Written and Illustrated by
Terry Knight and Grant Preston
The Dreamstar main docking bay was a hive of activity, the cavernous entrance receiving shuttlecraft on a regular basis from outside as more ships unloaded and loaded up cargoes. Everywhere was the clatter of metal against metal as the loaders and support teams busied around their charges. Being out on the frontier normally meant that Dreamstar didn't get much ship traffic, but that was before...
High above the docking bay floor, MayFurr stood at the observation deck, silently looking out the great viewing window into the blackness of space beyond. The red-furred anthropomorphic fox shifted slightly as he leant against the railing, his ears flicking back a little with the sound of softly-padding footsteps approaching.
"MayFurr?" a female voice asked. The fox turned around to see a feline 'taur-form quietly approaching from behind, joining him at the window.
"Hiya, Sundown," he smiled. "How's things going with the ambassadorial team?"
The chakat smiled in return, brushing some head-fur out of hir eyes. A typically female gesture, MayFurr thought to himself, though of course such gender assumptions didn't really apply to Sundown's species. Although outwardly female in appearance, there were more to chakats than what first met the eye.
"Almost ready, I think, May," Sundown replied. "Captain Walker has got us a good team for the delegation to Furry, and the official transport is scheduled to arrive in a few days." The fox nodded silently, returning his gaze out the window. Sundown's golden eyes followed his towards the bulk of the Terran starship Isaac Asimov, which hung in position outside Dreamstar several kilometres away. It had been four months since shi and MayFurr had arrived at Dreamstar Station, and during that time shi thought shi had got to know him well, but sometimes...
"When... do you think you and Ranthe will be back to the Nighthawk?" Sundown asked.
MayFurr sighed. "We're not."
"You... you're not going?"
"No." He paused. "I've handed in my resignation to the commander... Ranthe and I will be temporarily based on Dreamstar for a while."
"But why - "
"They didn't need me, Sundown," MayFurr murmured. "It didn't take long when Ranthe and I got lost for them to replace us, and now... well, there's no point in flogging a dead rodent." He smiled. "Besides, there's other things I've found since then that are just as interesting." They watched the stars and approaching ships in silence together for a while. Outside, a small ship appeared out of hyperspace beyond the Asimov, and rapidly approached the station. Small, with a rather unusual three-fin design, it was nothing like anything MayFurr had seen before. But then again, that was normal in Furrderation space.
Sundown followed his gaze as he watched the small craft get close. "You know that ship?" shi asked.
"No, I've never seen it before," MayFurr replied. They both watched as the tri-winged ship altered its course slightly to pass next to the Asimov, as if checking out the Terran explorer cruiser. Then it wheeled away and approached Dreamstar's huge docking bay. MayFurr humphed. That was a bit of a cheeky manoeuvre, but he knew from experience that the denizens of FurrySpace could be a very suspicious lot. Many of them tended to be naturally cautious, and a new capital ship was hardly something to ignore.
Behind them, the docking bay's approach alert sounded , warning all other craft to remain clear of the force-field enclosed entrance. They craned their necks down, watching the ship safely tractored in past the many repair crews and workbots, then crossed to the other side of the observation deck to watch it directed to its bay. Even through the thick windows, they could hear the engine roar, and MayFurr noted that many of the furs working on the deck had slipped their ear protection into place. Others were covering their ears best they could, glaring at the craft as it gracefully turned and settled into its landing cradle, the roar fading as its engines were powered down.
Sundown's eyes were wide with curiosity. "May, that's a starfighter, isn't it?" shi asked.
The red fox nodded. "That's right. I don't know the design, and the Nighthawk certainly never had anything like it. There's a lot of people building ships here, and... hey! Where are you going?" Sundown was halfway to the turbolift door.
"I'm going for a closer look," shi nonchalantly said.
"Uhh... Sundown..." MayFurr began.
"I know, I know," shi interrupted. "'Citizens of the Furrderation are always suspicious of strangers'," shi quoted, giving MayFurr back a line that he was always cautioning hir with. "But I'm an ambassador now, May. I've got to learn more about this place, even if it means stepping on my own tail a few times." With that, the lift doors opened and shi stepped inside.
MayFurr sighed, and began to follow. Chakat curiosity was sometimes more intense than any other feline species he had known, and he had been trying hard to convince Sundown to keep hirs in check. And failing miserably...
At least there was no sign of the pilot when they got closer to the unusual black and silver-grey fighter. Sundown eagerly paced back and forth, taking in the view, but MayFurr just stood and examined this new craft. It was smaller than his own Fiora's Fury, maybe about 10 metres long, carrying more than likely only a single crewmember. The three large 'wings' were actually solar panels, attached symmetrically to a short, cylindrical fuselage. Six obvious weapon mounts were easily visible on the forward wing surfaces. All of this spoke of a ship designed for combat, and one that wasn't shy advertising it.
"What do you think?" he asked.
"I like it," Sundown replied. "It's got a certain... something about it."
