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BLUE HORIZON, BOOK 3

— Episode 29

"Peril in Ebony"
by Ted R. Blasingame

 

Blue Horizon, PA1138

Captain’s Journal 

The Blue Horizon is approaching the world of Fyn. Almost as soon as we got back on board the ship following Alex’s wedding on Tanthe, Cindy had a message waiting for us explaining that we had received an urgent request for the delivery of standard supplies to an out-of-the-way colony in the backcountry of Fyn that’s suffered a major loss due to flooding. The supplies had already been ordered from Silvest, a large Tanthean city about fifty miles from Tanager Castle. I’m not sure how a backwater colony would know we were in the vicinity of the very place where their supplies had been ordered from, but a job is a job.

Fyn is probably the least industrialized world of the Planetary Alignment, so it’s not surprising that one of the colonies in the unexplored territories would call to another planet to replenish their supplies. Tanthe is a long way from Fyn, however. I would have thought Alexandrius would be a likelier place to get their supplies since the two worlds are in the same system and usually only a day away from one another by star freighter. Durant showed me the manifest for the supplies we picked up in Silvest and there’s nothing particularly special about them. Alexandrius could have provided them easily, but it’s not my job to worry where a customer gets their goods.

The Chimera Colony is located just about as far from local civilization as it could be. Fyn does not yet have a global positioning satellite system, so Renny used the directions the customer provided and found the site on the topography maps in the southern hemisphere.  This place is located in the middle of the Kaisudon Mountain range, down in a deep canyon rift named the Valley of Bones. The map details show the region to be difficult to access. I would wager to guess the colonists got there by foot or pack animal, as a motorized vehicle would be unlikely to traverse the steep sides of the valley and colonists usually are not wealthy enough to afford to be airlifted. The planet of Fyn does not have many tall mountains on its surface to begin with, so it is my guess that the colonists chose the location specifically for its remoteness away from civilization. However, it doesn’t look as if they planned well enough to be self-sufficient if they have to order supplies from a world in another solar system altogether.

Still, they paid our standard delivery fee in advance for the supplies, so I shouldn’t complain. We will arrive during the local evening hours, so navigating the narrow canyon pass going instruments-only in the dark may prove to be a challenge.

Speaking of challenges, Samantha has been busy working up a guest list for the invitations for our upcoming wedding. We haven’t done much more than announce our engagement to everyone since we left Tanthe, and we haven’t even set a date yet, but Sam is acting the part of a bride preparing for her wedding. She and Taro have been researching bridal companies on the StellarNet for dresses. Shannon has even been helping out by touring the local shops for her.

Lori wants to help out in any way she can, but Samantha is reluctant to trust her with any specific duties. To be expected, all the guys on board have given me good-natured ribbing about finally giving in to Samantha’s charms, though Durant keeps muttering “It’s about time,” with a grin whenever I’m near. I’ve tried to remind everyone not to get too gung-ho until an actual date is set for the ceremony on Dennier.  I may as well have saved my breath, as everyone, especially the ladies, are acting like it’s next month.

As for me, I haven’t tried to think about it too much beyond my proposal. I am sure I will have my hand in on the preparations once we have a date to work towards, but for the time being, I have to keep the business in mind, and that is one of the factors to figure in on potential wedding dates.

The company’s been doing better than I anticipated. The girls at the home office have done a wonderful job promoting the company, and there are calls almost daily requesting our services. I never thought it would come to this, but after talking it over with Durant, I’ve begun to think along the lines of buying a third freighter for Blue Horizon Freight Transfer. This would mean hiring another eight or ten people. The company account does have the capital to invest in another ship and crew, and I find it difficult to turn away customers who have been specifically requesting our services. With an expansion of the company like this, it could be harder to run my business out here in space. My brother-in-law has suggested turning the captaincy of the Blue Horizon over to someone else and settling down on Dennier to run things from the home office. While the thought has merit, I’m not sure I am quite ready to give up my ship just yet. Personally, I think he’s just trying to get me closer to Shannon and the kids.

The flight to Fyn has been quiet, without incident and rather pleasant. Renny is now getting around without his crutches, but he’s still walking rather slowly. With the type of wounds he had, it may be a while yet before he is back to his old self again. I overheard him make a comment to Durant that he’s never had as many injuries, nor seen the inside of hospitals as much as he has since joining the crew of the Blue Horizon. I suppose that is true, since life aboard a stellar freighter should be mundane, but it does seem as if we have seen our share of excitement in the past few years. I just hope he doesn’t decide to tender his resignation with us. He is one of the best navigators I have ever worked with, and he’s also a good friend. The rest of my crew gets along with him well, and even though he and Tanis often argue with one another, they’re actually good friends — at least I think they are. Since Renny’s gotten past the danger of his hospital stay, the two of them have resumed some of their earlier arguments.

Max has been in contact with Clarence Duffy while on the way to Fyn, but we’ll be in a completely different part of the world from him to make any stops to visit. They seem to have become good friends in a short time, although a father-son relationship hasn’t developed. Max has a good head on his shoulders and seems to have handled the situation in a mature manner. I am really proud of him.

Taro is currently in the Blue Horizon’s center seat with Renny on the bridge at navigation. We entered the Fynian atmosphere fifteen minutes ago and we are already en route toward the landing coordinates. The Chimera colony is transmitting a locator signal and we should be landing shortly. It is normally my duty to take over the landing procedures when there are dangerous conditions to fly into, but my first officer assured me that she could handle it, even in the air currents of this harsh mountain range.

Pockets has reported that the filters in atmosphere replenishing unit located between the double-hulls of the ship are getting dangerously clogged and will need to be cleaned out while we’re down inside an atmosphere, but it’s a relatively simple job. We should be on the ground for little more than an hour, so I will excuse him and Max from cargo detail to take care of it while we are down.

Once we are finished here, we’ll be launching immediately to Pomen for our next pickup assignment. I hate to leave without allowing the crew our standard three days of shore leave, but since this was an unscheduled diversion, Cindy had to make excuses with the Torres Corporation for the six week delay in picking up their automobile parts for delivery to Earth. She gave them the option to cancel out of the contract legally, but Torres assured us their people could handle the delay. 

Merlin Sinclair, Captain     

*** 

Merlin capped his pen and set his journal on the office desk in front of him. Its cover was made of dyed Terran cowhide and it showed wear from excessive handling. It was the fifth such journal he had kept over the years and he knew he should order one with more pages in the future or learn to write smaller. Keeping a journal of his travels was a common tradition long held by ships’ captains of all the worlds he had ever visited, whether they commanded ships that sailed the seas or the void between the stars. He was proud to uphold the custom, whether or not he planned to  ever show them to anyone. He had long intended to transcribe them into electronic form for safer keeping, but despite all the free time he usually had during the voyages between worlds, he had never taken the time to do it. For the time being, he continued to put ink to paper just as it had been done in the days of the earliest explorers.

“Attention all hands,” Taro’s voice sounded from the ship-wide speakers, “We’re approaching the Kaisudon Mountain Range, where we will experience wind-shear turbulences as we pass over them. The Valley of Bones is in the middle of this range, so I would advise everyone to buckle up until we have landed. You have about three minutes of stability.”

Merlin left his office quickly and made for the bridge next door. Thumbing a pad set in the wall beside it, the navy blue panel with the golden image of a sailing ship’s wheel moved aside for him quietly. He walked to the Com station, sat down, buckled himself in and then looked up at the amused faces of his bridge team.

“Even when you aren’t driving the boat,” Renny said with a chuckle, “you can’t stay off the bridge!”

“You want to drive?” Taro teased, knowing there would be no change in pilots once they had dropped inside an atmosphere. “You can have it now!”

“I just want to see,” the wolf retorted. “You keep your seat, lady.”

“Aye-Aye, Captain, sir!”

“Let’s hope everybody’s strapped in,” Renny said after a quick glance at his navigational readings.

Merlin looked out the forward windows. The sun was at their backs as they flew eastward and the sky before them was already growing dim from the approaching dusk. The ground below was a mixture of green and brown, darkening with the approaching nightfall. Their course had taken them over low hills and sporadic forests, but directly ahead and below them were the jagged peaks of the Kaisudon Mountains, commonly called the Dragon’s Teeth by local folk.

“What the devil is that?” Renny asked suddenly. Merlin’s gaze moved from the mountain peaks to another ship approaching from the starboard at a lower altitude. It was long, cylindrical and seemed out of place flying above the ground. “Almost looks like a submarine,” the navigator said with a smirk.

“Hey, that’s an old Altus-class cruiser,” Merlin replied after studying its design. “I’ve only seen them in museums and ship catalogs, but it looks like someone got one flying. It’s a dual-pressue vessel, designed for the vacuum of space as well as the pressures of a deep ocean – pretty solidly built, but I seem to remember their engines were rather unreliable.”

“Wow, you’re full of information,” Renny teased. “Where’s it from?”

Merlin turned to give him a smirk as the vessel slipped beneath them and continued on its journey. “Well, I can’t vouch for this one specifically,” he said, “but the Altus cruisers were built for Fyn’s first forays into deep space after they developed their own form of LightDrive technology using Falstar engines. They were in use for a couple decades, but I don’t think they’ve been widely flown for the past thirty years.”

“Imagine seeing one out here in the middle of nowhere,” Renny remarked.

“Renny, we’re nearing the mountains,” Taro said in a quiet voice. “I need a navigator.”

“Right,” the cheetah said, instantly forgetting the sub-ship. He set to work on getting a good fix on the landing beacon and sent the coordinates to the center seat’s console a moment later.

The Dragon’s Teeth rose to seemingly impossible heights and resembled the bottom of a spike-filled pit trap from the sheer numbers of their pointed crests. The tree line was far below, and while there was not much snow in this region at this time of year, Merlin could see patches of white in areas of perpetual shadow.

The canyons between the crags seemed bottomless and forbidding, and the mountain range stretched on for unseen miles in both directions. Merlin wondered again how the colonists had originally traversed them to set up shop deep in their midst. He forgot his musing when the Blue Horizon banked to the starboard and then suddenly bucked upward. Taro compensated with the guidance shifts without a word, but he could see the concern in her eyes.

The ship slipped sideways and abruptly dropped altitude in an unexpected pocket of dead air. Renny’s eyes widened considerably at the suddenly nearer peaks, and he gripped the armrests of his seat with a strength that would undoubtedly leave imprints in the material.

Merlin swallowed his own apprehension as he eyed one dark peak that jutted up at them almost as if it was growing on the spot. The Blue Horizon sped past it without a meeting and Taro calmly increased their altitude, much to the relief of her companions.

The vixen had not handled a flight such as this in a long while and the bucking ship tested her prior experience. Fortunately for them all, she was a competent pilot and weathered the atmospheric roller coaster admirably, although with clenched teeth. The darkness made unexpected rock outcroppings near impossible to see, but Taro spent more of her time watching the instrument monitor on the console before her than she did looking out the forward windows.

The Horizon smoothed out suddenly and Merlin’s face lit up in appreciation. They had cleared the tallest peaks and were now descending toward a dark chasm that was wider than it seemed it should be in this place. Even so, he doubted that the bottom saw more than just a handful of hours of direct sunlight due to the height of the surrounding mountains. Although the area was now shrouded in deep shadow, the wolf thought he could see a mixture of forest, plain, and a meandering river that gently reflected the weakening sunlight in soft shimmers. Encircling both sides of the valley were huge fingers of wind-carved rocks that were bone-white and shaped like some titanic ribcage. Merlin stared at it silently, musing that he had once seen a similar formation while vacationing on Sillon.

“The Valley of Bones,” Renny announced. “Alter our course two degrees starboard and we’ll be heading directly for it.”

“Changing course, two degrees starboard,” Taro repeated in a quiet voice. Merlin looked over and saw her rapidly blink several times, panting lightly as the ship passed beneath the stone rib formations. She caught him looking at her and swallowed in embarrassment. She managed a weak smile, but Merlin gave her a small nod to let her know that she had done okay.

“The beacon is five miles directly ahead,” Renny reported. “It’s near the starboard wall of the valley.” He stretched his arms to ease the tension he had built in them and felt a small twinge of pain in his side. He lowered them with a frown and glanced back at the wolf. “We should probably give our contact a call to let him know we’re on final approach,” he suggested.

“Right,” Merlin said as he turned to the Com console beside him. He picked up a headset microphone and put it around the back of his head so that one small flexible boom was near his ear and another near his lips. Once he had it in place, Merlin called up the contact information for their customer from the main computer and then keyed in the calling code and frequency. A green light came on to indicate the Com unit was ready and he touched it briefly.

“This is Captain Sinclair of the SS Blue Horizon, PA1138, calling the Chimera Colony, ID 50129,” he broadcast. There was no immediate reply, but Merlin waited patiently for a response. He was about to try again when a voice sounded in the earpiece of his Com headset.

Blue Horizon, this is Pamiu Nechet of the Chimera Colony. Good evening to you, Captain. How was your flight?”

Merlin smiled at the aged voice and routed the signal to the overhead bridge speakers. “Good evening to you, too. Our flight went well, Mr. Nechet. We have just cleared the Dragon’s Teeth and are descending into the Valley of Bones. We are on final approach to your position and the landing beacon is coming in clearly. We should be landing shortly.”

Blue Horizon, I’m afraid you won’t be able land on the exact location of the beacon, which is here in our communication hut. We’re surrounded by forest and have limited free space around our homes, which is taken up by freshly plowed fields in the only area that gets sunlight that we would prefer you didn’t land on.”

“I understand, sir,” Merlin replied. He glanced out the forward windows and frowned at the darkness. He made a motion to Renny to pull out local navigation charts. “If you will tell us where to set down, we’ll gladly land there.”

“As you home in on the beacon, you will find a large clearing a half-mile beyond our colony that should be large enough for your ship. You may set down there. We will meet you shortly with lamps and carts for our supplies.”

“Aye, sir,” Merlin replied. “We will see you there. Blue Horizon out.”

“We’ll be over their position in about a minute,” Taro announced quietly.

Merlin activated the ship-wide intercom. “We’ll be landing in two minutes,” he announced, “but we have to set down a half-mile away from the Colony facilities. They will meet us there with carts and lights for their supplies and I want everyone but Engineering to help get everything off-loaded. Pockets and Max are to get started with the filter cleaning as soon as we are powered down. Assuming all goes well, we should be back in the air within two hours.”

The wolf unbuckled his belt and moved to the Engineering console. Before he could sit down, Taro wrenched the ship to the starboard to avoid a tree taller than the rest. The inertial dampers were active, but were set low inside the atmosphere. Merlin stumbled and lurched into the chair.

“Sorry about that,” Taro murmured.

Merlin waved it off, buckled himself to the seat and then tapped out a few commands on the terminal before him. He nodded to himself at the outside readings and then toggled a covered switch. Almost at once, the smell of plant life issued from the room ducts as fresh air from the outside began to vent throughout ship. By the time the cargo bay was unloaded and the hatches resealed for launch, the ship’s environmental reserves would be replenished with fresh air.

“Mmm, smell that?” Renny said with his eyes closed. “It must have rained recently. I love the smell of fresh florence.”

Taro and Merlin looked at one another with impish grins. “Florence?” the vixen asked in an amused tone. “You know someone here?”

“And you can smell her already?” Merlin added as he sniffed the air.

