Chapter 2

       "… and you just wouldn't believe how big your sister is getting. Say 'Hi' to Hawkeye, baby!" There was a purr and a Mewp! that the chakat recognized as belonging to hir infant sibling. "Anyway, sweetie, our time limit is up for this packet," hir sire continued. "Come back to us soon! We might have a surprise or two for you." Hir mother joined in, and their voices chorused, "We love you! Hugs and Nuzzles!" The subspace transmission came to a close, and Lieutenant Chakat Hawkeye relaxed on the couch in hir quarters to daydream about hir family. Or rather, shi tried to relax. Hir mind was racing over the details of the message, trying to somehow pluck hir family out of the recording and seat them in the room beside hir. Shi listened to the complete transmission a second and then a third time.

       Hawkeye stretched out on the couch and lay hir chin on hir crossed arms. Hir third voyage aboard Magus was going like clockwork; shi hadn't even had a real patient in days. But that just gave hir more time to be homesick. It had been easy to handle at first, but hir parents had gotten pregnant again, and now shi had a sister that was growing up while shi was light years away. The chakat rolled onto hir back and stared at the dimmed ceiling lights. Hir prehensile tail found the huge ball of pink yarn that a crewmember had given hir as a joke on a previous mission, and Hawkeye passed the minutes by tossing it in the air and batting it back up. Finally the door beeped, announcing a visitor. Hawkeye jumped to hir feet and sent the yarn flying. Shi tried to smooth down hir yellow, tortoiseshell-spotted coat in the seconds it took to reach the door.

       "Come in," shi called out in a singsong voice, and the door to hir quarters slid smoothly open just before shi reached it. But the figure in the doorway was not the chakat that shi had expected. Lieutenant Junior-Grade Jacob Tanner ducked his head and stepped halfway inside with a toothy grin. At a full two meters in height, the brown, shaggy-feathered Quange was almost miniscule for his breed, though he possessed nearly twice the mass of any of his crewmates. He was holding what appeared to be a box of candy in one hand, and an information pad in the other. Apart from a gold-on-black Star Fleet tunic, he went unclothed.

       "Not happy to see me?" Jacob asked in response to Hawkeye's crestfallen appearance. His voice carried a casual drawl that made him seem rugged and confident, as if nothing in the world could ever be wrong. "Winterwind's putting in a few extra minutes in Sickbay. Little accident involving a careless ensign and an access ladder. You'd think people with only two legs would be more careful with them. Anyway, shi ought to be along shortly." He held out the candy, but didn't step all the way inside.

Hawkeye shook hir head and smiled. "I'm sorry, Jacob, I'm happy to see you too. It's just that this last message…" shi trailed off, waving hir hand at the room as shi looked for the right words to describe hir mood. Hir ears stiffened. "Don't mind me. Come in!" Shi grabbed both the candy and Jacob's arm and hauled him into the room. Despite their size difference, the chakat almost had a strength advantage on him. "Is the candy from you?" Hawkeye asked, and smiled even more in response to his nod. "You sly, handsome man, it smells like real chocolate too!"

       "Afraid so, Hawkeye. Not everybody cares for the replicated kind, so I stowed away some for emergencies." The quange brushed his hand through hir auburn hair as shi opened the box. "Winter said you might be in need of some company right about now. Shi did send something for you too, though." The chakat looked up, and, guessing Jacob's meaning, moved in close for a hug. Jacob leaned down and put his head over Hawkeye's shoulder, using his chin and muzzle to draw hir in close before wrapping his long arms around hir back. Hawkeye purred and licked his neck, instantly comforted by the enveloping embrace. Nobody else could hug like a Quange. Shi plucked at his mane with hir fingers, a motion which never failed to elicit a warm reaction, and he returned the favor by nibbling on hir hair until they were both laughing.

       They sat and chatted for a few minutes while listening to one another' messages. "Now tell me the problem, little lady," Jacob was saying around as he chewed on sweetened greens from the replicator. He wasn't even a fan of real chocolate, which made his present all the more miraculous. "There's less than ten days until we reach the Vermitris system. You ought to be excited and jumpy, not moping around. Mystery and wonder await, you know." They both rolled their eyes at that. Planetary survey was by and large an incredibly dull job for officers in their positions. There would no doubt be hordes of interesting finds and new species to examine on Vermitris-2, but the bulk of Hawkeye's and Jacob's work would be organizing information that Star Corps specialists and trainees gathered.