"Well, I don't," MayFurr said, his analytical mind kicking in. "The pilot's side visibility must be atrocious. It looks too fragile to be able to take more than a couple of..."
"Can I help you?" came a brusque voice from above. MayFurr and Sundown looked up to see a feline face staring down at them from atop the starboard wing.
"We're just looking at your ship, if that's okay, " Sundown replied. "It's certainly of a novel design that I've never seen before."
The feline on the strange ship nodded in acknowledgement, smirking a bit to himself as he saw the apparently female form below taking an interest in his vessel. "Hang on, I'll be down in a minute..." he said, and disappeared from view behind the wing for a few minutes. Sundown waited patiently for the newcomer, hearing muffled sounds of somefur climbing before the feline reappeared on the deck of the hangar bay.
Sundown smiled in approval as he approached. Dressed in a light brown jacket in a 'desert camouflage' pattern, a simple white shirt and a pair of blue trousers, the cheetah-morph gave an impression of casual confidence. "Hi," he smiled, still cleaning what appeared to be grease off his paws with a cloth. "Sorry - you caught me in some maintenance work up there, but nothing that can't wait. What can I do for you, ma'am?"
"We watched your ship come in, and thought we'd come down and take a look at it first-hand," Sundown explained, deciding to let the little matter of hir actual gender slide for the moment.
"Yes, the TIE-D is a pretty unique ship..." the cheetah replied, his tail swishing casually behind him. He finished wiping his paws and stuffed the cloth into one of his pockets. "Oh, the name's Lindgold, ma'am - and you are...?"
"Chakat Sundown, from Chakona, " Sundown said, extending hir hand out to him. "I came in on the Asimov - the ship you flew past on the way in."
"That thing?" Lindgold scratched his head. "Haven't seen anything that big for quite a while. Still, it's a big universe. Pleased to meet you, Chakat."
Sundown stifled a giggle. "Umm... please call me Sundown, Lindgold. Nice to meet you too."
Lindgold looked embarrassed for a split-second, then took Sundown's offered hand and shook it firmly. "Pleased to meet you, Sundown." He looked thoughtful for a few moments. "Chakona, hmmm... is that out spinward somewhere?"
"It's a long story, mate," MayFurr broke in, belatedly realising that the owner of the vehicle he was studying was actually present. "I'm MayFurr, owner of the Fiora's Fury, currently based here on Dreamstar. I came in with Sundown here when shi arrived."
"Ah - right. Pleased to meet you too," Lindgold replied, rapidly sizing up the vulpine standing next to Sundown. He wasn't sure what to make of him just yet, but he decided that he'd find out all in good time. "Well, if it's a long story, I'd like to hear more... shall we head somewhere a bit more comfortable?"
Sundown nodded before MayFurr could say anything. "Certainly - there's a good bar on the Recreation Deck... let's go there."
Ranthe sighed to herself as she watched Sundown and MayFurr depart the hangar bay with the feline they had been talking to, observing from the Fiora's Fury cockpit. It had been good to finally return to Furrderation territory after their long journey, but the long trip had taken its toll on both of them. Relationships that had been formed on the Nighthawk and other places were now long gone, and even the trip she had taken to her home-world hadn't gone as well as she had hoped. The long isolation from their normal lives during the journey from Chakona had cost a lot more than mere time.
And now May had handed in his resignation to the Nighthawk... what were they going to do now? There wasn't any problem with the SR-146 checkout that she had originally been hired for being cancelled. May still owned the Fury himself, but the ship needed a job to do, not to be some sort of hotted up plaything. Snorty, the Dreamstar administrator, had agreed to the Fiora's Fury being based here as part of the Frontier defence force, but Ranthe had seen the uncoordinated assemblage of vessels that inhabited the hangar bay. Ranging from overengineered battle-wagons to lightly-armed shuttles, she doubted that even Artania could turn this lot into an effective defence force.
The vixen's gaze followed over the rest of the hangar deck, her eyes alighting on one craft that looked like something from an ancient TV show featuring puppets. "What the hell does 'Zemyorka' mean anyway?" she grumped to herself, before turning her attention onto the latest arrival. Now that looked worthy of attention - even if it did seem to have a trouble with landing gear.
Far off beyond Dreamstar station, on a world orbiting a small yellow star, smoke rose from a large impact crater in a deserted area of one continent. The light from the setting sun shone weakly through the dust and smoke that covered the area in a thick haze, deepening the gloom descending over the barren landscape.
If anyone had stood on the rim of the freshly-created crater, they would have seen what looked like a large metallic sphere, hundreds of metres across, partially buried in the rock and sand. And around the base of the crater, small black figures moved about, purposefully and relentlessly working through the deepening darkness.
They had managed to find a good table in the bar that Sundown had mentioned. As the chakat told the story of how shi had come to be here, MayFurr was taking the time to examine their new acquaintance more closely.