Renny opened his eyes and looked at them with a smirk. “Florence is a Fynian shrub that my captain used to grow in her quarters on the Argentina,” he explained. “They give off a minty scent when they’ve been watered.”

“Yeah, I can smell that,” Merlin replied. “It’s nice.”

Renny tapped in a set of figures into the navigational computer and transmitted the coordinates to Taro’s terminal. The vixen nodded without looking up and adjusted their course slightly. A heartbeat later, she moved the guidance shifts and then depressed a foot pedal gently. The ship slowed considerably and dropped to an altitude just above the tops of the trees below. There was a glow of torchlight ahead in the trees. A moment later, they could see nine wooden huts arranged in a loose circle around a larger one, all near a meandering stream. Several figures emerged from the buildings and waved as they passed overhead, and then were left behind as the Blue Horizon moved toward the desired landing site.

They flew over freshly plowed fields, although in the darkness it was impossible to tell exactly how much of it had been newly planted. The fields and the lights of the colony were left behind as they passed over trees once again. There were no moons shining down into the deep recesses of the valley and Renny had an eerie feeling. It was near pitch-black in this place. At least out in space the void was far from empty with starlight in every direction,

Suddenly, they were over a clearing that only the instruments could see and Taro toggled a switch beside her. The familiar clunk of the landing gear locking into place could be felt in the ship’s deck plates and the vixen lowered the vessel gently to the ground. Once down, Renny and Taro began shutting down the flight systems. Merlin stood up with a stretch.

“Well done, Taro,” he said with a smile. “You’ve earned your pay for the day.”

“How about a raise?” asked the vixen.

The wolf grinned. “It wasn’t that good,” he replied. Taro protruded her bottom lip and then giggled when Merlin added, “Careful dragging that lower lip. You could get a sticker in it!”

“A sticker?” Taro asked with a laugh. “What’s that?”

Merlin looked at her strangely. “A sticker is a small seed with spiny barbs that stick to anything that passes. My grandmother used to tell me I’d get a sticker in my lip if I pouted.”

Renny snickered. “You’re sure in a mood today, boss,” he said lightly. “What’s up?”

Merlin shrugged his shoulders. “I’m not sure,” he admitted, “I woke up in a good frame of mind. I haven’t had many of them lately, so I’m hoping nothing goes wrong to ruin the mood.”     

*** 

Durant filled his lungs with fresh air as soon as the bay doors began to open. He loved the smell of plants after a rain shower and preferred it to the stale air of the hold after a twenty-one day flight. He looked out into the darkness, but could see nothing beyond the glow of the internal lights. He looked back at the console beside the main airlock and flipped a large switch. Brilliant external lamps on each side of the bay door illuminated the area beyond the ship and made wet grasses glisten. The cinnamon grizzly thumbed another control and the loading ramp began to extend toward the ground.

He turned back toward the supply crates cabled to the floor of the hold, but stopped when he suddenly felt light-headed. His neck and jaw began aching and he felt short of breath, despite the huge drafts of fresh air he’d just taken into his lungs. He shuffled to the nearest crate and decided to wait there until the others arrived for cargo duty.

It was not the first time he’d felt this way, but it had been a couple weeks since the last time he had felt discomfort in his chest. He looked up toward the ceiling of the cargo bay and his eyes watered from an increasing pain in his left arm. He massaged it mechanically and swallowed as he tried to relax. The feeling passed a moment later and he felt his breathing return to normal. He knew he should have Tanis take a look at him, but he was frightened of what he suspected the desert fox might find.

He heard the lift door open somewhere behind him and he composed himself for the task at hand. Samantha approached him a moment later and gave him a smile. “Smells good out there, doesn’t it?” she asked.

“Aye to that,” Durant answered in a hoarse voice. The Border collie looked at him strangely and he cleared his throat. “I’d like to bottle up the aroma and take it with us,” he added in a voice closer to normal.

“Are the colonists here yet?” another voice asked. Samantha turned to see Lorelei settle down on the crate next to Durant.

“Not yet,” the bear answered. He stood up slowly and grunted from the effort.

“You okay?” Samantha asked in concern when she saw the look in his eyes.

Durant grinned lopsidedly and kneaded a muscle in his side with a hand. “I’m getting old, girl,” he said, “but I’ll get over it.”

“I have an herbal tea that does wonderful things for tired muscles,” Lorelei offered with a smile.

“I may have to give it a try,” Durant said, “but first we need to get these crates unshackled. Sam, if you’d grab the lock codes from the slateboard on my desk, I’d be grateful.”

“I’ll get them,” the canine replied.

He looked at Lorelei and asked, “Would you get out the work gloves for everyone?” The bunny nodded without a word and darted across the cargo deck to a storage locker. Normally, Durant would have already prepared these things by the time the crew reported for cargo duty, but he was moving slow today.

Tanis and Taro showed up together by the time all the cable locks were open and Lorelei handed out the gloves, each pair labeled with their names by a marker. Renny made his way out of the lift and made his way to Durant’s side, his limp barely noticeable. The bear was stowing the cables in a locker near the starboard side of the cargo arena.

“What can I do?” he asked with a pair of glove already on his hands.

Durant gnawed on his bottom lip and thought. “Since you’re still not fit for heavy-lifting,” he said, “you can man the overhead crane. There are a few crates too bulky to be moved by hand. It’s probably plowing equipment.”

“I’ll take care of them,” the cheetah said with a nod. It would take a few minutes to uncouple the crane arm from its stowed position, but it would take some time to unload the rest of the cargo around the larger crates before he could get to them anyway.

Merlin was the last to appear. He had changed into a loose-fitting blue work shirt with long sleeves; His captain’s hat was perched on its usual place between his ears. He took the gloves offered to him by Lorelei and then walked over to the load master.

“Any sign of our customer?” he asked. Durant looked up from the delivery paperwork and shook his head.

“Not as yet,” the bear replied.

“Well, we’re a half-mile from their homes, so—”

“Ahoy, the ship!”

Merlin looked up with a smile and he and Durant automatically walked to the edge of the cargo ramp. “Hello!” he called back.

A group of various feline men emerged from the darkness, some leading non-sentient workhorses pulling wooden carts. An aged jaguar walked forward with a smile. “Captain Sinclair?” he asked.

Merlin walked down the cargo ramp and extended a hand. The cat took it warmly. “I’m Sinclair,” the wolf replied. “Merlin Sinclair and the Blue Horizon at your service, sir.” More cats came into the light, and a quick count by Durant numbered them at twenty-five.

“I’m Pamiu Nechet,” the dark-furred jaguar replied. “Thank you for coming, Captain. I know it was such short notice, but our winter will be here in a few months and we need to start preparing even now in our planting season.”

Merlin glanced at the grey cat standing just behind Nechet and the younger male looked up at him with nervous eyes. His tail twitched in agitation and he tried to mouth something to the wolf, but shut his lips when the jaguar turned to look at him.

“Ah yes, this is Nicholas Moran,” Pamiu said, “my deputy at the colony.”

The jaguar looked around at the Horizon’s crew and motioned them forward. “I would like to meet each of your people,” Pamiu said. “Because of our seclusion, we rarely get any visitors from the outside, and never from off-world. It would be an honor to meet you all before we start working.”

“Of course.” Merlin gave a slight nod to his people and each of them walked down the ramp to assemble at his side. He chanced another glance at the grey cat, but the fellow was looking at his feet in frustration. Merlin frowned and stepped toward him, but Pamiu grabbed his elbow lightly and steered him toward another cat.

The feline colonists gathered around them and introductions began. Renny was slow getting down the ramp, but as he neared the group with a friendly smile, others came close to meet with him. Another jaguar approached him through the crowd and the fur on the back of Renny’s neck suddenly began to bristle. Lorelei saw his hesitation and gave him a gentle nudge in his side.

“Not all jaguars are out to hurt you,” she reminded him in a whisper. Renny swallowed and nodded quietly to her. Only a portion of the felines in the colony was jaguar, while the rest were made up of other feline races. He cleared his throat as the dark-furred feline stepped up to him.

“Hi there,” the male said in a deep voice. “We’re so glad to see you. My name is Bomani Aleson.”

“I’m Lorelei,” the rabbit replied with a cheerful smile, “and my friend is Renny.”

Bomani looked at the cheetah and tilted his head. “I think my brother would like to meet you, Mr. Renny,” he said.

“Oh?” the navigator asked hesitantly. “Why is that?”

“You two have met before, but he never got to finish his business with you.”

“W-what business is that?” Renny asked hoarsely. Another jaguar moved toward him out of the crowd and Renny felt the blood drain from his face.

“Let me introduce you to Zuberi Aleson, my brother…” The new arrival gave Renny a wide, toothy grin, but it was anything but friendly. The cheetah’s eyes grew wide in recognition.

“You!” Renny exclaimed, lifting an arm up as if to protect himself.  The jaguar reached out and grabbed his wrist in a vise-like grip.

“Going somewhere, Mr. Thornton?” Zuberi growled at him, still maintaining his malicious grin. His yellow eyes were narrowed to slits.

“Yarg!”  Renny grunted as the jaguar squeezed his wrist with enough strength to make the cheetah’s eyes water from the pain. Lorelei’s puzzlement at the exchange turned to shock as Zuberi punched Renny in the gut, precisely where he had shot him months before. Renny’s air expelled forcefully from his lungs and he fell to his knees in pain.

Lori threw her hands up to her face in disbelief at what was happening. Shouts shattered the night from behind her and she whirled around to see Merlin throw a punch at Pamiu. A smaller jaguar jumped onto the wolf’s back before his fist could connect, eliciting a cry of surprise. Merlin stumbled and his shirt ripped from his assailant’s claws as he tried to throw the cat from his back. Unable to struggle away from the assault, Merlin was knocked to the ground by the older feline.

The chaos amplified around Lori. She saw Taro lift another jaguar over her head before throwing him over the crowd, even as another tried to tackle her. She heard more shouts and recognized the voice of Tanis, cut short by a silencing blow to the back of the head with a sock filled with sand. Somewhere in the back of her mind, Lori seemed to realize that of all the felines in the group, only the dark-furred jaguars were attacking her friends.

The fright of action paralyzed her, even as Bomani grabbed her ears and pulled the bunny around to face him.  She only managed a muffled squeak as he roughly shoved a handkerchief up to her nose. Her eyes went wide and she finally found strength to struggle, but it was too late.  The chloroform-soaked rag made her eyes roll back as it took her consciousness. She collapsed into his arms without a sound.

With the exception of Taro, who continued to fight everyone around her, the rest of the Horizon’s crew went down to similar blows or doped rags. The Hestran fox made a valiant effort even as the horrible reality set in that the delivery had been a ruse to ambush them.  Even tired, her instincts were vicious, gifting out broken limbs to anyone who tried to lay hands on her.  It was a while before the attackers realized that individual strength would not topple the fox.  They bore her to the ground from sheer numbers, piling on until they reached the threshold of her strength.  A blackjack found a spot behind her left ear and the vixen dropped heavily onto the wet grass.     

*** 

Merlin opened his eyes but he was unable to see anything but a dirty white blur. His head throbbed and he ached in numerous other places. He was blindfolded and bound with chains in a standing position with his arms outstretched between two poles, though he had slumped against his bonds. Some part of his brain noted that his beloved hat was missing and his shirt felt as though it was hanging on him in shreds. Stinging cuts on his back reminded him why his shirt was in tatters. He tried to stand up, but his legs had trouble supporting him. He dropped back against his bonds with a grunt and then he heard someone get up from a creaking chair to his left.

“Merlin Sinclair…” an unfamiliar voice said near his left ear.  “It’s about time you woke up. I’m tired of listening to you snore.”

“Who… who are you?” the wolf said through swollen lips.

“I’m your mailman.”

“My….”

There was a soft chuckle and Merlin could feel the speaker’s hot breath against his ear. “I have sent you several letters over the past year and a half,” the voice explained, “but you chose to ignore them.”

“The threats!” Merlin said in sudden understanding.

“Threats? No, they were... promises!” Another chuckle. “Some as yet unfulfilled.”

“Do I know you?” the wolf said with a swallow. “How have I wronged you?” Merlin could see a portion of the floor in front of him beneath the bottom of the blindfold. He saw a pair of jack-booted feet move into view and then his companion spoke again from the front.

“You and I have never met before now,” his faceless enemy said, “but you have caused no limit of frustration to those I’ve served.

“Who do you serve?”

“No, I won’t provide you with an answer, Sinclair, but you have met them. They know you very well and have followed your movements for some time.”

“Do I get to see the face of my enemy?” Merlin asked uneasily.

“Careful, Sinclair,” the voice said in a menacing tone, “to look upon the face of the basilisk is death!”

Merlin’s mind raced. He’d been in tough predicaments before, but never one such as this. From the sound of the menacing voice, he didn’t think he had long to live, but although he didn’t have a name, he now knew his enemy. “How should I address you,” he pressed again, “if not by one of the names that immediately come to mind?”

A strong hand suddenly grabbed his throat and squeezed, but only as a brief warning. The hand relaxed, but the clawed fingers lingered on his neck for a heartbeat. Merlin swallowed involuntarily. There was another chuckle, very low. “Yes,” his enemy said, “I will kill you, Sinclair. Of that, you can be certain. Soon, but not right away.”

The individual stepped back from him and Merlin was glad to have the foul breath out of his face. “What about my crew?” Merlin asked in a low voice. It was difficult to talk with swollen lips. “What have you done wi—?”

“No more questions from you!” his captor snapped. “You will give only answers.” He paced around the wolf and growled lowly. “Now…” he said in a calmer voice, “tell me where I can find your brother, Lucas Sinclair.”

“Lucas?” Merlin growled. “You can probably find him on Quet. I kicked him off my ship in the mining town of Lormun nearly two years go.”

“Yes, we are aware of this,” his captor said with a snort.

“If you’ve been following me as closely as you say you have,” Merlin said thickly, “then you know that my brother and I have never been friends. I’ve not talked to him since Quet.”

“We have reason to believe you have been in contact with the younger Sinclair. Where is he now?”

“Why are you so interested in him?” the wolf asked. “Does he owe you money like he does to most people in the PA? Go stand in line.”

A fist slammed into his stomach and all the air went out of him. He coughed and tried to double over, but his arms were still bound to the poles; he could do nothing more than hang against his chains. A hand grabbed the fur between his ears and pulled his head up sharply. Beneath the lower edge of his blindfold, he could see a black-furred chin. It was feline.

Where is your brother?” the voice growled again. When Merlin didn’t answer, he kicked the wolf in the shin out of frustration. Merlin grunted from the pain, but otherwise didn’t cry out. “You are too stubborn for your well-being,” he said. “That’s your choice, Sinclair.”

The man walked away and it was then that Merlin realized someone else was in the room. “Mr. Moran, tell the captain what happens next.”

“No, p-please…” said a small voice.

Tell him,” growled the captor. Merlin heard a shuffle of feet as Mr. Moran was shoved over to stand in front of him. Beneath his blindfold, Merlin could make out a bare feline foot with grey fur.

