. One of the things in that briefing is a discussion of a situation like this. The captain and the fuel handler must weigh the consequences of letting the pirates get what they want versus the economic cost to the federation of the fuel that would be lost. I came to the conclusion that the 1440 kg of fuel that they got would be used in their spaceships as fuel rather than as a weapon. Apparently Slisston agreed with me, since he didnít trip the fields either.
Slisston said, "Yes, that is correct. Also, effectively weaponizing plasma is no simple thing, because of the equipment required to contain it is large enough and consumes enough power that it is hard to hide."
Paul asked, "If this policy is so hush-hush, why are you telling us now?"
Slisston answered him, "This situation has been of concern among Fuel Handlers and Ship Masters for some time, but has not been dealt with by the companies because of the costs involved in providing proper security. The Consortium will probably try to cover this up, but I will not allow that, so all of this is going to be coming out anyway."
Hernandez added, "Iím nearly ready to retire. They canít touch my pension, and I have friends in the Federation Government that will make sure that I get my say in this."
After five days, the Star Fleet destroyer, Hammer, entered the system. After being warned about the chunk of anti-hydrogen ice drifting through the system, they approached from the other side and the captain and hir chief engineer beamed aboard.
They conducted an inspection of the Mripan Suzar and met with Captain Hernandez and his senior officers. Captain Brighttip, a chakat, began, "Captain Hernandez, I want to congratulate you and your crew for dealing with a very unpleasant situation, but we have a problem here. While I can help you make some repairs, your primary warp core and warp engines need to be replaced. Your ship cannot be moved out of the system until that happens, but there are no facilities of any kind here. Why did you choose such a desolate place for this transfer?"
"Frankly, Captain," answered Hernandez, "it was because of that desolation. We have been meeting the Greyfurís Bitch here, off and on, for nearly two decades. There is very little stray mass in the system, and it has a distinctive gravitational signature, with a red dwarf and a brown dwarf in such close proximity, so it is easy to find."
Mr. Conrad asked, "Do you know what happened to Greyfur and his family?"
The chakat captain shook hir head. "There have been no contacts made with their ship since your encounter with her. Iím afraid that by now the beacon has been replaced and she is flagged on one of the fringe worlds.
"I hope that the pirates have dumped the family on some obscure station, but the Greyfurís Bitch is a family operation, so they have no ransom value. If they are still alive, they may have been sold into slavery in the Gosper Fringe."
"But this wasnít a human crew, they were all furs!"
Captain Brighttip looked him in the eye, "Mr. Conrad, Iíve seen this before. This type would sell their own mother for the right price. They donít care who they deal with as long as they make a profit."
Hir com badge chimed and someone said, "Captain, I have a link to the Chakastra Fuels Consortium."
Captain Brighttip looked at Captain Hernandez, who nodded. Captain Brighttip said, "Please relay it to us here, Mr. Sears."
The display showed a chakat in an office. Shi said, "Captain Hernandez, Senior Fuel Handler Slisston, I am Chakat Darkfingers, Chief Operating officer of the Chakastra Fuels Consortium."
Slisston asked, "Shir Darkfingers, when will another ship be sent so that we can transfer our fuel?"
"Mr. Slisston, the Fuel Cartel has just met with the Stellar Federation Economic Council. They have decided that freeing up a ship at this time is not practical because of the disruptions that will be caused by the delay in delivering their loads. We have decided that your ship will be repaired in situ. Once that work is done, we will determine your new route for the delivery of the rest of your fuel."
Captain Hernandez said, "There are not many outfits that can handle this sort of work, and they are usually booked up far into the future."
"I realize that, Captain. Fortunately, one of those, the Tinker, is here in Chakona orbit right now. We have approached the ship owners that are on their schedule, and they have agreed to either put off their work or have it done at other facilities. It will take them ten standard days to finish what they are working on right now and then they will head to the LHS 2397a system. I understand that you have sufficient reserves to keep the containment fields going until then?"