His fur was the usual gold colour for a cheetah, but rather than his spots being black or dark brown, they were a deep shade of orange. And one of his more unusual features - he wore glasses. This was very strange, especially on Dreamstar, which prided itself on providing the best medical facilities in FurrySpace. But then again, he could understand a pilot being apprehensive for anyone to shine a medical laser into their eyes.
After Sundown had finished hir story, shi turned the topic to Lindgold's starfighter, and MayFurr's ears perked up with interest. This was something he wanted to hear.
"What did you call your ship?" Sundown asked. "A... 'tidy'?" MayFurr suppressed a chuckle.
"No, Sundown, he said TIE-D. 'TIE' means..." he suddenly froze in mid-sentence as the realisation hit him like a bolt from the black. "Twin... Ion... Engine..."
Lindgold sighed and closed his eyes. When he opened them again, MayFurr was staring right at him. He gave a single nod to the fox, confirming his surmise.
MayFurr's jaw dropped. "You're a... an Imperial?!" he stammered, unconsciously sliding away from the cheetah. Why didn't he pick that up before? Lindgold's expression suddenly clouded over, and he looked away from MayFurr and Sundown.
"Maybe I was once," he admitted, his voice on edge. "But I'm not anymore."
Sundown was confused. "I don't understand," shi said. "What's an Imperial, May?"
MayFurr's eyes narrowed. "Bad news," he said quietly, looking accusingly at Lindgold. "Very bad news." His voice was low, containing a hint of dread and revulsion. He sat silent for a few moments, collecting his thoughts, as Sundown glanced apprehensively from one to the other.
"The Empire is a large tyrannical dictatorship that the Furrderation first encountered around fifteen years ago." MayFurr explained. "Their sole aim is galactic conquest of everything and everyone, enslaving thousands of worlds and destroying those who stand in their way. Even they call themselves the Empire, like they believe they will be the only power in all of known space." Sundown listened quietly as the fox continued.
"The initial encounters between us and the Imperials was bloody... many ships were lost, and a number of border worlds had their populations wiped out in the Imperial advance. The Furrderation managed to hold them off in the end before they went after territories that were easier pickings, but..." He paused. "Sundown, these people have warships twice the size of the Asimov, with enough firepower to obliterate an entire moon - and they're not squeamish about using it if that's what it takes to get their way."
MayFurr's attention turned from the chakat to Lindgold, who was sitting listening in stony silence, his ears flicked back defensively. "Which brings us to you, friend," the fox said, laying a particularly accusing emphasis on the word, "What exactly are you doing here with an oh-so-convenient Imperial ship on the Frontier? Because if I find out you're an Imperial spy, I'm turning you over to station security - and I've heard that Artania has some very creative methods for extracting the truth."
Lindgold sighed long and deeply, shaking his head. He was tired of getting angry about this. He had seen the kind of stare that MayFurr was giving him many times before, when other Furrderation citizens had found out he was a former Imperial pilot. Out of the corner of his eye he noticed Sundown had a look of shock on hir muzzle - though he rather got the impression it was directed at MayFurr rather than him.
"You'd be wasting your time," he quietly explained. "Artania - and Administrator Snortenheimer - know exactly who I am." MayFurr's expression didn't change.
The cheetah nodded, slowly. "All right," he began, "The whole story. My homeworld was contacted by the Empire about sixty years ago. Yes, you heard right - that was contacted. Despite it's reputation, the Empire doesn't subjugate every inhabited world by force." MayFurr felt a scowl begin to form on his muzzle. Was he kidding?
"No," Lindgold continued, as if knowing MayFurr's question. "They're far more insidious than that. First contact was in space, quickly followed by diplomatic relations, where they convinced our government to 'join the great galactic community'. They give you these great speeches about peaceful domination, loyalty. 'Unity and strength' is one of their favourites. Of course, they were welcomed in.
"Joining the Imperial Navy was considered a great honour, and I managed to do it. It was only then that I began to find out exactly what the Empire was about." His voice took on a shudder and he began to bare his teeth.. "What they did to people who spoke out against them, let alone resisted..."
"What made up my mind was..." he paused. Sundown read the look that appeared on his face. Rage, betrayal, and sadness. "A government official on my homeworld openly spoke of breaking away from the Empire. He was stupid enough to mention the Rebel Alliance at the same time. The Empire didn't kill him, they... bombarded the entire city from orbit. Seventeen million people were killed, including my entire family."
Sundown gasped, hir eyes wide with horror. MayFurr looked away. By the Creator. How could anyone justify such an atrocity? He suddenly noticed a skritching sound, and looked down to see that Lindgold was beginning to bury his claws into the tabletop. Sundown and he silently waited as the cheetah slowly composed himself again.
"I was part of the Empire," he said, talking calmly and slowly. "I nearly got myself killed twice in combat, thinking I was somehow responsible. I soon realised I wasn't, but... I had to do something. I had to get out."