“C-captain…” Moran said in a frightened voice, “They will t-torture someone in front of you… It – it’s horrible! P-please… tell him what he w-wants to know…”

Merlin bit his bottom lip. This was the nervous grey cat that had tried to warn him just before the ambush, and the strain in his voice spoke volumes. Their captor had done something ghastly to the feline’s people before the Blue Horizon had arrived. Merlin could think of no reply to give the cat. Despite the frustration that Lucas had caused he and their sister over the years, the younger Sinclair had already redeemed himself. Merlin had no intention of revealing the location of him and his new wife, nor did he intend to send hostiles anywhere near King Aris’ ancient castle.

“Briggs, he’s not going to talk,” another voice said. Merlin tilted his head, but the name of his mysterious captor was not familiar to him.

“I think he will, Pamiu. Tell Bomani and Zuberi to bring in the cheetah.”

“Yes, sir,” the other replied

Merlin swallowed hard, his mind wrenched with the gravity of the situation. Renny had not yet fully recovered from his last encounter with assailants, and he had no doubts these were the ones responsible for nearly killing his friend. The thought of them doing anything to Renny gnawed at his stomach like the lingering punch.  It was unlikely the navigator would survive this time.       

*** 

Durant opened his eyes, but he saw nothing. He ached all over and discovered he couldn’t move. Great Maker… he thought to himself, it’s hit me really hard this time – I’m blind and paralyzed! The grizzly bear started to panic, but then he heard Renny groan from a place near his right ear. It was then the ursine accountant realized he was lying on his back on a wooden floor; his arms and legs cramping. He could also hear the sound of thunder rumbling overhead.

“Ohhh…” the cheetah groaned again.  “Just for once, I’d like to meet a black cat who doesn’t want to beat the tar out of me.”

“Tsarina doesn’t want to hurt ya,” said the voice of Tanis from the darkness. “She only wants to have yer kittens.” Durant smiled to himself, but even that hurt.

“Tanis?” he said in a raspy voice. “I can’t move and I can’t see.”

“We’re all tied up,” replied the medic, “and it’s just pitch dark here, wherever it is they put us. I don’t think the colonists liked Renny’s cologne.”

“Always the comedian,” the cheetah retorted. Tanis chuckled and then heard Renny grumble under his breath. “They took my concealed pistol,” the navigator complained.

“Is everybody else alright?” Durant asked.

“It’s just the three of us, from what I can tell,” the medic replied. “I don’t know where the others are.”

Durant sniffed the air. “I smell fertilizer,” he said quietly, “and fresh dirt.”

“I think we’re in a storage shed,” Tanis remarked. “I knocked over something a bit ago that almost hit me in the mouth. I think it was a rake.”

“See if you can knock over another one and make it hit its target this time,” Renny said sourly.

“Who put a thorn into yer tail?” Tanis replied. “I’m not the one who whooped up on ya!”

“I’m in a foul mood and you’re handy.”

“Quiet, you two,” Durant whispered sharply. “Someone’s coming.”

A moment later, they heard the sound of a key in a padlock and then a click. Two flashlights blazed in their eyes and Durant could only see the silhouettes of two feline shapes as he blinked rapidly in the sudden brilliance. Lightning illuminated the sky behind them briefly and both flashlights centered upon the cheetah. One of the figures stepped inside, moving to Renny. He picked him up with a grunt and draped him across his shoulder. In the lamplight, Durant and Tanis could see just how much rope had been wrapped around their friend; Tanis took a quick glance at Durant to confirm the realization. The colonists must have used every bit of rope they owned to bind the three of them.

The feline shadow turned and carried Renny out in the night.     

*** 

Merlin felt fingers on the knot at the back of his blindfold and then the dirty white cloth was removed from his eyes. He blinked a few times and then looked around. The room took up the bulk of the hut he was in, likely the gathering place for the colonists during inclement weather, such as the rain that had begun to fall outside. He stood between two wooden supports of the room, his arms in manacles attached to the poles with light chains. His blue work shirt was in tatters, the remnants of sleeves still attached to cuffs beneath his manacles, but the rest of it barely hung upon his body. The white fur of his chest and belly was matted and dirty, and although his trousers were in better shape than his shirt, there were tears along the outer seams, and both of his knees were exposed.

The floor and walls were made of wooden planks and the rafters in the ceiling were exposed. Light was provided by oil lamps attached to the building’s supports, rather than by electrical means, and he could see cloth curtains blowing in the cold breeze that came in through open-air windows. Several folding chairs were scattered about the room, but there were brown stains on the floor beneath a solitary chair positioned directly in front of him – dried blood, Merlin’s brain told him numbly.

From what he could see of the room, a box sat next to a wooden door, and a small folding table was near him with what appeared to be a rolled-up tool pouch. He saw crayon-drawn artwork on papers tacked up on one wall, likely from the colony children, and a few commercial scenic pictures adorning other walls. The cat with grey fur sat dejectedly in a chair against a far wall, his leg manacled to another support post. The two of them exchanged looks and Merlin could see the terror in the cat’s eyes as he waited what was next to come.

“Yes, Mr. Moran knows what’s about to happen,” said a voice from behind the wolf. Merlin tried to turn his head to look at the one called Briggs, but the jaguar was out of his range of vision. “I would listen to him, Sinclair. You could save you and your friends a lot of grief if you just tell me what I want to know.” Merlin thought he should probably say something witty in return, but the knot in his stomach prevented him from giving a reply. Instead, he just looked at the floor, unable to meet Moran’s forlorn expression again.

The door opened and Merlin looked over to see two jaguars escort a bound cheetah into the room. Moran gasped and his ears flattened in disbelief. The spotted feline looked up, and it was then Merlin realized that the cheetah was not Renny Thornton, although he was about the same build. He was taken to the chair in front of Merlin and forced to sit down.

“Jerome!” Moran exclaimed. One of the jaguars tied the cheetah’s ankles to the front legs of the chair while the other tied his wrists behind him. Moran looked frantically to Briggs. “No, please! Have mercy!”

Briggs chuckled. “Mercy, Mr. Moran? Only the captain can grant that now.”

“Nick, what’s going on?” the cheetah asked. Nicholas Moran swallowed deeply and tried to speak, but no words came out of his mouth. The grey cat bent over so that his face was in his hands, resting on his knees. The cheetah looked at Merlin and swallowed. “Who are you?” he asked.

“He is Death,” said the voice of Briggs. “Your death, as a matter of fact, Mr. Tippet.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Tell him,” Briggs said to the wolf. Merlin didn’t answer, so Briggs smacked the back of his head just hard enough for his head to rock. “Tell him,” he repeated.

Merlin cleared his throat. “He’s going to torture you… unless I give him information he thinks I have,” he said quietly. One of the jaguars that had brought in the cheetah moved to the man’s side, brandishing a large serrated knife that glinted in the lamplights.

The cheetah gasped and tried to back away in his chair. “Tell him what he wants to know!” he exclaimed.

“I can’t tell him what I don’t know,” Merlin lied, feeling sickened by his own words. A fist slammed the back of the wolf’s head. Merlin saw stars for a moment and it took an effort to refocus his eyes.

“Zuberi,” said Briggs, “put away the knife for now. I want you to start simple.”

The jaguar beside Tippet grumbled in disappointment. “Simple, huh?” Zuberi used his knife to cut the cord binding the captive’s wrists behind him. He then grabbed the cheetah’s left arm roughly with both hands and unceremoniously broke it over his knee.

Moran’s head jerked up at Jerome Tippet’s shriek and Merlin jumped with suddenly moist eyes. Zuberi had done his deed with such a quiet calmness that announced just how experienced he was at this. He dropped the broken arm into the cheetah’s lap and smiled as the action reduced the spotted feline to agonizing sobs. The lupine captain felt the blood drain from his face and he struggled vainly against the chains that held his arms. Tippet cradled his broken arm and rocked back and forth in his chair in whimpers.

Briggs’ hot breath whispered near Merlin’s right ear, “Where is Lucas Sinclair?” Merlin didn’t answer. He couldn’t answer. He felt as if his heart were in his throat. Briggs took his silence as further defiance and he motioned toward the other jaguar that had brought in Tippet. “Bomani,” he said.

The other cat cracked his knuckles with a feral grin and then slugged the right side of the cheetah’s jaw. Merlin’s own jaw muscles clenched when Tippet nearly fell over with his chair, his cries of agony now lower in his throat. Zuberi caught the chair and put it upright again. Tippet’s cries of pain gurgled and he coughed up a tooth. Bomani then brought his boot down on the cheetah’s bare left foot. There was an audible crunch followed by a hoarse sob of pain.

Moran cried out for his friend and looked over to Merlin with pleading eyes. Merlin couldn’t help it. He closed his eyes and held them tight. He muttered a curse beneath his breath, which only elicited a chuckle from the unseen Briggs. He grabbed Merlin’s head and forced him to look at the cheetah. “Where is Lucas?” he asked again, calmly.

Merlin knew it would do more harm than good, but he kicked backward with one leg and caught Briggs in the knee. The master jaguar fell backward and crashed into a chair amid curses in another language. Bomani rushed forward and hit Merlin hard in the stomach. He was about to belt him again in the face when Briggs stopped him with a hiss. Merlin gasped for air, but found it hard to draw in a breath.

Bomani returned to Tippet’s side and Merlin heard Briggs struggle to stand up. He heard a limping footstep and then Briggs hit him hard in his right side. The wolf yelped and fell into his bonds, the chains tugging at his sore shoulders. Once again, he felt Briggs’ hands on his head, which forced him to look at the cheetah.

“Again,” he said. Bomani reached out, grabbed Tippet’s right ear, and yanked hard. The cheetah yowled loudly and the jaguar then hit him in the jaw once more for his noise.

“This will continue,” Briggs said quietly. “Tell me what I want to know.”

The door opened and two more jaguars entered the room. One had several weapons strapped to his arms and legs, and the other looked older than any other in the ebony group with bits of grey around his muzzle. While attentions were momentarily distracted by their arrival, Merlin caught Briggs off guard again and reared his head backward. The back of his skull struck the jaguar’s nose hard. Briggs stumbled backward with another string of curses and then hit the wolf between the shoulder blades with a rock-hard fist. Merlin lost his footing and fell. Had he not been tethered to the poles by chains, he would have collapsed in a heap to the floor.

Briggs spat out some blood and then grabbed Merlin by the belt. He hauled him back into a standing position. “Zuberi,” he said in a strained voice. “Mr. Tippet is yours. Do whatever you want to him.”

“S-stop…” Merlin gasped hoarsely. “Don’t do any more…” Moran looked up in disbelief, but realized that Briggs would finally get the information he wanted and that Jerome Tippet would live. He could not have been more wrong.

“It’s too late to stop now,” Briggs spat in Merlin’s ear as Zuberi drew out his cruel blade. “You had your chance to stop this, but now you will know that protecting your worthless brother’s hide resulted in someone else’s death!”

“Captain Sinclair,” the one called Zuberi said to the wolf in an icy voice, “have you ever seen an animal when it’s been skinned alive?”

Mr. Moran fainted away at those words and fell to the floor with a thunk. Briggs gave a nervous chuckle and then said, “I’ll leave you to it.” Merlin heard him limp away and then exit through a door to another room.

The wolf coughed twice, still having trouble breathing after the hard punches to his middle. Zuberi laughed cruelly, unrolled a pouch of devilish cutting utensils on the table, and then looked to his brother. “Hold him,” he said. Bomani grabbed the cheetah’s undamaged arm and pulled it out straight as Zuberi put down his large blade and reached for the pouch.     

*** 

Briggs sat back in his chair and gently rubbed his sore nose. He listened to the cheetah’s pleading in the adjoining room for a moment and then leaned back against the wall with his eyes closed. He remembered stepping into a private closet a fortnight earlier, a blue-white light flashing from the ceiling. On a tall and narrow vidscreen before him, an image was projected, that of his Master cloaked in a draping white cowl. “Captain Briggs, at your command, sir,” he said with a short bow.

The figure peered out at him with bright blue eyes, and through an artificially resonant frequency meant to alter his voice, he replied, “Take your ship to Fyn and wait there. Your long-awaited vengeance will come to you in the Valley of Bones. I believe you are familiar with the place.”

“We will destroy the Blue Horizon, sir?”

“No… I believe that Captain Sinclair may know the location of his brother. Finding the traitor is of utmost importance to me now. The younger Lucas possesses much more than he ever knew he did, and it was my own oversight that allowed him to escape. As you are aware, my contacts throughout the PA have all failed at finding him, which I largely credit to his previous life as a drifter and his ability to make himself disappear. It will be your duty to extract, by whatever means necessary, his whereabouts from Sinclair… or from whomever among his crew you deem worthy of attention.”

“That,” Briggs hissed, “is no duty. It’s my pleasure, sir.”

“A word of caution, Captain,” his master added in a dangerous tone. “Do NOT kill Sinclair until he has divulged the information I need, and then only after you have reported it to me. I have others who will check the validity of his words before you dispose of him.”

Briggs swallowed his anger, but managed to nod his acceptance of the warning. He knew just how short his lifespan would be if he disobeyed a direct order from this human. “I will see to it,” he said with a short bow.

The communications channel darkened and the Master’s image faded to black.

A sudden long shriek from the next room startled Briggs and he opened his eyes wildly. He swallowed and exhaled quietly. Even by his own piratical standards, Var Briggs felt that Zuberi took a little too much pleasure administering grisly torture with as much pain as possible.     

*** 

Renny was dumped unceremoniously to the wooden floor of another hut. A moment later, Tanis fell to his side, followed by Durant. The three of them looked up into the faces of the jaguars that had moved them from the storage shed; they had all been with the landing party. Renny clenched his teeth together and set his jaw tight as one of the jaguars grinned at him. The captors left them where they had been dropped, and then locked the door behind them. The cheetah was getting awfully tired of jaguars. He wanted nothing more than to get his claws into the one called Zuberi and rip him into shreds. He may not be fully recovered from getting shot, but the navigator resolved to have his revenge, even it if it was his last act in life.

“Are you guys okay?” said a new voice. A short bobcat bent down next to Durant and began to untie the ropes that bound him. A longhaired black and white cat knelt down next to Renny; a young cougar went to Tanis.

“We’ve all had a beating,” Tanis replied, “but I don’t think anything is broken.”

The bobcat and a white cat helped set Durant into a sitting position so they could remove the coils of rope. “You guys should not have come here,” the bobcat said somberly. “I don’t think any of you will be leaving.”

“What’s going on?” Durant asked. “We were hired to bring your colony a shipment of supplies from Tanthe.”

“Tanthe?” the black and white longhair repeated. “We didn’t make that order. We get our supplies from Ramah, right here on Fyn.”

“Then, who…?”

The cougar helping Renny snorted. “That was your jaguar friends,” he said. “They must have ordered the supplies to bait a trap for you.”     

*** 

Samantha paced the floor of the hut that she shared with the colony females. She awoke an hour earlier to find Lorelei drugged and still asleep in a corner; Taro was bound up with iron chains wrapped around her so tight that even the Hestran fox couldn’t get out of them. None of the feline women had been able to help get her free, and Samantha didn’t have anything available to her to pick the lock. She didn’t have Pockets’ skills as a locksmith, but she’d learned well enough that she could do it if she had the proper tools. Even a hairpin would work, but no one in the room possessed one.

