Written and Illustrated by
Terry Knight and Grant Preston
The next day or two passed remarkably free from incident as MayFurr and Ranthe continued their work on the Fury. Despite his rather rough introduction to the other half of the Fury's team, Lindgold was true to his agreement with MayFurr, and was providing valuable assistance in reconfiguring the ship's fire-control systems to handle the new weapon pods. Even with the extra help, it still wasn't an easy job, particularly as the fox had to ensure that Ranthe and Lindgold always kept as far away from each other.
Ranthe's temper had cooled somewhat, but she still wanted as little as possible to do with the interloper. It wasn't helped by the fact that MayFurr had invited the stranger to work on the ship without asking her first. She was the tech-rep for the SR-146, not some damn cat from the back-end of nowhere, not matter what kind of ship he rode in on. But, and she hated to admit it, Lindgold did seem to know what he was doing. Which made her resent him even more.
For his part, MayFurr was lending his expertise to Lindgold with his aerofoil simulations for the TIE-D. The original design Lindgold had envisaged required quite a bit of modification in order to work, but again, progress was being made.
The shuttles travelling between Dreamstar and the Isaac Asimov had all completed their journeys. Fully fuelled and provisioned, and leaving behind a capable ambassadorial team, the time had come for the Terran explorer ship to depart for Chakona.
Sundown watched from the main observation window on the Recreational deck, a mixture of emotions running through hir mind. This was it then, the last physical link to hir homeworld about to leave... Shi thought about Swiftsure, so far away now, and so remote. Even at the speeds the Asimov and her sister ships could travel, it would be over two Terran standard years before hir chakat lover would be able to join hir - if shi wanted to by that time. And all shi would have now would be the company of strangers. Well... almost. There was the rest of hir team going to Furry Prime - a mixture of other chakats, 'morphs, and the occasional very lost-looking human. And of course there was MayFurr and Ranthe, whom Sundown had got to know reasonably well during the time they had spent together on Chakona and the journey to this place.
Shi wasn't really quite sure what shi wanted with him, even after this time. Sometimes shi felt that... maybe it could work? But other times... Sundown shook hir head, clearing hir thoughts, returning hir gaze to the window and the vast ship beyond.
MayFurr scratched the join in hir back between hir torsos in the way shi liked, and shi looked up to him. "It's almost time," he softly murmured.
"Yeah..." Sundown slowly nodded. As if on cue, thrusters on the Asimov started firing, nudging the great ship away from the parking orbit it had held for so long. Slowly, the Terran vessel began to move towards the Frontier barrier, a hole opening up in the force-field as it drew closer. From the observation deck, the Asimov appeared to grow smaller as it picked up speed, the main impulse engines becoming visible from the station as she began to pass through the barrier.
Sundown blinked back tears as shi watched hir home for the past six months pass through the portal, slowly moving from sight behind the shimmering barrier. Shi leaned into MayFurr, who put his arms around hir and held her tight, comforting hir. The chakat looked up briefly to see Ranthe standing a short distance away, leaning on the railing intently watching the ship. Now the barrier started to close as the Asimov moved beyond it, the portal shrinking and cutting off the view. Just before the opening closed completely, Sundown saw the familiar flash from the Asimov's main engines as the ship leaped into warp.
Sundown stared at the place in the barrier where the opening had been for a long time, before sadly moving away.
Artania breathed a small sigh of satisfaction as she looked at the massive holographic display screen, currently showing a view of the empty space around the station. After seeing the bulk of the alien exploration ship for the last month, seeing again the vastness of space unencumbered by oddities and artefacts was refreshing to her. The feline 'morph turned around, her eyes scanning again the inside of the twenty-metre-across hollow globe that made up Dreamstar Central Control. She was standing in almost the exact centre of the globe, on a layered platform supported by a pedestal from the base of the sphere. Here, Artania felt very much in the centre of power, floating in space in perfect command just like the station did at the edge of the Frontier. Even the lights here were diffused into the wall, lending an appropriately unearthly shadowless aspect to this room. As was normal for anytime in here, crew were working at the various stations as usual, handling general administrating tasks, enquiries from across the station, and routing ships in and out of dock. Of course, with the departure of the Asimov from Furrderation space, the workload of the docking crews had decreased significantly, much to the relief of some who had been working extended shifts in traffic control. Sensing rather than seeing him, Artania noticed Snortenheimer making his way into Control across one of the four access bridges to the command hub. She waited patiently for the furry dragon to arrive, keeping one watchful eye on the crew on duty. "I see our visitors from Terra got away safely," Snorty observed, glancing up at the holoscreen display. "Any problems?"
