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BLUE HORIZON, BOOK 1

— Episode 3

"Out of the Frying Pan"
by Steve Carter

 

SS Blue Horizon PA1261

Captain’s Journal

 Brandt. The Blue Horizon is on its way to the one place within the Planetary Alignment I have no wish to see. We are fully armed and everything’s functional, but everyone is uneasy about this assignment. Our hold contains nothing more dramatic than industrial machinery used to construct low-cost housing, but because of the amount of cargo that needs delivery, my ship was only large enough to contain two-thirds of the equipment.

 In addition to ourselves, Faltane hired the Savannah Hunter to deliver the remaining one-third of the shipment to Langlop’s Outpost. Armando is currently flying a quarter of a light-year ahead of us, but we have them continually monitored. Someone on his crew keeps transmitting audio signals of rude noises to us and I suspect it’s Armando himself. Due to a violent argument amongst his crew, he had to leave his navigator behind in a Tucson hospital with her stomach muscles stitched back together. Jensen is flying true to course, so I can only assume he either has another navigator on board or his route to Brandt is so well-traveled that he has it programmed into his nav computer.

 The profit of a thousand credits we made from the “trade” that Faltane arranged with us did not come to very much. Split nine ways, everyone on board had an extra one hundred credits added to their accounts, with the remaining hundred credits going toward the company funds. Whee, what a deal that was... 

As for Brandt, what can be said about a place that used to be a thriving center of commerce and culture, but has fallen to the level of sheltering pirates and cutthroats by the hundreds? When Brandt’s main cash crop of the highly conductive Siilv metal dried up five years ago, the entire planet fell into chaos and ruin as what remained of civilization beat a hasty retreat to greener worlds. Brandt is now ruled by the knife and gun; a place of thieves, parasites, prostitutes and who knows what kinds of diseases. It is strange that the Intergalactic Aid foundation chose to put a base of operations on this mangy planet, especially as the SPF no longer has any jurisdiction within the Faya Star System.

Carrying two-thousand tons of industrial and construction equipment aboard this ship, we are to help Intergalactic Aid in its attempts to rebuild this planet in the name of “universal peace and brotherly love.” It seems an unusual pursuit for the likes of Victor Faltane, but after our meeting on Earth, I find that I am not interested in what motivates such a man. Who knows; maybe he has a good heart beneath that throbbing capitalist veneer, but I tend to doubt it.

Due to the tense situation as we grow closer to Brandt, I am having all shifts on the bridge posted with two individuals at all times instead of the usual one. I have staggered them so no one gets burned out too quickly and I have included myself in the detail.

This alone would give us enough to worry about on a trip like this, but Pockets’ little wonder device, Moss, turned up a stowaway four hours after we shifted up the LightDrive engines. A stowaway. Tanis swears he knew nothing of Jennifer Sanderson’s continued presence on the ship, but it appears she has been with us since that day in San Francisco I prepared the ship for delivery to Tucson. She has been living in the vacant cabin next to Tanis, stealing food from the galley. Sparky said she had noticed that some of the food supplies had been into, but with a crew of nine, most of whom at one time or another hit the pantry for snacks, she had not thought it out of the ordinary. This is one thing that Moss was created for, so we locked her into her cabin and had it sweep the ship for bugs and bombs. Pockets may be carefree most of the time, but he does sometimes have a practical head on his shoulders.

Due to the hostile nature of our destination, I contacted the SPF with hesitation about the girl and discovered that her folks had reported her as missing a week earlier. A cruiser arranged to rendezvous with us in flight and picked her up as we neared the dwarf planet Pluto on our way out of the solar system. She was a nice kid, but I don’t favor stowaways. She never apologized for hiding out on my ship, but the call I got from her family a few days later was full of thanks for returning their errant child.

Fortunately for us, Officer Hendricks never once questioned us about our current delivery. I have only dealt with her a few times in the past and that Siamese cat has always had a suspicious nature. She seemed distracted by her new partner, a young and energetic coyote, so perhaps that worked to our advantage. This assignment has made me more than a little nervous when dealing with the Spatial Police Force and a nosy cat would not have been a good thing at this point, even if our cargo is legal, or so Faltane claims.

So far, the flight has been smooth. We are still a week and a half away from Brandt and there has been no sign of Sagan. If we are fortunate, perhaps he is in another star system lying in wait for some other unlucky victim, or dying in pool of blood somewhere from an attack gone wrong. We could only be so lucky. With the new armaments, I believe I am ready for any encounter we may have with him, but I am not anxious to put it to the test.

As we draw nearer to Brandt, there is the strong possibility that other raiders may think of us as an easy target. Either that or we will be thought of as just another pirate, seeing how no other vessel on the up and up would willingly fly into a nest of them. I am not looking for trouble. I only want to deliver my cargo and get my tail out of there as quickly as possible. Faltane seemed to think we would be unmolested flying into Langlop’s Outpost, but cautioned us to be careful on the way out.

Armando has taken the loose partnership rather well, and that in itself worries me. Either he has something up his proverbial sleeve, or he is taking it with grace merely because he needs the credits as much as I do. He and I have had a few chats along the way, mostly to needle one another, but at least we’re talking. He has quite a temper and has seen his own share of bar fights, including a few brawls with some of my crew. Ever since our initial contact back on Mainor a few years ago, it is no secret that neither of us can stand the other, even if we do communicate from time to time.

The Blue Horizon will still have to fly empty out to Quet, but it’s within the same star system and I have my weapon systems in trade for the jaunt to Brandt. The sooner we can be on our way to pick up that load of processed micranite for delivery to Dennier, the easier I will breathe. 

Merlin Sinclair, Captain 

*** 

Durant’s brow furrowed as he pored over the numbers in the ledger of the ship’s books. He could not put his finger on where a specific discrepancy originated, but he was beginning to suspect it was Samantha’s doing. He had caught her before, fixing the numbers to retain a portion of their cargo for themselves for later selling or use, but their present manifest should not have anything in it of interest to her. He abandoned the computer terminal and pulled out a pad of paper and an old calculator. He was far better at finding financial tampering with a pencil than with the computer and set about to begin his search.

Before he could start scrawling, however, an awful alien sound wrenched at his ears. He jumped up from his desk in alarm, almost hitting his head on the low ceiling. “What the…?” he whispered to himself. He listened intently, his small ears twisting, but the sound was not repeated. The grizzly bear knew he could not have imagined something like that, so he moved quickly to a wall locker and took out one of the new Binfurr rifles they had just acquired. He made sure the clip was full and then opened the door from his office to move out into the hold.

The huge chamber was filled to capacity with massive components of industrial machinery, but a meter-wide pathway had been left around the outer perimeter of the hold. Durant looked each way in the dimmed lighting, unsure of which way to go. He suspected some alien life form had stowed away in the machinery from Earth and was now on the prowl. The bear feared little, but was cautious with the unknown. He took no chances unless necessary. He stood as quiet as the void outside the ship and did nothing but listen.

Then it started again, from his left – first as a low moan and then building in strength and pitch. The sound grated against his ears as it strengthened in volume. Durant’s heart began to quicken. It sounded as if someone were stepping on a small wounded animal with cleated boots and trying to mash it into the flooring.

“Sparky!” he exclaimed to himself. He moved as quickly as his muscled bulk would allow along the perimeter of the hold, fearful something had gotten his small friend. Each step took him closer to the wailing and his eyes furrowed in anger. He set his teeth together as he neared the doorway to the Engine Room and rounded the machinery with his rifle ready.

What he saw surprised and repulsed him. It was not Sparky who was being attacked, but the diminutive raccoon, Patch. A dark and bloated, many-legged creature was trying to shove an appendage down the engineer’s throat. What he heard was the thing’s ear-wrenching moan as the raccoon tried to squeeze it under an arm, fighting for a breath. Durant lifted his rifle and fired a shot across the top of the creature’s abdomen. The darkness of the chamber made it hard to see, and the projectile missed completely to bury itself in a wooden bookcase in the small office cubicle beyond.