The fox-morph and chakat sat and listened to Lindgold as he told the tale of his escape. He had stumbled across plans for a new high-performance Imperial fighter, and realising that with the aid of this new class of ship, other worlds like his own would be subjugated and ground under the heel of the Empire. He decided to inflict the most harm he could upon the government he hated. So he stole the plans for the new craft - the Defender class TIE fighter - and after leaving a going-away present of a database crash in the Navy base computers, stole an Imperial Gunboat.
"I faked my ship crashing on an uninhabited planet, creating an impressive crater and dumping some old parts and stuff in it. I had to wait for fifteen days with everything on minimum power, watching and waiting for the Imperial Scouts to give up looking for me. Eventually they did, and I set my course heading for FurrySpace - you see, we had heard through the military nets of a civilisation composed of furries like myself. I thought if that was true, then that was the best place for me to go."
As he related his story, pausing occasionally for a sip of his drink, Lindgold carefully examined MayFurr and Sundown's reactions before him. The expression of scepticism on the male vulpine's face softened somewhat as he continued his story, and the chakat seemed to take it in calmly, nodding occasionally in encouragement. Seeing his audience becoming more receptive made it easier for Lindgold to carry on. He told them of the months of jumping through inhabited systems, buying or stealing enough fuel to continue his journey, and of finally breaking through into Furrderation space at last.
"When I arrived in FurrySpace it was in an Imperial Assault Gunboat. The first ship I encountered didn't want to believe that I wasn't part of a new attack wave. So... after tractoring me into their landing bay - they beat the crap out of me and threw me into their brig." He noticed Sundown suddenly flinch. Maybe it was his blunt choice of words.
"When they turned me over to the authorities, I co-operated as much as I could. Some people accepted my explanation for being here, others wanted to kill me. But, after over a month of interrogation, polygraphs, truth drugs, and even telepathic scans, they were convinced. I was granted political asylum, provisional citizenship, and the custody of that Gunboat I flew in on." He paused, looking at his audience. Were they new friends? He hoped so. Felines like himself were solitary creatures, but they never liked being totally alone.
"And I guess that's my story," he finished. "If you want to check it out - feel free to. Please."
"You've certainly been through a lot in coming here Lindgold," Sundown softly said when Lindgold had finally finished. MayFurr nodded, all traces of hostility towards the cheetah gone.
"And you're so sure they won't come looking for you?" he asked.
"Oh, I planned this for a long time. They think I'm dead," the cheetah smiled. "As far as the Empire is concerned, I crashed on a remote, uncolonised planet. And the most they would care about is that I took a perfectly good Gunboat with me."
"But that's not a Gunboat, is it?" MayFurr asked.
Lindgold nodded. "That's right, May. Remember I said I took some plans with me? The Gunboat I'd stolen was pretty much of a wreck, so I managed to flog it off to a recyc' yard. The credits I got from that, as well as some I got for some free-lance piloting work around Furry Prime, were enough to get Delta One - the TIE-D - build at one of the local yards." He smirked. "Of course, they haven't realised yet that I erased all plans for her off their systems once construction was complete. I didn't realise until a while after I came here that there was so much of an arms race in the Furrderation itself, so I didn't think it was a good idea leaving information around on a super fighter interceptor where anyfurry could get their paws on it." Lindgold leaned forward, looking hard into MayFurr's eyes. "Can you imagine what would have happened if the McKatt shipyard had started churning out hundreds of TIE-D's to anyfurry who asked?"
Probably would have been able to beat off the Borg attack a few months ago, MayFurr thought sourly to himself, but said nothing. Sundown spoke up, finding all the talk of weapons and battle a little disturbing for hir taste. "I guess that the Empire would not like that either," shi ventured. Lindgold nodded in agreement, smiling at hir.
"They wouldn't be too pleased to know I was here - let alone with an enhanced version of their most advanced starfighter."
MayFurr looked thoughtful for a few moments, picking up his drink and taking a long sip from it. "Lindgold," he eventually said, "It can't have been easy for you to do the things you've done in getting here, leaving your homeworld and everything you've known... I'm sorry for thinking you were a spy, and I want to apologise." He held out his paw to the cheetah-morph.
Lindgold studied the fox for a moment, before he took his paw and shook it firmly, a large smile breaking across his face. "I guess I would have felt the same if our positions were reversed. Apology accepted." With that, a smile mirroring the cheetah's broke across the vulpine's face as well.
Sundown looked at the two males with a feeling of great relief, joining in by holding their clasped hands between hirs. "I'm glad we've got that sorted out!"
"Well, if you'll excuse me," MayFurr said as he stood up, I've got a lot of work to plan."
"Maintenance?" Lindgold asked.
"Nope," MayFurr replied with a smile, concealing how he really felt about the upcoming work. "Artania has secured us some updated weapon pods for the Fury. Attaching them isn't the problem - it's tying them into our fire control system. The specs are completely different from the old ones." Lindgold scratched the side of his muzzle in thought.
