Tales of the Night Watch
by Cuprohastes
Part 1: Captain Barks At Moon


The Chief Engineer Is Broken.

Here is the velvety black void of space... you've seen it before. It looks pretty much the same wherever you go, unless you're the type to recall the specific patterns of stars. There's not much around for trillions of miles – some rocks, gasses, a little radiation, but for most, it's empty. Then, unexpectedly there's a starship – squat, with heavy engines ringing its body, a long radiator fin carrying sensors away from the hull on one side which we'll call the lower hull for convenience. On the opposite side, the "top", a set of solar panels on a long mast – the allusion to a sailing ship is heavy and deliberate. There's even a figurehead! Across the nose is a golden statue of an angel, wings spread, wrapped back around the ship's nose, a blindfold over its eyes, and a wickedly cheeky grin on its face. Both arms are raised, holding a banner with the name of the ship written across it.

The ship slides through the endless darkness, outlined with its own lights, the cooling fin glowing gently in the IR spectrum, for the moment, serene. Of course, the outside of a ship rarely mirrors the inside, so let's look within...

Here is the captain on hir bridge, straddling the L-shape of a taurform command couch. Shi's resting one elbow in the arm of hir command couch, chin in hand, whiskers flicking as shi watches the three lapine morphs who staff the bridge. They're well practised – leaning around each other to read the screens, passing information, the tiny little bridge barely big enough for the crew. Shi drums hir fingers on hir jaw, and sighs. "You know, I would very much like to know why we just fell out of warp. It really would do wonders for my appreciation of the situation," shi drawls laconically.

The trio of bridge officers, confer, and the centre one, caramel brown, a ring in each ear, turns and tugs on his shirt. "Ready to report, Captain Barks At Moon!" he declares.

The Captain raises an eyebrow at the sudden shift from being ignored to being addressed so... officially.

"Ah, good."

There's a pause. "You should probably give me the report then?" shi continues.

The rabbit clears his throat. "We don't know," he states. "Um. End of report?"

The Captain taps hir fingers. "I've got you all these wonderful toys, like... that one. I’ve always liked that one. What does that do?"

"The navigation array?"

"Yes, the navigation array. Nice big screen, always looks pretty. So, you have all these screens and so on, like the navigation array, and you don't know what's wrong?"

"Well. Um, we're not about to hit anything, there's no one around, we know where we are, the ship isn't on fire, no one's hurt... um, everything is fine. We're just not moving. Well, not in warp. The inertial compensator array and the stellar parallax systems say we're sort of drifting at about 400kph, but that's not much..."

The captain holds up a hand. "Yes and the Heisenberg compensator and Offdog are fine, but... indulge my curiosity... why don't you know why we're not merrily swooping through whatever perversion of physics allows warp travel?"

The reporting officer confers with the two does either side of him. He shrugs and turns back. "I think Engineering turned off the warp field, but I don't know. When we called, we got... er, an answering service."

Barks At Moon stares at the trio, Angeline, Aldus and Bridgette, hir navigator, pilot and communications officers. Shi isn't particularly sure who was doing what – they tended to swap seats and sometimes jobs on long flights, and most of the equipment could be controlled from any display. Shi does know that whoever is actually piloting always wears a Hawaiian shirt, but so far shi's resisted the urge to ask why.

A twinge in hir hind leg suggested shi was overdue to get up and move around anyway. "I think I'll go and check," shi mutters to hir bridge officers, and pulls the release on hir bench, unlocking the restraints that keep hir from being thrown around even when encountering even the most perilous interstellar anomalies.

Unlike most vessels, shi had insisted on body harnesses for hir crew, and "atmospheric integrity suits" as uniforms. The three bridge officers are wearing tight, mechanical pressure suits that prevent decompression. Shi's wearing a looser, almost silky suit that nevertheless offers several minutes of decompression survival, assuming shi gets hir hood up and sealed and can get to safety before the air runs out. The ship's compartmented, so in theory, barring major damage, that's as simple as moving from one room to the next. That said, in an age of structural integrity shields, transporters and near godlike medical technology, any single one of these measures could be considered mildly paranoid. Together, they could suggest actual mental imbalance.