       "At least you get to spend some of your time planetside," Hawkeye replied, and poked the quange amiably. "I'll probably only visit the planet when Winterwind comes back to the Magus." Shi stretched hir backs and popped a coconut-crème candy in hir mouth. "Though with any luck, shi and I will be the first people to make love on the entire planet."

       Jacob laughed. "There you go! Always look on the bright side. You can even put that on your resumé when we get back." Hawkeye giggled. "Course, if shi can't make it to that date, I can always find you a stand-in," the shaggy equitaur added with a nicker.

       Hawkeye was in the middle of an innuendo-laden retort when the intercom buzzed. The voice of their vulpinoid captain, Thaddeus Marshall, sounded through the quarters. "All medical personnel to duty stations. Emergency teams and Security to Transporter Room Two and Shuttle Bay Two. I repeat, all medical personnel…"

       Hawkeye and Jacob stared at each other for a long half-second, then jumped up. Hawkeye was ten meters down the hallway outside before the quange had even exited hir quarters. Shi galloped through the corridor, tapping hir comm badge and checking in without a pause as shi dodged startled crewmembers. The responses that Hawkeye received over hir communicator made hir run faster.

*      *      *

       An hour later, Hawkeye found hirself pacing the transporter room, waiting, hoping for a lifepod to be found and brought aboard. The emergency beacon whose signal Magus had intercepted had led them to a gutted starship, a hulking, antiquated model that had apparently been recently involved in combat. Since then, emergency teams had been unable to do anything but wait as Magus swept the area for survivors and other vessels. Hawkeye paused and checked hir equipment as shi had already done many times, rowling to hirself.

       A gentle hand came to rest on hir shoulder, and half of hir tension fled immediately. Hawkeye looked around at Winterwind, Magus's new Chief Medical Officer. The older chakat's fur was a soft, spellbinding silver tinged with grey swirls that seemed to have been delicately painted across hir body. Hir green eyes clashed brilliantly with hir coat in a way that only made them more entrancing. Hawkeye had been told that hir own eyes possessed the same quality, but shi had trouble believing that. Winterwind's expression spoke of tranquility, and shi projected it so clearly that Hawkeye smiled and quieted at once, hir paws losing their restlessness. The two chakats took care of each other's needs, and tried to have meals together at least once a day. For Hawkeye, not falling in love with hir superior officer was a difficult chore at times.

       "I thought you were stationed in the shuttle bay, Sir," Hawkeye murmured, forcing hir eyes past the other chakat to the doors behind hir.

       "We're done here, Lieutenant. Your team can return to their duties," Winterwind replied, dignity and allure mixing on hir tongue. "The captain has informed me that they won't be needed." Hir eyes were sad for a bare moment as shi moved hir hand to Hawkeye's elbow. "You'll want to accompany me to the briefing, Hawkeye."

       After Hawkeye dismissed the medical team, the chakats made their way to the primary briefing room. The meeting promised to be short, as the room was overcrowded and virtually none of the officers present were sitting. Captain Marshall and his second, Commander Vynrali ili Rusla, dominated the opposite half of the briefing room. Thaddeus Marshall's ears were set as rigidly as his jaw, the Terran vulpinoid a picture of muscle tension. Hawkeye instantly sensed in him a concern for the entire crew. Rusla was a sharp-eared Voxxan who could have been the captain's brother, although their species were not truly even related. His body posture was far more relaxed, which was normal for the meditative fox. He radiated only slightly less worry than Marshall, but Hawkeye could see that he trusted his captain enough to allow himself a partial release from anxiety.

       As the door slid smoothly closed behind the two chakats, Captain Marshall began. "As many of you know, the Magus came within range of a damaged emergency beacon almost two hours ago. That beacon belonged to a vessel tentatively identified as Magister Vos Milistisith, a starship operated by the military of the Osidon star system and very far away from home. The ship evidently lost a battle approximately thirty standard days ago with an unknown force. We have sent word to Osidon-1 of the attack, though any reply will be slow in coming. The Vos Milistisith is… was a reconditioned Pretelski-class cruiser, one of four acquired by the Osidon government some years ago." As he spoke, Commander Rusla brought up a schematic of the vessel on the briefing monitor and at the dozen stations built into the room's single, narrow table.