The wailing ended when the alien released the raccoon, but Patch was far from grateful. He looked up angrily at the bear and shouted, “What the blazes are you shooting at me for?” He set the creature on the floor where it made a wheezing sound, but surprisingly it made no attempt to jump back onto its victim or run away. Patch rushed over to Durant and snatched the rifle out of the bear’s grasp, nearly taking off one of the ursine’s fingers in the process. He backed away snarling, hunched over with the gun as if he dared the load master to advance any further toward him.

Durant was clearly confused. “Patch!” he explained, “I heard that thing attacking you!” He looked at the creature that had grown still. “I thought you were dying!”

Patch straightened up and lost the snarl for a look of bewilderment. “What thing are you talking about, Durant?” he asked gruffly. “I was playing music.”

The bear pointed toward the thing on the floor. “That was no music I heard!” he replied, “It sounded more like you were being squashed!”

Patch’s scowl returned and he walked over to the bear. He shoved the rifle hard back into Durant’s hands and then stomped back to the item in question. When he picked it up, the thing let out another wheezing groan, its abdomen looking deflated. “This is called a bagpipe, Durant,” the raccoon explained with a sigh. “I picked it up on Earth the other day, but this is the first time I’ve had since our launch to try it out.” He looked over at the bullet hole in his bookcase and then back at the bear. “I haven’t learned how to play it yet,” he exclaimed in a voice nearing a shout, “but I’ll be dipped if I’m going to let you shoot at my instruments when I bring them out!”

Durant put the safety back on the rifle and shook his head. “I’ve heard you play your other instruments, Patch. You’re good, but I have serious doubts that music will ever come out of that thing!”

The raccoon merely glowered at him without another word, so the bear left the engineer to his thoughts. Durant had thoughts of his own. If Patch was going to continue to torture him with the bagpipe, he would have to move the accounting office into his own quarters to get any work done. His fears were confirmed as he reached his desk moments later when that awful noise began again to set his teeth on edge. The bear groaned and gathered up his work. 

*** 

A sizzling neon sign read “Langlop’s Outpost” above a rusty grey door in front of a sickly green office with pale yellow lights. Inside, a tired and bored canine shuffled paper in the semblance of activity, but the liquid ovals of her eyes suggested that she had not been truly alive for some time. She seemed unaware of the movement outside of her office and continually checked the clock on a water-stained wall. Blistered and peeling wallpaper covered the inside, as well as the drooping pages of a two-year-old paper calendar that had never been changed.

Durant cursed to himself as he watched an awkward, aging groundlift shakily move forward, stabbing the wooden beams of the pallet again with its metal tongs. The tall, thick lion in the cab did not know a lever from a hole in the ground, he thought to himself. However, now that the cargo was unloaded from the Horizon, it was no longer the bear’s responsibility. Still, Durant hated shabby work on principle.

Nearby, Merlin Sinclair stood with the bay master. The grey wolf wore a long, black trench coat that made him look taller and more threatening than he was. It was only pulled out when he wanted to say, “Skip the conversation. We don’t want to be here.”

 The bay master, however, was a sloppy fat dog with greasy overalls whose jowls wobbled when he spoke. The canine addressed Captain Sinclair with an air of annoyance, as though the wolf’s business was an intrusion on his desire to punch out early. It was plain, Durant thought, that he was related to someone in power at this port, because no reasonable manager would act like that to an important customer and keep his job for very long. The bear only hoped that Armando was getting similar treatment with his part of the shipment.

“Hey!” Samantha called, snapping his attention back to the gaping maw of the ship. “Can you give me a hand up here?”

The bear moved up the ramp quickly, eager to get away from the ineptitude that had thronged around him in the form of the cargo bay crew. Samantha wrestled with a clasp on the edge of the ramp without luck. When the towering bear arrived, a simple slap of a hinge connected the metallic circuit and closed the clasp tight. His diminutive friend thanked him, her breath billowing white in the chill of the cargo bay air.

“Have they never heard of heat in here?” she snarled.

“I asked,” Durant replied. “Apparently they’re waiting for a release form pending their critical need for heat in the loading and unloading section of Langlop’s Outpost, and the release forms are on backorder. They do everything on paper here, no slateboards at all.”

She smiled, “Cute. I want something to drink.”

“Looking to drown a few sorrows?”

“Looking to get away from all this mess and unwind.”

“Negative on that, Sam,” their captain rolled, approaching the pair. “We’re not going to be here that long, and there’s to be no leaving the ship’s general vicinity. I don’t want to be here any longer than absolutely necessary.”

Durant blinked. “No shore leave, boss?”

The wolf clamped a hand softly on the bear’s shoulder, “Not this time around, I’m afraid. You know where we are and why I don’t want to take chances. We should not be here for any longer than it takes to unload the cargo and get clearance to leave for Quet.”

Samantha sighed heavily. She hated the thought of remaining on a ship she had already been penned up in for weeks. However, her wants did not outweigh the captain’s directives.

“I know,” Sinclair said with a grimace. “But I promise that we’ll be taking some extra time off on Dennier once we’ve made our stop on Quet.”

“But that’s another month away…” the Border collie whined.

“Quet is only a day away from here,” Merlin reminded her.

“I meant Dennier,” the Border collie said with a sigh. “Who in their right mind would want to go to Quet for shore leave?”

“That matches my sentiments for Brandt as well,” the wolf muttered.

wrench-CRASH! <klang- tinkle>

The three turned as one toward the sound as another weathered pallet was skewered, gears ground and caterpillar wheels spun in a fog of screaming rubber. Curses and accusations followed, worker voices raised in anger and outrage.

The captain smiled hard and indicated the panel inside their cargo hatch. Samantha returned the thin grin and slapped the face of buttons, bringing the ramp up and sealing off the trio from viewing the incompetence below. 

*** 

“Are you seeing this?”

“I am not seeing this.”

Sparky whirled a kitchen knife with an aplomb that would have done a surgeon proud. A vidscreen perched atop her prep area, playing out the gentle music and purring voice on a local station she had turned on just for white noise. To her left, trying to read his slateboard news connection to the Interstellar News Network, Arktanis was trying not to pay attention.

“I can’t believe this,” she added, peeling another vegetable. “How can they be doing this kind of thing on a world that’s trying to get back on its feet again?”

“I am not seeing this,” he repeated.

Sparky crossed the room and took Tanis by the chin, directing his gaze up to the vidscreen. Across the small screen streaked the faces of weeping, starving children, flies swirling around their furry heads as a voiceover spoke of the miseries of the dying babies in nearby countries. Then it showed opulent palaces and obese individuals in too-small suits and glittering finery. A plaintive female voice poured through the speakers like honey:

“While kits and cubs are starving at our back doors, hungrily looking to another day of wondering if survival—if a morsel of food—will greet them the next day, the wealthy and powerful turn their backs in silent disgust. Those who have been blessed with good fortune look away from those whose labor has gone unrewarded. With the rising costs of medical care, we cannot afford not to act to save the innocent—to save the poor and the needy…”

He returned to his slateboard. “I don’t like to get politically involved in the welfare of other worlds, Sparky. Didn’t ya ever watch Stellar Journey?”

“Well, we don’t have to get involved, Tanis. We can just help them out a little.”

“I don’t want to go down that road, Sparky.”

“You are going to allow those poor, helpless children to starve when we have so much?” she purred.

Tanis looked up from the screen. If ya want to help, I’ll not talk ya out of it, but ya know ya’ll have to go through the politicians first, and they’ll make sure they get their cut of anything ya donate.” 

