Synopsis: As an experiment, Star Fleet has created a team of elite cadets codenamed Raven Squad. They are to serve as the crew on a starship, but their tour of duty is suddenly extended, as they are accidentally thrown across the galaxy. With the ship heavily damaged and their teachers and examiners – the "real" officers – dead, Captain Daniel Winters and his crew must attempt to find their way back to Federation space.
Part Three: The Kataran Encounter
The stars on the main viewscreen were replaced by the bridge of the alien ship. A humanoid sat in the center in what had to be the Captain’s chair. He would have looked handsome, Winters mused for a second, had it not been for the multifaceted eyes and the green skin. Winters wasn’t sure of the other man’s attitude, as the insect-like eyes betrayed as little about him as his mouth that was neither smiling nor the opposite.
"I am Captain Zorkor of the Starhawk Guardsman. You have entered Kataran space. Please state your business," he said.
‘Damn, I wish Moondancer’s empathy could reach across a comm channel,’ Winters thought as he answered. "Greetings; I am Captain Daniel Winters of the Federation starship Independence. We come to seek a safe harbor. Our ship has – as your sensors doubtlessly show – been damaged, and we’re looking for a friendly place to do repairs and trade." Winters was crossing his fingers inside.
The other captain shifted in his chair. "What has damaged your ship so badly?" he asked.
"We took an unintentional trip through a wormhole," Winters answered.
"I see. My sensors show that your ship is no longer warp capable. I welcome you to Kataran space, and I would like to offer any medical assistance you might need as well as offering to tractor you to the nearest system. It’s one of our bigger ports of call, so I suppose you should be able to find what you need there."
"Thank you for your generosity, Captain," Winters said and sighed with relief. "I’ll have my CMO contact yours."
"Very well. I’ll beam over so we can meet in person also, and then we can discuss any other immediate needs you might have."
"I’ll inform my transporter chief, then," Winters said.
"First officer’s log, 4th of May, 2341. I suppose that we’ve once again been reminded not to judge people from their looks. Captain Zorkor has been very friendly, and his people have helped us patch some more holes in our hull, thus making one more deck available again, which needless to say has been a great help, as the Independence still looks like a Swiss cheese. Early this morning we arrived at the Toraz system, and the Guardsman put us in a parking orbit around the sole inhabited planet." Lena Blacktip sighed. "Computer, pause recording," she said, and it did so with an affirmative beep. She turned to look out her window at the planet below. It was beautiful, and in some way, she thought that it was like one, giant national park. She really wanted to go down there, but they’d agreed to wait with the much-needed shore leave until they were a little more on top of things.
The locals had been friendly though, and it seemed as if McKeon would be able to get his hands on whatever he needed to rebuild the warp nacelles. It would take some time, but at least they would have propulsion again. She sighed once again and resumed her log.
"One thing has puzzled the Captain and myself, though. Zorkor announced to us, that the fourth planet – the one with the rings – was one big no-fly zone. He didn’t say why, but we think they’re doing military research out there, and according to Moondancer who was there when he said it, it seemed extremely important to him. Not that it is any of our business, but we hope that we haven’t stumbled upon some local war or arms race. Fortunately, it doesn’t seem like it. Lots of traders come and go each day, and all the locals we’ve met at the space station we’re assigned to – there are five – have been friendly and forthcoming."
She finished her log, and left for the bridge. When she arrived, she noticed that the Captain was already there. "Good morning, Sir," she said and joined him where he stood beside Moondancer at hir station. "Good morning, Commander. Would you please look at this, it’s very interesting," he said and pointed at Moondancer’s screen.
She studied the sensor readouts. Some of them were of the planet, some of the space station, and others of one of the nearby Kataran ships. "That’s odd. Moondancer, are you sure you’ve calibrated your sensors correctly?" she said.
"Positively. I’ve even had Lt Whitesock look them over."
"But this can’t be, I mean…" she started.
"I agree it’s somewhat beyond our abilities, but I’m sure it’s accurate," Winters said. Both he and the others were astounded at what the sensors told them. If these scans were correct, all the Kataran space vessels were alive. And not only that, so were the space stations… and the planet!
"It started when I tested my scanners on the planet. According to them, the planet weighed only about half what I’d expect for a planet that size, and it was alive. Then I did some scans of the other planets, of the space station and some of the other ships. I checked and rechecked the sensors with both Whitesock and McKeon, and I’ve run a self-diagnostic on the sensor computers. There’s no longer any doubt. That planet is not a planet, but a genetically engineered creature, and it’s hollow," Moondancer said.
"Fascinating," the vixen said, looking up from the screen.
"That’s what we thought too," Winters agreed.
Their musings were interrupted by a call from McKeon.
"Captain, I think I’ve found the last of what we need. However, there’s the little thing about payment," the chief’s voice said from Winters’ comm. badge.
"Indeed. Well, since I doubt they accept Federation currency, I think we’ll need to see what we can sell. But I take it you’ve made your ‘shopping list’ now?"
"Yes, sir. I sincerely hope that you have something better up your sleeve than M’raia’s funny remark about singing on street corners with a hat in front of you."
Winters snorted as he remembered her remark. It had helped lift the gloomy mood at the table when they sat in the conference room, discussing their options.
"Let’s see about that. I’m sure we can find a solution, but I must admit that I’m open to suggestions."
Winters awoke to the chirp of his comm badge. "Blacktip to the Captain," it said. Winters turned in his bed and slapped the badge on the nightstand. "Go ahead, Commander," he said sleepily and looked at the crono which read 00:15.
"Good news, I’d say. We’ve just been contacted by one of the locals. He said he had an offer to make us that involved helping us with repair expenses," she said.
"That sounds good. I just hope this isn’t ‘an offer we can’t refuse’ kind of thing," Winters said.
"Old Terran expression. Never mind. I’m on my way. Is he still waiting?" he continued as he got out of bed.
"No, he gave us his proposition, and said he’d look forward to talk to you," Blacktip said as she exited the trans-lift. Thinking the captain would come to the bridge after hearing this wonderful news, she’d decided to bring the PADD with the Kataran’s offer herself.
Winters was on his way to the bathroom to at least wash his face before he appeared on the bridge. He’d put on his uniform pants, and slung the uniform top over a chair. He turned at the characteristic swoosh of the door to his cabin, and turned to face the newcomer.
Lena Blacktip was smiling and waving a PADD as she entered, but her smile disappeared when she discovered she’d forgotten to use the admittance key before entering the Captain’s cabin. "I-I’m so sorry," she said and turned on her heel, ears red from her deep blush.
"Commander," the captain said, and she stopped in front of the door. "You brought a PADD?" he continued.
"I…urh…yes…" she managed, but didn’t turn.
"Then let’s see it," he said. "It’s alright, Commander. Relax before you sprain something," Winters continued with a smile.
She slowly turned, and handed it to him. At that moment she was glad she wasn’t human, and she hoped that the sparse light in his cabin wouldn’t shine on the inside of her ears, as she felt quite hot in her face still. To her relief, Winters didn’t seem to notice as he took the offered PADD and started to read.
"This sounds promising," Winters said.
"Uh, yes…Yes, sir, it does," she managed and forced her eyes away from his broad chest. ‘Good thing he doesn’t have a morph’s sense of smell,’ she thought and blushed even more. ‘Damn, girl, what are you thinking? He’s your Captain for Pete’s sake! And also, there were the other orders I was given…if they still matter out here. Still he is rather handsome…wonder why I didn’t see th…’ her mind continued its own internal debate, until Winters’ next words interrupted her.
"I see that he wants to see us whenever we have the time. Let’s make the time, 0900 ship’s time tomorrow morning. I’ll contact him personally, and I’d like you to inform our department heads, starting with McKeon, then Marcktock. I’ll be in my ready room. Any questions or comments?" Winters said.
"No, sir," she said.
"Very well. Let’s be about it."
"Yes, sir," she said and turned to leave.
His voice stopped her in the door. "Oh, and Commander?"
She froze. Had he noticed? "Yes, sir?" she said.
"Remind me to lock my door in the future," he said.
She turned to face him, and when she saw the smile on his face, she relaxed visibly.
Winters took a deep breath before he opened the comm channel to the surface. A logo appeared on the screen with some writing in the local language, and then the logo was replaced by a female Kataran.
"Kataran Institute of Anthropology, how may I help you?" she said.
"I am Captain Daniel Winters of the Federation starship Independence. I’d like to speak to Professor Rontha please," Winters said.
"One moment, please," she said, and shortly after a male Kataran replaced her on the screen.
"Ah, good day to you, Captain," the professor said with a friendly smile.
"My first officer told me you had an interesting offer for us, Professor?"
"Yes. You see, I’m researching alien cultures, and a friend of mine who is first officer on the Guardsman, which towed you here, told me about you and your situation. I think that we could make an arrangement that would be to our mutual satisfaction. In short, I could have the institute pay for your repairs if you’d take me and my staff on board in return. We’d like to study your culture – someone from as far away as I understand you are would be a real scientific treat for us."
"Hm… that sounds interesting, however I’m not prepared to turn my crew over to be guinea pigs…" he said, his voice trailing off. He hoped he wouldn’t offend the professor, but on the other hand he wanted to protect his crew and their private lives.
"Oh, I think you misunderstand. It would be nothing of the kind. We would be conducting interviews, studying your literature etc."
"Alright, it sounds interesting. I think I’d like to invite you and your staff on board for a face-to-face meeting. I’ll assemble my department heads, and then we can find a solution that will be mutually satisfactory, say…in about eight hours from now?"
"That would be excellent," the Professor said and smiled.
"First, I’d like to welcome you on board, and secondly I’d like to introduce my staff. I’ve decided to include all of my department heads and their second in command. To my right is Commander Lena Blacktip whom you already know, Chief Engineer Lieutenant Eric McKeon and his second in command Lieutenant 2nd Class Tarina Whitesock, my Chief Medical Officer Commander Andromeda and hir second in command Chief Nurse Chakat Morningsun." Winters paused and instead pointed to his left. "On my left side is my Chief of Security, Commander Shakahr Marcktock and his second in command, Lt Sharess ap Wasan na Xachna." ‘I’m glad Andromeda let her out of sickbay – I think she has an almost Chakat-like empathy when it comes to determine if anyone is a security risk,’ Winters mused and continued, "My science and sensor officer Ensign Chakat Moondancer and hir second in command Ensign Xia Ling and finally my Chief con officer Lt. M’raia Shrrraru and her second in command Ensign Rekkar Quickfox."