As she paced, she glanced around at the women, remembering what they had told her upon awakening. A dark ship had arrived a week ago with a crew made up entirely of black-furred jaguars. The colonists had gone out to greet them, having had no visitors in a long while, but the jaguars attacked them with neither warning nor provocation. Several of the colonists were killed and the rest were rounded up and then separated. The children were taken away from the families by a female and locked up in one of the huts on the perimeter of their encampment. The remaining adults were split up. The females were locked up in this hut without further distress, but the men were all beaten one by one until they submitted. Several resisted and tried to fight back, but those were summarily tortured for their trouble. The women had seen nothing more of the men or the children after that, and they were only given meager amounts of food and water once a day. When Samantha inquired into the reasons the dark ship had come, none of the women could give her an answer.

“Samantha?”

The Border collie turned to look at the cheetah named Christine standing beside her. “I found this piece of wire,” she said. “Will it help get your friend’s lock off?”

Samantha gave her a smile and took the offered bit of wire. It was about four inches long, but its metal was soft. “I don’t know if this thing will hold a shape, but it’s worth a try,” she told the woman. She walked over to Taro and knelt down on the hard wooden floor beside the fox. Taro looked at her hopefully.

“My legs are going numb,” the vixen muttered. “They made sure I couldn’t wriggle out of these things.”

Christine sat down on the floor next to them. “I’m sorry we got you into this mess,” she said with lowered eyes. The dark cry-lines of her facial stripes made her look forlorn. Samantha put a hand on the cheetah’s shoulder briefly before turning back to the lock.

“I think it’s we who should apologize to you,” she said. “These people are known to us and have caused us grief. It’s unthinkable that they would use innocents as bait for us.”

“Why are they so evil?” Christine asked. “They’ve taken our kits and our mates – we don’t even know if any of them are still alive.” She looked over at Taro with sad eyes. “We only know that some were killed and others were tortured horribly. Our captors tell us that much…”

“Yeah,” added a Siamese cat named Jennifer who sat down next to Christine, “it’s their own form of torture for us. They like to see how much misery they can cause us.”

“Do you know how many of them there are?” Taro asked.

“Just ten,” Jennifer replied, “but they were more than a match for the lot of us.”

Samantha gritted her teeth and heaved a sigh. The wire was too soft to be of use on the lock. “We’ll find a way out of here,” she said, “and the Basilisk will pay for all they’ve done. I’m sorry your people have been drawn into this, but however long our conflict has lasted, I believe that it will end here, one way or another.”     

*** 

On board the Blue Horizon, a thick panel opened at the aft end of the cargo arena, near the open bay doors. Pockets emerged from the space between the double-hulls of the ship and took in a lungful of clean air. He moved out of the way to let Max through and set a large burlap sack on the floor beside him. Max shook his head as soon as he was out into the open room and then coughed several times. He set another bag next to the chief engineer’s sack. They were both dusty and dirty all over; Max even had bits of stray fur clinging to his whiskers.

“Ugh,” said the German shepherd. “It’s cramped and dirty back in there.”

“Don’t tell Merlin how dirty it is,” Pockets said with a smirk, “or he’ll have us back in there cleaning it!”

“Uh uh… I’m not saying a word. Cleaning out all this old fur from the reclamation filters was bad enough!”

The diminutive raccoon stretched his arms and arched his back with a yawn. “I wonder if I can get in a quick nap before we launch again,” he mused aloud. He rubbed his face with one hand and then looked at the rainy night outside the ship with drowsy eyes.

“Pockets…” Max said in a hushed voice.

“Hmm?”

“None of the cargo has been unloaded.”

Pockets stifled another yawn and noticed the octagonal crates as if seeing them for the first time. The cables to secure them in flight had been removed and stowed, but nothing else had been touched. He looked around the cargo bay, puzzled. “Durant?” he called. There was no reply. After a moment, he called again. “Anyone in here?”

Max frowned and walked to the nearest intercom terminal. He thumbed the pad for the bridge. “Hello?” he asked. As before, there was no reply. He exchanged puzzled looks with the chief engineer and then toggled the pad for ship-wide broadcast. “Pockets and Max are ready for cargo detail. We could use some assistance, folks.”

The two of them waited a minute before they surmised there was no one on board the ship. “I’ll try one of the DCs,” Pockets suggested. “Maybe the colonists refused to pay for their cargo and they all went to the colony to hash it out.”

“I thought Uncle Merlin said the cargo was paid for in advance, before we even left Tanthe,” Max replied.

“I dunno,” Pockets replied with a shrug. He walked around the cargo back to the engine room to get one of the hand-held DataCom units. While he was gone, Max shut the airlock to the inner-hull passage and secured the mechanism. He grabbed the ends of both sacks of fur and other debris they had removed from the air reclamation units and dragged them to a waste bin on the other end of the hold. Once they were stowed, he walked to the cargo ramp and peered out into the night. He doubted that the rain would have left any footprints behind in the soil, but he noticed some muddy prints tracked up the ramp and into the cargo bay. From the distance each print was apart, it appeared their owner had been in a hurry. He followed them as best he could around the hold and saw them rove back and forth, as if searching for something.

The fading tracks led around the hold and then back out into the rain. He peered out into the lights left shining and saw a bit of color in the trodden grass. He darted out into the rain and splashed through puddles to retrieve the items he had seen. He picked them up quickly and then scrambled back to the rain-free safety of the cargo arena.

“I can’t get anyone to answer on any of the frequencies,” Pockets said. He held up a DC and shook his head. Then he noticed the wet canine. “What have you got there?” he asked.

Max wiped water from his face and then held up the two articles he had recovered. One was a torn shred of blue cloth. “It looks like part of Uncle Merlin’s work shirt,” he said, “but there’s no mistaking this.” He held up a muddy naval captain’s hat, its brim creased in half and a boot print across the top.     

*** 

Nicholas Moran stared at the wall beside him, but didn’t actually see it. He lay on the floor, curled up in a fetal position, unwilling to accept what he had been forced to watch. Not long after the start of his best friend’s torture, Moran had mercifully fainted, but one of the wretched jaguars had pushed a foul smelling chemical beneath his nose that brought back alertness. The weapon-heavy jaguar he knew as Runihura had held his head so that he couldn’t look away from the scene, while Bomani and Zuberi, the ones who enjoyed giving pain, had done horrible things to Jerome, his lifelong friend and the colony’s doctor. The cheetah’s screams of agony were burned into his mind and Moran was near comatose from shock.

Likewise, the aged Pamiu had forced Merlin to watch the horror that Bomani and Zuberi had presented for him, with no reprieve for any of the captives present in the room. He was queasy and panted steadily from the emotional exhaustion of what he had just witnessed. The jaguars had taken their time with Tippet and had worked their particular brand of torture slowly, but finally – mercifully – they had put an end to the cheetah. Merlin’s brain was numb and he was afraid to think beyond the moment of who might be next.

After Tippet’s voice had been silenced, Pamiu and Runihura grabbed the remnants of the lifeless body and dragged it out of the room into the rainy night. A moment later, the door at the back of the room opened and Briggs stepped inside. He scowled at Zuberi and the amount of blood decorating the floor in front of the wolf, and then roughly grabbed the back of the lupine captain’s head.

Briggs stuck his nose right up to Merlin’s left ear. “Where is Lucas Sinclair?” he growled.

Merlin swallowed hard and tried to focus on the far wall through the moisture in his eyes. “I … don’t know…” he whispered.

“Up until now, my Master has been merciful with your —”

“Merciful!” gasped the wolf. “How is anything you’ve done merciful…?”

Briggs tightened his grip on Merlin’s head and shook him violently to silence his captive. “We have been merciful with your company,” he continued with a hiss. “You don’t know how often I wanted to release the Taquit Fever Virus inside your vessel, Sinclair. I almost did – twice! I have it on my ship with me even now… However, my Master has continued to stay my hand.”

Merlin was unable to suppress the shudder that went through him. The Taquit Fever Virus was the lethal agent Sagan had claimed developing after releasing it upon Taro’s hometown on Hestra. Had it been let free inside his ship, the Blue Horizon would have arrived at its destination with everyone dead from a horrible, fast-acting disease. They had since hoped the pirate had not retained a stock of the killer virus, but the wolf now knew they could not have been that fortunate. He remembered the images on INN of the devastation in Taquit and his queasiness returned.

“It would have been so much easier to deal you that blow,” Briggs continued in a malevolent voice, “than to track you all over the Planetary Alignment on your insignificant little deliveries.” The jaguar changed position so that his nose now rested next to Merlin’s other ear. “I am forbidden to kill you, Sinclair,” he growled, “but you are the only one exempt from your crew.”

Briggs pulled back away from Merlin in caution, lest the wolf kick back at him again, and then looked over at his bloodthirsty men. “Time to begin again,” he said. “Get one of the captain’s friends.”     

*** 

The night was black save for the occasional lightning flashes high in the Dragon’s Teeth above the valley. Muted thunder rolled with each burst of light, and two figures approached the perimeter of the colony dressed in dark cloaks that shed rainwater much like the feathers of a duck.

“That’s the Chimera Colony?” Max whispered to his companion. He shifted the heavy bundle in his hands to get a better grip on it and he almost dropped it into the mud. Rain spattering on his hood made it hard to hear Pockets’ reply.

“Looks like it,” the raccoon answered. “Let’s see what we can see.” He shielded a small hand-held remote from the rain and moved a tiny joystick forward. There was a quiet whirring noise that was barely discernable against the rain and then Moss floated out of Max’s arms, its sensor eyes glowing in the darkness.

“I thought Moss would only work within the confines of the ship,” the German shepherd stated.

Pockets leaned closer to him as he adjusted the mobile sentry system’s course toward the nearest of the wooden huts. “After our encounter with the Walkabout,” he explained, “I modified Moss’ functional range to a mile of our ship’s operating system. This is the first chance I’ve had to use it. However, it will only operate inside a pressurized atmosphere, not out in space. I’ve not yet sealed it against a vacuum. I haven’t had time.”

“If it gives out a meow, we’ll announce ourselves,” Max cautioned.

“I’ve already muted its speaker with a security protocol,” Pockets assured him.

Max peered over the raccoon’s shoulder at the remote’s tiny video display and watched the greenish infrared image that was broadcast back to them. Pockets played with the controls and sent Moss to the edge of a window. A thin curtain wafted gently on the night breeze and Moss’ primary eye focused into the room beyond the window covering’s edge.

In the small viewer, Pockets and Max saw a room of feline children. Some were asleep on mats, but the majority of them were gathered around an adult female jaguar seated on a large pillow in their midst. There were nearly twenty children.

“Pockets…” Max said uneasily. “I’ve seen that woman before.”

“Where?”

“On Alexandrius. I saw her watching the reconstruction of the Hidalgo Sun when you and I were there to help Captain Rezo’s crew.”

“There were a lot of gawkers there watching us. Are you sure she was one of them?”

“Positive. See the notch in her right ear? I noticed it then too.”

Pockets grumbled something beneath his breath about all jaguars looking alike and studied the image. “What is she doing?” he asked.

“Reading them a bedtime story?” Max ventured to guess. As they watched, a small lynx cub tripped over his own feet and fell down. He started to yowl and the ebony woman reached forward and picked him up in her arms. She spoke to him with a smile and then cradled the child to her bosom. The cub calmed down, clinging to her as she settled back onto her pillow, and answered some question by another child.

“Let’s try another hut,” Max suggested. Almost as soon as he spoke, a red light flickered on the remote. Pockets rotated Moss on its axis and pointed its lens at the door to a nearby building. Another of the jaguars stepped out into the rain, holding a flimsy square of plastic over his head to ward off the light raindrops. They watched him trot across the compound and then out toward the trees surrounding the colony.

“Max, you scout around to see if you can find the captain or the others. I’m going to take Moss and see what our dark friend is up to.”

“Right,” replied the young canine. “Be careful.” Max moved stealthily toward the huts and Pockets recalled Moss back to him. He watched the jaguar disappear into the trees and then Pockets sent the sentry unit a few paces before him as he followed.

If it was difficult to see anything in the darkness of the compound, it was impossible in the forest. Pockets stumbled over tree roots and he slogged through wet leaves and overhanging branches. If it weren’t for Moss’ seeker routine, Pockets would have never been able to track his quarry. He berated himself silently for losing his set of infrared goggles on their trek to the colony, but at least the rain felt like it was letting up.

He felt the ground rise slightly and the raccoon slipped getting to the top of the small hill. When he reached the top, he saw a dim light ahead. He dropped back behind and tree and then sent Moss forward to have a look.

As the sentry unit drew closer to the light from a higher vantage point in the branches above, Pockets recognized a large shape in the infrared image. It was a sleek vessel hidden in a large clearing, and the light came from its open airlock. The jaguar walked up a short ramp and then disappeared into the ship’s interior. Pockets took a moment and sent Moss around the ship to look for others who might be guarding the vessel, but while doing so, a sudden chill coursed down his spine. He recognized the Manta-class Brandtian cruiser even before Moss found its nameplate near the hatch. It was the Basilisk.     

*** 

Max set a wooden box he’d found next to the wall of a hut just under its solitary window. He thought he’d heard sounds inside and he wanted to check them out. He wished that Pockets had left Moss with him to look over the colony, and didn’t know why the chief engineer felt he needed to take the floating sentry unit into the forest. Max could have made better use of it in the amongst the buildings. It would have been safer than standing on a wet box to look into a window almost higher than he could reach.

He heard a sound to his right and quietly got off the box. He eased his nose around the corner of the building and saw two jaguars step inside the hut from where the other one had emerged. There were sounds of a commotion and then the felines emerged from the doorway dragging Tanis between them. They dropped him onto the wet grass and one of the cats kicked the tan fox in the side. Tanis clutched at his middle and the other jaguar kicked him from the opposite side.

It was all Max could do to remain out of sight, but if he gave his position away now, it would ruin any chances he and Pockets might have to help their friends. He found himself growling deeply in his throat, but forced himself to stop when one of the cats looked his direction.

They picked up Tanis again and then dragged him toward the largest hut in the compound. Max watched them go inside, resisting the urge to see where they had taken him. Instead, the young canine decided to reconnoiter the area to locate the rest of their friends. The hut where Tanis had been removed from would be a good place to start.

He didn’t see an ebony feline step outside of another hut and light up a cigarette.     

*** 

Tanis looked up and the scent of fresh blood hit him when the door to the large hut opened. Bomani jerked on his arm and half-dragged him up the three wooden steps into the structure. The medic saw a box of weapons just inside the door and he recognized them as the Blue Horizon’s Binfurr handguns. Despite this, he had no chance to grab one. Zuberi scowled at him and pushed him up the last step.

He was taken to the middle of the room, and in the dim lights, his jaw dropped in surprise. Merlin Sinclair stood wearily between two vertical poles, his arms suspended from chains attached to metal eyelets driven into the wooden supports. His shirt and breeches were in tatters and Merlin was filthy from dirt, mud and splatters of blood. His left eye was swollen nearly shut, but his right eye was open wide in apparent terror at the sight of Tanis.

The fennec fox was roughly seated on a wooden chair in the middle of the room and his ankles were shackled to its legs. His wrists were tied loosely behind his back and then the two jaguars took up stations on either side of him. He glanced down at his boots and saw fresh pools of blood around them that had not yet seeped between the floorboards. He looked up at Merlin in a panic and then noticed the yellow eyes of Briggs watching him from behind the lupine captain.