*** 

Patch rolled out from under a translucent pane of crystal, stabbed fingers into a red toolbox, withdrew a shiny chrome instrument, and rolled back the way he had come. Beside him under the pane, his brother Pockets roared a Ganisan aria to which the cranky Patch grimaced. The genial brother’s voice filled the engineering section, ringing off the liquid crystal tubes and filling the entire area with music. Somewhere, a gang of feral dogs howled in auditory distress.

“Hah!” Pockets suddenly chirped, slamming a panel shut. The raccoon looked at his brother under the pane and shoved himself bodily out from beneath it, sailing across the floor to a red button on the far side of the room. Pockets slapped it and bounded up from the floor to look at a flashing display of red numerals.

“Fixed it in three hours, thirty-seven minutes!” he called out.

Patch drew himself out from under the pane, wiping transparent grease from his fingers and snarled under his breath.

“I take it you were successful?” rolled a third voice, from above. The brothers looked back to the open doorway to see a lean cheetah grinning at them. Renny had stretched himself into a black workout suit and apparently just left the mini-gym in the Recreation room on the third deck. A light dusting of perspiration rested across his nose and the powerful lines of his body pulsed with newly-spent energy.

“We got the LC pipes cleaned out in record time and the jets are in the clear!” Pockets chirped, and then sniffed the air around him. “We need showers!”

Renny gestured for them to follow and the trio was soon ambling toward the lift, talking and jesting with Pockets about plans to have ladies galore and alcohol go down—or perhaps the other way around—with a few hours of shore leave.

But halfway around the perimeter of the hold, the trio met up with Samantha.

“You guys heading—whoa! To the showers, I hope!”

“Yup,” Pockets replied as his brother growled incoherently. “Then later we’re heading out onto the town to see what we can get into in our off time.”

“Sorry guys,” she corrected, “but nobody’s leaving the port area. Captain’s orders.”

“Orders?” the cheetah moaned. “Why not? Shore leave after a world-to-world journey is standard ship’s policy.”

Sam canted her head slightly, “The cancellation happens sometimes, Renny. This is a hostile place with which nobody has any legal agreements. We’re not sure what kinds of trouble you could get into here and the local magistrates are only interested in squeezing all the credits they can out of any trouble they can find. Captain says we stay put. He wants out of here as quickly as possible. Personally, I am going to crash out for a couple of hours. Only the bad guys know when we’ll be able to sleep again, you know.”

The three grimaced unhappily, Patch snarled another of his creative curses as Samantha pinched her nose and strolled past the small gathering of pungent males. 

*** 

Twenty minutes later, Pockets stepped out of his shower, dried and groomed his fur, and then wriggled into a fresh set of clothes. The crew was sleeping except for Durant and Sparky sitting lookout on the bridge, and they had two hours to go before they needed to be up and getting ready to disembark. The acquisition of the newer model transducers had aided the ship’s abilities, but he and Patch had discovered that maintenance of the new equipment required different tools than what they had on hand. Without the proper tools, the transducers could break down and they would end up hard-pressed to fix them. The Captain’s motto of “If you must kill time, work it to death,” certainly applied here.

What the heck, it couldn’t hurt anything to sneak a look for such tools, could it?

The raccoon pulled open a drawer, withdrew a tattered paperback book, and flipped a few pages to find the one he had dog-eared a few hours before landing on Brandt. He found his location on a simple map in the book and mentally plotted a beeline to the place he wanted to go. 

Pockets threw an overcoat across his shoulders, slipped quickly through the ship and into the deserted cargo bay, then moved through the shadows out the door. He took in a breath and looked out over the vista of the forbidden city. The place smelled of cheap liquor and even cheaper companionship. He placed the copy of Good Places on Bad Worlds back into one of his cavernous pockets and started down the pavement.

The lights of the city, mostly reds and violets, glittered above his head as pools of spent rain still glinted underfoot – a raunchy street gleaming with sweat. The cool night was staved off in the heat of the city’s activity. Wreathed in smoke as he walked along the ruined pavement, his stride caught the industrial pulse as the raccoon moved toward a single outpost. The night seemed to speak with the voice of a thousand mournful saxophones. He thrust his hands into his pockets and started down the street to the Wildwood Bar & Grill. 

*** 

A light drizzle fell upon the dark city of Langlop’s Outpost and the raccoon was getting drenched as he shuffled down the street. According to the book in his hands, the bar should be in this vicinity, but nothing looked even remotely like the map he studied for the fifteenth time. He had not seen any street signs on the last six intersections he had crossed, and what lamps lined the avenue were getting fewer in between. The buildings he stood beside were old and weather-beaten. He had read somewhere that the summers in this particular region were cool, windy and devoid of rain, and the structures reflected the hostile environment.

Pockets frowned at the obviously obsolete book one more time and tossed it in a pile of rubbish near an over-filled trashcan by the closest building. He walked on into the night another half block and contemplated just going back to the Horizon. He took a glance behind him and realized that he had lost his bearings. Had he traveled in a straight line from the ship he might have made it back okay, but he had zigzagged through the streets looking for that particular place and now he was quite lost.

He exhaled rather loudly and stopped in the middle of the wet street. He had seen no one for the past hour and traffic had been nonexistent. He turned around slowly, looking for anything to give him a clue on his whereabouts, but everything looked the same to him. He didn’t even find a Com booth anywhere. Normally on shore leave, each of the crew took along a handheld DataCom for emergencies, but since he had slipped off-ship against orders, he had not bothered taking one of the DCs.

He blinked against the rain and focused down an alley. He thought he saw a dim light behind a dumpster, so he moved in that direction. Moments later, he stood before the cracked and barely operating neon sign of The Overnighter, a small restaurant bar and inn tucked in between two larger structures. A sign on the door invited him in out of the night and the raccoon stepped inside. Had the engineer not thrown away his guide, he would have noticed that there were generally three classes of bars on this world. The first was host to wealthy businessmen and visiting aristocrats. The second was for college students and professionals. The third was for alcoholics, lowlifes and tramps.

The Overnighter would rate as a class-four establishment.

The air was smoky from various pipes and cigars and the lights were dim. Pockets did not waste time trying to see who was in the room and went straight to the counter. A walrus with half a tusk walked over to him, but did not speak. Pockets fished a few credits from his coat, ordered something off the drink slate, and took a seat on a stool as he waited.

An old wire jukebox in the corner next to a staircase quietly played what passed for music across the Planetary Alignment three decades ago, and as the raccoon’s eyes adjusted to the darkness, he noted only four or five others in the bar. A mangy cat stood up from a stool near the stairs and Pockets saw that it was beside a com unit. As soon as the feline was away from the booth, he moved to it and solemnly fed it a few coins. He tapped in the number of the city’s transfer station and then the ID code for the Horizon. He frowned as he anticipated Merlin’s response to his predicament and watched as the com unit’s dim green lights scrolled by, trying not to notice the emaciated middle-age prostitute that ambled up to him with a face that would have been enticing twenty years earlier. He winced, then turned his head and tried to disguise the fact that he had to cover his nose.

It was Taro who answered the communication. “This is the SS Blue Horizon. What can we do for you?”

“Taro?” Pockets said with a breath of relief, “I’m in a fix and need—”

“Pockets? Is that you?” the fox asked in confusion. “Where are you? You’re supposed to be preparing the engine room with your brother. We’re lifting off in an hour!”

“I know, Taro,” he replied, “but we’ve been cooped up in the Horizon for several weeks! I needed to get out for some fresh air and food.”

“You call this air fresh?”

“Well, it does smell strange,” he admitted.

“You said you were in a fix,” Taro said dryly. “That can mean too many things on Brandt. What’s your problem, other than the pay docking you are going to get for going against the captain’s orders?”

“I’m lost. I can’t find my way back to the ship.”