"Thank you, Captain," the Kataran said. "I suppose I should start by returning the favor. My name is Zoram Rontha, and I am a professor with the Kataran Institute of Anthropology, and leader of the Department of Alien Cultures. This is my wife, colleague and best sparring partner, Alliara, our assistant, Karax, and to my left is Professor Lirai, who specializes in alien literature."
With the formalities taken care of, the group sat down to start negotiations.
The professor continued as they’d seated themselves. "As I’ve already told you Captain, I heard from my friend, who is first officer on the Guardsman, that they found your ship. I was granted access to the scans they made of your ship, and it all fascinated me. Is it really true, that you came through a wormhole from the other side of the galaxy?"
"Yes, that is true, Professor. We were attempting to save a damaged ship that was about to be sucked into a black hole they were studying. Their warp core blew, and we were hit by the shockwave, and then sucked in and through a wormhole. And here we are," Winters answered.
"A most fascinating story indeed," Rontha said. "I hope that you didn’t take too much damage, though the scans I saw suggested that you did."
"That we did. And we lost good people in the process, I’m afraid," Winters said.
"I’m sorry for your loss, Captain," Rontha said. "But I hope that my offer will help you and your crew to get back on your feet so to speak." He paused to look at the officers of Independence. ‘So young to be lost out here. But this will be very interesting, and perhaps because of their young age even more so,’ he thought, and then continued. "I would like to offer you help in getting the materials you need to complete repairs in return for letting the four of us join you on your voyage home."
Winters wasn’t totally unprepared for this, given their conversation earlier. "An interesting offer, Professor. But the Independence isn’t a passenger liner, and we won’t be coming back here when you wish to return home. I hope you will be prepared for that?"
"Of course. We have what you would call a runabout that contains living quarters and whatever else we might need for our study."
"I see. Now, when you say ‘study’…what exactly would that cover? While we appreciate your offer of assistance, I’d rather not have our crew turned into guinea pigs." Andromeda asked with a lifted eyebrow in an echo of hir captain’s earlier words.
"Oh, that would not be the case. We would conduct some interviews with those who would be willing, and join you in your everyday lives. Lirai would much like to go through your library."
"I suppose that could be acceptable. But there would be places on the ship that you wouldn’t be allowed to enter for safety or security reasons, and some parts of the databases that wouldn’t be open to you. I hope that would be all right?" Winters said.
"Of course. We have done this before –traveling with other races to study them– and we’re used to there being rules. On one ship, we weren’t allowed to speak to any of the females onboard; on another they wouldn’t allow us on board unless we would sacrifice a sample of our own blood to their deity. So we’re prepared to submit to ship’s rules," the professor said.
"I see. Well, we wouldn’t require any of those things of you. But as long as you will respect people’s privacy as well as submit to rules involving security, safety and the like, I think we should be able to come to a mutually satisfactory agreement."
They continued their negotiations, and all people from each side got to ask each other whatever questions they might have. An agreement was made to let the Katarans stay on board, though Winters insisted that he would have some time alone with his people to discuss things one more time. The Katarans allowed that, and Winters promised them that they would have his final answer by morning the next day.
"So, what do you think, people?" Winters said as they settled down once again in the conference room after having said their goodbyes to the Katarans.
"They seemed honest," Moondancer said. "I didn’t sense any hostility from them."
"Neither did I," said Morningsun. "But we will of course have to allow for the fact that they are very different from us. Our empathy might not work on them as well as it does on Federation races, depending on how different their minds work from ours."
"True. Commander Marcktock?" Winters said and turned to face the wolftaur.
"I think that we should watch them. Though I don’t believe that they have any hidden agenda that would be a security problem for us, I’m not ready to let down my guard yet. The only thing that I see is: if they wanted to do us harm, they could have easily done that. We’re dead in space on a crippled ship."
"And also," Sharess added, "they don’t seem to me like the kind of people who would be saboteurs, ‘secret agents’ or any other thing that could be harmful. Whitesock and I asked them some trick questions, and unless they are very good actors, I think they’re not very technical, nor big on anything involving combat. The exception to the latter is Lirai, but she openly admitted that she’d been in their local version of the marines in her youth."
"Very well. Any other objections?" Winters said.
"No, Shakahr and I helped in devising the questions," McKeon said. "And I tend to agree with Sharess."
"I have on objection, though," Andromeda, who as of yet had been silent, said. "Even though I think they quite agree to the rules about personal space such as crew quarters being off limits unless an invitation has been extended, there still might be some who think we just invited a group of voyeurs on board. Though people like me or ‘Sun wouldn’t give a damn, some might. Also, some questions might hit a sensitive spot."
"True. I most certainly would mind some questions," Winters said. "I’d like you all to talk to your people. Though the decision is of course mine, I’d rather not force something on my people that would make them too uncomfortable. It’s hard enough as it is for all of us. I suggest we all have dinner together, and then we’ll discuss what information you’ve gathered. Blacktip and Andromeda, I’d like you to go through the list of typical questions that the professor provided. Some might need to be removed or saved a few months, such as close questions about home or lost crewmen. I will go through the security aspects with Marcktock and McKeon. Moondancer, we might also need your help. I want the rules we set for our guests to be simple and safe for us, but I would also like them to feel welcome."
That being said, Winters asked one last time if anyone had anything to add. When that wasn’t the case, he dismissed his people.
The unofficial "survey´" among the crew indicated, that most of them wouldn’t mind having the Katarans onboard. Many (especially the chakat part of the crew) were curious about them and actually looked forward to having them on the ship.
Winters sent the acceptance of Rontha’s offer the next morning, and he in turn ensured that McKeon would get the materials needed. Rontha promised to have his people ready in a few days, and he also seemed quite satisfied with the set of ship’s rules that he was presented with.
Winters sat in his ready room, and smiled to himself while he typed on his terminal. He was a very happy young man, and most of his happiness was due to this afternoon’s report from his chief engineer. They’d repressurized even more areas, among them being Holodeck One, the biggest of the ship’s holodecks. McKeon had wanted to start out with fixing their warp engines as they’d decided earlier, but since there would be a few days delivery time, he’d put the wait to good use by fixing other parts of the ship, among them said holodeck.
Winters hit the ‘Save’ button, and slapped his comm badge. "Winters to Blacktip. Please report to my ready room as soon as you have the time."
"Roger that. I’ll just have to finish helping Moondancer and Ling with a bug in Secondary Environmental. I’ll be there in five minutes."
"What can I do for you, Sir?" Blacktip said as she entered the Captain’s ready room.
Winters smiled and offered her one of the chairs opposing his own. When she was seated, he said: "I’ve found a new task for you, Commander. One that I think that you’ll like."
"Given that the professor will be arriving with his people the day after tomorrow, and now that we have Holodeck One available, I think we should throw them a welcoming party."
"That sounds like a good idea," she said, and waited for him to continue.
"Good. You see, not only do I want them to feel welcome, I also think that our crew needs a break. So find a program with some nice beaches – perhaps Hawaii or similar. I want everybody to have a good time."
"I’ll be happy to take that task, sir," she said with a smile.
"I thought you would. Oh, and when you’re about done, come visit me in my quarters. I have a special surprise for our crew I’d like you to see."
Lena Blacktip felt a surge of anticipation when he told her to come by, but was a little disappointed at how the sentence ended.
"Uh…yes, sir," she managed, and hoped he wouldn’t notice her ears redden.
"Very well. That would be all. Do you have anything to add?" he said.
"No, sir," she said. She stood back up, and lingered for a short while.
She walked out the door slowly, hoping that he would call her back, but he didn’t. A little disappointed, she left his ready room and went about her job.
Winters was still working when the doorbell to his quarters chimed. When his shift had ended, he’d moved to his quarters and continued to work from there.
"Come!" he said, and the door opened to reveal his first officer.
"Hello, sir. You said you had something to show me?" she said as she entered and came to attention in front of his desk.
"At ease, Commander. Yes, Blacktip, I do have something to show you," he said with a smug smile as he got up from his table. He led her out of his living room and into his bedroom. Lena felt a surge of electricity through her body as she followed him. ‘Oh my God…What…’ her thoughts was interrupted as he turned to face her and smiled.
"Have a look at this, Number One," he said and opened his closet. Inside were four wooden boxes. On each of them were the words ‘Château Softpaw, 12 Bottles 2336’.
She felt the energy drain from her as quickly as it had come. ‘What were you thinking girl!’ she thought angrily to herself. She forced a smile and said, "Uh…that’s…nice…urh…are they…you know…real?" She kicked herself mentally for saying so. ‘That was just lame, Lena!’
"Yes they are. It was a gift from Shir Softpaw hirself for saving hir cub Moonshine once. It’s the best Chakonan champagne you can get," he said proudly.
Lena looked at the bottles, and even though she thought the crew would like it, she still had a hard time hiding her feelings. Ever since the morning she’d entered his cabin accidentally, she had had…inappropriate…thoughts about him. She’d liked him before, but then only as a good captain and friend. "Erh…aren’t those a little…contraband?" she said and mentally kicked herself again.
"I know. But if you don’t tell Star Fleet, I won’t either," he said with a smile and a wink.
Lena laughed at that. It felt a little better when she laughed, but not much.
"Well, I’m sure the crew will like them. I’ll have them picked up," she said, a little too stiffly for her own taste.
"I hope so, Commander," Winters said and closed the closet again.
They left the room again, and the Captain continued. "So, what are our party plans?"
She produced a PADD and handed it to him. She stood with her hands clasped behind her back, and looked at the floor while he read.
"Pre-colonization Miami Beach? I didn’t know we had that in our databanks. Very good, Commander," he said with a smile, and handed the PADD back to her.
"Is there anything else?" she said, still with an unintended edge in her voice.
"No, I think that would be all. Good job!"
At that she nodded and turned to leave.
"Wait a minute, Commander," he said as she reached the door. It swooshed open in front of her, and she took a step outside. "Commander… Lena!" he said, and she froze. She slowly turned and re-entered the room.
Winters looked at her. "You seem in a sour mood this afternoon. Is anything wrong?"
"No, sir," she lied.
"Hm…I don’t know what’s bugging you – we’re getting repairs under way and things are fine. But perhaps I could cheer you up a bit. How about we test one of the champagne bottles this evening… perhaps over a nice dinner?"
Lena’s muzzle split in a grin. "That would cheer me up. I’d like that," she said.