"MayFurr - do you know anything about atmospheric flight dynamics?"
"I've got a reasonable knowledge," the fox admitted, scratching behind one ear in a similar gesture. "The Fury does have atmosphere capability, and the aerodynamics did need some alteration from the original specs - pylon flutter through re-entry, lift factors, that sort of thing. Why?"
"Maybe we could help each other out, then," the cheetah-morph said. "I do know a bit about target acquisition and weapon delivery systems, and making the two 'talk' to each other. What do you say?" The fox looked thoughtful for a second.
"I'd have to see what Ranthe thinks - but why do you need to know about atmospheric dynamics?"
"One thing I've been trying to work on - is to make Delta One capable of atmospheric flight - and maybe even planetary touchdown," the cheetah-morph replied. MayFurr blinked. Now that was ambitious!
"That's a big job - a VERY big job," he cautioned. "Especially for a vehicle that was designed as space-only - not only will you need aerofoils, but you'll need streamlining, boosted thermal protection for atmosphere entry..."
Lindgold frowned, his muzzle wrinkling. "You're saying it's impossible?"
"Not necessarily. But you'll need to do a lot of simulations on your new configurations and a lot of planning and hard credits. Dreamstar has facilities for the former, and I'm happy to help... but as for the latter, I don't know how much you've got to pay for all that."
"I'll be able to take care of that, no problem," Lindgold said, looking happier. "When can we start?"
The vulpine gave Sundown a quick hug before turning to leave. "Come and see me tomorrow about it, Lindgold," he said. "If I don't get back to the Fury soon and start work, Ranthe's gonna kill me. Sundown can tell you where we are on board the station..."
"Ranthe?" Lindgold questioned. "That's the second time you've mentioned that name, and Sundown did in her story, too. Exactly who is Ranthe?" MayFurr anxiously paused again. He really had to get going...
"Umm... I'll tell him, May," Sundown interjected.
"Thanks, love," MayFurr said, hurrying off. "Bye! See you, Lindgold."
The cheetah-morph raised a hand in farewell, blinking in surprise. "'Thanks, love'?", he thought. As part of hir story, Sundown had told him about the chakat race being androgynous, and shi waved off any apology he had tried to make about calling hir "ma'am". Were shi and MayFurr...? He let the thought drop. It wasn't any of his business, and besides, Sundown was rather good-looking. From the waist up, though.
MayFurr walked briskly down the corridor towards the central core of the station, heading towards the turbolift. The station was still quite busy with 'morphs and the occasional human from the Asimov wandering about. Several times the fox had to quickly edge his way though large groups of furs clustered around stalls and shops on the deck. He entered the lift, the doors closing swiftly and quietly behind him.
"Hangar Deck," he announced. Quickly, the lift descended - if such a term really applied in a space station - and soon the door opened, revealing once again the Dreamstar's cavernous docking bay. MayFurr stepped out, and was just about to break into a light jog towards his ship when suddenly a furred arm blocked his way. "Going somewhere, May?" a female voice lightly asked him as the fox abruptly stopped in his tracks. MayFurr turned to see an reddish-orange furred vixen dressed in a light orange jumpsuit slyly slide in front of him, grinning.
"Geez, Ranthe, I was on my way -"
"After another 'discussion' with Sundown, mmmm?" Ranthe answered, gently pulling MayFurr away from the lift entrance, much to the amusement of some passers-by. "You two have been spending a lot of time together lately, and not just during working hours."
MayFurr glanced around a bit, his ears pricked up. "Hey, d'you mind?" he complained, dropping his voice somewhat. "You don't have to tell the whole station 'bout it, y'know!"
"Awww May, a girl's gotta have some fun..."
"It'll keep, Ranthe, it'll keep!" The fox smiled, lightly batting the vixen's muzzle before heading off towards the ship, Ranthe walking beside him. "Anyway, we need to get those interface systems ready for the weapon pods arriving tomorrow, right?"
Ranthe nodded. "And getting the ship's database updated as well. What with one thing and another, we haven't been able to get that done since we've got back here - and there's a lot to catch up on. It'll need to be an overnight job." She scratched her muzzle. "Just as well Art was able to get those weapon pods organised. While you were with Sundown I got a message that the stuff on Nighthawk will take two weeks to get here."
MayFurr stopped. "Only two weeks?"
"Damn," MayFurr muttered. "They must have had the old hangar bay stripped out while we were on Chakona. I'm surprised they didn't dump it all." They walked on in silence for a few minutes, before reaching the Fiora's Fury. Ducking under one of the outboard pylon pods, Ranthe led the way to the entrance hatch, pausing a moment before turning to MayFurr behind her. "You know that Sundown'll be leaving soon for Furry Prime, May." Ranthe quietly murmured. "If I were you... I wouldn't get too attached to hir, if you know what I mean."
MayFurr sighed. "Did I complain when you were dating every darn vulpine on the Asimov on the way here?"
"Well, I am a vixen, May - got a reputation to keep up," Ranthe joked, before falling serious again.