“Is that all? Just use the locator on your DC.”

“I didn’t bring one.”

A long pause. “That’s… downright stupid, Pockets. Do you have any idea where you are?” she asked. “I’m calling up the latest city map on the monitor.”

“There aren’t any road signs around here,” the raccoon answered, “but I found a restaurant and inn called The Overnighter.”

“Get a room there for the night, Porter,” Merlin’s voice rumbled suddenly into his ear from the com unit.

“Uh, captain...”

“You’re in enough trouble as it is with me, Porter, but you are lucky you were not attacked, beaten, robbed and left for dead during your night sojourn. I don’t want you stumbling around trying to find your way back.”

“Aye, captain,” Pockets said in a low voice.

“We’ll now have to delay our launch and reschedule with the port authority. We will lift off promptly in the morning as soon as you’re back here,” Merlin said in a dry tone. “We’ll discuss your actions after we’re on our way to Quet.”

“Aye, sir. I’ll get back there first thing in the morning.”

“Good night, Pockets.” The connection broke abruptly and the raccoon could already feel the sting as he hung up the transceiver quietly.

He moved back across the room to the counter and requested a menu. The walrus looked at him as if he had lost his mind. “Menu? The restaurant’s next door and is closed for the night. In here, we sell drinks. If you want a menu, I suggest you head over to Greasy Flurger down the street.”

From across the room, the walrus’ outburst caught the eye of a shadowy figure in a darkened corner. The figure, a brawny cougar, noted with interest that the new face was in the last place he should have been. The cougar noticed the competent way the stranger sat upright on the barstool and that his hands were scuffed from work. He caught a glimpse of the raccoon’s bright, sharp eyes and realized that sincere intelligence burned behind them. This was no mongrel toiler from a nearby factory.

“Well, do you know where I can get a place for the night, rather cheap?” Pockets asked the barkeep.

The walrus shrugged and hooked a thumb at a dark staircase in a recessed corner with one hand and plopped down a numbered key with the other. Pockets flipped the bartender a shiny coin without a word, snatched up the key and disappeared up the creaking stairs, forgetting his untouched drink. A moment after he had passed, the cougar approached the bar, paid his bill, then followed. 

*** 

Pockets unlocked the rusty brass doorknob and stepped into a room so small he would have to step outside to change his mind. A single bunk sat in the middle of the room, no larger than a loveseat, and small refrigerator stood idly beside it. This was a place where transients only stayed for a few hours and it was reflected in the price of the room. The raccoon moved to the bed and crawled across it to open the fridge. Inside was a complimentary soda and relatively clean cup, but the unit had not been on low enough to keep the beverage cold. Pockets pursed his lips, took out the two items, and set the soda on top of the fridge. He stepped back outside, the memory of an ice machine near the head of the staircase still fresh. As he left the room with his cup, he noticed a powerful cougar standing in the hallway. The cougar shrugged and looked down another direction apparently waiting for somebody. Pockets nodded politely and his action was mimicked by the cougar. This done, he turned the other direction.

As he disappeared around the corner to find the ice, the cougar moved to the raccoon’s door and removed a tiny vial from a pocket. He carefully opened the top and then dripped a spot of pale green fluid onto the doorknob to Pockets’ room. The liquid spilled down the front and blended with the green tarnish across the face of the brass knob. Then just as silently, the cougar disappeared back the way he came.

Pockets returned to his room with a cup of ice, the last few cubes in the bin. He gripped the doorknob, turned it and pushed open the door to his room. As he passed the threshold, he felt a hot tingling in his fingers. He peered down at the palm of his hand and was rewarded with flashing spots before his eyes. This was the last thing he saw before he dropped the cup of ice and the world went black as the floor rushed up to strike him in the face.  

*** 

The raccoon tried to remain still, delirium overcoming him with every twitch of muscle. His head throbbed and his stomach felt ready to heave if he moved an inch. He lay prone on a pile of velvet and satin cushions in a dimly lit room. A number of rough hands had deposited him there some time ago, but no faces had been visible in the bewildering haze fogging his mind.

He had given up demanding an explanation when his slurred words elicited no response from the hands that had carried him and dropped him where he now lay. With what coherence he could muster, he observed himself in a bedchamber with a small, empty table beside him, wood-paneled walls and a king size bed adorned with silk sheets in its center. Apparently, this was an opulent bedchamber of some wealthy person, but he could not understand why he had been brought here. The drugged feeling washed over him again and he felt himself relaxing whether he wanted to or not. His eyes fluttered shut. 

*** 

An unknown time later, he felt another presence nearby, as well as the closeness of an object to his face. He opened his eyes wide to find a tiny hand waving in front of him. The hand snatched back and he saw a hazy form with large ears draw away from him. It turned quickly and pattered off, followed by the resolute clap of wood as a door closed behind the retreating form. Pockets looked around again and this time saw a glistening chalice and common cup now sat on the table alongside a small vial of amber liquid.

They’re going to drug me again, he thought, and resolved to deny them that pleasure. He needed to get to a toilet and didn’t care if it was here and now, but the raccoon found that he could not relax enough in his current state of terror. 

*** 

Merlin Sinclair stepped over a slumped body at the door of the Overnighter. The barkeep, now an intense human with a deformed nose, had no information to offer. All he knew was that someone had checked into one of the rooms the night before and was probably still there for all he knew. However, a check of the rented room had revealed nothing but a soda can sitting idly on top of a refrigeration unit and a few small puddles of water on the floor near an upended cup.

“Any ideas?” he queried the hatchet-faced human standing at the bar.

“Dunno,” the man snorted. “Some feller spent the night thar, I suppose. Paid up front and then took off wi’out tellin’ anyone.”

“Great,” the captain growled.

“So what do we do now?” Taro asked, fingering the rifle beneath her long black trench coat.

A small voice chirped from a corner, “Lookin’ for your frien’?”

Merlin paid the words no mind—probably another money-hungry tale-spinner like the one they had run into several months ago on their last visit to Kantus. He started toward the door.

“Oh, sorry to trouble you,” the little voice called to his back. “Poor ‘coon boy in the green coveralls prolly won’t live to see the nightfall.”

Merlin stopped and did an immediate about-face to see the small squirrel standing before him, an all-too-sure-of-himself grin across his face. “What do you know?”

“I know everythin’. Saw it all, m’self.”

“Where is he now?”

“Ahh no,” the snide little voice barked, “not that easy. Five hundred or I don’ say a word.”

Apparently, the bartender noted, this little snit was new to the information-for-hire game. He returned to cleaning stained mugs with a greasy rag, not wanting to watch the display unfold before him.

“I don’t bargain, and that’s entirely too much to demand for blackmail information,” Sinclair growled.

“Sorry ‘bout that,” the squirrel replied lightly. “Hope he wasn’t anybody ‘portant.”

Sinclair opened his mouth to argue, but Taro turned to the bartender. “Do you rent these rooms by the hour?”

“Sure do,” was the response.

She flipped him a coin. “What’s it look like?”

He turned the shiny piece over in his fingertips, bit into it. “About two hours, why?”

“We’ll take a room,” she replied, then whirled the butt of her weapon against the squirrel’s nape, sending him to the floor in a heap. 

*** 

The squirrel, which the bartender had called Kharlie, awoke to find himself strapped uncomfortably into a wooden chair, facing a bedraggled fennec fox similarly bound. The female who had beaten him unconscious stood by the door with a drawn weapon. Movement behind the other chair caught Kharlie’s attention as a growling, cursing raccoon withdrew an odd device from an exotic case.

The other’s eyes fell on the thing and suddenly went wide. “No! You can’t! Those aren’t legal!”

“Why should I care?” rolled the voice of Merlin from behind the bound Kharlie. “Both of you claim to know where my crewmate is. This is his brother, who obviously has a vested interest in getting him back. Besides, who cares about what’s legal on this backwoods mud hole?”

