"You mean you'll let me have THAT for salvage value?" Rajen Pawthorn asked Robin Arthur Kuhn, a logistics engineer, assigned to oversee an auction of military surplus from the Stellar Federation.
"That's what it says here," Rob commented, squinting at the most impressive wireframe schematic and specifications guide of a very conspicuous looking spaceship on the computer monitor before him. "But, it don't seem right."
Rajen was a tall, broad shouldered grey and black bipedal digitigrade timber wolf morph and Rob was a much shorter, lighter-built, grey and black bipedal plantigrade raccoon morph; both males, both genetically descended from feral ancestors who were hunter/scavengers.
Which meant that both knew an incisive deal when they saw one.
The wolf and the raccoon simply stared at each other for a long moment and grinned; their tails wagging slowly, their eyeteeth glistening in the light from the computer monitor.
"Wanna job?" Pawthorn inquired at long last.
"God, I'd love that," Rob replied breathlessly. "I've been stuck here planet-side for so damn long, I think I'd do almost anything to get a hitch in space with a..."
"I've GOT the Fed credits," Pawthorn interrupted him, slapping him firmly on the shoulder. "You procure that vessel for me and you got yourself a position, sailor!"
No merchant captain survived without a competent freight engineer. The partnership was struck. Other crew personnel were to come later.
They shipped out in a fortnight. Thus began Voyages of the Viceroy. A curious name to choose for the craft, but what's in a name, indeed?
Pawthorn had a Dickens-esque surname. He was invalided out of the Star Services after a rather nasty combat tour. However, an unusual circumstance was that he'd obtained for himself a rather substantial insurance policy. He wasn't an ordinary military man. He had been a top-notch freighter pilot under commission to the Stellar Federation.
He had been supplying starships with all manner of provisions, when his boat was hit as a skirmish developed during what should have been a typical, but instead became an ill-fated, delivery. When recovered from his injuries, he found himself with a considerable settlement from the military misadventure, leaving him with funds to purchase his own space ship. Knowing the business as well as he did, he would subcontract to the Star Corps, with every intention of making a tidy profit for himself and whoever he could hire to fly with him.
Rajen Pawthorn was native to Terra, or Earth, where metamorphosed, exotic flying insects butterflies populated continents worldwide. The Viceroy butterfly wore the natural danger colours of the bitterly poisonous Monarch, even though the Viceroy itself, was not. In its past, Captain Pawthorn's ship was a Federation gunboat. All of its long range offensive armament was removed when it was decommissioned, leaving only its short range defensive armament, such as the laser gun turret blisters. Most of its munitions bay was instead modified to carry cargo. The ship's exterior, however, still resembled a Stellar Federation corvette, albeit an out-of-date model. Right down to the empty photon torpedo tubes and vacant nacelles for disruptor beam batteries, his ship looked deadly and armed to the teeth. Long range sensor readings even gave it the signature of a warship. This unique masquerade tended to discourage all but the most determined pirate vessels.
It seemed like a killer, but it was a cargo ship. Rumour had it that there was a twin ship currently serving in Star Fleet, predictably named the FSS Monarch. Therefore, Captain Rajen Pawthorn christened her the Viceroy.
The following is one chapter of her rather unique story.
Step Softly, Speak Strongly.
Story and Illustrations by James L. Brandt
Some of us have asked ourselves pretty often, but seldom do we arrive upon a satisfactory answer.
What is our role in this universe? What position do we play in the game of life? Could this be a destiny, pre-determined by a supreme being, or is it a direction we take when, at some point in our lives, not necessarily pre-determined, it is presented to us? Regardless, how do we react? Do we shy away in fear of the unknown and become uncomfortable with the unfamiliar, or do we recognize the value in our mission and accept it willingly, perhaps even, dare I say it, enthusiastically?
Let me tell a story about one of my most unforgettable characters, Witney the Security Cat. When Witney first managed to get on board the Viceroy, he was a wild thing, almost totally unapproachable. By the end of his days, he was anything but that. How could a non-anthropomorphic, sentient cat transition from an apprehensive creature that could be startled by his own shadow, to a daring, highly motivated sentinel, one who not only accepted the hazards inherent in his work, but one who actually considered danger to be a challenge?
It could be that when Witney received his calling, it probably came with some rather extraordinary encouragement.
Everything was going according to standard procedure on board the interstellar merchant vessel Viceroy, outbound on yet another journey amongst the stars, carrying her cargo anywhere from remote space stations to distant planets.
It's hard to say "good morning" to anyone aboard a spacecraft.
Unless it is in orbit around a planet and can gauge its "day" by the local sun, a spacecraft must create its own daily cycle to give those on board some connection with their natural routine. This artificial night time is called alterday, a time of rest for those diurnal and a time to take advantage of the quiet hours for those nocturnal, which is an eloquent way of saying "prowling around."
Like an alley cat. Except that spacecraft don't have alleys, either.
Witney the Security Cat was on the prowl, regardless. He searched every square whatever of the Viceroy, based upon your chosen unit of measure, during alterday or night. He trusted his own senses far more than he trusted the ships sensors, or autosentries, for that matter. Those mechanical devices could not detect invaders he knew were on board, like the elusive space gremlin, for instance.
The crew did not believe such pervasive creatures to exist, because as Witney knew, they chose to trust electronic devices instead of the talented senses they inherited from the respective feral species from which his anthropomorphic shipmates were derived. Such fools, he concluded, and without his tireless efforts, the Viceroy would be infested with space gremlins, her crew denying it all the while like a man refusing to acknowledge that his home was disintegrating with termites. Why, hadn't he caught a gremlin only shortly ago?
They claimed it was something else. They claimed it was a duct cleaner robot caught in a ventilation shaft. They were still in a state of denial, Witney concluded.
After completing his thankless efforts, Witney sought repose in an appropriate place, (to him, anyway), right in the command centre of the Viceroy. He stole onto the bridge unnoticed during the early shift change, curling up in a comfy spot to snooze after what seemed to him like an eternity patrolling the lower decks of the ship.
The crew there was occupied with their usual systems checks as the commander of the Viceroy, Captain Rajen Pawthorn, strolled onto the bridge. He acknowledged a few pleasantries from the crew as one or two of them happened to walk past during the course of their work. Rajen stood, hands behind his back, surveying the new day's activity. The large, grey, bipedal digitigrade wolf morph nodded to himself and smiled thinly, never ceasing to be impressed at how professionally such a diverse, perhaps even disparate crew could operate so smoothly when duty was upon them. Everyone had their place and a defined position, and the team was playing their game beautifully.
He would have to wait to take his own place this day, however.
"Why don't you sit down, Captain?" asked Chakat Chablis. The comely, polite senior computer systems officer noticed Rajen, standing next to his station as if he were waiting for a bus. Shi was situated just behind and to one side of the Con, and from hir vantage point, could only see the back of it. It appeared to hir to be unoccupied.
"Because, the real captain of this vessel is already fast asleep in my chair," Pawthorn called back to hir, looking over his shoulder while widening the thin smile upon his white muzzle.
Chablis rose slightly from hir seat until shi could see what was in Rajen's; namely, an orange tabby-striped fur ball, curled up there fast asleep and even snoring faintly, every few seconds. Chablis grinned knowingly and laid back down upon hir taur couch chair.
"The great prophet Muhammad once cut a sleeve off of one of his robes, rather than to disturb a cat, sleeping there upon it," Captain Rajen announced, not looking up from a computer screen on a console in front of him. He was perusing the previous shift's report log, but the big wolf was tall enough that his strong voice carried easily, and could be heard all around the bridge.
"Must be bad karma," Chiffon observed, "to awaken a sleeping cat." He would know. The cheerful young ring-tailed lemur junior communications officer had a penchant for making good spirits part of his daily routine.
"Sure, fine," Dreisilker said to him mischievously, "but, Muhammad was not a cat himself." She rose silently from her own duty station, eyes alight, wearing a slightly teeth-baring smile. She proceeded noiselessly, her slinky, nimble form flowing like the snow leopard feral cat from which her people were derived, stalking the sleeping tabby cat in the captain's chair, until she arrived just behind the chair back. Fully erect ears, flickering green eyes and the top of her blonde head just visible, she reached around one randomly grey spotted, well-sculpted arm and produced an open hand, silvery furred all around but for her palm and finger pads. The index finger of the delicately articulated extremity came up like a switchblade flicking open as a dagger of a black claw popped out of the fingertip.
The hand went palm down and the arm lowered, delivering the sleeping cat a poke.
"YOWR!!" the cat yelped, leaping from the chair. Despite his coming back to the world of the living so abruptly, he still landed on his feet, looking backward from the floor at his tormentor with as yet half-closed eyes.
"On your feet or on your knees!" Dreisilker called out like a pirate brandishing her sabre. "Back to work, Witney! You can't sleep on the bridge all day. We have actual, useful things to do up here!"
"Easy for you to say," Witney grumbled groggily, then sat down to turn around and lick the bloodless stab in the butt she had just delivered. "You weren't awake on patrol until the wee hours."
"I'm just so sure you were," Dreisilker replied, her long blonde hair waving with her nodding head. She was standing behind the captain's chair, arms out, one hand on each armrest. "You probably sacked out in someone else's stateroom, and then came up here shortly ago and claimed you had a rough shift!"
"Well, you've been snarling in your sleep, again," Witney informed her as he stood up, shook out his tail and stretched. "It's like sleeping with a paring knife, never knowing when you'll mistake me for an enemy in your dreams, and attack. Besides, there are still too many space gremlins on the loose."
Silky rolled her eyes, stood straight up and waved a doubtful hand at Witney. The captain stepped in, gently motioning her away from his chair and back toward her station with a firm hand on one of Dreisilker's shoulders. Then he sat down at the Con.
"Back to your position if you please, navigator," he said sternly to the snow leopardess, then turned back to the cat. "Witney, believe it or not, we have important work for you to do. Take the last shift collection of deck scans down to security."
"Aww, I gotta play paperboy again?" Witney protested, but walked up to Chablis' work station, where duty awaited, anyway.
Chablis had collected the last shift worth of deck scans on a data drive cartridge. Shi put a carry sack over Witney's back so that he could take it down to Chakat Shellbright, the Chief of Security.
"I'm not a beast of burden," Witney grumbled, lowering his tail.
"Oh, come on!" Chablis disagreed cheerfully. "You look very smart. Just like an official courier!"
"I don't wear clothes, or a collar, for that matter," he retorted.
The scans were recordings taken during every alterday by the hovering autosentries on board the Viceroy. It was a routine safety measure to monitor activity all over the ship, and keep track of each unit, especially if one of them had experienced a malfunction and didn't report itself. Naturally, Witney doubted their veracity.
Important data should always be backed-up elsewhere, and also on different media. Therefore, security data on the ship's computer was backed onto another non-volatile storage device which was totally removed from the computer, preventing accidental corruption should the ship's computer be compromised. Shelby, the Chief of Security's more commonly used name, was responsible for the secure and safe storage of all the ship's data, not only this kind of security-related material.
Besides, it gave Witney something to do. This was, however, not what the intrepid feline considered an attractive avocation. The chief of security got an earful of attitude when Witney finally arrived, buzzed a pushbutton panel to get the door opened up, and strolled in past the young, white chakat.
Shelby was seated at hir desk, and was wearing a crisp, black and white uniform that not only identified hir as the Viceroy chief of security, it gave hir an air of responsibility far beyond hir age.
It also went along nicely with hir dark blue striped fur pattern. Shelby had a pair, running from hir muzzle to the tip of hir tail.
"I tellya, I get no respect!" Witney told Shelby, his ears flat, his muzzle wrinkled as he put the full Dangerfield into his voice. "No respect at all from this crew, you kiddin?"
"Chablis just called and warned me," Shelby answered sympathetically, "that you might be a little grouchy after you got that nasty wake-up call on the bridge from Silky."
"Yeah," Witney replied glumly as he paused to allow Shelby to remove his carry sack, "I got the black dagger alarm clock from her."
"Why are so many creatures of beauty so dangerous?" Shelby mused as shi picked up the data delivery and set it down next to hir computer. Shi had a real crush on the willowy snow leopardess, but knew all too well her tendency toward aggressive outbursts.
"She's got self-defence and target training today," Witney informed the chakat. "I pity the poor fool who will be on the opposition end of that deal!"
The Viceroy had berths for thirty-six crew and at almost four hundred meters long was approximately the size of a twentieth century ocean-going crude oil tanker. Not unlike those ships, most of the enormous internal volume was reserved for cargo. The Viceroy's two cargo bays put together were twice the size of the engineering and crew sections combined. This meant crew accommodations were, to put it delicately, rather cosy. Two staterooms often shared one head, which included sanitary and washing facilities, some of which even had a reasonably good sized bathtub. Crew members could schedule time if they wanted to use one, or share, if they became very close friends.
A relaxed atmosphere prevailed in Silky's convenience during the ensuing alterday. She had managed to schedule some time alone. At ten o'clock, she had completely disrobed and headed for the tub.
Dreisilker was unwinding after her hand to hand combat training, target shooting training, and of course, her regular shift up on the bridge. A warm bath in a darkened head with a little bit of glowing candlelight from a food warmer and quiet melodies from a pocket-sized music player were just enough to set the mood and soothe her stiff and sore tired muscles as well as settle her spirits.
On board a cargo ship, a lady learns to do well with whatever is available to her.
Silky was seated in the tub. Washing one shapely, charcoal-spotted thigh with a bar of coffee soap in her hands, displaying her leg in a high kick a chorus line would appreciate, her feline eyes suddenly noticed slight movement in the dim light just beyond the candles. A shadowy cat figure appeared, walking slowly, aimlessly about. She naturally thought it was Witney showing up, unannounced and uninvited as was his custom. Realizing she was naked but for her matted coat, which was soaking wet, and emphasizing many of her more alluring curves, Dreisilker folded her arms across her breasts and addressed the cat in a low, sultry voice.
"What are you now, the original Peeping Tom?" she asked.
The dark cat simply ignored her. It moved along as if it were on a window-shopping trip outside a pet store. The cat paused to fiddle with a candle, and she scolded it. The cat then disappeared behind her big, zebra skin pattern towel, folded and resting on top of the commode. Silky craned her neck a bit, ears rotated backward on the top of her blonde head, as she tried to see where it had gone.
Silky eschewed the blow dryer whenever she had time to dry herself, instead. Too much blow drying could lead to brittle and stiff fur. Her idea was to towel off with a big, thirsty bath blanket and throw it in the dryer, rather than turning the hot air on herself.
"Let the towel take the heat, not me," Silky said, was her motto.
The cat silhouette emerged on the other side of the commode, walking along deliberately, proceeding gradually under a free standing sink. As the shadow cat stepped slowly around the sink, edging ever closer toward the bath tub, Silky actually became amused and relaxed a bit.
"Whatcha got, there, Witney? One of Shard's naughty little cameras?" Dreisilker asked playfully. "Here, you want a pose that they're all sure to remember?"
Silky raised herself up out of the water, leaning back with her left elbow on the rim of the tub, while she laid on her left hip, cocking her right hip in an exaggerated fashion and bringing her right leg across her body. While she ran her right hand suggestively over her sleek thighs, she tipped her head slightly, such that her long, moist flowing blonde hair fell down, coincidentally hiding most of her more provocative features. Her muzzle assumed a wicked smile while she stared dangerously toward the cat through that thin drape of gossamer with her green eyes, damp silver fur and dark, wet rosette markings just glistening in the candlelight.
Ah, yes, her exquisite figure would have made for one sweet picture! However, the cat in question did not have a camera. The cat was, it seemed, focused upon another item at that moment.
Dreisilker could see two dark ear tips rising up behind her neatly folded, fluffy zebra-striped bath blanket, placed within her reach, an arms length away, there on top of the commode. The blanket shuddered a bit as if the cat began to nuzzle it.