Shi slides backwards through the hatch, and turns, trotting down the central spine of hir ship, pressure doors easing open in front of hir, closing behind hir. The ship, to modern eyes, seems oddly archaic, with far more mechanical safety built in that any starship should need, especially since, aesthetic hull design notwithstanding, the ship doesn't appear that old! The central corridor runs straight as an arrow to the back of the ship, where it flares like a trumpet – the artificial gravity allowing one to walk right onto the engineering deck, which is actually at a 90 degree angle to the passage. There's a lot of this sort of design evident in the ship, and it's not uncommon for the crew to pass each other walking on different sides of the main spine.

Engineering is right at the stern. The engines are mounted in a ring around the outside of the hull, so the engineering bay is a hub with access ports. There are two impulse engines mounted horizontally – that's to say, 90 degrees from the axis of the mast and keel, and two warp engines mounted vertically.

The chief engineer is conspicuous by hir absence. The captain checks each engine pod for hir engineer and for any signs of damage or danger, but engineering is empty. All the diagnostic screens show as healthy. Shi ponders, trotting around the room, looking, then climbs back up the central corridor to the habitat ring.

Shi pads down the "off ramp" into the living area, and up around the curve of the hull, to the engineer's quarters. There's a "do not disturb" sign on the door. Captain Barks At Moon knocks. Waits. Knocks again. Finally, shi overrides the door and hauls it open. The room's more like a nest – not untidy, but the Engineer's possessions are all arranged around the sides of the room, leaving not much space to stand. The bunk is a pod with a slide-down hatch. It'd appear to be a small and simple escape pod, with a padded interior and access panels. In the bunk, a stellar foxtaur is curled up, dead tired. The captain rubs hir cheeks and pauses. They had two engineers, but lost one – a simple accident while on shore leave had left the secondary engineer in hospital, and while there, he'd decided to quit the crew and go home. They hadn't found a replacement before they'd left, and the chief engineer had gotten a little odd in the month since – obsessive, spending ever longer babying the engines.

Shi gently lifts the tail-tip and addresses the black nose revealed. "Hello, chief engineer, Captain speaking. Could you answer a question?" shi purrs. No response. Shi carefully blows across the engineer's nose until a pink tongue flicks out over it, then does it again. Finally the foxtaur whimpers and apparently wakes up.

"Hello? Testing? Aha. Well, now you're listening, I need to know why the warp engines are offline." shi asks gently. Shi's using hir empathic talent, gently testing and exploring, like a cat in a dark room using it's whiskers to navigate. Shi can feel the foxtaur as a sort of shifting cloud – some worry, some irritation from being woken, but mostly the pressing need to sleep. Evidently the engineer is exhausted. Shi starts to wonder how long hir Chief engineer has been up, and why.

The foxtaur, known informally as "Leggy" and formally as Chief Engineer Widestride, is almost incoherent – shi's that tired. "Had to turn 'em off," she says. "Couldn't watch them, had to sleep, tried, but couldn't turn'm ff..." shi snuffles. The captain sighs, and pats hir entire engineering department gently. "Ok, you sleep, and we'll get you someone to watch the engines when we make orbit, OK?" shi says softly, replacing the engineer's tail gently over hir nose, but Widestride is asleep already.

The captain ponders, as shi slips out of Widestride's room, gently closing the door. Shi pulls out a pen and selects the temporary marker setting, adding – "By order of the Captain, shi who shall be obeyed, B.A.M." – next to the "Do not disturb" sign. Time for an almost-all-hands meeting.