The stranger struggled in his seat, limbs pumping helplessly against the ropes as the raccoon calmly and methodically unwrapped a quiver of exotic-shaped pipes attached to a decorated bag. There was an arcane symbol embroidered into the fabric, and the grisly tail of another animal decorated one of the pipes.

A petite, worried lynx stood in a corner with fear in her eyes. “Sir, we shouldn’t do this. It’s not right.”

The captain shrugged. “No matter. This is his vendetta,” he indicated the raccoon, who was lighting up a cigar, “so who am I to interfere?”

Kharlie stared at the proceedings in alarm, and then in terror as the cigar-puffing raccoon selected a pipe different from all the others, slammed a hand against the other victim’s head to tilt it back.

The fennec fox screamed, “NO! PLEASE IN THE NAME OF—!”  The raccoon jammed a pipe between his victim’s teeth.

What happened next was hard to tell. The fox squirmed helplessly against the ropes, convulsing as though in the throes of death. He clawed at the arms of his chair, desperate to escape the torture device as the raccoon forced it deeper and the victim’s breath came in short gasps.

But the sound—the horrible screaming of that device filled the room, echoing off the walls like an inescapable nightmare. It was like nothing Carls had ever heard before, and to witness such monstrous torment inflicted upon another like him chilled his blood.

“Know what that is?” Taro growled. “That’s a Tanthean Persuader. It is delivering a finely powdered acid to the insides of his lungs that will eat away at the air sacs little by little for the rest of his life—however long that is.”

The victim howled, the insidious machine howling with him, the sounds coming from it varied in pitch as the raccoon pressed different areas of the torture-pipe.

“He’s going to be breathing his own blood before too long,” Taro continued, moving over to stroke fingers through Kharlie’s head fur. “It should take him about—oh—ten or fifteen hours to die. Have you ever tried to breathe, knowing that with every draw of air you are forcing particles deeper into your tissues, burning you from the inside out?”

The squirrel shrank, “Okay, look! I’ll tell you! Just PLEASE don’t put that on me!”

“Yeah…” she continued. “You know you can try not to breathe, but your reflexes will make you, no matter what. That’s the beautiful part about the survival instinct: it will not let you die even when you want to.”

“I saw him!” Kharlie begged. “He was taken by a cougar named Robbins! He’s a pirate!”

That last word sent a ripple of fear throughout the room. For a moment, Tanis forgot to scream and Patch forgot to act. Quickly regaining themselves, Patch pulled the tube from his victim’s mouth, allowing a rope of drool to follow it for dramatic effect. Tanis’ head slumped against his breast and he mumbled, crying for mercy in hoarse, raspy wheezes. “I wanna put it in him anyway,” Patch muttered, approaching the next victim.

“Better talk fast.” Taro snarled, trying to hide her shock at the mention of pirates.

“He took your mate to a shuttle so he could take him up to their ship!” the squirrel cried. “It’s hovering in space under a cloaking system, but you can find it if you look for a class G spatial distortion!” Patch loomed over him, a crazed expression in his eyes. Kharlie strained against his bonds. “PLEASE NO!!”

“This ship, what’s its name?”

“The Lady of Dreams!”

Merlin gave his companions a nod.

“Well,” said a refreshed Tanis, sitting upright and loosening his own ropes, “I’m glad that’s over.” He wiped his mouth, stood up, turned to the captive and made a short theatric bow.

Patch grinned around his pungent cigar and blew a ring of smoke across the squirrel’s forehead. He then wiped the drool from the mouthpiece of his bagpipes with a handkerchief before turning to pack them away. 

Taro playfully mussed the fur between Kharlie’s ears.  “Don’t worry,” the fox said, “the bartender should be up here in a bit to let you go. Thanks for your time!” She flipped him a coin identical to the one she had paid for the room with. It landed in a fold of his shirt and he stared down at it mutely.

When he looked up, a priceless look crossed Kharlie’s face as the Blue Horizon crew members promptly departed. 

*** 

The door across the room slid open again and Pockets steeled himself. In the fuzziness of his vision, a tall, slender form filled the space he could see. It was sleek by design, totally black. Then it stretched an arm to the table and dripped some amber fluid into the chalice. The form knelt down beside him and placed the lip of the chalice at his mouth.

“Drink this,” purred a soft, female voice. 

Pockets turned his head meekly, straining to clear his vision to get a good look at his tormentor.

“No,” the voice scolded, tugging his head back to face the chalice. “This is the antidote to the sedative. You’ll be able to move again.”

Pockets struggled to resist, but slender fingers opened his mouth and deposited a portion of the bitter, warm liquid on his tongue.

“Listen to me,” said the voice, “if I was going to try to hurt you, I could do it right now and you’d be powerless to stop me. If we wait for your system to process the sedative naturally it will take days. I need you fully coherent right now and this will get you that way. Swallow.” She pressed his mouth closed and pinched his nose.

Defeated, Pockets did as commanded, swallowing the foul-tasting potion before he might vomit on it. The form stood up again and swirled, pulling off its black covering and leaving a crimson framework in its place. Within seconds, his eyes began to clear, and a warm sensation filled his body before a cold chill rippled through as he recognized the person before him.

A slender vixen, likely over six feet tall, knelt on the cushions. She was the most beautiful vulpine he had ever laid eyes on, but the arc-and-skull-shaped tattoo on the inside of her right ear identified her as Natasha Khasho, arguably the most notorious pirate on this side of the galaxy.

“Do you like what you see?” she asked, releasing the ruffled blouse from about her full bosom. She reached behind her back and loosened the constricting leather bodice and allowed herself free; sensual globes of flesh trembled beneath the white cotton blouse. She smiled; his gasp told her all she needed to know.

She took the empty cup from the table with one hand and unzipped his coveralls with the other, all the way down to his crotch. Pockets’ jaw dropped as she pulled his briefs away and rolled him bodily over onto one side, sliding the cup beneath his middle. Then the raccoon found he could let go of the burning ache in his belly.

As a steady stream exited his body, he felt the warmth brought on by the amber liquid drain away from his head down, almost as though he were a water tank being emptied. When the last remnants of fluid finally passed, she took the cup away, capped it, and set it to the side.

“Now that that’s out of your system, we can get down to business.” She closed his garments and sat him up on the cushions, so he could look around the room to fully appreciate his surroundings.

The place was spotless. Striking art adorned the paneled walls and a bookshelf filled with leather volumes stood prominently in the middle of one wall. Something in his mind told him that these objects were too similar, too fashioned to a particular theme to be looted wares of piracy and treachery.

Scrolls of blueprints lay on a planning table, and the diminutive engineer’s critical eye could see enough of one to notice its exotic physical design. However, the thing—a new truss—could not possibly be created without a special kind of metal. A row of figures and chemical symbols rested at the bottom of the chart, a formula for creating the metal. Then a key turned in his memory: a feat of metallurgy had been expropriated from a Terran several years ago, but there had been some problem re-creating the smelting process because the man had left a key formula out of his journals. What Pockets had heard of that metal could have made the truss work. If it was…

“I see you are a technically-oriented man,” the fox purred, drawing his attention back. Pockets turned to see Natasha slipping off her blouse.

He nodded silently, finding his tongue unwilling to obey just yet.

“My name is Natasha. I am known as the Pirate Queen. I need an engineer for my crew.” she licked her lips. “Let’s see if I can convince you to join me.” In a single, swift movement, the fox parted her leather trousers and whisked them away, pulling a pair of incongruently feminine undergarments off by quick-release fasteners in the process. Now totally bare, she pressed her lips to his in a deep, passionate kiss. Her tongue, it seemed, was willing and ready to obey.