"No, none," Artania replied. Outside several massive tractor arrays that had been monitoring the ship throughout its visit finally shut down. Monitoring capital ships like that was standard procedure, the amount of damage that could be caused by a ship that size ramming the station was just too much to risk. "The Frontier barrier's behaving itself, and I got the scan of their ship going to warp. It's all up to them how they get back to wherever they're going now." She paused, bringing up a report from the extreme range sensor arrays. "Actually, I'm glad they've gone."
Snorty slowly blinked, idly fingering the datapad he was carrying. "Why do you say that, Art?" he gently enquired.
"It's... well, with what's been happening lately with attacks on the station, our... visitors are just another liability for us to protect. Our defences are stretched enough as it is without an unarmed starship to protect as well."
"In case you've forgotten, that is one of our jobs out here," the dragon chided her. "Support to ships in this area does include defence, you know that as well as I. And we have the Fiora's Fury from Nighthawk, as well as the possibility of Delta One added to our command, which will make up for the problems that Cygnus are having."
"Lindgold's ship - you know, the TIE Defender."
Artania nodded a fraction. "Ah."
The tone of Artania's voice struck Snorty as odd. She sounded cool at the best of times, but now she sounded very remote, as if her mind was elsewhere. Which, given Artania's ability to meld with the Dreamstar's AI computer and also her 'main' body, wasn't that unusual, but she was in neither of those states now. He looked into the feline's clear eyes. "There's something else, isn't there?"
Artania said nothing. Snorty tilted his head slightly, trying to get a response from her, but she just stared fixedly ahead. "As you wish," he eventually replied.
The dragon handed Artania the datapad he was carrying. "Anyway, here's the latest ship arrival and departure schedule for you to process when you have the time. The ambassadorial shuttle from Furry Prime is supposed to pick up the Stellar Federation delegation next week, and the rest... well, small ships, just the usual wormhole traffic. Nothing exceptional."
"Okay, let's run that sequence again Ranthe..."
"Got it," Ranthe replied, sitting in the Fury's cockpit, MayFurr's voice crackling through the intercom. The fox was outside the ship, standing upon a work platform next to one of the newly-mounted weapon pods, his arms buried inside. The vixen ran her paws over the control board, flipping some switches, intently watching the targeting display. It remained unchanged. "Nothing yet, May," she called softly.
"How about - "
The targeting display fizzled and shimmered, causing Ranthe to hurriedly restore some switches and controls. "No, that's not it - damn, put it back the way it was!"
A frustrated yip came through Ranthe's headset. "According to the specs, that should have worked. What a wasted couple of hours. Where did Art say she got these things from?"
An audible thump sounded through the open hatchway. Ranthe turned around to see Lindgold poking his head through the opening. "What do you want?" she grumped.
The cheetah-morph sighed softly. "Ranthe... How long are you going to be like this with me?" he wearily asked, pulling himself up into the cabin.
Ranthe scowled. "You think you can walk in here from nowhere and take over, you've got another thing coming," she flatly replied, the tips of her vulpine ears twitching.
"What was that?" MayFurr's voice crackled through the vixen's headset.
"Nothing May... nothing." She leaned over and cut the link to her partner before turning to face Lindgold, who was returning her annoyed look. I don't need this hassle, he silently thought to himself, May's okay, but this damn vixen just won't let it go...
"I'm not trying to take over what you do, Ranthe," Lindgold replied, a hard edge creeping into his voice despite his best efforts. "I've got my own ship to work on, I don't need the hassles with doing yours - "
"What's wrong with the Fury, I might ask?" Ranthe snapped.
"Geez, you're touchy, foxy!" Lindgold bit back. "All I'm trying to do is - "
"I'm touchy? I'm touchy?!?" the vixen shouted, beginning to stand up. "I'm not the one who..." She stopped in mid-sentence as the forgotten headset, still attached to the control panel, pulled her head back, forcing her to fall back into her seat. Ranthe blinked a couple of times, shaking her head, then with a realisation of what she was doing sank back into the padding of her pilot's chair, her temper abruptly deflated.