       "The rough alterations you see are our best judgments so far on Vos Milistisith's customizations. It had been fitted with the best weaponry its military could provide. It was an old vessel, but its destroyer should be considered very dangerous." Marshall's posture somehow became even grimmer. "After crippling the vessel, its attackers apparently took the time to destroy the beacons and communications grid. Only one beacon survived, and its transmissions were so weak that we almost missed them entirely. They then compromised the shuttle bay and detonated the engines of the six to eight shuttles aboard Magister Vos Milistisith, and fired upon all of the lifepods. The attackers finished by systematically puncturing every remaining major compartment of the ship. They fired upon the ship's engines, but the crew had already shut down and ejected the warp core by that point." As he looked at the schematics and details of the attack, the captain's eyes had narrowed to the point that Hawkeye wondered how the screen could not burst under his gaze. He nodded, and Commander Rusla took a step forward.

       "The attackers did not destroy the vessel, though." Vynrali ili Rusla began. "They may have been too damaged by the combat to finish the job, in which case we have to expect that they are in the nearby region." He raised an eyebrow, a strange look on a Voxxan, and gazed around the room. "The Vermitris System is the closest inhabitable system. If they're aware of its existence, we may encounter them soon. Captain Marshall has already requested that a fully armed Star Fleet vessel join us at the earliest opportunity." Rusla scratched his muzzle absently. "The Magister Vos Milistisith was an old ship, but it was armed to the fangs. The damage to the ship indicates that it suffered a massive bombardment to the forward sections of the ship, followed by several dozen precision shots. Whoever did this, the Osidons knew they were coming, and the other ship still won."

       "Vrael," came the voice from Hawkeye's side. Shi looked to Winterwind. "The 'Osidons' are called Vrael," the medical officer repeated. "I've located their files, such as they are. The Vrael are not inclined to share medical and genetic information, so we know little about them other than they are essentially humanoid, scaled, approximately one hundred and sixty-five centimeters in height but semi-quadruped." Winterwind looked around the room. "We haven't attempted to recover any of their bodies. The Vrael do not trust other species to treat their dead properly, and they might take offense to anything we do."

       "Very true, Doctor," Marshall cut in. "As I said, we've informed their military of what we discovered and given them coordinates. For now, we will continue as planned to Vermitris, and keep an eye out for strangers. Dismissed."

       Hawkeye turned to leave the room, but stopped halfway, facing the rectangular viewport along the briefing room wall. Shi slid through the press of hir crewmates and slowly made hir way over to peer into space. Outside, the stars glimmered peacefully. But many of them were blocked by a dark, ragged mass, dimly outlined by the presence of the Magus. Hawkeye could see the thin trails of a pair of tractor beams projecting from hir vessel, holding the lifeless hulk once called Magister Vos Milistisith in place. It was the first time shi had viewed the corpse of a starship. The chakat hurriedly turned and escaped the room.

*      *      *

       Hawkeye watched the stars pass by Magus, a frown on hir muzzle. Shi had chosen to sit near a viewport in the forward lounge, and had been alone for more than a quarter of an hour. Shi kept hir arms crossed tightly under hir breasts, as if seeking security, and jumped slightly when Jacob let out a whickering sound behind hir. The quange's powerful, amiable scent had already surrounded Hawkeye, and shi was chagrined to not have noticed him.

       "Still thinking about your family, Hawk?" The equitaur inquired, drawing close. Shi was his superior, so he avoided any physical familiarity. Even though the two were merely friends, they didn't usually hug in public.

       "Not exactly," Hawkeye responded after a long breath. "About the ship we found yesterday. I keep wondering… I guess, which star out there is hiding the people who slaughtered that crew." Shi looked up at Jacob, as if he was a kind father with answers to every question in the universe.

       "Not much good dwelling on that, you know," came Jacob's kind drawl. "I find the only real questions are the biggest ones and the smallest ones. You know, 'Is there a God?' and 'Where is my shirt?'"

       Hawkeye put hir hands over hir muzzle as shi let out nearly explosive snickers. "So all the middle-of-the-road questions aren't important?" shi managed.

       "Well," the quange replied, "they might be vital, they might be lifesaving, but they usually aren't the right questions. Take you, for example." Jacob cocked an ear at the chakat. "You're wondering where this rogue ship is, but that isn't the part that matters to you. I saw your eyes when I came up, Hawkeye. You had the look I've seen on a lot of faces, the look of somebody who just got a real good idea of how big the universe is." The quange broke tradition then, and put an arm around hir shoulders, pulling hir in close where he could speak more quietly. "So now you're probably wondering, 'could I die out here and my family never even know what happened to me? My baby sister never even meet me? Just float out here forever?' Trust me, I've been there too, Hawk. Most of us have, at least a little." Jacob rubbed hir shoulder and set his chin lightly on hir head. "You Chakats are used to having a lot of close bonds, to help ward away feelings like that. The rest of us just kind of muddle through, and eventually we deal with it."