"Witney, don't you dare!" warned Silky, becoming suddenly serious.
The ear tips on the far side of the blanket rose up further. Silky could see two bright eyes in the middle of the mere outline of a dark face, barely visible in the weak candlelight. Humans could never discern what Dreisilker's far keener vision revealed in the near darkness. Although she could not see every detail, she was certain what the culprit was up to.
"Cat, you're cruisin' for one," she threatened in a low voice.
Ear tips moved, then the pair of eyes blinked, then the towel, which twitched twice before it flew off the commode and out of the bathroom with the shadow cat dragging it across the floor.
"WITNEY!" Silky screeched. "Get back here with my towel, or I swear, I'll turn you to kibbles and bits!"
The rapidly departing feline form was not complying with her demands in the least. It seemed to have departed her stateroom altogether.
It is expressly forbidden to here relate the evil words that Silky threw around the head, seemingly spitting fire to rival the flames on the tips of her candles, as she struggled with her drenched fur coat.
After all, what in the universe is angrier than a wet feline?
Silky wrung out her tail, shook off the water as best she could and headed out of the bathroom, knowing she would have to mop up later. The blow dryer was on the opposite side of the head, next to the shower, so she figured she might as well look for her towel, anyway. No trace of the cat was in her stateroom and the hall door was open. She really didn't want to put on her bathrobe, as it would've become soaked through in moments, so she carefully poked her head out of the door. Satisfied no one else was in sight, she stepped forth. Squishing out into the hall on wet, matted furry feet, she found her bath towel left in middle of the floor with no cat in sight.
"Well, now," Silky said to herself bitterly, "no boys in the hall." She snatched up her towel and turned back quickly toward the door.
"Guess they just missed their chance for a real floor show!" Silky concluded, leaping back into the room, pulling inside her long, wet rag mop of a tail, and slamming the door so hard that the small sign with her name and room number flew off, clattering onto the floor.
In another modest stateroom below decks, the atmosphere was quite a bit more composed and subdued. Two of the crew were about to repose together in a low taur bed; more like a large pad on the floor with a headboard, and one that just barely fit into their confined quarters. Chakat Shellbright and Chakat Chablis were a lifemated pair, which Captain Pawthorn thought to be a major advantage in their employment.
Genetically designed for exploration, chakats are extremely dynamic creatures. However, they are larger, they need to eat more, sleep more, and lone chakats really don't work well for very long. It is Star Corps policy to station at least two on any vessel. Chakats need companions, preferably other chakats. They have a psychological need for frequent company. Their dual-sexuality can both work for and against them in these circumstances.
Chablis was a communications and ship borne computer senior systems analyst. Shi had worked many years with a spaceline and the frequent travel had a rather telling effect upon hir social life. Shi really needed a companion who could travel with hir. Light wine gold and white fur patterned, silver blonde haired and blue eyed, the busty, shapely, mature chakat could have been considered a real knockout, and at last, somebody indeed was.
A young security guard chakat, amusingly regulation-looking with hir unusual blue stripe running up hir muzzle, under hir white hair and down hir backs to hir tail tip, had been recently discharged from hir short tour of duty with the Star Corps, and due to some uncomfortable incidents with hijackers, was reassigned to a spaceline. Posted to the ship in which Chablis flew, the chakat guard was awestruck when shi first met the wine golden, blonde communications officer.
As one can imagine, the elder blonde found the younger, former Star Corp member rather attractive as well, and was complimented by hir attention. It was one of those matches made in heaven, or at least, in outer space.
Chakat Shellbright had been so named because, growing up on the eastern coast of Bonifacio on Chakona, shi had a real fascination as a cub collecting sea creature shells that washed up with colourful regularity on the beaches near hir home town. In the Star Corps, shi had picked up the nickname Shelby, the blue stripe on hir white nose reminding those from Terra of the ancient, twentieth-century sports cars. Shi returned the favour by giving hir new companion a nickname shortly after they began dating. Shi shortened the blonde chakat's name affectionately to Shab. It stuck, and has been used, to the approval of Chablis of course, ever since.
Rajen Pawthorn knew of the unique couple, and when the spaceline for which they worked had been contemplating discontinuing routes for more profitable avenues elsewhere, the wolf captain, having by then secured his ex-warbird vessel, made them a lucrative offer to fly with him. The money almost didn't matter to the chakats, however.
What sealed the deal was that they'd always have each other.
Now, the older and wiser wine golden chakat found hir younger and friskier mate with roving eyes again, much to hir amusement. Herms, and especially chakats, do entertain multiple companions. It's all part of their culture, providing of course, that no one is left out of their playful adventures.
As the two chakats readied themselves for a well-earned alterday rest, Shab decided it was right to have a little bed time discussion about hir mate's newfound obsession with a certain snow leopardess. Dreisilker was a devastatingly attractive, but treacherous, choice.
"You actually think she'll date you?" Chablis wondered.
"I think it's worth a try," Shellbright postulated in return.
"You think it's worth a triad," Shab giggled, bumping Shelby's muzzle with hir cold nose. Hir eyes were bright and hir ears full forward.
"Touché," Shelby conceded, then gave Shab a quick, firm nuzzle of acknowledgement. "I wouldn't want you to miss any of the fun."
"This could be a little risky," Chablis warned hir younger mate, "She hasn't ever had a steady boyfriend, so far as I know. Or, girlfriend either, if that's her preference. There could be a reason for that."
"It has crossed my mind," Shellbright admitted, "but, those thoughts tend to dissipate quickly whenever I see Silk off duty. She moves so easily and sensually. She really lets all that blonde hair down, you know. I see her in a completely different light."
"Oh, are you a sucker for a hot, little blonde?" Chablis teased, as shi batted hir blue eyes at Shelby from behind a few fallen locks of hir own silver blonde hair. Shab cocked hir head over one shoulder and struck a provocative pose.
"No one knows me like you do," Shelby sighed. "That, and of course exactly how hot Silk is depends upon what she's not wearing on any given evening. She dresses almost as revealingly as Chiffon does!"
That got hir mate laughing a bit more before replying through a knowing smile that was indeed a growing, spreading Chakat Grin. "I think she's pretty sultry, too, but I don't like all the baggage," Chablis warned hir mate. "She has a ferocious temper, and we don't even know why. She's gotten even more irritable lately. You should have seen that display on the bridge. She shouldn't have tormented an ordinary cat like that, let alone a sentient one."
"She claims Witney has been freeloading on us," Shelby reminded hir.
"Well, we don't know what kind of history she's had," Shab cautioned hir. "We don't know where she came from, before here. It's possible that she came from a pirate vessel. You've heard all of the rumours. She sure knows her way around with a firearm, now doesn't she?"
"Federation law does not allow detailed background checks," Shelby stated, recalling the rules of hir vocational specialty, "without due cause. It's a disclosure issue. We have to respect her privacy."
"Talking someone into your bedroom isn't due cause?" Shab countered.
"I didn't run a background check on you, dear," Shelby replied.
"I don't know," Chablis teased. "Maybe you should have!"
"You'd be easier to convince if you were in male phase, right now."
"C'mon, I've been fantasizing about her too," Shab admitted. "But, a reality, romance involves much more than a roll in the sack, dear."
"I've really gotta think this through," Shellbright concluded, let go a heavy sigh and rolled over on hir back, eyes closed, hands behind hir head, legs relaxed, hir handpaws and hind paws up in the air.
Hir mate snuck over and whispered in hir ear, cold nose and whiskers tickling hir cheek.
"You're really thinking about your birthday party," Shab tempted hir.
A 'chakat birthday party' satisfies the celebrant in a most effective manner. In this case, the female morph would lie on her back in bed and accept the guest of honour chakat, who would stand over her, with hir hind legs on the floor. When shi entered her, shi would become the one in the middle, because the second chakat would then mount hir from behind. It is a position almost guaranteed to provide the lucky birthday chakat with a double orgasm.
Shellbright's birthday was approaching within a few weeks.
"You're skewing my good judgement, dear." Shelby admitted, unmoving and expressionless, lying there still, in bed.
Hir mate merely snickered, hot breath tickling the fur in Shelby's ear. Chablis rolled hir head to one side, checked the time readout on their nightstand monitor and then returned hir muzzle to hir mate's ear.
"Shelby, it's almost ten o'clock," shi reminded hir softly.
"Oh, yeah!" Shelby exclaimed, hir eyes popping open like a pair of caution lights. "I gotta meet Witney before he begins his rounds!"
With an athletic twist, Shelby rolled out of bed, swinging hir tail. The action caused hir to flip over and land firmly upon hir hind paws and handpaws. Shi straightened up, grabbed a loose sweatshirt that was hanging on the headboard and pulled it on. After running both of hir hands through hir hair, just to pull it behind hir ears and out of hir eyes, shi looked back regretfully at hir mate, who was reclining on the taur bed.
Chablis had donned a slinky satin night shirt, whose neck tie had just become inexplicably undone, for some reason. Shi held the two separate strings in hir finger tips and tipped hir muzzle down to study them as the material they held together parted, revealing a deep divide of full, well rounded, short white furred cleavage. Shab tipped hir head back up, not surprised at all to see where hir much younger lover was now staring.
"Hurry back," Shab told hir softly.
Shelby caught up with Witney for a little beverage break in the near deserted, half lit, alterday commons. The chakat wanted to check in with the cat before shi went to bed hirself. Witney was, of course planning his hours long vigil below decks. Shelby had a steaming, soothing cup of chamomile tea at hir elbow while Witney lapped up a little lactose free, feline safe milk from a small bowl next to hir cup. They both were alone, studying some heating ductwork drawings. Witney was seated on the table while Shelby was seated at the table.
"Yup," the cat told the chakat, nodding with certainty. "That length of air shaft is a perfect passageway for space gremlins!"
"Witney, there is no..." Shelby replied, but was rudely interrupted as a sinewy hand driven by a silvery forearm reached from behind hir right shoulder and Witney, it seemed, suddenly flew straight up.
"Holy cats!" Shelby blurted out, ignoring the political incorrectness of hir response. Shi had hir head down, jotting a note onto hir data pad. Suddenly, Dreisilker stalked up behind both of them and plucked Witney away. The fully angered snow leopardess yanked him off of the table and held him up to her eye level by the scruff of his neck with one hand while she displayed a handful of extended claws in his face with her other.
"Wanna play scratch poker, you little prankster?" Silky snarled through rows of her pearly teeth.
Shelby was freaked. Shi wondered if Dreisilker suffered some kind of aggression attack after her training filled with violent activity. Shi had to be careful with the snow leopardess and convinced hirself to calmly, somehow, talk her out of doing Witney some major damage. Shelby took a deep breath, settled hirself and spoke.
"Silky," the chakat said sternly, "I am the chief of security and that is my assistant you've got, there. Considering your reputation, it would not sit well with our captain if you did anything violent."
"Maybe I don't care what he thinks," Silky replied in a low growl that seemed to come from deep beneath a gently undulating bust line, which was rising and falling with each tensely taken breath.
"Fascinating to watch, not fun to play with, right now," the thought silently crossed Shelby's mind. Shi remained composed and continued.
"Oh, I think you do," Shelby maintained. "So, Dreisilker, what is it that has you so aggravated with Witney?"
Dreisilker held Witney fast, the orange tabby's eyes wide with alarm, but a scant distance from her own, refusing to turn her heated expression toward Shelby, but she answered hir, anyway.
"He stole my bath towel and left me stark naked, dripping wet!"
Shelby was stunned speechless. Not so much from the incident, but more so from imagining Silky standing before hir, stark naked and dripping wet. Shining with sparkling water, the sleek leopardess must have resembled a spotted, chrome plated sculpture of Venus, with a tail. And, it wasn't the planet that shi was contemplating!
Shi had to speak up. No matter how taken shi was with her, shi had to tell the truth. Shelby collected hir wits, cleared hir throat and proceeded with hir statement.
"I don't think so, Silky," Shelby told her. "Witney has been down here with me, talking security matters."
"Don't let him dupe you, kit," Silky turned her head and addressed Shelby directly, while still holding Witney aloft. "He probably bolted down here immediately after leaving my stateroom so that he could use you for an alibi!"
Shelby winced. Shi did not want to be referred to as "kit."
Shi hated to believe that Dreisilker looked upon hir as a child, even though she was not all that much older. It also didn't help out the situation that Silky chose a halter top with a bare midriff outfit to wear. Shelby caught hir eyes following her graceful, curvaceous back as it flowed out into her hips, which were just visible above a tight waistline of her rather revealing pair of low rise shorts. Shi had to close hir eyes in order to concentrate well enough to continue the conversation.
"No, Silky," shi maintained calmly. "Witney has been here with me since ten o'clock. And, in light of your past issues, it wouldn't do you any good to sink your claws into someone, merely because you claim he stole your bath towel, even if he did."
"Not to mention that stealing Silky's bath towel seems to be a very entertaining idea, anyway," Shelby added soundlessly to hirself.
"You're right," Dreisilker replied after considering the terrorized cat there at the business end of her right arm, for a long moment. "He really isn't worth it, after all."
She unceremoniously dumped Witney upside-down in a chair. Then, she spun on her heel and stalked out of the commons, still thoroughly incensed, her long, grey spotted white tail streaming like a smoke trail behind her.
"Don't come pawing at my door until you're ready with an apology, cat!" she snarled after herself.
Shelby watched her go, long blonde hair waving, hips swinging, fine bottom shaking and tail jinking with each sharply punctuated step.
"Wow, she sure is hot when she's piqued," Shelby marvelled, silently to hirself, "but that is a very dangerous place to be!"
Shelby hoped hir upcoming birthday would make hir appear that much more mature to Dreisilker, but of course, nobody ever catches up with an elder suitor. Chakats are mature at a younger age than most morph species and humans, but it would be difficult to convince Silk of the salient fact. Oddly enough, in the years to come, the snowleopardess would, no doubt instead want to convince others that she was actually younger. Such is the paradox of our lives.
"I completely apologize for not knowing what the heck is going on!" Witney offered as he shakily climbed up onto the table from the chair into which he had been dropped.
"Oh, we'll look into it after she's cooled down a couple of hundred degrees," Shelby assured Witney, returning to hir data pad, pausing after reading a few moments, then added, "Have you ever thought about how many other crew members would like to sleep with Silky? You've done it so often, and then something like this happens!"
"Tell me about it," Witney replied as he sat down on the table before licking his shoulder to smooth out one badly dishevelled fur coat, "that and nightmares of waking up with her claws dug into my throat!"
The Viceroy cat conundrum continued into early the next day.
Chiffon was returning to his stateroom. Just before he was due to take his regular shift on the bridge, the dashing young lemur morph junior officer was preparing to start his work day.
Preparations, in his case, merely meant accentuating his more admirable physical attributes. The implication is, of course, that Chiffon was real fine eye candy.
Most of Chiffon's adornments were packed carefully away, but he did maintain a jewellery stand of necklaces and collars, very handy when dressing in a hurry. Come to think of it, Chiffon could usually get dressed in a hurry, as precious little is what he normally wore.
But, neck wear was an essential with Chiffon, and he had many fine examples. He could get away with a normally shirtless body as well, showing it off with a bit of sparkle, owing to a cleanly sculpted, well muscled, graceful physique, covered with a fine frosting of fur and capped by a proud white ruff that could serve as an ascot on an human.
Chiffon was a dandy, his appearance delighting the ladies and males of the alternative persuasion as well, all of whose attention was welcomed by the impish lemur. Playing both sides of the street made his life that much more entertaining.