"Oh hell... I'm sorry," she mumbled, breathing a deep sigh and leaning against the flight console, resting her head in her arms. Part of her head-fur fell over her muzzle. "We've just been working on this damn pod for hours, and we can't get the targeting readout to stabilise." She lifted her head slightly to face the cheetah-morph. "I shouldn't be getting on your tail about it."
Lindgold said nothing for a few moments, stopping himself saying the usual clichéd 'It doesn't matter.' It did matter to him, he didn't like being hassled any more than the next fur, and he was damned if he was going to let some strange female just walk all over his feelings. On the other paw, he didn't want another confrontation, and saying just how he really felt at the moment he knew would just throw fuel to Ranthe's smouldering resentment of him. Instead, he tried another angle. "So what's actually the problem, Ranthe?" he asked.
"With this?" The vixen propped up her head with her paw, her elbow leaning on the console. "We've got the interface to the pod sorted out - I think - and it's accepting command inputs to the firing mechanism. So far it won't accept our scanner information, and I can't get a readin' on the pod's internal sensors - "
The cheetah male nodded. "Without that, if you can't send target information to the missile seekers, it's useless." He came closer to Ranthe, and looked over her shoulder at the console. "What you've got there looks okay to me. The pod's in test mode, right?"
"What do you mean, 'sortof'?" Lindgold's tail twitched.
Ranthe sighed again. "It doesn't actually seem to have a test mode. At least, not from what May and I have found."
"What does the documentation say?"
The vixen's muzzle wrinkled. "'Thank you for buying this weapon pod, we trust it will bring you years of faithful service'," she mockingly quoted. She shook herself, her foxy tail swishing from side to side behind her with impatience, brushing against the cheetah's legs. "I don't know where Artania found this thing, but until the rest of the equipment gets shipped over from the Nighthawk we have to get this mounted."
"Uh-huh." Lindgold thought for a while, fiddling with his whiskers. Eventually his eyes lit up. "Ranthe, I take it May is still out there?" She nodded. "Put me onto him."
Ranthe handed Lindgold the headset, which he put on. "MayFurr, it's Lindgold here," he began, "Tell me - is there anything in the pod missile tube at the moment?"
"Lindgold?" MayFurr's voice crackled back. "I was wondering what was happening in there... thought you two had killed each other or something. No, nothing's in the tube. It's safe as houses."
"Right." The cheetah morph turned slightly. "Okay May, Try..." and he rattled off detailed instructions into the mike. There was a short pause.
"You think that'll do it?" MayFurr replied though the link. "All righty then... here goes... got it. Get Ranthe to try it now." Lindgold nodded to Ranthe, who shrugged and restarted the targeting sequence. After a second or two, the monitor screen cleared, showing a perfectly normal screen!
Ranthe blinked in surprise, her mouth hanging open. "I don't believe it! It works!" She turned to Lindgold. "What did you get May to do that was different?"
The cheetah male grinned in spite of himself. "It seems the 'smart' control software wasn't going to start giving target information without an actual weapon ready to go... so I got MayFurr to give it one - or at least, something that looked like it," Lindgold explained. "As far as the Fury is concerned, the weapon is live." He handed the headset back to the surprised vixen. "I trust that helps?"
Ranthe looked at him, a smile beginning to form on her muzzle. "I never thought of trying that... yes it does, it does help very much!" she chuckled. She paused for a moment. "Thank you, Lindgold," the vixen said softly, her voice having a trace of warmth in it for the first time.
The cheetah-morph smiled back at her. Well, well. The beginnings of a thaw. "Anytime," he answered.
Later that day, the Fiora's Fury was almost finished. The new weapon pods were working fine, and so was the acquisition/lock software that had given them so much trouble. Ranthe had remained behind to tidy up the software into proper archives, while May and Lindgold had headed off to complete some other work, or so they had said.
Ranthe turned back to her console as it gently chimed at her. "That's it, completed!" she smiled to herself, clearing the screen and logging out. Her stomach suddenly reminded her it was time for dinner, so she ambled out of the hatchway, sealed the door shut, and glanced around the hangar bay. Now, where had those two boys gone?
After a brief search, she found them climbing over Lindgold's starfighter. This was the first time she had gotten this close to the unusual tri-winged ship. The thing certainly had enough solar panels on it, and it was a real design departure from something like the Fury. And damn, it was high. The wing/solar panel arrangement was symmetrically angled around it's small fuselage, and as a result it had no landing gear, but had to rest on a specifically-designed cradle. She bounded up the ladder of the small maintenance platform wrapped around the front section.