       Hawkeye thought for a moment. "I guess we do have it easy sometimes, Jake. Almost everyone I know transferred, retired, or opted out before this voyage. Winterwind is the only other empath aboard, and though we're close, shi's still new to me. And hir duties keep hir busy almost all the time." Shi looked up at the quange apologetically. "Your being on Magus still is a godsend, but it's hard sometimes, not spending much time with my own kind. I'm sorry, that sounds insulting…"

       Jacob shook his head to interrupt hir. "None of that, little lady. There're a lot of good reasons to have more than one Chakat aboard ship. You can't tell a dim-witted Quange like me everything that you want to say, because there aren't any words for it. I imagine it's like being in a room full of half-awake people all the time. You need an empath that knows what you mean without it being spoken out loud. So no apologizing for being what you are, got it?"

       Hawkeye looked up at him in surprise. "Got it! How did you get so smart?" shi asked.

       "My grandsire was a bartender, as you well know," the quange replied. "I grew up listening to people spill their problems, and I know most everything there is about how folks are." He paused. "And I asked Winterwind," he added.

       "Humph!" Hawkeye scrunched up hir nose at the equitaur. "I knew it. And no calling yourself 'dim-witted' or I'll shed all over your quarters!"

       Jacob chuckled. "If you do, I'll be a gentlehorse and not make up any stories about how they got that way." Hawkeye punched him in the arm.

*      *      *

       The Vermitris system was a bore for the most part. Magus's medical branch received several reports of possible microbial life on the outer planets of the system, but each had already been checked and rechecked before it fell into their hands. Vermitris had six major orbiting bodies and a number of planetoids, and the Magus spent almost two weeks thoroughly sweeping the system and noting any anomalies while making ready for its primary task, surveying and exploring Vermitris-2, an apparently inhabitable planet. Hawkeye spent hir days on routine checkups and chatting with those who passed through sickbay. Winterwind was often engaged in meetings that ate away at hir off hours, and the younger chakat never assumed that shi would be free to socialize. Very few members of the crew had anywhere near as much free time as Hawkeye. Shi accepted 'rainchecks' more often than shi dated, and spent quite a bit of time in the ship's gyms with crewmembers that shi barely knew at all. Hawkeye almost never saw Jacob Tanner. The junior science officer was constantly sequestered with a mountain of sensor readings and a crowd of what he affectionately called 'know-nothing green-eared alien bait', Star Corps volunteers that were almost as skilled as himself, but not half as organized. Shi could not understand how Jacob could only be a junior lieutenant with the amount of responsibility to which he regularly yoked himself and pulled along with an efficient smile.

       Another message came from Hawkeye's family, but shi waited more than a day to listen to it, not wanting to hear hir parents without one of hir few close friends beside hir. When Winterwind was finally free, they made love for a time before cuddling up to play their messages. Shi purred and sighed gently in hir sleep while lying against the silvery chakat later, out of simple relief. Hawkeye had a few Companions on Magus, but no one else like Winterwind, whose quiet presence convinced hir that shi wasn't so far away from everyone, after all.

       They awoke early. Winterwind's day had been already been planned to the utmost, but shi still made time to eat breakfast with Hawkeye and play their messages again. As they made their way through a leisurely replicated meal, Hawkeye laid hir head against the other chakat. Outside hir quarters, every encounter with Winterwind was defined by formality and the chain of command; inside was nothing but solace and comfort. They smiled, listening to the voices of Winterwind's faraway mates, with their cubs babbling and squealing in the background.

       "How do you stand missing them so much?" Hawkeye asked suddenly. Winterwind's tail, wrapped in hir own, stiffened slightly, but the rest of hir remained tranquil. The CMO was such a pillar that only a chakat could have noticed that hir heart wasn't really on the ship.

       Winterwind turned hir head, and Hawkeye was lost in those vivid green eyes. Shi was certain that shi was staring, but shi couldn't shift hir gaze. The other chakat's expression only hinted at hir awareness of that fact. Winterwind was clearly used to being stared at; it was a reaction that Hawkeye had seen several times on crewmembers encountering hir superior officer for the first time. But the older chakat gave off a sense of real pleasure when Hawkeye gazed at hir in that way, and that made looking away almost impossible.