While dressing that day, (he'd just returned to his stateroom from a good, hot shower, solo this time, more’s the pity), he spotted a dark shape approaching his well trimmed necklace tree. Only one lamp was lit in the room, but the distinct shadow of a cat, cast on the wall behind his dressing table, clearly belied the identity of the individual, sneaking out from behind the shadows created by the pale light upon the few pieces of furniture there.
"Witney, how did you get in here?" Chiffon inquired, a bit surprised and rotating both ears while he cocked his head in question.
The cat never paid him attention. It continued stalking Chiffon's necklace tree.
"Witney, leave my accessories alone," Chiffon ordered, his voice dropping an octave. He was towelling off his ruff, his bathrobe loosened to the waist tie, because he was still a bit moist from the shower. Not everything had been taken care of by the blow dryer. He had no desire to chase after a cat while his fur was damp and he hadn't even brushed out his ring tail, yet.
The cat was uninterested in Chiffon's current condition. It seemed intent upon a long loop of clear red baubles, sparkling in the weak lamp light. Its tail shook like a whip cracking as it leapt upon the dressing table, landing sure-footedly, and then recoiled itself into an intense crouch.
The red necklace flew off of the jewellery stand cleanly, barely disturbing the others around it, and hit the floor, driven by the rapidly moving feline form carrying it. The cat apparently caught the necklace in its teeth.
"Not a chance, Witney!" Chiffon called out angrily, dropping his towel and spreading his arms and legs as he moved to block the room's only exit. "You're not going anywhere with my stuff!"
He assumed a wrestler's crouch, fully expecting the jewellery thief to make a break for it. Chiffon awaited the expected manoeuvre for several long minutes. The cat and his red necklace had disappeared behind a steamer trunk, just across the room from the dressing table.
Chiffon was growing impatient. His damp fur was making him chilly. He wasn't enjoying the feline felon's cat-and-mouse game in the slightest.
"Witney, knock it off!" Chiffon ordered at last, moving forward toward the steamer trunk. "I have to get dressed and have no time to play kitty chase!"
He bent down to look behind the trunk. Nothing was there.
He stood up, flattening his ears and rotating his puzzled head as if it were mounted on a swivel. There was no movement, no sign of another living being in his room anywhere.
The cat and his necklace were gone.
Up on the bridge, Shard was studying all of the deck scans that the autosentries had recorded on the previous shift. Shard was a small grey and white stoat morph, a junior officer in charge of bridge computers, and a crew member one might say was hyper enthusiastic about his duty on board. Some might have even called him fanatical.
One of his more infamous adventures was the tiny, remote digital camera he once installed in Dreisilker's quarters, claiming it was instead, a new breakthrough in on-board climate control. It would beam temperature and cabin pressure to her bridge console, allowing her to adjust the ambience in her stateroom before going there after her shift. It worked great. It also beamed a remarkably clear view of her most intimate area to a monitor screen in Shard's stateroom. He would've gotten away with it, too, except that Shard couldn't help but to brag about it to a few other members of the crew. In fact, he began charging per minute for his little peep show, until one fine alterday when Captain Pawthorn happened by and discovered why there was a crowd of males crammed into Shard's tiny quarters. Six days in the brig for the lot of them. A team of ladies ran the bridge.
"If you think me harsh," Rajen growled at Shard, "Perhaps you would prefer Silk to settle this embarrassing episode with a little hand to hand combat training against you in the gymnasium?"
Shard chose the brig.
This did not dissipate Shard's enthusiasm at all for things anodic. He was so passionate in his fascination with his job concerning the inner electronic workings of the Viceroy that the reckless abandon into which he threw himself frequently caused no small amount of trouble. Besides the naughty little camera incident, that is.
But, one thing was for sure. As a techno fiend, if a computer record needed to be scrutinized, Shard could worry it down to the very last electron. He was also a small arms enthusiast and a crack shot, so alarming this furry ball of energy could be lethal, indeed. Shard did not look quite so energetic that day, however.
He was staring a hole in the computer screen.
Slumped in his chair, hands folded, legs stretched out such that his furry toes and claws extended from his leg warmer boots like an extra set of hands, he finally yawned hugely and called out to Silky, or anyone else who might be interested.
"I'm absolutely sure," Shard said, "that no evidence of any sort of small animal escaping from your room had been logged. The only creature movement recorded all alterday was indeed Witney, making his usual rounds, nowhere near your stateroom, dear."
Dreisilker merely snorted her reply.
"She doesn't believe you," Chablis pointed out.
"Hey, it's not me," Shard reminded hir, waving a small furry hand toward the computer screen. "It's the autosentry's report."
"What?" Shylz asked gamely. "No space gremlins?"
"Nope," Shard replied, not looking up from the screen. "What is obvious, however, is that Witney has been all over this ship. It does make you wonder what he has been up to."
At that moment, the bridge entry door slid open and an unusually troubled lemur entered briskly, heading for his work station.
"Has anybody seen Witney?" Chiffon called to the entire bridge as he entered to take his regular shift.
"Not me," said Shard, still staring at his terminal screen.
"Not since I dropped him in a chair yesterday," Silky muttered, not looking up from her console, either.
"Not today," replied Shylz, raising his head. "What's up?"
"The little schnook snatched my ruby studded neck chain!" Chiffon announced incredulously.
A gale of laughter came from Silky. Even Chablis had to chuckle.
"I had the door to my room covered," Chiffon explained as he arrived at his station. "I don't know how he got away with it!"
"Oh, my," Chablis exclaimed in mock outrage. "You mean somebody actually STOLE something from Chiffon?"
"That's different," remarked Shylz. The Voxxan first mate of the Viceroy resembled a vulpine morph, but he was actually a furry extra- terrestrial, and as such, displayed a wicked grin sprinkled with small, sharp teeth when he was amused, which he most certainly was, at that moment. He had been involved in many past controversies regarding the lemur's propensity for appropriating someone else's property, having to settle the resulting dispute among crew members.
"Guess the shoe's on the other foot this time, huh Chiffon?" Chablis giggled, hir ears up high, hir head shaking a bit.
"Not really," Shylz pointed out. "Chiffon hardly ever wears any shoes."
"More like, the ring is on the other tail, then," Shab corrected hirself, but not without some mirth.
"Oh, yeah, go ahead and laugh," Chiffon retorted. "Just wait until he snatches something from your stateroom. I can't believe this. What's gotten into that cat?"
"Maybe he's playing Robin Hood," Chablis offered, "and returning the necklace to whoever you purloined it from!"
"Not likely," Shylz pointed out. "Besides, Robin Hood was a fox."
The humour of that last remark was also lost on Dreisilker as she paused in her actions without comment and rose silently from her duty station. Silky then sauntered over to Chiffon's station and leaned against his console like a barfly ready with a pickup line.
"So, the little, orange banded bandit got you too, huh?" she asked the lemur quietly, a knowing smile forming on her muzzle.
"Yeah," Chiffon replied, actually seeming more confused than annoyed. "What did he take from you?"
"My bath towel," Dreisilker said shortly.
"That's not so bad," Chiffon responded.
"While I was IN the tub?!" Silky challenged, her voice a bit louder, her ears coming up and around as her bright eyes widened.
"That's bad," Chiffon concluded, his own eyes widening as well.
"He got back at me because I poked him while he was sleeping, here, on the bridge," Silky reported. "As if any of us could get away with something like that!"
"Not that it hasn't been tried," Chiffon admitted, laying back his ears, his eyes rolling toward the ceiling.
"Yeah, well, just so you know, Shelby's probably gonna cover for him," Silky scoffed. "Shi'll claim Witney was never there. I think those two are in cahoots with each other ever since the captain assigned the little snot to security!"
"Define which one," Chiffon requested innocently, "you are referring to as a little snot."
"Oh, come on Chiffon," Silky retorted. "You know I'm talking about Witney! He's picked up a real swagger ever since the captain gave him a title. And, he still thinks he doesn't have to do his share of work, even though we all know he's a sentient. Now, he's pulling these pranks on us for calling him on it, and then acting as if he has no idea what's going on."
"I have no idea what's going on," Chiffon insisted. "I didn't do anything to him. I mean, if he wants to play games, that's fine, but in this case, I'm concerned about the principle of the thing."
"Principles?" Silky sneered through a wrinkled muzzle bristling with white whiskers. "You're gonna talk about principles? Chiffon, you shoplifted that necklace out of a boutique in Amistad!"
"Yeah, I know," Chiffon responded weakly, his ears drooping again. "It's not like I took it from anybody."
"Chiffon," Silky replied, seizing the lemur's eyes with a stern glare from her own. "My people have a saying from our gypsy clans that goes, something like, this: 'A thief who steals from a thief is pardoned for one hundred years.' Give or take a couple."
"Hmm, let's see," Chiffon wondered, studying the ceiling again as he cheered up considerably. "Nine lives times, what is it? Twelve or thirteen? Maybe as much as seventeen! And, with what he's been through, he's used up a couple already...." His voice trailed off to a whisper as he began counting to himself on his fingers.
"Chiffon," Dreisilker asked him flatly. "What are you doing?"
"Oh, just trying to figure out," Chiffon grinned, turning back toward the leopardess, his ears coming up while he assumed a much brighter expression as he answered, "how soon his pardon is going to expire!"
Only a day or two later, the prospects of that pardon would come into serious doubt.
Every crew member appreciated the galley of the Viceroy, where just one deep breath reminded anyone who detected the tantalizing aroma that something delicious was always cooking.
It has been said that an army travels on its stomach. The same can be said for interplanetary freighters. Rest assured that although popular fuel for interstellar travel involved feeding the FTL drive, the honest truth was, unless a craft was manned by robots, the real, living crew that guided a starship needed real, living food as well.
Synthetically derived food disaffected both body and spirit, scarcely sustaining both of them. The Viceroy was blessed to possess a most talented chef, so skilful that she could improve the morale and demeanour of her crew simply by providing them their daily meals.
René Cheveldae was an arctic she-wolftaur whose delicate coat was as pure white as the French chef's uniform she wore. Her tall hat, her white kerchief and apron helped to keep any stray white fur out of her excellent culinary creations. That day she was standing alone in the galley, her tail swaying gently side to side as she paid close attention to her latest project, coming together before her on an huge, white pine work table.
René prepared the makings of that universal source of nutrition that sustained humans, morphs and aliens alike, having a wide variety of components uniquely selected to the epicurean's tastes and dietary requirements, yet every variation of it had the same fundamental ingredients. Enjoyed galaxy wide, she laid down white flour over her expansive table to begin her recipe for this well known basic staple of life.
René was rolling out pizza dough.
With a potential crew of thirty-six hungry anthromorphs, and on occasion, even a human being or two, the pizzas René had planned were to be very large. They fit into giant aluminium convection ovens on metal sheets the size of billiard tables. Several of the different flavoured pies would be baked side by side. It was most practical to roll out a great sheet of dough, then cut it up into appropriately large sized rectangular pizza crusts, before adding to each the specific style of toppings and condiments. The finished creations were suitable, even to those who were as hungry as a bear and ate like a horse, because, well, some of René's crewmates really were bears and horses!
What she saw this day, however, was quite a bit smaller. Creeping slowly out of the shadows, René spotted a cat sneaking into her galley. She assumed, quite naturally, that it was Witney.
"Bonjour, Witney," she said brightly, pausing with her long rolling pin held in both hands. "I am surprised to see you here so early in the day. You must be hungry after prowling around so long, eh?"
Even though Witney was a sentient, the kindly cook found it natural to speak to him as if he were a pet, something Witney certainly had not minded on previous visits, especially if it meant a bowl of fish meal was at the other end of the conversation.
"Let me see what I can find for you, oui?" René told the cat as she parked the heavy rolling pin on a wall-mounted rack and backed away from the big pine table, cleaning her white hands with her apron.
As she looked back beneath the table, René noticed that the cat was in a crouch. Well, it was just the shape of the cat, still hidden in the shadow of the huge table, but it was clear enough to see what it was doing, rocking back on its hind legs, active tail jinking back and forth. Its head was facing straight up, ears erect.
"Witney, stay on the floor," the white wolfess warned warily.
The cat shape seemed to bob up and down.
"Witney, I have a whole table full of dough..." she informed the cat shape, but to no avail. Predictably, it sprang up, intending to land right on top. The entire batch of rolled dough quivered as the cat landed on the far edge.
"WITNEY!" René cried out.
If you've seen it once, you know just what happened. A cat jumps from the floor up to the table top, landing on an unsecured table cloth, especially one on a polished table, and then what?
Well, for one thing, the cat no longer remains on the table.
Neither does the table cloth.
So it was that moment in René's galley. The cat was on the table for a twinkling, then the great sheet of pizza dough, well lubricated with a generous application of flour, simply accompanied the invading feline form off of the table, landing on the floor with an enormously loud SPLAT! Tufts of flour formed white clouds behind René's table and white dust sprayed across the dark coloured galley floor.
"Sacre bleu!" she cried, her hands on her cheeks. "Why did you not listen to me?" The dark cat beneath the table, still hidden from any direct light, paid her no attention. The cat was attacking the mound of dough as if it were a giant rat, worrying it with all four paws.
"Have you gone crazy?!" René exclaimed. The white wolfess went on the warpath. She grabbed one of her angle brooms and, brandishing it like a cricket bat, swung the bristle end at the assailing feline form under the table.
"Away with you!" she ordered. "Out of there! Out, I say!"
Nothing happened. Swing and a miss. Strike one.
She paused, astonished, because her broom passed right through what René thought was Witney. The cook stared, ears flat, open mouthed, momentarily overlooking the mess of dough and flour under the table as the cat took off.
The mysterious cat was not sticking around any longer. It sprinted away for the far shadows of the galley, leaving registration marks after itself as it departed. Cat tracks were seen in the white residue that coated the floor. Once it was gone, René's attention returned to her ruined masterwork.
"Mon dieu!" René wailed as she collected herself and assessed the damage. "Such a mess, here! I must start all over again!"
Yes, sadly, the cook’s creation had been turned into a disaster, and René prepared herself for a second attempt. She replaced her broom, more thoroughly dusted off her hands and chef's uniform with a dish towel, straightened her hat, pulled her ears forward and checked her resolute reflection in one of her glossy chrome hanging fry pans.
Before she began a new batch, René had business to attend to, first. She already knew where the chief of security would be today. The white wolfess rolled up her sleeves to the elbows, strode smartly out of her galley, tail high, and headed for the elevator to the bridge.
Keep the wolf from the door is time-honoured advice.
It applied that day as the door to the bridge slid open to reveal an unusually angry white wolftaur, as the top chef of the Viceroy hardly ever had a conflict with anybody.
"YOU!" René barked sharply, pointing an accusing, long white finger at the captain's chair.
Shelby was on the bridge, discussing their enigmatic situation with Shylz, and they both were standing behind Captain Pawthorn's chair, Rajen himself being thankfully absent, as Witney was perched on the chair back, right between the first mate and the chief of security. With Silky and Chiffon already aggravated with the cat, Shelby had decided to keep Witney in sight at all times, in an attempt to keep him out of trouble.
Hir plan had obviously not succeeded.
"Me?" the cat squeaked.
Never ask whom the fickle finger of fate finds at fault.
"Keep your convict-striped assistant out of my galley," René the cook growled at Shelby, "if you want your meals to be ready on time!"
Now, practical jokes are one thing, but dinner? Don't mess with dinner. Shylz could tell that, this time, the situation had gone to a higher priority level.
"What's the problem with Witney, now?" he asked the white wolftaur. He couldn't help but notice that she looked a little bit comical, so incensed, while wearing her apron and chef's cap, reminding him of the wolf who stole a cap and dressing gown to impersonate Red Riding Hood's grandmother in the ancient fairy tale.
"This little clown just wiped out an entire batch of pizza dough!" René clarified, looking Shylz in the eye while still pointing at Witney. The entire bridge went silent for a long moment.