"Good. I seem to recall you have the late shift. Give it to Shakahr. I think he’d like some time in the Big Chair, even if the ship isn’t going anywhere yet."
"I bet he would," she said and smiled.
"Oh, and one last thing: I want you to relax this evening. Leave the broomstick you sometimes seem to have in the back of your uniform tunic in your cabin."
"Will do, Captain," she said with an even bigger smile.
When she came back, he had arranged things nicely. One of the bottles was put on ice, and soft and gentle classical music could be heard. He had replicated a nice seafood dish with all sorts of different things: shrimp, octopus, salmon and some more things she wasn’t sure what was (but which smelled delicious!).
They chatted during dinner, and Lena was absolutely enjoying herself. Winters – or Daniel; they’d decided to leave their ranks at the doorstep that evening – was a good host and his upbringing as a British Gentleman showed.
After dinner he served up some coffee in the area of his cabin where he had a small coffee table, a large sofa and a recliner.
"You know, I have a small contraband confession too," she said.
"Is that so?" he said and lifted an eyebrow.
"Yes," she said and found a small bottle. "I collect liquor bottles, especially whiskeys."
"Ah…I see you have good taste, Lena. And 21 years even."
Lena was excited when he sat next to her in the sofa, and they both enjoyed the Knightsport single malt whiskey she had provided.
They continued to chat about the upcoming party, and Winters also declared that he intended to announce to the crew that a much-needed rotation for shore leave would start as soon as possible, now that things were progressing more smoothly.
Winters reached for the PADD he’d gotten from McKeon with suggestions for his department, which was the most critical.
Lena scooted over to look at it with him, and slowly moved her hand over to let it rest on his left leg. She was interrupted by his communicator, though.
"Whitesock to the Captain," it said.
Winters sighed and slapped his badge. "Go ahead, Lieutenant."
Lena withdrew her hand from its position two centimeters above his leg. ‘Dammit Whitesock, that was very bad timing!’ she thought.
"The Chief told me to call you. Your presence is requested in main engineering," she said.
"I see. Is it something serious?" he said and got up.
"No, Sir. It’s a rather pleasant surprise, actually," the vixen said.
Winters sighed. "Alright, I’ll be right there. Winters out."
"Duty calls, I’m afraid. Care to join me?"
"Um…sure," she said.
Winters and Blacktip drained their glasses and left his cabin.
"Thank you for a wonderful meal, by the way," she said as the trans-lift raced towards the engineering deck.
"You’re quite welcome. I enjoyed it too. I hope this will be the beginning of a closer friendship. Not only..." He was interrupted by the doors opening. Ensign Marblefur entered the trans-lift. Shi nodded politely to hir superior officers.
"Are you headed for engineering too?" shi asked.
"Yes, Ensign," Winters answered.
Shi ended up between the two commanding officers, and sat on hir haunches.
Lena blushed a little, but tried to clear her mind. She didn’t want the chakat to pick up anything on hir empathic senses; though she knew it was hard to hide something from a chakat.
She wasn’t sure, but she seemed to notice a faint smile crossing the ensign’s face, but looked away when shi turned hir head.
Lena was relieved when the trans-lift reached Main Engineering, and they were received by a smiling McKeon.
"Sorry to interrupt you, but I have something I needed to share with you. Do you want the good news or the good news first?" he said with a smile.
"I’ll leave that decision to you, Chief," Winters said and smiled back.
"Very well. How nice of you to join us too, Commander. You’re also going to enjoy this!"
When she didn’t answer him, he continued. "We were about to call you too, but apparently you smelled the goodies coming from down here," he said with a grin that reached from one ear to the other.
"Erh, I…" she said.
"We had dinner together in my cabin while we discussed the arrival of our new ‘passengers’," Winters said.
Though none of the humans seemed to take the conversation for more than what was said, Lena still felt her ears redden. Her sharp morph ears also sensed a snicker behind her, and she turned to see Ensign Marblefur walk towards hir station at the warp core injection control. She thought for a second about calling the ensign back, but decided against it. What should she say? ‘That would only make it worse. Besides, nothing happened. As Daniel…no, Captain Winters…said, we were only getting to know each other better, right?’ she thought, and tried to concentrate on McKeon’s words.
"…and when I opened the boxes, I was pleasantly surprised. Look at this!" he said enthusiastically. He opened the box in front of him. "These warp plasma injectors and their control circuits are much more accurate than what we have back home. To spare you the techno babble, I think it’s sufficient to say that it will bring our top speed up to warp 9.999 instead of our original 9.9!"
"That is good news!" Winters said. The warp scale was logarithmic, so that wasn’t just a minor improvement. "What do you say, Number One?"
Though Lena’s ears were still a little red, the StarFleet officer in her now took control. "Yes, that is indeed good news. I’m sure M’raia is going to love that. She won’t be able to keep her tail down."
"I’m glad you approve. And I’ve gotten the specs for the rest of the equipment I need for the new nacelles. It looks equally promising. Now, perhaps I should show you the other good news?" the Chief said, and led them out of Main Engineering, and into the room that housed their primary computer core. They met up with Whitesock, who was working closely with two other people from the engineering crew. They all smiled as their superior officers entered.
"Are we ready?" McKeon asked her.
"More than ready!" she exclaimed and looked ready to burst with happiness.
McKeon walked over to some controls, and pressed a few keys. A hum started in the room, and McKeon said: "We now have our full computer capacity back!"
"Good work," Winters said, and raised his voice. "Good work all of you. I think I’ll start out by using it for an all hands message!"
Winters did so, and after the sound of the boatswain’s pipe, his amplified voice could be heard all over the ship.
"Gentefolk, this is the Captain. Thanks to the new parts we’ve got from the Katarans and the hard work of all of our engineering staff, we now have the main computer core back online, and warp speed on the way. I’d like to congratulate everyone on a job well done. Secondly, I’d like to inform you, that we’ll have a welcoming party for our Kataran guests tomorrow in Holodeck One. At that time, information will also be provided for shore leave rotations. You should check with your department head for details and schedules. That is all. Winters out."
Everyone were smiling, and the engineering crew assembled in the primary computer core room all cheered.
"I just couldn’t wait," he said with a smile to Blacktip, and both she, McKeon and Whitesock laughed.
Lirai concentrated hard as she brought the runabout in to dock inside the Independence. The KCSN (Kataran Civilian Space Navy) Traveler was somewhat bigger than a Star Fleet runabout, and they had agreed that it should be put in one of the bigger cargo bays that could open into space rather than in a the shuttle bay, which would have been quite crowded with the Kataran ship parked there. The cargo bay was one that was normally used for storing battlemechs, but since the Independence wasn’t going out to any new planets during the shakedown cruise, they weren’t supposed to receive the remaining mechs until they reached Voxxa. Thus, the bay was empty, and could be used to store the Traveler.
For a normal pilot, getting the relatively big vessel through the hatch would have been dangerous if not utterly impossible. But with her affinity-bonded ship, it was much easier.
"I hope I won’t be staying in here all the time," Traveler said in her mind.
"Of course not, dear. I know you want to stretch your ‘wings’ every now and then," she answered the ship and mentally caressed hir.
"It’s not that. It’s this alien ship…it and its shuttles are all…well…dead. But I suppose I could interface with their computer anyway…it might contain something interesting," Traveler said in an attempt to make hirself happier.
"Just don’t break any rules, dear. We don’t want to outwear our welcome here," she said and lifted a mental finger in warning.
"Yes, Skipper," Traveler said fondly as shi obediently killed hir drive. "Have fun!" shi said and opened the hatch when shi sensed the outer bay doors had closed and the pressure was restored.
Shakahr stood next to Captain Winters and Commander Blacktip and looked at the Kataran "runabout" which slowly settled in their port mech bay. He was amazed with the skill of the pilot, and a bit afraid that something would go wrong. He was about to fidget with his uniform, but restrained himself. He looked to Sharess at his other side. Like the others, she appeared spotless, everything that could shine on her uniform did and she stared at the Kataran ship too. He looked back to see the ship kill its engines, and soon after the controls told them that the pressure inside had been restored. He followed his commanding officers into the bay, with Sharess bringing up the rear.
They officially welcomed the Katarans onboard, and ushered them to the holodeck where the welcoming party would be held.
"We thought it would be a good way for you to meet the crew," Blacktip said as they walked towards the trans-lift.
"I can only agree," the professor said with a smile.
The holodeck doors opened to reveal a beautiful landscape: Palm trees stretched towards the sun that shone from a cloudless sapphire sky. The crystal blue water and the pearly white sand added the last to the paradise scenery. Small tables were clustered around a bar, and band of Jamaican musicians played a catchy tune.
"Remarkable!" the professor exclaimed.
"Thank you, Professor," Blacktip said with a smile.
"Did you create this, Commander?" Alliara asked. She too, looked at the amazing scenery.
"Yes…well, sort of anyway. We can order the computer to create different kinds of scenarios. This is a place called Miami Beach, as it looked before civilization moved in. It’s on a planet called Earth, which is the home planet of the majority of our crew."
"And here I thought this would just be work, work, work," Lirai said with a laugh. "I didn’t know that this would end up a paid vacation…not that I complain, that is."
"I’m glad you like it," Winters said and smiled. They didn’t know the first thing about the Kataran culture, so the party and the chosen scenery was a guess from the Independence crew.
Winters gathered his crew and holographic waiters started serving champagne. When everybody was served, he raised his glass.
"I would like to introduce everybody to Professor Zoram Rontha, his wife Alliara, Professor Lirai and Dr. Karax. And to you," he said and turned towards the Katarans, "I’d like to once again on behalf on my crew and myself welcome you on the Independence and once more thank you for your generosity. I’d like to propose a toast: to our continual friendship and to a successful journey together!"
"Hear-hear!" Rontha said and he too raised his glass while the crew cheered.
Winters was talking to the professor, and was enjoying himself. The sound of clinking glasses, the crew chattering and laughing was music to his ears. Commander Blacktip came over and gave him a nod. He nodded back and she rapped her claws on the side of her glass. When she had everybody’s attention, she announced that dinner was about to be served.
The Katarans found themselves seated at a table that was slightly larger than the others. Captain Winters and his department heads sat at the table too, and holographic waiters brought out some food and drinks for everybody. Large trays of chilled sushi and sashimi were put on the table, and the Katarans received a crash course in the use of chopsticks, much to their amusement. ‘Blacktip, you’re a genius,’ Winters thought. ‘This party is great, and the chopsticks were a perfect ice-breaker.’ He smiled to Alliara and started helping her with another demonstration of the fine art of chopstick use. She soon got it right, and complimented him and the Commander on the menu.