An Almost All Hands Meeting

The common room is the biggest space on the ship, outside of the hangar bay (occupied by a pair of shuttle craft), the engineering deck (Full of Engineering), and the Cargo Bay (Full of Cargo, and also depressurised.), so it does double duty as the briefing room, cinema, lecture hall and on one occasion, petting zoo. It's not that small, but there are a few taurs on crew, which makes it crowded. Sometimes Barks considers hanging netting up and turning the gravity off, but suspects it might be a recipe for trouble.

Barks at Moon looks the crew over. Shi grew out of introducing hirself as a Barking Moonkat a long time ago, but hir perverse streak of humour has manifested in hir adult name, and hir heart has always belonged to the Lunar Colonies. Despite hir relaxed command style and feigned technical illiteracy, shi's well educated in the workings of hir ship and crew.

In addition to hir silvery grey AIS (Atmospheric Integrity Suit), shi's got a deep grey pelt, flecked with silvery rosettes, and stands a little smaller than average for hir species. One eye is a pale gold, the other is missing, replaced by a cybernetic implant that perfectly matches hir other eye. For reasons that amuse hir, shi generally wears a plastic data display eye patch over hir real eye. It's transparent from the inside, allowing hir to see clearly, but is wired to provide information that floats in a rather hallucinatory manner in front of her. The display is fed to hir artificial eye to prevent headaches caused by getting odd input from only one eye. As the ancient saying goes, there's madness to hir methods but method to hir madness.

Then there's the bridge crew. The cabins are empathically and telepathically shielded for privacy, so shi's not sure if the trio of rabbits are sleeping together or merely sleeping, together. They work as a group though – shi doubts shi could successfully split them up. They're extremely good at their jobs, but their apparent inability to follow the sort of rigid procedures and positions of most ships means they will never be bridge crew for a stricter organization, such as Star Fleet, or the more demanding merchant vessels. It's hir gain and their loss – any one of them can fly the ship, run communications or navigate, and together they do the work of a far larger crew without any effort. Barks lets them do their thing, and merely lets them know hir wishes, and lets them work on the execution. So far, it's working fine, unless shi has to have a conversation which is either like pulling teeth, or trying to stand hip deep in fast water.

The Engineering department is completely missing. Widestride is in hir quarters, sleeping hard. The access corridor outside has been declared off limits, until the long-legged foxtaur wakes up.

The medical station is run by Dr. Finetouch. Shi's known as Dr. Feelgood, of course, and tends to introduce hirself as the ship's spare Chakat. A ship this small doesn't need a doctor of this calibre, but shi runs a sideline as a travelling doctor and inspector for Star Corps Medical. It suits Star Corps to get reports from the various colonies for their records, and it suits the colonies to have a starship with an experienced doctor and access to supplies to drop by, and it suits the wide and orange marmalade tabby 'kat to travel with Barks. Currently shi's got the sensors in Widestride's bunk hooked to a little hand-held display, checking the foxtaur's health. Currently shi's knitting and having a quiet conversation with one of the other crew, whose job can be summed up as "A Heavy".

There are Caitian females, a heavyset wolf morph male and a bald human male. They're the ship's security team, cargo loaders, purchasing agents, or any other job that doesn't need a specialist. They handle the ship's security needs. This is what they say when asked. They collectively generate enough of a feeling of suppressed mayhem that people rarely ask more. They give the impression of being armed, even when they're not. Right now, they're armed.

Barks knows them all very well, knows more than they think shi knows – why they're not serving on other ships, and why they're part of hir crew. Shi trusts them, and they trust hir. Their names are nearly unimportant – they hardly use them.

The big amber and black striped Caitian is "The Sergeant". On hir records, she's M'tara, but it's doubtful she's been referred to as anything but "The Sergeant" in years. Shi's quietly murmuring to Finetouch. She's got a tight pressure suit on, and over the top some ballistic armour. Strapped around her are an interesting variety of items, some of which are clearly weapons – a wide mouthed pistol, a machete. Other items are less identifiable.