"Why, that's positively sacrilegious!" Chiffon spoke out finally, in mock astonishment.
"René," Shelby assured her, "Witney has been up here on the bridge with us for the past..." was as far as shi got.
"Baloney!" René snapped with certainty, as if that was all that was left for supper. "This schmuck ran up here right after pulling his stunt, so that you would all cover for him! He did!"
"Oh, my," Silky said sarcastically, turning around in her chair to view the confrontation. "Doesn't this all sound so familiar?"
"René," Witney pleaded, gasping, "I was never down there. Honest!"
"How do you mean you were not down there?" René demanded hostilely, her furry hands balled into fists, her ears laid back in anger as she heatedly stared directly into Witney's face, which was cowed with an expression of bewilderment. "Fumier! I have got proof!"
"Oh, really?" Shylz asked, fully intrigued.
"He left tracks!" René insisted.
"Let's go look," Shelby said smoothly, casting a sideways glance at Witney, as if shi knew for certain that the cat would be vindicated. "This will answer for Witney's claim, one way or the other."
It was a good thing that the Viceroy could proceed on autopilot for a few minutes. Shab was finding things a bit lonely up on the bridge while an entourage of crew members followed René back down to the galley, with Witney in tow, ears low and tail dragging, looking like a cattle rustler who a wild west posse had recently apprehended.
"What a mess!" Shelby observed upon seeing the crashed pizza dough on the galley floor. White flour dust was seemingly everywhere, but a large, dense swatch of it half-circled the pine table like a holiday crescent cookie. The crew formed up behind hir to have a look.
"You are telling me this?" René snorted through a furrowed muzzle.
"Look at the evidence, gang," Shard commented, kneeling down to poke a furry finger at a dotted path in the flour. Cat prints were very clearly visible, and widely spaced, as the cat who left them had obviously vacated the general area in a big hurry.
Everyone turned to look at Witney, who was seated on the floor at the very edge of the giant, white swatch. He no longer wore the visage of dread. He did, in fact, appear rather smug at that moment.
"What have you got to say for yourself?" implored Dreisilker.
"How about a little demonstration?" Witney offered, and grinned.
To say everyone was taken aback would be the understatement of the light year. Even René was confused by the cat's confident attitude. Undaunted, the cat rose and walked across the flour swatch.
"All right you all," Witney called out curtly to his shipmates as he pranced along smartly, right through the thick coating of powder. "Now, I'm leaving tracks in the flour as well. Take a good look!"
They all bent down and studied the clear patches of dark coloured floor showing through the wide, umbrella-shaped, dusty white patch of flour. There were two distinctly different sets.
Witney's tracks were small. His pad marks were punctuated by little dots left by his toes.
The intruder's tracks were much larger. The pads marks were wider, and the toes formed neat, oval shaped spots ahead of them.
"This was a BIG cat!" Shelby maintained, pointing at the initial set of tracks.
"Certainly was!" Witney demonstrated, stretching himself out next to a set of two front and two rear tracks. "And, running to beat heck! See how it was bounding along? I can't even extend that far!"
"Oh Witney, I am so sorry!" René admitted, suddenly convinced. "I hated to blame you, but, how was I to know? I clearly saw a cat! What else could possibly leave tracks like that?"
Shylz looked up, but said nothing. Chiffon looked up, blinked his wide, sympathetic eyes, and shrugged. Shard simply backed away, arms out, palms up in front of him, staring at the tracks. Silky continued to stare at the big paw prints, too, and shook her head slowly. Nobody could think of a reasonable answer. After a long period of silence, it was Shelby who finally spoke.
"We don't know," said the chakat, "but, we do know one thing. We had very definitely better find out!"
"I thought I saw upon the stair,"
"A little man who wasn't there."
"He wasn't there again today,"
"Oh, how I wish he'd go away."
- William Hughes Mearns
It didn't take very long for Captain Pawthorn to hold court, right there, on the bridge of the Viceroy. Witney sat in front of the Con, his crewmates all around him, while the captain sat in his chair, looking very much like a judge behind the bench.
Many of Witney's shipmates didn't believe him. Some of them would like to think that they did. Some of them didn't know what to think.
Many of them weren't even convinced by the large tracks in the flour downstairs in the galley. It was possible that he could have faked them as well. Especially suspicious was the fact that it was Witney himself who suggested the comparison to his own smaller tracks.
Many of the crew members did not detect a second cat. Those who had seen one only saw it briefly. Most of them had not seen one at all.
"I'm being framed!" Witney maintained, facing his captain while he addressed everyone. "There has to be another cat aboard this ship!"
"Can you scent this second cat?" Captain Pawthorn inquired.
"No," Witney conceded. "I haven't discovered a scent trail, either."
"Neither have any of us," Shard replied angrily, pointing a furry index finger at the cat. "Those of us who do retain an acute sense of smell can only detect one cat around here, and that's you!"
"Nonsense!" Witney replied, tail and nose straight up as he paced the floor on stiff legs, "We have other feline anthromorphs on this ship and they're not going to smell too much different from I do!"
"Yeah, but you're gonna claim," Silky remarked dubiously, "that you can still discern even that slight difference."
"You forget that because I am non-anthro, I am much closer to our feral feline ancestry than a bipedal morph," Witney reminded her, "who more closely represents an human."
"He has a point," the captain negotiated diplomatically.
"At the tip of his tail?" Shard grumbled, folding his arms, his muzzle pointed at the floor. "Or, is it at the top of his head?"
"Go ahead and scoff!" Witney retorted haughtily, shaking out his bushy tail. He became so agitated that he was almost walking on his toe tips. "I can hear better, I can move more stealthily and I can see more clearly, especially in the dark. My senses are more acute than most of the members of this entire crew!"
"Okay, so if your senses are so much more active," said Shylz dryly, "then how come you can't tell how much your story stinks?"
"Now, wait a minute, sir," Shelby responded, as shi became a little agitated hirself, but remembered hir protocol. Chakats have great night vision and a keen sense of smell, but shi could not detect another cat, either. Shi tended to sympathize with the tabby cat.
"I can verify that Witney was with me every time these incidents took place," the chakat maintained, there before hir superior officers.
"I say he plans it that way," Shylz insisted. "It seems much too convenient that it's always the chief of security that the real cat is with when the mystery cat is causing havoc somewhere else."
"What's his motivation?" Captain Pawthorn requested calmly.
"He wants us to stop giving him real work to do," Shard snarled. "He knows we don't buy his crap about space gremlins, so now, he's found a sneaky way to create a nonexistent cat to chase."
"And, loaf the day away," Silky added, a sly smile and a sidelong glance to accompany her conclusion, "while sleeping all alterday and telling us he had been actively pursuing his adversary."
Witney was thoroughly perplexed. He simply sat and stared at his captain pitifully, hoping he would receive the benefit of the doubt.
It was awhile before Captain Pawthorn replied.
"I have a nagging suspicion that this thing will resolve itself," the captain admitted. "Until then, I need this crew to perform like the concordant unit that we know we can be. Let's drop the matter for now, and everyone return to your posts."
The captain watched his crew file away in silence. Witney and Shelby left the bridge, probably heading back to Shelby's office. Pawthorn picked up a spoon, left on his armrest and tapped on an empty tea cup in the chair holder for a thoughtful three strikes before dropping it with a loud clink into the cup.
"I wish we had some more evidence to decide, one way or the other," Rajen thought silently to himself.
Two days later, the crew was to receive just that.
It has been mentioned that two main cargo bays comprised the majority of volume within the Viceroy. A third cargo chamber, much smaller in size and intended for more valuable cargo that required surveillance, or a little extra protection, was located aft of the main cargo bays.
It was during one of what many would call a typical day on the bridge of the Viceroy that the cat controversy finally blew wide open. Captain Rajen Pawthorn had taken his usual spot, standing next to the Con, stirring a fresh cup of tea and considering the latest sensor readings of local space weather, (rocks, asteroids, particle clouds, carelessly discarded space junk, some of which might actually be larger than his own vessel), within the path of the Viceroy, when an urgent request came to the bridge from his freight logistics officer, a capable, sharp-minded, blue collar type raccoon morph named Robin Kuhn, who was down below, in that third cargo chamber.
"Captain," Rob called on his com. "Can you do something about your cat? We got work to do down here!"
"Oh, he's MY cat, now, is he?" Captain Rajen exclaimed with some levity in the big wolf's voice.
"Well," Rob replied, rather perturbed that he had to give Rajen an explanation, "that is what Witney has asserted all along."
"And, where do you see Witney?" Captain Pawthorn requested. He put down his cup of tea and focused on the conversation. Rajen remained standing, arms folded, talking on a hands-free comm and making sure everyone else on the bridge could hear his calm but commanding voice.
"He's climbed on top of the tallest shipping container in this hold," Rob explained. "It's away from the overhead lighting, up near the ceiling. There's not much light up there, but we can clearly make out his shadow."
"You don't say," Captain Rajen replied thoughtfully.
"Yeah, and we've tried everything," the raccoon reported on the radio. "Tray even tried coaxing him down with a bowl of fish meal. No dice. We'd shoot him with a stun gun, but with my luck, he'd either fall over and be stuck up there, or fall down, and from that height, that wouldn't be too good."
"Shoot 'em, anyway!" Shard grumbled, just loud enough for the captain to hear. He was seated with his arms folded, glowering at his console. This cat caper had gone on long enough.
"Try shining a spotlight on him," Captain Pawthorn ordered. The wolf shot an unpleasant sidelong glance at Shard as he spoke.
"What's that gonna do?" Rob asked in exasperation.
"We want him to come down, not perform a dance number," Tray's voice could be heard, coming from a distance, on the comm. The tall, hyena morph hydroponics engineer had been helping Rob gather some supplies that he needed out of a shipping container when the shadow cat was originally spotted, there in the aft cargo bay.
"I say we take our chances and shoot him!" Cleo's irritated voice claimed. It was much louder than Tray's reply, which would figure anyway, because former Security Chief Sergeant miss Cleopatra was a polar bear morph, and as such, was much larger than Tray Bohler. The captain figured that she must have stepped in front of Rob.
"Go ahead and try the light," Captain Pawthorn maintained evenly. "That is my order."
"This better work," Rob protested, "because we've wasted enough time on him already. We have to get this airlock seal repaired. That means we have to blow the hatch, air out this section of the cargo hold, service the airlock with our space suits on and completely repressurize after the seal is replaced."
"I know what's involved," Captain Rajen told him. "Get the light."
"There's an idea!" Cleopatra's voice came on the radio again, from a longer distance away this time. "We can just go ahead and space the little fur ball!"
"Come on, Cleo!" Tray's voice pleaded, from a similar distance, "It's Witney. We can't do that to a fellow crew member, even him!" Motion was heard, a little bumping and scraping in the background. The two workers were obviously setting up the service flood light.
Moments passed. No one spoke.
"Okay, we got it on, and... hey!" Rob broadcast to the captain. "Where'd he go?"
"Can't see 'em," Cleopatra's voice reported.
"Maybe he moved to one of those other containers," Tray offered.
"The cat is now gone," Captain Rajen broadcast assuredly in return. "Go ahead and take some sensor readings. There will be no life forms detected. I guarantee that the cargo hold is now empty of all other life forms and you may proceed with your repair work."
After a few minutes, the raccoon was on the radio again.
"You're right, Captain!" Rob admitted in amazement. "How did you know we could do that? We tried just about everything else!"
"Let's just say I have my methods," the wolf replied. "Pawthorn out." He unfolded his arms, reached over and logged off the comm.
Captain Rajen Pawthorn turned toward the few crew members present. He stood calm, hands behind his back, awaiting comments from anyone.
It was one remarkable moment, because for the entire conversation with Rob, Witney sat, looking up at the captain, eyes seemingly as wide as dinner plates, right there in Rajen's command chair.
Everyone else on the bridge knew it, too.
"Shoulda shot 'em," Shard grumbled at long last. "Wasn't Witney."
Court was back in session on the bridge of the Viceroy, however this time around, it was the first mate taking over as chief adjudicator.
"Let's consider the possibilities," Shylz waved his arms, taking in all of his crew members and inviting them into the thought process. "This cat acts like a ghost. But, what could it actually be?"
"Might be a stowaway we picked up by accident," Chiffon offered.
"Or, on purpose," Shard said bitterly, his arms still crossed.
Shylz bit what little lip he had and looked back toward Rajen.
"And, that cat was seen standing right on top of it," Rajen Pawthorn reminded Shylz softly. The two of them stared at each other gravely for a long moment.
On their last docking, the Viceroy picked up very precious cargo. It was considered top secret, so much so, that only Rob, Shylz and Captain Pawthorn knew exactly what it was. For security reasons, what was inside the largest freight container in the third cargo hold was being kept from the crew, for their own safety, actually.
Loose information regarding such cargo tends to attract pirates.
"Alright, if it's a sentient, why was it fooling with us?" Shard demanded. "Why didn't it go to the cargo hold in the first place?"
"Well, maybe it's being crafty," Rajen offered. "Maybe it wants us to look for it someplace else, like our personal staterooms, instead of where it was really intending to go."
"You mean it's smart enough that it was misleading us?" questioned Chablis, hir tail drooping, hir ears almost flattening out.
"That's what I'd do," Witney admitted.
Everyone paused for a minute and looked at the orange tabby. He wore a stern visage behind his whiskers, his dark eyes unblinking. For the first time, perhaps for many of the crew, they saw Witney in a whole new light. The cat seemed deadly serious, focused, and most certainly someone you would want on your side at the moment.
"But, this time," Captain Pawthorn asked Witney at last, "it was headed for the real target?"
"Definitely," Witney closed his eyes and nodded as he replied. "It was trying to draw us off. That's feline standard procedure. Never make a straight on approach. It's too predictable. We like to mess around awhile, first. Gets you two-leggers off your game."
"Perhaps," Shylz replied, ignoring the slight gaff and eyeing Witney over a shrewd smile spreading across his crimson vulpine countenance. "But, this time, it got caught at the primary objective. This was a sheer coincidence that the airlock seal failed down there, right at the time it decided to make a move."
"Just luck," Witney closed his eyes, cocked his head and replied, "which turned out to be good for us!"
"I've been advised," Chiffon spoke up, a warning tone in his voice, "not to believe in coincidences."
"If it's any consolation," Shab offered everyone, "there have been no detectable unidentified transmissions emitted from within this vessel since we left port." Shi pointed toward the communications station.
"Detectable transmissions," Shylz reminded everyone in a low voice.
Captain Pawthorn pondered Shylz's last statement. It held daunting possibilities and unmentionable consequences.
"Get the chief of security up here," Rajen said at last, sitting down in his chair as Witney vacated it for the railing which surrounded the walkway on the bridge, "Shab, if you please."
As Chablis called Shelby to the bridge, Captain Pawthorn, muzzle supported firmly by his left hand, his left elbow on the armrest of the command chair, stared fixatedly at the far wall of the bridge.
After Shelby had been fully appraised of the situation, one shi had suspected all along, that the ship held two non-anthro felines, not only Witney, shi suggested that trapping this outlaw cat, rather than pursuing it, might be a more worthwhile strategy.
"Perhaps we can capture this cat," Shylz pondered, "if we can set out whatever kind of food it really likes."
"René has reported no food missing," Chiffon reminded everyone. "This cat must eat something, but what could it be?"
"Not to mention whatever it's using for a litter box," Chablis said, wrinkling hir nose and turning back hir ears. "Maybe I don't want to know."
"It seems to be interested in following crew members," Shelby pointed out. "Maybe the next one of us who spots it should lead it to a predetermined capture point, if we can arrange one."
"I say we blast 'em!" Shard shouted, pounding a small, tight, furry fist on the railing behind his chair for added effect. "What do we have to lose? This ain't exactly a wildlife expedition we're on!"