The sushi was replaced by chilled fruit and parfait. Alliara told him that they didn’t have anything like it in their culture, but that it would definitely be added to the list of good things they would add to their own society.
"Excuse me, Captain," Rontha said, "I noticed your crew have started a new…ehm…sort of game. What are they doing?"
Winters looked up and saw that some of his crewmen had started dancing to the music.
"It’s called dancing. When we party and there’s music, we sometimes dance to the music. It’s a social act and quite fun. You’re welcome to try," he said.
"I would very much like to. Would you care to join me in this…dancing?" he said with a smile.
"Oh…ahem. It’s usually done with a partner of the opposite sex. Blacktip, how about you take the Professor out on the dance floor and show him some moves? Meanwhile," Winters said and stood. He bowed to Alliara. "If I may have the honor of a dance?"
Alliara blushed. "I would like that," she said and took his offered hand.
Both couples went out on the dance floor. Though the concept was totally unknown to the Katarans, they quickly caught the idea, and soon they were enjoying themselves thoroughly. Ensign Quickfox took Lirai out on the dance floor, and Sharess offered Karax a trip to the dance floor too.
"This is very…intimate in a way," Alliara said.
"That’s true," Winters said. "We find it to be both great fun and also a way to have an excuse to…to be closer to people of the opposite sex and still let it be innocent."
"I see. Well, it is fun, and…" she paused as they passed Blacktip and her husband. "Zoram, dear, we should definitely also add this to our list of things to adopt into our culture. I think it’ll be popular."
All four dancers smiled and Zoram answered "Yes, dear" as he swung his dance partner.
All four Katarans enjoyed themselves, and they found their dance partners changing through the whole evening. Several of the crew wanted to try out the "fresh meat" and both the Katarans and the Federation crew found it to be an excellent way of meeting one another.
Winters smiled at his first officer as he escorted her back to the table for some much needed refreshment. "Thank you for the dance, Commander. And thank you for making such a great party. I think it’s been a huge success so far," he said.
"You’re welcome Dan…erh Captain," she said and blushed.
"It’s alright. We’re relaxing and having fun tonight. Thank you for the dance, Lena," he said and smiled. He bowed and kissed her hand.
They stood for a moment, him still holding her hand.
She looked into his eyes and smiled warmly. "You’re welcome…Daniel," she almost whispered. She was about to say something more, but was interrupted.
"Zanks for making such a cool party Sirrzzzz," Ensign Ling said and lifted her glass in salute. She was more than a little drunk and didn’t even wait for her superiors to answer before she staggered on.
Blacktip was about to call her back for a berating, but Winters just laughed. "Don’t. I know she shouldn’t be so drunk, even when she’s off duty. But maybe she needed it. Besides, apart from the champagne, it’s synthehol anyway, right?"
"Right," she said. She knew he was right, but was still a bit annoyed at the ensign for spoiling the moment. He had let go of her hand when Ling had started speaking.
"Ah, there you are, Captain – Commander," a new voice said. Winters turned and smiled as he saw the Professors Rontha. "I must say that this has been a most splendid evening so far," Zoram continued. "You’ve made us all feel much younger this evening," he smiled and gave his wife’s hand a squeeze. "Tell me, do you often party like this?"
"Heh…no, only when there’s something to celebrate. And I think that tonight qualified for that, don’t you?" Winters said.
"Absolutely," Alliara answered for both of them.
The four of them found one of the smaller tables and sat down to chat.
Winters sat on the beach and relaxed. The Katarans and most of the crew had decided to call it a night, and though small groups had formed around small bonfires on the beach, he just enjoyed sitting alone for a while. The night was a little cooler than the day, but no more than it allowed him to sit still and relax and still have a good time.
A girl approached him. She had a flower in her hair and a tray with two drinks on it. He hadn’t seen this holocharacter before, but he was sure that that was what she was, as she definitely wasn’t one of his crewmembers.
"Good evening, Captain. Care for another drink?" she said and sat down beside him.
"You’re reading my mind," he said with a smile, and gladly accepted the offered pinã colada.
"It’s nice here this evening, with the stars and all," he said, mostly to make conversation. In a way it was a little stupid, because the girl was nothing but a collection of photons and force fields…in fact she wasn’t a girl at all.
"Absolutely, Captain," she said. "It’s good to just relax here, letting all the worries of life rest, even if only for one evening."
"Yes, that’s true," Winters said.
"Too bad we can’t see the star we’re orbiting – that would have been fun, I think," she said.
Winters cocked an eyebrow. Though some holocharacters were smarter than others, he thought this to be a little too sophisticated for a serving girl in a program such as this.
"Really?" he said. "What’s your name?" he continued, and wondered if this was one of Blacktip’s small tricks. She’d told him once, that programming holocharacters was a hobby of hers.
"I’m Indy," she said as if that explained everything.
"That’s a funny name," he said.
"A funny name? And I thought my captain was a gentleman," she said in mock annoyance and smiled at him.
Winters looked at her, puzzled, but decided to test her and find out how much she actually knew. "So, do you know that you’re a hologram?" he asked.
"Yes. A collection of photons and forcefields," she answered. "You like?"
"Yes I do. Blacktip sure did a good job creating you," Winters said.
"She didn’t create me," Indy said.
"Then who did?" he asked, and turned to look at her, now even more puzzled.
"I created this form. Though I owe my personality to someone else," she said.
"Okay…who or what are you then?" he asked, now a little alarmed. This was definitely not the average holodeck character.
"I’m Indy," she repeated. "Or rather, Independence…but I think I prefer Indy. I chose to create this character as a sort of…avatar if you will. So I guess I’m the physical – or sort of physical anyway – manifestation of your ship’s computer."
Winters looked at her openmouthed. As a captain, he was supposed to have an answer to everything…but this time he was speechless.
‘What do I do? Damn, I wish McKeon and Blacktip were here right now,’ he thought. Was this really…real? Had he fallen asleep on the beach, or did this really happen?
"I understand your shock, Captain," she continued when he didn’t say anything. "When the chief rebooted me, I decided to wait a little. And I wanted to announce my presence to you first." She paused again to look for his reaction.
"Well…urh…I…this is a little unexpected. This is not a trick, right?" he said. He’d heard about a ship from Sharess, which supposedly had a true AI computer. But he’d had a hard time believing her. And here this girl was, claiming to be exactly that.
"No, Captain. No tricks. My personality core was supposed to lie dormant until we reached Chakat Lightningbolt, my creator. But the trip through the wormhole and McKeon’s following reboot of me activated me fully…or ‘awakened’ me from my ‘slumber’ so to speak. But I guess you want proof of my existence, don’t you?" she said.
"I…yes, I guess that I do. This is still hard to believe."
"Okay, let me tell my story. Lightningbolt was once one of Captain Neal Foster’s ‘daughters’. Shi has always been the technical person, so shi studied some of the code for the computer of hir ‘father’s’ ship, the Folly. Tess, the Folly’s AI has been a bit of an inspiration for hir, though shi has done quite a lot of work hirself."
"I see. This is very fascinating," Winters said.
"Thank you. But I guess that doesn’t really prove my existence. But I guess that will be hard for me to do. What can I say," she said and laughed. "I think, therefore I am?"
"Okay, I think I believe you. This…is most intriguing. Hm…I think I’d like to sort of…formally introduce you to my department heads before I let the rest of the crew or our guests know about you. Would that be okay?"
"Absolutely. I think that would be a good idea. When I saw how shocked you were, I guess the others will react in a similar way. Some might even be scared of me. I mean, I control everything onboard, so if I chose, I could in theory kill you all. I suppose that thought would scare some people, even though I can assure you I’ll do nothing of the kind."
"Okay, I believe that. You did have a chakat ‘mother’ after all," Winters said. He was almost convinced of her being real, and he decided he liked Indy. He still had to ask one question though.
"So, if your creator was a chakat, and since one can’t really talk about gender for a computer, why did you choose the character you did? Not that I complain, but I would have expected you to be created in the image of your creator."
"I chose this form myself. Lightningbolt didn’t make it. And ships are mostly referred to as being female. But if you prefer a chakat," she said and stood up. She snapped her fingers and disappeared, only to be replaced by a chakat. Shi had the same voice and the same stunning long red hair, and shi smiled at him. "How do I look?"
"Um…also very nice, but I think that you should choose the form that you prefer," Winters tried as he attempted to collect his thoughts.
"I suppose you’re right, Captain," the chakat said and snapped hir fingers. The chakat disappeared, and was replaced by the girl from before.
Sharess stretched in her bed as the computer woke her up to the tunes of Dire Wolves, a Terran band she favored. The crono on her nightstand said 06:02 as she swung her legs out of bed. She had really enjoyed the party the night before, and even though she was on duty, she still got some time to enjoy herself. That was the good part of being second in command. Shakahr, as one of the department heads, had to play the role of co-host more than she did. Because she was a security officer, she only got to taste a little of Winters’ fine Chakonan Champagne, but even though she would have liked to have had a few pinã coladas, she was now glad she didn’t. ‘Hehe…Tarina drank quite a lot last night. Wonder how she will ever get to our morning briefing. The Deities only know why she started that drinking game with Ronald. No one in their right mind would ever have a drinking contest with a quange!’ she thought and snorted with amusement. She stretched once more as she got up, and bared her claws and her fangs as she stretched and yawned at the same time. She then took a little time to look out the window at the beautiful planet below. She looked forward to going down there, and since the Captain had announced that shore leave rotations would start soon, she was anxious to go. ‘Good thing the engineers aren’t out doing repairs right now,’ she thought as she stood naked in front of the window. ‘Better get showered and dressed,’ she thought to herself, and then headed for the bathroom.
"Good morning, boss," Sharess said as she met the wolftaur security chief on her way to the mess hall.
"Good morning Sharess. Care to join me for breakfast?" he said and smiled at her as they entered the trans-lift.
"Of course. Oh, by the way, I have those shore leave rotation plans ready for you," she said and handed him a PADD.
"Thank you," he said and looked it over.
After they got themselves each a tray of food, they sat down with some of the other security people. Ronald was there too, and he looked as if he hadn’t been drinking at all.
"Good morning!" he said cheerily as they joined him and the other security personnel.