Merlin swallowed hard and felt Briggs’ familiar hot breath on his left ear. “Now we shall start over,” the feline said calmly. “Where is Lucas Sinclair?”

Merlin wet his lips and then replied in a hoarse voice, “He… Lucas was on Mainor…”

Briggs laughed and cuffed the wolf on the back of the head, almost playfully. “Good try, Sinclair,” he said, “but you’ll have to lie better than that. Your brother was in the care of my Master at the time the Kastans reduced Mainor to slag.”

“I – don’t know what to tell you,” Merlin tried again. “I’ve not seen him since Quet.”

Briggs exhaled loudly. “Take a look at your friend there,” he said in a darker tone. “Picture what happened to poor Mr. Tippet being done to this fox. Imagine it well, because if you don’t tell me what my Master wishes to know, your friend’s carcass will decorate the ground next to Tippet’s with his hide displayed on Zuberi’s wall!”

“I don’t know where my brother is,” Merlin replied again. It wasn’t exactly a lie, since he’d not actually been able to find Lucas, but he had no intention of setting pirates loose onto the countryside of Tanthe to look for him. The royal house of Aris would not react kindly to having their heirs’ seclusion threatened by murderers, whether or not the pirates were actually after the children.

Briggs was right, however. Protecting a brother that had done nothing but shame the family had resulted in the death of one of the colonists, but Lucas had also risked his own death to save countless others in the Siilv War.

“Alright,” Briggs growled into his ear, “your silence will take another life. Zuberi, you may begin.”

Merlin winched at the sound of the big jaguar’s open hand slapping the fox’s nose with enough force that Tanis’ head rocked. Already weakened from an earlier beating, the medic’s eyes rolled up in his head and he slumped down in the chair. That didn’t deter Zuberi from his job, however. He grabbed a small vial from the table full of sharp instruments and uncapped it. He waved it under Tanis’ nose and the fox came to immediately.

Merlin’s mind raced frantically. He had to do something, to act quickly in order to save Tanis, but he was helpless. He didn’t know what to do!

Bomani grabbed both of Tanis’ large ears and pulled his head back so that his throat was exposed. The fox found he couldn’t easily swallow and his eyes went wide when Zuberi held up a wicked looking instrument with a curved, razor-sharp blade. “I’m going to carve pretty red pictures around your neck,” the feline snarled with a sadistic grin.

There was a loud crash outside the window to the room and Briggs looked up in alarm. It sounded like a fistfight out in the compound amidst shouts and curses. He rushed to the window and whipped the curtain aside. It was dark, so he grabbed a flashlight torch from the floor and shined it out into the night. He saw two figures dancing around one another, one feline and one canine.

The canine, a German shepherd, used some kind of martial arts tactics against his aggressor and planted a kick into the jaguar’s stomach. Briggs growled over his shoulder, “One of Sinclair’s men has gotten free. All of you get out there and help Sennedjem take him down!”

“But… the fox—!” Zuberi complained.

“He’s tied to the chair, you idiot! He’ll be here when you get back!”

“Right, boss!” Bomani scrambled across the room and burst out the door, but Zuberi hesitated just long enough to kick over Tanis’ chair. The fox fell hard to the floor. Briggs looked back out the window and saw the runt land a fist against the canine’s shoulder, but the cur twisted just in time so that the punch was robbed of its power. Sennedjem didn’t waste time and kicked out with a leg that caught the young German shepherd off balance.

Briggs whirled on his lupine captive and grabbed the fur at the back of his neck. “I don’t recognize that dog. How many more of your men are loose?” he demanded. Merlin’s good eye went wide. He had never been told just who had been captured in his crew, but he now knew that at least Max was free. He sincerely hoped the kid got away as quickly as he could. “How many more?” Briggs shouted angrily in his ear.

Outside in the wet grass, Max managed to get back to his feet before the jaguar could jump him and he took a roundhouse swipe at the cat. He heard a door slam and took a heartbeat’s hesitation to glance toward the main hut. Sennedjem did likewise and both of them saw Zuberi and Bomani barreling down at them with Pamiu and Runihura close on their heels.

Max took advantage of his opponent’s brief distraction, kicking him in the kneecap. Sennedjem yowled in pain as Max took off running across the compound. Zuberi slipped on a patch of mud and fell headfirst into Sennedjem, but the other three kept their footing and raced after the canine. The dog was fast, but the jaguar gained on him quickly. Max splashed across the colony’s flooded stream and lit out as fast as he could for the forest. His only chance was of losing the felines among the trees and low brush.     

*** 

“Why didn’t you tell me you had a hair pin?” Samantha asked Lorelei in exasperation. There was a satisfying click as the padlock released its mechanism and the Border collie smiled despite her mood.

“You didn’t ask,” the bunny replied in a quiet voice. “Besides, I’m still sleepy…”

Christine and Samantha helped Taro into a semi-sitting position so they could remove the chains from around the vixen. It took a couple minutes before the last length of chain was on the floor, but Taro found that she had been bound up tight for so long that she was unable to stand up on her own.

The Siamese cat began massaging one of Taro’s legs and Christine followed her example with the other. Samantha knelt down next to her friend and brushed dust from her fur. “Despite Lori’s hairpin,” she said, “I can’t open the door.”

“Why?” Taro asked as she flexed her arms to get the feeling back in them. “Too difficult?”

“The padlock’s on the outside,” Sam replied. “I can’t get to it.”

“Well, as soon as I get control of my arms and legs back, I’ll see what I can do about that door.”

“How?” asked one of the other women.

Taro held up a fist. “I’m Hestran,” she said with a touch of pride.

“That would draw too much attention,” the Siamese said quietly.

“Jenny, do you expect me to just do nothing now that I’m out of these chains?” Taro asked with a frown.

“No, but I might have an alternative if you don’t mind getting dirty.” She gave the vixen a nod and twitched her whiskers. Taro fixed her with a puzzled look. “There’s a loose floorboard in the back corner beneath my bunk that can be pulled up,” Jenny explained. “It’s been on our list of things to repair, but for our purpose there’s a crawlspace underneath that leads to the outside.”

“If you’ve had that way out, why haven’t you escaped before now?” Samantha asked.

“If any of us are discovered missing,” a lioness named Melissa answered from behind them, “our cubs might be harmed.”

“Sounds like a good reason to stay put,” Lorelei said with a yawn. “Keeping the kids safe is the right thing to do.”

Taro got to her knees and then stood up shakily. She took a few steps away from the others and then began doing a few exercises to loosen up cramped muscles. “I’ll be ready to try the crawlspace in a few minutes,” she said in a flat tone. No one challenged her statement, not even Melissa.

“Christine,” Samantha said in the awkward silence, “can you tell us which buildings the others are being kept in?”

“I can show you myself,” the cheetah replied, “if we look in on the cubs first.”

“We need to find the guys,” Taro said. “The kids can’t help us subdue grown jaguars.”

“I want to see my cubs,” Christine said crossly. “Once I know they’re okay, I’ll take you to the others.”

“Okay,” Taro said in resignation. There was no arguing with a mother. She stretched her legs against a wall and then dropped to the floor for several pushups. As there was nothing else to do, practically everyone in the small hut watched the vixen go through a short regiment of exercises. It had grown quiet outside, but suddenly there was a hard pattering on the roof.

“Sounds like it’s raining again,” Lorelei said unnecessarily. “You’re going to get wet.”

“I’m ready,” Taro announced with her hands on her hips and her feet planted defiantly apart, “rain or no rain.”

Jennifer got up with a nod and led Taro and Samantha to the back of the room. She grabbed the end of a bed, pushed it to the side, and then pointed to the edge of a warped floorboard. Taro knelt down, grabbed the end of the board with her fingertips and then pulled. The plank emitted a squeak as its nails pulled free of the wooden foundation frame. Several of the women started from the unexpected noise, but with the hard rain outside, it was unlikely anyone beyond the room would have heard it.

Taro pulled the board upright and let the nails in its other end hold it in place. The opening was just large enough to pass through, and the red fox eased herself down to the soggy ground beneath. Christine went through the hole next, followed by Samantha. The Border collie looked back up at the women gathered around the opening.

“Push the board closed behind us and put the cot back over it again,” she said. “If we’re successful, we’ll be back to open the front door.”

“What if you aren’t successful?” asked Jenny.

Samantha raised an eyebrow. “Then you won’t have to worry about us anymore,” she said grimly. “Our first concern is the welfare of your children. We’ll send Christine back to you with a report on them after we’ve taken a look.”

“Be careful,” said a young orange cat, “and good luck.”

“Thanks,” replied the Border collie. She turned and crawled away. Jennifer pushed the board back into place and then slid the bed to its original position.

Underneath the wooden hut, Taro crawled on her belly toward a vent of slats that she could see in the flash of lightning outside. The ground was muddy from rain seepage and the mold and fungus growth made their way slick and slimy. Samantha stuck her tongue out at the filthy feeling, but when Christine accidentally kicked a bit of mud into her face, she sputtered irritably. Lightning struck one of the peaks overhead and thunder vibrated throughout the colony.

Taro reached the slats and pushed on it gently. The wooden vent fell off easily; it had never been nailed in, just pushed into the hole. Like the floorboard opening, Taro was able to squeeze out of the aperture, but not without some discomfort to her bosom. She got up on her hands and knees once she was out in the pouring rain, and turned to give Christine a hand.

A moment later, Samantha stood up beside them and suddenly froze. “Hsst! Taro!” she said through clenched teeth. In the flash of lightning, the shadow of an approaching figure was visible beyond the edge of the hut.

Christine moved fearfully back behind Samantha, but Taro darted forward quickly. She reached out, snatched the individual and slammed him hard against the side of the building.

“Ow!” exclaimed the diminutive raccoon. “Don’t be so rough!”

“Pockets!” Samantha nearly shouted in surprise. Taro clamped a hand over the Border collie’s mouth and held up a finger for silence as she released the engineer. She dropped her hand from Samantha’s face and bent down to look eye to eye with Pockets.

“We’re sure glad to see you,” Taro whispered. “What are you doing out here?”

“Looking for you,” Pockets answered as he brushed her muddy handprints from his rain cloak. “Have you seen Max?”     

*** 

Five minutes passed with Briggs growing angrier by the minute. He stared out the window at the woods where four of his crew had gone in after the young canine, but none had yet returned. He was furious for sending all of them out into the strengthening rain and his fingers clenched the windowsill. He had no way to call them back, so all he could do was wait for them to return.

Unnoticed behind him, Tanis had his eyes closed. He had been given a respite due to the distraction, but he knew that his eventual fate would return. He had never really feared dying before, but what he did fear was dying horribly. From the strong stench of blood, the look of terror on his captain’s face when he had been brought into the room, and the sadistic grin on the one jaguar’s face, Tanis had no doubt he would die very shortly and in a lot of pain. He had not been able to hear the words that Briggs had spoken into Merlin’s ear, so he had no idea what this was all about.

Like his medic, Merlin was grateful for the respite, no matter how short a time it might be. An idea had come to him and he was going to take advantage of Max’s distraction. He let his weight rest on the chains, and although his wrists were sore where the manacles had chaffed him, he thought he felt the chains give ever so slightly. He set his jaw and then eased off the chains slowly so not to make them jingle, and then reapplied his weight. Each time he did this, he put more weight on one side than he did the other, but the next time he would switch for the other arm. He had no way of knowing if Briggs was watching him, but Merlin chanced tilting his head back and looked toward the ceiling. The jaguar didn’t do anything more than fling more curses at his men out the window. Good, he hadn’t been noticed.

As he expected, the metal eyelets that his chains were attached to were slowly working loose from the wooden poles. The movement was subtle, but it was there nonetheless. He worked the chains for several minutes, keeping his ears perked to listen for Briggs and an eye on his friend on the floor below. Tanis’ clothing and fur had soaked up some of the blood from the floor, and although Zuberi had not done anything more than slap him, his appearance suggested something more ghastly.

Briggs slammed his fist down on the windowsill and then turned back toward the wolf. He no longer cared if Merlin saw his face. He would continue the torture of the fox on his own. The quicker he frightened a confession out of the lupine captain, the sooner he could be through with this task and do away with Sinclair altogether.

He stomped his frustration as he walked over to where the wolf hung heavily against his chains and then walked around in front of him. Merlin looked at him with his good eye, surprised that Briggs had come into view. He studied the man and thought he recognized him. Then it came to him. Briggs had been a member of Sagan’s boarding party that night when the Basilisk ambushed them in the Van Conner nebula and Jiro had been murdered. Merlin had fought with him briefly before the pirates were driven back through the airlock tunnel. That was two years ago, but the face came back to him.

Var Briggs stared at him for a long time, his yellow eyes unblinking and filled with hatred. Merlin tried to look as innocently as he could out of a beaten face, even as he continued to apply pressure to the chain eyelets above. Briggs snorted and finally turned away. He walked over to Tanis and then kicked the fox’s chair hard. Tanis grunted, but otherwise didn’t cry out.

Merlin growled low in his throat and the jaguar turned to look at him with a feral smile. “Got your blood up, haven’t I, Captain?” he asked. “Get used to the feeling, because you’re going to see more.” He took another step toward Tanis and then bent down to pick up the chair, occupant and all. Merlin lunged hard against the chains while Briggs had his back turned and the jaguar only laughed without looking.

Briggs set Tanis upright where he had previously sat and then slugged him in the jaw. He was miffed that the fox had not already started begging for his life, so he thought he would try some intimidation tactics. He was not as experienced with bloody torture as Zuberi and Bomani were, but he was angry enough to inflict some serious pain.

He put his face next to Tanis’ nose and said in a menacing voice, “Scream all you want. Feel free to cry out for mercy, but you will get none from me.” He pulled back and then picked up the curved scalpel from the pouch on the small table.

There was a grunt behind him and then the loud sound of a chain hitting the floor. Briggs whirled around and saw that the wolf had pulled one of his chains loose from its support pole and he was struggling frantically to free the other too. The jaguar shrieked in rage and lunged for the captain.

Merlin was ready for him and quickly swung the freed length of chain in a wide arc. It smacked the jaguar across the face with such force combined with the cat’s forward momentum that the loose eyelet gouged a deep gash across his left cheek, over his nose and across his forehead. It was sheer luck that an eye wasn’t taken out, but blood sprayed into the air as Briggs’ head rocked back from the blow. The jaguar crashed to the floor and Merlin used the intervening seconds to tug hard at his remaining chain before the mad cat could recover.     

*** 

Renny rubbed the sore spot on his side where he had been waylaid back at the ship and winced. He was sick and tired of being a victim and wanted nothing more than to be on the offensive for once. He had stewed long enough that he had made up his mind that he would never again be afraid of black-furred jaguars.

He looked over at Durant in the dimly lit room and frowned. The old bear seemed tired and worn out, but somehow he didn’t think it had anything to do with their attackers. Tanis had mentioned the load master’s reluctance to a physical examination and his growing concerns, but Renny had not thought much about it until now since the fox was inclined to be a worry wart when it came to their health. The grizzled bear tended to move slowly when he had seen him in the ship’s corridors and the look in Durant’s eyes this evening was far from alert. He’d not said much since their capture, but had patiently listened to Renny’s rants.