Pockets gasped despite himself, but then wondered—as her fingers demonstrated competence in another form of plunder—why she would try to seduce him into joining instead of just kidnapping him and forcing his labor.

Natasha was about to begin her form of initiating the raccoon into her crew, but a knock sounded on the large wooden door. The red fox frowned at the interruption and said in an annoyed voice, “What is it?”

“It’s Robbins,” a voice called through the panel. “Tim was caught filching from Jacob’s cabin.”

Natasha rolled her eyes and then looked over at Pockets. “Excuse me, sweetheart. Duty calls.” The fox zipped up Pockets’ clothing and got up from her knees. She put on a short scarlet robe, retrieved her undergarments and put them back on under it. “Don’t think you aren’t interesting,” she said, “but I’ve found that this sort of thing has to be dealt with immediately. Don’t worry; we’ll get back to business shortly.”

Pockets’ eyes lighted at the thought of filling out all the applications.

“Okay, Mr. Robbins, bring him in,” she said.

The door opened and a muscular cougar moved into the heavily-wood paneled room, with his hand gripping the collar of a young mouse of about nine or ten. The First Mate shut the door behind him and released the short boy. A brief moment of recognition followed as Pockets realized the immense cougar was the same behemoth he had seen in the hotel hallway.

Natasha crossed her arms and looked down at the cabin boy. “Okay, Tim, what did Jacob have in his room that you felt you had to take?”

The young mouse glanced over at the raccoon sitting motionless among the floor pillows and stuck his hands in his pockets. “Just some magazines, ma’am.”

Natasha hid her smile by rubbing her face in apparent thought. “What kind of magazines, boy? We have a large library on board for you to choose from.” She already knew the type of literature Jacobs preferred, but wanted the mouse to admit it to her himself.

Tim studied the thick brown carpeting and mumbled something.

“What was that?” the captain asked.

Female Critters of the Galaxy, Exposed.

“Tim… you are not old enough, even on my ship, for the privilege of reading that material.”

“I know, ma’am…” the mouse said, “but…”

“No buts, boy. That makes two rules of The Lady of Dreams you have broken today. You know I don’t tolerate this under my command.” She looked down over at the raccoon and gave him a subtle wink before addressing her First Mate. “Mr. Robbins, prepare Tim for discipline.”

“Yes, ma’am.” The cougar knelt down next to the boy, and placed a hand on his shoulder with a gentleness that belied his imposing brawn. “You know the routine. Strip to your shorts.”

Tim didn’t bother to hide his nervousness as he slowly complied. Pockets swallowed hard as he listened and watched. He could feel the paralysis drug quickly wearing off and he was able to bend his knees a bit under one of the massive pillows. He didn’t know what kind of discipline he was about to witness, but if became too severe he intended to do whatever he could, if anything, to protect the boy. Like most in the Planetary Alignment, he had heard rumors of the horrors of pirate practices. Just how severe would they punish the cabin boy for such a small theft was left up to the raccoon’s active imagination.

When the mouse stood before them in his cutoff denim shorts, Robbins easily hefted the youth and carried him to the captain’s bed. The cougar retrieved several short lengths of silk cloth from a lamp stand. Tim crawled to the center of the bed and lay out spread-eagle on his back. The First Mate dutifully tied the lad’s tail to his left leg, and wrists and ankles to the bed posts.

Natasha smiled down at the raccoon that watched the proceedings silently and knelt beside him to whisper in his ear. “As part of my crew, you will learn that each member of the Lady of Dreams is very loyal to me, even after receiving punishment for their misbehavior. Watch and remember.”

The shapely fox stood up and approached the bed, lazily swishing her tail. She sat on the mattress next to the mouse and grinned at the youngster. “You may leave now, Mr. Robbins,” she said without looking up. The cougar left without a word and Natasha held up a hand and said softly, “Fingers?”

“Sorry…” the mouse squeaked.

Captain Natasha extended a finger toward the mouse’s side and lightly wrote her name with it into the boy’s grey flesh. Tim tried to pull away from her finger, but the ties kept him from moving very far. He held his breath as her ticklish touch continued to lightly caress his ribs, but his eyes were tightly closed. She wriggled a fingertip in his navel and the mouse snickered. She moved her hands back and forth across his ribs on both sides as he giggled and writhed upon the bed, but without any way to stop what she was doing. His eyes were starting to tear up as the sensations continued to build up within him, but just as he was about to cry out, Natasha stopped and allowed him a few heartbeats to catch his breath.

She looked back to the raccoon and laughed when she noticed his eyes straining to peer up over the edge of the bed to watch things from the level of the floor. She hated to lose the small amount of momentum she had started on Tim, but decided to take care of two tasks at once. She moved to Pockets and lifted him off the floor like a limp rag doll. He was smart enough to pretend the paralysis still had a hold on him as she placed him in a cushioned, high-backed chair near the bed. Satisfied he was situated, she moved back to Tim’s side.

Natasha smiled warmly and moved to sit between the youth’s legs. Pockets was suddenly appalled at what he thought this vixen was about to do to a minor. She surprised him, however, by doing something other than what he’d expected. She sat between the bound ankles and lightly danced her fingers across the smooth expanse of his belly. Tim squealed and tried to wriggle away, but again the ties kept him in place. Pockets squirmed slightly in his seat, remembering the skill of her fingers on his own body. As Natasha continued to tease the little mouse, she reached down with her right hand and drummed her fingertips across the underside of his left knee, then reached over and lightly kneaded the top of the right. The boy squeaked again and lost his composure, finally laughing and giggling aloud.

This went on for two full minutes until Natasha gave up the subtle tactics for a more aggressive move. She leaned back and grabbed the top of Tim’s left foot. She tickled his toes vigorously and the boy shrieked and bucked wildly against the silk. As she continued, Pockets saw the pure delight in the vixen’s face as she administered her own particular form of discipline to the boy, and marveled at this lady pirate. He found that the paralysis had completely worn off his body, but he sat where he was, transfixed by the proceedings before him. With the ship docked planetside and practically the entire crew out in the city, he knew he should try to escape, but wanted to watch just a little bit more.

Natasha switched to the squealing boy’s other foot without the benefit of a breather this time and tickled up and down the pink sole. After several seconds, the squirming youth could only guffaw silently. She looked up at Tim’s face and saw tears streaming from the clenched eyelids, so she stopped and moved up to his side. “Are you hurt, boy?” she asked gently. Tim couldn’t speak from the chuckles still escaping his lungs, but shook his head as he gasped. “I — I’m ok-kay,” he said with a relieved giggle.

Natasha grinned widely and then grabbed his ribs with a new flourish of tickling. Tim shrieked and Pockets was hard pressed not to cover his ears from the shrill pitch and volume. If there were more than the one or two crewmembers he had seen earlier still on board, they were respectful not to investigate the noises from their captain’s cabin. Still, he sat transfixed.

The vixen varied her attack points and began energetically tickling the boy all over his upper body. Tim alternately bubbled and howled as her fingertips played well-known spots like a finely tuned instrument, and Natasha laughed as well from her enjoyment. It occurred to Pockets that she must be an exception to the norm as pirates go. She was teasing - not torturing - the boy. Her tempting tactics for employing him into her crew, and her favorite form of disciplinary action, painted a different picture than what the raccoon was used to believing.

Captain Natasha finally stopped her whirling fingers and asked in a heavy breath, “Now, is there any place I’ve missed?”

Tim weakly shook his head in the negative, but a new voice spoke up.

“Mouse ears are very ticklish,” Pockets said, drawing a long feather out of a nearby vase and passing it to the fox. “Tickle his ears. Maybe his nose, too.”

Both Tim and Natasha looked over at the raccoon in surprise to see Pockets standing at the foot of the bed. The fox grinned widely and accepted the plume, “Why, thank you, good sir. I was not aware of that.”