"Yes, we do. How did these pirates know that the Greyfurís Bitch was meeting us here?"
"We are investigating that. If you need anything else, you can contact me through the Hammer. Good day, sir," and with that, the connection was cut from the other end.
Redcoat said, "Damn bean counter. Shiís probably never been out of that fancy office."
Captain Hernandez was sitting in his office when Watch Officer Sheppard called him. "Captain, there is a call for you from the Tinker, the repair tender that is coming out to do the repairs."
"How is the call coming in, Mr. Sheppard?"
"Laser link, sir. Response delay is four and a half seconds."
"To my com please, Mr. Sheppard." The screen showed a female mouse morph seated at a desk, apparently working on something that he couldnít see. He said, "Captain Hernandez of the Mripan Suzar to the Tinker, over."
He watched her continue to work for another few seconds. She was an attractive looking brown mouse morph who looked to be about his age. She had a cross look as she looked up at the pickup and said, "Captain, Iím Sparks Foster of the Tinker. I apologize for being abrupt, but this response delay is a pain in the tail.
"We talked to the captain of the Hammer and shi gave us this convoluted approach trajectory and said it was because of Ďnavigational hazardsí in the system. After that we got a stonewall and my partnerís left, but shi was feeling like going over there and hanging that captain up by hir tail and pulling hir whiskers out until shi got a straight answer. Can you tell us whatís going on in this system? Over."
"Ms. Sparks, Captain Brighttip ordered us to shut off our beacon and you apparently came out of warp inside of its wavefront. That navigation hazard is 885 grams of anti-hydrogen ice that we lost while collecting enough fuel to keep the containment fields running. We only have short range scanners, but Iím sending a projection based on its initial course of its probable position and trajectory. We havenít recorded any gamma-ray bursts, so it apparently hasnít collided with anything of any size. Over."
The mouse morph seemed to be busy on her panel beyond the normal delay. Finally she said, "Weíll see what we can do about that. Now, about the refit, Iíve got a replacement core about the same size as the one on your ship. Iíve also got four Esker 5-C drive units to replaceÖ"
Captain Hernandez then heard Captain Brighttip over the Tinkerís com link. "Tinker, our sensors show that you have launched four drones of some sort. You were ordered to maintain the designated trajectory. Recall them at once."
"Captain, those Ďdronesí are remote sensor platforms that we have sent out to find your little Ďnavigation hazardí before someone manages to hit it and blows themselves up. If you have sensor data that would help us, please send it on the data channel. Otherwise Iím busy with Captain Hernandez right now."
"But the Mripan SuzarÖ"
Sparks looked back at the pickup. "Sorry about that Captain. As I was saying, weíve got what we need to get you moving again, and the Consortium has paid for the work up front, funds to be released when you and your chief engineer approve the work.
"We will have two crews working. The first will be on the warp drive, and the second will be replacing your engineering service port. Since your ship wonít fit in our service bay, it will make our work much faster if we can dock with you and get your engineering section aired up. My two questions are: do you still have your sweep field to protect your cargo from the gasses produced by the replacement of the hatch, and is your stabilization system intact so that we can use our tractors on final approach without damaging anything? Over."
"Yes, to the first question. We still have the sweep field and the power to use it. The second question, they took the first stage of tractors on the stabilization system. This consists of three tractor beam units each with a capacity of 900 meganewtons. I also have a question, how are you going to get us operational with Esker 5-C warp drives? While they will handle our mass, they canít generate a warp field large enough for this ship. Over."
"Trying to explain that with this transmission delay is pointless. When we close to 10,000km, I would like you and your engineering staff to beam over and we will go over our plans in detail."
When Captain Hernandez and his engineering staff arrived on the Tinker, they found that Captain Brighttip was also there, as well as Sparks Foster and a medium sized all black chakat. The chakat had hir claws dug into the decking and looked about ready to shred the Star Fleet captain.