"You characters," Captain Rajen pointed out acerbically, "fire more than enough weapons on board as it is."
"Yeah," Shard maintained, "but we hit what we're shootin' at, too!"
Silky turned toward Shard and grinned ruthlessly in agreement. As a weapons expert aboard the Viceroy, she was well known to be a deadly shooter with any sort of pistol one could supply her. As previously mentioned, the stoat was no slouch, either.
"Rash measures might not be necessary," the captain observed calmly. "In any case, you probably wouldn't get a clear shot."
"Why not?" asked Dreisilker.
"This cat has never been seen out in the open," Pawthorn reported. "The intruder is seen only in weak light, and never close at hand. When anyone gets closer, or if the light gets bright, the shadow cat has disappeared every time, as if it isn't even there to begin with."
"With all due respect," Shard remarked as he reluctantly softened his voice, "you're overcomplicating the equation, sir!"
"Not at all, mister Shard," Rajen replied strongly, leaning forward in his chair to emphasize the eye contact he maintained with his subordinate. "We should not do damage to this mysterious cat, and that's because we have no idea what effect that will have on Witney. It may, in a way, be another Witney!"
"Captain, there is only one Witney!" Chablis exclaimed.
"Are you sure?" he replied turning toward the chakat with a pair of challenging eyes. "We come upon many extraordinary things here in outer space. How do we know that he has not been replicated somehow? How do you know that we don't actually have duplicate cats on board? If we do have two, how else do we discover exactly what it is that the other cat is doing?"
"How can we find this out?" asked Chiffon.
"We could assign him his own personal autosentry to take out along with him on alterday patrol. That might force Witney to verify the existence of the other cat," Dreisilker suggested caustically.
"I don't think one of the autosentries would do," Shylz said very thoughtfully. "I'd rather we had something larger. Something with arms that catch, or maybe even spring a trap of some kind."
"There are animal recovery robots," Shelby offered. "I've seen them work around freight stations where wild animals accidentally left in the cargo bays are a problem. If you have a live cargo, like cattle for instance, you have to maintain an atmosphere and temperature and feed and water the herd. With a cargo bay like that, you'd be just amazed at what comes leaping out at you once you open those doors!"
"What do they do?" Shard asked with amusement. "Blow 'em away?"
"Uncorking a plasma weapon in the presence of valuable animals, like show horses," Chiffon pointed out tactfully, "is rather frowned upon by their owners."
"No, no way, man!" Shelby assured them. "They use animal control robots! These things fire nets, or have passive stun weapons. They catch the invading animals alive. Maybe we can borrow one."
Captain Rajen sat back and folded his hands, deep in thought for another long moment. Everyone watched him in silence.
"We're due to rendezvous with a space station, soon," he told the crew. "Let me see what can be arranged."
Days later, Witney had just checked in at Shelby's office, when the chakat gave him the news just guaranteed to make his alterday.
"They brought in an animal recovery robot," shi said simply.
"What? Why?" Witney hissed in protest. "I don't need some noisy, bucket of bolts that whirrs and clanks and clumps around on its clodhopper feet, warning off an intruder that I am desperately trying to trace!"
"Witney, this is a pretty sophisticated device," Shelby advised him. "It will probably make your job easier in the long run, and it might make things safer for you as well."
"If I cared about living safer," Witney asserted, "I wouldn't be in this line of work. Having a mechanical device perform your job for you is like playing a video game instead of picking up the ball yourself and running with it."
"Well, let's take a look at it, anyway," Shelby offered. "Rob is bringing it up here now."
The raccoon delivered an odd looking bipedal device that resembled a food processor on stilts. It had no head, just a visual receptor on its chest panel. It had a rotating upper member and looked around by swivelling on its legs. Two crab-like arms hung down below, like a short stop's hands in a fielding position, ostensibly intended to be ready to grab small, wild animals when they attempted to run between its legs. It was definitely one of the strangest things that Witney had ever seen on two legs; his own shipmates included.
"Good luck with it!" Rob called to Shelby, winking one eye and grinning as he departed, taking the small lift truck he used to deliver the robot along with him as he did so.
Shelby initiated the start up sequence with a remote control while Witney sat on a nearby table and looked on in disgust. "Animal dispatch unit at your service," the robot suddenly lit up and introduced itself to the chakat.
"Oh, brother," Witney groaned, rolling his eyes toward the ceiling.
"Come on, Witney," Shelby begged. "This thing can really help us! It has a catch net, a water jet, a sensor floor sweeper, auxiliary lighting and a wide variety of useful attachments."
"Fine," Witney said dryly. "Tell it to go clean the toilet."
The sour joke was lost on Shelby as hir comm buzzed. It was Tray reporting in from the hydroponics room.
The lanky hyena morph had helped the cargo master Rob scare off the mysterious cat when it was last detected. It seemed like Tray had once again spotted the cold grey intruder.
"I'm dead certain I saw a cat shadow right behind one of the water tanks," he informed the chakat. "I'm calling because I know that Witney is there in your office with you. What do you think?"
"I think the latest member of our security force," Shelby answered as shi turned toward the robot, "is about to embark on its first mission aboard the Viceroy."
Shi signed off with Tray and turned back toward the tabby cat.
"That mechanical monstrosity has no chance at keeping up with a real feline," Whitney asserted, pacing back and forth on the table while assuming a stiff-legged posture of pure indignation. "For one thing, it's two feet short. Our trespasser cat will run off and leave it."
"What is it with you and your attitude, anyway?" Shelby bristled.
"What about my attitude?" Witney asked hir, sitting down and showing Shelby his best wide-eyed, innocent and clueless kitty face.
"Shab told me about your comment," Shellbright informed Witney, "referring to everyone else on the bridge as 'two-leggers'. Did you not overlook a certain blonde felitaur?"
"Who?" Witney inquired, cocking his head and flattening his ears, as if totally befuddled. His act did not enthuse the security chief.
"Chakat Chablis," Shelby spoke strongly of hir mate. "Our contact and communications officer has just as many legs as you do!"
"No," Witney told hir and blinked. "Not according to Shylz."
"Oh, really?" Shelby reflected with mock surprise, motioning toward the floor below hir collective four paws with one hand. "What does mister foxy call these?"
"Chakats aren't natural," Witney continued to explain, unblinking. "You people were assembled in a laboratory. Shylz maintains that one can make the case that what you have is two hind legs and four arms. You simply walk on your lower set of arms. Like a baboon."
Shellbright paused to reflect upon that.
"I don't know if I'm insulted," shi decided finally, "or impressed!"
"Doesn't matter to me," Witney assured hir, sat down and began preening his right foreleg and forepaw. His tail waved lazily.
"You don't feel an allegiance to us?" Shelby inquired haughtily.
"Nope," Witney told her between licks. "You don't call those things footpaws, do you? They're handpaws. Hands belong on arms."
"How about our felinicity?" shi growled at the tabby cat.
"You people compare yourself to whatever suits you at the time," Witney insisted. "If you're schmoozing with humans, you want to wear clothes and act like them. If you're associated with anthros, then suddenly, you're a cat. You're all about how you can socialize for professional or personal gain."
Shelby was struck mute. If hir pelt wasn't already mostly white, shi would have gone pale. Hir tail drooped. Shi honestly looked hurt.
"So let's get on with it," Witney concluded between paw preening. "Where do you want me to go with that damn robot?"
"It has suddenly gotten very lonely," Shelby moaned in hir sadness. "I think I need a hug. I wish Chablis was down here."
"Yeah," Witney added. "All everyone ever talks about is how come we always need at least two of you."
"Let's just get down to the lab," Shelby sighed wearily, hir two ears laid back against hir hair, "and see what Tray thinks we should do."
Shi led the robot out of hir office and proceeded down a hall toward the hydroponics lab with Witney trailing along reluctantly, hanging back a safe distance, his cautious tail waving in the air.
"Rule number one when acquainting yourself with new two-leggers," he informed Shelby. "Avoid getting stepped on."
There was a water storage tank room adjacent to the hydroponics lab, where plenty of clean water was kept available for the crew members, in the event of an emergency, such as processing equipment failure or a power outage. Tray Bohler, the Viceroy’s hydroponics engineer, hardly ever had to work in there, so there was not a lot of lighting or other facilities installed. He was in there, grabbing some extra hose he needed for a project, when he spotted the black cat, just beyond the reach of his flashlight.
He closed the door after he left the storage room and immediately called Shelby on the comm. Within minutes, the recovery robot, Witney and Shelby were standing outside the door as Tray opened it again, leaving it ajar as he turned back to face his shipmates.
"Is this the only entrance?" Shelby asked the hyena.
"We got another door back there behind those tanks," Tray replied, "but, I really can't recall if it's locked or not."
"We'll have to split up," the chakat concluded reluctantly.
"The number one rule in fanzine ghost stories or science fiction shorts," Witney reminded hir, "is don't ever split up!"
"Yeah, I know," Shelby said uncomfortably. "But, we haven't had a real good opportunity to see this interloper, much less catch it. This will be an incentive for it to reappear. Let's just say that I'm trying to play our bad luck against itself."
"That's an unique approach," Witney observed.
"Intruder undetected," reported the robot.
"Nobody asked you," Witney reminded it.
"Witney, you and the robot enter the room through the main door, while Tray and I circle around in the outside hall and find that other door behind the tanks," Shelby ordered.
"I gotta take machine head, here, with me?" Witney asked painfully.
"Intruder undetected," reported the robot.
"Nobody cares what you think," Witney reminded it.
"It only makes sense, Witney," Tray explained as he shrugged, both hands in the air as the hyena rotated his ears and tipped his head. "Going in the front door, you're most likely to spot the shadow cat first. When you do, you'll be wanting that net the robot's toting around to be fired on command. If anything, Shelby and I will be flushing the cat out, back toward you, probably."
Witney took a long look inside the door of the storage tank room. It was very dark, not too dark for him to see. There was just enough light emitted by the computer equipment inside. A normal morph or an human, he reasoned, would need more light. Water tanks don't need lights, so there wasn't any sense in having them installed in there in the first place. He looked back toward his comrades and concluded that they were probably right. They had a good strategy.
He just didn't want the robot along.
"I'm ready to go after this thing," Witney announced in a steely voice, "alone, if necessary."
"Are you ready for that?" Shelby asked Witney.
"If I ain't," Witney quipped, "I better be!"
"Recovery unit," Shelby addressed the robot, "maintain a little separation for this pursuit. Approximately ten paces behind Witney, at least. That should give him some stalking room."
"Affirmative," the robot replied.
"I wonder where they stuck the batteries in that thing," Witney thought to himself. "I ought to jump on its back and yank them out."
But, he followed the chakat's directions and entered into the water storage tank room carefully, the robot proceeding slowly behind him, as Tray very quietly closed the door.
Then, he and Shelby headed off down the hall.
Bleak thoughts passed through his mind as he crept along the floor of the storage room, through one large, pitch dark water tank shadow patch to the next. Those darker areas were interspersed by weak shafts of blue grey light from the computer monitor screens, which caused Witney to cast a long-legged feline shadow on the flat wall alongside him. He chanced a glance backward every so often, just to make sure the animal control robot was dutifully keeping its distance as the two of them advanced through the dimly lit room.
After he ensured that the robot was far enough back there, Witney suddenly got the impression that something didn't look right.
Moreover, something didn't feel right.
Witney whirled and looked behind himself.
He was so startled, he at first could not accept the truth.
When acceptance came, a cold nausea crawled along inside of him, from the back of his neck to the tip of his tail, raising his orange striped fur into spiny hackles as the sensation passed through him.
The silhouette he cast upon the featureless wall in the dim light of the monitors revealed itself, as well as something else.
He had two shadows.
It was one of the most incredible things Witney had ever seen.
He was standing, stone still, casting a duplicate shadow in an exaggerated shape, yet just behind it was a second, much larger cat shadow, facing him, in a slightly different stance, but most importantly, without an actual cat attached to it!
"My gosh, that's a big cat!" Witney remarked silently to himself as the chills in his spine and chest pulsed in their intensity. "How could my crewmates possibly mistake that for me?"
At that moment, the animal control robot came trucking on down the line, acting as if it were out on an evening stroll on the boardwalk, or something. The shadow cat was totally unfazed, absolutely the opposite reaction anyone would expect. The large, ebony cat simply continued staring at Witney, not paying attention to the robot, and remained motionless but for its tail, swishing slowly back and forth.
"Recovery unit," Witney called out, "our objective is the cat, right there, standing in front of you!"
The upper portion of the robot's cylindrical body rotated around to bring its visual receptor to bear as it leaned backward a little bit. It appeared not unlike an art critic taking in a mural on the wall.
"Intruder undetected," the robot replied.
"Look ahead of you!" Witney cried, then suddenly recalled that the recovery unit didn't even have a head. "Unable to locate," the robot informed Witney. "No intruder within detection range of motion proximity sensors."
"What do you mean you can't locate the intruder?!" Witney spat. "It's standing right here in front of us!"
"Visual scanning negative," claimed the robot.
Witney crouched, shoulders and haunches cocked like the lever of a catapult that was about to hurl him into action. His tail stood erect, blown up like a spiked roll of cotton candy.
The obsidian cat, on the other hand, stood icily calm, unmoving. Two bright yellow-green eyes shone unblinking in the blackness that was its coat, darker still, somehow, than the unlit storage room around it. Its own tail was also high, but only moving gradually, painting lazy figure eights in the dark surrounding the stranger cat. The big black cat seemed totally at ease, almost casual, as Witney felt, rather than saw, those yellow-green eyes looking right through him as if they were inspecting his skeleton on an x-ray plate.
Witney chanced to walk slowly across the floor, and sure enough, the mysterious dark feline shape moved right along with him.
"It's a sentient," Witney thought, chilled to his very core as he observed the black cat pacing with him, step by step, its gaze never wandering. "It's got to be. It's not a domestic animal and no feral cat would ever move like that. This character wants something."
The black cat paused, blinked, flattened its ears and cocked its head as if answering the unspoken question.
"It wants me," Witney thought grimly.
"Intruder undetected," the robot repeated. If it could have shrugged it would have.
"Fire the catch net!" Witney ordered, turning around to face the recovery robot. "We want to snare it, not scare it away!"
"Intruder undetected," the robot repeated.
Suddenly, a door on the far side of the room flew open. A bright shaft of light spread across the floor. As it reached the shadow cat, Witney watched, astonished, as the onyx feline form simply vanished right before his eyes.
As the chill of his experience faded, it was replaced by the lukewarm sensation of disappointment. He'd just lost his quarry. And, what's worse, he was dead certain that nobody would ever believe his story.
"You okay in there?" Tray shouted.
"Witney, are you back here?" Shelby called out.
"Oh, yeah, I'm back here," Witney reported dejectedly as he trotted into their field of vision, through the light cast by the open door. "but, I'm afraid that the feline Elvis just left the building."
"Intruder undetected," the robot called out to the chakat and hyena as it confidently strolled up behind Witney.
"Oh, what the heck do you know?" the cat spat.
"I have a little shadow that goes in and out with me,"
"And, what can be the use of him is more than I can see."
- Robert Lewis Stevenson
Predictably, the whole incident called for yet another hearing on the bridge of the Viceroy, his honour Captain Pawthorn presiding, as ever the ultimate authority aboard the Viceroy. In ancient times, ship captains performed a wide variety of official functions, from acting as the local magistrate to performing a wedding. The wolf would not be marrying anyone this day, however, as after the deposition, it was abundantly clear that there was no love lost between some of the crew members. Rajen sat at the Con, a mildly amused look in his eyes and a thin smile upon his muzzle, as he silently endured yet another argument among his extended family, or more accurately, his crew.