"May? Lind? How long will you two be?" she said as her head poked over the top. MayFurr looked up from whatever he was doing at the back of the wing support, an optical link solderer in his hand.
"Hi, Ranthe. We're almost done. How's the Fury?" he replied.
"All wrapped up," the vixen said, as Lindgold emerged from the cockpit hatch. "I'm going for something to eat," she continued. "You coming?"
"One minute," came May's reply as he turned back to the small access hatch he was working on.
"So, what do you think of Delta One?" came Lindgold's voice from above. Ranthe shrugged and looked around at the solar panel 'wings' surrounding her.
"It's... unusual," she answered.
"Like a look inside?"
"Sure," Ranthe smiled as she began climb up the handholds around the spherical portion of the starfighter. She took Lindgold's offered hand, and he helped her slide down through the opened top hatchway.
The vixen slowly slid herself down into the starfighter, her ears perking up at it's slight ambient hum. She guided her thick tail into the distinct opening behind the seat and glanced around. The cockpit was nowhere near as spacious as the Fury's, but was dominated by the large, front-facing viewport, the armoured window split into sections for strength. Forward visibility was superb, and other angles were covered by video screens. Ranthe gently grasped the right-side mounted control stick, and her left hand slipped over another contoured hand control. She sat up and stared straight ahead out the viewport. Every internal control was within range of her hands, and she didn't even have to move her head for her eyes to rest on any single tactical readout.
She bent closer to the forward console, recognising shield and weapon charge controls, target displays, and status readouts. Simplicity seemed to be paramount. In the heat of battle, it was possible for pilot to become confused when faced with too many things to pay attention too, and that, in turn, could be fatal. This ship's combat design philosophy was obvious.
"S'cuse me a second, Ranthe," she heard from above, and looked up to see Lindgold lowering himself headfirst into the cockpit. He tapped several buttons on the front panel, and the controls of the small fighter came alive, the ambient hum increasing in pitch. Ranthe saw the words 'Atmospheric Flight Configuration Engaged' light up on one of the screens. The cheetah-morph then pulled himself back out, and glanced towards the rear of the ship. "You clear, May? Okay, Ranthe, could you move the stick around a bit, please?" he asked.
The vixen obligingly took hold of the control stick once again, and gently moved it to the left and right, then back and forth, wondering what she was doing for them. Starfighters generally manoeuvred by vectored thrust, and the engines weren't even activated.
"Excellent. Thanks!" Lindgold called down to her, and stepped away from the hatch. Ranthe poked her head out of the cockpit, in time to see Lindgold join MayFurr on the downward-angled starboard 'wing' of the TIE-D. They both crouched down and appeared to examine something out of her range of vision.
"What did I just do?" she asked, hauling herself right out. Then she saw what they were fussing over, a set of wide flaps attached to the back of the wing. "Ailerons?" she inquired, her voice rising in disbelief. "On a starfighter?"
"I thought you knew?" May quizzed her. "That's what I've been helping Lindgold with for the past few days." Ranthe peered over to port. The other wing had a similar setup attached, as no doubt, did the vertical one.
"Ahhh," she sighed, "That's why you were running those fluid dynamic simulations," she said to Lindgold, as she began to climb down onto the access platform. "You're going to be in for one hell of a bumpy ride."
"The ailerons are only for assistance," the cheetah-morph replied as he and May began to climb down as well. "We found that Delta One isn't aerodynamic enough on it's own to fly in an atmosphere, so the main lift comes from more powerful antigravs."
"What now? More sims?" MayFurr asked as all three of them began towards the docking bay lift.
"No, I've taken that as far as I can," Lindgold replied. "I need to update the flight characteristics data to take account for these new mods. And there's only one way to do that."
MayFurr nodded and smiled. "Flight test."
The next day, the Terran delegation to Furry Prime was ready to depart. The small delegation was mainly loaded aboard their transport shuttle, which was having it's final flight check by the docking bay crew. Furs in work coveralls fussed over the shuttlecraft, securing fuel lines and other such important details.
Administrator Snortenheimer was also present. Although noted for his not standing on ceremony, the furry dragon did have some sense of diplomacy, and was giving them a proper send-off, however informal, mainly personal farewells to each individual.
Although an escort was not required, there would be one in the forms of the Fiora's Fury and Delta One. MayFurr had suggested that they accompany the delegation to the planet, then carry out their tests. Both the Chief Ambassador and Snorty had agreed, grateful of the extra protection the two craft would provide.