"Captain, our contract with the Consortium, which was approved by your superiors at Star Fleet, stipulated that we were to have free hand to do what was needed to repair the Mripan Suzar and that you would provide any necessary support to our efforts."
"That didnít anticipate this navigational hazÖ"
"Youíve been here for two weeks, I donít see any evidence that you did anything to find it."
"But nearly a kilogram of anti-matter floating around the system, if one of your drones hits itÖ"
"If one of our Zulus hits it, then weíll know where it is! Now get off of my deck."
The Star Fleet Captain beamed back to hir own ship and the chakat turned to Captain Hernandez and said, "Iím sorry, Captain, but Iíve about had it with that captain. Iím Arcs Foster. Sparks and I own The Tinker."
The captain had been about to introduce his engineering staff, but now looked back and forth between them, baffled. Redcoat asked, "You are Ö or rather, feel like, sisters?"
Arcs smiled at hir and said, "Yes, we are sisters as well as business partners."
Captain Hernandez shook his head and said, "Forgive me, Shir Arcs, Iíd like to introduce my engineering staff. This is Chief Engineer Chakat Redcoat, Second Engineer Alisa Whitefoot, and Third Engineer Robert Spallings."
They shook hands all around and Mr. Spallings said, "Please, call me Bobby."
Arcs said, "Very well. Please come this way and weíll go over what weíve planned for your system."
It took a while, and an examination of the Tinkerís engineering section, to convince them that two small warp drives could be used to distort the warp field of two others by running them slightly out of phase, and that it would be more efficient than the larger, custom made warp engines that they had been using. Then Redcoat asked, "Would the Mripan Suzar benefit from a multiple core set-up like you have?"
Sparks smiled at hir and said, "Good you have been paying attention. Considering that your maximum payload is only 25 tonnes, and that is a small percentage of your gross mass Ö"
"Ah Ė I get it. That with the low speed requirements doesnít justify the complexity of the extra cores."
"Yes, that agrees with our analysis."
Captain Hernandez asked, "Considering the fuel savings that you predict, is the Consortium considering refitting other ships with this system?"
Arcs said, "They have agreed to leave the Mripan Suzar in this configuration and compare the operating expenses of this ship with other ships of her class. If they find the comparison favorable, we have the first option to refit other ships with similar systems."
"In that case, I suggest that we get some sleep and we will start on the refit in ten hours."
The work on the Mripan Suzar proceeded smoothly. Chakat Arcs oversaw the installation of the new warp engines while Sparks and the rest of their crew replaced the maintenance hatch in Engineering and the warp core. As they worked, one of the Tinkerís crew, a Merraki, came to into the engineering section of the Mripan Suzar.
She said, "Sparks, I have a new FTL link that will operate in warp. Perhaps I shouldÖ"
She smiled and said, "Thanks, Talssist, but the Consortium didnít contract for that, and I want to test it before we start using it on other ships. When we get done here, we will try it out."
While this work was going on, First Officer Conrad, the watch officers, and Cadet Primrose, as well as Captain Hernandez, when he wasnít busy observing the work being done on his ship, practiced using the new drive system in a holodeck in the Tinker. The day before they finished installing and testing the new systems, one of the drones, or Zulus, as Arcs and Sparks called them, found the missing chunk of anti-matter ice and returned it to the Mripan Suzar where Slisston stored it properly.
Captain Hernandez received orders to proceed to the Jacobie Colony and transfer 1800kg of their fuel there. Their next destination would be sent to them later, as the Consortium and the Cartel juggled schedules to make sure they served all of their customers.
The Captain was back in his day room with his First Officer, Chief Engineer, and Arcs and Sparks. The Captain said, "I understand that our contract includes a shakedown period."
Chakat Arcs said, "Yes, I will stay onboard until your first scheduled status report. Iíll be down in Engineering with Redcoat and hir staff checking on things as we get started."