       Winterwind lifted hir spoon and took a bite of hir food, but didn't break eye contact, as Hawkeye half-wished shi would. "It's hard to say in so many words," shi finally replied. "I wouldn't be happy staying in one place all my life, and my mates know that, they knew it before we ever declared ourselves. And they wouldn't care for life aboard ship." Winterwind took a breath and another bite, and this time shi did look away slightly. Hawkeye let loose hir own half-held breath. "If I stayed on Chakona, I'd be restless, and the family would suffer for it. Not noticeably at first, but those kinds of feelings are as much like seeds as any others. Given time, they take root, grow, and eventually multiply." Hir eyes became distant for a long time, and Hawkeye thought that shi was looking past the ship. "Perhaps it's this: if I was at home all the time, part of me would always want to leave. When I'm away, all of me wants to come home." Winterwind blinked, returning to the vessel. "But there are benefits to being here as well," shi added, adding emphasis to the words with a subtle flick of hir tongue.

       Shi looked to Hawkeye, and the younger chakat was again caught in hir placid sensuality. Winterwind picked up hir spoon and ran it over hir tongue, cleaning it with a languid enthusiasm. Hawkeye knew then that Winterwind was completely aware of the effect shi was having. "You do know what you're doing," Hawkeye said, in a much lower and breathier voice than shi had intended.

       The older chakat's eyes were dancing. "Sorry, Hawkeye, I just cannot resist seeing you all hot and bothered like that."

       Hir smile was more mischievous than apologetic, though, and Hawkeye could already sense another 'attack' coming. Shi saw the trap, and decided to turn it about. "Oh, you're vicious, Winter," Hawkeye told the other chakat with a husky gleam in hir throat. "Work me up, then head off for the entire day and leave me with idle hands and dirty thoughts?" Shi leaned in and licked Winterwind's cheek. "Didn't your mother teach you any manners?" Hawkeye asked, cocking hir head. Shi took Winterwind's hand from the table and lifted it to hir face. "Shi must have at least taught you to wash up after eating," Hawkeye added, and began to lick the fine silvery fur unhurriedly, while keeping hir eyes on hir Companion's face. Shi was already going to be thinking about Winterwind all day, but shi intended to return the favor at the very least. The other chakat was too surprised to regain control of the situation, and only stared at hir. Hawkeye would have been roaring with amusement if shi hadn't been so stimulated hirself.

       Winterwind, always so calm, had just begun to breathe heavily when the intercom buzzed. Both chakats looked up automatically, and Hawkeye stifled a curse. The captain of the Magus was calling all senior officers, and Winterwind had donned hir tunic before the announcement was over. Shi picked up hir medical scanner and strolled to the door, arching hir tail in a maddening way as shi stepped into the hall beyond. That line crossed, Winterwind looked back inside over hir shoulder. "See you later… Lieutenant," shi said before departing, with a slow, seductive emphasis at the end. The door slid shut again, and the chakat inside stood staring at it for a long time. "Oooh!" shi fumed, and stomped a foreleg before turning to clean up breakfast.

*      *      *

       The bridge of the Magus was filled with anticipatory tension. For the last twelve days, her crew had been waiting for the 'big payoff', the chance to explore Vermitris-2, a recently discovered, inhabitable world without any known sentient presence. Magus had conducted numerous long-range scans of the world while doing its duty and surveying the rest of the system, but those sensor readings had only whetted the appetites of the teams preparing to visit the planet. Captain Marshall could see the longing in their eyes. He could almost swear that some of them smelled aroused.

       Not that he could truly blame them. The preliminary reports indicated that Vermitris-2 had given birth to many higher life forms, that its rough soil supported tracts of thick, 'elephant grass'-like flora that ran for hundred of kilometers over and amid rolling hills and flat plains. Marshall's spine tingled at the very thought of it. Having spent his childhood summers on Earth playing among cornfields, he appreciated the sense of mystery that came from being enveloped in growth. It was like a blanketing sea, gently swaying in the wind. Walking in those places awakened in him both the fear and excitement of what might lay five steps ahead, and the strange certainty that he was a part of that sea, that he moved and flowed with it, and nothing could ever be wrong while he was there. Thaddeus Marshall had heard many captains, living and dead, compare the exploration of outer space to sailing upon a vast ocean, but he knew that they were mistaken. Space was an endless field, equally mysterious under the sun at noon as under a full moon.