The quiet human next her is Dirk, a stocky, bald man with a weathered complexion. Most of the time he looks completely impassive. He too is wearing a tight suit, as opposed to the lighter, looser AIS suits. He's wearing a similar outfit to The Sergeant, though the details vary. He's the Captain's right hand man – they've been working together for a long time. He's unofficially the "Old Man" of the security team. He pulls double duty as the "human" of the crew, when Captain Barks thinks that a morph wouldn't be the best person to send on a job.

The wolf morph is Sal – large, taciturn, disinclined to speaking. The captain knows he has a vast and impressive library of romance novels and video dramas, and spends his off hours either writing for amateur fiction groups, or reading. Sal wears an AIS, modified with a body suit and ballistic armour. He has a small heat exchanger unit at the small of his back to provide air-conditioning inside his AIS. His home is far colder than anyone else aboard is prepared to put up with. His room has been dubbed "The Meat-locker" because he always keeps it cold.

The other Caitian says her name is Murtak. Only the captain knows different. She's personable, a good conversationalist and absolutely refuses to discuss her previous personal life or anything that pertains to her personal life. She's also wearing an AIS in neutral grey, though she's skipped the armour, and doesn't appear to be wearing anything offensive. Her security speciality lies with the computer systems.

Taken as a group, every one of the crew is competent, smart, experienced, and each one of them has a grievous flaw that prevents them from working on most ships. Barks sometimes wonders what hir own flaw is.

Barks looks around. The crew are all waiting, so shi begins. "We've dropped out of warp. We did so because Leggy turned the warp field off. As far as we know it's fine." shi says, holding a hand up. Actually, no one was about to say anything. The bridge crew know, the doctor is engrossed in hir PADD and the security guys wouldn't change expression if shi'd turned into a trout. Barks scowls a little at the lack of response. "It seems Leggy feels shi needs to watch the warp core and engines personally to make sure that they run perfectly, and tried to stay up long enough that shi's basically passed out from exhaustion. We'll get hir up in another twelve or so hours and have the doc watch over hir, but we can't sedate hir in case there is a problem, so we're going to have to work with it. I suggest you catch up on your reading. The good news is, we think this will only delay us by about 18 hours, and then we'll hit Chakona and find a new engineer to take shifts with Leggy. Any questions?"


"Not even one?"


"Fair enough. Meeting adjourned. Oh, yeah, the film tonight will be "Some Like It Hot", the Captain calls as the room empties.

Finally Dirk speaks as the rest file out, his rugged features shifting tectonically as he delivers his only comment. "Some like it hot? Hot damn! I love that movie!"

Warp Speed Fox.

 Widestride wakes, eventually, with the most incredible headache and the feeling her teeth have been upholstered in stained velvet. And not good stains either. Finetouch has left a bottle, a glass and a note saying "Drink me (Shake first)". Whatever is in the bottle is cloudy, tastes of sugar and salt, puts Widestride in mind of hir last date and has her feeling fine inside of a few minutes, unlike hir last date. Shi hits the fresher, has a fairly horrifying experience, takes a shower, brushes hir teeth twice and hir tongue once, and finds a clean overall to wear over the snug AIS the captain insists on. Actually the AIS is surprisingly comfortable. Shi finds it useful when hir job requires shi work in confined spaces or around hotter machinery. Shi also has the hood modified with filters to let hir use it in situations where inhaling the unprocessed air is unpleasant or dramatically fatal. Her particular AIS is rather industrial, thicker, and harder to damage, less likely to catch, and designed to have a removable overall fastened around it, which is why it came with a little environmental unit to provide temperature control and air filtering.