Redcoat said, "I heard one of your engineers mention that she had a warp capable FTL link."
Sparks smiled and said, "Yes, and while Talssist is a fine engineer, she is still young and her first tries sometime have some unexpected results." She looked at her partner and added, "Next time weíre at Kantorg, I think itís time to boot her off so she can clutch. Giving her ten years raising a batch of youngsters will give her some maturity."
Arcs said, "I understand that sheís off Ďcollectingí with your fuel handler right now."
When they stopped to make their first status report, using a standard FTL link that the Tinker installed, the Tinker and the Hammer left them and the Mripan Suzar proceeded to Jacobie, making four more stops for status reports along the way.
There was a Star Fleet warp-capable shuttle waiting for them and they were met by a Star Fleet investigator, a Chakat-kin skunktaur named Krintras of House Redpaw, an official from Chakastra Fuels Consortium, Chakat Sirocco, and another captain with the Consortium. Sirocco met with Captain Hernandez and his senior officers after they had been debriefed by Krintas. Sirocco said, "Captain Hernandez, the Consortium has decided that you should return with me to Chakona Gateway. Captain Flemming," shi indicated the female foxmorph, "will take over your duties on the Mripan Suzar. I understand you all know each other."
Captain Flemming said, "Yes, shir. Iíve served with all of these officers before. Captain Hernandez was the captain on the Chakastraís Voyager on my last trip before my promotion to captain."
Captain Hernandez said, "Standard procedure for something like this is to remove the entire crew."
Sirocco said, "That is true, but I convinced them that it would be better to leave the rest of the crew intact, since we donít have another crew that is familiar with your new drive system. I have also spoken with Senior Fuel Handler Slisston. He is satisfied with Mr. Dontrellís performance and will be accompanying us also."
"That is just as well since we will both be travelling to Terra in a few weeks to testify before the Federation Council Transportation Safety Sub-committee."
"Captain, our attorneys are currently trying to convinceÖ"
"Shir Sirocco, the Consortium knows that Mr. Slisston and I have been outspoken on the issue of piracy before. If the Consortium tries to interfere with my testimony, I will resign and testify without your consent. If it comes to that, Iím sure that the press will be even more interested in these proceedings than they already are."
Sirocco frowned and looked Captain Hernandez in the eye before saying, "We will discuss this further on our trip to Chakona."
"Very well. Now if you will excuse us, there are some things I need to go over with Captain Flemming."
"Captain, Iíll see you in an hour aboard the shuttle."
The others left and after being filled in on the new systems and the crew, Captain Flemming said, "Roddy, I think you are about to burn a bridge."
Captain Hernandez shook his head and said, "Sue, I may have built the fire, but the igniter is in their hands. Iíve only got another year and a half until my mandatory retirement anyway, and they canít touch my pension. Iíll be alright."
"True, and Sirocco probably agrees with you, but shi wonít go out on a limb with the Consortium. I probably shouldnít tell you this, but the Consortium is considering placing processing equipment on the fuel handlers."
Hernandez shook his head. "Iíll try and talk them out of that. If that doesnít work, Iíll bring it up in my testimony. If we had that equipment, the pirates would have taken the Mripan Suzar.
"Have you heard anything about Greyfur and his family?"
"No, Roddy, there hasnít been anything since your contact with them."
He shook his head and stood up, picking up his bag. "Captain Flemming, the Mripan Suzar is yours. I wish you an uneventful journey."
"Thank you, Captain Hernandez. I understand that the Hammer will be sticking around. Iíll take care of her. Have a safe trip."
Chakats, the Chakat Universe, and most of these other morphs and aliens were created by Bernard Doove. I thank him for letting me play with his toys.
Skunktaurs were created by Bob Reijns.
Arcs and Sparks Foster and The Tinker were created by Allen Fesler.
© 2009 Tim Rumph tarumph at gmail dot com
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