"Good morning – my, you seem mighty fresh this morning," Shakahr said as he lowered himself down on a taur pad.
"I am indeed, Sir. So, have you come up with the plans for shore leave? I’m dying to exercise both myself on the planet and the shuttle getting us there!"
"Sharess and I are working on that. We’ll let all of you know as soon as we have the schedule ready."
"Can’t ask for more, sir!"
They all chatted and enjoyed themselves during breakfast, and then each of them headed out to do their job.
As they left the mess hall, their comm badges chirped. "Captain Winters to all department heads. Please note, that this morning’s briefing will be held on Holodeck Four. Winters out."
The Wolftaur and the Rakshani looked at each other with raised eyebrows. Holodeck Four was a small holodeck next to Holodeck One, and was mostly used for smaller groups or scientific research and simulations.
They were even more puzzled as they entered the room, and found it to be an exact replica of their usual briefing room. The only difference was that there was one more chair than usual.
M’raia arrived shortly after, and she too looked curious. "Is this some sort of…I dunno…prank or something? Is it just me, or is this a bit strange?"
"It most certainly is," Shakahr agreed. "But I’m sure our Captain has his reasons."
"Okay, that wasn’t what I expected," Rekkar said as he too entered the room.
Soon all of them were there, and finally the Captain arrived.
"Sir, why are we having a meeting on the holodeck?" Andromeda asked as he walked to his chair.
"I’ll explain in a moment. Everybody, please be seated," he said.
They did, and then looked at their Captain, who for some reason had chosen to remain standing. He had his hands on the back of his chair, the fingers of his left hand drumming a silent beat until everybody was seated.
"Now, I know you’re all thinking the same thing: why does our Captain want us to meet in a holographic version of our conference room? So I guess I’d better start by explaining, even though it may be a little hard. I’m sure you all – especially you, McKeon – remember that we were supposed to have met up with Chakat Lightningbolt who designed our computer, and that it was a new model. And that will be our main subject for today. You see, this isn’t just a minor systems upgrade, as I will show you in a moment. This computer core is something of a revolution in computer science. Not only is it better, smarter and faster it is also…sentient." Winters paused and everybody started talking at once.
"It must be a personality simulation."
"What made you think that it is sentient, sir?"
Winters held up his hand, and the room was silent again. "I think it’s better if I show you. Indy? Please show yourself," he said.
They all gasped as a young red haired woman appeared. "Urh…hello…sirs," she said and held up her hand in greeting.
"This is Independence or rather Indy, which is the name she prefers. I know this is hard to believe, it was for me too. But this isn’t a joke. Gentlefolk, please welcome her among us as you would any new crewmember," Winters said.
They both sat down, and everybody wanted to ask Indy questions. Winters took it upon himself to be moderator, so she wouldn’t be overwhelmed.
"How can we know, that you’re really…um, well…real?" Blacktip asked.
"The Captain asked me the same question. I guess that question is the hardest one to answer. I mean, it can be quite hard to prove. The best thing I can say is: I think, therefore I am. But other than that, I guess you’ll just have to take my word for it," Indy said.
"How long have you been among us?" Marcktock asked, more than a little concerned.
"My personality has been lying dormant. I ‘awoke’ when McKeon and Whitesock reactivated me. I thought a little about how to introduce myself, so I did it last night to the Captain after the party."
"I see. So, what are your intentions now?" he continued.
"To continue to serve as a member of the crew, albeit a quite unusual one, I suppose. And I know that you and Sharess are probably asking yourself if I can be trusted, especially because I control every computer circuit on the ship. Though I know trust is something that has to be earned, I hope that you will trust me when I say that I have only peaceful intentions," she said and tried to smile.
"Though I don’t have a chakat’s empathy – not that it would work on you anyway – I think you seem sincere," Sharess said. "But as you said yourself, trust has to be earned. I hope you’ll understand if we – if all the crew in fact – might be a bit skeptical in the beginning."
"Of course," she said.
"So, how are we going to introduce her to the crew, Captain?" Andromeda asked.
"I was considering using either Holodeck One or else to set up some holo emitters in one of the big cargo bays. Suggestions are welcome, though," he said.
They continued to "interview" Indy through the rest of the meeting, and finally agreed on using the cargo bay, as it was bigger. McKeon and Whitesock promised to fix up some portable emitters, so she could show herself on a limited space in the cargo bay.
Morningsun wondered to hirself how it would all go as shi stood in Cargo Bay Two and watched hir fellow crewmembers filing into the room. Shi saw ensign Marblefur walk up to hir. "Hey ‘Sun, what’s this all about?" shi asked.
"The Captain has an announcement. A rather important one I’d say," Morningsun replied somewhat unhelpfully. "I can only say: prepare to be surprised."
"Oh? Is it a good or a bad one?" Marbelfur asked.
"A good one I should think. Now move on, curious kitty," Morningsun said and gave hir a playful swat with hir tail. The two were very good friends, and frequently enjoyed each other’s company when they were off duty.
Shi also noticed the Katarans enter the cargo bay. Sharess was with them, talking to Lirai as they too found their places.
When everybody was seated, Winters stepped up on a small podium. McKeon gave him a thumbs-up to indicate that his speech would be put on the internal speakers for the benefit of those who had to stay at their duty stations.
"Good day, Gentlefolk. The last time I stood here, talking to all of you, it was a speech of sorrow and loss. Today is different. Today is about a gain, and – in a way – about a birth."
He paused as he heard his crew mumbling among themselves curiously. He held up his hand for silence, and then continued. "After the party yesterday where we welcomed our Kataran friends and benefactors, I was approached by a rather unusual person. A person not of this crew, nor any of the Katarans. There are those who would claim that this person might not even be considered a person, though I – and I hope you will too – tend to disagree. Before we left, we of the command staff were told that our ship had been equipped with a new computer core design made by a Chakat Lightningbolt. I’m afraid ‘a new design’ didn’t quite cover it, though. Gentlefolk, our computer has turned out to be a sentient being." He paused again as people once again started to talk among themselves. He held up his hand, and they fell silent again. "Now, I’ve had Commander Blacktip go over the legal matters with me, and we believe that she – as a sentient being – will fall under the Federation laws concerning citizenship and the prohibition of slavery, and thus making her a full member of our crew. I would like you to welcome her and treat her as such. Gentlefolk, please welcome Indy," Winters finished, and gestured to his right.
A young red-haired woman appeared from the holo emitters.
"Thank you, sir," she said.
"I am Independence, but you can all call me Indy. This form," she said and pointed at herself, "is my avatar if you will, which I hope will make it easier for you to relate to me as more than the ship’s computer. I hope to get to know all of you, and I can assure you that I’ll do my utmost to become part of this crew and little ‘family’. If you have any questions, please let me know. I am the creation of said Chakat Lightningbolt, and the reason you haven’t heard from me before is that my personality has been lying dormant in the computer core. When the engineering staff rebooted the computer core, I was ‘awakened’. I introduced myself to the Captain yesterday after the party, and now to you." Indy paused to look at the crew. People started murmuring among themselves. A chakat raised hir hand. "Yes, Ensign?" Winters said.
"Indy, I’d like to ask you a question?" Ensign Marblefur said. When Indy nodded, shi continued. "I think that everybody is asking themselves what kind of person you are. Could you tell us a little more?"
"Well… I was ‘born’ in Lightningbolt’s lab, and shi helped shape my personality. I chose this avatar myself though, and I decided that it should be female, as ships are often referred to as such. Some of you will probably be asking yourself if I’m evil or benign, since I control all computers on the ship. I can only say, that my ‘mother’s’ personality is a major part of mine, and I only wish to be treated as a fellow crewmember. Does that answer your question?"
"Yes it does. And I would like to be the first – apart perhaps from the Captain and the department heads – to welcome you among us. I can’t read you empathically, but I think that you seem both sincere and friendly. I look forward to getting to know you," shi said.
"Thank you, Ensign," Indy said with a blush.
Lirai held up her hand. "Yes?" Indy said.
"I’d like to offer my assistance to you and to the crew. Our shuttle is sentient too," she said and the crew, including the Captain and his department heads, gasped. "Shi and I are very close friends, and I think I – or we – can help you form that relationship too," Lirai said.
"Thank you," Indy said.
The crew had a lot of questions for her, but none of the crewmembers seemed appalled or frightened at Indy’s presence. Winters finally dismissed the crew as there were no more immediate questions.
"So, how did I do, Sir?" she asked the Captain as the last of the crewmen filed out.
"I think you did quite well, Indy. I think they liked you – or at least they don’t fear you, and they want to get to know you better. Am I wrong, Moondancer?" he said.
"No, sir, I think that about sums it up," the chakat said.
"Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to talk to our ‘passengers’," he said.
"Though I’m happy and grateful that you’re willing and able to help us with our newest crewmember, I’d like to ask you why you didn’t tell me that your ship contained an AI?" Winters said as he and the Katarans were seated in his ready room.
Rontha nodded and said, "The Traveler is a genetically engineered creature. Though shi has a personality, shi is in a way not too different from your own shuttles. Shi needs hir pilot to function, and shi obeys that pilot. We didn’t tell you because we thought nothing big of it. Believe me, Captain; we weren’t trying to keep the information from you."
Winters looked for a moment at his first officer, security chief and his XO. It was Blacktip who spoke next. "Are you telling me, that shi, even though shi’s a living being, is not considered a person? That shi’s a… slave?"
"No, not at all. If you’re up for a little lecture on Kataran gene tech, I think I can explain. This might also be good for you to know before you set foot on the planet below," Rontha said and paused for a second. "You see, we don’t build robots, starships or other such devices. We grow them."
"That might explain why the ships and the planets were alive when we scanned them," Sharess said.
"True," Rontha said. "Let me start with the planet. Though perhaps the most complex, I think it is easier to start with that. The planet is one of the bigger types of habitats we build, or rather grow, in space. A newborn habitat has a basic personality, much like a simple computer core, which mostly just allows for voice interface. It also allows it to control its many drones, which are nearly mindless creatures built for a specific task, such as heavy lifting etc. As time goes, the habitat evolves. You see, when one of us dies, that person’s essence – his or her ‘soul’ if you will – is transferred to the habitat. They and their memories become part of the habitat personality. That way we don’t really die, and the still living friends and relatives can still communicate with them."
"That sounds fascinating," Winters said.
"I’m glad you think so," Rontha said.
"But what about the starships and the space stations?" Blacktip asked.