He looked around the room lit by a single candle at the downtrodden faces of the other felines, but the one he missed was Tanis. Why had he been taken away? Was it for questioning or was it for the medic to tend to someone else’s wounds?  Although some would say they were rivals, he was worried about his friend. Sure, they verbally sparred from time to time, but in the end, they were friends.

He looked up at a sound near the door and wondered if their captors had brought back Tanis. He touched Durant, who had drifted off to sleep, and the two of them looked up as something smashed at the solid wooden panel. They raised their arms as splinters flew out into the room with repeated poundings. Suddenly the object of force burst through the panel. It was a black-furred fist that retreated and reappeared as the door swiftly fell apart before their eyes.

A moment later, a silhouette filled the doorway, but Renny recognized her immediately. “Taro!” he gasped. The wet and muddy vixen rushed to him, hugging him close as Samantha came inside and did likewise to Durant. The bear grinned up at them, but didn’t get to his feet.

“I’m so glad to see you two safe,” he said, “but you’re filthy!”

Samantha chuckled and purposely wiped some of her mud across the bear’s own dirty green shirt. He made a face of disgust, which only made Sam chuckle again.

Christine stepped inside a moment later and went straight to Renny, but then stopped when she realized he was not the one she was looking for. She glanced around at the other men gathered and then moved to a cougar. She looked up at him with fear in her eyes. “Thomas,” she asked quietly, “where’s Jerome?”

The cougar averted his eyes and shook his head slowly. “They came and took him away an hour ago,” he said in a strained voice. “We heard screams… We fear the worst…”

“No… Great Maker, no…” The woman buried her face in the cougar’s arms and began to sob. He held her close with his own moist eyes.

“Was Jerome your leader?” Samantha asked solemnly.

“No,” Thomas replied as he laid his cheek against the cheetah’s head, “but he was Christine’s mate.”

Taro helped Renny to his feet and then moved to Durant’s side. “I know this is a rough moment,” she said to the group of men, “but if you want to help us stop those murderers, we need to start moving before they come to investigate the noise I just made.”

A bobcat stepped forward, looking embarrassed. “We may not be of much use to you,” he said. “We’ve been beaten and starved, and most of us are too weak to do more than stand up.”

Taro looked around the weary faces in the hut and nodded with understanding. “If there are any of you who feel up to helping, we’re going to take them out, one by one. There are only ten of them, so—”

“I don’t care if I’m not in the best shape,” Renny interrupted with darkened eyes, “but I want my claws in them!”

Thomas looked up with his own furrowed brow and replied, “You can count on me.” Christine looked up at him, her cry-lines wet with real tears. Thomas nodded to her and added, “I’ll be careful, Chris, but I’ve got to do something.”

The cheetah nodded and then glanced back at Renny. “Watch each other’s backs,” she said to him in a shaky voice.

“We will,” he acknowledged.

“I’m going too,” added a young lion that stepped forward from the back of the room. “I’m ready for a pay-back.”

“Yes, but be careful about it,” Christine said to him. “Your mate is worried about you, Reid.”

Renny looked out into the lightning-illuminated rain. “Someone’s coming!” he said suddenly. Thomas moved to stand behind him and looked over his shoulder. Lightning flashed again as the sky rumbled and the cougar saw two jaguars running across the compound from the direction of the forest. Without warning, Renny rushed out into the rain, driving a course directly for the ebony cats. Thomas took that as a signal and took off after him, leaving the others behind.

Samantha and Taro exchanged glances. “I guess that’s our cue,” the vixen said with a frown. With a quick glance back at the others gathered behind her, Taro jumped out of the hut and followed the two men through the rain. A second later, Samantha, Reid and Durant gave pursuit.

The jaguars noticed Renny barreling down upon them and changed direction for a direct attack. Thomas leaped forward and tackled Bomani into the mud just as Renny and Zuberi clashed. The two cats began to pummel one another fiercely. Zuberi landed a fist aside of Renny’s jaw, but the navigator twisted under the punch and brought his knee up into the jaguar’s stomach. Both of them fell to the ground, but Zuberi took the advantage to jump up on top of Renny and grind a knee into the cheetah’s previously injured side.

Thomas wasted no time to let Bomani recover from his assault and slashed at the jaguar’s face repeatedly with his claws. Thomas Rowley may have been previously beaten into submission and given little to eat for a week, but his pent-up anger and frustration against the crew of the Basilisk gave him desperate strength and the willpower for his attack. He didn’t know how long he would be able to hold out, so he was intent on getting the best of his opponent as quickly as possible.

Taro reached Renny and Zuberi and leaned in to pop the jaguar in the head. The black cat stumbled backward and fell to the ground, but Renny whirled on Taro with a battle-raged snarl. “He’s mine!” he screamed at her and then jumped Zuberi before he could recover. Taro stood in shock and mutely watched her lover slash out at the jaguar with his claws and teeth. 

Probably for the first time in many years, Zuberi was suddenly afraid and he began to panic at the hacking claws across his face. He flailed his arms, kicked with his feet, and tried to scramble away, but Renny was so enraged he would not give him a second to breathe.

There was no thought in the cheetah’s mind but murderous intent, and seeing this in his eyes frightened Taro. She had never seen this side of the navigator, but knew instantly that his fear and anger had been bottled up for so long that its release had been explosive. His attack was so fierce, so primal, that Taro felt momentary paralysis in the power of its expression.

Samantha let out a shout when three more jaguars emerged from the woods and raced toward them. Taro went on alert immediately and rushed the new arrivals along with Reid and Samantha. Durant turned to follow them, but abruptly clutched at his shirt. His chest was tight and he became nauseated so suddenly that he dropped to his knees and doubled over. Despite feeling cold from the continuing rain, he began to pant heavily from an icy feeling throughout his left arm. It felt like someone was squeezing him in a death grip and it became hard to breathe.

Then, just as quickly as it had begun, the tightness released him. His chest muscles ached and he continued to pant, though no longer with a shortness of breath. He glanced over to see Renny’s fingers clamping down on Zuberi’s neck, but he was in a daze and was disoriented. He closed his eyes as the rain fell across his face, and he felt like he wanted to do nothing more than lie down and sleep, but something in the back of his mind told him to stay awake. The grizzly shook his head and then forced himself back to his feet. He wavered a moment, but retained his balance.

There was a sudden sharp snap and he turned to see Thomas holding up a limp Bomani, the jaguar’s head hanging just a little too loose. The cougar dropped the lifeless pirate and then rested his hands on his knees as he panted heavily.

“Are you alright?” Durant heard Thomas say. He nodded slowly, but when he looked up, the cougar wasn’t looking at him, but at the Horizon’s navigator. Renny knelt atop Zuberi’s chest, shoulders heaving with expended effort. His bloody fingers, wrapped tightly around the jaguar’s throat, pulsed with residual energy, but in spite of the strong desires within, his enemy still lived.

The cheetah still had a wild look in his eyes, but the better part of his nature kept him from finishing the job he had begun. His eyes slowly cleared and he released the jaguar’s neck, letting the dark gasping head fall back into the mud. Renny’s shoulders slumped and he hung his head.  The steam from his body heat rose against the rain as the anger evaporated from his form.

“I’m…” he said slowly, “I’m… finished.”

“I’m not.” Thomas pushed Renny aside, and without warning, the cougar calmly stomped his heel down upon the jaguar’s throat, ending the pirate instantly. “That’s for Jerome,” he spat.

Renny looked at the scene in horror, knowing just how close he had come to murder. A cold, icy feeling spilled down his spine as the cougar left the body where it lay and moved off into the night.

Some distance away, and not having witnessed Zuberi’s demise at the last, a movement of white caught Durant’s eye; he looked up to see Lorelei on the far side of the compound moving toward the main hut. She had a soaked blanket over her head and seemed to be blindly walking through the rain. The grizzly knew he would be of no use to the others who had converged on the other three jaguars, so he started to make his way through the rain toward the bunny.

Durant glanced back toward the others, saw one of the jaguars break away from the brawl and run toward the main structure, leaving his two companions behind. At first, Durant thought the cat was after Lorelei, but it didn’t appear as if he had seen her. His intention was on the building itself.     

*** 

Pamiu was the eldest of the Basilisk jaguars and second-in-command on the pirate ship. He had been Sagan’s advisor and afterward enjoyed the same position serving under the previous First Mate, Briggs. The campaigns he had followed him into had been profitable, but this time nothing had gone right. Their plan had seemed foolproof at first, but now it was falling apart. They had held the advantage of surprise when they took over the Chimera Colony, and the same with the Blue Horizon, but now some of the prisoners had gotten free and were quickly outnumbering the jaguars. If he could just get to Briggs, they could get out the weapons and regain control before it got too far out of hand.

He reached the door of the hut, flung it open with a bang, and then hopped up the steps into the main room. He stopped abruptly when he saw his commander and the wolf locked together on the floor in combat. Merlin favored his left foot and pain was on his beaten face, but he had his chains wrapped partially around the jaguar’s neck and one arm in an attempt to strangle him. Briggs was far from subdued, however. The one hand he had managed to raise before the length of chain had been thrown around his neck was the only thing that had kept him from death. He wrapped his legs around the wolf’s feet in a quick scissor-lock and put his weight into it, but he was unable to unbalance Sinclair as he had hoped. Briggs reached out and grabbed the wolf by the throat with his free hand, but Merlin only squeezed tighter with his chain.

“Look out!” Tanis yelled. He was still bound to his chair, but had been upended and shoved up against a wall next to the cowering Moran. “There’s another one!”

Pamiu reacted quickly. He circled the fighting and snatched up Zuberi’s favorite knife from the floor. Then he grabbed Tanis by one of his large ears and hefted him up enough that it stretched out the fox’s throat. He put the serrated blade up to the taut neck and then shouted, “Sinclair! Stop or your man dies right now!”

His threat had its desired effect. Merlin released Briggs and backed away from the pirate captain, dragging his chains beside him and panting for breath. He glared hard at Pamiu, calculating his chances of reaching him with the end of the chains that were still manacled to his bloody wrists, but it didn’t look good. He could hit Tanis too. Briggs gasped for air a moment before he could get to his hands and knees, but he finally gave his first officer a nod to let him know he would live.

Briggs turned to face Sinclair and then walked boldly to him. He backhanded the wolf hard enough that Merlin’s weary knees buckled and he dropped to the floor, but the jaguar almost followed him down. He somehow managed to keep his feet and towered over Sinclair.

The door opened at that moment and everyone in the room turned to see who had entered. It was Lorelei and she stopped and stared at the scene before her. Immediately, her eyes fell upon the bruised and bloody wolf, his wrists still in manacles, blood all over the floor, and Briggs standing over him threateningly. Then she noticed Pamiu holding Tanis’ head back with a nasty looking knife at his throat.

In a desperate move that surprised everyone, the white rabbit grabbed one of the guns from the box next to the door. She whipped it up and pointed it at Pamiu, her thumb automatically releasing the safety. “G-get away from him!” she shouted. Her mouth quivered, but she held the firearm steady, aimed at the elder jaguar’s head.

The aged cat suddenly laughed and drew the blade across Tanis’ neck. It wasn’t deep, but the cut was just enough that a small trickle of blood stained the fox’s white ruff. “Your friend is as good as dead, missy,” he said with a feral grin to show his indifference to her threat. “There’s not a thing you can d—”

Bang!

Pamiu’s eyes rolled up fast, almost as if they were trying hard to look at the purple hole that had suddenly appeared in the space of forehead between them. The knife dropped from his hands and clattered to the floor only a second before the jaguar collapsed to the ground, smearing blood down the panel behind him.

Briggs yelled out in rage and tensed his muscles to leap at the bunny that had swept her firearm toward him, but Merlin swung his right arm around and whipped the chain hard against the cat’s stomach. The jaguar collapsed to the floor and Merlin jumped him with the intent to beat him senseless.

Durant came in the door behind Lorelei and suddenly men from the colony swarmed in the door behind him. Briggs kicked Merlin aside with a lucky blow from his boot and he scrambled to his feet, slipping uncertainly on the slick floor. He took one look at the enraged colonists and then dove for the open window. His knee hit the sill and he tumbled messily out into the rain, but before anyone could get to him, the jaguar was on his feet and quickly limping for his life. Colonists tore out after him and followed him across the compound toward the trees of the forest.

Lorelei suddenly fell to her knees, letting the pistol slide out of her hands to the floor in front of her. She buried her face in her hands and started bawling. Durant eased down on the floor beside her and put his arms around her shoulders with understanding. Her marksmanship had been perfect, but it was the first time she had ever killed anyone, even in defense.  She turned, clung tightly to him, and cried into his chest in racking sobs.

Merlin got to his feet shakily and moved across the room to check on Tanis, his chains dragging the floor behind him. The fennec fox looked up at him as the wolf picked up Zuberi’s knife and cut the ropes that still bound him to the chair. “Are… ya alright?” he asked his captain. Tanis ached from his beating, but knew he was in far better shape than Merlin was.

The wolf started to nod, but then changed his mind and shook his head instead. “No… but maybe I’ll live anyway.” He took a look at Moran with his one good eye and then put an aching hand on the grey cat’s shoulder. “It’s over,” he said hoarsely. “It’s over…”

Moran nodded and swallowed hard. “I’m sorry any of this happened, sir,” he said as he glanced over at Pamiu’s still form.

“Captain!”

Merlin looked up as Pockets rushed across the room to them. The wolf managed part of a smile through swollen lips and then held up one manacled wrist. “I need a locksmith,” he said. “So does Mr. Moran.”

The raccoon nodded and dug into one of his pockets. He pulled out a small pouch and unrolled it to reveal a set of gleaming metal instruments. Moran suddenly backed away. Merlin put out a hand to calm the cat. “Those are tools to pick locks,” he explained gently.

Moran watched Pockets dubiously, but only relaxed when the raccoon took one of the tiny instruments and put in inside the lock of Merlin’s bracelet. The manacle parted seconds later and then the wolf held out his other wrist to his engineer. “See?” he said.

The grey cat closed his eyes when Pockets went to work on the manacle that bound him to the chair and jumped when it clicked apart.     

*** 

Runihura was panting and out of breath when he reached the ramp into the Basilisk and almost collapsed to the floor once he was inside. He hit the intercom button on the wall beside the open airlock with his good hand, and then cradled the other arm the vixen had broken for him back at the colony. He had managed to escape in the darkness and confusion of the fighting, but he didn’t think Sennedjem had survived the mob attack.

“This is Nakhti,” a bored voiced reported from the small intercom speaker.

“Secure the ship,” Runihura gasped through his pain. “The colonists have broken out!”

“Right.” The ramp began to slide back inside the side of the vessel and the airlock door automatically swung shut. Other apertures for ventilation around the ship closed up tight and all exterior lights extinguished. Lights inside the Basilisk dimmed to a low setting and then everything went quiet.

“Who’s on board?” Runihura asked. He remained where he sat on the floor, hoping the doctor was available.

“Just me and Runi.”

Runihura cursed aloud. Their doctor had been assigned to guard the children of the colonists and was probably still there at her post. Khepri filled several jobs on board the Basilisk. She was their doctor, their cook and their pleasure provider. She’d been happy in her work when Sagan had led them, but lately had shown signs of discontent in the things she did for all of them. The svelte and curvaceous female didn’t have the heart of a pirate, but had served her purpose and was paid well from their plunder. More than anything, however, Runihura needed her medical skills.