Tim screwed up his face in horror, eyeing the feather with particular dread. “Not a feather! Don’t! Please, no! I won’t look at Jacob’s magazines ever again!”

Natasha laughed at him. “I think I know better than that, boy. Let’s make sure you don’t,” she said as she clamped a hand around the youth’s chin to hold his head still.  

*** 

 ”My business is none of your business, Jensen, so you are just going to have to live with it!” Merlin snarled, jamming a finger down onto his console to silence Armando’s complaints. He looked forward to his tense crew. “Distance and time?”

“We’ll be there in a few more minutes, Captain,” Samantha reported. “We’ve got a tenuous lock on the spatial disturbance. That might be our cloaked cruiser.”

“Outstanding. Make sure our new weapons are charged and ready. I’ll try to resolve this without a conflict, but let’s be ready anyhow.”

“Aye, sir,” she replied as he sulked back into his chair. Pockets, why did you have to run off like that? she wondered. 

*** 

 Pockets sat back on the silk sheets as a newly freed Tim gathered up his tunic and sandals, a blush still on his cheeks. Natasha swatted the boy lightly on the rear and sent him out of the room. Robbins stood out in the hall and greeted Tim with a grin and a congratulatory scrabble of the boy’s short head fur. Natasha turned back to the raccoon to see an expression she could not quite read.

“You disapprove of my techniques?” she queried, rising to her full, impressive height now that the drug had worn off her prisoner.

“I’m surprised by them, but I don’t think disapprove is the proper word,” he responded.

She crossed her arms, looking down at him with the sober composure of a business report. “I don’t like to hurt people unless absolutely necessary. Tim was abandoned by alcoholic parents two years ago and I took him in on the condition that he earns his keep and so far he’s done that. He is a good kid but he sometimes goes astray and I have found that little trick to be just enough of an ordeal to get my point across. It also teaches him a valuable lesson in that he can keep going at something unpleasant long after he thinks he cannot. That works because it doesn’t leave marks. I do not want to have to deal with any charges of abusing minors if some dogmatic outer-rim sheriff finally has some luck.”

“And?” the raccoon said with a smile.

“And…” she returned the feather to its vase with a grin, “it’s cute to make him squirm. Reminds me of what I used to do to my little brother.”

“So this is how you handle your crew? You’re not quite the vicious pirate that local legend has made you out to be.”

“I’ve gone to a lot of trouble to create the illusion that we’re vicious and more degenerate than we really are. It keeps troublemakers off our backs and gives us a reason to turn down people who are just looking for a reputation. We never attack military vessels or private cargo ships unless we are provoked into it. The Lady of Dreams only sacks tax ships—extorted alms—from the needy to the greedy, and we leave their crews as alive as possible. This is not the information that gets passed to the media, though. According to several worlds we rape and plunder at random, killing innocents and preventing needed aid to worlds on the edge of starvation.”

“But isn’t that what happens when you take out a tax relief ship?”

“Not at all. One of the things few know about Intergalactic Aid is that most of the stuff gets seized at the border by the warlords currently draining ‘victim’ worlds’ economies to pay for their palaces and private armies. In turn, the IA wails about how the off-worlds are still starving at the expense of selfish enterprises not giving enough of what they’ve earned to help those in need. This is a form of emotional blackmail that compels the people of ability to submit to further taxation. The IA makes money via kickbacks from the warlords for keeping this vicious cycle going and the problems never end.” Natasha sat down on the silk sheets beside the raccoon, now scrubbing his chin in thought.

“What do you do with the money?” he prodded.

“We keep a lot of it and channel some of it back through black market conduits. It doesn’t do a whole lot of good to the extorted, but until they’re willing to oust the corrupt governments themselves, anything we do will prolong the misery and never help.”

“Aren’t your actions, or more accurately your inactions, just another form of evil?”

“Evil?” she replied in a cold purr. “What do you know of evil? Evil is forcing anyone to act in the operation of his own destruction. When we take on a ship, we match them gun for gun: my men against theirs. They have just as much opportunity to destroy us as we do them. But what they do planetside is a different matter. The IA uses compulsory charity: it works through government action to disarm its victims. If people don’t pay the appropriate level of tax extortion, the government goes in quietly and seizes their belongings at the point of a gun. But they’d rather not do that if they can help it, because that costs them so much more time and money to provide the right media spins. So instead they use media pressure to get people to surrender more and more every year, destroying things incrementally.”

“A man with a briefcase can steal more money than anyone with a gun,” the raccoon mused. “Hasn’t anyone ever exposed this?”

“How could they? The IA, through various stooges, controls the widespread media and anyone caught speaking out is locked up in prison for disturbing the peace.”

Pockets blinked. “Natasha, Pirate Queen, doing what is right.”

She chuckled, “When right is outlawed, don’t expect those who know right to obey the law. But then, all that is just a microcosm. The problems are much more widespread than that.”

“Hmm,” Pockets replied. “All right, I’m interested in learning more about you.”

“Good. First, however,” she immediately crossed the silk sheets and pressed her lips to his neck, “you have to offer me a tribute of fire and… whatever liquid you see fit.”

“Is this your normal initiation?” he asked, backing up on the sheets.

“Well, yes,” she nibbled at his chin.

He pushed her gently away. “Look, if you are giving me the option of joining you or not, there’s something you have to understand. I can’t willingly join your crew because I’m bound by contract to the Blue Horizon for another couple of years.”

She pulled back, disappointed but interested. “The Blue Horizon, eh?” she repeated with a lopsided smile. “That’s the freighter that’s been embarrassing Sagan lately.”

“Embarrassing?” the raccoon asked with curiosity.

“The Basilisk has been the butt of jokes on Brandt about Sagan’s inability to take down a common Okami-class freighter,” the vixen replied. “He’s pretty steamed about it.”

Pockets shook his head and muttered, “Serves him right. He murdered one of us!”

She leaned forward slightly and added, “I’ve heard it said he keeps stroking the scar on his cheek he got from his last sword fight with your captain.”

“Nice. That aside,” the raccoon continued, “I can recommend some people in nearby star systems who’re free agents. They could help you out.”

She withdrew completely, sitting on the bed sheets without a hint of chagrin. “I need an engineer and a gunner.”

“Well, over on Earth there’s an engineer named Jean Orfèvre who can make or fix anything you can think of. If he doesn’t work out, try Mol Mok. He’s a lemur on Quet and I believe he’s not doing anything in particular. Knowing him, I think he would jump at the chance to work for you.”

“And weapons?”

“He’ll probably be difficult to find, but I think a Kai named Jape Devon—”

“No.”

The raccoon looked at her with surprise. “No?”

“I’m not going to deal with a psycho.”

Pockets paused for a moment, reading the sincere disgust in her face. “No, I’ve worked with him before. Devon is rough and he is a killer, but he is also a genius and I don’t think he’s psychotic. He fought in five wars that I know of, and knows battle tactics like the inside of his mouth. He can formulate every form of combustion, chemical and physical, and works very fast in a combat situation. He’s also the best marksman I’ve ever met.”

“That’s not what I’ve heard. I’ve heard he leaves people to die in terrible pain after botching kill shots.”

“Exaggeration. Devon believes in the one-bullet principle. If he can’t kill his prey in a single shot, which is very rare, he gives them the option of being left alive or put down. He even took one victim to a hospital by request,” he countered.

“And I’m supposed to take that in lieu of countless reports otherwise?”

“What I’ve seen here does not match what I’ve heard of you either.  Natasha, Toe Tickler doesn’t have quite the same ring, does it?”

The fox canted her head and twitched an ear. “Touché,” she said. “So you really think he’s the right one for the job?”

“As I said, if you can find him.”

“And what,” she added finally, “do you want in exchange for your help?”