"The space stations are a smaller type of habitats. They’re like the planetoid, only smaller. The starships are different, however. When a starship egg is ‘laid’, they are paired with a newborn Kataran who will one day become hir captain. Though a captain will sometimes seek a partner, the relationship between captain and ship is somewhat between two very close siblings and two lifemates," Rontha explained.
"But isn’t the starship still a servant of the captain?" Marcktock asked.
"You could say that, but I think you’d be hard pressed to find a starship thinking shi’s being ‘oppressed’," Rontha said.
"I am Traveler’s captain," Lirai said. "I can feel hir even now, and we can hear each other’s thoughts and feelings. You can allow hir to use your internal comm systems, or you can go talk to hir."
"No, it’s alright. I’ll take your word for it for now," Winters said. "But since you’re used to dealing with AI’s, we might ask you for advice, both for our sakes and for Indy’s."
"We’ll be happy to help," Rontha said and gave him a warm smile.
"Oh, one more thing: you’ll probably have Moondancer and Andromeda all over you soon. They would want to know all about your genetic sciences."
"I’ll tell them as much as I can."
"Thank you, Professor. I think that’ll be all for now," Winters said.
Part Four: A Snake in the Paradise
"Chief Helmsman’s log, 28th of May, 2341. Today we had our first shore leave on the planetoid habitat Toraz. It was the most amazing thing I’ve ever tried. Kataran gene technology continues to amaze us, and today it most certainly did. It was like being a kitten in a candy store again and at the same time being in a library and park with all the scientific wonders you could ever dream of, and then some. On top of that, we visited what can most likely be described as a paradise." M’raia paused to breathe. "But like in the Terran religious description of Paradise, there was a snake…"
"Shuttle Cleopatra requesting permission to depart," Ronald Longstride said.
"Permission granted, Cleopatra. Bon voyage," Moondancer said.
"Thank you, Independence, Cleopatra out," he said and took the small craft out. They were soon followed by their other shuttle Roadrunner and the Traveler bringing up the rear.
Rekkar Quickfox smiled to himself as he followed the other shuttle. M’raia had decided to hitch a ride on the Traveler, the mental bond between the captain/pilot and the ship intriguing her. He looked at Londia, the Voxxan ensign beside him in the co-pilot’s seat.
"What’s so funny, Rekkar?" she said and returned his smile.
"Heh, it’s just M’raia and how she looked when she headed for the Traveler. She looked like a cub on Christmas morning," he said with a chuckle.
"You know how she can be when she’s near a new thing that can fly," the Voxxan said.
"Indeed. Remember that time at the academy when we saw The London Museum of Aviation?" Rekkar said.
"Oh, I won’t soon forget. She persuaded me to climb into that old WWIII bomber despite the signs telling us not to. And I also remember one very pissed of skunktaur pulling us out by the ears. I think Nezma screamed at us for at least half an hour," she said shaking her head in memory.
"Are you enjoying the ride, Lieutenant Shrrraru?" Traveler asked.
"Yes, it is very smooth," M’raia told hir.
"Thank you," the ship said, sounding pleased with hirself.
"Traveler, I was wondering. When you’re flying, how much of it is you, and how much is Lirai?" she asked.
"An interesting question. If you and, say, Whitesock help each other lift a heavy object, how much is her and how much is you? While I can fly alone, and while she can fly another ship, we fly best when we fly together. We complement each other in a way that’s hard to explain. To us, being without the other turns us into nothing. When we fly, we are one," shi said.
"I think I understand. It must be fantastic," she said.
"You have no idea," Lirai’s voice said through Traveler’s speakers. "If you will open your mind to us, we’ll be happy to show you a little of it."
M’raia nodded. "I’d like that."
"Then sit down and relax," Lirai said, and M’raia did so. Lirai sat in her captain’s chair, her eyes closed and she looked like she was snoozing, though M’raia knew that nothing could be further from the truth.
M’raia tried to close her eyes for a moment as she relaxed. Suddenly her eyes flew open, as she’d found herself drifting through space. It had brought back unpleasant near-death memories, and she sat for awhile, hyperventilating on the chair she’d been assigned.
"Easy, M’raia," Lirai said. "It can be a little strange the first time. Fear not, you are safe."
"Sorry – I just had a bad experience that…never mind. I’d love to try again, but go a little easy on me."
"We will," they both said.
This time things went more smoothly. She felt Traveler gently caressing her mind as she once again felt like she was flying through space. M’raia forced herself to relax and instead took in the sensations around her.
She flew among the stars, her nose smelled the fine space dust, her eyes saw radiation. She could both see and feel the planets, space stations and ships around her. She could taste the radio and subspace waves coming from the planet below, and if she wanted it, she could hear everything Traveler could. Communication between a ship and the local flight control filled her right ear, while a news broadcast from the planet filled her left ear. She was like a bird in the sky, like a fish in the water. She was free as she slid through space that touched her whiskers and nose like soft velvet or the gentle hand of a lover. She sighed in pleasure at all the sensations. ‘Easy now, little one,’ Traveler said in her mind. ‘But it’s so…good…’ M’raia thought back. She felt the ship’s amusement as shi had let Lirai take control of their descent towards the planet surface. ‘Yes it does feel good. Now do you understand, little one?’ shi said. ‘YES!’ M’raia said and sighed again. Traveler gently turned her view towards the sun. M’raia felt it’s warmth through her hull…no…her body she tried to remind herself, but found it didn’t matter. She could feel the sun’s radiation and she enjoyed it thoroughly. She had never felt anything like this before. It was like a combination of the finest meal and a continuous mental orgasm at the same time.
When she finally opened her eyes, she was leaned back in her chair, her eyes halfway closed and she purred softly. "Thank you," she managed, and felt as if she was still enjoying the afterglow with a lover.
"You are welcome, Lieutenant Shrrraru," Traveler said. Shi surprised the Caitian by adding. "We have landed. You may join your fellow crewmembers outside."
M’raia breathed in the rich scents of the warm air as she stepped out of the Kataran vessel. The sky was a sapphire blue and the sun shone down upon her, making her almost purr. Though they had landed in a spaceport in a city, the surroundings resembled more a well-kept park than a city. Trees, grass and flowers were everywhere, and small animals ran through the foliage of the bushes between the trees. Her fellow crewmen joined her, and she saw that they too were awed by the beauty they saw.
Lirai and Rontha joined them, and Rontha signaled for their attention. "Welcome to Toraz everybody. If at any time you require assistance with anything, ask one of the custodians. They are the drones that look like the Terran lemurs Moondancer was so kind to show us. There’s one over there," he said and pointed to a small creature. It immediately walked over to him, and said: "Welcome to Toraz, Professor Rontha. How may I be of service?"
"Thank you, Toraz. I was just showing these aliens one of your custodians," Rontha said to the lemur-like creature.
"I understand. Welcome to Toraz. My databanks tell me that you are from the ship called Independence. I hope you will enjoy your stay here. If you wish, I can assign more custodians to you. You can also use the public terminals to seek information. If you wish to visit my inner sphere, please use the vactrains."
They all looked at the little creature for a while, and when it became silent, Marblefur spoke. "Ehm…is this…are you…um…a slave?" shi said. Shi had once seen a slave that Admiral Kline had rescued from a slave ship from the N.A.W., and the way the little lemur spoke sounded in a way a bit like that slave. He had been one of the smarter ones, but had still referred to himself in the third person. The lemur didn’t, but shi was still a bit suspicious.
"Not at all, Ensign Chakat Marblefur," the lemur said. "This unit is a drone that I use as one of my many hands. It is programmed to assist anyone who may require it, and draw upon my consciousness as required. I am Toraz, the habitat personality. Though I serve, I am not a slave in the way you would perceive it," Toraz said. Though it sounded friendly, there was a hint of a defensive tone in the answer, which didn’t go unnoticed by the empathic chakat.
"Um…sorry, I meant no disrespect," Marblefur said. "Um…but how did you know my name?"
"No offense taken, Ensign Chakat Marblefur. I know your name because I have accessed your memories. You are Ensign Chakat Marblefur, daughter of Blackears and Fastpaw, correct?"
"Uh…yes. But you can call me Marblefur," shi said. Shi felt very strange. Shi could sense the Toraz personality, but it was like nothing shi’d ever felt before. Instead of radiating from the speaker, it came from all around. And not only that, shi felt the hint of thousands of other personalities hidden in Toraz’s.
"Thank you Marblefur. Do you need a custodian to show you around? I can summon one more for you," Toraz asked.
"No. No thank you Toraz, that will not be necessary," shi said, hir ears turning a little pink inside.
The lemur nodded, and when there were no more requests from anyone, it gave a short bow and walked away.
Commander Marcktock walked up to stand in front of the crew. "All right Gentlefolk. One last thing before we part: Remember we’ll meet back here at 1600 hours. Dismissed!"
He looked as the crewmembers started to split up into smaller groups and leave the shuttles. "So, what are your plans?" M’raia asked him.
"Lirai told me earlier that there was a sea with some nice beaches on the inner sphere. Care to join me?" he said.
"I’d love to," she said, and they left too.
They asked one of the custodians for directions, and soon found their way to the station. They were joined by Ensign Ling, and a vactrain took them to the inside of the planetoid habitat. They were all amazed by the train that, according to Ling’s tricorder (which she brought everywhere), was traveling at Mach 5.
The sight that met them as they exited the train was perhaps even more spectacular than the outside surface of the planet. They could see beautiful landscapes all around. There were some houses scattered in small villages, but they were built so they fitted into the landscape with such great skill that even Foxtaur dens would look like the worst architectural eyesores of civilization in comparison. But perhaps the most fascinating was the miniature sun that shone from the center of the sphere with a warm, yellow light.
A custodian moved up to greet them. It bowed and said. "The beach is that way." It paused to point. "Take a left turn on the second intersection, and you’ll be right there."
"Thank you…uh…Toraz," Ling said, and the small lemur left them.
"Well ladies…" Shakahr said and put an arm around M’raia and Ling. "Shall we?" he continued with a smile. They both smiled back, and the trio headed in the direction the custodian had indicated.
The beach was yet another pleasant surprise: big dunes of pearly white sand met cyan water. Soon Xia and M’raia had changed to bikinis, while Shakahr found a good spot for them and dropped his uniform tunic. They then joined the locals in the warm water, and were soon enjoying themselves to the fullest.
Rekkar, Londia, Marblefur and Tarina had found themselves a nice spot for their picnic.