MayFurr frowned. "I didn't think you were that sort of fox, Ranthe... at least, you never were with me."
"We... have a business relationship - and besides, you know the golden rule? Don't screw the crew."
MayFurr gave the vixen a dirty look, but said nothing, Ranthe realising too late that she had touched on a nerve. She gently took MayFurr's paw in hers, squeezing gently.
"I'm sorry May... I do care about you, really, you're a good friend. It's just that... I don't want to see you get hurt with Sundown, that's all..."
Night had fallen in the barren plain where the crashed ship rested. Dust from the impact was now covering the network of pipes, girders, and passageways that made up the structure of the sphere-shaped vessel. A consciousness stirred inside the ship, a consciousness made up of hundreds and hundreds of individual units working as a whole. It sensed the damage and pain that had been inflicted, and started to take stock of the situation. One moment it had been moving smoothly, serenely on it's unstoppable course towards the objective the group-mind had assigned to it, the next... somehow, it's path had been upset by factors unknown. It had traced an uncontrolled path through into this system, slamming through the atmosphere and into this remote area of one of the habitable worlds. Now it lay injured, bleeding fuel and organic compounds as it struggled to regenerate. Quite a number of individual units had been damaged beyond repair in the crash, but sufficient still remained to carry out repairs.
It had lost contact with the master group-mind, and the sensation of being alone was strange and terrifying to the consciousness. It needed help, it was alone, it had to reach out to contact the rest... but at the moment it was too weak to do anything but slowly rebuild its most vital systems. Contacting its fellows was something that could wait for the moment, when sufficient power was restored.
It was 0207, Station Time. Dreamstar Station never really slept, although many of the beings who chose to live and work aboard this massive artificial environment tended to align themselves with it's recreated day/night cycle. Psychologists for generations had said that an appropriate biological rhythm was necessary, and a suitable work/sleep cycle was part of that. The Asimov was still being tended by small shuttlecraft and work pods, but the frequency of departures and arrivals from the docking bay was much less than it had been earlier.
That was fine with MayFurr and Ranthe. It meant a whole lot less noise. They were both pulling a marathon work session on the Fiora's Fury, readying the two outboard weapon mounts. Not a simple task, considering that both attached pods weighed several hundred kilograms, and had a multitude of connections for data, power, firing controls, and lubrication.
And currently, Ranthe was not a happy vixen. As they had been lowering the starboard pod with an antigrav, one of the opened fluid lines had spurted some polymer lubricant onto her, drenching her forearms and staining her orange coveralls a scummy brown. They hadn't time to stop, so she just irritably wiped the worst of it off and kept going. They were working on the portside pod when Sundown joined them on the hangar deck.
"Hi!' shi cheerily greeted them, picking her way past the detached access panels scattered all over the deck.
Standing on the antigrav unit, MayFurr turned from disassembling the pod's mounting hardpoints. "Hi, Sundown," he said. "You're up late."
"Couldn't sleep," shi replied. "I'm getting a nervous about going to Furry Prime soon."
"Aw, you'll love it," the fox grinned. "There's some wonderful forests and parks there, you should feel right at home."
"What are you doing here, then?" Ranthe asked, leaning out from behind the antigrav control panel.
"I know you're short of time. I thought I could give you a helping paw, if you want one," the chakat asked.
"Sure," replied MayFurr. "You can pass me..." As he turned, he didn't notice that he accidentally knocked a large and heavy hydrospanner off the cylindrical pod. A second later there was a 'clunk!', and a loud yelp that actually echoed in the huge bay.
"MAAAAAY!" Ranthe screamed, as she clutched her left foot in pain.
"Omigods!!" MayFurr gasped, jumping down off the antigrav and hurrying to the vixen's side. He paused for a second, not knowing what to do, as Ranthe lowered herself to the deck, still holding on to her foot. MayFurr had told her to wear her work boots... but if he mentioned that now, she'd swipe him one just for being right.
The fox couldn't think of anything to say, apart from the usual 'does it hurt?'. He finally managed to come out with, "I'm so sorry... should I get the medkit?" Ranthe only glared at him.
"No," she seethed, as she held out her arms to them, and MayFurr and Sundown helped her stand up again. "I'm starting that database update," she snarled, limping towards the Fury's open hatchway. "Sundown can help you!"
MayFurr sighed with frustration and regret as the vixen disappeared inside. He wanted to rush after her and apologise again, but it wouldn't help. He'd hoped he'd escaped his accident-prone jinx when he left the Nighthawk. Wasn't to be, it seemed...
Ranthe slouched in her chair, sullenly massaging her damaged foot. Thankfully there was nothing broken, but she would soon have a huge bruise and would be hopping around for days. She felt a little bad for snapping at May like that, and to a certain extent this was her own fault, but what was done was done.
She glanced up at the computer monitor. The link was complete to Furry Prime, so she tapped into the appropriate area and began her updating.