Alone in the small crowd of onlookers, Ranthe was mainly looking around for MayFurr. She hadn't seen him since they had both gone to their separate quarters last night.
"Ranthe," came a voice from behind her. She turned to see Lindgold, now dressed in a charcoal black and grey-trimmed flight suit. She gave him a brief smile of greeting. Now that they had gotten to know each other better, she realised for the first time that he wasn't that bad looking. For a feline that, is. She wouldn't call him a friend yet, just an acquaintance - but there was potential for that later.
"Have you seen May?" she asked, as the cheetah-morph stood next to her.
"Not since last night," he replied, his ears flicking down and back up. His glanced at his wrist chrono. "Sundown had better get hir tail in forward thrust. There's only ten minutes until departure."
Ranthe's jaw dropped a fraction. May and Sundown...? They couldn't have...
She turned and was about to sprint towards the turbolift, but it opened before she moved, and out walked MayFurr and Sundown, arm in arm. They both moved slowly towards the shuttle, as if spending the most time they could with each other. Finally they approached Ranthe and Lindgold, standing at the edge of the small crowd. Time for some more goodbyes.
Sundown clasped hands with the cheetah-morph first. "It was pleasant to meet you," she said. "I wish you happiness." Lindgold smiled at hir.
"And I you. Good travelling, Chakat Sundown," he replied. Shi smiled back up at him, then turned to Ranthe, who crouched down and embraced hir.
"I feel almost guilty," the vixen said. "We bring you Gods-know how many light-years from your home, and now we have to stay here while you..."
"Shush," Sundown chided her. "I chose to come, remember? And I chose to stay."
Then shi faced MayFurr. The fox's eyes were sad, but he was smiling. They said nothing, he merely knelt down in front of hir, then they embraced each other in a tight, passionate hug, pressing the sides of the their muzzles together. MayFurr gave hir a final squeeze and drew himself onto his feet again, still clasping hands with Sundown. This last contact was reluctantly broken, and Sundown slowly turned and joined hir fellow ambassadors.
"May - you didn't?" Ranthe asked, after the chakat had padded away. The fox looked at her, and gave a short, shy smile.
"We did," he admitted.
"May..." Ranthe softly spoke, putting her hand on his shoulder, offering her sympathy. MayFurr took her hand in his, squeezing gently.
"No, Ranthe, it's okay," he whispered to her. "Sundown and I talked about this last night. Furry Prime isn't that far away. I'll see hir again..." They both turned towards the shuttle, where the Chief Ambassador, a chakat by the name of Whitepaw, was giving a final farewell to Administrator Snortenheimer.
All of a sudden a klaxon sounded. Not the usual approach warning, but a loud, urgent siren. The crowd froze and looked around the bay, every furred ear flattening. Snorty's hand flew to his wristcomp.
"Status?" he snapped into the small device. The reply was muted over the klaxon, but Snortenheimer turned as ashen as a fur covered dragon could. He turned and almost flew towards the docking bay elevator, diplomacy thrown out the airlock. That was the cue for the rest of the crowd, scattering to various emergency stations or their own ships. The diplomatic team was just left there, wondering what the problem was.
All defence force pilots were quickly summoned to the station's main briefing room. The cacophony of speculation was quickly silenced when both Snorty and Artania entered, both wearing grim expressions. Arty quickly got some sort of order established, and Snorty spoke from the raised platform.
"We have to make this quick," he began. "About ten minutes ago, we intercepted a transmission from Sector 274, approximately five light-years away. It's a call from a damaged Borg ship." The hubbub immediately increased. The Borg were the most dangerous enemies ever encountered by the denizens of FurrySpace. They had even attacked Dreamstar, almost destroying the station.
Snorty waited for the noise to die down. "As far as we know, the transmission has not yet been answered. Dreamstar is the closest major base, and we're still waiting on a reply from Cygnus or the Nighthawk, so we're putting together a strike force. Who can be spaceborne in half an hour?" MayFurr clenched his teeth, and looked at Ranthe next to him. She looked apprehensive, but nodded. He raised his hand. Over the crowd, he caught sight of Lindgold's spotted fur and black-sleeved hand also raised, and another he didn't recognise. Snorty winced at the number.