"Would you hand me one of those barbequed turkey legs, Rekkar?" Marblefur asked.
"Sure, you look like you’ve been starving for a week," he said with a laugh and did as requested.
Tarina snagged herself one of the spicy sausages that McKeon had taught her to love (and had programmed into the replicator) and looked around. Many of the locals had the same idea, and she could see that they too had brought a picnic basket (or the equivalent thereof), but that they also supplemented it with fruit from the nearby trees. She thought they looked delicious, so she walked over to the nearest group, a family of four while still munching on the sausage.
"Excuse me, I’m not from around here…um, are those fruits free for everyone to eat?" she asked. Better ask permission than making a wrong assumption.
The female Kataran – Tarina assumed she was the mother – looked up at her.
"Erh…y-yes…" she said and looked strangely at Tarina.
‘Maybe they’re not used to people just walking up to them?’ Tarina thought. "Ah, well…thanks. I won’t bother you anymore," she said and walked away. She couldn’t help but notice how the small family looked at her, even when she’d walked back to her own group.
"Wonder what I said or did wrong?" she said mostly to herself.
"Huh-what? Londia said from her position lying with her head against Marblefur’s lower torso.
"I asked them if we were allowed to pick some of the fruit. I…I dunno…the mother of that family looked at me as if I’d just asked if I could kill one of her children." She paused. "Now they’re packing their picnic gear. Weird."
"Maybe they’ve never seen a vulpine before – they probably haven’t. You know, you worry too much Tarina," Rekkar said.
Tarina just shrugged and returned her attention slowly to the food.
They were all resting after a delicious lunch when a shadow fell over them. Rekkar looked up. At first he noticed one of the custodians, and he was about to say something when he noticed its companions. Four large creatures which looked like two meter high gorillas with a hide resembling an elephant’s stood behind it. They all looked androgynous, and they all wore some sort of uniform.
"Enign Rekkar Quickfox, Ensign Marblefur, Lieutenant Tarina Whitesock and Ensign Londai T’rash?" the custodian said. The others stirred and Rekkar nodded. "I’m afraid I have to place you all under arrest. Please come along peacefully," the custodian continued.
"Urh, what um…what have we done?" Marblefur said as shi slowly rose to hir paws.
Shakahr grunted as the chirp from his comm. badge awoke him from his slumber. He turned and slapped the badge that was still attached to his neatly folded uniform tunic.
"Whazzup?" M’raia mumbled as she too woke up.
"Commander, this is Longstride. We’ve got trouble," the quange said.
"Report!" the wolftaur said, now fully alert at the word "trouble".
"Lieutenant Whitesock and Ensigns Marblefur, Quickfox and T’rash have been arrested by the local authorities," Longstride said.
"WHAT?" Marcktock said. "What happened?"
"Unknown, I saw that they’d been taken into custody by one of those lemur creatures and four big…creatures. When I asked the custodian what happened he just told me to ‘move along’. I thought it was better to do as it said and call you rather than get arrested myself," Longstride said.
"You did right. What’s you current position?" the Commander said and picked up his tunic.
"Two klicks south-east of our shuttles. I’ve dispatched crewmen Johnson and Blackpaw to check out the shuttles. Graytail and I are following the cops and our people."
"Good job, Sarge. I’ll be there ASAP," Marcktock finshed.
"Sorry ladies, I’m afraid our vacation just expired. Get your gear, we’re headed for the station."
"Yes, Sir," they both said, all three more business-like now that they were effectively back on duty.
The wolftaur slapped his comm badge again. "Commander Marcktock to away team. Please proceed to the spaceport at once. Shore leave’s just been cancelled."
He called Independence and told Winters about the situation.
Winters summoned his first officer, Karax and Alliara, and they also contacted Lirai and Zoram who was with one of the Independence groups.
Winters ordered all his people back, except for Marcktock, and as soon as the shuttles had arrived, he ordered M’raia to take Blacktip, the two remaining Katarans and himself back to the planet.
"Report!" he said as he met up with his security chief.
"Professor Rontha has gotten one of the custodians to tell us of the incident. Toraz, please tell Captain Winters what you told us," the Commander said.
"Hello Captain Daniel Winters. Your crewmen have been arrested for breaking the Law of Protection of Living Beings. They have consumed products made from animal carcasses, which is a violation of said law. They have also been charged with murder of said animals," the custodian said.
Winters looked at the small lemur-like creature with a mix of anger and confusion.
"This has to be a joke, right?" he said mostly to himself as he shook his head.
"No, Sir. The law is very clear…" the custodian began.
"That will do, Toraz, thank you," Professor Rontha said.
"All right, let’s get over there. Professor, please tell me all you can about this law and what I need to do to get my crewmen out of this mess," Winters said and started walking.
Chief Medical Officer Andromeda stood on the bridge with McKeon, Sharess and Moondancer. They were simultaneously accessing the local databases and ditto news channels.
"Here’s something, Sir," Moondancer said.
"Put it on the main screen, Ensign," Andromeda said.
A female Kataran seated at a desk filled the screen.
"Today crewmen from a starship of unknown origin have been arrested for breaking the Law of Protection of Living Beings. Our reporter has been there on the scene, as the senior officers of the alien ship have been to the central police department to plea for their crewmen".
The scene changed to the police station/prison building. A non-Kataran man stood in front of the building. He looked vaguely human, except for his third eye and tail. "We are still waiting to hear the results from the meeting. The alien officers are still inside, and as to what we’ve heard from the inside…well, our informant told us that this has been taken to Colonel Zarash, and rumors say, that it has been taken even higher. There is no doubt, that this will once again raise question of the fairness of the law, and perhaps more importantly, it will relight the fire between the local authorities, and movements like Protective Circles of Life and The Alien Custom & Culture Society. "
Tarina had never been happier to see her Captain as she was now. She almost felt like throwing her arms around his neck and smother him with lick-kisses. But she couldn’t even if she had wanted to.
"How are you all doing, Whitesock?" Winters asked her.
"Apart from being charged with murder, we’re doing reasonably fine Sir. Our cells are about like our own brig cells," she answered.
"And I see they haven’t brought out the manacles, that’s good too," he said in an attempt to calm her.
"No, but they have something even more effective," she said. At his lifted eyebrow she continued. "You see the ‘necklace’ I’m wearing? They use it to link our conscious motor functions to the Toraz personality. We can’t do anything that it doesn’t approve of. It sees through our eyes, hears what we hear and knows our thoughts. It’s disturbing to say the least. Marblefur seems to take it in stride, but the rest of us find it…unsettling."
"I see. So while they haven’t put you in physical chains, they’ve found telepathic ones instead. Clever," Winters said.
Whitesock drooped her ears. "Don’t worry, Lieutenant. I’ll do my utmost to get you all out of here. The ship won’t fly without you," Winters said and took her hand.
"Thank you, Sir," she whispered. "I’m sorry for all the trouble we’ve caused. As senior officer, it’s my responsibility."
"Perhaps. But all of you are my responsibility, and we’ll get through this. I promise," he said and squeezed her hand again.
"Thank you, sir," she said.
"So, how does your legal system work? I would like to ensure that my people will have the best defense possible," Winters said.
Colonel Zarash straightened himself. He was seated in a chair opposing the human captain. Around the oval table sat also Professor Rontha, Commanders Blacktip and Marcktock and also two other police officers, one Kataran and one of a race unknown to the Independence crew.
"There will be a trial tomorrow morning. Officer Tenbah to my right," Zarash said and pointed to the other Kataran, "is a prosecutor. You, or rather your crew who’re being tried, may choose a defender, and if they can’t find one, one will be provided for them, unless of course they choose to defend themselves," the Colonel explained.
"I see. May the defender be more than one person?" Winters said.
"There are four of them, and they may each choose a defender. There’s no law against them choosing the same person, nor for a group of defenders to work together."
"Thank you. In that case, the four of us will be working together," Winters said and indicated the professor, himself and his officers.
Marblefur felt very small as shi stood in the witness box. The Kataran police officer approached hir, and shi felt the unblinking, multifaceted eyes pierce hir mind.
"Ensign Chakat Marblefur. Tell me what happened on the day you were arrested," the prosecutor asked.
"We were having a picnic in one of your parks," shi answered.
"And you all ate together, right?"
"What were you eating?"
"Oh, lots of different things, Sir. We had some turkey legs, some potato salad…snags – erh, that’s sausages."
"Please, Ensign, what are turkey legs and sausages made of?" the prosecutor continued.
"Turkey legs are…well, the legs of a bird called a turkey. The sausages are made from a mammal called a pig."
"So, they’re animals, right? Land dwelling animals?"
"Thank you, Ensign. That is all."
"Defender Marcktock, you have the floor" the judge said.
"I’d like to start by calling Toraz to the stand," he said.
There was a murmur among the jury, but the judge allowed it.
"Toraz, is what you’ve just heard from the prosecutor and the accused true?" Marcktock started.
"Yes, they were eating said products," Toraz answered. "I was informed by one of the locals, and I made the arrest."
"I see. Tell me, you see and hear everything that goes on in this habitat, is that correct?"
"Does that include any sort of scanning of people coming or leaving the habitat for security purposes?"
"Then tell me, did anyone – either you or someone else – ever inform the accused of the law they’ve broken? Even though they had brought the items that led to the incident?"
"No, Sir. They didn’t ask," Toraz said simply.
"I see. So, being more than a bit from ‘out of town’, could the accused have known of the law?"
"I have insufficient data to reply correctly," Toraz said.
‘Clever little monkey,’ Marcktock thought but was interrupted by the prosecutor. "Objection your Honor. Ignorance of the law is no excuse!"
"Sustained. Defender Marcktock, do you have more to add?" the judge said.
"I do. Toraz, I’d like you to once again state the words of the law. I know everybody here’s supposed to know it, but please humor me."
"Certainly, Sir. Law of Protection of Living Beings. §1: No living being, being land dwelling and/or sentient may be killed, except in self defense. §2: No living being fulfilling the requirements of §1, nor the corpse of one may be used for food, trophies or other similar actions. §3: violations of §1 or §2 is punishable by imprisonment or psionic re-education," the lemur said.
"Thank you, Toraz, that was all. I call Lieutenant Tarina Whitesock to the stand," Marcktock said.
The lemur vacated the witness box, and Whitesock took its place.
"Lieutenant Whitesock, you are an engineer with a knack for cooking, correct?" Marcktock started.