Gods above and below! It was crawling along! Estimated completion time... twenty-seven hours? What was going on here? She jabbed at the intercom, connecting to the Dreamstar computer centre.
"Artania, what's wrong with the computer?" she demanded.
"Nothing's wrong with it, although it is a bit busy." came the reply of the station administrator. As always, she sounded cool and composed, even at this late hour. Although Artania was outwardly feline in appearance, Ranthe knew that Dreamstar's effective second-in-command was not what she appeared to be. The main bulk of Artania's real body was a dark-looking ovoid spaceship that was lurking in one of the hangar bays. Artania's ability to split parts of 'herself' off to do different jobs while simultaneously communicating with all had made her an extremely capable asset to Snortenheimer and Dreamstar Station. However, she was practical to the point of ruthlessness.
Ranthe bit back her first incredulous reaction to Artania's words, grinding her teeth lightly together before speaking again. "Busy? I've just got a completion time of over a day!"
"I'm not surprised. We're doing a Frontier Integrity Scan, and that takes up a lot of cycles. And there is someone running very intensive fluid dynamic sims in the rest of the free space."
"Even if it makes the computer this slow?"
"There's virtually no-one else up at this hour." The voice grew a little colder. "I've allowed it, Ranthe. The time was reserved well in advance. I'll only override for urgent matters." With that the intercom clicked off.
That was IT! Ranthe's upper lip curled back, exposing her canine teeth. First that liquid polymer all over her, then May and the spanner, now THIS! She then straightened up and stabbed at the console keys. When she had what she wanted, she leapt up out of her seat and out the Fury's hatchway.
Sundown cheerily greeted her again. "Good news, Ranthe. May thinks that he can get the..." The chakat trailed off as the vixen limped past hir, a very disconcerting expression clouding her face. Never had shi seen Ranthe look so angry, even from when they had first met on Chakona. Shi dropped the tool case shi was holding and padded off after Ranthe, however shi was not fast enough to follow her into the turbolift before the doors closed. MayFurr chose that moment to emerge from behind the half-detached pod.
"Right, Sundown, can I have the metallurgic integ..." He stopped, realising the chakat was gone, and looked up in time to see the lift doors closing behind hir.
"Level Four, Main Administration," the lift politely said as the doors opened. Ranthe stalked out, glanced around, headed to the main access area. There was a single occupant in the room, standing in front of a large holotank, his back to her, his long, spotted feline tail slowly waving back and forth. The tank contained a 3-D image of some strange tri-winged ship, looking as though it was being buffeted around by some unseen forces.
Ranthe's ears flattened as her anger surfaced, and she marched up behind him. He seemed to be so engrossed in his work, he didn't even react to her presence.
"Hey!" she snapped, grabbing his shoulder, "Are you the one who..." She never got to complete the sentence. A furred hand clapped itself over hers, and another snaked itself around her arm, spinning her in a circle. Something kicked her legs out from under her, she yelped as the floor rushed up to meet her, and again as she thudded onto the textured surface.
"Who're you?!" a voice demanded, as Ranthe snarled and began to struggle against the hold. A sudden jolt of pain up her arm did nothing to convince her to stop.
Just then the doors opened yet again, and in hurried an anxious Sundown, who came skidding to a halt as shi took in the scene in front of hir. Their new cheetah-morph friend, standing over a wildly struggling Ranthe, her arm in a painful-looking wrist lock.
"Lindgold!" shi shouted, not knowing what to do. "What are you doing to Ranthe?!" Lindgold glanced up, his expression changing from determination to shock.
"Ranthe? This is Ranthe?!" he blurted out, immediately letting go of the vixen's arm and stepping back. Ranthe's anger had now reached it's peak, and she vaulted to her feet, teeth bared and ears completely flat. She leapt at the cheetah-morph, ferociously swinging her claws and fists at him. But wherever she swung, he suddenly wasn't, which only made her slip deeper into her rage.
"Ranthe, no!" Sundown exclaimed, and shi bounded up behind the furious vixen, grabbed her around the waist with hir powerful arms, and lifted her clear of the floor, rapidly back-pedalling.
"Sundown! Lemme go! I'll kill 'im!" Ranthe snarled, flailing her arms and legs uselessly as she struggled against the chakat's grip.
The chakat ignored the vixen's demand, instead holding Ranthe as tight as shi could, concentrating on restraining her. "Calm down Ranthe! Get a hold of yourself!" Sundown pleaded as Lindgold gasped for breath in front of them, the short but furious encounter temporarily winding him. "Come on Ranthe, leave him alone! What's he done to you?"
The cheetah-morph stood before them both, rubbing his arm where Ranthe had scratched at him. "This is Ranthe?" he repeated incredulously. "Sundown, you never said - "
"WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON HERE?" a loud voice boomed out from behind them. Sundown, still holding the kicking Ranthe securely, and Lindgold quickly turned around, to see MayFurr standing in the doorway, a look of shock and surprise on his muzzle.