There's a note from the captain taped to the wall. It's signed, but even so, Widestride would be able to tell who'd written it. No one else on the ship uses real ink, or the stiff paper that the captain likes to use. Widestride suspects the captain makes it hirself as a hobby. Shi's never seen the captain write a note, but shi treasures each one shi gets – they're works of art! This one is cream coloured, the ink is a purple-brown and the top end of the note smells of lychee and limes. The captain's signature has the captain's own scent. Holding up the note shows a delicate tracery – a scene watermarked into the page. Widestride has no idea how or why the Captain does this, but enjoys the fact that shi does. Shi reads the note, then slips it into an airtight bag for later study. The captain likes to hide layers of meaning into hir notes, beyond the obvious – Leggy once found a haiku by reading the first letters of each line on the page.

For a start, the actual existence of the note tells Widestride that shi's been a sleep a long time – long enough for Barks to have written the note, also that the captain wants hir to know shi's not in trouble. The lychee and lime is itself a message, referring to a time a few years previously when shi and the Captain had spent an enjoyable afternoon at a tea-house on Luna. The actual writing merely states that Barks At Moon would like to get under way quite quickly, and to save the discussion until a later time.

With this in mind, Widestride heads to engineering. The warp engines are ready, as shi left them, background diagnostics slowly cycling through their sequences, gathering and logging data from the core's components. Widestride calls the captain as the core warms up, the soft booming of the pair of annihilation engines a throbbing accompaniment to the soft glow that pulses along the core's column.

"Engineering to bridge. Warp core in initiation phase, warp capability in t minus four minutes!" shi reports.

"Jolly good" the Captain replies laconically. "I'll wake the bridge crew up."

Widestride finally checks hir chronometer. It's the middle of the ship's night. Shi feels bad now, because shi slept and now shi's waking everyone else up. The familiar nagging feeling that things are going to unravel and spin out of control if she stops watching starts to grip hir.

Shi starts panting softly, turns the temperature down in hir AIS and rests hir head on the bulkhead, feeling the reassuring throb of the big engine come up through hir paws.

Shi relaxes, breathing slower – shi's almost asleep when the control board chimes, making hir jump. Shi hurries over, frantically checking the board, but it's just the ready alarm.

Slowly shi splays hir fingers on the controls and eases the sliders up. Graphs and displays light up, showing the power shifting, feeding to the warp engines from the core, graphical dials twisting in sync as far away, on the bridge, Angeline's delicate touch brings the ship to life and, in one moment of poised perfection, the ship shifts, a warp bubble flaring out around it and letting it slip into the superluminal space known to all as warp speed.

"Was it good for you?" Widestride asks the engine, and goes for breakfast.

Destination Kat World!

Chakona – the Chakat home-world. Finetouch has family here, Barks probably does, but never bothered to find out. All hir close family are on Luna – they like it well enough. None of the other crew has any family here, but some have friends.

They're pulling in so Finetouch can make some reports, the crew can get some R & R, Barks can check in with hir contacts and they can offload some of the cargo that pads out the ship's profits... and now, to get a new engineer. This is a problem for Barks. Shi has a particularly odd crew and not just anyone will fit the bill. Shi brings Dirk along. On Chakona, he's possibly the most frightening of the crew. Shi's posted an advert, picked out a rent-an-office and settled down. Dirk looms. He's good at it.

The first two candidates are 'Kats. Barks scheduled them first. They're qualified, but Barks has hir empathic "whiskers" out and neither of them seem "right" for the job. They go through a succession of morphs, a fox tod, a human, a heavyset wolf bitch who Barks thinks is less qualified than she claims, a rabbit buck, and lastly a Quange, whom Barks rejects due to his size – he'd be stuck in engineering.

Barks leans back, and checks hir PADD. The next few applicants are marked down amber, the ones that Barks knows beforehand are a little offbeat. This can mean they're right for the crew, but also that they're deranged and unemployable. "Ok," shi says to Dirk. "Now we can do some real work," shi notes, and nods to the door. Dirk nods back, checks his weapons, and stands beside the door. Barks buzzes the next one in.