"Three?" He muttered something in his native language. "How many within two hours?" This time at least a dozen furry hands were raised. Snorty turned to Artania, who was running over possibilities in her vastly powerful mind, her eyes narrowed in thought. A small iota of attention considered the combat readiness of the Dreamstar defence force, but it was flagged for later consideration and forgotten.
"Two strike teams," she quickly said. "The first three ships launch now, hyper to the location and assess. Everyone else, launch when prepped for the main strike. With luck we can have capital class support by then." There were rumbles of assent from the crowd. They had all learned to trust Artania's judgement in tactical matters.
Snorty's voice didn't have Artania's icy chill, but the quiet power was easily heard. "First team, draw whatever ordnance required from the Armoury," he said. "Second team, I want to see your weapon load officers in Briefing Room Two, in one minute. Move."
Organised chaos ensued.
MayFurr bustled his way past the loading techs. He had just spoken to Blackwolf, pilot of the Rapier, the third ship in their team, finding out what his ship was capable of. Arty had appointed him First Strike Force Commander, so he had to find out what he would have on his side. To be honest, it was an honour he could have done without, but given his experience on the Nighthawk, he was the best fur for the job. Blackwolf seemed like the reliable type, and his craft would carry much welcome firepower. Now he just had to see Lindgold...
"MayFurr!" He paused, hearing his name called. That was...!
"Sundown? What...?" he never finished the sentence as the chakat came bounding up to him, leaping over messily strewn fuel lines.
"All civilian flights have been suspended," shi gasped, clasping hands with him. Normally that would have meant they could spend some more time together, but not under these circumstances. "May, what's happening?" shi asked, eyes wide with confusion. "They haven't told us anything, other than there's a battle alert on. Who are you fighting?" The fox drew hir off to the side, out of the way.
He drew a breath. "They're called the Borg," he quickly explained. "They're a race of cybernetic beings, who exists for the sole purpose of assimilating other lifeforms into their 'group collective'. They sweep into star systems, consume every single resource, and annihilate any civilisation that happens to be there at the time." Sundown blinked, still not really understanding. Shi tried to reason hir way out of hir confusion.
"Ahh... May... we chakats are a neutral third party. Could we negotiate a truce..." MayFurr grasped hir by the shoulders, and she flinched at his suddenness.
"No, Sundown," he interrupted. "They don't work the way we do. They don't care about negotiations, or agreements. We destroy them, or they destroy us." Seeing the chakat's pained expression made him relax his tone. "We didn't chose this way, Sundown. They did." He quickly glanced behind him. "I have to go." Giving hir a final hug, he leapt away in the direction of Lindgold's starfighter.
Now confused and frightened, Sundown watched him go. Leaving Dreamstar was bad enough, but now MayFurr - and Ranthe - were about to leave on a mission where they could both be killed. Shi could easily sense the urgency around hir, and the anxiety of the other furs, which made hir even more fearful for hir vulpine friends. Shi managed to hide hir tears of concern - and helplessness - until the turbolift door had closed behind hir.
"Lindgold!" MayFurr called as he approached the TIE Defender. Several of the weapon loading team were on the starfighter's maintenance platform, using an antigrav to secure a sleek, blue missile into a hatch under the cockpit. "Everything's all loaded. Are you ready?"
Lindgold turned to face him. "Nearly finished." He turned back to the missile bay of his starfighter, now crammed full. A final arming check, then he stepped back as the hatch whined shut and closed with a secure click.
"Okay, that's it. Clear for launch!" he shouted, and the loading crew began to vacate the platform. Lindgold nimbly bounded up towards the top hatch, and gave the fox-morph a thumbs-up sign. MayFurr returned the gesture as he watched the cheetah-morph vanish inside, closing the hatch behind him. He turned and sprinted over to the Fiora's Fury as he heard the TIE Defender's engines begin to whine.
He passed under the starship's wing, giving the new weapon pod a pat for good luck. It was now packed with high-explosive missiles, courtesy of Dreamstar. He hoped it would be enough.
"About damn time!" Ranthe snapped at him as he entered, urgency in her voice.
"Keep your whiskers on!" he snapped back as he sealed the hatch behind him, beginning to feel the adrenaline rush himself. That and no small amount of fear. What they were about to do was by no means a run around the station to test new weapon pods. This was the real thing, against an intractable enemy. "Light the fires, Ranthe!" he said, strapping himself into the pilot's seat.
The vixen quickly punched controls and the Fury's powerful engines began to stir into life. MayFurr fumbled with his headset before getting it settled around his head.