"You're gonna expect me to believe," Silky requested in a surly voice as she stood, hand on one hip, the other with an index finger pointed at Witney, "that this huge black cat you described just disappeared and escaped from a room with two closed doors and no other way in or out of there?"
"No," Witney replied flatly, "even though it did."
"He's incredible!" Silky spouted off, tossing her arms in the air as she turned and walked away from the spot on the bridge railing where the cat was perched. "It's useless trying to make sense with him!"
"We downloaded the video recording from the animal recovery unit," Shylz explained, leaning against the railing on the side of the room opposite Witney, and staring him right in the eye. "It shows you in some sort of panic, fur fanned out, in full alarm, actively stalking nothing. The robot has reported no indication of any other creature in that room besides yourself."
"The damn robot has it in for me!" Witney protested. "I'd bet you it probably wants my job. It's tired of welding together space shuttles on an assembly line somewhere and wants to move up to a real job. It's envious, jealous and aggravated with me, I tell you!"
"Witney," the captain told him, sighing heavily and closing his eyes in futility. "It is a robot. It's a computer motivated machine. It doesn't get tired. It doesn't get envious or jealous. It doesn't get aggravated. It just responds to its internal programming."
"In that case," Witney insisted, "someone programmed it to be a blithering idiot!"
"Witney, you have recounted an amazing encounter with a mysterious, dark and forbidding invader, who scared you half to death, and you have done so in painstaking detail, yet there is no objective ship borne sensor or independent, impartial, electronic record of any such thing, despite all of our security measures," Shylz demanded. "How much longer are you going to keep up your annoying charade?"
"You all simply don't trust the senses you inherited from our feral ancestors," Witney maintained, as he spoke to everyone there at once. "You put too much faith in mechanical things powered by electricity instead of flesh and blood powered by the spirit!"
"Oh gods," Dreisilker remarked, rolling her eyes and tossing back her long blonde hair. "Now he's trying to teach us feline philosophy, basic principals class."
"Well, someone better remind you, Silky," Witney told her, almost pleadingly. "You have natural feral gifts, such as your night vision and your broad range of hearing and your sensitive nose and your keen sense of awareness through your whiskers. You even have your natural weapons, which I have been only barely avoiding during these past few weeks, I might add. Yet, you walk around here toting a sidearm, like you're... you're... like you're a human or something!"
"Alright professor," Dreisilker snarled, her eyes alight. "You don't have to get too personal. That's rather uncalled for!"
"Not only that," Shylz added quietly, his gaze never wavering, "it is likewise clear that he was referring to all of us."
Everyone became silent for a long moment. Captain Pawthorn turned to Shelby and Tray, both standing off to his right, and studied the two.
"Has the chief of security got anything to say about the matter?" he questioned, at last, hoping to somehow conclude the situation.
"Tray says he saw a cat in the room," Shelby reported. "That's the whole reason we were down there to begin with."
"Not only that," Tray admitted, "I discovered I got more work to do."
"How's that?" Shylz requested, wondering how that could be relevant.
"One of the pressure relief valves is seeping and I need to replace it. We noticed a puddle next to one of the tanks when we were in the room with our flashlights, after Witney and the robot walked out. I found some wet paw tracks. Really big ones. Something must have walked right through the water puddle. Whatever it was had to be way larger than Witney."
"They looked just like the ones René found in the galley," Shelby concluded. "A set of tracks left in the flour spilled on the floor."
"Aw, come on guys!" Silky spat in her exasperation. "That's the same trick he used before! Witney must have some way of leaving those big tracks, and you all keep buying it! Ooh! He's such a little sneak!"
Witney stared at her wide-eyed, forlorn, like an orphan kitten, lost one autumn night and left shivering on a rain soaked curb stone.
"This is the end, isn't it?" he said in a small voice. "We're never gonna sleep together again, are we?"
Silky's resultant glare at the orange tabby could not be described.
Rajen, on the other hand was trying hard to stifle a grin. He had to come to a conclusion pretty quick, and after some consideration, did.
"Witney," Captain Pawthorn ordered, "we have the animal recovery unit on board for awhile longer at least. I want this culprit apprehended one way or the other, either with the robot or without it, before our term of use runs out, understand?"
Witney merely nodded that he did.
"And," Captain Pawthorn continued, his attention focused on the other crew members there, "there won't be any further talk about Witney not doing his job or making up lame stories, because the robot will be on hand to at least video record everything that goes on, even if Witney does not want to use any of its functions."
"Fair enough," Shylz concluded, his ears flattened, his arms crossed, and he was still leaning against the bridge railing.
"Okay, so what if he doesn't catch the cat burglar before we have to return the robot?" Silky asked her captain, her active tail swishing.
"I will make another decision at that time," Rajen replied, folding his hands and leaning back in his command chair. "Plus, I want to emphasize that I will make that decision, and no one else. And, I'm granting Witney his option, because I don't want to hear that he couldn't do his job properly because of an incompetent robot."
"But, the robot will be in his vicinity," Shelby reasoned, "and in effect, will be keeping an eye on Witney, while he's on patrol."
"Unless one of you wants to stay up all alterday?" the captain asked.
"Consider it done, then," Captain Pawthorn concluded, then turned to Witney. "There is something strange, on the loose, aboard this ship. Security cat, you now have your opportunity. Make it, or break it."
"Yes, sir," the cat replied simply.
Witney rose, stretched full backward, tail high in the air. He then leaned far forward, dragging his hind paws, rear legs fully extended. He then arched his back into a horse shoe shape for a moment, before lowering back to normal, then shook out his legs and tail, before he hopped off the railing and strode briskly toward the exit door.
"I hope you got a good warranty on that bucket of bolts," Witney remarked to Shelby, his tail still shaking as he passed the chakat.
"Why?" Shelby inquired, cocking hir head and swishing hir own tail.
"Because, I'm gonna run that rum-dum robot ragged," Witney replied confidently, "just trying to keep up with me."
Witney didn't exaggerate. As soon as the lights went down every alterday, he was on the prowl. The recovery robot made it easier for anyone who cared to watch his movements, but even it couldn't follow him everywhere, because the cat liked to tightrope walk on high, ceiling suspended ductwork, or cable harnesses. He snuck through tight gaps between shipping containers or crawled under heavy equipment. Sometimes, the robot would just have to stand back and watch while Witney inspected a confined space or meet him on the other side when he chose to take a particularly narrow passageway.
Sometimes, one of the autosentries would fly by, observing the robot wandering around like a young boy whose dog just broke its leash, while Witney was sniffing around on top of some ceiling supports, high above the floor.
"Intruder undetected," the robot would always report, every time it finally caught up to Witney.
"Oh, you don't say?" the cat replied dryly.
Actually, Witney had a plan. He wasn't looking for his opponent as much as using himself for bait. He knew the silent, elusive feline was after him, for some unknown reason, and he figured it was only a matter of time before the cat made contact with him again, likely the same way it had followed Witney in the water storage tank room.
After his alterday shifts, Witney would sleep in Shelby's office and the robot would be shut down and repowered. After making his peace with René, Witney was able to get his meals down in the galley again. The animal recovery unit needed electricity, but Witney got his recharge from ground chicken and fish filet.
It didn't take but a few days of this routine for the dark cat to approach the two of them once more. The encounter came near the end of Witney's patrol. It was not late at alterday, but actually early in the Viceroy's day cycle, because the regular personnel change would soon be taking place on the bridge.
Witney and the animal recovery unit were walking through a long, narrow corridor near the far reaches of the Viceroy as the ambient lighting started to brighten gradually.
Defensive armament on board the Viceroy included laser cannons. There was a main laser port, which was bridge controlled, and four secondary ‘bubble ports’ that were individually manned. The narrow corridor the two traversed led directly past laser gun turret three.
Witney paused near the entryway, and the robot hauled up behind him.
"Intruder undetected," the robot told him.
"You're not all that much of a conversationalist, are you?" Witney turned around and asked the robot. It wasn't as if it had recently read a best-seller, or had something interesting to talk about.
At that moment, Witney froze solid, eyes wide, ears pricked up. "It's like déjà-vu all over again," Witney muttered in quiet alarm.
In the growing light of the Viceroy's artificial day, his image was slowly forming as a light grey shadow against the wall behind the robot. Next to it, a second image was forming, in exactly the same posture as Witney's shadow, but much larger, and somehow, growing far darker. Two points of light, eyes of yellow-green, opened on the much more stygian face of the lightless cat shadow.
"Okay, scoundrel, what's on your mind?" Witney called out, his tail jinking as the fur on his back began to bristle.
"Please repeat order," the animal recovery unit requested of Witney, as if it were a remote speaker at a fast food drive-thru restaurant.
"Grab your ankles, can head!" Witney cried. "There's a black cat right behind you!"
The robot dutifully followed Witney's order and bent over, as if to duck a nonexistent head down between its legs, looking at the wall behind itself by inverting its body and rotating its visual receptor. It found nothing more than its own weak shadow there upon the wall.
"Intruder undetected," the upside-down robot told Witney. "Corridor image transposed one-hundred-eighty degrees."
"Come off it!" Witney spat. "I oughta transpose your... oh, gods!"
In a twinkling, the huge nebulous cat simply charged Witney, bounding right between the robot's legs, eyes aglow, ears up, bushy tail high. The brave tabby did not have time to think, only to react. He reared back on his hind legs to bring both of his outstretched forepaws into play with their fully extended claws, bared his teeth in a contorted face with ears laid back and screeched out an evil hiss. He was so loud that even the robot might've been shocked, but it was still looking the wrong way.
As the cloudy spectre came forward, Witney felt an acute sense of freezing cold, not emotional as during his former encounter, but so viscerally physical in its impact that he went weak in his hind legs and toppled backward over his own tail. Witney recovered, rolling over to see the dark image, tail trailing, running down the corridor.
The phantom feline had just passed right through him.
Witney laid on the floor, flanks heaving, fighting to regain the lost breath that was seemingly sucked right out of his lungs. He was also struggling to make his stiff, contracted leg muscles respond and to find his feet once more. He felt as if he'd been flash frozen.
Meanwhile, the dark apparition that tormented him bolted down the corridor and dove into the entry hatch for laser gun turret three.
Witney blinked. He couldn't believe his good fortune. After all he had been through, his quarry had just cornered itself.
The individually manned bubble port consisted of a clear blister, looking not unlike a ball turret for an ancient World War Two Allied bomber aircraft. One entered the port from a small airtight hatch. There was a gunner's seat inside the port, with a full contingent of controls to rotate the turret. The ball gun turret rotated a full three hundred sixty degrees with an effective ninety degree weapon elevation, giving the laser cannons an impressive field of fire, but accommodations inside the turret were cramped, to say the very least.
In case of extreme distress, there was an escape hatch to the outside of the ship, which could be blown, but not detached. It worked like an air lock. Hopefully, one had a space suit on, if one needed it.
Regardless, not all of the Viceroy's crew could fit into the tiny ball turret blister. Shard the stoat, for example, did, and in fact relished his training periods and loved the opportunity for live fire practice, but there was just no way Sergeant Cleopatra, the large white polar bear, could ever cram herself into the ball turret and still be able to operate the controls.
Therefore, a redundant control seat was provided, inside of the ship. Since the bubble port was clear, a gunner could sit inside the ship, see through the blister and remote operate the empty ball turret, but the gunner's field of vision was not nearly as comprehensive as it was when the operator was sitting inside the ball turret itself.
If there was some shooting to be done, it was best to call on the stoat. The snow leopardess was a pretty hot choice, too.
The internal gunner's station, and indeed the only access to the ball turret itself, was from a hatchway, down which the fleet black cat had just entered. As Witney approached the hatchway, still shaking off the prickly icicles that seemingly formed inside of his muscles, he realized that, this time, there was only one way in, only one way out and no bright beams of light likely to illuminate the dark form and cause it to disappear once again. He had to pursue that cat.
"I hate to follow it down there," Witney thought, "but at least that machine head robot can't come along after us."
As the feeling was returning to his badly shocked body, Witney paced back and forth for awhile outside of the gun portal access hatch. He noticed it had been slid wide open, and the lights on the keypad next to it were all shining red. Someone had beaten the code and electronically jammed the hatch.
"That shadow cat is full of cunning," observed the orange tabby, as he peered over the rim of the hatchway, down the long, dark tunnel leading to the gun station. "It knows too much about this ship."
It wasn't but a few minutes later that he loosened up enough and felt fully prepared. The animal recovery unit strolled up and looked over the situation. Witney instructed the robot to wait outside the gun turret hatch, hoping that it could, in fact, somehow effect capture.
"I'll flush it out and you nab it!" he exclaimed.
"Intruder will reappear at this hatchway?" the robot asked, sounding more than a little confused, considering it couldn't even tell that the intruder had ever appeared at all.
"Bet your bolts!" Witney assured it. "There's no other way out of this laser gun turret."
"Will activate snare net," the robot then replied confidently, "upon immediate detection of intruder."
"Now, you're getting with the program," Witney congratulated it.
As he entered the gun turret access hatch, Witney became predictably apprehensive. As he crept down the tunnel leading to the internal gunner's station adjacent the ball turret his apprehension increased, but only enough to put an edge on him. He was ready for anything.
He was not, however, ready for nothing.
Once he left the tunnel, and was inside the small gun station, he saw that the only light apparent was a dim glow from the computer systems monitor screen above him and the firmament of tiny points of bright starlight, visible as a backdrop to the room, through the clear ball turret blister window across from the tunnel exit.
Nothing occurred. He wasn't attacked, or chased or even repeat flash frozen, which, he considered, was not an experience he wished to repeat, anyway. But, where was his quarry, if not upon him?
Dangling there above him, from the redundant gunner's chair, was the darkest furry tail he had ever seen. It did not even look like a tail as much as a bushy void of lightlessness in the vast galaxy of stars shining through the blister window behind it.
Witney paused in his stalk. Standing still, he tipped his head and eyes upward to discover a large, rangy cat silhouette, lounging luxuriantly in the gunner's chair. The inexplicable cat lay there, carefully preening itself, as if calmly awaiting Witney's arrival. A distinct feline head shape, both ears fully erect, faced downward and that ethereal, luminous green-gold pair of eyes finally met his.
"Tag, soldat," a calm, low voice uttered to Witney. "You're a bit late, aren't you? You disappoint me. Frankly, I expected a bold, immediate pursuit."
Witney blinked. It spoke. It had a deep, somewhat guttural voice. It was probably a male. The obsidian feline acted as if he knew Witney quite well and was totally familiar with their situation.
"What are you?" Witney asked warily.
"Oh, my," Black replied, rotating his ears. "That would be telling."
"What do you want with me?" Witney asked Black.
"Much," the shadow cat answered.
Witney was in no mood for riddles. His apprehension was gradually turning into acrimony as he confronted his adversary.
"You've been raising hell around here for the past few weeks!" Witney snarled angrily. "Wanna talk to me about that?"
"As a matter of fact," the dark cat responded sharply, "I do!"
The big, black cat spoke with a strange accent. It was very light, but noticeable, as he pronounced his "s" like a "z" and his "f" like a "v" in a strong, commanding, lower-pitched voice.
"German?" Witney asked.
"Das stimmnt," Black replied, nodding, as he answered in the ancient dialect. "My ancestors were like a Terran warrior caste. Caused a lot of trouble, especially during the twentieth century, I'm afraid. Don't let it upset you. Large numbers of my people prided themselves upon remaining thoroughly honourable. I mean you no harm."
"Are you kidding?" Witney spat. "With all of your antics recently? Thanks for making my shipmates angry enough to kill me!"
"They could never do that," Black replied assuredly, rising to a seated position in the gunner's chair.
"How do you know?" Witney inquired, rather surprised at the big cat's consistently confident, calm demeanour.
"They are not pure felines, and are easily deluded," Black answered.