A tall zebra mare saunters in, the door obscuring Dirk. Barks checks the mare over. Hotpants, tied off shirt, legs from here to there. Shi perks an eyebrow and checks hir PADD. Shi leads with a couple of questions, which the mare dispenses of easily. But Barks isn't checking the answers so much as checking the person: Shi already has the Mare's records and references, and knows she's qualified for the position. Everyone who's walked through the door is qualified, except perhaps the vixen. After a few more minutes, shi politely tells the mare she can go.

"We'll let you know" shi says smoothly.

The mare jumps about a foot when she turns around and finds Dirk stood behind her. Dirk, gestures to the door, quite politely and the gal eases out.

Barks shakes hir head. "Qualified, but that lady needs her hormones turning down. A week on a ship as small as ours and she'd have half the crew bitching and the other half trying to lay her." Dirk raises an eyebrow, Barks casually flips him the bird. "Worse than a Chakat in heat," shi adds. Dirk shakes his head and takes up position again.

The next candidate is a short Arctic Fox morph, buffed up and fierce.

"Ah, Mr... SnowStrike?" Barks asks, checking hir PADD.

"SnowStrike of clan Moran Gley," the fox replies, putting one hand on the desk and leaning forward.

"OK. We have a Helios-Soong Doublestep Mk IV. Can you tell me how you'd perform in-flight diagnostics?" shi asks, eying the paw.

The fox snorts. "Helios-Soong? They haven't got the balls for the job. You should be looking for a Tri-Optimum AI controlled MD 50..." he retorts.

Barks perks an eyebrow for the benefit of the silent Dirk and carries on. In short order shi's told that hir engines are too weak, hir hull isn't shielded enough, shi should get an AI and shi doesn't need three bridge crew if shi got a Interglobal Hecatonchires management system. And if shi hasn't, shi should get one. Barks puts down hir PADD. "Thanks Mr. SnowStrike. I'll let you know." shi purrs. Dirk smirks a moment, but by the time SnowStrike has turned around, he's stony as ever. The fox flinches, and stalks out, muttering something about filthy humans. Barks mimes dropping the PADD in the wastepaper basket.

Barks shakes hir head and checks the PADD. Shi pauses and raises both eyebrows. "Ooh, this next one looks good," shi smirks, and types – "Come in please" – into the PADD. After a moment the door opens and a small human female creeps in. "Sorry," she says.

"Indeed. You know we're looking for an Engineer?" Barks asks.

The human looks up, apparently startled that she's actually still in the room. She's wearing knee length boots, a kilt, and a vest over a T-shirt. Her hair is black, braided and tied back.

"Um. Yes. I studied engineering, specializing in starship and warp field mechanics. The advert said you were looking for a second engineer..."

Barks, nods and sits back, folding hir hands on hir belly. "OK. Carry on..." shi says.

The human, apparently named Rashana Knight, according to her possibly false records is a little caught off-guard. "So... I applied? Um, I thought if you had a senior engineer you might hire someone willing to train on the job?" she continues hopefully.

"Hmm..." Barks allows. "Possibly. And then you hacked my PADD because...?"

Rashana blushes. "I wanted to see if anyone had already got the job," she says in a quiet voice. "I'm sorry... I'll go..." she says, turning. She gives a little shriek when she sees Dirk. Dirk remains impassive. He's really good at it.

Barks nods. "I think you better... We leave in three days and you need to be packed, and reporting in about... hm, call it lunchtime tomorrow to see what you need. Bay 501, Commercial spaceport, not the civilian end. Go to the security desk, I'll have one of my crew waiting with your dock ID," shi says. "Then we'll decide if you stay or if you go..."

"Don't forget to turn out the light..." shi continues as shi slinks past the startled human. "Oh, weight allowance is 50kg personal and 100kg tools. You'll need to bring your passport and get a FMN-410 so the doc can get your records," shi adds and grabs Rashana's hand, shaking it. "Don't be late!" shi calls as shi vanishes through the door. Dirk follows behind. Barks pops back in, "Oh and one last thing – the job has a DW12 rating. Ta ta."