Suddenly there was a pounding on the hatch beside him. He could barely hear muffled shouts through the seals.

“Someone’s outside the main airlock,” Runihura whispered to the intercom.

“It’s just Briggs,” reported the bored jaguar on the bridge. “You want I should let him in?”

“Open it,” growled Runihura, “unless you want to face his wrath later.”

There was a soft hiss and the mechanism to the door released its lock. Briggs didn’t wait for the hydraulic arm to finish opening the door all the way and he scrambled inside. His eyes were crazed and his fur was matted with leaves, mud, grass and blood. He leaned into the intercom and shouted, “Secure the ship and prepare for immediate liftoff!”

“Aye,” replied Nakhti in a voice just as dull as it had been earlier. The airlock resealed itself and Briggs turned to go.

“Khepri’s still out there, sir,” Runihura said in a voice laced in pain. “We need the doctor…”

“We’re leaving!” Briggs growled.

Runihura held up his broken arm. “But, sir—”

Briggs roared in fury and brought his fist down hard on the proffered limb. Runihura bellowed in pain and fell to the floor in agony. Without a backward glance, Briggs left him and stormed toward the bridge.     

*** 

There was a sound at the door of the hut and Khepri Mandisa looked up from her task as the outside lock clicked. The panel opened and a crowd of adults filed inside. They found the female jaguar surrounded by the colony children where she had been telling them an exciting tale of love and adventure, but as soon as the children recognized their parents, the air was filled with tears and the sounds of happiness.

Thomas and another male rushed forward and roughly picked her up by the arms, scattering pillows across a floor covered in crayon drawings. Khepri offered no resistance and allowed herself to be taken outside into the cool night air. The rain had finally stopped, though thunder could still be heard farther up the valley.

Christine cried openly when she knelt on the wooden floor and her two male kits bounded into her arms. She held them close and licked their muzzles over and over. Similar scenes were all over the room as mothers and fathers were reunited with their children.

As the leonine family rejoiced in their reunion, Reid looked down at the drawings on the floor. He picked up one of them near his knee and studied it. He was puzzled at the likeness of a black cat playing with several kittens and looked down at his daughter. “Shanna,” he asked, “what is this?”

The young lioness grinned up at her father and pointed to the black cat image. “Tha’s miss Khepri, daddy,” she explained. “She’s a nice lady, plays wit’ us and tells us stories an’ stuff!”

“She treated you well?” Melissa asked her daughter. “She didn’t hurt you?”

“No mamma,” the child replied shaking her head. “Kevi fell down, but she picked him up and kissed his boo.  She funs, even gave tickles.”

Reid and Melissa exchanged quick looks and then the lion got up quickly. He pushed his way past the other families and dashed outside. He found Thomas standing over the jaguar female, who had been shoved to her knees in the soggy grass and mud. The cougar had one of the Binfurr pistols in his hand and put its barrel to the back of her neck.

“No!” Reid shouted in alarm. Thomas looked up in surprise, but didn’t move the gun. “You mustn’t kill her!” the lion said in a rush.

“Why not?” growled the cougar. “She’s the last of the murderers!”

“She’s not a murderer, Thomas. She did no harm to the cubs, but she did care for them.” Reid held up the crayon drawing so that light from the hut fell upon the images. “My daughter said she was nothing but nice to them.”

“But she’s one of them!

“She has done nothing against us,” Reid reminded him. “The kids look healthy and they’re all happy. They haven’t been starved or beaten as we were. Shanna likes her.”

Thomas looked uncertain, but Reid had never lied to him before. When the men had been locked up together in the hut, Reid had vowed serious revenge upon their captors, and it had been he who had dealt the deathblow to Sennedjem when they had fought him in the compound. It shocked Thomas to hear Reid sticking up for the jaguar who remained on her knees, but the woman had said nothing in her own defense.

“She’s okay,” Reid insisted again. “I trust my daughter.”

Finally, after a long, tense moment, Thomas locked the safety on the pistol and quietly shoved it into his belt. He reached down, took Khepri’s arm gently, and then helped her to her feet. She kept her head bowed until the cougar put a finger under her chin and tilted her head up to meet his gaze.

“Why didn’t you harm our children,” Reid asked, “while the rest of your band did terrible things to us?”

The woman looked at him with sorrow-filled eyes. “I’ve never agreed with their horrors,” she said in a voice barely above a whisper. “They disgust me, but I’ve never been allowed to leave them. I have always loved children – have always wanted some of my own, and when they put me in charge of guarding your young ones, I knew I could do them no harm.”

Reid put a hand on her shoulder and looked at her with compassion. “Thank you, miss,” the lion said sincerely. “With all the horrors we’ve faced, thank you.”     

*** 

Var Briggs angrily punched controls on the pilot’s station before him and the thrusters of the Basilisk came alive. The black ship lifted above the trees and he rotated the vessel on its axis. The infrared scanners and night-vision instrumentation were in full use and he easily located the colony on his screen.

Runihura limped onto the bridge, still cradling his decimated arm, but he said nothing to the madman who was his captain. He sat down in an empty seat and saw the ship’s lackey at the weapons console. Nakhti was disrespectful to everyone he met, but he was a pirate who never refused an order given him by a superior. Runihura recognized the ordnance controls the lackey was setting and knew that Briggs intended to bomb the Chimera Colony out of existence, and likely the freighter as well. The action would put Briggs at odds with their Master’s direct orders, but it appeared that Briggs no longer cared. Runihura sat back to watch, calculating a rise in status for himself when he reported Briggs’ actions to the human. Since he and Nakhti were the only ones left of the crew, Runihura saw himself being awarded the captaincy of the Basilisk. As far as he was concerned, Briggs had sealed his own fate.

The Manta-class vessel moved forward, the tops of trees brushing its underside as its captain piloted it for a bombing run.     

*** 

The survivors of the Chimera Colony and the Blue Horizon were gathered outside in the clearing between the buildings. Now that the rain had ended, it was the only place available that was large enough for them all to assemble. The main hut could have contained them all, but no one wanted to go back inside its bloodstained room of death. Several torches had been lit and a few bugs had already been drawn into erratic orbits around the flames despite the hours of rain.

“Now that we have firearms,” Thomas said loudly, “we should storm that devil’s ship!”

Samantha stood in front of him with her hands on her hips. “Our handguns will be of no use,” she told him. “They won’t do anything against the ship’s hull, and all he would have to do is open fire on you with their main guns to be rid of you.”

Thomas raised his arms in exasperation. “Are we supposed to let him get away just so he can come back at a later time with more murderers to finish us off?”

“Listen, we don—”

A loud roar from the forest drowned out Samantha’s words. They could see nothing at all, but everyone instantly knew it must be the Basilisk, probably flying without lights. Briggs was coming for them. People in the crowd started to panic and parents began to swoop up their children in fear and run.

Suddenly the sky lit up from a terrific explosion! A huge fireball expanded above the nearby treetops and engulfed the timbers in a searing heat. The bombing had begun… or so they thought. Burning debris began to rain down upon the colony, but a huge object over the decimated trees dropped to the ground with a thunderous crash. Had the area not been thoroughly soaked from the recent thunderstorms, a forest fire would have spread instantly.

People scattered and ran into the buildings; most of the Blue Horizon crew bolted for the large central hut despite the carnage inside, but Merlin had to be carried. Taro picked him up and ran as burning debris continued to fall. A large, flaming chunk of twisted metal crashed through the roof at the far end of the main room, making everyone jump. Renny and Pockets grabbed extinguishers from wall brackets and managed to get the resulting fire put out before it was able to spread.

“What… what happened?” Lorelei asked as she stared out the open window in awe. A few small pieces of charred material continued to fall from the early morning sky, and the burning wreckage cast off a flickering orange glow in the woods, but the worst of it was over.

“The ship… just exploded,” Tanis said in a quiet voice. “Why… how?”

“The why is because the pirates had it coming,” Pockets said in a matter-of-fact tone. All eyes shifted to the short engineer. “How — is this!”  The raccoon set down his extinguisher and fished a small remote from the pocket of his coveralls.

“What’s that?” Merlin asked hoarsely.

Pockets pressed his lips together tightly when everyone in the room looked to him for an explanation.  “I followed one of the pirates out into the woods about an hour ago,” he said. “He led me straight to the Basilisk and I used Moss to do a little reconnoitering for me.”

“I thought Moss couldn’t leave the ship,” Durant replied.

“After our encounter with the Walkabout, I modified Moss so it could operate a distance outside the ship.”

“That’s great, Pockets,” Samantha said as she gestured out the window, “but it still doesn’t explain that.”

The raccoon walked over to the window and stood beside Lorelei. He stared out at the burning wreckage and put a hand up on the sill.  “Their main hatch was open,” he said, “and I flew Moss inside to look around. I watched its progress on my remote and had all its sensors on full alert in case one of the crew happened along. There was only one person on board on the bridge, so I guided Moss into the Basilisk’s engine room. Unlike the Okami freighters that we’re familiar with, there are no doors on the access panels in Manta-class cruisers. The engine rooms are cramped and don’t really have the space to open doors, so they’re just left open for easy maintenance.”

He turned and looked back at Merlin with a frown. “I didn’t know they were torturing you guys in here, but I remembered how they killed Jiro and got away with it. He was my friend,” he said in a low voice. “When I saw the open access in the engine room through my viewer, I sent Moss into the one that would take it next to the core of their LightDrive engine for its final task.”

“What did Moss do?” Tanis asked.

“I programmed its internal altimeter to set the unit into overload if the ship got more than ten meters off the ground, the approximate height of the trees around here. I figured it would take the overload about two minutes before its instability exploded into the engine core.”

Pockets turned and looked back out the window. Several of the colonists had ventured back outside and a few had gone to investigate the crash site. “I’m a murderer,” he said solemnly, “just like they were. I didn’t kill in self-defense. I did it for revenge.”

Samantha moved to his side and then put her arms around him. She held him close to her and then said, “It may not have been in a court, Pockets, but justice was dealt. The Basilisk was a band of murderers who had killed long before this incident, and some of us had a hand in fighting back, too. You aren’t alone.”

The room fell silent for a moment, but then Durant spoke up with a small smile. “Well, one thing’s for sure,” he said in a lighter tone. “Moss was finally useful for something.”  Despite the sobering events of the night, the bear’s comment brought out a few chuckles.

The raccoon grinned for a moment, but suddenly his eyes went wide. “Has anyone seen Max?” he asked. “I sent him to scout out the area just before I followed that guy to the Basilisk and I haven’t seen him since.”

“He’s over there,” Lorelei said in a casual voice, “talking to one of the colonists.”

Pockets looked to where the rabbit pointed and shook his head in relief. Max looked as bedraggled as the rest of them, but he didn’t appear to be injured.  The engineer left the hut a moment later, followed by most of the Blue Horizon’s crew. Max glanced up as the group approached him and gave them a worried look. “Where’s uncle Merlin?” he asked in concern. “Thomas just told me what happened.”

“Tanis is giving him medical treatment in the main hut,” Taro replied. “He’s pretty banged up, but we think he’ll be okay… now.”

“What happened with you?” Pockets asked.

Max grinned and shrugged his shoulders. “One of the jaguars discovered me and then five of them chased me into the woods,” he explained. “I had a hard time running through the trees and underbrush, but so did they. They chased me over by the canyon wall and I discovered a small cave behind a large rock to hide in.  They didn’t see me crawl into it, so I decided to wait there until I was sure they were gone.”  He made a comical face and spread his hands out wide. “The cave wasn’t empty, though,” he said. “A wild boar didn’t like me blocking his exit and chased me back out into the woods.  He almost got me, but I climbed a tree to get away from him.”

“You were treed?” Samantha asked with a grin.

“Yeah, and it wouldn’t let me alone, either. It stayed underneath my tree and even butted the trunk like it was trying to shake me out.” He gestured toward the crash site out in the woods. “I was stuck up in the tree until that explosion frightened away the boar.  It scared me too. I thought it might have been the Horizon.”     

*** 

Merlin looked up when Thomas and Reid entered the hut, followed by Moran and a female jaguar.  Faint spot patterns in her dark fur shimmered in the lights of the room as she walked. Tanis had found some blankets and had made a bed for his captain in a far corner away from the bloodstained floor. He didn’t have any first aid supplies, but had done the best he could with clean water and strips of cloth.

Mr. Moran stepped forward and then knelt down next to the wolf. “Captain,” he said, “I want to introduce you to the only survivor of the late pirate ship, Basilisk. Doctor Khepri Mandisa is here to help you.”  Tanis looked at the ebony feline dubiously, but she did hold a black medical bag in her hands.

Merlin stared at her through his good eye, but his swollen lips were drawn tight against his teeth in a snarl.  He started to growl, but Moran set a hand on the captain’s shoulder and shook his head. “I will vouch for her intentions,” the grey cat told him. “Please listen to her story. I think you will find it… enlightening.”

Merlin became quiet, though he didn’t relax, but he shot Tanis a dark glance as if to say, “Watch her.” The desert fox nodded in understanding.

“If you will allow me to treat your injuries, sir,” she said in a smooth voice, “I can talk while I work.”  Merlin stared at her for a moment before she added, “We are surrounded by your allies, Captain. They will make sure you are not left alone with me.” Finally, reluctantly, the wolf nodded and she gave him a sad smile in return.

She looked into her medical bog, took out some cotton swabs and a bottle of antiseptic, and then began cleaning his raw wrists where the manacles had cut into him. She began speaking in a quiet voice and held his hand firmly when she applied the stinging liquid to his wounds.

“Four years ago,” she started, “I fell in love with the one you knew as Sagan.”  Merlin scowled, but she ignored his expression. “Unfortunately, he only saw my skills as a doctor, cook and a provider of pleasure for he and his crew. I was lonely and unemployed on Brandt, and he promised me a better life. I agreed, but to my dismay, I discovered the ship I had been brought onto was a pirate ship. By then, it was too late and he wouldn’t free me from his service.”  She glanced at her patient with a look of remembered frustration and then gently bandaged his wrist. She started on the other wrist and continued.

“I saw plenty of raids against freighters such as yours, but they never killed anyone — until Sagan brought in the Aleson brothers, a sadistic pair I know you were well acquainted with. After Bomani and Zuberi joined us, someone died with each campaign. I pleaded with Sagan for him to make them stop, but he never listened to me. He was only interested in the loot they stole, and if someone was killed, Oh well…

She finished with his wrist and then began cleaning other lacerations about his head and neck. “After Sagan died,” she said, “I thought I might have a chance to escape my imprisonment, but Sagan’s master put Var Briggs in charge instead. Briggs was used to having me around and wouldn’t let me leave.”

“Sagan’s master?” Tanis repeated. “Ya mean he worked for someone else?”

Khepri nodded. “Sagan was captured and imprisoned in his youth by a human named Faltane, who—”

“Faltane!” Merlin exclaimed. “Victor Faltane?”

“Yeah, that’s him. He’s not as innocent as he appears when he’s doing charitable work on the news, and he’s much older than he looks,” she said.  Merlin and Tanis exchanged expressions of astonishment. “Anyway, Faltane imprisoned Sagan when he was young. He tortured him into submission, and then later trained him to do his dirty work.  When Sagan was given the Basilisk, he was pretty much left to his own whims, but Faltane – or Master as he was referred to – would occasionally call on him to do jobs that he would assign to no one else.”