       Captain Marshall had tried not to dwell on the fact that he would be lucky to spend five minutes on Vermitris-2. There were too many details that needed his attention, especially following the discovery of the Magister Vos Milistisith. He had wondered for weeks what was hiding just ahead of his ship, waiting as it had for that other vessel. Magus was strictly a ship of exploration. It was well shielded, but its weaponry would not deter anything that could launch the bombardment that had crippled the alien vessel. Many days after that encounter, Marshall had finally begun to relax, to trust in his crew and ship and that they would be able to meet any challenge that came before them. He had been looking forward to his five minutes planetside. Then the long-range readings from Vermitris-2 picked up what had been previously overlooked, and again he found himself wondering what was lurking just ahead.

       "How many satellites, Lieutenant?" The vulpinoid captain inquired. His tail wanted to stiffen and twitch, and he forced it down, fought down every reaction that might unduly alarm his bridge crew.

       "We have readings on four now, Captain," came the response from his far left. "They don't match any known standard configuration, and none are transmitting any identification."

       Marshall crossed his arms and set his chin on one forefinger. His first officer was standing to his right, already covering the obvious possibilities: private exploration, the discovery of Vermitris by another government, rogue agents using the planet as a base of operations, and, of course, the unknown destroyers of the Vrael ship and its crew. The vulpinoid found the last possibility to be the most likely by far. "Conduct a full sweep of Vermitris-2, its moon and all other nearby bodies," he ordered after a moment. "Set a course for the planet. We'll simply have to take a closer look."

       The bridge crew duly set to their tasks. Shortly the message had passed throughout the Magus. Even without leaving the bridge, Marshall felt the excitement build throughout his ship. Over fifty Star Corps members had come on this voyage solely for the chance to visit Vermitris-2, and their anticipation had been growing like a living thing. Almost the entire crew was absorbed by it now. Most of them had forgotten about the Vos Milistisith.

       A short time later, the planet was in full view. Its narrow seas and sparse cloud cover made Vermitris-2 seem nearly barren from orbit, but previous sensor sweeps conducted by another vessel told a different tale. Captain Marshall was hard put to keep from holding his breath as he observed the radiant world 'below' them. But there were other details to attend to first. The satellites came fully to life when the Magus entered orbit, three of them noting the presence of the ship and sending a short burst transmission to each other. "Each satellite also transmitted a short, encrypted message to the planet's surface," Commander Rusla noted.

       "And to what, precisely, did they transmit their messages?" Marshall's asked of no one in particular. This time his tail did twitch. The answer appeared shortly on the bridge's primary viewscreen. It was a dark, blunt vessel on the surface of Vermitris-2, resting on a bare plateau in the sunlight. Few details could be seen, but the set of its engines and the flared design along its lower decks somehow reminded the vulpinoid of a legless, elongated crab.

       "That's a Manifest-class, warp-capable but even older than a Pretelski," Vynrali ili Rusla commented. "They're capable of emergency landings on a planetary surface, but it's neither efficient nor safe. "Looks badly damaged as well, Captain. Its engines are active, but the power signature is erratic."

       "And that would be our mystery vessel," Marshall commented, filtering through the sensor information on the grounded ship. 'Damaged' was an inadequate word for what he was seeing. The hull was partially irradiated, the reserve power cells and secondary drive nonexistent, the ship's visible weapon systems and sensors totally inactive. Irregular venting of plasma from its engines had surrounded the ship in a thermal nimbus that the Magus's crew would have detected long ago, had they been looking for it. What bare readings of the warp core could be gathered indicated that it was being held together by something akin to 'spit and bailing wire', as Marshall's mother had liked to say. The ship was a powder keg, and no one could tell how long the fuse was; only that it was lit. "Lifesigns?" he queried. The response was 'possible'. Radiation made such detailed scans unreliable, but it was so intense as to render the chance of finding survivors almost negligible anyway.

       "Hail them," the captain finally ordered. Silence returned to the Magus over every channel. The hail was repeated, and again. Marshall found himself in the unenviable position of sending a team to shut down the unstable warp drive, with the possibility of it detonating at any time. The grounded vessel would cause enormous damage if its safeties failed, wiping out a tract of land that would be visible to the naked eye from orbit and spreading the radiation now permeating its hull. The order had almost left his mouth when a response finally came.