Pockets thought for a moment, knowing well that this vixen would not let him go without some form of payment. There was too much justice in her manner of thinking. His eyes moved over to the planning table, and he began to speak.

That moment, an alarm sounded in the hall and the Pirate Queen started. A voice poured through an unseen speaker: “Captain, we need you at Control, pronto!”

“Come on,” she said as she grabbed her long trench coat and tore out of the room.  

*** 

“Status!” she cried as red lights flashed and warning klaxons sounded. Pockets followed the tall vixen to the bridge of the Lady of Dreams to find it a singular technological wonder. Sleek panels along the walls housed instrumentation that he and his engineer brother would have killed to have.

“Visual array is coming up, Captain,” Robbins reported as she took the command seat in the middle of the battle bridge. Unused to the new technology, Pockets gasped as a spherical holographic image floated in space before the bridge crew. This was not like the vidscreens of the Horizon, but a fully rendered three-dimensional representation of space around them.

“Pirate vessel!” rumbled a voice over the communications units. “Surrender immediately and prepare to be boarded.”

“That thing? They have got to be kidding,” Robbins growled as a pair of joysticks flipped up from his panel and green crosshairs appeared over the face of a blue flying saucer outside.

“No, wait!” Pockets cried, leaping forward to the vixen. “That’s my ship and they’re just coming for me, I’m sure of it!”

Natasha tapped a pad on an arm console and gestured an invitation to her former captive.

“Captain Sinclair?” Pockets called out.

“Pockets?” It was Samantha’s voice.

“I’m okay!” he replied.

Merlin Sinclair’s voice crackled across the invisible waves, “Porter, if they’ve harmed you in any way I’m going to tear them in half.”

“No sir! I’m perfectly fine. We just had a…” he looked to the cougar, still tense at the controls, “just a little misunderstanding, that’s all.”

“Captain of the ship,” Merlin rolled.

“This is the captain,” Natasha responded.

“Release my engineer at this moment, unharmed. Do not make us engage you!”

Natasha almost laughed aloud. “Only one person has ever beaten me in battle and it wasn’t you, and it sure wasn’t in a common freighter.” She turned to an equine figure sitting at another set of controls. “Jazz, de-cloak.”

A hum followed by a tiny crackling noise, and Pockets saw a shape materialize in the exact center of the holographic sphere.  

*** 

The bridge crew of the Blue Horizon gasped as one when their vidscreen suddenly filled with a long, wedge-shaped ship that was many times their size. The terrible silhouette stirred an ancient memory, but none could precisely place it. Renny Thornton’s screen lit up with a flashing green message: Hammerdine class-G Dreadnought. Then, painted across the forward decks, like a child’s toy in a handful of deadly weapons, a bright yellow smiley-face beamed back at them.

Merlin swallowed hard and suddenly regretted his harshness.

“Blue Horizon,” Natasha’s voice said over the com channel, “this is the Lady of Dreams. I have no interest in conflict with you. As you can see, we are more than a match for your weapons systems. However, I do wish to return your crewmate to you. Please see that your emergency conduit is available in five minutes. Captain Natasha, out.”

Natasha. An eerie silence filled the bridge of the Blue Horizon. Even though they had prepared for this confrontation, hearing that dread name sent a chill through most of the crew. Renny spun his chair around to face his leader, waiting for instruction. Beside the wolf, Durant stood with a Binfurr weapon in hand and a stony expression. Merlin grimaced and whirled out of his command chair toward the emergency conduit as a small, grey shuttle dropped gracefully from the belly of the Lady of Dreams

*** 

The Blue Horizon sat quietly in space, Taro and Renny handling the controls at the bridge. In the captain’s office, Pockets was receiving the eleventh degree from Sinclair and his twin brother.

“That’s a big ship,” Renny commented as the Lady of Dreams slowly rotated in space, adjusting its course and preparing for its journey to Earth. “Any idea what she’s got under the hood?”

Taro sighed in appreciation and nodded. “Particle Vault; anti-matter engines. According to rumor, Natasha is actually a venture capitalist under a bunch of false names and that she is holding out a lot of new technology until things improve throughout the PA. She does not want anyone else benefiting on her brain.”

“So she needed an engineer and Pockets referred her to some people he knew,” the cheetah sighed. “I wonder if he got anything in return.”

In the next moment, a crackling blue energy surge ringed the Lady of Dreams from stem to stern, swallowing it whole and leaving only an unbroken vista of stars. 

*** 

In the wolf’s office, the snarling and shouting had stopped. Pockets plugged a data crystal into the captain’s terminal and displayed technical plans that  could upgrade the engines to Vault capacity. However, the key instructions were in a scrambled hieroglyphic and it would take another visit with the Pirate Queen to release the cryptography. If his advice panned out, she had promised, the Blue Horizon had just made a very important ally. 

*** 

In the center command seat, Natasha passed her eyes over a floating console’s scrolling numbers. The readout of the Vault Drive displayed its performance statistics, and she found that the efficiency of the new technology was on the rise. The vault itself had lasted only a microsecond in real time and the Lady of Dreams had just entered just outside the orbit of Luna in the Sol system on approach to the blue planet. Incremental upgrades to all ship systems were proving one of the best ideas she had ever had, and her top-notch technical team made her proud.

“Captain,” a voice lilted from her right, “we’re coming up on Earth.”

“Thank you, Mr. Frost.”

Natasha moved the console from her way and pulled up the spherical monitor in the center of the bridge. Ringed with white streaks, the surface of the world before them was one of the most appealing in the Planetary Alignment. It was not a shimmering pearl like Argeia or a brooding brown mudball like Quet, but aesthetically it appealed to her.

“Ahead one quarter,” she instructed, “Jazz?”

The slender white filly tapped keys before her and the ship’s cloaking system engaged, causing the hulking juggernaut to flame in space and then disappear with only a waving distortion in its place. The tall fox stood from her command chair and started toward the hall, absently adding, “Get my shuttle ready.”

A stout bobcat at one console noted a small distortion in the starfield before him, but ignored it when the captain arose. He did not want to bother his captain with trivial details.

Robbins followed her down the hall, “You know, there’s no real reason to trust his advice. He could have been telling you all that just to get out of here.”

“Noted,” she added, “but at this point I’m not interested in taking chances on missing out on good people. You ought to have seen the look in his eyes when he saw the schematics for the new truss; positively glued to them.”

“That was what I thought when I first saw him, yes. But really, Earth? That’s the lion’s mouth for us right now. This is dangerous, and the rest of the crew can see that. Why can’t you?”

“I’m aware of the danger,” she snapped back, “and that’s the reason why I’m going.”

He crossed his arms over his massive breast. “I don’t think that’s going to happen,” He said with a scowl of disapproval, both as her bodyguard and friend.

“But I do,” she countered. “You and Tim will be coming with me, so dress nicely.”

“Tim? What if there’s trouble?”

“He’s a deterrent. I’ll pass him off as my adopted nephew or something.”

“Good thinking,” he added. “Nobody will believe that the Infamous Pirate Queen has a soft spot for kids.”

“Oh, please,” she chuckled. “The little snot almost made away with my bracelet and was hard to capture when I realized it. Someone that slippery belongs in my crew.”

A hatch opened with a hiss, and Natasha walked in just in time to receive a heavy cuff to the face. The blow spun her, slamming her against the wall before she knew what happened. As she slumped to the floor, Robbins looked past her to see a lean, black form in the lift. At its feet, the boy mouse lay savagely beaten and unconscious with a ribbon of blood running out of his nose and onto the grey metal floor. Even in the low light, the hulking sable cat’s eyes flashed a dangerous green.

You!” Robbins growled quietly, menacing. The black jaguar launched out of the lift, fangs and claws bared for the cougar’s throat.

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Unless otherwise noted, all material © Ted R. Blasingame. All rights reserved.