"You haven't seen the firepower these people are packing," Witney pointed out ruefully. "Why did you get me in so much trouble?"
"Your shipmates disrespect you," Black said simply. "I will not stand for that. They needed to appreciate the useful position you hold aboard this ship, so I had to provide you a valid objective."
Witney fell silent for a moment as he considered the strategy that had been explained for him. It sounded more to him like felicide than a sure fire way to impress the rest of the crew.
"What is your name?" Witney implored at long last.
"In life," Black told him, "I was known as the Pfalzgraf."
"That's a curious name," Witney observed, cocking his head slightly.
"Pfalzgraf is an exclusive German title, used since medieval times for the permanent representative, and denoted a civil servant of the king, in the palatial domain of the crown," Pfalz told him proudly. The seated aristocratic cat even appeared to puff up his chest a bit, as if displaying medals pinned there.
"Wow!" Witney said, obviously impressed.
"This ship is our palatial domain," Pfalz pointed out. "You are its current representative, and answerable only to the captain."
"I've always insisted that the ship's cat reports to the ship's captain," Witney argued.
"You mean you don't?" Pfalz asked, somewhat confused.
"No," Witney admitted. "They've got me reporting to Shelby, the chief of security. Captain Pawthorn said reporting directly to him wasn't practical."
"A chakat!?" Pfalz exclaimed, wrinkling his nose with distaste. "Better keep your tail between your legs!"
"Shi's not like that at all," Witney insisted defensively.
"They have you reporting to an underling," Pfalz said and winced. "No wonder things are up for grabs around here! Even if it isn't practical, they should show more respect for tradition."
"They don't," Witney replied sadly.
"Humph," Pfalz snorted. "That's why you aren't getting any respect. No one wants to deal with you. It becomes too embarrassing when you prove smarter than they are. Nobody wants to be shown up by a cat!"
"Even when it happens often?" Witney asked.
"They never learn," Pfalz replied, with conviction.
Witney paused to study the Pfalzgraf and began to wonder. How was that this mysterious cat knew his way about the ship, but not so much about those who crewed it? He questioned the spectre to that effect.
"Witney, how old is the Viceroy?" the Pfalzgraf asked him in return.
"Oh, wow," Witney replied in wonder, looking up at the ceiling for a moment, as if an answer were written there. "Must be decades old! Why, Captain Pawthorn bought her military surplus, or something, and before that, she was rumoured to be a pirate vessel with...."
"Very old?" Pfalz interrupted him.
"Oh yes," Witney laughed. "Very!"
"Older than you?" the cryptic cat questioned.
"Where are we going with this?" Witney replied with a question of his own, cocking his head and rotating his ears as he did so.
"Do you fancy that you are the first security cat upon this vessel?" the Pfalzgraf asked directly, getting to the point.
Witney reflected a moment. He felt oddly calm inside as the puzzle he assembled within his own mind neared completion.
"No," Witney replied after awhile, "but you were, weren't you?"
"Exactly," the Pfalzgraf replied smartly, closed his eyes and nodded his head slowly a few times.
"And," Witney continued, "you've been contacting every one of your successors since you left this life."
"You're next," Pfalz reminded him, opening his bright yellow-green eyes widely, cocking his own head, bringing his ears around and then showing Witney a sparkling set of pointed white teeth for an instant.
Witney became more thoughtful than ever. It was clear to him that the mantle was being passed. Being ship's cat wasn't some kind of lame joke. Being ship's cat was an honour.
"This is an honour you richly deserve," Pfalz contended, "especially after your latest performance of search, locate and arrest."
"They say I caught a duct cleaning machine," Witney said dejectedly. "They claim that there are no such things as space gremlins."
"That is not the point," Pfalz insisted.
"Well, then," Witney questioned, "what is?"
"It matters not if it was a robot, a space gremlin, a giant cockroach or your Uncle Kage," the Pfalzgraf maintained. "You apprehended an invader who was running loose in the air supply system of this ship while the rest of the crew couldn't even find it!"
"That's right!" Witney said, and brightened considerably. "This is an honour you deserve," Pfalz repeated. "Want to know more about how much prestige you maintain among the members of the fleet?"
"Oh, yeah," Witney chuckled, hating to think of himself as ordinary.
"Can you operate a computer?" the Pfalzgraf asked Witney. He nodded in the direction of the computer monitor and the keyboard that fed commands to the various fire controls, which were also accompanied by various button controls on both armrests of the gunner's chair.
"Of course," Witney replied. "I just won't do it in full view of the rest of the crew. Before you know it, I'll be stuck in front of a screen all day doing their work!" Witney flicked his tail a time or two as he shook his head. "No way am I going to play with that kind of mouse. There's no sport in it."
"Very true," Pfalz agreed. "Right now, there are no crew people down here, so go ahead and log onto a general information user."
Witney did as the austere apparition suggested, hopping up over the chair back, taking a seat and poking out the necessary commands by retracting the claws on his forepaws, while fanning his toes to hit individual keys on the terminal installed in front of the chair.
"I can do this," he asserted, emphasizing his claim. "I've watched the crew do it often enough. They don't think about that. Why else would a cat lie there and watch someone else work at their terminal?"
"They never figure out that part," Pfalz agreed, while several, fast-moving, different multi-coloured screens flashed in front of Witney.
"Okay, what next?" he asked, once onto an encyclopaedia home page.
"Key in 'Viceroy', and hit enter," Pfalz suggested simply.
Witney was fascinated with the definitions appearing on the screen. Most of them referenced historic Terran artefacts or events.
Viceroy was a North American butterfly, so named because it was a Müllerian mimic of the Monarch butterfly. The two butterfly species had similar orange and black colour patterns, even though they were not related. The Viceroy butterfly, (scientific name is Limenitis archippus) wore the natural danger colours of the poisonous Monarch, even though the Viceroy itself was not.
Viceroy was also the brand name of a twentieth-century cigarette.
The Grand Pacha's Cruise on the Nile in the Viceroy of Egypt's Yacht was an adventure story written by Emmeline Lott about traversing the longest river in the world, back on Terra, in 1869
Viceroy Anguilla was a residential resort in the British West Indies which boasted its own luxury yacht. They also had catamaran sailing, or more popularly preferred small boats called Hobie cats.
"I'd like to do some yachting," Witney said wistfully. "Imagine riding the celestial winds, powered by a solar sail!"
"Naturally," Pfalz replied. "Why do you think they called those boats catamarans? But, of course, that is not our definition. Read on, please."
Finally, Witney spotted the most authoritative statement.
Viceroy is a royal title given to a person who rules over a province or region as the agent of a sovereign authority, in the name of and as a representative of the monarch. The term derives from the Latin prefix vice-, meaning ‘in the place of’ and the French word roi, meaning ‘king’.
"We rule!" Witney exclaimed, turning back toward the Pfalzgraf with a Cheshire cat grin spreading from cheek to cheek. His tail began thrashing in the air excitedly.
"Well," Pfalz replied with a droll expression, turning his muzzle toward the ceiling for a moment, "somehow, I didn't think you'd rather be referred to as a cigarette butt."
"We're aboard a high-zoot mercantile magnate!" Witney marvelled. "I'll bet we've got some pretty exotic stuff down there in the cargo hold."
"This ain't exactly a garbage scow," Pfalz assured him.
"What have we got down there?" Witney implored curiously.
"You must respect your captain's wishes," Pfalz replied sternly, "if he has not seen fit to reveal the contents of the cargo to you."
"Aww, come on!" Witney pleaded. "I won't talk!"
"The crew has just discovered," the Pfalzgraf reminded him smoothly, "that you indeed can talk!"
"Oh, yeah," Witney admitted glumly. "If word does get out, everyone will immediately blame it on me!"
"They do not understand the time honoured expression," Pfalz pointed out. "Cat got your tongue?"
"So, what more must I do to impress this crew?" Witney requested.
"Nothing," Pfalz replied shortly.
"Because those who doubt you don't really matter," Pfalz explained. "Those who matter do not doubt you. Do you think that the captain would have had you report to the chief of security if he did not believe you could handle the job?"
"I never thought about that," Witney admitted, his ears back and his tail waving to and fro. "The captain never heckles me at all."
"You see, Witney, the crew members aboard this august spacecraft are but mere hired help. They all come and go, like players on a stage. They are here pursuing only fortune and adventure, well, most of them are anyway, but you," Pfalz explained to Witney, pausing for effect. "You are the ship's cat. One of few things that remain consistent aboard this vessel are the prestige of the ship itself, its captain and its cat. I think T. S. Eliot wrote something to that effect."
"If he didn't," replied Witney, gaining confidence, "he should have!"
"And now," the Pfalzgraf commanded, "will be your finest hour!"
"How does that happen?" Witney flattened his ears and questioned.
"Why, you are even going to defeat me," Pfalz joked. "Tell them you succeeded me after a great conflict. A battle royal, for certain!"
"A desperate fight to the death, huh?" Witney laughed. "Employing all of our teeth and claws in the most hideous way they ever saw?
"Please," Pfalz paused to lick his right foreleg, just above the paw, and requested, "you'll mess up my best tuxedo."
"So, how are we gonna do this?" Witney asked mischievously.
"Move aside and let me at that keyboard," Pfalz told him.
"You, a ghost, can depress the keys?" Witney asked him doubtfully.
"I leave tracks," Pfalz replied with a barely visible twisted smirk, "Now, don't I though?"
"Oh, yeah," Witney reminded himself. "All over the place!"
Witney watched as the Pfalzgraf calmly keyed in commands, moving from screen to screen with great proficiency. As he studied what the big black ghost cat was doing, the strategy of the situation formed in his mind. He had to smile as the old paladin cat's grand plan slowly revealed itself, and Witney warmed up to the proposal, despite the intense cold radiating from the onyx spectre seated there beside him.
After he finished his entry, Pfalz merely sat back and looked over at Witney, taking into account that the tabby followed all of his work.
"It's good," Witney commented, as he read the screen and nodded. "And, it's enough to convince them something dreadful happened down here in this gun turret."
"Most assuredly," Pfalz agreed.
"How did you learn to hack into this ship's on board functional record system?" Witney asked the authoritarian dark feline shape.
"Don't forget," Pfalz reminded him, "I was already here before any of the present system was ever installed. I saw every move they made."
"Fantastic," Witney surmised, shaking a head filled with amazement and admiration as he read the screen once more. "This will work!"
"Poor two-leggers," Pfalz commented as he resumed preening his paws. "They have no idea, do they?"
"I will be watching over you,"
"I am gonna help you see it through,"
"I will protect you in the night,"
"I am smiling next to you...in silent lucidity."
At last, it was time for Witney to go. And alas, it was also time for the ghost cat to go. Despite all of the trouble the Pfalzgraf had caused him over the past few weeks, Witney felt an acute sense of disappointment as he noticed the solid blackness about the ghost cat beginning to fade to grey. But, there was a bittersweet sense to it all. This is how it was meant to be. This is how it had been for hundreds of years, probably dating back to the time on Earth when men took to the sea in ships. Where there were people, there was vermin. And, whenever vermin was aboard the ship, the ship's cat came into play. It was a tradition as old as sailing under the stars, or sailing amongst the stars, ever was.
"The lemur's necklace is hidden behind storage locker two in the galley," the Pfalzgraf mentioned and stood up to leave the gunner's chair. "See that he gets it. That will reinforce your position."
"I will," Witney promised as the cold grey cat jumped from the seat.
"Keep an eye out for those space gremlins," Pfalz told Witney as a parting recommendation. The large shadow cat, growing indistinct and becoming more translucent by the moment, looked backward over his shoulder as he walked away, across the floor, toward the blister bay window. Witney was standing up in the gunner's chair, next to the computer keyboard, as he watched the gradually disappearing spirit.
"I will," Witney assured the departing spectre.
"Let others doubt you, but never doubt yourself," Pfalz reminded him. "Be the security cat that I know you can be."
"I will," Witney replied in a soft voice.
"Look to see me no more," Pfalz concluded.
At that moment, the bright smatterings of starlight shown clear through his body, and the large silhouette of a cat simply vanished into the Viceroy's bay window overlooking the universe.
"Auf wiedersehen," Witney whispered, but sure that the ghost cat heard his farewell, in the only German he knew, "Herr Pfalzgraf."
The orange tabby cat was then alone, silhouetted himself, against the stars. It then became so silent that he could hear himself breathe.
Witney sat in the gunner's chair for awhile and calmly put all of his deepest, most reflective thoughts, in order.
Witney was empowered.
He felt like he owned the Viceroy. He climbed out of the tunnel and exited the gun turret hatch, prancing across the floor, head up and tail high. The computer record would back him up. This ship was all his, and while he was perfectly willing to allow Rajen Pawthorn to be the captain, the other scurvy scallywags on board had better....
Witney's train of thought was rudely derailed as a web of plastic cord snatched him from the floor and hauled him high into the air. He almost flew into a panic, howling loudly as every bit of fur on his body blew up in an huge puff ball and all of his claws shot out of his extremities, as if on full automatic, before realization had overtaken him and he figured out what was happening.
It was the damn robot.
He remembered then that he had left it double-parked outside of the gun turret hatch. It had a snare net, and obviously, was not afraid to use it. What it didn't have was one lick of cognitive sense.
He was hopelessly entangled in the snare net, held high above the floor by an extension arm protruding out of the top of the robot's body. It held up Witney like a freshly speared carp and rotated its visual receptor as if to scrutinize the prize catch of the day.
"You," the cat informed the robot, "have the mind of a toaster oven."
Shelby heard hir office comm buzz. Shi had just entered the room to begin hir work day and was quite a bit concerned when shi didn't find Witney and the robot there, waiting for hir, as they had been for the past several days. Perhaps this call had something to do with that.
"Animal dispatch unit reporting," the robot's voice introduced itself to the chakat. "Intruder has been intercepted."
"You caught something?" Shelby asked it excitedly. "Bring it along, directly up to the bridge. The captain's gotta see this!"
"Ten-four," the robot called back on the comm to Shelby. "Suspect apprehended."
"It's me, you hear!?" Witney hollered at the robot, hoping Shelby would recognize his voice over the comm. "This self-propelled jack-in-the-box just missed the real target and snagged me!"
"Suspect apprehended," the robot repeated confidently on the comm to Shelby. "No excuses."
"You're a poor excuse, you tin-plated dog-catcher," Witney hissed. He was hanging upside-down in the grab net, slung over what would be a shoulder on an human while the animal recovery robot stepped smarty along toward the bridge. The orange tabby simply hung there in futility, swinging back and forth with each mechanical step as he went along for the ride. Many cats don't really care if they're held upside-down, anyway, for some odd reason.
Just another day at the office for a security cat.
The entry door to the bridge slid open and a wide-eyed, rather bemused chakat wandered in. Shi walked up behind an empty command chair, shaking hir head and slowly swishing hir tail behind hir.
"What's up, Shelby?" Chablis asked, seeing hir mate looking around. Everyone else on the bridge seemed busy at that moment, and Shab was the only one who seemed to have noticed hir enter.
"Where's the captain?" Shelby inquired.
"On his way here," Chablis replied, then repeated, "what's up?"
"The animal recovery robot finally snared something," Shelby replied, hir hands behind hir back, bouncing up and down on hir four pads a bit from sheer anticipation. "It's going to bring it up here."
"How do you know this?" Chablis asked.
"I got a call from the recovery unit as soon as I got into my office today, only minutes ago," Shelby explained. "It had netted something that it caught escaping from the number three laser bubble port entry hatch, of all places!"
That having been said, many more crew members began to notice Shelby. Several of them turned to watch. They all began looking at the entry door to the bridge with great expectation. It's easy to imagine what the reaction was when the robot walked in with its latest catch.
"Suspect apprehended," the robot announced.
When the crew saw that it was Witney hanging by his tail in the snare net, there was boundless hilarity for several minutes.