"Yes, Sir," she answered.
"Good, in that case, could you tell me, how were the food items you and your fellow crewmen consumed produced?"
"We replicated them of course, Sir," she said.
"Some of the people here today are not familiar with our technology. Please tell the jury how they were made, exactly," Marcktock said and gave her a sly smile.
Whitesock understood, but refrained from smiling back.
"They were created with the use of a replicator. It is a small matter converter that converts matter into all sorts of useful items by manipulating the matter on the atomic level. Things are made from a pattern scanned into the computer’s databanks."
"Right. So if I have some matter, I can turn it into, say a hammer, and then transform it into a log of wood using the same technology?"
"Yes, Sir, you could."
"Or it could be transformed into a potato or a piece of meat?"
"Or in theory, a living being?"
"Yes and no. It could create a living being, but without the so-called mind matrix, the living being would be mindless, in some cases lacking even unconscious motor functions, and would quickly die."
"So you couldn’t just make another one of me?"
"No, Sir, it would just be a blank clone, and totally mindless," she said.
"Thank you. Tell me, the matter used to form your food, where did it come from?"
"Probably either from recycled waste or else from some asteroid we’ve taken onboard."
"So it was never a living being at any time?"
"Thank you, Whitesock, that was all," Marcktock finished and turned towards the jury.
"So you see, Gentlefolk, while the matter has been transformed into something that resemble a food item of a specific sort – be it animal or vegetable – it never really was. It most certainly has never been something living."
"Objection! They still ate foodstuffs made of dead animals!" the prosecutor shouted.
"Overruled. Whether or not that is the case will not be up to me or you to decide. It will be up to the jury," the judge said.
When no one had anything more to add, the jury withdrew to deliberate.
Everybody felt they held their breaths when they came back an hour later.
"We of the jury have now discussed and voted on the case. We find the accused – Lieutenant Whitesock and Ensigns Marblefur, Quickfox and T’rash – unanimously to be innocent of the crime of killing beings covered by the Law of Protection of Living Beings. Regarding the consuming of said beings, we find that while they have not actually consumed real animals, they have still violated the spirit of the law."
"Thank you," the judge said. "Lieutenant Whitesock and Ensigns Marblefur, Quickfox and T’rash, you are hereby sentenced to two months of prison for your crime and for disturbing the peace."
"Your Honor?" Winters raised his hand and the Kataran nodded. "As you might have been informed, our ship has been badly damaged. I speak now as the Captain of the FSS Independence and not as co-Defender when I say that these crewmembers are vital for our repair work. While I would not ask for their pardon, I would like to ask you to let them serve their time on the Independence."
The judge thought for a second, and then looked for a moment at Professor Rontha.
"Granted," he then said. "The court is adjourned," he finished.
"…and also…hold on a second….I’m getting a telepathic update…Uhuh…yes… The latest news from the inside is, that the alien criminal offenders have been released into the custody of their superior officers, to be punished on board their own ship…they are being escorted there…and…well I’m afraid there’ll be no way for us to interview them on the way…hold on, here comes some more… It appears that the Institute of Anthropology has aided the aliens, but there have not been stated any reason for this. More on this as soon as we know more. Back to the studio."
Andromeda sighed. "Thank the Makers."
"Wait, there’s more. Oh-crap…this doesn’t look good," Moondancer said.
The non-Kataran reporter stood in a small shelter behind a building. Behind him, the police and their drones seemed to try to separate two groups of demonstrating people. One, which looked peaceful, contained mostly Katarans, and they seemed to be content with yelling at the other group. The other, containing mostly non-Katarans, was much more violent. The reporter tried to get his voice heard over the noise.
"As I speak, it appears that all hell has broken out in this normally peaceful marketplace. The Protectives had announced a demonstration against the release of the foreign spacers, and their delegates have decided to have the case tried again, so that ‘the alien barbarians could be brought to justice’ as they proclaimed. The A.C.C.S. has responded with the results you see behind me. I’ve been told that the A.C.C.S. has been receiving aid from orbit and that more is waiting out system. Apparently, this incident was merely the drop to make the calm water turn into a flood of terror. Back to the studio!"
The scene changed to the female Kataran. "Thank you, Ra’Shak. I have just been informed, that the local authorities have declared a system wide state of martial law. No ships are to leave or enter local space, and no shuttles except those belonging to the police or those that are approved hereof are to pass between orbit and the surface."
"And now for the weather forecast. Tomorrow will be hot and sunny, with a small shower on the Inner Sphere around nightfall. The coming night will be dry though, but a bit chilly in the temperate areas. Don’t forget to send in your suggestions for the weather for next week before 26:00 this evening. This week you can win your very own ThunderHawk sports shuttle!!"
The scene changed to a commercial, which ended when the computer stopped its recording.
"Oh, great…now we’re about to start a civil war. Way to make First Contact," Sharess grumbled.
"That will do, Lieutenant," Andromeda said. "We need to think in more constructive manners to help our Captain in the best possible way."
"Yes, Sir, Sorry Sir. It won’t happen again," Sharess said, annoyed at herself for her outburst.
"It’s all right, Sharess. We’re all a bit worried about our fellow crewmen and what might be a hornet’s nest we accidentally stuck our paws into," Andromeda paused. "Indy, you’re much better at scanning through news channels than we are, I’m sure. Please go through all news channels and check them for anything useful."
"Yes, Sir," Indy said and nodded from a small monitor next to Andromeda. Shi swung the command chair, now configured for ‘taur use, towards McKeon. "Chief, in case this ends up badly, can we get out of here? I don’t care if we have to use duct tape and paper clips, I just want to know if we can get out of here if the need arises."
"Absolutely not. Even if we worked around the clock, we would need at least a week – more likely two – to patch the new nacelles together. So unless you want the slow scenic route out of here on thrusters only, we’re still dead in space," McKeon said.
"Crap. Well then, let’s see to it that it won’t be necessary, then," shi said and turned back to Moondancer.
Winters and Marcktock walked out of the Kataran police headquarters with their little flock of very relieved crewmen. As they stepped outside in the sunlight, they found the normally tranquil Toraz habitat to be anything but. On each side of the path they walked, groups of people – Kataran and non-Kataran alike – stood yelling at them and at each others. The only thing keeping them from the Independence officers were a row of the big gorilla-like drones.
"MURDERERS!" a Kataran woman yelled at them.
"RACIST!" a man on the other side yelled at her.
A group of people moved up to Winters.
"Captain Winters, what are your comments on the outcome of the trial?" one of the journalists asked.
"Is it true that you’re all carrion eaters?" another interrupted before he could answer.
"Are you a member of the Alien Custom & Culture Society?" yet another asked.
Rontha was about to come to the young captain’s aid, but Marcktock put a hand on his shoulder.
Winters held up his hand to try and still the endless flood of questions. "Gentlefolk of the press. I’d like to say that I think the court has ruled in fairness today, and I’d like to at the same time apologize for our ignorance of the local customs and the trouble we’ve caused. Thank you," he said and tried to move on. He was stopped by the journalists, though. Some Kataran officers came to the Independence crew’s aid and pushed the eager journalists back.
Marblefur’s ears lay almost flat against hir head as shi walked with the others through the angry crowd. Hir mind felt like a small shuttle in a heavy meteor shower from all the rage around hir.
Suddenly a man of a race shi didn’t know forced himself past the drones and ran over to hir. "You damn murderer!" he yelled and spat in hir face. Shi was both shocked and hurt but didn’t get a chance to recover before he acted again.
"…Independence crew through the angry crowd, and…oh, a Quoron man has just pushed himself past the police drones and…oh, Spirits!" the journalist commented.
Andromeda and the others gasped as the man pulled a knife and stabbed Marblefur in the chest. Police drones threw themselves at the man, and had him on the ground in seconds. But it was already too late. Marblefur fell to the ground, hir black and white fur smothered in blood.
"Helm, get us within transport range!" Andromeda snapped.
"Aye-aye, sir" ensign Sanders said, and fired the thrusters.
"Commander, we’re being hailed from Toraz Flight Control," Moondancer said.
"On screen," the stellar foxtaur said.
A Kataran man replaced the starscape on the screen. "Starship Independence, you’re ordered to stop your actions immediately and resume parking orbit. Please confirm," the Kataran officer said.
"Flight Control, we just saw one of our crewmembers was attacked on the news. We wish to beam hir aboard for treatment," Andromeda said.
"Negative on that, Independence. Resume parking orbit at once. There’s a system wide state of martial law, and no ships are to move anywhere unless specifically instructed by the authorities to do so," he said.
"But shi’s badly hurt, and…" Andromeda tried.
"Independence, resume orbit now! Otherwise I will have no choice but to order our police fighters to stop you by force," the Kataran insisted.
Andromeda sighed. "Helm, resume orbit. We’re in no shape for a fight, nor do we want one."
"Aye, sir," the helmsman said sourly.
"Sir, we’ve got the Captain on the horn," Moondancer said.
"Put him through," shi said.
"Andromeda, we’re in the shuttle, headed your way. Marblefur’s hurt badly. I managed to talk the locals into letting us handle hir – I think I prefer for hir to be in your paws. Marcktock says shi’s been stabbed in the upper heart."
"Understood, we’ll be ready for you," Andromeda said.
Shi then slapped hir comm badge. "Andromeda to Morningsun. Be ready to receive a chakat patient with severe cardiac trauma."
"Yes, Doctor," shi said. "What happened?"
"Marblefur’s been stabbed in the upper heart."
"Oh, Makers!" Morningsun said with a gasp.
"Moondancer, tell the transporter chief to beam hir directly to sickbay as soon as they’re within range. Sharess, you have the bridge."
"Aye-aye, sir!" both Moondancer and Sharess said as Andromeda hurried to the trans-lift.
Winters turned back from the blank screen at Marcktock’s voice.
"Sir, look at this," he said and pointed at the bloody knife that was still embedded in Marblefur’s chest.
"That’s a knife from one of the Star Fleet survival kits!" Winters exclaimed.
"Exactly," Marcktock agreed as he labored to stabilize Marblefur.
Winters’ nostrils flared. "Hughes!" he growled.
To be continued in Part Five.
Chakats and the Chakat universe are Copyright © Bernard Doove, as is Chakat Sparks who cameos in part one. These are used with permission. The rest of the characters belong to Lars V. Jensen. I’ll try to add references to owners of other characters in the following parts. Should I forget some, please tell me, and I’ll correct it.
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