“Was Faltane responsible for unleashing that virus on Hestra?” Taro asked.

Khepri shook her head. “No, that was Sagan’s own doing, and the Master punished him severely for going public. Apparently the Master had another intended purpose for the viral agent, but after Sagan broadcast the virus data to the whole PA, it ruined his plans and he was not happy about it.”

“What did he have planned for a fifth-level hot virus?” Tanis asked hoarsely.

“I’m sorry, but I don’t know.”

Merlin winced when she put more of the antiseptic on the tender flesh near his swollen eye. “What more can you tell us about Faltane?” he asked. “We’ve come in contact with him on an occasion or two in the past.”

“Faltane’s a man with many contacts all over the Planetary Alignment,” she said. “I believe he appeals to people due to his innocent appearance and helps them under the table when they need it. He would later call in favors with those people for his own purposes, and then help them in other ways to make them continually indebted to him.  He’s grown stronger in recent years and his influence is quite impressive.”

She looked up at the wolf with a dark expression. “Undoubtedly, I was not supposed to know this, but he even had Kastan assassins working for him who wiped out the officers of Intergalactic Aid.”

“Why would he do that?” Tanis asked. “Intergalactic Aid was helping people.”

“Intergalactic Aid was not as on the up-and-up as you think,” the jaguar replied. “With the organization’s other officers out of the way, that left Faltane in de facto charge of the group. He found himself suddenly sitting on trillions in tax-free credits that had been hidden by various special interest groups.  Would you believe that he orchestrated an attempt to kidnap the Kastans’ Heir Apparent away from Argeia?” she asked to looks of astonishment. “His intention was to extort cooperation from the Kastans for some grand scheme, but Argeia found a way to thwart his plan. Despite this, he has enough fiscal leverage with various guilds across the PA so that he has a little mafia of his own.”

“Wow…” Moran said. He’d never heard of Victor Faltane and was oblivious to the politics of the Planetary Alignment, but he was riveted to Khepri’s words. From the expression on Sinclair’s face, however swollen, he was sure the wolf knew exactly what she was talking about.

“Intergalactic Aid’s headquarters were on Mainor,” the doctor continued, “so all the financial records are gone and the IA was too smart to let their assets rot in certificates – they bought resources… probably gold or Siilv.  This put the Master sitting on top of a huge cache of liquid assets, and he’s been our primary source of funding for the Basilisk.”

Merlin winced again when she took a small tube of salve and began to apply it on his other abrasions. “You have certainly given me a lot to think about,” he said in a strained voice. He was thinking about all the times he had had dealings with Faltane and applied what she had told him to those occasions. As implausible as some of it sounded, the puzzle pieces fit together enough that Merlin felt she told him the truth.

As if reading his mind, Moran looked at him and asked, “Now do you believe her, captain?” The grey cat stood up to let the blood flow back to his legs. “When Briggs and his men were torturing us,” he said, “this woman cared for our children and kept them happy without causing them any distress.”

Merlin caught her eyes with his and then he nodded. “What you say may all be true,” he said, “but I’m not quite certain I trust you completely. When all your crewmates are dead and you are facing your own execution, it’s easy to spill some knowledge to save your skin.”

“It’s possible,” Moran replied before Khepri might comment, “but I can’t deny that she cared for our children while knowing the rest of us might be killed. I choose to believe she is not evil as her companions were, Captain.”

Merlin held the jaguar’s gaze for a moment longer, but then looked over at the grey cat. It seemed strange to see this small feline acting like a leader of a colony. Merlin knew the horrors Moran had been forced to watch and didn’t blame him for his earlier terror. No doubt he would have sunk to the same level of despair had the Aleson brothers been able to do their work on Tanis. He looked back at the doctor and finally gave her a nod.

“What will you do now?” he asked.  He expected her to request passage on his ship back to a Fynian city, but it was Moran who answered.

“She will stay with us,” he said to Merlin’s astonishment. “Jerome Tippet was our doctor, but you saw him murdered. I’ve talked it over with Dr. Mandisa and the remaining elders of our colony and most of us are in agreement that we can use her medical experience in Jerome’s absence.”

“Mr. Tippet’s mate was opposed to my staying,” Khepri said in a quiet voice, “but the majority overruled her. She may never come to like me, despite that I was not responsible for any wrongdoing, but I will do my best to be a friend.”

“How do ya feel about the deaths of yer pirate associates?” Tanis asked.

Khepri looked over at him and fixed him with a steady gaze. “Good riddance,” she said without hesitation. “I hold no grudge against the colony or your crew, if that’s what you mean.”

Tanis nodded. “That’s partially what I meant,” he said, “but I was also curious as to yer thoughts on staying here.  Ya said ya felt like a prisoner on board the Basilisk, but by staying with these people, ya will, in effect, be imprisoned here as well.”

Khepri nodded. “If I chose to think of it that way, you would be right, mister fox, but staying was also my decision, as well as their vote.  I love children and I enjoy helping people. That’s why I became a doctor. If serving this colony in that capacity equates to a sentence to make up for what my former associates did, then I will gladly fulfill my obligations to them.”

Tanis nodded in understanding. There was no way she could be aware of his personal desire to become a doctor to help others, but it was her last statements that convinced him of her intentions.     

*** 

Merlin opened his eyes and yawned, but the ache in the side of his face reminded him of the previous night’s activities. His left eye opened further than it had before, and as he gently probed his cheek with a finger, he felt that some of the swelling had gone down once he had finally been allowed to sleep. The swelling in his lips had also subsided and it didn’t hurt to touch them. There were still places like his wrists that were tender, but they were bandaged and cared for. He reached to the side of his bed and touched a familiar control stud that turned on the light in his bedroom. He was back aboard the Blue Horizon where he had been taken to sleep, and although he was still stiff and sore, he felt somewhat rested.

He glanced over at the clock on his bedside table and noted it was the late afternoon. He didn’t remember just exactly when he had drifted off to sleep, but his slumber had been free of dreams. He was immediately thankful he had experienced no nightmares of the tortures he had been forced to witness.

He managed to lift himself into a sitting position and then swung his legs off the bed. He dressed himself stiffly, but managed it without too much trouble, though his captain’s hat was nowhere to be found.

He left his quarters and peeked into the bridge of his ship, but it was vacant. Only the essential systems were in operation and they made no noise in the small control room.  He moved to the environmental station and looked at the weather readings outside the ship. The sun was shining in a sky that was clear of all clouds and the temperature rated comfortable.

He left the bridge after shutting down the systems he had operated and made his way to the lift. Just as he arrived, the door slid aside and Samantha smiled out at him.  “Hello, darling,” she said with a gentle kiss to the side of his muzzle. “I was just coming to get you out of bed.”

“Is anyone else awake?” he asked as he stepped inside the lift beside her and pushed the pad for the cargo deck. “Everyone was fairly bushed after last night’s events.”

Samantha laughed. “Last night?  Merlin, you weren’t awake last night,” she informed him. “You’ve been asleep for a day and half!”

The wolf looked at her sideways and then shrugged his shoulders. “I guess I shouldn’t be surprised,” he said.  “How is everyone?”

“Considering what we all went through, pretty good.” The door to the lift opened and the pair of them stepped out into the cargo bay.  “Aside of those who didn’t survive, you were the one in the worst shape.”

Merlin was quiet for a moment. “Where’s our cargo?” he asked as he looked across the hold. The place was empty and the bay doors were closed.

“Well,” Sam answered, “in your absence, Taro told the colonists that since the pirates had paid for the supplies in their ruse to get us here, the colony should have them. Was that alright?”

Merlin nodded and they began walking hand in hand toward the open airlock. “It’s what I would have done,” he said with a lazy smile. “So, what have you all been doing while I’ve been out of commission?  Slacking off?”

“Hardly,” the Border collie replied. “After everyone cleaned up and got their rest, we held a memorial service for those who didn’t survive, and then we all helped move the supplies from the ship to the colony. Since then, we’ve been helping them pick up debris of the explosion from the compound and hauling it to the crash site.  Nick said they would probably pick over the junk at a later time to see if there was anything salvageable they could use, but for now they just wanted it out of the colony proper.”

Samantha led him down the airlock ramp to the ground and Merlin looked up at the sun that was just caressing the western peaks of the Dragon’s Teeth. He took in a lungful of fresh air and then smiled. The air was strong with the aroma of the minty Florence shrubs that Renny had told him about after they had landed.

Something snorted from the right and Merlin looked over to see a non-sentient workhorse harnessed to a wooden cart. Samantha grinned and gestured toward it. “I didn’t think you’d feel up to walking a half-mile, so I got you a limousine.”

“Very thoughtful of you,” Merlin replied with a smile.  He had to have her help to get up in the wagon cart and he sat back on a soft cushion to let her take the reins. Sam clicked her tongue, flipped the reins and then they were moving back toward the colony.

“Are you hungry?” she asked him.

“Famished,” he replied. “Do you think Moran will let us dip into their new supplies for a bite to eat?

“Oh, I think so,” Samantha replied with a smile.  “They’ve been preparing a feast all day long. It’s almost ready.”

“A feast?”

“Lori’s been helping out, naturally. Nick thought everybody needed it to boost morale after all we’ve gone through and Lori agreed. She’s still upset with herself for shooting that guy, but everyone’s told her she did the right thing. It may take her a while to get over it.”

“It may take a while for me to get over it,” Merlin mused. He fell silent for a moment and then said, “I want you to promise me something, Sam.”

“What is that?”

“Never ask me to describe what I saw last night… uh, the other night.”

Samantha shook her head. “Don’t you think it’s dangerous to keep it bottled up inside?”

“I don’t think I could stand reliving it.”

The Border collie was silent for a moment, but when she looked over and saw his pleading expression, she finally nodded.

“Okay, I promise.  I want you to think only of good times.”     

*** 

“Are ya sure?” Tanis asked the cinnamon grizzly at his side. “Ya have been avoiding me for a long time.”

Durant looked down at the diminutive medic as the lift doors opened and nodded his head. “Yes, I’m sure,” he said wearily. “It took a long time for me to admit to myself that I haven’t been feeling all that good. I felt great after my vacation on Alexandrius, so I didn’t think I had anything to worry about.”

“Well, now that we’ve made it through that business on Fyn and are on our way to Pomen, I can give ya a complete physical. It will tell us both what’s wrong with ya and what we can do about it.”

“Just in time, too,” the load master mumbled. “I’m feeling a little lightheaded.” He followed the desert fox out of the lift and along the corridor toward the Infirmary. Tanis absently rubbed the side of his face where he had been struck hard.

Tanis stopped when they came alongside the door to his quarters. “Go on ahead and wait for me,” he said. “I’m going to grab my smock and slateboard, and then I’ll be there in a moment.”

“Sure. Uh, Tanis?”

“Yah?” the fox replied, looking up.

“Thanks,” Durant said sincerely. “For everything.”

“Sure, yer welcome,” Tanis replied with a nod. Durant gave him a tired smile and then turned to continue up the corridor.

The fennec opened his door and switched on the light. He made his way slowly around the furniture toward the back room, but stopped and turned when he noticed a blinking green indicator on his cabin Com terminal. He proceeded to the back room and then pulled a clean smock from a closet hanger. He needed a chance to clean and groom his fur better, but he wanted to examine Durant before the bear changed his mind.

He put on the garment stiffly and walked back out to the front room. He moved to the Com terminal and thumbed a control to check messages. There was a letter for him from Alexandrius. He opened the file and read it quickly. The expression on his face was first one of disbelief, but then it spread into a smile across his features.

 

Mr. Arktanis TeVann,

 In review of your past academic achievements and personal experiences, your application to the University of Alexandrius Medical Division has been accepted in order that you may complete your medical studies. The file attachments will give you all the information you will need to tender your tuition, sign up for your needed courses and obtain lodging, as well as other important facts concerning your membership with our facilities. The next semester begins on the fifteenth of Goldsun. You will need to be in place no later than one week before the start of semester.

Congratulations, Mr. TeVann, and welcome aboard. 

Sincerely,

 Vaughn Abrams, Director of Medical Studies

 University of Alexandrius, Medical Division

 4001 Tames Lamar, Alucara 

Tanis reread the message several times and decided to print out a hardcopy of the cover letter so that he could display it on the Infirmary wall. He picked up the fresh page, grabbed his slateboard and then whistled a tune as he left his cabin. If he remembered the Alexandrian calendar correctly, Goldsun was two months away. Merlin would need to hire a new medic for the ship during their next landfall and Tanis would have to try to make all arrangements by Com system for his transfer to Alexandrius in time to make the new semester. He would also need to secure transportation from Pomen back to the Centaurus solar system they were currently leaving.

Had he known about the letter before the Blue Horizon had launched from the Chimera Colony, he could have asked Merlin to divert to a Fynian city where he could catch a transport to Alexandrius. It would have meant only a delay of an hour or two at the most. Still, there was plenty of time to get back to Alexandrius before his deadline, and that would allow the desert fox to say goodbye to everyone properly and make sure his replacement was settled in before he left.

Although he had enjoyed being a part of this crew, Tanis doubted he would ever serve on board the Blue Horizon again. Once he had graduated from UA and was licensed, he would finally get to serve at a real medical facility and do what he wanted more than anything else in life — to help people. His homeworld was off-limits to the rest of the Planetary Alignment, and he had finally accepted the fact he would likely never set foot on his home soil again, so all he had now was to press onward and fulfill his calling.

It was with a light heart that Tanis entered the Infirmary and set the letter and his slateboard on the table near the door. “Now, my friend,” he said cheerily, “let’s see what—”

The desert fox hesitated a moment when he saw Durant lying in a heap on the floor next to the roller stool.  He rushed to the bear’s side with a lump rising in his throat and pushed the stool away before dropping to his knees beside the load master’s still form.  He pushed the grizzly onto his back and then dug his fingers into the thick fur of Durant’s neck to find the carotid artery. He located it with some difficulty, but Tanis felt the blood drain from his face when he realized there was no pulse.

  ”No, Durant!” Tanis shouted, giving the bear’s chest a quick thump over the heart with a fist. He tilted Durant’s head back and tried to force air into his lungs. The bear’s chest rose and fell but there was otherwise no response. The fox quickly knelt at his side and started to pump firmly on his chest. “C’mon…C’mon!

A moment later with no pulse, Tanis raced for the defibrillator on the nearby wall and primed it. It was a simple machine, built for a simple purpose. The shock was designed to jump start a heart into beating again, though at any other time it would feel like being kicked in the chest by a horse. Tanis pressed the ready paddles to the bear’s chest and activated it, causing both of them to lurch at the shock. There was no response.

As Tanis pushed through another cycle to resuscitate the bear, he could feel the warmth of tears growing behind his eyes. It had taken so long for Durant to come to him. Why had he waited for so long? Found earlier there may have been a chance to help, but as the time stretched on, the crushing weight of the inevitable lay before him. Fifteen minutes of valiant effort left the exhausted fox crumpled on his knees next to the bear with the charged defibrillator paddles still held in his limp hands, tears running in dark lines down the side of his bruised muzzle. That was how Samantha discovered him when she came in to see him a little later.

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