That did it for Ranthe. "YOU!!!" she screamed, and lunged at the startled fox, nearly tearing herself out of Sundown's grasp. "It's all your damn fault - !" She never finished the sentence, because at that point MayFurr strode up to her, grabbing her by the shoulders and vigorously shaking her. "Settle down, Ranthe!" he ordered her. "Calm down, dammit!" At that, Ranthe stopped in mid-snarl, her mouth gaping open at MayFurr in shock.
It took a few minutes before Ranthe was sufficiently calmed down before Sundown would let her go. Even then the chakat made sure to place hirself in between the still-seething vixen and the now recovered but bewildered Lindgold. Even after MayFurr had intervened, Ranthe had still been intent on attacking the cheetah-morph until he had threatened to call station security... which seemed to jolt her quickly out of her rage. "So let me get this straight..." MayFurr observed, sternly looking Ranthe straight in the face. "You found the update of the Fury's systems was going to take longer than you thought, Artania told you there was someone else using the system... so you decided to take off up here and pull Lindgold to pieces - "
"It wasn't like that," Ranthe tiredly interrupted.
"Then what was it like, Ranthe?"
The vixen sat there sullenly, not answering. MayFurr turned to the cheetah-morph. "Lindgold?"
Lindgold cleared his throat, his ears flicking forward and his tail brushing impatiently behind him. "MayFurr... all I was doing was running some simulations in the holotank for the aerodynamic mods I was planning for Delta One - " he started.
"May, I don't have the time or the inclination for this bloody kangaroo court," Ranthe snapped. She stood up from where she was sitting and strode angrily towards the door. "If you'll be so kind as to leave me alone, I'm going to my quarters now." As she passed Lindgold, she stopped briefly beside him, turning to face him before Sundown could catch up to her. "And as for you," she hissed into his ear, "I've got one thing to say to you... stay out of my way from now on."
Lindgold stood there, his mouth gaping open in surprise, as Ranthe stormed through the door and vanished from sight. When he turned to the others, MayFurr had a paw over his eyes and his ears lying back in embarrassment, while Sundown was conspicuously studying the ceiling tiles.
"That was your co-pilot, May?" the cheetah-morph asked incredulously. MayFurr looked up, nodded, then covered his eyes again. "Fairly new to FurrySpace, is she?" Lindgold asked again, his voice hardening.
"Actually, she's pretty much a veteran, now," MayFurr answered.
"Then is she incompetent, or just plain stupid?" the cheetah snarled, turning back to the holotank controls.
What? MayFurr's first reaction to that was shock, quickly replaced by indignation. Who was he to talk about one of his closest friends like that? "Now listen, you..." he began.
"No, May, you listen!" Lindgold snapped as he spun around to face the fox-morph, ears flat and fangs bared. "Your vixen friend grabbed me from behind. Completely out of the black! I could have caused her some serious damage. She doesn't know how lucky she is!"
MayFurr's ears flicked back with anger this time, and he was about to give Lindgold a piece of his mind when a furry arm slid around his waist, and a hand gently slid into his. He turned to regard Sundown's gentle golden-green eyes, pleading for calm and peace.
"May, he's right," the chakat purred. "When I arrived, Lindgold had Ranthe pinned. When I told him who she was, he let go. Even when she attacked him, he didn't fight back. I think he really didn't want to hurt her." MayFurr glanced back up to Lindgold, who was now leaning up against the edge of the holotank console. He looked about as regretful as a cheetah could. He turned towards the fox and chakat, running a hand through his head-fur in a gesture of tired exasperation.
"May - May, I'm sorry," he apologised. "I shouldn't be grousing at you about this. If you want to call off our arrangement, I'll understand."
MayFurr felt his anger drain away. He knew that Ranthe's temper did cloud her better judgement sometimes, and grabbing somefur from behind really was a foolish thing to do. And Lindgold was ex-military. That he had verified with Artania earlier in the day, and gotten a complete history on him, as he had invited them to do. He felt somewhat ashamed after he read it. Everything the cheetah-morph had told them last night was absolutely true. Even verified by psi-scan.
Art had also informed him of two other incidents. Lindgold had been confronted twice by furs who had lost relatives or crewmates in the initial Imperial contact with the Furrderation. Forced to defend his life, the cheetah-morph was ruthlessly effective - then had almost broken down in tears each time, horrified at the harm he had inflicted. Nothing fatal, but still quite unpleasant.
He found himself shaking his head. "No, Lindgold, no," he repeated slowly. "I'll have a word to Ranthe later, try to smooth her fur down a bit." He gave a long, tired sigh. "It's late. We should all get some sleep." Lindgold slowly nodded, then turned back to the holotank and began tapping keys, ending the program. MayFurr put his arm around Sundown and directed hir towards the door. "C'mon, Sundown. Let's pack the Fury up for the night..."
"The Gambit Solution" Copyright 1997, 1998 Terry Knight and Grant
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