       It wasn't a voice that came over the channel, just a thump, followed by a scratching sound and a cough. There was no visual on the monitor. Next came a sound of dry, ragged breathing that made Marshall's stomach curl and his tongue want to back up into his throat. "This is Captain Thaddeus Marshall of the Stellar Federation vessel Magus. Please identify yourself," he intoned calmly and clearly. Several seconds of silence followed. Marshall repeated his message. "Do you require assistance?" he added.

       Another cough, and then came the voice. "Stellar Federation vessel, this is the starship Packmaster. We are in need of emergency medical and engineering assistance." The voice was dry and mechanical, not the pleasant tones of a modern computer, but an accented, synthesized voice with a undertone that seemed to buzz in the keen ears of the morphs and Voxxan on the bridge. The voice repeated the exact same message, and Captain Marshall could hear the coughing recommence behind the artificial voice. He made a quick gesture, and the audio communication was momentarily cut off.

       "Why are they transmitting an automated message when they're obviously present?" Commander Rusla asked quietly beside him. "And not using video at all?"

       Marshall suppressed a shrug. "They may wish to disguise their identity, but it will hardly work if we help them as they request. Their communications system may be damaged, but I wouldn't bet on it." He held up his hand, and the channel was reopened. "You aboard the vessel Packmaster, may I have your name and registry?"

       "Captain Aremist Baker-Jones," came the reply after a moment, in that same artificial voice. "Registry…" a longer pause. "I don't know," the voice concluded. "Captain Thaddeus Marshall, my ship is in urgent need. If you are able and willing to assist, please do so." More coughing echoed behind the voice, then a quiet whine of pain. "My crew requires more aid than I can provide."

       Marshall glanced down at his personal information screen. The Magister Vos Milistisith was in his thoughts, rolling over and over endlessly where they had left it. But the Packmaster was in peril. The sharp-eared vulpinoid had no doubt that the pained cough he heard was genuine. He clamped his teeth tightly. "Ready emergency teams and a shuttlecraft at once," he ordered over his shoulder, and then turned back. "Captain Baker-Jones, we will be sending aid shortly."


       Marshall was struck by an impulse; simple curiosity perhaps, but he justified it as a need to learn more about the hidden person to whom he was speaking. He wished to see the other captain's face, to judge his or her or hir expressions and decide whether or not offering assistance was a mistake. "Captain, I would like to establish a video link," he announced. "Please do so if your communications system is functional."

       Silence followed. The vulpinoid captain felt that he could actually sense the person on the other end of the channel having an internal debate. His ears slowly angled forward. He became aware that he was holding his breath waiting. The entire bridge was silent. Somehow, the other captain had mesmerized them with the mystery of the unseen face and unnatural voice. Then the view on the main screen shifted without preamble, from its magnified overhead shot of the Packmaster to an interior view of its tiny bridge and captain. The bridge crew seemed to skip a collective breath, and Thaddeus Marshall heard someone murmur a short prayer.

       She was pale and leprous, with visible lesions on her thin skin and a patch of dried blood around her nose. Aremist Baker-Jones was an emaciated patchwork creature, archaic mechanical limbs welded onto a scarred frame. Neither of her mismatched eyes seemed to be focused on the screen. Her shaved flesh was striped with the dark stains of bodily fluids. Marshall imagined he could smell her, although an atmosphere lay between them. A rattling cough escaped her body, and at the same time that synthesized voice came to life from her open mouth. "I'm transmitting the primary access codes to my vessel, Magus. Do not attempt to transport directly into the ship. Our radiation levels and unstable energy field would make such an attempt… unsafe. I'll be awaiting you." Her mouth closed again, and Baker-Jones slowly slid forward until her chin lay on the command station before her. Her hands fell to her sides. With the wolfmorph's artificial eyes, it wasn't clear if she was still conscious. The bridge of Magus came chaotically alive as Rusla began barking orders. Thaddeus Marshall called out the other captain's name several times, but she only stared blankly from the surface of Vermitris-2.

*    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *

Continued in Chapter Three

*    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *

Chakats, Chakona, Voxxans, and Voxxa are copyright Bernard Doove
The Quange are copyright Roy D. Pounds II
Story is copyright © 2006 Coyotenose



Link: Return to the Forest Tales main page.


Link: Return to the Chakat's DenTM main page.