"Delta One and Rapier, this is Fiora's Fury. Report status," he spoke into the mike.
"Delta One, standing by," came Lindgold's voice.
"Rapier, standing by."
"All right. Delta One, you lead us out and take point. Rapier, hold up the rear."
"Acknowledged," came the simultaneous reply.
Lindgold flipped the frequency on his comm as he secured his helmet connections into the cockpit's life support systems. "Dreamstar Control, this is TIE Defender Delta One. Request immediate launch clearance."
"Delta One, Dreamstar Control," came the response. Lindgold's eyes blinked behind his helmet. That was Snorty's voice. "Clearance granted. Proceed to bay exit. Good luck."
"Acknowledged - and thank you. Delta One out." the cheetah-morph replied. He gently increased his antigrav power, and his ship smoothly alighted and moved towards the cavernous exit. A small jolt as he passed through atmospheric force-shield, then he was in open space. Keeping a steady course around the debris field, he saw the Fury emerge on his rear scanners, followed by the Rapier. His comm crackled into life, May's voice coming through clearly.
"Fiora's Fury to Delta One, Rapier, am transmitting initial rendezvous co-ordinates to you. All of us are going to be stretching our range with this one, so we're going to link with a shuttle from Dreamstar carrying buddy stores of fuel. Once we're topped-off, we're going directly to the source of the signal."
"Won't we be losing time by refuelling en route instead of heading straight to the target?" Blackwolf wanted to know, his thickly-accented lupine voice reverberating through the Defender's cockpit from the comm speaker.
"You'd lose more time with dry tanks and the Borg up your tail," MayFurr coldly retorted over the comm. "We can't afford to be ill-prepared for combat, we don't know precisely what awaits us." Lindgold nodded to himself in agreement with MayFurr's words, though he had to admit that two-thirds of the combat flight now streaking away from Dreamstar was hardly in optimum condition. What with the Fury's new untested weapons array and Delta One's recent control modifications, there was a lot more than just personal pride at stake for these additions to work first time. The cheetah-morph briefly tapped at his flight computer, noting the flight co-ordinates transmitted from the Fury, and pressed the 'Accept' button. The navicomp beeped softly and lights turned green. All systems go - he was ready.
First Delta One, then Fiora's Fury, and finally the Rapier leapt away from the station as their main drive systems engaged, disappearing in a series of flashes as they sped towards the unknown threat beyond.
Dreamstar Station was a distant two and a half light-years behind them as the trio waited in the blackness of interstellar space, the comm channel between the ships silent in expectation,. It wasn't long before yet another flash of light heralded the arrival of another ship, this time a portly-looking runabout shuttle.
"Feeroar's Fuury from Zemyorka," a canine female's voice tinged with a Slavic accent announced over the comm, "Ready for refuelling operations. Come to mother, comrades..."
Quickly, all four ships started in-flight refuelling manoeuvres, the shuttlecraft trailing hose connector drogues that each of the military ships plugged into, each one busily pumping fuel from the makeshift tanker into their partially-drained tanks. First the Rapier, then the Fiora's Fury completed their refuelling, disconnecting in turn from the link to the Zemyorka. MayFurr and Ranthe watched out the Fury's cockpit window as Delta One took its fill from the shuttle, finally releasing the refuelling line and slowly pulling away. Tasha, the Zemyorka's owner, had been quite surprised when she found out what Lindgold had needed to refuel with - distilled water. Delta One's main power source was a solar fusion reactor, generating the energy required for it's ion engines. The fusion process required hydrogen, and the densest and most easily acquired fuel was water.
"Zemyorka from Fiora's Fury," MayFurr spoke into the commlink, "We're all done here. Thanks for the drink."
"My pleasure, tovarisch," came the reply. "And, how you say, good hunting to you."
The fox smiled. "Thanks Tasha, we'll see you back at Dreamstar."
"And all the best from me too, May!" came another voice over the link. Both MayFurr and Ranthe jumped in surprise at hearing the unexpected yet familiar voice.
"Sundown? What are you doing out here?"
"I never got a proper chance to wish you and the others well, May," the chakat replied over the comm. "I know how important this is, so I won't take long... good luck to you and Ranthe, and take care."
"Acknowledged Sundown, and thanks," MayFurr said softly. He thought of something more to say, but dismissed it - there wasn't the time. "Fiora's Fury to Zemyorka, return to Dreamstar as fast as you can. Rapier and Delta One, lay in course to target on supplied heading. Come in sublight fifty thousand klicks from target location."