Rashana just gapes. Eventually she leaves to pack. She does remember to turn the lights out though.

I for one welcome our secret masters...

Dirk, a heavy travelling cape over his tools of the trade, saunters along with Barks, who's dispensed with the eye patch and is airing out hir fur in the sunshine, wearing only a satchel and a sports top with the slogan – "Why yes, you are staring at my breasts" – stencilled on the front.

Dirk's known the Captain a long time. They've done this routine a little too often, he sometimes feels. The post hiring discussion is down to a fine art now.

"...So." he starts.

The captain nods. "Indeed."

"The little buff fox?"

"Not obvious?"

"Sure. Thinks he's alpha."

"Yeah. Too interested in how he thinks thing should go."

"First couple?"

"Fine, technically, just not flexible."

"The girl?"

"Hmm. Got deductive reasoning, got the basics, needs experience, got some skills we don't already have..."

"Nice boots too."

"OK with morphs, and when she saw you, you startled her, but she wasn't scared. I think she was curious."

"Huh. Malicious?"

"Not that I can tell. I think she just has a problem with not knowing the answer, when she knows how to get it."

"Could be a problem."

"You know what I say about problems..."

"Give them to someone else."

The Captain stops. "Sounds like me, but when did I say that?" shi asks.

Dirk grins. "Over Geidi Secundus."

Captain Barks At Moon grins slowly, whiskers splaying. "Ooooooh yes. Do you think they have forgotten us yet?"

Dirk rolls his eyes. "Not after you used the ship's laser to sign your name across the Baron's front garden."

"He deserved it. Anyway, I need to check in with our secret masters, who you are completely, blissfully unaware of.. Take the evening off, get Sal to do the tour. If what's-her-name is still around afterwards, tell her she's hired between here and Omicron station, provisional, basic pay scale, and we're not expecting to do anything more than lug cargo at this point."

"Got it. What if she bolts?"

"We'll have to do hops. Nothing for it. I'll reschedule, and we'll see if there's any point to point stuff we can do – dropping relays, delivering perishables. There's always people who need out of Omicron, so we'd go hire there."

Dirk nods and slips away. Ten minutes from now he'll be almost unrecognisable as a Heavy, just another tourist, come to see Chakona.

Barks heads in almost the opposite direction, detouring down on street shi particularly recalls as having a lot of food stalls. Hir stomach says "lunchtime".

By the time shi arrives at hir destination, shi's happily working hir way though a big, 'kat size tray of fish and chips – letting hir taur appetite run wild. The place is a little shop, selling insurance. There's an array of posters in the window offering home insurance, travel insurance, and lots of shiny happy morphs looking happy and secure. Shi pushes the door open with a forepaw and swishes in. Shi gives hir card to the receptionist, who appears to be offended by Barks' fish and chips.

"Chip?" the captain offers. The vixen morph behind the desk slowly leans back, shaking her head. "Suit yourself. I'm here to see Mr. Jacobs," shi says. "I need to claim on my insurance, – my engineer was eaten by a rhino."

The receptionist sneers, but checks the computer. Her expression sours even more when she finds that Barks At Moon is actually expected. She buzzes the captain through to Mr. Jacob's office.

Mr. Jacobs is, on a world of Chakats, a small, balding human in a cheap suit, behind a cluttered desk. Barks walks in and smiles. "Hello, I've come to claim on my insurance, a whale fell on my engineer," shi says. Jacobs chuckles and gestures to the pad in front of the desk.

"Don't tell me," he says. "He sidestepped to avoid a pot of petunias? Come in and we'll discuss how much damage he caused to the whale."

Mr. Jacobs has known Barks for years. They've been doing this sort of routine every time the captain calls in. Barks has yet to catch him out. The door clicks closed behind Barks. Jacobs settles back, then as an afterthought, pushes some papers aside and darkens the windows, the glass becoming smoky, diffusing the sunlight. He holds up a finger a moment, then relaxes as a small light comes on, illuminating a kitschy desk ornament amid the clutter.