"Go on," the cat grumbled to his shipmates. "Yuck it up."
At last, someone came forward to address Witney.
"Outlaw cat gave you the slip again, huh?" Shylz bent down and asked the snared cat, his vulpine face wearing a grin so wide that you could count every tooth in his muzzle.
"It wouldn't have," Witney insisted, "if the Tin Woodsman from Oz here hadn't interrupted my investigation!" Witney kicked the side of the animal recovery robot with one hind leg, right through the catch net. Needless to say, the mechanical man scarcely noticed.
"I'll just bet," Shylz commented, straightening up, folding his arms and nodding with mock certainty. He backed away toward his station as Dreisilker approached.
"And I'll just bet," Silky added, "that he was cat napping in the gunner's seat and forgot the robot was outside when he woke up and sauntered out of the hatchway!" She wore a knowing smile on her muzzle, as not surprisingly, she interrupted many of Witney's naps inside her own stateroom in the past.
"No way!" Witney retorted. "I had a long, cat to cat conversation with that blackguard, and I made it clear who is the top cat around here, right now. We'll never see that cat again!"
"It's hard to think of you as the hero," Shelby noted thoughtfully, "while you're suspended, tail over tea kettle, in a fish net."
At that point, the door opened up again and Captain Pawthorn walked onto the bridge. He paused upon seeing Shelby and the robot.
"Well, what have we here?" Captain Rajen asked mirthfully, spotting the orange tabby slung like a sack of onions.
"Suspect apprehended," the robot replied confidently.
"Oh, go blow it out your bolt hole," Witney grumbled to the robot.
"Good day, Captain," said Chablis, welcoming Rajen brightly.
"Good, perhaps," Captain Pawthorn replied, walking around the animal recovery unit, taking in the situation, "but, certainly entertaining at the moment. Well, Witney how did you get yourself in such a fix?"
"I cornered the shadow cat," Witney maintained with conviction, "and this incompetent robot, as you yourself referred to it, sir, just caught entirely the wrong cat."
"Suspect apprehended," the robot added in its defence.
"Oh, nets to you!" Witney told it.
"You claim to have had a conversation with your nebulous nemesis?" Shylz, his arms crossed and leaning on the bridge railing in his typical cynical posture, reminded Witney.
"We had it out inside the gun turret, just before I showed that dark feline a thing or two. It was a cunning adversary and a most worthy opponent," Witney replied, waxing almost nostalgic.
"Oh, really?" Shylz questioned in a droll voice.
"Since talking to the shadow cat," Witney admitted, "I've adopted a whole new perspective on life!"
"Exactly one-hundred-eighty degrees from previous, I gather," Captain Rajen observed humorously, noting the cat's inverted attitude.
After he ordered the cat released from the snare net, Captain Rajen realized that Witney was attracting an audience like a stand-up comic in the last night club open where one could get liquor after four AM. He was seated on the bridge railing. All he needed was a spotlight. His latest adventure with his adversary sure was captivating, but the crew was being distracted from their duties and Witney's account seemed to be going on forever, and deliberately evasive, anyway. The captain decided it was high time he got to the point.
"Witney," Pawthorn interrupted a particularly colourful part of the cat's account, and asked at long last. "Where is the black cat?"
"There it was," Witney went on, looking above himself at the ceiling of the bridge, "coiled up, all set and ready to pounce, and I..."
"Witney," Pawthorn repeated himself. "Where is the black cat?"
"Well, it clearly planned to clobber me, so I..." the cat began.
"Witney," Pawthorn said sternly, making eye contact as he assumed an expression so severe that it became clear that this was the absolute last time that the captain would ask him. "Where is the black cat?"
"Umm...," Witney fumbled for the right words, "it's kind of gone."
"Gone?" the captain asked. Obviously, he demanded details.
"I spaced it," Witney said in a small voice as he faced downward.
"You what?!" Shylz asked incredulously.
"Witney!" Chablis exclaimed. "How could you?"
"Wow!" Chiffon marvelled. "I never thought it would come to that!"
"You owe me," Silky retorted, pointing at Chiffon as she sashayed on back to her own station, cleared her tail, and sat down, crossing her pair of shapely, silvery spotted legs. "Remember, I bet you that the little schmuck would never catch anything besides his lunch!"
"Witney," the captain reminded him, "I clearly ordered that cat to be captured, not to be destroyed!"
"Well, it kind of came down to him or me, and..." Witney explained, but Shard, who had been feverishly pounding away at his computer keyboard ever since Witney's admission, suddenly interrupted him.
"He's right, Captain," Shard reported excitedly. "The ship's latest operations log lists a breech in laser bubble port number three. Why didn't the alarm sound? This could have been pretty serious!"
"It was only a three second purge," Witney reported lamely, "when I'd realized my mistake and closed the escape hatch, but the shadow cat, of course, was gone. It was game over."
"How did this happen?" Shylz demanded, still assuming his customary pose, his arms folded as he leaned against the bridge railing, while he stared directly across the bridge into Witney's face.
The cat was still sitting on the bridge railing, just to the other side of the Con. His wide eyed expression was devoid of all humour. He looked like he was on the business end of a firing squad.
"When I got pounced on, it was like this strange, strong cold wind just bowled me over," Witney recounted. "I fell backwards off of the remote gunner's chair back and landed, stuck fast, in between the pad for the seat and one armrest. This put my opponent inside the ball turret, standing there on the gunner's seat, where it turned to face me again. I was struggling to get loose, afraid that it was going to come back and attack me again when I, I guess, I hit the wrong button on the control pad there on the armrest."
"When the outer emergency escape hatch blows," Shard explained to the rest of the crew, "the entry hatch seals automatically to prevent any explosive decompression. That's what's recorded in the ship's log."
"I guess I should've tried to trap it in the turret," Witney said in an almost apologetic tone, "but I was pretty desperate, and I goofed. By the time I realized what the right thing to do would've been, the cat was gone. I just punched another button to activate the system that repressurized the ball turret, and left."
"And, ended up in a giant butterfly net," Chablis concluded.
"Yeah," Witney agreed glumly, "thanks to the walking trash compacter standing over there." He motioned behind himself, toward the robot. "Suspect apprehended," the robot maintained confidently.
"As if," Witney disagreed ruefully.
"Well, that's that," Shylz called out, throwing up both of his arms in exasperation. "We're always at the same point with this thing. We have an incident with a witness, a clear indication that something went on down there, but no culprit, and no conclusion!"
"What did the robot see?" Chiffon asked innocently.
"Nothing," Shelby admitted. "Whatever went on down in that gunner's station was not recorded on camera. The robot can't fit down there."
"How convenient," Dreisilker commented in a statement just dripping with sarcasm. "Almost like it was scripted that way, as usual."
"You don't believe him?" Chablis asked.
"Oh, I believe he saw a ghost," Silky answered as she stood up from her station. She shook her head once to clear the long blonde hair from her face, then leaned back against the console and faced Witney, unblinking, cat's eye to cat's eye and held a firm muzzle.
"I'm not so sure I believe the rest of his story," she concluded.
"Wow, she's still a cat, isn't she?" Witney thought silently as he returned the sly stare from the snow leopardess with a blank and guileless expression of his own. He tried to look like an abandoned kitten again. Dreisilker was not buying it.
"I'm still in trouble," he asked Silky weakly, "aren't I?"
"Let me think about that," Silky replied after a long pause. A slow but sure shrewd smile was growing, visible on her spotted muzzle.
"I think we all need to think about it," Captain Pawthorn told his crew. "Our top priority here is protecting our rather sensitive cargo, and time will tell whether Witney has ended the threat from this intruder, or not. We must all remain vigilant."
Nobody disagreed with that.
"Now, Witney," Rajen continued, turning toward the cat, "it seems as though you have had another rather strenuous alterday. You need to get yourself some rest."
"Yes, sir," Witney concurred, stretching back, forelegs extended full out, toes fanning as well. He yawned widely, leapt off the railing and landed precisely in the centre of the Con. He then proceeded to soften it up a bit, kneading the seat with his toes.
"Witney," the captain said quietly, a smirk showing on his muzzle.
"Hmm?" Witney asked, looking up, eyes almost shut as if he were already half asleep. That cat could go from wide awake to fast asleep in mere seconds.
"Down in Shelby's office," he commanded softly, pointing at the exit door to the bridge, "if you please."
"Aww, nuts," the cat replied. "All right, if I must."
He jumped from the chair and walked around behind Shelby, who merely turned to look over toward hir captain and shrugged. Then the chakat produced the remote control, punched in some commands and walked the robot out the door as shi and Witney followed it and left the bridge.
"Everyone, return to your stations, please," Captain Pawthorn then told his crew. The wolf then seated himself at the Con and looked at a readout on a monitor not too far away from him. The event Shard had described in the log report shown right there, in several long sentences, highlighted in bright red light.
"I'm not so sure I'm comfortable," Rajen said to himself uneasily as he sat back in his chair, "when alarms should sound, and don't."
"I made it clear who is the top cat around here, right now. We'll never see that cat again!" Witney had claimed the day that the animal recovery robot brought him to the bridge in a snare net. Few in the crew believed that the tale of the shadow cat would end there.
But, that was the security cat's story, and he was sticking to it.
He was right. The ghost cat was gone. No shadow cats were spotted by the crew, or detected on any kind of electronic sensor equipment deployed everywhere on the ship. Not that the electronic measures ever discovered anything, anyway. After an exhaustive search, even Shylz had to report to Captain Rajen that the crew would have to take Witney at his word. The outlaw cat disappeared as mysteriously as it appeared in the first place. Since no one else was in that laser gun turret with the two cats, no one else would ever know the whole story. But, they did not need to know. The Viceroy's secret cargo remained concealed, and life on board the ship had once again approximated normal. Normal by the standards of one extraordinary vessel, that is.
Witney was perched on the bridge railing as he watched the early shift change just a few days after his final confrontation with a feline member of the afterlife. Crew members who entered had been greeting him as if he rightfully belonged there, cooling his heels after another alterday patrol.
At that moment, Chiffon entered to begin his regular shift.
"Hey, everybody," Chiffon greeted the bridge and waved cheerily. He was scantily clad in a rather revealing, daringly low cut, bright red one-piece swimsuit-like outfit that left many of his better developed areas naked, but for his fur. He flounced over to his chair, and tossing his big, fluffy tail aside, hopped into it while still cheerfully facing the rest of his shipmates on the bridge.
"So how's everybody do...YOWTCH!" the lemur yelped and bobbed back up in the air as quickly as he sat down, landing upright on the tips of his toes. He reached a hand back to rub one cheek of his trim, prominently displayed bare posterior.
"Something just bit me!" he announced, turning to look behind himself. "What the heck is in my chair? Hey! Look at this, gang!"
Chiffon held aloft a sparkling chain studded with red stones while he sported a warm smile that was growing wider as he displayed his find to the rest of the room.
"Witney, did you find my necklace?" Chiffon asked the cat.
"Recovered it from the ghost cat," Witney replied as he sat up proudly and nodded assuredly.
"I'm surprised you found it!" Chiffon said in wonderment as he looked down, ran the necklace through his hands and inspected it thoroughly.
"Maybe he wanted to turn state's evidence as part of a plea bargain," Witney kidded him. "We had enough on him for Shelby to book him and throw him in the brig for all eight of his remaining lives."
"Well, thank you!" Chiffon looked up and told the cat gratefully.
"Just doing my job," Witney replied smartly, "as security cat."
This time, there were no dubious responses from the rest of the crew. Maybe because Silky hadn't arrived yet. When the lissom leopardess drifted in from the bridge entrance, Chiffon was first to greet her.
"Hey, Silky!" Chiffon called out, displaying his necklace. "Now, you owe me! Look what I just got. I guess we're even now, huh?"
Dreisilker stopped dead in her tracks, emerald eyes widening in sheer disbelief as her tail drooped. Chablis had to laugh, because this dramatic moment happened just as Silky was walking past hir station.
"She bet me that I'd never see my necklace again," Chiffon told the rest of the crew, nodding his head, his tall ears held high.
"Why, Witney," Silky remarked turning toward the orange tabby, parked like a little decorator gargoyle, not too far away on the bridge railing. "Did you deliver that?"
"Well, it wasn't the postal service," Witney announced. "Come to think of it, if it was delivered by the postal service, that necklace would have been tied in a knot."
Silky tipped her blonde head and rotated her ears forward as a new and unusually friendly warmth began to flicker in her green eyes.
"Why don't you stop by my place for a little nap time," she offered, her eyes closing to mere slivers, "before your alterday shift?"
"I'm all over it!" Witney agreed, a real Cheshire cat grin spreading around his muzzle as he swung his tail side to side a time or two.
"Just remember to keep your knives in a drawer, won't you, please?"
Dreisilker reached out a hand and flicked a few fingers forward, clicking her nails at Witney, as she smiled and winked at the cat, before proceeding to her duty station.
"My, my," Shab commented brightly. "We kitties certainly are purring today, now aren't we?"
"Sure beats having to break up another cat fight," Shylz turned in his chair and commented to his navigator as she passed by his station. Silky did not reply, merely made sure she ran her bushy, silver tail teasingly under his nose as she passed him.
Shylz sneezed, shook his head once and burst out laughing himself. That got most of the rest of the crew going as Witney merely looked around the room and nodded in satisfaction. "Lively audience, today," the orange tabby commented to himself.
As if on cue, the bridge entry door slid open and Captain Pawthorn made his appearance. He paused and looked all around the room.
"Did I miss something, Shab?" he asked Chablis as he witnessed so many of his crew chuckling and in high, good spirits.
"Oh, good day Captain," Chablis remarked between snickers, "It's just that Witney, here, has just saved the day, once again, it seems."
"Check it out, sir!" Chiffon called to Rajen, displaying the newly found missing necklace. The twinkling, ruby red baubles matched Chiffon's outrageous red attire perfectly.
"It's not uniform standard issue," Captain Pawthorn remarked, the wolf's eyes widening as he shook his head gently, "but it's you!"
"Thanks, sir!" Chiffon replied briskly, donning the neckwear around his sporty ruff, before sitting down and beginning his duties.
"Well, Witney," the captain addressed the cat, "that was the stolen property, all right. You seem to have things well in hand, around here. Perhaps, in your case, I should say, 'well in paw', right?"
The self-assured feline merely nodded, his eyes closed.
At that moment, the captain's comm buzzed. The chief of security requested any final orders regarding the animal dispatch unit.
"No, I think we're ready to return it," Rajen told the chakat as he glanced at a very contented Witney. "You can take it down to Rob."
Upon receiving the captain's instructions, Shelby guided the robot out of hir office with the remote control, intending to send it back down to the cargo hold, where it would be deactivated and put into storage until it was returned to its owners.
"I trust you'll not be needing it any longer?" Captain Pawthorn asked the cat while predicting his answer.
"Good riddance to bad rivets," Witney stated haughtily.
Rajen pretty much got the reply he'd expected.
Witney yawned widely. He began to recollect his most recent events. The cat was free forever from that snare net. He had prevailed in his trying experience, having dealt with the shadow cat, and survived his robot assistant. His shipmates seemed to be appeased without any more complaints about him. He decided that he deserved a prestigious place to take proper nap. Captain Pawthorn smiled as he observed where Witney was heading, and shook his head with amusement. He had to return to his cabin anyway, to tend to some of the ship's trade records. As he turned and walked off of the bridge, Witney descended the railing and took his rightful place, curling up, eyes closed and nose covered over by his tail, in the only place on the bridge that really suited him.
The captain's command chair.
Copyright © 2011 James L. Brandt
Chakat Universe is the creation of Bernard (Goldfur) Doove and is used with his permission.
Return to the Forest Tales main page.
Return to the Chakat's DenTM main page.