"Delta One to Fury, course plotted and laid in."
"Rapier to Fury, I'm all go here."
A short pause. "Fiora's Fury to Delta One and Rapier... let's rock!"
The three ships appeared back into normal space at the designated co-ordinates well inside a distant solar system. Delta One arrived first from hyperspace, followed by the Fiora's Fury and Rapier as they braked from warp space. As seemed to be typical in FurrySpace, none of the ships had exactly the same faster-than-light drive system.
"Okay, guys, ears up - we're here!" MayFurr called out over the com as Ranthe engaged the Fury's sensors in a full sweep of the area. "We're still getting the Borg signal, and we're running a final track on it now...."
"Got it," Ranthe announced, locating the signal bearing and transmitting the information to the other ships. "We've got the Borg at three-one-five mark eight-two, cross bearing at... hang on, that can't be right!"
Aboard Delta One, Lindgold blinked. "What is it, Ranthe?" He quickly checked the data he was receiving from the Fury, and immediately saw the problem. "Oh - I see what you mean!"
"...The signal's coming from the surface of the fourth planet in this system," Ranthe confirmed over the link, "And the planet has an atmosphere... approximately two-thirds Furry Prime density." Aboard the Fury, she turned to MayFurr. "Well, that queers things up right and proper!"
"Ain't that the truth!" MayFurr grumbled. Quickly, he activated the commlink again. "Lindgold, I know you've got atmosphere capacity - "
"Barely, and untested at that," Lindgold replied, his fur prickling with tension. This was certainly going to be a baptism of fire!
" - what about you, Blackwolf?"
The wolf's reply wasn't long in coming. "Negative, Fiora's Fury, the Rapier is space-rated only." His tone over the commlink became sceptical. "Delta One, you say your ship can enter atmosphere, looking like that?"
"There's no time to go into that now, Blackwolf," MayFurr interrupted, his mind racing. At one stroke, about half of the flight's weapon load had become useless, unable to be delivered from orbit through thick planetary air. And if most of the second wave of ships from Dreamstar were similarly equipped... their chances of successfully destroying the Borg on the ground were heavily reduced. There was only one thing to do.
"We can't risk a high-power subspace transmission from our present position... Fiora's Fury to Rapier - get clear of the system and transmit to Dreamstar that the Borg are on the surface and we require atmosphere-capable ships and orbital assault weapons," MayFurr ordered. "Lindgold, follow us to the target area - we'll see what we can do with what we've got!"
"I'm on my way, May - good luck!" came the reply from the Rapier, as it peeled off from formation and sped away at maximum thrust before leaping into warp again, leaving the Fury and Delta One hurtling towards the planet.
"We'll need it... oh Gods, we'll need it," Ranthe softly muttered to herself as the bulk of the planet loomed larger and larger through the Fury's viewscreen. Beside them, sunlight from the planet's star glinted off the solar panels of Lindgold's ship as it flew beside them.
"Ranthe, what's your weapon status?" Lindgold asked over the comm.
"We're loaded as far as we can be," Ranthe replied, calling up the Fury's armament display. "Twin light cannon turret on-line, both weapon pods have rotary launchers for eight mini photon torpedoes configured for 1.5Kt concentrated dispersion each. ECM jammers powered up and standing by, ELINT sensors on maximum sweep -if they sneeze, we'll know about it! Defence shields fully energized. What about you?"
"Six advanced proton torpedoes, rated at 150 BLS each," Lindgold answered. "All laser and ion cannons at supercharged status, front and rear shields at double strength and configured for random frequency variation." He drew a breath, to hide his nervousness. He had never gone up against Borg before, and had only heard about their previous attack on Dreamstar. "I'm as hot as I can get - let's do it!"
On the planet surface, the consciousness detected a subspace distortion in the space above the planet. There was a contact approaching the planet at high sublight velocity. Or was it more? Sensors were still damaged. Part of it separated and headed out of the planetary system again. As the rest of it came closer, two contacts were now discerned. Immediately resources were diverted towards the regeneration of the defensive systems. The propulsion systems were almost ready. Thousands of options were considered in the space of seconds, and decisions were made ready for implementation. All units still on the planet surface engaged in repairs began to return.
"The Gambit Solution" Copyright 1997, 1998 Terry Knight and Grant
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