"OK, we're secure. Heard about your engineer – glad he made a full recovery. We'll have a couple of our guys make sure he gets lucky on his housing and grants at University. One of the perks," he says.

Barks offers him a chip. "So," Barks says, "What nefarious schemes have you got for us this time?"

Mr. Jacobs waves his chip. "A little rumour control and some hunting," he says, and eats the chip. "Ugh. You need to cut back on the salt. Anyway, we're getting these weird stories coming in about a big ship that seems to be a little too fast, run by a man who apparently does the impossible and travels with a town's worth of kids, like some pied piper. Can you check into it? Might be nothing, might be something we need to check. We don't need another Children's Crusade, Fagin or Boxer Event on the fringes. I'll have the details sent to your ship."

Barks coughs. "You don't need to. I know who you're talking about. He's a cargo hauler. He's just using some novel tricks to squeeze his warp engines. As for the kids, apparently he's picked up a crew along the way that includes a bunch of kids he's adopted. I wouldn't worry too much. He's been working on his social network long enough that he can lay hands on pretty much anything he needs to sell, which is probably the reason he's been working miracles. I'll keep an eye out though – I want to meet him some time"

Mr. Jacobs nods. "Even so, I'll send what we've got out to you – you can do some fact checking."

Barks nods. "OK, so, who or what needs hunting?"

Mr. Jacobs leans back in his chair, lips pursed. "We're getting a lot of activity out on the trade routes between Earth and some of the smaller, poorer colonies. They subsist on tramp freighters and Caravan shipments, unscheduled freighters. The thing is, Nightwatch has been running the stats and it seems there's a marked decrease in shipments arriving at colonies and settlements. When we did some digging, we found that shipments are being sent, but not arriving. It's not easy to tell, but we think a lot of these small freighters are just dropping out of sight."

"Pirates moving in?" Barks asks, ears perking. Not unheard of, but Mr. Jacobs wouldn't mention it if it weren't a little out of the ordinary.

"Worse. We think it's a Humans First operation. The non-appearances are skewed massively towards freighters that are morph crewed, and on routes that lead to morph heavy colonies. We think they're trying to cause colony failures by squeezing off supply."

Barks looks down at the last half of hir fish. "Not good. I'm headed towards Omicron. I'll pick up some colony contracts, leave an obvious paper trail from there to point to a couple of the small morph colonies and see what crawls out of the woodwork."

"Like that girl you picked up." Mr. Jacobs says lightly.

Barks is unsurprised. "Ohhh? One of the Perks? I was getting to her... anything I need to know?"

"Indeed. She may actually be useful – we made sure she got tipped off about your job opening. She's bright, she has the skills you need, but she blew her education by hacking into the school's network to see what her grades were. Before you hire her, make sure all Nightwatch data is physically isolated and secure."

Barks nods. "It already is. It's all on an un-networked core with shaped charges, just like in the handbook. You know the problem we had with... Lucy."

Mr. Jacobs taps a pen. "Ah. Lucy. Did you ever resolve that?"

Barks shakes hir head. "In a way."

"You have my sympathy. I have the rest of the data here if you want the job? Same conditions as last time, and I'll see if I can do a little sleight of hand. If you're going to try to deliver to the colonies, I'll see if we can't make sure there's some essential cargo available."

Barks nods, and stands. Shi shakes hands with Mr. Jacobs and turns to leave. "I'll take it. Tail high, Mr. Jacobs," shi calls.

Mr. Jacobs just chuckles. "As you say, as you say..."

On the way out Barks manages to hide her uneaten half a fish behind the reception desk, before making good on hir escape.


To be continuatedified in:
Rashana Night

Chakats and Chakona are the creation of Bernard Doove and are used with permission.

Characters and story are copyright © 2007 Cuprohastes – cupro@cuprohastes.com


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